Socrates: Bravest, Wisest, and Most Just?

by Moya K. Mason


In 399 BC, Socrates was with friends when he drank the hemlock and uttered his last words. In death, as in life, Socrates was surrounded by people who were totally devoted to him: who loved, respected, and admired him. His comrades wanted him to run away to safety and begged him to leave Athens to preserve his life.(1) Socrates chose to face his death penalty in the same fashion he had lived his life: with a clarity of spirit and devoid of fear. Socrates was considered "the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man"(2) by the people who really knew and understood him. To have had such an effect on so many people, he was surely unique among the men of his day. Did people look into his eyes and realize that they had come upon the human embodiment of strength, honesty, and moral goodness? Did this cause fear in some people? Undoubtedly, Socrates had enemies, and he was despised by many others, as well. Socrates often brought people to the realization that they were not the best they could be, and perhaps they did not know what they thought they did. In the Symposium, Socrates says:

[Man] is always becoming a new being and undergoing a process of loss and reparation, which affects ... his soul as well. No man's character, habits, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, and fears remain always the same; new ones come into existence and old ones disappear.(3)

However, to a large degree, people do not like to make changes in their lives, and find the process very painful. Socrates tried to elicit an effect in people and while some were very inspired, others were not so graciously accepting of him. He was an unusual man -- in the way he looked, in his ambitions, and in his general approach to life. What was it about this man that made those closest to him feel he was truly the finest person they would ever meet? Was he truly the bravest, wisest, and most upright man?

Although little is known of Socrates' life, it seems that he was born in 469 BC and Diogenes Laertius wrote that "he was a citizen of Athens,"(4) a city Socrates loved and respected. He always maintained that he tried to be a good citizen, which may be described in the following way:

To be a good citizen meant adherence to the cults of the gods of the polis, as well as military and economic service to the state, and obedience to its laws.(5)

This was something that Athenians took very seriously, and Socrates was no different. Perhaps he was an unconventional man, but he never shirked the duties and responsibilities that were expected of him. He was patriotic and distinguished himself in battle. In the Apology, Socrates says, "after my remaining in whatever post I was stationed by the leaders whom you had appointed over me at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium ..."(6) Plato may have used literary embellishments in the writing of the Apology, but certainly the basic facts must be considered historically accurate. Socrates said that in those battles he "[faced] death like any other man."(7) During the battles of the Peloponnesian War, he was not a young man, but it was noted by many authors that his endurance and courage were certainly not surpassed. In Diogenes Laertius' Life of Socrates, Socrates was the one who saved Xenophon's life in the battle of Delium when all the other Athenians had fled.(8)

In the Symposium, we have our best description of Socrates' endurance and courage. Alcibiades talks of his character when he describes how no one could deal with hunger the way his mentor could. Nor could anyone besides Socrates handle the extreme cold and frost, which he endured barefoot and under-dressed. Alcibiades also documents that Socrates saved his life, when he fell from his horse and was wounded. He also saw Socrates and Laches retreating with the other troops after a total rout. Even in such grave danger, he did not flee as many others did, and instead, left the battle walking decisively and surely, exhibiting great courage and composure.(9)

Socrates not only exhibited bravery in battle, but also in his manner of standing up for his principles, even in the face of danger. The affair of Leon of Salamis is a case in point. When Sparta was named the victor in the long and cruel Peloponnesian War, a group known as the Thirty Tyrants was set up in Athens to administer the polis. This was a mean-spirited group of oligarchs, who tried to elicit Socrates' help to carry out their terrible plans. Everyone knew that Socrates had many reservations concerning democracy and the Thirty figured that he would be an easy ally for them. They ordered him to go to Salamis to escort a man named Leon back to Athens. Leon was a wealthy man, and if the oligarchs could murder him on some pretense, his assets could be confiscated and used for their own personal interests. At the threat of death, Socrates bravely refused to be a part of any plot that would harm an innocent man.(10) He exhibited courage of spirit and stood by his convictions. Needless to say, many Athenians performed atrocities under the orders of the group of Thirty that kept them alive, but for Socrates the price was too high and this concession of his own morality could not be suffered.

