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Socrates in the Cave- On the Philosopher’s Motive in Plato

On the Philosopher’s
Motive in Plato
Edited by
Paul J. Diduch and
Michael P. Harding
Recovering Political Philosophy
Series Editors
Timothy W. Burns
Baylor University
Waco, TX, USA
Thomas L. Pangle
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX, USA
Postmodernism’s challenge to the possibility of a rational foundation for and
guidance of our political lives has provoked a searching re-­examination of
the works of past political philosophers. The re-examination seeks to recover
the ancient or classical grounding for civic reason and to clarify the strengths
and weaknesses of modern philosophic rationalism. This series responds to
this ferment by making available outstanding new scholarship in the history
of political philosophy, scholarship that is inspired by the rediscovery of the
diverse rhetorical strategies employed by political philosophers. The series
features interpretive studies attentive to historical context and language, and
to the ways in which censorship and didactic concern impelled prudent
thinkers, in widely diverse cultural conditions, to employ manifold strategies
of writing, strategies that allowed them to aim at different audiences with
various degrees of openness to unconventional thinking. Recovering Political
Philosophy emphasizes the close reading of ancient, medieval, early modern
and late modern works that illuminate the human condition by attempting
to answer its deepest, enduring questions, and that have (in the modern
periods) laid the foundations for contemporary political, social, and economic
life. The editors encourage manuscripts from both established and emerging
scholars who focus on the careful study of texts, either through analysis of a
single work or through thematic study of a problem or question in a number
of works.
More information about this series at
Paul J. Diduch • Michael P. Harding
Socrates in the Cave
On the Philosopher’s Motive in Plato
Paul J. Diduch
University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, CO, USA
Michael P. Harding
Montgomery College
Germantown, MD, USA
Recovering Political Philosophy
ISBN 978-3-319-76830-4 ISBN 978-3-319-76831-1
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018935284
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Series Editors’ Preface
Palgrave’s Recovering Political Philosophy series was founded with an eye to
postmodernism’s challenge to the possibility of a rational foundation for
and guidance of our political lives. This invigorating challenge has provoked a searching re-examination of classic texts, not only of political philosophers but of poets, artists, theologians, scientists, and other thinkers
who may not be regarded conventionally as political theorists. The series
publishes studies that endeavor to take up this re-examination and thereby
help to recover the classical grounding for civic reason, as well as studies
that clarify the strengths and the weaknesses of modern philosophic rationalism. The interpretative studies in the series are particularly attentive to
historical context and language, and to the ways in which both censorial
persecution and didactic concerns have impelled prudent thinkers, in
widely diverse cultural conditions, to employ manifold strategies of
writing—strategies that allowed them to aim at different audiences with
various degrees of openness to unconventional thinking. The series offers
close readings of ancient, medieval, early modern, and late modern works
that illuminate the human condition by attempting to answer its deepest,
enduring questions, and that have (in the modern periods) laid the foundations for contemporary political, social, and economic life.
The editors of the present volume have sought answers to an important, simple, and yet rarely raised question: Why does Plato present
Socrates in dialogue with interlocutors whose promise and interest in philosophy are questionable? The Platonic Socrates’ frequent exposure of the
incoherence of these interlocutors’ understanding of virtue makes the
question more acute, since it makes clear that no devotion to justice or
noble activity as ordinarily understood can explain this activity. The contributors to this volume therefore offer interpretations of dialogues that
attempt to provide more adequate answers, clarifying either Socrates’s
philanthropic virtue or Socrates’s relentless attempt to ground through
dialectic the philosophic or scientific life, or to explain how these two
motives might be best understood to belong together.
Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA
University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA Timothy W. Burns
Thomas L. Pangle
The editors would like to thank J. Scott Lee and the Association for Core
Texts and Courses for facilitating the small, conversation-focused panel
discussions that led to the idea for, and much of the contents of, this
For their helpful observations, the editors would also like to thank the
two anonymous reviewers at Palgrave, in addition to friends and family
who have offered their insight and encouragement, including especially
Andrea Kowalchuk, Auksuole Rubavichute, James Guest, Kevin Slack,
Jason Lund, Travis Hadley, Laura Rabinowitz, Wayne Ambler, Greg
McBrayer, Joshua Parens, and Tim Burns.
1Editors’ Introduction: Why Clarifying Socrates’ Motives
Matters for Platonic Philosophy 1
Paul J. Diduch and Michael P. Harding
2The Strange Conversation of Plato’s Minos 11
Robert Goldberg
3Platonic Beginnings 39
Mark Blitz
4A Look at Socrates’ Motive in Plato’s Laches 53
Jason Lund
5Socrates’ Self-Knowledge 77
David Levy
6Socrates’ Exhortation to Follow the Logos 107
James Carey
7Philosophy, Eros, and the Socratic Turn 141
Mark J. Lutz
8Free to Care: Socrates’ Political Engagement 165
Roslyn Weiss
9Socrates: Sisyphean or Overflowing? 185
Joshua Parens
10Socrates’ Motives and Human Wisdom in Plato’s Theages 205
Travis S. Hadley
11Plato’s Euthyphro on Divine and Human Wisdom 233
Wayne Ambler
12On the Question of Socratic Benevolence 251
Gregory A. McBrayer
13Philanthropy in the Action of the Euthyphro, Apology
of Socrates, and Crito 265
Michael P. Harding
14Philosophic Care in the Life of Plato’s Socrates 287
Mary P. Nichols
15Plato’s Sons and the Library of Magnesia 315
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos
Index 341
Notes on Contributors
Wayne Ambler is an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado
Boulder. He lived and taught in Rome for one decade and led study
abroad trips there for a second decade. Ambler’s main academic field is
political philosophy and especially that of the ancient Greeks. He has
translated two of Xenophon’s longest works and three of his essays, all for
Cornell University Press. His doctoral dissertation on Aristotle was honored as the best dissertation in political philosophy for its year. He has also
published outside of his main field—on Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and
on the challenge of understanding how to regulate modern technology.
Mark Blitz (AB and PhD from Harvard University) is Fletcher Jones
Professor of Political Philosophy and Director of the Henry Salvatori
Center at Claremont McKenna College. He served during the Reagan
administration as Associate Director of the United States Information
Agency, where he was the senior United States official in charge of educational and cultural programs abroad, and as a senior professional staff
member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He has been Vice
President of the Hudson Institute and has taught political philosophy at
Harvard University and at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author
of Conserving Liberty; Plato’s Political Philosophy; Duty Bound: Responsibility
and American Public Life; Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and the Possibility
of Political Philosophy; and is co-editor (with William Kristol) of Educating
the Prince.
James Carey is a member of the faculty and former Dean of St. John’s
College, Santa Fe. For a number of years, he served as Distinguished
Visiting Professor in the Philosophy Department at the United States Air
Force Academy. Though Dr. Carey has written and lectured broadly in the
history of philosophy, his focus in recent years has been on medieval philosophy. He has recently written a book on the natural law theory of
Thomas Aquinas.
Paul J. Diduch is an instructor in the Herbst Program of Humanities for
Engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder. His articles and reviews
on Plato and Thucydides have been published, and he is working on
Socrates’ critique of pre-Socratic science, and the problems of virtue and
knowledge in Plato’s thought.
Robert Goldberg has taught for 22 years at St. John’s College in
Annapolis, where he held the National Endowment for the Humanities
Chair in Ancient Studies from 2012 to 2014. His chapters, articles, and
review essays on Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, ancient democratic
theory, and Leo Strauss have been published, and he is working on a study
of Plato’s philosophy of law. Before coming to St. John’s, he taught at
Kenyon College, where he was also the John M. Olin Faculty Fellow in
History and Political Theory.
Travis S. Hadley teaches political theory, American political thought,
and American government, most recently at Christopher Newport
University in the Departments of Government, as well as Leadership and
American Studies. He received his PhD in Political Science from the
University of North Texas in 2014. His research includes classical political
thought, specializing in Thucydides, and focuses broadly on moral issues
related to statesmanship, specifically democratic governance. He has co-­
authored an article on Pericles, “The Moral Foundations of Political Trust:
Thucydides’ Pericles and the Limits of Enlightened Statecraft,” highlighting the importance of public trust for democratic leaders.
Michael P. Harding is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political
Science at Montgomery College. He earned his undergraduate degree at
the University of North Texas and his doctorate from the Institute of
Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas. In addition to Montgomery
College, he has taught at the University of Dallas and the University of
North Texas and is teaching graduate liberal arts courses at Johns Hopkins
University. He also serves as chairman of a Washington, D. C. area nonprofit devoted to promoting liberal education.
David Levy is a tutor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, USA. He received
a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Penn State in 2003 and his PhD in
political science from Boston College in 2010.
Jason Lund studies political philosophy and international relations at
Baylor University. He has presented papers on Leo Strauss and on Plato’s
dialogues, including a co-authored paper on the Meno exploring the link
between the problem of virtue and the problem of knowledge. Additionally,
he has received funding from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and
Alexander Hamilton Institute to attend roundtables on Plutarch and
Shakespeare, Cold War statesmanship, and the Federalist Papers. In his
dissertation, Jason aims to explain why it is that Socrates thinks that self-­
knowledge is a necessary precondition for the proper study of natural science, as well as to show how this explanation has contemporary and not
merely antiquarian significance.
Mark J. Lutz is Director of the Society for Greek Political Thought and
Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las
Vegas. He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on
classical and contemporary political philosophy, as well as of Socrates’
Education to Virtue (1998) and Divine Law and Political Philosophy in
Plato’s Laws (2012).
Gregory A. McBrayer is Assistant Professor of Political Science and
Director of the University Core Curriculum, Ashland University. He has
published, with Mary P. Nichols and Denise Schaffer, Plato’s Euthydemus
(Focus: 2011), and he is the editor of Xenophon: The Shorter Writings
(Cornell, Forthcoming).
Mary P. Nichols served as Professor of Political Science at Baylor
University from 2004–2017. Her fields of interest include the history of
political philosophy, especially Greek political thought, and politics, literature, and film. Several of her articles have been published in Political
Theory, the Journal of Politics, Polity, the Review of Politics, and Perspectives
on Political Science. Among her books in classical thought are Citizens and
Statesmen: A Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics (Rowman and Littlefield),
Socrates on Friendship and Community: Reflections on Plato’s Symposium,
Phaedrus, and Lysis (Cambridge); and Thucydides and the Pursuit of
Freedom (Cornell, 2015).
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos is Assistant Professor of Humanities at
Wyoming Catholic College. He received his PhD and MA in political philosophy from the University of Dallas, where he taught courses in philosophy, politics, and history, and his BA from St. John’s College, Annapolis.
Joshua Parens received his BA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College
and his MA and PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago.
He arrived at the University of Dallas in 1997 and is now Professor of
Philosophy and Politics, the Director of the Institute of Philosophic
Studies, and the Dean of the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts. His
latest book, Leo Strauss and the Recovery of Medieval Political Philosophy,
was the first title in a book series published by University of Rochester
Press and Boydell & Brewer, which he is co-editing with Douglas Kries of
Gonzaga University. He has published many articles on Alfarabi,
Maimonides, and Spinoza and two books on Alfarabi on Plato and
Aristotle, respectively with SUNY Press: Metaphysics as Rhetoric (1995)
and An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions (2006). His previous book
Maimonides and Spinoza: Their Conflicting Views of Human Nature was
published by the University of Chicago Press (June 2012). He co-edited
with Joseph Macfarland the second edition of the classic anthology by
Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi, Medieval Political Philosophy: A
Sourcebook (Cornell University Press, 2011). He also has writing projects
on Bacon, Descartes, Montesquieu, and Heidegger.
Roslyn Weiss is the Clara H. Stewardson Professor of Philosophy at
Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She earned her Doctorate in
Philosophy from Columbia University in 1982 and a Master’s degree in
Jewish Studies from Baltimore Hebrew University in 1992. Her fields of
expertise are Ancient Greek Philosophy and Medieval Jewish Philosophy.
She has published four books on Plato, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of
Plato’s ‘Crito’ (Oxford, 1998); Virtue in the Cave: Moral Inquiry in Plato’s
‘Meno’ (Oxford, 2001); The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies (Chicago,
2006); and, most recently, Philosophers in the ‘Republic’: Plato’s Two
Paradigms (Cornell, 2012); and more than 40 scholarly articles on Greek
and Jewish philosophy. Her current project is the first complete translation
into English of the medieval Hebrew philosophical work, Light of the Lord,
by Hasdai Crescas.
Editors’ Introduction: Why Clarifying
Socrates’ Motives Matters for Platonic
Paul J. Diduch and Michael P. Harding
For much of the twentieth century, Plato scholars were concerned with
tracing the compositional history of the dialogues and charting a corresponding development in Plato’s thought from his early, mostly Socratic
celebrations of his teacher, to his later, more “Platonic,” philosophy. This
general approach, which we can identify as developmentalism, has for
decades now been criticized on several fronts and from many quarters.1
See Rowe’s recent methodological reflections for a critical appraisal of developmentalism
and related reading practices. “Methodologies for Reading Plato” (Oxford Handbooks
Online). Influential works in the school of developmentalism, particularly in Plato’s ethics
and political philosophy, include Irwin (Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press,
1995), Klosko (The Development of Plato’s Political Theory. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986), Kraut (The Cambridge Companion to Plato. New York: Cambridge University
P. J. Diduch (*)
University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
M. P. Harding
Montgomery College, Germantown, MD, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_1
The emerging counter-consensus is that the core basis of the former
orthodoxy—the so-called early, middle, and late taxonomy that somehow
captures Plato’s emerging philosophic maturity—is a limited and even
unhelpful interpretive schema. Unlike the developmentalists, Plato scholars today tend to start by treating each dialogue on its own terms, and
most agree that dramatic aspects like character, action, narration, and
setting are essentially related to, and reflective of, Plato’s philosophic
The passing of developmentalism brings with it the promise of new
understanding, for questions that seldom occurred under the old regime
are now being asked about Plato’s Socrates. Several authors have seen that
if Socrates is not simply a mouthpiece for Plato, and the dialogues are not
mere vehicles for the transmission of doctrine, then one must explain why
Socrates the character speaks and acts as he does. That is, if Socrates is
doing something more complicated than dispensing dogmatic arguments,
then one has to treat him as a character within the drama of each dialogue
and, ultimately, within the dialogues as a whole. Seen in this light, the
question of Socrates the character, the attempt to make sense of his
motives, interests, and intentions, is a concern of highest importance,
Press, 1992), and Vlastos (Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 1991). For examples of
more nuanced instances of the developmentalist hypothesis, see Kahn (Plato and the Socratic
Dialogue. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Reshotko (Socratic Virtue.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Rowe (Plato and the Art of Philosophical
Writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). For additional various critiques of
developmentalism, see especially Bloom (The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books,
1991), Craig (The War Lover. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), Denyer (Plato,
Alcibiades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Howland (“Re-reading Plato:
The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Phoenix 45 [1991]: 189–214, Pangle (The Roots of
Political Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), Peterson (Socrates and Philosophy
in the Dialogues of Plato. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), Press (Who Speaks
for Plato? Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), Reshotko (Socratic Virtue), Tigerstedt
(Interpreting Plato. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1977), Weiss (Socrates
Dissatisfied. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), and Zuckert (Plato’s Philosophers.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). For useful reflections on reading Plato through
his art of writing, see Strauss (“On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy.”
Social Research 13 [1946]: 326–357; City and Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1964, 50–62), Craig (The War Lover, xiii–xxxviii), Klein (A Commentary on Plato’s Meno.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965, 3–31), and Bolotin (“The Life of
Philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul.” Ancient Philosophy 7 [1987]: 39–56). For critical responses to the “Straussian” approach to reading Plato, see Klosko (“The ‘Straussian’
Interpretation of Plato’s Republic.” History of Political Thought 7 [1986]: 275–293),
Roochnik (“Irony and Accessibility.” Political Theory 25 [1997]: 869–885), and Ferrari
(“Strauss’ Plato.” Arion 5 [1997]).
since one’s conception of his total activity will bear decisively on how one
understands Socrates’ exemplification of the philosophic life.2
The question of Socrates’ motives intensifies as one notes the sheer
number and range of unlikely interlocutors Socrates spends time with.
Why, for instance, does Socrates seek out the young and philosophically
immature—characters like Glaucon, Alcibiades, or young Menexenus—all
of whom are clearly Socrates’ intellectual inferiors? Similarly, why make
time for Hippias, Meno, or Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, let alone Ion
and Euthyphro—all of whom, at times, scarcely follow Socrates’ dialectical
moves? Plato gives us enough of a glimpse at Socrates’ intellectual circle to
make us realize that if Socrates wanted to spend his time with the philosophic set, he very well could have. So why choose to talk to interlocutors
whose promise and even interest in philosophy is questionable? A brief
survey of the dialogues thus alerts one to the diversity of types and abilities
in Plato’s dramatis personae. And this observation alone suggests that
Socrates’ motivation, his activity as a whole, seems much more complex
than the straightforward communication of ideas.
Plato has Socrates himself bring our question to a point in the Republic
as he explains to Glaucon how they can justly force the philosopher back
down into the cave:
My friend, you have forgotten, I said, that it’s not the concern of law that
any one class fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in
the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion,
making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to
the commonwealth. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let
them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in
binding the city together.
Important studies of Plato that focus on Socrates’ total activity, including his own philosophic or intellectual development (Socratic developmentalism), include Bruell (On the
Socratic Education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), Cropsey (Plato’s World. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1995), Lampert (How Philosophy Became Socratic. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2010), Leibowitz (The Ironic Defense of Socrates. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2010), Levy (Eros and Socratic Philosophy. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013), Lutz (Socrates’ Education to Virtue. Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1998), Nichols (Socrates on Friendship and Community. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2008), Sebell (The Socratic Turn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 2016), Smith Pangle (Virtue is Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2014), and Zuckert (Plato’s Philosophers). See also Pangle and Burns (The Key Texts of
Political Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Linck (The Ideas of
Socrates. London: Continuum, 2007).
That’s true, he said. I did forget.
Well, then, Glaucon, I said, consider that we won’t be doing injustice to
the philosophers who come to be among us, but rather that we will say just
things to them while compelling them besides to care for and guard the others. We’ll say that when such men come to be in the other cities it is fitting
for them not to participate in the labors of those cities. For they grow up
spontaneously against the will of the regime in each; and a nature that grows
by itself and doesn’t owe its rearing to anyone has justice on its side when it
is not eager to pay off the price of rearing to anyone… (519c–520b)
The passage is pivotal in the dialogue for several reasons, not least for its
implications about the seeming lack of a genuine common good in even
the “best” or most just city. For our purposes, let it suffice to note that
Socrates himself, in contrast to his portrait of the philosopher, is admitting
implicitly that he does not owe a debt to his own regime and, thus, that
there is no obvious civic or even moral necessity for him to “go down”
with Glaucon and help the brothers fend off the teachers of injustice.
Modern readers are especially likely to balk at this suggestion, given
certain presumptions in favor of democratic enlightenment. On this view,
one simply assumes that the philosopher, Socrates included, returns to the
shadows to liberate others from their mental captivity—that this is somehow his duty or the moral responsibility of the genuinely wise. Socrates’
own remarks, however, urge us to suspend and interrogate this conclusion. And in so doing, he challenges us to look more carefully at his own
self-presentation and self-understanding.
From the Republic, then, we are led to several other dialogues where
Socrates offers various biographical remarks to explain and to justify his
way of life. These include, most importantly, Symposium, Phaedo, Apology,
and Theaetetus. But while helpful in one sense, Socrates’ accounts are, like
many of his arguments, often difficult to interpret and seemingly contradictory. In Symposium, for example, it seems like the study of erotic desire
is what led Socrates to converse with others. In Phaedo, it is the attempt to
remedy the deficiencies of natural science by approaching the beings indirectly, through speech. In Apology, by stark contrast, Socrates distances
himself from science, claiming that his conversations and refutations were
part of a divine plan to justify his ignorance and vindicate virtue. And in
Theaetetus, Socrates claims he is an intellectual midwife, who, with the
help of the god, serves others by delivering their wisdom. Thus, when it
comes to un-riddling the motives of his primary character, Plato deliberately
leads the reader in various and ostensibly incompatible directions. The
ultimate interpretive challenge is to weave these strands together, to
assemble Socrates’ intellectual biography, to articulate his self-­
understanding, and to match it with his deeds. But depending on where
one starts, or which of Socrates’ accounts one chooses to emphasize, one
tends to highlight certain aspects of Socrates’ character at the expense of
others. It is vital therefore to take a broad look at how others have
approached this question, to understand the competing views, and to see
what questions or problems might help refine our approach.
Competing Views
Nearly all scholars of Plato resolve for themselves the question of Socrates’
motives in one of three ways: (1) Socrates is motivated by the god, the
divine voice, or a general concern for virtue, to carry out a moral-­
philosophical mission; his philosophizing is, thus, ministerial to what
might be best understood as ethical or moral ends; (2) Socrates is motivated by the promise of advancing his own wisdom or knowledge to
undertake his various dialectical refutations; or (3) some more or less
coherent amalgam of the above, though in most cases motive 1 or 2 predominates. Without too much injustice, then, we might identify camp one
with “Socrates, The Moral Missionary” and camp two with “Socrates, The
Philosophic Investigator.”
The moral Socrates of camp one is by far the most well known; he is,
one might say, the traditional or conventional Socrates, and for good reason, since there is ample textual evidence one can marshal to support this
position. Plato’s most beloved dialogues, Apology, Crito, and Republic,
present a Socrates who is preoccupied with the question of virtue, so much
so that their contents make it seem like Socratic philosophy is inseparable
from the pursuit of the just life. Indeed, in Apology, Socrates famously
stands witness, martyr-like, to his own moral integrity, presenting himself
as the divine scourge of Athenian moral corruption.
One finds support for this view in other dialogues as well, where
Socrates seems no less concerned with the moral bearing of his interlocutors. Socratic exhortations to virtue abound in dialogues as different as
Gorgias, Theaetetus, Meno, and Alcibiades I. There is a compelling pattern
of evidence suggesting that Socrates is, indeed, concerned to help others
toward moral seriousness, that he thinks a moral life is better than an
immoral life, and that he is eager to take on the sophists (among others)
who offer teachings to the contrary. Not surprisingly, the majority of Plato
scholarship reflects this pattern, although there is considerable diversity
among scholars regarding the moral Socrates, especially pertaining to his
relation to the forms, his conception of virtue, his understanding of love
and friendship, and his beliefs about the gods.3
With all that said, there are several specific difficulties that attend a
straightforward reading of the missionary Socrates. First, any attempt to
defend Socrates’ motives as morally serious must also grapple with
Socrates’ irony and, more importantly, his trenchant critiques of Athenian
morality and morality as such. Often in the very dialogues where Socrates
identifies with the virtue he seeks to understand, he also reveals problems
with said virtue, usually by exposing inconsistencies in his interlocutor’s
assumptions about the virtue in question.4 This is not to say that Socrates’
critical scrutiny of virtue is fatal to its goodness, or that Socrates thinks
that incoherent beliefs about virtue are necessarily bad for the interlocutor, though Socrates does seem to believe that common virtue is inferior
to some higher or purer expression. At the very least, Socrates’ consistently critical stance toward ordinary morality precludes assimilating his
motives to those of his moral but non-philosophic counterparts. But the
difficulties do not end here; for if one accepts Socrates’ critique of ordinary virtue, and yet nonetheless wants to argue that Socrates is moral or
virtuous in some higher or non-ordinary way, one faces the difficulty of
showing how Socrates’ higher morality is sufficiently related to the
Historically, some conception of the moral Socrates has dominated the major schools of
Platonism, from the early Academics to Middle-Platonism, Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism.
This is also true of later European revivals of Platonism, as with, say, Marsilio Ficino, the
Cambridge Platonists, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Plato has not been without his moral
critics, however. Karl Popper comes to mind as a noted critic, blaming Plato for casting a
totalitarian spell on political thought (The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2013). In the realm of ethics, Gregory Vlastos famously criticized Plato for
his inadequate understanding of love (Platonic Studies. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1973). Recent scholars in political theory who make their own well-developed and
compelling cases for a morally concerned Socrates include Leon Craig (The War Lover),
Mary Nichols (Socrates and the Political Community. Albany: State University of New York
Pres, 1987. See also Socrates on Friendship and Political Community), James Rhodes (Eros,
Wisdom and Silence. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), Roslyn Weiss (Socrates
Dissatisfied. See also: The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2006, and Philosophers in the Republic. Ithaca: Cornell, 2012), and Catherine Zuckert
(Plato’s Philosophers).
Excellent examples of this include Euthyphro, Meno, and Republic.
ordinary conception of virtue such that the language of ordinary morality
still makes sense in describing his motives. To put this in another way: if
Socrates shows that doubts about the goodness of ordinary virtue, doubts
especially about duty, devotion, or sacrifice, govern a willingness to transform virtue into something higher, something more rational or philosophic, then one has to consider whether the philosopher’s so-called
virtue—the rule of reason in the soul—is sufficiently akin to its ordinary
counterparts to warrant using the same names.5 These problems, while
perhaps not insuperable, show how Socrates himself has put obstacles in
the way of using his often morally charged rhetoric as a guide to his genuine motivations.
The second major camp—Socrates as philosopher of nature or philosophic investigator—sees Socrates’ activity in the dialogues as motivated
mainly, if not exclusively, by intellectual self-interest or the goal of furthering his own wisdom without particular regard for others. This interpretive
stance is informed by a reading of the Socratic turn which argues that
Socrates, despite his incisive criticism of his scientific predecessors, continues nonetheless to advance the ends of science (knowledge of causes)
albeit on a new footing. Socrates’ novel approach to the scientific project
unfolds in the realm of speech or dialectics, a move which has at least two
core motivations: (1) given the weak position of the claims of natural science subsequent to Socrates’ critique of them, Socrates seeks to explore,
test, and ultimately refute the rivals to science whose understanding of the
world relies on divine action or other non-intuitive causes, namely poets,
priests, diviners but also Protagoreans and other “fluxists” and (2) by
focusing on speech, Socrates attempts to clarify how the beings are present
to common awareness or common sense, not only to assess the psychic
roots of divine experience but also to describe clearly what of the beings is
revealed by mind or how the world shows itself through mind-dependent
form.6 As for Socrates’ willingness to outwardly identify with virtue and
the god, these are exoteric tactics contrived for his friends and for
­self-­protection in order to soften or conceal altogether the harsher aspects
of the truth about nature.7
Consider Stauffer (Plato’s Introduction to the Question of Justice. Albany: Statue University
of New York Press, 2001, 130–131). See also Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates, 156.
See Sebell, The Socratic Turn, 53 and Smith Pangle, Virtue is Knowledge, 103.
Consider, for example, Sebell, The Socratic Turn, 134–143.
Despite being unconventional and somewhat contrary to the surface of
the dialogues, position two is very powerfully supported by its textual
expositors.8 It does especially well to explain the notable dissonance
between Socrates’ critiques of moral virtue and his seemingly tireless quest
for virtue. There are, however, two potential areas of difficulty with this
general account of Socratic activity: the first we might call logicalepistemological; the second, existential-psychological.
We note first that, depending on how one understands Socrates’ critique of pre-Socratic science, especially reductive causality, one will have to
adjust or calibrate one’s conception of the ends of Socrates’ theoretical
enterprise. That is, if one concludes that Socrates thinks that problems of
coherently relating parts and wholes, or material and form, are fatal to
certain kinds of causal understanding (as, arguably, is indicated in Phaedo
and Theaetetus), then it is not clear what sort of science is left to pursue if
one also wants to hold on to intelligible necessity as a standard for knowledge.9 At the very least, if one wants to argue that Socrates’ activity continues to be a kind of meaningful science, then one must be clear how
science can accommodate itself to or be done in light of Socrates’ ostensibly skeptical identification of problems with learning and knowledge. Or
to put this differently, one must show how Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance is also somehow a genuine knowledge of causes.
Second, and more directly related to our volume’s concerns, if one
claims that Socrates is motivated strictly or even primarily by intellectual
self-interest, it is not obvious how one is to then explain Socrates’ seeming
See especially the work of Ahrensdorf (The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), Bartlett (Plato, Protagoras and Meno.
