The Socratic Problem

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Book Chapter

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Blackwell Publishing


Socrates is one of the most famous and influential figures in the Western intellectual tradition; but who was he? His disciples included the most influential philosophers of his time, who are credited by historians of philosophy with founding several schools; but what did he teach them? These questions constitute the “Socratic problem,” the attempt to discover the historical individual behind the ancient accounts of Socrates and his philosophy.

Socrates wrote nothing; for our information we depend on four major sources. The earliest source is Greek comedy, primarily Aristophanes’ Clouds, produced in 423 B.C. Two other associates of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, wrote extensively about him; their writings, unlike those of several others who also wrote Socratic works, have survived. Unlike these three authors, our fourth source, Aristotle, was not a contemporary of Socrates. Born fifteen years after Socrates’ death, Aristotle was a member of Plato’s Academy and was presumably familiar with the ancient literature and lore concerning Socrates. He included remarks about Socrates in his systematic treatises on various aspects of philosophy. The Socratic problem stems in part from questions about the reliability of these sources.

I shall argue below that we know a good deal about the life, character, philosophical interests and method of the historical Socrates. Unfortunately, our knowledge does not extend to what doctrines, if any, he may have professed, which is just what contemporary philosophical scholars most want to know. The uncertainty about Socrates’ doctrines is traceable to our earliest sources, and in fact to the portraits of Socrates in our most weighty source, Plato. Socrates was apparently something of a mystery even to his closest associates. I shall begin by discussing the problem of the reliability of our sources; I shall continue by describing what we can safely extract from these sources about Socrates; I shall conclude with a discussion of the problem of the teaching of Socrates.

Chapter of

A Blackwell Companion to Plato


Hugh Benson