Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Socrates #2. Did Socrates exist?

Socrates vs Jesus
Many theists, when confronted with the reality that there is no contemporary, un-contested evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was actually a real person in history, will say, "Well what evidence do you have that Socrates was a real person?"
Just one week’s space between posts this time -- making up for having taken a break after Easter.

Yes, Socrates did exist. Why spend time on something so obvious? Well, for many people who don’t have experience in dealing with evidence about antiquity, it isn’t that obvious.

Socrates, probably based on Lysippus’
statue (Roman copy; orig. 4th cent. BCE)
(Mus. Pio Clementino inv. 314, Rome)
The reason there’s even a question over this is because of the historical methodologies advocated by ‘Jesus mythicists’, that is, people who deny the existence of a 1st century CE Judaean cult leader by the name of Jesus. To make that denial a principled one, you have to adopt some pretty strict constraints for the form of evidence you’re willing to accept -- strict enough that if you try to apply the same criteria anywhere else, you tend to end up concluding that most other figures in antiquity didn’t exist either. Socrates happens to be one individual who often gets caught in the crossfire. (Which is a little odd, actually, since he isn’t a very good parallel.)

(We’ve had several occasions recently to roll eyes at mythicism, so I solemnly promise to take a break from that theme after this post. For at least two months.)

Yes, people do get confused over this, don’t mock. Here’s a sample question from StackExchange:
I have read a lot of websites that suggest Socrates was a fictional character created by Plato (albeit without the citation of any corroborating evidence), but I have also read the opposite (and by "opposite" here I don't mean that Plato was created by Socrates but rather that Socrates was a living, breathing person).
Is there any truth to this claim?
So: the aim I’m taking upon myself today is simply to make a reasonably thorough list of the most relevant evidence.



Socrates himself. Socrates wrote no philosophical works himself, as far as we know. So, no testimony from the horse’s mouth. Having said that, we’re told he did write some things. Plato mentions him composing a hymn to Apollo, and a verse adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables. The only bits that survive are the first line of the hymn, and the first two lines of the Aesop elegy, both quoted by Diogenes Laertius. For what it’s worth, Diogenes also tells us (a) some people regarded the hymn to Apollo as spurious; and (b) the Aesop poem was authentic, but not very good.

Testimony dating to Socrates’ lifetime. Although Plato and Xenophon knew Socrates personally, their writings are later than Socrates’ death in 399 BCE. For texts that are actually contemporary with Socrates, our testimony consists of four comic plays by two authors:
  • Aristophanes’ Clouds (423-419 BCE) has Socrates, or rather a satirical depiction of him, as a major character in the play;
  • Ameipsias’ lost Konnos (also 423 BCE) had Socrates as a character too;
  • Aristophanes’ Birds (414) makes a joke about Socrates as a well-known public figure;
  • so does Aristophanes’ Frogs (405).
As a bonus the Birds has one of Socrates’ close associates, Chaerephon, as a character in the play.

If this looks like sparse evidence, then be aware that it is not unusual. The fact that we have any contemporary testimony at all is a real rarity. As I’ve said in a previous post, judging ancient history by the criteria that you’d use for 20th-21st century events is like using carbon dating to test dinosaur fossils. It’s just a hopelessly inappropriate methodology, completely unsuited to history before the modern era.

Plato and Xenophon. Most of what is known about Socrates’ thought comes from two individuals who lived at the same time as him and who knew him personally. Plato and Xenophon both make him a central character in their dialogues, a literary genre designed to present philosophy as emerging from interaction and conversation; Xenophon also discusses Socrates in his Hellenica. We have little opportunity to test how much of their testimony is faithful to the historical Socrates. Their purpose in using him as a character in dialogues wasn’t to preserve a historical record, but to draw on a useful iconic persona. We can be pretty sure Socrates regarded himself as a philosophos, a ‘lover of wisdom’, as they depict him; it appears he didn’t charge fees for his ‘teaching’; his ‘Socratic method’ may possibly have had a resemblance to the tactics that Plato describes. But it seems very unlikely that he would have agreed with Plato’s theory of forms; and there’s no reliable way of unravelling the historical from the imaginary in the reports of the defence speech at his trial, in Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies.

... (Ἀριστοτέλει) εἰπόντι ἐν τῷ πρώτῳ περὶ Ποιητικῆς καὶ πρὸ | Πλάτωνος γεγράφθαι δραματικοὺς | διαλό]γ̣[ους] ὑ̣π̣’ [Ἀ]λεξαμενοῦ Τη{ν}ίου... ‘(Aristotle) said in book 1 of the Poetics that even before Plato, dramatic dialogues were written by Alexamenus of Te{n}os.’
(NB: the attribution to the Poetics is incorrect; probably so is Alexamenus’ surname.)
--P.Oxy. 3219, 2nd cent. CE

