How do we evaluate the life of Socrates based on our limited sources?

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Answered by: Joel, An Expert in the Ancient History - General Category
The life of any figure from past epochs is inevitably obscured by the limited sources history hands to us. The famed Athenian philosopher, Socrates, was no exception. During the 5th century BC the art of writing was in the process of becoming popular throughout the Greek world. Because of this we only have three contemporary sources concerning the life of Socrates and makes the historicity of specific aspects of his life hard to evaluate.

These sources were produced by the philosopher Plato, the nobleman-adventurer Xenophon, and the satirical playwright Aristophanes. Socrates is notably absent from the list of sources about Socrates, for all his keen intellect and reported rhetorical skills the man had a certain distrust of the written word. According to Plato, Socrates claimed writing dulled the mind, he may have even been illiterate, parents are advised not to share this particular tidbit with their children.

Plato's accounts of Socrates are the greatest in bulk, and the best written. Often times he uses Socrates as a character to advance philosophical positions rather than reporting biographical details. His earliest dialogues are usually regarded as most closely resembling the historical Socrates. Plato's Apology is of special interest as it details the trial and sentencing of Socrates for the crimes of blasphemy and teaching the youths of Athens his 'corrupting' philosophies.

Socrates' defense against these charges comes across as erudite, witty and mockingly arrogant, claiming that not only was he merely acting as the god Apollo directed him but that the city should be grateful for his philosophical inquiries and reward him as they would a famed athlete. As anyone who tries such a defense may discover, Socrates' trial ends not only with a guilty verdict, but with a exceedingly harsh punishment, death.

Xenophon, whom like Plato was a student of Socrates, is more famed for his tale of harrowing adventure in the near east, The Anabasis, than his other writings. And rightly so, practical matters of horse breeding may have been of great interest to Greek nobles but are somewhat dated for the modern reader. His works concerning Socrates largely overlap with Plato's, and lack Plato's polish and rhetorical flourish. Xenophon's Socrates is a more practical man than Plato's but still demonstrates stubborn uprightness during his trial. A significant difference is rather than Plato's high-minded reason for Socrates' commitment to his inquiries, the divine mandate of Apollo, Xenophon's Socrates states that death might be better than to live into the degeneracy of old age. Perhaps the first instance akin to 'suicide by cop' on the historical record.

Aristophanes' play The Clouds satirizes the increasing prevalence intellectuals and teachers in ancient Athens, written two decades before Socrates' demise, it is the earliest work featuring the philosopher. In the play a young man seeks to learn how to publicly debate so that he may defend his father in court, falling under the instruction of Socrates our hero becomes cynical of society's values, as well as disrespectful and contemptuous of his elders. By the end of the play the young man has gotten into a fist fight with his father, whom humiliated and in a fit of rage leads a mob against Socrates' and his students. Aristophanes' humorous exaggeration of Socrates' impiously inquisitive personality helps lend light to what the Athenian court may have meant by the 'corrupting' philosophies he taught to the city's youth.

While clearly concerned with the same individual, the character of Socrates is muddied by the personalities and objectives of those writing about him. While we can be fairly certain of Socrates' historicity, we cannot be sure what Socrates said during his trial, or what he taught, only what others attribute to him. What matters is that the life of Socrates inspired these writers, their ideas might not be Socrates' but they can still stand or fall on their own merits and are worth investigation.

Clear from all these accounts is Socrates' commitment to open, unfettered inquiry, even at the risk of his own life. The values which are at the heart of modern democratic debate and scientific study. The best tools we have for improving human societies were unabashedly put to use by a rude, nosey Athenian over twenty four centuries ago.

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