Living from 469 – 399 B.C.E., Socrates of Athens spent a majority of his live walking the streets, inciting arguments, and profoundly perplexing most of those who listened to him. Many scholars claim that Socrates laid the foundations for Western Philosophy as we know it today.
Alexander Nehamas, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, wrote of Socrates, “with the exception of the Epicureans, every philosophical school in antiquity, whatever its orientation, saw in him either its actual founder or the type of person to whom its adherents were to aspire.”
Unfortunately for us, we know very little about the actual Socrates, because we rely so heavily on Plato (424 – 347 B.C.E.) as a primary source. Plato’s dialogues feature Socrates as the main character, while Plato never openly endorses any opinions of his own.
As a matter of fact, many thinkers suggest that Plato actually perverted Socrates original teachings for the sake of his own philosophical leanings. Not only do we find inconsistencies in Plato’s works, we find inconsistencies in other works as well.
We also derive accounts of Socrates from the playwright Aristophanes (450 – 386 B.C.E.) and the philosopher Xenophon (425 – 386 B.C.E.). Aristophanes’ account of Socrates, as told in his play Clouds, is the earliest account of the philosopher we have.
Xenophon, like Plato, wrote and studied under a much older Socrates, who would have been in his 50′s by the time his pupils were old enough to learn from the great teacher. Aristophanes, however, would have known the younger Socrates.
Plato produced several accounts of Socrates, such as The Republic, Euthypro, Meno, Phaedo, and Symposium. Those are just a few of the Socratic dialogues he wrote! Xenophon, however, only wrote on Socrates in his Apology, Anabasis, Symposium, and Hellenica.
Since all three accounts of Socrates differ to some degree, we know not how to appropriately and fairly interpret him. Scholars cleverly describe this dilemma as the “Socratic problem.”
Conversely, we know a few things about the famous Socrates. He stumbled along the Athenian streets in a very strange manner. Secondly, the general Athenian, particular one born into wealth, would ultimately accept his duty to take a public office. The great Philosopher never participated in formal politics. The Sophists often moved from city to city to take on pupils to make a living, but Socrates chose a life of poverty and never took money for his teachings.
Despite his historical obscurity, Socrates has won over the years great acclaim for his brilliance, boldness, and influence. The historical figure remains a mystery, but perhaps further research and study will reveal more light on the subject.