Evidence of Socrates’ Existence; Preference for Plato or Socrates?
I think I was younger than 11 years old the first time I encountered raw academic cynicism. Some encyclopedia opining that Socrates didn’t exist and that Plato had made him up as a mask for his unusual beliefs. I still remember the sourness it engendered in my throat, and the way it dulled the world’s lustre in that moment. I was aware that people questioned the existence of Jesus in the same way*.
Deeper acquaintance with Plato’s writings made me more and more comfortable seeing Socrates as a real person, for reasons I like to call “being able to read” and more academic types refer to as “internal evidence.”
One of the best ways to see this is to compare The Republic to The Laws. Socrates is the speaker in The Republic, and The Athenian is the speaker in The Laws. Which seems more like a mask for Plato?
In The Laws, Plato’s Athenian says that now he is old and unafraid of execution, he can say what he really thinks. He goes on to treat of the same subject matter as in The Republic, but he differs from it in some very important and pleasing ways. So one can see that Socrates did provide a shield for Plato’s dangerous views; however, that does not mean he was not real.
And then there’s another kind of evidence: Aristotle’s Politics. Here, Aristotle rips into the proto-communism (or proto-utopianism or proto-totalitarianism) in The Republic. Unlike us, he does not refer to it as “Plato’s Republic.” He calls it “Socrates’ Republic.” Considering he was Plato’s student at The Academy, he ought to have been in a position to know. It would be strange if Plato concocted an entire person who lived in his own city and fought in his city’s wars and was executed by his city’s fathers; and so convinced everyone of that person’s reality that his own student believed implicitly in that person’s existence.
Which do you prefer: The Laws or The Republic?
Having only spot-read them both (I had more need for Aristotle’s Poetics and the platonic discussions of inspiration) I can definitely say that I prefer The Laws so far and that I don’t expect to change. The Laws has fascinating parallels to the Hebrew Old Testament, leading my husband (who has consumed nearly all extant Plato and Aristotle, both) to suspect that Plato had unacknowledged contact with Hebrews or their literature. Either that, or the old fellow was right about inspiration.
The Laws also provides us with many of our traditional arguments against various immoralities, which if I name WordPress will block this post from appearing in the reader, according to my experiments. (Yes, WordPress is owned by a far-left millenial who censors his clients, but only the conservative ones. Also, one of you may have reported me to The Commissar.)
Josh’s estimation of The Republic (which is useful for monarchist arguments) is that Socrates is the one who was being rather cagey about his true opinions. He sometimes leads people down syllogistic primrose paths based upon their own beliefs. He leaves them with horrifying conclusions that he refrains from explicitly disavowing. They are forced to accept those conclusions at the moment; but of course they can change them later if they reverse the beliefs which formed the premises for Socrates’ arguments. You don’t always know which one he’s doing. Maybe even Aristotle (straighforward, up-and-down fellow that he was) didn’t always know what Socrates was doing.
Certainly Plato appears to have benefited from this method. His beliefs are a careful stitchery of Socrates’ better conclusions, and revised conclusions based on improved premises. Aristotle, however, may have been less perceptive. He displays a reaction against both Plato and Aristotle, and this reaction is generally based upon his inability to perceive certain things which were completely real to his tutor and grand-tutor.
Of Plato, The West only had The Republic for a long time, and conservatives were thrown into an uncomfortable dependence upon it. It’s time to update that. Aristotle and Plato are both important for traditional thought. However, Platonic grasp of the invisible realities behind the phenomena Aristotle focused on is necessary for a full traditionalism, or even a healthy conservatism. Without reference to a mystical and recognizable-yet-incomprehensible Thought pervading all things, no mere Aristotelianism will save us from the dismantlers.
There’s also some interesting material about education in The Laws.
All of Plato and Aristotle is available on Gutenberg Project, as well as Amazon Kindle (look for free versions; they try to hide them in search results, but you can find them by organizing by price.)
Which do you prefer: Plato or Socrates?
I’m shocked, quite shocked, that no one has made a movie about Socrates’ life yet. Of course, that might be ideologically dangerous. But it would be interesting.
On the other hand, no one could make a movie about Plato’s life. But he did all the writing, and as I indicated above, his expressed opinions are more correct.
So there’s that.
*If you loathe the endemic preference for great things turning out to be fake, you might enjoy Tolkien’s introduction to his own translation of the medieval poem Pearl.