Once one has begun to read about Socrates in Plato's dialogues, onebegins to realize that the old philosopher is an icon of popularculture who has inspired diverse associations and whose name has beenappropriated for all manner of different purposes: Socrates is a crateron Earth's moon; Socrates is a barefoot rag doll made by the UnemployedPhilosophers Guild; Socrates is a European Union education and trainingprogram; Socrates is the fifth movement of Leonard Bernstein's Serenadefor Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion, after Plato'sSymposium; Socrates is a sculpture park in New York City; andeSocrates is a business enterprise. Allusions to Socrates abound inliterature, history, and political tracts, and he has been a subjectfor artists since ancient times. Among the more famous paintings areRaphael's “” at the Vatican and David's “” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Socrates's influence wasparticularly notable among the U.S. founders, as the following shortcollection of quotations demonstrates:
This brings us to the spring and summer of 399, to Socrates's trialand execution. Twice in Plato's dialogues (Symposium 173b,Theaetetus 142c–143a), fact-checking with Socrates took placeas his friends sought to commit his conversations to writing before hewas executed. [spring 399 Theaetetus] Prior to theaction in the Theaetetus, a young poet named Meletus hadcomposed a document charging Socrates with the capital crime ofirreverence (asebeia): failure to show due piety toward thegods of Athens. This he delivered to Socrates in the presence ofwitnesses, instructing Socrates to present himself before the kingarchon within four days for a preliminary hearing (the same magistratewould later preside at the pre-trial examination and the trial). Atthe end of theTheaetetus, Socrates was on his way to that preliminaryhearing. As a citizen, he had the right to forgo the hearing, allowingthe suit to proceed uncontested. He also had the right to exile himselfvoluntarily, as the personified laws later remind him (Crito 52c).Socrates exercised neither right. Rather, he set out to enter a pleaand stopped at a gymnasium to talk to some youngsters about mathematicsand knowledge.
If it were possible to confine oneself exclusively to Plato'sSocrates, the Socratic problem would nevertheless reappearbecause one would soon discover Socrates himself defending oneposition in one Platonic dialogue, its contrary in another, and usingdifferent methods in different dialogues to boot. Inconsistenciesamong the dialogues seem to demand explanation, though not allphilosophers have thought so (Shorey 1903). Most famously, theParmenides attacks various theories of forms that theRepublic, Symposium, and Phaedo develop and defend. In somedialogues (e.g., Laches), Socrates only weeds the garden ofits inconsistencies and false beliefs, but in other dialogues (e.g.,Phaedrus), he is a planter as well, advancing structuredphilosophical claims and suggesting new methods for testing thoseclaims. There are differences on smaller matters as well. For example,Socrates in the Gorgias opposes, while in theProtagoras he supports, hedonism; the details of the relationbetween erotic love and the good life differ from Phaedrusto Symposium; the account of the relation between knowledgeand the objects of knowledge in Republic differs from theMeno account; despite Socrates's commitment to Athenian law,expressed in the Crito, he vows in the Apology thathe will disobey the lawful jury if it orders him to stopphilosophizing. A related problem is that some of the dialogues appearto develop positions familiar from other philosophical traditions(e.g., that of Heraclitus in Theaetetus and Pythagoreanism inPhaedo). Three centuries of efforts to solve the Socraticproblem are summarized in the following supplementary document:
Philosophers have usually privileged the account of Socrates given bytheir fellow philosopher, Plato. Plato was about twenty-five whenSocrates was tried and executed, and had probably known the old manmost of his life. It would have been hard for a boy of Plato's socialclass, residing in the political district (deme) of Collytus withinthe city walls, to avoid Socrates. The extant sources agree thatSocrates was often to be found where youths of the city spent theirtime. Further, Plato's representation of individual Athenians hasproved over time to correspond remarkably well to botharchaeological and literary evidence: in his use of names and places,familial relations and friendship bonds, and even in his rough datingof events in almost all the authentic dialogues where Socrates is thedominant figure. The dialogues have dramatic dates that fall intoplace as one learns more about their characters and, despiteincidental anachronisms, it turns out that there is more realism in thedialogues than most have suspected. The Ion, Lysis, Euthydemus, Meno,Menexenus, Theaetetus, Euthyphro, the frameof Symposium, Apology, Crito,Phaedo (although Plato says he was not himself present atSocrates's execution), and the frame of Parmenides are thedialogues in which Plato had greatest access to the Athenians hedepicts.
Plato's "Symposium" Essay
The stories of all the other symposiasts, too, are stories of theirparticular loves masquerading as stories of love itself, stories aboutwhat they find beautiful masquerading as stories about whatis beautiful. For Phaedrus and Pausanius, the canonical imageof true love—the quintessential love story—features theright sort of older male lover and the right sort of beloved boy. ForEryximachus the image of true love is painted in the languages of hisown beloved medicine and of all the other crafts and sciences. ForAristophanes it is painted in the language of comedy. For Agathon, inthe loftier tones of tragedy. In ways that these men are unaware of,then, but that Plato knows, their love stories are themselvesmanifestations of their loves and of the inversions or perversionsexpressed in them. They think their stories are the truth about love,but they are really love’s delusions—“images,” asDiotima will later call them. As such, however, they are essentialparts of that truth. For the power of love to engender delusive imagesof the beautiful is as much a part of the truth about it as its powerto lead to the beautiful itself. Later, we shall learn why.