2011-07-16

Was Socrates man or myth? Applying historical Jesus criteria to Socrates

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by Neil Godfrey

Strepsiades and Pheidippides are discussing, S...
A scene including Socrates in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. Image via Wikipedia

It might be interesting to see how the criteria used for the quest for the historical Jesus might work with another figure of comparable stature in the ancient world. A comparison like this might help us assess their real value as determinants of historicity.

Multiple Attestation

We have the writings of the philosopher Plato. These dramatize the teaching career, trial and death of Socrates in dialogue form. But was Plato writing about a real person or was Socrates only a literary character he chose through whom to express his own philosophical teachings?

We have the writings of Xenophon. Xenophon was known as a historian but his writings about Socrates are not histories. They portray a very different sort of teacher from the one we read about in Plato.

Both Plato and Xenophon are clearly writing as devoted followers of Socrates, and classicists have often remarked that the teachings they attribute to Socrates are really their own and not those of a real Socrates at all. So we are still have one source type represented by both of these authors, and historicity cannot be settled by appealing to their “multiple attestation” alone.

This reminds us of Schweitzer’s complaint about the nature of the evidence for Jesus:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

But we do have another source that appears to be quite independent of the above pair of Socrates’ disciples.

We have the writings of Aristophanes, another apparent contemporary. Now far from writing as an admiring follower of Socrates, Aristophanes wrote plays in which he lampooned Socrates. Socrates appears in his works as a wastrel, dirty, leading people astray though deceitful, self-serving cleverness. But even if Aristophanes had been kinder to his portrayal of Socrates, he would still have been writing as one relatively independent of those claiming to be personal followers.

So it appears we have a strong case for Socrates being a real person after all. Aristophanes is certainly not using Socrates as a literary figure through which to express his own philosophy.

It is not perfect or watertight. Multiple independent attestation as a principle does not guarantee the factness of what is reported. Alien abductions are reported by many people who have nothing to do with each other. Likewise reports that the White House and Israel were involved in a conspiracy to destroy the Twin Towers on 9/11 are encountered by apparently quite unconnected people. Likewise, we cannot be completely certain that Socrates did not originate as a literary or other form of cultural construct that was exploited by Aristophanes, Plato and Xenophon. And some classicists do raise the question whether or not Socrates was such a construct or a historical person.

But till further work is done by those who raise this question it appears we have reasonable grounds for accepting the probability of the historical existence of Socrates.

Embarrassment

There is plenty about Socrates to cause all sorts of embarrassment to followers and others who may have known him. He had a shrew of a wife. He neglected his family in preference to talk in the marketplace and drinking sessions with his mates. Even one of his followers accused him of neglecting his own young sons by choosing to die rather than to live.

But none of these can seriously be used to affirm Socrates’ historical existence. All such details are part of the literary portrayal and many are used as foils from which to present new teachings – as likely as not the teachings of Plato or Xenophon. Did he really corrupt the morals of the youth? Well of course the answer to that depends on one’s perspective. Plato used such an “embarrassment” as a foil to condemn the state he despised; Aristophanes used it to write a very clever play. Embarrassing details can be found to function in many different ways that serve the interests of those reporting them. In other words, the embarrassment is not really cringing personal embarrassment. It is a foil to be taken up and used, or not, as served different author’s interests.

It cannot be used as an indicator of the historicity of Socrates.

Dissimilarity

In the dialogues of Plato we read about ideas and questioning of values that often appear to be innovative. Others at the time, such as the playwright Euripides, were also questioning traditional values. Socrates was not the only “sophist” of the day. But it is possible to single out distinctive sayings attributed to him that were not quite exactly like anything in the earlier extant record. But it is, of course, impossible to know if these really were created by Socrates or by Plato or by someone else yet again.

All change and innovation in society is the work of many sources, and where one person takes the credit for something, that one person is always indebted to what has gone before. Whether any new saying, or more often, an old idea wrapped up with a new twist, originates with a Mr X or Ms Y is generally impossible to say. We can’t assume that an attribution to Socrates (or Jesus) is really original to them and then use that assumption as evidence for the very existence of Socrates or Jesus. That way we could rationalize the historical existence of every literary character to whom a saying is attributed.

We need, of course, to first establish the existence of such a person. That’s the first step. (We may say we have a strong probability that Socrates existed by virtue of multiple independent attestation.) But the second step is even harder: Were they or were they not really the first to say what is attributed to them?

Coherence

The story of Socrates is coherent, like any passable plot in any passable fiction. A well-meaning man unsettles many by asking uncomfortable questions and is scapegoated as a corrupter of youth and all that is wrong with the times. It also coheres with what we know of subsequent events: the teachings of Plato and the establishment of his Academy and all the philosophical schools that branched off from that.

That does not prove the historicity of the account, though. Many religious and national myths can claim some sort of coherent origination tale.