Nor could Socrates go along with the majority of Athenians who agreed that the Expedition to Sicily in 415 BC would be a good move for their war effort.(11) It must have been difficult to stand in objection against something so many believed to be beneficial to their city. In the Crito, Socrates gives a clear statement of his beliefs in this regard: "My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think?"(12) To be sure, Athens needed more wealth to finance her war efforts and indeed, the rich mineral deposits in Sicily may very well have brought it much closer to victory in the struggle with Sparta. Regardless, Socrates spoke out against the expedition, and bravely kept his position on Athens' latest military operation. The fact that the Athenian forces were destroyed in the battle did not cause him to be heralded by the ruling politicians, but his interlocutors and friends must have seen this as an example of his wisdom.

Socrates certainly exhibited bravery and personal fortitude many times in his life, but the manner in which he faced his death must be considered his finest moment. In the Crito, Socrates was visited by his friend Crito while in prison. Crito is trying to convince Socrates to go to Thessaly or any other place he may like to live. He does not understand that Socrates must courageously accept the verdict against him because he believed that if the gods had wanted his life to be spared, he would have received a fine by the courts, instead of a death penalty. He was a deeply religious man and very in touch with his soul. To reiterate, Socrates deeply loved his city and therefore answered Crito in this way:

[I] have had seventy years during which [I] could have gone away if [I] did not like [the city] and if [I] thought [the city's] agreements unjust. [I] did not choose to go to Sparta or to Crete, which you are always saying are well governed, nor to any other city, Greek or foreign. [I] have been away from Athens less than the lame or the blind or other handicapped people. It is clear that the city has been outstandingly more congenial to [me] than to other Athenians, and so have we, the laws, for what city can please without laws?(13)

Socrates thought that he must face what his beloved Athens and his gods put before him because he believed that it was possible to destroy a city if "the verdicts of its courts have no force."(14) He was not willing to leave Athens out of fear, and he did not want to do wrong willingly, even if his life hung in the balance. He was brave enough to accept death for his city, for his gods, and for his own morality, as he says, "Let it be then, Crito, and let us act in this way, since this is the way the god is leading us."(15) The ancient Greeks put great stock in their family of gods and in the messages that were deemed to be from them in the form of oracles. Socrates was told by his friend Chairephon that the Pythia at the Delphic Oracle declared that no one was wiser than he.(16) Was it this declaration of wisdom that led Socrates' friends to accept him as the wisest? Or did he demonstrate his great wisdom in the manner in which he lived his life?

"In a sceptical age he believed firmly in moral goodness as the one thing that matters,"(17) and tried to live his life honestly and morally. Socrates lived through the sophistic movement when anyone could pay for training in rhetorike to learn how to make the Right Argument look like the Wrong one and vice versa. Aristophanes has Strepsiades looking for just such an education at Socrates' Thinkery in the Clouds,(18) an education in situational ethics. In reality, Socrates did not condone this sort of activity because he thought that there was only one way to travel through life and that was on the righteous path to goodness. He certainly did not believe that learning how to cheat and to obscure the truth were useful acquisitions for the soul. Aristophanes also depicts Socrates' teaching in the Phrontisterion -- something which the great philosopher always disputed, saying instead:

I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best state of your soul, as I say to you: Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all the other public and private blessings for men.(19)

Socrates honestly believed that he did nothing but this, and that he certainly could not teach anything because he knew nothing at all himself to pass on to others. Although he seemed to believe that he was ignorant of all things, it is obvious that Socrates knew an awful lot about many subjects -- one only has to read the Meno to see his knowledge of geometry. Of course, this could be Plato foisting his skill onto Socrates. But to him, these pieces of knowledge were nothing but bits of superficial human wisdom: saying that "human wisdom is worth little or nothing."(20)

