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Socrates by Aristophanes and Plato Critical Essay


Various issues concerning Socrates’ life have been debated constantly over the years. However, the fact that Socrates was an ancient philosopher who resided in Athens is not in doubt. Socrates was a common fixture in the streets of Athens between 470 and 399 BC.

The mysteries surrounding Socrates’ life are often compounded by the fact that he never wrote any biographical works of literature. Most of the philosopher’s teachings have been introduced to the modern readers through proxies such as Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon.

The people who have written about Socrates are mostly his close acquaintances as well as his former disciples. When Socrates was executed in Athens, several literary works that focused on ‘Socrates the man’ and ‘Socrates the Philosopher’ surfaced.

The compounded interest in Socrates’ life prompted two authors to try to explain their understanding of this man. Plato, a renowned philosopher and a former student of Socrates’ philosophy wrote several works on the life and teachings of the philosopher.

Furthermore, Aristophanes a renowned playwright and comedian wrote several accounts of how he perceived Socrates.

The depictions of the two authors do not coincide or give a clear picture of the man that Socrates was. Plato’s depiction contains several philosophical undertones and depicts Socrates as a man of deep thought and enviable temperament.

On the other hand, Aristophanes paints the picture of a laughable Socrates who thinks highly of himself and disregards the ordinary life. The most vivid characterization of Socrates by Plato is contained in “The Apology”, a philosophical account that was written shortly after the execution of Socrates.

Aristophanes’ comical characterization of Socrates can be found in “The Clouds” a play that depicted the philosopher as a man who resides in the clouds where his students look up to him from below.

The different characterizations given to Socrates by Plato the philosopher and Aristophanes the comedian can be combined to create a complex and a multisided portrait of Socrates. This paper will explore the characterizations of Socrates by Aristophanes and Plato in respect to their existing literary works.

While comparing the characterization of Socrates by the two authors, it is important to note that they both personally associated with the philosopher at different times of his life.

For instance, there was an age difference of about twenty years between Plato and Aristophanes. Consequently, Aristophanes’ characterizations of Socrates began when the philosopher was about forty-years-old. On the other hand, Plato was in his twenties when Socrates was executed.

The philosophical stance that is assumed by Plato in his depiction of Socrates is informed by the fact that as a young man, he looked up to the philosopher as an old man and a teacher. Aristophanes most likely associated with Socrates when the latter was beginning to gain public recognition within Athens.

Socrates was an object of ridicule during his prime. For instance, the old men within Athens constantly accused Socrates of corrupting the young men within the town by introducing them to heretic teachings. Plato was a voluntary follower of Socrates and he admired the Socratic method of thinking.

Available literature indicates that Plato abandoned a lucrative career as a playwright to pursue Socrates’ brand of philosophy. Aristophanes was a playwright who sought to align his works with popular opinions.

Therefore, Aristophanes’ characterization of Socrates was most likely ‘due to public demand’. The intentions behind the actions of the two authors are a source of insight into how different demographics in Athens viewed Socrates.

In “The Apology” by Plato, the characterization of Socrates is tied to the fact that the setting of the book was Socrates’ execution. Therefore, Plato’s characterization of Socrates is shrouded by the fact that he was sympathetic with his teacher’s plight. Nevertheless, Plato was physically present during Socrates’ trial and execution.

Plato’s characterization of Socrates during the trial is complicated by several facts. First, Plato’s authorship has always been in defense of Socrates. For instance, “The Apology” was supposedly authored shortly after Socrates was executed. In “The Apology”, the author is writing about Socrates when he is defending himself in front of a jury.

Socrates had been charged by the Athenian court after Meletus claimed that the philosopher disregarded the city’s gods and corrupted the young men with his wayward teachings. Plato was one of the young men that Socrates was supposed to have corrupted.

Consequently, it is difficult to ascertain if Plato’s worldview was actually ‘corrupted’ by Socrates. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Plato looked up to Socrates as a teacher and mentor. Plato’s characterization of Socrates as outlined in “The Apology” paints the picture of a falsely accused citizen who remains true to his teachings until the end.

Plato’s ability to report accurately about Socrates’ execution is only redeemed by the fact that he later became a philosopher of repute. Aristophanes’ characterization of Plato is never subject to a direct connection between the two personalities. Aristophanes knew Plato from possible acquaintances and public observations.

Socrates was a constant fixture in the public arena. In the public arenas, Socrates had both admirers and critics. It is clear that Aristophanes’ characterization of the philosopher was meant to please the critics.

