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Fathers Of The Church, Catholic Edition

Life of Socrates

We cannot but regret the fact that the age in which Socrates lived cared little, if at all, about recording the lives of its literary men. The only sources of information in this respect are the writings themselves of these literary men and the public records, in case they held the double character of literary men and political or ecclesiastical officials. As Socrates did not participate in the public affairs of his day, our information respecting him is confined to the scanty and incidental items we may gather from his history. As he was not very fond of speaking of himself, these data are few and often of doubtful significance. In fact, the reconstruction of his biography from these scattered items is a matter of difficult critical investigation.

All that these inadequate materials yield of his biography may be summed up as follows:

He was born in Constantinople. He nowhere mentions his parents or ancestry, and no information has reached us on this point from any other source. The year of his birth is inferred from what he says of his education at the hands of the grammarians Helladius and Ammonias. These grammarians were originally Egyptian priests living in Alexandria—the former of Jupiter, and the latter of Pithecus (Simius); they fled from their native city in consequence of the disturbances which followed the cleansing of the Mithreum and destruction of the Serapeum by the bishop Theophilus. It appears that at that time an open conflict took place between the pagans and Christians, and many of the pagans having taken part in the tumult, laid themselves open to criminal prosecution, and to avoid this, took refuge in other cities,—a large number of them naturally in Constantinople. TheChronicon of Marcellinus puts this event in the consulship of Timasius and Promotus, i.e. 389 a.d. Now, as Socrates was very young when he came to these grammarians, and it was the custom to send children to the schools at the age of ten, Valesius has reasoned that Socrates must have been born in 379; others have named 380 as a more probable date for this event. Other data for ascertaining the exact date of Socrates’ birth are of very doubtful significance. He speaks, for instance, of Auxanon, a Novatian presbyter, from whom he had received certain information; but as Auxanon lived till after the accession of Theodosius the Younger in 408 a.d., it is impossible to draw any conclusion from this fact. So again Socrates mentions the patriarchate of Chrysostom in Constantinople (398–403) as if he had received his information at second hand, and thus implies that he was perhaps too young to be an interested eye-witness of the events of that period. But how young he was we cannot infer from this fact; and so cannot take the patriarchate of Chrysostom as a starting-point for our chronology of Socrates’ life. Still another item that might have served as a datum in the case, had it been definitely associated with a known event in Socrates’ career, is his mention of a dispute between the Eunomians and Macedonians which took place in Constantinople in 394. If he were an eye-witness of this quarrel, he must have been old enough to take an interest in it, hence about fourteen or fifteen years of age. But this conclusion, even though it coincides exactly with the date found previously (379), is not at all certain, as he does not state that he was an eye-witness; and if the reasoning is correct, then he was not too young to be interested in the events of Chrysostom’s patriarchate which occurred a little later. Thus, on the whole, while it is extremely probable that Valesius is right in setting the date of Socrates’ birth in 379, this event may have taken place several years later.

Nothing further is known of Socrates’ early life and education except that he studied under Ammonius and Helladius, as already noted. Valesius has conjectured from the mention of Troilus, the famous rhetorician, that Socrates must have received instruction from this teacher also, but with no sufficient foundation.

Socrates always remained a resident of Constantinople, and was evidently proud of his native city, and fond of alluding to its history as well as its actual condition. He relates how the Emperor Constantine enlarged it and gave it its present name in place of the former heathen name it bore (Byzantium). He speaks of its populousness, and at the same time of its ability to support its many inhabitants from its abundant resources. He looks on its public structures very much as the ancient Israelite did on the towers and battlements’ of Jerusalem. He mentions especially the walls built by Theodosius the Younger, the Forums of Constantine and Theodosius, the Amphitheatre, the Hippodrome with its Delphic tripods, the baths, especially that called Zeuxippus, the churches of which he names at different times as many as five; viz.: the church of the Apostles, erected by Constantine especially for the burying of the emperors and priests; the church of St. Sophia, which he calls the great church’; the church of St. Irene, located in the same enclosure as that of St. Sophia; the church of St. Acacius, together with its appendages; and the chapel of St. John, built seven miles outside the city. Besides these he also mentions circumstantially the porch and shambles and porphyry column near which Arius was attacked with his sudden and fatal illness, the region called Sycae, and the tomb of Alexander the Paphlagonian, who was tortured and died in prison during the temporary supremacy of the Arians.

