Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher
BY GREGORY VLASTOSView on Amazon
Socrates is philosophy’s martyr. Sentenced to death in 399 BCE Athens for ‘corrupting the minds of the youth,’ Socrates never wrote anything down. We know of his era-defining thinking only through the writings of his contemporaries, particularly his student Plato.
The influence of Socrates on the history of Western philosophy is difficult to overstate. By influencing Plato, who in turn set up the Academy to influence many philosophers including Aristotle, Socrates laid the foundations for the entirety of the west’s intellectual canon.
Plato’s Socratic dialogues — some of the most wonderful works in the history of philosophy — feature Socrates in lively conversation with influential Athenians on a wide range of subjects, from epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics to art, justice, and politics, in an attempt to find certain knowledge.
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In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is presented as unfailingly ruthless in his hunt for certainty. He uses what is now known as the Socratic method — a form of argumentative dialogue that uses incisive questioning to stimulate critical thinking and draw out presuppositions — to show up his interlocutors as being entirely lacking in whatever knowledge they may have claimed to hold at the beginning of the discussions. He infamously declares (in what’s now referred to as the Socratic paradox) that the only certain knowledge is that we know nothing.
Socrates’s activities, though perhaps noble in their pursuit of truth, made a lot of powerful people in Athens look very foolish. A hero to some, a nuisance to others: Socrates became a popular, controversial figure — occasionally ridiculed in the plays of the comic dramatists of the period, and eventually sentenced to death by the Athenian authorities.
Everything we know about Socrates, presented as he is through legend and the writings of others, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, his legacy as the brilliant martyr of philosophy remains secure, decorated by an epitaph of his own making:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
This reading list consists of the best introductions and discussions of Socrates’s thinking, as well as the best primary sources from ancient times that document his life and philosophy. Let’s dive in!
Published in 1991, Gregory Vlastos’s celebrated Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a fantastic place to start for anyone with an interest in Socrates and his central place at the turning point of Western philosophy. Considering Socrates never wrote anything down, Vlastos provides a clear, illuminating assessment of ancient source material to paint a vivid picture of Socrates the man, as well as Socrates the great philosopher. With its consistent, considered, nuanced analysis on the Socratic search for how we should live, Vlastos’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in why Socrates is one of the most important figures in philosophy.
If you’re seeking to dive a little deeper with your Socrates scholarship, look no further than The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, edited by Donald R. Morrison in 2010. Morrison draws together a fantastic collection of essays from various scholars discussing Socrates’s views on knowledge, reality, politics, ethics, love, and the arts. With its 436 pages packed full of insight — with chapters ordered in a linked, progressive sequence — this collection of essays is a brilliant accompaniment for those seeking a deeper understanding of Socrates’s thought.
Turning from introductions to ancient primary sources, where better to start than with a tome still routinely adored and studied by undergraduate philosophy students to this day? Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates includes four superb dialogues — Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo — that cover the trial and death of Socrates in 399 BC. Serving as an ideal introduction to the Socratic dialogues, the works in this collection are among Plato’s earliest and record Socrates debating the nature of piety, justice, death, and the immortality of the soul in brilliant, highly-charged prose. Hugely entertaining and wise — a collection to defy anyone who thinks philosophy is boring or stuffy — The Last Days of Socrates belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Socrates, Plato or the happenings of ancient Athens.
A famous comic play in its own right, the ancient dramatist Aristophanes’s The Clouds provides a sharp contrast to the rather heroic and wise Socrates we find in Plato’s dialogues. The Clouds lampoons Socrates as a comic figure. In fact, some of the accusations that Socrates faces in Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates find their origin here, with the play possibly impacting Socrates’s chances of receiving a fair trial. As well as it being incredible that we have this 2,500-year-old counterpoint to Plato, Aristophanes’s play is an important read philosophically, revealing common rebutalls Socrates faced from his contemporaries. For those looking to broaden their perspective on Socrates, this is an essential read.
If you’re looking for a one-stop shop for all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, it doesn’t get much better than Plato: Complete Works, edited and introduced by Cooper and Hutchinson. The entire surviving corpus of works attributed to Plato is presented here in modern translations with useful contextual information on composition and chronology, as well as essential discussion on the extent to which the Socrates that features in each text is the historical Socrates himself, or Socrates the Platonic character, whom Plato preserved even after Socrates’s death (as discussed in our Plato reading list). This is unarguably the definitive edition of Plato’s writings in English, in which his profoundly thought provoking and entertaining dialogues sing. At 1,800 pages, it’s a beast of an anthology — but you won’t need another!
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