Although Socrates —who was the main character in most of Plato ‘s dialogues—was a genuine historical figure, it is commonly understood that in later dialogues Plato used the character of Socrates to give voice to his own philosophical views. The Socratic problem refers to the difficulty or inability of determining what in Plato’s writings is an accurate portrayal of Socrates ‘ thought and what is the thought of Plato with Socrates as a literary device.
Socrates—who is often credited with founding western philosophy and who was put to death by the democracy of Athens in May 399 BC —was Plato’s teacher and mentor. Plato—like some of his contemporaries—wrote dialogues about his teacher. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato; however, it is widely believed that very few if any of Plato’s dialogues can be verbatim accounts of conversations or unmediated representations of Socrates’ thought. Many of the dialogues seem to use Socrates as a device for Plato’s thought, and inconsistencies occasionally crop up between Plato and the other accounts of Socrates; for instance, Plato has Socrates constantly denying that he would ever accept money for teaching, while Xenophon ‘s Symposium clearly has Socrates stating that he is paid by students to teach wisdom and this is what he does for a living. Given the apparent evolution of thought in Plato’s dialogues from his early years to his middle and later years, it is often believed that the dialogues began to represent less of Socrates and more of Plato as time went on. However, the question of exactly what aspects of Plato’s dialogues are representative of Socrates and what are not is far from agreed upon.
Karl Popper treats the Socratic problem in his first book of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).
The subtitle of his first volume, “The Spell of Plato”, makes clear Popper’s central premise — namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his greatness. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his political philosophy as a benign idyll, without taking into account its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarian ideology.
Contrary to major Plato scholars of his day, Popper divorced Plato’s ideas from those of Socrates, claiming that the former in his later years expressed none of the humanitarian and democratic tendencies of his teacher. In particular, he accuses Plato of betraying Socrates in the Republic, wherein Plato portrays Socrates sympathizing with totalitarianism (see: Socratic problem).
Popper views, Plato’s historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal worldview. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, and had designs to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.
The German classical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher made an attempt to solve the “Socratic problem”. Schleiermacher maintains that the two dialogues Apology and Crito are purely Socratic, which is to say, rather accurate historical portrayals of the real man, Socrates, and hence history—and not Platonic philosophy at all. All of the other dialogues that Schleiermacher accepted as genuine, he considered to be integrally bound together and consistent in their Platonism. Their consistency is related to the three phases of Plato’s development.
Schleiermacher’s views as to the chronology of Plato’s work are rather controversial. In Schleiermacher’s view, the character of Socrates evolves over time into the “Stranger” in Plato’s work, and fulfills a critical function in Plato’s development as he appears in the first family above as the “Eleatic Stranger” in Sophist and Statesman , and the “Manitenean Stranger” in the Symposium . The “Athenian Stranger” is the main character of Plato’s Laws . Further, the Sophist–Statesman–Philosopher family makes particularly good sense in this order, as Schleiermacher also maintains that the two dialogues, Symposium and Phaedo show Socrates as the quintessential philosopher in life (guided by Diotima ) and into death, the realm of otherness. Thus the triad announced both in the Sophist and in the Statesman is completed, though the Philosopher, being divided dialectically into a “Stranger” portion and a “Socrates” portion, isn’t called “The Philosopher”—this philosophical crux is left to the reader to determine. Schleiermacher thus takes the position that the real Socratic problem is understanding the dialectic between the figures of the “Stranger” and “Socrates.”
Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.
Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.
From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate.
He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.
I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.
I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.
I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.
I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good.
I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.
If a man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it.
It is not living that matters, but living rightly.
Let him that would move the world first move himself.
Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.
Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior.
Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.
The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.
To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.
True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.
Wisdom begins in wonder.