I have read a lot of websites that suggest Socrates was a fictional character created by Plato (albeit without the citation of any corroborating evidence), but I have also read the opposite (and by "opposite" here I don't mean that Plato was created by Socrates but rather that Socrates was a living, breathing person).

Is there any truth to this claim?

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    I would suggest that a better question would be whether Plato was a philosopher, or merely Socrates' scribe. – Captain Kenpachi Oct 7 '13 at 10:25
  • Plato has been shown to utilize stichometry in his writings; to me this suggests that he wasn't merely a scribe (unless you allow for the possibility real human dialogue has very specific rhythmic patterning to it that tends to emphasize specific themes throughout an entire "recording" including the dialogues of several characters). – user8129 Jun 22 '14 at 11:05
  • Socrates is a fictional character in a fictional work written by a poet posing as a philosopher. Socrates is as much a real person as Jesus or Santa Claus. – Mr. Kennedy Jan 13 '17 at 7:13
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    @Mr.Kennedy please avoid sweeping generalizations without substantial corroborating evidence. Even Santa Claus was likely based on a real person; you'd need to de minimis state you're speaking entirely of the fat man children feed cookies to and who comes down chimneys to identify the fictional character separate from the former saint. – Ryder Jan 13 '17 at 8:39
  • @Ryder are we to take "was likely" in lieu of corroborating evidence? Shall insistence trump reason? Shall John Frum be granted inheritance rights? Did I say Saint Nicholas? No, no, no and no. – Mr. Kennedy Jan 13 '17 at 8:45
up vote 39 down vote accepted

It's essentially impossible to offer definitive proof on the matter, but it's extremely unlikely that Socrates was merely a figment of Plato's imagination.

The primary evidence in this regard is the fact that multiple independent sources make reference to him in various ways. For example, the philosopher Xenophon of Athens was a student and admirer of Socrates, who dedicated himself to the preservation of Socrates's wisdom.

Specifically, in the Anabasis, Xenophon writes of asking Socrates for advice regarding his entrance into the service of Cyrus when he was a young man. Socrates is reported to have advised him to consult the oracle of Delphi, and later chastising Xenophon for the question he ultimately decided to ask (one that betrayed his mind had already been made up to go).

Additionally, the Memorabilia—itself a collection of Socratic dialogues—is notable for containing Xenophon's extended defense of his mentor. He argues that Socrates was innocent of the charges levied against him, and describes how Socrates benefitted not only his friends, but all Athenians.

It has even been argued that Xenophon's later exile from Athens was motivated (at least in part; his support for Athens's rival Sparta at Coronea unquestionably had something to do with it as well) by his support for Socrates.

Of course, some of Xenophon's writings have come under scrutiny for their historical reliability, much as you've noted that Plato's writings have. And ultimately, this debate is probably unresolvable. But it does seem quite unlikely that both Plato and Xenophon would make up the same figure and agree about many of the details of his life.

Beyond the realm of philosophy, the playwright Aristophanes claimed to have known Socrates. His comedy, the Clouds, features Socrates as a character. But it goes without saying that plays, and especially comedies, are an unreliable source of historical information. The Clouds has come under particularly heavy criticism by scholars because it appears that its "Socrates" character is actually a bricolage of many different fifth-century intellectuals. (For more on this view, see in particular, the discussion in the introduction of Kenneth Dover's 1968 translation of Clouds.)

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    Excellent answer. I'll just add that there are a number of writers, most notably Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who attempted to evaluate the varying evidence from Xenophon, Aristophanes and Plato to determine which of the three came closer; Sarah Kofman has a wonderful book comparing the comparisons. – Michael Dorfman Apr 28 '12 at 11:17
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    Of course, it's possible that Socrates was a real person and that Plato attributed whatever ideas he wanted to the version of Socrates in his writings, even if they weren't things that the real Socrates ever said... but this would be impossible to prove. – evilsoup Jul 26 '13 at 13:20

Socrates was a living person, and was really sentenced to death. He wasn't the only one being sentenced to death for contrived reasons during that time in Athens. People fleeing Athens for fear of persecution sometimes referred to Socrates death for justification. I see this as some form of convention, because the accusation "not holding the gods in honor" often just masked reasons more closely related to xenophobia, and referring to Socrates allowed the victims to avoid giving the real reasons why they feared persecution.

So when Aristotle explained "I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy", he really feared persecution, albeit for reasons unrelated to philosophy (or "not holding the gods in honor").


Edit I just tried to get access to the tertiary literature again from where I took the information in this answer, in order to be able to cite the sources they reference. This wasn't successful, but I found that most balanced accounts of the Socrates trial also contain the information to which I referred in this answer. Hopefully the following quote clarifies the significance of the "contrived reasons":

A general amnesty issued in 403 meant that Socrates could not be prosecuted for any of his actions during or before the reign of the Thirty Tyrants. [...]

Important support for Stone's conclusion comes from the earliest surviving reference to the trial of Socrates that does not come from one of his disciples. In 345 B.C.E., the famous orator Aechines told a jury: "Men of Athens, you executed Socrates, the sophist, because he was clearly responsible for the education of Critias, one of the thirty anti-democratic leaders."

