Socrates, the Historical Figure and the Character in the Platonic Dialogues

Socrates (470-399 BCE) represents a new beginning in ancient philosophy. He focused attention away from nature and onto issues connected to the good life and happiness.

Aristotle calls the genre to which Plato's dialogues belong "Socratic conversations" [or: stories about Socrates (Σωκρᾰτικοί λόγοι)] (Poetics 1447b). What we know about what Socrates thought we know primarily on the basis of what the character Socrates says in Plato's dialogues. Socrates himself wrote nothing.

Socrates and Plato's Dialogues

Plato's dialogues have been transmitted from antiquity in their entirety. This is true of the work of no other philosopher in the first two periods of ancient philosophy.

Plato uses his name in the dialogues only three times.

"Adimantus, son of Aristo, whose brother is Plato (Πλάτων) here"(Apology 34a). "Plato here, men of Athens, and Crito and Critobulus, and Aristobulus tell me to propose a fine of thirty minas, saying that they are sureties for it" (Apology 38b). "Plato, I think, was ill" (Phaedo 59b).

Plato dialogues traditionally divide into early, middle, and late dialogues. There is some controversy over the details of this division as well as also over the division itself, but I accept the general position in these lectures.

The Apology, Euthyphro, Laches, Hippias Major, Protagoras, Gorgias are traditionally early dialogues.
Plato is the primary witness for Socrates.

Others wrote about Socrates, but Plato's early dialogues are traditionally thought to provide the most authoritative account. Keep in mind, though, that since Socrates himself did not record his thought, there is no straightforward way to determine how much the character Socrates (who appears in the Platonic dialogues) resembles the historical figure (who lived and died). There must be some resemblance. Otherwise there would be no reason for the name, but the inference from what the character says to what the historical figure thought is indirect.

It might be that although there is some resemblance between the character Socrates and the historical figure, we are not in a position to know what it is. If this is correct, then all we have in the early dialogues is a character named 'Socrates' who says various things.

If, however, we reject this skepticism, as I think we should, then we need to consider models of how Plato understood the relationship between Socrates the historical figure and Socrates the character in the early dialogues. The following are natural possibilities:

• the apprenticeship model
• the assessment model

The apprenticeship model has its basis in the fact that Plato's dialogues look like historical conversations. The dramatic dates of some of the dialogues make it unlikely that Plato is preserving a record of conversations he witnessed, but it might be that his dialogues are imitations of Socrates' conversations. On this model, Plato is imitating Socrates' conversations in the way that an apprentice imitates and tries to replicate the work of his master. He writes his early dialogues to create period pieces in the style that Socrates employed in his conversations.

The assessment model has its basis in the fact that Socrates was charismatic but also extremely perplexing. On this model, Plato is not first and foremost trying to imitate Socrates. He is trying to understand the life Socrates lived but whose principles Socrates did not very clearly explain and perhaps did not completely understand. On the assessment model, the dialogues in which Socrates appears as a character are biographical fictions. These dialogues are mixtures of biography and fiction. Plato uses this genre to bring out what he takes to be important aspects of Socrates' life and thought that would be easily lost in a strictly historical account of what Socrates said and did. If this is correct, we can expect Plato to make the character Socrates engage in the sorts of conversations in which the historical Socrates engaged, but his intent in doing this is to explore and try to understand the life Socrates lived.

In these lectures, I follow the assessment model for how Plato understood the relation between Socrates the historical figure and the character Socrates in the early dialogues. I think we can know that Socrates was perplexing and that Plato (who as a young man was in the circle around Socrates) thought Socrates was onto something and wanted to know what it was.

In 399 BCE,the city of Athens tried and executed Socrates for impiety and corrupting the youth. The Apology purports to show the speech Socrates makes in his defense at the trial. If this is right, Plato's aim is to understand Socrates and to show that he was not guilty of the charges the Athenians brought against him. This is Plato's intent even in the Apology, which is sometimes thought (incorrectly if the assessment model is correct) to be transcript of what Socrates said at his trial. Plato mixes fiction and biography to try to depict Socrates and his life in a way that shows what Socrates seemed to understand about human beings and their lives.

The Sources and Language of the Platonic Dialogues

Sheets of papyrus were made from the pith of the papyrus plant. (The English 'papyrus' transliterates the Greek πάπυρος.) Books first took the form of papyrus sheets glued together in a scroll or roll of papyrus. In the late Roman Empire, in the 2nd to the 4th century CE, instead of as a papyrus scroll, books took the form of a codex. A codex consists of squires of sheets of papyrus or parchment put together to form a group of leaves or pages. (Parchment is writing material made from the skin of animals.)
The oldest sources for the text of Plato are the papyri from the second and third century CE, but they contain only fragments of the text. The Platonic dialogues as they exist today are based on Byzantine manuscripts from the ninth and tenth century CE in Greek-speaking areas ruled from Constantinople.

In 324 CE, after reuniting the Empire, the Roman Emperor Constantine made the city of Byzantium the capital, later known as Constantinople, the "City of Constantine."

