How Strange Was Socrates?

Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates' time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man's political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn't change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign. We can safely assume an average height (since no one mentions it at all), and a strong build, given the active life he appears to have led. Against the iconic tradition of a pot-belly, Socrates and his companions are described as going hungry (Aristophanes, Birds 1280–83). On his appearance, see Plato's Theaetetus 143e, and Symposium 215a-c, 216c-d, 221d-e; Xenophon's Symposium 4.19, 5.5–7; and Aristophanes' Clouds 362. Brancusi's oak sculpture, standing 51.25 inches including its base, captures Socrates' appearance and strangeness in the sense that it looks different from every angle, including a second “eye” that cannot be seen if the first is in view. (See the Museum of Modern Art's page on Brancusi's Socrates which offers additional views.) Also true to Socrates' reputation for ugliness, but less available, are the drawings of the contemporary Swiss artist, Hans Erni.

In the late fifth century B.C.E., it was more or less taken for granted that any self-respecting Athenian male would prefer fame, wealth, honors, and political power to a life of labor. Although many citizens lived by their labor in a wide variety of occupations, they were expected to spend much of their leisure time, if they had any, busying themselves with the affairs of the city. Men regularly participated in the governing Assembly and in the city's many courts; and those who could afford it prepared themselves for success at public life by studying with rhetoricians and sophists from abroad who could themselves become wealthy and famous by teaching the young men of Athens to use words to their advantage. Other forms of higher education were also known in Athens: mathematics, astronomy, geometry, music, ancient history, and linguistics. What seemed strange about Socrates is that he neither labored to earn a living, nor participated voluntarily in affairs of state. Rather, he embraced poverty and, although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher and refused all his life to take money for what he did. The strangeness of this behavior is mitigated by the image then current of teachers and students: teachers were viewed as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were the students. Because Socrates was no transmitter of information that others were passively to receive, he resists the comparison to teachers. Rather, he helped others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus)—a new, and thus suspect, approach to education. He was known for confusing, stinging and stunning his conversation partners into the unpleasant experience of realizing their own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuine intellectual curiosity.

It did not help matters that Socrates seemed to have a higher opinion of women than most of his companions had, speaking of “men and women,” “priests and priestesses,” and naming foreign women as his teachers: Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus); and to have learned erotics from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium). Socrates was unconventional in a related respect. Athenian citizen males of the upper social classes did not marry until they were at least thirty, and Athenian females were poorly educated and kept sequestered until puberty, when they were given in marriage by their fathers. Thus the socialization and education of males often involved a relationship for which the English word ‘pederasty’ (though often used) is misleading, in which a youth approaching manhood, fifteen to seventeen, became the beloved of a male lover a few years older, under whose tutelage and through whose influence and gifts, the younger man would be guided and improved. It was assumed among Athenians that mature men would find youths sexually attractive, and such relationships were conventionally viewed as beneficial to both parties by family and friends alike. A degree of hypocrisy (or denial), however, was implied by the arrangement: “officially” it did not involve sexual relations between the lovers and, if it did, then the beloved was not supposed to derive pleasure from the act—but ancient evidence (comedies, vase paintings, et al.) shows that both restrictions were often violated (Dover 1989, 204). What was odd about Socrates is that, although he was no exception to the rule of finding youths attractive (Plato, Charmides 155d, Protagoras 309a-b; Xenophon, Symposium 4.27–28), he refused the physical advances of even his favorite (Plato, Symposium 219b-d) and kept his eye on the improvement of their, and all the Athenians', souls (Plato, Apology 30a-b), a mission he said he had been assigned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, if he was interpreting his friend Chaerephon's report correctly (Plato, Apology 20e-23b), a preposterous claim in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Socrates also acknowledged a rather strange personal phenomenon, a daimonion or internal voice that prohibited his doing certain things, some trivial and some important, often unrelated to matters of right and wrong (thus not to be confused with the popular notions of a superego or a conscience); the implication that he was guided by something he regarded as divine or semi-divine was suspect to other Athenians.

Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people—young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor—that is, with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates' lifework consisted in the examination of people's lives, his own and others', because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a). Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates' questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their parents. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates' irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates' much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

 

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