Our Knowledge of Socrates

Part of the Modern Studies in Philosophy book series


Two of the reasonably certain facts about Socrates are that he was executed by the state in 399 b.c. at the age of seventy and that he did not write anything.1 Our picture of him is therefore entirely dependent on others: on those of his own generation who lived and thought alongside him; on those of the next generation who knew him in their early years but wrote about him largely if not entirely after his death, writing from memory or borrowing from each other or elaborating a creation of their own; and on those born after his death, but who had access to vastly more secondhand material than we have ourselves and were perhaps free from at least some of the polemical motives that beset their predecessors. The need to decide among these various and conflicting sources immediately confronts us with a problem: do we judge our conception of Socrates by what we find in the sources or do we judge the sources by what we think we already know about Socrates? It is the incoherence that results from uncritically doing the former, together with the constant temptation to engage prematurely in the latter, that creates the Socratic problem as we have it.


Answer Method Literary Genre Socratic Dialogue Literary Creation Early Dialogue 
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  1. 4.
    E. de Strycker, “Les témoignages historiques sur Socrate,” in Mélanges Grégoire (1950), §II.Google Scholar
  2. Cf. L. Robin, La Pensée hellénique, pp. 114–15 (written in 1910).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    E. Dupréel, La Légende socratique et les Sources de Platon (1922),Google Scholar
  4. O. Gigon, Sokrates. Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte (1947),Google Scholar
  5. A.-H. Chroust, Socrates, Man and Myth (1957).Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Translated in Mind, April, 1968. See A. E. Taylor, Varia Socratica, chap. 3, W. Kranz in Hermes, 1937, esp. 230 ff., E. S. Ramage in Am. Jnl. of Philol., 1961, and for a more sceptical approach H. Gomperz, Sophistik und Rhetorik, pp. 150–59, A. Levi in Am. Jnl. of Philol., 1940, pp. 302 ff.Google Scholar
  7. 34.
    For the Burnet/Taylor view that Plato’s portrait of Socrates is substantially accurate throughout see J. Burnet, Greek Philosophy, Thales to Plato and A. E. Taylor, Varia Socratica and Socrates, as well as their editions of various dialogues. For criticisms of it see, e.g., W. D. Ross in Proc. of the Class, Assoc, 1933, L. Robin in Rev. des Et. gr., 1916 (reprinted in La Pensée hell, pp. 138–76). J. W. Miller (in Rev. of Met., 1953) supports the Burnet/Taylor view by studying the dramatic dates of the dialogues, but though he makes some interesting points he does not answer the objections (and his own discussion of Recollection unduly ignores the Euthyphro).Google Scholar
  8. 43.
    The discovery of Anaxagoras through his writings rather than through personal contact suits this view well, especially if the copies were secondhand or remainders going cheap (cf. L. R. Shero in Class, Wkly, 1941–42, pp. 219–20).Google Scholar
  9. 46.
    First proposed by W. Fitzgerald, Selections from the Nic. Eth. of Aristotle (1850), p. 163, this canon has been attacked by Taylor (Var. Soc, pp. 40–51) and defended by W. D. Ross (edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, pp. xxxix–xli), who is followed by Deman. Ross dismisses Taylor’s references as exceptional and often relies on emendation, though mostly with the paleographical plausibility he claims. Deman’s (pp. 102–3) ingenious explanation of Nic. Eth. 1116B4 (that it represents an interim point in Socrates’ thought, not its final position) requires the premise that the Nic. Eth., as a redaction plus achevée than Aristotle’s other ethical writings, would be more concerned with historical accuracy than they are. In fact the other roles of the article confuse the issue and in any case suggest that Aristotle is not using the criterion as an explicit device for clarity. Clearly the criterion is an unsafe one to judge individual passages by, though cumulatively it reinforces the view that Aristotle thought of Socrates as a historical person and not a mere literary fiction. The absence of the article does not, of course, mean that Aristotle is not relying on Plato or other written sources, but at most that he then thinks of them as real evidence for Socrates, while in the other cases he either thinks they are not or is simply not interested. Incidentally much the same applies to the use of “Socrates” as a dummy name in examples, where the article is rare but cannot always be easily explained, and to the use of tenses in verbs describing Socrates (“says,” “said,” “used to say,” etc.). This latter criterion corresponds fairly well, though not exactly, with the article one, though the imperfect could refer to several dialogue occurrences and the admittedly dubious Mag. Mor. has “used to say … said” at 1198A10–13 and “said … says” at 1187A5–8.Google Scholar

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© Gregory Vlastos 1971

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