1. the strangeness of socrates
standards of beauty are different at different times, and in the time of socrates, beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, whose majestically proportioned sculptures had been gracing the athenian acropolis since socrates was thirty . . good looks and proper bearing were important to a man’s political prospects, since beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. Existing sources agree that Socrates was deeply ugly, looked more like a satyr than a man, and was nothing like the statues that appeared later in antiquity and now grace internet sites and book covers. he had wide-set, bulging eyes that looked to the sides and allowed him, like a crab, to see not only what was in front of him, but also what was to the side of him; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and big fleshy lips like a donkey. Socrates grew his hair in the Spartan style (even when Athens and Sparta were at war), he walked barefoot and unwashed, with a cane in his hand and an arrogant look. he did not change his clothes, but used efficiently during the day what was covered at night. there was also something peculiar about his gait, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. he was immune to the effects of alcohol and cold weather, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow campaigners. we can safely assume average height (since no one mentions it at all) and a strong build, given the active life he seems to have led. Contrary to the iconic tradition of a belly, Socrates and his companions are depicted as starving (Aristophanes, Birds 1280-83). on his appearance, see Plato’s Theaetetus 143e, and Symposium 215a-c, 216c-d, 221d-e; Xenophon’s Symposium 4.19, 5.5-7; and the clouds of aristophanes 362. standing 51.25 inches tall including its base, brancusi’s oak sculpture captures the look and strangeness of socrates in that he looks different from every angle, including a second “eye” that cannot be seen if the first is in full view. (See the Museum of Modern Art page on Brancusi’s Socrates for additional views.) Also true to Socrates’ reputation for his ugliness, but less widely available, are drawings by the contemporary Swiss artist, Hans Erni.
In the late fifth century B.C., it was more or less taken for granted that any self-respecting Athenian male would prefer fame, wealth, honor, and political power to a life of work. although many citizens made a living from their work in a wide variety of occupations, they were expected to spend much of their spare time, if any, minding the affairs of the city. men regularly participated in the governing assembly and in the many city courts; And those who could afford it prepared themselves for success in public life by studying with foreign rhetoricians and sophists who could become rich and famous by teaching the youth of Athens to use words to their advantage. Other forms of higher education were also known in Athens: mathematics, astronomy, geometry, music, ancient history, and linguistics. One of the things that seemed strange about Socrates is that he neither worked for a living nor participated voluntarily in the affairs of state. Rather, he embraced poverty, and although the youths of the city accompanied and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted that he was not a teacher (Plato, Apology 33a-b) and refused all his life to accept money for what he did. . the strangeness of this behavior is mitigated by the then current image of teachers and students: the teachers were seen as jugs pouring their contents into the empty glasses that were the students. Because Socrates was not a transmitter of information that others had to passively receive, he resists comparison with the teachers. rather, he helped others to recognize for themselves what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus), a new and therefore suspect approach to education. he was known to confuse, sting and stun his interlocutors into the unpleasant experience of realizing his own ignorance, a state sometimes overcome by genuine intellectual curiosity.
It didn’t help that Socrates seemed to have a higher opinion of women than most of his peers, speaking of “men and women,” “priests and priestesses,” comparing their work to midwifery, and naming foreign women. as his teachers: Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the de facto wife of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus); and having learned erotica from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium). socrates was unconventional in a related respect. Athenian citizen men from the upper social classes did not marry until they were at least thirty, and Athenian women were poorly educated and remained sequestered until puberty, when their parents gave them away in marriage. thus, the socialization and upbringing of men often involved a relationship for which the English word ‘pedophile’ (although it is often used) is misleading, in which a young man approaching adulthood, aged fifteen at seventeen, he became the beloved of a male lover a few years older. under whose tutelage and through whose influence and gifts the youth would be guided and improved. among Athenians it was assumed that mature men would find young men sexually attractive, and such relationships were conventionally considered mutually beneficial by family and friends. however, the arrangement implied a degree of hypocrisy (or denial): “officially” it did not involve sexual intercourse between the lovers and, if it did, then it was assumed that the beloved would not derive pleasure from the act, but formerly the evidence (comedies, vase paintings, et al.) shows that both constraints were often violated (dover 1989, 204). The strange thing about Socrates is that, although he was no exception to the rule of finding young men attractive (Plato, Charmides 155d, Protagoras 309a-b; Xenophon, Symposium 4.27-28), he rejected the physical advances of even his favorite. , alcibiades. (Plato, Symposium 219b-d), and he remained attentive to the betterment of their souls and those of all Athenians (Plato, Apology 30a-b), a mission he said had been assigned to him by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. , if he was correctly interpreting the report of his friend Cherephonte (Plato, Apology 20e-23b), an absurd statement in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Socrates also recognized a rather strange personal phenomenon, a dæmon or inner voice that forbade him to do certain things, some trivial and some important, often unrelated to matters of good and evil (hence not to be confused with popular notions of a superego or a conscience). The implication that he was being guided by something he considered divine or semi-divine was all the more reason for other Athenians to be suspicious of Socrates.
Socrates often found himself in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people: young and old, men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, citizens and visitors, that is, with practically anyone whom could be persuaded to join him in his question-and-answer mode to investigate serious matters. Socrates’ life work consisted of examining people’s lives, his own and that of others, because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”, as he says in his trial ( plato, apology 38a). Socrates pursued this task with determination, asking people about what matters most, for example, courage, love, reverence, restraint, and the state of their souls in general. he did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him. The young Athenians imitated Socrates’ questioning style, much to the chagrin of some of his elders. he had a reputation for irony, although what exactly that means is controversial; At the very least, Socrates’ irony consisted in saying that he did not know anything of importance and that he wanted to listen to others, while maintaining the upper hand in every argument. Another aspect of Socrates’ much-vaunted strangeness should be mentioned: his stubborn failure to align himself politically with either the oligarchs or the democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies between them, and he supported and opposed their actions (see §3).
