Never-ending Crisis: The History of the Socratic Problem

Otto Linderborg

The Socratic problem, simply put, is the conundrum of how to discern between the historical Socrates and his representation in fiction. This article will provide a concise summary of the history of this vexed problem. In what follows, eight breaking points are identified and explored in turn.

Eight likenesses of Socrates, Johann Caspar Lavater, c.1789.

1.  Pre-history

Plutarch narrates an anecdote according to which a certain Epicurean named Colotes thought that the oracle story in Plato’s Apology was nothing but “sophistry”.[1] In the same vein, Diogenes Laertius recounts how Socrates reacted upon hearing Plato reading from his dialogue Lysis: “They say that Socrates, when he heard Plato read his Lysis, exclaimed, ‘O Heracles, how much this young man lies about me!’”[2]

Although the latter story is misleading, insofar as Lysis is likely to have been composed only after Socrates’ death, the awareness of the fictitious nature of the Socratic dialogues that both these anecdotes reveal is certainly striking. For a long time, however, this questioning of Socratic sources did not generate any kind of critical examination with the intention of separating reality from fiction.    

Cast of a bust of Socrates after Lysippus of Sicyon, c.340 BC (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany).

2. Origins

The primeval Socratic studies, aimed specifically at determining historical truth, emerged during the earlier part of the 18th century. It was Nicolas Fréret, a Frenchman active at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, who first proposed that the case of Socrates had to be re-examined. More specifically, Fréret strived to reinterpret the causes of Socrates’ death sentence in relation to the situation in ancient Athenian society. He thus concluded that the historical Socrates was probably put on trial because of his opposition to the Athenian form of democracy. 

A few years later, Freret received the full support for his views from a colleague in Leipzig, Siegmund Friedrich Dresig. The latter reaffirmed that the accusations against Socrates could hardly have been raised, had Socrates not in fact proposed an oligarchic government instead of the prevailing democratic rule. According to Dresig, Socrates was thus “iuste tandem capitis damnatum” (“in the end rightfully sentenced to death”).

However, this new critical approach to Socratic studies – first evidenced in the writings of Dresig and Fréret on the trial of Socrates – did not have much contemporary impact. Indeed, the philosophers of the day still had to fight their own battles for intellectual freedom – and consequently their interpretations of Socrates continued, for the time being, to be dominated by the figure of the “just man unjustly condemned”.[3]

Socrates, Montaigne and Plutarch welcoming Rousseau to the Elysian Fields: engraving by C.F. Macret after a drawing by J.M. Moreau (1782)

3. Establishment

It was in the first half of the 19th century, then, that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1825–6), posed the explicit question of whether Xenophon or Plato portrays Socrates more truthfully regarding his personality and teachings. This entailed nothing less than a full recognition of the Socratic Problem. However, the text that contributed most to the crystallisation of the problem was undoubtedly Friedrich Schleiermacher’s contemporary Über den Werth des Sokrates als Philosophen (“On the Value of Socrates as Philosopher”, 1818). Schleiermacher was a polymathic theologian and philosopher, notable among other thingsfor having developed the theory of hermeneutics towards a more express focus on authorial intent.  

According to Schleiermacher’s famous dictum, we are to ask, in the first instance, how Xenophon’s portrayal of Socrates must be supplemented, in order to make sense of how Plato’s portrayal was envisioned.

Up to the present time, Socratic studies remain guided by this regula aurea, or golden rule, of Schleiermacher. His impact is conspicuous, in that any more historically oriented study into the life and deeds of Socrates now begins by weighing the central literary sources against each other.

Statue of Schleiermacher on the Palais Universitaire, Strasbourg, France, c.1880.

4. Platonisation

When in the beginning of the 20th century John Burnet wrote that “it is really impossible to preserve Xenophon’s Socrates, even if he were worthy of preservation” – this was in fact quite an astonishing break from tradition. In the works of Hegel and Schleiermacher, the tradition in question had still been clearly discernible, since both had recognised the necessity of considering Xenophon’s testimony.