Testimony from other members of Socrates’ circle. Plato and Xenophon are the only ones whose writings survive, but we have reports that Socrates’ other associates wrote about him too:
  • Alexamenus of Teos, an obscure figure who according to Aristotle was the first to write Socratic dialogues; Aristotle seems to indicate that Alexamenus’ dialogues were more like staged mimes than like the philosophical discussions we see in Plato (Aristotle fr. 72 Rose + P.Oxy. 3219).
  • Lysias’ Apology, probably the earliest of the three Apologies (i.e. Lysias, then Plato, then Xenophon). Lysias is better known for his surviving legal speeches.
  • numerous works by Antisthenes, who appears to have been regarded as the most important of Socrates’ pupils in the first few years after his death; Antisthenes was firmly opposed to Plato’s philosophy in some important ways, which increases his importance since it implies that he and Plato were independent sources.
  • Seven dialogues by Aeschines (not the later orator).
  • Six dialogues by Euclides, whose teachings are reported to have been close to Socrates’ own.
  • Two dialogues by Phaedo.
  • Vague reports of writings by Aristippus, who went professional and charged fees.
Testimony about other members of Socrates’ circle. Some of Socrates’ associates had great historical significance while Socrates was still alive. Their historicity creates a definite presumption in favour of Socrates’ historicity, via the principle of contextual fit. Alcibiades was one of the most significant generals in the Peloponnesian War; Critias was an ally of Alcibiades, and went on to become the ringleader of the Thirty Tyrants whose short-lived regime brutalised the entire populace of Athens in 404 BCE; Charmides was involved in a high-profile court case near the end of the Peloponnesian War, and was a minister for the Thirty Tyrants; and both Critias and Charmides were involved in an attempted coup d’état in 411 BCE.

Later testimony is abundant. Some of the most important items, in the sense of items that appear to derive from independent chains of testimony (or at least partially independent), are
  • Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173 (the famous orator; shortly after 346 BCE);
  • a letter purportedly from Speusippus, Plato’s successor as head of the Academy, to Philip II of Macedonia (possibly spurious);
  • a statue by the famous 4th century BCE sculptor Lysippus, which survives in several Roman copies;
  • references in the writings of Aristotle, Arcesilaus, and several Stoics;
  • a strong biographical tradition that isn’t solely derived from Plato, appearing in later sources like Cicero and Diogenes Laertius.
The post-Hellenistic biographical tradition has very little value, except for the fact that it is clearly derived from sources other than Plato, which in turn shows that it wasn’t simply invented by Plato as ‘Socrates mythicists’ sometimes suggest. The Aeschines passage is especially useful because it is our only account of the circumstances of Socrates’ trial which is not derived from Socrates’ fans.

(See our last post for more details: Aeschines’ testimony suggests that Socrates’ execution was closely linked to his association with Critias. Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies keep very, very quiet about that link. Plato’s depiction of Socrates instead tries to derail the prosecution by pretending that the real defendant is not himself but an imaginary character, like the satirical caricature in Aristophanes’ Clouds.)



The problems with Socrates’ biography are comparable to those surrounding Jesus to the extent that his fan-club mythologised him a great deal: it’s likely that there were some very important differences between the real man and the picture that we’re given. This is especially obvious in their extreme defensiveness about his trial, and in their insistence on Socrates’ resistance to the Thirty Tyrants when he was ordered to arrest and execute one of their political opponents. I strongly suspect that the historical Socrates’ links to Alcibiades, Charmides, and especially Critias were much more damning than the fan-club lets on.

Socrates’ situation is very different from Jesus, in that he was linked to several figures who loom large in historical accounts of the period; and also in that he is reported to have served as a hoplite in three well-attested battles of the Peloponnesian War (Potidaea, 432 BCE; Delium, 424; Amphipolis, 422), and in 406 BCE served on the Boulē, the main administrative arm of the Athenian legislature.

Plato and Socrates: a more romanticised view.
(Details from ‘The death of Socrates’ by Jacques Louis David, 1787. Source: NY Met)

And thinking of contextual fit: the picture we get of him is not all that exceptional once we look beyond Plato. Aristophanes’ Clouds groups him with other philosophers and satirises all of them as a bunch. The crime of which he was charged, asebeia (‘impiety’), was one that had previously been levelled at three other philosophoi, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Diagoras; and the other three philosophers all chose to exile themselves from Athens to avoid a legal penalty, an option that Socrates considered but which, Plato claims, he chose to reject. (One other figure charged with asebeia, Aspasia, is a different situation: unlike the other four, she secured an acquittal.)

Overall, by the standards of 2414 years ago, this is extremely robust evidence for the existence of Socrates. Is it in principle possible to doubt the evidence? Sure -- in the same way that it’s possible to doubt a dozen separate news reports on a current event, or in the same way that it’s possible to doubt that a lifetime’s worth of experience predicts that a book will fall on the floor the next time you let go of it. His actual beliefs and teachings, and details of his biography, are not nearly as set in stone.

But as a general principle, when we doubt an ancient source, we do so because of tendencies that we perceive in that source or other similar sources. We don’t start questioning the existence of people it mentions except when there is some principled reason to do so. That principled reason might be something specific (is there reason to believe that the source was written for deceptive purposes? or reason to suspect later interference with the text?) or a more general policy (do other sources of this genre/period/place have a track record of making people up?). Otherwise we end up cherry-picking the evidence.

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