2. the socratic problem: who was really socrates?
the socratic problem is a rat’s nest of complexities arising from the fact that various people wrote about socrates whose accounts differ in crucial ways, leaving us wondering which, if any, are accurate representations of the historical socrates . “There is, and always will be, a ‘Socratic problem.’ This is inevitable,” said Guthrie (1969, 6), recalling a twisted story between antiquity and contemporary times that is recounted in detail by Press (1996), but barely mentioned afterwards. The difficulties are compounded because all those who knew and wrote about Socrates lived before any standardization of modern categories or sensibilities about what constitutes historical accuracy or poetic license. all authors present their own interpretations of their characters’ personalities and lives, whether they want to or not, whether they write fiction or biography or philosophy (if the philosophy they write has characters), so other criteria must be introduced to decide between the opposing views on who socrates really was. A look at the three main ancient sources of information on Socrates (§2.1) will provide a basis for appreciating how contemporary interpretations differ (§2.2) and why the differences matter (§2.3).
One thing is certain about the historical Socrates: even among those who knew him in life, there was deep disagreement about his actual views and methods. this is evident in the three contemporary sources below; and it is hinted at in the few titles and fragments of other authors of the time that are now lumped together as “minor Socratics”, not because of the quality of his work but because little or nothing of his exists. We will probably never know much about his views on Socrates (see Giannantoni 1990). After Socrates’ death, the tradition became even more disparate. As expressed by Nehamas (1999, 99), “with the exception of the Epicureans, all the philosophical schools of antiquity, whatever their orientation, saw in him their true founder or the type of person to whom their ideas should aspire.” adherents”. /p>
2.1 three main sources: Aristophanes, Xenophon and Plato
Our earliest extant source, and the only one who can claim to have met Socrates in vigorous middle age, is the playwright Aristophanes. His comedy, Clouds, occurred a year after the Battle of Delium (423) in which Socrates fought as a hoplite and when both Xenophon and Plato were children. In the play, the character named Socrates heads a think-o-rama in which young people study the natural world, from insects to stars, and also study deft argumentative techniques, without any respect for the Athenian sense of propriety. the actor wearing the mask of socrates mocks the traditional gods of athens (lines 247-48, 367, 423-24), later imitated by the young protagonist, and gives naturalistic explanations of the phenomena that the athenians considered to be directed by divinity (verses 227-24). 33; cf. theaetetus 152e, 153c-d, 173e-174a; phaedon 96a-100a). Worst of all, he teaches dishonest techniques to avoid debt repayment (lines 1214-1302) and encourages young people to beat their parents into submission (lines 1408-46).
Comedy by its very nature is a misleading source of information about anyone. However, in favor of Aristophanes as a source for Socrates is that Xenophon and Plato were some forty-five years younger than Socrates, so their relationship could only have been during Socrates’ last years. could socrates really have changed that much? Can the satirization of the younger Socrates in the clouds and other comic poets be reconciled with Plato’s characterization of a fifty- and sixty-year-old philosopher? Some have said yes, pointing out that the years in the clouds and the judgment of socrates (399) were years of war and turmoil, changing everyone. the Athenian intellectual freedom of which Pericles was so proud at the beginning of the war (Thucydides 2.37-39) had been completely eroded by the end (see §3). Therefore, what had seemed comical a quarter of a century earlier, Socrates hanging in a basket on the stage, talking nonsense, was ominous in memory by then. One good reason to believe that Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates is not simply comic exaggeration, but systematically misleading in retrospect, is Kenneth Dover’s view that clouds amalgamate into one character, Socrates, traits now well known to be exclusive to other specific intellectuals of the fifth century (1968). , xxxii-lvii). Perhaps Aristophanes chose Socrates to represent ordinary intellectuals because Socrates’ physiognomy was strange enough in itself to make people laugh. Aristophanes sometimes speaks with his own voice in his works, which gives us good reason to believe that he was genuinely opposed to the social instability brought about by the freedom young Athenians enjoyed to study with professional rhetoricians, sophists (see §1), and natural philosophers, for example, those who, like the pre-Socratics, studied the cosmos or nature. such professions could be lucrative. That Socrates avoided any gain potential in philosophy does not seem to have been significant to the great comedy writer.
Aristophanes’ description of Socrates is important because Plato’s Socrates says at his trial (Apology 18a-b, 19c) that most of his jurors have grown up believing the falsehoods attributed to him in the play. Socrates calls Aristophanes more dangerous than the three men who accused him because Aristophanes had poisoned the minds of the jurors when they were young. Aristophanes did not stop accusing Socrates in 423 when the clouds were placed third behind another work mentioning barefoot Socrates; rather, he soon began writing a review, which he distributed but never produced. to complicate matters, the revision is our only extant version of the work. Aristophanes seems to have given up on reviving the clouds around 416, but his comic ridicule of Socrates continued. Again in 414 with birds, and in 405 with frogs, Aristophanes complained about Socrates’ deleterious effect on the youth of the city, including Socrates’ neglect of poets. Aristophanes even coins a verb, socratize, which conveys a variety of unsavory behaviors.
