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Philological Museum vol 2/On the Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher

 

SCHLEIERMACHER

ON THE

WORTH OF SOCRATES AS A PHILOSOPHER .


(From the Berlin Transactions of 1815.)




That very different and even entirely opposite judgements should be formed by different men, and according to the spirit of different times, on minds of a leading and peculiar order, and that it should be late, if ever, before opinions agree as to their worth, is a phenomenon of everyday occurrence. But it is less natural, indeed it seems almost surprising, that at any one time a judgement should be generally received with regard to any such mind, which is in glaring contradiction with itself. Yet, if I am not mistaken, it is actually the case with Socrates, that the portrait usually drawn of him, and the historical importance which is almost unanimously attributed to him, are at irreconcilable variance. With Socrates most writers make a new period to begin in the history of Greek philosophy; which at all events manifestly implies that he breathed a new spirit and character into those intellectual exertions of his countrymen, which we comprehend under the name of philosophy, so that they assumed a new form under his hands, or at least that he materially widened their range. But if we inquire how the same writers describe Socrates as an individual, we find nothing that can serve as a foundation for the influence they assign to him. We are informed, that he did not at all busy himself with the physical investigations which constituted a main part even of Greek philosophy, but rather withheld others from them, and that even with regard to moral inquiries, which were those in which he engaged the deepest, he did not by any means aim at reducing them into a scientific shape, and that he established no fixed principle for this, any more than for any other branch of human knowledge. The base of his intellectual constitution, we are told, was rather religious than speculative, his exertions rather those of a good citizen, directed to the improvement of the people, and especially of the young, than those of a. philosopher ; in short, he is represented as a virtuoso in the exercise of sound common sense, and of that strict integrity and mild philanthropy, with which it is always associated in an uncorrupted mind ; all this, however, tinged with a slight air of enthusiasm. These are no doubt excellent qua- lities; but yet they are not such as fit a man to play a brilliant part in history, but rather, unless where peculiar circumstances intervene, to lead a life of enviable tranquillity, so that it would be necessary to ascribe the general reputation of Socrates, and the almost unexampled homage which has been paid to him by so many generations, less to himself than to such peculiar circumstances. But least of all are these qua^ lities which could have produced conspicuous and permanent eflPects on the philosophical exertions of a people already far advanced in intellectual culture. And this is confirmed, when we consider what sort of doctrines and opinions are attributed to Socrates in conformity with this view. For in spite of the pains taken to trick them out with a shew of philosophy, it is impossible after all to give them any scientific solidity whatever : the farthest point we come to is, that they are thoughts well suited to warm the hearts of men in favour of goodness, but such as a healthy understanding, fully awakened to reflexion, cannot fail to light upon of itself. What effect then can they have wrought on the progress, or the transformation of philo- sophy? If we would confine ourselves to the wellknown state- ment, that Socrates called philosophy down from heaven to earth, that is to houses and marketplaces, in other words, that he proposed social life as the object of research in the room of nature : still the influence thus ascribed to him is far from salutary in itself, for philosophy consists not in a partial culti* vation. either of morals or physics, but in the coexistence and intercommunion of both, and there is moreover no historical evidence that he really exerted it. The foundations of ethical philosophy had been laid before the time of Socrates, in the doc- trines of the Pythagoreans, and after him it only kept its place by the side of physics, in the philosophical systems of the Greeks. In those of Plato, of Aristotle, and of the Stoics, that is, of all the genuine Socratic schools of any importance, we again meet with physical investigations, and ethics were exclusively cultivated only by those followers of Socrates who themselves never attained to any eminence in philosophy. And if we consider the general tendency of the abovenamed schools, and review the whole range of their tenets, nothing can be pointed out, that could have proceeded from a Socrates, endowed with such qualities of mind and character as the one described to us, unless it be where their theories have been reduced to a familiar practical application. And even with regard to the elder Socratics, we find more satisfaction in tracing their strictly philosophical speculations to any other source rather than to this Socrates ; not only may Aristippus, who was unlike his master in his spirit as well as his doctrines, be more easily derived from Protagoras, with whom he has so much in common, but Euclid, with his dialectic bias, from the Eleatics. And we find ourselves compelled to conclude, that the stem of Socrates, as he is at present represented to us, can have produced no other shoot than the Cynical philosophy, and that, not the cynism of Antisthenes, which still retains many features which we should rather refer to his earlier master Gorgias, but the purer form, which exhibits only a peculiar mode of life, not a doctrine, much less a science : that of Diogenes, the mad Socrates^ as he has been called, though in truth the highest epithet due to him is that of Socrates caricatured. For his is a copy in which we find nothing but features of such an original: its approximation to the selfcontentedness of the deity in the retrenchment of arti- ficial wants, its rejection of mere theoretical knowledge, its unassuming course of going about in the service of the god to expose the follies of mankind. But how foreign all this is to the domain of philosophy, and how little can be there effected with such means^ is evident enough.

