Socrates died 2,400 years ago this June. More precisely, he was executed, a criminal condemned on a capital charge. How seriously Athens took her philosophers! It fills the modern scholar with envy more than dread, that one could die for such a cause. The formal charge that cost Socrates his life—“Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods the city believes in, and of introducing other strange divinities; and he is guilty of corrupting the young”—has set philosophers to offering apologia ever since, as if in defending Socrates from this charge philosophy can define and understand itself. Yet it might be that Lady Philosophy protests too much, that two thousand years of self–defense might conceal (at least from the unobservant) an equal period of self–doubt. If Socrates’ death had in it nothing but answers, it would by now be a historical curio, like similar tales in innumerable hagiographies. It is the questions about him and what he represented that keep his death alive.
He was a man of neither wealth nor personal beauty, the butt of the comedians of the day for his bulging eyes and swaggering gait. His fashion sense ran toward old clothes and bare feet. Even his admirers compared him to a satyr, an uncanny mixture of beast, man, and god. Yet this man, as famous then for ugliness as leading ladies are now for beauty, has been the Helen of philosophy. He launched a thousand ships, and his rival suitors have long been fighting an often bitter war hoping to take secure possession of him. Most of the major philosophical schools during the first six centuries after his death traced their origins to Socrates, and vigorously disputed other claimants to the Socratic legacy. Stoics, Skeptics, and Cynics all proudly claimed him as their founder and looked to him as their exemplary sage. The millennium and a half that followed, dominated by Christendom and then the “new science,” displaced him with other exemplars, but the Socrates Wars broke out in earnest again during the last two centuries.
The Enlightenment found in him a hero and martyr of autonomous reason, while Romanticism felt the burn of his old flame when it rediscovered irony as a privileged vehicle of philosophy. Even today these are the two interpretive camps with which the still disputing heirs affiliate. It is not the worst way to gauge whether philosophers are “analytic” or “continental” to ask them what they find most attractive in Socrates. In Anglo–American circles, the saint of reason is regnant; elsewhere Socrates wears the crown of the Compleat Ironist whose ruthless dialectic exposes the ways reason must inevitably undermine or (we might as well say it) deconstruct itself. Books and articles continue to accumulate, the love letters of the scholarly caste. This, too, is a love letter.
Socrates had other ways to express his loves, and wrote no books. Our experience of him and his ideas depends almost entirely on the writings of three of his contemporaries, two admirers and one detractor. All three wrote in genres bound to frustrate every foursquare scholar’s desire to pluck out the heart of the mystery of the historical Socrates. Our oldest major source comes from the detractor, Aristophanes, the greatest comic dramatist of the ancient world. His caricature of Socrates in the Clouds, produced in 423 b.c., when Aristophanes was about thirty and Socrates in his mid–forties, is the only substantial source we have that was written by someone who knew Socrates but was not one of his devoted companions. This makes it a precious document. Many scholars dismiss it and are offended by what they take to be the manifest unfairness of Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates. Indeed, Aristophanes’ portrait is unflattering, as would be expected of a comic caricature. But a caricature cannot have its intended effect unless its exaggerations are also revealing. The works of Plato and Xenophon, Socrates’ two greatest literary admirers, are full of thoughtful responses to Aristophanes that show they took the critique in the Clouds with great seriousness.
Plato and Xenophon were both brilliant young men who fell under Socrates’ spell when they were teenagers and Socrates himself was well into his fifties. Their writings on Socrates belong to the genre Aristotle called “Socratic discourses.” (Aristotle, by the way, adds a few crumbs of Socratic lore that may be independent of our other surviving sources.) This genre coalesced after Socrates’ execution when a number of his companions (among whom Plato and Xenophon were relatively junior) began to memorialize his life and conversations, usually in dialogues. Alas, little survives of these Socratic discourses besides those of Plato and Xeno phon. We can plausibly reconstruct two Socratic dialogues by another companion of Socrates, Aesch ines of Sphettus, probably written in the first decade or so after Socrates’ execution; that is all. Still, we know enough about how the writings in this genre were composed to see that they can be treated as historical sources only with great caution. Arnaldo Momigliano, one of the great classicists of the postwar era, put the point well when he said that Socratic discourses “occupy an ambiguous position between fact and imagination . . . directed toward capturing . . . not so much the real Socrates as the potential Socrates.” Plato and Xenophon used Socrates as a character to reflect on Socrates’ philosophical significance, not primarily to give a historical account of him.