The new-fangled disapproval of Xenophon was predicated on a sharpening of Schleiermacher’s distrust in Xenophon’s ability to capture all aspects of Socrates’ philosophy.The opinion thus took shape that the misconceptions (as well as anachronisms) allegedly contained in Xenophon’s work made him unreliable as a witness. In the end, Xenophon’s Socrates was fully disqualified, with Burnet concluding that “we have to relate to Plato as our greatest authority”.

Among the scholars adhering to this principle, however, opinions soon diverged over the extent to which Plato had actually recreated the philosophy of the historical Socrates. In Britain, Burnet, along with Alfred Taylor, went so far as to state that the theory of ideas – which in accordance with Aristotelian testimony is usually ascribed to Plato’s later phases – is in fact genuinely Socratic. However, the testimony of Aristotle’s Metaphysics expressly states that Socrates was merely the first to seek for general definitions of moral virtues (αἱ ἠθικαὶ ἀρεταί), while the theory of ideas (ἰδέαι, ideae) was first proclaimed by others (i.e., probably by Plato and his disciples).[4] In Germany, Heinrich Maier thus followed a more cautious line – only reading the historical Socrates into those of Plato’s early dialogues in which the doctrine of ideas had not yet been explicated.

The coming decades, however, witnessed not only Xenophon’s Socrates falling victim to ruthless scepticism, but also the entirety of Plato’s Socratic dialogues – as well as the Socratic literature in its entirety.

John Burnet (1863–1928), c.1920.

5. Crisis

In his ground-breaking work Sokrates: Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte (“Socrates: His Picture in Poetry and History,” 1947), the Swiss historian Olof Gigon argued that not only had the Socratic problem proved unusually difficult to deal with, but that it was by its very nature something that could not be solved at all.

In order to argue for his thesis, Gigon conducted a survey of all preserved Socratic literature.  He was thus able to prove that the Socratic dialogues by Plato, Xenophon and others do indeed share certain traits. For instance, Socratic dialogues commonly show Socrates affecting genuine spiritual improvement among his interlocutors, and by extension in society at large – a picture which forms a sharp contrast to the detached rhetorician and natural philosopher encountered in Old Comedy.[5]

However, the overall result of Gigon’s investigations was that neither the extant Socratic literature taken as a whole (including comedy), nor the Socratic dialoguestaken by themselves (Plato, Xenophon and minor Socratics such as Antisthenes, the traditional founder of the Cynics, and Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic school), can be conceived of as forming a unit: no single philosopher named Socrates can be identified in them. Thus Gigon concluded that among the closest sources there was not one that objectively testified to how the historical Socrates had lived and philosophised. Thus nothing could be known of Socrates either, except for a few things, which Gigon dismissively termed “the substrate of poetry”.

Basing his judgment on the inner contradiction of the sources and their fictional character, Gigon was the first scholar to assert conclusively the impossibility of a historical reconstruction of Socrates’ life and deeds. The fallout of this destructive verdict was not long in coming.

Olof Gigon (1912–98), 1946.

6. Reaction

One effect of Gigon’s radical scepticism was that, from the 1950s onwards, Socratic studies began to resort to a kind of “neo-platonisation” of Socrates. More specifically, the view was henceforth accepted that at least one essential piece of Plato’s work could be considered reliable – namely, the part treating the actual charges against Socrates in Plato’s Apology.  

The cornerstone of this texte is the oracle story that Plato lets Socrates narrate in order to counter his “first and more dangerous accusers”.[6] Thus, it was natural that the strongest reaction against Gigon found expression for a time in researchers focusing on affirming the authenticity of Plato’s Apology in general – and of the oracle story in particular.

In the 1990s, this regained confidence in Plato’s authority was greatly strengthened: under the leadership of Gregory Vlastos, a new and extremely optimistic program for research into the historical Socrates saw the light of day.

Gregory Vlastos (1907–91), 1962.

