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COLLECTIONLetters from the Universal House of Justice
TITLESocrates in History and the Bahá'í Writings
AUTHOR 1 Universal House of Justice
ABSTRACTHistorical facts known about Socrates, some of the difficulties inherent in endeavouring to unravel the historical Socrates, and quotations from the Bahá'í Writings.
NOTES This is a message from the Research Dept. to an unidentified addressee, of which I was provided a copy. I was sent both an email version and a paper version, and I constructed an HTML version incorporating the formatting in the paper version and hypertext links to the footnotes and sources. The section numbering begins at 2 because another question was asked on which the Research Dept. had no information, so that part of the communication was not worth posting. [-R.W., 1998]
TAGS- Philosophy; Philosophers; Philosophy, Greek; Research Department, Questions and answers; Socrates
    1. Socrates
    1.1 Bahá'í Perspective
    1.2 Documentation
    1.21 Jewish Sources
    1.22 Arab Sources
Extract from a Memorandum Prepared by the Research Department
at the Instruction of the Universal House of Justice
22 October 1995

1. Socrates

1.1 Bahá'í Perspective

To provide a background for considering ...'s question about whether the Universal House of Justice can confirm the statements in the Bahá'í Writings about Socrates, we attach a compilation of all the available extracts in the English language which pertain to Socrates [online here] and which also serve to highlight some of the difficulties inherent in endeavouring to unravel the historical Socrates. From a study of the excerpts in this compilation, we call attention to the following points:

  • The Bahá'í Writings assert that the Greek philosophers were influenced by religion, that they had contact with Hebrew sages.
  • With the flowering of the reign of Solomon, the Greek philosophers journeyed to Jerusalem to learn from the sages and to acquire an understanding of Israelite law. See, for example, [6] and [8].
  • The Bahá'í Teachings indicate that Socrates travelled to Palestine and Syria [4] [5] and, more generally, to the Holy Land [8] [9].
  • The information about Socrates is derived from what "is recorded in eastern histories". It includes "many facts which are not included in Jewish history" [4].
  • The histories of the times before Alexander the Great tend to be very confused and unreliable, and even when the field of history "became an orderly and systematized discipline", the problem of giving precise dates for events in the remote past remained a difficulty [2] [15] [16].
  • In relation to the Tablet of Wisdom, the Universal House of Justice states that, while Bahá'u'lláh is quoting "the historical accounts familiar to the person He is addressing in the Tablet ... for the sake of illustrating the spiritual principles that He wishes to convey", this "does not necessarily mean that He is endorsing their historical accuracy" [16].1
  • With regard to `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements concerning the visit of Socrates to the Holy Land, letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi indicate that:
  • "Historians cannot be sure Socrates did not visit the Holy Land" [13].
To date, we have no documentary evidence to support the Master's statement concerning what is "recorded in eastern histories" about Socrates' visiting the Holy Land [11]. Bahá'ís accept the "authority [of `Abdu'l-Bahá] on this matter" [13], since we believe that He had "an intuitive knowledge" [13] and since He affirmed the source of the report [4].

There is the possibility that historical "proof may come to light through research in the future" [11] [14].

1.2 Documentation

The Research Department has been able neither to document the sources of the statements referred to by `Abdu'l-Bahá nor to identify the particular "eastern histories" from which He drew. The task is potentially complicated by such factors as the antiquity of the subject, the problems of chronology, the challenge of distinguishing the historical Socrates from the legend, the difficulty of collecting and assessing source materials, the possibility that important documents may have been lost, the fragmentary nature of the historical evidence, and the shifting of geographical and political borders.

While the Department lacks the resources and time to undertake a detailed study, we offer the following information from Jewish and Arab secondary sources. Although these sources do not, immediately, appear to place Socrates in the Holy Land, they may well serve as a possible contribution to a further consideration of this subject. We have not attempted to resolve potential contradictions nor have we been able to inspect all of the materials to which we refer.

1.21 Jewish Sources

Though `Abdu'l-Bahá indicates that the Jewish histories provide a less complete treatment of the contact between the Greek philosophers and the Jewish sages than the "eastern histories", it is interesting to observe references to Socrates in two entries in the Encyclopaedia Judaica:

