Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Socrates (469–399 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Herbert Weir Smyth (1857–1937)
GREAT teachers are not often great writers: some indeed have written nothing, and among these the greatest is Socrates. If the qualities of his genius made Socrates a teacher through the spoken, not through the written word, he created a literature in which, through the devotion of his pupils, his message to the world has been transmitted to us. It is fortunate that Xenophon and Plato were so different in character and aptitudes. If the historian was incapable of grasping the full significance of his master’s search for truth and its transforming power, he pictures for us the homelier side of the life of Socrates,—his practical virtues, his humanity,—and defends him from calumny and reproach. In the larger vision of Plato the outlines of the man were merged into the figure of the ideal teacher. To disengage with certainty the man Socrates from the dialectician into whose mouth Plato puts his own transcendental philosophy, is beyond our powers; but in the pages of Xenophon, unillumined indeed by Plato’s matchless urbanity and grace, we have a record of Socrates’s conversations that bears the mark of verisimilitude.  1
  The life of Socrates falls in a period of the history of thought when the speculations of a century and more had arrived at the hopeless conclusion that there was no real truth, no absolute standard of right and wrong, no difference between what is essential and what is accidental; and that all man can know is dependent upon sensation, and perception through the senses. But the position of Socrates in history is not to be understood by a mere statement of his methods, or his results in regenerating philosophical investigation.  2
  Born in 469, or perhaps 471, the son of the statuary Sophroniscus and Phænarete a midwife, he received the education of the Athenian youth of the time in literature,—which embraced chiefly the study of Homer,—in music, and in geometry and astronomy. He is said to have tried his hand for a time at his father’s trade; and a group of the Graces, currently believed to be his work, was extant as late as the second century A.D. Like the Parisian, whose world is bounded by the boulevards, Socrates thought Athens world enough for him. He remained in his native city his entire life; unlike the Sophists, who traveled from city to city making gain of their wisdom. On one occasion indeed he attended the games at Corinth; and as a soldier underwent with fortitude the privations of the campaign at Potidæa, where he saved the life of Alcibiades, whose influence, directly or indirectly, was to work ruin alike to Athens and his master. He was engaged in the battles of Delium in 424 and Amphipolis in 422. His life was by preference free from event. Warned by the deterrent voice of his “divine sign,” he took no part in public affairs except when he was called upon to fulfill the ordinary duties of citizenship. Until his trial before the court that sentenced him to death, he appeared in a public capacity on only two occasions; in both of which he displayed his lofty independence and tenacity of purpose in the face of danger. In 406, withstanding the clamor of the mob, he alone among the presidents of the assembly refused to put to vote the inhuman and illegal proposition to condemn in a body the generals at Arginusæ; and during the Reign of Terror in 404 he disobeyed the incriminating command of the Thirty Tyrants to arrest Leon, whom they had determined to put to death.  3
  He seems at an early age to have recoiled from speculations as to the cause and constitution of the physical world; believing that they dealt with problems not merely too deep for human intellect but sacred from man’s finding out. “Do these students of nature’s laws,” he indignantly exclaimed, “think they already know human affairs well enough, that they begin to meddle with the Divine?”  4
  To Socrates “the proper study of mankind is man.” In the market-place he found material for investigation at once more tangible and of a profounder significance than the atomic theory of Democritus. “Know thyself” was inscribed on the temple of the god of Delphi; and it was Socrates’s conviction that a “life without self-examination was no life at all.” Since the Delphian oracle declared him to be the wisest of men, he felt that he had a Divine mission to make clear the meaning of the god, and to seek if haply he might find some one wiser than himself; for he was conscious that he knew nothing.  5
  To this quest everything was made subordinate. He was possessed of nothing, for he had the faculty of indigence. Fortunately, as Renan has put it, all a Greek needed for his daily sustenance was a few olives and a little wine. “To want nothing,” said Socrates, “is Divine; to want as little as possible is the nearest possible approach to the Divine life.” Clad in shabby garments, which sufficed alike for summer and winter, always barefoot (a scandal to Athenian propriety), taking money from no man so as not to “enslave himself,” professing with his “accustomed irony” to be unable to teach anything himself, he went about year after year,—in the market-place, in the gymnasium, in the school,—asking continually, “What is piety? What is impiety? What is the honorable and the base? What is the just and the unjust? What is temperance or unsound mind? What is the character fit for a citizen? What is authority over men? What is the character befitting the exercise of such authority?” Questioning men of every degree, of every mode of thought and occupation, he discovered that each and all of the poets, the politicians, the orators, the artists, the artisans, thought that “because he possessed some special excellence in his own art, he was himself wisest as to matters of another and a higher kind.” The Athenian of the day multiplied words about equality, virtue, justice; but when examined as to the credentials of their knowledge, Socrates found all alike ignorant. Thus it was that he discovered the purport of the divine saying—others thought they knew something, he knew that he knew nothing.  6
  The Sophists claimed to have gained wisdom, which they taught for a price: Socrates only claimed to be a lover of wisdom, a philosopher. Though he continued to affect ignorance, in order to confound ignorance, he must have been conscious that if in truth he was the “wisest of men,” he had a heaven-attested authority for leading men to a right course of thinking. Only by confessing our ignorance, he said, and by becoming learners, can we reach a right course of thinking; and by learning to think aright, according to his intellectual view of ethics, we learn to do well. God alone possesses wisdom; but it is man’s duty to struggle to attain to knowledge, and therewith virtue. For virtue is knowledge, and sin is the fruit of ignorance. Voluntary evil on the part of one who knows what is good, is inconceivable.  7
  In his search for knowledge, Socrates found that it was imperative to get clear conceptions of general notions. These he attained by the process of induction.