Socrates is a philosopher of repute as he is portrayed by Plato’s literature and ‘Aristotle the self-serving cynic’ is the idea created by Aristophanes in his plays. Both of these characterizations are a product of people who knew Socrates from various perspectives.

Both Plato and Aristophanes’ characterizations of Socrates focus on several aspects of the philosopher’s interactions. However, Aristophanes’ characterization of Socrates is centered on how the philosopher interacted with his students. In his play “Phrontisterion”, Aristophanes depicts Socrates as the principal of a school.

When translated, ‘Phrontisterion’ means ‘school of false logic’. In this play, Socrates’ character promises to teach his students how to win arguments of any kind. Aristophanes adds a comical element to Socrates’ characterization by depicting a philosopher who is teaching while he is placed in a basket and is elevated in front of his students.

Aristophanes’ characterization of Socrates does not ascertain or nullify the validity of the philosopher’s teachings. The playwright only focuses on the fact that the philosopher thinks highly of himself and he has no significant regard for his students.

Plato’s characterization of Socrates shows the philosopher interacting with his students on a more complex level. For example, Plato’s publications contain various instances where Socrates is posing questions to his students. Unlike in Aristophanes’ characterizations, the dialogues between Socrates and his students are not one sided.

In addition, Plato characterizes Socrates as a man who is worthy of respect. However, Aristophanes is of the view that Socrates did anything to get glory for himself including teaching while he is hoisted on a basket and looking up to the heavens.

The two authors’ characterizations are multifaceted although they depict the same aspect of Socrates’ life. The comedian does not concentrate on the deeper meanings of Socrates’ actions while Plato the philosopher depicts Socrates as a teacher who is worthy of respect.

The presence of ulterior motives is a real concern when evaluating the different characterizations that are given to Socrates by both Aristophanes and Plato. For Plato, his outmost devotion and admiration towards Socrates might have been the reason behind the positive characterization of the philosopher.

Plato’s most influential characterization of Socrates is “The Apology”. In “The Apology”, Plato appears to be penning a tribute to his teacher and mentor. Therefore, it is likely that there are several inconsistencies in Plato’s characterization of Socrates.

For instance, in “The Apology”, Plato never attempts to portray Socrates’ defense. Plato only concentrates on Socrates’ dialogues when the latter is pleading for his innocence. Furthermore, Socrates never attempts to prove his innocence to the jury according to Plato.

Of interest is the fact that Plato attempts to characterize Socrates as a man who never abandons his beliefs even in the face of death. Overall, Plato’s characterization of Socrates intended to portray the philosopher as having willpower that is stronger than that of most people.

Further investigation into Plato’s depiction of Socrates indicates that the former might have exaggerated some of the characteristics that he assigns to his mentor. For instance, when Plato is depicting how Socrates died after taking hemlock, his depictions defy scientific evidence.

According to credible scientific evidence, taking the poison hemlock makes an individual to develop a slurred speech, nausea, convulsions, and numbness. However, Plato depicted Socrates’ death as peaceful and dignified but this would be scientifically impossible. Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates could also have hidden agendas.

Aristophanes’ comical depiction of Socrates is in line with the playwright’s brand of comedy. Aristophanes might have intended to please the audience with his blatant disregard of philosophy and philosophers. Socrates belonged to a select class of philosophers who had threatened the Greek institutions with their inquisitive methods of thinking.

Aristophanes characterizes Socrates as ungodly and offensive but this characterization might be signifying the playwright’s views about all Greek philosophers of the time. Consequently, the characterizations of Socrates by both Aristophanes and Plato indicate that the philosopher was understood by the two authors differently.

Aristophanes and the ordinary folks viewed Socrates as an unnecessarily addition in the Athenian society. On the other hand, Plato works very hard to indicate how Socrates rose above the wishes and desires of the ordinary citizens.

The characterizations of Socrates by Plato and Aristophanes paint a complex and multi-sided portrait of the philosopher. On one side, Aristophanes uses his comical stance to appeal to his theatre crowds by presenting Socrates as a buffoon and ‘a know it all’ character.

On the hand, Plato presents his readers with the character of a man who would not be moved under any circumstances. Nevertheless, both authors validate their modes of characterizations using their own contexts. There is also cause for concern that the characterization of Socrates is subject to the authors’ ulterior motives.

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IvyPanda. "Socrates by Aristophanes and Plato." June 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/socrates-by-aristophanes-and-plato/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Socrates by Aristophanes and Plato." June 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/socrates-by-aristophanes-and-plato/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Socrates by Aristophanes and Plato'. 21 June.

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