Socrates A Life Examined
By Luis E. Navia
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2007 Luis E. Navia
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59102-501-6
Chapter One The Socratic Enigma
There are not many things that are known about Socrates with certainty. We know that he was born in Athens in 469 BCE and that he died in Athens in 399 BCE. It is certain that he was executed, probably by hemlock poisoning, after being found guilty of irreligiosity by an Athenian jury. Beyond these and a few other facts, we enter into a field of conjectures and controversies from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
Indeed, much has been written about Socrates. The bibliography that has grown around him since his death and even before his death is exceedingly extensive. Literally thousands of books, articles, works of art, plays, and musical compositions have been devoted to him, as if his life were a magnet that attracts the imagination of those who endeavor to re-create his presence. Yet, as one reviews the Socratic bibliography, one cannot but conclude that there must have been more than one philosopher by that name, for little agreement is found among the many things said and written about him. From Aristophanes, who wrote a comedy about him in 423 BCE when Socrates was a middle-aged man, to authors of the twenty-first century, works about him continue to be written and in them one seldom finds a solidportrayal of consistency and agreement. Who and what, then, can we say that Socrates was? What ideas and ideals can be truthfully associated with him? What sort of legacy are we entitled to associate with him? What is the basis for the extraordinary influence he has managed to exert during the twenty-four centuries that have elapsed since his death? What sense can we make of the man whom Nietzsche once called "that ironic and amorous monster and Pied Piper of Athens"?
The reasons for Socrates' historical elusiveness are many; chief among them is the fact that he, like Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus, left no writings. He is reported to have had an aversion to written language and a passion for the spoken word, as we learn from Plato. Conversing, not writing, was the medium he chose to communicate his message. Written words, he said, are dead things, like paintings, and are unable to answer whomever wishes to question them: "I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the appearance of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence" (Phaedrus 275d).
Another reason for his elusiveness is undoubtedly his own personality, to which there are numerous references in the sources. In Plato's Euthyphro (11c), for instance, Socrates speaks of Daedalus as the founder of his lineage. Why? Well, because this legendary character would make statues that, as soon as they were made, would not stay still but would move aimlessly. Like those statues, too, Socrates' personality and statements gave the impression of moving in all sorts of directions as if avoiding being pinned down to something definite. Again, in Plato's Symposium (216c) we have a revealing comment from Alcibiades, who says to those around him: "Let me tell you that none of you knows Socrates; but I shall reveal him to you." The others thought they knew Socrates, but they were mistaken and could have reversed Alcibiades' comment back to him because in reality no one knew or knows anything about him.
In Aristophanes' Clouds (446-52) we encounter a clear description of Socrates that unveils the complexity of his personality: "A bold rascal, a fine speaker, impudent, shameless, a braggart, and adept at stringing lies, and an old stager at quibbles, a complete table of laws, a thorough rattle, a fox to slip through any hole, supple as a leathern strap, slippery as an eel, an artful fellow, a blusterer, a villain, a knave with one hundred faces, cunning, intolerable, a gluttonous dog." Whatever its biographical correctness may be, this is quite a description of Socrates as Aristophanes must have seen him. Others, indeed, must have seen him precisely as he did, and still others did not fail to experience a sort of vertigo in his presence as if stung by a stingray, as we read in Plato's Meno (80a).
Socrates' refusal to write about himself and his ideas and the sort of person he seems to have been explain still another reason for his historical elusiveness. Anything we can possibly think, say, or write about him is bound to be based on the writings of others, that is, on what we call the sources. These are generally classified either as primary or as secondary, the former being the writings of Socrates' contemporaries and the latter the enormous collection of writings of others who did not share his time on earth. Obviously, these latter sources depend on the primary sources.
A review of the sources yields at first a discouraging result: there is hardly any consistent and cohesive account of who Socrates was and what his philosophical message could have been. It is as if those who wrote about him were bent on projecting themselves into what they saw or learned about Socrates. From Aristophanes, our earliest source, to the writers of late classical times that is precisely what we find. To a great extent, moreover, that is also what we discover as we review modern writings about Socrates. We confront in the end a problem, the Socratic problem as this is known, one that can be stated in simple terms: despite all our knowledge about Socrates, little of substance can be affirmed without hesitation. Any trait associated with him, any idea attributed to him, can be contradicted by adducing passages from various sources.