Many a brave scholar has not let the literary character of our sources deter him from setting off in quest of the historical Socrates. None has yet set up a “Socrates Seminar” to separate the wheat of Socrates’ real words from the chaff of the inventions of Aristophanes and Plato and Xenophon, but in principle such a thing is only a grant away from becoming a reality. Many factors conspire to make this quest more than a little quixotic. Scholars have often pressed their suits by trying to establish either Plato or Xenophon as a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates, which would at least simplify the interpretive task. In the nineteenth century, many argued for Xenophon, on the grounds that his other writings show him more of a willing historian than Plato. Recent suitors, every bit as ardent, have tended to argue that Plato is more reliable because he was a better philosopher than Xenophon, and so better able to appreciate the “true” Socrates.
One need not dispute, as well one might, the views of history and philosophy behind these positions to see that scholars here are sailing in a very leaky boat. We tilt at windmills if we expect Plato and Xenophon to abide by Ranke’s nineteenth–century dictum that history report the past “just as it really was.” These two literary giants understood their responsibilities differently. To think otherwise makes their decision to write dialogues look puzzling, not to say entirely perverse. Even worse, they are the dialogues of a man notorious for his irony, and Plato and Xenophon do not busy themselves much with telling us what is and is not to be taken as straight evidence. You might as well be handed a kaleidoscope when you had hoped for binoculars. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the great Platonists of modern times, put it, “The historic facts are lost in the light of Plato’s mind.”
This quest has also often presupposed that the “true” Socrates will be found in the hobgoblin of the Socratic ethical theory. The great champion of this theory–seeking approach was the late Gregory Vlastos. Vlastos’ intellectual and moral virtues earned him great influence in the American academy: he was a scholar of fine precision, invention, and tenacity, and a most generous and inspiring teacher. But none of our sources presents Socrates as constructing an ethical theory in the way that Aristotle, Epicurus, or the Stoics did. We always see Socrates addressing particular people with particular prejudices and motives, without ever attempting to articulate a theory, let alone the theory.
Even if Socrates did have such a theory, his place in the history of philosophy has little to do with it. His consistency was of a different order. It is his character that reminds you of nothing else, usurping the place of schools and theories. One sometimes feels that analyzing Socrates’ arguments can make us forget really to listen to his conversation, which is the one thing needful. We run the risk of finding a Polonius rather than a Hamlet. Yet Socrates was not just one theory–monger among others. The representative man of a new way of life, his example shone so bright it eclipsed the influence of any mere theory he may have defended. Like the melancholy Dane or Goethe’s Werther, the Platonic and Xenophontic Socrates was a man to be emulated, not a theory to be believed.
None of Socrates’ suitors has yet succeeded in turning this beauty into a safe and domesticated bride. We can never see Helen’s face directly. We appreciate her beauty best when we contemplate the thousand ships she launched.
During his life Socrates attracted a motley crowd of suitors from throughout the Greek world. Plenty of them were mere eccentrics. Superficial imitators, they aped Socrates’ uncouth dress and made rude attempts to copy his urbane if sometimes irritating examinations of his fellow citizens, turning themselves into little more than public scolds. Their nicknames tell us something of what they must have been, hanging like spaniels at the master’s heels: Chaerephon “The Bat,” a squeaky partisan of democracy; Aristodemus “The Shrimp,” a tiny atheist and bohemian; Apollodorus “The Weaky,” a voluble sort given to showering his friends with equal measures of tears and abuse. Socrates was also surrounded and pursued by accomplished intellectuals of various stripes, geometers and tragedians and natural scientists. Even the ancient world’s great media consultants, for whom time was money (some things never change), men like Gorgias and Protagoras, enjoyed his bantering ways and had a healthy appreciation, not unmixed with fear, for his dialectical skill.
