One of the giants of Western philosophy, Socrates (470 to 399 B.C.E.) is also one of history's most enigmatic figures. He left behind no published writings, so all we have are secondhand accounts written by his students and contemporaries, most famously the dialogues of Plato.
While scholars agree that Socrates changed philosophy forever, they argue furiously over who he was and what he really believed. We spoke with Debra Nails, professor emerita of philosophy at Michigan State University, to learn how the Socratic method turned education on its head, and why Socrates' infamous trial and execution remains the "founding myth" of academic philosophy. Here are some facts to help you get to know Socrates.
1. Contemporaries Found Him Unattractive
By all accounts, Socrates cut a strange figure in Athens. A brilliant intellect, he chose not to pursue money, power or fame, but to live in abject poverty as a troublemaking street philosopher. And if you believe the descriptions of his appearance by his student Plato and the comic playwright Aristophanes, Socrates was one ugly dude.
First, Socrates was dirty and disheveled, wandering the streets in his unwashed bedclothes, his hair long and greasy. Then there was his face, round and fat with a large mouth and bulging eyes. Nails says that Socrates' unattractive appearance was probably as offensive to his critics as his confrontational questioning style.