The New International Encyclopædia/Socrates

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The New International Encyclopædia
Edition of 1905. Written by Paul ShoreySee also Socrates on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SOCRATES (Lat., from Gk. Σωκράτης) (B.C. 469-399). An Athenian philosopher. He lived through the age of Pericles, the Peloponnesian War, and the tyranny of the ‘Thirty,’ and was condemned to drink the hemlock cup by the restored democracy. He was of humble but genuine Athenian stock. Plato makes him compare his own art of delivering pregnant minds of their conceptions to the profession of midwife exercised by his mother. He received as a boy only the old-fashioned elementary education in music and gymnastics, but later familiarized himself with the modern education of the Sophists in rhetoric and dialectics, with the speculations of the Ionic philosophers, and all the new culture of which Periclean Athens was the focus. Plato represents him as veiling behind an ironical profession of ignorance an ingenuity and resourcefulness that made him more than a match for the most distinguished specialists. Xenophon, while affirming that Socrates held the proper study of mankind to be the moral life of man, adds that he was by no means unversed in the curious inutilities of mathematical and physical speculation. He followed at first the craft of his father, a sculptor, and tradition attributed to him a group of the three Graces draped, which Pausanias saw on the Acropolis. The greater part of his mature life, however, was spent in the market place, streets, and public resorts of Athens in conversation with all who cared to listen, or whom he could lure to render an account of their souls and submit themselves to his peculiar style of interrogation. In Plato and Xenophon he has no other occupation, except, of course, the normal civic duties of every free-born Athenian. He served as a hoplite with conspicuous bravery at Potidæa (B.C. 432), Delium (424), and Amphipolis (422). In B.C. 406 the chances of the lot made him a member of the senate of the 500 and presiding prytanis on the day when the illegal motion was offered to condemn to death by one vote the generals who had neglected or been unable to rescue the wounded after the naval battle of Arginusæ. He refused to consent to the putting of the vote, defying the anger of the mob, even as a few years later he withstood the tyrants and refused to execute the command of the ‘Thirty’ bidding him assist in the arrest of an innocent citizen, Leon of Salamis. By his wife, Xanthippe, he had three sons, one of whom was a lad at the time of his father's death. The tradition of Xanthippe as the scolding wife and typical shrew is ignored by Plato, who merely mentions her presence in the prison on the last day before and after the dialogue on immortality.

In the Apology or defense which Plato puts into his mouth on his trial, Socrates half seriously affirms that his peculiar way of life was a mission imposed upon him by God. The oracle of Delphi (the story presupposes that he was already well known), in response to the question of a more enthusiastic than judicious disciple, had pronounced Socrates the wisest of men. Conscious that his only wisdom was self-knowledge, the knowledge that he knew nothing, he proceeded to test those reputed wise at Athens, the poets, the statesmen, the artists. He found in each case that the value of the specialist's particular talent was more than nullified by his inability to render a rational account of it, and the false conceit of a larger knowledge not possessed, and he inferred that it was his divinely appointed mission to force upon his fellow men self-knowledge and conviction of ignorance as the first step toward self-betterment. Such a profession exercised for thirty or forty years amid a gossipy and jealous population brought him more notoriety than popularity.