Although there is no distinct mention of his ever having left the great city, it is improbable that, like his great Athenian namesake, he was averse to traveling. In fact, his frequent mention of the customs of Paphlagonians, Thessalians, Cyprians, and others with minuteness of detail, rather gives the impression that he had visited these places.

According to the preponderance of evidence Socrates was trained as a pleader or advocate, and practiced this profession for a time. Hence his cognomen of Scholasticus. At the instance of a certain Theodorus he undertook to write a continuation of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, bringing it down to the seventeenth consulate of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (439 a.d.).

This year is the last definitely mentioned in his work. He must have lived, however, until some time after that date, as he speaks of a revision of the first two books of the History. How much later it is impossible to tell: it was not certainly till after the end of Theodosius’ reign; for then he would have brought down his history to that event, and thus completed his seventh book according to the plan, which is evident in his whole work, of assigning one complete book to each one of the emperors comprised in his period.

Of the character of Socrates as a man we know as little as of the events of his life. Evidently he was a lover of peace, as he constantly speaks with abhorrence of the atrocities of war, and deprecates even differences in theological standpoint on account of the strife and ill-feeling which they engender.

Socrates’ knowledge of Latin has been inferred from his use of Rufinus, but Dodwell conjectures that Socrates read Rufinus in a Greek translation, and that such translation had been made by Gelasius.

Inasmuch as he lived in, and wrote of, an age of controversies, and his testimony must be weighed according to his theological standpoint, this standpoint has been made the subject of careful study. There is no doubt left by his explicit declarations about his agreement in the main with the position of the orthodox or catholic church of his age, as far as these are distinguished from those of Arians, Macedonians, Eunomians, and other heretics. But as to his attitude towards Novatianism there has been considerable difference of opinion. That he was a member of the Novatian sect has been held after Nicephorus Callisti by Baronius, Labbaeus, and others, and argued from various considerations drawn from his work. Some of these are: that he gives the succession of the Novatian bishops of Constantinople; that he knows and mentions Novatian bishops of other places, e.g. of Rome, of Scythia, of Nicaea; that he mentions Novatian churches as existing in Phrygia and Paphlagonia, in Lydia, in Cyzicum, in Nicaea, in Nicomedia and Cotyaeum, and in Alexandria; that he knows and describes their church edifices; that he knows their internal troubles and trials, especially their position on the Paschal controversy; that he gives vent to expressions of a sympathetic nature with the rigor practiced by the Novatian church; that he records the criticisms of Novatians on Chrysostom and the opinion that his deposition was a just retribution for his persecution of the Novatians; that he attributes miracles to Paul, Novatian bishop of Constantinople, takes the testimony of Novatian witnesses, rejects current charges against them, and finally speaks of the death of Novatian as a martyrdom.

On the other hand, Valesius, followed by most of the more recent writers on Socrates, claims that all these facts are due to the extreme impartiality of the historian, his sense of the justice due to a sect whose good he appreciated, together with his lack of interest in the differences between their standpoint and that of the Catholics. Socrates treats other heretical sects with the same generous consideration, e.g. the Arian Goths, whose death he records as a martyrdom; and yet he has never been suspected of inclining towards Arianism. At the same time he mentions the Novatians as distinct from the Catholic Church, and everywhere implies that the Church for him is the latter.

