Bettany Hughes investigates three giants of ancient philosophy. In the second episode she is in Greece, on the trail of the hugely influential maverick thinker Socrates.
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Since the dawn of civilisation,
the forces of nature and the whims of gods
held sway over humanity.
But 2,500 years ago,
humankind experienced a profound transformation.
Suddenly, there were new possibilities.
This is a time when rationality overrode superstition and belief.
This is an ethic which does not rely on the gods.
The world is now explained in terms of natural forces.
We're now responsible for our own destiny.
Upheavals across the globe
sparked an ambitious vision of what humans could achieve,
spearheaded by three trailblazers.
Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha -
great thinkers from the ancient world
whose ideas still shape our own lives.
Is wealth a good thing?
How do you create a just society?
How do I live a good life?
By daring to think the unthinkable,
they laid the foundations of our modern world.
I've always been intrigued by the fact that these men,
who lived many thousands of miles apart,
and within 100 years of one another,
to come up with such radical ideas.
So, what was going on?
I want to investigate their revolutionary ideas -
to understand what set them in motion.
This time, Socrates.
It's so thrilling,
imagining those big new ideas could possibly have been enacted there!
He was the soldier whose bravery in battle
was matched by the inflammatory courage of his ideas.
Socrates encouraged his fellow citizens
to rationally examine every aspect of their lives.
Does the person who possess knowledge in the big way know everything?
-You don't know?
-I don't know. I give up! I give up!
I'm going to inhabit his world,
to examine how his subversive philosophy
challenged superstitious belief that had reigned for millennia...
..and to discover how his search for truth
led to his downfall.
In 469 BC,
Socrates was born, the son of a midwife and a stonemason,
into a city in the midst of a tumultuous transformation.
He grew up in the suburbs of Athens,
at eye level with the sacred Acropolis rock.
But young Socrates wouldn't have looked out
over the elegant lines of the Parthenon Temple,
that exquisite symbol of Western civilisation
that still stands proud today.
Instead, he'd have woken every morning to a horror -
the blackened and burnt-out remains of buildings brutalised by war.
His city bore the scars of a ferocious conflict
with the region's superpower, Persia.
But, against the odds, Athens had triumphed,
just ten years before Socrates was born.
Now, it revelled in what some call "the Greek miracle" -
a golden age.
Burgeoning trade flooded the region with new wealth
and crucially, with new ideas.
But the key ideology that would shape young Socrates' life
belonged to Athens alone -
because here, around 508 BC,
democracy, the power of the people, was born.
all adult male citizens found they didn't just serve the state -
they were the state.
You cannot over-emphasise
how electrically exciting this must have been.
Ordinary men were selected randomly at lot
to hold the very highest of offices -
the equivalent of being Head of the Foreign Office,
or Home Secretary for one day.
Socrates wouldn't only witness a city being rebuilt,
but the ethical hazards of a new social experiment.
As he was growing up, democracy too was finding its feet.
Ordinary Athenians now had the potential
to determine their own future,
but their fate was still very firmly in the hands of the gods.
Gods, demigods and spirits were believed to be everywhere,
influencing people's everyday lives.
If I'd been looking out over Athens during Socrates' lifetime,
then this scene would have been thick with smoke
and the smell of sacrifice would be heavy in the air,
as Athenians frantically rushed around,
trying to keep their gods on side -
all 2,000 of them!
This "pantheon of gods"
gave people a sense of their place in the universe.
But in these exciting times,
a few were daring to question religious convention.
As a teenager, Socrates sought them out
in one of Athens' most edgy and marginal districts -
For 600 years, this had been Athens' main burial ground.
Come Socrates' day,
and it had evolved into a kind of cosmopolitan suburb of sin.
Travelling salesman plied their wares here,
along with prostitutes,
who offered what were euphemistically known as
"middle of the day marriages".
Many young Athenians didn't need to work.
There was one slave to every two free citizens.
So, Socrates had the free time to come here
and listen in on theories carried in on the trade routes.
He encountered thinkers from the Eastern Mediterranean,
whose ideas had, for over a century,
confronted traditional explanations of the cosmos.
What people saw as mysterious and unfathomable,
they viewed as rationally ordered -
and to some degree, rationally explicable.
We refer to them now as one group, the pre-Socratics,
but in reality, they were brilliant, independent thinkers.
They asked hugely ambitious scientific questions.
What is the cosmos made of?
What is matter, and how do we perceive it?