In the ninth and tenth century CE, manuscripts written in majuscule were rewritten (μεταχαρακτηρισμός, "change of the mark impressed") in the new minuscule. Because the older manuscripts in majuscule were discarded once they were rewritten, the Byzantine manuscripts are the primary link to the dialogues Plato wrote twelve centuries earlier.

In Greek palaeography, "majuscules" are large letters and "minuscules" are small letters. Capitals are majuscules made with strokes meeting at angles. They are common on stone or metal, as curves are not easily cut into hard surfaces. Uncials are a modification of capitals to include curves. They are common on soft material such as papyrus in which letters are drawn with a pen. (Here is the fifth letter in the Greek alphabet, epsilon, as a capital, Ε, and as a unical, ∈.)
Subsequently, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, knowledge of Plato spread from the Byzantine Empire to Italy and the rest of western Europe.

The language of Plato's dialogues is Attic Greek. This is one of the four dialects occur in the earliest records: Attic-Ionic, Aeolic, Arcadian, and Doric. Attic Greek (which is a subdivision of Attic-Ionic) was spoken in Athens, the home of Socrates and Plato. The great literary figures of ancient Greece (including Plato) were Athenian and wrote in the Attic dialect.

The Attic dialect became the basis for a common Greek language, called koine (κοινή, from κοινός "common"), which, by the Christian era, was spoken over much the Mediterranean world. It is the language of the New Testament, and through its use in Constantinople, it formed the basis of the language of Byzantine literature. Over time Koine was replaced by other languages of the Mediterranean, primarily Latin in the west and Arabic in the east.

Today the Greek spoken in modern Athens is the sole surviving form of the ancient language.

Translations into English

Platonis opera quae extant omnia, III. Timaeus 32-33.
<em>Platonis opera quae extant omnia</em>, Henricus Stephanus, Genevae, 1578. <em>Timaeus</em> 32-33

Platonis opera quae extant omnia I (owned and signed by John Adams, 6th president of the United States), II, III.
The numbers in translations of Plato are called Stephanus numbers. They derive from an edition (in three volumes) published in 1578 by Henri Estienne, whose last name in Latin is "Stephanus." Each page is split into two columns. The inner one is the Greek text. The outer one is a Latin translation. The letters between the columns divide the text into sections.

In the image on the right, the book is open to pages 32 and 33 of the Timaeus. In these pages, Timaeus describes the construction of the "cosmos" (κοσμος).

The modern edition of the Platonic corpus is John Burnet's Oxford Classical Text.

The standard collection of English translations is Plato, Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), but it should not be thought automatically that these are the best translations available. Translation is not easy, especially for philosophical texts. Translators almost inevitably write some of their interpretation of the philosophy into the text of the translation. For this reason, it is often helpful to look at more than one translation and also to look at older translations. The older translations sound dated, but they are sometimes revealing because the translators have a different perspective.

The first editor of the LSJ, Henry George Liddell (1811-1898), was Dean of Christ Church (a college of the University of Oxford), and the father of Alice Liddell, the eponymous Alice of the writings of Lewis Carroll.
In the lecture notes, I link to the (freely available) translations in the Perseus Digital Library. These translations have some problems, but they are more than good enough for most purposes. The English is linked to the Greek text, and the Greek words are linked to the LSJ Greek-English Lexicon. This allows us to check the translations against Plato's own words.

Textual Evidence for Socrates

Plato's dialogues traditionally divide into early, middle, and late dialogues. This chronology is based largely on references in the dialogues and on the issues discussed in the dialogues.

It is common to talk about the character Socrates as one person who appears in the dialogues, but it needs to be kept in mind that (on the assessment model) what the character says in a given dialogue is a reflection of Plato's attempt to understand the life the historical Socrates led.

The title Apology indicates that it is a "defense speech" (an ἀπολογία), but it does not fit comfortably in the genre. It is overtly a defense speech in which several other subjects are artfully concealed, including a discussion of what a "lover of wisdom" (φιλόσοφος) does and the connection of this activity to the "soul" (ψυχή) and how to live.

The noun "courage" (ἀνδρεία) has a connotation of "manliness, manly spirit," but was not restricted to men. Sophocles, Electra 983 is an illuminating example.

The Greek "the beautiful" (τὸ καλόν) is a nominalized adjective. It is formed from the adjective καλός and the definite (neuter) article τό, In English, the corresponding adjective and noun are 'beautiful' and 'beauty.'

Hippias is Socrates' interlocutor in the Hippias Minor. The discussion is about the power to speak falsely.

The following dialogues contain passages helpful for understanding Socrates. These dialogues (with the possible exception of Republic I) are early dialogues in the traditional ordering.

It is generally not feasible to read these dialogues in their entirety in a semester course, but it is good to at least look at them. Many of them are not only important in the history of ancient philosophy and in the history of philosophy more generally, but they are also wonderful pieces of literature in their own right. They are smart and exhibit a sophisticated sense of humor.

Sets of Selected Passages

The following sets of selected passages constitute the focus in this unit on Socrates. This makes the reading more manageable for a semester course, but the absence of context can make the import of the passages difficult to appreciate. For this reason, it helps to read the lectures first.

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