Problems with Historical Research Sources

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a famous Greek philosopher who invented the elenchus, or Socratic Method, a type of discourse in which a subject is brought up for discussion, questions are asked and answers given, leading to new questions and so on. The real purpose of the discourse is to develop critical thinking skills, and for those discussing the issue to discover valuable insights into each other and themselves. If you have read my posts, you know how much I enjoy using this method.

Since I like it so much, I decided to discover all of Socrates’ works and read them to develop my techniques better. But guess what? There are none. Absolutely not one single word did he write. So, how do we know so much about him? More on that later.

Socrates lived at a time when Athens was a paramount power in the region, and people flocked to Athens for their trade goods, culture, and ideas. He was said to be a stone-cutter originally, and gave valiant military service, as was expected of all healthy male citizens. There are many stories of him standing up to authority, doing what was just or moral instead of what was ordered of him.

More and more, people came to him to hear his words, and he was paid/not paid for his teachings.

Athens was badly defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and never rose again to prominence. Socrates spoke out in support of the ways in which Sparta made itself successful. He was put on trial for corrupting the youth and not respecting the city gods (defying central authority). He put up a no/poor/arrogant defense, was found guilty, offered by friends to be rescued and refused, and was forced to drink hemlock and died.

Why did I write the above like I did? Because, we have only three sources for the life of Socrates, and they all differ in their stories. Plato and Xenophon were students of Socrates, and wrote much about him. Aristophanes was a playwright who, in his play The Clouds, ridiculed Socrates as a fraud who wore dirty clothes, and was hen-pecked by his domineering wife.

Plato is considered the most accurate, mostly because he wrote so much. However, as he got older, his writings on what he stated Socrates said drifted more and more, and were almost certainly his own views.

Xenophon was only a child during Socrates’ heyday, and was absent during his trial. He wrote what people told him, and what he thought that Socrates would have said.

Both men worked very hard to show that Socrates agreed with their particular point of view. Thus, when their writings diverge, we have to doubt what is stated.

Aristophanes wanted to lampoon his contemporaries, and as we all know, good comedy is based on exaggerating the truth. Plato wrote that Socrates was more effected by the laughter of the play than the words of his prosecutors thirty years later.

This is a common problem for most historical figures. Hercules, King Arthur, and William Wallace wrote nothing, but volumes of works list their deeds. They often contradict each other, so they cannot all be true. In our modern information age, it is easy to forget that writing and reading were rare skills for most of human existence, and we only can rely on what was written down, using scientific research to discover any truths or fabrications. We will never discover everything. An absence of evidence does not mean that the story is untrue; but it does force those who honestly care about the truth to at least consider the possibility that it is not true.

As an example, the Iliad by Homer was considered a complete fiction for centuries. Until the 1860s, when Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann, using the information in the book, went to Turkey and discovered evidence of at least 16 former cities at the site. (The one from the novel is considered to be Troy VII).

At the other extreme, after the founding of Israel, the government funded archaeological projects to prove the stories of their holy books, and justify their seizure of the land in 1948. Not only did they fail to find any evidence, the scientists also came to the conclusion that most of the stories could not possibly have been true.

As Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog wrote, “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, YHWH, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.”

Some people did write things, and these can be compared to other sources to discover the truth. Napoleon wrote his autobiography while in exile, but being filled with blaming other people and a lifetime of hindsight, it can be compared to lots of other sources and be largely dismissed, albeit useful for the details.

By background, training, and education, I am a scientist and engineer. I view things from this perspective. When I attempt to learn about something, I review it in total, research its origins, look into additional contemporary information sources, and in the case of literature, attempt to discover the author’s motivations into why they wrote it in the first place. You have often read the results of these efforts.

So, where does that leave Socrates? I guess that I will be forced to review Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, and hope to discover the man behind the words.

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