The only rational course then that seems to be left, is to give up one or other of these contradictory assumptions. Either let Socrates still stand at the head of the Athenian philosophy, but then let those who place him there undertake to establish a different notion of him from that which has been long preva- lent : or let us retain the conception of the wise and amiable man, who was made not for the school but wholly for the world : but then let him be transferred from the history of philosophy to that of the general progress of society at Athens, if he can claim any place there. The latter of these expedients is not very far removed from that which has been adopted by Krug[1]! For as in his syste^n Socrates stands at the end of the one period, and not at the beginning of the next, he appears not as the germ of a new age, but as a product and aftergrowth of an earlier one ; he sinks, as an insulated phenomenon, into the same rank with the sophists, and other late fruits of the period, and loses a great part of his philosophical importance. Only it is but a half measure that this author adopts, when he begins his new period with the immediate disciples of Socrates as such ; for at its head he places the genuine Socratics, as they are commonly called, and above all Xenophon, men of whom he himself says, that their only merit was that of having propa- gated and diffused Socratic doctrines, while the doctrines them- selves do not appear to him worth making the beginning of a new period. — Ast had previously arrived at the same result by a road in some respects opposite.[2] With him Plato is the full bloom of that which he terms the Athenian form of phi- losophy, and as no plant begins with its bloom, he feels himself constrained to place Socrates at the head of this philosophy, but yet not strictly as a philosopher. He says, that the opera- tion of philosophy in Socrates was confined to the exercise of qualities that may belong to any virtuous man, that is to say, it was properly no philosophy at all ; and makes the essence of his character to consist in enthusiasm and irony. Now he feels that he cannot place a man endowed with no other qualities than these at the head of a new period, and therefore he ranges the sophists by his side, not indeed without some inconsistency^ for he himself sees in them the perverse tendency which was to be counteracted by the spirit of the new age ; but yet he prefers this to recognizing the germ of a new gradation in Socrates alone, whose highest philosophical worth he makes to consist in his martyrdom, which however cannot by any means be deemed of equal moment in the sphere of science, as in that of religion or politics. Though in form this course of Ast's is opposite to Krug's, in substance it is the same: its result is likewise to begin a new period of philosophy with Plato. For Ast perceives nothing new or peculiar in the struggle Socrates made against the Sophists, only virtue and the thirst after truth, which had undoubtedly animated all the preceding philosophers ; what he represents as characteristic in the Athenian philosophy, is the union of the elements which had been previously separate and opposed to each other ; and since he does not in fact shew the existence of this union in Socrates himself, and distinctly recog- nizes their separation in his immediate disciples, Plato is after all the point at which according to him that union begins.