But if eccentrics and intellectuals had exhausted the ranks of Socrates’ lovers, he would not have ended up dying the most famous of all philosophical deaths. He came to the judicial attention of Athens because he was so attractive to a type of energetic young man whose political ambition was stronger than his sense of moral restraint. I take political ambition to be the defining characteristic of Socrates’ most interesting admirers. Such men saw something in Socrates that corresponded to their own aspirations. But what did they see?
It helps to start with Socrates’ critics rather than his admirers. The most important “criticisms” of which we have record are the formal charges brought against him, and the prosecutors (Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon) were the most deadly serious critics. They charged Socrates with “introducing strange divinities” and with “corrupting the young.” These are not two separate charges, but aspects of the same charge. Socrates’ “strange divinities” are a crucial part of the story of how he influenced ambitious young men, and the heart of his mystery lies here.
Socrates claimed to have a divine something that gave him unerring advice, a sort of voice that came to him off and on, usually to dissuade him from some course of action. Often enough, it also gave a warning concerning one of his associates. The ancient Greeks were used to the idea that the gods give signs of the providential structure of the cosmos, but they were not used to a claim like this, and when he referred to it at his trial, it provoked an uproar. The jury thought Socrates was boasting, or in the lovely Greek idiom, “talking big.” This direct line to divine instruction exceeded anything the Greeks expected from prophets, oracles, or other diviners. The very sons of the gods in the Greek foundation myths never had so much access to the Chief Executive. Reading the divine purpose in the entrails of a sacrificed beast or in the flights of birds of prey, or sifting the dark utterances that came from Delphi’s smoky chair: this was the burden of indirection and obscurity the Greeks expected from their divine communications. As Heraclitus said, Zeus neither speaks nor is silent; he merely gives a sign.
Interpreters ancient and modern have tried to make something less uncanny of this prophetic gift of Socrates. The contemporary tendency is to see it as a kind of epistemological hiccup, interrupting the otherwise smooth expression of Socratic rationalism. This makes of the divine voice a charming personal quirk, like that of a physicist who reads the horoscope. The more interesting attempts to make Socrates’ uncanniness tractable do not follow this path of trivializing his prophetic side. They try rather to naturalize it, so that the divine voice becomes an aspect of Socrates’ psychological faculties rather than a theophany.
Aristophanes’ Clouds makes no mention of his access to “strange divinities,” but it does present Socrates as an impious inquirer into nature after the fashion of other natural philosophers of the day. He contemplates “the things beneath the earth and the things in the heavens,” and looks down on merely human affairs with smug contempt. This Socrates denies the existence of the gods, or at least of gods who take any providential interest in humans, and shows no interest in any of the questions about virtue and community life so characteristic of the Platonic and Xenophontic Socrates. The only access to novel divinities in this portrait of Socrates comes through philosophic insight, which anyone of the right intellectual talent might have. Aristophanes’ Socrates inspires ambitious young men to live according to nature, understood in light of this denial of the gods’ concern for human affairs. The natural standard that comes to light can hardly distinguish beast from man or man from god, and licenses the most appalling excesses of incest and patricide, as if setting loose the Oedipus in us all.
Perhaps the most influential development of this naturalizing approach to Socrates’ weird wisdom came from the Stoics. They too saw the ideal wise person as someone who lived according to nature. But of course they believed nature had a rational and moral deep structure. Like Heraclitus, they identified this structure with the will of Zeus, and made knowledge of it the central achievement of their ideal sage. The sage’s penetration of the rational plan of the cosmos would give him the power to interpret the significance of otherwise mundane happenings. Their example was a sage knowing when it was time for him to die; a simple event like stubbing his toe might serve him as a definitive sign. This was the Stoics’ version of the instruction Socrates received from the divine voice not to prepare a defense speech. There can be no better test of a claim to special knowledge than the claim to know when to die. But the Stoics did not conceive of such knowledge as a unique prophetic gift, as both Plato and Xenophon did. They naturalized Socrates’ divine sign, reducing it to the discernment that was the natural attainment of the ideal wise person. All reason, no faith.
