Socrates’ Philosophy And Art: The Origins Of Ancient Aesthetic Thought

The Western philosophical tradition is profoundly indebted to Socrates’ philosophy, while his lesser-known and surprising take on poetry and drama have influenced artists since antiquity.

Mar 23, 2021By James Booth-Jones, B.Arch. History & Theory Focus, B.A. Philosophy with Logic Focus
socrates philosophy
Socrates in Prison by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1780, via The British Museum, London; with Socrates teaching Perikles by Nicolas Guibal, 1780, in the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart


Socrates’ philosophy has formed much of the foundations of Philosophy in the West, and has had a seminal influence on thinkers from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr. Socrates’ philosophy of art, as we might call it in today’s terms, is peculiar and influential, and has imparted to intellectuals and artists a set of enduring philosophical problems concerning the arts. Despite the fact that ‘Art,’ a distinctly modern concept, was one that Socrates did not know, his entanglement in ancient poetry and Attic Tragedy show that Socrates was an eminent critic of various ancient Athenian artforms: a role that was instrumental in his execution.


The Role of Art in Socrates’ Philosophy 

socrates bust musei vaticani
Bust of Socrates, in Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


Socrates was born in 469 BC in the deme of Alopece, Athens. He died there too; as a result of his philosophical practice, he was convicted and executed in 399 by the Athenian democracy for the capital crime of irreverence to the gods of the polis, and the crime of corrupting the Athenian youth.


Famously, Socrates never wrote anything down besides a few lines of poetry in the final moments of his life, as Plato tells us in his dialogue called Phaedo. Apparently, Socrates set some of Aesop’s Fables into verse and composed a hymn to the god Apollo. He did this in acknowledgment of a recurring dream that spoke the following words to him: “Socrates, practice and cultivate the arts.” Even though his time had just about run out, Socrates composed poetry. We have no way of judging his creative efforts, though, because these poems have never been found.


Socrates’ favorite philosophical discussion partners included poets, rhapsodes, playwrights, painters, and various other Athenian artists and craftsmen. But in order to complement this initial picture, let’s get to know Socrates’ philosophy before taking a look at his oftentimes surprising views on art.


The Socratic Problem: Would The Real Socrates Please Stand Up?

eight portraits of socrates
Eight portrait heads of Socrates, illustration to Lavater’s “Essays on Physiognomy,” 1789, via the British Museum, London

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Piecing together an accurate picture of the historical Socrates is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, precisely because he left no writings (apart from the aforementioned apocryphal poems). Historians and philosophers today usually refer to this problem as the ‘Socratic Problem.’ In the light of Socrates’ incredible influence on history, this conundrum continues to confound even the most enlightened intellects.


So what can we know for sure about Socrates?


In order to piece together a picture of the historical Socrates, one must refer to either ancient sources such as historians or writers, or to the accounts of those who knew him personally. In addition to this, there were a few contemporaneous Athenian artists who wrote a number of works that featured him. A handful of these works have survived, and provide us with a less factual yet nonetheless useful reference.


Family Background And Early Days As A Sculptor

statuette of socrates
Marble statuette of Socrates, ca. 200 BC, via the British Museum, London


Socrates’ father Sophroniskos was a stonemason, and certain ancient sources have it that Socrates followed in his footsteps for a time, working as a sculptor in his youth. If this is in fact accurate, such an experience would have brought Socrates into direct contact with the practice and principles of sculpture, giving the philosopher the time and experience to begin formulating his artistic views, the source Socrates’ ‘philosophy of art,’ to use an anachronous term. If only we had enough certainty to make such a claim.


Other sources seem to support this anecdote, claiming that someone by the name of ‘Socrates’ produced a sculpture of The Graces (or Charites) that stood at the entrance to the Acropolis. The Graces were three minor Greek deities, goddesses of beauty, adornment, joy, grace, festivity, dance, and song. However, whether or not they were created by Socrates the philosopher is disputed, if not impossible to determine because Socrates was a fairly popular name in 5th century Athens.


Thus, like a barbarian in the Acropolis, we traverse the Socratic Problem and seem to find ourselves forever in the thick of an unassailable mystery, shrouded by Apocrypha, fated to take one step forward and two giant leaps back.


