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Old World Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan




ABOUT a century before the Age of Pericles, some one asked a very wise man, "What is a philosopher?" He replied: "At the games, some try to win glory, some buy and sell for money, and some watch what the others do. So it is in life; and philosophers are those who watch, who study nature, and search for wisdom." Now during the time of Pericles a young man lived in Athens who was to become famous as a philosopher, though perhaps no one thought so at the time. His father was a sculptor. The son followed the same occupation, and probably worked with hammer and chisel upon some of the statues that were making Athens beautiful.

This young man, whose name was Soc'ra-tes, studied with some of the teachers of the time; but he was not satisfied with their teaching, and he made up his mind that the best way for him to find out what was true was to think for himself. One of his conclusions was that, as the gods needed nothing; so the man who needed least was in that respect most like them. Therefore he trained himself to live on coarse and [54] scanty food; he learned to bear heat and cold; and even when he served in the army and had to march over ice and snow, he did not give up his habit of going barefooted.



Socrates was not handsome. He had a flat nose, thick lips, and prominent eyes. He became bald early in life. He walked awkwardly, and used to astonish people by sometimes standing still for hours when he wanted to think out something. On the other hand, he had a beautiful voice, he was bright and witty and brave and kindhearted. As he grew older, he used to spend the whole day wherever people were to be found. He went to the market place, to the workshops, and to the porticoes where the Athenians were accustomed to walk up and down and talk together. He was ready to talk with any one, rich or poor, old or young, and to teach them what he believed to be right and true. His way of doing this was by asking questions and so making them think for themselves. For instance, his pupil Pla'to represents him as having a talk with a boy named Ly'sis. "Of course your father and mother love you and wish you to be happy?" he asked. "Certainly," replied the boy. "Is [55] a slave happy, who is not allowed to do what he likes?" "No." "Then your parents, wishing you to be happy, let you do as you choose? Would your father let you drive his chariot in a race?" "Surely not," said Lysis. "But he lets a hired servant drive it and even pays him for so doing," Socrates continued. "Does he care more for this man than for you?" "No, he does not." "As your mother wishes you to be happy, of course she lets you do as you like when you are with her," said the philosopher. "She never hinders you from touching her loom or shuttle when she is weaving, does she?" Lysis laughed and replied, "She not only hinders me, but I should be beaten if I touched them." "When you take the lyre, do your parents hinder you from tightening and loosening any string that you please? How is this?" "I think it is because I know the one, but not the other," the boy replied thoughtfully. "So it is," said Socrates, "and all persons will trust us in those things wherein they have found us wise."

This was the philosopher's manner of teaching an honest boy; but if a man was not sincere, Socrates would tangle him up with his questions until the man had said that sickness and health, right and wrong, and black and white were the same things. He prayed and offered sacrifices to the gods as the laws required; but he believed that there was one God over all, and that to be honest and good was better than sacrifices. He taught his followers to say this prayer: "Father Ju'pi-ter, give us all good, whether we ask it or not; and avert from us all evil, though we do not pray thee so to do. Bless all our good actions, and reward them with success and happiness."

[56] Socrates had made many enemies. The rulers hated him because he declared, among other remarks of the sort, that to govern a state was far more difficult than to steer a vessel; but that, although no one would attempt to steer a vessel without training, every one thought himself fit to govern a state. He was accused of preaching new gods and of giving false teaching to the young and was condemned to die. He was perfectly calm and serene. He told his judges that it was a gain to him to die; but that it was unjust for them to put him to death, and therefore they would suffer for it. He would not allow his family to come before them to plead for his life, and he would not escape when his friends offered to open the way.



[57] It was thirty days from the time that he was sentenced until his death. He spent much of this time in talking with his pupils. One of those whom he loved best was Plato; and Plato afterwards wrote an account of the last days of his master. Socrates said that his death was only going "to some happy state of the blessed." He was asked in what manner he wished to be buried; and he replied with a smile, "Just as you please, if only you can catch me." He was to die by poison. When the cup was brought, he drank it as calmly as if it had been wine, and he comforted his disciples, who were weeping around him. At the last, he called to one of the young men, "Cri'to, we owe a cock to Ęs-cu-la'pi-us; pay it, therefore, and do not neglect it." Ęsculapius was the god to whom a man who was grateful for his recovery from illness made a sacrifice; and Socrates was so sure of a happier life to come that he felt as if death was passing from sickness to health. It is no wonder that his pupil Plato said, "This man was the best of all of his time that we have known, and, moreover, the most wise and just."

After the death of Socrates, Plato traveled from one country to another. He studied the people, the laws, and the customs. If there were philosophers in the land, he learned all that he could from them. "Plato, how long do you intend to remain a student?" one of his friends asked. He replied, "As long as I am not ashamed to grow wiser and better." In the course of his travels, he went to Syr'a-cuse, on the island of Sic'i-ly. The ruler of Syracuse was Di-o-nys'i-us. He was called a tyrant, which meant that he had seized the throne unlawfully. Dionysius himself wrote poems, and he was always glad to welcome philosophers and scholars to his court. Unluckily, he and Plato fell into an argument. Plato not [58] only got the better bf it, but dared to make some bold remarks about tyrants. Dionysius was so angry that he came near putting his honored guest to death. He did bribe some one to sell the philosopher as a slave on his homeward journey. This was done, but Plato's friends bought his freedom.

At length Plato returned to Athens. A little way outside of the city was a large public garden or park, along the Ce-phis'sus River. Here grew plane trees and olive trees. Here were temples and statues. This was called the Academy, in honor of one Ac-a-de'mus, who had left it to the city for gymnastics. Plato's father seems to have owned a piece of land near this park; and here Plato opened a school for all who chose to become learners. It took its name from the park and was known as the Academy. The most brilliant young men of the time were eager to come to the Academy to study with Plato. He discussed difficult questions with his students and he wrote on the deepest subjects, but with so much humor and sweetness that many people fancied him to be descended from Apollo, the god of eloquence. Long afterwards, Cic'e-ro, the greatest Roman orator, declared that if Jupiter were to speak Greek, he would use the language of Plato.

One of Plato's sayings was, "To conquer one's self is the highest wisdom." He not only taught self-control, but he practiced it. A friend came upon him one day unexpectedly and asked why he was holding his arm up as if to strike; "I am punishing a passionate man," Plato replied. It seemed that he had raised his arm to strike a disobedient slave; but had stopped because he found himself in a passion. It was a rare event for him to lose his self-control. Even when he was [59] told that his enemies were spreading false stories about him, he did not fly into a fit of anger; he only said quietly, "I will live so that none will believe them." He was simple and friendly in his manner. There is a tradition that some strangers who met him at the O-lym'pi-an games were so pleased with him that they accepted gladly his invitation to visit him in Athens. When their visit was near its end, they said, "But will you not introduce us to your famous namesake, the philosopher Plato?" They were greatly surprised when their host replied quietly, "I am the person whom you wish to see."

When Plato died, he was buried in his garden. His followers raised altars and statues in his memory, and for many years the day of his birth was celebrated among them with rejoicing.


What is a philosopher? — Socrates and his habits. — His talk with Lysis. — His prayer to Jupiter. — His condemnation. — His last talks with his pupils and his death. — Plato visits Dionysius. — The Academy. — Plato punishes a passionate man. — His "famous namesake."

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