Posted on 29 December 2018
Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC) is possibly the most enigmatic figure in the entire history of philosophy.
Yet he never wrote a single line.
Socrates is one of the philosophers who has had the greatest influence on European thought, not least because of the dramatic manner of his death.
He was born in Athens, 470 BC and described himself as not Greek or Roman but a ‘citizen of the world.’ He liked talking with the people he met in the city and said:
‘The trees in the countryside can teach me nothing.”
An Enigmatic Life
Socrates could also stand lost in thought for hours on end. Even during his lifetime he was considered somewhat enigmatic, and fairly soon after his death he was held to be the founder of any number of different philosophical schools of thought.
The very fact that he was so enigmatic and ambiguous made it possible for widely differing schools of thought to claim him as their own. It was said of him that, “You can seek him in the present, you can seek him in the past, but you will never find his equal.”
Nevertheless he was sentenced to death for his philosophical beliefs.
No actual writings of Socrates exist. His life is mainly known through the writings of Plato, who was one of his pupils and who himself became one of the greatest ever philosophers. Plato wrote a number of dialogues, or dramatized discussions on philosophy, in which he uses Socrates as his principal character and mouthpiece.
Since Plato is putting his own philosophy in Socrates’ mouth, there cannot be surety that the words he speaks in the dialogues were ever actually uttered by him. So it is no easy matter to distinguish between the teachings of Socrates and the philosophy of Plato.
Exactly the same problem applies to many other historical persons who left no written accounts. The classic example, of course, is Jesus. There cannot be certainty that the ‘historical’ Jesus actually spoke the words that Matthew or Luke ascribed to him. Similarly, what the ‘historical’ Socrates actually said will always be shrouded in mystery.
But who Socrates ‘really’ was is relatively unimportant.
It is Plato’s portrait of Socrates that has inspired thinkers in the Western world for nearly 2,500 years.
Image from ancienthistorylists.com/