Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Who is Socrates? 

There is no historical doubt that Socrates was a real actual person who lived in Athens from 470 to 399 BC, and who was a well known character in town. Tradition has it that in his youth he worked as a stonecutter, did some stone sculpting, and even had a showing of his sculptures at one point. He eventually married a young woman, Xanthippe, who tradition tells us had had quite a reputation for shrewishness even from her early childhood (poor Xanthippe has gotten such bad press from tradition). They had at least two children, sons, one of whom (according to Plato's Phaedo) was young enough to be "on his mother's knee" when Socrates was in jail at age 69 or 70.

Mini-lecture topics:

A note on pronunciation of Greek names

Sources 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. One of Aristophanes' comic plays, The Clouds, includes a character whose name is Socrates and who seems to clearly be a depiction of the real Socrates. This character is portrayed as a buffoon and a fool. In The Clouds, 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.

Socrates is depicted in this play 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?

Socratic method

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, click here

For Socrates' description of himself as midwife, click here.

Indirect communication
a la Soren Kierkegaard

For a full description of what Kierkegaard means by indirect communication, click here