Who was Socrates?
Socrates the person
The character of Socrates as exhibited in Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Symposium concurs with other sources to an extent to which it seems possible to rely on the Platonic Socrates, as demonstrated in the dialogues, as a representation of the actual Socrates as he lived in history. At the same time, however, many scholars believe that in some works, Plato, being a literary artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of “Socrates” far beyond anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said. Also, Xenophon, being a historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates. It is a matter of much debate over which Socrates it is who Plato is describing at any given point—the historical figure, or Plato’s fictionalization. As British philosopher Martin Cohen has put it, “Plato, the idealist, offers an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of ‘the Sun-God’, a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic.”
It is also clear from other writings and historical artefacts, that Socrates was not simply a character, nor an invention, of Plato. The testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle, alongside some of Aristophanes’s work (especially The Clouds), is useful in fleshing out a perception of Socrates beyond Plato’s work.
According to one source, the name Σωκρᾰ́της (Sōkrátēs), has the meaning “whole, unwounded, safe” (the part of the name corresponding to σῶς, sôs) and “power” (the part of the name corresponding to κράτος, krátos).
Socrates as a philosopher
The problem with discerning Socrates’s philosophical views stems from the perception of contradictions in statements made by the Socrates in the different dialogues of Plato; and in later dialogues Plato used the character Socrates to give voice to views that were his own. These contradictions produce doubt as to the actual philosophical doctrines of Socrates, within his milieu and as recorded by other individuals. Aristotle, in his Magna Moralia, refers to Socrates in words which make it patent that the doctrine virtue is knowledge was held by Socrates. Within the Metaphysics, he states Socrates was occupied with the search for moral virtues, being the “first to search for universal definitions for them”.
The problem of understanding Socrates as a philosopher is shown in the following: In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates is reported as saying he devotes himself only to what he regards as the most important art or occupation, that of discussing philosophy. However, in The Clouds, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as accepting payment for teaching and running a Sophist school with Chaerephon. Also, in Plato’s Apology and Symposium, as well as in Xenophon’s accounts, Socrates explicitly denies accepting payment for teaching. More specifically, in the Apology, Socrates cites his poverty as proof that he is not a teacher.
More about Socrates:
Socrates The Philosopher