The Several Portraits of Socrates"I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person." - Socrates, quoted by Plato, 'The Death of Socrates'
Who was Socrates? He died in 399 BC and according to Plato and Xenophon there was a trial at which he was condemned to death. But there are no writings of Socrates for he never wrote down anything. The result is we must rely on the picture of Socrates drawn by Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon. In the Clouds Aristophanes portrayed Socrates as a teacher who charged fees for instruction, taught a variety of subjects including rhetoric, and disbelieved in the traditional gods. All of this is denied in the description of Socrates in Plato and that of by Xenophon. Aristophanes comic portrait, which was the only one produced contemporaneously with Socrates own life, is one that seems slanted to meet the satirical comic ends of the playwright. In spite of this, if we believe Plato's description of the relationship of Aristophanes and Socrates in his Symposium they appeared to be friends. While some claim that Aristophanes' portrait of Socrates was based on hostility I would side with those (scholars like G. Murray) who suggest it was based on pure comedy. The play as a whole still retains comic elements that twenty-first century readers can and do enjoy.
More interesting in my recent reading is the portrait of Socrates that one may glean from the dialogues of Plato. The familiar saying of Socrates is that he only knows that he does not know anything. And he spends his time refuting his dialectical partners who claim to know something. This usually leads to the result that they admit they do not know what they claimed to, but also usually leaves the reader in the dark as the dialogue ends without any resolution or answer to the questions posed by Socrates. This occurs repeatedly with unsuccessful attempts to define temperance (Charmides), courage (Laches), or friendship (Lysis). It is surprising when, in a reading of the Gorgias, the reader finds a different Socrates who does claim to know several things. It is here, in the Gorgias, that we see Plato's own dramatic art at work, molding a new and improved Socrates to perform in a way that will display, perhaps, the views of Plato himself.
Plato's dramatic art is not unlike that of a playwright and several dialogues, including the Gorgias, have a dramatic progression and contain crises as plays do. The Gorgias as a whole can be seen as a fine example of Plato's art in the form of a dramatic progression. There are three perfectly connected episodes: Socrates' three conversations with Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. Gorgias, the famous sophist, seeing only the technical side of the orators' training, is incapable of giving his art any moral purpose. Polus will not use rhetoric for an evil end but only because he is timid and respects prejudices. But let a violent person like Callicles come along: he will find in the school of Gorgias not a restraint, but an instrument for the expression of his violence. In this fashion all consequences of the intellectual attitude of Gorgias are developed in a living and dramatic manner. Interestingly, Plato ends the Gorgias with one of the famous myths that appear and reappear throughout the dialogues (Symposium, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Republic to name a few). They do not always appear in the mouth of Socrates, but at the end of the Gorgias it is Socrates himself who says to Callicles:
"Give an ear then, as they say, to a right fine story, which you will regard as a fable, I fancy, but I as an actual account; for what I am about to tell you I mean to offer as the truth." (523a)
Socrates goes on to present a treatise of a sort that comments on the destiny of the soul, giving the dialogue a foundation that in retrospect it seemed to be aiming at the whole time.
Gorgias by Plato, W. R. M. Lamb, trans. Loeb Classical Library, 1925
Clouds by Aristophanes, Peter Meineck, trans. Hackett Publishing, 1998
Aristophanes by G. Murray. Oxford, 1933