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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Was Socrates A Real Person?

The Death of Socrates (1787). Oil on canvas, 129.5 × 196.2 cm (51.0 × 77.2 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons) via TJP

Known as the “Mad Gadfly,” Socrates’s life, philosophical teachings, and trial and execution by Athens are world famous. But was he real?

This article is written by AARON REICH and published in The Jerusalem Post.

Socrates was one of the most influential Western philosophers and one of the most famous historical figures of ancient Greece. Or was he?

Known as a “gadfly,” Socrates’s life, philosophical teachings, and trial and execution by Athens are world famous. His ideas and methods continue to have profound resonance throughout the world and contributed to the development of Western philosophy and civilization.

And yet, many people think he never existed.

Here is everything you need to know about Socrates, what he did, and whether he existed.

Who was Socrates?

Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens. As he never wrote anything down, historians’ knowledge of his life comes from other sources, including several cotemporaries.

What is known is that, in addition to being a philosopher, Socrates fought as a soldier for Athens, serving as a hoplite during the Peloponnesian War, having been credited for combat actions during the Siege of Potidaea and the Battle of Delium, among others.

While much has been written about his teachings, which evidently were popular with Athenians, the most famous account about him is his trial and death.

In 399 BCE, following years of teaching philosophy, methods of questioning, and logical thought, Socrates was put on trial for two charges: impiety and corruption of the youth.

Historians have long debated much of the context behind the trial, theorizing everything from posing a threat to other intellectuals in the city to his association with controversial Athenian political figures.

Ultimately, Socrates was sentenced to death and forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.

What is Socrates well-known for?

Aside from his trial and death, Socrates is famous for his philosophical teachings, which are preserved by the writings of his disciples Plato and Xenophon.

His teachings included the Socratic method and Socratic questioning, a form of discrediting arguments.

Another core pillar of Socratic thought is the acknowledgment of one’s own ignorance. Socrates famously supposedly said, “I know that I know nothing.” Socrates supposedly believed that this could lead to true wisdom. Knowledge, for Socrates, was the basis for all virtue, and through knowledge, one could achieve happiness.

His importance on questioning is also summed up by another of his famous quotes, “An unexamined life is not worth living” and “Know thyself.”

What made Socrates so different from other philosophers before him was that he focused his teachings on morals and human thought rather than on the universe or metaphysical issues.

His legacy is such that Western philosophy is said to have been built off his teachings, as is the philosophy in the Islamic world after Muslim scholars were able to study accounts about him from his disciples.

What is the evidence that Socrates was real?

It is widely, if not universally, acknowledged by historians and philosophers that Socrates was a wholly genuine historical figure.

His teachings were preserved by his disciples, but other sources also exist. The most well-known non-disciple source comes from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, who featured Socrates as a central character in his play The Clouds, though this was a satirical portrayal.

But another factor supporting the existence of Socrates is the existence of his disciples, who have considerably more historical evidence to their names.

Plato, for example, is a very well-documented historical figure. The entirety of his writings are believed to have survived into the modern day, and his school, known as the Academy, was a real place with a location excavated outside Athens. Xenophon, too, is also known to have existed, having boasted a large list of works to his name as well as numerous military achievements.

The fact that Aristotle, one of Plato’s students, also certainly existed, with a large amount of widely influential writings still being preserved, his links to other historical figures such as Alexander the Great being acknowledged, and the fact that his school known as the Lyceum was a real place and has also been excavated, further establishes the legitimacy of a master-student chain, going back to Socrates.

Why do people doubt that Socrates existed?

Socrates did not write anything himself; if he did, it has not been preserved. All historical accounts about him are from secondary sources, the most famous of which are those of his disciple Plato, author of the Socratic Dialogues.

As mentioned above, there is nearly universal agreement that Socrates was real. However, what has long been the subject of debate was what Socrates believed in and taught.

Most records of Aristotle’s teachings come from Plato, but it is widely recognized by researchers that Plato later began to use his teacher as a mouthpiece or tool to express his own views and beliefs. This is expressed by contradictions in portrayals of Socrates, either in Plato’s own writings or when compared to Xenophon’s writings.

Scholars have grappled with this “Socratic problem” for hundreds of years, and a clear way of disentangling Socrates’s legitimate beliefs from Plato’s has yet to be discovered. – TJP

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