Socrates (469-399 BC) is considered as the original founder of Western Philosophy. He was the man to develop the notion of ethics the most till his time and to introduce a new method of pedagogy, where the student actually finds the truth himself through a series of questions.
The surprising thing is that we actually have no writings of Socrates and the only descriptions we have of him and his philosophy is through the manuscripts of his famous students, the philosopher Plato, the historian Xenophon and of the comedy writer Aristophanes, who actually mocks Socrates in one of his plays, The Clouds.
The father of Socrates was Sophroniscus and his mother was Phaenarete, a midwife by profession. In fact, Socrates used frequently the profession of his mother to describe his teaching methods: as a midwife is helping a woman give birth to her child, so was Socrates helping people to give birth to the truth, which is hidden inside everyone of us.
The figure of Socrates was unattractive: he is said to have been short, fat, with a malformed face. However, he got married to a girl much younger than him, Xanthippe, and had three sons. According to some historical accounts, he earned his living orating philosophy to his students whereas others mention that he followed the footsteps of his father, a stone sculpture. Some believe that the figurines of the Three Graces that once adorned the Acropolis were actually his work. Apart from that, Socrates was also a brave soldier and fought in the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium.
The time Socrates was born, Athens was living the golden years under the ruling of Pericles, a charismatic politician who gave emphasis on culture and arts and who made the town the strongest naval power of that time. However, as Socrates was growing old, the decline was starting for Athens, with the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, the final defeat of Athens in 404 BC and the fall of the Athenian democracy. The social decline thus led to a moral decline in the society of the city-state. Therefore, the concept of moral virtues and ethics that Socrates was teaching was not made understood by many of its citizens.
The philosophy of Socrates
Socrates believed that every man hides a set of truths in his heart and he tried to make each one reveal these truths. His whole philosophical ideology circulated around some basic principles. First of all, he believed that nobody likes to do immoral actions and if one acts immorally, this is because he doesn't know the moral thing. Moreover, he believed that righteousness leads to knowledge and also that righteousness is the only bringer of happiness in people and in society.
The inclination of Socrates to moral virtues, his explicit thoughts about honesty and justice and moreover his belief in doing good actions made him become an unfavourable figure to all the politicians of his time. At this point, the people of Athens were quite taken aback after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War. They started to doubt the effect of the reign of democracy in their country.
The trail and death
Seeing this, the politicians blamed Socrates for corrupting the minds of the young boys with such thoughts. Moreover, they also accused that it was him who taught them to disregard the Athenian Gods and who filled their minds with ideas of listening to an inner voice called daemonion.
The Athenian politicians were also infuriated for one more thing: in public discussions, Socrates was mocking their knowledge and would make them look unintelligent to people. Socrates believed that no man in wise, if he doesn't acknowledge his unawareness of the truth. He frequently said for himself I know one thing, that I know nothing, claiming his lack of knowledge.
In 399 BC, Socrates was put to trial under the accusation of corrupting the young Athenians. In his defense, he compared himself to an annoying stable fly which disturbs people from their inactivity and forces them to turn their head towards the truth. When he was asked to propose a punishment for himself, he ironically answered that the Athenian state should pay him and give him free diners for his lifetime, as long as he is a benefactor to the people.
Socrates was eventually found guilty and was sentenced to death by drinking the poison hemlock. Although his students had prepared everything for him to escape prison and death, Socrates refused. He believed that the time had come for him to die. After all, if he escaped, he would be proved disobedient to the rules of the state, so he would harm his own city. He also stressed that the fear of death doesn't indicate any true philosopher, as death actually frees the immortal soul from the mortal body.
Socrates is probably the philosopher with the greatest influence ever. Plato and Aristotle, the other famous philosophers of classical Athens, were actually his students and on their work the whole Western philosophy was based. His busts can be seen in most philosophical universities, as a tribute to this great thinker.