In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socrates

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Texts and Textbooks
  • Introductory-Level Monographs
  • Seminal Works
  • Collections of Papers
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Bibliographies
  • The “Socratic Question”
  • The Socratic Dialogue
  • Politics
  • Iconography, Filmography, Literature, and Music

Classics Socrates
Dimitri El Murr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0211


Socrates of Athens (470/469–399 BCE) is perhaps the most famous philosopher of all time. Yet there is a striking contrast between his extraordinary celebrity and what we know for certain about him. We know for sure that he spent his entire life in Athens, philosophizing in public and private places. We also know that he left no written works. What we know of his life and teaching comes only for a small part through the writings of contemporaries (notably Aristophanes), and mostly through the works of his many disciples, among whom stand the most prominent philosophers of the time (Plato, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Xenophon, Aeschines of Sphettos). None of these witnesses was concerned to record what Socrates did and said according to the modern standards of accurateness. Rather, each of them depicted his own view of Socrates, competing with one another as to which portrait rendered the true spirit of Socraticism. Most of what we know of Socrates also comes from later sources, which in turn depend on the writings of his contemporaries, most of which have been lost. Therefore, as a consequence of Socrates’ exceptional impact and avoidance of writing down his own thoughts, there is neither direct nor neutral access to Socrates’ life and doctrine. Every author, every school of thought, and every time period has shaped its own Socrates, according to its own agenda. Does this mean that the quest for the historical Socrates is ill-founded and the true Socrates irremediably lost? Some scholars think it does. At the very least, it seems safe to say that the study of Socrates is not separable from what is now known as the “Socratic Question.” On Socrates’ philosophical input, what does seem clear is that he introduced a major breakthrough in the history of philosophy. According to two distinct traditions in Antiquity, Socrates indeed shifted both the object and the method of philosophical inquiry. According to Cicero (and Xenophon), Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the heavens and placed it in cities (Tusc. V, 10). According to Aristotle (in Metaphysics), he was the first to concern himself with definitions. Both interests are amply evidenced in our main extant source of information on Socrates, which is also the trickiest to handle: the Platonic dialogues. Another reason explaining Socrates’ celebrity over the last twenty-five centuries is the most famous episode of his life, namely his death. In 399 BCE, Socrates was tried, and sentenced to drink hemlock, by an Athenian popular jury of five hundred citizens. Why he was executed by the Athenian democracy remains a hotly disputed issue. Yet, even more than the portrait of Socrates as the irrepressible gadfly and soul-examiner of Athens, it is his death, and notably Plato’s dramatization of it as the martyrdom of philosophy, that made him the legend and the mystery he still is.

General Overviews

The main extant sources (see Primary Sources) and the main fragments and testimonia (see Collections of Texts and Textbooks) can be read in conjunction with one or more of the excellent overviews of Socrates’ thought listed in this section. Nails 2014 is an excellent and readily accessible online article that will provide the reader with an overview of the main sources and a thorough presentation of the main interpretative issues. The same is true of Brunschwig 1990 and Morrison 2006, both of which consider the question of sources and the key philosophical themes related to Socrates in Plato and Xenophon. Those seeking a more detailed presentation will find a useful synthesis in Dorion 2004, which devotes a chapter to each of the four main “Socrateses” (Aristophanes’, Plato’s, Xenophon’s and Aristotle’s). An even more detailed analysis is available in Navia 1993. Although it was first published more than eighty years ago, Taylor 1951 remains a classic presentation of Plato’s Socrates, giving due prominence to Socrates’ doctrine of the soul, seen as the crucial step toward the development of spiritual morality. Guthrie 1971 is more expansive in its scope, tackling the scholarly issues raised by the sources and their discrepancies, before addressing the main themes of the philosophy of Socrates. Those who read Italian will also find Adorno 1970 very useful for its presentation of the sources and discussion of 19th- and 20th-century scholarship.

  • Adorno, Francesco. 1970. Introduzione a Socrate. Bari: Editori Laterza.

    Presents the Socratic problem and examines Socrates’ doctrine in Aristophanes and in the writings of the main Socratics. Includes a discussion of modern scholarship and an extensive bibliography, thematically organized.

  • Brunschwig, Jacques. 1990. Socrate et écoles socratiques. In Encyclopaedia Universalis, 233–235. Paris: Encyclopaedia Universalis.

    A short but beautifully written overview of (the Platonic) Socrates and his influence on the history of philosophy.

  • Dorion, Louis-André. 2004. Socrate. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Provides a brief, but very clear, overview of Socrates’ life and death, the Socratic problem, and the contrasting portraits of Socrates in Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1971. Socrates. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511518454

    The first half is dedicated to the sources, and to the life and character of Socrates; the second to a historical and philosophical analysis of the main themes of Socrates’ thought (highly reliant on Aristotle’s testimony). First published as Part 2 of A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. III, CUP, 1969.

  • Morrison, Donald. 2006. Socrates. In A companion to ancient philosophy. Edited by M. L. Gill and P. Pellegrin, 101–118. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631210610.2006.00011.x

    A clear and concise presentation of the Socratic problem and main philosophical themes related to Socrates in Plato and Xenophon.

  • Nails, Debra. 2014. Socrates. In The Stanford encylopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    The most reliable web resource available on Socrates and the Socratic problem. Includes a chronology of the historical Socrates in the context of Athenian history and a detailed bibliography.

  • Navia, Luis E. 1993. The Socratic presence: A study of the sources. New York and London: Garland.

    Aims at presenting a biographical and philosophical portrait of Socrates and examines successively the testimonies in Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle.

  • Taylor, A. E. 1951. Socrates. Boston: Beacon.

    First published in 1932. Focuses mainly on Plato’s presentation of Socrates, which is treated as historically accurate. The first half of the book is devoted to the biography of Socrates and his trial and death, the second half to his thought and its philosophical importance.

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