Socrates - Famous Men of Ancient Times

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In 1843, a man by the name of Samuel Griswold Goodrich wrote and published a book called Famous Men of Ancient Times. In the book, Goodrich looked at the lives of Mohammed, Belisarius, Attila, Nero, Seneca, Virgil, Cicero, Julius Cæsar, Hannibal, Alexander, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Apelles, Diogenes, Plato, Socrates, Alcibiades, Democritus, Pericles, Aristides, Æsop, Solon, Lycurgus, Homer, and Confucius. I chose to make his chapter on Socrates the subject of the video English lesson and Vocabulary Activation Pack here.

Extract from the book

Famous Men of Ancient Times

by S. G. Goodrich,



Socrates was born at Athens 468 B.C. His father, Sophroniscus, was a sculptor of humble reputation and in moderate circumstances. He educated his son to his own profession, in which it appears that the latter made considerable proficiency. He did not, however, devote himself wholly to this pursuit, but spent a large share of his time in reading the works of philosophers. Crito, an intimate friend, supplied him with money to pay the masters who taught him various accomplishments, and he became an auditor of most of the great philosophers who visited Athens, during his youth. By these means, he received the best education which an Athenian youth could command in those days.

In the early part of his life, he wrought at his trade, so far as to earn a decent subsistence. Receiving a small property at his father's death, when he was about thirty years of age, he devoted himself entirely to philosophical pursuits. His habits were simple and economical; his dress was coarse, and he seldom wore shoes. By his frugality, he was thus able to live without labour, and yet without being dependent upon others.

With regard to his public life, it appears that he served his country faithfully as a soldier, according to the duty of every Athenian citizen. He took part in three campaigns, displaying the greatest hardihood and valour. He endured, without repining, hunger and thirst, heat and cold. In a skirmish with the enemy, his pupil, Alcibiades, fell wounded in the midst of the enemy. Socrates rescued him and carried him off, for which the civic crown was awarded as the prize of valour. This reward, however, he transferred to Alcibiades. In another campaign he saved the life of his pupil, Xenophon, whom he carried from the field on his shoulders, fighting his way as he went.

At the age of sixty-five, he became a member of the council of Five Hundred, at Athens. He rose also to the dignity of president of that body; by virtue of which office, he for one day managed the popular assemblies and kept the key of the citadel and treasury. Ten naval officers had been accused of misconduct, because, after the battle of Arginusæ, they had omitted the sacred duty of burying the slain, in consequence of a violent storm. Their enemies, finding the people disposed to acquit them procured by intrigue, the prorogation of several assemblies. A new assembly was held on the day when Socrates was president; and the citizens, instigated by bad men, violently demanded that sentence of death should be pronounced on all the accused at once, contrary to law. But the menaces of violence were unable to bend the inflexible justice of Socrates, and he was able afterwards to declare, on his own trial, that ten innocent men had been saved by his influence.

When Socrates formed the resolution of devoting himself to the pursuit of divine and human knowledge, the sophists, a set of arrogant philosophers, were perverting the heads and corrupting the hearts of the Grecian youth. He therefore put himself in opposition to these false guides, and went about endeavouring to instruct everybody in a wiser and better philosophy than that which prevailed. He was, in fact, an instructor of the people; and, believing himself an ambassador of God, he was occupied from the dawn of day in seeking persons whom he might teach either what is important to mankind in general, or the private circumstances of individuals. He went to the public assemblies and the most crowded streets, or entered the workshops of mechanics and artists, and conversed with the people on religious duties, on their social and political relations; on all subjects, indeed, relating to morals, and even on agriculture, war, and the arts. He endeavoured to remove prevailing prejudices and errors, and to substitute right principles; to awaken their better genius in the minds of his hearers; to encourage and console them; to enlighten and improve mankind, and make them really happy.

It is manifest that such a course must have been attended with great difficulties. But the serenity of Socrates was undisturbed; he was always perfectly cheerful in appearance and conversation. In the marketplace and at home, among people and in the society of those whom love of truth and virtue connected more closely with him, he was always the same. It cannot be doubted that a happy physical and mental temperament contributed to produce this equanimity. But it was, likewise, a fruit of self-discipline and the philosophy he taught. He treated his body as a servant, and inured it to every privation, so that moderation was to him an easy virtue; and he retained in old age his youthful vigour, physical and mental. He was kind as a husband and a father. Though his wife, Xantippe, was a noted shrew, he viewed her as an excellent instrument of discipline, and treated her with patience and forbearance.