Their answers, in some cases,
undermined the role of the gods as rulers of the cosmos.
Their abstract theories -
obviously conceived without the help of scientific instruments -
that the universe was made of atoms and empty space,
that water was the fundamental element of the world,
and that the sun was one giant red-hot rock,
were wildly provocative.
The scale and audacity of their thinking was breathtaking.
The pre-Socratics not only struck at the core of traditional belief,
but their use of reason opened up a new way
to look at the entirety of human experience -
an approach eagerly taken up by the young Socrates.
Suddenly, it's not just tradition or myth or religious hierarchies
that are telling you how to make sense of your world,
but rational debate, systematic thought.
Just like those other groundbreaking philosophers of the age -
Confucius in China and the Buddha in what's now India -
Socrates and his contemporaries
are daring to harness the power of the mind
to explain the world around them.
This is a quantum shift.
Confident, brave-new-world Athens
didn't seek to suppress this new spirit of inquiry.
The city became a magnet for innovation -
thanks, in large part, to the man who would dominate Athenian politics
for almost half of Socrates' life -
the visionary politician, Pericles.
He gathered thinkers and artists to advise him
and set about making democracy
the dominant ideology in the Greek world.
He glorified the streets with sumptuous statues
and fetishized democratic principles.
Athens built warships called "Freedom" and "Freedom of Speech".
Yet, Socrates would understand all this success had its flipside.
Democracy's high ideals would need to be interrogated.
A later source tells us that Socrates declared,
"Beautiful statues, high city walls and warships are all very well,
"but what's the point, if those within them aren't happy?"
So, we have to imagine a young Socrates
walking around this fabulous, febrile city,
beginning to ask those big questions
that are still utterly relevant today.
Is wealth a good thing?
Can a democracy itself create a just society?
What is it makes us truly happy?
Democracy had opened a Pandora's box of new dilemmas and contradictions.
As he reached adulthood,
Socrates would become the one to point them out -
a constant irritant, known as "the gadfly of Athens".
An infamous celebrity of his day.
But Socrates is also an enigma, because as far as we know,
he didn't write anything down - not a single line.
He thought that writing was dangerous,
because it imprisoned knowledge.
It's only thanks to contemporaries -
such as Plato, who may have coined the term "philosopher",
perhaps with Socrates in mind -
that his thoughts and life story have been preserved.
And what a man he seems to have been.
Ironic, courageous, brilliant,
and utterly infuriating.
Plato's compelling accounts of his life, his ideas
and his dramatic death are a jewel in the canon of Western thought.
When we think of the ancient Greek philosophers,
we often visualise them as they've been portrayed
in Renaissance works of art -
lofty grey beards, draped in elegant robes,
hanging around classical columns.
We don't perhaps imagine them
involved in the dirty and bloody business of war.
Athens' appetite for territorial expansion seems to been sharpened
by the collective will of democratic voters.
Socrates, like all male Athenian citizens, was expected to fight.
He was in his late 30s when he was sent here, to Potidaea,
to help take control of this strategic city in Northern Greece.
It's from this time of war
we get sharper textual details of Socrates' life.
The man himself starts to come into focus.
His vision, his physical courage, his eccentricities -
and a man with something momentous on his mind.
The fighting was fierce -
and for three years, the town was besieged.
In desperation, locals turned to cannibalism.
Yet, in amongst all these horrors and the pity of war,
somehow Socrates found stillness.
We're told he became absorbed by complex, private thoughts.
In the depths of winter,
wearing just a threadbare cloak and with bare feet,
he stood - for 24 hours at a stretch.
lost in his own mind.
Unlike the pre-Socratic thinkers,
Socrates came to believe that understanding the cosmos
was an esoteric diversion from something far more important.
Studying the secrets of the stars was all very well,
but human affairs had far greater urgency.
So, Socrates did something truly ground-breaking.
He turned rational thought inward,
to solve the mortal dilemmas we all face.
He threw all his energies
into resolving the fundamental questions of human existence.
What kind of a life should we lead?
What sort of people do we want to be?
He's the first individual in the West
to put ethics at the very heart of his philosophy.
Socrates' starting point was simple.
Everyone yearns for a full and flourishing life,
but it wasn't to be found in the transitory pleasures
and distractions of the material world.
Socrates believed we can only realise our human potential
when we nurture the most precious,
the most permanent part of our beings - our souls.
When we do right, we protect our soul.
