2/9/09 - socrates

In today's excerpt - 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:

"We are blessed by having more extant words written about Socrates than any other man of his time, and cursed by the fact that we cannot tell which, if any, of these words are true. We can be certain that Plato and Xenophon were not committed to factual reporting. ... Socrates himself wrote nothing and the work of his immediate followers after his death is not historically reliable.

"Generations of classical scholars ... [have] chosen to privilege Plato's portrait over Xenophon's or anyone else's. And so the Socrates who is likely to be familiar is Plato's Socrates: the merciless interrogator, committed to nothing but the truth, and determined, by means of incisive argument, to lay his own and our moral lives on a foundation of knowledge rather than opinion; a specialist in moral philosophy and moral psychology; a man of immense moral integrity, who was unjustly put to death, [by drinking a cup of poison hemlock] aged sixty-nine or seventy, by the classical Athenian democracy under which he lived.

"But the uncomfortable truth is that little or nothing of this picture of Socrates may be accurate. ... Plato's description of Socrates' philosophy was actually a clever way of outlining and introducing Plato's own [philosophy].

"In the course of his speech 'Against Timarchus', the politician Aeschines referred to Socrates' trial saying that the Athenian people condemned him for having been the teacher of Critias. Aeschines was speaking in 345 bc, fifty-four years after Socrates' trial. ... Critias was one of the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic junta which Sparta imposed on the Athenians in 404 BC after defeating them in the Peloponnesian War. The Thirty aspired to turn Athens into a hierarchical, Spartan-style society. They restricted the number of citizens to 3,000, disarmed everyone else, awarded themselves the power of life or death over all non-citizens, and expelled all non-citizens from living within the city itself. Non-citizens were to be the farmers, manufacturers and merchants for the elite 3,000, while all political power was effectively vested in the Thirty and their henchmen. In order to see through their radical program of social reform, and in order to raise much needed cash (the city had been bankrupted by the war), they murdered about 1,500 people in a few weeks. Many more fled into exile.

"The Thirty were soon defeated. Critias was killed and the rest fled or were allowed to leave. But Critias had long been a friend and student of Socrates, who had became tainted by the association. [Socrates] tolerated even the excesses of the Thirty because he was, at least to a degree, sympathetic to their aims ... of favouring a Spartan-style society [over Athenian democracy].

"There can be no doubt, then, that Socrates' trial was politically motivated, and there can be no doubt that, from the point of view of the Athenian democracy, he was guilty as charged. He was no true citizen of the democracy. There can be no doubt, either, that attention to the historical facts surrounding the case must lead us to qualify the Platonic-Xenophontic portrait of Socrates. He was put on trial as a political undesirable, and his radical political vision was indeed anti-democratic. This is not the Socrates with whom we are comfortably familiar, but it is more likely to be closer to the truth than the fictions that permeate the literary evidence."


Robin Waterfield


'The Historical Socrates'


History Today


January 2009


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