Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Socrates

Go To
"The unexamined life is not worth living."

"To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul."
Socrates, Phaedo

Socrates, commonly considered the father of philosophy (though not the first one to practice it 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. His portrayal is so different from Plato's version that it hardly seems like they are describing the same man.) 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. In the end, Socrates agreed with the Oracle, even if reluctantly, saying that if he really did know more than all other men, it was only because he was aware of how much he did not know.

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 and Symposium, it's quite possible that Socrates was guilty on both counts, though he vigorously denied the charges in court.

It's possible to say a few things about him with confidence. He didn't value tradition for its own sake, and was willing to question everything, including the existence of the gods and whether traditional values were worth anything. This is what led to the strong disagreement between himself and Aristophanes, who was a conservative and traditionalist (and wrote The Clouds to mock Socrates). It is what also led to the charges of "introducing new gods", specifically because he was so effective at undermining the old. He also taught others to be skeptical and creative in the ways he was, and some of his students went on to be very influential in politics. One notorious example is Alcibiades, who served Athens during the Peloponnesian War until political foes brought charges of sacrilege against him, whereupon he fled to Sparta and served them, causing significant losses to Athens until he made political enemies in Sparta, at which point he defected to Persia, until allies in Athens secured his safe return and he served well enough to get Sparta to sue for peace, until he was again exiled by political enemies. As you can see, that one student caused political chaos and severe disruption of the Athenian empire using wildly unconventional political and military strategy. And that's why Socrates was charged with "corrupting the youth".

Socrates is associated with the following tropes:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: He reportedly found Aristophanes' caricature of him in The Clouds amusing.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: His specialty, although it has been argued that Socrates' questions sometimes pierce straw armour.
  • Barefoot Loon: How he's portrayed in The Clouds. The real Socrates was also somewhat like this, since in spite of (or maybe because of) his wisdom, he often demonstrated extremely eccentric behavior. His penchant for going barefoot was one of his quirks.
  • Barefoot Sage: One of his best-known characteristics. He's probably the Ur-Example of the trope.
  • 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.
  • Commander Contrarian: Athenians who were frustrated with Socrates often accused him of living this trope - never really advocating for a specific position, just constantly chipping away at arguments made by other people in an infuriating fashion. Socrates (or, at least, Plato's version of Socrates) always denied this, claiming that he was genuinely curious and asking questions to get to the bottom of things.
  • The Cynic: So much. He was even an immediate influence to the original Greek Cynics.
  • Dies Wide Open: Plato's account of Socrates' execution states that the philosopher died with his eyes (and mouth) open, and his friend Crito closed them.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: His trial and execution. He knew going in that it was basically a show-trial and that the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion, so instead of trying to mount a defence he used his trial as one last opportunity to tell the ruling class of Athens exactly what he thought of them. He then demanded that his "punishment" should be free meals for life on the grounds that somebody who had done what he had for the city deserved it. He also refused to attempt to flee his execution, saying that if he had lived as an advocate of justice he would die obeying the law.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Possibly the Ur-Example; one of the wisest and the most eccentric people of his time.
  • Everybody Cries: How Socrates' friends reacted at his execution when they witnessed him drink the fatal cup of hemlock. He finally had to ask them to restrain themselves so he could die in peace.
  • Face Death with Dignity: He wasn't afraid to die, and resisted his friends' attempts to smuggle him out of prison so he could leave Athens and escape to another city.
  • The Gadfly: Trope Namer. Some semantic drift.
  • Genius Bruiser: Although not as much as his student Plato (who practiced pankration), 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, preferring 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. In Xenophon's writings, he explicitly compares his marriage to a man who rides unruly horses because if he can handle them, he can handle any horse; a man who can get along with her can get along with anyone.
  • Irony: Socrates may have invented this, and he is certainly the earliest attested practitioner.
  • 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."
  • Makeup Is Evil: Make-up is mentioned twice in Xenophon's writings on him: once as something a personified Vice wears (in a legend of Heracles) and once as a fault for which a young wife must be set straight.
  • 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: Obviously, but he's not the sesquipedalian, "bookish" philosopher.
  • Proverbial Wisdom: A variation. Rather than speaking in riddles and proverbs, he was known for asking people tricky philosophical questions in order to make them discover answers for themselves.
  • Prefers Going Barefoot: He was known to go barefoot by choice all year round.
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: Socrates' death was partially a result of this, according to some writers. The whole charge of Socrates corrupting the young laid by Athenians makes sense when you factor some of his students. Socrates' students included Alcibiades, Critias, and Xenophon. Of the lot, Xenophon became a mercenary who sold his sword to Persia and Sparta and fought against Athens, albeit since he did pick one side and never turned he at least proved the most honorable of the lot. Alcibiades was a shifty side-switching backstabber who kept going from Athens to Sparta and back again. Critias was the worst, a key leader of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchical puppet government installed by Sparta, who on coming to power led a brutal purge against the city's inhabitants, killing more than a thousand (a huge number in an ancient city with a small population). Socrates opposed these actions of his students, and some of his other students were decent. However, two years after the end of the Thirty Tyrants, it's not hard to imagine grudges put against the teacher by citizens who might have been related or known someone related to the victims of the tyrants, or that Socrates' whole Figure It Out Yourself ethos led two of them (Xenophon, Alcibiades) to put their own interests over that of the state.
  • 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; unfortunately, the removal of the Tyrants doesn’t prevent people from going after Socrates and having him executed.
  • 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 Saint Paul: Plato is the intercessory agent here. As is Xenophon.

Socrates in popular culture