Inside The Bizarre Theory That Socrates Didn't Exist
Even if you aren't familiar with philosophy, chances are you've heard of the philosopher but mainly pot-stirrer Socrates, the famed corrupter of the youth, the one who was poisoned with hemlock, the one who allegedly claimed, "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing." One thing that he certainly never knew is that his existence would be questioned years later. And though only a minority of scholars believe he wasn't real, despite documented evidence …
… there is one vaguely interesting argument on why we should entertain that possibility.
Socrates, born way back c. 470 in Athens, is attributed as a pioneer of philosophy concerning the questioning of “human wisdom and ignorance, religion, democracy, free speech, and moral and religious obligations.” Also, the original instigator, though no one's talking about that … it's what the philosophers aren't thinking about.
Plato, the well-renowned student/protege of Socrates, is one of the sole reasons Socrates’ existence is debated. It isn't that there would be malicious reasons for Socrates to have been invented, not that he’s a “fake” but rather that he was A Beautiful Mind-style figment of Plato’s imagination. What few know about Socrates was that the guy never wrote or published his thoughts, meaning his existence has been reliant on that of Plato’s second-hand written records, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Quite the original he-said-she-said situation. Why would someone who had such strong convictions about life and knowledge never publish their work?
Did Plato just want a friend but couldn't come up with a legit character for this person? Claiming something along the lines of “he's real, I promise…” and that this friend knows that he knows nothing? Well, no. Socrates was most certainly made from human flesh. Why else would the people of Athens, amongst them, many scholars, oppose his thinking and later poison him to death by trial? If he wasn't real, then why would his agenda be pushed forward, despite many hating his ideas?
Socrates believed philosophical dialogue should be discussed in the most natural manner possible, meaning it ought to flow and not be written down for fear of revision, leading to tampering. Today we’d call that something of an illegal action, probably. It poses an issue, as everything we know about Socrates is vicarious, through Plato.
Anyways, here’s a crash course on why Socrates didn’t think writing was effective, even though I am unironically doing it right now. And you will be reading written words. Socrates would hate me, though he’s been dead for a while with no known god-like psychokinesis power, so I doubt I’ll levitate suddenly and spontaneously combust due to his conflicting views. Anyways, The Phaedrus, a philosophical work written by Plato around 370 BCE, focuses on rhetoric and channels the supposed reaction of Socrates on why he didn’t believe writing was efficient. Comparing a painter’s work to written work, Socrates argued that “the painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive.” He continues, “But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.”
In other words, paintings cannot talk back to you, neither can the artist. You’ll never know what the intention of the work was; you will only make judgments based on what you’re seeing. The creator is not there to defend their work, anything goes, and much is left, nearly dependent, on the interpretation of your audience. For Socrates, that was the problem with writing, as he spoke, “It is the same with written words. They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling just the same thing forever.” And with this, he never published his work.
For more of Oona’s sarcasm and attempted wit, visit her website oonaoffthecuff.com.
Top Image: Louis Joseph LeBrun