Aeschines Socraticus

From New World Encyclopedia

Aeschines Socraticus (c. 425 – c. 350 B.C.E.) (Greek: Αἰσχίνης, sometimes but now rarely written as Aischines or Æschines), son of Lysanias, of the deme Sphettus of Athens, was in his youth a follower of Socrates. He is called Aeschines Socraticus—"the Socratic Aeschines”—by historians to distinguish him from the more historically influential Athenian orator named Aeschines.

According to Plato, Aeschines of Sphettus was present at the trial and execution of Socrates. After Socrates' death, Aeschines went on to write philosophical dialogues, just as Plato did, in which Socrates played the role of the main interlocutor. Though Aeschines' dialogues have survived only in the form of fragments and quotations by later writers, he was renowned in antiquity for his accurate portrayal of Socratic conversations. His works give a clear account of the teachings of Socrates. Aeschines confirms that Socrates considered women to have equal political and intellectual value with men, that knowledge was essential to virtue and to political success, and that virtue was more desirable than wealth and social status.


Information about the life of Aeschinus Socraticus comes from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers and from references to him in the works of other philosophers and writers. Aeschines was born an Athenian citizen, the son of Lysanias, a sausage maker. According to Diogenes he had an industrious disposition and was steadily devoted to Socrates, so that Socrates remarked that the son of the sausage-maker was the only one who knew how to pay him proper respect. Diogenes quotes Idomeneus of Lampsacus as saying that Aeschines was the one who tried to persuade Socrates to make his escape from prison rather than face execution (Plato attributed this action to Crito).

Aeschines apparently had little wealth and was often in need; Diogenes says that Socrates once advised him to “borrow from himself” by cutting down on his expenditures for food. Eventually, because his circumstances were so difficult, he went to Sicily and stayed with the tyrant Dionysius the Younger until he was deposed by Dion, and gave him some of his dialogues in exchange for presents.

Returning to Athens, he did not take up the usual trade of the sophists, teaching rhetoric, because Plato and Aristippus were already well-established. Instead he gave lectures for money, and wrote speeches for litigants defending themselves in court. Athenaeus quotes a passage from a lost trial speech by Lysias, Against Aeschines, in which Aeschines' adversary chastises him for incurring a debt while working as a perfume vendor and not paying it back, a turn of events that is surprising, the speaker alleges, because Aeschines was a student of Socrates and both of them spoke so frequently of virtue and justice. Among other charges, Aeschines is basically characterized as a sophist in the speech. According to Diogenes, this speech points to Aeschines’ skill as an orator.

Diogenes says that Aeschines wrote some works in imitation of the rhetorician Gorgias. Diogenes also reports that Aeschines was accused on several occasions of plagiarism; that he borrowed from Antisthenes, the Alcibiades and the dialogues of other philosophers; and that Menedemus said he appropriated many dialogues of Socrates as his own. From Hegesander of Delphi (second century C.E.), via Athenaeus, we hear that Plato stole away Aeschines' only student, Xenocrates. But Hegesander is notoriously unreliable, and the story is entirely uncorroborated. There is no other evidence of Aeschines' having a "philosophy" of his own to teach or any followers of his own.

Socratic Dialogues

We know from Eminent Lives that Aeschines wrote the following dialogues: Alcibiades (not to be confused with either Platonic dialogue of the same name), Aspasia, Axiochus (not to be confused with the dialogue of the same name erroneously included in the Platonic corpus), Callias, Miltiades, Rhinon, Telauges. Of these, significant fragments remain of Alcibiades and the Aspasia. Each of these dialogues sets out, in colorful and sophisticated prose, a major tenet of Socratic thought. The second-century C.E. sophist Publius Aelius Aristides quotes from the Alicibiades at length, preserving for us the largest surviving chunk of Aeschines' written work. Just before World War I, Arthur Hunt recovered a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus containing a long, fragmentary passage from this dialogue that had been lost since ancient times. In the dialogue, Socrates converses with a young, ambitious Alcibiades about Themistocles, and argues that Alcibiades is unprepared for a career in politics because he thinks he knows more than he actually does on matters of the most importance. Socrates seems to argue that success is directly proportional to knowledge (though knowledge alone may not be sufficient for complete success), instead of depending merely on fortune or divine dispensation. Socrates' arguments cause the usually cocky Alcibiades to weep in shame and despair, an incident which Plato also records in the Symposium. Socrates claims that it is only through loving Alcibiades that he can improve him, since Socrates has no knowledge of his own to teach.