When we do wrong, we harm it.
Knowing right from wrong was fundamental to every aspect of life.
And in fifth century Athens, the issue was acute.
As many as 4,000 legal cases were heard each year.
Democracy had revolutionised the law courts.
Now, any male citizen,
from aristocrats right down to fishmongers,
could be a judge for the day.
We're told Socrates found such amateur governance troubling.
If those sitting in judgment weren't qualified to understand
the difference between right and wrong,
then they could convict an innocent person.
They'd be punishing someone who didn't deserve to be hurt.
But in Socrates' view, the innocent person would only suffer physically.
It's the jurors who would be harming themselves much more.
By unknowingly doing wrong,
they would inflict terrible, lasting damage to their own souls.
In order to protect Athenians, Socrates needed to teach them.
"The only evil is ignorance", he said.
But Socrates faced a problem.
The Greeks did have an ethical framework of sorts,
but it wasn't either clear or consistent.
The destiny of all Greeks was in the hands of the gods.
They were venerated,
even though their personal lives were pretty short on moral guidance.
Capricious and vengeful,
they fought with each other, they slept with one another's wives,
they abducted mortals.
the gods didn't seem that interested in human morality, either.
Living a good life didn't guarantee favour with the gods.
Respecting their power
and offering the most expensive and bloodiest sacrifice
was a much safer bet.
Greeks did, however, believe there were five virtues -
justice, temperance, courage, piety and wisdom.
But in practice, these virtues were slippery, shifting ideals.
What was considered just or pious for an aristocratic man
wasn't necessarily the same for a slave woman.
In Socrates' experience, traditional moral thinking -
the kind taught by elders and priests and epic poets -
just didn't stand up to scrutiny.
His philosophy became a search for more robust, universal definitions.
Socrates thought that all the virtues were interlinked.
They couldn't be separated.
He thought of them as one thing -
something he called "knowledge of the human good".
For him, virtue is knowledge - knowledge of the human good.
He says that this knowledge of the human good
is going to, in some sense, save your life.
This is really strong language.
But is that an abstract idea,
or is there something that can play out in people's day to day lives?
Oh, no, absolutely. Knowledge of the human good
is what enables us to make the right practical decisions
in our daily lives.
But it's going to look different in different contexts.
For instance, if you're on a battlefield,
it will manifest itself as courage.
If you're sacrificing in a temple, it will look like piety,
And it's through those decisions and actions
that we are enabled to take care of our souls -
our most precious possession,
on which all our happiness depends.
But that means that people have real agency,
because it seems to me that he's saying
it's not down to the Gods to make the world a better place,
-it's down to us.
Socrates is saying, you don't have to depend on the whims
and the caprices of the gods.
It's really about individual empowerment and responsibility.
And furthermore, whereas he inherited a tradition which said
there was one kind of virtue for a man, another for a woman,
one for, you know, a well-born person, another for a slave,
he's saying, no - it's about knowledge of the human good,
in a universal sense. It's available to everybody.
Cicero later says of him,
he brings philosophy down from the heavens and into people's homes
and into people's individual homes.
This really is a very radical moment in Western thought.
Exciting and empowering, but also dangerous.
Indeed, because even though Socrates himself
was personally very religious, as far as we know, very pious,
this is socially threatening.
It's threatening traditional religion and of course,
these messages are disturbing to a lot of people.
Socrates didn't deny the existence of the gods, but his emphasis
on the capacity of humans to shape their own destiny
could be seen as challenging their traditional roles.
Fortunately, the sacrificial fires to the Gods,
which had burnt for centuries,
were now lit in a city that also prized freedom of expression.
Initially, Socrates' unorthodox ideas were tolerated.
But then, in 431 BC,
the good times looked set to end.
The violence of Potidaea escalated into all-out conflict.
The pitiless Peloponnesian war between Athens and its nemesis -
the city-state of Sparta.
Here at the National Archaeological Museum,
funerary urns depict the heartbreaking suffering and loss
experienced by the Athenians.
With Spartan hordes ravaging the countryside around Athens,
Pericles ordered every citizen from the surrounding area
to come inside the city walls.
It was a fatal strategy.
A new kind of terror was unleashed from within.
Athens became one giant refugee camp.
With the population hemmed in together,
a deadly disease spread like wildfire.
The symptoms were ghastly -
sweats, fevers, a suppurating rash
and a racking cough.
At a conservative estimate,
at least one third of the population was wiped out.
