Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.) lived at a golden moment. It was during the decade before his birth
that the Persons invaded and largely destroyed Athens. Then the Athenians retreated to the
nearby island of Salamis behind their "wooden wall" of Athenian and allied ships, and "the
outnumbered Greeks outmaneuvered and largely destroyed Persia's navy" (Eliot, 14). Before
long Athens had become the leader of the Delian league. Her population was about three hundred
thousand, a third of them slaves, with perhaps forty thousand adult male voting citizens. Most of
the forty thousand spent part of every day at the athletic clubs, practicing sports and fighting.
Athenians rebuilt their homes, most of them modest dwellings, and built marvelous temples. The
economy prospered, trade was brisk, intellectual life sparkled, and the arts flourished. One of the
stonecutter-sculptors who worked on the temples was a young man named Socrates (469-399
B.C.), also known as a brave fighter in Athens' military campaigns who sometimes marched
barefoot in the snow.
We have no writings by Socrates himself. Our knowledge about him comes primarily from
Plato's Dialogues, and from Xenophon and the playwright Aristophanes. Socrates fought bravely
as a soldier against Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars between 432 and 422 and generously gave
up to others his claims for prizes of valor. Impudent and incisive in discussion and debate, he
questioned and challenged fellow Athenians from every level of society. Brought up as he was in
his father's stonecutting trade, he made many of his points with examples from such trades as
blacksmith, herder, cobbler, and carpenter. Few have ever reasoned as brilliantly.
Having somehow come by a little capital early in life (perhaps as a gift from a wealthy patron),
Socrates lived on the interest and saw no need to work, except to turn a piece of stone into
sculpture when he wished, and chose to think and talk as his lifelong occupation. His income was
not great, but he did not need much. In his own life he anticipated part of what the Cynics and
Stoics later articulated in their philosophies. Content with a simple, ragged cloak, he liked going
barefoot better than wearing sandals or shoes. "He kept well on very little means," writes his
biographer Alexander Eliot. "'Hunger is the finest sauce,' he used to say, 'and thirst lends the best
bouquet to a glass of wine. Fine clothes are for play actors. The markets are crammed with what
one doesn't need.
... An unencumbered life is the godliest.'.
..offered a piece of real estate
as a present, he turned it down with the remark that one doesn't need a whole oxhide to make a
pair of sandals.
... What others might call hardship, Socrates considered prudent hardening."(p.
18) "He was incredibly free of the acquisitive fever that agitates mankind," writes Durant. "He