Nothing written by Socrates remains extant. As a result, information about him and his philosophies depends upon secondary sources.
Furthermore, close comparison between the contents of these sources reveals contradictions, thus creating concerns about the possibility of knowing in-depth the real Socrates. This issue is known as the Socratic problem, or the Socratic question.
To understand Socrates and his thought, one must turn primarily to the works of Plato, whose dialogues are thought the most informative source about Socrates’ life and philosophy, and also Xenophon. These writings are the Sokratikoi logoi, or Socratic dialogues, which consist of reports of conversations apparently involving Socrates.
As for discovering the real-life Socrates, the difficulty is that ancient sources are mostly philosophical or dramatic texts, apart from Xenophon. There are no straightforward histories, contemporary with Socrates, that dealt with his own time and place. A corollary of this is that sources that do mention Socrates do not necessarily claim to be historically accurate, and are often partisan. For instance, those who prosecuted and convicted Socrates have left no testament. Historians therefore face the challenge of reconciling the various evidence from the extant texts in order to attempt an accurate and consistent account of Socrates’ life and work. The result of such an effort is not necessarily realistic, even if consistent.
Amid all the disagreement resulting from differences within sources, two factors emerge from all sources pertaining to Socrates. It would seem, therefore, that he was ugly, and that Socrates had a brilliant intellect.
Socrates as a figure
The character of Socrates as exhibited in Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Symposium concurs with other sources to an extent to which it seems possible to rely on the Platonic Socrates, as demonstrated in the dialogues, as a representation of the actual Socrates as he lived in history. At the same time, however, many scholars believe that in some works, Plato, being a literary artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of “Socrates” far beyond anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said. Also, Xenophon, being an historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates. It is a matter of much debate over which Socrates it is whom Plato is describing at any given point—the historical figure, or Plato’s fictionalization. As British philosopher Martin Cohen has put it, “Plato, the idealist, offers an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of ‘the Sun-God’, a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic.”
It is also clear from other writings and historical artefacts, that Socrates was not simply a character, nor an invention, of Plato. The testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle, alongside some of Aristophanes’ work (especially The Clouds), is useful in fleshing out a perception of Socrates beyond Plato’s work.
Socrates as a philosopher
The problem with discerning Socrates’ philosophical views stems from the perception of contradictions in statements made by the Socrates in the different dialogues of Plato. These contradictions produce doubt as to the actual philosophical doctrines of Socrates, within his milieu and as recorded by other individuals. Aristotle, in his Magna Moralia, refers to Socrates in words which make it patent that the doctrine virtue is knowledge was held by Socrates. Within the Metaphysics, he states Socrates was occupied with the search for moral virtues, being the ‘ first to search for universal definitions for them ‘.
The problem of understanding Socrates as a philosopher is shown in the following: In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates is reported as saying he devotes himself only to what he regards as the most important art or occupation, that of discussing philosophy. However, in The Clouds, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as accepting payment for teaching and running a sophist school with Chaerephon. Also, in Plato’s Apology and Symposium, as well as in Xenophon’s accounts, Socrates explicitly denies accepting payment for teaching. More specifically, in the Apology, Socrates cites his poverty as proof that he is not a teacher.
Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1791)
Two fragments are extant of the writings by Timon of Phlius pertaining to Socrates, although Timon is known to have written to ridicule and lampoon philosophy.