Angry and frustrated Athenians turned on their poster boy
and removed Pericles from office.
Eventually he died, it's believed, of the plague himself.
A thriving Athens had been robust enough
to deal with the searching questions of Socrates.
Now, with confidence ebbing away,
tolerance was threatened.
Yet, energised by the same sense of crisis and danger
which motivated the philosophies of Confucius and the Buddha,
Socrates seems to have flourished.
By now in his 40s
and surrounded by war, death and disease,
his search took on a new intensity.
How do we decide what is good?
Is wealth a good thing?
What makes us truly happy?
In Athens, Socrates wasn't the only one discussing big ideas
with its embattled citizens.
The sophists were cock-sure, showy educators -
masters in the art of persuasive argument.
They acted as speechmakers in legal trials,
entertaining huge crowds in stadiums.
Socrates was sceptical, to say the least.
Like the sophists, he challenged orthodox thought,
but he also passionately believed
that philosophy should have a higher purpose.
Clever ideas and persuasive arguments just weren't enough.
To the sophists, smart words were currency.
They sold their services to the highest bidder.
But Socrates refused to be paid,
preferring handouts from friends.
That's not to say he didn't enjoy worldly pleasures.
He drank and made love,
but barefoot and unwashed,
he stood out in materially minded Athens.
We're told that he marched past shop stalls in his shabby robes, saying,
"How many things I don't need!"
He saw wealth as impermanent -
a distraction from the search for absolute values.
Socrates believed you couldn't buy knowledge -
and wisdom didn't come from listening to long speeches.
It could only come through something else -
-So, Bethany, I understand you're here to do a documentary about Socrates.
Why are you making this documentary?
'His Socratic method worked something like this -
'Socrates would engage someone in the street...'
I can learn something more about Socrates
and I can share that knowledge with the people who are watching it.
These are big words - "knowledge" and "truth".
Shall we take one of them? What would it mean...?
'He'd ask them an ethical question.'
So what is this thing - knowledge - that you want to impart?
In my book,
knowledge is love of what it is to be human.
'The person would attempt to define the concept,
'but Socrates would find inconsistencies in their answers.'
-So, knowledge is love?
So, if you wanted to have an operation for an appendicitis,
would you go to a woman who was full of love,
-but knew nothing about surgery?
OK, So I would say that the definition of "knowledge as love"
is not good enough.
'They would be forced to withdraw their definition
'and to reformulate and refine their ideas.'
So, let's try it again.
Is there one kind of knowledge, or many kinds of knowledge?
Knowledge is one thing...
Take your time. I don't know the answers to this.
Maybe knowledge is one thing,
but knowing is many things.
'This process would spiral
'into a dizzying round of question and answer.'
..To know how the stars move
and to know how the liver operates is the same thing?
No, they're not the same thing.
Does the person who possesses knowledge in the big way know everything?
Between those two, who is probably the best stone maker?
Er... The one who...
I don't know! I give up, I give up!
'Socrates likens his role to that of a midwife,
'who helps to nurture and deliver the thoughts of others.
'But it was never an easy birth.'
I have to say that the one thing you've proved to me
is that I know nothing.
Ah, no, no. That's me! LAUGHTER
I am the expert at making other people know things, but I'm no good -
I know nothing and that is the only knowledge I claim for myself.
That Socratic method is fascinating and stimulating,
but it is also infuriating.
Yes, because it's in an oral context, the way we do it,
and Socrates famously believed
in the supremacy of the oral over the written
and that also stirs up the emotions.
First of all, in his pretence of being the fool.
-The ignorant man.
-Of knowing nothing, yeah.
Yes, and because that is his tool,
that he turns, in fact, against his friends -
or opponents, as you may take it -
and makes them admit to things that they don't want to admit to,
by playing essentially the fool, saying,
"I know nothing, I know nothing.
"I can only ask you to tell me, because I know nothing."
So, he laid an emphasis on the definitions,
then on what he called "dieresis" - division -
of breaking down a problem into little parts,
analysing parts, analysing it.
And then, attacking each one separately
and then trying, inductively, to group them back together
into a more general concept.
So, Socrates uses that to make people become aware
that things they consider simple and elementary and basic
and that they know - they in fact don't know.
And what about the modern world?
Do you think we could have the modern world
without Socratic debate,
without questioning what it is to be human
and what it is to be human in the world around us?
