Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr. Alan Lacey

Lately while filling in gaps in my time by digging out scholarly publications addressing the problem of how much historians can know about “the real Socrates” or let’s say “the historical Socrates” I have become more aware of how many overlaps there are between the portrayals of Socrates and Jesus in their respective sources.

If Jesus is portrayed by some evangelists as a second Moses or Elijah, Socrates is portrayed by some ancient Greeks as an ideal type of Achilles.

If the words imputed to Jesus are found in the supposed writings of Moses and Prophets, words of Socrates are sometimes taken straight from Homer.

If Jesus has become for diverse authors a literary mouthpiece to express a range of views, sometimes contradictory, Socrates is likewise clearly developed as a literary mouthpiece by various authors for a range of viewpoints.

A few brave classicists or historians of ancient times have dared suggest that any recovery of the historical Socrates is completely impossible; the real Socrates has become completely overlaid with myth, with literary artifice, so as to become merely an authoritative name for whatever figure they created to express whatever views they themselves taught.

Others, a majority, appear to respond by claiming that those few scholars have been more foolhardy than courageous and that it is certainly possible, though difficult, to so work with the surviving sources to glimpse something of what Socrates was actually like. Part of this process involves recognizing that the early dialogues of Plato appear to be closer to the historical figure than the later dialogues. When Aristotle adds details that do not come from Plato or Xenophon then it is assumed they have some independent “tradition” or source.

In this post I will do nothing more than quote a few passages from one of the more prominent scholars in the debate over “the Socratic problem” who sets out the grounds for believing that despite all the uncertainties about Socrates that arise from the above problems, we can at least know that behind it all there was a real Socrates all the same. Bolded highlighting is my own, of course.

. . . it is not surprising that some scholars have thrown up their hands and taken “Socrates” to be a mere literary creation by a group of writers at the beginning of the fourth century, the real man, if there ever was one, being lost in the mists of time. However, the “myth” theory is now generally rejected, at least in its extremer forms. The evidence, inadequate though it is, is too widespread to allow such an agnosticism without insisting on a degree of rigour we are unwilling to use elsewhere (an unwillingness sometimes inconsistently used to throw out our knowledge of Socrates in particular: see de Vogel’s review of Gigon in Mnemosyne, 1951).

Let us start with the evidence in works written in Socrates’ own lifetime. This has an advantage in that these works are most likely to be first-hand accounts, written from a fresh memory and for an audience familiar with Socrates himself and before any tradition could have arisen of the “Socratic discourse” as a literary genre that could take liberties with history. . . .

The most important single source is the satire by Aristophanes in his comedy the Clouds, produced in 423 and followed by a second edition some years later where the poet tells us (II. 518 If.) that the first edition was not successful and where certain features, notably the debate of the Just and Unjust Arguments and the final burning of Socrates’ school, were either added or radically revised.

How far can a comedian go? Whether Aristophanes’ real target was Socrates himself, the subversive tendencies of the Sophistic movement, the apparent absurdities of Ionian “science,” or just ‘long-haired intellectuals” in general (and the contrasts we find so obvious between these various elements may not have been at all so obvious to their contemporaries), his selection of Socrates as his chief butt must surely mean that Socrates was known to a fairly wide audience, and vaguely associated with the “modem” tendencies.

Lacey moves into a discussion of the way Aristophanes savagely ridiculed Socrates, yet appears to be friends with Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues. There is much to address here about the likely independent view of Aristophanes, such as whether we consider him true disciple of Socrates or not. But clearly Aristophanes was writing for an audience that were not disciples of Socrates. So we can infer some degree of independence in his account.

Plato and Xenophon have much in common. They both knew Socrates personally (Xenophon [Mem. III 6.1] mentions Plato en passant in a way suggesting considerable intimacy with Socrates.) . . . . .

Plato himself, as we have seen, is naturally regarded as our main source for Socrates, though only in his earliest dialogues. This does not, however, mean that nothing in the later dialogues can be used. The change in Socrates’ role in the dialogues is a gradual one and the fact that he is sometimes abandoned shows that Plato thought of himself as in some sense following Socrates for the rest of the time. . . .

Finally we come to Aristotle, our only substantial later source. Barring pure invention, whatever Aristotle tells us about Socrates must come from further sources, and his value to us depends on what these sources were, and on how reliably, and so with what purpose, he used them. If he had only the sources that we also have ourselves his value would be only that of a highly intelligent modern colleague; his opinion would be just one among others. But this does not follow if it turns out simply that everything he tells us can be traced to some otherwise available source. Such a conclusion might be disappointing but it would still be valuable for us if Aristotle chose his material from sources far exceeding those available to us now. It would show which sources he thought reliable on the point in question, and would suggest that the lost ones were either not among these or did not contradict those we have. That his sources did vastly exceed our own no one would doubt, and though it is only natural that he should make much use of Plato’s writings, there are many things he tells us-such as that Plato, not Socrates, “separated” the Forms, or that Plato’s earliest teacher was Cratylus which it is hard to see how he can have got from the dialogues.

(Lacey pp. 24-26, 32, 41, 44-45)

There is other evidence discussed by Lacey but it is less direct than the points I have copied above. So we have the testimony of contemporaries, each presenting his own perspective, two students, one satirist ridiculing the great man.

We see that we move into less certainty with Aristotle but that given the evidence of three of Socrates’ named contemporaries (Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato) a good number of scholars are inclined to interpret uncited sources in Aristotle’s work in a manner comparable to those three. There is one difference between Aristotle’s additional information and the details we have about Jesus. The latter bear strong affinities to other literature known at the time suggesting literary creativity; Aristotle’s additional information about Socrates appears to be of a “non-literary” kind and more matter-of-fact.

Aristotle was writing a generation after Socrates, about the same time gap we have between the narrated event of Jesus’ crucifixion and the early gospels.

Lacey, A. R. 1971. “Our Knowledge of Socrates.” In The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Vlastos, 22–49. Modern Studies in Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed”

  1. I remember reading an argument that declaring some of Plato’s dialogues to be early and others late involves a lot of question begging. I wish I remembered it better.

  2. Indeed. I just did a search in Jstor with the terms early late dialogues plato and many articles discussing the order and chronology of the dialogues surface. It is evidently a much discussed area.

  3. Confirming that someone did exist and that someone didn’t exist are two very different things. They are related in that if you can confirm that someone did exist then of course that precludes them from not existing.

    But of course lack of evidence that someone did exist isn’t proof that they didn’t exist. Proving that someone didn’t exist requires positive evidence.

    In regard to Jesus, I’ve gotten a lot of push back on the title of my book, but I think almost everyone greatly underestimates how much evidence there is against Jesus’s existence. Indeed I would say that Jesus is probably one of the very few ancient figures that we can actually prove didn’t exist. Because of all the material about Jesus that has been preserved it actually makes it far easier to build a case against him than pretty much anyone else.

    At this point I’d say I’m more certain that Jesus didn’t exist than that Hercules didn’t exist, i.e. I’m more certain that the Jesus worshiped by Christians isn’t based on a real person than that the Hercules of Greek mythology wasn’t based on a real person.

  4. I think the point should be stressed that Athenian Old Comedy as a genre featured broad satire of notable Athenians. There are dozens of “men about town” who are lampooned in the surviving comedies of Aristophanes. The import for the question at hand is that The Clouds would be incoherent if Socrates were fictional. The humor arises from the audience’s familiarity with an actual celebrity named Socrates, either by personal acquaintance or by reputation.

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