Was Socrates a Real Person? and Other Questions

Socrates Wanted PosterI’ve noticed over the years that a surprising number of people out there are unsure whether Socrates actually existed or not.  Some people who aren’t familiar with the classics are just curious about the evidence, which is understandable.  Some people have the vague idea that he’s perhaps a character created by Plato.  There are a few people on the Internet who seem utterly convinced he’s a completely fictional character, though.

Quick note: If you’ve got about fifteen minutes to spare and want to learn more about Socrates then I would highly recommend taking a look at the Crash Course on Socrates I built for that purpose.  It’s completely free of charge and designed for complete newcomers.

Anyway, before we get into the evidence, here are are some of Google’s results for the most commonly searched questions about Socrates.  Sure enough, “Was Socrates a real person?” and “Was Socrates real?” are up there.  So are some more surprising questions and some most students of classics would probably expect to find.  I’m going to comment briefly on them all below:

Socrates Google Results

Did Socrates Questions

Was Socrates a real person?

Yes.  At least no modern scholars really question the fact he existed.  Socrates was a very well-known figure at Athens during his own lifetime and his execution in 399 BC catapulted him into even greater and more lasting fame.  We obviously can’t go back and check but because of the nature of the evidence that survives someone would have to be unusually skeptical to believe he never existed.  We don’t have any surviving writings by Socrates, although as we’ll see below he reputedly did write some poetry.  So what evidence do we possess?

First of all, several credible descriptions of his life and character survive today and were written by authors who were his contemporaries.  We have dozens of dialogues written by two of his students, Plato and Xenophon, which portray him doing philosophy and include many details about his life.  The playwright Aristophanes, who also knew him in person, satirizes him in three surviving plays, which were well-known during his lifetime: The Clouds, The Frogs, and The Birds.  These were performed at annual Athenian festivals at which plays competed for prizes, and were undoubtedly well-known at the time.  The Frogs took first prize at the Lenaia festival and The Birds second prize at the Dionysia festival.  The Clouds came last when it was performed at the latter festival but was then widely-circulated in a revised manuscript form.  We also have surviving references to Socrates from at least four other comic playwrights: Eupolis, Emeipsias, Theopompus, and one who is anonymous.  We also have fragments about Socrates from the speeches of two Athenian orators: Isocrates and Aeschines.  John Ferguson’s excellent Socrates: a Source Book (1970) contains these and many other passages from a variety of ancient authors who mention Socrates by name.

Socrates, in the aftermath of his execution, was pretty much the most famous person in Greece.  Many dialogues portraying him circulated at the time.  It would be very surprising indeed if these were all referring to a fictional character and even if they were, we’d expect other authors, especially those who viewed Socrates and his followers less favourably, to point this out.  It’s clear that his existence was taken for granted by all the ancient authors who mention him, though.  The main details of his life, such as the fact that he was executed, were clearly taken for granted as well, although there was an ancient rumour that in some of his dialogues Plato (sometimes but not always) used Socrates to express his own ideas, such as the famous Theory of Forms and his tripartite division of the soul.  It’s generally agreed that Plato did this to some extent although the scope and extent of it is uncertain.  Most scholars divide his dialogues into early, middle, and late periods and accept that the early ones are more accurate representations of Socrates whereas the middle and late ones often use Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato’s own metaphysical ideas.  Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of philosophers, wrote:

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

However, the Lysis is usually classed as one of Plato’s early dialogues.  Xenophon’s dialogues are perhaps more faithful to the real Socrates.  He makes no mention of the Theory of Forms, which is usually thought to come from Plato rather than Socrates.

There are numerous brief references to Socrates throughout the writings of the philosopher Aristotle, who was fifteen when Socrates was executed.  Aristotle couldn’t have met Socrates himself because he only moved to Athens a few years after his death but he would certainly have met many people who had known Socrates in person.   Aristotle also attests that the Theory of Forms came from Plato and not Socrates.  Aristotle sometimes writes “the Socrates” (a common Greek convention) and at other times just “Socrates” – some modern scholars believe that when he uses the former he’s referring to the semi-true portrayal of Socrates in Plato’s middle and later dialogues.

In addition to Plato and Xenophon, Socrates also had several more followers who were well-known teachers or prolific writers, such as Antisthenes, Aristippus of Cyrene, Phaedo of Elis, and Euclid of Megara.  None of their writings survive but the existence of these and other “Socratic Schools” after his death provides additional, perhaps circumstantial, evidence, and many remarks about Socrates that survive today were attributed to them.  Only roughly 1% of classical literature survives today so we often find references in the ancient works that do survive to earlier authors whose texts are now lost.  There are therefore also numerous additional references to Socrates in the writings of pagan and Christian authors, throughout the following centuries, who are often alluding to early Greek literature that is lost to us now.

For example, I’ve also seen the claim online that no official documents relating to Socrates’ life exist.  Actually, this isn’t true.  Many centuries after his death, albeit in a biography of Socrates based on much earlier sources, Diogenes Laertius writes:

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.”

