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Statemen and Sages by  Charles Horne
Table of Contents




From the French of Fénelon.

(468—399 B.C.)


OCRATES, who, by the consent of all antiquity, has been considered as the most virtuous and enlightened of Pagan philosophers, was a citizen of Athens, and belonged to the town of Alopecé.

He was born in the fourth year of the 77th Olympiad. His father, Sophroniscus, was a sculptor; and his mother, Phanarete, a midwife. He first studied philosophy under Anaxagoras, and next under Archelaus, the natural philosopher. But finding that all these vain speculations concerning natural objects served no useful purpose, and had no influence in rendering the philosopher a better man, he devoted himself to the study of ethics; and (as Cicero, in the third book of his Tusculan Questions, observes) may be said to be the founder of moral philosophy among the Greeks. In the first book, speaking of him still more particularly and more extensively, he expresses himself thus: "It is my opinion (and it is an opinion in which all are agreed) that Socrates was the first who, calling off the attention of philosophy from the investigation of secrets which nature has concealed (but to which alone all preceding philosophers had attached themselves), engaged her in those things which concern the duties of common life; his object was to investigate the nature of virtue and vice; and to point out the characteristics of good and evil; saying, that the investigation of celestial [39] phenomena was a subject far above the reach of our powers; and that even were they more within the reach of our faculties, it could have no influence in regulating our conduct."

That part of philosophy, then, whose province is the cultivation of morals, and which embraces every age and condition of life, he made his only study. This new mode of philosophizing was the better received on this account, that he who was the founder of it, fulfilling with the most scrupulous care all the duties of a good citizen, whether in peace or in war, enforced by example the precepts which he taught.

Of all the philosophers who have acquired celebrity, he (as Lucian in his dialogue of the Parasite remarks) was the only one that ever subjected himself to the hardships of war. He served two campaigns, in both of which, though unsuccessful, he served in person and exhibited a manly courage. In the one, he saved the life of Xenophon, who when retreating, had fallen from his horse and would have been killed by the enemy, had not Socrates taking him upon his shoulders, removed him from the danger and carried him several furlongs, till his horse, which had run off, was brought back. This fact is related by Strabo.

In his other campaign, the Athenians having been entirely defeated and put to flight, Socrates was the last to retreat, and showed such a stern aspect that the pursuers of those who fled, seeing him every moment ready to turn upon them, never had the boldness to attack him. This testimony is given him by Athenæus.

After these two expeditions, Socrates never set a foot out of Athens. In this, his conduct was very different from that of the other philosophers, who all devoted a part of their life to travelling, that by intercourse with the learned of other countries they might acquire new knowledge. But as that kind of philosophy to which Socrates limited himself led a man to use every effort to know himself rather than to burden his mind with knowledge which has no influence on moral conduct, he thought it his duty to dispense with tedious travelling, in which nothing was to be learned which he might not learn at Athens among his countrymen, for whose reformation, besides, he thought his labors ought to be devoted, rather than to that of strangers. And as moral philosophy is a science which is taught better by example than by precept, he laid it down as a rule to himself, to follow and practise all that right reason and the most rigid virtue could demand.

It was in compliance with this maxim that, when elected one of the senators of the city, and having taken the oath to give his opinion "according to the laws," he peremptorily refused to subscribe to the sentence by which the people, in opposition to the laws, had condemned to death nine officers; and though the people took offence at it, and some of the most powerful even threw out severe menaces against him, he always firmly adhered to his resolution; thinking it inconsistent with the principles of a man of virtue or honor, to act contrary to his oath merely to please the people. Except on this single occasion, we know not whether he ever acted in a civil capacity; but insulated as the occasion was, he, [40] acquired such reputation by it at Athens, for probity and the other virtues, that he was more respected there than the magistrates themselves.

He was very careful of his person, and blamed those who paid no attention to themselves, or who affected exterior negligence. He was always neat, dressed in a decent, becoming manner; observing a just medium between what might seem gross and rustic, and what savored of pride and effeminacy.

Though furnished with few of the blessings of fortune, he always maintained perfect disinterestedness by receiving no remuneration from those who attended on his instructions. By such conduct he condemned the practice of the other philosophers, whose custom it was to sell their lessons, and to tax their scholars higher or lower, according to the degree of reputation they had acquired.

Thus Socrates, as Xenophon relates, used to say that he could not conceive how a man, whose object it was to teach virtue, should think of turning it to gain; as if to form a man of virtue, and to make of his pupil a good friend, were not the richest advantages and the most solid profit with which his cares could be rewarded.

It must further be remarked that Socrates kept no class, as did the other philosophers, who had a fixed place where their scholars assembled, and where lectures were delivered to them at stated hours. Socrates' manner of philosophizing consisted simply in conversing with those who chanced to be where he was, without any regard to time or place.

He was always poor; but in his poverty so contented; that though to be rich was within the reach of a wish, by receiving the presents which his friends and scholars often urged him to accept, he always returned them; to the great displeasure of his wife, who had no relish for carrying philosophy to such a height. In regard to food and clothes, so hardy was his manner of life that Antiphon, the Sophist, sometimes reproached him, by saying that he had not a slave so miserable as would be contented with it: "For," said he, "your food is disgustingly mean; besides, not only are you always very poorly dressed, but winter or summer you have the same robe; and never anything above it: with this, you on all occasions, go bare-foot."

But Socrates proved to him that he was greatly mistaken if he thought that happiness depended on wealth or finery; and that, poor as he might seem to him, he was in fact happier than he. "I consider," said he, "that as to want nothing is the exclusive prerogative of the gods, so the fewer wants a man has, the nearer he approaches to the condition of the gods."

