« PreviousContinue »
way that it may not be torn by opposing it; Socrates drinking the poison shocks the imagination-we feel, such is the merit of the sufferer, or such the consummate skill of his biographer, as if a sin had been committed against human nature—we think for a moment that a chasm has been left in society which can never again be filled up. It is an invidious task to interrupt the current of such feelings, even if there be any thing illegitimate in their source: fortunately for the honour of our species these feelings are mostly right in their application, and what deductions are made can be supplied from higher sources. What these deductions are we must explain, and we believe the minds and the authorities of much more learned persons than ourselves, will go with us in the explanation.
We have referred to two books, (forming but a small portion of the Charta Socratica, or those writings by which the manners, life and doctrines of Socrates may be made familiar to us) as including almost all that is known of this extraordinary man by the generality of readers. These books form part of the system of education in most of our great schools: they are read at an age, when the feelings are warm, the impressions vivid and lively, and when the pride of learning is beginning to operate very strongly. This course of study necessarily brings two names into contact, which are often afterwards connected merely for the purpose of making dangerous and unworthy comparisons. Youthful and inquisitive minds see that system of ethics, which they are told, more particularly forms the internal evidence for the divine authority of the Scriptures, in some measure laid open by the hand of Xenophon; they see the immortality of the soul intimated in the dialogues of Plato, and did their researches extend farther into the Socratic philosophy, they might see dark suggestions of many of the other great Scriptural doctrines—the nature of moral evil, the originally happy state of man, the deluge, the doctrine of free will, and a future state of rewards and punishments. The much greater doctrines of Repentance and the Atonement they do not see displayed; but neither the voices of their own conscience nor a commerce with the world, have taught them the truly divine hand manifested in the former; and the incomplete development of their faculties renders them útterly incapable of duly estimating the latter. We know that we speak from higher authority than our own, when we say that the consequences of these early impressions are often fatal ; that men are thus made half-wise in human learning and utterly ignorant in that better wisdom, which makes wise
unto salvation. A deeper research into the writings of the Socratic school might lead them to appreciate somewhat better that profound maxim, which does so much honour to the most thought
ful and philosophic people in Europe, that there is no philosophy so deep as the philosophy of Christianity; but time, opportunity, and, we may add, a more competent share of scholarship than sometimes falls to the lot of such persons, are necessary to the task; and the consequence is, that they are left a prey to doubts and disquietudes, from which even the consciousness of an upright and unblemished life does not at all times remove the sting.*
We have for this reason felt less compunction than we should otherwise have done in removing any prop to virtue, however misplaced, by displaying some proofs in the preceding part of our remarks, that the character of Socrates was a little more open to remark, than some admirers in their ignorance are aware of, and more than some in their knowledge, are willing to bring into notice. Learned and impartial men, well acquainted with the subject, will do us the justice to say, that some points are not pressed so closely as they might have been, and that had we not confined ourselves to the two authors, from whom we have very rarely deviated, our remarks might have been conveyed in a higher tone of censure. Our object, however, has been, not to depreciate Socrates, but to do justice to a man, whose motives, we think, have been much mistaken, and whose character, in consequence, has been 'unduly depreciated. In pursuing our remarks upon Xenophon and Plato, the two highest and most genuine authorities, to which we can gm for the character of Socrates, a
for the justification of Aristophanes.
Dates and periods make no great figure in literary discussions ; but they are often of the utmost importance in settling the real truth of things. Our opinions of Socrates are derived entirely from the writings of Xenophon, Plato and Aristophanes; and we believe many readers class all these persons in their minds as immediate contemporaries, and perhaps, from a passage in Plato's Banquet, as living in habits of society together. This was so far from being the case, that the two great biographers of Socrates were actually children in the nursery, at the time the Clouds were brought upon the stage; the future master of the Academy being then but six years old, and Xenophon within a year of the same age. Had these difficulties rested only on the testimony of such a man as Diogenes Laertius, whose sins of forgetfulness (urmuovexa epapinuata) are almost proverbial, they need not have demanded much investigation; but when we find the mistake originating with a writer in general so accurate as *Strabo, it becomes us to state the grounds of our dissent from them. In the battle of Delium, which took place one year before the representation of the Clouds, Socrates is represented by both these writers as saving the life of Xenophon, during the retreat which followed that celebrated engagement. Now this we do not hesitate to say is a ridiculous fiction. The first important event in the very eventful life of Xenophon was his joining the expedition of Cyrus, a prince certainly not without errors, but whose character, like that of many of the other Persian princes and nobles, contrasts very favourably with the rude republicans, with whom they were brought so much into contact. This expedition is settled by chronologists as taking place just twenty-one years after the battle of Delium ; and Xenophon, who has left us so matchless an account of that interesting expedition, calls himself at the time a young man (vsavixos), and gives us to understand that his close pursuit of philosophy, coupled with his early years, excited the mirth of his fellow-soldiers, till circumstances had taught them to appreciate the practical effects, which often result from such theoretical pursuits. The English historian of Greece, who to the utmost boldness and originality of opinion, unites the greatest patience and minuteness of research, settles the age of Xenophon at the time of his first connexion with Cyrus at six or seven and twenty. What Socrates therefore really was at the time of the representation of the Clouds, and how far the poet was justified in his attack, neither of the two persons, from whom alone any authentic accounts respecting him have come