Although the Greeks at this time were zealously devoted to their heathen mythology, Socrates was a sincere worshipper of the Supreme Being; yet, from his care not to offend his weaker brethren, he observed, with punctilious exactness, the religious uses which antiquity and custom had consecrated. He was constantly attended by a circle of disciples, who caught from him the spirit of free inquiry, and were inspired with his zeal for the highest good, for religion, truth and virtue. The succeeding schools of philosophy in Greece are therefore justly traced back to him; and he is to be regarded as the master who gave philosophical investigation among the Greeks its highest direction. Among his most distinguished disciples were Alcibiades, Crito, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Phædon, Æschines, Cebes, Euclid, and Plato. From the detached accounts given us by Xenophon and Plato, it appears that he instructed them in politics, rhetoric, logic, ethics, arithmetic, and geometry, though not in a systematic manner. He read with them the principal poets, and pointed out their beauties; he laboured to enlighten and correct their opinions on all practical subjects, and to excite them to the study of whatever is most important to men.

To make his instructions attractive, they were delivered, not in long lectures, but in free conversations, rendered interesting by question and answer. He did not reason before, but with his disciples, and thus exercised an irresistible power over their minds. He obliged them to think for themselves, and if there was any capacity in a man, it could not fail to be excited by his conversation. This method of question and answer is called the Socratic method. The fragments of his conversations, preserved by Xenophon, often leave us unsatisfied; Plato alone has transmitted to us the genuine spirit of this method; and he was therefore viewed by the ancients as the only fountain of the Socratic philosophy, - a fact which has been too much disregarded by modern writers.

Socrates fell a victim to the spirit of bigotry, which has sacrificed so many persons, who were in advance of the age. The document containing the accusation against him was lodged in the Temple of Cybele, as late as the second century of the Christian era. The following is a translation: - "Melitus, son of Melitus, accuses Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of being guilty of denying the existence of the gods of the republic, making innovations in the religion of the Greeks, and of corrupting the Athenian youth. Penalty, - death."

Melitus, who was a tragic writer of a low order, was engaged as an accuser in this affair, by the wealthy and more powerful enemies of Socrates. Amongst them were Anytus and Lycon, the former a rich artisan and zealous democrat, who had rendered very important services to the republic, by aiding Thrasybulus in the expulsion of the thirty tyrants, and in establishing the liberty of his country. The latter was an orator, and therefore a political magistrate, to which office the Athenian orators were entitled, by virtue of the laws of Solon.

Socrates was seventy years of age when summoned to appear at the Areopagus. The news of this event did not excite much surprise, as the people had long expected it. Aristophanes, the celebrated comic poet of Athens, had previously undertaken, at the instigation of Melitus, to ridicule the venerable character of the philosopher; and when once he was calumniated and defamed, the fickle populace ceased to revere the man whom they had before looked upon as a being of a superior order.

The enemies of Socrates were of two classes, - the one consisted of citizens who could not help admiring his genius and virtue, but who regarded him as a dangerous innovator and subverter of public order. They were ready, with him, to acknowledge that some reformation might be made in the tenets of Paganism; that the gods and goddesses were not patterns of virtue; and that the conduct of the sovereign of the skies, himself, was far from exemplary; but, said they, the thunders of Jupiter exercise a salutary influence over the minds of some, and the pains of Tartarus still operate as a bridle upon the passions of others. To bring in question the ancient faith, was at once to attack the institutions of the republic at their base, and excite revolution. The philosophy of Socrates, even though true, must be suppressed; for the life of one man is not to be put in the balance with the repose of a whole people, - with the safety of the country. It is better that Socrates should die, than Athens perish. Such was the reasoning of one portion.

The other class was composed of the superstitious and bigoted, - of the vicious and imbecile, - who were daily exposed to the censures and sarcasms of the philosopher; in fine, of that set of narrow, jealous-minded men, who looked upon the welfare and fame of their neighbours with envy and with malice. The race that had exiled Aristides, because he was great, was ready to condemn Socrates, because he was wise. The friends and disciples of the great philosopher saw the danger that menaced him, and with anxiety and fear they crowded around their master, supplicating him to fly, or to adopt some means of defence; but he would do neither. Lysias, one of the most celebrated orators of the day, composed a pathetic oration, which he wished his friend to pronounce, as his defence, in the presence of his judges. Socrates read it, praised its animated and eloquent style, but rejected it, as being neither manly nor expressive of fortitude. The anxiety and trouble of avoiding condemnation appeared to him of little moment, when compared to the performance of his duty in upholding to the last moment, the truth of his principles and the dignity of his character.