It was impossible that virtue so pure as that of Socrates should have no effect in exciting admiration, especially in a city such as Athens, where that example must have appeared very extraordinary. For those very persons who have not the happiness to follow virtue themselves, cannot refrain from doing justice to those who do follow it. This soon gained Socrates the universal esteem of his fellow-citizens, and attracted to him many scholars of every age; by whom the advantages of listening to his instructions, and engaging in conversation with him, were preferred to the most fascinating pleasure and the most agreeable amusements.

41 What rendered the manner of Socrates pecurliarly engaging was, that though in his own practice he maintained the most rigid severity, yet to others he was in the highest degree gentle and complaisant. The first principle with which he wished to inspire youthful auditors was piety and reverence for the gods; he then allured them as much as possible to observe temperance, and to avoid voluptuousness; representing to them how the latter deprives a man of liberty, the richest treasure of which he is possessed.

His manner of treating the science of morals was the more insinuating, as he always conducted his subject in the way of conversation and without any apparent method. For without proposing any point for discussion, he kept by that which chance first presented. Like one who himself wished information, he first put a question, and then, profiting by the concessions of his respondent, brought him to a proposition subversive of that which in the beginning of the debate had been considered a first principle. He spent one part of the day in conferences of this kind on morals. TO these everyone was welcome, and according to the testimony of Xenophon, none departed from them without becoming a better man.

Though Socrates has left us nothing in writing, yet by what we find in the works of Plato and Xenophon, it is easy to judge both of the principles of his ethical knowledge and of the manner in which he communicated them. The uniformity observable (especially in his manner of disputing), as transmitted by these two scholars of Socrates, is a certain proff of the method which he followed.

It will be difficult to conceive how a person who exhorted all men to honor the gods, and who preached, so to speak, to the young to avoid and abandon every vice, should himself be condemned to death for impiety against the gods received at Athens, and as a corrupter of youth. This infamously unjust proceeding took place in a time of disorder and under the seditious government of the thirty tyrants. The occasion of it was as follows:

Critias, the most powerful of these thirty tyrants, had formerly, as well as Alciabiades, been a disciple of Socrates. But both of them being weary of philosophy the maxims of which would not yield to their ambition and intemperance they, at length, totally abandoned it. Critias, though formerly a scholar of Socrates, became his most inveterate enemy. This we aer to trace to that firmness with which Socrates reproached him for a certain shameful vice; and to those means by which he endeavored to thwart his indulging in it. Hence it was that Critias, having become one of the thirty tyrants, had nothing more at heart than the destruction of Socrates, who, besides, not being able to brook their tyranny, was wont to speak against them with much freedom. For, seeing that they were always putting to death citizens and powerful men, he could not refrain from observing, in a company where he was, that if he to whom the care of cattle was committed, exhibited them every day leaner and fewer in number, it would be very strange if he would not himself confess that hew was a bad cow-herd.

Critias and Charicles, two of the most powerful of the thirty tyrants, feeling [42] the weight of the allusion fall upon themselves, first enacted that no one should teach in Athens the art of reasoning. Although Socrates never had professed that art, yet it was easy to discover that he was aimed at; and that it was intended thus to deprive him of the liberty of conversing as usual, on moral subjects, with those who resorted to him.

That he might have a precise explanation of this law, he went to the two authors of it; but as he embarrassed them by the subtlety of his questions, they plainly told him that they prohibited him from entering into conversation with young people.

But, seeing Socrates' reputation was so great that to attack him and serve him with an indictment would have drawn upon them public odium, it was thought necessary to begin by discrediting him in the view of the public. This was attempted by the comedy of Aristophanes entitled "The Clouds," in which Socrates was represented as teaching the art of making that which is just appear unjust.



The comedy having had its effect, by the ridicule which it threw upon Socrates, Melitus brought a capital accusation against him, in which he alleged; first, that he did not honor those as gods, who were acknowledged such at Athens, and that he was introducing new ones; secondly, that he corrupted the youth; that is to say, that he taught them not to respect their parents, or the magistrates. The accuser required that for these two crimes he should be condemned to death.

Enraged as the tyrants were (and especially Critias and Charicles) against Socrates, it is certain that they would have been very reluctant to condemn him, had he availed himself in the least of the favorable circumstances in his case. But the intrepidity and resolution with which he heard the accusation, refusing even to pay any fine, as that would have been to avow himself in some degree culpable; and especially the firmness with which he addressed the judges when called upon to state the punishment which he thought he deserved, enraged them against him. For, with confidence in his integrity, he answered them, "That he thought he deserved to be maintained at the public expense during the rest of his life." This whetted afresh the resentment of the thirty tyrants, who caused him now to be condemned to death.

Lysias, a very eloquent philosopher, had composed an apologetical oration that Socrates might avail himself of it, and pronounce it before the judges, when called to appear before them. Socrates having heard it, acknowledged it to be a very good one, but returned it, saying that it did not suit him. "But why," replied Lysias, will it not suit you, since you think it a good one?"

"Oh, my friend!" returned Socrates, "may there not be shoes and different articles of dress very good, in themselves, and yet not suitable for me?"

The fact is, though the oration was very fine and energetic, yet the manner in which it was conducted, did not suit the uprightness and candor of Socrates.

Now condemned to death, Socrates was put into prison, where some days after, he died by drinking the poison hemlock. For this was the instrument of death, [43] then used by the Athenians, in the case of those who were condemned for capital crimes.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Socrates was twice married, but of the two wives he has given him, we know nothing except of the famous Xantippè, by whom he had a son named Tamprocles; Xantippè rendered herself celebrated by her ill-humor, and by the exercise which she afforded to the patience of Socrates. He had married her, he said, from a persuasion that if he were able to bear with her bad temper, there could be nothing which he might not support.

He died in the first year of the 95th Olympiad, aged seventy.

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