"To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul."
Socrates, commonly considered the father of philosophy (though not the first one by any stretch), was an Athenian philosopher who lived from 469-399 BCE, when he was executed in the wake of The Peloponnesian War
(of which, interestingly, he was a veteran, having served with distinction at Delium in an earlier phase of the war). The earlier philosophers are, in fact, known as the "pre-Socratic philosophers".
He disapproved of writing, and so is known chiefly through the writings of his student Plato
. (Another of his students, Xenophon
, also wrote about him, but his works are less known.) Socrates taught and inspired many prominent young Athenians, from the aforementioned Plato to Alcibiades
. (Plato even devoted a good chunk of his Symposium
to defending against the common charge that Socrates had an affair with Alcibiades).
The story goes that the Oracle at Delphi described Socrates as the wisest man in Greece, and Socrates, a simple bricklayer, set out to disprove this claim by seeking out all the most knowledgeable men in Greece and demonstrating that they knew more than he did. It always backfired, because Socrates, possessing basic reasoning skills, could always see and point out the massive holes in everyone's claims. For example, he tried to get Euthyphro
, an esteemed religious expert, to put forth a workable definition of "piety". None of Euthyphro's attempts held up under scrutiny, and eventually he gave up and went away.
Take everything you read about Socrates with a grain of salt: Plato was very fond of putting his own words in his teacher's mouth, and it's hard to tell how much of Socrates's dialogue in Plato's works is Socrates's words and how much is Plato's. (This is described academically as the "Socratic problem".) The Apology of Socrates
is usually considered the most faithful work, and it covers Socrates's trial and conviction on charges of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods. If one reads between the lines in The Republic
, it's quite possible that Socrates was guilty on both counts, though he vigorously denied the charges in court.
Socrates is associated with the following tropes:
Socrates in popular culture
- Armor-Piercing Question: His specialty, although it has been argued that Socrates' questions sometimes pierce straw armour.
- Badass Beard
- Bald of Awesome
- Beauty Equals Goodness: In a time when many Greeks genuinely believed this (good looks could allegedly even be used as exonerating evidence in court), Socrates◊ was a major aversion.
- Compliment Backfire: Some people just can't take a compliment...
- Constantly Curious
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: He doesn't get one, but if there is an afterlife, he IS one - interrogating the dead about their wisdom.
- Cool Old Guy
- The Cynic/Deadpan Snarker: So much. He was even an immediate influence to the original Greek Cynics.
- Dies Wide Open
- Does Not Like Shoes: Possibly the Ur Example.
- Doomed Moral Victor
- Dying Moment of Awesome/Obi-Wan Moment: His trial and execution.
- Face Death with Dignity
- The Gadfly: Trope Namer. Some semantic drift.
- Genius Bruiser: Although not as much as his student Plato (who was a pankration champion), Socrates did serve with distinction in The Peloponnesian War, which took no small amount of physical strength.
- According to some accounts, Socrates earned his living as a stonecutter, prefering not to receive money for teaching. No doubt this also required considerable physical strength.
- Honor Before Reason: Why he chose to stay in jail and be executed instead of escape when he was given the chance—or just leave Athens before he could even be tried.
- I Drank What?: Implied in the film Real Genius - which is the Trope Namer here - and in other comedies that Socrates accidentally drank the hemlock. But this is averted in Real Life: Socrates knew exactly what he was doing.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Apparently why Socrates married Xanthippe.
- Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Possibly the world's greatest inversion of this trope. A quote often attributed to him is "The only thing I know is that I know nothing."
- New Media Are Evil: Socrates did not approve of reading. He thought it destroyed the memory. The fact just that having decentralized physical memory such as books allows for a greater possible total sum of human knowledge presumably never occurred to him.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Combine this with Armor-Piercing Question and you've got the Socratic method.
- Offing the Mouth: Socrates called himself a "Social Gadfly" for precisely this reason. He'd say outrageous or taboo things simply to bring them into conversation, while knowing fully well he was putting himself in danger by saying them and, like a gadfly, could be "swatted" at any time. Indeed, he was eventually executed on charges of corrupting the youth with his words.
- The Philosopher/Contemplate Our Navels: Obviously, but he's not the sesquipedalian, "bookish" philosopher.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: With regard to Leon of Salamis. Socrates refused to obey the orders of the Thirty Tyrants to unjustly arrest Leon and turn him over for execution. Fortunately for Socrates, the Tyrants were swept from power before their wrath could be turned on him as well.
- Suicide by Cop: What his execution might have been; according to Plato's The Crito, Socrates went willingly to his sentence to teach others the value of law in a just society.
- Teacher/Student Romance: With Plato. Much Values Dissonance ensues for modern readers, such as that the Ancient Greeks had six different kinds of love, each identified with a separate word, and Teacher/Student Romance was effectively one of them.
- Textile Work Is Feminine: In both Plato's works and Xenophon's, he takes this for granted, and so do the people he talks with.
- Word of Dante: Plato is the intercessory agent here.
- Socrates got his first Shout-Out while he was still alive; Aristophanes lambasted him without mercy in The Clouds.
- As a Historical-Domain Character, he appears in several Time Travel stories.
- In his 1968 song "Chateau in Virginia Waters", Marc Bolan describes a woman whose "poetess grandmother" is "wise just like Socrates".
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Requiem for Methuselah", the immortal Flint mentions that Socrates was one of the many historical figures he's encountered.
- He is mentioned in the "Bruces Song", aka "Philosopher's Song" by Monty Python, a comedy song featured on The Monty Python Matching Tie And Handkerchief, the live album Monty Python Live At Drury Lane and in their Concert Film Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl.
- He's one of several celebrities mentioned in The Clash's "The Magnificent Seven" (from Sandinista!).
- He appears in two notably bad Percy Jackson and the Olympians fanfics, Moon Daughter and The Prayer Warriors adventure The Evil Gods Part Two. His roles in these stories have very little in common with his actual history.
- The supercomputer that advises Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kids is named after him.
- He's mentioned on Gene Ray's notorious Time Cube site.
- In an episode of Mike, Lu & Og, his death is mentioned during the Philosophical Society's discussion of suicide.
- The Danger Rangers song "Don't Touch That!" cites his death as a good reason to avoid poison.
- The Rosemary Sutcliff novel The Flowers of Adonis is set in Ancient Greece during his lifetime, so it's no surprise that he (and many other people from that era) makes an appearance.
- In the Supernatural episode "Blood Brother", Benny tells his maker, "You know what Socrates said about a life unconsidered".
- He's a major character in the Thessaly trilogy.
- In one of the Tsar Gorokhs Detective Agency novels, a character drinks poison in order to die like his hero Socrates.