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The Effect of Socrates

Although Socrates, unlike the sophists, offered no courses and took no fees1, his effect on many people was as upsetting as the relativistic doctrines of the sophists had been. Indeed, Socrates's refutation of his fellow conversationalists' most cherished certainties, indirectly expressed through his method of questioning, made some of his interlocutors decidedly uncomfortable. Unhappiest of all were the fathers whose sons, after listening to Socrates reduce someone to utter bewilderment, came home to try the same technique on their parents2. Men who experienced this reversal of the traditional hierarchy of education between parent and child— the son was supposed to be educated by the father— had cause to feel that Socrates's effect, even if it was not his intention, was to undermine the stability of society by questioning Athenian traditions and inspiring young men to do the same with the passionate enthusiasm of their youth. We cannot say with certainty what Athenian women thought of Socrates or he of them. His thoughts about human capabilities and behavior could be applied to women as well as to men3, and he perhaps believed that women and men both had the same basic capacity for justice. Nevertheless, the realities of Athenian society meant that Socrates circulated primarily among men and addressed his ideas to them and their situations. He is, however, reported to have had numerous conversations with Aspasia4, the courtesan who lived with Pericles for many years, and Plato has Socrates attribute his ideas on love to a woman, the otherwise-unknown priestess Diotima5 of Mantinea. Whether these contacts were real or fictional devices remains uncertain.

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