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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on the gold plated names etched in the base of the dome. These are the names of eight Greek and Roman philosophers and poets that lived in the ancient world, whose works are still read today. This week the focus is on Socrates. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Octagon dome showing names of Greek writers

Illustration of Octagon Library dome [Ref. QM SB 13/63]

Socrates was born near Athens but very little is known of his early life. He served in battle as a soldier and showed great bravery. On one occasion he saved the life of Alcibiades, a brilliant but wild young man who became one of Socrates’ pupils. Socrates was considered to be an ugly man to look at, stout and short and a snub nose with a large mouth. His wife, Xanthippe, is said to have a bad temper.

Unlike other philosophers Socrates did not write down his teachings, nor give public lectures to his students. It was Plato who wrote and recorded his work and gave us a vivid account of his life. He mentions that Socrates often walked barefoot in the Agora, market place of Athens. He would talk to anyone he thought would listen to what he had to say. He would look out for people who were sure they knew all about a subject. After listening patiently to their opinions, Socrates would throw questions at them in such a way that before long the self-confident people had to admit that they knew very little about the subject instead of everything. This new way of arriving at the truth by asking questions has been named the "Socratic method".

During his time, the wealthiest, learned men in the world lived in Athens. The Athenians did not like to be shown up in front of their peers by Socrates, who was disliked by the self-satisfied people of his time. As well as the common people the politicians of the day were not pleased by him. This was due to the friendship he had with Alcibiades, the wild young man he had saved. As a result of this friendship, Socrates was accused of spreading teachings which were a bad influence on the young people and of being disrespectful towards the gods.

The defence Socrates gave was written down by Plato and is known as the Apology. It was a fine and brave speech for a man who was not afraid of death and refused to give up his search for truth.

Socrates spent his last days in prison, and was visited by his friends, discussing the life and soul after death of the body. During the time of ancient Greece, all condemned criminals were executed by being made to drink a cup of hemlock poison. In the presence of his friends, he very calmly drank from the poisoned cup. Socrates was seventy years old at his death.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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