So that does purport to be a fragment from an official document relating to the trial, which is plausible.  The various details it contains are all consistent with a variety of earlier sources.  With later sources like these we have to be cautious but they’re often just reproducing passages from earlier writings that survived down to their own time but not to ours.

So there’s no (reasonable) doubt that Socrates was a real person, although there’s some doubt over the reliability of information about his life and teachings.  This even has a name: it is known as the Socratic problem.  It’s a complex question but historians and philosophers have ways of trying to evaluate the available information.  For example, where several ancient authors appear to corroborate each other we can infer that what they’re saying is probably true.  It also helps that our sources are quite independent from one another another include authors from different orientations – poets, orators, philosophers – with views toward him ranging from very favourable to openly satirical, even hostile.

Was Socrates religious?

Yes.  He observed the same religious customs as most other Athenian citizens.  He seems to have had a particular affinity for the god Apollo, whose Oracle at Delphi reputedly pronounced that nobody was wiser than Socrates thereby inspiring him to find his vocation as a philosopher.  He had views of a religious nature that many Athenians saw as controversial, particularly his claim to have a “divine sign” (daimonion), like an inner voice or conscience, that guided him away from doing certain things.  Sometimes he was portrayed as raising questions skeptically about particular aspects of religion, such as whether there’s an afterlife, but he’s typically portrayed as quite pious in his religious beliefs.

Was Socrates guilty?

We don’t know.  The question is complicated by the fact that the charges against him were somewhat ambiguous and described in slightly different language by Plato and Xenophon in their accounts of his trial (Apology) and in Diogenes’ Laertius’ account of the indictment (see above).  The jury of 500 male Athenian citizens reputedly found him guilty by 280 votes to 220.  However, it’s widely believed that his trial was really about something else.  Socrates may have provoked hostility because of his skeptical questioning of powerful Athenian figures, or implied criticism of them, as well as his perceived political leanings, the behaviour of two of his notorious students (Alcibiades and Critias) and other aspects of his life.  There was an amnesty in effect at Athens at this time against many political charges, following the overthrow of a brutal oligarchic regime known as the Thirty Tyrants, set up by the Spartans after the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War.   So Socrates’ trial actually raises some very complex historical questions, which scholars have wrestled over throughout the years.  Athenian courts at this time were easily swayed by orators whipping up their prejudices, as well as by bribes and threats, so it’s difficult to know how much faith to put in the jury.  The charges are vague enough that it’s hard to be sure how the jury would have interpreted them.  For example, scholars today have different views about what specifically they had in mind by “corrupting the youth” and “impiety” or “introducing new deities”.  Even at the time, there may have been an element of subjectivity in determining whether someone’s actions justified these charges or not.  Xenophon and Plato are perhaps biased, as his devoted students, but they were at pains to portray Socrates as a sincerely pious man who sought first and foremost to teach his students how to live virtuously and respect justice.

We have two accounts of Socrates’ defence from his students, as noted above, but no real account of the prosecution case.  So, unfortunately, it’s really impossible to give a decisive “yes” or “no” answer to this question, although most of us today are sympathetic enough to Socrates that we tend to be inclined to view him as innocent and the charges against him as trumped up by people who had a grudge against him.

Was Socrates vegetarian?

Probably not.  Most ancient Athenians ate little meat anyway.  In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates does propose a vegetarian diet for the ideal state.  There are versions of this circulated on the Internet by pro-vegetarian groups, which significantly modify the original text.

They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves […] of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them. (Republic, 372b-e)

Then he goes on to consider the consequences of a more luxurious life, including rearing animals for human consumption, as a potential cause of war of the need to acquire more territory.  However, the Republic, with the possible exception of Book 1, contains many instances where Plato is believed to be using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas or those derived from other philosophers such as the Pythagoreans.  So we can’t be certain these were really thoughts the real Socrates expressed  and it arguably sounds more like Plato is talking through him.

The argument against eating meat here is also somewhat vague.  It’s not that it’s inherently unhealthy or unethical but rather that combined with indulgence in other luxuries it might require expansion of the state bringing its citizens into conflict with neighbours.  You could read him as saying it’s not wrong to eat meat, it’s just that they can’t afford to let it become a habit.  The translator (of another edition) Prof. Paul Shorey comments on the passage above:

The unwholesomeness of this diet for the ordinary man proves nothing for Plato’s [or Socrates’] alleged vegetarianism. The Athenians ate but little meat.

By contrast, Xenophon, who’s often believed to portray a less adulterate version of Socrates, puts forward the familiar Argument from Design for the existence of a provident God.  Regarding non-human (“lower”) animals:

“Yes,” replied Socrates, “and is it not evident that they too receive life and food for the sake of man? For what creature reaps so many benefits as man from goats and sheep and horses and oxen and asses and the other animals? He owes more to them, in my opinion, than to the fruits of the earth. At the least they are not less valuable to him for food and commerce; in fact a large portion of mankind does not use the products [i.e., plants] of the earth for food, but lives on the milk and cheese and flesh they get from live stock.” (Memorabilia, 4.3)

In other words, Socrates is here portrayed as arguing that animals were create by God to provide humans with food, and other resources.

