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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Socrates, a Historian

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Socrates (2), one of the most interesting and valuable historians of the early Christian age, was born at Constantinople, probably early in the reign of Theodosius the younger, a.d. 408. He tells us that he was educated there under Helladius and Ammonius, two heathen grammarians, who had fled from Alexandria to escape the emperor's displeasure. They had been guilty of many acts of cruel retaliation upon the Christians there, who had sought to overthrow the idols and temples ( H. E. v. 16). Socrates studied rhetoric, assisted Troilus the rhetorician and sophist, and entered the legal profession, hence his name Scholasticus, the title for a lawyer. His life was spent at Constantinople, and hence he, in his history, occupies himself much with the affairs of that city. "No wonder," he says, "I write more fully of the famous acts done in this city (Constantinople), partly because I beheld most of them with my own eyes, partly because they are more famous and thought more worthy of remembrance than many other acts" (v. 23). Here we see the true spirit of the historian, and a worthy anxiety to be correct. How sincerely Socrates desired to be so is shewn by his use of similar expressions in the beginning of bk. vi., where he says he had a greater liking for the history of his own than of bygone times, because he had either seen it or learned it from eye-witnesses. A certain Theodorus, otherwise unknown, encouraged him to become a historian of the church. His object was to continue its history from where Eusebius had ended down to his own day. His work is divided into seven books, from Constantine's proclamation as emperor, a.d. 306 to 439, a period of 133, or, as he himself calls it, in round numbers, 140 years. Especially in bks. i. and ii. Rufinus appears to have exercised considerable influence. But at that point, the writings of Athanasius and the letters of other celebrated men coming into his hands, he found that Rufinus had been misinformed and had misled him on many points. His own statement seems to imply that he rewrote those books to have the satisfaction of knowing that he had set forth the history "in a most absolute and perfect manner" (ii. 1).

Of his own style Socrates, addressing Theodorus, says, "But I would have you know, before you read my books, that I have not curiously addicted myself unto a lofty style, neither unto a glorious show of gay sentences; for so peradventure, in running after words and phrases I might have missed of my matter and failed of my purpose and intent. . . . Again, such a penning profiteth very little the vulgar and ignorant sort of people, who desire not so much the fine and elegant sort of phrase as the furtherance of their knowledge and the truth of the history. Wherefore, lest our story should halt of both sides, and displease the learned in that it doth not rival the artificial skill and profound knowledge of ancient writers, the unlearned in that their capacity cannot comprehend the substance of the matter by reason of the painted rhetoric and picked sentences, I have tied myself unto such a mean as that, though the handling be simple, yet the effect is soon found and quickly understood" (vi. pref.).

His matter was to be chiefly the affairs of the church, but not to the complete exclusion of "battles and bloody wars," for even in these there was something worthy to be recorded. He believed the narrative of such events would help to relieve the weariness which might overcome his readers if he dwelt only on the consideration of the bishops' affairs and their practices everywhere one against another. Above all, he had observed that the weal of church and state was so closely bound up together that the two were either out of joint at the same time, or that the misery of the one followed closely the misery of the other (v. pref.). It was the troubles of the church, too, that he desired chiefly to record. His idea was that, when peace prevailed, there was no matter for a historiographer (vii. 47).

One important qualification Socrates possessed for his task was that he was a layman. This in no degree hindered his capability of forming a correct judgment on theological controversies, for around these the main interest of lay as well as clerical Christians centred in his days and they were thoroughly understood by all educated Christian men; while his lay position and training unquestionably helped to raise him above the bitter animosities and persecuting spirit of his age, and led him to see the amount of hairsplitting in not a few of the current disputes. His recognition of good in those from whom he differed forms one of the most pleasing characteristics of his history. His impartiality has, indeed, exposed him to a charge of heresy. He saw, and ventured to own, some good in the Novatianists, and especially in several of their bishops, and he has been accordingly often charged with Novatianism. But his history shews little, if any, reason why we should doubt his orthodoxy. Like the most enlightened men of his age, he gave easy credence to miraculous stories, and there are many scattered throughout his pages quite as improbable and foolish as those found in the most superstitious writers of his time. Yet Socrates often displays a singular propriety of judgment, while his occasional reflections and digressions constitute one of the most interesting and instructive parts of his history. Thus his defence of the study by Christians of heathen writers may still be read with profit, and perhaps much more could not even now be added to his argument (iii. 14). His chapter on ceremonies, their place in the Christian system, the ground of their obligation, and their relation to the true word of the gospel, shews an enlargement and enlightenment of mind (v. 21). His whole history shews his keen eye for the mischief done by heated ecclesiastics, and for the unworthy motives that frequently swayed them (vi. 14).

For many other points the student will find his History valuable. It contains many original documents, e.g. decrees of councils and letters of emperors and bishops. It gives many important details as to the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Ephesus, etc.; the emperors of the time treated of; the most distinguished bishops, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzum, Ambrose, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Cyril, etc.; the Egyptian monks and their miracles; Ulphilas, bp. of the Goths, and the famous Hypatia. It embraces some important statements on the independence of Rome claimed by the Eastern church and the encroachments of the Roman see upon the latter; on the beginnings of the secular power of the Roman church; and on the introduction of disciplinary arrangements. The progress of the gospel amongst the Goths, Saracens, and Persians, the persecutions of the Jews, and the progress of the Eastern controversy are treated at large.

A Greek and Latin ed., with notes, by Valesius, was pub. at Paris in 1668, repeated at Cambridge in 1720, and in Migne's Patr. Gk. (t. lxvii.) in 1859. In 1853 appeared the Gk. and Lat. ed. of R. Hussey (Oxf. 3 vols. 8vo). An ed. with Eng. notes and intro. by W. Bright is pub. by the Clar. Press. There is an Eng. trans. by Meredith Hammer, Prof. of Divinity, pub. in London by Field, 1619, and more recent ones pub. by Bagster in 1847, and in Schaff and Wace's Post-Nicene Lib. , and in Bohn's Lib. (Bell).


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Socrates, a Historian'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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Saturday, September 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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