Although many of Aristophanes’ criticisms seem unfair, Socrates cut a strange figure in Athens, going about barefoot, long-haired and unwashed in a society with incredibly refined standards of beauty. It didn’t help that he was by all accounts physically ugly, with an upturned nose and bulging eyes. Despite his intellect and connections, he rejected the sort of fame and power that Athenians were expected to strive for. His lifestyle—and eventually his death—embodied his spirit of questioning every assumption about virtue, wisdom and the good life.
Two of his younger students, the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato, recorded the most significant accounts of Socrates’ life and philosophy. For both, the Socrates that appears bears the mark of the writer. Thus, Xenophon’s Socrates is more straightforward, willing to offer advice rather than simply asking more questions. In Plato’s later works Socrates speaks with what seem to be largely Plato’s ideas, but in the earlier dialogues—considered by historians to be the most accurate portrayal—Socrates rarely reveals any opinions of his own as he brilliantly helps his interlocutors dissect their thoughts and motives.
One of the greatest paradoxes that Socrates helped his students explore was whether weakness of will—doing wrong when you genuinely knew what was right—ever truly existed. He seemed to think otherwise: people only did wrong when at the moment the perceived benefits seemed to outweigh the costs. Thus the development of personal ethics is a matter of mastering what he called “the art of measurement,” correcting the distortions that skew one’s analyses of benefit and cost.
Socrates was also deeply interested in understanding the limits of human knowledge. When he was told that the Delphic oracle had declared that he was the wisest man in Athens, Socrates balked until he realized that, although he knew nothing, he was (unlike his fellow citizens) keenly aware of his own ignorance.