Another source for the historical Socrates is the historian-soldier, Xenophon. Xenophon says explicitly of Socrates, “I never knew anyone who cared more to find out what each of his companions knew” (memorabilia 4.7.1); And Plato corroborates Xenophon’s statement by illustrating throughout his dialogues Socrates’ adjustment of the level and type of his questions to the particular individuals with whom he was speaking. If it is true that Socrates managed to steer his conversation to the correct level for each of his companions, the striking differences between Xenophon’s Socrates and Plato’s are largely explained by the differences between his two personalities. Xenophon was a practical man whose ability to recognize philosophical questions is almost imperceptible, so it is plausible that his Socrates is a useful and practical adviser. That is the side of Socrates experienced by Xenophon. Xenophon’s Socrates differs further from Plato’s in that he offers advice on topics in which Xenophon himself had experience, but Socrates did not: making money (xenophon, memorabilia 2.7) and managing assets (xenophon, oeconomicus), suggesting that Xenophon may have entered Socratic’s writing. speeches (as Aristotle called the genre, poetics 1447b11) making the character of Socrates a spokesman for his own points of view. His other works that mention or present Socrates are Anabasis, Apology, Hellenic and Symposium.
Something that has strengthened Xenophon’s prima facie claim as a source for the life of Socrates is his work as a historian; His Hellenic (History of Greece) is one of the main sources for the period 411-362, after Thucydides’ history ends abruptly in the midst of the Peloponnesian Wars. Although Xenophon tends to moralize and does not follow the higher conventions introduced by Thucydides, it is still sometimes argued that, having no philosophical axes to grind, Xenophon may have presented a more accurate portrait of Socrates than Plato. But two considerations have always weakened that claim: (1) The Socrates of Xenophon’s works is so pedestrian that it is hard to imagine that he inspired fifteen or more people to write Socratic speeches in the period after his death. (2) Xenophon could not have logged many hours with Socrates or with reliable informants. He lived in Erchia, some 15 kilometers and across the Hymettus Mountains from Socrates’ haunts in urban Athens, and his love of horses and horsemanship (on which he wrote a still valuable treatise) took a toll on him. considerable time. He left Athens in 401 on an expedition to Persia and, for a variety of reasons (mercenary service for Thracians and Spartans; exile), never resided in Athens again. and now a third is in order. (3) It is wrong to assume that Xenophon would apply the same criteria of precision to his Socratic speeches as to his histories. The biographical and historical background that Xenophon displays in his memoirs of Socrates does not correspond to the additional sources we have from archaeology, history, the courts, and literature. The widespread use of computers in classical studies, which allow for the comparison of ancient people and the compilation of information about each from disparate sources, has made this observation about Xenophon’s Socratic works incontrovertible. Xenophon’s memories are pastiches, several of which simply could not have occurred as presented.
Philosophers have generally privileged the account of Socrates given by his fellow philosopher, Plato. Plato was about twenty-five years old when Socrates was tried and executed, and he probably knew the old man for most of his life. It would have been difficult for a boy of Plato’s social class, registered in the Collytus political district (DEME) within the city walls, to avoid Socrates. Existing sources agree that Socrates was often found where the youth of the city spent their time. Furthermore, Plato’s depiction of individual Athenians has shown over time to correspond remarkably well with both archaeological and literary evidence: in his use of names and places, family relationships and ties of friendship, and even in his approximate date of events in almost all authentic dialogue. where Socrates is the dominant figure. the dialogues have dramatic dates that dovetail as one learns more about their characters and, despite the incidental anachronisms, it turns out that there is more realism to the dialogues than most suspected. the ion, lysis, euthydemus, meno, menexenus, theaetetus, euthyphro, cratylus, the symposium framework, apology, crito, phaedo (although Plato says he himself was not present at the execution of Socrates), and the Parmenides framework are the dialogues in describe which Plato had greater access to the Athenians.
It does not follow, however, that Plato represented the views and methods of Socrates (or anyone for that matter) as he remembered them, much less as they were originally uttered. there are a number of cautions and warnings that need to be taken into account from the start. (i) Plato may have shaped the character of Socrates (or other characters) to serve his own purposes, whether philosophical, literary, or both. (ii) the dialogues depicting Socrates as a youth and a young man took place, if at all, before Plato was born and when he was a small child. (iii) One must be wary even of the dramatic dates of Plato’s dialogues because they are calculated with reference to characters we know mainly, though not only, from the dialogues. (iv) exact dates should be treated with some measure of skepticism because numerical precision can be misleading. even when a specific holiday or other reference fixes the season or the month of a dialogue, or the birth of a character, it is possible to imagine a margin of error. although it becomes unpleasant to use circa or plus-minus everywhere, the ancients neither required nor desired contemporary precision in these matters. all children born during a full year, for example, had the same nominal birthday, which explains the bizarre by contemporary standards conversation in lysis 207b in which two children disagree over who is older. Philosophers have often chosen to gloss over historical issues altogether and assume for argument’s sake that Plato’s Socrates is the Socrates who is relevant to potential progress in philosophy. that strategy, as we will soon see, gives rise to a new Socratic problem (§2.2).
what, after all, is our motive for reading the words of a dead philosopher about another dead philosopher who never wrote anything himself? This is a way of asking a popular question, why do history of philosophy? —which has no set answer. one might reply that our study of some of our philosophical predecessors is intrinsically valuable, philosophically enlightening, and satisfying. When we contemplate the words of a dead philosopher, a philosopher we cannot directly relate to (Plato’s words, say), we seek to understand not only what he said and assumed, but what his statements imply, and whether they are true. . the words of others can prompt the exploration of rich new veins of philosophy. sometimes making such judgments about the text requires that we learn the language in which the philosopher wrote, plus about the ideas of his predecessors and those of his contemporaries. The truly great philosophers, and Plato was one of them, are still capable of becoming our philosophical conversation partners, our dialectical partners. Because he addressed fundamental, universal, and timeless questions with insight and intelligence, our own understanding of such questions is intensified whether we agree or disagree. that explains plato, one could say, but where is socrates in this picture? Is it interesting simply as a predecessor of Plato? Some would say yes, but others would say that it is not Plato’s but Socrates’ ideas and methods that mark the true beginning of philosophy in the West, that Socrates is the best dialectical guide, and that the Socratic in dialogues should be distinguished of what is Socratic. it is Platonic (§2.2). but how? that is again the socratic problem.