          “Going once, too, into the workshop of Cleito the statuary, and beginning to converse with him, he said, ‘I see and understand, Cleito, that you make figures of various kinds, runners and wrestlers, pugilists and pancratiasts; but how do you put into your statues that which most wins the minds of the beholders through the eye—the lifelike appearance?’ As Cleito hesitated, and did not immediately answer, Socrates proceeded to ask, ‘Do you make your statues appear more lifelike by assimilating your work to the figures of the living?’ ‘Certainly,’ said he. ‘Do you not then make your figures appear more like reality, and more striking, by imitating the parts of the body that are drawn up or drawn down, compressed or spread out, stretched or relaxed, by the gesture?’ ‘Undoubtedly,’ said Cleito. ‘And the representation of the passions of men engaged in any act, does it not excite a certain pleasure in the spectators?’ ‘It is natural, at least, that it should be so,’ said he. ‘Must you not, then, copy the menacing looks of combatants? And must you not imitate the countenance of conquerors, as they look joyful?’ ‘Assuredly,’ said he. ‘A statuary, therefore,’ concluded Socrates, ‘must express the workings of the mind by the form.’” (Xenophon, in the ‘Memorabilia.’)
  There is no deadlier weapon than the terrible cut-and-thrust process of cross-examination by which the great questioner could reduce his interlocutor to the confession of false knowledge. Sometimes, we must confess, Socrates seems to have altogether too easy a time of it, as he wraps his victim closer and closer in his toils. If we tire of the men of straw who are set up against him, and our fingers itch to take a hand in the fight, we cannot but realize that the process destructive of error is a necessary preliminary to the constructive process by which positive truth is established.  9
  If Greek thought was saved from the germs of disintegration by Socrates’s recognition of the certainty of moral distinctions, it is his incomparable method of teaching that entitles him to our chief regard. He elicited curiosity, which is the beginning of wisdom; he had no stereotyped system of philosophy to set forth,—he only opened up vistas of truth; he stimulated, he did not complete, investigation. Hence he created, not a school, but scholars; who, despite the wide diversity of their beliefs, drew their inspiration from a common source.  10
  If his fertility of resource, his wit and humor, his geniality, his illustrations drawn from common life, his well-nigh universal sympathy, charmed many, the significance of his moral teachings inspired the chosen few. Those who could recover from the shock of discovering that their knowledge was after all only ignorance, were spurred by his obstinate questionings to a better life. He delivered their minds of the truths that had unconsciously lain in them.  11
  With his wonted art, Plato has made the most dissolute of Socrates’s temporary followers the chief witness to his captivating eloquence. In the ‘Banquet,’ Alcibiades says:—

          “I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature; and yet I do not mean to laugh at him, but only to speak the truth. I say, then, that he is exactly like the masks of Silenus, which may be seen sitting in the statuaries’ shops, having pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and there are images of gods inside them. I say also that he is like Marsyas the satyr.
  “And are you not a flute-player? That you are; and a far more wonderful performer than Marsyas. For he indeed with instruments charmed the souls of men by the power of his breath, as the performers of his music do still; for the melodies of Olympus are derived from the teaching of Marsyas, and these—whether they are played by a great master or by a miserable flute-girl—have a power which no others have,—they alone possess the soul and reveal the wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries, because they are inspired. But you produce the same effect with the voice only, and do not require the flute; that is the difference between you and him. When we hear any other speaker,—even a very good one,—his words produce absolutely no effect upon us in comparison; whereas the very fragments of you and your words, even at second-hand, and however imperfectly repeated, amaze and possess the souls of every man, woman, and child who comes within hearing of them.
  “I have heard Pericles and other great orators: but though I thought that they spoke well, I never had any similar feeling; my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state. But this Marsyas has often brought me to such a pass, that I have felt as if I could hardly endure the life which I am leading (this, Socrates, you admit); and I am conscious that if I did not shut my ears against him, and fly from the voice of the siren, he would detain me until I grew old sitting at his feet. For he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do,—neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians; therefore I hold my ears and tear myself away from him. And he is the only person who ever made me ashamed,—which you might think not to be in my nature; and there is no one else who does the same. For I know that I cannot answer him, or say that I ought not to do as he bids; but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me. And therefore I run away and fly from him, and when I see him I am ashamed of what I have confessed to him. And many a time I wish that he were dead, and yet I know that I should be much more sorry than glad if he were to die: so that I am at my wits’ end.”