Many contemporary scholars consider Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates as a natural philosopher to be a total fabrication. This rejection is much too hasty, and makes very selective use of the sources. It is true that Plato and Xenophon denied that Socrates pursued natural science in the manner of his philosophical predecessors. But they also portrayed him as having an expert acquaintance with the main theories of his day. Furthermore, the cosmological interests ascribed to Socrates in the Clouds are corroborated by Socrates’ account of his intellectual autobiography in Plato’s Phaedo.
Still, Plato and Xenophon did not put natural science at the center of Socrates’ philosophical activity. It is possible that this difference between Aristophanes’ portrait and the later portraits reflects a historical change in Socrates’ own interests: he may have been much more involved with speculation in natural science and metaphysics earlier in his life. For what it is worth—and it is not worth very much—this is the story the ancient biographical tradition tells.
At any rate, Plato and especially Xenophon presented Socrates’ attitude to natural science as the antithesis to the atheistic naturalism of the Socrates of the Clouds. Their Socrates instead criticizes materialist explanations of the cosmos, insisting that a better explanation must appeal to mind and divine purposes. Xenophon tried to show that Socrates’ emphasis on providence had good moral effects on his companions. Socrates’ belief in a providentially ordered cosmos seems to have been a primary impetus for the Stoics’ development of their own providential cosmology. Indeed, through the Stoics, Socrates’ emphasis on providence may have had a formative influence in natural philosophy on a par with the more celebrated and better documented Socratic turn in ethics and politics.
I have said the Stoics naturalized Socrates’ divine voice by making it an aspect of his rational faculties. They are the ancestors of the modern attempts to make of Socrates’ prophetic gift a safe domestic in the house of reason. It was the great virtue of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) to see the superficiality of such domestications, and to challenge them by considering Socrates against the background of Greek tragedy. In the end Nietzsche was a naturalizer, too, since he identified the divine voice with instinct. But he put us, the heirs of enlightened rationalism and romantic irony, back on the right track. Nietzsche retrieved the religious aspect of tragedy from every kind of moralizing (especially Aristotle’s), and in the process gave us the clue to retrieving the uncanniness of Socrates from the rationalists and the ironists.
Nietzsche believed the generation that fell in love with Socrates had a fundamentally different experience of tragedy from earlier Athenians. Tragedy’s original audience experienced the awful spectacle of King Oedipus as an affirmation of human greatness, not as an occasion of pity. The very moment Oedipus met his fated destruction revealed the depth of his self–reliant character. Undone from the outside by the touch of the divine, Oedipus did not “deserve” his fate; who does? He simply lived it. No one expected his suffering to be proportionate to his guilt. Cheerfully, the tragic audience accepted Oedipus’ destruction as the cost of his intimacy with the divine. But tragedy began to die, Nietzsche argued, when there arose in the new generation a new need, a need for life to be “intelligible”—that is, to be moralized—for it to be tolerable. Oedipus crucified became a scandal. Among the first fruits of this new sensibility was Aristotle’s account of tragedy, where the engine of destruction cannot be external to the agent, and so must reside in some mistake or flaw. The hunger for poetic justice supplants the taste for tragedy.
In Nietzsche’s telling, the healthy Greeks of the earlier tragic age had seen in Oedipus a representative of the highest attainment possible for their own character, a noble self–trust and independence that was at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life. They realized it was not truculent willfulness that had driven Oedipus to save Thebes and destroy its king; it was the law of his being. Character teaches above our wills, and is not whimsical but fatal. The new generation could no longer identify with this bold self–reliance. Always peeping timidly over their shoulders, they sicklied over every action with the pale cast of thought.
In Nietzsche’s view, Socrates was the type of these new men who had no stomach for tragedy. The new neediness found its confirmation in the preposterous relation between Socrates’ rational faculties and his allegedly divine voice, which was nothing other than the voice of instinct. “Instinctive wisdom makes its appearance in this entirely abnormal nature,” wrote Nietzsche, “only to oppose and thwart here and there what is consciously being considered. While in all productive people instinct is the creative–affirmative power, and consciousness makes itself critical and dissuasive, instinct becomes in Socrates the critic, consciousness the creator.” This Socratic inversion of thought and instinct was received with passionate gratitude by a generation lacking the ambitious self–confidence to identify with Oedipus. No longer trusting themselves, they were only too happy to imitate a man who lived by the maxim that the unexamined life was not worth living. Three parts cowardice for every part of wisdom, this commitment to ceaseless examination would prove, Nietzsche believed, more of an aversion to life than a spur to it.
