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The conviction and execution of Socrates1 (469-399 B.C.), the most famous philosopher of the late fifth century B.C., became perhaps the most infamous event in the history of Athens after the Peloponnesian War because his life had been devoted to combating the idea that justice should be equated with power to work one's will. Coming, as it did, during a time of social and political turmoil, his death indicated the fragility of Athenian justice in practice. His passionate concern to discover valid guidelines for leading a just life and to prove that justice is better than injustice under all circumstances gave a new direction to Greek philosophy: an emphasis on ethics2. Although other thinkers before him had dealt with moral issues, especially the poets and dramatists, Socrates was the first of those thinkers called philosophers to make ethics and morality his central concern.

Compared to the sophists, Socrates lived in poverty3 and publicly disdained material possessions, but he nevertheless managed to serve as a hoplite in the army and support a wife and several children. He may have inherited some money, and he also received gifts from wealthy admirers. He paid so little attention to his physical appearance and clothes that many Athenians regarded him as eccentric. Sporting, in his words, a stomach “somewhat too large to be convenient,”4 he wore the same nondescript cloak summer and winter and scorned shoes no matter how cold the weather. His physical stamina5 was legendary, both from his tirelessness when he served as a soldier in Athens's citizen militia and from his ability to outdrink anyone at a symposium.

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