2.2 contemporary interpretive strategies
If it were possible to limit oneself exclusively to Plato’s Socrates, the Socratic problem would recur because one would soon discover Socrates himself defending one position in one Platonic dialogue, its opposite in another, and using different methods in different dialogues to boot. the inconsistencies between the dialogues seem to demand explanation, although not all philosophers have thought so (Shorey 1903). Most famously, the Parmenides attacks various theories in ways that the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedo develop and defend. In some dialogues (eg, laches), Socrates only weeds the garden of his inconsistencies and false beliefs, but in other dialogues (eg, phaedrus), he is also a sower, advancing structured philosophical claims and suggesting new methods. to prove those claims. . there are also differences in minor matters. For example, Socrates in the Gorgias is opposed, while in the Protagoras he supports hedonism; the details of the relationship between erotic love and the good life differ from aphedrus to symposium; the account of the relationship between knowledge and the objects of knowledge in the republic differs from the account of meno; Despite Socrates’ commitment to Athenian law, expressed in the crito, in the apology he swears that he will disobey the lawful jury if it orders him to stop philosophizing. A related problem is that some of the dialogues seem to develop positions familiar from other philosophical traditions (for example, that of Heraclitus in the Theaetetus and Pythagoreanism in the Phaedo). Three centuries of efforts to solve versions of the Socratic problem are summarized in the following supplementary document:
contemporary efforts recycle bits, including failures, of these earlier attempts.
the 20th century
until relatively recently in modern times, it was expected that the safe removal of what could be attributed purely to socrates would leave standing a coherent set of doctrines attributable to plato (who appears nowhere in the dialogues as a speaker ). many philosophers, inspired by the 19th century scholar eduard zeller, expect the greatest philosophers to promote grandiose and impenetrable schemes. None of this was possible for Socrates, so it was up to Plato to assign all the positive doctrines that could be extracted from the dialogues. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, there was a revival of interest in who Socrates was and what his own views and methods were. the result is a narrower but no less contentious Socratic problem. Two lines of interpretation dominated views of Socrates in the twentieth century (Griswold 2001; Klagge and Smith 1992). Although there has been cross-pollination and healthy growth since the mid-1990s, the two were so hostile to each other for so long that most of the secondary literature on Socrates, including peculiar translations of each, is still divided. in two camps, barely reading each other: contextualists and literary analysts. The literary-contextual study of Socrates, like hermeneutics in general, uses the tools of literary criticism, typically interpreting one entire dialogue at a time; Its European origins go back to Heidegger and earlier to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. The analytic study of Socrates, like analytic philosophy in general, feeds on the arguments of the texts, which usually deal with a single argument or a set of arguments, either in a single text or in several texts; its origins are in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. hans-georg gadamer (1900-2002) was the doyen of the hermeneutical aspect, and gregory vlastos (1907-1991) of the analytical.
Faced with inconsistencies in Socrates’ views and methods from one dialogue to another, the literary contextualist has no Socratic problem because Plato is seen as an artist of superior literary skill, the ambiguities in whose dialogues are representations. intentional real ambiguities in the subjects philosophy investigates. therefore, the terms, plots, characters, and indeed all elements of the dialogues must be approached in their literary context. bringing the tools of literary criticism to the study of dialogues, and sanctioned in that practice by the very use of literary devices and Plato’s practice of textual criticism (protagoras 339a-347a, republic 2.376c-3.412b, ion and phaedrus 262c-264e), most contextualists ask each dialogue what its aesthetic unity implies, noting that the dialogues themselves are self-contained and contain almost no cross-references. Contextualists who pay attention to what they see as the aesthetic unity of the entire Platonic corpus and thus seek a consistent image of Socrates, advise close readings of the dialogues, and appeal to a series of literary conventions and devices said to be reveal the real personality of socrates. for both varieties of contextualism, the Platonic dialogues are like a shining constellation whose naturally separate stars require a separate approach.
what marks the maturity of the literary contextualist tradition in the early twenty-first century is a greater diversity of approaches and an attempt to be more internally critical (see hyland 2004).
Beginning in the 1950s, Vlastos (1991, pp. 45-80) recommended a mutually supportive set of premises that together provide a plausible framework in the analytic tradition for Socratic philosophy as a distinct quest for Platonic philosophy. Although the premises have deep roots in early attempts to solve the Socratic problem (see the supplementary paper linked above), the beauty of the particular configuration of vlastos is its fecundity. The first premise marks a break with the tradition of regarding Plato as a dialectician who held his assumptions tentatively and constantly revised them; rather,
- Plato held philosophical doctrines, and
- Plato’s doctrines developed during the period in which he wrote,
- it is possible to reliably determine the chronological order in which the dialogues were written and relate them to the development of Plato’s views.
- Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates only what Plato himself believes at the time he writes each dialogue.
explaining many of the inconsistencies and contradictions between the dialogues (the persistent inconsistencies are addressed with a complex notion of Socratic irony). In particular, Vlastos tells a story “as hypothesis, not dogma or reported fact” that describes the young Plato in vivid terms, writing his early dialogues while convinced of “the substantial truth of Socrates’ teaching and the soundness of his method.” “. Plato later becomes a constructive philosopher in his own right, but does not feel the need to break the link with his Socrates, his “father image” of him. (The rest of Plato’s story is not relevant to Socrates.) Vlastos labels a small group of dialogues “transitional” to mark the period when Plato began to feel dissatisfied with Socrates’ views. the third premise of vlastos is
The evidence using vlastos varies for this claim, but is of various kinds: stylometric data, internal cross-references, external events mentioned, differences in doctrines and methods presented, and other ancient testimony (particularly that of Aristotle). Dialogues from Plato’s Socratic period, called “Elentic Dialogues” after Socrates’ preferred method of questioning, are Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hypiias Minor, Ion, Laches, Protagoras, and Republic Book 1. The Platonic dialogues of the developmentalists are potentially a discrete sequence, the order of which allows the analyst to separate Socrates from Plato on the basis of different periods in Plato’s intellectual evolution. finally,
“As Plato changes, the philosophical personality of his Socrates changes” (Vlastos 1991, 53), a view sometimes referred to as the “Spokesperson theory”. Because the analyst is interested in positions or doctrines (particularly as conclusions from, or proven by, arguments), the focus of the analysis is usually on a particular philosophical view in or through dialogues, without paying special attention to context or dialogues. considered as wholes; and the evidence for dialogues in close chronological proximity is likely to be considered more confirmatory than that for dialogues from other periods of development. The result of applying the premises is a firm list (questioned, of course, by others) of ten theses held by Socrates, all of which are incompatible with the corresponding ten theses held by Plato (1991, 47-49).
many ancient analytic philosophers in the late 20th century mined the gold that vlastos had discovered, and many who were productive in the early developmentalist vein continued their own constructive work (see bibliography).
2.3 Implications for Socrates’ Philosophy
It’s risky business to say where ancient philosophy now stands, but one advantage of an entry in a dynamic reference work is that authors are allowed, nay, encouraged, to update their entries to reflect current scholarship. recent and radical changes in its themes. . For many analytic philosophers, John Cooper (1997, xiv) marked the end of the developmental era when he described the dialogue distinctions between the early and middle periods as “an inadequate basis for leading anyone to read these works. to use them in that way is to announce in advance the results of a certain interpretation of the dialogues and to canonize that interpretation under the guise of a presumably objective order of composition, when in fact no such order is objectively known. and therefore runs the risk of biasing an unsuspecting reader against the fresh and individual reading that these works demand.” when he added, “it is better to relegate thoughts about chronology to the secondary place they deserve and to concentrate on the literary and philosophical content of the works, taken by themselves and in relation to each other”, he was proposing peace between the literary world and contextualist camps. and analytical developers. As with any peace agreement, it takes some time for all the combatants to accept that the conflict is over, but that’s where we are.
in summary, now one is freer to answer, who really was socrates? in the variety of ways it has been answered in the past, in one’s own well-reasoned way, or to dodge the question, philosophizing on the themes in Plato’s dialogues without caring too much about anyone’s long toes particular interpretive tradition. Those seeking the views and methods of Plato’s Socrates from the perspective of what is likely to be attributed to him in the secondary literature (§2.2) will find it useful to consult the related entry on Plato’s shorter ethical works.
3. A Chronology of the Historical Socrates in the Context of Athenian History and the Dramatic Dates of Plato’s Dialogues
The larger left column below provides some biographical information from ancient sources with the dramatic dates of Plato’s dialogues interspersed [bold] throughout. in the smaller column on the right are dates of important events and well-known people from fifth-century Athenian history. while the dates are as precise as the facts allow, some are estimates and disputed (nails 2002).
the tribe of socrates was antiochis, and his demo was alopece (south-southeast of the city wall). assuming that his stonemason father, sophroniscus, would stick to convention, he carried the boy around the home, thus formally admitting him into the family, five days after his birth, named him on the tenth day, introduced him to his phratry (a hereditary association regional) and assumed the responsibility of socializing it in the various institutions proper to an Athenian male. Literacy had been widespread among men since around 520, and there were a number of primary schools teaching boys reading and writing, along with traditional gymnastics and music, by the 480s (Harris 1989, 55). , so we can be sure that Socrates received a formal education and that Plato was not exaggerating when he described the young Socrates eagerly acquiring the books of the philosopher Anaxagoras (scrolls, to be more precise, Phaedo 98b).
athens was a city of numerous festivals, contests and celebrations, including the panathenaea which drew visitors from across the mediterranean to the city. Like the Olympics, the Panatheneas were held in special splendor at four-year intervals. [450 Parmenides] Plato depicts nineteen-year-old Socrates conversing with the great visiting philosophers of Elea, Parmenides, and Zeno, at one of the major Panathenaic festivals, in late July or early August. August 450.
This brings us to the spring and summer of 399, the trial and execution of socrates. Twice in Plato’s Dialogues (Symposium 173b, Theaetetus 142c-143a), fact-checking with Socrates took place when his friends tried to write down his conversations before he was executed. [spring 399 theaetetus] prior to the action at the theaetetus, a young poet named meletus had composed a document accusing socrates of the capital crime of irreverence (asebeia): failing to show due piety to the gods of Athens. This he handed over to Socrates in the presence of witnesses, instructing Socrates to appear before the Archon King within four days for a preliminary hearing (the same magistrate would later preside over the pre-trial examination and trial). At the end of the theatetus, Socrates was addressing this preliminary audience. as a citizen, he had the right to counter-sue, the right to waive the hearing, letting the suit proceed unopposed, and the right to go into voluntary exile, as the personified laws later remind him (crito 52c). Socrates did not take advantage of any of these rights of citizenship. rather, he set out to make a plea and stopped at a gym to talk to some young people about math and knowledge.