Well, I think that the best way to accept,
to find Socrates' place in it
is to see that the opposite of the Socratic method, essentially,
is fanaticism and dogmatism.
And in that sense, the modern world very much needs
an antidote to those things, at every level.
The Socratic method was cathartic.
It got difficult issues out into the open
and defined concepts with much greater precision.
Socrates' tough questioning, with his trademark irony,
was conducted in public,
causing a stir wherever he went.
He was inviting everyone to seek knowledge of the human good,
to identify fundamental truths.
But people could only do this for themselves
by constantly interrogating their actions
and most deeply held beliefs.
"The unexamined life," Socrates said, "is not worth living."
But there was a problem.
Socrates' teaching found particular favour with the young.
With no end in sight to war with Sparta,
these human resources were vital to Athens' future.
Laws attempted to protect the youth from malign influence.
Encouraging them to think for themselves was fraught with danger.
Yet Socrates sought them out,
close to the most public place in the city -
Across the ancient world,
commerce was increasingly a driver for change -
and that was felt particularly keenly here in Athens.
The Agora was a buzzing market,
a place where people came to exchange goods and gossip.
Socrates loved sharing his ideas here.
It's from Agora we get the word "Agoraphobia" -
a fear of open spaces.
There was anxiety back then, too, as under-18s were barred.
Now, archaeology helps to point to how Socrates met young Athenians
just outside the Agora's boundary, in a private dwelling.
So, we're right on the edge of the Agora space,
and we're in-between the public space and the private space behind us here.
And this wall behind us right here
is one of those private establishments.
And we have a later source that mentions
Socrates visiting the house of a friend of his
and we have this figure, Simon the Cobbler
and he's hosting young men.
So, we have the literary source,
but what's nice is that during the excavations right here,
they found hobnails, they found bone eyelets
and then, they also found a cup
and this is the amazing bit of evidence really,
because this cup has the name "Simon" scratched on it.
And this is a replica right here of the cup
and you can see that it does have "Simonos" scratched on it.
Yeah, I just... It's so thrilling being here,
imagining those big, new ideas
could possibly have been enacted there 2,500 years ago.
We can say that Socrates was walking around this space
and he was probably hanging out right here,
in order to discuss things, things that might otherwise be...
Something that might get him in trouble,
I mean, it's a dangerous situation that, potentially.
So, you've got this magnetic personality,
having these rumbustious conversations with young men
-and encouraging them to think for themselves.
-That's exactly right.
This is the place where we're supposed to have freedom of thought
and freedom of expression and so on, in this democratic idea,
but this is a place where you have to respect the gods
and you have to respect your elders
and you have to respect the laws of the city.
He's questioning the gods, he's questioning the laws,
so he's really putting it to the test
and forcing these young guys to see things in a different way
and the city didn't really like that.
Socrates was storing up trouble,
especially as some of his devotees were confident young aristocrats -
the city's future leaders.
Most notable was Alcibiades.
Well born, wealthy and an Olympic champion,
this sexually promiscuous hell raiser
entranced and scandalised Athens for decades.
Yet this playboy was friends with Socrates,
who was 20 years his senior.
Socrates had actually saved Alcibiades' life
during the battle of Potidaea.
Plato's Symposium describes an infamous exchange
that took place between them
during a heady, aristocratic drinking party.
A drunken Alcibiades, we're told, crashes the discussion,
which turns to the question of beauty.
In Greek culture, Alcibiades' body beautiful
would typically have been regarded as a sign of his moral beauty, too.
But it appears Alcibiades bought into
Socrates' alternative concept of real beauty.
Socrates, he says, might be ugly on the outside,
but he has an inner beauty that by far outshines any physical beauty -
and that he, Alcibiades, loves Socrates
because he is the wisest man
and therefore, the most beautiful.
However, when it came to achieving inner beauty for himself,
Alcibiades was woefully out of step.
He thought his good looks could help him,
but his cocky plan to seduce Socrates was rebuffed.
"You're plotting to get real beauty
"in exchange for its appearance", Socrates said.
"That would be gold for bronze".
For Socrates, the talents of young aristocrats were worthless
without the wisdom to use them properly.
By debating with them, he was pushing the patience of Athens.
Yet Socrates didn't compromise his principles...
..as demonstrated in the story of the Oracle of Delphi.
We're told that a friend of Socrates, called Chaerephon,
a rather impetuous individual from all accounts,
came on pilgrimage here, to this sacred site.
