Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

7. Socrates’ personality

Socrates drew to himself many of the brightest and most prominent people in Athens, securing their fascinated attention and their passionate friendship and support. His effectiveness as a philosopher, and the Socratic ‘legend’ itself, depended as much on the strength and interest of his personality as on the power of his mind. Plato’s and Xenophon’s portraits of Socrates as a person differ significantly, however. Plato’s Socrates is aloof and often speaks ironically, although also with unusual and deeply held moral convictions; paradoxically, the depth and clarity of his convictions, maintained alongside the firm disclaimer to know what was true, could seem all the stronger testimony to their truth, and made them felt the more strongly as a rebuke to the superficiality of one’s own way of living. In Xenophon, Socrates is also sometimes ironical and playful, especially in the Symposium, but his conversation is usually direct, even didactic, and often chummy in tone; his attitudes are for the most part conventional though earnest; and there is nothing to unsettle anyone or make them suspect hidden depths. It is much easier to believe that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues could have had such profound effects on the lives of the brightest of his contemporaries than did the character in Xenophon. That is one reason given for trusting Plato’s more than Xenophon’s portrait of the historical personage. But perhaps Socrates used the more kindly and genial manner and conventional approach depicted by Xenophon to draw out the best in some of his young men and his friends – ones who would have been put off by the Platonic subtleties. The historical Socrates may have been a more complex person than even Plato presents.

Plato and Xenophon both represent Socrates as strongly attracted to good-looking young men in the ‘bloom’ of their middle to late teens, just the period when they were also coming of age morally and intellectually. In both he speaks of himself as unusually ‘erotic’ by temperament and constantly ‘in love’. But he explains his ‘erotic’ attachments in terms of his desire to converse with bright and serious young men, to question them about virtue and how best to live a human life, and to draw out what was best in their minds and characters. In Xenophon he describes his love as love for their souls, not their bodies, and he vigorously condemns sexual relations with any young man: using him that way disgraces him and harms him by encouraging a loose attitude as regards physical pleasures Symposium 8). The overheated sexuality of Plato’s own accounts (Symposium and Phaedrus) of erōs, sexual love, for a young man’s beauty as motivating an adult male to pursue philosophical truth into an eternal realm of Forms (see Plato §12) is to be distinguished sharply from Socrates’ ideas, as we can gather them from Xenophon and from Plato’s own early dialogues.

Xenophon emphasizes Socrates’ freedom from the strong appetites for food, drink, sex and physical comfort that dominate other people; his enkrateia or self-mastery is the first of the virtues that Xenophon claims for him (Memorabilia I 2.1). He was notorious for going barefoot even in winter and dressing always in a simple cloak. Socrates’ self-mastery was at the centre of Antisthenes’ portrayal, and is reflected also in several incidents reported in Plato, such as his serene dismissal of the young Alcibiades’ efforts to seduce him sexually (Plato, Symposium 217b–219e), or, perhaps when engrossed in a philosophical problem, his standing in the open (during a break in the action while on military service) from morning to night, totally indifferent to everything around him (Symposium 220c–d). This ‘ascetic’ Socrates, especially as presented by Antisthenes – rejecting conventional comforts and conventional behaviour – became an inspiration for the ‘Cynics’ of later centuries (see Cynics).

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Socrates’ personality. Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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