When he arrived at the stoa of the archon king, Socrates struck up a conversation about reverence with a diviner he knew, Euthyphro [399 Euthyphro], and then responded to Meletus’s accusation. this preliminary hearing designated the ex officio receipt and was intended to lead to greater precision in the formulation of the accusation. In Athens, religion was a matter of public participation under the law, regulated by a calendar of religious holidays. and the city used the revenue to maintain temples and shrines. Socrates’ irreverence, Meletus claimed, had resulted in the corruption of the youths of the city (Euthyphro 3c-d). The evidence for irreverence was of two kinds: Socrates did not believe in the gods of the Athenians (in fact, he had said on many occasions that the gods do not lie or do other bad things, while the Olympian gods of the poets and the city they were quarrelsome and vindictive); Socrates introduced new divinities (indeed, he insisted that his dæmon had spoken to him since childhood). Meletus delivered his complaint and Socrates presented his plea. the archon-king could reject the meletus case on procedural grounds, redirect the complaint to an arbitrator, or accept it; he accepted it. Socrates had the right to challenge the admissibility of the charge in relation to existing law, but he did not do so, so the charge was published on whitewashed tablets in the agora and a date was set for preliminary examination, but not before socrates fell. in another conversation, this one is about the origins of words (smith 2022). [399 cratylus] from this point the news spread rapidly, which probably explains the increased interest in Socratic conversations recorded in theaetetus and symposium. [399 symposium frame] but plato shows socrates spending the next day in two very long conversations promised in theaetetus (210d). [399 sophist, statesman]
at preliminary examination, meletus did not pay court fees because it was considered a public duty to pursue irreverence. However, to discourage frivolous lawsuits, Athenian law imposed a heavy fine on claimants who failed to obtain at least one-fifth of the jury’s votes, as Socrates later notes (Apology 36a-b). Unlike very short jury trials, pretrial examinations encouraged litigants to ask the litigants questions, to make legal issues more precise. this procedure had become essential due to the susceptibility of jurors to bribery and misrepresentation. Originally intended to be a microcosm of the citizen body, juries in Socrates’ day were made up of elderly, disabled, and impoverished volunteers who needed the meager pay of three mites.
in the month of thargelion [apology from May to June 399] one or two months after the initial summons of meletus, the trial of socrates took place. The day before, the Athenians had launched a ship to Delos, dedicated to Apollo and commemorating Theseus’s legendary victory over the Minotaur (Phaedo 58a-b). the spectators assembled together with the jury (apology 25a) for a trial that probably lasted most of the day, each side timed by the water clock. Plato does not provide the accusation speech of Meletus nor those of Anytus and Lycon, who had joined the lawsuit; or the names of the witnesses, if any (apology 34a implies meletus called none). the apology—the Greek word ‘apologia’ means ‘defense’—is not edited like the speeches of court speakers. for example, there is no indication in the Greek text (at 35d and 38b) that the two votes were taken; and there are no breaks (at 21a or 34b) for witnesses who may have been subpoenaed. speeches by supporters of socrates are also missing; it is unlikely that he had none, although Plato does not name them.
Socrates, in his defense, mentioned the damage caused to him by the clouds of Aristophanes (§2.1). Although Socrates strongly denied having studied the heavens and what lies beneath the earth, his familiarity with the investigations of natural philosophers and his own naturalistic explanations of phenomena such as earthquakes and eclipses are not surprisingly the jury was unconvinced. and, seeing that socrates argued better than meletus, the jury probably did not draw fine distinctions between philosophy and sophistry. Socrates charged three times with corrupting the young, insisting that if he corrupted them, he did so unwillingly; but if he does not want to, he must be instructed, not prosecuted (apology 25e-26a). the jury found him guilty. However, according to his own argument, Socrates could not blame the jury, because he was wrong about what was really in the interest of the city (cf. theaetetus 177d-e) and therefore required instruction.
in the sanction phase of the trial, socrates said, “if it were law among us, as it is in other places, that the trial for life should last not one but many days, you would be convinced, but now it is not easy to dispel great slander in a short time” (apology 37a-b). This isolated complaint runs counter to the observation of the personified laws that Socrates “was wronged not by us, the laws, but by men” (Crito 54c). it had been a crime since 403/2 for someone to propose a law or decree in conflict with the newly inscribed laws, so it was ironic that the laws told socrates to persuade or obey them (crito 51b-c). in a last-minute capitulation to his friends, he offered to let them pay a fine of six times his net worth (xenophon oeconomicus 2.3.4-5), thirty minas. the jury rejected the proposal. perhaps the jury was too outraged by socrates’ words to vote for the lesser penalty; after all, he needed to tell them more than once to stop interrupting him. however, it is more likely that the superstitious jurors feared that the gods would be angry if they did not execute a man who had already been found guilty of irreverence. Sentenced to death, Socrates thought it could be a blessing: either a dreamless sleep, or an opportunity to converse in the underworld.
