Theft or Inheritance? Socrates Vs. Plato, the Ultimate Philosophical Battle

Who is the real master here? Is it Socrates because of his great discourses or Plato because he absorbed all that knowledge and wrote about it?

Isabel Cara

Theft or Inheritance? Socrates Vs. Plato

The relationship between a teacher and his student is currently believed to be a tense one based on scolding, obedience, and often fear. The dialogues, conversations, and long discussions are long gone. The teachings that took place outside the classroom are less common, and that is why it’s important to talk about the relationship between Socrates and Plato, the ultimate master and student duo in history. A great teacher and a great student, that became the two greatest masters of classical philosophy.

But, who is the real master here? Is it Socrates because of his great discourses or Plato because he absorbed all that knowledge and wrote about it? Socrates dedicated his life to polemics and teaching. Public squares, artisan shops, gyms, or any other place where he could find young men who wished to be enlightened and willing to talk to him, answer his questions, and look for the truth. For him, ethical values and virtue had to be absolutely justified, unrelated to circumstances but accessible to reason.

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Socrates wrote nothing. Despite having a large following, he didn’t create a philosophical school. The so-called Socratic Schools were an initiative of his followers. There are various testimonies about his philosophical activity, like those of Xenophon, Aristophanes, or Plato. They promote the so-called Socratic problem, that is, the fixation on Socrates’ authentic personality and the contents of his teachings.

It is believed that Socrates was mainly interested in the formation of good men, which would reduce his philosophical activities to that of a practical moralist. The interest in logic or metaphysical questions would be completely foreign to Socrates.

More problems are raised by the interpretation of the Platonic Socrates. Do the theories attributed to Socrates in the Platonic dialogues belong to the historical character or do they belong to Plato’s thinking? The traditional point of view is that Plato put his own theories in Socrates’ words in large fragments of his transition and maturity dialogues, while it is accepted that the youth dialogues reproduce Socratic thinking. This position would be reinforced by Aristotle’s comments about Socrates and Plato’s relationship.

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The truth he searched for, was it theoretical or practical? Everything seems to indicate that Socrates’ intentions were practical. He sought to discover the knowledge that would serve to live, that is, to determine the true values. Socrates exerted a great influence on Plato, but also on other philosophers who had been his disciples and would continue their studies in different and even opposite directions.

In the year 407, when he was twenty, Plato met Socrates through his personality and discourse. That admiration stayed with him through the rest of his life and marked the philosophical future for Plato. It doesn’t seem likely that Plato had a highly intense relationship with the man he considered his teacher. There are a lot of contradictory testimonies about their relationship. He wasn’t present on the day he passed, which leads to think he wasn’t a part of Socrates’ inner circle. But Plato felt huge admiration for Socrates, one he didn’t hold for anyone else.

One of the ideas he inherited from Socrates was that of Dialectic as a method to study what is captured by the senses, the sensitive, and the intelligible or the ideas. Plato’s ethics were influenced by Socrates and it is followed by the theory of Ideas, where true virtue comes from true knowledge or ideas. They both had in common their opposition to the theories of the Sophists. Plato was influenced by Socrates through other theories, such as the conception of education and the search por essential definitions, which Plato would turn into ideas.

So what is it? The truth is, both thinkers set the foundations of philosophy that are still used today, and even if Plato put his own thoughts on Socrates’ persona, there was a clear influence in his work.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva