Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ

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by Neil Godfrey

Remains of the site of Socrates’ trial

A historical study of Socrates echoes numerous points of interest in biblical studies, both in the Old and New Testaments. Following on from my reference to a point in Robin Waterfield’s Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths I want to note here Waterfield’s explanation for why we have quite divergent accounts of Socrates’ apology (or defence speech) at his trial, one by Plato and the other by Xenophon.

Neither Plato nor Xenophon wrote as disinterested biographers of Socrates. Each had his own agenda and used the figure of Socrates as a representative and advocate for his own interests and values.

Both accounts are fiction, Waterfield believes. How did he arrive at that judgment?

Plato is “too clever”, he says. The apology he sets out is evidently Plato’s own.

The differences between the two versions are enormous; they cannot both be right. So whom does one trust?

It is tempting to rely on Plato’s version, because it is brilliant – funny, philosophically profound, essential reading – whereas Xenophon’s is far more humdrum, and is in any case an unpolished work. But this is the nub of the whole ‘Socratic Problem’, as scholars call it: we want to trust Plato, but his very brilliance is precisely what should incline us not to trust him, in the sense that geniuses are more likely than lesser mortals to have their own agendas. And in fact no one doubts that Plato had his own agenda, and came to use Socrates as a spokesman for his own ideas; the only question is when this process started and how developed it is in any given dialogue. (p. 9, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Waterfield opts for the Goldilocks answer to his question:

The most sensible position is that no dialogue, however early, is sheer biography and no dialogue, however late, is entirely free from the influence of the historical Socrates. Plato, Xenophon and all the other Socratics were writing a kind of fiction – what, in their various views, Socrates might have said had he been in such-and-such a situation, talking with this person and that person on such-and-such a topic. For one thing that is common to all the Socratic writers is that they portray their mentor talking, endlessly talking – either delivering homilies, or engaging others in sharp, dialectical conversation and argument.

I suspect Goldilocks solutions are founded more on aesthetic preference than carefully evaluated options — and here Bayesian analysis offers to help out — but, let’s move on.

We saw in the previous post that another reason for believing the accounts of Socrates are fiction is the sheer fact that there are so many variations of them. Each writer has his own opinion; if genuine reports of Socrates’ speech were documented then they would have been sufficient and there would have been no need for ongoing variations.

Further, Socrates was said to have entered the court as an innocent, without any in depth preparation for what he was about to say. Plato’s version of Socrates’ speech does not portray someone who was unprepared:

If there is any truth to the stories that Socrates came to court unprepared, a rhetorical innocent, Plato’s Apology certainly begins to look fictitious: it has long been admired as polished oratory. (p. 10)

But can’t historians somehow find a way to peel back the fictional layer of the narrative and expose nuggets of historical fact (at least strong probability of historical fact) behind some of the sayings? Not to Waterfield’s knowledge:

Given the unlikelihood of our ever having objective grounds for proving the fictional nature of either or both of these two versions of the defence speeches, it is gratifying, and significant, that we can easily create a plausible case for their fictionality. (p. 10)

And a little later we learn that, unlike biblical scholars of the gospels, the historian does not have any “criteria of authenticity” to bring into the fray:

There may be nuggets of historical truth within either or both of the two works, but we lack the criteria for recognizing them. We will never know for sure what was said on that spring day of 399 BCE. (p. 12)

So we can prove their fictionality but not their historicity.

The case for the fictionality of Plato’s narrative is his story of a friend of Socrates visiting the Delphic oracle to find out if there was anyone alive wiser than Socrates. I’ll quote a translation of it from Plato’s Apology before explaining how it points to its own fictional status. Socrates is addressing his jurors:

And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom – whether I have any, and of what sort – and that witness shall be the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours . . . . [H]e went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether . . . there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.

Interesting, is it not, that though Socrates is said to appeal to a living witness that historians nonetheless take Plato’s account as fiction. The appeal is a rhetorical device to create an air of verisimilitude. (Contrast New Testament scholarship that sometimes appeals to hypothetical would-be witnesses to establish the historicity of certain traditions.)

. . . . When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question.

I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him. (Plato’s Apology, section 20e ff)

And so forth. Socrates describes several more encounters with people of various backgrounds and with reputations for wisdom and comes to the same conclusion each time.