While the sacred ship was on its voyage to Delos, no executions were allowed in the city. although the duration of the annual journey varied according to conditions, Xenophon says that it took thirty-one days in 399 (recollections 4.8.2); If so, Socrates lived thirty days past his judgment, in the month of Skirophorion. A day or two before the end, Socrates’ childhood friend Crito tried to persuade Socrates to escape. [June-July 399 crito] Socrates replied that he “hears nothing… except the argument that on reflection it seems better” and that “neither doing evil nor returning evil is never right, nor even wounding in exchange for damage received” (crit 46b, 49d), not even under threat of death (cf. apology 32a), not even for one’s own family (crit 54b). socrates could not point to a damage that would exceed the damage he would be inflicting on the city if he now went into illegal exile when before he could have done so legally (crit 52c); such a violation of the law would have upheld the jury’s judgment that he was a corrupter of the young (crito 53b-c) and embarrassed his family and friends.
The events of Socrates’ last day, when “he seemed happy in both manner and speech as he died nobly and fearlessly” (Phaedo 58e) were recounted by Phaedo to the Pythagorean community in flio some weeks or months after the execution. [June-July 399 Phaedo] The Eleven, prison officials chosen by lot, met with Socrates at dawn to tell him what to expect (Phaedo 59e-60b). When Socrates’ friends arrived, Xantippe and her youngest son Menexenus were still with him. xanthippe took pity on socrates because he was about to enjoy his last conversation with his companions; then, performing the lamentation ritual expected of women, she was led home. Socrates spent the day in philosophical conversation, defending the immortality of the soul and warning his companions not to hold back in discussion, “If you follow my advice, you will think little of Socrates but much more of the truth. if you believe that what I say is true, he agrees with me; if not, oppose it with all the arguments” (Phaedo 91b-c). on the other hand, he sternly warned them to contain his emotions, “be silent and control yourselves” (Phaedo 117e).
socrates did not care if his corpse was burned or buried, but he bathed in the prison cistern so that the women in his house would not have to wash his corpse. after meeting with his family again late in the afternoon, he met with his companions. The servant of the eleven, a public slave, took leave of Socrates calling him “the noblest, the gentlest, and the best” of men (Phaedo 116c). The poisoner described the physical effects of the hemlock variety Conium maculatum used for the execution of citizens (Bloch 2001), then Socrates joyfully took the cup and drank. phaedon, a former slave echoing the slave of the eleven, called socrates, “the best,… the wisest and the most upright” (phaedo 118a).
4. socrates out of philosophy
Socrates is an inescapable figure in worldwide intellectual history. Readers interested in following this up can start with the two volumes of Trapp (2007). Surprisingly, Socrates is also invoked in non-academic contexts consistently for centuries, across geographic and linguistic borders worldwide, and in a wide range of media and forms of cultural production.
though not commonplace today, socrates was once routinely quoted alongside jesus. Consider Benjamin Franklin’s pithy maxim in his autobiography, “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates,” and the way the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., defends civil disobedience in a letter from Birmingham jail arguing that those Those who blame him for imprisoning himself are like those who would condemn Socrates for provoking the Athenians to execute him or condemn Jesus for causing his crucifixion. in the visual arts, artist bror hjorth celebrates walt whitman by giving jesus and socrates as companions. This wood relief, Love, Peace and Work, was commissioned in the early 1960s by the Swedish Workers’ Educational Association for installation in their new building in Stockholm and was selected to appear on a 1995 postage stamp. a link More joyous is Greece’s 1979 Eurovision Song Contest entry, Elpida’s Socrates superstar, whose lyrics mention that Socrates predated Jesus.
Sometimes praising Socrates affirmed the distinctiveness of Western civilization. For example, an illustrated essay on Socrates opens a 1963 feature called “They Made Our World” in Look, an American popular. magazine. Today, Socrates remains an icon of the Western ideal of the intellectual and is sometimes invoked as representing the ideal of the educated person more universally. Whether mocked, extolled, ridiculed, or simply acknowledged, Socrates appears in a wide range of projects intended for wide audiences as a symbol of the very idea of the life of the mind, which, necessarily from a point of view, Socratically, it is also a moral life (but not necessarily a conventionally successful life).
There may be no more succinct expression of this position than James Madison’s comments on the tyrannical impulses of crowds in Federalist 55: “If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would have remained a mob.” The persistence of this position in the cultural imagination is clear in his many appearances as a sober connoisseur (for example, Roberto Rossellini’s 1971 film) and a giant among giants, as in, for example, his imagined speech, written by Gilbert Murray, where he ranks first among the “Immortals” featured on the 1953 recording, This I Believe, compiled by journalist Edward R. murrow and linked to his hit radio broadcast of the same name. but socrates also persistently appears in amusing settings. For example, an artist makes the good-natured, literally mindless scarecrow in the 1961 animation Tales of the Wizard of Oz answer to the name “Socrates”; and the beatles have jeremy hillary boob, ph.d., his sweet fictional character in the 1968 film yellow submarine, answer a question with the quip, “a real socratic query, that one!” A more robust recent example mobilizing the longevity of Socrates’ association with reflection and ethical behavior is Walter Mosley’s crime fiction featuring Socrates Fortlow. The three books of him follow a black ex-convict in Los Angeles with a violent past and a fierce determination to live life as a thinking person and do good; the character says that his mother called him “Socrates” because she wanted him to grow up smart, a reference to a naming custom practiced by former slaves. The association of Socrates with great intellect and moral rectitude still holds true, as a quick glance at the collection of Socrates-themed merchandise available from a wide range of vendors will attest. Also, in “the exception proves the rule” mode, note that in DC Comics, Mr. Socrates is a criminal mastermind capable of controlling Superman by subduing him with a mentally incapacitating device.
