Historic Accounts of Socrates

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Historic Accounts of Socrates

It is difficult to give an account of the real Socrates with total confidence because he wrote nothing and we are dependent on sources which are not at all impartial. For example, the Clouds of Aristophanes presents a hostile view prevalent among the Athenian populace during the last quarter of the fifth century. On the other hand, we have two apologies3 for the life of Socrates written sometime in the years immediately following his death by two younger associates of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. These two works are the earliest examples of a tradition of literature in defense of Socrates, including a number of lost works extending down to the third century A.D., of which we know only the authors and titles. Plato's Apology presents to us a speech delivered by Socrates in his own defense at his trial in the first person throughout. Plato never intrudes to comment on what Socrates says. Despite the appearance of complete objectivity, it is certain that this speech is not an exact word-for-word reproduction of what was said by Socrates on that occasion. On the other hand, since Plato was no doubt aware that his readers would include those who were present at the trial, the speech he puts into the mouth of Socrates probably represents fairly accurately the essence of the original. Xenophon's Apology is a narrative in which "quotations" from Socrates's speech are interspersed. There are no crucial differences in the views of Socrates presented by the two authors, who agree that Socrates was a noble character unfairly judged by the Athenians.

3The use of the word "Apology" in this context is based on the meaning of the Greek word apologia which does not mean `a statement of regret requesting pardon', but `a formal statement of justification or defense'. The latter definition is in fact still a secondary meaning of our word "apology."

There are, however, discrepancies. For example, the oracle from Apollo in Delphi in Plato's Apology says that no one was wiser than Socrates (21a). The same oracle in Xenophon stresses Socrates's moral rather than intellectual excellence. In the words of Xenophon's Socrates: "...Apollo replied that no one is more free [i.e., not enslaved by the desires of his body], more just or more in control of himself than me".4 Xenophon's Socrates, in his reaction to this oracle, confirms the truth of Apollo's statement, adding a claim of wisdom and, in general, revealing a conspicuous lack of the humility evident in Plato when he wonders about the meaning of the oracle (21b). The reason for this discrepancy may be the fact that Xenophon did not know Socrates as well as Plato and more importantly was not present at the trial while Plato was (Ap .38.b). Although Plato and Xenophon certainly do not present impartial views of Socrates, it is generally accepted that a truer picture of the real Socrates can be found in the pages of their works than anywhere else.

All quotations in this section are translated by the author.

5In addition to the apologies of Plato and Xenophon, Socrates appears in almost all of Plato's Dialogues and in Xenophon's Recollections [of Socrates] and in two works by these authors which both have the title Symposium 'Drinking Party'.

Socrates was not very physically attractive. He had a snub-nose, large protruding eyes, which appeared to be continually staring, thick lips and a pot-belly. Yet apparently he had enormous personal magnetism. As Plato has Alcibiades say in his Symposium : "Whenever I hear [Socrates],...my heart jumps and his words cause tears to pour down my face and I see that very many others have the same experience" (215e).

Socrates was a man of his times in that he found handsome younger men sexually attractive. In Plato's Charmides he reports his own sexual arousal at the sight of the beautiful young Charmides (who later became involved with the Thirty Tyrants): "I caught a glimpse inside [Charmides's] garment and burned with passion" (155d). But Socrates took a view of love affairs between older and younger men which was atypical of the Athenian aristocracy: he believed that the purpose of this kind of love should not be sexual gratification, but the progress toward virtue of the younger partner. Socrates seems to have put this belief into practice throughout his life, even politely rejecting the sexual advances of the youthful and attractive Alcibiades, an unusual reversal of the normal relationship, in which the older man was expected to pursue the younger (Pl. Symp. 217a-219e).

Socrates's self-control went beyond the area of sex and was evident in his behavior as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates made an enormous impression on Alcibiades with his ability to endure cold, his powers of concentration (he remained standing still out of doors for a 24 hour period from sunrise to sunrise grappling with some philosophical problem), and his coolness in crisis (Pl. Symp. 220a-221b).