In the process of showing people the way to a life of virtue and moral goodness, Socrates did teach them a lot about themselves and showed them how little they really knew about the things that matter in life. To open a person's eyes and allow them to reach the state where they understood their ignorance of what constituted virtue, courage, or goodness, Socrates used a series of questions. He went about asking questions of anyone who would talk to him, believing this was the way to reach the form of Goodness that the gods made attainable to humans. This daily questioning would not lead to an understanding of what virtue was, but rather what it was not. For example, Socrates would ask a general what courage was, thinking he would surely know. Through questioning, Socrates would discover that even an Athenian general did not know what courage was. He was very mystified by these conversations when he first wandered about from poets to artisans trying to find someone who was genuinely wise, rather than only someone who thought he was. Wisdom is like that -- everyone wants to believe they have a piece of it, and try to elevate themselves to an intellectual position which, in reality, is usually too high. When questioned on a topic that they had said they had knowledge in, they were quickly embarrassed by their own ignorance.

In his wisdom, Socrates truly believed "that a life without examination is not worth living."(21)It really makes sense when you think about it. Most people carry about certain ideas and convictions on a whole range of subjects, but rarely do they get a chance to review them with others. So they never know if their reflections make sense at all or if there is some kernel of brilliance in a thought they may have on Courage or Beauty. Most people go about their entire lives never having their minds opened up by discourse at all, or they only experience it in brief snatches every now and then. It is interesting to note that people always remember the feeling they had when their ideas were challenged by someone who obviously had spent a lot of time thinking about a particular concept.

The people who did not like the facades of their lives ripped away by discourse with Socrates surely hated him. Many more felt a sense of exhilaration from discussions with him and felt that the questions he asked were very profound indeed. It is a good thing to have some of the impedimenta taken away because it can mean a great progression for the soul. Socrates knew this to be true. In one of the many letters that Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, he made a very interesting comment about Socrates:

They say that the great Socrates used to declare that his work was done when his encouragement had fairly driven a man to an urge to understand and acquire virtue. When a man was convinced that his prime need was to become a good man, the rest of philosophy followed easily.(22)

Socrates worked at being a good man and endeavored to show others by his example that it was a possibility for everyone. He used the adages of: "Know Thyself" and "Nothing in excess," regularly to emphasize that humans had limits and that the right balance was the key to a life of happiness and virtue. In the dialogue, Alcibiades I, Socrates points out to Alcibiades that he has forgotten Apollo's words and is too interested in acquiring possessions and power, and tells him: "that you value yourself least of all upon your possessions."(23) Socrates tries to impress upon him that he must first know himself, his soul, before he can do anything that has any spiritual value. In his wisdom, Socrates continually strived not to do wrong willingly and profoundly believed that if he and others tried hard enough to follow the path set out by the gods, then the consequences would be that they would have no choice but to do the right thing. Socrates strongly advised others not to "value either your children or your life or anything else more than goodness."(24) In the Phaedo, his wisdom was remarkably pure when he tells his friends:

That is the reason why a man should be of good cheer about his own soul, if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body and its ornamentation as of no concern to him and doing him more harm than good, but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning, and adorned his soul not with alien but its own ornaments, namely, moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom and truth ..."(25)

Socrates was certainly the wisest because he knew that the search for virtue and truthfulness was in fact a journey within -- a journey to understanding yourself, your soul, and to making it as pure as possible. In this way, humans come as close as they can to the divine.

Socrates spent much of his life trying to define ethical concepts such as arete, courage and justice. What does it mean to be a just person? It seems that Socrates was a living example: he was honest, incorruptible, and fair. Throughout history, there have been many spiritual leaders who have shamelessly exploited their followers, but Socrates did not. He could have taken advantage of their youth and innocence, but he did not. In The Last Days of Socrates, Hugh Tredennick writes that "by his close friends, [Socrates] was loved with utter devotion,"(26) and they would have done just about anything for him. The majority of his interlocutors were from aristocratic Athenian families and for an example, one need not look further than Plato. These men could have made Socrates a wealthy man, but he never charged them for his leadership or spiritual advice. Aristippus wrote that "people sent Socrates corn and wine. He sent most of it back, but kept a little."(27) And Stobaeus tells us that "Socrates, the philosopher was offered many presents by his friends. He refused them all ..."(28)

