Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Socrates #2. Did Socrates exist?

Socrates vs Jesus
Many theists, when confronted with the reality that there is no contemporary, un-contested evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was actually a real person in history, will say, "Well what evidence do you have that Socrates was a real person?"
Just one week’s space between posts this time -- making up for having taken a break after Easter.

Yes, Socrates did exist. Why spend time on something so obvious? Well, for many people who don’t have experience in dealing with evidence about antiquity, it isn’t that obvious.

Socrates, probably based on Lysippus’
statue (Roman copy; orig. 4th cent. BCE)
(Mus. Pio Clementino inv. 314, Rome)
The reason there’s even a question over this is because of the historical methodologies advocated by ‘Jesus mythicists’, that is, people who deny the existence of a 1st century CE Judaean cult leader by the name of Jesus. To make that denial a principled one, you have to adopt some pretty strict constraints for the form of evidence you’re willing to accept -- strict enough that if you try to apply the same criteria anywhere else, you tend to end up concluding that most other figures in antiquity didn’t exist either. Socrates happens to be one individual who often gets caught in the crossfire. (Which is a little odd, actually, since he isn’t a very good parallel.)

(We’ve had several occasions recently to roll eyes at mythicism, so I solemnly promise to take a break from that theme after this post. For at least two months.)

Yes, people do get confused over this, don’t mock. Here’s a sample question from StackExchange:
I have read a lot of websites that suggest Socrates was a fictional character created by Plato (albeit without the citation of any corroborating evidence), but I have also read the opposite (and by "opposite" here I don't mean that Plato was created by Socrates but rather that Socrates was a living, breathing person).
Is there any truth to this claim?
So: the aim I’m taking upon myself today is simply to make a reasonably thorough list of the most relevant evidence.



Socrates himself. Socrates wrote no philosophical works himself, as far as we know. So, no testimony from the horse’s mouth. Having said that, we’re told he did write some things. Plato mentions him composing a hymn to Apollo, and a verse adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables. The only bits that survive are the first line of the hymn, and the first two lines of the Aesop elegy, both quoted by Diogenes Laertius. For what it’s worth, Diogenes also tells us (a) some people regarded the hymn to Apollo as spurious; and (b) the Aesop poem was authentic, but not very good.

Testimony dating to Socrates’ lifetime. Although Plato and Xenophon knew Socrates personally, their writings are later than Socrates’ death in 399 BCE. For texts that are actually contemporary with Socrates, our testimony consists of four comic plays by two authors:
  • Aristophanes’ Clouds (423-419 BCE) has Socrates, or rather a satirical depiction of him, as a major character in the play;
  • Ameipsias’ lost Konnos (also 423 BCE) had Socrates as a character too;
  • Aristophanes’ Birds (414) makes a joke about Socrates as a well-known public figure;
  • so does Aristophanes’ Frogs (405).
As a bonus the Birds has one of Socrates’ close associates, Chaerephon, as a character in the play.

If this looks like sparse evidence, then be aware that it is not unusual. The fact that we have any contemporary testimony at all is a real rarity. As I’ve said in a previous post, judging ancient history by the criteria that you’d use for 20th-21st century events is like using carbon dating to test dinosaur fossils. It’s just a hopelessly inappropriate methodology, completely unsuited to history before the modern era.

Plato and Xenophon. Most of what is known about Socrates’ thought comes from two individuals who lived at the same time as him and who knew him personally. Plato and Xenophon both make him a central character in their dialogues, a literary genre designed to present philosophy as emerging from interaction and conversation; Xenophon also discusses Socrates in his Hellenica. We have little opportunity to test how much of their testimony is faithful to the historical Socrates. Their purpose in using him as a character in dialogues wasn’t to preserve a historical record, but to draw on a useful iconic persona. We can be pretty sure Socrates regarded himself as a philosophos, a ‘lover of wisdom’, as they depict him; it appears he didn’t charge fees for his ‘teaching’; his ‘Socratic method’ may possibly have had a resemblance to the tactics that Plato describes. But it seems very unlikely that he would have agreed with Plato’s theory of forms; and there’s no reliable way of unravelling the historical from the imaginary in the reports of the defence speech at his trial, in Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies.

