What I’m Reading: Conversations of Socrates

After his execution in 400 BC, lots of Socrates’ friends and students wrote accounts of him, but the writings of only two of those authors survive today: Plato, with more than 20 dialogues “starring” his old teacher, and Xenophon, with four accounts (although Xenophon also has other surviving, but non-Socratic, works). (I’ve previously written on some of Plato’s works here, here, and here.)

Xenophon’s four accounts are collected in the book Conversations of Socrates. The first is the Defense of Socrates, which is the briefest one and consists of Xenophon defending the arrogant tone Socrates took at his trial. As Xenophon explains it, Socrates believed the gods had already ordained he should die following the trial, and moreover believed the best time for a man to die was at the very beginning of old age, as he was, when he has all the accomplishments of his life to look back on, but the infirmities of age have not yet occurred. So in Socrates’ mind, there was no reason to mount a standard legal defense begging the jury for his life, but felt free to make a vigorous justification of his life and actions, no matter what impression on the jury his words might make.

His second account is the Memoirs, and is the largest part of the book. The Memoirs consists of four parts, each with about eight to ten chapters, each chapter containing a little anecdote about the life of Socrates or a conversation he had. Most of these anecdotes or conversations have something of a moral or instructive purpose–Socrates explaining how to be a good friend, or telling a young man how to become a good orator, or similar. I think my favorite is his conversation with his son, Lamprocles, who I suppose is ten or eleven, and has gotten in an argument with his mother. Rather than yelling at or chiding his son, Socrates leads him through one of his little questioning dialogues (i.e., the Socratic method), using his son’s own answers to help him reach the conclusion that he should be respectful of his mother.

The third account is the Dinner-Party, about a boozy get-together Socrates took part in with a number of friends on a holiday where they discuss the meaning of love. This is similar enough to Plato’s Symposium that they clearly describe the same evening, yet Xenophon’s recounting includes a somewhat different cast of characters and the content of the conversations are fairly different as well. Moreover, though Xenophon claims to have been present (I believe Plato merely claims to have heard about the dinner second-hand), the cast of characters is such that he would have to have been a small child, and it seems unlikely the adults would have let him stay in the room for their drinking and sometimes bawdy conversation. But it’s fairly entertaining, and at a couple points we get the rare spectacle of his friends making fun of Socrates for his questioning method of conversing–replying “Certainly” in unison to a string of his questions even when that answer doesn’t make sense.

The final account is the Estate-Manager, which is in two parts: in the first, Critobulus discusses with his friend Socrates his plan to buy a farm and how he should run it, and in the second, Socrates recounts the time he spoke to Ischomachus, a wealthy man, about the best way to run a farm. The topic may sound a little dry, but it is actually fascinating for it tells the reader a lot about how Greeks lived their day to day lives. Especially interesting is that Ischomachus considers having a good wife to be the most important aspect of managing an estate, and explains how he and his wife divide up their duties in the house and decide, for instance, where to store excess grain or how to reward a slave who does a good job.

The translator of the book, Robin Waterfield, brings up a question that I would like to discuss a bit. He points out that Xenophon’s Socrates is somewhat different than Plato’s Socrates–less purely philosophical, more concerned with giving good advice to his friends than in considering abstract concepts, perhaps earthier in his vocabulary. He suggests three explanations for this. The first, and the one that a lot of critics have gone with, is that Xenophon is somehow “wrong” in his description of Socrates, and Plato is “right,” and thus we can pretty much dismiss Xenophon.

The second explanation, and the one I prefer, is that Socrates was a sophisticated speaker who talked with different people in different ways. To a young, educated aristocrat like Plato, he would talk about the nature of reality or the definition of justice or similar things. To a veteran soldier and landowner like Xenophon, he would discuss more practical matters like managing a farm or running for office, and using a more down-to-earth conversational style. It’s not like Plato and Xenophon describe a vastly different man–they clearly are both writing about the same person, who could adjust his style and subject-matter for his audience.

The final explanation is that these are works of fiction though using an actual historical figure, so if Plato writes him one way, and Xenophon another, it has nothing to do with the real person because they’re just stories. Note how in the Dinner-Party Xenophon claimed to have been present though that would have been highly implausible, or that both Xenophon and Plato describe the same party but none of the details reconcile. Or note how in Plato’s later writings, especially the Republic, Socrates makes smooth, elaborate, chapter-long arguments in speech that seem rather unlikely to have actually occurred. Waterfield also points that Aristotle, who knew Plato personally, classifies the various Socratic dialogues as fiction in his catalog of literature. I must admit, I rather dislike this final explanation. There may have been details that Xenophon and Plato adjusted to make for a better story, but I find it hard to believe that most of what they wrote about Socrates wasn’t true in some sense. Even if the words that reach us aren’t precisely the way he really spoke them, I do think that in the works of Xenophon and Plato, Socrates is speaking to us across the ages.

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