A note on pronunciation of Greek names
of information about Socrates
We have even today some pretty reliable sources
of information about Socrates, descriptions of him written by people who knew
him personally and were friends with him. These written descriptions still
survive today, so we can read directly about what Socrates was like, or at
least what he seemed to be like in the eyes of these friends.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, these three friends -- Aristophanes,
Xenophon and Plato -- do not all describe Socrates the same way, so you may
find yourself wondering what Socrates was "really" like. A book
entitled The Socratic Enigma (the author's name escapes me right now)
is a good source if you want to follow up on this question.
At any rate, the three sources of information about Socrates are:
a.) Xenophon, a renowned Athenian general, under whose leadership
Socrates fought in some battles, admired Socrates quite a lot. Xenophon
wrote several "remembrances" of Socrates, usually translated as
The Memorabilia, in which he described events in which Socrates was
a participant. In Xenophon's descriptions, Socrates comes off as a tough and
courageous soldier who is fearless in the face of battle and who is happy
to face danger to save his friends, i.e., just the sort of man that a general
would admire. He also appears to be a man who cares little about the niceties
of physical comfort or discomfort, who can go days without eating, and who
goes barefoot in both summer and winter, even on snow and ice when other men
have the good sense to wear heavy wraps around their feet. Xenophon also describes
Socrates as a man who can drink more than any of his companions and yet never
show any signs of being drunk. (Xenophon seems impressed by this.)
b.) Aristophanes, one of the four Greek playwrights whose works still survive
today - the others are Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides - was friends for
a time with Socrates. Some of Aristophanes' comic plays include a character
whose name is Socrates and who seems to clearly be a depiction of the real
Socrates. This character is often portrayed as a buffoon and a fool. For example,
in one of the plays Socrates is portrayed as the headmaster of a school called
the "Phrontisterion," or "School for False Logic." He
promises to teach his students how to become so proficient in the art of arguing
that they will be able to make any argument win. They will be able, he promises,
to argue for any position on any subject and make that position prevail (something
that some Athenians believed Socrates did all the time, and something that
some people think law schools still teach today). This headmaster had a large
basket in the front of his classroom that was attached to the ceiling with
ropes and pulleys so that he could climb into the basket and pull himself
up to the ceiling and lecture from that higher position. He believed that
this made his students look up to him, and made his lectures more elevated.
In another of Aristophanes' plays Socrates is depicted as a person who wanders
around with his mind up in the clouds, looking up into the heavens and thinking
about all sorts of philosophical things, but then accidentally stumbles and
falls into a ditch. At another point he is depicted as standing just outside
a house one evening, under the eves, looking up at the stars and again thinking
philosophical thoughts, when a little lizard wanders out to the edge of the
roof, lifts its leg, and urinates all over Socrates.
These were not flattering depictions of the person that every Athenian knew
in real life, but Socrates seems to have enjoyed them as much as anyone. Legend
has it that whenever these plays were being presented to an Athenian audience,
and when everyone was laughing at one of the foolish antics of the Socrates
character on stage, that the real life Socrates would stand up in the audience,
smile, and bow graciously to everyone in attendance.
c.) The third source of information we have about Socrates the person
is Plato. Plato met Socrates when he (Plato) was in his teens. Prior
to meeting Socrates, Plato had aspired to being a playwright, perhaps the
most highly respected profession in Athens, but after meeting Socrates he
determined to devote his life to the search for wisdom. He says that he "caught
fire" with the love of wisdom from being around Socrates who was so much
in love with wisdom that it was contagious.
When Socrates was engaged in these conversations
that you'll be studying, for example the conversation with Euthyphro, Socrates
and Euthyphro were not the only ones there. They were almost certainly surrounded
by a little following of upper class Athenian males who very much enjoyed
watching Socrates dialog with the great and respected men in the city. They
probably also enjoyed watching Socrates get the better of these men in the
conversation. (Could this have been part of what the Athenians meant when
they charged Socrates with "corrupting the youth?")
In any case, Plato was one of those young men who followed Socrates around
and listened in on these conversations. Later, after Socrates had been put
to death by the Athenians, Plato recalled many of these conversations and
recorded them for all of Athens, and all of posterity, to read.
Plato's depiction of Socrates is as a person who is profoundly wise, a person
who has understood planes of reality far higher than what is understood by
most people. He is depicted as one who has been outside the cave and who is
no longer imprisoned by the illusions of the ordinary world. He is depicted
as a skilled communicator who can ask people to question and examine even
their most cherished assumptions.
These three depictions of Socrates are all quite
different, of course. You may find yourself wondering which of the characterizations
of Socrates was more accurate, and which were less accurate. Aristophanes
the comic playwright may not have been intending to render an accurate, true
picture of what Socrates was really like. Xenophon may have been trying to
do that, but Xenophon may have not himself had the capacity to understand
the full depth of who Socrates was. An old mediaeval scholastic axiom says
(in Latin): Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur - "Whatever
is received is received according to the mode of the receiver." This
means that whatever you perceive is likely to be shaped more by who you are
than by the characteristics of what you are perceiving. When one reads Xenophon's
accounts of Socrates, you are left with the impression of a person whom a
military general would probably like. On the other hand, Xenophon may not
have had the capacity to see all the depths that were in Socrates.
Plato's depictions of Socrates are not so simple.
In the cluster of short dialogues that Plato wrote within a few years after
Socrates' death (including some of the dialogues you're reading this quarter:
Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and others), Socrates is not depicted
in quite the same way as in the dialogues that Plato writes in his later years
(such as The Phaedrus, The Symposium, The Republic, and so on). The
characterizations of Socrates in The Republic and other later dialogues
are of a much richer and deeper person than those in the earlier dialogues.
Was this because Plato was embellishing, or was it because in his more mature
years he was able to see depths in Socrates that he had not been able to see
in his earlier years?
In Plato's characterizations of Socrates we see
a person communicating often in a certain manner, a manner that has sometimes
been termed "the Socratic method." This method can be fairly said
to include at least the four following themes:
- It involves one-on-one conversation, not lectures
to a group.
- It involves Socrates asking lots of questions.
- It seems to involve a certain amount of irony
and even sarcasm sometimes.
- It seems to involve "indirect communication."
For a bit fuller description of these elements,
For Socrates' description of himself as midwife, click here.
a la Soren Kierkegaard
For a full description of what Kierkegaard means
by indirect communication, click here