His Philosophical Method

socrates teaching perikles
Socrates teaching Perikles by Nicolas Guibal, 1780, in the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart


With regards to the historical Socrates’ method of doing philosophy, historians and philosophers have, thankfully, a lot more information to work with. All historical accounts unequivocally confirm that Socrates taught by asking questions, often about seemingly obvious things— usually, concepts which people usually take for granted— and then swiftly refuting their answers. He didn’t teach in a classroom, but rather outside, in informal contexts around the city of Athens and on its outskirts. 


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The Temple of Athena Nike, View from the North-East by Carl Werner, 1877, via the Benaki Museum, Athens


Remarkably, Socrates never accepted payment for his teaching, unlike the sophists, who charged a pretty penny for their instruction. While the audiences of the sophists swooned with persuasive rhetoric, the Athenian citizens often became impatient or offended by Socrates’ philosophy; he was not out to charm, but rather to find the truth, which involved the refutation of his interlocutor’s false beliefs. Someone storming off with a bruised ego mid-conversation with Socrates was not an uncommon scene. Occasionally, Socrates would even create an imaginary conversation partner and question them. 


It is crucial to remember that Socrates was not a high-minded know-it-all. On the contrary, he embraced poverty. He went about barefoot in all weather conditions, wore ragged clothes, and was usually fed and watered thanks to the goodwill of the townsfolk. 


Along with his complete disregard for material comfort, he regularly refuted and dismantled his own opinions as part of his teaching. He asked to be refuted by others so that he could rid himself of his untrue ideas. After all, he was the man who famously knew only one thing: that he knew nothing.


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Alcibiade recevant les leçons de Socrate by François-André Vincent, 1777, in Musée Fabre, Montpellier


Socrates’ quest was to discover the ethical principles necessary for living a virtuous life since a virtuous life was the happiest life for a human being to have. His equation was simple: True knowledge of ethical principles naturally leads to virtue, and virtue, or being virtuous, leads to happiness. And we all desire happiness; so, start by knowing the ethical principles. 


It was through this process of philosophical questioning, through discovering one’s false opinions, and moving closer to these ethical principles together in dialogue that Socrates’ philosophy left its mark. For Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


The Socratic Dialogue: The Birth Of A New Literary Genre

papyrus plato phaedrus
2nd century BC papyrus of Plato’s Phaedrus, via Oxford University


Socrates’ philosophy sparked an entirely new movement in classical literary culture. Unlike their teacher, the students of Socrates wrote their ideas down, and in doing so created the genre of literary prose called the Socratic dialogue


In these works, the literary figure of Socrates, playing as himself, converses with other people about different topics in various settings. These works are at once both dramatic and philosophical and are often named after the key interlocutor of Socrates, in other cases after the setting. Socratic dialogues often end in impasse or aporia, with everyone leaving the discussion less certain on the issue than before, and freshly aware of its paradoxical nature.


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L’École de Platon by Jean Delville, 1898, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Of the Socratic dialogues written by Socrates’ students, Plato’s dialogues are the most celebrated, not only for their philosophical value but also their literary brilliance. Plato enshrined the figure of Socrates in his large collection of philosophical writings, and all but one of which contain Socrates as the main character. Xenophon, a less devoted student of Socrates, was a prominent historian, and his four Socratic dialogues offer important but sometimes contradictory evidence to Plato’s.


A significant difficulty in using Plato’s dialogues to understand the historical Socrates is that Plato uses Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. As we shall later see, scholars often suggest that Plato’s earlier works may resemble Socrates’ ideas more closely, since Plato was then still illuminated from the recent memory of his teacher. 


Socrates, Poetry, And Greek Religion

marble and drawing of bust of homer
Marble and drawing of the Bust of Homer, 2nd Century AD, via the British Museum, London


It is generally agreed that Homer, the Greek poet who lived during the 8th century BC, is the progenitor of the Western literary tradition. Socrates lived three hundred years after Homer’s works were composed, and by then Homer’s works had become widely revered throughout Greece. 


