Was Socrates a fictional character invented by Plato?

  • I have read a lot of websites that suggest Socrates was a fictional character created by Plato (albeit without the citation of any corroborating evidence), but I have also read the opposite (and by "opposite" here I don't mean that Plato was created by Socrates but rather that Socrates was a living, breathing person).

    Is there any truth to this claim?

    I would suggest that a better question would be whether Plato was a philosopher, or merely Socrates' scribe.

    Plato has been shown to utilize stichometry in his writings; to me this suggests that he wasn't merely a scribe (unless you allow for the possibility real human dialogue has very specific rhythmic patterning to it that tends to emphasize specific themes throughout an entire "recording" including the dialogues of several characters).

    Socrates is a fictional character in a fictional work written by a poet posing as a philosopher. Socrates is as much a real person as Jesus or Santa Claus.

    @Mr.Kennedy please avoid sweeping generalizations without substantial corroborating evidence. Even Santa Claus was likely based on a real person; you'd need to *de minimis* state you're speaking entirely of the fat man children feed cookies to and who comes down chimneys to identify the fictional character separate from the former saint.

    @Ryder are we to take "was likely" in lieu of corroborating evidence? Shall insistence trump reason? Shall John Frum be granted inheritance rights? Did I say Saint Nicholas? No, no, no and no.

    @Mr.Kennedy I'm allowing I could be incorrect when I don't provide evidence. You did not. But FWIW, in case I misjudged this to be commonly known: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

    @Ryder please avoid extended discussions in the comments when you have nothing to post relevant to addressing the OPs question. I did not comment upon Saint Nicholas and the fat man fed cookies is as much a real person as Jesus and Socrates. Feel free to watch the embedded lecture as an example of how to examine specious historical claims. If you have evidence supporting the conjecture that Socrates was not fictional, feel free to post an answer to the question.

    @Mr.Kennedy I am not going to watch a video in lieu of an argument. Please take your own advice and either post an answer or let this drop.

    @Mr. Kennedy - As Ryder notes, having a strong opinion is no substitute for making an argument. Your opinions on Jesus and Socrates are just that. Wild unsupported statements of the kind above should not be made on academic forums where opinions don't matter. One problem you will have is explaining how it is that for some people (e.g. me) Socrates is a better philosopher than Plato.

  • Cody Gray

    Cody Gray Correct answer

    9 years ago

    It's essentially impossible to offer definitive proof on the matter, but it's extremely unlikely that Socrates was merely a figment of Plato's imagination.

    The primary evidence in this regard is the fact that multiple independent sources make reference to him in various ways. For example, the philosopher Xenophon of Athens was a student and admirer of Socrates, who dedicated himself to the preservation of Socrates's wisdom.

    Specifically, in the Anabasis, Xenophon writes of asking Socrates for advice regarding his entrance into the service of Cyrus when he was a young man. Socrates is reported to have advised him to consult the oracle of Delphi, and later chastising Xenophon for the question he ultimately decided to ask (one that betrayed his mind had already been made up to go).

    Additionally, the Memorabilia—itself a collection of Socratic dialogues—is notable for containing Xenophon's extended defense of his mentor. He argues that Socrates was innocent of the charges levied against him, and describes how Socrates benefitted not only his friends, but all Athenians.

    It has even been argued that Xenophon's later exile from Athens was motivated (at least in part; his support for Athens's rival Sparta at Coronea unquestionably had something to do with it as well) by his support for Socrates.

    Of course, some of Xenophon's writings have come under scrutiny for their historical reliability, much as you've noted that Plato's writings have. And ultimately, this debate is probably unresolvable. But it does seem quite unlikely that both Plato and Xenophon would make up the same figure and agree about many of the details of his life.

    Beyond the realm of philosophy, the playwright Aristophanes claimed to have known Socrates. His comedy, the Clouds, features Socrates as a character. But it goes without saying that plays, and especially comedies, are an unreliable source of historical information. The Clouds has come under particularly heavy criticism by scholars because it appears that its "Socrates" character is actually a bricolage of many different fifth-century intellectuals. (For more on this view, see in particular, the discussion in the introduction of Kenneth Dover's 1968 translation of Clouds.)

    Excellent answer. I'll just add that there are a number of writers, most notably Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who attempted to evaluate the varying evidence from Xenophon, Aristophanes and Plato to determine which of the three came closer; Sarah Kofman has a wonderful book comparing the comparisons.

    Of course, it's possible that Socrates was a real person *and* that Plato attributed whatever ideas he wanted to the version of Socrates in his writings, even if they weren't things that the real Socrates ever said... but this would be impossible to prove.

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