The Greek philosophy took its rise in the seventh century
B.C., when a few bold students began to search out the mysteries of the
universe. Their theories were so many and so contradictory, however, that after
a time philosophers gave up the study of nature and proposed in turn to study
man himself. These later thinkers were called sophists. They traveled
throughout Greece, gathering the young men about them and lecturing for pay on
subjects of practical interest. Among other things they taught the rhetoric and
oratory which were needed for success in a public career.
One of the founders of Greek philosophy and the greatest
teacher of his age was Socrates the Athenian. He lived and taught during the
period of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates resembled the sophists in his
possession of an inquiring, skeptical mind which questioned every common belief
and superstition. But he went beyond the sophists in his emphasis on problems
of every-day morality.
Though Socrates wrote nothing, his teaching and
personality made a deep impression on his contemporaries. The Delphic oracle
declared that no one in the world was wiser than Socrates. Yet he lived through
a long life at Athens, a poor man who would neither work at his trade of sculptor,
nor (as did the sophists) accept money for his instruction. He walked the
streets, barefoot and half-clad, and engaged in animated conversation with
anyone who was willing to discuss intellectual subjects with him. Socrates must
have been a familiar figure to the Athenians. His short body, large, bald head,
and homely features hardly presented the ideal of a philosopher. Even
Aristophanes in a comedy laughs at him.