To account for the apparently different conclusions to which these two series of considerations point, some have assumed that Socrates had been a Novatian, but before the writing of his history had either gradually drifted into the Catholic Church, or for reasons of prudence had severed his connection with the lesser body and entered the state church, retaining, however, throughout his whole course a strong sympathy for the communion of his earlier days. Others attribute his favorable attitude towards Novatianism to his general indifference for theological refinements, others to mere intellectual sympathy for their tenets. In the absence of any definite utterance of his own on the subject, a combination of the last two motives comes nearest to sufficiently explaining the position of Socrates, although his rather unappreciative estimate of Chrysostom and his severe censure of Cyril of Alexandria are both more easily accounted for on the ground of a more intimate relation between the historian and the Novatians, as both of the above-named eminent men were declared enemies of Novatianism.

In other respects it cannot be doubted that the creed of Socrates was very simple and primitive. The one essential article in it was the doctrine of the Trinity; all others were subordinate. Even as to the Trinity, he would have accepted a much less rigid definition than the one propounded at Nicaea. As, however, the latter had been generally adopted by the church, he finds himself defending it against Arianism as well as against all sorts of compromise. He believed in the inspiration of the great synods as well as in that of the Scriptures, and was satisfied to receive without questioning the decisions of the former as he did the teachings of the latter. He was not, however, particular about the logical consequences of his theological positions, but ready to break off upon sufficient extra-theological reasons. His warm defense of Origen and arraignment of Methodius, Eustathius, Apollinaris, and Theophilus, for attempting to belittle the great Alexandrian, shows how his admiration of a genius came into and modified his estimates. He considered all disputes on dogmatic statements as unnecessary and injurious, due to misunderstanding; and this chiefly because the parties in the dispute did not take pains to understand one another, and perhaps did not desire to do so because of personal jealousies or previous and private hatreds. He is willing to refer such lawful questions on doctrinal points as may come before him to the clergy for decision, and is never backward about confessing his ignorance and incompetency to deal with theological refinements.

He makes a cogent defense of the use of pagan writings by Christians, alleging that some of the pagan writers were not far from the knowledge of the true God; that Paul himself had read and used their works; that the neglect or refusal to use them could only lead to ignorance and inability to meet pagans in debate; that St. Paul’s prove all things, hold fast that which is good,’ and Jesus Christ’s be ye approved bankers’ gave distinct support to the study of the whole field of knowledge; and that whatever is worth studying in non-Christian literature is capable of being separated from the rest and known as the truth. Socrates himself was acquainted more or less extensively with the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Xenophon, from among the classic writers, besides those of Porphyry, Libanius, Julian, and Themistius of a later period, and perhaps with those of many others.

One more characteristic of Socrates must be mentioned; viz., his respect for the church and its institutions. He had a high regard for clergymen in virtue of their ordination. And although, as already shown, he took occasion to express himself critically of the highest dignitaries, such as Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, yet the person of a bishop or presbyter is in a certain sense surrounded by sacredness to him. Monks are models of piety. In his eulogy of Theodosius the Younger, he compares the emperor’s devoutness to that of the monks, making the latter, of course, the high-water mark in that respect. But even as respects the ordinances of the church, his regard for them was not slavish or superstitious. He advocates extremely broad views in regard to the observance of Easter, considering a very precise determination of it too formalistic to be consistent with the liberty of the New Dispensation. So, likewise, in regard to many other of the ceremonies of the church, he takes pains to show by a description of the various ways in which they were performed in different quarters that they were not essential, but of subordinate importance.

Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History

Until the beginning of the fourth century historiography remained a pagan science. With the exception of the Acts of the Apostles and its apocryphal imitations, no sort of attempt had been made to record even the annals of the Christian Church. At the opening of the fourth century Eusebius conceived the idea of writing a history which should include a complete account of the Church’s life to his own days. Hence he has correctly been called the Father of Church History. His work was done so satisfactorily to his contemporaries and immediate successors that none of them undertook to go over the same field again. They estimated the thoroughness and accuracy of his work much higher than later ages have done. But this respect, which enhanced the magnitude of his work in their eyes, at the same time inspired many of them with a desire to imitate him.

Thus a school of church historians arose, and a number of continuations of Eusebius’ History were undertaken. Of these, six are known to have seen the light: three of these again are either in part or wholly lost; viz., those of Philippus Sidetes, of Philastorgius, and of Hesychius. The first because of internal characteristics which made it difficult to use; the second because its author was a heretic (an Arian), and with the wane of the sect to which he belonged, his work lost favor and was gradually ostracized by the orthodox, and thus was lost, with the exception of an abstract preserved by Photius; and the third, for reasons unknown and undiscoverable, met with the same fate, not leaving even as much as an abstract behind. The remaining three are the histories of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. That of Theodoret begins with the rise of Arianism, and ends with Theodore of Mopsuestia (429 a.d.). That of Sozomen was begun with the purpose of including the history of the years between 323 (date of the overthrow of Licinius by Constantine) and 439 (the seventeenth consulship of Theodosius the Younger), but for some reason was closed with the death of the Emperor Honorius (423), and so covers just one hundred years. The work of Socrates, being evidently older than either of the other two, is more directly a continuation of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. The motives which actuated him to continue the narratives of Eusebius may be gathered from the work to be his love for history, especially that of his own times, his respect for Eusebius, and the exhortation of Theodorus, to whom the work is dedicated. The author opens with a statement of his purpose to take up the account where Eusebius had left it off, and to review such matters as, according to his judgment, had not been adequately treated by his predecessor. Accordingly he begins with the accession of Constantine (306 a.d.), when the persecution begun by Diocletian came to an end, and stops with the year 439. He mentions the number of years included in his work as 140. As a matter of fact, only 133 years are recorded; but the number given by the author is doubtless not meant to be rather a round than a precise number. The close of his history is the seventeenth consulship of Theodosius the Younger—the same as the proposed end of Sozomen’s work. Why Socrates did not continue his history later is not known, except perhaps because, as he alleges, peace and prosperity seemed to be assured to the church, and history is made not in time of peace, but in the turmoils and disturbances of war and debate. The period covered by the work is very eventful. It is during this period that three of the most important councils of the church were held: those of Nicaea (325), of Constantinople (381), and the first council of Ephesus (431), besides the second of Ephesus, called the “Robbers’ Council” (lestrike), and that of Chalcedon, which were held not much later. It is this period which saw the church coming to the ascendant. Instead of its being persecuted, or even merely tolerated, it then becomes dominant. With its day of peace from without comes the day of its internal strife, and so various sects and heresies spring up and claim attention in church history. Socrates appreciated the importance which these contentions gave to his work.

Geographically Socrates’ work is limited to the East. The western branch of the church is mentioned in it only as it enters into relations with the eastern. The division of the history into seven books is made on the basis of the succession in the eastern branch of the Roman Empire. The seven books cover the reigns of eight eastern emperors. Two of these reigns—that of Julian (361–363) and that of Jovian (363–364)—were so brief that they are combined and put into one book, but otherwise the books are each devoted to the reign of one emperor. The first book treats of the church under Constantine the Great (306–337); the second, of the period under Constantius II. (337–360); the third, of that under Julian and Jovian taken together (360–364); the fourth, of the church under Valens (364–378); the fifth, of Theodosius the Great (379–395); the sixth, of Arcadius (395–408); and the seventh, to those years of Theodosius the Younger (408–439) which came within the period of Socrates’ work.

As the title of the work (‘Ekklesiastike Istoria) indicates, the subject is chiefly the vicissitudes and experiences of the Christian Church; but the author finds various reasons for interweaving with the account of ecclesiastical affairs some record also of the affairs of the state. His statement of these reasons puts first among them the relief his readers would experience by passing from the accounts of the perpetual wranglings of bishops to something of a different character; second, the information which all ought to have on secular as well as ecclesiastical matters; and third, the interlacing of these two lines, on account of which the understanding of the one cannot be full without some knowledge of the other. By a sort of sympathy,’ says he, the church takes part in the disturbances of the state,’ and since the emperors became Christians, the affairs of the church have become dependent on them, and the greatest synods have been held and are held at their bidding.’ It cannot be said, however, that Socrates either thoroughly realized or attempted any systematic treatment of his subject from the point of view of the true relations of church and state; he simply had the consciousness that the two spheres were not as much dissociated as one might assume.