I intentionally wrote "Socrates was a living person" instead of "it's extremely unlikely that Socrates was merely a figment of Plato's imagination", because I'm convinced that the available evidence for this statement is not weaker than the available evidence for other commonly accepted statements.

I've always ascribed to the theory that Plato's early dialogs portray his actual teacher, Socrates, with reasonable accuracy; but that his later dialogs more and more use the figure of Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato's own philosophies and views. In that sense, the "Socrates" that we know through Plato would be a highly fictionalized version of a real person.

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    Is there a reason why you did that? Your answer needs sources, not just an opinion. – iphigenie Oct 7 '13 at 14:37
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    There's actually good support for this theory. In part, it's textual criticism (which is always a dangerous way to figure out who did what), but the main support is that if you look at one set of dialogues, you have Socrates the skeptic who believes there are Ideas / Forms but that we cannot know them and should stop being so arrogant. Then, you get Plato's Republic where suddenly we can design a society around knowing the forms. Finally, you get later works that critique the forms presaging many of Aristotle's critiques of Plato in Plato. – virmaior Sep 15 '14 at 11:00

Applying some deductive reasoning may suggest that he did not exist.

First, ask yourself how one of the wisest men who was the mentor of one of the greatest philosophers and in turn a great writer, never wrote a thing? We would have to deduce that he was either illiterate, or unwilling to write, but that would be inconsistent with the personality of someone who is a teacher. Have you ever met a professor, for example, that never wrote anything? Given that his immediate protege was an accomplished writer, this seems strange. As the student often imitates his master, it makes no sense that the protege was a writer and the master was not.

The second item to look at is that even though many use the writing of his students as "evidence," there were only two students who "met him" during his lifetime. Wouldn't someone as reputable as Socrates have more admirers, more people writing about him? Or even more students? The wisest man in Athens could not have had only two students.

The third thing to consider may well be that even those who allegedly met the man have varying descriptions of him, as well as the fact that even his greatest student writes of him in sometimes contradictory ways.

In my estimation, the support for his existence is actually rather weak. But we have to then ask ourselves why would Plato or anyone else make up a man and not take credit for their own philosophical works? This may be given away in the story of Socrates, as he was allegedly hung for his beliefs. This would in turn imply that philosophers were liable to be persecuted or killed because of their beliefs, and what better way to give yourself plausible deniability, than by creating a character on which all your philosophical work is based? For example, if Plato were to be confronted by authorities, he could simply explain that the views written in his works were not his, but the thoughts of his master which he had simply recalled in his works. Consider this, that in later times as in the enlightenment period, writers would often use pen names or nom de plume in order to avoid the authorities.

While my views are skeptical in their nature, it should not take away from the ideas of Socrates, whoever they may truly belong to. But just because we rely on these ideas, does not mean that it should be taken for-granted that the man behind them existed. I would say however, that it is ironic that so many who study philosophy and would otherwise be logical and skeptical people, refuse to examine this issue and essentially believe in his existence on what amounts to little more than hearsay. No written works, no burial site, no way of knowing if he ever really existed, yet many people take it as fact and take offense if someone questions this premise. But if people can have faith in other things, maybe they can too believe in Socrates?

  • The man behind the ideas of Socrates certainly existed. The ideas did not come out of thin air. The question is was that man named Socrates, was he an anonymous person, or was he Plato? If he was anonymous, why did people make up the name of Socrates? If he was Plato, why did Xenophon talk about Socrates? The fact that Socrates did not write is not that significant. He was an inquirer rather than a teacher. He was searching for wisdom, not proclaiming wisdom. What happened was that others saw great wisdom in the way Socrates pursued wisdom, and so they wrote about him. – Greg Graham Mar 23 '17 at 18:42
  • Socrates is known to be against writing. He said it is better to talk with the writer instead of reading his work and it is better to memorize instead of taking notes. – WVrock Nov 28 '17 at 10:11

There is an aspect of this discussion that has not been brought up. People judged the wisdom of a man in Athens based in part on the accolades of their teacher. Plato's teacher was Socrates, the wisest man in Athens. Socrates could not be tested as Socrates had already been executed. Xenophon could easily have adopted Socrates as his teacher for the same reason. This is not offered as evidence for the existence or lack of existence, rather as an answer to why "people" would make up such a character. Unfortunately, without a time machine it seems unlikely that we will ever know in any real sense if Socrates was real or not.

  • I don't really follow most of your answer. The character in Plato's dialogues is clearly fictional in many respects, but I don't think there's any argument as to whether a man named Socrates existed ... – virmaior Oct 30 '17 at 5:18
  • As I said in my answer, this is not offered as evidence that Socrates did not exist, rather to answer the question of why more than one person would collude on the fiction of Socrates. As to your statement that there is no argument that a man names Socrates existed, obviously there is as with anything else in history. There is always a question with regard to historical events. I will not pursue this further as it is not my position to question his existence. – Patrick O'Hara Nov 6 '17 at 17:09

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