Ithaca: Cornell, 2004), Bolotin (Plato’s Dialogue on Friendship. Ithaca: Cornell, 1979),
Bruell (On the Socratic Education), Burns and Pangle (Key Texts in Political Philosophy),
Leibowitz (The Ironic Defense of Socrates), Levy (Eros and Socratic Philosophy), Lutz (Socrates’
Education to Virtue), Pangle (The Roots of Political Philosophy and Political Philosophy and the
God of Abraham. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), Sebell (The Socratic
Turn), Smith Pangle (Virtue is Knowledge), and Stauffer (Plato’s Introduction to the Question
of Justice). See also Carey (“Education and the Art of Writing.” The St. John’s Review 57
(2015): 120–148). We mention here also Seth Benardete, whose work on Plato, though difficult to interpret, suggests that Socrates was principally concerned with problems of eidetic
analysis (Socrates’ Second Sailing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
If Strauss is right, and Socrates’ core theoretical insight is the discovery of noetic heterogeneity, then one has to wonder if noetic heterogeneity precludes intelligible reductive causality, and, if so, what sort of intelligible necessity is compatible with or entailed by said
discovery (What is Political Philosophy? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, 132,
efforts to help other interlocutors, particularly his friends, fellow citizens,
and future philosophers.10 That is, if the Socratic critique of virtue also
entails that moral motives are non-viable for explaining Socrates’ behavior
(given concerns of internal coherence), then one can legitimately ask if all
or even most of Socrates’ engagements with others are fully and exclusively intelligible as occasions of intellectual self-interest? And if not, or if
one grants that, in some secondary way, Socrates is concerned with others,
then one must also account for how a seeming deviation from a strict
rational motive is also somehow rational; that is, if Socrates is sometimes
not optimally rational (whatever that might mean), then one must somehow reconceive what it might mean to live rationally as a philosopher.
Here, we think, that if one follows the path of camp two, one has to ask
difficult questions about the relation of emotions, attachment, and practical reason. How, for instance, does Socrates determine the right level of
care, concern, attachment, or detachment? Or, how much irrational or
non-rational love of one’s own can or does the rational life tolerate? Or to
put this family of questions in the terms of the Phaedrus: how much madness, if any, still moves the philosopher?
In this way, keeping these questions in mind, we encourage the reader
to pursue the ultimate challenge of making sense of Socrates’ motives. To
that end, the reader will find both major camps well represented in the
pages that follow, in addition to discovering that there is considerable
nuance and difference within the major lines of division and also between
them. Our hope is that the chapters collected here help map the terrain for
clear articulation and comparison. Ultimately, we believe our volume may
aid in discerning new possibilities for thinking through the figure of Plato’s
Socrates and therewith the character of Platonic political philosophy.
One might also consider in this vein Plato’s motives to found a school, write dialogues,
or his efforts to help Dion of Syracuse.
The Strange Conversation of Plato’s Minos
Robert Goldberg
Socrates opens the Minos with a stark question: What is law? He asks it
with only a slight but perhaps significant qualification: What is law for us?
In asking it this way, he implies that the answer would be the same for
himself as for his nameless interlocutor called, by Plato, only comrade (or
companion). We never learn his name. Socrates doesn’t use it, though the
comrade calls Socrates by name eight times. Perhaps his name isn’t used
because he could be just about anyone—that is, any non-philosopher.
Socrates asks a non-philosopher, someone who has given insufficient
thought to the question of law, what law is. The comrade doesn’t even
understand the question. Perhaps that’s not entirely his fault. Nevertheless,
as the dialogue progresses, it becomes clear that he hasn’t given nearly as
much thought to law as Socrates has. And Socrates, who appears to know
the comrade, must have known that, too. He could hardly have asked the
question with the hope or expectation that he would finally learn what law
is if only he could induce the comrade to tell him. So why does Socrates
ask someone who knows less, much less, than he knows what law is? Why
bother? What could he reasonably hope to gain from asking?
Now, someone might claim that Plato writes dialogues merely as a
charming way to present his own philosophy. If we just hear what Socrates
R. Goldberg (*)
St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, USA
e-mail: robert.goldber[email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_2
says, we find out what he thinks. And because Socrates is Plato’s spokesman,
we find out what Plato thinks as well. The dialogue form, then, is merely
a far less tedious way to present the dry-as-dust ideas that philosophy
trades in. To this we must reply that in the Apology Socrates himself tells
us that his conversations with others, including or especially with those
who, as he has every reason to suspect, have given far less thought than he
has to the matters he asks them about, have an urgent purpose—namely,
to test the veracity and competence of the god at Delphi. This god, Apollo,
once told Socrates, through human intermediaries, to be sure, that no one
was wiser than he was. In disbelief, Socrates eventually set out to refute the
god or his oracle by finding others, such as political men, poets and diviners, and ordinary craftsmen, who were thought to be more knowledgeable
or wiser than himself. In discovering that they supposed they knew
things—including the greatest things (22c4–6, 22d6–8; cf. Laws 10,
888b2–4)—that through refutations Socrates was able to show them or to
detect they did not know, he came to see that, as he but not the god had
put it, Socrates was wisest (cf. 21b5–6 with 21a6–7). Now, the context in
which Socrates tells us all this informs us that what he discovered in this
way was really something of momentous importance: that no human
being he thus examined possessed a wisdom superior to his own human
wisdom; in other words, no one he examined possessed or, when Socrates
was done with him, could even suppose he possessed a more-than-human
wisdom, a wisdom that may therefore be called divine. And since Socrates
includes the diviners and oracle-givers (22c1–3), he suggests that he had
been able to ascertain that no one possessed any wisdom communicated
to him by a god whether directly or indirectly. This is a strange thing for
Socrates to be suggesting as part of his defense speech when he is on trial
for his life in part for not believing in the gods the city believes in. One of
those gods is Apollo, and it appears to have become clear to Socrates that
Apollo has not conferred any divine wisdom on anyone he has examined.
We might go so far as to ask, then, what reason Socrates could now have
to believe in Apollo (cf. 22e4–5), if he finds no evidence, among those
who do, that they have learned anything—including, for instance, how to
live well (38a1–6)—from him or his fellow Olympians.1
Among the other things that they appear not to have learned is what happens to us when
we die (Apology 29a1–b6; cf. 39e1–41d2 and consider diamythologēsai at 39e5; cf. Republic
1, 330d4–331d3). All references to Plato are to the Oxford Classical Texts edition by John
Burnet; translations are my own.
While the Apology teaches that Socrates had a philosophic purpose in
conversing with others, the conversation he has in the Minos appears different in kind from that described in the Apology. The comrade does not
present himself as wise, as knowing something noble and good that
Socrates then leads him to see he does not know; it is not, for the most
part, a conversation in which Socrates cross-examines his interlocutor,
subjecting him to a series of refutations. Unlike the Charmides, Laches,
Meno, and Theaetetus, for instance, it does not even seem to end inconclusively, with a failure to define the thing under discussion. Socrates does
seem to refute the two definitions of law that the comrade offers. And yet
he leads the comrade to a third definition that by the end of the dialogue
the comrade appears to accept. If the conversations Socrates refers to later
in the Apology—the conversations in which the gadfly Socrates serves the
god who sent him by exhorting his fellow citizens to virtue (29d2–30b4,
30e1–31a1)—are really a distinct kind, and not the same refutations that
he already spoke of presented now in a new, more beautiful light, then
perhaps the conversation of the Minos belongs to those. For in the Minos
Socrates does take someone whose faith in law as such appears to have
been shaken and leads him through a series of arguments to those laws
that he can have faith in. We need to take a closer look at the dialogue,
then, to see how Socrates accomplishes this feat and what, if anything, he
might have learned from doing so. In this way, we might be able to determine whether Socrates’ conversations that are not chiefly refutations may
nevertheless serve a philosophic purpose.
The Minos or On Law is one of only two Platonic dialogues whose titles
take the strange form of offering alternatives. The other is the Hipparchus
or Lover of Gain. Each takes place with a nameless “comrade” and so neither is named for Socrates’ interlocutor; both titles refer instead to men
who died long ago. Whereas “Hipparchus” refers to an Athenian tyrant,
or a son and brother of one, from perhaps 100 years earlier, “Minos”
refers to a Cretan king and son of Zeus from the remote past, mentioned
even in the Odyssey as already dead, perhaps centuries before Homer wrote
it (11.568). As we learn later in our dialogue, Minos was the legendary
lawgiver of Crete. And because the Laws, Plato’s longest dialogue, is set in
Crete, and appears to pick up on one or more of the questions of the
Minos, one of Plato’s shortest dialogues, the Minos has been looked upon
as its introduction—and this despite the fact that the cast of characters is
not the same, with Socrates himself replaced by someone known only as
the Athenian Stranger. We might ask whether and how the question of the
Minos—What is law?—is a philosophic question at all. This would point to
the prior question of what philosophy is. Perhaps the safest thing to say for
now is that the question of law is a question of political philosophy. As to
what that is, we will tentatively accept Aristotle’s virtual definition: political philosophy is “philosophy concerning the human things” (Nicomachean
Ethics 1181b15; cf. 1152b1–2).2 This still leaves in the dark, of course,
what philosophy proper might be. The Minos itself may suggest an answer
to that question.
Because Plato had Socrates raise the question of law explicitly only in an
obscure, brief, out-of-the-way, and therefore easily overlooked dialogue
(one that German scholars two centuries ago declared to be spurious), we
might think that Plato found it a relatively unimportant question. Indeed,
Xenophon doesn’t have Socrates explicitly raise the question of law at all.
Nor is it said to be one of the “human things” that, according to Xenophon,
Socrates was always examining in conversation (Memorabilia 1.1.16). The
one character that, in his Socratic writings, Xenophon does present explicitly raising the question is Socrates’ associate Alcibiades, who asks his
guardian Pericles to teach him what law is, in what appears to be a private
conversation (Mem. 1.2.39–47).3 Although Xenophon presents their conversation as part of his defense of Socrates against the corruption charge
and assures us that it demonstrates Alcibiades’ political ambition and
therefore displeasure with Socrates’ teaching, the manner and substance of
Alcibiades’ refutation of Pericles does appear Socratic—so much so that
one suspects Xenophon doth protest too much. The fact that the question
of law is relegated to an out-of-the-way place by Plato and entrusted to
Alcibiades by Xenophon might suggest not its relative unimportance,
then, but rather its extreme sensitivity. So it is perhaps not surprising that
in the Minos Plato presents Socrates as restoring the comrade’s faith in law.
In this light, the Minos appears to be a work of political philosophy in the
sense that it is a political presentation of philosophy—that is, a politic
­presentation. Socrates raises the question of law while defending the law
he’s questioning. So far from corrupting others, he leads them back to the
straight and narrow path.
All references to the Ethics are to the Oxford Classical Texts edition by I. Bywater; translations are my own.
This does not mean that Xenophon’s Socrates does not converse with others on law and
in this way reveal that he has indeed raised (and answered) the question of what law is; see
especially Memorabilia 4.4.
But how did Socrates’ comrade come to stray from that path in the first
place? We’re given only intimations. Let’s look at the first of them. When
Socrates asks, like a bolt from the blue—“Law for us, what is it?”—the
comrade requests clarification as to what sort of law he is asking about; the
comrade does not say and is not asked what sorts of law he believes there
are. Since the word for law (nomos) can also mean custom, he could have
in mind, in addition to the written laws of the city, the unwritten laws,
whether natural or divine or merely traditional with origins unknown.
Socrates answers the question with a question: Does law differ from law
with respect to its being law? Readers of the Meno will be reminded of
Socrates’ response to Meno’s first definition of virtue: What is the one and
the same eidos—that is, class or class characteristic—that all virtues have,
on account of which they are virtues?4 And just to give a brief indication
of one way in which Plato teaches the reader, and a way in which a more
thoughtful interlocutor might be taught by Socrates, I will mention that
Socrates likens law to gold and to stone. His analogies point in different
directions. To mention only one thing, gold is worth much while stones
are worth little. Were we to go further into the analogy than we have space
to go here, we would want, among other things, (1) to ask where gold and
the value of gold come from and to compare that with law and the value
of law and (2) to note that law, like stone but unlike gold, can be used in
the plural; and once we had read the entire dialogue, we would want (3)
to consider what if any bearing on this passage a much later one has, where
Socrates mentions in passing that (at least some) stones might be regarded
as sacred (cf. 319a5 with 313b1).
To return to the comrade, he says nothing about the analogies Socrates
used but answers that law (all law) is the things that are made into, or
acknowledged or recognized as, law. We have to go into the weeds a bit to
understand the significance of this answer. The phrase the comrade uses is
ta nomizomena, a passive participle, made into a noun by the addition of
an article, of the verb nomizō , a verb that comes from nomos. Added to
nomos is the suffix from which we get the English -ize, as in legalize or satirize. Nomizō has a range of meanings, a fact Socrates exploits throughout
this dialogue on law. It can mean, for instance, to hold (an opinion), as in
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It can also mean to believe or
believe in and is used in the official indictment of Socrates, who is charged
Cf. Meno 72c1–d1. Interestingly, Socrates does not ask for the eidos of law: does it have
in part with “not believing in the gods the city believes in.”5 In defining law
as ta nomizomena, then, the comrade appears to mean that laws are
grounded in nothing more substantial than the fact that (some) human
beings have made or hold them to be laws. If this is all there is to law, then
it would seem that its commands and prohibitions lack any intrinsic
authority to bind us.6 This is what I am calling the first intimation we get
from the comrade of how he came to have doubts about law, or at least
that he does have doubts about it.
Whatever the comrade’s doubts may be, and whatever their causes,7
Socrates himself is not yet ready to accept that law is nothing more than
whatever human beings hold to be, or make into, law. He may suspect that
law is much more than this, at least for the comrade himself. For he offers
the comrade a series of analogies (each of whose implications again we
cannot go into here) to suggest, paradoxically, that law is something like a
capacity or faculty within us that perceives certain commands and prohibitions to be laws (313b–c). On the model of ta nomizomena and nomos,
Socrates asks the comrade whether speech (logos, which also means reason)
seems to him the same as the things spoken (ta legomena), sight the things
seen, hearing the things heard, and, accordingly, law the things recognized as law. Without considering what might be the mutual dependence
of, say, sight and things seen (and things seeable), and its implication for
law and things recognized as law, let me just note that Socrates has here
made an inroad: the comrade replies, “Just now they [i.e., law and the
things recognized as law] came to appear to me as different” (313c4).
Socrates asks again, “What then might law be?” And to pursue his question further, he places himself in the same boat as the comrade and has a
hypothetical third person follow up with the two of them, using and elaborating the analogies Socrates had just used. Now, it is possible that
Socrates employs this device of conjuring up a third person simply to place
the comrade at ease by pretending that he is as perplexed as the comrade.
But perhaps Socrates really is perplexed, at least in the sense that to determine whether law might be a special faculty of human beings by which
What it means to believe in a god and how one comes to do so might then be one strand
of Socrates’ inquiry here.
This is not to deny what the Athenian Stranger says of the necessity for laws—that without
them, human beings would differ not at all from the most savage beasts (Laws 9, 874e–875a).
When the comrade gives his first definition, he may already have in mind the fact, which
he will emphasize later, that Athenian laws change from one time to another, as well as the
fact that laws change from one place to another.
they are able to recognize some commands and prohibitions as binding
and others not, he must subject himself to the same kind of scrutiny that
he subjects others to (see Apology 38a4–5). In any case, he has the new
questioner elaborate the analogies by speaking of sight and hearing as
perceptions that disclose, through eyes and ears, the objects of seeing and
hearing.8 And the questioner goes on to add a new analogy and then a new
possibility: Is law some perception or disclosing, just as the things learned
are learned by science disclosing? Or is law (not a perceiving or disclosing
but) some finding, just as the things found are found—as things healthy
and unhealthy are found by the art of healing, and what the gods are
thinking, “as the diviners assert” (314b4), is found by the art of divining?
By asking whether law is some perception or disclosing, could the questioner have in mind something like what we mean by a sense of right and
wrong? The comrade doesn’t ask for explanation. Nor does he comment
one way or the other on the suggestion that divining, or prophecy, may be
an art (perhaps a question on Socrates’ own mind, however—how to test
the claim the diviners make).9 Instead, he replies only to the last question
asked: for surely art for us is a finding of things (pragmata)—isn’t that so?
“By all means,” the comrade affirms.
When Socrates asks, apparently in his own name now, which of these
“we” would most of all conceive law to be, the comrade gives an answer
that implies that law is none of them—not some perception or disclosing,
not like a science, nor an art. That is, he does not conceive law to be a
faculty that might disclose things that really are, the way sight or science
does, or an art that might find the things that are healthy and unhealthy
(or good and bad) for us. Instead, he says, apparently referring to a city’s
laws, “These resolutions and decrees—what else would someone assert
law to be?”10 And he now gives his second and final definition of the
In the case of seeing, Socrates or the questioner speaks of its objects as things (pragmata)
whereas in the case of hearing he speaks of them only as sounds. He thus suggests that seeing
and not hearing discloses things that really are. One wonders whether law might not be more
like hearing than seeing. The only other use of pragmata in the dialogue comes in the definition of art, which we will come to presently. In all other cases, “things” and “thing” merely
translate the neuter article when added to an adjective or a participle to make it into a noun.
By the way, at 315c6 the comrade will tell Socrates, “Surely you know because you yourself
hear …”; the word he uses for know is the perfect tense of the verb to see. According to the
comrade, then, it is possible to have seen (or to know) by hearing.
The doubt that divining or prophecy is a genuine art is planted not by Socrates, of course,
but by the unidentified questioner.
The word “these” in Greek (tauta) can be used, as it is here, to express impatience with
what it refers to as well as scorn. The comrade thus scoffs at the city’s resolutions and decrees.
dialogue: “So that what you’re asking about, this whole thing, law, risks
being the resolution of the city” (314c). The word “risks” (kinduneuei) is
telling. There is something disturbing to the comrade in the thought that
law may be nothing more than whatever commands and prohibitions a
ruling group or individual decides on and backs by force. Apparently, the
comrade needs law to be something more. One can imagine someone, like
Thrasymachus or Alcibiades, feeling liberated at the thought that law is
nothing more than the commands and prohibitions issued by a city’s ruler
or ruling class (cf. Clouds 1421–1426). The comrade is troubled by it. We
need to note that the word he uses for resolution, as in a resolution of
Congress or an assembly, is the word dogma, a word that also means opinion and literally means the outcome of an act of opining; it can also mean
one’s conviction (see, for instance, Republic 3, 412c9–e8) and can have
the same connotation that dogma has in English. Socrates restates the
comrade’s definition: “You are saying, as it seems, that law is political
opinion” (314c2). Although the comrade accepts this, it is not quite the
same as what he had said. For one thing, political opinion (doxa politikē)
can have the connotation of “expert opinion about the city”; for another,
a man like Socrates can have political opinion, but it would hardly count
as law for an entire city, and perhaps not even for himself. His restatement
does have the advantage, however, of recasting the comrade’s definition in
terms of the same sort as the questioner had used, since opinion (doxa)
like science, according to Socrates, can designate a faculty of the soul (see
Republic 5, 477b4–478a1). Nonetheless, it appears that Socrates is not yet
ready to regard as answered, on the basis of the conversation so far, the
question of whether we have a distinct faculty capable of recognizing certain commands and prohibitions as binding.
In fact, it is not until near the end of the next section that Socrates is
prepared to say that law is coming to light to himself as some (or a
certain—tis) opinion (314e7–8).11 Something that transpires in this section must have prepared him. Perhaps it is this: Socrates asks the comrade
a series of questions from which it emerges that according to the comrade
those who are law-abiding are just and those who are lawless unjust.
Moreover, we learn that he regards both justice and lawfulness as most
noble or beautiful (kalliston). Given his suspicion of law, however, we
The word Socrates uses for “is coming to light” (kataphainetai) has a prefix that indicates motion downward. Perhaps by using it he means to suggest that this is a demotion of
law to the status of (a) mere opinion. The same is true with the word he uses for “clear”
(katadēlon) in the next clause (314e8–9).
should be surprised that he grants this. But through the calculated order
in which Socrates poses his questions, he elicits opinions of the comrade
that are at odds with his doubts about law. In particular, Socrates secures
his assent to two propositions: first, that the lawful are lawful through law;
next, that the lawless are lawless through lawlessness; only then does
Socrates ask whether the lawful are just, a proposition the comrade can
now readily assent to. In other words, however problematic the comrade
finds the law of the city to be, lawlessness in his view is certainly an evil;
and from that point of view, law and lawfulness are goods that he can
associate with justice, which itself is something most noble, while both
injustice and lawlessness are, of course, most shameful.12 In his next two
questions, Socrates is able to bring out the opinions underlying the comrade’s assent: first, the one (presumably justice and law) saves cities as well
as all other things and the other destroys and overturns them;13 second,
therefore we must think about law as being something noble (or as some
noble being) and seek it as good, a proposition to which the comrade’s
assent is emphatic (314d8). This strange distinction between how they
must think about law and how they must seek it perhaps means that their
search for law as something good will be guided and therefore colored, if
not entirely compromised, by the thought that it must be in addition
something noble, or even a noble being.
Having established this much—not about law, we note, but about the
comrade’s opinions about law—Socrates returns to the comrade’s second
and final definition. Interestingly, he returns to it in its original form, not
to his restatement of it, asking, “So then, didn’t we assert that law is the
resolution of a city?” Socrates now appears to sign on to that definition,
though he calls attention to it as an assertion. The comrade affirms that
they did assert or say it.14 When Socrates asks him whether some ­resolutions
are worthy (or decent—chrēsta) and others worthless (or base—ponēra),15
Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1129b12: “All lawful things are somehow just” (my
Euthyphro 14b2–7, with its similar wording, may offer a little help with what this might
mean. See also Crito 50b3 and context.
There are neutral words for saying and speaking that Socrates does not use here. The
word he does use (phēmi) can mean “say” but is also used to mean “assert”; when negated,
it means “deny.” It is not clear that the comrade hears it as “assert” rather than “say.” But
Socrates (and Plato through Socrates) speaks with exquisite care.
The words Socrates uses for worthy or decent (chrēstos) and worthless or base (ponēros)
can have strong moral overtones but literally mean useful and burdensome. Although I’ve
the comrade answers emphatically that they are. And so Socrates can now
point out to the comrade the contradiction between two of his opinions
and watch to see which opinion is the more important or fundamental to
him. As Socrates notes, law was not (in what was just agreed to) worthless,
and therefore it is not correct to answer so simply that law is the resolution
of the city. The comrade agrees since, as Socrates explains, it would not
harmonize for a worthless resolution to be a law. This view of law, while it
has the advantage of being quite high-minded, may imply that many or
even most resolutions of the Athenian assembly, for instance, which after
all might be worthless or base, would not deserve to be called law. But we
have to add that Socrates does not himself embrace this view, which he
merely elicits from the comrade. Whether or not it is also Socrates’ view, it
is likely to be our own. Law has a high name for most if not all of us, as the
phrase “the majesty of the law” might remind us.16 When we read Platonic
dialogues, we should keep in mind that we are likely to be closer in our
(insufficiently examined) opinions to Socrates’ interlocutors than to
Socrates. Even Socrates, when he is on trial for his life, tells us that he (still,
and perhaps even on this occasion) examines himself as well as others
(Apology 28e5–6 and 38a4–5; cf. Charmides 167a1–5, retaining the manuscripts’ reading at a4).
Indeed, the next part of this set of exchanges could be taken to indicate
that Socrates rejects the comrade’s view. He prefaces it with the remark,
already referred to, that law is coming to light to himself as some opinion.
Perhaps, then, what he has established about the comrade’s views—
namely, that not only justice but, because of its connection with justice,
also law is something most noble, or something noble and good (314d6–8;
cf. Apology 21d), and thereby worthy (or decent) (314e1–3)—supplies
some of the evidence he needs in order to confirm that law is mere opinion
and not a distinct faculty of soul. But, as his use of the progressive verb “is
coming to light” suggests, he has yet to fully confirm it with the comrade.
His next step is consistent with this suggestion. He asks the comrade:
translated the words according to their less literal meanings, one should not lose sight of the
more literal ones. It is left to the reader to decide what each interlocutor has in mind. It is
possible that Socrates substitutes chrēstos for the “noble” together with “good” he used
shortly before.
See Harvey C. Mansfield, “On the Majesty of the Law” in the Harvard Journal of Law
& Public Policy 36.1: 117–129, for a helpful account, well-informed by Plato’s Minos, of this
aspect of our view of law and its importance, as well as the neglect of it in contemporary
theories of law.
since law is not worthless (or base) opinion, then isn’t this clear, that it is
worthy (or decent) opinion—if indeed (he adds) law is opinion? To this
the comrade replies with a simple “Yes” (314e8–10). When Socrates asks
the comrade what worthy opinion is (or what opinion is worthy) and,
perhaps because the comrade does not have a ready answer, follows up by
asking him whether worthy (or decent) opinion is true opinion, the comrade reveals his faith in truth by replying again with a simple “Yes.” And
he perhaps reveals his faith in the objects of true opinion by giving his
emphatic assent when Socrates asks whether true opinion is the finding-­
out of that which is or, as the term tou ontos also means, of being. Does
Socrates himself think that worthy or decent opinion is true opinion? Does
he think that the object of true opinion is that which is (or being)? Keeping
in mind that the word for worthy or decent more literally means useful,
readers of the Republic will recall that among the opinions useful to the
city—opinions that help to form and support its notions of decency—are
those that make up the noble lie (3, 414b8–415d4).17 There is also some
doubt whether any things or aspects of our world, including perhaps the
world itself, are things that are, or beings in the strong sense—fixed and
everlasting—or rather things that are always in a process of coming to be
and passing away (cf. Phaedo 96a8–10).
To return to the Minos, however, the opinions of the comrade that
Socrates has drawn out of him suggest that law is this: the finding-out of
that which is or of being. This is the definition of law that Socrates has
thus dangled before him. And yet Socrates refrains from stating it. Instead
he says this: “Law, then, wishes to be the finding-out of that which is [or
being]” (315a2–3; my italics).18 In this way, Socrates makes the definition
his own. His formulation, we note, reads less like a definition than a
­characterization of law. The comrade, however, apparently mishears what
Socrates says, or believes Socrates did say what Socrates, by way of the
comrade’s own opinions, had led him to expect him to say, and recasts it
as a definition. He asks Socrates incredulously (as if he can’t believe his
own ears), “Then how come, Socrates, if law is the finding-out of that
The noble lie is needed to support the dogma that the happiness of the city is the necessary and sufficient condition of the happiness of the individual, a dogma in turn necessary for
loving and therefore caring for one’s city (Republic 3, 412c12–e8).
In the context, this implies of course that law wishes to be true opinion. One might
define philosophy itself as true opinion with regard to that which is. In light of this, what
Socrates says here may indicate the ground of the necessary conflict between philosophy and
the city.
which is, we do not always use the same laws in regard to the same things—
if the things which are [or the beings] have indeed been found out by us?”
(315a4–6) That is, he believes Socrates had just said that law is the finding-­
out of that which is. This becomes the third and final definition of law
when Socrates strangely chooses to accept as his own and defend the comrade’s mistaken formulation, even after repeating it in its original form
(315a7–8). So intrigued is the comrade, and perhaps so much would he
like what he expected Socrates to say to be true, however incredible he
finds it, that he fails to register what Socrates actually said even when, in
response to the comrade’s expression of disbelief, he repeats it. And this
suggests that Socrates has struck a nerve: the finding-out of being is exactly
what the comrade longs for law to be and cannot for a moment believe it
actually is. It is perhaps because Socrates sees this that he decides, silently,
to defend the definition as the comrade believes he heard it rather than
explain the definition as he actually said it. Had the comrade registered
Socrates’ qualification “wishes to be” and pressed him on why he refrained
from stating it in the form he led the comrade to expect, the rest of the
conversation may have taken a very different course. But then the comrade would have been a very different person. Socrates appears to be interested in the comrade just as he is.
Although Socrates had said only that law wishes to be the finding-out of
that which is, we do not yet know whether he thought that some law
somewhere was or is or might someday be that finding-out. In addition,
we should note that “finding-out” differs both from the way he characterized science (a disclosing) and even from the way he characterized art (a
finding).19 Embedded in the formulation he chose to use, therefore, is the
suggestion that what law wishes to be is something that, in his own view
perhaps, is neither an art nor a science. At any rate, to defend this third
definition of law, Socrates takes advantage of an opening provided by the
comrade, whose incredulous question allowed for the possibility, in its
second if-clause, that the Athenians frequently change their laws precisely
because they have not in fact found out the things which are (the beings):20
The word for finding-out (exeuresis) is compounded of the word for finding (heuresis)
and the prefix ex- (out); it can also be translated as “discovery” and even “invention.” The
Greek word for “science”—epistēmē—could also be translated as “knowledge”; epistēmē is
the subject matter of Plato’s Theaetetus.
Note that here the comrade also turns the singular Socrates used into a plural. What he
might have in mind he doesn’t say and Socrates doesn’t ask. In the Apology, when interrogating Meletus, Socrates clarifies one of his questions by explaining that he’s asking “what
“So human beings, if they do not use always the same laws, as we opine,
are not always able to find out that which law wishes—that which is [or,
being]” (315a8–b2). And what Socrates does next elicits from the comrade
further intimations as to what may have shaken his faith in law in the first
place. Socrates proposes that they consider, from the point of view just
mentioned, whether it is really the case that human beings do not always
use the same laws (315b2–5). The comrade is astonished that Socrates
could even suggest such a thing. It is plain to all that the Athenians change
their laws from one time to another and that laws in Athens differ from
those, for instance, in Persia. The comrade has a point. So how are we to
make sense of Socrates’ peculiar suggestion? Perhaps he means this: most,
if not all, of what we normally call laws—say, the resolutions of cities—are
laws in name only.
The comrade, however, does not ask Socrates what he could possibly
mean, nor does he seem to detect this implication. In his longest speech of
the dialogue, the comrade reminds or proves to knuckle-headed Socrates
that of course laws change (315b6–d5). In doing so, he speaks only about
laws in various times and places that either forbid or permit, or perhaps
demand, the sacrificing to gods of human beings, including one’s own
sons, and that regulate how and where the dead are to be buried. At the
same time, his words make clear that he believes that the way present-day
Athens handles these matters—no human sacrifices and no burial of the
dead in private homes—is superior to the abhorrent ways of ancient Athens
and certain barbarous and even Greek places of his own day. In making his
case against Socrates’ definition as he misheard it, he appears in fact to
confirm to some extent that “definition” as Socrates stated it. Law wishes
to be, at least in part, the finding-out of gods—the highest beings—and
the demands they make on us with regard to our lives and deaths.21 Or, as
we could also put it, law wishes to be the finding-out of, among other
things, what is sacred with regard to human life. At one point, the ­comrade
even appears to identify what is holy or pious (hosion) with what is lawful
(315b8–c1).22 It is also possible that the comrade took Socrates himself to
human being it is who first knows this thing itself—the laws” (24e); Socrates speaks as
though (genuine) laws are not man-made but exist independently.
Consider in this regard Laws 1, 632b7–c4, and 12, 958c7ff.
If so, does he mean that what is holy or pious is therefore also lawful, or that what is
lawful is therefore also holy or pious? Near the end of his speech (315d4–5) the comrade uses
a phrase whose meaning is uncertain (kata t’auta nomizomen). The usual way of understanding it would have it saying something like “neither do we always have [or use] the same
be implying that genuine laws—those laws that are the finding-­out of that
which is—would be laws made by gods, not by human beings (cf. 315b1);
perhaps only gods could know that which is (or the things that are) and
therefore lay down laws that never change (cf. Parmenides 134c–e). If the
comrade did take Socrates this way, then his choice of examples of laws
that change could be intended specifically to show Socrates that we have
no unequivocal evidence for the existence of divine law, if not the gods
themselves, since laws declaring what the gods demand of us themselves
differ from one time and place to another. However that may be, the comrade appears to be as skeptical of gods, or of our knowledge of gods, as he
is of law. He may therefore feel completely at sea regarding how he ought
to live; he has nothing to look to for guidance. Finding laws he can have
faith in may thus be of vital importance to him.
The way in which Socrates responds to the comrade’s long speech may
shed further light on his purpose in having this strange conversation with
him. Conceding that the comrade might be right and that this may have
escaped his notice, Socrates observes that as long as the comrade gives his
opinions in a long speech, and he in turn, they may never “come to terms”;
if, however, the examination is conducted in common, Socrates adds, “we
might soon agree” (315d–e). And he orders the comrade to conduct the
examination in whichever of two ways he wishes: examine together in
common with me either by inquiring of me or by answering me. Now, the
purpose of the examination appears to be to “come to terms” or to “reach
agreement.” The word for “agree” that Socrates uses means to say—that
is, not necessarily to think—the same thing.23 What Socrates may be aiming at, then, is not to educate the comrade in such a way as to share his
own, philosophic understanding of law, but rather to see whether the
comrade will, in the course of the examination, come to say and believe
laws …”; the italicized portion translates the phrase in question, construing it as the direct
object of the verb. But kata t’auta would normally mean “according to [or based on] the
same things.” The comrade might be saying, then, something more like “neither do we
always base what we recognize as law on the same things ….” In that case, he could mean
that we don’t base our laws on the same considerations or beings, or, given the context, on
the same gods or teachings about the gods. Thomas Pangle also appears to take kata t’auta
as the direct object but has “neither do we … at all times lawfully accept the same things”
(The Roots of Political Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987, 57); cf. Leo Strauss
(in Roots 70, bottom). Consider Laws 12, 948d1–3.
The word for “say the same thing” is homologeō ; the word for “think the same thing” or
“to be of one mind” would be homonoeō .
what Socrates suspects he will say and believe.24 This suggestion could put
the question Socrates opened the dialogue with in a new light. When
Socrates asks, “Law for us—what is it?”, he may have in mind the problem
of whether there is one world in common both for those who sense that
there somehow exist in the world such things as binding commands and
prohibitions and for those who have determinedly searched for the existence of such things and so far, at least, come up empty-handed. If there
is one world in common for both, Socrates should be able to explain,
should have an account of, those who radically differ with him or the
grounds of the difference (cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1154a22–25), and
should be able to confirm his account somehow through examining them
in speech.
Now we cannot in this chapter go through the rest of the dialogue in
the same detail we have gone into so far (and even now we have had to
omit many things). There are several passages of particular importance for
our purpose, however, that we need to take a look at and treat with some,
albeit insufficient, care. The first of these is the one that comes immediately after the comrade’s opting to have the examination conducted in
common by answering whatever Socrates wishes to ask. Socrates takes the
comrade through a serious of exchanges (315e–316b) purporting to
show, contrary to what the comrade believed he had shown in his long
speech, that all human beings use the same laws always. Socrates begins
with the seemingly nonsensical question of whether the comrade recognizes (or holds) the just things to be unjust and the unjust things just, or
the just things just and the unjust things unjust. And he goes on to ask
about the heavier things and the lighter things, the noble things and the
shameful things, and, extending this to all cases, the things that are and
the things that are not (or the beings and the non-beings). He asks also
whether all people at all times also recognize these things this way. To all
of this the comrade assents. Now, the word Socrates uses for “recognize”
or “hold” is again nomizō , the word whose root is nomos or law. In this
way Socrates suggests that the fundamental law (the law of laws), the law
that does not change from one time or place to another, but that all peoples everywhere and always recognize, is that the just things are just and
not unjust, the unjust things unjust and not just, and similarly with the
In the Gorgias, a dialogue that treats Socratic dialectic and rhetoric (see, e.g., 474a4–6,
517a4–5, and 521d6–e1), Socrates tells Polus that he will try to make him say the same
things that he himself says (473a2–3).
noble things and the shameful things.25 Perhaps, then, it is the finding-out
of the just and the unjust as well as of the noble and the shameful that law
above all wishes and even claims to be. Socrates finishes this series of
exchanges with a remark suggesting that they have now proven that law is
the finding-out of that which is: “Whoever, then, fails to hit upon that
which is, also fails to hit upon the lawful” (316b). We note that, however
skeptical the comrade might be when it comes to law and gods, he exhibits
no doubt whatsoever when it comes to justice. As we may put it, the comrade is certain that what’s right is right (and in no way wrong) and what’s
wrong is wrong (and in no way right), even if he is uncertain as to which
things are right and which things are wrong. His sense of right and wrong
(and of the noble and the shameful) appears to be in no way impaired by
whatever doubts he has about gods and law.
Now, Socrates says nothing to indicate his own agreement with this
view, which the comrade attributes to all peoples everywhere and always. In
fact, elsewhere in Plato, Socrates indicates that he does not agree with it—
for example, toward the end of Republic 7 (at 538d–e), where he speaks of
the ability of dialectic (i.e., the art of conversation) to show that what (any)
lawgiver says is no more noble than shameful, no more just than unjust,
and no more good than bad; indeed, that dangerous conclusion is the reason why the guardians must not come to the study of dialectic (which
Socrates, punning, calls the “song” or “law” itself—the same word, nomos,
means both—to which the rest of their education has been but a prelude)
until the age of 30 (537d–e).26 But Socrates refrains from refuting the comrade, which, as the first book of the Republic should convince us, he could
easily have done. Instead, Socrates, who might now have confirmed that
law is mere opinion and even perhaps “a certain opinion” (314e7)—the
opinion that the just is just and not unjust and that the unjust is unjust and
not just or that justice and injustice are beings—which, as such, can be
shown to be a false opinion, apparently wants to see where what we are
calling the comrade’s sense of right and wrong might lead him.
Note that Socrates has suggested in passing that even the view that the things which are,
(simply) are, and the things which are not, (simply) are not, is the product of law or is something that is merely held (nomizō ; cf. Sophist 240e10–241a1). The world as we believe we
know it is constituted by law or by what in us makes us receptive to law.
Even in the Minos passage we’re looking at, Socrates gave an indication of his disagreement. He did so by inserting—between the just and the unjust on the one hand and the
noble and the shameful on the other—the heavier and the lighter. Perhaps just as what is
heavier from one point of view is lighter from another, what is just from one point of view is
unjust from another. Cf. Republic 5, 479b6–8 and context.
In response to this “proof” that law is the finding-out of that which is,
the comrade concedes that as Socrates speaks in this way, these things do
appear lawful both everywhere and always. But he confesses he is not persuaded when he bears in mind that we (Athenians) never cease changing
laws this way and that (316b6–c2). In other words, the comrade fails to
see even the surface meaning of what he has agreed to in the foregoing
exchanges, one implication of which would be that most if not all of what
he calls Athenian laws are not genuine laws at all. Nor does Socrates point
this out to him. Instead, he replies along the lines of another implication
of their exchanges—that what never changes is the fundamental law (or
alleged sense or insight), the law that holds, for instance, that the just
things are just and not unjust and the noble things noble and not base. As
Socrates tells the comrade when he confesses he is not persuaded, it is possibly because he is not keeping in mind that the things being moved
around like pieces on a draughts board (presumably “the just” and “the
unjust” themselves) are the same (316c3–4). In other words, only the
commands and prohibitions that receive the designation “just” or “unjust”
are changing.
At this point, Socrates tells the comrade to look at these things with
him in another way and embarks on a second proof, so to speak, that
genuine laws do not change or that law is the finding-out of that which is
(316c4–317d2). Doing so requires him to present the arts as issuing in
prescriptive writings by expert knowers which, as such, amount to written
laws.27 And with respect to the first example or analogy Socrates offers, the
comrade affirms that he does call the expert knowers in the art of healing
(i.e., medicine) “healers.” Through the way in which he answers two further questions it emerges that the comrade is less certain that expert
­knowers always hold (nomizō ) the same things with regard to the same
things than that Greeks among themselves, and barbarians both among
themselves and in relation to Greeks, always hold the same things with
regard to those things they know, though not through expert knowledge
or science, but especially through having seen.28 Indeed, Socrates praises
The word for “expert knowers” (epistēmones) comes from the word I’ve translated as
“science” and could be translated as “scientific knowers.” In this section, then, Socrates
seems to combine what he had formerly distinguished—science and art.
The word for “know” (eidenai) that Socrates uses here and the word that the comrade
uses for “knowers” (eidotes) in his reply (316d5) come not from the word for “science” but
from the word for “to have seen” (the word needn’t mean “know” literally through having
seen, with one’s eyes; it is related to eidos and to idea—the words for the Platonic “form” and
him for saying that there “is much necessity that the [non-expert] knowers
themselves agree among themselves in holding [sunnomizō ] the same
things—both Greeks and barbarians” (316d). Without going into all the
details and subtleties that a thorough consideration of the passage would
require, I will mention those that seem to me particularly revealing of
Socrates’ purpose with the comrade. Along with the art of healing, Socrates
asks the comrade about three more examples or analogies of arts—agriculture, gardening, and cookery29—before finally coming to the laws and art
of governing cities. Whether all of these are arts, and arts practiced by
expert knowers who can, in addition, be said to rule, as Socrates suggests,
might well be doubted by us. In fact, in one case—the art of cooking, or
the culinary art—Socrates himself expresses a doubt (cf. Gorgias 465b1–
e1, 500b3–5).30 For he adds an “as it seems” to his suggestion that the
laws of the culinary art are those of expert knowers of the ruling of the
preparation of meat (cf. Republic 1, 332c–d, where Socrates uses the culinary art’s seasoning of meats as an analogy for justice). And when he goes
on to ask the comrade whether “cooks have expert knowledge, as they
assert,” and the comrade replies with an emphatic “Yes they do have
expert knowledge,” Socrates tartly replies, “Let it be so” (316e11–317a3).
Now, there was only one other place in the dialogue where Socrates
expressed a similar doubt, and he expressed it, moreover, in the same way.
That was when he mentioned divining or prophecy as an art by which
diviners “as they assert” find what the gods are thinking (314b4–5). Is this
Socrates’ way of indicating that law may be like the culinary “art” and
therefore, in turn, like the “art” of divining? There the comrade expressed
no opinion; here he does. This exchange about cooks, then, could be
Plato’s way of indicating that the comrade is at least open to the possibility
“idea”). I distinguish between the two terms for knowing by always translating words that
derive from “science” by the relevant form of the verb “to know” together with the word
“expert.” See notes 19 and 27.
If we take these as analogies to law in the ordinary sense, and not simply as the so-called
laws of arts, then they point in different directions for what the city’s laws, the laws that
govern our lives, might aim at: medicine, for instance, at healing us; gardening, perhaps, at
producing citizens of some beauty or nobility. It could be that all four examples Socrates uses
should be taken as analogies collectively pointing to various aims of law.
On the basis of the Gorgias, at least, we would infer that the city’s laws—if they spring
from a spurious art like cookery—would be a means of flattery, aiming not at what is good
but at what is pleasant (463a–b, 464c–d), perhaps flattering in the sense that the laws appeal
to, rather than correcting or educating, citizens’ presuppositions with regard to justice and
the pleasant hopes that attend them (cf. Republic 331a).
that divining, just like cookery, may be a genuine art.31 If so, might
Socrates be trying to confirm that and to see what about the comrade
makes him open to it? Is Socrates’ interest here, then, in determining (at
least as far as the case of the comrade is concerned) whether there is some
essential link between law and gods (as appears to be suggested by the
Greek phrase, in the indictment of Socrates, for “believing in gods”)?32
What would the nature of such a link be? If indeed these were some of the
issues at stake here, Plato would of course limit himself, in this easily overlooked dialogue, to giving only the slightest of indications (Seventh Letter
When Socrates arrives at the case that his examples or analogies were
meant to prepare the comrade for, the comrade is ready to affirm, though
tepidly, that, when it comes to those things having to do with governing a
city, both writings and laws belong to those with expert knowledge of ruling cities—that is, to expert statesmen and expert kings (317a3–7).33
From the comrade’s assent, Socrates infers that “these political writings”
(see note10), “the ones that human beings call laws, are the writings of
both kings and good men”; the comrade enthusiastically agrees: “You
speak the truth” (317b1). But note that Socrates has changed the terms:
he drops statesmen and expert kings and speaks instead of good men and
not expert but mere (i.e., actual) kings.34 What “human beings call laws”—
those laws that govern real cities—are these writings and not those of
experts. The comrade evidently fails to notice the change. Rather, as the
Is law perhaps the art of divining the gods’ thoughts about the just and the unjust—that
is, the art of divining what qualities and actions would be deserving of either reward or punishment by gods if they existed? As Strauss notes, the difference between Socrates and the
comrade with regard to cookery “comes to light in the very center of the dialogue” (Roots
72, bottom).
Cf. Laws 10, 885b4–c8. Note that the first word of the Minos (the introduction to the
Laws) is Law; the first word of the Laws, on the other hand, is God.
Here and elsewhere in this chapter, I use “expert,” when not paired with some form of
the word “to know,” to translate the Greek adjective ending (-ikos) that implies the presence
of an art (or science). The Greek word for statesman, politikos, always has this ending (and
can mean merely “having to do with the city” or “politician”); the Greek word for king
(basileus) does not. But Socrates here (317a6) uses instead a word (basilikos) that does imply
the presence of an art—the royal art. It is not clear that one has to be an actual statesman or
king to possess the art of one or that those who are practicing statesman (i.e., politicians) and
kings therefore possess an art. Cf. Gorgias 521d6–e1 and Statesman 259a–b.
Socrates uses an emphatic word that means manly men (andres); what a good man, in
this sense, might be he doesn’t say. For some help, consider Plato’s Apology 20b–c and Meno
71e1–5 as well as Aristotle’s Politics 3.4–5.
fact that he asks no questions may be taken to suggest, he welcomes the
conclusion (an apparently undemocratic one and hence at odds with the
Athenian politics he is suspicious of)—perhaps because it promises that
there are or could be laws that he would be able to have faith in and live
his life in accordance with. Socrates completes this line of reasoning with
a series of exchanges that validates the comrade’s contempt for Athenian
law by providing a reason for it. Those with expert knowledge, according
to the comrade’s answers at least, will not write one thing at one time and
other things at other times concerning the same things; nor will they ever
change one set of lawful things for another set in regard to the same
things. Socrates thus addresses the comrade’s one objection to Socrates’
first “proof” that law is the finding-out of that which is (cf. 317b3–4 with
316c1–2). Moreover, Socrates leads the comrade to admit what follows
from this: that, wherever (at Athens, for instance) we see people who do
change laws in regard to the same things, they must of course be those
without expert knowledge (anepistēmones) or, to translate the word more
simply, the ignorant. Under further questioning (317b–c), the comrade
affirms that whatever is correct according to art—whether the medical, the
culinary, or the horticultural—they will assert to be what is lawful for each,
and that whatever is not correct they will no longer assert to be lawful;
consequently, it becomes non-law or lawless (anomos). In other words, the
troubling fact that Athenian laws are always changing is a sign that those
who make them lack expertise; therefore those laws fail to provide what is
correct for each and so, according to a line of reasoning developed in conformity with the comrade’s opinions, are really not laws at all.
Socrates summarizes the foregoing argument in this way: in writings
about the just and unjust things and, in general, about setting a city in
order and governing it as one should,35 the correct is expert kingly law and
the incorrect is not—that is, that which seems36 to be law to those who do
not know. To this the comrade replies with a simple “Yes” (317c7).
Socrates has now (or once again) proven the truth of his definition as the
comrade believed he heard it. Or nearly so. As Socrates puts it: “Then we
correctly agreed that law is the finding of that which is” (317d1–2).37
This reads more like a description of Plato’s Laws and Republic than of any code of law.
This phrase could also be translated “that which is resolved.” The word for “seems” here
(dokei) is the word from which words for “opinion” (doxa) and resolution (dogma) come.
Resolutions of the Athenian assembly begin with dokei: “It is resolved that….”
The word for “agreed” is again homologeō (see note 23). Perhaps, then, what he’d set out
to do after the comrade’s long speech—to come to terms or to agree (cf. 317d1 with
315e1–2)—has now been accomplished.
There are a couple of difficulties with this conclusion. For one thing, they
nowhere explicitly agreed to this; perhaps Socrates means they implicitly
agreed at 317a5–6. Or he may be referring to the first proof he gave
(though couched in different terms), the one that concluded at 316b5,
now that the comrade’s one objection to it (that Athenian laws keep
changing) has been satisfactorily addressed. But in addition, this is not
quite the definition that Socrates set out to defend, the one the comrade
believed he heard, according to which law was not a finding but a finding-­
out. A “finding” of things was indeed the definition of art they agreed to
(314b5–7), but Socrates’ definition or characterization of law implied that
it was not an art, nor even that it wished to be one. The full meaning of
that definition, then, along with Socrates’ intention or project with the
comrade, has yet to come to light.
One thing seems certain, however: the comrade has now been fully
liberated from any lingering respect he might have had for Athenian laws,
and any hope he might have entertained from Athenian lawmakers. And
yet he is no less in need of somewhere to turn for guidance as to how he
ought to live, as to what the content of the just and unjust things might be.
He must be more adrift than ever: he needs law, has no law to turn to, but
has had the hope planted in him by Socrates (that expert farmer of souls38)
that at long last he will find laws worthy of the name. As attractive as the
possibility might be, perhaps one that all faith in law implies—that laws are
both made by those who understand the people for whom they are made
and therefore such as to make them good human beings (cf. Apology
24d3–11)—what Socrates does next calls into question this possibility in a
new way (317d3). Not only must we wonder whether law is the product
of a genuine art—one that correctly understands both the health of the
souls of human beings and how to bring it about, just as the medical art
does in the case of bodies—or rather the product of a spurious art like cooking (and perhaps divining or prophecy), as the section just completed
might suggest. But also, as Socrates shows in the next section
(317d3–318a7), we must wonder whether even laws authored by expert
knowers would qualify as genuine laws. For in order to elaborate or
improve the case that law is an art, Socrates portrays the arts themselves as
concerned with distributing one sort of thing to another sort of thing—
like seeds to land in the case of farming. And as Socrates indicates in passing
Cf. Phaedrus 276a1–c9.
(317d5), the farmer must take into account what sort of land he’s dealing
with in each case in order to decide which sort of seeds is suitable or, as the
Greek word axios literally means, which sort of seeds is deserved. The correct distribution, then, is the one that assigns the deserved sort, whatever
that might mean. The comrade does not ask, nor does he ask what the
standard for what is “deserved” might be—for example, what is good for
the land itself or rather for those using it. In any case, unlike farming law
does not take into account the particularity of the individual to whom it
distributes the goods and burdens, and the rewards and punishments, of
the city (cf. Statesman 294a–b and Nicomachean Ethics 1131b32–1132a6).
So in order to accommodate this fact about law—a fact that appears to
disqualify it as a genuine art or product of one—Socrates must switch to
the distributions of shepherds, who treat the sheep whom they pasture as
indistinguishable members of a herd (318a1–6). The transition is facilitated by the fact that the same verb, nemō, can mean both “distribute” and
“pasture” and is in fact the word that nomos comes from.
The comrade does not flinch at this. Unlike Thrasymachus, he does not
raise the difficulty that in the pasturing of sheep, the good that is aimed at
is not chiefly that of the sheep—at least many of which are to be slaughtered and eaten—but the good of the shepherd or the owner for whom he
works. Nor does he object that to treat a human being as just one of a herd
is to ignore his individual needs and capacities (cf. Laws 2, 666e). It thus
appears that the comrade feels himself to be only one more member of a
city among many members—to be a citizen, whose individual needs and
capacities can therefore be overlooked in favor of the needs of the herd (or
its shepherd or owner); this may even explain why Plato chose to make
him, unlike Socrates, anonymous, a mere comrade of his fellow Athenians.39
It is worth noting, however, that the comrade appears to hesitate—if only
for a moment—to affirm the conclusion to which this whole line of argument inevitably leads and which Socrates draws for him: the laws (or distributions or pasturings) that are best for the souls of human beings are
those of the king—that shepherd of men (cf. 318a6–7 with 321b10–c3).40
Socrates orders the comrade to declare that this is so, and he does. Socrates
thereupon praises him for the second time in the dialogue, telling him that
he is speaking nobly (cf. 318b1 with 316d7; Socrates does not say,
At 320e2–3, Socrates mentions in passing that the comrade is a manly man (anēr) concerned with having a good reputation (eudokimos). On the manly man, see note 34.
Socrates does not use the term “expert king” here (cf. note 33).
however, that he is speaking truly). The comrade thus appears to have
resisted, at least momentarily, the notion that citizens are best ruled over
by a shepherd-­like king who, in failing to take into account the particular
needs and capacities of the individual, treats the citizens like herd
Whatever resistance the comrade may have felt, however, is overcome
once and for all in Socrates’ next and last “proof” that law is the findingout of that which is (318b1–321c3). This proof, strangely introduced by
a discussion of flute music, culminates in the view that it is the laws of
Minos, the ancient king of Crete, that are the very laws they’ve been looking for. Now, Minos is no ordinary king, of course, but the half-­human,
half-divine son of Zeus himself; Socrates brings him up in the first place as
that king of old who is spoken of as having become a good lawgiver and
whose legal enactments (ta nomima), moreover, even now remain, as
being divine (318c1–3). The comrade seems to be unaware of this, or
perhaps he fails to think of it because, as he notes, “they assert that Minos
was savage, harsh, and unjust” (318d9–10). Socrates calls this assertion an
“Attic and tragic myth.” And against the Athenian tragic poets, he delivers
a lengthy and uninterrupted defense of Minos, taking up about a quarter
of the entire dialogue, that relies heavily on the authority of the two oldest
poets, Homer and Hesiod. The speech, which claims among other things
that Minos was educated by Zeus to virtue and gave laws to Crete in
accordance with that education, is fraught with difficulties, including tendentious interpretations of the poets it relies on. At the end of the speech,
however, the only question the comrade raises is this: “Then how in the
world did this report of Minos as someone uneducated and harsh get scattered abroad?” (320d8–e1) Socrates is able to account for this in fairly
short order: Minos incurred the hatred of Athenian tragic poets, who
therefore put him to the rack in verse, and tragedy is the poetry that is
“most pleasing to the people and most expert at leading souls” (321a4–5).
And then Socrates concludes with the “greatest sign” that Minos was
good and lawful—that is, a good distributor or pasturer: the laws of Minos
are “unchanged, inasmuch as he well found-out the truth of that which is,
with regard to governing a city” (321b1–4; my italics). This is the third
and final time that Socrates refers back to the definition he has been
defending or proving (cf. 316b5 and 317d1–2). The comrade is satisfied
with Socrates’ account (321b5) and accepts that Minos, along with his
brother Rhadamanthys, came to be the most excellent lawgiver of old and
distributor and shepherd of men.
The argument through which Socrates has led the comrade brings to
light more of the meaning of his characterization of law—that it wishes to
be the finding-out of that which is or of being. Law, the sense of right and
wrong within us that confers on some commands and prohibitions the
status of obligations, constitutes an entire world (which we may call the
cave), a world from which there seems to be nothing lacking if only it is
presided over by gods who are concerned for us and if only death is not
the end of us. For as the comrade’s momentary resistance mentioned earlier indicates, for human beings there is something missing from a world
in which one makes the sacrifices for the herd, for the city, demanded of
us of by law. Still, those sacrifices might be welcomed by us to the extent
that they seem to ennoble us, thus making us deserving of happiness and
therefore of the concern of gods who would not let our sacrifices go for
naught. Minos, as Socrates makes clear here, is said in Homer to be judge
in Hades (319d; cf. Apology 41a and Gorgias 524a, 526c–d). To believe
that the laws of Crete come from the son of Zeus, then, is also to believe
that there is an afterlife, one with a judge to reward the souls of the just
and to punish those of the wicked.
What Socrates does in the Minos, then, is to take a man skeptical of law
and of the gods—but nonetheless certain of the just and the noble—and
lead him via that certainty, and the hopes that attend it, to a belief in a
Zeus who, through his son Minos, has given unchanging laws to Crete,
laws that because of their divinity, as Socrates says, have made Crete happy
(320b5–7).41 Now, in the context in which this is said, the “divinity” of
the laws seems to mean their having been given by Zeus through Minos to
Crete. In fact, however, only one definition of “divinity” has been suggested in the dialogue, and that was by Socrates in the discussion of flute
music which, as mentioned earlier, strangely prepared the turn to the laws
of Minos. There Socrates called the flute tunes of Marsyas “most divine”
and explained their divinity by saying that they “alone move and reveal
those who are in need of the gods” (318b6–7). To ease the transition
from speaking of flute tunes to speaking of the laws of Minos, Socrates
availed himself of the same pun he uses in Republic 7—that the word for
law can also mean song or tune. It is also true that the flute or aulos was
used by shepherds to pipe to their flocks. (Just like the music of the flute,
In addition to Crete, Socrates mentions Sparta as happy. He had earlier said or suggested
that the best Spartan laws come from Crete (318c6–d2). In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger
will converse with and examine two men—one from Crete, the other from Sparta.
so too does law have the power to enchant.42) The suggestion of Socrates,
then, is that the true divinity of the laws of Minos consists not in their
coming from Zeus but in their revealing those who are in need of Zeus—
like the comrade himself. I would add that what Socrates says here of the
flute music of Marsyas is applied by Alcibiades in the Symposium to the
speeches of Socrates himself, whom he likens both to Marsyas and to a
flute player: Socrates’ speeches, because they are divine (as Alcibiades puts
it), are the only ones “that cause to be possessed, and disclose, those in
need of gods” (215b2–216a2). So perhaps we can say that, in the Minos,
the speeches of Socrates—by appealing to the passions and opinions of the
comrade—move and reveal him to be in need of gods (cf. Nicomachean
Ethics 1175b3–6). Socrates’ speeches may be no less pleasing to the people and expert at leading souls than tragic poetry is (cf. Phaedrus
We may now be in a position to understand more fully why Socrates
would have wanted to converse with a man like the comrade. If in certain
other conversations Socrates takes someone who believes in gods (like
Cephalus or Euthyphro) and tests or refutes him to see whether that belief
has as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition a belief in justice, or nobility
in general, he here examines the connection between those beliefs by seeing whether someone can be moved in the opposite direction. That is, in
the Minos Socrates takes a man who, as we have seen, believes in the just
and the noble, but is skeptical of law and gods, and leads him by way of
that belief first to a belief in law and, through that belief, and the hopes
that attend it, to the belief in a god who legislates and cares for human
beings, both in this life and in the next. We might also put it this way:
Socrates here confirms for himself, at least in the case of the nameless comrade, that “moral man as such is the potential believer.”43 In addition, we
can say that Socrates has established that law is mere opinion (which therefore stands or falls with reason’s ability to vindicate it) and hence that law
is a link or common ground between at least one prisoner of the cave, as
well as the shadows in light of which he lives, and himself. In terms of the
question Socrates opened the dialogue with, we can say that he has found
See Crito 54d2–e2, where Socrates, calling Crito “dear comrade,” likens the speeches
the Laws have made to the sound of flutes and likens himself listening to them to the
Corybantes, frenzied worshipers of the goddess Cybele. See also Laws 7, 790d2–791b2 (as
for the terror mentioned there, cf. Republic 1, 330d–e, and 3, 386a6–b3).
See Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1952), 140.
what law is “for us”—coming to see that law is one and the same thing for
himself and the comrade.44 In this way he confirms, as far as one conversation will permit, that he is not merely in a cave of his own making but
liberated from the cave as such. In other words, he shares one and the
same world with its prisoners, who live in the light of opinions that Socrates
can bring them to see are false and uncover the causes of in their souls. In
conversations like the one Plato presents in the Minos, then, Socrates can
confirm that there is no separate faculty of law that he lacks altogether or
possesses only in a corrupted form.
Socrates is not quite done with the comrade, however. He has secured
his enthusiastic agreement (321c3), again with the help of Homer, that
the citizens of Crete use the most ancient laws, unchanged because they
are the finding-out of that which is, and that Minos and his brother
Rhadamanthys were the most excellent lawgivers of old. Socrates could
have ended the conversation there. Instead, he goes on to ask the comrade—using the only oath in the Minos, “before Zeus [god of] Friendship”
(321c4), now that his existence has been established—or, rather, he conjures up a third person to ask both of them, first, “The good lawgiver and
distributor to the body, by distributing what to the body, makes it better?”
Socrates answers for the two of them: “Food and labors—the one augmenting it, the other exercising it and making it firm.” A second, more
perplexing question, however, he leaves for the comrade to answer and
increases the pressure on him: “‘What in the world are those things, by
distributing which to the soul, the good lawgiver and distributor makes it
better?’ By answering what would we not be ashamed for ourselves and
our years?”45 The comrade confesses he’s unable to say. Socrates brings the
conversation to a close with his reply: “But certainly it’s shameful for the
soul of each of us, on the one hand to come to light as not knowing the
things in souls in which the good [to agathon] and the good-for-nothing
[to phlauron] are present in them and on the other hand to have examined
the things of the body and of the other things” (a reference perhaps to “all
the other things” back at 314d5–6, in this case including the city). Why
does Socrates, either on his own behalf or on behalf of someone else, ask
Using the language of the cave image, perhaps we may call laws “the shadows of the
just” or the “statues of which they are the shadows” (Republic 7, 517d; cf. 532b6–c3 with
4, 443c4–5). The word Socrates chooses here for statues (agalmata) is used in particular of
statues of gods (see, for instance, Thucydides 2.13.5); Justice (Dikē), herself a goddess, is
mentioned by Socrates later in book 7 (536b3; cf. Laws 4, 716a).
It thus appears that the comrade is about the same age as Socrates.
this perplexing question? After all, the comrade was satisfied that they had
finally found genuine laws—laws that, even if they were not the laws of
Athens, really were the finding-out of that which is.46 But how could he
know that they were genuine laws, and not merely commands and prohibitions mistakenly accepted or recognized as law by the Cretans for a very
long time? Does the comrade have sufficient grounds for agreeing that
what the Cretans use as laws are truly worthy of the name? Furthermore,
how could he know they were given by Minos, a son and student of Zeus?
And even if it could be known somehow that they were given by Minos or
even by Zeus himself, would that be enough to make them genuine laws?
The questions raised at the end of their conversation serve as reminders
of the second and prior part of Socrates’ defense of his definition, which
was also accepted by the comrade, according to which law was an art or
finding. Socrates had gone on to show that, as an art, law would have to
distribute what is suitable to or deserved by each, and this meant not only
for the body but also for the soul of each (cf. 321c4–d3 with 317e2–318a7).47
To know whether commands and prohibitions were laws, then, would we
not have to know what the good of the soul consists in? But can laws really
distinguish between individual souls and provide to each the food and
labors that it needs? And if not, is any law worthy of the name? If with this
in mind we return to Socrates’ own definition or, rather, characterization
of law, it appears that he may mean something far more radical than we
might have thought at first: law as such wishes to be and, in order to possess the dignity it claims for itself or to deserve the authority it exercises in
our lives, would have to be—but in fact can never be—the finding-out of
that which is.48 Moreover, reminding ourselves, first, that the comrade’s
second definition of law was refuted only on the basis of other opinions
that he holds but that Socrates as far as we know does not and, second,
that Socrates signed on to this definition when he suggested that “we”
asserted it (314d9), we might conclude that law, in Socrates’ own understanding, is nothing other than the dogma of a city, but a dogma that, in
Having raised the comrade’s hopes for laws he could have faith in for guiding his life
correctly, Socrates went on to answer those hopes.
At one point Socrates uses the odd phrase, “the human herd of the body” (318a1–2); he
never speaks of “the human herd of the soul.” Perhaps when it comes to their bodies, but
certainly not when it comes to their souls, human beings or citizens do make up something
like a herd. Cf. Laws 2, 666d11–667a5.
With this thought, the full meaning of Socrates’ “definition” of law may have finally
come to light. For a powerful statement of the inferiority of law to science or knowledge
(epistēmē) and a genuinely free mind, see Laws 9, 875c6–d2 and context.
addition, cannot help wishing and even claiming to be the finding-out of
that which is but that can never be what it wishes to be.49 If this is his
understanding, or the understanding that he is inclined to, however, it
appears on the basis of the Minos by itself to be only provisional. For we
all somehow divine, or believe we divine, the existence of a higher law, a
law in light of which we judge the given laws of a country to be just or
unjust. In the Minos, that higher law has been traced to Zeus (cf. Antigone
450–457 and Oedipus Tyrannus 863–872), the highest god. Perhaps a
final decision on the law of Zeus, then, must await the results of the
conversation that Plato presents in the Laws.
If Socrates does think or suspect that law is the dogma of the city, he would appear to
agree with the Athenian Stranger (see Laws 1, 644d2–3 and context). So sure (or perhaps
unsure) was Athens that its laws were “the finding-out of that which is” that it put Socrates
on trial for disobeying them and then killed him for it.
Platonic Beginnings
Mark Blitz
I intend to discuss Socrates motives for conducting his dialogues, as Plato
presents them. I will first examine characteristic details of several dialogues
and then examine one dialogue, the Erastai, at length.
One place to begin to discuss motive is with dialogues’ dramatic elements.
These elements include their titles, interlocutors, opening scenes, and
conclusions. Dialogues’ titles both narrow and expand the themes being
discussed. The Republic orients its theme, justice, to politics, at once
narrowing and stretching the discussion to fit the political frame. For, to
look at justice politically is to consider both more and less than justice
simply, less because it directs justice to only one of its appearances, and
more because it connects justice to other subjects.
The dialogues’ opening scenes bring out matters that are important to
the theme or its context. The Republic’s opening reminds us of force and
recalcitrance in politics by showing us how Socrates is encouraged to come
to Cephalus’ house, reminds us of variety in celebrating the gods, because
Socrates is told of a novel torch race honoring the goddess, and reminds
M. Blitz (*)
Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, CA, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_3
us of love or friendship, because Socrates attends the celebration with
Glaucon, not others. Dialogues’ conclusions vary from those that are visibly aporetic to those that apparently conclude satisfactorily, and from
those that finish with an agreement to continue the discussion to those in
which Socrates has more to say but is cut off. The three political dialogues,
for example, ostensibly leave nothing open, aping the city’s presumptive
wholeness or completeness. Conclusions show something of the intention
and circumstances within which Socrates converses about a subject; they
therefore also display elements of the theme that are less apparent in the
explicit discussion.
These dramatic features help to explain the reasons for Socrates’ conversations or what he expects from them: to explore a subject while also
showing it at work within characteristic limits, and to do so with a goal in
mind—in the Republic, for example, to help secure philosophy within the
The Lysis and Alcibiades I begin, respectively, with Socrates being asked for
help in seduction and showing how to seduce, and with his own seducing.
“Alcibiades” orients its theme of human nature to full or exclusive political
action, as Socrates draws out this fullness from Alcibiades. The Alcibiades’
conclusion, in which Socrates and Alcibiades promise to meet “tomorrow,” shows that there is still more to discuss. What Alcibiades hopes to
receive is help in furthering his political ambition, once he sees Socrates’
usefulness. What Socrates hopes is perhaps to move Alcibiades to philosophy, or, if his gifts prove insufficient, to make him more thoughtful about
his ambition (and in that way less dangerous politically) and, in any event,
to befriend him.1 As the conclusion shows, Socrates makes Alcibiades less
self-contained, less simply spirited: the Alcibiades opens the fullest political
spirit to philosophy or to the philosopher. In general, indeed, many dialogues’ conclusions indicate Plato’s understanding of the threat that philosophy might disappear from the city and how to counteract this threat.
The Laches’ purpose is to make Laches less and Nicias more bold and to
make Socrates’ advice everyone’s priority, that is, to advance Socrates’
Athens as a home for philosophy. The dialogue is oriented to “Laches”
because opening those closed to speech (as Laches presents h
­ imself) is
Consider Protagoras 336b–d and Symposium 212c–223b.
central for philosophy.2 Within the structure of title, opening scene, conclusion, and dramatic interplay Plato also, of course, means to discuss the
subject at hand, courage. “Lysis” orients the discussion of friendship to
Lysis, rather than to Menexenus, Ctesippus, or Hippocrates, the dialogue’s
other characters, or to the crowd of attendants that appears at the end. The
Theaetetus and Parmenides begin with stories about remembered (and
reported) conversations and with the intrusion of war and horses on mathematics and philosophy. The Theaetetus is a discussion of knowledge that is
centered on a young mathematician who forgets mathematics in the formal
discussion of knowledge. The Parmenides’ discussion of one and many
with the young Socrates and a young “Aristotle” is oriented to the problem of the oneness of form, in a context that shows that philosophizing
must account for the soul generally, reason, and the city.
Each of these dialogues seeks to control interlocutors’ self-satisfaction
and to make clear the non-philosophical attraction that can counteract or
be converted to philosophy. Socrates confuses Alcibiades by reaching the
same result from opposite premises. The Lysis concludes with Socrates
seeming to have shown that love is neither for what we lack or possess or
any combination of these. Still, he has yet another hypothesis to try, only to
be shut off when Lysis and Menexenus’ attendants drag them home. The
Lysis moves possible lovers of wisdom away from their family and friends
toward a kind of endlessness. The Theaetetus concludes aporetically but it
is continued in the Sophist and Statesman. The Parmenides shows young
Socrates a way out of his intellectual impasse by considering hypotheses,
but its ostensible conclusion with young Aristotle is that opposing statements about being are equally plausible. In these ways, Plato explores the
dialectic of complete and incomplete, being satisfied and yearning, being
convinced and being perplexed, in a variety of subjects, and at the same
time seeks to reconcile politics and philosophy, practically, and to attract
the gifted young. Although one could imagine doing this without creating
dialogues, dialogues are a useful way to conduct such investigations.
The Erastai (Lovers) is striking because Socrates narrates it from beginning to end, something he also does only in the Republic, Charmides, and
Lysis. Of these four, Socrates chooses the discussion only here and in the
See Laches 189a.
Charmides. The Charmides is about moderation and self-knowledge, also
important subjects in the Erastai. And, as Socrates does in the Charmides,
he mentions in the Erastai the effect on him of the (beautiful) young.3
The Lysis and Republic share with the Erastai more than Socrates’ narration. The Lysis’ theme, friendship, reminds us of the Erastai. In both the
Republic and the Erastai, Socrates reports a blush.4 These echoes, and the
Erastai’s apparent failure to live up to its theme—philosophizing—with
sufficient complexity, could lead one to believe it to be an imitation of a
Platonic dialogue, but not genuine. In this respect, it reminds one of the
Theages, whose presentation also seemingly falls short of its weighty theme,
wisdom. The tradition, however, vouches for the dialogues’ authenticity,
as does their subtlety and care.5
It will help to orient our discussion if we summarize the Erastai.
Socrates enters Dionysus’ school and sees two boys who are describing
circles and disputing; he refers to Anaxagoras and Oinopides. One of their
two lovers, an athlete, says that they are talking nonsense, philosophizing.
The other, “wiser” lover claims that it is noble to philosophize, and, after
Socrates asks, says that philosophy is much learning. He agrees, however,
that for the body and soul what is beneficial is a measured amount. They
are perplexed about whom to ask justly about the measured amount to be
planted in the soul. Under Socrates’ questioning, the wiser lover goes on
to say that the one philosophizing would have the greatest reputation if he
could learn as many and as much of the arts as befits a free man. This
would not mean to be precise in any art, but to be a pentathlete, second
best in all. But, Socrates leads him to see that the philosopher would then
be useless and inferior where there are craftsmen. So, being second best is
not what philosophy is.
Socrates then brings up dogs and horses, and wins the wiser lover’s
agreement that the same art both improves and punishes them correctly
and judges the useful ones. This is also true of human beings. The same
art, moreover, is for the one and the many. This is the judicial art that
punishes lawbreakers. To know the useful (and bad) humans (and horses),
furthermore, is to know whether one is oneself good; such self-knowledge
is to be moderate. It is the political art that penalizes the unjust in cities,
Although, what the true beauty is that affects him is another matter.
Republic 350d, Erastai 134b.
See the discussion of Plato in Diogenes Laertius, and Seth Benardete’s work on the
moreover, and one who manages the city correctly is a tyrant and king.
Furthermore, one manages a household well and is a master by the art of
justice. So, these are the same man, with one art. It is shameful both for
the philosopher and for the king (and the others) not to be able to follow
or contribute about these things. The philosopher ought not to be a pentathlete, but he should judge and manage correctly, if his household is to
be well-managed and he should lead judicially if the city commands.
Philosophizing, thus, is not “much learning.”
The Erastai’s opening scene portrays a likely or commonsensical beginning for the discussion that follows. Young men are involved in learning,
and their lovers are someone gymnastic (a wrestler), and someone “wiser.”
Is philosophy a noble pursuit for good-looking youths of good family?
The setting is also appropriate for discussing philosophy because the
fathers and attendants are absent, and the gods unmentioned throughout
the dialogue.6 Indeed, the boys are disputing, or babbling about, “heavenly
As the dialogue unfolds, we see that Socrates has (at least) three
purposes in conducting it. The most obvious, although unexpressed, purpose is to defend philosophy or philosophizing from an imposter. In this
case, the imposter, the “wiser” lover is what we might consider to be a
sophisticate or intellectual. Philosophy for him means learning many
things, imprecisely (unlike the mathematics in which the boys are engaged).
Too much precision means that one is enslaved to a subject and not free.7
The philosopher, however, is free and philosophy is noble, although the
wiser lover does not differentiate nobility from good reputation. To philosophize, he claims, is to study enough of the high or noble subjects that
one has a better reputation than the other free men when these subjects
come up. The rival to true philosophy here (the rival to the lover, Socrates)
is thus not the sophist directly or the statesman but a version of the softness that Socrates mentions in the Republic.8 Even in our maleducated day
we recognize the Erastai’s intellectual type.
Plato attended the school of Dionysus, where the dialogue takes place, and Plato’s
nickname, Plato (broad shouldered) was given him by his wrestling teacher.
Erastai 135b, 136ab.
See Republic 410e.
Socrates’ intention is not only to ward off imposters in order to leave
room for truer philosophizing or for himself. It is, second, to show us and,
more directly, the non-philosophic lover, the athlete, that philosophy or
philosophizing is or need not be ridiculous babbling or dangerous to the
city or to manly actions (such as punishing) and that we can even identify
it with (or make it subservient to) managing a house or city. Socrates’ third
intention is to attract the objects of the rival lovers to himself, or to a philosophizing that considers both mathematics, in which they are engaged at
the dialogue’s beginning, and the matters he discusses in the dialogue as a
whole. By the end, the boys (the “others”) “praise” what was said.
We may employ these three purposes to help us develop the dialogue’s
substantive issues. The dialogue’s first question is whether philosophizing is
noble, and not babbling, as the gymnast says. The wiser lover claims that
philosophy means much learning, but is defeated when he must agree that
what is good in gymnastics is measured exercise, and that the connection
between the good and the measured is true generally. Of course, we can see
that a measured amount may sometimes be a very great deal, for the proper
amount depends on how best to reach or activate the end, and the end of
philosophizing is more extreme than is the perfection of the body. Moreover,
the wiser lover leaves unsaid, in his opening statement, what philosophy’s
subjects are. To protect philosophy Socrates must therefore bring to light
its (or his) characteristic exercise, namely, discussion or conversation, and
some of its true subjects, for example, the noble and the good.
The first step that Socrates takes to show that philosophy is measured,
and not polymathic, therefore, is to connect the noble and good: philosophizing is said to be noble, what is noble is good, but excessive exercise is
not good. What, then, we might ask, truly connects the noble and good,
and what (if anything) connects them and studying the heavens? When the
interlocutors agree about the benefit of measure in bodily things Socrates
is able to show or claim by analogy that philosophizing is for the soul. But
all are perplexed about what constitutes the proper exercises for the soul.
(For the moment, Socrates lets them forget the mathematics of the beginning.) Socrates protects philosophizing from sophistic imposters by displaying it as something measured that involves the soul, that seeks to link
the noble and good, that ignores reputations, and that is unashamed to
acknowledge (although perhaps not to remain in) perplexity.9
Erastai 134b.
We turn now to Socrates’ second goal in the Erastai, protecting
philosophy from political ridicule, or the ridicule of the strong. He
attempts or, indeed, achieves, this in the dialogue’s first section by showing the shortcoming of the wiser lover’s first statement about philosophizing. This then allows the gymnast to ridicule his weakness and to have the
two boys join him.10 Socrates helps the athlete momentarily defeat the
wiser lover, who (also) loves victory.11 He then brings the interlocutors
together in their quest and wins their agreement that philosophizing differs from much learning in the (things of the) arts.
In the dialogue’s final section, Socrates supports or advocates punishment, justice, moderation, and aiding the city. He defends the importance
of knowing the city’s and the household’s affairs, however, without clarifying just what justice, household management, politics, tyranny, moderation, and kingship know or know better than other arts. Why is the
statesman also not merely a pentathlete—second best? In any event,
Socrates makes himself and philosophizing respectable by defending the
city and household and by indicating that whatever it is that philosophy
knows it is something that the city needs, because it would be shameful for
the philosopher not to obey the city when it asks him to judge.12 Socrates
even suggests that the philosopher has or needs the household art, which
would make him equivalent here to the statesman and to the just and
moderate man. He also appeals to the gymnast and those like him by suggesting that knowing how to punish belongs to knowing an animal’s good
and its justice, and by treating knowledge of good men as in structure the
same as knowing good horses and dogs and how to punish them. He also
suggests that knowing how to make one better is the same as knowing
how to make many better.13 By the dialogue’s conclusion, the “ignorant”
one says that what (Socrates) had said is so.
Socrates or Plato’s third intention is to show us how Socrates seduces
the gifted young or to show us Socrates as a successful lover. He avers his
astonishment or discombobulation in the presence of the beautiful young,
Erastai 134a–b.
Erastai 134c.
Erastai 139a.
In all these ways Socrates tries to meet his task of coordinating philosophizing and politics, or the forceful, bodily, and banausic elements of political and human life. Socrates
defends tyranny and defends (but also ridicules) the free and well-reputed, and elevates the
status but does not deny the slavishness of the banausic arts. He is a partial friend of each
regime and thus not a full friend of any.
but, as in the Charmides, he displays nothing but control. By the dialogue’s
end, the “others,” that is, the boys “praised what was said,” that is, what
Socrates had said. Socrates’ first discussion of whether it is shameful to
philosophize, that is, also, whether it is noble, moreover, had caused the
boys to stop their discussions of circles and ecliptics and listen to Socrates
and the lovers. He gains their attention but does not denigrate their “babbling,” or, as the wiser lover does, fail to understand it. He attends to the
gifted or intellectual young and wins them to his topics and his mode of
These three intentions stand on or close to the dialogue’s surface. They
also indicate further levels in Socrates’ understanding of philosophy’s true
subjects and its relation to the city and to attracting the young. Let me
now describe these fuller dimensions.
The dialogue concerns philosophizing. If it is noble, we are told, it is
also good; if good it should be exercised in a measured way; what it learns
involves the soul; it therefore cannot be second best knowledge. Indeed,
the philosopher should manage his own house and be able to act if his
friends wish him to arbitrate or the city commands him to judge. To be a
philosopher, therefore, is not, as the wiser lover claims, to be a polymath.
But, what does philosophy study? Measured studies involving the soul,
or measured exercises for it, do not differentiate philosophy clearly from
the arts. Being able to manage one’s household (one’s own affairs) and
judge when the city commands one to do so do not differentiate the philosopher from other good citizens or from the statesman. Indeed, Socrates’
claim that it is shameful not to lead when commanded does not mean that
the philosopher can lead or punish well. The fact that his house is not well
managed unless he himself manages it correctly does not mean that he can
do so. When we consider Callicles’ view in the Gorgias of Socrates’ ineptitude or Socrates’ admission of poverty and of disobedience in the Apology,
in fact, it seems that the philosopher does act shamefully. Socrates ties the
philosopher to the ordinary or political in the Erastai more than he does
As we said, Socrates’ claims do not tell us what the philosopher studies
or does. This lack becomes less obscure when we return to the dialogue’s
beginning. Socrates’ attempts to clarify whether philosophy is shameful
lead to perplexity about what it is, but the concrete discussion subtly and
indirectly adds to our indication of the subjects that philosophizing
discusses and how it discusses them.14 The interlocutors’ first question is
whether philosophizing is noble, their first claim is that if it is noble it is
also good, and their first ‘procedural’ agreement is that they can know if
philosophizing is noble only if they say what it is. That is to say that the
noble and good and, especially, the priority of what is are central to philosophy. It also turns out to involve what benefits the soul and whom
“justly” to ask about particular questions.
Philosophy also seems connected to whatever constitutes the area (and
knowledge of it) that might allow philosophy, politics, or home management to understand something of the other arts but not simply in a second
best way. Socrates hints at this when he suggests that carpenters can be
purchased for a little, but that top architects are few and expensive.
Carpenters, after all, work under architects, who tell them what to build,
where, when, and of what size.15 Some arts are ordered by the broader ends
they serve, which their art as such does not know. That is, the ends themselves may be ordered. It is choices about such orders that households and
cities make, and to the degree that these choices can be guided by knowledge they follow an art or science. Philosophizing is not unmeasured or
artistic learning about the arts and the things with which they deal, but it
is a kind of learning about these things and their arts.16 What things are,
how or whether they are noble and good (and what nobility and goodness
are), the order (or, indeed, heavenly order) of things, and studies of such
matters by (and as they appear in) the soul are philosophy’s subjects.
In addition to undeveloped pointers about philosophy’s subjects,
Socrates also indicates something of philosophy’s methods or ways.
Seeking or knowing what something is is prior to seeking its quantity or
quality. One can offer hypotheses, as the wiser lover does, find other ways
to investigate when one is blocked, as Socrates does, pursue mattes playfully as well as seriously, and seek what is sufficient and precise, as the arts
The beginning also reminds us why philosophy is threatening or dangerous. The “babbling” about heavenly things that the gymnastic lover describes as philosophizing, others
might believe to be impious. Neither piety, nor the gods, nor fathers are mentioned in the
dialogue. Nor is “virtue” generally, nor “regimes” or forms of government, nor nature.
See Mark Blitz, Plato’s Political Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 306
(footnote 73).
See Republic, Statesman, Alcibiades I, and Lysis.
do, in their way.17 Socrates also indicates that he divides, combines, finds
likenesses, and counts.18 Philosophizing leads to or carries along wonder
and perplexity.19
Socrates’ subtle rapprochement between politics and philosophizing also
shows us more of the problem of politics than the argument displays
ostensibly. He identifies the political man, tyrant, king, slave master, home
economist, moderate and just man and their equivalent arts and sciences.
He identifies the art that knows what is best for many and for one. These
rulers or artisans could no more than the philosopher be pentathletes. But
what precisely do they know? We have already suggested that what political science, justice, moderation, and household management know concerns the ends served by the other arts and the links or order among these
ends. But Socrates’ explicit picture is notable for its omissions, and its
emphasis on force. Tyrants and slave masters do not differ from just and
moderate men in his account, let alone from political scientists and kings.
He says nothing of the variety of regimes or of the willing and voluntary,
that is, citizens’ consent. Of course, Plato’s characters sometimes suggest
elsewhere that tyrants can institute good regimes, and in the Statesman
the Eleatic Stranger for a time identifies the king, political scientist, and
despot. There, however, he also discusses a variety of regimes and the
place of consent.
In general, Plato’s presentation of political issues in the Erastai indicates the similarity in that with which politics and philosophy deal, but he
also makes silently evident differences between them, while occluding
these differences or, indeed, suggesting philosophy’s subservience.
Knowing what is good for many—say, good laws—is, despite what Socrates
suggests, not in fact evidently the same as knowing what is best for the one
or few who are rare. Force and punishment, slaves and masters, belong to
politics but are not as such philosophical. Moderation and justice may be
similar as virtues, or as keeping within one’s limits, but self-knowledge is
not evidently identical with mastery or tyranny (which are involuntary
Erastai 132a, 134b, 135a,136d.
Erastai 132a, 132d, 133d, 135b, d, e. See too the indications about motion at 132a and
Erastai 132c, 135a.
rule) even if it is connected to making good laws or to a good regime.
What is best for dogs and for good dogs differs less than what is good for
men and good men, perhaps evidently in training of the soul but also in
caring for the body. (Socrates at 134c suggests but does not explore the
difference between medicine and gymnastics.) Dogs and horses, moreover, are ruled by another species, but here we hear nothing of gods; as
I said at the dialogue’s start, the heavens are being examined rationally or
are being babbled about. Socrates separates human ruler from ruled by
identifying tyrant, despot, and statesman. But, by also equating them with
the household manager, he makes rule less exclusive. Identifying these
figures with just and moderate men does so too.
Yet, moderation as self-knowledge also brings to mind the philosopher,
whose justice or just soul is formed by seeking justice.20 These equivalencies thus also raise the bar of rule to the scientific or philosophical level of
the Statesman and the Republic. Perhaps the philosopher, with his searching perplexities and ability to wonder at his ignorance yet also to resolve
perplexity after perplexity is something like an “individual” of another
species, a rival to the tyrant or political man in knowledge of justice, moderation, goodness, and nobility, and, indeed, in how and whom to punish
properly, even when he is presented here as subservient to the king or
statesman.21 The Erastai’s search for what philosophizing is and what it
studies broaches the elements of the significant political-philosophical
question of the connection between political mastery and the philosophic
life. Indicating these issues, the rival “loves” of philosophy and politics, or
philosopher and statesman, for the noble and good, is one of Socrates’
We turn finally to Socrates’ wish to attract the gifted young. He attracts
them here, as we said, by visibly applying thought to questions of justice
and nobility, and by showing himself to be superior philosophically to the
“wiser” defender of philosophy and superior as well to the undiscursive
athlete, yet also able to win his agreement. It seems that he has superior
knowledge of what attracts the gifted young, that is, superior knowledge
of the soul. But what precisely is knowledge of the soul or of human
beings? Socrates identifies justice, moderation, (self-knowledge), household management, politics, kingship, tyranny, and mastery. He does this
by ignoring the differences between ruling or educating one and many,
Erastai 137d–138d.
