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 Troïlus, 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 Sycæ, 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, Labbæus, 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 Nicæa; that he mentions Novatian churches as existing in Phrygia and Paphlagonia, in Lydia, in Cyzicum, in Nicæa, in Nicomedia and Cotyæum, 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 Nicæa. 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.