On June 26 2019, Eric Trump tweeted a meme attributing a quote about slander to the philosopher Socrates:
Against an image of what appeared to be a black and white photograph of a statue of Socrates in Athens, text read:
When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the losers.
Eric Trump did not provide a citation for his quote meme, and users in the comments disputed the authenticity of the attribution. Trump was not the first to share the quote and claim it originated with Socrates — actor John Fugelsang sent no fewer than seven tweets with variations on the saying:
Regarding authenticating material attributed to Socrates is what is known as the “Socratic problem” — an ever-present academic conundrum:
The Socratic problem (or Socratic question) is a term used in historical scholarship concerning attempts at reconstructing a historical and philosophical image of Socrates based on the variable, and sometimes contradictory, nature of the existing sources on his life. Scholars rely upon the extant sources such as those of contemporaries like Aristophanes or disciples of Socrates like Plato and Xenophon for knowing anything about Socrates. However, these sources contain contradictory details of his life, words, and beliefs when taken together. This complicates the attempts at reconstructing the beliefs and philosophical views held by the historical Socrates. It is apparent to scholarship that this problem is now deemed a task seeming impossible to clarify and thus perhaps now classified as unsolvable.
That quandary is exacerbated by not only by contradictions, but because the bulk of those accounts were written by Aristotle, who was not born until years after Socrates’ death:
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. The “Socratic problem” refers to the historical and methodological problem that historians confront when they attempt to reconstruct the philosophical doctrines of the historical Socrates. Any future stance on the Socratic problem, if it is to be an informed and well-grounded one, presupposes a full understanding of the origins and consequences of the proposed solutions of the last two centuries.
In various translations of Plato’s Apology of Socrates, written after Socrates’ trial and execution by hemlock poisoning, Plato characterizes Socrates as describing his opponents’ positions as slanderous. In one account, Socrates was quoted by Plato as lamenting the volume of slanderous speech against him in the form of rumor and innuendo:
Therefore, as I said when I began, it would be a wonder to me if I should be able in this short time to take away from you this slander which has become so great. This is the truth for you, men of Athens; I am hiding nothing from you either great or small in my speech, nor am I holding anything back. And yet I know rather well that I incur hatred by these very things; which is also a proof that I speak the truth, and that this is the slander against me, and that these are its causes. Whether you investigate these things now or later, you will discover that this is so. So about the things which the first accusers accused me of, let this be a sufficient defense speech before you.
In that translation, Plato attributed mentions of “slander” or slanderous speech to Socrates several times. In another translation, Socrates is characterized as lashing out at innumerable ill-speakers against him, blaming envy and slander for his prosecution:
But the main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought upon you – and there are some of them who are convinced themselves, and impart their convictions to others – all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.
And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing. And yet I know that this plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth? – this is the occasion and reason of their slander of me, as you will find out either in this or in any future inquiry.
Myriad translations of Plato’s Apology contained extensive reference purportedly by Socrates to slander and slanderers — as amorphous opponents, as motivated by envy — but none of the translations contained a quote that quite lined up with the meme. And despite numerous pages on the internet examining Apology dating back to its advent, the quote was mysteriously absent from those early sources.
A commonly cited attribution to Socrates from approximately April 2008 on the book-centric website GoodReads is often but erroneously described as the quote’s first appearance on the internet. Most results before that point were the result of misdated pages or message board threads where content is often newer than the date first published.
However, the first iteration of the “when the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the losers” attributed to Socrates we located was from May 2006, on a personal website. Prior to that, we were unable to locate a version of the quote attributed to anyone at all.