Nietzsche’s provocative analysis changed the terms of the quest for Socrates in two crucial ways. First, he asked what made an audience receptive to Socrates, rather than just what positions he defended, focusing on Socrates as a Helen, or in Nietzsche’s image, a pied piper. Second, he saw that Socrates responded to specifically religious anxieties of the sort that tragedy explored. But the limitations of this story are also clear enough. Nietzsche’s account of Socrates’ young audience is better at describing late–nineteenth–century intellectuals than the actual young men portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Nietzsche hardly mentions political ambition in his account, while Plato and Xenophon mention it constantly. They show us a number of young men who explicitly, and rather tactlessly, expect Socrates to bend his prophetic gift to their own purpose. This purpose, as Socrates often forces them to acknowledge more openly than they would like, is to wield absolute political power. They aspire to be kings, and may be willing to settle for being tyrants. We must be careful here not to moralize more quickly than Socrates did. He enjoyed these high ambitions. Plato has Socrates suggest that the same endowments of intellect and temperament that fit people for philosophy may also incline them to tyranny. (Even in our own day, we in philosophy departments do not find we recruit all our most promising students from among the Eagle Scouts. Some actually admit under questioning their desire to go to law school.)
The young men who became enamored of Socrates were every bit as self–confident and ambitious, as “instinctive” and celebratory of their own prospects in life, as Sophocles’ threatened heroes. And like those heroes, they wondered how to make human strength effective in a world suffused with the obscure and sometimes hostile purposes of gods. In this world, King Oedipus and his bleeding eyes stand as a fitting image of the collision of human ambition with divine limits. Socrates fascinated the promising young men of Athens because he seemed to have the cure for the tragic predicament that plagued Oedipus, the plague of ambition that reaches beyond where one’s knowledge can grasp. They had no wish to suffer with Oedipus the humiliating ordeal of discovering their ignorance on an unforgiving public stage. They wanted from Socrates what tragic heroes so often want and so rarely get from their own prophets and oracles: sure knowledge of how to pursue their projects successfully. This is what they thought they saw.
But of course it was a mirage, so much false water in a desert of fate. Socrates exploited their hopes, and let some of the most promising believe his prophetic gift might be put at their disposal. Only when they were thoroughly seduced did this philosophical Helen reveal that their hopes would not find consummation. What his strange god had to offer was much the same Delphic wisdom that tragedy itself presented, the old story of ambition’s limits. As is understandable, not everyone responded well to these dashed expectations. Rich young men have never been pleased to discover their poverty. Some became convinced Socrates was a contemptible chatterer, good for nothing but whispering in corners with little boys. But others, their ambitions deflated, trimmed their sails, forming rather docile, obedient attachments to Socrates as the only infallible source of moral guidance.
Plato and Xenophon were more ambivalent, and less docile. Though impressed by the superhuman knowledge made possible by Socrates’ divine gift, they were not willing to place their own high ambitions completely under its discipline. Their treatments of the divine sign are marked by a certain ironic distance. In this respect, they provide some precedent for trivializing treatments of Socrates’ prophetic gift.
But overall, Plato and Xenophon took Socrates’ uncanniness much more seriously than this. They seem to concede that Socrates confronts us with a paradox, if not a full–blown mystery. We can fall in love with his example, but we do not know how to imitate him. For how can we ever aspire to the uncanniness of Socrates, this satyr who is part man, part beastly god? He is at one and the same time the most attractive and the most elusive of all philosophers. What Emerson said of Shakespeare is even more true of Socrates: he is inconceivably wise, the others conceivably; with him we are still out of doors. Our inability to domesticate Socrates continues to give philosophy the shock he gave the rich young men of Athens: our poverty will be always with us. No wonder we are still apologizing.
David K. O’Connor is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Concurrent Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Morris Institute of Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina.