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Socrates Comparison Paper

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Socrates Comparison Paper

Kevin Zhao

Professor Gregory P. Floyd


        In 399 BC, Socrates was executed by a court in the city of Athens on the charges of impiety to the gods as well as corruption of the youth. The court was greatly influenced by Clouds, written by the Greek comedy writer Aristophanes. Socrates was described with all the characteristics of a sophist, and was vilified assomeone who taught the skills necessary to manipulate language for a fee. In contrast, Plato depicts Socrates as a wise man practicing philosophy, searching for the truth and discussing the definitions of ideas such as justice and virtue. Although Socrates was put to death by the Athenian court, Plato’s dialogues contain evidence that suggests that he was innocent. I shall argue that Aristophanes’ description of Socrates is based on false biases and that Socrates was innocent of the court charges.

        First, Aristophanes’ description from the Clouds caricatures Socrates as a sophistic teacher who ridicules others and explores arbitrarily. Socrates denounces Strepsiades for his stupidity and inability to learn, for which he has paid for with his clothing and independence. In addition, Socrates venerates the combination of “Chaos, Clouds, and a confident tongue” (Clouds 424). This makes him seem sophistic, impious and overly reliant on the ability people have to manipulate with their words. The gods of Olympus have been forsaken in the Pondertorium. Socrates is a master of rhetoric but his vocabulary and attitude in particular are vulgar and rude to those he teaches. He commands Strepsiades to “take off the damn thing” (Clouds 500), an order that makes Socrates seem both uncouth and overly aggressive.

   These characteristics are many of the same traits that sophists such as Gorgias in Athens had at the time. Through Clouds, the charges against Socrates seem justified. However, it must be noted that Clouds is a comedy. It takes the person who is the least sophistic and completely exaggerates all of the qualities of sophists that are ruining the city of Athens. I see a play on irony in which Socrates is used to further isolate the teachings of Sophists. But most Athenians took it as a commentary on Socrates himself and put him to death.Contrastingly, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates suggests that instead of ridiculing people, Socrates leads them to a greater understanding of whatever topic they discussand relentlessly pursues truth and definition while providing ideas without manipulation. Sophists in general are characterized as manipulative rhetoricians. In Clouds, Socrates is the epitome of a sophist; in Meno, he is the quite the opposite. When Meno tries to define virtue with examples of virtuous people Socrates leads him on by showing him that they must “have on and the same form which makes them virtues” (72d). Socrates subjugated and throttled Strepsiades in Clouds but while he talks to Meno, he allows himself to be dragged into the question of whether “virtue is something teachable” (86d). Socrates engages in discussion with Meno and together they attempt to learn what it truly is through careful observation.

Socrates discusses things with people they have good premises and rationales. For example, Socrates never attempts to manipulate minds and often leads minds as was the case with the slave boy. Without any prior schooling in geometry, the slave boy was questioned and “[found] the knowledge within himself” (85d). Young people from all over come to Socrates and talk to him. Socrates never forces people or teaches them; instead he engages in elenchus’ and gives thorough deductions and analysis of situations in order to achieve the truth, which philosophy is all about.

In his Apology, Socrates defends himself from Aristophanes’ accusations by conversing with the court to find a truth. Clouds implies that Socrates is a sophist by teaching manipulation of rhetoric to achieve an end goal. As a citizen of Athens, Socrates converses with many different people and uses the ethos he has developed over the years to sincerely ask his “witnesses” whether he has ever discussed things “in the sky and below the earth” (19c). He calls the character in Clouds as “a Socrates” as an implication that the persona is not who he was in real life (19b)  In addition, he admits that he doesn’t have the same art that the sophists have and thus he could never teach people like that. The reason that the case ended up in court at all in spite of the weak charges was Socrates’ understanding of the oracle at Delphi. Socrates tries to understand how he is the wisest. He finds the wisest people in the city which included public men, craftsmen and poets. Socrates searched for people in the city that were wise but all of these members of Athenian society were flawed in the same way. Unlike Socrates, they didn’t accept the fact that they didn’t know some things. If Socrates truly understands his idea of Socratic ignorance, then the claims made by Aristophanes in Clouds are clearly incorrect. He acts in the comedy as an all-knowing godly figure who looks down on other people, while in his dialogues, he is humble and simply in search of the truth. Socrates is therefore innocent.

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