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Who was Socrates? CORNELIA DE VOGEL I CONSIDERIT TO BE quite a privilege to be invited to speak of Socrates,1 not only because of the wonderful picture drawn by Plato of his master in what we call the Socratic dialogues, but perhaps mostly because there is a real challenge in the difference of opinion among modern scholars on the question of "Who was Socrates?" I have solid grounds for being convinced that we can answer that question in a positive manner; that is, I think I can explain, first, that it is not true (as some modern scholars hold) that we are unable to grasp the historical reality that stands behind the name of Socrates; second, that there are a few modern interpretations of Socrates which are suggestive but false; third, that one and only one interpretation is well founded and correct. I think it is worthwhile to spend an hour considering these points. Socrates is one of those four famous Greek philosophers who did not leave any written works. The other three are: Pythagoras, who in Aristotle's day already seemed to disappear in the haze of a remote past; Pyrrho, the founder of the Sceptic School, and Carneades, that famous dialectician who was the head of the New Academy in the second century. On none of these so much as on Socrates have modern critics endeavored to demonstrate that he never existed? The most refined representative of the nineteenth-century style of criticism is O. Gigon, who modified Dupr6el's thesis insofar as he does not deny explicitly that there existed an Athenian called Socrates, and even that he may have been an important personality. But he does hold that we cannot know of what importance was Socrates. To prove his thesis Gigon deals first with the tradition about the indictment, the litigation and condemnation of Socrates; next with the story about the Delphic oracle and Socrates' calling to philosophy; then with his marriage and family life, and last, with his relation to the city of Athens. It is not too difficult to cite divergent and even contradictory information on all these points. As to Plato's dialogues, in which the philosopher Socrates is pictured--to the life, as it might seem to us--according to Gigon the historical value of t Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, May 25, 1962. ~E. Dupr6el, La ldgende de Socrate et les sources de Platon (Brux., 1921); O. Gigon, Sokrates (Bern, 1947; Samml. Dalp). (See my review in Mnemosyne [1950]; see also Phronesis [1955], I.) A. H. Chroust, Socrates, Man and Myth (London, 1957), adopts essentially Gigon's thesis. [14s] 144 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY these writings is by no means greater than that of any other of our sources. Why should they be more trustworthy? Because the image they present is beautiful? That would be a deceptive ground, for Plato may have invented freely, and we have good reason to believe he did. In fact, if anybody holds that we do not know anything for certain about Socrates, he must begin by disparaging Plato's testimony altogether. Next, he must deny that Aristotle said a word of truth about what was the proprium of Socrates as a philosopher, and in what Plato differed from him. Third, he must assert that there is a complete disagreement between Plato and Xenophon as to the personality of Socrates, not to mention the fifthcentury comedian Aristophanes (who, as a matter of fact, drew a fairly strange portrait of the philosopher). After having thus rejected the testimony of contemporaries and their direct successors, he may turn to the gossip of those later authors who have no authority at all: Aristoxenus, a furious anti-Socratic, who is cited by Plutarch as a classical instance of malignity; Diogenes Laertius, that late writer (3rd century A.D.) who tells us the strangest stories about all Greek philosophers; Athenaeus, Herodicus, Aelianus , and so on--and find there divergent and contradictory information about Socrates' life and behavior. Let us begin by stating that we must not follow this procedure. Moreover, let us state that it is not interesting to us that, while Plato and Xenophon say Socrates was married...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 143-161
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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