The Socrates you don’t know

From Salon:

Texts from Xenophon and Aristophanes paint an intriguingly different picture of the famed philosopher

Soc Two of Plato's best-loved works are the “Apology,” which records Socrates's speech in his own defense while on trial for his life, and the “Symposium,” an account of a drinking party in which Socrates explains his most sublime ideas about the spiritual power of love. The Socrates of these texts has become one of the central figures in Western history, a secular equivalent of Jesus. It's a shock, therefore, to turn from Plato's Symposium to Xenophon's, where Socrates seems more like a conventional, commonsensical moralist. Plato's Socrates argues that love begins with physical desire — specifically, the desire of a man for a beautiful adolescent boy — but then “mount[s] for that beauty's sake ever upwards, as by a flight of steps,” until “he contemplates Beauty itself,” the ideal, immortal form.

Xenophon's Socrates, too, thinks that lust for a beautiful boy is an inferior form of love, but his reasoning is merely pragmatic: “For, to my way of thinking, the man whose attention is attracted only by his beloved's appearance is like one who has rented a farm; his aim is not to increase its value but to gain from it as much of a harvest as he can for himself. On the other hand, the man whose goal is friendship is more like one possessing a farm of his own; at any rate he utilizes all sources to enhance his loved one's worth.” This sounds uncomfortably like the idea that you won't buy the cow if you can get the milk for free. At any rate, it's not the kind of thing that would inspire millennia of reverence for Socratic wisdom.

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