He was a philosopher. He was 70 years old, baldheaded, with an absurd pug nose and an unkempt beard. He wore nothing but a cloak – no shoes, no shirt; no underwear. He had the merriest of dispositions, no one had ever seen him angry or unkind. He was very brave: he had served as a foot soldier in four battles. He was a philosopher. He did nothing but talk – talk to anyone who would listen to him, in the streets and marketplaces, discussing philosophy with students or sailors, or tradesmen, questioning men about what they believed in and why, always why – and how they could prove it. He met every answer with a new question, and each answer after that with another question.
Some Athenians called him a dangerous idler’ who did nothing but engage “in irony and jest on mankind.” The Oracle at Delphi had called him the wisest man alive, but Socrates, with his cool skepticism, said that his wisdom lay only in this: that unlike other men, he knew how great was his ignorance. He refused to accept a penny for teaching. Indeed, he was sure he could never teach anyone anything; he said he tried to teach men how to think. His enemies hated him. They said he made young minds doubt, if not mock everything, and it was undermining respect for democracy itself. How did he defend himself? “I shall not change my conduct even if I must die a hundred deaths. Death does not matter, what matters is that I should do no wrong,” he said. They voted him guilty. The prosecutor demanded the death penalty. Under the law of Athens it was now for the defendant to propose an alternative. Socrates could suggest that he be exiled, but he did not. His friends wanted to smuggle him out of prison but he refused to escape. When his wife Xantippe broke into hysterics in the death cell, he sent her and his sons away. He spent his last hours discussing the problems that had always intrigued him: good and evil. His mind was never idle. When his disciples saw him drink the cup of poison with dignity they wept.
The man is gone but the “Socratic” method of questioning and teaching has always been respected since then.