Socrates lived in Athens about four hundred years before Jesus Christ was born. As a boy he was ugly, undersized and had a flat nose and bulging eyes. His father was a poor stone-cutter, so he was always rather shabbily dressed.
Like other boys of his age he went to school, where the most important lessons were music and gymnastics. He also learned some science and mathematics and a little about the stars, but not nearly so much history and geography as children learn today. This strange little creature with the short neck and plain face was a thoughtful child. He watched his companions all the time and allowed very few things to escape his notice.
Socrates did not have a big house or fine furniture. He did not seem to want either wealth or beautiful possessions. As he grew older, he began to think very little of bodily comfort and pleasure. He gave his mind to all that was noble, honorable and just.
Socrates went round the town on foot and talked to people. The Athenians began to look for his familiar figure in the streets and to say to their friends, “Yes, that’s Socrates, come along and talk to him.” After sometime Socrates became famous as a teacher. He wandered along the roads and stood in the market places, talking to anyone who cared to greet him. His listeners were often confused after they had argued with him or answered his questions, Socrates told his countrymen that everyone must learn to think for himself, so that by using his reason he would have the power to see what was right, just, true and beautiful, and so shape his own conduct.
He wanted Athens to be a perfect state. He told everyone-both his pupils and his other followers – that this could only happen if every citizen educated his own mind to see what was right and noble. He believed that questioning and discussion would help them do this and so he was forever talking to them in the open streets.
When Socrates was an old man, his fame had spread far and wide. The house of many a rich man opened its doors to him, for people felt honored to have him as their guest. By degrees a special group of pupils gathered around him and followed him wherever he went. Among them was a young man called Plato, who treasured every word which his master uttered and in later years became as famous a teacher as Socrates himself.
But although many people loved the old man and delighted in his wisdom, there were some who did not approve of him. He taught that man’s own mind influenced his conduct more than the Gods. This seemed to some people a new and wicked idea. He said that there were higher and nobler deeds than making sacrifices to Athens and the other Gods of Greece, and many people thought that he was leading the young astray, questioning all that they had been taught to believe and filling their minds with doubt.
The men who were governing Athens summoned Socrates to appear before them and to stand his trial. His friends begged him to escape or to hide until the storm had blown over. But Socrates was no coward. He knew that he had done nothing wrong and that he had only taught what he believed to be just, true and honorable and so he went to the court. His clothes and shoes were dusty and travel-stained. But everyone knew that a noble heart beat under the shabby garments.
He made a powerful and dignified speech. He told the Athenians that they would gain nothing by taking away the last few years of his life, but that he was willing to die many deaths for what he believed to be right.
The judges listened to him, questioned him and condemned him to death. The old man made no complaint. He leaned on his stick, looking round the crowded courtroom. Plato and his other pupils were there in the court all time. “No evil can happen to a good man,” he told them “either in life or after death, so be of good cheer. I have to go. The hour of my departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live.”
Then the soldiers came and took him away to prison. His wife followed with his three children. Many of his favorite pupils were also with him. For a long time, they talked to him and he taught them many wise lessons which they treasured in their hearts. But all the time his friends knew that Socrates would die soon. They were sad. “For,” as Plato wrote, “he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans.”
After the sun had set behind the tree-tops, the jailor came in and asked Socrates to prepare for death. In Athens, when people were condemned to die, they were given a cup of poison. Socrates knew this and he nodded to the jailor who looked at him sadly saying, “You, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, will not be angry with me when I ask you to drink the poison for others, and not I are the guilty cause.” Bursting into tears he went out and returned with a cup of poison.
“May the Gods prosper my journey from this to the other world,” said Socrates and lifted the cup to his lips. His pupils tried to keep back their tears, but one sobbed aloud and this distressed the others and soon, the room was filled with the sound of weeping.
Socrates paused, with the unfinished cup of poison in his hands. “What’s this strange noise?” he asked. “I have heard that a man should die in peace. You mustn’t cry. Be silent and have patience.” He looked around, remembering something. “Crito,” he whispered to one of his pupils, “Can you do me a favour ? I owe a cock to Aesculapius. Will you pay the debt ?”
“It shall be paid,” said Crito. “Is there anything else ?” He waited, but there was no answer, for “Socrates, the greatest of all the Greeks, was dead.”