It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Socrates (470–399BC) on western philosophy. We know that he was the mentor of the young Plato, and we also know that Plato’s writings had deep and lasting effects on virtually the whole of western thinking.
However, it would also be difficult to overestimate our ignorance of Socrates’ actual views. Socrates probably wrote next to nothing of a philosophical nature, and, anyway, none of it survives. Our problem, the “Socratic Problem” as it is called, is that we do not know exactly what Socrates himself believed – it is not clear that he claims to know anything. He even denies being a teacher. So we know he is massively influential, but we do not know the precise nature of that influence. The situation is more than exasperating.
Socrates is believed to have been the son of a midwife and a stone mason. Although he was reduced to poverty in old age, he seems to have enjoyed a reasonably well-off early life. He served as a hoplite (a heavy infantryman) in the Athenian army, so at least at that time in his life he must have owned property and been able to pay for his own equipment. However he made his living, it was not by his looks. He is described variously as pug-nosed, thick-lipped and rotund. His eyes, though quick, were bulbous, and he seems not to have been devoted to personal grooming. His ability to drink was prodigious and well known.
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