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prev: Diocese of Socorro Diocese of Socorro Socrates (philosopher) next: Socrates (philosopher)

Socrates (historian of the early Church)

Historian of the Early Church, b. at Constantinople towards the end of the fourth century

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Socrates, a historian of the Early Church, b. at Constantinople towards the end of the fourth century. Nothing is known of his parentage and his early years with the exception of a few details found in his own works. He tells us himself (Hist. eccl., V, xxiv) that he studied under the grammarians Helladius and Ammonius, and from the title of scholasticus which is given to him it has been concluded that he belonged to the legal profession. The greater part of his life was spent in Constantinople, for which reason, as he admits, the affairs of that city occupy such a large part in his works. From the manner in which he speaks of other cities and from his references as an eyewitness to events which happened outside Constantinople, he is credited with having visited other countries in the East. Though a layman he was excellently qualified to recount the history of ecclesiastical affairs. Love of history, especially the history of his own time, and a warm admiration for Eusebius of Caesarea impelled him to undertake the task in which he was sustained by the urgent solicitation of a certain Theodorus to whom his work is dedicated. His purpose was to continue the work of Eusebius down to his own time; but in order to round out his narrative and to supplement and revise some statements of Eusebius, he began at the year 306, when Constantine was declared emperor. His work ends with the seventeenth consulate of Theodosius the Younger, 439. The division of his history into seven books was based on the imperial succession in the Eastern Empire. The first book embraces events in the reign of Constantine (306-37): the second those in the reign of Constantius (337-60): the third includes the reigns of Julian and Jovian (360-4): the fourth deals with the reign of Valens (364-78): the fifth with that of Theodosius the Great (379-95): the sixth with that of Arcadius (393-408): the seventh with the first thirty-one years of the reign of Theodosius the. Younger (408-39).

The general character of the work of Socrates can be judged from his attitude on doctrinal questions. Living as he did in an age of bitter polemics, he strove to avoid the animosities and hatred engendered by theological differences. He was in entire accord with the Catholic party in opposing the Arians, Eunomians, Macedonians, and other heretics. The moderate tone, however, which he used in speaking of the Novatians, and the favorable references which he makes to them, have led some authors into the belief that he belonged to this sect, but it is now generally admitted that the expressions which he used were based on his desire for impartiality and his wish to give even his enemies credit for whatever good he could find in them. His attitude towards the Church was one of unvarying respect and submission. He honored clerics because of their sacred calling, and entertained the profoundest veneration for monks and the monastic spirit. His ardent advocacy and defense of Christianity did not, nevertheless, prevent him from using the writings of pagan authors, or from urging Christians to study them. Though he entitled his work Greek: `Ekklesiastike `Istoria, Socrates did not confine himself merely to recounting events in the history of the Church. He paid attention to the military history of the period, because he considered it necessary to relate these facts, but principally "in order that the minds of the readers might not become satiated with the repetition of the contentious disputes of bishops, and their insidious designs against one another; but more especially that it might be made apparent that, whenever the affairs of the State were disturbed, those of the Church, as if by some vital sympathy, became disordered also" (Introd. to Book V). Though thus recognizing the intimate relation of civil and ecclesiastical affairs, Socrates had no well-defined theory of Church and State.

Socrates had a restricted idea of the scope and function of history. To his mind the task of the historian consisted in recording the troubles of mankind, for as long as peace continues, those who desire to write histories will find no materials for their purpose (VII, xlviii). As an example of historical composition the work of Socrates ranks very high. The simplicity of style which he cultivated, and for which he was reproached by Photius, is entirely in keeping with his method and spirit. Not the least among his merits is the sedulousness he exhibited in the collection of evidence. He had a truly scientific instinct for primary sources, and the number of authors he has drawn on proves the extent of his reading and the thoroughness of his investigations. In addition to using the works of such men as Athanasius, Evagrius, Talladius, Nestorius, he drew freely on public and official documents, conciliar Acts, encyclical letters, etc. As might be expected when writing of events so close to his own time, he had to depend frequently on the reports of eyewitnesses, but even then he used their evidence with prudence and caution. Notwithstanding his industry and impartiality, however, his work is not without serious defects. Though restricting himself so largely to the affairs of the Eastern Church, he is guilty of many serious omissions in regard to other parts of Christendom. Thus, when he speaks of the Church in the West, he is frequently guilty of mistakes and omissions. Nothing for instance is said in his history about St. Augustine. In questions of chronology, too, he is frequently at fault, but he is by no means a persistent sinner in this respect. The objection most frequently made in respect to Socrates as a historian is that he was too credulous and that he lent too ready an ear to stories of miracles and portents. This, however, is a fault of the time rather than of the man, and was shared by pagan as well as Christian authors. His most notable characteristic, however, is his obvious effort to be thoroughly impartial, as far as impartiality was consistent with conviction. He held the scales equitably, and even when he differed widely from men on matters of doctrine, he did not allow his dissent from their views to find expression in denunciation or abuse. His "Church History" was published by Stephen (Paris, 1544) and by Valesius (Paris, 1668, reprinted at Oxford by Parker, 1844, and in P.G., LXVII). A good translation is given in the Post-Nicene Fathers, II (New York, 1890), with an excellent memoir on Socrates by Zenos.

PATRICK J. HEALY


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