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Philosophy

Examining the Life of Socrates through the Eyes of Primary and Secondary Sources

For someone as influential as Socrates has been on the development of philosophical thought, very little is actually known about his life. There is a general consensus that he was born in 469 B.C and died in 399 B.C. that he served in the military and that he fathered children. This lack of knowledge about the life of Socrates is referred to as “the Socratic problem.” Many people have concluded that we simply cannot reach any solid conclusions about Socrates’ life, while others assert that one or another of those who have written about him have captured the “real” Socrates, while the others have either purposefully fictionalized their accounts of his life, or simply gotten their accounts wrong.

Perhaps the best-known accounts of the life of Socrates come from Plato, who wrote about Socrates in his Dialogues. Even here, though, Plato’s accounts of Socrates are inconsistent, and seem to evolve and change as Plato’s own outlook and ideas evolve and develop over time. It may be that the portrait of Socrates that emerges in Plato’s writing consists of actual facts about Socrates along with Plato’s ideas about what Socrates may have come to believe had he lived longer. Another source of information is the writing of Aristophanes, who included a character named Socrates in some of his works. The Socrates that emerges in Aristophanes’ works is largely a comic figure, and is not always portrayed in a positive manner.

Like Plato, Xenophon looked up to Socrates, and considered him a philosophical master. Xenophon’s descriptions of Socrates are generally positive ones, though the details of them often conflict with the writings of Plato. There are some areas where the primary sources of information about Socrates seem to agree; most describe him as an outgoing and personable man with a small but loyal circle of friends. Although Socrates had a major impact on the evolution of philosophy, he is not portrayed as a charismatic public figure by most of those who write about him. He made a strong impression on those around him, it seems, but he was not in the habit of addressing large crowds and making rousing speeches. At the same time that Socrates was respected, or even revered, by some of those closest to him, he was apparently disliked, and even hated, by many members of the larger Athenian society. In the end, he was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens and for impiety, or disrespect to the gods.

There are other sources of information about Socrates; these are referred to as secondary sources. These include the writings of Aristotle and others who mentioned Socrates in their writings, but did not have the same direct connection with him that students such as Plato and Xenophon did, nor who wrote about him in as much detail and frequency as did Aristophanes. By examining all of the different writings that describe or simply mention Socrates, it may be possible to look at the Socratic problem in a different light. Rather than rejecting any effort to understand Socrates simply because the various primary and secondary accounts of his life are often contradictory, it may instead be helpful to consider the idea that these various accounts not only reflect something about the life of Socrates, but also tell us something about those who wrote them.

It seems clear that Socrates was a complex character, and the various things that have been written about him may not actually be contradictory, but may simply capture facets of his personality at different times and under different circumstances. Aristophanes portrays Socrates as a comic character, but this may simply be a function of Aristophanes’ need to appeal to his audience, an audience that expected to laugh at his works. Xenophon’s accounts of Socrates may portray him in a more serious light than those of Aristophanes, but Xenophon was a student of Socrates, and may have had little interest in creating a “character” out of the life of Socrates. This does not mean that the Socrates portrayed by Xenophon or Aristophanes or Plato is necessarily more accurate than any other. It may mean, however, that by stripping away what we know about those who wrote about him, and then examining what remains, we may be left with a somewhat accurate portrait of a complex and compelling man.

References

Navia, Lewis E. (2007). Socrates: A life examined. Prometheus Books. Amherst, NY.

Navia, Lewis E. (2002). Socratic testimonies. University Press of America. Lanham, MD.