In March 2019 Bloomsbury will publish my book Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher.
Using ancient written sources that have been generally overlooked or misinterpreted, I recover a lost picture of Socrates as a young man in his teens and 20s. Since he was already known as a philosopher in his 30s, this earlier period is where we need to look for evidence of his change of direction to becoming the thinker he was to be.
But change of direction from what? Not just from being a pupil of earlier (‘Presocratic’) thinkers such as Archelaus and Anaxagoras, but from being an ambitious young Athenian in an upper-class milieu. This description will surprise many who imagine that Socrates was poor and of lowly background – in later life his appearance was notably unrefined and he went around barefoot and in ragged garments. But Socrates says (in Plato’s Apology) that he chose poverty in order to pursue his calling; and the fact that he is depicted as a man of high education and intellectual authority compels the conclusion that he was well schooled from youth, and not the uneducated child of an impecunious family. Socrates was also a regular fighter in Athens’ battles until his late 40s: this means he possessed the wealth qualification and expensive panoply – as well as the courage, physique, and fitness – to be a hoplite (heavy-armed infantryman).
Socrates father Sophroniscus was a stonemason, but he was clearly a well-off artisan – Athens was busy fashioning stone monuments after the Persian Wars – and he had high-class connections. His closest friend was Lysimachus, son of a famous and impeccably elite Athenian, Aristides the Just; and Socrates’ first marriage (reported by Aristotle in express contradition to Plato) was to Lysimachus’s daughter Myrto, with whom he had his two older sons. The young Socrates grew up, therefore, among elite young men, trained in poetry, music, oratory, philosophy, dancing, wrestling, and fighting. So what impelled him to turn to the life of the mind, shun material success, and reorient philosophical thinking for posterity?
Cherchez la Femme
The facts recounted above about Socrates’ life are readily available to historians, even if their cumulative implications have not been given due weight. What has hitherto gone unrecognized is that, when Socrates says in Plato’s Symposium that “as a young man I learned all about love from a clever woman”, we are being told a biographical truth.
The woman is named as Diotima, who has long been supposed a fictional character. But a renewed scrutiny of the text of Symposium and of supporting evidence demonstrates that ‘Diotima’ is Plato’s disguise for a real woman. She was the cleverest, best known, and most influential woman of her day. Part of the young Socrates’ circle of thinkers, artists, and politicians, she must have been a key figure in his early life. And she didn’t just teach him about love…
The notions attributed in Symposium to ‘Diotima’ are central to the philosophy as well as to the way of life that Socrates was to espouse: that the physical realm can and should be put aside in favour of higher ideals; that the education of the soul, not the gratification of the body, is love’s paramount duty; that we need to define our terms before we can hope to know what they entail in practice; and that the particular should be subordinated to the general, the transient to the permanent, and the worldly to the ideal. Her thinking, no less than what Socrates and his successors were to make of it, should therefore be acknowledged as lying at the very root of the Western philosophical tradition.
Unravelling Diotima’s identity makes for a historically explosive conclusion. In retrospect, however, the identification is so obvious that its failure to be seen clearly up to now can only be attributed to conscious or unconscious prejudices about the status and intellectual capacities of women throughout the ages. The time has come to restore one of the undoubted founders of European philosophical thought to her true status.