... (Ἀριστοτέλει) εἰπόντι ἐν τῷ πρώτῳ περὶ Ποιητικῆς καὶ πρὸ | Πλάτωνος γεγράφθαι δραματικοὺς | διαλό]γ̣[ους] ὑ̣π̣’ [Ἀ]λεξαμενοῦ Τη{ν}ίου... ‘(Aristotle) said in book 1 of the Poetics that even before Plato, dramatic dialogues were written by Alexamenus of Te{n}os.’
(NB: the attribution to the Poetics is incorrect; probably so is Alexamenus’ surname.)
--P.Oxy. 3219, 2nd cent. CE

Testimony from other members of Socrates’ circle. Plato and Xenophon are the only ones whose writings survive, but we have reports that Socrates’ other associates wrote about him too:
  • Alexamenus of Teos, an obscure figure who according to Aristotle was the first to write Socratic dialogues; Aristotle seems to indicate that Alexamenus’ dialogues were more like staged mimes than like the philosophical discussions we see in Plato (Aristotle fr. 72 Rose + P.Oxy. 3219).
  • Lysias’ Apology, probably the earliest of the three Apologies (i.e. Lysias, then Plato, then Xenophon). Lysias is better known for his surviving legal speeches.
  • numerous works by Antisthenes, who appears to have been regarded as the most important of Socrates’ pupils in the first few years after his death; Antisthenes was firmly opposed to Plato’s philosophy in some important ways, which increases his importance since it implies that he and Plato were independent sources.
  • Seven dialogues by Aeschines (not the later orator).
  • Six dialogues by Euclides, whose teachings are reported to have been close to Socrates’ own.
  • Two dialogues by Phaedo.
  • Vague reports of writings by Aristippus, who went professional and charged fees.
Testimony about other members of Socrates’ circle. Some of Socrates’ associates had great historical significance while Socrates was still alive. Their historicity creates a definite presumption in favour of Socrates’ historicity, via the principle of contextual fit. Alcibiades was one of the most significant generals in the Peloponnesian War; Critias was an ally of Alcibiades, and went on to become the ringleader of the Thirty Tyrants whose short-lived regime brutalised the entire populace of Athens in 404 BCE; Charmides was involved in a high-profile court case near the end of the Peloponnesian War, and was a minister for the Thirty Tyrants; and both Critias and Charmides were involved in an attempted coup d’état in 411 BCE.

Later testimony is abundant. Some of the most important items, in the sense of items that appear to derive from independent chains of testimony (or at least partially independent), are
  • Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173 (the famous orator; shortly after 346 BCE);
  • a letter purportedly from Speusippus, Plato’s successor as head of the Academy, to Philip II of Macedonia (possibly spurious);
  • a statue by the famous 4th century BCE sculptor Lysippus, which survives in several Roman copies;
  • references in the writings of Aristotle, Arcesilaus, and several Stoics;
  • a strong biographical tradition that isn’t solely derived from Plato, appearing in later sources like Cicero and Diogenes Laertius.
The post-Hellenistic biographical tradition has very little value, except for the fact that it is clearly derived from sources other than Plato, which in turn shows that it wasn’t simply invented by Plato as ‘Socrates mythicists’ sometimes suggest. The Aeschines passage is especially useful because it is our only account of the circumstances of Socrates’ trial which is not derived from Socrates’ fans.

(See our last post for more details: Aeschines’ testimony suggests that Socrates’ execution was closely linked to his association with Critias. Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies keep very, very quiet about that link. Plato’s depiction of Socrates instead tries to derail the prosecution by pretending that the real defendant is not himself but an imaginary character, like the satirical caricature in Aristophanes’ Clouds.)



