Bust of Socrates


Materials: cast polymer resin immitating marble
Dimensions:  12 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Olympia, Greece, 2003
Place of manufacture:  unknown

For a small souvenir bust this is quite a characterful likeness. Whether it is a likeness of Socrates we will never know, but it conforms to the stereotype of the slightly puggish, balding, bearded eccentric that has come down to us from more ancient busts of him. I bought it in a souvenir shop in Olympia, Greece. The ancient philosopher is part of the repertoire of Greece's heritage and souvenir industry and the visiting tourist has a wide range of Socratic busts to choose from.

But Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) is an enigmatic figure. He is considered the father of ancient Greek (and therefore European) philosophy, but we don’t have a single word of his own that has come down to us. Everything we know about his life and his ideas comes from the writings of other people. Mostly from Plato, who used his old teacher Socrates as a sort of alter-ego in his Dialogues. Socrates stars in them as the philosophical interrogator who methodically questions his way through one moral maze after another to arrive at his conclusions. How much of the reasoning was Socrates’ and how much he was just a mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas will never be totally clear. But the Socratic Method, that process of dialectic reasoning essential to critical thinking, clearly comes from Socrates and is perhaps his most valuable contribution to European thought.

His lack of a body of written work was no accident. It was a principled position taken by Socrates himself against what he saw as the ambiguity and ‘laziness’ of the written word. He believed instead in the robust rhetoric of the spoken word, and purposely never wrote anything down. It’s ironic therefore that his lasting influence is down to his pupil, Plato, who conversely wrote a great deal and used his master as a spokesperson. Even Socrates’ hostile attitude to writing we learn of through one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues called The Phaedrus in which Socrates and an Athenian youth called Phaedrus discuss, amongst much else, the merits of speechmaking over writing.

The interesting thing about this is its strange familiarity. It seems to be a forerunner of so many subsequent anxieties and debates about what we would now call new media technologies – printing versus manuscript; radio versus print; television versus radio .... computers, the internet, hypertext, e-books, text messaging, twitter etc. etc. In our modern debates the written word forms a sort of gold standard, it is impossible to think of our culture without it. But for Socrates it was a dangerous and corrupting new influence.