  Socrates must have seemed in very truth a satyr to the large body of Athenians careless of his mission. How could they, who had been taught that the “good is fair” and that the “fair is good,” believe that good should issue from those thick, sensual lips; or realize that within that misshapen body, with its staring eyes and upturned nose with outspread nostrils, there resided a soul disparate to its covering? Surely this rude creature of the world of Pan could not speak the words of Divine wisdom! Then too his eccentricities. Like Luther, he combined common-sense with mysticism. He would remain as if in a trance for hours, brooding over some problem of the true or good. As early as 423, Aristophanes made him the scapegoat for his detestation of the natural philosophers and of the Sophists, who were unsettling all traditional belief.

          Strepsiades—But who hangs dangling in the basket yonder?
  Strepsiades—            And who’s Himself?
  Student—                        Why, Socrates.
  Strepsiades—Ho, Socrates! Call him, you fellow—call loud.
  Student—Call him yourself—I’ve got no time for calling.  [Exit in-doors.]
  Strepsiades—Ho, Socrates! Sweet, darling Socrates!
  Socrates—Why callest thou me, poor creature of a day?
  Strepsiades—First tell me, pray, what are you doing up there?
  Socrates—I walk in air, and contemplate the sun.
  Strepsiades—Oh, that’s the way that you look down on the gods—
You get so near them on your perch there—eh?
  Socrates—I never could have found out things divine,
Had I not hung my mind up thus, and mixed
My subtle intellect with its kindred air.
  The ethical inquirer here is pilloried by the caricaturist for the very tendency against which his whole life was a protest. When in 399 Socrates was brought to trial, he confesses that the chief obstacle in the way of proving his innocence is those calumnies of his “old accusers”; for even if Aristophanes was able to distinguish between Socrates and the Sophists, he did not, and the common people could not.  14
  The indictment put forward by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, who were merely the mouthpieces of hostile public opinion, read as follows:—  15
  “Socrates offends against the laws in not paying respect to those gods whom the city respects, and introducing other new deities; he also offends against the laws in corrupting the youth.”  16
  It is not difficult to see why Socrates provoked a host of enemies. Those who, like Anytus, felt that he inflamed their sons to revolt against parental authority; those who regarded the infamous life and treason of Alcibiades, and the tyranny of Critias, as the direct result of their master’s teachings; those who thought him the gadfly of the market-place, and who had suffered under his merciless exposure of their sham knowledge; those who saw in his objection to the choice of public officers by lot, a menace to the established constitution,—all these felt that by his death alone could the city be rid of his pestilential disputatiousness.  17
  For his defense, Socrates made no special preparation. “My whole life,” said he, “has been passed with my brief in view. I have shunned evil all my life;—that I think is the most honorable way in which a man can bestow attention upon his own defense:” words that anticipate those spoken on a still more memorable occasion,—“But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak.”  18
  If the accusations were false, the trial was legal. Against the count of the indictment on the score of impiety, Socrates could set his reverence for the gods. His daimonion was no new deity, and it had spoken to him from his youth up. He had discharged the religious duties required by the State; he even believed in the manifestations of the gods through signs and oracles when human judgment was at fault, and this at a time when the “enlightened” viewed such faith with contempt. He recognized with gratitude the intelligent purpose of the gods in creating a world of beauty. “No one,” says Xenophon, “ever knew of his doing or saying anything profane or unholy.” He was temperate, brave, upright, endowed with a high sense of honor. Though he preserved the independence of his judgment, he had been loyal to the existing government. A less unbending assertion of this independence, and a conciliatory attitude toward his judges, would have saved Socrates from death. But he seems to have courted a verdict that would mark him as the “first martyr of philosophy.”  19
  [NOTE.—The chief ancient authorities for the life and teaching of Socrates are Xenophon’s ‘Memorabilia,’ or Memoirs of the philosopher, and his ‘Symposium’; Plato’s ‘Apology,’ ‘Crito,’ and parts of the ‘Phædo.’ Such dialogues as the ‘Lysis,’ ‘Charmides,’ ‘Laches,’ ‘Protagoras,’ ‘Euthyphro,’ deal with the master’s conception of the unity of virtue and knowledge; and are called “Socratic” because they are free from the intrusion of features that are specifically Platonic, such as the doctrine of the Ideas, and the tripartite division of the soul. The ‘Apology’ included among the writings of Xenophon is probably spurious. The ‘Life’ by Diogenes Laertius is an ill-assorted and uncritical compilation, filled with trivial gossip.]  20

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.