The problems with Socrates’ biography are comparable to those surrounding Jesus to the extent that his fan-club mythologised him a great deal: it’s likely that there were some very important differences between the real man and the picture that we’re given. This is especially obvious in their extreme defensiveness about his trial, and in their insistence on Socrates’ resistance to the Thirty Tyrants when he was ordered to arrest and execute one of their political opponents. I strongly suspect that the historical Socrates’ links to Alcibiades, Charmides, and especially Critias were much more damning than the fan-club lets on.

Socrates’ situation is very different from Jesus, in that he was linked to several figures who loom large in historical accounts of the period; and also in that he is reported to have served as a hoplite in three well-attested battles of the Peloponnesian War (Potidaea, 432 BCE; Delium, 424; Amphipolis, 422), and in 406 BCE served on the Boulē, the main administrative arm of the Athenian legislature.

Plato and Socrates: a more romanticised view.
(Details from ‘The death of Socrates’ by Jacques Louis David, 1787. Source: NY Met)

And thinking of contextual fit: the picture we get of him is not all that exceptional once we look beyond Plato. Aristophanes’ Clouds groups him with other philosophers and satirises all of them as a bunch. The crime of which he was charged, asebeia (‘impiety’), was one that had previously been levelled at three other philosophoi, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Diagoras; and the other three philosophers all chose to exile themselves from Athens to avoid a legal penalty, an option that Socrates considered but which, Plato claims, he chose to reject. (One other figure charged with asebeia, Aspasia, is a different situation: unlike the other four, she secured an acquittal.)

Overall, by the standards of 2414 years ago, this is extremely robust evidence for the existence of Socrates. Is it in principle possible to doubt the evidence? Sure -- in the same way that it’s possible to doubt a dozen separate news reports on a current event, or in the same way that it’s possible to doubt that a lifetime’s worth of experience predicts that a book will fall on the floor the next time you let go of it. His actual beliefs and teachings, and details of his biography, are not nearly as set in stone.

But as a general principle, when we doubt an ancient source, we do so because of tendencies that we perceive in that source or other similar sources. We don’t start questioning the existence of people it mentions except when there is some principled reason to do so. That principled reason might be something specific (is there reason to believe that the source was written for deceptive purposes? or reason to suspect later interference with the text?) or a more general policy (do other sources of this genre/period/place have a track record of making people up?). Otherwise we end up cherry-picking the evidence.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Socrates #1. Did Socrates die for this shit?

Socrates died because he was a philosopher, Christ because He was the founder of a new religion.
It is commonly recognized that the truth of a belief is in no way necessary for the courage and sanctity of sacrifice. Yet, we also seem to revere a few, Socrates chiefly, who die, not for beliefs, and not for truths, but just for Truth itself.
If this subreddit is not open and free, then I honestly don't see the point.
Socrates died for this shit and we’re taking it too lightly.
Did Socrates die a martyr for philosophy and truth? for atheism? for the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

This question can have an answer -- of a kind -- but not one that is simultaneously both complete and conclusive. That is: we can get a complete answer which is at least partly guesswork, or a very narrow answer which is more trustworthy. Take your pick.

This is because of the nature of the surviving evidence. We have no testimony from Socrates himself. What we have to work with is fan-fiction about the man, and a handful of satirical caricatures by others. There is only one piece of testimony about Socrates’ trial that is independent and intended seriously, and it’s more than fifty years later than the trial.

Socrates’ modern fans get their impressions of him mostly from the writings of his number one ancient fan, Plato. For the trial and execution in 399 BCE, nearly all modern opinions are based on Plato’s version of the defence speech, the Apology. The Platonic Socrates reports the charges against him in two different ways. Here’s the first (Apology 19b-c):
Look: what do my accusers actually charge me with? I need to read out the statement of the prosecution, in a fashion: ‘Socrates commits wrong and is a busybody, he investigates things beneath the earth and celestial things, he makes the worse argument too strong, and he teaches people all these things.’ Something like that. For that’s what you yourselves saw in Aristophanes’ comedy...
This disingenuous statement doesn’t contain much truth, and it has caused some confusion. Even a few experienced critics have taken this as a serious statement of the charges. It is nothing of the kind. This is exactly how Socrates is depicted in Aristophanes’ Clouds; but we know perfectly well what the real charges were, and these are not they.