in ancient times, socrates did not act as a professional teacher of doctrines; however, he identified himself as a seeker of knowledge for his own good and the benefit of those he engaged with, young or not. his association with education is so firmly entrenched internationally in today’s vernacular that his name is used to qualify professional undertakings as varied as curricula designed for elementary school, university, law school, institutional initiatives serving to multiple disciplines, think tank retreats, coffee meetings, e-programs. distance learning platforms, training programs for marketing and financial consultants, some parts of cognitive behavioral therapy, and easy-to-use online legal services. A less commercial example is found in Long Walk to Freedom (1994) in which the great South African statesman Nelson Mandela recounts that, during his imprisonment for activism against apartheid, his fellow prisoners were educated while working in rock quarries and that “the teaching style was Socratic in nature;” a leader would pose a question for them to discuss in study sessions. another example is elliniko theatro’s socrates now, a solo performance based on plato’s apology that integrates audience discussion.
in usa uu. In education at all levels these days, Socratic questioning does not involve any effort by a leading figure to cause participants severe discomfort with current views (i.e., bite like a horsefly or expose a disturbing truth), but rather who uses the name ‘socrates’ to seriously invest in collaborative learning that addresses moral issues and is based on interactive techniques. The disturbing and dangerous aspects of Socratic practice appear in politicized contexts where a distinction between dissent and disloyalty is at stake. Appeals to Socrates in these settings often highlight the personal risks run by an intellectually exemplary critic of the unjust acts of an established authority. This is a recurring theme in political allusions to Socrates worldwide. A wave of this type of work took hold in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada around World War II, the McCarthy era, and the Cold War. creative artists of literature, radio, stage and television called on socrates to investigate what it means to be an unwavering defender of free speech and freedom of inquiry, even a martyr to the belief in the necessity of these freedoms for a meaningful and virtuous human life. in these sources, his bizarre appearance, behavior and views, especially his relentlessly critical, even irritating, truth-seeking and anti-ideological stance, are presented as proof of Athenian democracy’s ability to meet these standards. ideals. they suggest that impeachment, trial, and execution are blots on Athenian democracy and that a troubling historical parallel is unfolding. These complete interpretations of the life of Socrates require grappling with the whole problem of the historical Socrates; a claim of historical accuracy was a crucial part of any case for his story to be credible as a warning.
Visually, we find monuments and other sculptural tributes to a less overtly political Socrates in cities and small towns around the world in public spaces dedicated to learning and contemplation. One noted for its unusual approach is Antonio Canova’s 1797 bas-relief, “Socrates Rescues Alcibiades at the Battle of Potidaea,” in which Socrates strikes a powerful pose as a hoplite. An 1875 piece by Imperial Russian sculptor Mark Antokolski highlights the personal cost of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy, portraying him alone, with an empty hemlock cup beside him, slumped dead. reproductions and drawings based on ancient copies of what is believed to be a 4th century BC work. the statue of socrates by the athenian lysippus (eg the british museum statuette of socrates) are also in wide circulation. A particularly interesting one can be found in graphic artist Ralph Steadman’s The Paranoids, a 1986 book of Polaroid caricatures of famous people. But the most influential image of the philosopher today is the fascinating, widely reproduced 1787 painting The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. captures the philosopher’s own claim to be reverent, his courageous decision to take the hemlock cup in his own hand, and the pain his unjust fate caused others.
The neoclassical historical painting of David has become a defining image of Socrates. This is curious because, while the painting’s design abounds in careful references to primary sources, it ignores Socrates’ own description of those sources, which are cited in section 1 on the strangeness of Socrates, making the old philosopher has a classical beauty. Paying attention to primary sources has led some readers to wonder if Socrates might have had an African heritage. For example, in 1921 “The Fools and the Wise: Sallie Runner Is Introduced to Socrates,” a short story in the NAACP magazine edited by W. me. b. du bois, author leila amos pendleton addresses the issue. Her character, a brilliant girl employed as a servant, responds to her employer’s account of the physical appearance of the great man born before Jesus that Miss Audrey intends to tell Sallie about: “He was a Cullod Gentmun, was he?” It is not like this?” this prompts the following exchange: “oh no, sallie, he wasn’t colored.” “Well, if he’s been around that long, Miss Strange, how kind is it to know the color of him?” Why was he an Athenian, sallie? he lived in greece. Nails (1989) depicted Socrates as an African village elder in a re-enactment of Republic 1. In the visual arts, Swiss artist Hans Erni’s drawings and watercolors resolutely portray Socrates as ugly as the sources describe him. Socrates is also sometimes resonated as black (or weird, or touched), regardless of any discussion of physical attributes; this stems from his renown for refusing to be defined by the stultifying norms of his day.
in plato’s phaedo, socrates says that a recurring dream instructs him to “compose music and work on it” and that he had always interpreted it as something like continuing to do philosophy because “philosophy was the best kind of music and that’s what I was working on” (60e-61a). in prison awaiting execution, says he experimented with new ways of doing philosophy; tried to turn some of aesop’s fables into verse. we could see some of the compromises deeply reflective, even loving, with socrates in music and dance in light of this passage.“socrates” is the fifth movement of leonard bernstein’s serenade after plato’s symposium (1954).he is the explicit inspiration for two works of choreography by mark morris, death of socrates in 1983 and socrates in 2010, which work with compositions from 1919 by erik satie that make direct reference to socrates and we have a work produced in 2022 here in new york, the hang, the stunning product of a collaboration between playwright taylor mac and composer matt ray.
Socrates’ incantations appear outside of philosophy both as brief but dense references to understated features of this puzzling figure and sustained portraits that wrestle with his enigmatic character. details of the sources mentioned above, and other sources that may be helpful, are included in the following supplementary document.