Chekhov to Socrates, greetings

In doing research for my book-in-process, I have learned that the ancient Greeks opened their letters like this: “Alcibiades to Perictyone, greeting.” Or if the writer perceived the recipient to be of a higher class, the salutation might go “To Perictyone from Alcibiades, greeting.”

The subject of my recent studies is Socrates. I hadn’t given him much dedicated thought since taking a few philosophy courses as an arts undergraduate years ago. I assumed Plato’s Socrates was an accurate representation of the real Socrates and the views Plato put forward as Socrates’s actually belonged to Socrates.

Well, now classical scholars have taught me through their books that it’s not so clear and maybe in some of his dialogues, Plato attributes his own views to Socrates. (For example, possibly the theory of forms did not interest the real Socrates, even though “Socrates” is its exponent in several Platonic dialogues.)

As far as we know, the only other contemporary of Socrates who wrote quite a bit about him, sometimes also in the form of Socratic dialogues, was Xenophon. Same problem, the scholars say.

So we’ve got the real Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, and two constructions we can informally call Socraplat and Socraxen. It’s not easy for the scholars to sort out which is which.

Well, dang. I know Socrates was dedicated to the art of conversation and made a point of not writing anything down. But I wish someone had encouraged, cajoled, or even nagged him into setting aside half a day a week to record his thoughts. I can see him now. He’s gregarious. So he sits down in the courtyard of his house while his little boys run around, and he assembles his materials. Today may be a tablet day. He’s gathered up some wax-covered tablets and a wooden stylus. And he writes. Or perhaps a new shipment of papyrus has come in and he picked some up at the agora yesterday while philosophizing with the merchant. He sets out a few papyrus sheets, a quill pen and a pot of ink made from soot, water, and gum arabic.

Socrates loves to talk and listen, not write, so he is going to keep his writings pretty short. They take the form of vignettes, similar to so many of the stories Chekhov would write thousands of years later while running a busy medical practice. “Conversation with an Athenian Horse Trainer,” by Socrates. “A Slave Stops to Talk in the Market,” by Socrates.

So one thing I’ve learned in revisiting Socrates is that it’s probably a good idea to write something down, even though it is not perfect and never will be. I think Socrates might agree. For sure Socraplat would.