How do we know the story is fiction? Because Socrates is explaining that the message from the Delphic oracle is what launched his career as a philosopher and that set him on the path to acquiring the reputation for wisdom, but the act of asking the Delphic oracle in the first place only makes sense if Socrates is already well-known for wisdom. The tale is self-contradictory. Besides, with one exception (discussed below) no-one else appears to know about the story, only Plato.

But why should Chaerephon have approached the oracle with his question in the first place? In order for it to make sense to ask whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, Socrates must already have had a reputation for wisdom. He had never been famous as anything other than the person in Athens who went around questioning people and finding out if they could define the moral and other concepts they claimed to work with; this enterprise had started around 440 BCE, and had brought him notoriety by the end of the decade. But this is precisely the kind of questioning that, according to Plato, was supposed to have been triggered by the oracle, rather than going on beforehand.

Another good reason for supposing the oracle a fiction is that there is no other reference to it by Plato, or by any of the other Socratics (who would certainly have made hay with it), or anywhere else in Greek literature, except a mention in Xenophon’s Apology, which now begins to look decidedly derivative. It surely would have been a famous tale. (pp. 10-11)

Anyone very familiar with specialist studies of the gospels may be excused for wondering if some historians of ancient times attempt to rationalize the contradiction and find a way to rescue a “nugget” of historicity to the tale anyway.

Waterfield finds an explanation for this fictional tale in Plato’s agenda. Plato was writing to defend philosophy and philosophers before the reactionary and conservative forces of his day. He used Socrates to attempt to expose the “false-wisdom” of the educators and other leaders of his day.

What Plato was doing with this story is rather subtle. Throughout his life Plato wanted to establish philosophy, as he understood it, as the one valid form of higher education, and in order to do so he used his writings to puncture the claims of rivals – educators, poets, statesmen, orators and other experts. So this is what Plato has his character ‘Socrates’ do in the early dialogues: question such experts and find them lacking. This was Plato’s mission, and his Socrates was the mouthpiece for this mission. But this is precisely the mission summarized in Plato’s Apology in the oracle story. Plato made up the story, then, as a way of introducing his own mission, the mission he would give to the character Socrates who was to appear in his works. (p. 11)

Contrast the character of Socrates in Xenophon’s Apology. Xenophon sought to present Socrates as an entirely virtuous and noble character. There was no room in Xenophon’s mind to think of Socrates being or even claiming to be “ignorant” or the “least of the wise” (even ironically) since his Socrates was an exemplar of moral uprightness rather than wisdom.

Xenophon took Plato’s narrative and re-wrote it to serve his own agenda for the figure of Socrates:

“Come,” he said, “lend me your ears while I tell you something more, so that those of you who choose may go to a still greater length in refusing to believe that I am thus highly honoured by the divine powers.

Chaerephon once, in the presence of many witnesses, put a question at Delhi concerning me, and Apollo answered that there was no human being more liberal, or more upright, or more temperate than myself.(Xenophon’s Apology)

The historian examines the nature of the evidence and finds reasons to interpret it as fiction, and further, also identifies how one author has taken the text of another and rewritten it to fit a different type of Socrates that serves another purpose. We see the same process in the gospels, of course, although sometimes one will argue that differences in the accounts of Jesus arise from different oral traditions about the events.

Since Xenophon knew Socrates, he knew that Plato’s Socrates was fictional. He was in a position to recognize that Plato’s description of Socrates’ mission was actually a clever way of outlining and introducing Plato’s own mission. So Xenophon did the same: he used the same story for the same purpose, and merely tweaked it to suit his mission. The chief difference between the oracle story in Plato and the version in Xenophon is that in Xenophon the oracle states that there is no one more free, upright and prudent than Socrates. Xenophon’s mission was to make Socrates out to be a paragon of conventional virtue (and to explore what inner conditions are required for such virtue), and so his Socrates is ‘free, upright and prudent’, rather than ‘wise’. Xenophon avoids mentioning wisdom because its corollary was Socratic ignorance: Plato’s Socrates was wiser than anyone else because he was the only one who was aware of his ignorance. But ignorance is not one of the traits of Xenophon’s Socrates, who spends most of his time advising others what to do. (p. 11)

To that extent we see similarities with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial. The evangelists’ methods were similar in some ways to the “biographers” of Socrates. It is interesting to compare the methods used by the respective scholars of each field and to consider both the differences and similarities.



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Neil Godfrey

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