But at least in this case coherence does lend some added weight to the probability that has previously been offered us by the independent attestations.

Plausibility

The story of Socrates is plausible. There is no resurrection at the end, no turning water into wine when they ran out of the good stuff at the symposium, no offers to release Darius or Xerxes in exchange for Socrates at his trial. The only heavenly ascent and descent is in a basket held up by a prop on a theatre stage.

But it is the very plausibility of it that enables us to reasonably ask the question in the first place about whether or not it is also “literally true”.

A child listening to a bed-time story finds it plausible enough to ask the question, “Is it true?”

Without plausibility we don’t even ask the question.

Well, that’s not quite true with the Gospels. Some people even seriously ask if Jesus really were raised from the dead, etc. But I am not interested in getting into that sort of discussion. I usually politely close the door on missionaries who try to raise it with me with a firm “Not interested, thank you”.

All plausibility does is offer us a justification for asking if a story is historically true. It is not a sufficient reason to believe in historicity. It is a necessary condition, but every criminal constructing an alibi to escape detection knows this.

Conclusion

I have said enough. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.

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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Was Socrates man or myth? Applying historical Jesus criteria to Socrates”

  1. Do any of the saying that are attributed to Socrates have a greek original? Because that would be very significant, all stories with clear Greek origin are “no doubt” true.

    1. At the time of writing I wondered what we might make of finding the phrase “Know thyself” written in Persian. Of course all it would indicate is that it was a well known saying that had jumped the cultural border.

  2. All you are proving is that there is better evidence for the historical existence of Socrates.

    You are not proving that the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus is insufficient.

    In the development of my own thinking, it was more important for me to appreciate that all the writers of all New Testament’s epistles seem to be ignorant about all the supposed actions and sayings in Jesus supposed life.

    1. What was in my mind was the inadequacy of using the criteria HJ scholars use to establish historicity of anything. None of the criteria in themselves establish anything in relation to historicity, and one might see (or might not) the evidence for this by applying them to someone other than Jesus. Even in the case of mutliptle attestation, what in the end persuades is not the multiplicity of the references nor even their independence, but the nature (genre, if you like) what is multiply and independently attested — and even that does not produce the strongest conclusions.

      Historical facts cannot be inferred from criteria like these. The criteria in fact rely on the prior assumption of Jesus’ historicity to work at all. Thus for multiple attestation one must assume from the outset that what is being multiply attested, the texts themselves, speak of a Jesus who originated as a historical figure. This is, of course, begging the question.

      The nature of a historical fact is not normally discussed at this level among philosophers of history. There is a certain taken-for-granted status about most “facts” under discussion. We know Julius Caesar existed because of the primary tangible evidence, we know about his life from texts that can be traced to the time of that tangible evidence, and that clearly do not have an agenda that one must have faith in Julius Caesar, and that independently confirm one another in other ways. All this further gives us strong confidence in the historicity of much that is not found in the primary physical evidence, too.

      Jesus has nothing comparable to support his historicity. Hence the need to find ways to find evidence — hence the criteria, but if we thought to apply those criteria to other historical figures we would see more starkly how they really do not work at all for such a purpose.

      This is not to say we cannot study Christian origins. There is indeed much evidence. But we have to frame our questions according to the nature of the evidence we have. We cannot try to fudge the evidence (by padding it out through criteria that do not really work for this purpose) in order to have material to allow us to ask the questions we think we want to ask.

    1. I’ve often thought about doing this. I have not yet run across sources for Buddhist origins, however. The evidence appears (I think) to be less clear, consisting of texts of apparently legendary provenance and that do not appear to discuss a movement’s origins as such. But maybe I have not known where to look.

      1. I had the same problems when tried to research on the historicity of Buddha…
        They are just this legendary tales of miracles, recorded much later than the supposed life of him. I think he’s a lot like Jesus…

  3. As regards The Clouds, Aristophanes’s use of Socrates in the way that he does makes Socrates’ existence a near certainty. The genre called Old Comedy absolutely called for public figures in Athens to appear as caricatures for purposes of parody and political satire. It is specifically as a real figure, a “man about town,” that such a figure was employed in this genre. That is, the inclusion of Socrates in this role becomes incoherent if Socrates were a contemporary literary figure with no local presence as a real person in the agora for Aristophanes’s Athenian audience.

    1. Good point. And this is a most instructive example of how known context (independently attested) and literary analysis in relation to that known context, can be used to evaluate historical probability of the referents in the narrative.

  4. Very interesting – but if Socrates is no more or less ‘historical’ than Jesus, we still have to consider how ‘likely’ the events & words ascribed to Jesus are, compared to the events & writings ascribed to Socrates.

    1. If Socrates were a literary invention then it necessarily follows that the events and words ascribed to him are also literary inventions. (Not writings — no writings are ascribed to him).

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