Trial and death
Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian Empire to its decline after its defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens was seeking to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public court was induced by three leading public figures to bring Socrates on trial for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens. This was a time in culture when the Greeks thought of gods and goddesses as being associated with protecting particular cities. Athens, for instance, is named after its protecting goddess Athena. The defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War was interpreted as Athena judging the city for not being pious. Enter Socrates, who was perceived as questioning the gods, and in light of the recent war, it was all too easy to ascribe defeat to impiety rather than incompetence. The last thing Athens needed was more punishment from Athena for one man inciting its citizens to question her or the other gods. In the Apology, Socrates insists that this is a false charge.
He questioned the men of Athens about their knowledge of good, beauty, and virtue. Finding that they knew nothing and yet believing themselves to know much, Socrates came to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as he knew that he knew nothing. Socrates' superior intellect made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing.
He was nevertheless found guilty as charged, and sentenced to death by drinking a cup of hemlock. Socrates turned down the pleas of his disciples to attempt an escape from prison, drinking the hemlock and dying in the company of his friends. According to the Plato, Socrates had a calm death, enduring his sentence with fortitude.
According to Plato, Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. After escaping, Socrates would have had to flee from Athens. As the dialogue Crito makes clear, Socrates refused to escape even in order to evade the execution of his death sentence. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his 'contract' with the state, and by so doing harming it, an act contrary to Socratic principle.
The most accurate of Plato's writings on Socrates is probably the “The Apology”. It is Plato's account of Socrates' defense at his trial in 399 BC. The word "apology" comes from the Greek word for "defense-speech" and does not mean what we would think of as an apology. It is clear, however, that Plato dressed up Socrates' speech to turn it into a justification for Socrates' life and his death. In it, Plato outlines some of Socrates' most famous philosophical ideas: the necessity of doing what one thinks is right even in the face of universal opposition, and the need to pursue knowledge even when opposed.
Socrates wrote nothing because he felt that knowledge was a living, interactive thing. Socrates' method of philosophical inquiry consisted in questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through questions into a contradiction, thus proving to them that their original assertion was wrong. Socrates himself never takes a position; in The Apology he radically and skeptically claims to know nothing at all except that he knows nothing. Socrates and Plato refer to this method of questioning as elenchus, which means something like "cross-examination". Although Socrates in “The Apology” claims to have discovered no other truth than that he knows no truth, the Socrates of Plato's other earlier dialogues is of the opinion that truth is somehow attainable through this process of elenchus.
Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic (answering a question with a question) method of inquiry, known as the Socratic Method or method of elenchus, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. It was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father of political philosophy and ethics or moral philosophy, and as a fountainhead of all the main themes in Western philosophy in general.
In this method, a series of questions are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge. The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. It was designed to force people to examine their own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. In fact, Socrates once said, "I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question one self and others."
Detailing the philosophical beliefs of Socrates is no easy matter; as he wrote nothing himself, we must rely on the (sometimes) conflicting reports of Xenophon and Plato. There is ongoing debate as to what, exactly, Socrates believed as opposed to Plato, and little in the way of concrete evidence when demarcating the two. There are some who claim that Socrates had no particular set of beliefs, and sought only to examine; the lengthy theories he gives in the Republic are considered to be the thoughts of Plato. Others argue that he did have his own theories and beliefs, but there is much controversy over what these might have been, owing to the difficulty of separating Socrates from Plato and the difficulty of interpreting even the dramatic writings concerning Socrates. Consequently, distinguishing the philosophical beliefs of Socrates from those of Plato and Xenophon is not easy and it must be remembered that what is attributed to Socrates might more closely reflect the specific concerns of these writers.
Socrates seems to have often said that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. Socrates may have believed that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance, that those who did wrong knew no better. The one thing Socrates consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love" which he connected with the concept of "the love of wisdom", i.e., philosophy. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path that a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it. It is debatable whether Socrates believed that humans (as opposed to gods like Apollo) could actually become wise. On the one hand, he drew a clear line between human ignorance and ideal knowledge; on the other, Plato's Symposium (Diotima's Speech) and Republic (Allegory of the Cave) describe a method for ascending to wisdom.
Socrates believed that the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community, for Socrates felt that this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. His actions lived up to this: in the end, Socrates accepted his death sentence when most thought he would simply leave Athens, as he felt he could not run away from or go against the will of his community; as above, his reputation for valor on the battlefield was without reproach.
The idea that humans possessed certain virtues formed a common thread in Socrates' teachings. These virtues represented the most important qualities for a person to have, foremost of which were the philosophical or intellectual virtues. Socrates stressed that "virtue was the most valuable of all possessions; the ideal life was spent in search of the Good. Truth lies beneath the shadows of existence, and that it are the job of the philosopher to show the rest how little they really know."