‘Things beneath the earth and things in the sky’

Because of the confusion, maybe it’s worth devoting some time to clearing it up. What is actually going on in the Apology is that Plato’s Socrates is presenting a caricature of the charges. It’s a way of claiming, ‘It’s not even the real Socrates on trial here -- only a satirical depiction of me, the one from Aristophanes’ play!’ In other words: the charges relate to a purely fictional character. You’ve got the wrong man!

For that is indeed how Aristophanes’ Clouds (423 BCE) depicts Socrates. Investigating ‘things beneath the earth and in the sky’ and ‘making the worse argument too strong’ are jokes in the play. When Strepsiades, the main character, enters Socrates’ school he sees some students engaged in a curious-looking pursuit:
Strepsiades. But why in the world are they staring at the ground?
Student. They’re investigating things beneath the earth.
Strepsiades. Ah, so they’re looking for truffles? ...
Some students are bent over even further: it’s explained that they are investigating things even further below the earth, while their bottoms are taking astronomy lessons. Soon afterwards Socrates appears in person -- suspended overhead in a basket -- and, pompously declaring, ‘I walk on mist and contemplate the sun!’, clarifies that he ‘could never have discovered things in the sky’ if he kept his feet on the ground. ‘Things in the sky’, meteōra, becomes a running gag: philosophers are ‘things-in-the-sky quacks’, ‘things-in-the-sky sophists’ (333 meteōrophenakes, 360 meteōrosophistai); a typical clever suggestion is one that is about meteōra (489); an ignorant person is one who knows nothing about meteōra (1284).

As for ‘making the worse argument too strong’: the entire reason Strepsiades is interested in Socrates’ school is so that he can learn how to obtain unjust decisions in lawsuits as a way of escaping his creditors (112-18):
Strepsiades. It’s said they have two arguments in their school,
  the stronger -- whatever that is -- and the worse.
  And of these two arguments, one, the worse,
  can supposedly beat the other by saying unjust things.
  Now if you go and learn this unjust Argument,
  all the debts I owe because of you
  will never have to be repaid...
Later in the play the ‘Worse Argument’ and the ‘Stronger Argument’ appear as characters, and they get placed in a cage-fight -- literally (882-1104) -- where they have it out in a duel of words. Naturally, the Worse Argument wins. Hence, Aristophanes’ Socrates teaches how to make ‘the Worse Argument the Stronger’, or alternatively ‘too strong’.

The same year that the Clouds came out, in 423 BCE, another satirical play also featured Socrates as a character: Ameipsias’ Konnos. Two years later another philosopher appeared in another comic play, Protagoras in Eupolis’ Flatterers, prattling on about ‘things in the sky’ (meteōra). There was nothing very unique about the Clouds; it’s just that Plato’s reference to it suggests it was much more popular than Ameipsias’ and Eupolis’ efforts.

The actual charges

No one nowadays believes that the Clouds’ depiction of Socrates is accurate. But they do sometimes take seriously the snippet in the Apology, and believe Plato actually blamed Aristophanes for Socrates’ conviction. That isn't a necessary interpretation of the passage, but I guess we can leave that aside for now. I stated above that we know what the actual charges were. What were they?