It is, therefore, not surprising that some scholars and historians have concluded that the actual Socrates, the man made of flesh and bone, is bound to remain a perfect X, that is, an insoluble problem. Neither is it surprising that others have opted for a solution that entails the acceptance of one source alone as the true testimony about who Socrates was and what his ideas were. This one source is often Plato's writings, although a review of those writings reveals at once that there are in them various characters named "Socrates" who are often at odds with one another. For some, too, Aristophanes, not Plato or Xenophon, is seen as the writer who captured best the essence of the Socratic presence, and then Socrates turns out to be a disruptive and dangerous man who lived his meaningless life confusing and misguiding those who were unfortunate enough to cross his path.
There is also the persistent idea that when dealing with Socrates' philosophy we must turn to Antisthenes. It is true that hardly any of Antisthenes' writings are extant. Yet, the philosophical movement that seems to have ensued from him, Cynicism, may have been the most genuine offshoot of Socrates' ideas. Diogenes of Sinope, the archetype of the Cynic philosopher, who lived one century after Socrates, may be, after all, despite the radicalism and exaggerated character of his style of life and ideas, the man who understood most clearly the essence of the Socratic message. The designation of Diogenes, attributed to Plato, as a "Socrates gone mad" (DL 6.54) is revealing, as is the statement ascribed to Diogenes that it was Plato who was mad in betraying the spirit of philosophy by using Socrates' name to expound his senseless political and metaphysical ideas.
The Socratic problem is, therefore, quite complex. First, there is the absence of writings on the part of Socrates himself. Then, there is the apparently protean nature of his personality, allegedly accompanied by significant changes during the course of his life. And then, as the result of these two circumstances, there is the multiplicity of portrayals created by the sources. The main primary sources, namely, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato, do not create one consistent portrayal but various representations, and the secondary sources, beginning with Aristotle, furnish us with a mosaic of features and attributes that form a kaleidoscopic photograph of Socrates.
Are we, however, forced to despair? Can the Socratic presence be resurrected, not simply as the comic character of Aristophanes' Clouds, nor as the judicious citizen of Xenophon's Memorabilia, nor as the imposing Platonic philosopher created by Plato, nor as the raving rebel of Cynic traditions, nor still as the crafty and dangerous man of those who spoke and wrote against him, but as the man, as he refers to himself in Plato's Apology (34d), "sprung from human parents," that is, the actual man?
There may be, however, a way out of the Socratic labyrinth. Although as noted above, there is much discrepancy among the sources, it is still possible to sift through them in order to find certain common elements and construct out of them a tentative sketch of Socrates as a man and as a philosopher. In so doing, it is important to recognize the fact, found in the writings of all major historical figures, that the writers themselves saw their subjects from their own perspectives. Through them, they recognized those features and details that they found worthy of mention and always from their own points of view. In writing about Socrates, accordingly, they left a firsthand account or an account of what they had learned. The word person is derived from the Latin persona, a word that literally means mask. An actual person is, however, inevitably a collection of masks that the true self presents to the world. Both self and masks undergo variations in time, sometimes profound variation, and, thus, there should not be anything strange in encountering a variety of masks in the reports and writings about Socrates.
This is, we suspect, most likely the case with Socrates. The primary sources saw in him what their inclinations, abilities, and goals allowed them to see in him. They incorporated their experiences into themselves and created out of the masks they encountered in him the images they eventually portrayed. Likewise in the instance of the secondary sources: they learned about Socrates what they were able and inclined to learn and dismissed as inconsequential or false other reports.
The solution could then be to recognize these undeniable circumstances and ask, what common features are present in at least many of the sources? Whatever the result may be, it will have to be tentative and sketchy, and we may be compelled to repeat with Alcibiades that no one really knew who or what Socrates was. We may have to add that in the end we must be satisfied with having identified certain reasonably assured facts and ideas about him. These can grant us some justification in attempting to speak intelligently about his legacy.
We can begin by recounting some pieces of information about Socrates that are seldom, if at all, contradicted by any of the sources. The dates of his birth and death can be ascertained. He was born in 469 BCE (fourth year of the 77th Olympiad) and died in 399 BCE (first year of the 95th Olympiad) at the age of seventy. The report (DL 2.44) that he died at the age of sixty does not appear to hold much ground. The coincidence of his birth and death with the Athenian festival of Apollo and Artemis (DL 2.44; Porphyry, De vita Platonis 2.96) may be a legend created in Hellenistic times, although the testimony of Plato lends support to the belief that Socrates was executed at the conclusion of the Delian festival of Apollo, as we learn from the Crito and in the Phaedo. Both his birth and death took place in Athens. His father was a statuary or sculptor named Sophroniscus, and his mother was a midwife named Phaenarete. Both were Athenian, and their son was, therefore, an Athenian citizen.
