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Socrates (469-399 BCE)

One of the most colorful figures in the history of philosophy, Socrates lived in Athens during the period of the two Peloponnesian Wars, in the second of which he served as a foot-soldier. He was known for his disheveled appearance and for his incisive questioning of the assumptions and beliefs of his partners in conversation. He left no writings, and during a period in which "professional" philosophers--the sophists--were earning a living through teaching, Socrates accepted no payment for his activities, considering himself ignorant of any positive, objective knowledge and able only to assist others through elenchus, his method of dialectical questioning. He had a number of devoted followers, among them Plato.

Often critical of official political decisions in Athens and a supporter of a coup that attempted to overthrow the democracy in 404 BCE, Socrates was an unpopular figure in Athens. In 399 three citizens brought a suit against him, charging him with deprecating religion and corrupting the youth of the city. Although he could easily have escaped the death sentence that was handed down, Socrates refused to admit his guilt--Plato records his testimony in the Apology--and accepted the cup of hemlock.