But if we choose really to consider Plato as the true beginner of a new period, not to mention that he is far too perfect for a first beginning, we fall into two difficulties. First as to his relation to Aristotle. In all that is most peculiar to Plato, Aristotle appears as directly opposite to him as possible ; but the main division of philosophy, notwithstand- ing the wide difference between their modes of treating it, he has in common with Plato, and the Stoics with both ; it fits as closely, and sits as easily on one as the other, so that one can scarcely help believing that it was derived from some common origin, which was the root of Plato'^s philosophy as well as theirs. The second difficulty is to conceive what Platos relation to Socrates could really have been, if Socrates was not in any way his master in philosophy. If we should suppose that Platos character was formed by the example of Socrates, and that reverence for his master's virtue, and love of truth, was the tie that bound him, still this merely moral relation is not a sufficient solution of the difficulty. The mode in which Plato introduces Socrates, even in works which contain profound philosophical investigations, must be i:egarded as the wildest caprice, and would necessarily have appeared merely ridiculous and absurd to all his contempo- raries, if he was not in some way or other indebted to him for his philosophical life. Hence we are forced to abide by the conclusion, that if a great pause is to be made in Greek philosophy, to separate the scattered tenets of the earlier schools from the later systems, this must be made with Socrates ; but then we must also ascribe to him some element of a more strictly philosophical kind than most writers do, though as a mere beginning it needs not to have been carried very far toward maturity. Such a pause as this, however, we cannot avoid making: the earlier philosophy which we designate by the names of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Hera- clitus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, &c. has evidently a common type, and the later, in which Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno are the conspicuous names, has likewise one of its own, w^hich is very different from the other. Nothing can have been lost between them, which could have formed a gradual transi- tion : much less is it possible so to connect any of the later forms with any of the earlier, as to regard them as a continu- ous whole. This being so, nothing remains to be done, but to subject the case of Socrates to a new revision, in order to see whether the judges he has met with among posterity have not been as unjust, in denying his philosophical worth, and his merits in the cause of philosophy, as his contemporaries were in denying his worth as a citizen, and imputing to him imaginary offences against the commonwealth. But this would render it necessary to ascertain somewhat more distinctly, wherein his philosophical merit consists.

