Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2011
Socrates is a philosopher whose world historical importance and renown are largely due to three remarkable facts. First, his life and especially his trial and death, though cardinal to his posthumous influence and standing, were relatively minor events for the majority of his contemporary Athenians and their immediate descendants. During the first years after his death, he was still the controversial figure he had been throughout his later life. He had written nothing, and it was just a few of his companions, Plato, Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the other Socratic authors, whose writings in his defense and teachings began, though only gradually, to turn this eccentric and disturbing Athenian into an intellectual and moral icon. He had hardly achieved that status even fifty years after his execution; for he is mentioned in only one context by Isocrates (Busiris 4.3; 5.9), but once by the orator Aeschines (Against Timarchus 173), and never by Demosthenes.
Socrates, then – and this is the second salient fact – owes his philosophical significance to the diverse ways he was interpreted, lauded, and sometimes even criticized by authors who, thanks to their own intellectual and educational creativity, made Greek philosophy the major cultural presence it had not yet become during his own lifetime. With the founding of official schools of philosophy – the Academy, the Lyceum, the Garden of Epicurus, the Zenonian Stoa – and with less formally organized philosophical movements, especially the Cynics, contexts emerged for Socrates to return to live a life far more wide-reaching and various than anything he could have imagined for himself. Because each school or movement had its own quite distinct identity, their interpretations of Socrates followed suit.