  • In the Aggadah, Socrates was said to have been the disciple of Ahithophel, the adviser to King David (Moses Isserles, Torat ha-Olah 1:11, quoting an old source).2
  • The Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, Aristobulus of Paneas, who lived in the first half of the second century B.C.E., fragments of whose writings are preserved in books and manuscripts, is reported to have claimed that
  • portions of the Pentateuch had been rendered into Greek before it was translated in its entirety ... and that these portions reached Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato and formed the basis of their philosophical teachings. In developing their philosophical systems these Greek philosophers were influenced by the biblical account of creation.3
    Aristobulus supported his contention that the source of Greek philosophy lies in the Bible by citing in his work many passages from ancient Greek literature which, to his mind, reflect biblical ideas. There are indications that these citations were taken from a collection of quotations which was used as a means for propagating the Jewish religion in the Hellenistic world.4
  • Other sources indicate that as early as the third century B.C.E., Jewish thinkers made use of the intellectual strategies provided by Hellenistic philosophy to explain and defend the foundations of belief in one God. A well-known model for the reasoned defence of belief and practice was Socrates' address before the Athenian court in 399 B.C.E., which is preserved in Plato's Apology.5
  • Philo Judaeus (c. 20 B.C.E. - 50 C.E.), a Jewish thinker and author of an elaborate synthesis of Jewish religious thought and Greek philosophy, put Moses forward as the teacher of Pythagoras and of all Greek philosophers and law-givers.6 Likewise, Josephus (first century of the C.E.) claimed that the Greek philosophers were among the first imitators of Mosaic law,7 and Maimonides (1135-1204 C.E.) expressed the view that "Greek Philosophy was a derivative from Hebraic inspiration".8
1.22 Arab Sources

The original source materials concerning Socrates are derived from the Greek works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, and later, from the life of Socrates by Diogenes Laertius. These were later translated into Arabic and, in the process, additional details were added. The recent book by Ilai Alon, entitled Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature (Leiden—Jerusalem: E. J. Brill, 1991) provides a useful listing of Arabic sources and an analysis of some of the anecdotes, sayings and evaluations of Socrates found in these sources. We attach, for ...'s interest, information about the major books and authors mentioned by Alon, together with his list of abbreviations. While we have not had the opportunity to examine the individual texts referred to, these references might well be worthy of further research.

We call attention to the following points derived from Alon's Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature:

  • Some of the early treatises which refer to Socrates, including those by Al-Kindí, whose works were the source for most of the material reported by Arab authors, have been lost.
  • The proliferation of sayings and anecdotes about Socrates and the other Greek philosophers tends to be chaotic. The books differ in the number of sayings reported and the degree of detail provided. No two texts are fully identical.
  • In general, with the exception of his trial and death, few details appear to be available about the life of Socrates. The material concentrates more on his sayings and the quality of his life. Alon underlines the fact that Socrates was very well-known among Arab historians, geographers, poets and mystics, and hadíth scholars. He states: "If they did not always know him by name, then they did by the contents of his teaching" (p. 40).
  • According to the various Arabic sources, Alon notes that Pythagoras, who received his education or part of it in Egypt, was one of Socrates' teachers. He observes that "al-Suyútí mentions Socrates as having himself spent some time in that country" (p. 55).9
  • It also appears that Socrates maintained contact with various groups of people other than his compatriots. Alon states: "We learn from Ibn al-Nadím that al-Kindí wrote a treatise in which he recounted `What happened between Socrates and the Harraneans'" (p. 56).10 Harran, an important centre on the trade route and seat of the Assyrian moon god, is frequently mentioned in the Bible. It was the home of Abraham's family after the migration from Ur.
    1. Concerning this Tablet, the following footnote appears in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988), p. 144:
    In many of the passages that follow concerning the Greek philosophers, Bahá'u'lláh quotes verbatim from the works of such Muslim historians as Abu'l-Fath-i-Shahristání (1076-1153 A.D.) and Imádu'd-Dín Abu'l-Fidá (1273-1331 A.D.).
    2. Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 465-66.
    3. ibid., vol. 3, p. 444.
    4. ibid., vol. 3, pp. 443-45.
    5. Mircea Eliade, editor in chief, The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), vol. 1, p. 349.
    6. ibid., vol. 11, pp. 287-88.
    7. ibid., vol. 1, p. 350.
    8. David Yellin and Israel Abrahams, Maimonides, His Life and Works, rev. ed. (New York: Hermon Press, 1972), pp. 118-19. A footnote appearing on p. 169 of this work contains the following additional information. For ease of reference we added the complete citations, where available, in square brackets:
    Philo, Josephus, Eusebius (Prep. Ev. ix.3 [La Préparation Evangélique (Paris: Du Cerf, 1974), in 15 volumes]), and Arab authors all repeat this theory. See the references in Buxtorff (end of his edition of the Cusari [Liber Cosri (Farnborough, Hants.: Gregg, 1971)]), Munk (Mélanges, p. 466 Mélanges de Philosophie Juive et Arabe (Paris: S.N., 1859)]), and Jellinek (in Contros Havichuach). These facts are collected by Harkavy, Appendix to Hebrew Graetz, iv. p. 57 [Heinrich Graetz, Popular History of the Jews (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1919), in 5 volumes].
    9. See al-Suyútí, Jalál al-Dín, Husn al-muhádarah fí ta'rikh Misr wal-Qáhirah (Cairo, 1967), I 60, 7.
    10. Ibn al-Nadím, al-Fihrist, 260, 4.
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