Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Socrates, the Philosopher

I T would be hard to find two men who were more unlike than were Alcibiades and Socrates, and yet they were at one time very great friends. Socrates was much older than Alcibiades, but he was the only person for whom Alcibiades seemed to care very much This was partly because Alcibiades saw that Socrates was the wisest man of his time, but it was also partly because Socrates at one time saved the life of Alcibiades

This happened in one of the battles in the long war with Sparta, before Alcibiades had shown what a traitor he could be. The two were fighting side by side in the Athenian army, and both had shown great bravery. Suddenly Alcibiades was wounded, and in a moment more he would have been killed. But Socrates sprang in front of him, and sheltered him with his shield, and so saved his life. At another battle, when the Athenians had been defeated, and were retreating, Alcibiades repaid Socrates Socrates was on foot, and the enemy was following swiftly after them. Alcibiades, who was on horseback, saw the danger of Socrates, and stayed behind and sheltered him until they reached a place of safety.

But although Socrates fought bravely in the war, he is more famous for the wisdom which he showed in his life, and the unjustness with which he was put to death.

When Socrates was a young man he had a friend who admired him very much, and thought that even then he was the wisest person whom he knew. So once when this friend was at Delphi, he asked the Oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the Oracle answered that there was not. When this friend came home and told Socrates what the oracle had said, Socrates was very much astonished. He was sure that there must be some mistake, for he knew that he was not wise. He was quite sure that the oracle must mean something else.

So Socrates set to work to show that there were other men in Athens who were wiser than he. First he came to one of the men who were governing the city at that time, and who was looked upon as very wise. "If I can only show that he is wiser than I am," said Socrates to himself, "then I can prove that the oracle means something else."

Therefore Socrates asked this man a great many questions. But he found that the man was not wise at all, though he thought that he knew everything. So Socrates came away, saying,—

"At any rate, I am wiser than that man. Neither of us knows anything that is great and good; but he thinks  that he does, while I know  that I do not. So I am that much wiser than he is."

Then Socrates went to others who were thought to be wise, and things always turned out in the same manner. He found that the men who were considered to be the wisest were the very ones that knew the least about the things that were the very ones that knew the least about the things that were the most worth knowing about. But whenever he tried to make them see this, they grew angry with him.

Then Socrates saw what the oracle meant by saying that there was no one wiser than he But he grew so interested in his search that he spent all his days in the marketplace, and in other spots where crowds were to be found. And whenever he met with a man who thought that he was wise, he would question him, and ask him what goodness was, and what bravery was, and why some people were good and some were bad; and in this way he would try to show that no one was really wise.

Now, you can readily guess that people did not like this. No one likes to have another person prove to him how little he knows. So Socrates offended many people, and made them dislike him. After this had gone on for some time, the enemies of Socrates determined to try to get rid of him. They brought a charge against him in the court, saying,—

"Socrates offends against the laws by not paying respect to the gods that the city respects, and by bringing in new gods; and also by leading the young men into bad habits."

The last part of this charge was wholly untrue. But the people remembered how badly Alcibiades had turned out, and Socrates' enemies tried to make it appear that this was due to Socrates. Neither was the first part of the charge much nearer the truth. His enemies, however, were ready to believe anything against him; and in spite of all that his friends could do he was found guilty. When the judges called upon him to say what punishment he deserved, Socrates bravely answered,—

"Instead of punishment, O Athenians, I deserve a reward; and if you ask me what it is, I say that I ought to be supported by the State as long as I live, just as those who win in the Olympic games are supported; for I am more worthy of honor than they are."

This saying angered his enemies still more, and they then voted that he be put to death But according to their laws a whole month must pass by before this could be done During this time he lived in prison, where he spent his time talking to his friends, who were allowed to visit him. One day they told him that they had made arrangements for him to escape from the prison and fly to some other city, where he would be safe. But Socrates refused. The laws, he said, condemned him to death; and it was his duty, as a good citizen, to obey them even in that.

At last the day came for his death, and all his friends gathered weeping about him. Socrates took the poisoned cup of hemlock which was given him, calmly and cheerfully, and drank it down as thought it had been water. Then bidding good-by to his friends, he lay down on his couch, and soon he was dead.

There is one saying of Socrates that ought always to be remembered. This is it: "Nothing evil can happen to a good man, either while he is living or after he is dead; nor are the gods unmindful of his affairs."

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