What we know of Socrates comes second‐​hand. How much is true?

Why should we behave justly, if we can get away with being unjust? So asked many of the Sophists. One answer, known today as classical eudaimonism (from eudaimonia, the Greek word for well‐​being), was first developed by Socrates, and then elaborated in different ways by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and later on the medieval Scholastics. But who was the founder of this tradition, and what do we really know about his teachings?

Who Was Socrates?

Socrates was an Athenian citizen, born around 469 BCE, to a working‐​class family (his father was a stonemason and his mother a midwife), and executed in 399 (for reasons we’ll be looking at later). Since Socrates left no writings, our knowledge of his philosophical contributions depends largely on the writings of two of his students, Plato and Xenophon. And since their presentation of Socrates’ views takes the form of conversations that are presumably either imaginary or heavily reconstructed, we have in still more severe form the problem we faced with Thucydides,1 of determining to what extent their Socrates represents the historical Socrates as opposed to being a mere mouthpiece for the authors’ own views.

We also possess, of course, Aristophanes’ play Clouds, in which Socrates is the chief antagonist. This diversity of sources poses interpretative problems. Where Plato and Xenophon portray Socrates as an opponent of the Sophists, Aristophanes seems to assimilate Socrates to the Sophists. But we have some reason to discount Aristophanes’ testimony; when writers portray groups toward which they’re hostile, they tend to be a bit careless about distinctions. (Compare Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’s satirical novel Rapture of the Nerds, which portrays Ayn Rand as allying herself with Christian conservatives.)

According to one ancient tradition, when Clouds was first performed, some foreign visitors, unfamiliar with Athenian personalities, were asking “Who is this Socrates?,” whereupon Socrates himself stood up in the audience so that they could compare the masked representation on stage with the real thing.2 We are not so lucky; we have only a variety of Socratic masks, as it were, and no original to compare them to.

So how likely are Plato’s and Xenophon’s portraits to be accurate? Here we do have some information to go on. Thanks to a combination of ancient testimony and modern stylometric techniques, we have a rough idea of which of Plato’s dialogues are early, middle, or late.3 And thanks to the testimony of Aristotle,4 we also have a rough idea of some of the ways in which Plato’s mature views differed from those of the historical Socrates. It turns out that the views that Aristotle attributes to the historical Socrates are broadly similar to those defended by the Socrates character in Plato’s early dialogues, while the views Aristotle describes as Plato’s own innovations are broadly similar to those defended by the Socrates character in Plato’s middle and late dialogues. Moreover, the Socrates of Xenophon’s dialogues also aligns more closely with early Plato than with middle or late Plato. Hence we have some reason to regard both Xenophon’s dialogues and the early (but not the middle or late) dialogues of Plato as at least approximate guides to what Socrates really thought and taught.5 Presumably Plato started out by portraying Socrates relatively faithfully, and then over time began using Socrates more and more as a mouthpiece for his own developing views.

Talking of Socrates as having definite doctrines is controversial. After all, Socrates claims to know nothing of much importance,6 and his inquiries frequently end in puzzlement. But on the other hand, Socrates tells us that he has confidence in certain claims, even if he can’t strictly speaking claim to know them, because so far he’s always found himself able to defend them in argument, and to show that those who hold the opposite view end up contradicting themselves.7 Moreover, in those dialogues that end with no resolution, Socrates often seems to be steering the conversation toward a particular answer (Plato’s Laches, Lesser Hippias, and Euthyphro are arguably examples),8 and if it is not reached, that may be because Socrates wants his interlocutors (or Plato wants his readers) to figure out the answer for themselves rather than having it spoon‐​fed to them.

It’s sometimes argued that Plato and Xenophon cannot both be reliable guides to the historical Socrates because their portraits are too different: Plato’s Socrates is provocative and paradoxical, while Xenophon’s Socrates is dully conventional. But I think this contrast owes less to differences in doctrine than to different strategies of presentation; Plato highlights the counterintuitive nature of Socrates’ ideas while Xenophon downplays them. One might say that Plato likes to shock while Xenophon prefers an approach of subtle seduction. For example, Xenophon’s Socrates endorses the common Greek view that one should help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies, while Plato’s Socrates maintains that one should never harm anyone. But Xenophon’s version is less conventional than it looks, since his Socrates goes on to argue that only good people count as genuine friends; and Plato’s is more conventional than it looks, since the prohibition on harming one’s enemies turns out not to rule out striking or punishing them. So the difference between the two positions may be more terminological than substantive. Indeed, in one Platonic dialogue we’re told that Socrates used both forms of expression depending on the occasion.9

Why Dialogues?