Was Socrates’ death tragic?

Not really.  It would depend on your definition of “tragedy” but Socrates is consistently portrayed as accepting his death and viewing it with indifference.  It’s easy to see how a modern reader would view it as tragic and Plato does portray his wife and friends as distressed but the point of the accounts that survive is that Socrates remained thoroughly unperturbed.  Xenophon was also at pains to emphasize that Socrates was very old, aged seventy, for an Athenian man at that time, and felt that he’d lived a long enough life already.

Was Socrates a student of Plato?

No.  It’s the other way round.  Plato was a student of Socrates.

Was Socrates rich?

No.  How much wealth he had is uncertain.  In Plato’s Apology he says he can afford one mina for the fine, which would be roughly 3 months’ earnings for a craftsman like a sculptor (maybe the equivalent of $15,000).  Then his more-affluent friends offer to club together and increase it to 30 minae on his behalf.  (Roughly seven and half year’s income – maybe $450,000.)

It’s often noted that Socrates could afford to buy his own armour and weapons to serve as a hoplite or heavy infantryman in the Athenian army.  That would be normal for a middle-class citizen such as a craftsman and reputedly Socrates followed his father’s trade, at first, and worked as a stonemason and sculptor.  On the other hand, he’s consistently portrayed as living a very modest life or even as having the appearance of a beggar.

There were, undoubtedly, people much worse off than him, though, and he apparently enjoyed the patronage of a number of very wealthy friends.  I would say that overall, it seems likely that Socrates lived a very modest life and was of humble means relative to other middle-class Athenians, although he probably often dined at the houses of wealthy friends and enjoyed their hospitality.  As far as I’m aware there’s no mention of him owning any slaves.  He was, however, able to support a wife (possibly two wives) and three children.  Diogenes Laertius says that he invested money and collected interest.  Aristippus, the first of Socrates’ students to charge a fee for teaching philosophy, defended this by saying that although Socrates didn’t charge he had several wealthy friends (such as Crito and Alcibiades) who supported him by sending him gifts, although he often returned some if it was more than he needed.

Was Socrates illiterate?

No.  We’re told by Plato that Socrates turned some Fables of Aesop into poems while in prison.  There was also a widespread rumour, apparently started during his lifetime, that Socrates somehow assisted the tragedian Euripides in writing some of his plays.  He was clearly very well-read, frequently quoting Homer and other poets as well as the earlier natural philosophers.  He refers several times to how cheaply valuable texts can be purchased in the stalls around the agora.  Xenophon also portrays him writing words on the ground, and sorting them into two columns, in one of his dialogues (Memorabilia, 4.2).  In Plato’s Apology he says that as a young man he obtained all the writings of the Milesian philosopher Anaxagoras and devoured their contents.  So there are multiple references to him reading and writing from at least two different contemporary sources.

Did Socrates teach Aristotle?

No.  Aristotle was fifteen when Socrates died, and only arrived in Athens, where Socrates lived his whole life, a few years after his execution.   Plato, however, who had been a student of Socrates, became Aristotle’s teacher.  Aristotle reputedly studied in Plato’s Academy for twenty years.

Did Socrates die?

Yes.  Unless perhaps you believe in the immortality of the soul, which he is sometimes portrayed as saying he believes.  Obviously he died in the normal sense, though.  He was executed by the Athenian court in 399 BC.  He’s definitely not still around!

Did Socrates tutor Alexander the Great?

No.  Alexander wasn’t even born until a couple of generations after Socrates died.  Aristotle, however, is believed to have been a tutor to Alexander the Great.

Did Socrates live a good life?

That’s a matter of personal opinion but I would say yes.  The whole point of his philosophy was to live a good life, which he equated with living wisely and virtuously, even if he was poor and faced hostility from others.

Did Socrates get married?

Yes.  He had a notorious shrew of a wife called Xanthippe and three sons.  Plato says that as he awaited execution, in prison, Xanthippe was holding one of their children in her arms, so presumably he was an infant or thereabouts, and Xanthippe is therefore generally taken to have been about thirty years younger than Socrates.  Just to complicate things, though, Diogenes Laertius wrote:

Aristotle says that he [Socrates] married two wives: his first wife was Xanthippe, by whom he had a son, Lamprocles; his second wife was Myrto, the daughter of Aristides the Just, whom he took without a dowry. By her he had Sophroniscus and Menexenus. Others make Myrto his first wife; while some writers, including Satyrus and Hieronymus of Rhodes, affirm that they were both his wives at the same time. For they say that the Athenians were short of men and, wishing to increase the population, passed a decree permitting a citizen to marry one Athenian woman and have children by another; and that Socrates accordingly did so.

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2 thoughts on “Was Socrates a Real Person? and Other Questions”

  1. Just to note it says 399 AD for Socrates death, obviously this should be BC.

    A nice and easy to read article, it answers some questions I’d never considered before.

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