Erastai 139a, Laws 968c–968d, and Greater Hippias 289 a–c.
between humans who must agree or give consent politically and in
discussion and animals who need not, and between punishing the lawbreakers and unrestrained and knowing the human good in others and
oneself more fully.22 Even animals’ good, moreover, at least partially
depends on our use of them, as we differentiate pack, cavalry, or racehorses, and guard dogs, hunters, and pets. The average or ordinary good
of human beings allows us to some degree to identify justice and just law
in the city with what is good or even “noble,” because a city is in its way
complete or unified in securing and distributing resources. This political
good nonetheless differs from a fuller virtue in the better regimes or from
philosophic virtue and excellence. One can know who breaks the law and
is therefore unjust and one can know oneself as a lawbreaker without
knowing the just simply. Moreover, as we suggested, what the good is that
the judicial art and its equivalents know better than the specific arts
remains unclear in the dialogue. Socrates’ discussion encourages us (and
his young auditors) to reflect on these questions as part of the issue of the
human good or what truly merits love.23
This difference between the average and excellent human good, or the
many and the one, is especially telling for philosophizing. For, the “moderation” or “self-knowledge” mentioned in the Erastai reminds us of
Socrates himself.24 If true self-knowledge or knowledge of one’s own
good means to understand oneself as one who seeks to understand, with a
grasp of how all one’s powers and resources contribute to this effort, then
such knowledge is available to few if any.25 Yet, to recognize practically the
partial good of law even in an inferior city also allows one in the right circumstances to see that this good is incomplete. The discussion thus points
to the gap but also the link between philosophizing and political obedience in relation to the human good. It points also to the issue of the connection between the noble and the good and, indeed, to the question of
what the noble, beautiful or outstanding is, and its connection to the good
as useful, beneficial, choiceworthy, and, especially, complete or satisfactory
(something that Socrates does not discuss here.) He employs his trick of
connecting the good and noble and their opposites by ignoring the difference between some good things being noble and all good things being
Erastai 135a, 134e.
Erastai 133a.
Erastai 138a, Apology, passim.
Erastai 132a, 135a.
noble, and by making similar mistakes. He points to or mentions the soul,
the parts of the soul, the noble, the good, the mystery of the political as
opposed to more narrow goods, philosophizing’s connection to politics,
the wonderful, the perplexing, the precise, clarity in argument and other
matters that deserve fuller investigation. He intends to attract the young,
or any who are able and can be made eager to learn, by displaying significant phenomena and suggesting enough about them to lead one to conclusions he desires, without eliminating their wonder and perplexity.
We turn finally to three other phenomena on which the dialogue
touches explicitly but incompletely, phenomena that (partially) return us
to the context from which philosophy begins. I have in mind Socrates’
mentions of “experience,” his reports of his attempts to discern the wiser
lover’s intentions, and his brief reference to irony.
The athlete lacks experience in speeches but, says Socrates, claims it in
deeds.26 They all have some sense of what experience, seriousness, playfulness, reputation, and guessing are.27 This is to say that there is a background or meaning within or against which the discussion can be
conducted—it does not start from or seek an indubitable beginning. In a
sense, what Socrates does is to bring out some of what is taken for granted
in his and the interlocutors’ background, and examine it. He also suggests
in several places that he endeavors to uncover the wiser lover’s intention,
what he has in mind, and that he may not be grasping this immediately.28
Intention points to the full order from which one’s opinions are more or
less coherently drawn. In general, then, among the phenomena that the
philosopher, or Socrates, needs to investigate is the breadth, substance,
and structure of the realm of what we take for granted including, here,
views of philosophizing itself.
We might think of this realm primarily or at first as the political realm,
which contains within itself both what is fixed in law and justice and also,
necessarily, what is open in them. The Erastai does not examine the variety of regimes. It does, however, contain a brief statement by Socrates
that the wiser lover seems to be talking “ironically.”29 To speak ironically
is to speak in a “double fashion.” To the athlete he says love of athletics is
never noble or good, but “for you,” “Socrates,” “I agree that it is both…”
Erastai 135b.
Erastai 132a, b, 135a, 135b, 136c.
Erastai 133c, 135c, 135e, 136b.
Erastai 133d. Cf. 135d.
“I hold that to be correct.” Of course, the athlete is listening to what the
wiser lover is saying. The doubleness of irony means that one says different
things or, indeed, opposite things to different audiences. More strictly, the
ironist speaks ironically by using the same words for his different audiences, and does not publically announce his ironic intention except, perhaps, ironically. Socrates’ recognition of irony is a recognition of the need
to not say always what one believes to be correct. Some combination of
the defense of philosophy from imposters; the attempt to show that it is
neither dangerous to the city or merely frivolous—that it is properly serious; and the wish to attract the young, requires irony, given the context of
opinion and force, of the political world, within which education begins
and takes place. To open this world is Socrates’ most pressing goal. He
seeks to supplement or replace sophisticated speech, excessive care of the
body, and merely mathematical or pious attention to the heavens with
political philosophy.
A Look at Socrates’ Motive in Plato’s Laches
Jason Lund
Introduction: Socrates’ Intention and the Purpose
of Political Philosophy
Plato’s dialogue Laches1 is a conversation between two concerned fathers,
Lysimachus and Melesias; two generals, Nicias and Laches; and a man
“who is always spending his time wherever there is any noble study or
practice of the sort [Lysimachus and Melesias] are seeking for the
youths”2—Socrates. Since Laches makes reference to the upright conduct
I would like to thank Paul Diduch and Michael Harding for their encouragement and
invitation, and for helping me see how integral the question of motivation is to the Platonic
corpus. Also, I would like to thank David Clinton, Shane Gassaway, Mary Nichols, and
Anne-Marie Schultz for a number of helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter. Most
of the arguments here were developed in conversation with Elizabeth Lund to whom I am
especially grateful. I would like to offer special thanks to Tim Burns for reading a number of
drafts and saving me from many errors with his astute comments and suggestions. Despite
the help of all of these brilliant people, errors in understanding remain.
Plato, Laches 180c. All subsequent references to the Laches will be in text citations by
Stephanus pages to the translation by Nichols found in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten
Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, edited by Thomas Pangle (Ithaca and New York: Cornell
University Press, 1987), 269–280. Occasional emendations to the translation will be made
J. Lund (*)
Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_4
Socrates exhibited during the retreat at Delium (181b) and since Laches
falls at Mantineia, the dialogue takes place sometime between the battle of
Delium in 424 and the battle of Mantineia in 418. Thus Socrates converses with two generals and statesmen during the Peloponnesian War, a
war that Thucydides claims is the greatest war up to his time.3 Socrates is
not compelled to have this conversation, but, rather, waits around the
edge of the conversation until he is asked to join. This fact, as well as the
setting of the dialogue, makes the Laches a particularly fruitful dialogue for
trying to get at the question of what motivates Socrates to have dialectical
conversations with non-philosophers. Is Socrates moved by justice, aiming
to help his friends, the generals, become better, and thereby hurt the enemies of Athens?4 Or, is Socrates pursuing a prudential motive, attempting
to ensure that the sons of the fathers—whom we know he has spent time
with—do not end up accidentally asking dangerous questions of the generals? Or, is Socrates principally interested in learning something for himself? A question that these three potentially distinct motives point to is:
what is the relationship between concern for others and the quest for
truth? We might also ask, does our concern for others hinder the quest for
truth or is it a necessary condition for that search? Does the quest for truth
increase our concern for the well-being of others or does it tend to enervate that concern?
In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates claims that he began his attempt
to refute the oracle at Delphi by questioning the politicians, hoping that
they would prove wiser than himself.5 Without the Laches, Plato would
have failed to provide evidence for Socrates’ claim. But this is not quite
correct. For in the Apology, Socrates says that he perceived with pain that
he incurred the hatred of those politicians whom he showed to know
nothing.6 In the Laches, once Socrates works his way into guiding the
conversation, the investigation into courage that he conducts shows that
Laches and Nicias are deeply confused. However, instead of directing their
according to the Greek edition of Chris J. Emlyn-Jones, Plato: Laches (London: Bristol
Classical, 1996).
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians 1.1.1.
As Seth Benardete, “Plato’s Laches: A Question of Definition,” in The Argument of the
Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, ed. Ronna Burger and Michael Davis (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2000) points out, “The Laches … represents an occasion on
which the philosopher might have had an effect on the politics and life of his own city”
Plato, Apology of Socrates 21b–c.
Plato, Apology of Socrates 21e.
ire at Socrates, Laches and Nicias become angry with each other.7 The
vehemence of their disagreement verges on the comedic by the end.8 Is
this really the kind of conversation that will provide grounding for Socrates’
refutation or vindication of the oracle, or does Socrates have an altogether
different purpose in participating in this particular conversation?
We argue that Socrates’ principle intention in the Laches is to secure
future appointments with the sons of Lysimachus and Melesias and not to
educate or guide the generals Nicias and Laches. In fact, it appears that
Socrates intentionally stirs up a rivalrous irritation between the generals.
In so doing, Socrates reveals confusions in both generals’ understanding
of courage; the generals evince an unwillingness to fully come to grips
with experiences that suggest virtue does not have the providential support they wish for. In addition to this though, we see evidence that shows
that Socrates did not press the generals on these questions as hard as he
could have. Socrates’ final remark of the dialogue, that he can only meet
the fathers again “if god is willing,” suggests that he is much soberer
about what can be expected or demanded from the divine. Perhaps this
remark also points toward that which is quietly Socrates’ principal subject
matter or what he hopes to learn the most about. The reason then, that he
seeks out the company of Thucydides and Aristeides, may be to pursue
further questioning about the problem of virtue and its relation to the
divine with interlocutors who have greater strength of soul. It may be
then, that Socrates is primarily motivated by theoretical concerns, and any
benefits others receive are merely incidental.
The Introduction of Socrates (180a–181d)
The dialogue begins with the two fathers, Lysimachus and Melesias,
pleading with the generals Nicias and Laches to help educate their sons.
The fathers have no noble deeds to their name (though their own fathers
See Linda R. Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,
2006), 29. Additionally, if we compare the conversation in the Laches with the discussion
found at the end of the Meno between Socrates and Anytus (89e–95a, 99d–100a), we discover that it may be that Socrates is capable of choosing during a conversation whether his
interlocutor becomes angry or not. That suggests in turn that Socrates could choose when
his trial took place.
See Aristide Tessitore, “Courage and Comedy in Plato’s Laches,” in The Journal of
Politics 56.01 (1994), as a whole for a detailed account of the comic dimensions of the dialogue, including some intriguing similarities between the Laches and Aristophanes’ Clouds.
do) and do not wish the same fate to befall their sons. An unnamed man
has suggested to the fathers that learning a novel way of fighting in armor
(hoplomachia) might be the right kind of education, but since the fathers
claim to lack an education, they have no basis from which to judge, and
thus, turn to guidance from two leading men in their city.
If Socrates is to secure future appointments with the sons Aristeides and
Thucydides, Socrates faces two core obstacles in securing future appointments with the boys: (1) The boys have begun to talk of Socrates at home
(180e), and we might wonder if this is part of what leads the fathers to
believe that their sons need guidance.9 (2) The fathers have turned to leading men in the city for help. If Socrates is to succeed, he must lead the
fathers to trust him, as well as somehow demonstrate that the generals are
incompetent while at the same time not inducing their hatred.
After the fathers make their initial plea, Laches introduces a hitherto
unknown participant to the conversation: Socrates, who is introduced as
living in the same deme as Lysimachus and as one who is always spending
his time wherever there is any noble study or practice for youths available
(180c). Upon hearing this, Lysimachus does not yet ask anything of
Socrates but directs his question to Laches, asking for confirmation that
Socrates has devoted care to such things (180c). Nicias jumps in to confirm that he could say the same no less than Laches, for when he inquired
of Socrates about a teacher for his son, Socrates introduced him to Damon,
whom Nicias has found to be “not only the most refined of men in music
but, in whatever other matters you wish, worthy to spend time with young
men of that age” (180d).
In response to Nicias, Lysimachus says that on account of his age, he
often remains at home and therefore does not know younger men like
Socrates (180d). Then, Lysimachus, seeing that Socrates is favored by the
generals, suddenly claims Socrates as his demesman. Not only that, but
Lysimachus, even though he has not interacted with Socrates recently,
adds that Socrates must (khre) offer advice, for, this would be just (dikaios)
(180e).10 Lysimachus’ demand of Socrates is an asymmetric demand, and
For an excellent analysis of this passage see Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage,
Chris Emlyn-Jones, “Dramatic Structure and Cultural Context in Plato’s Laches,” The
Classical Quarterly 49.01 (1999), claims that Lysimachus resembles Cephalus from Plato’s
Republic. There is something to this, as both Cephalus and Lysimachus demand that Socrates
come to them more often, and it is not altogether clear that grounds exist that justify their
demands. However, while Cephalus does want Socrates to spend time with the young men,
it is not clear that Lysimachus will offer Socrates anything for his trouble.
In other words, justice is good for Lysimachus, but, it is bad for Socrates.
Lysimachus turns to ask the boys whether the Socrates before them is
the Socrates of their speeches and they answer in unison: “Most certainly,
father, this is he” (181a). Lysimachus responds with an oath that is not
characteristic of men in Plato’s dialogues (i.e. except for Socrates),11 “By
Hera, Socrates, how well have you exalted your father, the best of men!
And would that your things might belong to us and ours to you!” (181a).
The oath is ambiguous. It is not clear if it is meant to indicate Socrates’
unmanliness, or perhaps his own. Lysimachus, then, cannot simply be giving Socrates wholehearted praise. We can also note that Socrates does not
respond to the request that his things might belong to Lysimachus and
Melesias. Socrates’ silence is important because it allows him to evade having to directly respond to Lysimachus about having had contact with his
son. One could easily imagine the conversation shifting toward finding
out whatever it is that Socrates has been talking to the boys about that
caused them to praise Socrates so vehemently.
Laches responds to Lysimachus’ praise of Socrates by saying for the
second time that he must not let Socrates go (181a). Laches adds more
praise of Socrates by saying that Socrates not only has exalted his father
but has even exalted his fatherland. Socrates achieved exaltation by withdrawing from the battle of Delium with Laches in an “upright” (orthos)
way, such that if those present in the battle were all like Socrates, the city
would have been upright too that day, and not fallen (181b).
Lysimachus is impressed with the praise of Socrates coming from men
worthy of being trusted (181b). And, if Socrates is interested in spending
time with the lads Aristeides and Thucydides, Lysimachus’ high opinion
of him is crucial. It is helpful in one way because Socrates will face fewer
Cephalus is also interested in his own pleasure as much or more. Further, Cephalus is a metic,
and was therefore no demesman of Socrates. The core difference between Lysimachus and
Cephalus is Lysimachus’ more explicitly moral intent, and his knowing Socrates’ father
Sophroniscus, even if in a limited way.
See Apology of Socrates 24e; Gorgias 449d; Hippias Major 287a, 291e; Theaetetus 154d;
and Phaedrus 230b. On this particular oath, see Kirk R. Sanders, “Swearing by Hera,”
Mnemosyne, 68, 121–126 (2015), who argues against contextual readings that suggest the
oath has anything to do with unmanliness, but, is rather an oath that was idiosyncratic to
Socrates’ deme of Alopeke. Even if Sanders is right about the oath being characteristic of a
particular deme, it does not thereby mean that Plato could not also at the same time utilize
the word as a double entendre; as we will see later in this chapter, Plato is more than willing
to make significant puns on peoples’ names.
obstacles if Lysimachus never explicitly forbids his son to consort with
Socrates. Also, Lysimachus is impressed that Socrates enjoys a “good reputation” for his public actions, which is precisely what Lysimachus hopes
his boy can have. Finally, with Lysimachus’ now enthusiastic invitation of
Socrates to join in this inquiry and to come to Lysimachus in the future to
maintain their friendship, Socrates can now formally influence how the
boys will spend their time. In this particular case, Socrates must think—
though on very different grounds than Laches as we will soon see—that
fighting in armor is not the best use of the boys’ time.
Only once Lysimachus has explicitly asked Socrates to comment on
the recent demonstration does Socrates utter his first words. However, in
his initial speech, Socrates defers to the experience and age of the generals
(181d). The generals were led to this demonstration in order to offer
their expert views on it; so Socrates tactfully steps back, yielding to the
generals, offering to let them speak first. This may at first seem to be a
risky maneuver on Socrates’ part. That is, if the generals agree on the
status of fighting in armor, it would not be likely that Socrates would be
needed again in the conversation. One crucial implication of that possibility is that Socrates would show himself to feel no urgency about directing the leaders of Athens toward any kind of specific policy decisions or
even self-­understanding. Socrates would have at least minimally accomplished his main goal, for, even if the conversation does come to a sudden
end by agreement, Socrates would have been held in high esteem by all
present and might have had access to the boys in the future. Socrates,
though, perhaps does not leave things completely up to chance. His
deferral has the effect of making it slightly easier for Nicias to answer
first.12 Perhaps, through already being familiar with Nicias and Laches,
Socrates anticipates that Laches may not be impressed by the demonstration, but that he even more so would be unimpressed with Nicias’ sophisticated and innovative disposition toward technical knowledge. To see
whether this is the case will require a close look at their eventual dispute.
For reasons of space, we must limit ourselves to saying that Laches and
Nicias disagree in a big way. Nicias notes how the art would save individuals in battle, and yet, classifies this prudential self-concern as noble.
Laches thinks that the art and its practitioners are laughable; but he
On this point and what immediately follows see Christopher Bruell, On the Socratic
Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefield, 1999), 52.
overlooks the possibility that the art could be useful and, in so doing, may
forgo what is good for him, perhaps in part because he is angry at Nicias
for identifying nobility with prudence.
Socrates’ Re-entrance: Corruption and Inquiry
In light of the generals’ disagreement, Lysimachus, who is not yet
impressed enough with Socrates to ask him to make an argument, asks
Socrates to cast a vote with one of the generals. Instead, Socrates says that
the need for an expert is especially great, given that Melesias and
Lysimachus have at stake “the greatest of their possessions” (185a). One
does not get a second chance to raise the same child.
Socrates leads Nicias to agree that they must seek a counselor who is an
expert in a study for the sake of the souls of the young men (185d–e). He
suggests that they therefore have to examine which one of them knows
how to care for souls and has a good teacher on this matter (185e). Laches
interjects, surmising that surely some humans have become experts without a teacher; Socrates accepts that this might be so, and using a craft
analogy, says that what is needed to prove Laches’ suggestion in this case
is an example of the craftsman’s work (185e). We might wonder why
Socrates does not say that one could demonstrate the excellence of one’s
own soul as proof. By not doing so, Socrates indicates that there is a big
difference between making oneself good and making another good. One
is, perhaps, led to wonder if one can make another good or whether one’s
goodness comes primarily from one’s own doing. This might provide
some basis for Socrates not going out of his way to benefit others because
the greatest or most important goods cannot be given.
Socrates, now, finally urges Nicias and Laches to say who their teachers are,
who, first of all, are themselves manifestly good and who, furthermore, have
cared for the souls of many youths and have taught us. Or if one of us denies
that he himself has had a teacher but has works of his own to tell of, he must
show what Athenians or foreigners, whether slaves or free, have by general
agreement become good because of him. (186a–b)
A number of arresting things strike us here. First, just a moment ago,
Socrates seemed to suggest that, perhaps, there is a difference between
being manifestly good and being able to make another good. Socrates
now collapses that distinction. Second, Socrates suggests that the teachers
must not only have taught Nicias or Laches but also have cared for the
souls of many youths. How many? And given that Nicias and Laches have
disagreed about hoplomachia, is it likely that the present company will
agree with each other that the youths in question have become good?13
Finally, as many commentators have pointed out, the problem of infinite
regress is latent in Socrates proposed investigation, for there will always
have to be teachers pointing back to teachers.14 Socrates however does not
dwell on the regression paradox or raise the problem of inquiry, perhaps
because he does not wish to enrage his interlocutors as he does with Meno
and Anytus in Plato’s Meno.
Socrates, in the same speech we have just been examining, makes
another puzzling comment. He says that if no teachers in the strictest sense
are available, “we must bid [the fathers] seek other men and must not run
the risk, with the sons of men who are comrades, of corrupting them and
thus getting the greatest blame from the nearest relatives” (186b). Socrates’
comment is puzzling because as we know from earlier in the dialogue
(181a), Socrates has spent time with the boys. With respect to what Socrates
has just said, that means one of two things: Socrates does in fact believe he
is an expert and competent to care for souls. Or, he does not believe he is
an expert and is willing to risk corrupting the souls of the boys without
being an expert. Given that Socrates is about to bow out of contention for
being a competent educator, we may be compelled to consider the latter
possibility—that Socrates is willing to risk corrupting the souls of the boys.
Additionally, Socrates at the end of our quotation points not only to the
risk of corrupting but also, or, especially to the risk that may come to him
from doing so: blame from the fathers. It may be that Socrates chooses to
make himself available for this conversation in part, to mitigate his own risk
that is caused by the boys’ high approval of him. Thus, we see that Socrates
has a prudential motivation for entering this conversation that is ministerial
to his theoretical motivation. It might only have been so long before
Lysimachus and Melesias began to ask questions about what the boys were
speaking to Socrates about, or perhaps it might only be so long until the
boys themselves began to ask the fathers dangerous questions.15
See Republic 505d for Socrates’ discussion of how contested humans’ notions of the
good are.
See Bruell, Socratic Education, 56; Charles Griswold, “Philosophy, Education, and
Courage in Plato’s Laches,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy May and
September 14.2–3 (1986), 184; and Stewart Umphrey, “On the Theme of Plato’s Laches,”
Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Fall 6.1 (1976), 9.
Plato, Apology of Socrates 23c.
One might ask if the present discussion is ultimately going to be one
that will edify the boys or corrupt them. By the end, the generals will butt
heads, and neither one of them will come away looking like he can educate
young men to virtue. Socrates thus pushes the boys not to see the leading
men of their city as exemplars of excellence, but, rather, himself. However,
it is too soon to speculate for what purpose Socrates wishes to secure
future appointments with the boys.
However these problems may stand, the conversation now looks very
different than it did at the start. Now, Lysimachus is beginning to take
Socrates seriously. And, instead of giving deference to the generals in
asking for their help, Lysimachus now demands that they prove they are
capable knowers (187c). However, Lysimachus does not quite take hold
of the conversation in the way Socrates asks; instead, he asks the generals
to “speak and examine in common with Socrates” (187d).
Laches’ Attempts to Define Courage: The Difference
between Moral Virtue and Psychic Self-Possession
Socrates suggests that in order to be a counselor of virtue, one must know
what virtue is, to which Laches assents (190b–c). Further, Socrates suggests that if one knows what virtue is, one could certainly say what it is, to
which Laches agrees. He very nearly asks the question, “what is virtue?”
to Laches before retracting it and asking about a part of virtue, courage.
The question “what is virtue?” is the guiding question of Plato’s Meno, the
only other dialogue in which Socrates speaks to a statesman. In the Meno,
Anytus becomes so incensed at this line of questioning that he goes on to
be one of Socrates’ accusers in the Apology.16 We find, by contrast, evidence
that Socrates is here handling Laches and Nicias carefully. He is gentler
with them because he hopes for, and eventually receives, their recommendation at the end of the dialogue to teach Lysimachus’ and Melesias’ sons.
At last, the investigation into courage, after which the dialogue receives
its subtitle, begins. When asked to define courage, Laches says, “By Zeus,
Socrates, it is not hard to state. For if someone should be willing to remain
in the ranks and defend himself against the enemies and should not flee,
know well that he would be courageous” (190e). While the courageous
man presumably has allies near him in the ranks, Laches phrases his answer
Plato, Apology 23e.
by reference to a courageous individual defending himself against multiple
enemies. Interestingly, Laches does not say whether the courageous man
perishes before his many foes or succeeds; assuming that death is bad, we
don’t know if courage is ultimately going to be bad or good for its possessor. It is precisely this question that we see Socrates press Laches on
during his next definition.
Socrates disqualifies Laches’ definition on the ground that it is formally mistaken, that is, it is only an example of courage; the definition
cannot claim to reveal the essence of courage in every case (190e). In so
doing, Socrates blames himself for not asking in clear enough terms. He
then provides counterexamples (191a–c) which point to prudence, the
group’s collective concern for its own good, as an element that is coeval
with courage and not in contradiction to it. When we look back at Laches’
definition, we remember that he did not mention whether courage entails
success in battle. If courage is primarily the means to winning a battle, it
would become subservient to another goal and would not be an end in
itself.17 It is Laches’ concern that virtue must be an end in itself that
makes him only half-heartedly confirm Socrates’ suggestion that the
Spartans were courageous when they retreated and then turned to face
the Persians (191c). That the Spartans retreated at all suggests that they
have subordinated standing in the ranks and fighting to other, prudent
concerns such as victory. However, Laches is not willing to go so far as to
condemn the Spartans for their retreat, likely in part because they achieved
an important victory. And, the extent to which Laches is not willing to
condemn the Spartans for being willing to retreat is the extent to which
he partially holds courage as something other than simply an end in itself.
Laches, on one hand, sees courage as an end in itself, and on the other
hand, sees that it should be subordinated to ends that are good for its
user, such as victory.
Socrates offers Laches an example of a correct definition by defining
swiftness as the power of accomplishing many things in a short time, in
respect of voice, running, and all other things (192b). While this example
clearly serves as a model for how one might offer a clear definition, it
might also serve the purpose of helping Laches (or the two young boys
watching) see another way to look at courage. Swiftness, like courage, is
not unambiguously good in all cases. For example, it is sometimes
On this point and what immediately follows, my analysis has profited from Rabieh, Plato
and the Virtue of Courage, 50–53.
necessary for an army to move swiftly to catch its enemy by surprise; at
other times, it may be more advantageous to move slowly, in order to
avoid detection. Swiftness is good only if it is governed by an understanding of what is good or what needs to be done. Perhaps in the case of courage as well, one should sometimes stand one’s ground, but at other times,
when it is advantageous, retreat. In both cases, courage would be subordinated to other purposes or an understanding of what needs to be done.
Laches now finds himself able to grasp what kind of definition Socrates
wants. He says that courage is a certain steadfastness (karteria) of soul “if
one must (dei) say about courage what it is by nature (pephukos) in all
cases” (192b). Socrates offers a strongly encouraging reply, saying that
this is indeed what one must (dei) say “at least if we are to answer for ourselves what is asked” (192c). Socrates now really begins to put Laches to
the test. He asks Laches whether he holds courage to be among the noblest
things, and Laches vehemently affirms that it is among the noblest
(192c).18 Laches also agrees that steadfastness accompanied by prudence
is noble and good and that foolish steadfastness does not deserve the name
courage.19 Famously, in the Apology, Socrates will claim specifically to be
unaware of anything that is noble and good for human beings.20 The suggestion is that there is an inherent tension between the noble and the
good, that perhaps there is nothing truly good for us that is also at the
same truly noble or beautiful. A noble deed is one that is freely chosen for
its own sake, without reference to calculations of self-interest or reward.
And not only is it not self-interested, it even, at its most sublime, entails a
sacrifice in the strictest sense, of one’s own good, even of one’s own life—
not a price paid for a future good. This is the sentiment expressed in
Richard Foley, “The Better Part of Valor: The Role of Wisdom in Plato’s ‘Laches,’”
History of Philosophy Quarterly 26.3 (2009), 219 claims that Socrates “forces” Laches to
accept a definition of courage that is not his own in order to push Laches to eventually adopt
a more “Socratic courage.” However, given Laches’ vehemence in his assessment of the
nobility of courage, it seems safe to say that Socrates is not forcing a foreign definition onto
Laches, but rather making more explicit what Laches’ assumptions are about what courage
is. Darrell Dobbs, “For Lack of Wisdom: Courage and Inquiry in Plato’s ‘Laches,’” The
Journal of Politics 48.04 (1986), 837 rightly notes that Laches seems to be offering his genuine opinion throughout the examination.
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 48, who also places the tension between the
noble and the good at the heart of her analysis.
Plato, Apology 21d; consider also that when Socrates describes his own way of life, he
calls it the greatest good, but does not call it noble. See David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense
of Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 180.
Laches’ initial attempt at a definition, his description of a soldier who
stands his ground and whose courageous deed we now see Laches saying
would be among the noblest.
For many, who attempt to perform noble deeds, there may be a confusion in motivation such as we see disclosed here in Laches. For while
humans believe they are motivated to perform noble deeds for the sake of
the noble, they also expect—often unwittingly—that these deeds are good
for them. This is the core of Laches’ confusion which Socrates examines.
