The image of the Greek philosopher, a man who addressed issues both of cosmic significance and of political moment, is embodied in Socrates, a man known largely by the writings about him from his students, such as Plato, and from the satire of him written by Aristophanes. The images of Socrates as presented by these two writers are quite different, with the student Plato reflecting admiration for Socrates, while Aristophanes expresses a contrary view somewhat closer to that taken by the accusers who brought Socrates to trial.
The political expression of rationalism is evident in Plato's The Apology as Socrates makes a speech to the court that is judging him. The speech depicts the conflict between the power of the state and the integrity of the individual. The court gives Socrates a way out if he recants his teachings, but he refuses. Socrates represents the primary social value of inquiry, of the pursuit of philosophy, of the examination of the meaning of life. He also stands for integrity, for when a man inquires into the meaning of existence and develops a set of beliefs, he must live up to his beliefs. Socrates states that the unexamined life is not worth living, and if he were to accept the right of the court to judge his thoughts, he would lose his integrity. He makes this evident as he relates why he refuses to be silent:
For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me (Plato 111).
Two sets of charges are brought against Socrates, as he notes in his speech in The Apology. The first he calls the older or more ancient accusation, while the second he refers to as the contemporary accusation. Socrates dreads the older of the two the most because he has so many accusers that he cannot name them all, while for the second he can and does name the three or four men who have brought the charge against him. The older charge is that Socrates is an evil-doer, someone who is peculiar and who does not fit in with everyone else in Athenian society. This means he is someone who looks into the things of this world and the next and who teaches his doctrines to others, meaning that he is a teacher and takes money for his teaching. The second charge also holds that Socrates is an evil-doer and that he is a corrupter of youth, that he does not believe in the gods of Athens, and that he has in fact substituted gods of his own. Socrates denies the charges: "Not one of them is true. And if you have heard from anyone that I undertake to each people and charge a fee for it, that is not true either" (Plato 24).
Socrates defends himself first on the grounds that the charges are not true and then that these charges show prejudice against him. The fact that the prejudice is widespread is shown by the fact that there is a character named Socrates in the play Clouds by Aristophanes, and Socrates goes to some lengths to describe that play and the behavior of the character to show what the view of him is. He says that Aristophanes may not have intended for his play to be taken seriously, but it is clear that many people have done just that.
Plato uses Socrates to present his own views on philosophy, and it is never clear whether the lessons given by the Socrates in Plato are lessons Socrates would have given or only ideas developed by Plato and then placed in Socrates' mouth. What is most likely Socrates' own is the so-called socratic method of asking questions and developing arguments based on how the students answer. This is the method depicted in all of the dialogues written by Plato, from the shorter dialogues depicting the last days in the…