Socrates is one of the greatest names in the history of western civilisation. He was one of the finest philosophers of the ancient world and one of the most ardent sadhakas in the quest for truth. He did not found any institution of learning but he was indeed a great gyana yogi who had, even in his own lifetime, the reputation of being the world's wisest man.
Socrates was born in 469 B.C. and lived through the golden age of Athens, when she was the most powerful of the Greek states; and learning, the arts and commerce flourished as never before. He was the son of a working sculptor and a midwife, and for a time he followed the trade of his father. Then, like all Athenian citizens, he was called to military service and he fought bravely in several battles.
Upon his return to Athens, Socrates involved himself in the study of human problems and the nature of man's soul. He believed in the survival of the soul, and held virtue to be the highest quality.
Known as the barefoot philosopher, Socrates was probably the best known figure in the streets of Athens. He totally disregarded wealth, fame and power, and in his dedication to the path of truth, he neglected all other affairs, including his business and family. Winter and summer he wore no coat and his feet and legs were always bare. His uncouth face with its thick lips, flattened nose and projecting eyes, encased a saintly mind which was always full of divine thoughts.
Each day, accompanied by a small group of disciples, Socrates used to wander down to the market place or the public gymnasium. He would talk to everyone he met. Great persons, prostitutes, simple folk and people of no import would listen to him and answer his teasing questions through which he made his points. Everywhere he asked his elementary question, to ti, what is the meaning of this? He would question all people on the way they lived and their views about different things.
Socrates believed that the correct approach to knowledge is not through lectures and books, but through conversation and deep discussion of a given subject. Then one could sift the facts from the falsities. As an ardent lover of truth, he hated hypocrisy and he made a point of exposing the ignorance of those who took great pride in their knowledge, when they really didn't have it. Although he angered many of the pandits and scholars by this practice, his motives were never vicious. He was just as eager to declare his own ignorance. "There is only one thing I know", he said, "and that is that I know nothing."
Socrates set himself the task of attacking the school of teachers called Sophists. They were the false teachers of Greece who cunningly extracted money from the rich in exchange for schooling their children in the art of argumentation and speech making. Clever rather than truthful, they confused men by their verbal feats and paradoxes and they painted the good as evil and made the evil appear to be good. The overall effect of their teaching was to undermine man's belief in truth and morality.
The Sophists were infuriated with Socrates, and with the help of the governing party they plotted to get rid of him. At the age of seventy, Socrates was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and rejecting the religion of the state. The jury sentenced him to death and as he took leave from the court he uttered those words which will forever remain great: "The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die, you to live, which is better God only knows."