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Artifact – First Year Writing (Classic Civilizations)

17 December 2009

The Role of Socrates in Athens: Invigorating Gadfly or Dangerous Wasp?

It is inevitable with any discussion of philosophy that Socrates’ name be brought up. Widely considered to be the father of Western philosophy, Socrates had a rich, transcending interest in ethics, intellect, and politics (Sommerstein 67). It is therefore unequivocal that he inherently had a significant and enduring impact on Athens. However, was this timeless impression advantageous or destructive for Athens? It would seem as though a man of such great mental capability and rhetorical prowess could leave nothing other than a beneficial impact on not only Athens, but Ancient Greece as a whole.

This, however, is not true. Although in today’s society Socrates’ contributions are recognized as profound, this is not the way he was always viewed. Surprisingly, Socrates was a controversial figure in Athenian society, in that opinions of him varied greatly. It can be surmised that such a multifaceted individual fit so many different aspects of society that there was no single group or train of thought that he appealed to. This variation in opinions surrounding Socrates is evident in Ancient Greek prose. Because Socrates did not write any of his beliefs down, Plato, his contemporary, took it upon himself to preserve Socrates’ wisdom. One of Plato’s accounts of Socrates, Defence of Socrates, was understandably a work that promoted and defended Socrates’ position in Athens, and likened him to a pesky yet harmless gadfly that “stings” Athens and its people into action toward improvement. Invariably there also emerged prose that served to belittle and satirize Socrates. One such work was Aristophanes’ The Clouds, of which contrastingly portrayed Socrates as a pompous, atheistic buffoon who exploited innocent Athenians, and depicted him as dangerous and potentially evil, a characterization analogous to a wasp.

So which piece of Ancient Greek literature describes Socrates and his impact on Athens correctly? Was he a gadfly, “constantly alighting everywhere on you, all day long, arousing, cajoling, or reproaching each and every one of you”? (Plato 31a.) Or, was he synonymous with a dangerous wasp, seeking to fill Athens with fraudulent beliefs and corrupt its people? The answer can be found by breaking down into component parts the ways in which Socrates is presented in both contrasting pieces of Greek literature, The Clouds and Defence of Socrates.

In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Clouds, Socrates is portrayed in a light that makes him out to be a dangerous, unlawful sophist. The author also mocks Socrates by placing him in silly situations and making him deal with asinine events. For example, Socrates enters the play on a suspended platform high above the ground in the thinkery (Aristophanes 219). This serves only to imply that Socrates is clearly a fool, guffawing ceaselessly about strange topics. Aristophanes utilizes dialogue to give the audience the impression that Socrates has little of anything important to say. In this play, Socrates uses dull anecdotes and poor puns in every line, and blabbers on about meaningless subjects such as the gender of nouns. More importantly, the author of this play makes it readily apparent that he believed Socrates to be a fiendish atheist. “What do you mean, swear by the gods?” Socrates asks. “The first thing you’ll have to learn is that with us the gods are no longer current” (Aristophanes 245). It is clear from The Clouds that the author not only determined to poke fun at Socrates, but also to prove to the audience that Socrates was a bad influence on Athens and its youth.

Aristophanes also portrays Socrates as a dishonest, money-hungry scam artist, endeavoring to entice weaker-minded individuals into eliciting his ostensible wisdom. As Strepsiades, an old farmer, attempts to be educated by Socrates on how to remove the debts from his name, Socrates constantly discourses about money and how fortunate Strepsiades is to be receiving such pristine guidance. “Did you hear the slack pronunciation – the drawl, the sagging lips? It’s not going to be easy to teach him to win cases and master the technicalities and make good, empty debating points. And yet it’s true that for six grand, Hyperbolus did manage to learn it” (Aristophanes 873). This passage not only illustrates that Socrates major incentive in teaching Strepsiades is monetary gain, but it also shows the arrogant nature Aristophanes is trying to impose on him. Socrates is always condescending to others in The Clouds, exhibiting qualities far from the mental invigoration and constructive meddling Plato describes.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge Socrates boasts is in no way beneficial to Strepsiades at the end of the play, but instead corruptive and damaging. Socrates knew very well that the professed powers of his arguments would not help Strepsiades with the creditors. He did know, however, that it would only make things worse for the poor old farmer. Near the play’s end, this is painfully revealed to Strepsiades when his son Pheidippides beats him, motivated by the corrupt philosophy of Socrates’ argument. The discord that Strepsiades’ family experiences at the end of the play is directly linked to the instruction Pheidippides received by Socrates on the dangerous art of persuasion. Pheidippides, completely convoluted by Socrates, exclaims, “I’m intimate with all the newest and subtlest ideas, principles and arguments, and I’m confident I can demonstrate that it is right and proper to chastise one’s father” (Aristophanes 1403).

Aristophanes’ indirect association of Socrates with a dangerous wasp simply is not true. Because Aristophanes wrote with the sole purpose of entertaining an audience, and not objectively narrating the life of Socrates, The Clouds’s portrayal cannot be used to evaluate Socrates and his place in Athens. Plato’s Defence of Socrates, however, claims to be a historical account of the real Socrates, likening him to a gadfly which invigorates all of Athens. It is through this piece that Socrates can be most correctly analyzed.

Plato’s account of Socrates could not be any different than the villainous, dastardly portrait painted by Aristophanes. In his Defence of Socrates, Socrates is presented as an innocent defendant, trying to use truth and facts to convince a jury of his fellow Athenian countrymen that he is not guilty of the blasphemous accusations imparted on him and that he is a beneficial member of society. Socrates speaks with unfaltering eloquence and delivers argument after solid argument of reasons why he is not only innocent, but also beneficial to the city-state of Athens. The main concern of the jury in this play is that Socrates is an audacious nuisance who always looks “to turn the weaker argument to the stronger” (Plato 18c). Socrates addresses this in his testimony, acknowledging that he is indeed wiser than all others, only because he knows that “human wisdom is worth little to nothing” (Plato 23b).

In his defense, Socrates not only discredits the claims brought upon him by the jury, but Aristophanes’ claims as well. “It is not wealth that produces goodness; rather, it is from goodness that wealth, and all other benefits for human beings, accrue to them in their private and public life” (Plato 30b). This passage reveals the great idealism Socrates has attained from his philosophical work. Philosophy such as this could have only served to benefit Athens and its people. Socrates goes on to disprove that he has never accepted money for teaching anyone, as illustrated by his poverty and his belief that it is up to Athenians if they wish to listen to him philosophize (Plato 33a).

Socrates squarely flattens everything brought against him using sound reasoning and simply facts of what really happened and who he really is. He passionately states, “You are an Athenian. Your city is the most important and renowned for its wisdom and power; so are you ashamed that, while you take care to acquire as much wealth as possible, with honour and glory as well, yet you take no care or thought for understanding or truth, or for the best possible state of your soul?” (Plato 29e). It is evident from this passage that Socrates had the determination and means to benefit Athens with his philosophy, and that he was overall a good person.

Aristophanes and Plato involved themselves in the act of writing about Socrates and his place in Athens. However, two contrasting accounts emerged, creating a discrepancy in what Socrates really stood for and how it impacted Athens. In Aristophanes’ opinion, Socrates was a clown of a sophist who used his cunningness to take from Athenians and give back corrupt, twisted ideals. Plato, meanwhile, viewed Socrates as a brave, highly intelligent philosopher, determined to quell the vituperations against him using nothing more than the truth and sound logic.

However, it must be noted that it is possible that both Plato and Aristophanes incorporated hyperbole into their descriptions of Socrates. It is obvious that The Clouds, written first and foremost as a comedy, exaggerated the real Socrates in order to entertain an audience. As for Defence of Socrates, the reader cannot be certain as to whether or not Socrates actually said and did the things contained in Plato’s account; one must take his word that he really did strive to write a real history of Socrates.

Upon careful analysis of both portrayals, it becomes clear that Socrates was indeed a pesky, yet influential, gadfly. As for if he was a necessary fixture of Athenian society, that cannot be entirely determined, but it would seem as though such a great and morally-sound figure was indeed important in the inner workings of Athens. It is absurd to think that Socrates was condemned to death for the reasons he was, when in reality he was one of the most influential and patriotic men in Athens. Socrates had the ability to think about important issues in different ways and better people with his philosophy, and overall help make Athens as successful a polis as possible.

Works Cited

Plato. Defence of Socrates, Euthyphro, and Crito. Trans. David Gallop. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 26-59. Print.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. Revised ed. London: Penguin Classics, 2002. 64-130. Print.


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