Plato, in his dialogue Ion, writes that Socrates thought of Homer as “the best and divinest poet of all” and as an inspiration since early childhood. In many of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates quotes Homer verbatim and uses him in the elaboration of his arguments. It is clear that there is a deep respect for the poet in Socrates’ philosophy. 


Besides Homer, the didactic poetry of Hesiod, which originated around a hundred years after Homer’s, had become integral to ancient Greek education in Socrates’ day. Hesiod’s poem The Birth of the Gods too had become fundamental to Greek religion. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, writing during Socrates’ lifetime, credits Homer and Hesiod as the ones who ‘taught the Greeks the descent of the gods,’ for the two poet’s oeuvres effectively canonized the Greek pantheon.


Socrates’ reverence for Homer and Hesiod was matched by his skepticism toward the poets, and towards poetry in general. Poetry was not as it is today, something read in seclusion; then it was a public art form, usually recited at competitions or religious events to large audiences, and adapted to the stage in the dramatic works of the playwrights. 


As mentioned, these poets were seen as moral teachers who transmitted and consecrated certain ethical and religious principles through their fables, teaching the Greeks about the nature of the gods, and indirectly, about themselves. The gods of the poets were like humans in that they had traits both admirable and deplorable. However, Socrates could not accept this depiction of the gods; gods could not cause harm in any way. For Socrates, gods are good by definition, and it is simply incoherent to call them bad.


derveni papyrus
The Derveni papyrus, 5th Century BC, in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki


A number of pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Xenophanes, had already begun criticizing Greek anthropomorphic religion. This was a growing trend in the intellectual circles of 5th century Athens; intellectual contemporaries of Socrates’ had begun to reinterpret the poets’ depiction of the Greek gods, by then a depiction that was sacrosanct, in an allegorical way. In other words, these thinkers argued that the poets’ myths captured a deeper, material, or physical reality. In the Derveni papyrus, for example, Zeus was interpreted as being representative of Air, and Air as being the Mind of the universe. 


Such activity may seem insignificant to us today, but in the 5th century BC, it was both revolutionary and dangerously heretical, and severely punished in democratic Athens. For this type of thinking, these natural philosophers and religious critics became objects of scorn in their communities, and many of them were ostracized or exiled, even lynched. Scholars in Greek philosophy such as Richard Janko believe that Socrates was connected to these intellectual circles, albeit indirectly, given that such activity had increasingly become the concern of the Athenian citizenry in the decades prior to his execution. 


Even though Socrates was a deeply pious man, this climate in Athens of extreme anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism was the one in which Socrates was put to death on the charge of impiety.


Socrates’ Philosophy Of Art: Socrates And Artistic Inspiration

socrates kneeling on a plinth
Socrates painting kneeling on a plinth by Giulio Bonasone, 1555, via the British Museum, London


As already mentioned, it is impossible to establish what the historical Socrates thought, nor his precise views. In light of this, scholars suggest analyzing Plato’s early works, affording us a potentially clearer picture of what the historical Socrates thought. Plato’s dialogues like the Ion and the Hippias Major, some of Plato’s earliest works, contain interesting discussions of Socrates’ philosophy of art and beauty.


In the dialogue Ion, great poets like Homer, Socrates holds, do not write from a place of knowledge or skill, but rather thanks to inspiration. They are not just inspired, but ‘divinely’ inspired, connected to the Music gods via a chain, to which the poet’s audience is also linked. Socrates says that “a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired and is beside himself.”


hesiod and the muse gustave moreau
Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau, 1891, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Like many ancient Greeks, Plato’s Socrates positively equates the poet with the divine, someone who channels heavenly thoughts by being magnetized to the Muses. His uniquely Socratic criticism, however, was directed at the poet’s status as one who knows, or as a teacher of truth. 


Socrates’ argument is compelling. Consider a chariot-rider; he knows the activity of chariot-riding better than the poet, yet poets like Homer write about chariot riding. Similarly, Homer writes about medicine; but who knows more about medicine — a doctor or a poet? A doctor, as everyone agrees. And so it goes for the other disciplines Homer writes about: sculpting, music, archery, sailing, soothsaying, statecraft, etc. — any practice, in fact. In each case, the practitioner knows more, not the poet. Practitioners, by definition, know their craft. Poets don’t know, they ‘channel’ truth, and it is because they don’t know that they cannot be called practitioners, or possessors of a skill.