down to us, could possibly tell: their intercourse with their great master must have commenced long after the period in question, and apparently the whole of Xenophon's work, and no doubt many of the dialogues of Plato were written at a time, when for their own personal safety it became them to communicate rather what they wished to be made known respecting their great leader, than what they could make known. These writers, besides, differ considerably in their accounts of their master : in some points they are almost diametrically opposite to each other, in others they evidently write at each other ; and perhaps the same remark may have struck our readers, which has often occurred to ourselves, that as the most excellent of Xenophon's compositions is that which he derives entirely from Socrates, so the most noble and the most perfect work of Platot is that into which even the name of Socrates does not enter. Now when an enemy and a friend give something like the same account of a person; and especially when the favouring party has had previously a warning voice to caution him as to the line he might take in his delineation, a strong presumption arises, that the joint opinion of two such persons comes nearer to the truth, than that of a single individual, however respectable in character, or gifted with talent. Now we venture to say, that the single fact of Socrates receiving pay for his instructions excepted, (the great charge of making the worse appear the better cause has been already disposed of,) the mysticism, the garrulity, the hair-splitting niceties of language, the contempt for exterior appearance, the melancholy temperament, the strong addiction to physical pursuits, the belief in a supernatural agency, to an extent not precisely recognized by the religion of his country, every single trait of the Aristophanic Socrates may be traced in the Platonic, and in some cases with aggravating circumstances, which, if the poet had been ill disposed towards the philosopher, or had even had any more personal knowledge of him, than what necessarily happened in a town, not of very considerable population, and whose customs and manners brought all persons more into contact, than the habits of modern society do, would certainly not have been suppressed in a picture, supposed to be drawn from wilful perversion and malevolent misrepresentation. What are we to conclude from all this? Our own inference is, that the Clouds was not written for the purpose of exposing Socrates, but that Socrates was selected (and for reasons previously mentioned) for the purpose of giving more effect to the Clouds, as an ingenious satire directed against the sophists and the pernicious system of public education at Athens : so far from its being a wilful misrepresentation, dictated by envy or jealousy, we believe that the parties were very little known to each other; that the character of Socrates made much that sort of impression on the poet, which we designed our own portrait of him should make upon our readers, and we affirm, that it is a much more difficult problem to solve, why Aristophanes should be singularly right in his representation of others, and singularly wrong in his representation of Socrates ; than it is to take the plain case, that the poet drew the philosopher, such as he knew him at the time to be, (which we think not improbable,) or such, as he judged him, from a very imperfect knowledge, to be, which we think more than probable. We go one step farther; we are so far from blaming the poet for the course he pursued in consequence of this real or mistaken knowledge, that we think him entitled to the gratitude of posterity for the assumption and the execution of the task. We are all fond of the expression that Socrates brought down
* The nature of our work did not require us to go very deeply into this discussion; and we are glad that it did not. A book was put into our hands, just as we reached this part of our subject, a few pages of which convinced us, that in pursuing the matter farther we might very easily bave exposed ourselves to the charge of incompetence. See Lectures on the Comparison between Paganism and Christianity, by the present Dean of Westminster, Dr. Ireland.
much * In lib. ix. p. 278.
philosophy philosophy from the clouds (and certainly till his time the clouds had been her principal residence) to live among men. If the poet found him on his journey for that purpose, he was not to know the nature of the philosopher's errand; and the wholesome reproof, that was dealt him on the occasion, (for our virtues and our vices, our merits and our demerits are often the children of circumstances,) had perhaps the power of directing his mind to better pursuits.
We feel that our remarks ought here to close, and that any further observations may perhaps have the effect of weakening our preceding arguments. But he, who has been lingering over the delightful pages of Xenophon and Plato, willingly deceives himself by supposing, that a few remarks on the personal history of the two great biographers of Socrates, the friend of Agesilaus and Cyrus, and the master of the Academy, may yet be allowed him, and that in perusing them, the relations between their great master and the comic poet may be still further elucidated. Early in life, Xenophon had been thrown into those situations, which make a man think and act for himself; which teach him practically how much more important it is, that there should be fixed principles of right and wrong in the minds of men in general, than that there should be a knowledge of letters or a feeling of their elegance in the minds of a few. The writer, who has thrown equal interest into the account of a retreating army, and the description of a scene of coursing; who has described with the same fidelity a common groom, and a perfect pattern of conjugal fidelity, such a man had seen life under aspects, which taught him to know that there were things of infinitely more importance than the turn of a phrase, the music of a cadence, and the other niceties, which are wanted by a luxurious and opulent metropolis. He did not write, like his fellow-disciple, for the suppers and the symposiac meetings of Athens-he had no eye, like Plato, to the jokers by profession (y=AWTOT0101), whose business it was to despatch books and authors between the courses, and to fill up those intervals, when guests look round to see who is guilty of the last pause in conversation-his Socrates was not to be exhibited, as we believe the real Socrates often exhibited himself, a sort of 'bon enfant,' a boon companion for the petits-maîtres of the Ilissus ; who sought to win, by dropping even the decent gravity of a preceptor, and who endeavoured to reclaim by affecting a show of what in his heart he must have loathed and detested. Estranged from his own country at first by choice, and very soon afterwards by necessity, Xenophon became, almost before the age of manhood, a citizen of the world; and the virtuous feelings, which were necessary in a mind constituted as his was,