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Who Speaks For Socrates?
Peter Adamson finds Socrates speaking for everyone else.
Socrates is the ventriloquist’s dummy of ancient philosophy. He practiced philosophy as a form of conversation, and did not write it down, leaving others to tell us what he was like and what sorts of things he said. Three of his contemporaries are the most important sources for his thought: the comic poet Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates in his play The Clouds, the historian Xenophon, who wrote several works commemorating Socrates’ conversations, and of course Plato. For most of us, and for the subsequent history of philosophy, the Socrates who counts is Plato’s Socrates: barefoot, ugly, ironic, and relentlessly questioning his fellow citizens in a forever frustrated attempt to learn what virtue is. He’s living the examined life, but his examinations never bring him knowledge: apart, of course, from the knowledge that he knows nothing.
It is usually assumed that Plato’s Socrates – at least the one who stars in Plato’s earlier so-called ‘Socratic dialogues’ – is the most faithful rendering of the real historical man. But I have my doubts about this. Although there is some consistency about Socrates’ character across the various sources, the historical record they yield is like a chat with Socrates himself: full of contradictions. Aristophanes puts Socrates up in the air, investigating meteorology, something you wouldn’t catch Plato’s Socrates doing, and Xenophon’s Socrates is unabashed in praising his own virtue, not abashed by his own inability to say what virtue is, as Plato represents him. The truth is that we get only partial views of the man from our major sources, who are using Socrates to make points of their own. This is at least as true of Plato as it is for Aristophanes and Xenophon. The Socrates of the early dialogues is surely based on the real Socrates; yet he is also a fictional construct, used to explore certain philosophical theories – notably, that virtue is knowledge, so that being virtuous should mean being able to ‘give an account’ of virtue, by explaining in words what virtue amounts to.
So, far from offering the last word on Socrates, Plato’s dialogues were merely an opening salvo in the battle to speak on his behalf. From the midst of a motley collection of ‘Socratics’ in the fourth century BC emerged major traditions of thought that claimed the Socratic mantle. This influence was so diverse that two diametrically opposed schools both took inspiration from him. The Stoics embraced the ‘intellectualism’ of the Platonic Socrates, holding that virtue is all that matters in life and that virtue is knowledge. Indeed the Stoics sought to be more Socratic than Plato had been, arguing that the human soul is rational through-and-through (it has no irrational parts as Plato proposes in his Republic). On the Stoic view, a wicked indulgence in pleasure or a flash of temper simply manifests false belief. Yet the Stoics’ implacable critics, the Skeptics, also saw themselves as followers of Socrates. Their Socrates is the one who knows he knows nothing, and who specializes in disabusing his interlocutors, who frequently confidently claim to have knowledge.
Then there were those who were inspired above all by Socrates’ lifestyle. The irony that attracted them was not the wry sarcasm of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, but that the historical Socrates was the most self-sufficient man in Athens precisely because he was so impoverished. For Diogenes and the Cynics who followed his example, the central Socratic insight was that sufficiency and autonomy lies not in having much, but in needing nothing. Wisdom and virtue consist of ‘following nature’, living on simple food, and (infamously) gratifying sexual desire in public if the urge comes along. Socrates’ irreverence towards traditional religion got him in trouble with the Athenian citizens – one of the charges for which he was executed was ‘introducing new gods’, apparently a reference to a divine guardian spirit that gave him occasional warnings. For the Cynics though, the irreverence was another appealing aspect of the Socratic lifestyle. Hence one of my favorite stories about Diogenes: seeing offerings left to the gods by those who survived storms at sea, he remarked how many more offerings there would be if they could be left by those who did not survive.
This notion that Socrates was the original Cynic had a surprising afterlife. More than a millenium after Diogenes, thinkers in the Muslim world set about collecting sayings and anecdotes about famous Greek thinkers. Al-Kindi, one of the first philosophers of the Islamic world, gathered together dozens of stories about Socrates. In one report, al-Kindi tells us of Socrates sunbathing on the barrel that is his home, being visited by a great king, and saying that all he needs from the monarch is for him to stop blocking the sunlight. This is, of course, one of the most famous antique stories about Diogenes, showing that the two figures had become thoroughly confused by this point in history. In conversation too, this Socrates is more like Diogenes than like the hero of Plato’s early dialogues: a master of the witty one-liner rather than of the intricate refutation. He is supremely self-sufficient because he needs nothing; as he puts it, “the fruits of gold and silver are suffering and toil.” But even if this is a confusion in historical terms, it fits with the ancient pattern. Socrates was never more inspirational than when he was a mouthpiece for the ideas of other thinkers.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2017
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.