So does the poet know anything? Socrates implies that the question should be emphasized differently, as ‘does the poet know anything?’ with the answer being no. Poets don’t know, they channel the truth because they are conduits to the Divine, privileged by the Muses.


This is not a wholly negative critique since Socrates was a very pious man, and being so closely connected to the divine wasn’t a bad thing. However, it is palpably ironic, and it remains a powerful epistemological critique directed at the poets, many of whom were widely considered moral teachers and authorities in ethical matters. How could they teach if they didn’t know their subject? Thus Socrates’ philosophy of art, if we dare assume that the historical Socrates himself advanced these arguments, ushered a powerful and novel critique of the arts in to the very heart of 5th-century Athenian society.


Socrates And Euripides

euripides and socrates
Marble Bust of Euripides, Roman copy of a Greek original from ca. 330 BC, in Musei Vaticani, Vatican City (left); Marble Figure of Socrates, Roman, 1st c., via The Louvre, Paris (right)


Not only are the Greeks credited with the invention of Western literature; they also invented Drama. Attic tragedy flourished during Socrates’ lifetime. Of the Greek dramatists whose works we know the best today thanks to them having survived intact—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides— there is testimonial evidence from different and disparate sources that claim Socrates knew Euripides and Aristophanes personally.


Euripides is believed to have had the closest relationship with the philosopher. Aelian, a Roman rhetorician, writes that Socrates made a point of going to the theatre only when Euripides competed and that Socrates “loved the man equally for his wisdom as for the sweetness of his verse.” Elsewhere it is written that Socrates helped Euripides write his plays. Once, while watching a performance of Euripides’, Socrates interjected mid-play, shouting out for particular lines to be repeated, transforming himself from a spectator into part of the spectacle. On one occasion he even got up and left in the middle of a play after not agreeing with a particular line. Socrates’ philosophy of art was surely influenced by this apparent reverence for Euripidean drama, and he seems to have constituted a ‘tough crowd’ all by himself. 


friedrich wilhelm nietzsche
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, c. 1875


If these anecdotes are true, Euripides must have considered Socrates’ philosophy in one way or another while writing his tragedies and may have even written them with a view to winning Socrates’ approval. Freidrich Nietzsche went as far as to label Euripides a Socratic poet and argued within his broader theory of the Apollonian and Dionysian constitution of the ancient Greek culture that, under Socrates’ influence, Euripides the once-great playwright gradually became too rational in his tragedy writing, lost the essential Dionysian touch, and ultimately brought about the death of Attic Tragedy itself. This is only an interpretation, of course, and moreover one with very limited factual evidence. Nonetheless, it is tempting to surmise an intellectual relationship between these two greats of ancient Greek culture. For more, see Christian Wildberg’s in-depth research here


Socrates And Aristophanes

bust of aristophanes
Bust of Aristophanes on a herm, 1st c. AD, in the Uffizi Galleries, Florence (left); Bust of Socrates photographed by Domenico Anderson, in Museo Nazionale di Napoli (right)

Socrates features in the plays of Aristophanes (pronounced a-ris-TOh-fa-neez), a contemporaneous comic dramatist. Aristophanes’ play Clouds (performed in 423 BC) is an important source for understanding the historical Socrates even though Aristophanes portrays the philosopher in a satirical way, painting a comic picture of how Socrates and even philosophy, in general, was perceived by the Greeks. 


Aristophanes ridicules Socrates. He presents Socrates as a sophist who is always trying to make the weaker argument the stronger using specious arguments. Aristophanes shows with biting wit a version of Socrates who is a misguided babbler, a petty thief, and the leader of the laughable institution called the ‘Thinkery.’ In this mock academy, Socrates makes ‘impressive discoveries,’ such as measuring the distance jumped by a flea and discovering the fact that gnats buzz because they have a trumpet-shaped rear end.


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Thalia, the muse of comedy, holding a comic mask, “Muses Sarcophagus,” 2nd c. AD, in The Louvre, Paris


Aristophanes polemicized the philosopher in his other plays, too; he did so in his play Birds (performed in 414 BC), describing Socrates as “always hungry and always in worn-out and torn clothes,” and my personal favorite, as “the unwashed.” In the Frogs, another of Aristophanes’ plays performed in 405 BC and which took first prize, Aristophanes takes aim at Euripides for falling under the spell of Socrates’ philosophy with the following lines:


It’s a graceful thing not to sit
Down with Socrates and chatter,
Casting aside the art of music,
Neglecting what’s most important
In the art of tragedy.
Whiling away one’s time


Socrates’ Philosophy On Trial: Persecution By The Poets

socrates before his judges
Socrates Before His Judges by Edmund J. Sullivan, c. 1900


Socrates’ trial was recorded by Plato, Xenophon, and the sophist Polycrates, and perhaps by others.


Plato’s Apology presents the most famous rendition of the trial and is centered on Socrates’ defense speech. It is a piece of literature that has been interpreted and reinterpreted for over two millennia, immortalizing Socrates as a man who preferred death to either leaving Athens or stopping the practice of philosophy.


In his speech, Socrates tells of how the politicians, poets, and the craftsmen of Athens were utterly vexed by his philosophical questioning. Ironically, Socrates had been out to prove that the poets, politicians, and craftsmen were wiser than he was. He was incredulous of what Apollo’s oracle at Delphi had said — that “there was none wiser than Socrates.” Before hearing this, Socrates had thought that they (poets, politicians, and craftsmen) were wiser than him on matters of philosophical importance such as justice, piety, and beauty since their practices necessitated knowledge of these things. 


delphi greece
Delphi, Greece


But after hearing the oracle’s pronouncement and questioning them, he discovered that their self-professed ‘wisdom’ in these matters had been unwarranted. In the end, he was unable to find anyone wise enough to truly know what they professed to know. Everyone except Socrates claimed knowledge when they didn’t have it. Only Socrates claimed he knew nothing. This ultimately confirmed what the oracle had said, and angered a lot of people, especially Meletus of Pithus.


Meletus of Pithus was Socrates’ principal accuser and was the son of a poet of the same name. It is not clear if Socrates had questioned Meletus, but Meletus was angered “on behalf of the poets” at Socrates’ questioning. Meletus had summoned Socrates to appear at the hearing.


In his speech, Socrates indirectly refers to Aristophanes’ comedies as having had a damaging effect on his reputation. The rumor that Socrates was “a student of everything in the sky and below the earth,” and “one who makes the weaker argument the stronger,” had originated in Aristophanes play Clouds, and were used as evidence by his accusers. Ironically, comedy contributed to the tragic downfall of Socrates, a turn of events Socrates calls ‘absurd.’


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The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, via Met Museum, New York


However, without this tragic end, Socrates’ philosophy may not have had such a seminal influence upon Western civilization and its art. Perhaps, with a generous pinch of irony, we should thank those poets, tragedians, politicians, and craftsmen for their efforts in bringing about his trial and his unjust execution, and in doing so, promoting a sophisticated philosophical attitude towards the arts.


Did you know?


In book X of his Republic, Plato writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” Just how ancient this quarrel was, in Plato’s time, remains unknown.


In describing the ideal state, Plato writes that poetry should be heavily censored, if not completely banned. Plato’s skepticism towards poetry may have been a continuation of that of his teacher, Socrates.


Aristophanes’ comic play Birds coined the verb “to Socratize” (sōkratein) in 414 BC. The term referred to the young who carried a long stick and wore ragged clothes, in imitation and admiration of Socrates.


Percy Bysshe Shelley, the celebrated English romantic poet, translated Plato’s Ion and was profoundly moved by Socrates’ philosophy regarding poetic knowledge. In one of Shelley’s drafts for the translation, he writes: “[Poets] do not compose according to any art which they have acquired, but from the impulse of the divinity within them.”

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By James Booth-JonesB.Arch. History & Theory Focus, B.A. Philosophy with Logic Focus James holds a B.Arch from Nelson Mandela University, with a focus on the History and Theory of European Art and Architecture. He is currently completing his second degree in Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, with plans to pursue a Ph.D. thereafter. James manages the Philosophy Department at TheCollector, and is a contributing writer on art and philosophy. He lives in Paris.