Socrates, though both eloquent and persuasive in conversation, was not capable of addressing a large assembly; therefore, on the day of his trial, he asked permission of his judges to use the means of defence to which he had been accustomed; namely, to speak familiarly with, and ask questions of, his adversaries.

"Athenians," he said, in commencing, "I hope I shall succeed in my defence, if, by succeeding, good may result from it; but I look upon my success as very doubtful, and, therefore, do not deceive myself in that respect. But let the will of the gods be obeyed."

The two chief accusations against Socrates, were firstly, that he did not believe in the religion of the state; secondly, that he was guilty of corrupting the minds of young men, and of disseminating the disbelief of the established religion.

Socrates did not reply, in a direct manner, to either of these charges. Instead of declaring that he believed in the religion of his country, he proved that he was not an atheist; instead of refuting the charge of instructing youth to doubt the sacred tenets of the law, he declared and demonstrated that it was morality which he taught; and instead of appealing to the compassion of his judges, he did not disguise the contempt in which he held the means practised by parties accused, who, in order to excite sympathy and compassion, brought their children and relations to supplicate, with tears in their eyes, the mercy of the judges. "I, also, have friends and relations!" he said, "and, as to children, I have three, - one a stripling, the other two in childhood; yet I will not allow them to come here to excite your sympathy. Why will I not do so? It is not caused by stubbornness, nor by any disdain I have for you. For my honour, for your honour, for that of the republic, it is not meet that, with the reputation, whether true or false that I have acquired, I should make use of such means to procure your acquittal. Indeed, I should be ashamed if those that distinguish themselves for wisdom, courage, or any other virtue, should, like many people that I have seen, although they have passed for great men, commit actions the most grovelling - as if death were the greatest misfortune that could befall them, and that, - if their lives were spared, - they would become immortal!"

When Socrates had ceased speaking, the judges of the Areopagus found him guilty, by a majority of three. On being demanded, according to the spirit of the Athenian laws, to pass sentence on himself, and to mention the death he preferred, Socrates, conscious of his own innocence, replied, - "Far from deeming myself guilty, I believe that I have rendered my country important services, and, therefore, think that I ought to be maintained in the Prytaneum at the public expense, during the remainder of my life, - an honour, O Athenians, that I merit more than the victors of the Olympic games. They make you happy in appearance; I have made you so in reality."

This reply in the highest degree exasperated his judges, who condemned him to die by poison. When the sentence was passed, Socrates remained, for a few minutes, calm and undisturbed, and then asked permission to speak a few words.

"Athenians," he said, "your want of patience will be used as a pretext by those who desire to defame the republic. They will tell you that you have put to death the wise Socrates; yes, they will call me wise, to add, to your shame - though I am not so. If you had but waited a short time, death would have come of itself, and thus saved you from disgracing yourselves. You see I am already advanced in years and must shortly die. All know that in times of war, nothing is more easy than saving our lives by throwing down our weapons, and demanding quarter of the enemy. It is the same in all dangers; a thousand pretexts can be found by those who are not scrupulous about what they say and do. It is difficult, O Athenians, to avoid death; but it is much more so to avoid crime, which is swifter than death. It is for this reason that, old and feeble as I am, I await the latter, whilst my accusers, who are more vigorous and volatile, embrace the former. I am now about to suffer the punishment to which you have sentenced me; my accusers, the odium and infamy to which virtue condemns them."

"What is going to happen to me," he added, "will be rather an advantage than an evil; for it is apparent, that to die at present, and to be delivered of the cares of this life, is what will best suit me. I have no resentment towards my accusers, neither have I any ill-will against those who condemn me, although their intention was to injure me, to do all in their power to do me harm. I will make but one request; when my children are grown up, if they are seen to covet riches, or prefer wealth to virtue, punish and torment them as I have tormented you; and if they look upon themselves as beings of importance, make them blush for their presumption. This is what I have done to you. If you do that, you will secure the gratitude of a father, and my children will ever praise you. But it is time that we should separate; I go to die, and you to live. Which of us has the best portion? No one knows except God."

When he had finished, he was taken to prison and loaded with chains. His execution was to have taken place in twenty-four hours, but it was postponed for thirty days, on account of the celebration of the Delian festivals. Socrates, with his usual cheerfulness and serenity, passed this time in conversing with his friends upon some of the most important subjects that could engage the mind of man. Plato relates, in the dialogue entitled The Phedon, the conversation which took place on the day preceding his death. That dialogue, without exception, is the most beautiful that the Greeks have left us. We can give only those passages which are more immediately connected with his death.