7. Optimism

In his Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (1991), Vlastos defended the view that Plato’s work incorporates two diametrically different philosophers:

I have been speaking of a ‘Socrates’ in Plato. There are two of them. In different segments of Plato’s corpus two philosophers bear that name. The individual remains the same. But in different sets of dialogues he pursues philosophies so different, that they could not have been depicted as cohabiting the same brain throughout unless it had been the brain of a schizophrenic.

The two philosophers Vlastos identified were the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues on the one hand, and the Socrates of Plato’s middle period on the other hand.[7] However, Vlastos was not merely looking to demonstrate the existence of at least two essentially different Socrates figures in Plato. He also revived a way of thinking that had been defended much earlier by Maier – that the historical Socrates could in fact be identified in Plato’s early dialogues. This claim Vlastos sought to prove by using Schleiermacher’s regula. Vlastos thus employed the historical method of weighing Plato’s testimony against other Socratic literature, above all Xenophon – and calling on the testimony of Aristotle as arbitrator whenever the sources could not be reconciled.

The brilliance of Vlastos’ attempt to dissolve the Socratic problem is indisputable. By basing the historicity of Plato’s portrayal of Socrates on philosophical content alone – instead of relying on the alleged will and ability of Plato to reproduce real past conversations, which had been the strategy of Burnet and Taylor – Vlastos’ account avoided difficult questions such as “Could Plato have heard what he makes Socrates say in this or that scene? If not, could he have heard it on good authority?”  

Socrates surprises Alcibiades in the home of a courtesan, Jean Charles Nicaise Perrin, 1798 (priv. coll.).

The belief in early Plato’s ability to recreate an authentic Socrates, which Vlastos’ work seemed to justify, also quickly led to a new flourishing of Socratic studies. In the slipstream of Vlastos, many began to concentrate their research precisely on Plato’s earlier dialogues. Thus, one year after the publication of Vlastos’ book, Hugh Benson in his Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (1992) wrote:

there appears to be general agreement that there is a single Socrates to be found somewhere within [Plato’s] early period and that this Socrates is the historical one.

Soon afterwards, however, Gigon’s fierce scepticism was given renewed relevance, in Charles Kahn’s Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (1996).

The first chapter of this book demonstrates how Plato – and the various motifs used in his portrayals of Socrates – competed with a range of other writers of Socratic dialogues. Kahn concluded that Plato’s presentation was indeed likely to be the most qualified in literary terms, as well as the most historically credible – but that it was still completely unjustified to presume that Plato’s Socrates was any truer than any competitor’s.  

18th-century cameo of Socrates and Plato (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany).

To the question “How can we tell where Plato’s memory of his master’s teaching ends, and his own development and transformation of this teaching begins?”, Kahn then offered what he called a “minimal view” of the historical Socrates. This viewpoint is the one that had already emerged as a reaction to Gigon’s scepticism: an approach to the historical Socrates purporting to stay within the bounds of Plato’s Apology. With Kahn, Socratic studies in effect took a step backwards, towardsthe situation before Vlastos’ temporary optimism. However, even though its initial esteem faded, Vlastos’ view continued to appeal to many researchers. Therefore still, at the turn of the millennium, Brickhouse and Smith wrote as follows in The Philosophy of Socrates (2000):

Even if we are persuaded by Vlastos’s argument, we can say at the best only that the historical Socrates probably did hold the doctrines we find him defending in the early dialogues of Plato and that the historical Socrates is not entirely lost in the darkness of ages gone by.

However, in Brickhouse’s and Smith’s rendering, Vlastos’ thesis – that in all of Plato’s early dialogues Socrates’ philosophy may be identified in a recreated form – proves to be seriously watered down. In the current climate of research, we in fact have reason to be even more sceptical about the prospect of reaching a definitive solution to the Socratic problem.

Socrates looking in a mirror, Jusepe di Ribera, early 1620s (Meadows Museum, Dallas, TX, USA).

