In this guest post, British classical scholar and classical musician Armand D’Angour offers a brilliant reality check on our contemporary assumptions about Socrates.
Armand D’Angour is an associate professor in Classical languages and literature and a fellow of Jesus College at Oxford University. He is the author of several books, including Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience (2011) and Music, Text, and Culture in Ancient Greece (2018), co-edited with Tom Phillips.
So, while we’re currently on the topic of ancient Greek reality checks, especially regarding the assumptions of Socrates and pre-Socratic philosophers, I feel the time is right for a few contemporary reality checks of our own assumptions about Socrates and perhaps even the Classics in general.
Comparing our contemporary perception of Socrates with a broad range of historical texts, Armand D’Angour shows us how narrowly we have idealized the character of this beloved ancient Greek philosopher.
Armand’s post, originally published under a creative commons license on Aidos.co, is timely because his exploration of Socrates identifies questions many students are raising about the current presentation of the Classics.
How did our view of Socrates, or, for that matter, the Classics in general, come to so narrowly represent “Ancient Greek Reality” in such an academic, matter-of-fact manner?
Who’s responsible for whitewashing Socrates with ridiculous, puritanical Western morals? Why did we champion Plato’s chaste Socrates at the expense of Aristotle’s, Aristoxenus’, Theodoret’s, and Cyril of Alexandria’s Socrates?
On the one hand, I’m happy about recent academic recognition of boldly painted ancient Greek statues, and I also think progress is being made regarding their historical sexual and racial diversity. But on the other hand, I wonder what else has been withheld from the typical college board-approved classics curriculum? I am suspicious that the past few centuries of classical studies may actually have been a hypocritically parochial white supremacist redaction of ancient Greek history.
With the recent rise of far-right-wing political leaders across the globe, I’ve been thinking about the insidious influence of supremacist sentiment lately. My suspicions resurfaced once again as I read D’Angour’s post questioning our narrow idealization of Socrates. I’m just an armchair observer, so I’m not offering any answers or solutions, but I’ve got a few ideas. Don’t be shy if you’d like to leave a reply – I’d love to hear your feelings on this topic, too.
The Philosophy of “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers”
The saga of the Elgin Marbles offers a bit of context to the problem, in my mind. With the rise of nation-sponsored archaeology (aka grave robbing) around the turn of the 19th century, well-dressed gentlemen-thieves proceeded to adorn the display cases of Western museums with plundered treasures from other nations. To justify this unconscionable thievery, economic scallywags of the Victorian era doctored up the ‘philosophy’ of Laissez-faire into “a moral program and the market [becomes] its instrument to ensure men the rights of natural law.”
Just so we’re clear on this, Natural Law, (or The Law of Nation-Sponsored Grave Robbers) “is a philosophy asserting that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature, endowed by nature — traditionally by God or a transcendent source — and that these can be understood universally through human reason” (or at any rate, easily manipulated by a corrupt autocrat spouting supremacist propaganda).
Boiled down into a nutshell, laissez-faire gave rise to raw capitalism, promoting “a program for the abolition of laws constraining the market” (meaning, in regards to other nations’ archaeological treasures, “Finders keepers, losers weepers”).
In due time, the Victorian idealists failed miserably on their path to White Supremacy. State-sponsored grave robbery isn’t working out so well, either. However, we’ve been increasingly burdened by the pretentious ideals that Victorian museum curators arrogantly assigned to their plundered remnants of ancient Greek material culture.
For a very simple case in point, despite the West’s overbearingly prudish whitewashing of classical ideals, really randy parties were quite popular in ancient Greece and there are plenty of museum cases filled with ancient Greek vases to prove it. Obviously, I’m not going to offer the raunchiest illustration of sexual diversity and liberty out there, but this one should be sufficiently clear without offending anyone’s sensitivities:
Isn’t it time we trash that tired Victorian narrowmindedness and transition into more realistic fans and students of ancient Greece? We can do this by being more receptive to the evidential realities of the material remnants we explore.
Prof. Gregory Nagy’s Strategy of Close Reading
For a whole new, broader perspective, we need to apply fewer filters to our exploration of ancient Greek reality. Of course, the whole new diversity of information we’ll be presented with will require a whole new interpretation, too. Many of us are familiar with Prof. Gregory Nagy‘s explanation of “close reading,” but this is a great opportunity to share his excellent advice:
…you are doing a close reading of a text when you read it slowly and you try to read out of the text, not into the text. When I say to read out of the text, I mean that we need to analyze a text within its own context, instead of looking at it through the lens of our own worldview. This way, you avoid reading your values into the ancient Greek texts, which have their own values. When we read into the text, we are assuming that the ancient Greeks had the same values that we have. When we read out of the text, by contrast, we are trying to learn their values, which are often quite different from ours. In any case, we must be objective in trying to figure out what their values were. We have to rely on their texts and on the language that shapes their texts, and so their language needs to be translated as accurately as possible into English. [from The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours: Advice to Participants from Prof. Gregory Nagy, §7]
A great place to start applying Nagy’s wonderful advice is his Harvard-X MOOC on edX, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. The current session started back on January 9, 2019, and is nearly wrapped up by now, so we’ll have to keep our eyes open for the next session. I completed it once already in 2017, but it’s an awesome adventure and I’d love to do it again. I hope I’ll “see” you there in the future.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in a ‘close reading’ of Armand D’Angour’s new book, Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher.