On the general character of Socrates’ History it may be said that, compared with those produced by his contemporaries, it is a work of real merit, surpassing in some respects even that of his great predecessor, Eusebius. The latter has confused his account by adopting, under the influence of his latest informant, differing versions of facts already narrated, without erasing the previous versions or attempting to harmonize or unify them. Compare with this feature Socrates’ careful and complete revision of his first two books on obtaining new and more trustworthy information.

In the collection of his facts Socrates everywhere tried to reach primary sources. A great portion of his work is drawn from oral tradition, the accounts given by friends and countrymen, the common, but not wild, rumors of the capital, and the transient literature of the day. Whenever he depends on such information, Socrates attempts to reach as far as possible the accounts of eye-witnesses, and appends any doubts he may have as to the truth of the statements they make. Of written works he has used for the period where his work and that of Eusebius overlap the latter’s Ecclesiastical History and Life of Constantine; for other events he follows Rufinus, abandoning him, however, in his second edition, whenever he conflicts with more trustworthy authorities. He has also made use of Archelaus’ Acts, of Sabinus’ Collection of the Acts of the Synods, which he criticises for unfairness, Epiphanius’ Ancoratus, George of Laodicea, Athanasius’ Apolog., de Syn., and de Decr. Nic., Evagrius, Palladius, Nestorius, and Origen. Christian writers before Origen are known to him and mentioned by him, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Apollinaris the Elder, Serapion, and others; but he does not seem to have used their works as sources, probably because they threw no light on the subject at hand, his period being entirely different from that in which they flourished. Besides these writers, Socrates has also used public documents, pastoral and episcopal letters, decrees, acts, and other documents not previously incorporated in written works. Some of these the author has used, but does not quote in extenso, on account of their length. Of the sources that he might have used, but has not, may be mentioned Dexippus, Eunapius (chronike historia), Olympiodorus (logoi historikoi), and especially Zosimus, his contemporary (historia nea). Whether these were unknown to him, or whether he deemed it unnecessary to make use of the information given by them, or considered them untrustworthy, it cannot be ascertained. It is sufficient to say that for the period he covers, and the geographical limitation he has put on his work, his array of facts is sufficiently large and to the purpose. The use he makes of these facts also shows sufficiently the historian as thorough as he could be considering the time and environment in which he flourished. There is an evident attempt throughout his work at precision. He marks the succession of bishops, the years in which each event took place by the consulships and Olympiads of Roman and Greek history. He has made painstaking investigations on various topics, such as the different usages in various localities, respecting the observance of Easter, the performance of the rites of baptism and marriage, the manner of fasting, of church assemblies, and other ecclesiastical usages. His accuracy has been questioned from the time of Photius to our own days. It cannot be denied that there are a number of errors in the History. He confused Maximian and Maximin. He ascribes three Creeds’ to the first Council of Sirmium, whereas these belonged to other councils. In general he is confused on the individuals to whom he ascribes the authorship of the Sirmian creeds. Similar confusion and lack of trustworthiness is noticed in his version of the sufferings of Paul of Constantinople and the vicissitudes of the life of Athanasius. He has wrongly given the number of those who dissented from the decision of the Council of Nicaea as five. The letter of the Council only mentions two,—Theonas and Secundus. The exile of Eusebius and Theognis is ascribed to a later period and a different cause by Jerome and Philostorgius, and it is generally conceded that Socrates’ information was erroneous on this subject also. He is incorrect on several particulars in the lives of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, as also in assigning the attack at night on the church of St. Theonas to the usurpation of Gregory, the Arian bishop of Alexandria.

The chronology of Socrates is generally accurate to about the beginning of the sixth book, or the year 398. A number of errors are found in it after that. But even before the date named, the dates of the Council of Sardica (347) and of the death of Athanasius (373, for which Socrates gives 371) are given wrong. St. Polycarp’s martyrdom is also put out of its proper place by about one hundred years. Valens’ stay at Antioch and persecution of the orthodox is put too early. The Olympiads are given wrong.

Socrates is generally ignorant of the affairs of the Western Church. He gives a cursory account of Ambrose, but says nothing of the great Augustine, or even of the Donatist controversy, in spite of all its significance and also of the extreme probability that he knew of it; as Pelagius and Celestius, who traveled in the East about this time, could not but have made the Eastern Church acquainted with its details. In speaking of the Arian council of Antioch in 341, he seems to think that the Roman bishop had a sort of veto-power over the decisions of Occidental councils. The only legitimate inference, however, from the language of the bishop’s claim is that he thought he had a right to be invited to attend in common with the other bishops of Italy. So, again, on the duration of the fast preceding Easter among the western churches, he makes the mistaken statement that it was three weeks, and that Saturdays and Sundays were excepted.

Finally, the credence which Socrates gives to stories of miracles and portents must be noted as a blemish in his history. On the other hand, he was certainly not more credulous than his contemporaries in this respect; many of them, if we are to judge from Sozomen as an illustration, were much more so. The age was not accustomed to sifting accounts critically with a view to the elimination of the untrue. Socrates shows in this respect the historical instinct in the matter of distinguishing between various degrees of probability and credibility, but does not seem to exercise this instinct in dealing with accounts of the prodigious.

To offset these faults we must take account, on the other hand, of the persistent and successful attempt of our historian at impartiality. Of all the Christian writers of his day he is the fairest towards those who differed from the creed of his church. No one else has done justice to Julian, or to the various heretical sects of the day, as Socrates has. To avoid even the appearance of partiality, he makes a rule for himself not to speak in terms of praise of any living person; and it must be said that he faithfully observes this rule, making but one exception in favor of the emperor Theodosius the Younger. Of this prince he gives a eulogistic picture, altogether different from the representations universally found in the other historians of the age. His independence of judgment is more signally manifested in his estimates of ecclesiastics, especially the more prominent ones, bordering at times on unjust severity. In short,’ says Harnack, summing up his estimate of Socrates, the rule to be applied to Socrates is that his learning and knowledge can be trusted only a little, but his good will and straightforwardness a great deal. Considering the circumstances under which he wrote and the miseries of the times, it can only be matter for congratulation that such a man should have been our informant and that his work has been preserved to us.’

Socrates’ style is characterized by simplicity and perspicuity. From the very start he informs us that he is about to make a new departure in this respect. Eusebius’ language was not entirely satisfactory to him, nor that of older writers. Hence his own attempt everywhere at plain, unadorned expression. The criticism of Photius, that Socrates’ style had nothing remarkable about it,’ although made in the spirit of censure, is true, and according to Socrates’ standard (which is also that of modern times) amounts to a commendation. Socrates, however, was not lacking in good humor and satire, as well as in appreciation of short and pithy utterances; he often quotes proverbs and epigrammatic sayings, and knows the influence of the anecdote and reminiscence in interesting the reader.

The value of Socrates’ History cannot be overestimated. It will always remain a source of primary importance. Though, as already noted, its ideal as a history is below that set up by Thucydides, Tacitus, and others of an earlier age,—below even that of Eusebius,—yet as a collection of facts and documents in regard to some of the most important events of the church’s life it is invaluable. Its account of the great Arian controversy, its details of the Councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, and Ephesus, besides those of the lesser, local conventions, its biographical items relative to the lives of the emperors, the bishops, and monks—some of whom are of pivotal importance in the movements of the times, its sketches of Ulphilas and Hypatia, its record of the manner and time of the conversion of the Saracens, the Goths, the Burgundians, the Iberians, and the Persians, as well as of the persecution of the Jews, the paschal controversy, not to mention a vast number of other details of minor importance, will always be read and used with the deepest interest by lovers of ecclesiastical history.

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