Socrates’ life was a complete disaster. He was ugly and poor and died ignobly. Yet Socrates is, without a doubt, the most important philosopher to have ever lived. He’s right up there with the most important people to have ever lived. He is adored by every student of philosophy and every philosopher.
Socrates lived in ancient Greece, in Athens, about 2500 years ago. Athens was a wonderful place to live. It was democratic, wealthy, and full of parties, politics, drinking, and theatre. It was fabulous… as long as you were an Athenian man. Women were not so lucky, and everyone else was a slave.
Socrates was famous for repudiating the Athenian ideals, ideals very much like ours today: freedom, democracy, beauty, wealth, and gratification (for the non-enslaved). Socrates was also extremely ugly. He was a terrible father and husband. He lived in poverty rather than get a real job, and he irritated almost everyone he met. He never even wrote down his own ideas. Finally, in old age, Socrates got himself executed.
Reading him, though, shows that our standards (and Athens’) are stupid and pitiless. Socrates was a wonderful man. He was kind, and pure-of-heart, and brilliant. He was also a great joker and a terrible tease. That he was an ugly deadbeat reveals the brutality and stupidity of our standards.
I used to flatter myself to think that philosophers took Socrates to heart. I thought that Socrates’ ethos was our ethos, that we are irreverent, questioning, and concerned with the higher things. Of course, I’ve come to realize that I was wrong, and that academic philosophers are usually only prattish sophists fighting over granting agency scraps, always trying to one-up each other, and less even fun to hang with than actors. Still, Socrates shows how far philosophers have strayed. If Socrates does not show what philosophers are, he does show what they could be.
In The Apology, we see Socrates at his very best. The reading will seem very strange, as it is not written in any recognizable format—it’s not an essay or a story. The Apology is a ‘dialogue’, which is much like a play. There are two characters: Socrates and Meletus. Socrates does almost all the talking, because most of the time he is talking to the audience. The audience is a jury.
But this play is not fictional. When Socrates addresses the jury, he is fighting for his life. He is being tried on trumped-up charges, and the jury of 501 men will decide his fate before the sun goes down. Socrates knows that he may very well be sentenced to death.