How did contemporaries see ancient philosophers?

Socrates was already a myth for the later sculptors in ancient Rome: They tapped his figure after the Greek bronze statues that were made shortly after Socrates' execution. Her sculptures are the only surviving portraits of the philosopher from ancient times - furrowed forehead, wavy beard, urgent look.

Philosophers have always noted a lot about Socrates, revering him as the ideal of genius and sincerity. They praised his art of conversation as a significant innovation in philosophizing. However, Socrates only sought the truth in dialogue with the citizens of the city, in the streets and squares of Athens.

This is precisely why the busts appear strangely silent. But what did Socrates, the conversationalist, talk about? This will remain peculiarly puzzling: he never put a word on paper himself.

Everything that posterity knows about him owes it to his contemporaries, above all to the students Xenophon and Plato. Plato made the teacher a spokesman and a founding of truth in almost all of his writings written in dialogue form, always assuring him the character role.

With his adept mouth, Socrates asks the Athenians holes in the stomach, boring them until they have to reject their views on justice, knowledge or the soul itself: "Socrates", Agathon admits in Plato's "Banquet", "I don't seem anything at all to understand from what I said earlier. "

For all the directness of the speech that still brings Socrates' cross-headed head to life today - Plato did not record conversations between the teacher, but only began to write when he was already dead. In addition, Plato thought much more systematically and comprehensively.

His scenes may be illustrated by time and place information and besides Socrates they may be cast with other real, often famous characters from Greece at that time. But their courses are fiction. Yes, Plato used the name "Socrates" for his own line of thought, hiding behind the authority of his teacher. What sounds dramatic because it reads like ancient theater poses insoluble problems for researchers: Plato speaks from Socrates, and Socrates from Plato. Where is the border?

If you add other sources, new, sometimes contradicting perspectives on the historical person emerge. But even these have one thing in common: Socrates appears as the vehicle of his contemporaries who put things into his mouth that he may never have spoken of. In contrast, they speak of their own interests.

Xenophon, economist and general, liked to allow Socrates to argue about economic and military questions in his dialogues, questions that Plato considered irrelevant. Though also deeply impressed, Xenophon regarded Socrates more as an ordinary man than a genius.

The contemporary and poet Aristophanes finally wanted to twist the picture completely. In his comedy "The Clouds" he publicly ridiculed Socrates, denouncing him as a shabby brooder and sophist who sells people absurd for wisdom. The play played into the hands of those who later took him to court.

The platonic, heroic Socrates, whom history has remembered him as, must have been stunned. Because he compared himself to a midwife who caringly helped people to give birth to knowledge. This Socrates is what the world means to this day when it wants to feed on the infinite, expressly unpaid wealth of ideas of his mind.

"I know that I know nothing", Socrates' most famous saying, sums up the chaos of tradition in a ludicrous way. The phrase goes back literally to the Roman politician Cicero. In one of his literary dialogues, he has it read by the important historian Marcus Terentius Varro, who pretends to use it to quote a well-known sentence by Socrates.

The alleged quotation is based on some passages in Plato's "Apology of Socrates", which Cicero accentuates imprecisely. At least it fits in brilliantly with the image of the ancient Greeks, which was never shaped by self-portraits.

Artists portrayed Socrates ugly

In the 2nd century AD, some writers came up with the idea of ​​writing letters under Socrates' name. Although the style copies were the result of rhetorical and literary exercises, they cannot have been invented entirely without sadness at the master's paper silence. In terms of content, they did not bring anything new, they mostly followed the representations of Xenophon and Plato.

Basically, they were just multiplying the impression that Plato had already made: Socrates ignored fame and lived on modesty. Agathon's insight into the error is therefore cool to Socrates in the "Banquet": "You cannot contradict the truth, dear Agathon. To contradict Socrates is not difficult at all."

Thick nose, unkempt hair, sinister expression - artists always portrayed Socrates in sculptures and paintings as an ugly man. For him, beauty came from within, as they knew, from a pure heart and a clear head.

The French painter Jacques-Louis David thought further and painted grace and charm of the finish. His work "The Death of Socrates" shows how serene the seventy-year-old posed with friends just before he emptied the poison cup that had been arranged for him. Socrates had become a hero because he acted as consistently as he thought, because he did not want to escape the death sentence of the Athenian superiors by fleeing.

It is easy to see which of the many traditions was related to David. Socrates blinded the youth, did not honor the gods, was the charge. In Plato's "Apology" script, he defends himself with passionate speech. Perhaps it would have been better to put them in writing.