The Historical Figure and the Character

Socrates, 470-399 BCE.

Aristotle calls the genre to which Plato's dialogues belong "Socratic conversations" [or: stories about Socrates (Σωκρᾰτικοί λόγοι)] (Poetics 1447b).
Socrates is part of a new beginning in ancient philosophy. He was part of the change in the focus of attention away from nature and onto issues connected to the good life and happiness.

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.

Plato is the Primary Witness

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.

Thesaurus Linguae Graecae word count:

Republic            89,359
Gorgias             27,824
Timaeus            24,104
Phaedo              22,633
Protagoras          18,077
Meno                 10,396
Hippias Major      8,911
Apology                8,854
Laches                  8,021
Euthyphro            5,464

The Phaedo and the Republic are traditionally middle dialogues. The Meno is traditionally an early middle dialogue. It has features of both the early and middle dialogues. The Timaeus is a late dialogue.
Plato, in this way, is the primary witness for Socrates and what he thought.

Others wrote about Socrates, but Plato's 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 dialogues is a character named 'Socrates' who says various things.

If, however, we reject this skepticism about the historical Socrates, as I think we should, then it is necessary to explain the relationship between Socrates the historical figure and Socrates the character in the Platonic dialogues. The are, it seems to me, two initially plausible models:

• the historical model
• the philosophical model

The historical model has its basis in the fact that Plato's dialogues look like conversations that took place in Athens at various points in Socrates' life. The dramatic dates of some of the early dialogues make it unlikely that Plato is preserving a record of conversations he witnessed, but it might be that in dialogues that contain conversations he did not witness he is taking things he has heard Socrates say and placing them within a fictional context. On this model, Plato is first and foremost preserving a primarily historical account of Socrates and his life.

The philosophical model has its basis in the fact that Socrates was intriguing but also perplexing. On this model, Plato's intent is not primarily historical. It is to understand the philosophical significance of Socrates and his life, something Socrates himself did not clearly explain and perhaps did not fully understand. In the dialogues, Plato makes the character say things he has heard Socrates say, but he also makes the character say some of these things more clearly and with explanation and detail that would be out of place in a strictly historical account of Socrates. Further, Plato sometimes makes the character say things that the historical Socrates would not have thought and that run contrary to what he seems to have thought.

In these lectures, I follow the philosophical model for how Plato understood the relation between Socrates the historical figure and Socrates the character in the dialogues. I think we can know that Socrates was perplexing and that Plato (who was in the circle around Socrates) wanted to understand the philosophical significance of Socrates and his life.

If this is right, Plato's aim is to understand the significance of Socrates, to understand what he seemed to know about human beings and their good, and thus to bring out what was philosophically important about Socrates and his life. 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. This is Plato's intent even in the Apology, which is sometimes thought (incorrectly if the philosophical model is correct) to be transcript of what Socrates said at his trial. Plato mixes fact and fiction to depict Socrates and his life in a way that shows what Socrates seemed to grasp about human beings and their lives.

This leaves the reader the difficult task of finding a set of basic facts about the historical Socrates whose significance Plato is trying to understand. The early dialogues are the place to begin, but it is important to remember that even here Plato's aim is not primarily historical.

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 in the surviving texts: 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" (κόσμος).

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 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 can be 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 philosophical 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 following dialogues contain passages helpful for understanding Socrates. These dialogues (with the 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.

This dialogue is set in 399 BCE. It consists in Socrates' defense speech to the jury in what purports to be a record of his trial (at which he was found guilty and sentence to death).

This dialogue is set in 399 BCE, not long before the trial. The Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo constitute the first tetralogy in the arrangement of Plato's dialogues in nine tetralogies. Diogenes Laertius says that the grammarian Thrasyllus of Mendes (in the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14 CE to 37 CE)) gives the dialogues this arrangement.

This dialogue is set in 429 BCE, in the first years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). It shows Socrates' return with the army from Potidaea. The Peloponnesian War was formally declared was during the Battle of Potidaea (432-429 BCE). Socrates was in his late-thirties. The Athenians ultimately prevalied in the Battle, but this would be the beginning of the end of Athenian dominance in the ancient world.

The Athens were defeated at Battle of Delium.
(He left Athens again with the army to Delium 424 BCE. Laches and Alcibiades praise Socrates' heroism (Laches 181b, Symposium 221a).) Socrates discusses temperance with Charmides.


The noun "courage" (ἀνδρεία) has a connotation of "manliness, manly spirit," but was not restricted to men. Sophocles, Electra 983 is an illuminating example.
This dialogue is set in about 420 BCE in a lull in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Socrates discusses courage with the Athenian generals Nicias and Laches.

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 Major
The dramatic date is uncertain, but it is likely to be not long after Gorgias came to Athens in 427 BCE as part of an embassy to seek protection for Leontini (the city of his birth) from Syracuse. Socrates discusses the beautiful with the Sophist, Hippias of Elis.

Plato is portraying the intellectual climate of the second half of the 5th century from his point of view in the first half of the 4th century BCE. His aim, in part, seems to be to show how the Sophists contributed to the Athenian downfall.

Plato, 429 -347 BCE
This dialogue is set in about 430 BCE, on the eve of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates is in conversation with Protagoras, the greatest of the 5th century BCE Sophists.

The dramatic date is uncertain, but it may be after Gorgias came to Athens in 427 BCE. In the dialogue, Socrates has three interlocutors in series: Gorgias, Polemarchus, and Callicles. The dialogue is late among the early dialogues. In contrast to these dialogues generally, Socrates is less content just to ask questions and more willing to argue for views.

Republic I
The dramatic date of the Republic is uncertain, but it is likely to be close to the end of the Peloponnesian War. It consists in ten books and is traditionally a middle dialogue, but Book I is in the style of an early dialogue. The subject of the discussion is justice, what it is and whether the just or unjust life is better. In Books II-X, Socrates argues that the just life is better.

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.

The Love of Wisdom
Socrates faces a death sentence rather than abandon the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία). To understand why, it is necessary to know what he thinks wisdom.

The Search for Definitions
Socrates says that because he will not abandon the love of wisdom, he will not stop questioning. This questioning is about the virtues of character and related matters.

Belief and Desire in the Soul
Socrates says that his questioning is good for the "soul" (ψυχή). To understand why, it is necessary to know how he conceives of the soul and its relation to action.

The Sophistic Movement
The Sophists take their name from the Greek noun σοφιστής (sophistēs), which means "one who is wise." Plato contrasts Socrates with the Sophists and what they teach.

Reason and Experience
Socrates champions reason in a tradition that goes back to Parmenides.

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