Delphi had been a place of religious devotion for 2,000 years.
Chaerephon, in time-honoured fashion,
climbed the sacred way to ask a question of the god Apollo,
who spoke through a priestess.
When he finally reached the Oracle,
he asked, "Is there any man wiser than Socrates?"
And the answer came back -
Chaerephon took the message to Socrates,
who in typical manner, questioned the Oracle's words.
Even the words of Apollo - a god, for heaven's sake -
was subject to Socrates' scrutiny.
He set about cross-examining people who had a reputation for wisdom,
or a particular kind of specialist knowledge.
After questioning public officials, poets and craftsmen,
he discovered that they all lacked the wisdom they claimed.
Eventually, Socrates concluded that the Oracle was indeed right.
He was the wisest of men, but only, because as he put it,
"I don't pretend to know what I don't know."
Socrates was wiser
because he acknowledged the limits of his own understanding.
By publicly exposing the false pretensions
and ignorance of those who did claim to know the truth,
he was bound to make enemies.
But there was something else about Socrates
that was even more unsettling.
He claimed to have his own daimonion, or guiding spirit.
A kind of hotline of communication to the supernatural world.
This daimonion spoke to him during trance-like episodes.
It warned him from making wrong decisions.
On one occasion, it advised against entering public politics.
Socrates' followers would have been in awe of this
uniquely personal divine calling,
but the average Athenian
would have been confused and deeply disturbed by it.
Don't forget, this is a time and place
where ritual, devotion and belief all take place out in public,
as part of a shared experience.
Not only that, but Greek folk culture imagined the world
to be infused with spirits -
not all of them good.
Socrates' unorthodox, private spirituality
could easily be confused with
a darker, more troubling kind of magic.
Some muttered that he was a sorcerer.
In this super-religious culture,
the philosopher was laying himself open to scandal.
False rumours and innuendo would culminate on a very public stage,
fostering the kind of misinformation
that would ultimately spell disaster for Socrates.
Picture Socrates, bustling up here to the theatre of Dionysus
in spring, 423 BC.
He finds some snacks to munch during the show -
chickpeas, figs, nuts -
settling down to watch the drama.
He's here to watch a new comedy, called Clouds,
by the young buck of Athenian theatre, Aristophanes -
only 22 and eager to make his mark.
By now a big character in the city, Socrates is considered fair game -
and he's parodied pretty mercilessly.
He's portrayed as a ludicrous figure,
the head of a ridiculous school called "the think shop".
Socrates' character was merged with other intellectuals
who were arousing popular suspicion -
the devious sophists, who undermined society by making
"the weak argument defeat the stronger".
And the pre-Socratics, who in some cases,
displaced the pre-eminence of the gods with their science.
We're told that Socrates actually came to the theatre
to watch Aristophanes' Clouds.
What could it have felt like, to see himself portrayed in that way?
I think he must have been amused. There is this anecdote of Socrates
actually standing up in the seats of the theatre,
so that those who didn't know him knew who he was
and what he looked like,
as his character was being ridiculed on stage.
So I think Socrates was detached from all these standard norms of society
and I think it's possible that he might have enjoyed that.
On the face of it, this is all very amusing,
but do you think that Socrates should be worried by
the way that Aristophanes is choosing to portray him?
In hindsight, I think he should have been worried.
The core of democracy,
the principle democracy is that the citizens be educated.
If you don't have educated citizens, democracy does not work.
The theatre was a major tool for educating the Athenian citizens
and the memory of that portrayal
would have remained for decades to come,
as a whole generation of Athenians would have been exposed to it.
It's the ancient equivalent of trial by media?
It is, in fifth-century Athens, yeah.
But the cracks appearing in Socrates' reputation
were nothing compared to what was happening to Athens itself.
As the war with Sparta dragged on,
people questioned the success of the democratic experiment.
At the heart of the uncertainty was Socrates' close friend, Alcibiades.
He'd been chosen to lead an expedition
against Sicily in 415 BC -
the largest in Athens' military history.
But one night, before they set sail,
someone stalked through Athens' streets,
mutilating statues of the protector god, Hermes.
The rumour spread that Alcibiades and his aristocratic friends
were the vandals, part of a plot to bring down democracy.
Back in Athens, rumour escalated to outrage
and Alcibiades was ordered home to face trial on charges of sacrilege.
But then, en route, he vanished.
And where he reappeared shocked everyone.