To the extent that one’s deed is done for the sake of victory or one’s own
family or city, it is subordinated to a concern for the good, and is not noble
in the strictest sense, for it is not done for its own sake. It is productive of
some other good. Further, we also presume that by performing noble
deeds that are genuinely selfless, we make ourselves deserving of good
things. But, if noble deeds are admired because they forego our good,
how or why would we ever expect to receive a reward for them? Having a
hidden hope to be rewarded for noble acts, in fact, would disqualify us
from being truly deserving of a reward, for the noble act would be done
with a view to serving one’s good rather than in sacrifice of one’s good. As
we will see, it is not clear that Laches is capable of coming to grips with this
tension, and, it may be that Socrates does not wish for him to do so.
Following a discussion of a moneymaker and a doctor who cannot be
noble because their nobility is instrumentalized and thus debased, Socrates
now offers Laches a potential example of courage that turns Laches’ initial
definition of courage on its head. He asks if a man calculating prudently,
and knowing that others will come to his side while he holds good ground
against an enemy, could be considered courageous. Laches affirms that it
is the men in the opposing camp who are the courageous ones. Socrates
asks whether those men’s steadfastness would ultimately be more foolish,
and Laches agrees (193b).
In this way, Laches’ vision of courage is that it is always bad for its
adherents or is available only in situations that are dangerous, potentially
harmful, to them. Laches admires the few standing against many. But in
many cases it is better for few to run from many, to be prudent, so that
they can join up with other forces in order to win on the field another day.
It would seem that prudence, and the securing of one’s own advantage or
good that prudence has as its end, is often at odds with the sacrifice and
risks that courage demands. However, Laches’ willingness to let Socrates
add prudence to courage helps confirm that Laches has a divided
conception of virtue. By not always confronting the fact that courage may
be in a way foolish or bad for us, Laches harbors the hope that ultimately,
somehow, our risks taken in the name of virtue will be rewarded—meaning
that virtue, in the final analysis, would be a price well paid for a future
reward, rather than admirably sacrificial.
Socrates proceeds with more examples to help us (or the onlooking
boys) illuminate Laches’ confusion. In each case, from riding a horse, to
diving into a well, Laches admits that in the end, the person with less
knowledge about his task and its possible outcomes is the one who is most
courageous (193b–c). Laches’ view of courage runs very far afield of the
Socratic dictum that virtue is knowledge.
We also have to ask, did not Laches seem to admire Socrates for his
upright retreat? Laches, though, does not tell the whole story about the
retreat. Perhaps we should briefly turn to Alcibiades’ account of Socrates’
and Laches’ retreat, given in Plato’s Symposium, in order to gain a little
more clarity on precisely what Socrates’ retreat looked like and what it
signifies about Socrates. In doing so, we can catch a glimpse of how different Socrates’ and Laches’ understandings of virtue are.
Furthermore, men, it was worthwhile to behold Socrates when the army
retreated in flight from Delium; for I happened to be there on horseback
and he was a hoplite. The soldiers were then in rout, and while he and
Laches were retreating together, I came upon them by chance. And as soon
as I saw them, I at once urged the two of them to take heart, and I said
I would not leave them behind. I had an even finer opportunity to observe
Socrates there than I had had at Potidaea, for I was less in fear because I was
on horseback. First of all, how much more sensible (emphron) he was than
Laches; and secondly, it was my opinion, Aristophanes (and this point is
yours), that walking there just as he does here in Athens, ‘stalking like a pelican, his eyes darting from side to side,’ quietly on the lookout for friends
and foes, he made it plain to everyone even at a great distance, that if one
touches this real man, he will defend himself vigorously. Consequently, he
went away safely, both he and his comrade; for when you behave in war as
he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue
those who turn in headlong flight. (Symposium 221a–221c)21
This sliver of Alcibiades’ enchanting portrait of Socrates points to important differences between moral virtue and Socrates’ own psychic self-­
possession.22 As we discussed earlier, it may be that for Laches, moral
Plato’s Symposium, trans. Seth Benardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Tessitore, “Courage and Comedy,” 126–128, also draws on the same passage from the
Symposium as a resource to help explain the difference between moral virtue and Socrates’
own psychic self-possession. He emphasizes that Laches has received his opinions from the
virtue, whether he will admit it or not, is a price well paid for future goods
and possibly the greatest future goods. This half-hidden belief rests on a
hope—one that is never admitted—that the virtue one has, especially in
the case of courage, will protect us from death. Laches does not think that
those who have an art or knowledge that mitigates risk are deserving of
being called courageous. By minimizing risk, one makes oneself less
deserving of the transcendent kind of goods that one hopes virtue will
provide. That is, the greatest goods can be deserved only by running the
greatest risks, for without these risks, one is not deserving. In Alcibiades’
account, Laches does not appear to have been sensible or in possession of
himself (emphron). It is the case that Laches admires courage, but, evidently, while retreating, he doubts during this crucial moment in the
hopes he places in virtue. Perhaps this is too much to say, but since in the
Laches we discover that Laches has an incoherent understanding of courage and of the noble, it makes sense that when he needed courage most, it
failed him, or he failed himself. Socrates, on the other hand, must have
located a much firmer base. While he retreats, fear does not prevent him
from seeing what needs to be done. Laches falls into despair while
­retreating, perhaps because he realizes he was not able to stand his ground
in the moment of truth.23 He must have realized, even if but for a moment,
that at bottom, virtue cannot protect him, or that he does not possess the
steadfastness that would make him deserving of protection. His newly
discovered doubt in the virtue of courage, which he holds to be among
the noblest things, leads him to panic, blinding him from seeing actions he
could take to mitigate his risk of death on the battlefield.
Now when we say that Laches thought he could be deserving of protection, we have to wonder how Laches must believe that this protection
could come about. It may be that Laches secretly hopes that he might be
saved by some providential being, for who or what else would be capable
of guaranteeing one’s survival in the direst of circumstances? Perhaps,
then, Laches despairs because he realizes that virtue does not have the
providential support that he had always believed in his heart that it had;
or at the very least, that he was unworthy of this protection. Undoubtedly,
Laches hid this shocking realization from himself after the battle, for in
city and that he is ultimately too soft to rid himself of the certainty these opinions give him;
his view is not incompatible with our presentation of Laches’ confusions over the noble and
the good.
I borrow this formulation from Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 50.
the present dialogue, he still believes that courage is among the noblest
things. Turning back to Socrates, we see that he may not have been able
to guarantee his own survival, but he took all the necessary steps that
could be taken in order to do what is good for himself. Socrates does not
rely on courage as ordinarily understood, but must have somehow rid
himself of the false hopes that attend virtue, ordinarily understood. He
had no expectation that standing in the ranks could make him worthy of
protection from gods that are concerned with human beings. It is too
much here to say precisely how or why Socrates achieved this, but we will
return briefly to this question in our conclusion, when we speculate on
what kind of activity Socrates would want to secure future meetings with
Thucydides and Aristeides for and what this activity has to do with the
noble and the divine.
Returning to the Laches, Laches, for his part is irritated with himself for
not saying what he thinks he perceives in his mind (194b). But hasn’t
Laches already said what he thinks?24 He attributes his failure to account
for courage to his unfamiliarity with speeches of the kind he is now making. But he is not brought to doubt that he has knowledge of courage. In
his heart, Laches is certain that he knows what courage is.25 He thus has
no motivation to seek it.
Nicias on Courage, or, on Socrates’ Handling
of the Generals (194c–199e)
Socrates now turns his attention to Nicias, who begins his definition in a
very different way from Laches, asserting something he thinks he has
heard Socrates say: that one is good only at those things one is wise about
Bruell, Socratic Education, 57.
Gerasimos Santas, “Socrates at Work on Virtue in Plato’s Laches,” in The Philosophy of
Socrates: a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Gregory Vlastos (Garden City, NY: Anchor,
1971), 184, and Foley, “Better Part of Valor,” 213, claim that Laches, as well as the rest of
the characters in the dialogue, admit to not having knowledge of the nature of courage. This
seems to mischaracterize the surface of the text when Laches says, “I am truly irritated, if I
am unable to say what I thus perceive in my mind” (194b). Laches thinks he has hit a stumbling block in speech, but believes he has the answer. Thus, by suggesting that Laches does
admit to not knowing what courage is, Foley misses the crucial point that Laches (and likely
most of us, even when we are refuted in our deepest held beliefs) persists in holding on to his
beliefs. Our inability to admit that we lack answers to essential questions is a problem Plato
persistently shows us in his dialogues, and this inability is one that will keep us from any kind
of genuine mental liberation.
(194d). Socrates, at least for now, enthusiastically encourages Nicias to
continue on, even swearing by Zeus (194d). Nicias says that if the courageous man is good, then he is wise. He must have somehow misheard
Socrates, for Socrates says that it is wisdom that makes one good, not that
being good makes one wise.26 To formulate it as Nicias does makes wisdom dependent on virtue, instead of the other way around.
We should note that during the entirety of Laches’ attempts to define
courage, Nicias did not speak at all, nor was he asked to speak. When he
rejoins the conversation at the behest of Socrates, he says that Socrates and
Laches have not been speaking well for a long time (194c). We can then
safely say that Nicias would like to have been called on earlier. Now,
Socrates changes his approach to the conversation, asking Laches if he has
heard that Nicias said that the good man is wise (194d). That is, Socrates
asks Laches to respond to Nicias, instead of immediately examining him as
he had examined Laches. Socrates was nothing but polite to Laches, but
he evidently thinks the time for civility is over. Socrates, it appears, is
attempting to put Laches and Nicias at odds with one another. Plato also
draws our attention to this shift in the drama with the use of a pun. When
Laches had said he was irritated at not being able to say clearly what he
perceived in his mind, he said that he felt a “love of victory” (philonikia).
Any reader can see the resemblance to Nicias’ name. The word for the
kind of love friends have for each other is philos. Socrates, ironically, directs
Laches’ love of victory (philonikia) toward Nicias, preventing Laches from
having philos toward Nicias.27
Laches claims not to understand what Nicias means when he says that
those who are good are also wise. When Socrates clarifies that Nicias
means that courage is a certain kind of wisdom, Laches uses a phrase out
of comedy that means something along the lines of wisdom my foot
(194d)!28 Before Nicias is finished elaborating his answer to Socrates,
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 68; see also Leo Strauss, “A Restatement
on Xenophon’s Hiero,” in What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1959), 112, who while not talking about the Laches in particular, does detail how the
unwise unsuccessfully receive the knowledge of the wise: “The diffusion among the unwise
of genuine knowledge that was acquired by the wise would be of no help, for through its
diffusion or dilution, knowledge inevitably transforms itself into opinion, prejudice or mere
Benardete, “Plato’s Laches,” also notices the pun, but does not point our attention to
Socrates intentionally causing the discord between Laches and Nicias (73).
See James Nichols’ translation of the Laches, in Pangle, Roots, 259n30.
Laches intervenes again, saying, “[y]ou are questioning him very correctly
indeed, Socrates; and let him say what he asserts it is” (194e). Socrates
deliberately sets the generals at odds, making them more ridiculous and
less trustworthy than they might have been had they been shown only not
to understand courage. This carries with it the further benefit that the
generals do not become angry at Socrates. Indeed, it is even then not clear
that Socrates’ primary interest is to educate the generals. Each participant
in his own way might benefit from the conversation, but the benefit of
others does not seem to be Socrates’ chief purpose here.
Nicias then gets a chance to offer his first definition: courage is knowledge of terrible and confidence-inspiring things (195a). Laches presses
Nicias with counter-examples including one of a doctor, and Nicias
responds that doctors have knowledge only of what is healthy and
unwholesome. They do not know for whom it is good to live and for
whom it is better to die (195c–d). Here, Nicias reveals much of what his
ambiguous definition means. He means that the courageous man has
knowledge of what is truly good for himself and for others.29
Laches thinks that Nicias must be saying that only diviners are courageous, for only they have knowledge of what is good for human beings. In
addition, Laches seems to sense that Nicias’ courageous person can gain
some kind of certainty about the future, thus being a diviner. Nicias
responds as follows:
[T]he diviner must know only the signs of the things that will be—whether
death or illness or loss of property will come to someone or victory or defeat
either in war or in some other competition. But whether it is better for
someone either to undergo (pathein) or not to undergo these things—why
does it belong to the diviner to judge rather than anyone else at all?
The diviner knows what will be, but not necessarily whether it will be
good or bad for those to whom it happens. Nicias’ list of examples—
death, illness, loss of property, and defeat in war—is primarily negative. As
his sole positive example, he includes victory. One might be inclined to see
Nicias as a man who looks to the future filled with fear.30 However, on
closer inspection, it seems rather that Nicias wants to have knowledge of
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, p. 73.
For instance, Walter T. Schmid, On Manly Courage: A Study of Plato’s Laches (Carbondale:
Southern Illinois UP, 1992), 242.
what is genuinely profitable for men. That is, as he points out to his men
at the end of the Sicilian disaster, sometimes it is good for men to suffer;
for one can learn from a god’s punishment.31
Nicias stresses that courage goes together with forethought. This would
seem to re-introduce questions we found earlier with Laches’ definitions.
For the more forethought that a human being successfully uses, the less
courage would then seem to be necessary. Whereas Laches ended up
showing that he thinks courage is more noble than good, Nicias here
shows that he thinks courage should be good. Nicias ends his speech saying that what Laches and the many call courage, Nicias calls bold, whereas
Nicias asserts that courage is among the prudent things he has been talking about (197b–c). Nicias thus attempts to rise above the confused and
unreasonable demands of courage that Laches and the many make.
Socrates encourages Laches not to use abusive speech and then proceeds to give Laches a strange justification for Nicias’ manner of speech
(197d). He points out that Laches must not realize that Nicias has received
this particular bit of wisdom about courage from Damon, a man who
keeps company with Prodicus, a sophist who distinguishes terms in the
finest manner (198d). Socrates performs a sleight of hand here, one that
is designed to increase Laches’ regard for Socrates and decrease his sense
of Nicias’ seriousness. For while it is true that Nicias is finely distinguishing terms, something that Prodicus is known for, the basis for Nicias’ decision to do so is his definition of courage, which comes from something he
thought he heard Socrates say before! (194d). Socrates, thus, distances
himself from any involvement in Nicias’ current formulations. He also
omits saying that he was the one who suggested that Nicias seek out
Damon in the first place. Laches responds with a predictable dismissal: “It
is indeed fitting for a sophist, Socrates, to contrive such subtleties rather
than a man whom the city deems worthy to be its leader” (197d). Socrates
takes this kind of action in order to perpetuate the rivalrous irritation that
he has agitated almost since he began speaking in the dialogue. Having
now increased the tension between the two generals to what might be its
highest possible point, while still maintaining the minimum necessary
civility for conversation, Socrates turns to unravel Nicias’ view in earnest.
He no longer invites Laches to comment on Nicias’ position, but addresses
Laches briefly only to gain assent on various points.
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, 7:77.
Socrates begins by asking Nicias if by talking about courage he meant to
discuss a part of virtue, there of course being other parts or portions of
virtue (198a). Socrates lists courage, justice, and moderation as parts of
virtue, choosing to omit piety (which is mentioned by Socrates as a virtue
at 199d). As we know from Thucydides, Plutarch, and Laches’ earlier accusation of Nicias, Nicias is perhaps overly concerned with divination (195e).32
Socrates thus excludes the virtue that Nicias may aspire to the most, though
Socrates does admit that his list of virtues is not exhaustive.
Socrates then argues that if one has knowledge of something, he does
not just know about “that which has come into being” or “in what way it
has come into being” but also “about those things that will come into
being” (198d). Here, Socrates is speaking about knowledge generally. He
is saying that to know the causes of things is to know necessities, which
cannot be otherwise, and so will be the same in the present, the past, and
the future. We will cover this more in our closing remarks; it suffices here
to say that if this is what Socrates means by knowledge, then knowledge
leaves no room for a partially mysterious omnipotent divine being. That is,
an omnipotent divine being would rule out a human’s ability to attribute
causation to the things that appear to be necessary, for a god could change
these at any moment. Socrates extends his reasoning about knowledge to
farming, and, importantly, to generalship, saying that “generalship uses
forethought in the finest manner in other respects and also concerning
what is going to be, and it thinks that it must not serve, but rule divination, on the grounds that it has finer knowledge of the things relating to
war, both those that are coming into being and those that will come into
being. And the law ordains thus, not that the diviner rule the general, but
that the general rule the diviner” (198e–199a). It is striking that Socrates
says that a knowledge of causes that cannot be otherwise must rule divination. This amounts to saying that unassisted human reason should guide
generals instead of diviners, who are thought to be messengers or interpreters of the gods. If Socrates means this in earnest, he would have had
to have somehow found arguments that make him confident that human
reason should guide human beings instead of the gods’ alleged commands; or, in other words, Socrates must think he has evidence that the
gods who are alleged to send omens and portents do not exist.
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, 7: 42–50; Plutarch, “Life of
Nicias” (in Plutarch’s Lives edited by Arthur Hugh Clough, translated by John Dryden,
New York: Modern Library, 2001), 638–640.
Interestingly, Socrates does not explore any of these implications with
Nicias, and for a brief moment, uses Laches to gain his assent that generals’
should rule diviners. Even if Nicias would not immediately be capable of
seeing the full weight of the implications latent in Socrates’ speeches, perhaps Socrates senses that Nicias might have resisted saying that divination
must be subservient to anything. Socrates does not confront Nicias with
any evidence that unassisted human reason should be favored over interpreting alleged divine portents, and, further, he does not force Nicias to
consider that his role as a general, one whom the law commands to rule
diviners, may be in tension with his role as a devoted and pious human.
Faced by these considerations, Nicias might have had cause to be much
angrier at Socrates than if he is only shown not to know precisely what
courage is.
Socrates then turns back to Nicias, and secures his agreement that if
one has knowledge of something, then one will understand the past, present, and future of this thing (199b). Socrates re-establishes that Nicias’
definition of courage is knowledge of terrible and confidence- inspiring
things and that this pertains to future good and evil things, as well as to
things in all other conditions (199b–c). Though Nicias agrees, at this final
step in the argument, he is more hesitant, saying only, “[i]t seems so, at
least” (199c). Socrates, therefore, accuses Nicias of initially having offered
only one-third of a definition, for Nicias did not originally argue that courage is knowledge of “pretty much all goods and evils and in all conditions”
(199d). Nicias agrees, and then Socrates finishes his refutation of Nicias.
Socrates asks if a man with this kind of knowledge would
lack anything of virtue if indeed he knew how all good things, in all ways,
come into being and will come into being and have come into being and all
bad things in the same way? And do you think that this one would be in
need of moderation or justice and piety—he to whom alone it belongs, as
regards both gods and human beings, to be thoroughly on his guard for the
terrible things and for those that are not, and to provide himself with the
good things, through his knowing how to associate with them correctly?
Since this ostensible knowledge constitutes the whole of virtue, and Nicias
meant only to describe a part, his attempted definition of courage does not
offer a proper account. Why, though, does Nicias not just revise his earlier
statement and say to Socrates that he is speaking about the whole of virtue?
Socrates has now brought piety in, and something in the pious Nicias
resists the thought that human, unaided reason is alone needful for human
action. Nicias breaks virtue into parts because he thinks that both human
reason and devotion to the gods are necessary. If all of virtue is knowledge, this would not leave room for one to worship gods that are at least
partially mysterious.
Concluding Thoughts: Philosophy and the Gods
After Socrates is recommended as a teacher to Lysimachus and Melesias
by Laches and Nicias, Lysimachus eagerly suggests a meeting for the next
day at dawn (201c). In response, Socrates says that he will do so “if god
is willing.” (201c). One commentator says of these words that “they
show [Socrates] to be cautious even about tomorrow in Athens.”33 But
then, what is it about the god’s willingness that Socrates must be so cautious of? Lysimachus asks Socrates to meet the next day at dawn, not a
strange thing for anyone to say, even if it is a little demanding. However,
what Lysimachus unthinkingly presupposes in making this request of
Socrates is that the sun will rise the next day. That is, Lysimachus operates in this moment, under the assumption that the sun will always rise
the next day and will not admit of being otherwise. Socrates’ laconic
response indicates that he is more wary about assuming that his reason
can access permanent intelligible necessities. By saying he can meet
tomorrow only if the god is willing, he suggests the possibility, however
unlikely, that a divine being could interfere with the order of the world,
such that it could be radically different than it was the day before. The
order or patterns that human beings believe they observe in their experience and that some dare to call “nature” could admit of change if divine
beings exist and choose to alter that ostensible order. However, Socrates’
caution here should strike us as surprising, for just a moment ago, while
speaking to Nicias, we saw Socrates indicate that unassisted human reason should guide human life. That he both seems confident of, and wary
of, taking his bearings from human reason suggests to us that Socrates
grasps the fundamental problems as problems and is cautious of becoming dogmatically inclined to solutions, even if he sees greater evidence for
a particular solution.
Benardete, “Plato’s Laches,” 257.
If what we have seen in the exchange between Socrates and his
interlocutors is true, we may say that the existence of a powerful god or
gods poses a serious challenge to the possibility and necessity of philosophy, understood as a search for nature (physis), an unchanging principle of
motion from which we might discern permanent intelligible necessities.34
If an omnipotent god exists who can perform miracles—that is, acts that
are impossible in nature—then there is no causation. That is, there is just
a divine moving of things, and anything could come to be.35 In order for
philosophy to be possible in the strictest sense, it has to confront the challenge posed to it by this possibility. What has the Laches to do with this
daunting challenge besides its cryptic ending? And, in addition, why then,
does Socrates choose to pursue future meetings with the promising lads?
Socrates attempts to ground philosophy by dialectically examining what
human beings say about moral virtue. The commands that gods make of
beings are the only possible point of access by human beings to the divine.
If Socrates can repeatedly demonstrate that the claims of morality are
inconsistent, then he can gain confidence that no gods have made commands of human beings. Socrates cannot ground philosophy just by refuting admirable, though, philosophically unpromising men like Laches and
Nicias.36 An interlocutor may not have the strength of soul required to
follow Socrates through questions about his motivations to be virtuous.
Take Laches, for example. As we argued earlier, the despair that consumed
Laches with fear while he retreated from Delium may have stemmed from
his sudden realization that perhaps moral virtue has no providential support. Instead of examining the incoherence of virtue and the possibility
that it lacks divine support, Laches hid this realization from himself. The
powerful hope that he placed in virtue was too dear for him to have rationally scrutinized it. Thus, Socrates must eventually train young potential
My thinking on this problem is highly indebted to Leo Strauss, Natural Right and
History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954) and “Between Jerusalem and Athens:
Preliminary Reflections,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1983, 147–173), Thomas Pangle “Introduction” (in Leo Strauss, Studies in
Platonic Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), Heinrich Meier
(Leo Strauss and the Theological Political Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2007), Timothy Burns (“What War Discloses.” Recovering Reason: Essays in Honor of Thomas
L. Pangle, ed. Timothy Burns. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), and David
Leibowitz (The Ironic Defense of Socrates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Strauss, “Between Jerusalem and Athens,” 151.
Leibowitz, Ironic Defense, 98–99.
philosophers, like Aristeides and Thucydides, whom he must suspect have
greater psychic strength than most, to cultivate the kind of strength
required to see, and, hold onto, these realizations about virtue, in order to
get farther down the road in his own investigations.37 That is, Socrates
wants to prove that his own insight into human motivation is not just
idiosyncratic.38 Thus, we see Socrates in the Laches securing for himself
future meetings with Aristeides and Thucydides—meetings that we know
from the Theaetetus and Theages he secured.39 Socrates will attempt to
engage the boys more fully in the kind of dialectal examination that leads
to a full scrutiny of one’s moral opinions, so that Socrates can confirm that
his own experience of a purification of thought is not unique. Socrates
does not want mere faith in the possibility of philosophy. In order to make
this a serious possibility, he must be able to offer a superior explanation or
account of what the moral experiences of the pious point to.
On the question of Socrates’ motivation then, the tentative suggestion
that this chapter makes is that Socrates is motivated to talk to non-­
philosophers principally out of a desire to see how he ought to live: a life
of obedient love to the god or gods or the life of free inquiry.40 The pressing need to answer this question leaves Socrates with little time for anything else.
Ibid 104.
Timothy Burns, “Leo Strauss on Classical Political Philosophy,” in Brill’s Companion to
Leo Strauss’ Writings on Classical Political Thought. ed. Timothy Burns (Leiden: Brill
Academic Publishing, 2015), 3.
Plato Theaetetus 150e–151a and Theages 130a–130e.
Borrowing this formulation from Strauss, Natural Right and History, 74.
Socrates’ Self-Knowledge
David Levy
Near the beginning of Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates offers an account of the
difference between his stance toward myths and that of the sophists. He
traces this difference to his awareness of his lack of self-knowledge and the
pursuit of self-knowledge that follows from this awareness. Socrates thus
traces the difference regarding myth to a distinctive and fundamental
characteristic of his philosophic life. As we shall see, shortly after this discussion, Plato manages to direct his readers to a number of other dialogues, above all the Apology, for the full interpretation of Socrates’ pursuit
of self-knowledge. Still, as it seems to me, many readers of those other
dialogues will wish for further clarity about the matter and will therefore
be inclined to study the rest of the Phaedrus in search of such clarification.
The dialogue, however, nowhere explicitly returns to the subject. On the
other hand, the first half of the dialogue treats eros, the only subject aside
from his own ignorance that Socrates is famous for claiming to know
(Symposium 177d7–8, Theages 128b1–4),1 while the treatment of writing
Except where noted, all references to Plato are to Burnet’s edition (1901–05). All unattributed line numbers are to Phaedrus. I wish to thank David Bolotin and Christopher Bruell
for their many helpful suggestions about this chapter.
D. Levy (*)
St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_5
in the dialogue’s second half presumably clarifies Socrates’ reasons for not
writing. Each half of the dialogue, then, contains sustained consideration
of distinctive features of Socrates’ philosophic life,2 and we suspect that in
a life such as he appears to live, a life overwhelmingly devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, no distinctive feature is unrelated to the others. There
is therefore reason to expect that a study of each half of the dialogue will
shed further light on Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge.
Let us first consider in their context Socrates’ remarks about his pursuit
of self-knowledge. While they are walking together in the countryside,
Socrates provokes Phaedrus by offering a precise description of the location of an altar to Boreas, where the god is said to have seized the maiden
Oreithyia. As the first half of the dialogue confirms, Phaedrus is not pious
in a conventional sense (236d9–e1, 242d10, 243c1–2 with d3–4), and
Socrates joins him in admitting only that Boreas “is said” to have possessed Oreithyia (229b5–6). Still, Socrates’ more careful observation of
where the abduction is alleged to have taken place prompts Phaedrus to
ask whether Socrates differs from the intellectuals with whom Phaedrus
keeps company by believing the myth to be true (229c5–7 with 266d5ff.
and Protagoras 315c). It is in response to this question that Socrates
explains his differences from the sophists as regards myth.
According to that explanation, the sophists’ debunking activity, or their
replacement of myths with more “likely” accounts, is a massive task, but
Socrates has no leisure for this work (229c6–e4). For Socrates has not yet
fulfilled the Delphic injunction to know himself (229e5–6). He therefore
accepts the customary beliefs about such matters, as he seems to claim,
and examines himself instead (230a1–3). At first sight, it would seem that
Socrates pursues self-knowledge in such a way as to leave unquestioned
the customary beliefs about the gods. But to believe this of him is to
believe that he is guided by a quite limited—indeed, shallow—notion of
self-knowledge. For the meaning of every important aspect of human
experience depends in part on whether gods such as the myths describe
actually exist, and insofar as one takes one’s own life seriously, he will necessarily seek the answer to this question. Still, for those inclined to doubt
Indeed the question of the differences between Socrates and the sophists also remains
thematic throughout the dialogue. Each half of the dialogue ends with Socrates giving
Phaedrus a message about his own views to pass along to Lysias (243d5–7, 257b1–6,
278b6ff.), a message which, given Phaedrus’ propensity to share speeches he has heard and
provoke speeches from others (228a5–c5, 242a7–b5, 243e2), Socrates can expect to be
shared with the community of sophists more broadly.
that Socrates felt this necessity,3 he gives a sufficient indication of his
awareness of it by his insistence near the beginning of the palinode that
one show not only whether eros is good or bad but also whether or not it
is given to us by the gods (245b4–c1). That is, Socrates implies that eros
cannot be adequately understood without understanding the truth about
the gods.
