Socrates Among the Sophists (PJS)

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Auszüge aus: Paul Woodruff: "Socrates Among the Sophists". In: A Companion to Socrates S. 36ff

Socrates died because a large panel of judges found against him by a small majority. Apparently, some of those judges were influenced by evidence that Socrates was a kind of sophist. They were not entirely wrong. Socrates was, in a way, a sophist, although not the kind that his worst critics made him out to be. But Socrates' defenders were not entirely right either.

Aristophanes' Clouds and works by Plato and Xenophon represent two sides in a debate, greatly extended in time, as to whether Socrates was a sophist. Aristophanes uses Socrates' name for the leader of his imaginary school of sophistic rhetoric and antireligious scientific inquiry, while Plato and Xenophon, probably starting after Socrates' death (over 20 years after Aristophanes' play was produced), guarded Socrates' memory on this score by showing him disputing with sophists in ways that underscore his differences from them.

This debate cannot produce a clear a winner, however, in its own terms. Neither side accurately depicts the historical Socrates with sufficient credibility for us to reach a verdict about the man who was condemned to drink hemlock in 399 BCE. All three authors wrote fiction. Aristophanes lets Socrates stand for teachers of much of the new learning, especially forensic rhetoric and natural science. Plato, by contrast, makes Socrates the extreme philosopher, aloof from science, rhetoric, literature, practical politics, and even from reciprocal friendships. His philosophical concerns range from ethics to epistemology and metaphysics, and some of the theories he expounds cannot have been taught by the historical Socrates, but must have been due to Plato. Xenophon's portrait of Socrates seems partially indebted to Plato's and, like Plato's. seems often to speak for interests and theories of the author. Lacking more authoritative sources, however, we will need to make the best use of these that we have. What Plato says about Socrates and the sophists is one thing; what he shows Socrates doing is another, and this will merit our attention in what follows.

Although the fiction of Plato and Xenophon is historical in a sense in which Aristophanes' is not, they are no more accurate than Aristophanes in their representation of the sophists or their teachings. What Aristophanes lampoons is some distance from what any sophist actually taught, while the boundaries Plato gives for the territory of sophists are artificial. Plato succeeded in defining the sophists as part of his project to show that Socrates was not one of them. We need to go behind these sources on both sides for a better understanding of the sophists if we are to judge the question whether Socrates could reasonably be classed with the sophists. I begin with the sophists, and will turn afterward to Socrates.

The Sophists (Woodruff, PJS)

Socrates (Woodruff, PJS)

Kontext: Sokrates (PR Hrachovec, 2007/08)