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The Eccentricity of Socrates

The eccentricity of Socrates’ life was not less remarkable than the oddity of his appearance and the irony of his conversation. His whole time was spent in public; in the Mode of Life market place, the streets, the gymnasia. He had no liking for the country, and seldom passed the gates. “ Fields and trees,” Plato makes him say, “will not teach me anything; the life of the streets will.” He talked to all corners, to the craftsman and the artist as willingly as to the poet or the politician, questioning them about their affairs, about the processes of their several occupations, about their notions of morality, in a word, about familiar matters in which they might be expected to take an interest. The ostensible purpose of these interrogatories was to test, and thus either refute or explain, the famous oracle which had pronounced him the wisest of men. Conscious of his own ignorance he had at first imagined that the god was mistaken. When however, experience showed that those who esteemed themselves wise were unable to give an account of their knowledge, he had to admit that, as the oracle had said, he was wiser than others, in so far as whilst they being ignorant, supposed themselves to know, he, being ignorant, was aware of his ignorance.

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Such according to The Apology, was Socrates’ account of his procedure and its results. But it is easy to see that the statement is colored by the accustomed irony. When in the same speech Socrates tells his judges that he would never from fear of death or from any other motive disobey the command of the god, and that, if they put him to death, the loss would be, not his, but theirs, since they would not readily find any one to take his place, it becomes plain that he conceived himself to hold a commission to educate, and was consciously seeking the intellectual and moral improvement of his countrymen.

His end could not be achieved without the sacrifice of self. His meat and drink were of the poorest; summer and Winter his coat was the same; he was shoeless and shirtless. “A slave whose master made him live as you live,” says a sophist in the Memorabilia, “would run away.” But by the surrender of the luxuries and the comforts of life Socrates secured for himself the independence which was necessary that he might go about his appointed business, and therewith he was content.

His message was to all, but it was variously received. Those who heard him perforce and occasionally were apt to regard his teaching either with indifference or with irritation. Socrates, was well aware of the result to which their enforced answers tended. Amongst those who deliberately sought and sedulously cultivated his acquaintance there were some who attached themselves to him as they might have attached themselves to any ordinary sophist, conceiving that by temporary contact with so acute a reasoner they would best prepare themselves for the logomachies of the law courts, the assembly and the senate. Again, there were others who saw in Socrates at once master, counselor and friend, and hoped by associating with him “to become good men and true, capable of doing their duty by house and household, by relations and friends, by city and fellow-citizens” (Xenophon). Finally, there was a little knot of intimates who, having something of Socrates’ enthusiasm, entered more deeply than the rest into his principles, and, when he died, transmitted them to the next generation. Yet even those who belonged to this inner circle were united, not by any common doctrine, but by a common admiration for their master’s intellect and character.

For the paradoxes of Socrates' personality and the eccentricity of his behavior, if they offended the many, fascinated the few.

“It is not ‘easy for a man in my condition,” says the intoxicated Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, “to describe the singularity of Socrates' character. But I will try to tell his praises in similitudes. He is like the piping Silenes in the statuaries’ shops, which, when you open them, are found to contain images of gods. Or, again, he is like the satyr Marsyas, not only in outward appearance, that, Socrates, you will yourself allow, but in other ways also. Like him, you are given to frolic..I can produce evidence to that; and above all, like him, you are a wonderful musician. Only there is this difference, what he does with the help of his instrument you do with mere words; for whatsoever man, woman or child hears you, or even a feeble report of what you have said, is struck with awe and possessed with admiration. As for myself, were I not afraid that you would think me more drunk than I am, I would tell you on oath how his words have moved me, ay, and how they move me still. When I listen to him my heart beats with a more than Corybantic excitement; he has only to speak and my tears flow. Orators, such as Pericles, never moved me in this way...never roused my soul to the thought of my servile condition; but this Marsyas makes me think that life is not worth living so long as I am what I am. Even now, if I were to listen, I could not resist. So there is nothing for me but to stop my ears against this siren’s song and fly for my life, that I may not grow old sitting at his feet. No one would think that I had any shame in me; but I am ashamed in the presence of Socrates.”