But this new inquiry naturally leads us back in the first instance to the old question, whether we are to believe Plato or Xenophon in their accounts of what Socrates was ; a ques- tion, however, which only deserves to be proposed at all, so far as these two authors are really at variance with each other, and which therefore only admits of a rational answer, after it has been decided whether such a variance exists, and where it lies. Plato nowhere professes himself the historian of Socrates; with the exception perhaps of the Apology, and of insulated passages, such as the speech of Alcibiades in the Banquet. For it would certainly have been in bad taste, if here, where Plato is making contemporaries of Socrates speak of him in his presence, he had exhibited him in a manner that was not substantially faithful, though even here many of the details may have been introduced for the sake of playful exaggeration. On the other hand, Plato himself does not warrant any one to consider all that he makes Socrates say in his dialogues, asi his real thoughts and language; and it would be rendering him but a poor service to confine his merit to that of having given a correct and skilful report of the doctrines of Socrates. On the contrary, he undoubtedly means his philosophy to be considered as his own, and not Socrates'. And accordingly every intelligent reader is probably convinced by his own reflexions, that none but original thoughts can appear in such a dress; whereas a work of mere narrative—and such these dialogues would be, if the whole of the matter belonged to Socrates—would necessarily shew a fainter tone of colouring, such as Xenophons conversations really present. But as on the one hand it would be too much to assert that Socrates actually thought and knew all that Plato makes him say : so on the other hand it would certainly be too little to say of him, that he was nothing more than the Socrates whom Xenophon represents. Xenophon, it is true, in the Memo- rabilia, professes himself a narrator; but, in the first place, a man of sense can only relate what he understands, and a disciple of Socrates, who must have been well acquainted with his master's habit of disclaiming knowledge, would of all men adhere most strictly to this rule. We know however, and this may be admitted without being harshly pressed, that Xenophon was a statesman, but no philosopher, and that beside the purity of his character, and the good sense of his political principles, beside his admirable power of rousing the intellect, and checking presumption, which Xenophon loved and respected in Socrates, the latter may have possest some really philosophical elements which Xenophon was un- able to appropriate to himself, and which he suffered to pass unnoticed ; which indeed he can have felt no temptation to exhibit, for fear of betraying defects such as those which his Socrates was wont to expose. On the other hand, Xeno- phon was an apologetic narrator, and had no doubt selected this form for the very purpose, that his readers might not expect him to exhibit Socrates entire, but only that pa?t of his character which belonged to the sphere of the affiections and of social life, and which bore upon the charges brought against him ; everything else he excludes, contenting himself with shewing, that it cannot have been anything of so dan- gerous a tendency as was imputed to Socrates. And not only may Socrates, he must have been more, and there must have been more in the background .of his speeches, than Xenophon represents. For if the contemporaries of Socrates had heard nothing from him but such discourses, how would Plato have marred the effect of his works on his immediate public, which had not yet forgotten the character of Socrates, if the part which Socrates plays there stood in direct con- tradiction with the image which his real life had left in the reader's mind? And if we believe Xenophon, and in this respect we cannot doubt the accuracy of the contemporary apologist, that Socrates spent the whole of his time in public places, and suppose that he was always engaged in discourses which, though they may have been more beautiful, varied, and dazzling, were still in substance the same with these, and moved in the same sphere to which the Memorabilia are confined : one is at a loss to understand, how it was that, in the course of so many years, Socrates did not clear the marketplace, and the workshops, the walks, and the wrestling- schools, by the dread of his presence, and how it is that, in Xenophon's native Flemish style of painting, the weariness of the interlocutors is not still more strongly exprest, than we here and there actually find it. And still less should we be able to comprehend, why men of such abilities as Critias and Alcibiades, and others formed by nature for speculation, as Plato and Euclid, set so high a value on their intercourse with Socrates, and found satisfaction in it so long. Nor can it be supposed, that Socrates held discourses in public such as Xenophon puts into his mouth, but that he delivered lessons of a different kind elsewhere, and in private ; for this, considering the apologetic form of Xenophon'^s book, to which he rigidly confines himself^ he would probably not have passed over in silence. Socrates must have disclosed the philosophical element of his character in the same social circle of which Xenophon gives us specimens. And is not this just the im- pression which Xenophon's conversations make ? philosophical matter, translated into the unphilosophical style of the common understanding, an operation in which the philosophical base is lost; just as some critics have proposed, by way of test for the productions of the loftiest poetry, to resolve them into prose, and evaporate their spirit, which can leave no- thing but an extremely sober kind of beauty remaining. And as after such an experiment the greatest of poets would scarcely be able exactly to restore the lost poetry, but yet a reader of moderate capacity soon observes what has been done, and can even point it out in several passages, where the decomposing hand has grown tired of its work : so it is in the other case with the philosophical basis. One finds some parallels with Plato, other fragments are detected in other ways: and the only inference to be drawn from the scarcity of these passages is, that Xenophon understood his business ; unless we choose to say, that as Aristotle is sup- posed to have held his philosophical discourses in the fore- noon, and the exoteric in the afternoon (Gellius N. A. xx. 5), Socrates reversed this order, and in the morning held con- versations in the marketplace with the artisans, and others who were less familiar with him, which Xenophon found it easier to divest of their philosophical aspect : but that of an evening, in the walks, and wrestlingschools, he engaged in those subtiler, deeper, and wittier dialogues with his favorites, which it was reserved for Plato to imitate, embellish, and expand, while he connected his own investigations with them.

And thus, to fill up the blank which Xenophon has mani- festly left, we are still driven back to the Socrates of Plato, and the shortest way of releasing ourselves from the difficulty, would be to find a rule by which we could determine, what is the reflex, and the property, of Socrates in Plato, and what his own invention and addition. Only the problem is not to be solved by a process such as that adopted by Meiners, whose critical talent is of a kind to which this subject in general was not very well suited. For if in all that Plato has left we are to select only what is least speculative, least artificial, least poetical, and hence, for so we are taught, least enthusiastic, we shall indeed still retain much matter for this more refined and pregnant species of dialogues, to season Xenophon's tediousness, but it will be impossible in this way to discover any properly philosophical basis in the constitution of Socrates. For if we exclude all depth of speculation, nothing is left but results, without the grounds and methodical principles on which they depend, and which therefore Socrates can only have possest instinctively, that is without the aid of philosophy. The only safe method seems to be, to inquire : What may Socrates have been, over and above what Xenophon has described, without how- ever contradicting the strokes of character, and the practical maxims, which Xenophon distinctly delivers as those of Socrates: and what must he have been, to give Plato a right, and an inducement, to exhibit him as he has done in his dialogues? Now the latter branch of this question inevitably leads us back to the historical position from which we started; that Socrates must have had a strictly philosophical basis in his composition, so far as he is virtually recognized by Plato as the author of his philosophical life, and is therefore to be regarded as the first vital movement of Greek philosophy in its more advanced stage ; and that he can only be entitled to this place by an element, which, though properly philosophical, was foreign to the preceding period. Here however we must for the present be content to say, that the property which is peculiar to the post-Socratic philosophy, beginning with Plato, and which henceforward is common to all the genuine Socratic schools, is the coexistence and intercommunion of the three branches of knowledge, dialectics, physics, ethics. This distinction separates the two periods very definitely. For before Socrates either these branches were kept entirely apart, or their subjects were blended together without due discrimination, and without any definite proportion: as for instance ethics and physics among the Pythagoreans, physics and dialectics among the Eleatics; the Ionians alone, though their tendency was wholly to physics, made occasional excursions, though quite at random, into the region both of dialectics and of ethics. But when some writers refuse Plato himself the honour of having distinguished and combined these sciences, and ascribe this step to Xenocrates, and think that even Aristotle abandoned it again; this in my opinion is grounded on a misunderstanding, which however it would here lead us too far to explain. Now it is true we cannot assert^ that Socrates was the first who combined the characters of a physical, ethical, and dialectic philosopher in one person, especially as Plato and Xenophon agree in taking physics out of his range; nor can it be positively said that Socrates was at least the author of this distribution of science, though its germ may certainly be found from the Memorabilia. But we may surely inquire whether this phenemenon has not some simpler and more internal cause, and whether this may not be found in Socrates. The following observation will, I conceive, be admitted without much dispute. So long as inquirers are apt to step un- wittingly across the boundaries that separate one province of knowledge from another, so long, and in the same degree, does the whole course of their intellectual operations depend on outward circumstances : for it is only a systematic dis- tribution of the whole field that can lead to a regular and connected cultivation of it. In the same way, so long as the several sciences are pursued singly, and their respective vo- taries contentedly acquiesce in this insulation, so long, and in the came degree, is the specific instinct for the object of each science predominant in the whole sphere of intellectual exertion. But as soon as the need of the connexion and co- ordinate growth of all the branches of knowledge has become so distinctly felt, as to express itself by the form in which they are treated and described, in a manner which can never again be lost; so far as this is the case, it is no longer par- ticular talents and instincts, but the general scientific talent of speculation, that has the ascendant. In the former of these cases it must be confessed, that the idea of science as such is not yet matured, perhaps has not even become the subject of consciousness, for science as such can only be con- ceived as a whole, in which every division is merely subordi- nate, just as the real world to which it ought to correspond. In the latter case, on the contrary, this idea has become a subject of consciousness ; for it can have been only by its force that the particular inclinations which confine each thinker to a certain object, and split science into insulated parts, have been mastered. And this is unquestionably a simpler criterion to distinguish the two periods of Greek philosophy. In the earlier period, the idea of science as such was not the go- verning idea, and had not even become a distinct subject of consciousness : and this it is that gives rise to the obscurity which we perceive in all the philosophical productions of that period, through the appearance of caprice which results from the want of consciousness, and through the imperfec- tion of the scientific language, which is gradually forming itself out of the poetical and historical vocabulary. In the second period, on the other hand, the idea of science has become a subject of consciousness. Hence the main business everywhere is to distinguish knowledge from opinion, hence the precision of scientific language, hence the peculiar prominence of dialectics, which have no other object than the idea of science; things which were not comprehended even by the Eleatics in the same way as by the Socratic schools, since the former still make the idea of being their starting-point, rather than that of knowledge.

Now this waking of the idea of science, and its earliest manifestations, must have been, in the first instance, what constituted the philosophical basis in Socrates; and for this reason he is justly regarded as the founder of that later Greek philosophy,which in its whole essential form, together with its several variations, was determined by that idea. This is proved clearly enough by the historical statements in Plato, and this too is what must be supplied in Xenophon's conversations, in order to make them worthy of Socrates, and Socrates of his admirers. For if he went about in the service of the god, to justify the celebrated oracle, it was impossible that the utmost point he reached could have been simply to know that he knew nothing; there was a step beyond this which he must have taken, that of knowing what knowledge was. For by what other means could he have been enabled to declare that which others believed themselves to know, to be no knowledge, than by a more correct conception of knowledge, and by a more correct method founded upon that conception? And every where, when he is explaining the nature of non-science (ἀνεπιστημοσύνη), one sees that he sets out from two tests: one, that science is the same in all true thoughts, and consequently must manifest its peculiar form in every such thought: the other, that all science forms one whole. For his proofs always hinge on this assumption: that it is impossible to start from one true thought, and to be entangled in a contradiction with any other, and also that knowledge derived from any one point, and obtained by correct combination, cannot contradict that which has been deduced in like manner from any other point; and while he exposed such contradictions in the current conceptions of mankind, he strove to rouse those leading ideas in all who were capable of understanding, or even of divining his meaning. Most of what Xenophon has preserved for us may be referred to this object, and the same endeavour is indicated clearly enough in all that Socrates says of himself in Plato's Apology, and what Alcibiades says of him in his eulogy. So that if we conceive this to have been the central point in the character of Socrates, we may reconcile Plato and Xenophon, and can understand the historical position of Socrates.

When Xenophon says (Mem. IV. 6. 15.): that as often as Socrates did not merely refute the errors of others, but at- tempted to demonstrate something himself, he took his road through propositions which were most generally admitted : we can perfectly understand this mode of proceeding, as the result of the design just described; he wished to find as few hindrances and diversions as possible in his way, that he might illustrate his method clearly and simply ; and propositions, if there were such, which all held to be certain, must have appeared to him the most eligible, in order that he might shew in their case, that the conviction with which they were embraced was not knowledge ; since this would render men more keenly sensible of the necessity of getting at the foundation of knowledge, and of taking their stand upon it, in order to give a new shape to all human things. Hence too we may explain the preponder- ance of the subjects connected with civil and domestic life in most of these conversations. For this was the field that sup- plied the most generally admitted conceptions and propositions, the fate of which interested all men alike. But this mode of proceeding becomes inexplicable, if it is supposed that Socrates attached the chief importance to the subject of these conversa- tions. That must have been quite a secondary point. For when the object is to elucidate any subject, it is necessary to pay attention to the less familiar and more disputed views of it, and how meager most of those discussions in Xenophon are in this respect, is evident enough. From the same point of view we must also consider the controversy of Socrates with the Sophists. So far as it was directed against their maxims, it does not be- long to our present question; it is merely the opposition of a good citizen to the corrupters of government and of youth. But even looking at it from the purely theoretical side, it would be idle to represent this contrast as the germ of a new period of philosophy, if Socrates had only impugned opinions which were the monstrous shapes into which the doctrines of an earlier school had degenerated, without having established any in their stead, which nobody supposes him to have done. But for the purpose of awakening the true idea of science, the sophists must have been the most welcome of all disputants to him, since they had reduced their opinions into the most perfect form; and hence were proud of them themselves, and were peculiarly ad- mired by others. If, therefore, he could succeed in exposing their weakness, the value of a principle so triumphantly applied would be rendered most conspicuous.

But in order to shew the imperfection of the current con- ceptions both in the theories of the Sophists, and in common life, if the issue was not to be left to chance, some certain method was requisite. For it was often necessary in the course of the process to lay down intermediate notions, which it was necessary to define to the satisfaction of both parties ; otherwise, all that was done would afterwards have looked like a paltry surprise ; and the contradiction between the proposition in question, and one that was admitted, could never be detected without ascertaining what notions might or might not be con- nected with a given one. Now this method is laid down in the two problems which Plato states in the Phaedrus, as the two main elements in the art of dialectics, that is, to know first how correctly to combine multiplicity in unity, and again to divide a complex unity according to its nature into a multiplicity, and next to know what notions may or may not be connected to- gether. It is by this means that Socrates became the real founder of dialectics, which continued to be the soul of all the great edifices reared in later times by Greek philosophy, and by its decided prominence, constitutes the chief distinction between the later period and the earlier; so that one cannot l)ut com- mend the historical instinct which has assigned so high a station to him. At the same time this is not meant to deny, that Euclid and Plato carried this science, as well as the rest, farther toward maturity; but it is manifest that in its first principles, Socrates possessed it as a science, and practised it as an art, in a manner peculiar to himself. For the construction of all So- cratic dialogues, as well of those doubtfully ascribed to Plato, and of those attributed with any degree of probability to other original disciples of Socrates, as of all those reported in the Memorabilia, hinges without any exception on this point. The same inference results from the testimony of Aristotle (Metaph. I. 6. XIII. 4.) : that what may be justly ascribed to Socrates, is that he introduced induction and general definitions; a testi- mony which bears every mark of impartiality and truth. Hence there is no reason to doubt that Socrates taught this art of framing and connecting notions correctly. Since however it is an art^ abstract teaching was not sufficient, and therefore no doubt Socrates never so taught it : it was an art that required to be witnessed and practised in the most manifold applications, and one who was not firmly grounded in it, and left the school too early, lost it again, and with it almost all that was to be learnt from Socrates, as indeed is observed in Plato"'s dialogues. Now that this exercise and illustration was the main object of conversations held by Socrates even on general moral subjects, is expressly admitted by Xenophon himself, when, under the head : what Socrates did to render his friends more expert in dialectics, he introduces a great many such discourses and in- quiries, which so closely resemble the rest, that all might just as well have been put in the same class.

It was with a view therefore to become masters in this art, and thereby to keep the faster hold of the idea of science, that men of vigorous and speculative minds formed a circle round Socrates as long as circumstances allowed, those who were able to the end of his life, and in the mean while chose to tread closely in their master's steps, and to refrain for a time from making a systematic application of his art in the different de- partments of knowledge, for the more elaborate cultivation of all the sciences. But when after his death the most eminent among them, first of all at Megara, began a strictly scientific train of speculation, and thus philosophy gradually ripened into the shape which, with slight variations, it ever after re- tained among the Greeks : what now took place was not indeed what Socrates did, or perhaps could have done, but yet it was undoubtedly his will. To this it may indeed be objected, that Xenophon expressly says (Mem. i. 1. 11.) : that Socrates in his riper years not only himself gave up all application to natural philosophy, but endeavoured to withhold all others from it, and directed them to the consideration of human affairs; and hence many hold those only to be genuine Socratics, who did not include physics in their system. But this statement must manifestly be taken in a sense much less general, and quite different from that which is usually given to it. This is clearly evinced by the reasons which Socrates alledges. For how could he have said so generally, that the things which depend on God ought not to be made the subject of inquiry, before those which depend on man have been despatched, since not only are the latter connected in a variety of ways with the former, but even among things human there must be some of greater moment, others of less, some of nearer, others of more remote concern, and the proposition would lead to the con- clusion that before one was brought to its completion, not even the investigation of another ought to be begun. This might have been not unfairly turned by a sophist against Socrates himself, if he had dragged in a notion apparently less familiar, in order to illustrate another ; and certainly this proposition, taken in a general sense, would not only have endangered the conduct of life, but would also have altogether destroyed the Socratic idea of science, that nothing can be known except together with the rest, and along with its relation to all things beside. The real case is simply this. It is clear that Socrates had no peculiar talent for any single science, and least of all for that of physics. Now it is true that a merely metaphysical thinker may feel himself attracted toward all sciences, as was the case with Kant; but then this happens under different circumstances, and a different mental constitution from that of Socrates. He on the contrary made no excursions to points remote from his centre, but devoted his whole life to the task of exciting his leading idea as extensively and as vividly as possible in others ; his whole aim was, that whatever form man'^s wishes and hopes might take, according to individual character and accidental circumstances, this foundation might be securely laid, before he proceeded further. But till then his advice was, not to accu- mulate fresh masses of opinions ; this he for his part would permit only so far as it was demanded by the wants of active life, and for this reason he might say, that if those who investi- gated meteoric phenomena had any hope of producing them at their pleasure, he should be more ready to admit their re- searches: language, which in any other sense but this would have been absurd. We cannot therefore conclude from this that Socrates did not wish that physics should be cultivated, any more than we are authorised to suppose, that he fancied it possible to form ethics into a science by sufficiently multiplying those fragmentary investigations into which he was drawn in discussing the received opinions on the subject. The same law of progression was involuntarily retained in his school. For Plato, though he descends into all the sciences, still lays the principal stress on the establishment of principles, and expati- ates in details only so far as they are necessary, and so much the less as he has to draw them from without : it is Aristotle who first revels in their multiplicity.

This appears to me as much as can be said with certainty of the worth of Socrates as a philosoper. But should any one proceed to ask, how far he elaborated the idea of science in his lessons, or in what degree he promoted the discovery of real knowledge in any other province by his controversial discus- sions, and his dialectic assays, there would perhaps be little to say on this head, and least of all should I be able to extricate any thing to serve this purpose from the works of Plato taken by themselves. For there in all that belongs to Plato there is something of Socrates, and in all that belongs to Socrates some- thing of Plato. Only if any one is desirous of describing doc- trines peculiar to Socrates, let him not, as many do in histories of philosophy for the sake of at least filling up some space with Socrates, string together detached moral theses, which, as they arose out of occasional discussions, can never make up a whole, and as to other subjects, let him not lose sight of the above quoted passage of Aristotle, who confines Socrates'* philosophical speculations to principles. The first point therefore to examine would be, whether some profound speculative doctrines may not have originally belonged to Socrates, which are generally considered as most foreign to him, for instance, the thought which is unfolded by Plato in his peculiar manner, but is exhi- bited in the germ by Xenophon himself (Mem. i. 4. 8.), and is intimately connected with the great dialectic question as to the agreement between thought and being : that of the general dif- fusion of intelligence throughout the whole of nature. With this one might connect the assertion of Aristocles (Euseb. Præp. xi. 3), that Socrates began the investigation of the doc- trine of ideas. But the testimony of this late Peripatetic is suspicious, and may have had no other foundation than the language of Socrates in the Parmenides.

But whether much or little of this and other doctrines belonged to Socrates himself, the general idea already described cannot fail to suggest a more correct mode of conceiving, in what light it is that Plato brings forward his master in his works, and in what sense his Socrates is to be termed a real, or a fictitious personage. Fictitious, in the proper sense, I hold, he is not, and his reality is not a merely mimic one, nor is Socrates in those works merely a convenient person who affords room for much mimic art, and much cheerful pleasantry, in order to temper the abstruse investigations with this agreeable addition. It is because the spirit and the method of Socrates are everywhere predominant, and because it is not a merely subordinate point with Plato to adopt the manner of Socrates, but is as truly his highest aim, that Plato has not hesitated to put into his mouth what he believed to be no more than deductions from his fundamental ideas. The only material exceptions we find to this (passing over several more minute which come under the same head with the anachronisms) occur in later works, as the Statesman and the Republic; I mean doctrines of Plato foreign to the real views of Socrates, perhaps indeed virtually contradicting them, and which are nevertheless put into his mouth. On this head we must let Plato appeal to the privilege conferred by custom. But on the whole we are forced to say, that in giving Socrates a living share in the propagation of that philosophical movement which took its rise from him, Plato has immortalized him in the noblest manner, that a disciple can perpetuate the glory of his master; in a manner not only more beautiful, but more just, than he could have done it by a literal narrative.

 



  1. Gesch. der Philos. alter Zeit.
  2. Grundriss ciner Gesch. der Philos.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.