Major sources for the Aspasia are Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Cicero. In the dialogue, Socrates recommends that Callias (grandson of the more famous Callias who served in the battle of Marathon) send his son Hipponicus to Aspasia (a well-known Greek woman philosopher and teacher) to learn politics. In the dialogue, Socrates argues that women are capable of the exact same military and political "virtues" as are men. He proves this by referring Callias to the examples of Aspasia herself (who advised Pericles), Thargelia of Miletus (a courtesan who supposedly persuaded many Greeks to ally themselves with Xerxes, who in turn gave Thargelia part of Thessaly to rule), and the legendary Persian warrior-princess Rhodogune (this doctrine of equal virtues in men and women is also found in Plato's Meno and Republic, and so is confirmed as genuinely Socratic). A certain Xenophon is also mentioned in the dialogue; Socrates says that Aspasia exhorted this Xenophon and his wife to cultivate knowledge of self as a means to virtue. The Xenophon in this dialogue is probably distinct from Xenophon of Erchia, who is more familiar to us as another author of Socratic memoirs.

In the Telauges, Socrates converses with the Pythagorean ascetic Telauges (a companion of Hermogenes who was Callias' half-brother and a follower of Socrates) and Crito's young son Critobolus. In the dialogue, Socrates criticizes Telauges for his extreme asceticism and Crito for his ostentatiousness, apparently in an attempt to argue for a moderate position.

The Axiochus, named after the uncle of Alcibiades, contained a condemnation of the vices into which Alcibiades had fallen. Evidently, like the Alcibiades, it was one of the many works that the Socratics published to clear Socrates of any blame for Alcibiades' corruption.

In the Callias, there is a discussion of the "correct use" of wealth; it is argued that one’s attitude in circumstances of poverty is a better measure of virtue than how well one makes use of wealth.

The Miltiades is a dialogue between Socrates, Euripides, Hagnon (leader of the colonization of Amphipolis and stepfather of Theramenes), and Miltiades, son of Stesagoras (not to be confused with Miltiades the Younger). This may be the Miltiades who would later accompany Lysander to the Athenian Assembly where the rule of the Thirty Tyrants was established. The extant fragments of the dialogue make it clear that the conversation took place in the stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, but they tell us little else.

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The extant fragments and quotations concerning Aeschines were collected by the German scholar Heinrich Dittmar in his Aischines von Sphettos of 1912. That collection has been superseded by the Italian scholar Gabriele Giannantoni's 1991 work on Socratic writings Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae. English translations are hard to find. G.C. Field, in his Plato and His Contemporaries (1930, out of print), has a translation of some of the Alcibiades fragments—and paraphrases the other Alcibiades fragments—and a translation of one of the fullest passages we have from the Aspasia (namely from Cicero's De Inventione 1.31.51-52). More recently, David Johnson has published a translation of the all the extant passages from the Alcibiades in his Socrates and Alcibiades (2003).

  • Arendt, Hannah (ed.) and Ralph Manheim (trans.).The Great Philosophers by Karl Jaspers. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Reprint edition, 1966. Harvest Books. ISBN 0156720353
  • Commins, Saxe and Robert N. Linscott (eds.).The World's Great Thinkers. New York: Random House, 1947.
  • Dobson, John Frederic. The Greek Orators. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. ISBN 0890050503
  • Field, G. C. Plato and His Contemporaries: A Study in Fourth-Century Life and Thought with a Frontispiece - Second Edition (Fourth Century). Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1948.
  • Johnson, David. Socrates and Alcibiades: Four Texts (Focus Philosophical Library). Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2003. ISBN 1585100692

External Links

All links retrieved June 16, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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