07/09/2017 · Kris Boesen’s life changed in an instant
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The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in hislifetime (469–399 B.C.E.), an enigma, an inscrutable individual who, despite having writtennothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who foreverchanged how philosophy itself was to be conceived. All our informationabout him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed, but histrial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy is neverthelessthe founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy, and hisinfluence has been felt far beyond philosophy itself, and in everyage. Because his life is widely considered paradigmatic for thephilosophic life and, more generally, for how anyone ought tolive, Socrates has been encumbered with the admiration and emulationnormally reserved for founders of religious sects—Jesus orBuddha—strange for someone who tried so hard to make others dotheir own thinking, and for someone convicted and executed on thecharge of irreverence toward the gods. Certainly he was impressive, soimpressive that many others were moved to write about him, all of whomfound him strange by the conventions of fifth-century Athens: in hisappearance, personality, and behavior, as well as in his views andmethods.
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In favor of Aristophanes as a source is that Xenophon and Plato weresome forty-five years younger than Socrates, so their acquaintancecould only have been in Socrates’s later years. One may reasonablydoubt that the life and personality of Socrates was so consistent thatPlato’s characterization of a man in his fifties and sixties shouldutterly undo the lampooning account of the younger Socrates found inClouds and other comic poets. More to the point, the yearsbetween Clouds and Socrates’s trial were years of war andupheaval, so the Athenian intellectual freedom of which Periclesboasted at the beginning of the war (Thucydides 2.37–39) had beeneroded completely by the end (see §3). Thus, what had seemedcomical a quarter century earlier, Socrates hanging in a basketon-stage, talking nonsense, was ominous in memory by then.