Socrates's primary concern in life was arete `excellence', not in the Sophistic sense of practical efficiency in public life, but as moral excellence of soul, that is, virtue. Socrates in fact seems to have been the first philosopher to see the soul as the moral essence of the individual, improved by virtue and ruined by its opposite, rather than as a morally neutral life principle, which was the earlier view of the soul. Socrates's concern for morality involved not only the private sphere of a man's life, but also the public, as illustrated by his two involvements in politics. Both instances reveal him resisting injustice, on the one hand, of the democracy and, on the other, of the oligarchic Thirty. In 406 Socrates, serving as a member of the presiding committee of the Council, argued against the illegality of trying the Arginusae generals as a group, instead of individually, and during the rule of the Thirty, he refused to become involved in their crimes by acting as their agent in the arrest of Leon of Salamis (Ap. 32a-d).

One of the most famous doctrines associated with Socrates is that virtue is knowledge. The kind of intellectuality that the Sophists were applying to the practical affairs of life Socrates thought should be applied to the moral life. One could not be virtuous without first knowing what virtue is. Once one has attained the knowledge of virtue, then, according to Socrates, one cannot help but be virtuous since no one does wrong voluntarily.6 Socrates saw the elimination of ignorance as the first step in leading men to virtue. To this purpose Socrates evolved a technique for testing knowledge by argument and questioning which is known popularly as "the Socratic method". The essence of this method is elenchus, a process which most often begins with Socrates's asking a question of one of his interlocutors (e.g., what is justice?). After a definition is given, Socrates gets the interlocutor to assent to a statement which obviously contradicts the first answer. The interlocutor then suggests another definition, which is closer to the truth, but still is shown by Socrates to be faulty. This process may be even repeated a third time until an acceptable definition is reached or it is felt that it is not profitable to go any further with the discussion. This is the technique which he used to point out the ignorance of his fellow Athenians and his followers imitated, thus winning him many enemies (Ap. 23a-e).

6This was a very controversial point in philosophical circles from the last quarter of the fifth century down to the time of Aristotle. Socrates believed that men did evil only out of ignorance, while his opponents in this matter maintained that men often did wrong while knowing what was morally right.

Despite his conviction that his fellow Athenians were ignorant, Socrates did not see himself as the possessor of the knowledge that others lacked. In his mind, his only wisdom lay in the fact that he realized that he didn't know anything while they, although ignorant, thought that they were wise (Ap. I.21). Socrates's profession of ignorance is at least in part to be taken seriously in that he saw his philosophical function, not as the presentation of a complete and coherent philosophical system, but as total involvement with his fellow man in the search for truth. This profession of ignorance, however, is also often an example of playful Socratic irony. The word "irony" is derived from the Greek word eironeia `pretended ignorance'.7 Socrates frequently assumes this ironic pose in conversation with his younger associates, in order to put them at their ease since, given his skill at argument, philosophical discussion with Socrates could be an intimidating and inhibiting experience. Socrates, however, employs a more sarcastic kind of irony designed to confuse when he is involved in discussion with more mature interlocutors (especially Sophists) who have an inflated sense of their own wisdom and self-importance. It was no doubt evident to many such opponents that Socrates was playfully mocking them by continually answering one question with another and produced angry reactions from them, as is evident in Thrasymachus's outrage at Socrates's irony in the Republic (336 c-d).

Our use of this word as a literary critical term (e.g., dramatic irony) is entirely a modern usage.

At the heart of Socratic irony, however, was not just Socrates's innate playfulness, but a serious conviction that teaching was not, as in the manner of the Sophists, the mere handing over of information by the teacher to the student. In fact, Socrates did not consider himself a teacher in the usual sense, but only an assistant at the birth of knowledge, an intellectual midwife. In Plato's Theaetetus Socrates uses this metaphor to explain how, although he knows nothing, he can help others in their search for truth (150b):

I cannot give birth to wisdom myself and the accusation that many make against me, that while I question others, I myself bring nothing wise to light due to my lack of wisdom, is accurate. The reason for this is as follows: God forces me to serve as a midwife and prevents me from giving birth.

Unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that knowledge was attainable, but in his view the only real knowledge is that which the student attains himself with the active use of his own mind. His purpose was to put young men on the right track toward truth and virtue; whether they attained these goals or not was up to them.

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