The classical Greek philosopher Socrates is a fixture of literature and culture, but his legacy is complicated by the fact that material attributed to him isn’t always directly from him, but from a variety of indirect sources:
Socrates, as we know, wrote nothing. His life and ideas are known to us through direct accounts – writings either by contemporaries ( Aristophanes) or disciples ( Plato and Xenophon) – and through indirect accounts, the most important of which is the one written by Aristotle, who was born fifteen years after Socrates’ death (399). Because these accounts vary greatly from one another, the question arises as to whether it is possible to reconstruct the life and – more importantly – the ideas of the historical Socrates on the basis of one, several, or all of these accounts.
At some point around 2010, with the rise of quote-sharing through social media, the following piece of wisdom became widely attributed to Socrates:
‘When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.’ -Socrates.
— John Fugelsang (@JohnFugelsang) January 1, 2014
Versions of the quote appeared on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter:
By 2013, plenty of hits were returned for attributions of the quote to Socrates. But before 2010, results led either to social media platforms or pages that were updated after publication, with no solid indication the attribution existed at that time. The absolute earliest attribution we were able to locate was on the social literature site GoodReads, and it appeared in 2008.
So far as we can tell, the phrase “when the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser” emerged roughly around 2008 and appears to have no traceable history prior to that. Despite its popularity on social media, no one has ever found a single direct link to any material attributed to Socrates matching the quote. Its abrupt appearance and lack of historical support suggests that Socrates’ signature was tacked to the commentary to give it an air of ancient wisdom.
Dorion, Louis-André. “The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem.”
The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. March 2011 (pp. 1-23).