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Socrates: The Greek Philosopher

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The life of the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BC) marks such a critical point in Western thought that standard histories divide Greek philosophy into pre-Socratic and post-Socratic periods. Socrates left no writings of his own, and his work has inspired almost as many different interpretations as there have been interpreters. He remains one of the most important and one of the most enigmatic figures in Western philosophy. As a young man Socrates became fascinated with the new scientific ideas that Anaxagoras and the latter's associate Archelaus had introduced to Athens. He seems for a time to have been the leader of an Athenian research circle--which would explain why the first appearance of Socrates in literature is as a villainous, atheistic scientist in The Clouds of Aristophanes. Young Socrates also knew the Sophists and listened to their debates and ceremonial orations. Socrates and the Sophists Neither science nor Sophistry, however, could answer a new philosophic question that struck him. The earlier Greek thinkers had been concerned almost wholly with physics and cosmology until the Sophists suggested that what should be done instead was to teach young men skills to satisfy their natural self-interest. Instead, Socrates wondered: "What is a 'self'?" Although "Know Thyself!" was one of three sayings carved on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the directive proved difficult to carry out. The so-called scientific views of the time, particularly that of atomism, defined the self as a physical organ that responded to environmental pressure. Socrates felt, however, that the Sophists, for all their talk of self-interest, had little curiosity about the status of a self; they assumed that it was merely an isolated center constantly greedy for more pleasure, prestige, and power. The Sophists further thought that the values that people advocated were all conventional, varying from one culture to another, and that no one would ever act against his or her own interest, regardless of how many people talked as though they would. This complex of ideas offered little to explain human nature and excellence. Socrates' Later Life and Thought Socrates, setting about his search for the self, was convinced of the importance of his quest. Until educators and teachers knew what human excellence was, he thought, they were engaging in false pretenses by claiming that they knew how to improve students or societies. Socrates believed



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