Let us then consider more carefully what Socrates says about his pursuit
of self-knowledge. We note first that he does not necessarily claim to “be
persuaded by” the customary beliefs about the gods: what he says may
merely mean that he “obeys” (peithomenos) these beliefs, leaving unclear
what he holds to be true about them (230a2). Second, Socrates says that
his pursuit of self-knowledge takes up in particular the question of whether
he is “some wild beast more complicatedly twisted and furious than
Typhon or a gentler and simpler animal having a share by nature in some
portion that is both divine and without arrogance” (230a3–6). Typhon,
however, was famous for his attempted rebellion against the Olympians,
that is, the customarily accepted gods, and that Socrates has Typhon’s
rebellion in mind is shown by his claim that if he is not like Typhon he
would also be without arrogance (atuphou). Could Socrates be wondering
whether he, like Typhon, has rebelled against the gods?4 It would certainly
be appropriate for Socrates to indicate the possibility of such a rebellion in
the course of answering a question about his stance toward myths,5 but it
See, for example, Harvey Yunis (Plato: Phaedrus. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), who without any explanation interprets Socrates’ claim to adhere to customary
beliefs as “not so much affirming the literal truth of myth as expressing a lack of interest in
the question” (94).
It is common for commentators to interpret Socrates’ question about whether he is like
Typhon as indicating that he finds myth necessary for his pursuit of self-knowledge; they
then point to Socrates’ use of a mythical depiction of the soul in the palinode as evidence for
this view. For examples, see Charles Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato’s “Phaedrus”
(University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), 36–39 and G.R.F. Ferrari,
Listening to the Cicadas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 11–12. This view
fails to consider that Socrates may use myth in his accounts with a view to his listeners, rather
than because they are the best way to articulate the truth to himself, and the Phaedrus more
than any other dialogue shows that Socrates believes in adapting speeches to the capacities of
the listeners (see especially 277b5–c6). Furthermore, because Socrates regards the view provided by human reason or dialectical analysis as the authoritative view (249b6–c8, 266b6–7),
it is impossible to see how he could regard as satisfactory a merely mythical account as
opposed to the reasoning underlying the myth or a simply rational account.
Griswold notes that Socrates’ reference to Typhon implies a concern on Socrates’ part
about whether he is guilty of hubris but goes on to suggest that this “must be equivalent to
seems difficult to understand how someone could be in doubt about
whether or not he rebels against the gods. Still, Socrates had expressed a
kind of approval for the sophists’ replacement of myths with more likely
stories. Although he lacks the leisure necessary for the task of debunking
all myths, he finds this work in other respects “graceful” (229d2–3), which
suggests that he shares the sophists’ distrust of the customary beliefs. In
this case, Socrates may not know that he rebels against the gods because
he doubts that they exist. That is, while Socrates does not believe the customary myths, as our analysis of the rest of the Phaedrus will confirm, he
also does not know them to be false. He believes himself to be gentle and
free of arrogance, that is, not rebellious, with a “divine” portion by nature
or a higher rank in view of his not being subordinated to the Olympians.
But if Socrates is mistaken, he may well be guilty of unknowingly rebelling
against the gods. Furthermore, these gods may have such supernatural
powers as could undermine the stability of the natural order, for which
reason Socrates makes no mention of his being as he is by nature in the
case that he, like Typhon, rebels against the gods. We suggest, then, that
Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge is an attempt to determine the adequacy of his beliefs about the gods. We shall have to wait to see why the
question of Socrates’ rebellion against the gods comes with a question
about whether he is “more complicatedly twisted” or simpler.
There is one further point that Socrates makes about his pursuit of self-­
knowledge before the dialogue turns to the discussion of love. Immediately
after his remarks about self-knowledge, Socrates finds that he and Phaedrus
have reached the spot where they planned to read Lysias’ speech and offers
an extensive praise of the place,6 which prompts Phaedrus to observe that
Socrates seems unaccustomed to these natural surroundings (230b2–d2,
an irrational desire…to be master of the universe—a radical version of Typhon’s desire to
dominate the gods” (Self-Knowledge, 40–41). Griswold thus attributes to Socrates a concern
about an extreme form of hubris—one which it is hard to see how Socrates could fear he is
guilty of, given his repeated acknowledgments of his finitude—and passes over the more literal meaning of hubris, a meaning which is perfectly appropriate for Socrates to mention in
response to Phaedrus’ question.
The praise tends to confirm our suggestion about Socrates’ ignorance. He mentions
seven items at the resting place. Every item except the fourth is natural, and Socrates praises
every item except the fourth, about which he merely says “from the maidens and statues it
seems likely to be a holy place of some nymphs and Achelous” (230b7–8). Socrates cannot
be sure the place is holy, and he is not inclined to praise the aspect of the place that suggests
it is holy. See Seth Benardete’s similar suggestion (The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy
[Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 115).
cf. 229c1–3). Socrates responds that he needs to stay in town in order to
learn from the human beings there (230d3–5). He had indicated that his
pursuit of self-knowledge leaves him “no leisure,” at least for such studies
of myths as the sophists undertake (229e4), and he gave the impression
that his pursuit of self-knowledge is the primary, if not the exclusive (cf.
227b9–11, 230d5–e4), concern of his philosophic life. We therefore suggest that in his pursuit of self-knowledge, Socrates somehow learns from
the people in the city and not merely a few friends whom he could arrange
to meet anywhere. Socrates had described his pursuit of self-knowledge as
a response to the Delphic oracle’s injunction to seek self-knowledge
(229e5–6), and in the Apology too, he will describe as a response to the
Delphic oracle his lifelong pursuit of a kind of self-knowledge, a pursuit in
which he learns from conversations with many kinds of people in the city
(Apology 21a–23b).7 He thus indicates that his characteristic conversations
with others are crucial to his pursuit of self-knowledge, and Plato thereby
directs his readers to the Apology and the dialogues that depict the relevant
conversations for the full interpretation of Socrates’ pursuit as it is described
in the Phaedrus. For us, as we study what the Phaedrus itself discloses
about the matter, we shall keep in mind what must at first seem an odd
suggestion, that learning from others in the city is somehow crucial to
Socrates’ investigation of his own relation to the gods.
That the dialogue’s treatment of eros is relevant to our question about
Socrates’ self-knowledge is immediately suggested by what should strike
many readers as the strangest feature of that treatment: Socrates’ insistence that the discussion of eros take up the question of the relation
between eros and the gods. To be sure, it is not immediately clear how he
understands this relation. He first calls attention to the relation by his
claim that the dialogue’s two anti-erotic speeches were not merely simpleminded; they were also impious (242d7). Yet he initially explains this
claim by reference to a customary belief that he will explicitly reject—
indeed refute—in the Symposium, namely, that eros is a god (242d9,
Symposium 202c6–d7). Socrates goes on to insist, however, here in the
To be sure, it is a different aspect of the oracle that Socrates says he is responding to in
the Apology: Socrates describes his response to the alleged prophecy differently to different
Phaedrus, that one take seriously not the claim of eros to be a god
(cf. 242e2) but the claim that eros is a form of divine madness, that is, a
madness given to us by the gods, just as prophecy, ritual purifications, and
poetry, the customarily accepted forms of divine madness, are believed to
be so given (244a5–245c1). At no point in the palinode, however, does
Socrates speak of a god giving eros to a human being; he describes eros
rather as an experience undergone in suitable human souls in response to
human beauty (250e1ff.). That is, eros is presented as a natural occurrence.8 One wonders whether Socrates does not think that he will call
attention to some important truth about eros by suggesting its similarity
to customarily accepted forms of divine madness as they are customarily
interpreted, even if his account of eros must ultimately fail to demonstrate
that similarity. Still, while Socrates disappoints the hope to grasp how eros
is sent by the gods, he does not fail to make the gods central to his account
of eros. For his description of the experience of eros is a description of the
growth of the soul’s “wings” (250e1–252b2), and according to Socrates,
the “natural power” of these wings is to lift a soul up to where the race of
gods dwells (246d6–7).
Who are these gods? On the one hand, in Socrates’ account, they retain
the traditional names and number of the major Greek gods (246e4–247a2)
and on the other, they are decisively modified by his introduction of beings
higher than the gods, the beings above the heaven, or the hyperuranion
beings, to which the gods are subordinated (247a8–e6). According to
Socrates, the divinity of the gods depends on their knowing these beings,
which are also the principles in accordance with which human reason
articulates the world (246d8–e1, 247d1–5, 249b6–c6, cf. 247a1–2). Still,
the gods’ lives do not consist solely of viewing the hyperuranion beings,
although what they do besides viewing these beings is not entirely clear.
Socrates first describes the gods as an “army” with Zeus as its leader, who
puts the other gods in order and presumably employs this army in his task
of “taking care of all things” (246e4–247a1). Yet Socrates goes on to
describe the gods as a “chorus,” and the only activity he attributes to this
chorus is heavenly sightseeing. In accordance with this change and with
his indication that the gods have beheld true justice, Socrates describes
each sightseeing god as “doing his own thing,” or minding his own business, that is, as following the Republic’s teaching about justice (Republic
Consider especially 252b1–c2 as well as 265e3–266a3 and the implication of 257a7–8
with 270c10–e2.
433a8ff.). Finally, in keeping with his pointer to the gods’ justice, Socrates
notes their freedom from envy and unconcern with whoever follows them
(247a4–7). We shall have to wait to determine why Socrates offers this
complicated account of the gods.
What, then, is the connection between eros and the gods? As mentioned earlier, falling in love, according to Socrates, is the beginning of the
growth of the soul’s wings. The result of this experience is the development in the lover of something approaching belief in the gods, as he comes
to be completely devoted to his beloved. The process begins when the
potential lover is struck by the beloved’s beauty, at which point, according
to Socrates, the potential lover first shivers in terror (251a1–4). Socrates
describes this terror as the recollection of “something of the dreadful
things of the former time,” by which he seems to refer to the soul’s previous struggle to see the hyperuranion beings (248b1–d2).9 The potential
lover shudders in terror at his “recollection” of a struggle on which depend
both the soul’s highest good and its ability to avoid embodiment.10 This
makes sense insofar as the potential lover, having felt beauty’s pull, has
some anticipatory awareness of all that it may require of him. Next, the
lover feels such awe before his beloved as he would “before a god” and
would even sacrifice to his beloved if he did not fear for his reputation
(251a4–7). The lover’s religious or quasi-religious experience has thus
begun. As the lover continues to view his beloved, his soul begins to fill
with heat “such as comes from shivering” (251a7–b1). Since the soul’s
previous shivering meant terror, we can regard the soul’s heat as hopes,
hopes that have as a necessary basis the terror felt at the outset of the experience. Finally, the heat filling the lover’s soul allows the soul’s wings to
begin to grow (251b1–7). At the conclusion of this experience, when the
soul’s wings have undergone such growth as eros permits, the lover is
wholly devoted to his beloved: he is a willing “slave” to the beloved and
regards all that his love may cost as “next to nothing” (252a1–7). It could
seem from this account of falling in love that Socrates has overlooked the
role sexual attraction must play in the experience, but his language in
describing the growth of wings throughout the passage unmistakably
Consider also G.J. De Vries’ observation that no terrors had literally been mentioned
earlier in the speech (A Commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato [Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1969],
On the meaning of embodiment, consider especially 250c4–6 in its context, which is a
sort of reverie spurred by the thought of beauty. On the status of the immortality of the soul,
see 245c5–7 with 247b6–c2.
points to the lover’s sexual arousal.11 Socrates appears to mean that sexual
attraction in the right soul is subordinated to the lover’s sense of the
higher meaning of beauty, although that attraction provides essential
encouragement for the lover’s devotion (cf. 250e1–251a1, see also
Eros, then, as the experience in which the soul’s wings begin to grow,
leads the lover to the gods, in the first place, by inclining the lover to be
devoted to his beloved as if he were a god. It is not that the lover lets himself consciously believe that his beloved is a god; the lover merely responds
to his beloved with such passions as he would feel also for a god. Socrates
twice describes the beloved as a “statue” of a god (251a6, 252d6–7), that
is, a being which is itself regarded as both divine and a pointer to an actual
god. The lover, then, can square to some extent his feelings for his beloved
with his awareness of the beloved’s imperfection by regarding him as a
divine pointer to or representative of an actual god. Indeed, it is especially
heat or hope that permits the wings to grow, and the hopes with which the
lover is filled must ultimately be tremendous if the sacrifices he is willing
to make are to be seen as worth “next to nothing.” The lover, of course,
feels that his beloved provides support for these hopes. The lover regards
him as “the only doctor for the greatest troubles” (252b1). However, to
the extent that the lover becomes genuinely aware of his beloved’s being
merely a human being, the lover will need to believe in an actual god if he
is to make sense of his hopes. Therefore, the lover’s awe before his beloved
prepares and inclines him to feel awe before a god. Different lovers will
worship different gods, as Socrates goes on to indicate (252d1–e1), but if
lovers’ beliefs are to accord with the immense hope that provides a basis
for them, these beliefs will be in such gods as accord with the first part of
Socrates’ description of the gods’ lives in the palinode (246e4–6). That is,
lovers are inclined to believe in gods who would take care of all things.
Eros, then, is divine madness not in the sense of being given by the gods
but in the sense of leading to such belief in them as is compatible with the
customary understanding of the gods. Indeed, eros as Socrates understands it could provide a psychological basis for belief in the customarily
accepted forms of divine madness to which he had earlier linked it. This
connection between eros and ordinary piety then allows us to understand
in a relatively straightforward sense Socrates’ earlier claim that criticisms of
love are impious, but it raises a question about our earlier suggestion that
See Yunis, Phaedrus, 152.
Socrates does not accept the gods as they are customarily understood. Can
the impious Socrates be squared with his praise of a pious eros?
We begin to address this question by noting that Socrates also praises
eros for what could be called a philosophic aspect of it (253c2–6). The
strength of the wish genuinely to benefit their beloveds can free lovers
from convention (252a4–6, 265a10–11). Such liberated lovers then seek
on their own, that is, following their own reason, to discover “the nature
of their god” so that they and their beloveds can become as perfect as possible (252e7–253a5). Socrates already defined the philosopher by his ability to grasp the principles on which the divinity of the gods depends
(249c4–6). It follows that one who succeeds in discovering his god’s
nature has become a philosopher. Socrates quietly indicates, however, that
those who pursue this investigation to its conclusion are, in an important
sense, post-erotic. For when he describes the good obtained by lovers who
become philosophers, Socrates says only that no greater good comes from
either “human moderation or divine madness” (256b5–7), but when he
describes the good received by those lovers who do not become philosophers, he attributes it directly to “erotic madness” (256d5–6). Socrates
does not explicitly attribute the philosophic life to eros. Such an omission
is manifestly decisive in a work by an author who teaches the importance
of logographic necessity (264b7–c5). Socrates thus indicates that eros by
itself does not lead to philosophy. Yet, as we just observed, he does indicate that eros in a suitable soul initiates an investigation which can result
in a lover becoming a philosopher. It is therefore difficult to see why he
fails to attribute this outcome to eros, just as he attributes to eros the good
obtained by the other lovers (who also have to have suitable souls for the
attainment of this good), unless he intends to highlight a discontinuity
between the erotic experience and the philosophic life. A brief look at
Socrates’ speech in the Symposium confirms that, in his view, philosophers
are in an important sense post-erotic. For his account of the so-called ladder of love, or the ascent one may undergo from concern for one kind of
beauty to another, which culminates in a philosophic concern for beauty,
ceases at a certain point to ascribe eros to the one ascending (Symposium
210c2ff.). Socrates even insists that the one who reaches a certain level will
consider the beauty of a single human being to be of little significance
(Symposium 210c7–d3).
Of course, noting Socrates’ indication of the post-erotic character of
philosophy is not the same as understanding the reason for it, a reason
Socrates evidently thought better to leave more obscure than the fact. Still,
consideration of where eros ceases to be mentioned in the ladder of love
points us to the corresponding passages in the palinode. In the Symposium,
what the lover is last said to love is a fitting soul, at which point his love
compels him to study the beauty of laws and practices, in search of those
speeches that improve the young (210b8–c6). The last stage at which love
is mentioned thus corresponds to the point in the palinode when the lover
begins his attempt to discover the nature of his god. As we noted earlier, it
is only the philosophers who complete this investigation, and Socrates tells
us that it is the followers of Zeus who become philosophers (252e1–5).
Socrates says little about these followers of Zeus, but those hints he does
offer indicate the decisive point. In his initial description of the gods, he
presented Zeus as the gods’ ruler, but Socrates now describes the followers
of Hera as “kingly (basilikon)” (253b1–2), while the followers of Zeus are
said to be “philosophic and capable of leadership (hegemonikos)” (252e3).
The followers of Zeus are capable of ruling but may be disinclined to use
this capacity. This accords with the other point Socrates makes about the
followers of Zeus through a contrast with those of Ares: the followers of
Zeus do not respond to perceived injustices from their beloveds with a
willingness to sacrifice both their beloveds and themselves (252c3–7). In
keeping with this, while Socrates refers here to the “servants” of Ares, he
speaks of the “followers” of Zeus. Socrates thus draws attention to the
justice of the followers of Zeus or their ability to learn the truth indicated
by the teaching that justice is minding one’s own business. The impossibility of adhering to the rigorous demands of philosophic justice while undergoing the erotic experience is therefore the reason that philosophy
necessitates a break from eros. This reason is reflected in the difference
between the gods as the lover is initially inclined to view them and the
gods as understood by the followers of Zeus.
We can now understand why Socrates begins his description of those
lovers who become philosophers by saying this transformation will occur
“if the better parts of thought conquer” (256a7–8). Socrates had been
describing a struggle in the lovers’ souls between their sexual desire and
their sense that beauty calls for a higher kind of interaction with the beloved
(256a1–5). It now appears that there was, in addition, a struggle strictly
within the minds of the lovers between better and worse parts of thought,
which we can understand in terms of the contradictory opinions that lovers
hold about justice and related matters. When the better parts of thought
conquer, the souls are freed from self-contradictions, such that they can
live a life of “one mind” with one another but, first of all, with themselves
(256b1, cf. 256c6–7). Socrates’ indication that those who thus become
philosophers successfully restrain their sexual desire for one another can
then be explained as follows (256b2–3 with c1–5). In the full erotic experience, our sexual nature becomes entangled with and provides energy for a
higher but confused concern for beauty that seems to promise a virtually
complete fulfillment of our soul,12 but when the concern for beauty is freed
from confusion, sexual satisfaction comes to be seen for what it is on its
own, namely, a much less complete fulfillment.13 The philosopher is thus
characterized by consistency of thought, and though philosophic activity is
not fulfilling to his whole soul, his mind is able to direct his actions toward
this activity in a manner consistent with his awareness of its rank.
The Phaedrus’ treatment of love therefore confirms our suggestion that
Socrates does not accept the customary beliefs about the gods. Socrates’
claim that the gods mind their own business points toward his own belief,
which we can safely infer is the belief that reasonably follows from his striking observation that “we fashion god neither having seen nor sufficiently
understood him” (246c7–d1). Furthermore, the relative simplicity of
soul, that is, the consistency or unity of thought and action that characterizes philosophers, explains why Socrates would be inclined to regard his
soul as relatively simple.14 However, beyond confirming these suggestions,
it is not yet clear how the treatment of eros is related to Socrates’ pursuit
of self-knowledge. Toward the end of the palinode, Socrates refers to his
“erotic art” (257a7–8), which is a suitable way to describe his expertise in
erotic matters in a dialogue that, as we shall see, stresses the competence
entailed by the possession of an art. This expertise in eros manifestly
includes a kind of self-knowledge as well as a kind of religious psychology,
but we shall have to wait to see what roles these play in Socrates’ ongoing
pursuit of self-knowledge.
Writing and Rhetoric
The Phaedrus’ second half begins and ends with discussions of writing
(257b7–258d11, 274b6ff.); in between, there is a long discussion of rhetoric. At the conclusion of the dialogue’s final discussion of writing,
Socrates characterizes the philosopher by his understanding of the limits
Consider Socrates’ definition of love in his first speech, according to which a desire for
beauty is strengthened by “kindred desires” for the beauty of bodies (238b7–c).
On the tension between sexual satisfaction and rationality, see Philebus 47a–b.
As for Socrates having a “divine” portion, consider the possible implication of the statement that “only” philosophers are truly perfect at 249c6–8.
of writing and his lack of wisdom (278c4–d6). We therefore expect the
treatment of writing to shed light on Socrates’ own understanding and the
ignorance that makes his ongoing pursuit of self-knowledge necessary.
Furthermore, the consideration of rhetoric that intervenes between the
two discussions of writing contributes in multiple ways to the treatment of
writing.15 We therefore begin our consideration of the dialogue’s second
half by taking up the discussion of the philosopher at its conclusion; we
then turn to the treatment of rhetoric insofar as it clarifies this discussion.
The Philosopher’s Understanding of the Weakness
of Writing
According to Socrates, the author who writes, “knowing where the truth
lies,” who is able to assist his writings with argument and show them to be
“slight,” must not be named for his writings nor should he be called
“wise,” which, as “it seems” to Socrates, is a name fit only for a god; such
a writer should instead be called a philosopher (278c4–d6). The
­philosopher is not named for whatever he might write but for the understanding with which he would write. Since he can show the weakness of
any writing, he must understand the criticisms of writing that Socrates has
been discussing throughout the dialogue’s treatment of writing. Socrates,
however, indicates throughout this discussion that the one who understands
The most obvious substantive connection of the treatment of rhetoric to the treatment
of writing is the following: because the task of rhetoric is to persuade souls by speeches
(270e2–271a2), the rhetorician must understand that different speeches have different
effects on different souls (271b1–5); he thus understands a basic problem for writings, since
they are, as such, available to all kinds of souls (275d9–e3). Dramatically, the discussion of
rhetoric leads Phaedrus to a more serious concern for speeches, thus helping him better to
appreciate the importance of the contrast between written and spoken instruction. The conversation turns from writing to rhetoric after Phaedrus suggests that the discussion of writing
does not fulfill a prior need but should be engaged in as pure pleasure (258e1–5). Socrates
responds to this first with his myth of the cicadas, which indicates the psychological root of
the mistaken wish to regard oneself as free of necessities (259b6–c2), and second by changing the subject to rhetoric (259e1–260a4, cf. 258d7–11), the art of speeches that most
attracts Phaedrus but which he does not regard with sufficient seriousness. In the treatment
of rhetoric, Socrates appears to investigate first whether Phaedrus could be led to prefer the
philosophic use of speeches to that of the rhetoricians (260b1–d2, 261a3–5, 266b3–c5).
When this fails (266c6–7), Socrates leads Phaedrus not to a philosophic attitude toward
speech but to a pious one, in which the primary aim is to speak in a manner that gratifies the
gods, which requires much study, the need for which Phaedrus now accepts (273e5–274b2).
the weakness of writing also has positive knowledge. That is, Socrates
presents the possession of “sciences of just, beautiful, and good things” as
the sufficient condition for the understanding of the limits of writing
(276c3–277a4) and thus also presents ignorance of the weakness of writing as necessarily entailing ignorance of just and good things (277d6–e3).
The philosopher therefore possesses these sciences. Indeed, Socrates
makes explicit that these sciences can be obtained in a complete manner:
the one who understands the weakness of writing holds that only speeches
written in the soul concerning just, beautiful, and good things admit of
being “clear and complete and worthy of seriousness” (277e5–278a5).16
The philosopher will therefore know the truth about at least these matters.17 Furthermore, since it is Socrates who has articulated the criticisms
of writing and indicated their connection to sciences of just, beautiful, and
good things, we are led to the unsurprising conclusion that Socrates himself has the knowledge characteristic of a philosopher. Finally, in keeping
with his ignorance, Socrates emphasizes that, as he believes but does not
know, no human being is wise. We must therefore consider how the philosopher’s lack of wisdom coheres with the sciences he possesses.
Socrates does not discuss the content of these sciences, but we can
begin to grasp their meaning by considering their connection to the criticisms of writing. At the core of Socrates’ criticisms of writing, both those
he attributes to the god Ammon and those he makes in his own name, is
the claim that writings cannot by themselves effectively educate readers,
This claim by itself could mean either that speeches about just, beautiful, and good
things can be clear, complete, and worthy of seriousness only when written in the soul—that
is, passed on through speech rather than writing—or it could mean that speeches written in
the soul about only just, beautiful, and good things can be truly clear, complete, and worthy
of seriousness. The former interpretation is suggested by consideration of the peculiar difficulty of education in moral matters. Furthermore, it is hard to see how Socrates, who discusses many subjects in addition to just, beautiful, and good things, could regard only
education about these moral matters as worthy of seriousness. On the other hand, as we shall
see, there is a sense in which education about these matters surpasses other kinds of education in terms of clarity, completeness, and seriousness.
That Socrates does not limit the philosopher to writing about moral matters, and that
Socrates says the philosopher will, when he writes, “know where the truth lies,” perhaps
indicates that the philosopher can have knowledge of other subjects, in addition to knowledge of just, beautiful, and good things. On the other hand, the claim that the philosopher,
when writing, has knowledge of “where the truth lies” may mean no more than that he has
knowledge of his ignorance about the matters about which he might write. What is clear is
that Socrates indicates that the philosopher must possess knowledge of just, beautiful, and
good things.
who will need teaching in the form of answers to questions necessarily
raised and left unanswered by the writings (275a6–b2, d7–9). This follows
from Socrates’ repeated indication that there is nothing “clear and steadfast” in writings (275c5–7, cf. 277d6–10, 278a2–5). It is true, as Socrates
indicated earlier in the dialogue, that all speech, and therefore all writing,
depends on a prior view of the world, which includes sense perception
(249b6–c4), and which speech merely articulates (266b2–7). Therefore,
no word or phrase is intrinsically meaningful, and someone could conceivably have a question about the meaning of any word or phrase that could
be answered only by someone else directing his view, using other words
and/or gestures, to the subject matter the word or phrase in question
intends. Socrates, however, does not regard this as a fundamental problem. For, as he observes earlier in the dialogue, there is a class of unambiguous words, such as “iron or silver,” which everyone (who has
adequately learned a language, as we may add) understands in the same
way (263a2–7). There is a realm of language in which the meaning of
words is stable and clear. On the other hand, he also indicates that there is
a class of ambiguous terms, of which “just” and “good” are examples
(263a9–10). According to Socrates, this class is essentially controversial:
“the multitude” is necessarily confused about the use of these terms, disagreeing about them with each other and even with themselves (263a10,
b8–9). In this way, he first highlights what is distinct about the subjects
which the philosopher is said to know.18 Indeed, Socrates’ indication that
It is striking that Socrates does not include “beautiful” together with “good” and “just”
in his list of controversial terms. He also fails to mention beauty in his list of what the one
who is ignorant of the weakness of writing is also ignorant of (277d10–e1), though he does
include beauty in his lists of what the one who understands the weakness of writing knows
(276c3–5, 278a3–4). To be sure, one can have a confused view of beauty, as the whole
Greater Hippias shows, but Socrates appears to indicate that beauty is less controversial than
goodness or justice. In the palinode, Socrates contrasts beauty, which is easily seen and quite
splendid, with justice and moderation, which are difficult to recognize and lack splendor (cf.
250b1–5 with d1–3, d6–e1). Socrates knows that people differ in regard to what they find
beautiful (252d1 with 251a2–3), but everyone’s experience, at least of bodily beauty, which
is the beauty that first strikes us, comes with an unshakable confidence that it really is beautiful, unlike the doubts one experiences about claims of goodness or justice. Furthermore,
Socrates indicates that public disputes are primarily concerned with justice and goodness and
not disagreements about beauty (261c4–d4), which are less pressing in public matters and
which we are usually content to attribute to differing tastes. Finally, we may wonder whether
beauty ever becomes the source of serious controversy except insofar as it becomes associated
with goodness and justice. If Socrates does think that it is primarily justice and goodness that
are controversial and beauty is only derivatively so, he may not mention beauty in his list of
the philosopher has “sciences” of these matters (276c3), rather than a
single science of them, appears to highlight the clarity philosophers attain
about these controversial terms. For goodness and justice are surely
related, as is shown by the difficulty anyone faces in denying that something just is also good but by attributing to the philosopher a separate
science for each term, Socrates implies that the philosopher will see each
term in its distinction from the others.19 Thus, in his own thought, the
philosopher will use each word with precision, and in listening to the
speeches of the multitude, he will be aware of the inconsistency with which
they constantly use the same words. Then, through his awareness of the
multitude’s confusion about these terms together with his awareness of
the difficulty he faced in clarifying his own view of them, the philosopher
will grasp the necessity of the multitude’s confusion about these terms.