Much ink has been spilled on the question of why Plato wrote dialogues rather than straightforward expository prose treatises. (The focus is specifically on Plato because Xenophon’s dialogues appear to have been written later than, and in part as a response to, those of Plato.) Some scholars have even suggested that because of the dialogue form we should not attribute any of Socrates’ opinions to Plato, any more than we would attribute Hamlet’s opinions to Shakespeare – though against this is the fact that Aristotle, who spent nearly twenty years in Plato’s Academy (first as a student and then as an associate scholar) and so was in a better position to know Plato’s intentions than we are, often straightforwardly ascribes to Plato the doctrines that Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates.

Too often, discussion of Plato’s reasons for writing dialogues rests on the unstated assumption that expository prose is the standard or default mode for expressing important ideas, so that any departure from it requires special explanation; but in Plato’s day this was no yet so. Philosophers like Parmenides and Empedocles wrote in verse; the Athenian statesman Solon explained and defended his legal reforms in verse; the tragic and comic poets wrote plays, which were dialogues in verse; the historians did write expository prose, but they also incorporated fictional or highly fictionalized dramatic speeches. Moreover, Plato didn’t invent the idea of Socratic dialogues; many of Socrates’s students had already been writing Socratic dialogues (reportedly beginning with Simon the shoemaker),10 even if, apart from a few fragments,11 only those of Plato and Xenophon survive.

So Plato need not have had any special reason for choosing the dialogue form. Nonetheless, he might well have. There are at least three ways in which presenting philosophical ideas through the medium of Socratic conversations could have been especially appropriate to Plato’s purposes.

First, Plato presumably wanted to portray not just Socrates’ conclusions but also the method by which he arrived at them. Socrates, as Plato portrays him, does not ordinarily argue directly for his views; instead he elicits premises from his interlocutors and then leads them, via question and answer, to draw the conclusion themselves. Thus the positions he defends can be seen as the natural unfolding of his interlocutors’ own views, rather than being a set of alien doctrines he is foisting on them; hence his description of himself as a midwife of ideas.12 (And in dialogues like the Meno and Phædo, the fact that conclusions can be defended in this way is used to draw broader conclusions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of the mind.)

Second, another obvious reason for choosing the dialogue form is to present the character and personality of Socrates, and not only his ideas. Doing so could have two goals. First, it serves to defend Socrates’ reputation against those who defamed him and brought about his death; Xenophon is explicit that this is his purpose, but it seems likely to be Plato’s as well. And second, presenting a living exemplar of Socratic ethics, as opposed to a mere abstract discussion, can make the principles Plato is advocating clearer and more compelling, just as the war between Atlantis and a fictionalized prehistoric Athens, as described in Plato’s Timæus and Critias, is meant to make the portrait of the ideal city in the Republic more vivid.13 As Ayn Rand notes, one of the functions that literature can provide is “not moral rules, not an explicit didactic message, but the image of a moral person – i.e., the concretized abstraction of a moral ideal,” offering “a concrete, directly perceivable answer to the very abstract question … What kind of person is moral and what kind of life does he lead?”14 In particular, where a mere description of Socrates’ ethical attitudes might make them sound unappealingly goody‐​goody, Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ persona gives them a more evident edge and charm.