"After the condemnation of Socrates," says Phedon, "we did not allow a day to escape without seeing him, and on the day previous to his death, we assembled earlier than usual. When we arrived at the prison door, the jailor told us to wait a little, as the Eleven were then giving orders for the death of Socrates."

Speaking of the fear of death, Socrates said, "Assuredly, my dear friends, if I did not think I was going to find, in the other world, gods good and wise, and even infinitely better than we are, it would be wrong in me not to be troubled at death; but you must know that I hope soon to be introduced to virtuous men, - soon to arrive at the assembly of the just. Therefore it is that I fear not death, hoping, as I do, according to the ancient faith of the human race, that something better is in store for the just, than what there is for the wicked."

The slave who was to give Socrates the poison, warned him to speak as little as possible, because sometimes it was necessary to administer the drug three or four times to those who allowed themselves to be overheated by conversation.

"Let the poison be prepared," said Socrates, "as if it were necessary to give it two or three times;" then continued to discourse upon the immortality of the soul, mixing in his arguments the inspiration of sentiment and of poetry.

"Let that man," said he, "have confidence in his destiny, who, during lifetime, has renounced the pleasures of the body as productive of evil. He who has sought the pleasures of science, who has beautified his soul, not with useless ornaments, but with what is suitable to his nature, such as temperance, justice, fortitude, liberty, and truth, ought to wait peaceably the hour of his departure, and to be always ready for the voyage, whenever fate calls him."

"Alas! my dear friend," said Crito; "have you any orders for me, or for those present, with regard to your children or your affairs?" "What I have always recommended to you, Crito," - replied Socrates, "to take care of yourselves, - nothing more. By doing so, you will render me a service, my family, and all who know you."

After Socrates had bathed, his children and his female relations were brought into his presence. He spoke to them for some time, gave them his orders, then caused them to retire. After he returned, he sat down upon his bed, and had scarcely spoken, when the officer of the Eleven came in and said, "Socrates, I hope I shall not have the same occasion to reproach you as I have had in respect to others. As soon as I come to acquaint them that they must drink the poison, they are incensed against me; but you have, ever since you came here, been patient, calm, and even-tempered, and I am confident that you are not angry with me. Now, you know what I have told you. Farewell! Try to bear with resignation what cannot be avoided." Saying these words, he turned away, while the tears were streaming from his eyes.

"I will follow your counsel," said Socrates. Then turning to his disciples, he continued, "Observe the honesty of that poor man. During my imprisonment, he has visited me daily, and now, see with what sincerity he weeps for me!" When the slave brought the poison to Socrates, the latter looked at him, and said, "Very well, my friend, what must I do? for you know best, and it is your business to direct me."

"Nothing else but drink the poison; then walk, and when you find your limbs grow stiff, lie down upon your bed." At the same time, he handed the cup to Socrates, who took it without emotion or change of countenance; then looking at the man with a steady eye, he said, - "Tell me, is it allowable to make a drink-offering of this mixture?" "Socrates," the man replied, "we never prepare more than what is sufficient for one dose."

"I understand you," said Socrates; "but nevertheless, it is lawful for me to pray to God that he may bless my voyage, and render it a happy one." Having said so, he raised the cup to his lips, and drank the poison with astonishing tranquillity and meekness. When Socrates looked around and saw his friends vainly endeavouring to stifle their tears, he said, "What are you doing, my companions? Was it not to avoid this, that I sent away the women? and you have fallen into their weakness. Be quiet, I pray you, and show more fortitude."

In the meantime, he continued to walk, and when he felt his legs grow stiff, he lay down upon his back, as had been recommended. The person who gave Socrates the poison, then came forward, and, after examining his legs and feet, he bound them, and asked if he felt the cord. The dying philosopher answered, "No;" and feeling himself with his hand, he told his disciples, that "when the cold reached his heart, he should leave them."

A few minutes afterwards, he exclaimed, "Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius; do not forget to pay the debt." These were the last words of Socrates. Such was the end of the great philosopher; and it may be truly said that he was one of the wisest, best, and most upright of all the Athenians.

In personal appearance Socrates was disagreeable: he had a sunken nose, and his eyes protruded so as to give him a strange appearance. It is supposed that he knew the shrewish temper of Xantippe, before he married her, and sought the alliance that she might give exercise to his patience. She tried every means to irritate him, and finding it impossible to rouse his anger, she poured some dirty water upon him from a window. "After thunder, we generally have rain," was the only remark the philosopher deigned to make. Many other anecdotes are handed down, which show the wonderful command Socrates had acquired over himself.


Spelling has been changed from American English spelling to British English spelling for words such as labor, vigor, endeavor, and valor.

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