The 3rd century CE biographer Diogenes Laertius claims to report the actual wording (Lives of the philosophers 2.40):
τάδε ἐγράψατο καὶ ἀντωμόσατο Μέλητος Μελήτου Πιτθεὺς Σωκράτει Σωφρονίσκου Ἀλωπεκῆθεν· ἀδικεῖ Σωκράτης, οὓς μὲν ἡ πόλις νομίζει θεοὺς οὐ νομίζων, ἕτερα δὲ καινὰ δαιμόνια εἰσηγούμενος· ἀδικεῖ δὲ καὶ τοὺς νέους διαφθείρων. τίμημα θάνατος.
Meletus son of Meletus, the Pitthean, brought the following charges and swore to them against Socrates son of Sophroniscus, the Alopekian: Socrates commits injustice by not recognising (nomisd-) the gods that the city recognises, and by introducing (eisēge-) new divinities (daimonia); and he also commits injustice by corrupting the young. Penalty: death.
Diogenes is not usually a very reliable source, but here (1) he cites a source, Favorinus, and claims that Favorinus had access to authentic documentation; (2) we find very closely similar wording in Plato and Xenophon, and they were much closer to Socrates and to the documents of the Athenian legal system --
  • Plato, Euthyphro 2c-3b: Socrates corrupted the young, and invented (poie-) new gods (theo-) and didn’t recognise (nomisd-) the old ones;
  • Plato, Apology 24b-c: just a few pages after the joking report of the charges quoted above, we’re told that the charge was: corrupting the young, and believing not in the state gods but in new divinities (daimonia);
  • Xenophon, Apology 10: Socrates did not recognise (nomisd-) the state gods but introduced new divinities (daimones), and corrupted the young.
Some sources phrase the charge more tersely as asebeia, ‘impiety’ (for example (ps-?)Plato, Letter 7.325b-c). We know of four other people charged with asebeia after it became an indictable offence in 432 BCE: Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (in the late 430s), Aspasia (soon after Pericles’ death in 429), Protagoras of Abdera (probably shortly after 422), and Diagoras of Melos (probably in the late 410s). Aspasia secured an acquittal; the three non-Athenians chose to leave the city rather than face penalties.

Even assuming that Diogenes’ report of the charges is accurate, there are still two factors that are in the way of our interpreting it clearly.
  1. What, then, should we make of the one independent piece of testimony that we have about the reasons behind Socrates’ trial?
  2. What did ‘not recognising the gods’ and ‘introducing new divinities’ actually mean?

Independent testimony

The only independent testimony, that is to say testimony that wasn’t written by or derived from Socrates’ fans, comes from a political speech made in the 340s BCE. This was about 55 years after Socrates’ death. The passage is Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173. Aeschines doesn’t purport to describe the actual charges, but he does have something important to say about the political context of the trial:
ἔπειθ’ ὑμεῖς, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, Σωκράτην μὲν τὸν σοφιστὴν ἀπεκτείνατε, ὅτι Κριτίαν ἐφάνη πεπαιδευκώς, ἕνα τῶν τριάκοντα τῶν τὸν δῆμον καταλυσάντων ...;
And then, o Athenians, did you put to death Socrates the sophist, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who destroyed the populace...?
In 404 BCE Athens, after being defeated in the Peloponnesian War, was under the rule of a council known as the Thirty Tyrants for a bit over a year. The Thirty massacred their political opponents, killed thousands of the citizen population, and stole their property. Critias was the most notorious of them.

This wasn’t the only skeleton in Socrates’ closet. He was also associated with Charmides, one of the ministers of the Thirty; previously, in 411, Critias and Charmides had been at the centre of a short-lived coup d’état that overthrew the democracy; in 415, Critias and Alcibiades (another student of Socrates, and an infamous traitor to the state) had been widely thought to be behind an act of religious sacrilege, the mutilation of the Herms, which was seen as an attempt to sabotage Athens’ military strategy; also in 415, Charmides had been convicted of profaning the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteria cult.

None of this has a necessary bearing on what we ought to think of Socrates himself. His fans take pains to emphasise that he opposed the Thirty on one occasion (one). The data we have on his actual actions in 404 is very ... selective. For all we know he may have been a naïf innocent who got caught up in the politics of some truly appalling individuals completely unwittingly. But Athens had an internal war between democracy and oligarchy; and the company Socrates kept made him an arch-oligarch. He may for all we know have been a very fine ethicist (though if he was, he was at least a clueless one). But whatever the merits of the man himself, it’s very hard to imagine that none of the above points occurred to the prosecutor Meletus, or to the jurors at the trial.

