Category: Plato in 80 entries

The "Socratic Problem"

The coinage "Socratic problem" describes the difficulty we have to distinguish between the historic figure of Socrates, and the dramatic persona of the philosopher as it is portrayed in the texts about him - and especially in Plato's dialogues.

The truth is that only little is known accurately about Socrates. He wrote nothing, and therefore we reach out to his philosophy only through second hand, or even more indirect, information. The primary sources we have at our disposal are Aristophanes' Clouds, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. We also have extant dialogical excerpts from Antisthenes, Aeschines, Aristippus Phaedo, and Euclid - that is, from all the famous students of Socrates. All of the aforementioned persons, with the exception of Aristotle, were acquainted, and in fact intimate with Socrates.

It causes wonder that none of the texts of the so-called "Socratic literature" is a biographical report on the life and philosophy of Socrates; instead, they are all works of fiction that portray Socrates as their protagonist. Evidently, we do not have any precise information by any historian or philosopher of the same generation as Socrates, or even the subsequent one. We have to come down to Aristotle, who was born many years after Socrates' death, that we may draw some laconic information on his philosophy.

Thus, no ancient writer, among those who met Socrates, depicted him as a historical figure. All those who met Socrates, and decided to write about him, did so through fiction. The Socrates who has come down to us is a fictional character. The real Socrates is meant to remain hidden from us.

This is the core to the unresolved "Socratic problem": the platonic Socrates -considered as an autonomous persona, unfettered from its dramatic context- will remain a source of inspiration and admiration. With regards to the historic Socrates, the scarcity of the information about him does not even allow for a moderate account.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
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