It is not known whether Socrates worked for a living or not; he may have been a sculptor at one point, but there is so little biographical evidence for his life that one cannot be sure. However, by the description of his clothing: "the same cloak ... he usually wore,"(29) and the fact that he went about barefoot, even in winter, seems to attest to his poverty. Even the comic writers who loved to make fun of Socrates in their plays reinforce his lowly financial position. In Clouds, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as poor and frugal, and someone who went about barefoot.(30) Another comic dramatist named Eupolis is quoted as saying:

Yes and I loathe that poverty-stricken windbag Socrates who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.(31)

Socrates did not take advantage of his rich friends and did not live the life of luxury that he could have. He also did not use his young interlocutors for his own sexual gratification. Homosexuality was not publicly denounced in fifth century BC Athens, and it seems that it often occurred between young men from wealthy families and their teachers. Socrates never called himself a teacher, but his relationship with his young interlocutors and friends was of the sort that he could have used his characteristic influence over them in a sexual way. Socrates seems to have treated his followers with great respect and really was only interested in their spiritual and ethical progression, not what they could do for him or what he could extract from them. In a commentary on the Symposium, W. Hamilton wrote that "the beauty of Socrates' soul is what draws Alcibiades to him,"(32) but Alcibiades wanted to be even closer to him, and to experience all of Socrates.

In the Symposium, Alcibiades publicly talks about how he thought Socrates loved his looks and that he was very happy about it because he felt "all ... I had to do was to say yes to him, and all his knowledge would be mine to listen to."(33) Alcibiades tried to seduce Socrates many times, but to no avail; until one night when he had planned to do everything that he possibly could to have Socrates. They ate dinner and drank wine, and talked well into the night. Since it was so late, Socrates did not go home. Even after Alcibiades climbed into the same bed with him, all they did was sleep, to which Alcibiades complained, "I had no more slept with Socrates than if I had been with my father or elderly brother."(34) What Alcibiades said next is a good summation of Socrates' personality and values from the viewpoint of an interlocutor:

I thought I'd been insulted, but I was still in love with his character, his courage, his control. I never thought to meet a man who combined intellectual brilliance and physical toughness as he did. I couldn't cut myself off from his company in a rage. I couldn't find any way of winning him. I knew that money couldn't touch him anymore than a sword could touch Ajax. The one means I thought was sure to catch him had already let me down ... you never saw anything like my slavery to him.(35)

Most of the instances of Socrates' just nature were private matters between him and his friends, but one glaring public example of his righteous personality was the incident concerning the ten generals involved in the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC, which was the final Athenian victory of the Peloponnesian War. After the sea battle, some Athenian survivors were left in the water to drown. The generals said it was because a great storm had prevented them from reaching the people, and if they had tried, the fleet would have been lost. Socrates was serving on the Council when the matter of what to do with the generals was brought before it. Socrates felt that it was an appalling act of injustice and illegality to have all of the generals tried as one body. He voiced his criticisms in the Council and was violently ridiculed. Socrates commented on the matter at his trial, saying:

The orators were ready to prosecute me and take me away, and your shouts were egging them on, but I thought I should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you, for fear of prison or death when you were engaged in an unjust course.(36)

Socrates also showed his just nature in the Affair of Leon of Salamis, for which the Thirty Tyrants could have executed him, had they not been disbanded shortly after. Of course, Socrates was only human and may have been tempted by many things, but he always seemed to try to control himself and to stay on the path of righteousness. He did not want to do wrong willingly. Seneca wrote:

That is why Socrates said to his slave, "I would flog you if I were not angry." He put off the correction of the slave to a sounder moment; at that moment, the correction was for himself.(37)

Socrates tried to instill in those around him: to try to do the right thing no matter how hard it is to stand your ground. If not, you will lose your way and go towards the darkness, instead of the divine, the Good. In the dialogue Alcibiades I, Socrates is talking to Alcibiades about being a politician and about doing the right thing. He tells him:

If you act unrighteously, your eye will turn to the dark and godless, and being in darkness and ignorance of yourself, you will probably do deeds of darkness.(38)

Socrates really was the bravest, and the wisest, and the most just. He was the bravest because he did not fear anything or anyone, and he was not afraid to make his convictions known -- no matter whom he upset, or the jeopardy he put his own life in. He was truly the wisest since he realized that having human wisdom does not constitute being wise at all, but that the crucial objective was to "Know Thyself." To know your soul must be the prime focus of life, not just a superficial quest for possessions and wealth. Socrates felt that people far too often forget what they should be doing and what they should be concerned with. By endeavoring to get in touch with the inner self, it becomes a necessity to clear away some of the forces that hamper our search for virtue and self-knowledge.

