Category: Philosophical theories

The “Socratic problem”

The term “Socratic problem” indicates the difficulty with which the historical Socrates can be distinguished from the Socrates of the texts that refer to him; this means, for the most part, the Platonic dialogues.

The nature of the Socratic literature

In spite of his enormous reputation, the truth is that what we know with certainty about Socrates is very little. He never whore anything himself – and we do not even know why he did not. We must come to knowledge regarding his philosophy, therefore, at second (or third) hand.

Many people who came into direct contact with Socrates wrote about him. With the exception of Aristophanes, who produces the Clouds in 423 BCE, i.e. when Socrates was still relatively young (and present, from what is testified, at the performance), it is reasonable to assume that the extensive Socratic literature was written after his infamous death. From these texts, what has come down to us is the Platonic dialogues and the three texts by Xenophon: the Apology of Socrates, the Symposium and the Oeconomicus. However, we also possess fragments of lost Socratic texts by Antisthenes, Aristippus, Aeschines, Phaedo and Euclid; i.e. by all of Socrates’ famous “pupils”.

What is impressive is that these texts do not deal in a straightforward manner with Socrates, his life and his philosophy, but they are literary works (plays based on today’s standards) whose protagonist is Socrates. Nobody from his generation, therefore, or the next one, has offered us precise information on his views, writing as a historian or philosopher. The same holds for the events of his life. We only have adequate evidence on Socrates’ trial and death. We need to wait for Aristotle, born many years after his death, for acquiring some brief information on his philosophy.

Hence, no ancient author who had met Socrates treated him as a historical figure. Nobody gave an account of his life and philosophy, nobody contended with him directly; the authors who met Socrates and wished to write about him did so through literature. The Socrates we are all familiar with is a theatrical figure, the comic caricature of the sophist in the Clouds and the heroic philosopher in the Platonic dialogues. The real Socrates is always concealed behind a mask.

The Socratic problem: historical and “literary” Socrates

This is the crux of the “Socratic problem”: how is one to distinguish the historical Socrates from the Socrates of literature, especially from the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues? Plato’s Socrates, as an autonomous entity, will carry on being a source of inspiration and admiration. Yet so little is known about the historical Socrates, that it is hardly possible to draw the outline of a simple portrait.

With special regard to his philosophy, we know only of its rough sketch. It is certain that the focus of his philosophical investigations was man and he was exclusively concerned with ethical and political issues. Socrates considered self-knowledge and care for one’s soul to be an ethical duty. He claimed that he knew nothing with certainty, but that he had the ability to check other people’s views. His philosophical method consisted in a form of dialectic, based on the formulation of general positions and the attempt to reject them using questions and answers.

This is all we know of Socrates’ philosophy. It is evident that this alone does not explain why Socrates is an important philosopher or why he was such a great influence on those who came into contact with him. It is also impossible to determine what exactly made him so popular in his time, in order for him to become the object of public satire. The source of the “Socratic problem” also remains inexplicable: why did everyone, his friends and rivals, refrain from writing about Socrates directly? Why did they all opt for the literary transformation?

A philosopher, however, can never become a fascinating literary figure, unless his life is more interesting than his theories. “This man here is so bizarre, his ways and his ideas are so unusual, that, search as you might, you’ll never find anyone else, alive or dead, who’s even remotely like him” (Symposium 221c-d), is how Alcibiades describes him. Socrates is fond of making fun of his interlocutors, he gives the impression that discussions are a game to him, he deals with important issues using odd examples from everyday life, yet in the end his interlocutors “realise that no other arguments make any sense” (Symposium 222a); people who listen to him speak “are all transported, completely possessed”, his words have the power to make each listener exclaim that “my life isn’t worth living the way I live it” (215d-216a).

There is every indication that the figure of Socrates made a profound impression on his contemporaries. Very few clearly understood what his teachings were all about – this is why such different accounts of his views have come down to us. Nonetheless, it is a common conviction that Socrates embodies a new ideal of philosopher. In the Socratic ideal the content of philosophical theories and the method of expounding them is inextricably tied to the philosopher’s way of life. Care for cultivating the self and for the proper life becomes the primary duty of the philosopher and eclipses philosophical views to a great extent. Socrates’ philosophy is, first and foremost, his very own life.

Can the Socratic problem be solved?

There have been many attempts to solve the Socratic problem. Those who think they can piece together again the historical Socrates and his contribution to philosophy rely on the one hand on Aristotle’s testimony and, on the other, seek out his philosophy in Plato’s early dialogues, where Plato is allegedly still presenting his teacher’s views. They downplay, in contrast, the importance of Xenophon’s testimony, regarding him as philosophically unsophisticated, and they completely reject Aristophanes’ Socratic mutation. Gregory Vlastos, in his Socrates [1991], has offered the most recent and most coherent reconstruction of such an image of Socrates.

Yet all the presuppositions of such an attempt are unfounded. Aristotle is of a much later generation than Socrates and his information originates in the Platonic tradition. We are not certain regarding the chronological order of the Platonic dialogues and, even in those that are considered to belong to an early period, Socrates often seems to subscribe to contradictory positions. Xenophon’s philosophical naiveté may be regarded as an advantage strengthening his testimony on Socrates. Moreover, the Socrates of the Clouds could not have caused much laughter in the Athenian audience, if he had nothing in common with the real Socrates.

Thus, as Olaf Gigon [1947] has splendidly shown, if one realises that there is no historical evidence to be juxtapose to the abundance of literary evidence, one understands that the Socratic problem is doomed to lack a solution.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Gigon, O. Sokrates: Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte. Bern, 1947.
  • Nails, D. "Socrates." Zalta, E.N ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates. .
  • Vlastos, G. Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge, 1991.
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