Socrates and the
I. The Political Scene in Greece in the 5th Century B.C.
A. The City-State
Among a common people there are differences. In the 5th century BC (500-400 BC), the Greeks
were spread out in a multitude of highly developed village communities called city-states.
Geography, tribal division, and diversity of economic and political interest contributed to the
development of separate, self-governed Greek communities. This was for the Greek the best
compromise between the conflicting values of order and freedom. A community which is too
small is insecure and vulnerable; a community too large risks tyranny. For the Greek, the polis
was both a Greek's city and his state. Ideally, Greece was to be a collection of sovereign city-
states co-operating with each other. Instead, the history became one of strife and family feuds
even to the point of war.
B. The Leading City-States and their Strengths
1. Athens: the cultural center of the Peloponnesians (see Thucidides,
History of the
2. Thebes: the religous center (see Sophicles,
Oedipus the King
Oedipus at Colonos
3. Sparta: the military center (see Lycurgus,
Plutarch's Parallel Lives
4. Corinth: the commercial center (city of luxery, wealth, prostitutes).
C. Some Important Dates for Athens
431: Outbreak of Peloponnesian war: Athenians marked by disunity
415: Athenians losing power after failed attempt to take over Sicily
411-410: Revolution of the 400 (led by sophist Antiphon)
404: Athens is surrounded by Thebes, Spartans, and Corinthians. After starvation and disease set
in, Athens surrenders. Spartans rule after this, followed by the rule of the Thebes.
D. Two Types of Democracy
1. Aristocratic Democracy: Prior to 404 BC., aristocratic democracy was the form of
government. In it the best or privileged ruled. E.g., the ruling class of four hundred in 412 and
the Thirty in 404 BC. The Thirty were overthrown, leading to a period of restoration.
2. Egalitarian Democracy: The restoration period followed the collapse of the Aristocratic
democracy in 404 BC. In egalitarian democracy, all individuals are equal; there are no class
distinctions. Egalitarian democracy persecuted Socrates.
II. The Philosophical Scene in Athens in the 5th century BC
Between the age of the Poet Homer (mid-8th century) and the age of Socrates, the Greeks began
a rational study of the natural and moral order. Moving away from tradition and authority (e.g.,
the poetry of Homer), the naturalists sought to provide non mythical explanations which
appealed to causes in the physical realm to account for all natural phenomena. The result of the
naturalist movement was the development of an alternative conception of the world, as well as a
different method for investigating the world, both of which differed from the Homeric tradition.