He turned up, a traitor,
in the bosom of Athens' greatest enemy,
Alcibiades' damaging defection
exacerbated the anxieties of a god-fearing public.
They needed a scapegoat -
and Socrates was tainted by association.
But he seems unconcerned,
doggedly pursuing the knowledge of right from wrong above all else.
So when the philosopher unexpectedly entered public life in his 60s,
he was on a collision course with Athens.
He became presiding officer in an emotionally charged case,
whose drama was played out here on the hill of the Pynx.
Six disgraced Athenian generals
were accused of failing to collect the bodies of dead soldiers,
lost at sea.
The public called for the generals to be tried together,
in breach of Athenian law.
But Socrates refused to be swept along
by the vengeful mood of the crowd.
Even though threatened with indictment for treason,
Socrates refused to budge.
He wanted no part in this kangaroo court.
As the sun set, there was stalemate.
And then, the next morning, Socrates was off the case.
Later that day,
the generals were all tried here together at the Pnyx -
condemned and then executed.
To me, this case embodies one of the most important ideas
that Socrates has been developing all his adult life,
which is that one should never take revenge.
And in this, he's completely turning on its head
one of the foundational tenets of traditional Greek morality,
which said that you should help your friends and harm your enemies.
And Socrates says, no -
because all you can do to another person is,
you can take away their possessions, you can damage their body,
you can kill them, but you can't harm their soul.
But by doing wrong to somebody else, you are damaging your own soul
and thereby, taking away your chance of a virtuous
and hence also, a happy and flourishing life.
This was a city-state that believed in justice,
that wanted to see justice enacted,
so in Socrates' book, what form should punishment take?
It's a good point.
He does believe that sometimes, punishment is appropriate,
but you punish somebody solely in terms of trying to cure their soul
of the damage that they have brought upon themselves by doing wrong.
So, punishment is there to cure and purify a damaged soul.
Even today, those still feel like quite progressive ideas.
Absolutely, I mean we're barely catching up with these ideas.
Even now, we still have debates. What is the purpose of punishment?
Is it to...is it a kind of retribution,
or is it some kind of reform?
Now, Socrates is absolutely clear -
the purpose of punishment is to reform.
They are fascinating ideas,
but they must have been very, very troubling to the Athenians,
because it must have felt as if he was kind of unpicking
the foundations that that kept communities together.
Yeah. It would have looked weak to them.
It would have looked like, "Oh, no, you're not a real man,
"you're not standing up for yourself, what are you doing?"
In a way, he's almost anticipating
the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.
You know, turn the other cheek, in a sense.
-But he's 500 years before all that.
How does he dare to march so out of step from the rest of society?
Because I think he absolutely believes
that nobody else can harm his soul,
but if he takes part in the illegal actions
that he was invited to take part in,
then he will be absolutely damaging his own soul
and taking away his chance of a happy and flourishing life.
In the name of wisdom and truth,
Socrates was prepared to stick his head
dangerously high above the parapet.
Interestingly, it's a quality that he shares
with both Confucius and the Buddha.
For all three philosophers,
personal comfort and personal security
came a poor second to principle.
And in the case of Socrates, having the courage of his convictions
would prove to be a matter of life or death.
As Athens' enemies closed in,
society turned in on itself.
Freedom was a luxury it could no longer afford.
Finally, the Spartans brought Athens to her knees.
They tore down her city walls
and installed a junta of 30 hand-picked oligarchs.
Death squads roamed the streets
and thousands of democrats were "disappeared" -
forced into exile or executed.
Even though a counter-revolution restored democracy
just eight months later,
it was a deeply compromised democracy,
riven with suspicion and recrimination.
In this poisonous atmosphere,
Athens finally decided to deal with its troublesome gadfly.
In 399 BC, at the age of 70,
Socrates was back in court.
This time, HE was on trial.
The accusations against him were read out here, in the Agora,
close to this oath stone.
The first charge was impiety -
denying the gods and introducing new ones.
The second, that he'd corrupted the young.
Both could carry the heaviest penalty -
The trial took place in a religious court, using the latest technology.
A water clock measured the three hours allowed
to the prosecution's case.
Were his accusers politically motivated?
Was he being scapegoated
for his association with prominent anti-democrats, like Alcibiades?
But then, he'd set about to open the minds of the young
and with his goading questions,
to challenge the status quo.
Eventually, the water clock was refilled
for the philosopher to defend himself.