Socrates appears to have come from a working class background; he was neither an aristocrat like Alcibiades or Plato nor a member of the poor class. This is supported by testimonies that tell us that he served as an infantry soldier in the Athenian army. Wealthy citizens would normally serve in the cavalry, as in the case of Xenophon, whereas the poor would serve as auxiliaries. In later years, it seems that Socrates' financial resources became diminished because of his choice of philosophy as his vocation. He devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, refusing to receive payment for his teaching. Aristoxenus's statement that Socrates made money by teaching (DL 2.20) is not supported by Plato or Xenophon. In Aristophanes' Clouds (98), there is a reference to Socrates' practice of collecting fees. In Xenophon's Oeconomicus (2.1-4), Socrates states that his possessions did not exceed more than 100 minae (about 1,000 dollars), which would have placed him in the fourth and lowest of social classes among the citizens according to the constitution of Solon. Moreover, there are several references to his poverty in Plato's testimony as in the Apology (19d, 31c).
There is a report in Diogenes Laertius (2.20) that in his youth, Socrates worked as a statuary and that he was rescued from this occupation by Crito, a wealthy man himself. Neither Plato nor Xenophon, however, mentions anything about having ever worked for a living. In the Crito (45a), we learn that he was the beneficiary of his friends' generosity and in Diogenes Laertius (2.25), we hear about their willingness to provide for his needs. It is clear that he enjoyed a great deal of leisure, which was nothing exceptional among the free Athenians of his time, who looked upon the need to work for a living as something embarrassing.
He was married to a woman named Xanthippe, who is mentioned by Plato and Xenophon (Phaedo 60a, 116a; Xenophon's Symposium 2.10). The report attributed (DL 2.26) to Aristotle that Socrates was also married to a certain Myrto, a daughter of Aristides the statesman, is not found in the existing Aristotelian works and is not confirmed by the primary sources. According to Diogenes Laertius, Myrto was Socrates' second wife and the mother of his two youngest children, Sophroniscus and Menexenus. In the Phaedo (60a), however, it is clear that it was Xanthippe who was Socrates' wife at the time of his death and also the mother of his youngest child. The reference in the Memorabilia (2.2.1-14) to the mother of Lamprocles, his oldest son, is inconclusive because her name is not given. In Aristophanes, on the other hand, there are no allusions to Socrates' family, but this is not surprising. The Athenians paid little attention to the details and circumstances of a man's married life, and Aristophanes' silence about Xanthippe, therefore, has no special significance.
In the secondary sources, Xanthippe is often portrayed as an impatient and difficult wife, one who would not stop nagging and complaining, as Diogenes Laertius reports (2.34-37). This characterization is also found in Xenophon in whose Symposium (2.26) Socrates says that he chose her as his wife in order to learn to cope even with the most irritating and difficult people. From Plato, however, nothing definite can be deduced about her character or background. One suspects that her uncomplimentary reputation is partly the result of exaggeration and distortion born out of the low esteem in which women were often held among the Greeks.
Little is known about Socrates' children, except for their names and approximate ages at the time of their father's death. Plato does not mention them by name, but states that the oldest (Lamprocles) was a boy already reaching manhood (Apology 34d), while the youngest was small enough to be held in his mother's arms (Phaedo 60a) at the time of Socrates' execution. Xenophon gives us only the name of the oldest son but says nothing about the other two, whose names appear in Diogenes Laertius (2.26). Some information about them can be gathered from the secondary sources. For instance, in Aristotle (Rhetoric 1390b) and in Plutarch (Cato 20), they are said to have been stupid and vulgar and to have amounted to little in life.
Knowledge about Socrates' education is difficult to sort out. We hear that he was a student of Anaxagoras, Damon, and Archelaus the natural philosopher (DL 2.19). In Ameipsias's comedy the Connus, a certain Connus is introduced as Socrates' music teacher (cf. Euthydemus 272c, 295d). Also, in the Phaedo (97c ff.), we learn of his having studied a work by Anaxagoras. Yet, both Plato and Xenophon are emphatic in asserting that Socrates had no formal teachers and that he regarded himself as a student of no one.
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