N EARLY five hundred years before the Christian era, Socrates was born in a village near Athens. His father was a sculptor,—that is, a man who carved marble images,—and this boy was brought up to the same trade. A group of the Three Graces in the Acropolis was said to have been made by him.
He was not highly educated, although as a boy he went to the public schools and was a faithful scholar. But he was a deep thinker and as he grew up he listened to the teaching of wise men whenever he could. He was not satisfied. "They are not wise enough for me," he said. "I must try to be wiser than they are."
Every young man was expected to go to war and fight for his country. Socrates did his duty as a soldier and was faithful there as everywhere.
He married a woman named Xanthippe. She may have been pleasant and agreeable at first, but afterwards she became an ill-tempered scold. One reason for this was that Socrates gave up work so that he could go about teaching people truth and goodness. Other men gained their living by teaching; but Socrates made no charge, had no regular school, and gave no regular lectures. He went into the markets, the gymnasium, and the work-shops, and talked to people wherever he met them. He did not say, "It is very warm to-day," or, "I think it will rain before night," or; "What is the latest news?" or, "Did you hear about that robbery last night?"
He asked instead questions such as these: "What is truth?" or, "Did you ever see your own soul?" or, "How do you suppose the gods would be treated if they came into this market place?"
He never claimed to know anything, but was always asking other people what they knew, and how they could prove it to be true. This made many people angry, and they hooted after him and threw mud at him in the streets. Still he had numerous friends, and though he would take no regular pay they made him presents so that his wife and children should not starve.
An Argument with Socrates
Xanthippe was cross and angry because they were so poor. When her husband came in at night she would say to him, "Here you come! Here you come! All day you have been with that conceited Alcibiades and your other rich friends in the market place, while the children and I perish with hunger. What have you brought home? Nothing; not a penny, not a crust of bread! You have eaten, no doubt; you have had bread and figs and olives while we have fed on air. Such a man to be a husband and father! No wonder the boys pelt you with stones and mud! No wonder they shout, 'Madman,' after you."
Socrates never answered. He expected to be poor and did not expect to be happy. To be good and truly wise and to help others to goodness and wisdom was all he desired or cared for. That was his work and in that he found joy.
A man who told men's characters by looking at their faces went to Athens. Some friends of Socrates took him to that teacher who had never met the sage. He saw before him a man very poorly dressed, with a large, bald head, coarse features, thick lips, and a snub nose. He said, "This man is selfish, false, unjust, very fond of pleasure, and does not care who suffers so that he has his own way."
His friends cried out, "No! That is not true. This is Socrates, the best man in Greece!"
Socrates said, "The teacher is right. By nature I am all that he has said. I am only different because I have conquered myself, compelling myself to do right instead of wrong."
He claimed that a spirit went always with him, telling him what was right. Sometimes he would not speak for a long time and when his friends asked, "Why are you so silent, Socrates?" he answered, "I am listening to the divine voice within me." He declared that he always obeyed that voice.
His questions which led people on until they showed their ignorance caused many persons to hate him. It was said that he wanted to bring in new gods; that he would do anything to make money; that he taught the young to despise parents and relatives and to disobey the laws; and that he encouraged the rich to take advantage of the poor. All this was false but he was arrested and brought before the courts. They ordered him not to teach any more but he said he would rather die. It was then ordered that he should drink hemlock, a fatal poison.
In prison he quietly sat and talked with his friends. One of them said, "I cannot bear to see you die, innocent of any crime." He answered, "Would it please you if I died guilty?" He believed that his soul would never die although his body was to be killed.
When the hour of sunset came he drank the cup of poison. In a few minutes he was dead. Athens had sent away forever one of her best and greatest citizens.