Plato recounts how Socrates feels he's fighting a lost cause,
thanks to Aristophanes' searing, damaging caricature of him.
"It is not my crimes that will convict me", he said,
"but rumour and gossip.
"I can't possibly defend myself -
"it's like boxing with shadows.
"You will persuade yourselves that I am guilty."
Yet, in typical style,
Socrates uses his defence to sting his fellow Athenians
from their moral slumber.
It is a brilliant, audacious speech,
but it's also provocative and arrogant,
and the jurors don't like it one bit.
The city that once fetishized freedom and freedom of speech
could not tolerate freedom to offend.
Socrates was judged by at least 500 men, chosen at random
and recruited from all over the traumatised city-state.
The jurors would have used these ballots in a secret vote.
A solid stem for acquittal.
A hollow for condemnation.
Found guilty, a second vote is held to determine his punishment.
Socrates has the chance to avoid execution
by proposing a lesser alternative -
typically a fine, or exile.
Instead, by speaking freely, democratically,
he seems to invite martyrdom.
He declares that he's lived his life for the benefit of the city.
He deserves reward, not retribution.
He suggests dinner, in perpetuity, at the citizens' expense.
Socrates' irony loses him more support in the second vote.
It seems he takes the news philosophically.
The jury couldn't harm his soul,
but they had harmed their own.
"Now I go to die and you to live.
"God only knows which is the better journey."
Socrates didn't fear what he didn't know,
The man the Oracle proclaimed to be the wisest
was now on death row for putting his own philosophy into practice.
One of the things I find so compelling about Socrates
is that even though he lived 25 centuries ago,
in many ways, he saw us coming.
He denounces an obsession with looks,
with material goods,
with spin and with fame.
He wasn't just exploring the meaning of life,
but the meaning of our own lives.
Just listen to this.
"Oh, my friend, why do you,
"who are a citizen of the great and wise city of Athens,
"care so much about laying up wealth and honour and reputation?
"And so little about wisdom and truth and improvement of the soul?
"Are you not ashamed?"
Socrates would have to wait a month for his execution -
a sentence intended to silence him.
But Socrates' death at the hands of the people
provided the perfect ingredients
for his resurrection as an ideological martyr -
a kind of blueprint philosopher.
And ironically, what secured his legacy
was the very thing that he'd disregarded throughout his life -
the written word.
His supporters wrote detailed accounts of his extraordinary life,
immortalising his ideas and his spirit.
Through their words,
his game-changing, history-making voice endures .
Still asking those probing, universal questions
which, even today, are at the heart of our value systems.
What makes us good?
What is justice?
How can we be happy?
Socrates was the inspiration for Plato and Aristotle -
two giants of philosophy,
whose ideas would shape Western and Eastern civilisation up until today.
Following Socrates' death,
Plato abandoned his political ambitions in disgust
and set up his Academy, which would continue as a centre of learning
for close on 1,000 years.
This building is Athens' modern Academy
and it's just a couple of miles from the original.
And it's part of a network of academic institutions,
right across the globe, inspired by that Athenian example.
On the day of Socrates' execution,
his distraught friends and family came here to the Agora.
The place where Socrates had once walked freely was now his cage.
But he is serene.
Calmly, he lifts the lethal little cup of hemlock poison...
We're told that Socrates' last words
as the lethal hemlock took effect were,
"Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius."
With this cryptic message,
even on the brink of death,
he kept his followers and future scholars guessing.
Was he proving himself pious by invoking one of the city's deities?
Or was he ironically giving thanks to the god of healing
for relieving him of the sickness of existence?
Socrates might have been infuriating,
but his tenacious questioning of what it means to be human
still has absolute resonance.
By stating that the ultimate evil is ignorance
and that a good life is within our reach,
he challenges us all never to be thoughtless.
"The unexamined life is not worth living."
With his head covered,
no-one saw the final moment, when Socrates' precious soul
slipped from that ugly, satirical, unforgettable face.
If the mind of Socrates has made you think,
then explore further with The Open University
to discover how great minds have influenced our thinking today.
Follow the address on the screen
and then the links to The Open University.
Next time, I investigate the gentleman philosopher, Confucius.
His attempts to influence the rulers of his day ended in failure...
..yet his vision of a harmonious society,
inspired by the sage kings of the past
would eventually shape one of the world's greatest civilisations.
Historian Bettany Hughes is in Greece, on the trail of the hugely influential maverick thinker Socrates, who was executed for his beliefs.