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The personality of Socrates is crucial for the history of European philosophy. A lot of thinkers tried to evaluate the role of Socrates in the development of the European culture. Even the contemporaries of this prominent philosopher made such attempts. His disciple Plato, and dramatist Aristophanes were among them. In the writings, they appeal to the Socrates’ figure in a different way trying to create the complete character of the philosopher. Plato describes Socrates as an original thinker, who transformed the history of Greece, whereas Aristophanes’ approach is accusing. It’s high time we analyzed the positions of both authors.
Aristophanes as a Greek dramatist portrays Socrates in an ironic way in his comedy. Such attitude towards the philosopher is distinct from Plato’s approach, who talks about his teacher with respect and honor. On the contrary, Aristophanes considers Socrates to be the symbol of sophistry, which he understands in a negative way. Socrates’ portrait by Aristophanes is disrespectful. However, the author does not deny the crucial role of the philosopher in the Greek culture.
Aristophanes’ comedy “Clouds” deals with the description of Socrates’ influence on Greek citizens. This work possesses such name due to the chorus, which consists of clouds – the new gods that replace the old ones due to Socrates’ philosophical views. According to it, Socrates wants to destroy the Greek outlook and replace it with his philosophical doctrine. Thus, due to the danger of such position Athenian citizens decide to get rid of Socrates. It seems that Aristophanes does not condemn them.
While reading the comedy, Aristophanes’ attitude towards Socrates becomes evident. From the very beginning of the “Clouds” Pheidippides talks about the philosopher with contempt and disrespect: “They are boasters, pale, shoeless men that you’re speaking of, and among them that miserably unhappy Socrates and Chaerephon.”. Pheidippides uses such caustic remark because he is under the impression that Socrates neglects Greek gods and mythology for the sake of philosophical essences. The central accusation, which Pheidippides imputes Socrates, is his passion to sophistry. Aristophanes describes Socrates as an ardent sophist that means the tutor of the false wisdom, who demands rewards for his teaching. Such accusation contradicts the historical truth because Socrates was against sophistry and did not consider it to be a genuine philosophy.
Aristophanes describes Socrates as an atheist, who destroys everything valuable, pure, and sacred from the point of view of Greek people. Thus, he leads young people astray. However, such position of Aristophanes is subjective because the only purpose of Socrates’ life is the search for truth and service to gods as further argues Plato. At the same time, Aristophanes is sure in the opposite. If to consider the dialogue about the existence of gods between Socrates and Strepciades Aristophanes portrays the figure of the philosopher as cynical, greedy, intolerable, and cruel because Socrates acts as if he is too arrogant to accept the different point of view. The author of the comedy portrays the philosopher as a nihilist, who disregards the religion, love, art, and traditional outlook. One episode illustrates such “nihilistic” sense of Socrates’ teaching. When Strepciades asks Pheidippides to play the lyre, the son refuses because he perceives it to be old-fashioned.
At the same time, Aristophanes’ attitude towards Socrates is not absolutely negative. The author acknowledges the significant problems of the eternal confrontation of the new and old outlooks. Socrates is the first, who poses questions about the universe and tries to explore something new unlike Greek citizens, who do not want to know anything except their tradition. However, the time is getting on. Thus, the thought has to develop too.
Such moderate approach develops Plato in the more positive way in his dialogues and in “Apology” – the only writing of Plato, which does is not a dialogue. Socrates is the central character in “Apology”. Plato describes there the gist of three Socrates’ speeches in the court in the defense of himself. Historians admit that this writing may give historically valid evidence about the happenings in the court. According to it, Athenian democrats were the organizers of this trial, which resulted in the capital sentence of Socrates.
Socrates’ speeches in this dialogue demonstrate Plato’s attitude towards the philosopher. Unlike Aristophanes, Plato portrays Socrates in a positive way in his dialogues. Apparently, this happens due to the fact that Socrates is Plato’s teacher. At the same time, such prominent philosopher as Plato could not have disregarded the talent of Socrates even if he had not been his tutor.
Plato illustrates Socrates as a noble, straight-out citizen, who can defend his interests and beliefs and accept even death for the sake of truth. Socrates does not want to give up his philosophical views because he seeks for wisdom and does not depend on social benevolence. In his speech Socrates claims: “I showed, once again not just by words, but by my actions, that I couldn't care less about death – if that would not be putting it rather crudely – but that my one and only care was to avoid doing anything sinful or unjust.” Socrates does not feel fear or disgust towards people, who do not trust him. He is wise and calm to accept such decision of his nation. Such generous personality is a moral instance for many people. Although Plato may exaggerate some details, the general portrait of Socrates is positive and lofty.
According to Plato, Socrates is a symbol of rebelliousness, protest against the foolishness and tradition, which people accept without philosophical reflection. Such people think that if something exists then it is right. However, such position is wrong from the philosopher’s point of view. According to the philosopher, it is always necessary to think about the validity of particular phenomena and cultural heritage. People can be easily wrong due to their love to familiarity. Socrates does not fear to go against the folk’s opinion and state laws. The philosopher ranks above the folk, its limited nature, and prejudices. Socrates is under the impression that evil cannot survive. Everything, who is wrong, will understand it. The main thing is that the philosopher knows that even though he does not possess the knowledge of the genuine truth, he is right because of his striving for truth and wisdom.
Plato as a thinker stresses the significance and depth of Socrates’ views. Plato considers them as an opposition to the teaching of sophists, who sold their wisdom. On the contrary, Socrates is an honest person, who does not want to lie and trick the mind of citizens. Thus, Plato’s portrait of Socrates considerably differs from that one, which creates Aristophanes.
To sum up, Aristophanes and Plato suggest two different paradigms of understanding the personality of Socrates. Plato portrays his teacher in a positive way expressing a respect and inspiration concerning his talented philosophical views. Aristophanes, on the contrary, blames Socrates for the destruction of Greek traditions, denial of gods and beliefs. Taking into consideration these distinct positions, it becomes evident that both authors perceive Socrates to be a prominent figure in the history of their nation. Both understand the significance of his activity and role of his doctrine, which had an influence on the Greek society.