8. Pessimism

To claim – like Vlastos and his followers did – that some of Plato’s dialogues capture the philosophy of the historical Socrates, while other Socratic sources fail to do so, is to ignore that we are in no position to judge whether any of Plato’s interpretations of Socrates’ philosophising corresponds to reality more than any other account.

In truth, the writers of the Socratic dialogues were all united by the motifs that each of them developed in mutual competition. In Lysis, Charmides and Symposium, Plato competed with Aeschines’ Alcibiades in the depiction of Socratic love – and in both Plato’s and Xenophon’s versions of Socrates’ defence speech, Socrates is portrayed as invoking the oracle at Delphi. Yet here, as elsewhere in Socratic literature, the common motif is a chimera concealing a profound difference of opinion – mutually incompatible conceptions of Socrates’ philosophy.

In both Xenophon’s and Plato’s versions of the oracle story, Socrates’ friend Chaerephon is the one who receives a divine answer to a question about Socrates. While the oracle in Plato claims that no one is wiser (μηδένα σοφώτερον εἶναι) than Socrates (Plato Apol. 21a), the answer in Xenophon’s Apology is that no man is freer, more righteous or more sensible (μηδένα εἶναι μήτε ἐλευθεριώτερον μήτε δικαιότερον μήτε σωφρονέστερον) than Socrates (Xen. Apol. 14). The different versions of the Pythian answer testify to radically different understandings of Socrates’ philosophical disposition. In Plato’s version, the answer of the oracle is perceived by Socrates as a mystery, and this leads him to further investigations. In Xenophon, the oracle ascribes certain attributes to Socrates – characteristics that the latter seems to have been aware of having possessed before, which consequently he has no need to question.

With these two versions of ‘the oracle to Chaerephon’, two fundamentally different types of philosophers are set against each other: the seeker and the preacher. In actuality, these are so different that uniting them could only be artificial. However, choosing one over the other is not feasible either. For, as Louis-André Dorion wrote in his 2011 survey ‘The rise and fall of the Socratic Problem’, “nothing justifies such a bias on the historical level.”

Otto Linderborg once studied Greek, Latin and Philosophy at the University of Helsinki and has since then been employed in various research and teaching positions at four different higher education institutions in Sweden. He has recently traded academic freedom for economic security and now works as a Research Funding Advisor at Örebro University.

Further Reading

L.-A. Dorion, “The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem,” in D.R. Morrison (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Socrates (Cambridge UP, 2011) 1–23.

S.F Dresig, … de Socrate iuste damnato” (Leipzig, 1738), available here, and reprinted in M. Montuori (ed.), De Socrate juste damnato: La nascita del problema socratico nel XVIII secolo (Edizioni dell’Ateneo, Rome 1981) 109–24.

O. Linderborg, Sokrates i ljuset av sin död (CKM Förlag, Stockholm, 2021), available here.

G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge UP, 1991).


1 Plut. Adv. Col. 1116e-f
2 Diog. Laert. 3.35.
3 For the sake of comparison, it may be illuminating to note that in Charles Palissot’s comedy Les Philosophes (1760), a number of encyclopaedists were attacked – Charles Duclos, Jean D’Alembert, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius and especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau – which led Voltaire, who was unaware of the playwright’s identity, to ask indignantly for “le nom de cet Aristophane”. Voltaire’s reaction is a pointer to the fact that, up and until the 18th century, intellectuals in general still conceived of Socrates as a figure beyond reproach.
4 Arist. Met. 14.1078b.
5 “Wenn die Sokratiker überhaupt in einem Punkte einig sind, so sind sie es in dem Bestreben, einen Sokrates zu schildern, der das genaue Gegenteil des aristophanischen ist.” (“If the Socratics are agreed on one point, it’s in their effort to portray Socrates as the exact opposite of Aristophanes’ version.”
6 Plato Apol. 18a-b.
7 The following dialogues were ascribed by Vlastos to Plato’s early period: in alphabetical order, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphron, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Protagoras, Apology and Republic Book I.