Also, it’s not a simple case of ‘Democracy good, Socrates’ oligarchs bad.’ The Athenian democracy was responsible for some horrors too, notably the genocide of the island of Melos in 413. There are no heroes in this story.

There was a lot of bad blood between the people of Athens and Socrates’ followers. That wouldn’t have been enough by itself. But the murder of between 5% and 15% of the citizen population in 404 must have pushed things over the edge. Imagine if Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, and Saddam Hussein had all had the same person as their ethics teacher: would you be very surprised if that person got harsh treatment from a jury? And would you then call that person a martyr?

Atheism? New divinities?

Atheism in antiquity is a real enough phenomenon that a book has come out on this exact subject recently, Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the gods: atheism in the ancient world (2016). (He does discuss Socrates specifically, if you want to read a second opinion after this one.) If you don’t want to spend money on that, here’s a 2011 essay by the noted scholar of ancient religion Jan Bremmer.

Diagoras of Melos, another thinker charged under the Athenian law against asebeia, is often called an atheist in surviving sources. So is Critias. The usual word is atheos: though it usually means ‘ungodly’, or ‘godless’ in the sense of ‘hated by/hateful to the gods’, sometimes it’s perfectly accurate to interpret it as ‘atheist’.

Epicurus criticised people ‘who separate the divine world from that which exists’ (τοῖς τὸ [θεῖον ἐ]κ τῶν ὄντων [ἀναι]ροῦσιν), and gave Prodicus, Diagoras, and Critias as examples, according to Philodemus (On piety col. 19). A pseudo-Plutarchan text discusses thinkers who ‘outright deny that gods exist’ (καθόλου φασὶ μὴ εἶναι θεούς, Doctrines of the philosophers 880d-e) and goes on to mention Critias as an example.

We have examples of atheism in very public spaces, too, in Athenian tragedy. These passages are not always intended as philosophical arguments: sometimes a character in a play just gets upset with the universe and goes into a rant; sometimes characters are portrayed as arguing positions that no one is expected to seriously accept. In a fragment of Euripides’ lost Bellerophontes, for example, Bellerophon denies the existence of gods as follows (Eur. fr. 286 Nauck/Kannicht):
Does anyone say there are gods in heaven?
There are none, there are none, if any mortal wants
to avoid being an idiot, following the old story.
Consider for yourselves, don’t be guided by my words
for your opinion.
Now, this may just be Euripides depicting someone with an extreme view: Euripides is like that. But even if it’s not a sincere view, it’s still atheism in a very public forum. Another tragic fragment, which is usually believed to come from a play by Critias himself (fr. 19 Snell), has a character telling a ‘just so’ story about how mortals invented the gods and religion in order to suppress morally undesirable behaviour.

But as you might expect, things aren’t so simple. Diagoras may have been an atheist by ancient Athenian standards. But consider the following fragments -- the only two that survive of his poetry (fr. 738 PMG) --
θεὸς θεὸς πρὸ παντὸς ἔργου βροτείου
νωμᾶι φρέν’ ὑπερτάταν,
αὐτοδαὴς δ’ ἀρετὰ βραχὺν οἶμον ἕρπειν
God, god guides the highest thought
before every mortal deed:
but self-taught virtue crawls a short path
and
All things for mortals are accomplished
through divinity (daimona) and chance
This doesn’t sound like modern atheism at all. It’s quite possible -- likely, even -- that Socrates’ refusal to ‘recognise the gods that the city recognises’ was a similar kind of case.

