The Historical Socrates: The Popular Image of Socrates as a Man of Immense Moral Integrity Was Largely the Creation of His Pupil Plato. If We Examine Evidence of His Trial, Argues Robin Waterfield, a Different Picture Emerges, of a Cunning Politician Opposed to Athenian Democracy

By Waterfield, Robin | History Today, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Historical Socrates: The Popular Image of Socrates as a Man of Immense Moral Integrity Was Largely the Creation of His Pupil Plato. If We Examine Evidence of His Trial, Argues Robin Waterfield, a Different Picture Emerges, of a Cunning Politician Opposed to Athenian Democracy


Waterfield, Robin, History Today


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The great Athenian philosopher Socrates is widely lauded as one of history's wisest men, a reputation forged by his pupil Plato.

In the course of his Apology of Socrates, Plato tells a curious story. The Apology consists of the speeches that, according to Plato, Socrates delivered at his trial in Athens in 399 BC, and at one point Socrates feels he needs to explain why he has a certain reputation for wisdom. He says that his close and impulsive friend Chaerephon once paid a visit to the Pythia, the oracle in Delphi, to ask whether Socrates was the wisest man alive. The oracle

As a humble man, proclaimed it so. Socrates was puzzled by this, and set about questioning anyone he could buttonhole who had a reputation for wisdom or expertise in any area. He discovered that none of the so-called experts really deserved their reputation; they were incapable of giving coherent definitions of the concepts fundamental to their areas of expertise. He concluded that the Pythia was correct, at least in the sense that he, Socrates, was the only one who knew he did not know, the only one who did not suffer from a false conceit of wisdom.

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The story has a kind of internal plausibility. It would indeed have been a life-changing event to have the oracle at the most important sacred site in Greece publicly declare that Socrates was the wisest man alive. It would have been somewhat like the Pope declaring one a candidate for future sainthood; it could well have impelled Socrates on his mission of questioning people. There's only one snag: the story is false, a fiction created by Plato for his own purposes.

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Why should Chaerephon have approached the oracle with his question in the first place? In order for it to make sense to ask whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, Socrates must already have had a reputation for wisdom. He was never famous as anything other than the person who questioned people to find out if they could define the moral and other concepts they claimed to work with. This enterprise had started around 440 BC, and had brought him notoriety by the end of the decade, when he first started to receive scathing attention from the comic poets. But this is precisely the kind of questioning that, according to Plato, was supposed to have been triggered by the oracle; it was not supposed to be taking place beforehand.

Another good reason for supposing the oracle a fiction is that there is no other reference to it throughout Plato's voluminous Socratic writings (he would surely have made hay with it), nor anywhere else in Greek literature, apart from a derivative mention in Xenophon's Apology, his version of the defence speeches. It would have been a famous tale, one that would have made Socrates' fellow Athenians proud of him, or would have been mocked by the comic poets.

What Plato was doing with this story is rather subtle. Throughout his life Plato wanted to establish philosophy, as he understood it, as the one valid form of higher education, and in order to do so he used his writings to puncture the claims of rivals--educators, poets, statesmen, orators and other experts. So this is what Plato has his character 'Socrates' do in the early dialogues: question such experts and find them lacking. This was Plato's mission, and his Socrates was the mouthpiece for it. But this is precisely the project summarised in Plato's Apology in the oracle story. Plato made up the story, then, as a way of introducing his own mission, the one he would give to the character Socrates who was to appear in his works.

Since Xenophon knew Socrates, he knew that Plato's Socrates was fictional. He was in a position to recognise that Plato's description of Socrates' philosophy was actually a clever way of outlining and introducing Plato's own. So Xenophon did the same: he used the same story for the same purpose, and merely tweaked it to suit his own ends. …

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