The effect was heightened by the startling contrast, to Greek feeling, between Socrates's exterior and the dignified and impressive demeanor to be expected of a great teacher and leader of men. The ungainly figure; the protuberant belly; the Silenus-like masque with bald head, prominent eyes, and wide, upturned nostrils; the beggarly garb; the vulgar instances and homely parables in which his wisdom disguised itself; the personal oddities of the man; his hour-long fits of staring abstraction; his ingenious art of cross-examination entrapping the cleverest into self-contradiction; the mysterious admonitions of his ‘Dæmon’ or inner voice; the habitual asceticism of this barefoot philosopher, content with bread and water and one garment summer and winter, yet able on occasion to outdrink and outwatch and outtalk the boldest revelers and most brilliant wits of Athens — all these traits as felt by the inner circle of disciples and portrayed by Plato's art only add piquancy to the demoniac personality thus half revealed and half concealed. But to the multitude they only made up a figure of comedy. In the Clouds of Aristophanes (423), the man whom we conceive as the anthithesis of the Sophistic rhetoric and the founder of moral and mental as opposed to physical philosophy appears as the master of a ‘thinking shop’ in which pale-faced disciples burrow into the bowels of earth, and where unscrupulous fathers can have their sons taught the art of making the worse appear the better reason, while he himself aloft in an aërial basket “treads the air and contemplates the sun.” The comedian is not bound to make nice distinctions. For Aristophanes, Socrates was an apt comic embodiment of the new learning which the conservative poet detested. Like the Sophists, he occupied the young men with something else than the care of healthy bodies, and he resembled the Sophists in the unsettling effect of his questioning of the established order. Plato, for artistic reasons, puts these attacks of comedy as manifestations of the popular prejudice in the forefront of the Apology. The immediate causes of Socrates's condemnation were probably the hostility aroused by his ironical comments on the democratic method of deciding great questions by the lot or the show of hands, and the distrust felt by the average man for the leader of the traitor Alcibiades, the tyrant Critias, and the Philo-Laconian Xenophon. In 390 a poet, Meletus, a demagogue, Anytus (a prominent democratic politician), and an orator, Lycon, presented a formal charge in the Court of the King (Archon): “Socrates is guilty of rejecting the gods of the city and introducing new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth.” The first charge relates to the ‘Dæmonion,’ or divine something of Socrates about which a large and unprofitable literature exists. In Plato, it is merely the voice of an inward spiritual tact always operating negatively as a check to actions, however trifling, opposed to the true interests of the soul. Other writers have reported it with superstitious, psychological, or pathological flourishes after their kind. Corruption of youth was the serious charge. The case came before a jury of about 501 members. Socrates declined (the story goes) the professional aid of the orator Lysias, and defended himself in a speech of which the spirit is preserved in the Platonic Apology, a masterpiece of art in its seeming simplicity. Condemned by a small majority, he took still higher ground when it came to fixing the penalty, and proposed, so Plato says, that it be maintenance in the Prytaneum as a public benefactor. At the solicitation of Plato, Crito, and other friends, he finally proposed to pay a fine. The jury naturally voted by an increased majority for the alternative penalty of death, which Socrates doubtless expected and was willing to accept as an appropriate crown of martyrdom and a release from the approaching infirmities of age. The rest is told in two immortal dialogues of Plato. The Crito shows us Socrates in the interval of respite caused by a religious festival and the absence of the sacred ship at Delos, resisting the importunities of his friends that he should escape by bribing his jailers, and so, as he says, in very deed teaching young men by his example to violate the law. The Phædo depicts the long final day spent with friends in conversation on the immortality of the soul, and the last scene of all, “how bravely and cheerfully the first great martyr of intellectual liberty met his doom.”

The self-control which he exemplified and the self-knowledge which he inculcated are the keynote of Socrates's philosophy. The basis of his ethics was the principle or paradox that all vice is ignorance, and that no man is willingly bad. In logic Aristotle tells us that there are two things which we may justly attribute to him: inductive arguments and the quest for general definitions. But, as he left no writings, we cannot tell what system of thought, if any, he constructed on these presuppositions and by this method. We may divine that he was much more than the homely Johnsonian moralist of Xenophon, and something less than the poetic dialectician and metaphysician of Plato. But we cannot know. Plato was a cunning dramatic artist, and the seeming simplicity of Xenophon's Memorabilia is no warrant of its historical fidelity. Ten years of adventure presumably separate Xenophon from the conversations which he professes to record. Both the Memorabilia and the minor Platonic dialogues doubtless contain many genuine reminiscences of the ‘real Socrates.’ But we cannot use them to construct a body of doctrine for him. The tremendous influence of his personality remains one of the great facts of history. Through the ‘complete Socratic’ Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, he determined the entire subsequent course of speculative thought. The ‘imperfect Socratics,’ the founders of the other schools of ancient philosophy, drew their inspiration from partial aspects of his character. The Socrates who wore one garment summer and winter, walked barefoot on the snow, and exclaimed at the fair: “How many things there are that I do not need,” became through Antisthenes the author of the Cynic way of life and the Stoic philosophy. The Socrates who was all things to all men, and outdrank Aristophanes at Agathon's banquet, was the model of Aristippus, the founder of the Cyrenaic (and Epicurean) philosophy of experience and pleasure. The ideal Socrates depicted in the Platonic Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and Phædo became, in the decay of the old religions, the chief religious type of the ancient world, and to such moralists as Epictetus, Seneca, Dio Chrysostomus, and Marcus Aurelius the very embodiment and guide of the higher life.

The best authority accessible to the English reader is Zeller's Socrates and the Socratic Schools (Eng. trans., 1877). Joel's Der echte und der Xenophontische Socrates (Berlin, 1901) is an ingenious attempt to extract the ‘real Socrates’ from Xenophon's Memorabilia.