Socrates honestly believed that our morality and ethics must be the central driving force in our lives and continuously encouraged people to keep this in mind. Socrates contended that if a person strived to become virtuous, then the inevitable consequence would be that he would have no choice but to do the right thing. Socrates was a visionary: he saw that a different kind of future was possible if people reached for goodness. Imagine a world in which everyone had the attainment of goodness as their one goal, their one ambition, rather than making money. Imagine a world where all people brought their children up to be good human beings, instead of people who are preoccupied with getting ahead. Socrates had faith that this kind of existence was possible. He was also the most just because he was a fair and honest man who had the hope that there could be justice for everyone; and that is why he advised the Council to try the generals separately. He never did take advantage of his friends, but instead, treated those closest to him in a sincere and truthful manner, expecting the same of them. But this is not an easy task, and that is why Alcibiades says:

For this man has reduced me to feel the sentiment of shame, which I imagine no one would readily believe was in me; he alone inspires me with remorse and awe. For I feel in his presence my incapacity of refuting what he says, or of refusing to do that which he directs ...(39)

There are certainly brave people in this world and others who are wise, and still others who may be considered just, but few have all three of these honorable qualities. Socrates had them all, and the combination was undoubtedly very powerful. Alcibiades says that "he was a wonderful power,"(40) and surely this must have been true. Socrates had a good soul and that is why people were attracted to him. They could feel his bravery, his wisdom, his justice, and his Goodness. Socrates had it all.

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1 Plato, Crito 45clff.

2 Plato, Phaedo 118a9ff.

3 Plato, Symposium 207b - 208c.

4 Diogenes Laertius, Life of Socrates, 1.4.

5 The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 15.

6 Plato, Apology 28e 1-4.

7 Ibid.

8Diogenes Laertius.

9 Plato, Symposium 219-222.

10 Plato, Apology 32c-d.

11 Pseudo-Plato, Theages 129d.

12 Plato, Crito 44c5ff.

13 Ibid., 52e-53a.

14 Ibid., 50b2-3.

15 Ibid., 54d9-10.

16 Plato, Apology 20e-23c.

17 Tredennick, Hugh, The Last Days of Socrates (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), p. 8.

18 Aristophanes, Clouds.

19 Plato, Apology 30a6-10.

20 Ibid., 23ab.

21 Ibid., 38a5.

22 Cicero, On the Orator 1, 47, 204.

23 Pseudo-Platonic, Alcibiades I 104.

24 Plato, Apology 30b-c.

25 Plato, Phaedo 114d-115a2.

26 Tredennick, Hugh, The Last Days of Socrates (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), p. 9.

27 Aristippus 2, 74.

28 Stobaeus 11.1.39.

29 Plato, Symposium 219.

30 Aristophanes, Clouds 360ff.

31 Eupolis 352E.

32 Plato, Symposium, Trans.: Walter Hamilton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), p. 28.

33 Plato, Symposium 217Aff.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Plato, Apology 32b-c.

37 Seneca, On Anger 1,15,3.

38 Pseudo-Platonic, Alcibiades I 134.

39 Plato, Symposium 216ff.

40 Ibid.



Aristophanes, Clouds.

Cicero, On the Orator.


Plato. Apology.
-----  Crito.
-----  Meno.
-----  Phaedo.
-----  Symposium.
-----  Theages.

Pseudo-Platonic, Alcibiades I.

Seneca, On Anger.


The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1996.

Tredennick, Hugh. The Last Days of Socrates. England: Penguin Books, 1954.

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