Third, Plato appears to have been skeptical about the ability of the written word to capture philosophical insight; at any rate, in the Phædrus he has Socrates say:

I cannot help feeling … that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.15

And in the Seventh Letter attributed to Plato, we find him saying that “there is not, and never will be, any composition of mine” expressing his philosophical positions, for “a matter of that kind cannot be expressed by words, like other things to be learnt; but by a long intercourse with the subject and living with it a light is kindled on a sudden, as if from a leaping fire, and being engendered in the soul, feeds itself upon itself.”16

If Plato thinks that philosophical insight cannot be written down, but only emerges through the give‐​and‐​take of conversation (which is presumably what he takes to be Socrates’ reason for teaching through dialogue in the first place), that could explain why he might have taken written dialogues to be at least a closer equivalent to conversation than a written treatise would be. It might also explain why many of Plato’s dialogues end without a definite resolution; Plato may think we won’t understand his conclusion unless we work it out for ourselves rather than having the answer poured into our heads (to borrow a metaphor from the Republic),17 and so decided to write works which one could at least approximate cross‐​examining.

So much for who Socrates was, and how we know what he (probably) said. Next time we’ll turn to his reply to the Sophistic critique of justice.

  1. See part 22 of this series.
  2. Aelian, Various Histories II.13.
  3. See Leonard Brandwood, “Stylometry and Chronology,” in Richard Kraut, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 90–120.
  4. See. e.g., Metaphysics 987 a‐​b and Magna Moralia 1182 a 15–30. On the authenticity of the Magna Moralia, see John M. Cooper, “The Magna Moralia and Aristotle’s Moral Philosophy,” American Journal of Philology 94 (1974), pp. 327–49.
  5. An exception must be made for (much of) Xenophon’s Economicus, a dialogue in which Socrates discourses on the art of running a large country estate – a subject more likely to reflect the experience of the wealthy Xenophon, who owned such an estate, than that of the financially straitened and resolutely urban Socrates.
  6. Plato, Apology 21d. The stronger claim that he knows nothing at all, though frequently attributed to Socrates, is not found in either Plato’s or Xenophon’s texts, though it does occur, some six centuries later, in Diogenes Laertius’s life of Socrates: Lives V.2.32.
  7. “These truths, which have been already set forth as I state them in the previous discussion, would seem now to have been fixed and riveted by us, if I may use an expression which is certainly bold, in words which are like bonds of iron and adamant; and unless you or some other still more enterprising hero shall break them, there is no possibility of denying what I say. For my position has always been, that I myself am ignorant how these things are, but that I have never met any one who could say otherwise, any more than you can, and not appear ridiculous. This is my position still.” Plato, Gorgias 508e‐​509b ; Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).
  8. For example, in the Laches the participants seem to be converging on a definition of courage as knowledge of what is worth fearing and hoping for, until it transpires that this definition would imply that courage is sufficient for all virtue in general; this implication is rejected as unpalatable, and so the proposed definition is abandoned. But the supposedly unacceptable implication is one that Socrates elsewhere embraces (see, e.g., the Protagoras), and so the rejection of the aforementioned definition is probably only apparent. For the Lesser Hippias, see part 20 of this series.

    We’ll return to the Euthyphro in a later column.

  9. “Finally, Socrates, I put these questions to you yourself also, and you told me that it belonged to justice to injure one’s enemies and to do well to one’s friends. But later on it appeared that the just man never injures anyone, for in all his acts he aims at benefiting all.” Plato, Cleitophon 410a‐​b; in W. R. M. Lamb, trans., Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
  10. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives V.2.122–123.
  11. The most substantial fragments are from the dialogues of Aeschines of Sphettos.
  12. Plato, Theætetus 148e‐​151c.
  13. “I should like, before proceeding further, to tell you how I feel about the State which we have described. I might compare myself to a person who, on beholding beautiful animals either created by the painter’s art, or, better still, alive but at rest, is seized with a desire of seeing them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict to which their forms appear suited.” (Plato, Timæus 19b‐​c ; in Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).

    Incidentally, there’s a widespread misconception that it is Atlantis that represents Plato’s political utopia. On the contrary, it is antediluvian Athens; the Atlanteans are the bad guys.

  14. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, rev. ed. (New York: Signet, 1971), p. 146.
  15. Plato, Phaedrus 275d‐​e ; in Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).
  16. Plato (?), Letter VII 341b‐​d (cf. 342e‐​343a, 344b‐​c); in George Burges, The Works of Plato, vol. 4 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1851).
  17. Plato, Republic II. 345b.