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The Tradition of Socrates

  • Dorothy Tarrant

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No other personality of the ancient Greek world proved so interesting to his own and to later generations as that of Socrates. Plato and Xenophon, both closely associated with him in his later years, made their first-hand portraits soon after his death. Xenophon's is a plain outline devised to bring out Socrates' moral character and his social and political views; it gives us many sayings but little of picturesque detail. Plato's representation is infinitely more rich and varied, drawn with fuller insight into a many-sided character, and enhanced by his own marvellous dramatic gift. From the point of view of precise truth Plato has no doubt given us too much. The problem of ‘the historical Socrates’ is ever with us; and while discussion centres chiefly on the philosophical doctrines which he expresses in the dialogues, and the question whether they (taken severally or as a whole) were actually conceived by him or by Plato, the same misgiving necessarily arises about the purely personal behaviour and sayings which Plato attaches to his hero. If we attempt to correct Xenophon and Plato, so to speak, by each other, and to arrive between them at a simpler composite picture, we may well be reminded that each observer of a great man has his own angle of vision, and sees as true for him what he is best able to see. Each kind of portrait has its own truth and its own value. It is probable that we shall all continue to find mainly what we seek, and that no one will now succeed in getting behind Xenophon and Plato.

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The Tradition of Socrates

  • Dorothy Tarrant

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