Was the real Socrates more worldly and amorous than we knew?
Socrates is widely considered to be the founding figure of Western philosophy – a thinker whose ideas, transmitted by the extensive writings of his devoted follower Plato, have shaped thinking for more than 2,000 years. ‘For better or worse,’ wrote the Classical scholar Diskin Clay in Platonic Questions (2000), ‘Plato’s Socrates is our Socrates.’ The enduring image of Socrates that comes from Plato is of a man of humble background, little education, few means and unappealing looks, who became a brilliant and disputatious philosopher married to an argumentative woman called Xanthippe. Both Plato and Xenophon, Socrates’ other principal biographer, were born c424 BCE, so they knew Socrates (born c469 BCE) only as an old man. Keen to defend his reputation from the charges of ‘introducing new kinds of gods’ and ‘corrupting young men’ on which he was eventually brought to trial and executed, they painted a picture of Socrates in late middle age as a pious teacher and unremitting ethical thinker, a man committed to shunning bodily pleasures for higher educational purposes.
Yet this clearly idealised picture of Socrates is not the whole story, and it gives us no indication of the genesis of his ideas. Plato’s pupil Aristotle and other Ancient writers provide us with correctives to the Platonic Socrates. For instance, Aristotle’s followers Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli preserve biographical snippets that they might have known from their teacher. From them we learn that Socrates in his teens was intimate with a distinguished older philosopher, Archelaus; that he married more than once, the first time to an aristocratic woman called Myrto, with whom he had two sons; and that he had an affair with Aspasia of Miletus, the clever and influential woman who was later to become the partner of Pericles, a leading citizen of Athens.
If these statements are to be believed, a different Socrates emerges: that of a highly placed young Athenian, whose personal experiences within an elevated milieu inspired him to embark on a new style of philosophy that was to change the way people thought ever afterwards. But can we trust these later authors? How could writers two or more generations removed from Socrates’ own time have felt entitled to contradict Plato? One answer is that Aristotle might have derived some information from Plato in person, rather than from his writings, and passed this on to his pupils; another is that, as a member of Plato’s Academy for 20 years, Aristotle might have known that Plato had elided certain facts to defend Socrates’ reputation; a third is that the later authors had access to further sources (oral and written) other than Plato, which they considered to be reliable.
Plato’s Socrates is an eccentric. Socrates claimed to have heard voices in his head from youth, and is described as standing still in public places for long stretches of time, deep in thought. Plato notes these phenomena without comment, accepting Socrates’ own description of the voices as his ‘divine sign’, and reporting on his awe-inspiring ability to meditate for hours on end. Aristotle, the son of a doctor, took a more medical approach: he suggested that Socrates (along with other thinkers) suffered from a medical condition he calls ‘melancholy’. Recent medical investigators have agreed, speculating that Socrates’ behaviour was consistent with a medical condition known as catalepsy. Such a condition might well have made Socrates feel estranged from his peers in early life, encouraging him to embark on a different kind of lifestyle.
If the received picture of Socrates’ life and personality merits reconsideration, what about his thought? Aristotle makes clear in his Metaphysics that Plato misrepresented Socrates regarding the so-called Theory of Forms:
Socrates concerned himself with ethics, neglecting the natural world but seeking the universal in ethical matters, and he was the first to insist on definitions. Plato took over this doctrine, but argued that what was universal applied not to objects of sense but to entities of another kind. He thought a single description could not define things that are perceived, since such things are always changing. Unchanging entities he called ‘Forms’…
Aristotle himself had little sympathy for such otherwordly views. As a biologist and scientist, he was mainly concerned with the empirical investigation of the world. In his own writings he dismissed the Forms, replacing them with a logical account of universals and their particular instantiations. For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict.
Sources from late antiquity, such as the 5th-century CE Christian writers Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, state that Socrates was, at least as a younger man, a lover of both sexes. They corroborate occasional glimpses of an earthy Socrates in Plato’s own writings, such as in the dialogue Charmides where Socrates claims to be intensely aroused by the sight of a young man’s bare chest. However, the only partner of Socrates’ whom Plato names is Xanthippe; but since she was carrying a baby in her arms when Socrates was aged 70, it is unlikely they met more than a decade or so earlier, when Socrates was already in his 50s. Plato’s failure to mention the earlier aristocratic wife Myrto might be an attempt to minimise any perception that Socrates came from a relatively wealthy background with connections to high-ranking members of his community; it was largely because Socrates was believed to be associated with the antidemocratic aristocrats who took power in Athens that he was put on trial and executed in 399 BCE.
Aristotle’s testimony, therefore, is a valuable reminder that the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically. Above all, if Socrates at some point in his early manhood became the companion of Aspasia – a woman famous as an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor – it potentially changes our understanding not only of Socrates’ early life, but of the formation of his philosophical ideas. He is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman. Might that woman have been Aspasia, once his beloved companion? The real Socrates must remain elusive but, in the statements of Aristotle, Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli, we get intriguing glimpses of a different Socrates from the one portrayed so eloquently in Plato’s writings.
(Note – This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.)
(P.S. You definitely don’t want to miss this, either:)