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SOCRATES AS A CHARACTER
To appreciate both the dialogue form and the substance of The Republic, it helps to have an understanding of the character Socrates. First of all, Socrates claims to have no knowledge. He is not a formal teacher who demands money for his marketplace wisdom, nor is he an introspective, solitary sage who sits above the world on a mountain of knowledge. instead he is a gregarious man who enjoys the public examination of ideas; he is a philosopher, a seeker-not a knower-of truth. Throughout The Republic he warns his companions that his words should not be written in stone; that is, he's not dogmatic or tied to a system of doctrine. However, once the exploration of the meaning and significance of justice is initiated, he is willing to lead the inquiry and to pursue persistently the logical strands of the discussion.
In his dialogues Plato portrays Socrates as a social man, inquisitive and intense, witty and insightful, and with a kind of arrogance that goes with the territory of knowing one's own talents and limitations. But is Plato's portrayal of the character Socrates faithful to the historical Socrates?
Practically nothing is known for certain about the "real" Socrates. And scholars disagree on what sources present the truest account of the man. Some scholars say to turn to Xenophon, an Athenian writer younger than Plato who depicted Socrates as an excellent preacher of practical ethics, yet as a man uninspired by philosophic speculation and unconcerned with theoretical discussions. Other scholars say to go to the writings of Plato's student, Aristotle. And yet others declare that Socrates is a pure myth, a legendary figure who never actually existed. Nevertheless, more scholars than not believe that Plato's dialogues present the best account of the real Socrates. But, in fact, whether there was a real Socrates and what he was like remain a mystery.
The Republic does not offer you a complete picture of the character Socrates. To know more about him you would have to read a number of Plato's other dialogues. But it is not necessary to read these other dialogues to see the qualities that so greatly inspired Plato (whether an imaginative inspiration or a real-life one). Socrates' lucid, witty, exciting intelligence is apparent throughout The Republic.
Scholars disagree on the time of the setting of The Republic. Some say 421 B.C., others say 411 B.C., Which places Socrates' age at either fifty or sixty years old. Perhaps Plato had no particular date in mind when he wrote the dialogue a number of years after Socrates' death (399 B.C.), except to set it during a pause in the Peloponnesian War.