The source for these two Diagoras fragments is a tract by the 1st century BCE philosopher Philodemus, found among the charred remains of a library in Herculaneum, called On piety. Just before quoting Diagoras, Philodemus describes how some thinkers
do not regard (the gods) as shaped like humans, but things of mist and gusts and aether; so that I for one would be so bold as to say that it was these things that were of much greater interest to Diagoras.
This has neat parallels in other texts associated with late 5th century beliefs about the gods. First, the satirical: Aristophanes’ Clouds and Frogs both cast contemporary thinkers as interpreting gods as natural phenomena and abstract concepts. Socrates prays as follows (Clouds 263-6):
Let the old man keep a holy silence and listen to the prayer!
O lord and master, immeasurable Mist, you who hold the earth up in the sky!
Bright Aether, and Clouds, revered goddesses and thunder-and-lightning-senders!
Arise, Ladies, and appear in the sky to your thinker!
Similar jokes crop up throughout the play. In a similar vein, when a freethinking satire of Euripides prays, his gods are a ‘new coinage’, κόμμα καινόν (Frogs 889-94, 405 BCE):
Euripides. I have other gods that I pray to.
Dionysus. What are your private ones? A new coinage?
Euripides. Absolutely.
Dionysus. Go on then, pray to these private gods.
Euripides. O Aether, my sustenance! O Pivot of my tongue!
  O Comprehension, and keen-scented Nostrils! ...
And lastly, a serious religious tract known as the Derveni papyrus. This is a late 5th century treatise which includes an allegorical interpretation of a poem attributed to Orpheus. The poem itself was a traditional mythological one, but the interpretation is a mystical blend of metaphysics and 5th century theology. It is often difficult to follow. However, column 17 of the papyrus should convey my point clearly enough:
For ‘Mist’ existed before the solidification of the present universe, and will always exist; that is to say, it did not come into being, but (always) existed. Above we outlined why it was named ‘Mist’. It was imagined that it came into being, because it was named ‘Zeus’ -- as though it had not existed previously. And (Orpheus) says that it will be ‘last’, for it was named ‘Zeus’ and this name will persist in existing for it until the present universe solidifies into the same form in which it was previously suspended. (Orpheus) shows that this is why the universe became the way it now is ...
Again, similar themes crop up all through the treatise. Zeus is equated with ‘Mist’ -- which, we are told in column 18, is also a ‘wind’ (τῶι ἀέρ̣ι̣ [πνε]ῦμα ἐόν; compare Philodemus’ words about Diagoras’ beliefs) -- but he is also equated with ‘Will’. Olympus is equated with ‘Time’, and hence also with Zeus’ mythical father Kronos (reinterpreted as chronos, ‘time’), but Kronos is also reinterpreted as ‘the Mind that Collides’ (krou- + no-), the cosmic principle that formed the cosmos into its present state.

Aristophanes’ jokes are not just jokes: a number of thinkers, including Diagoras and Anaxagoras, and probably others like Protagoras and Prodicus, took these ideas about the gods very seriously. When Diagoras gets called an ‘atheist’, as Philodemus tells us, it is because these are the gods he believed in.

Or, perhaps, ‘invented’ would be the better word: for it looks very much as if all these figures, both satirical and real, were could be charged with ‘not recognising the gods that the city recognises, and introducing new divinities’. And as it happens, we know one of them actually was charged with this -- Diagoras.

We can’t be sure that it was the same in Socrates’ case. Plato and Xenophon can’t be trusted to give an accurate picture of the real Socrates’ beliefs about the gods. In Plato’s Apology he firmly rejects the charge of being a true atheist. He may have had conventional beliefs about the gods; or he may have been an atheist in the same sense that Diagoras was.

Equally, we’ll never know whether Socrates was really implicated in the crimes of the Thirty Tyrants; we’ll never know whether he did in fact ‘introduce new divinities’ in the sense that Diagoras did. But he was certainly no martyr for atheism, at least not in anything like the modern sense of the word. He may possibly have been a martyr for freethinking. Personally, I find the the surviving fragments of Critias’ writings about atheism to be as least as dogmatic as any theism. But Plato is much less dogmatic; who in the 21st century is to say which of them is the closer reflection of their teacher?



Further reading
  • Janko, Richard 2006. ‘Socrates the freethinker.’ In: S. Ahbel-Rappe and R. Kamtekar (eds.) A companion to Socrates (Blackwell), 48-62.
  • Whitmarsh, Tim 2015. Battling the gods: atheism in the ancient world (Random House), esp. ch. 9.