Tag Archives: Socrates

Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed

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.

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Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness are cut down by the narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods. read more »

Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus

Socrates in Nuremberg Chronicle LXXIIvPoor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.

Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)

So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first-century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources. read more »

Jesus and Socrates

Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history: read more »

How do we know anyone existed in ancient times? (Or, if Jesus Christ goes would Julius Caesar also have to go?)

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum
Image via Wikipedia

Most things we know we know because “everyone knows” them to be true. They are things we are taught at school and that remain unquestioned in our cultural life. Though much of this “social knowledge” will not be seriously questioned by most of us, we have trained specialists or scientists who will question and test some of it. So we have two types of knowledge: social knowledge and scientific knowledge.

Most of us know figures from the past existed as a form of social knowledge. I know evolution is a fact as a form of social knowledge, and with a little effort I have found I can also know it is true as a more secure, evidence-based form of knowledge.

Most of us know Julius Caesar existed because this is a matter of public record and taught in schools. Specializing students of history know he exists because they become familiar with the evidence: coins with his name and image, busts, books written by him, writings among his contemporaries like Cicero speaking of him. His existence (and career) is also a very powerful explanation of the way Rome and its conquered territories came to be ruled by an emperor.

There is a constellation of other persons in Caesar’s life for whom we don’t have the same strength of evidence. But the fact that those others are written about by authors who express intentions to address the facts of his life gives us strong confidence in the probability of their existence, too.

Some historical persons such as Socrates who have become part of the web of our social knowledge are from time to time questioned by specialist students and scholars. But many of these specialists are satisfied Socrates existed on the strength of the independence of the ancient testimonies. Not only is Socrates found among the writings of his reverential devotees like Plato and Xenophon, but he also appears comedy plays by a contemporary playwright as the but of crude mockery.

So when we get beyond social knowledge, specialist students can uncover the more empirical evidence for the existence of ancient persons. What persuades is where that evidence is multiple, independent and not self-serving or agenda-driven. read more »