In this way, we can see how possession of sciences of just, beautiful, and
good things will lead to awareness of a fundamental limit of writing. A
writer will either possess such sciences or lack them. If he lacks the sciences, his writing about just, beautiful, and good things will be unclear. If
the author has these sciences, he will understand the necessity for the
multitude’s confusion about these subjects; he will also be aware that his
writings will be available to the multitude, who, so far from welcoming
clear writing about goodness and justice, will be inclined to revile it as they
become aware of the criticism it implies of their own confused views
(275e1–5, cf. Republic 517a). Thus, an author who is competent about
these matters will not be willing to present this competence clearly in writing; rather, he will settle for leaving indications that suffice for those who
already understand the truth and those youths whose characters allow
them to follow the same path the author has traversed (276d1–5,
277e9–278a1). Accordingly, he will always be able to show his own writings about these matters to be slight (278c6–7).20
what the one ignorant of the weakness of writing is also ignorant of because this man’s ignorance is primarily about goodness and justice.
Consider also Republic 504d–506a.
Let me suggest the following to illustrate how the dialogues could offer no more than
reminders to those who know while also contributing to the education of some of those who
do not yet know. A careful reading of the palinode’s indications about the relationship
between justice and eros and, more important, a careful reading of Socrates’ treatment of
justice in the Republic will leave the reader who does not already understand Socrates’ view
with nothing more than focused problems, questions raised by the many discrepancies and
unexplained claims in the text. If the reader is so inclined, he will think through these prob-
Sciences of just, beautiful, and good things thus allow one to grasp a
fundamental limit to writings about these subjects, but this does not yet
explain why Socrates affirms that the one who has these sciences will
understand that no writing can be “clear and steadfast” (275c5–7).
Could an author not write clearly and steadfastly by avoiding controversial subjects? As it happens, Socrates points to the connection between
just and good things and the weakness of all writings in the sequel to his
discussion of the controversial and uncontroversial classes of words.
Here, he offers an analysis of the speeches he gave in the dialogue’s first
half, and by explaining how these speeches could successfully misrepresent eros, Socrates suggests that confusion about the good and just can
cast an obfuscating haze over any subject if one attempts to explain it
When he first turns to his speeches, Socrates presents them as two
separate speeches which focused on two different kinds of madness, a
merely human sickness and a “divine” madness (264e7–265a11). He
goes on to trace the four kinds of divine madness to four gods, but when
he comes to erotic madness, he attributes it to both Aphrodite and Eros
(265b2–5). On the other hand, Socrates says that he and Phaedrus celebrated their master, Eros, with a “mythical hymn” (265c1–2). Aphrodite
was not celebrated. As the rest of this discussion tends to confirm, Socrates
means to indicate that one erotic experience includes two kinds of madness, one of which is “divine”—the one coming from Eros—while the
other is merely human. The human madness comes from “Aphrodite,”
which we interpret to mean aphrodisia, the ancient Greek term for sexual
pleasures. These two madnesses will appear differently in different lovers,
with some exhibiting one madness to much greater extent than the other,
but both madnesses belong together to some degree in the whole erotic
experience. Having indicated this much about madness, Socrates then
raises the question of “how the speech passed over from blame to praise”
(265c5–6). He refers to what seemed to be two speeches as one speech
that both blamed and praised eros, just as he refers to his “speech” in the
singular when he is discussing his definition of love (263d1–2, 265d5–7).
When Socrates focuses on love he presents himself as having offered a
single speech, but when he focuses on madness, two speeches. This is
consistent with our suggestion that there is one eros that includes two
lems, either on his own or with the help of a teacher, and grasp their necessary solutions.
Only at this point will the relevant portions of the text become intelligible.
separate madnesses: the two accounts of two kinds of madness constitute
a single comprehensive account of eros. Accordingly, when Socrates goes
on to answer his question about how the speech turned from blame to
praise, through a discussion of his analysis of madness, he refers again to
his two speeches. The two speeches began with the same subject: madness (265e3–266a3). The first speech analyzed the human forms of madness until it found a kind “named” eros, which it criticized in accordance
with “justice” (266a3–6); the second speech analyzed divine madness
until it found a form also “named” eros, which it praised as “the cause of
the greatest goods” (266a6–b1). In accordance with our suggestion that
one eros includes two madnesses, Socrates claims only that the separate
forms of madness are “named” eros. The speech thus turned from blame
to praise by presenting in each case a part of eros, one of its two madnesses, as the whole of it.
What made these misrepresentations of eros persuasive so that there
could have seemed to have been two kinds of love? Socrates draws attention to the different criteria the two speeches used for their respective
blame or praise. The first speech criticized eros in accordance with justice,
while the second praised it as the cause of the greatest goods. Each speech,
then, presented as eros those aspects of it that were relevant to its respective criterion for blame or praise. However, to notice the beneficial aspects
of eros while listening to a true blame of its injustice, or to notice the
unjust aspects of eros while hearing true praise of its goodness, will be
quite difficult for all who are not able to see clearly and consistently the
good things and the just things in their distinctness from one another. The
attribution of goodness or justice to something inclines those who are
confused about these terms also to misconstrue the thing itself so that it
can conform to their confused evaluations of it. Ignorance of goodness
and justice thus leads not only to confused evaluations of eros but also to
confusion about the apparently neutral question of what eros is.21
To be sure, the misrepresentations of eros also depend on the first source of deception
that Socrates notes in the Phaedrus: “likenesses” or the similarity between a form of madness
that is part of the erotic experience and that experience as a whole (261e6–262b3). The
dialogue, however, subtly indicates that this source of deception on its own tends to be incapable of leading listeners to views that differ greatly from the truth. In order to explain the
dependence of rhetoric on knowledge of the truth, Socrates initially proposes that rhetoric
could use a series of likenesses to lead to wildly divergent views (261c4–262c3). But one can
read Socrates’ initial proposal as being itself an attempt to liken rhetoric to sophistry or
Zeno’s paradoxical physics, which is ultimately unpersuasive to Phaedrus: he senses that he is
Furthermore, the deception about what eros is ultimately facilitates
deception about eros’ relation to the gods and whether it is a gift from
them. Socrates thus indicates here, too, what the religious psychology of
his palinode depicted more fully, that ignorance of the just and good can
lead to beliefs about the gods, whom one may be tempted to regard as the
first principles of all beings. Finally, through this observation, we can make
sense of Socrates’ indication that the one who has sciences of just, beautiful, and good things will understand that no writing can be both clear and
steadfast. For he will understand that an author could write an adequately
clear treatise on, for example, iron or silver, but if this author wished to
trace its argument back to such first principles as are available to the human
mind in order to make it “steadfast,” he would face the confusion about
first principles that follows from confusion about good and just things.
Arts of Speeches: Socrates’ Understanding
and its Limits
Having clarified to this extent Socrates’ indication that philosophers possess sciences of just, beautiful, and good things, we need to understand
how these sciences belong together with the lack of wisdom that is also
characteristic of philosophers (278d3–6). Fortunately for us, Socrates’
account of how his speech turned from blame to praise is also his description of dialectic, which is the first of several descriptions of arts of speeches
offered by Socrates in the dialogue’s second half, each of which serves to
clarify Socrates’ understanding and his awareness of its limits.
Dialectic consists of articulating the world by dividing the beings into
classes. One must be able to define each class or articulate the common
feature by which we recognize beings as belonging in a certain class, just
as Socrates seemed to do with his definition of eros (265d3–7), and one
must be able to articulate the specific differences in light of which the
being misled and wishes to look at examples of rhetoric (262c4–9). Precisely because language about uncontroversial terms is basically clear, there can be relatively little deception
about them. Socrates thus later implies that this initial account was inadequate to explain the
dependence of rhetoric on knowledge of the truth (273d2–6). The sequel to Socrates’ initial
discussion of likenesses is his discussion of the controversial class of terms, about which, as
Socrates notes, rhetoric has more power and deception is easier (263b3–9). This discussion
then leads, as we have seen, into his discussion of how his speech turned from blame to
praise. The suggestion, then, is that the power of mere likenesses to deceive is strengthened
by confusion about the controversial class.
classes can be subdivided into smaller classes, as Socrates did with his
analysis of madness (265e1–266b1). These two requirements of dialectic
merely describe the same activity from different points of view: each collection of beings into a single class separates those beings as members of
the class from all others; each division of a class into subclasses collects
together the members of each subclass. These classifications are not to be
a mere matter of clearly yet arbitrarily defining classes: one must seek to
divide “where the joints have naturally grown,” attempting not to “shatter
a part in the manner of a bad butcher” (265e1–3). As Socrates presents it,
his speeches followed the natural divisions in their analyses of madness,
but he does not say as much for his definition of love (see especially
265d6). In accordance with our interpretation earlier, the definition of
love permits an unnatural division, such that different kinds of madness,
which belong together in one erotic experience, were presented as different kinds of experience; a manifest distinction in the class of madnesses
was misattributed to the class of experiences. To say that dialectic must
articulate natural divisions then appears to mean no more than that one
must distinguish classes based on only manifest distinctions in the things
being classified. As noted in passing earlier, these distinctions are visible to
a kind of mental vision (265d3, 266b5–6)—a mental vision not simply
separable from sense perception (249b7–c1)—which dialectic merely
articulates or, to use the “mythical” terms of the palinode, “recollects”
(249c1–2, 5–6, 250a1–2).22
Dialectic, then, is nothing other than what Socrates also calls “reasoning” (249b6–c1). Since the uncontroversial classes are understood by
everyone in the same way, it appears that the one who has clarified his view
of the controversial classes has thereby freed his mind to articulate whatever classes he focuses on. Although Socrates does not here refer to the
results of dialectic as knowledge, he does describe them as discoveries
(266a5, 7), and he indicates that he regards these discoveries as authoritative. If Socrates considers someone capable of dialectic, he “pursues this
man from behind, after his track, as if a god’s” (266b5–7). That is, Socrates
follows the judgments of those capable of dialectic—a class in which
Socrates himself has had few rivals—as others would follow divine commands.23 We can understand why Socrates regards dialectic or reason as
It is noteworthy that Socrates does not return to the language of recollection here.
“Behind, after his track, as a god’s” resembles a half verse repeated four times in the
Odyssey (2.406, 3.30, 5.193, 7.38), as De Vries (A Commentary, 218), and Nichols follow22
authoritative from his indication that his ability to speak and think depends
on it (266b3–5). Thinking depends on dialectic because dialectic as
Socrates describes it appears to be nothing other than thinking clearly,24
that is, thinking that is fully itself. When one has discovered a class character, one cannot but think the class is what it has become manifest as.
It could therefore seem that Socrates finds in dialectic an unproblematic path to the discovery of all he could wish to know. To correct this
impression, Socrates draws attention to his ignorance immediately after
indicating the authority dialectic has for him: “whether or not I address
those capable [of dialectic] correctly, god knows, but I call them, up to
now, dialecticians” (266b6–c1). The question seems to be about a mere
name, but it is impossible to see how this would serve some logographic
necessity; Socrates must mean to raise a question about the adequacy of
his understanding of the thing named.25 Immediately after indicating that
he attributes virtually divine authority to merely human reason, Socrates
highlights the inability of human reason to measure up to the knowledge
an actual god could have. Socrates thus implies that he cannot be certain
that he is right to attribute to reason the authority he cannot help but
grant it. It makes sense that Socrates would have doubts in this regard for,
as we have seen, reason requires as its starting point a prior vision of the
beings. The grounds of this vision are therefore not accessible to reason,26
and, lacking knowledge of these grounds, we must have doubts about the
adequacy of the vision they permit. We cannot know that the articulation
of the world available to us has a basis that guarantees its permanence, that
such necessities as are implied by the natural forms of things are permanent necessities.27 Furthermore, the comprehensiveness of our fundamental view of the world is not known. One not only supposes that there are
indefinitely many intelligible classes yet to be discovered, as beings are
related to one another; one also wonders whether there are any aspects of
ing him (Plato’s Phaedrus, trans. James Nichols Jr.[Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998],
74, note 157), notes. In each of these passages, a character follows a goddess after having
received guidance from her.
See the conflation of reasoning and the philosopher’s thought at 249b6–c5.
Consider 252b3–c1. For commentators with very different interpretations of the dialogue from my own who agree that the question must be about more than a mere name, see
De Vries, A Commentary (218–219), and Yunis, Phaedrus (154–155, 199).
The palinode indicates this in “mythical” terms by allowing embodied souls no direct
access to the hyperuranion beings.
In this regard, consider 245d6–e4, with 245c5–7 and 247b6–c2.
the world which can affect us but which escape our fundamental vision in
the most important respects—though we cannot even articulate this
possibility with perfect clarity. Finally, our doubts about the comprehensiveness of our view exacerbate our doubts about the permanence of the
classes as they appear in that view, for, as Socrates’ mention of gods in this
context reminds us, there may be beings of which we have no clear awareness that are capable at any moment of destroying the beings we do understand so that the world ceases to be intelligible. Thus, immediately after
Socrates affirms his rationalism, he calls attention to his doubts about the
adequacy of reason as a guide, doubts that confirm our earlier suggestion
that Socrates cannot rule out the existence of such gods as could render
trivial his grasp of “natural” classes.
Having noted Socrates’ view of the weaknesses of dialectic, let us
return for a moment to the philosopher’s sciences of just, beautiful, and
good things. Socrates makes explicit that, despite the limitations of all
human reasoning, reasoning about these subjects, at least, is capable of a
kind of completeness (278a3–5). To understand this adequately one
would need to uncover the substance of these sciences through interpretations of the dialogues which focus on them, but merely considering
these sciences in the abstract, as the Phaedrus requires that we do, allows
us to make a suggestion about the sense in which they could be complete.
Human knowledge cannot guarantee that it has found all the good, just,
and beautiful kinds of things, nor can it guarantee that those kinds that it
has found will always exist, but these sciences do admit of another kind of
completeness. For clarity about these highest and most compelling aims
implies clarity about one’s own most fundamental desires and wishes,
which are the appetites that make us the living beings that we are.28 What
one learns about oneself from these sciences will therefore be true as long
as one is oneself. One thus learns an unassailable truth of the greatest
Consider that Socrates’ image of the soul in the palinode consists of two motive powers
and a charioteer or mind which has its own aims (246a6–7, 247c6–7, 253e5ff.). That sciences of just, beautiful, and good things entail clarity about one’s own aims means that they
would have at least considerable overlap with knowledge of eros.
Since sciences of just, beautiful, and good things are, in this sense, independent of questions about the gods, while accounts of other kinds of beings are necessarily affected by
questions about the gods, we may say that, in this respect, speeches about just, beautiful, and
good things surpass speeches about other matters in terms of their clarity, completeness, and
worthiness of seriousness (see note 16).
Socrates’ account of dialectic, as an account of the comprehensive grasp
of the world of which all particular sciences and arts would be parts,
indicates in the broadest terms what Socrates can understand and the limits of this understanding. His next two descriptions of particular arts of
speeches draw attention to specific matters about which he is ignorant and
how he addresses this ignorance. He offers a striking indication of his
ignorance at the outset of the first of these descriptions. Having been persuaded that what the professional rhetoricians teach does not constitute a
true art,30 Phaedrus asks Socrates how one could obtain the true rhetorical
art (269c6–d1). He responds that it is “likely and perhaps also necessary”
that rhetoric be acquired as other arts are: if one is by nature rhetorical and
acquires in addition knowledge and practice, one will become rhetorical to
the extent that an art of it exists (269d2–8). Socrates says that the acquisition of the art requires a suitable potential and the fulfillment of those
conditions known to human beings under which the potential for any art
can be actualized, yet he does not know these requirements to be necessary. Socrates goes on to describe the understanding required by any art
and then applies this description to rhetoric, before offering a final comprehensive statement about the requirements of the art of rhetoric.
However, when he begins to apply the requirements of any art to rhetoric,
Socrates appears to make an additional demand that is impossible to fulfill.
Consideration of its impossibility then explains the ignorance Socrates
highlights here at the outset of this account of rhetoric.
As Socrates indicates before his general description of the understanding required by any art, the rhetorical art requires that one analyze the
nature of soul (270b4–5). Accordingly, in his general description of art, he
describes the study of nature or how “it is necessary to think about the
nature of anything” (270c10–d1). First, one must determine whether the
thing to be studied is simple or, as Socrates indicates, is true of the soul, has
many forms, and if it is multiform, one must “count up” the forms
(270d1–3, 5–6).31 Having made this enumeration, one must then “examine”
Socrates, however, does not fail to use some of the devices taught by the rhetoricians in
his effort to persuade Phaedrus (see especially 267c9–d1 with 268a1–269c5).
What exactly is meant by enumerating the forms of soul is not immediately clear. By
itself, the statement would seem to mean enumerating the kinds of souls, but Socrates’ analogy between medicine’s analysis of the nature of body and rhetoric of the soul suggests that
forms of soul means parts or aspects of the soul (270b4–5, 271a6–7), which is also how
Socrates analyzed soul in his palinode. Socrates later indicates that from the analysis of forms
of soul, one would be able to determine the kinds of people (271d2–3), and it makes sense
or “see” the natural capacities of each form, that is, “what it naturally does
or suffers in relation to what” (270d3–7, 271d5–7). It could seem that
this means undertaking the infinite task of examining how each form acts
under all possible conditions, but Socrates’ later indication that one would
determine the effects that different speeches have on different souls after
one has already grasped the natural powers of soul implies that the examination of natural powers is a more limited task (271a10–b2). We therefore
take Socrates to mean that one must examine each form, articulate its
defining character, and on the basis of this character determine what kinds
of things can interact with it in what ways,32 just as one can determine
from an analysis of the meaning of sight that only light and colors can act
on this sense.33 So far, then, Socrates has required nothing more than what
would follow from dialectically clarifying one’s view of soul.
Now, let us see what happens to the requirements of art when Socrates
restates them with specific regard to rhetoric. In place of merely analyzing
nature, Socrates says here that one must “show precisely the being (ousian)
of the nature of…soul” (270e2–5). What exactly is meant by the “being
of the nature” of soul is unclear, but it would appear to imply that one
must find some unifying principle underlying the diverse forms of soul,
rather than beginning by counting up the forms. That Socrates does have
in mind such a unifying principle is also suggested by his next addition: he
now requires that one must determine whether the soul is “naturally”
simple or multiform (271a5–7). Socrates had required earlier that one
determine what each form “naturally” does or suffers, which appeared to
that different kinds of people result from differences in the way the diverse aspects of their
souls are related to each other, just as, to use Socrates’ image from the palinode, people will
vary based on how their black horses are related to their charioteers. We therefore take
Socrates to mean that one must first enumerate the different aspects of soul, although this is
done in the service of determining different kinds of people, so as to predict the effects of
speeches on their whole souls. Note also the switch that Socrates makes from “forms”(eide)
of souls to the “kinds” (gene) of them at the point when one would study the impact of different speeches on different kinds of people or souls (cf. 270d1, 5, 271a7 with 271b1). Cf.
Yunis, Phaedrus, 212–213.
Notice how Socrates’ description of the natural power of the soul’s wings serves as a definition of them (246d6–7).
If something manifestly different from light and colors came to act on our eyes and
produced a sensation, we would regard this as a different form of perception rather than
sight. Whether one regards the light and color that act on the sense of sight as potential or
actual depends on how one understands the existence of the sensible apart from actual
be possible insofar as those powers could be understood to follow from
the articulation of the forms; Socrates now describes as natural not the
relation of a form to its powers but the number of forms itself. That is,
Socrates appears to demand a natural principle from which to deduce the
distinct forms of soul. Thus, the restatement makes no mention of merely
counting up forms. Furthermore, such a principle would be necessary if
one is “to know” how many forms the soul has, and thus how many kinds
of people are possible, and thereby all the conditions under which different kinds of people come to hold different opinions, as Socrates requires
in his final statement of the requirements of this art (271d1–7). He thus
calls attention to the demand for a comprehensive view of all possible
forms of soul. However, as mentioned earlier, dialectic in general cannot
guarantee comprehensiveness, and Socrates makes no mention of a special
attribute of soul or perspective on it that would limit the possible forms of
soul. Finally, by noting the impossibility of fulfilling this new demand, we
can understand the ignorance Socrates calls attention to at the outset of
the passage: he can see clearly that a certain kind of soul under certain
conditions will attain the art of rhetoric (insofar as there is an art of it); he
cannot exclude the possibility that there is another kind of soul that can
become rhetorical in another way.
Since the requirements of the art of rhetoric as Socrates here describes
them are impossible to fulfill, we are not surprised that he responds to
Phaedrus’ concern about the difficulty of obtaining the art by recommending that they search for an “easier and briefer way” (272b5–c1).
At the end of this search, Socrates seems to reaffirm his previous description of the requirements of the rhetorical art, but closer inspection reveals
significant differences. He begins by noting that “the one who knows the
truth” will “know how to discover in the finest way” what is persuasive
(273d2–6), but Socrates now explicitly requires only that one be able to
classify the beings dialectically and “enumerate the natures of those who
will listen” (273d8–e4).34 In place of the unfulfillable demand to know
Socrates’ use of “just now” (nunde) at 273d8 would seem to imply a time more recent
than the “recently” (arti) at 273d5, which presumably refers back to the rhetorical art as
Socrates had just described it (271d1–2). For the “recently” implies a time more recent than
when Socrates first mentioned the discovery of likenesses (262a5–b8), and this is the only
place where Socrates has recently referred to a knower. Furthermore, it makes sense that the
one with knowledge of soul will best discover likenesses. But if the “recently” refers to
Socrates’ previous account of rhetoric, the “just now” appears to imply that the list of
requirements is new.
comprehensively how many forms there are of soul, one need only
complete the finite task of counting up the natures of a limited group,
one’s potential audience.35 Finally, having offered these new requirements,
Socrates both indicates that they are possible to fulfill and confirms that
the old ones are impossible: unless one fulfills these new requirements, “he
will never be artful concerning speeches to the extent possible for a human
being” (273e3–4, cf.271c7).
Now, by offering this “easier and briefer way,” Socrates necessarily raises
a question about why he previously described rhetoric as an unobtainable
comprehensive psychology. As if in answer to this question, he makes a
remarkable admission shortly after he describes the obtainable art of
speeches. There, after seeming to turn to the topic of writing (274b6–7),36
The new description of rhetoric not only makes sense as an account of an art that can be
attained; it also accords with the search for a shortcut that proceeds it. This search begins
with the claim Phaedrus mentioned at the outset of the dialogue’s treatment of rhetoric
(259e7–260a3), a claim common among professional rhetoricians, according to which there
is no need for them to learn the truth about “just or good deeds, or human beings who are
such by nature or nurture,” as Socrates puts it here. For in court everyone cares about the
“persuasive” rather than the true; the persuasive is what is “likely,” and as Socrates goes on
to say, attributing the view now to Tisias, the likely is how things seem to the multitude
(272d2–273b1). Courts commonly consider questions about good or just deeds, but it is
striking to add the question of how humans are just or good, whether by nature or nurture,
that is, nature or convention, as we may say, following the distinction common among the
sophists (Yunis, Phaedrus, 219). According to Socrates, Tisias illustrated this point with a
story. A strong coward is robbed by a weak but courageous man, and neither can tell the
truth in court. Perhaps surprisingly, the strong coward must not mention his “badness” or
“vice” in court, though this may well result in his losing the case (273b4–c4). It thus appears
that Tisias told a story, ostensibly about unlikely deeds, which in fact explains his point about
the many people’s disregard of the truth about human beings who are just or good by nature
or convention. To one who follows the sophists’ distinction between nature and convention,
the robber may exemplify natural excellence of soul, while the coward, who stole nothing,
represents conventional justice (cf. Gorgias 482eff.). In this case, the multitude is shown in
an appropriately subtle way to be inconsistent, unwilling to tolerate the truth about either
natural or conventional justice and goodness. Tisias thus teaches that the necessary confusion
of the multitude limits the range of permissible discourse, so that a rhetorician need not
understand all kinds of souls. Therefore, Socrates’ indication that one must enumerate the
natures of the listeners likely means no more than that one must divide the audience into its
most relevant groups in order to determine what is permissible to say. Socrates thus offers
here, at the conclusion of his explicit treatment of rhetoric, an account of an art suited to the
tasks and limits of public speaking, which is the task the rhetoricians had assigned themselves
In fact, at 274b3–4, Socrates merely asks that one “let” his treatment of the art of
speeches “suffice.” At the dialogue’s conclusion, however, when Socrates offers what he
he asks Phaedrus whether he knows how “in speaking and acting, [he]
would most gratify concerning speeches of gods” (274b9–10).37 Since
Phaedrus has no answer, Socrates offers to report a tale he alleges to have
been passed down by human beings from former times and then adds
“they themselves know the truth, but if we ourselves should discover this,
would there still be any concern for us about human opinions?” (274c1–3).
Socrates thus indicates that his interest in the opinions of others follows
from his lack of direct access to the truth about the gods. As we saw at the
outset, Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge requires him to learn from others, and as we see here, Socrates’ philosophic interest in others is an attempt
to address his ignorance about the gods. Socrates thus confirms our initial
account of the kind of self-knowledge he seeks. Furthermore, since the
opinions of others vary, Socrates needs some way of evaluating their trustworthiness, and since dialectic is insufficient to judge adequately the content of opinions about the gods, Socrates must judge them in another way.
The unobtainable rhetoric, however, is nothing if not a science of opinions, a science not of their content but of their sources, which is exactly the
kind of understanding Socrates would need in order to judge opinions
about the gods. For, as his account of divine madness indicates, opinions
about the gods that do not follow from reason but are nevertheless taken
to be authoritative owe their authority to the belief that they are given to
us by a source higher than reason, namely, the gods. Finally, closer consideration of Socrates’ description of the unobtainable rhetoric shows that he
presents it, in part, in such a way as to indicate how one who lacked a
science of the sources of opinions would attempt to confirm a theory about
them. After requiring that one obtain comprehensive knowledge of the
forms of souls, the kinds of people, and the causes of persuasion, he asserts
that one must learn to identify different kinds of souls among individuals;
presents as a mere recapitulation of the dialogue’s earlier discussion of the art of speeches,
Socrates claims it has been discussed “in a measured way” (277b2–3). Socrates then goes on
to give a new list of the requirements for an art of speeches and concludes by saying the
“whole earlier argument has disclosed” it (277c6, my emphasis).
Here, I follow the manuscripts rather than Burnet’s edition. If one follows Burnet, the
question is still out of place: Socrates asks Phaedrus how he would “most gratify a god, acting
and speaking, about speeches.” The text as it is in the manuscripts is difficult because it provides no object for “gratify.” This may be explained as follows. Socrates has just recommended that one must speak and act in order to gratify the gods (273e5–8); he then expects
that, when he here says “gratify,” Phaedrus will assume he means gratify a god, but Socrates
does not say as much because he does not think there are gods to gratify.
otherwise, there is no profit for him from when “he was listening to
speeches.” One must “show oneself” that the individual in front of one has
“the nature which the earlier speeches were about” and is thus persuadable
of certain beliefs by certain speeches (271d7–272a3). Socrates’ description
here of the kinds of souls, which were already said to be known, as merely
having been heard about in speeches, makes sense if he wishes to indicate
how one who had an opinion but not knowledge about the sources of
belief would go about testing it.38 Since one cannot know that one has
grasped all the forms of soul, one cannot know in advance all the conditions under which certain beliefs can come to be held. One can, however,
grasp clearly that under certain conditions certain kinds of souls come to
hold certain beliefs, and one can doubt that these same beliefs can come to
be in any other way. Then, by meeting those with these beliefs, one can
“show oneself” that they also have “the nature” or kind of soul one’s
account would lead one to expect them to have, thereby confirming one’s
account to the degree possible. We suggest, then, that Socrates attempts to
judge others’ opinions about the gods by seeing whether they conform to
his understanding of the kinds of souls.
By suggesting that Socrates’ account of an unobtainable rhetoric
includes an illustration in the most general terms of how he addresses his
ignorance about the gods, we can explain the way Socrates concludes his
account of the obtainable art of speeches. After describing the requirements of this obtainable art, he claims that one should seek it in order to
speak and act “in a manner gratifying to the gods.” In keeping with his
ignorance, Socrates traces this view to those “wiser” than himself, who
claim that it is necessary to gratify our divine “masters” rather than our
“fellow slaves,” that is, other human beings (273e5–274a2). Socrates
admits that he does not know the view of the gods he espouses here to be
true; indeed, we have seen that he regards it as false. However, by advising
those who are content with this obtainable art of speeches to accept this
pious view, he points out that, without some further study, they lack
grounds to reject it.
Investigation of those dialogues in which Socrates undertakes his
pursuit of self-knowledge is surely necessary to explain that pursuit adequately, but his remarks in the Phaedrus allow us to make a tentative suggestion about its character. As the mention of his “erotic art” implies
(257a7–8), Socrates sees clearly the power of eros to lead to what he
Note also “having thought about these things sufficiently” at 271d7.
regards as irrational religious belief; he sees that this power depends on
ignorance of just, beautiful, and good things; he sees that knowledge of
these matters eliminates that power. The claim in the dialogue’s second
half that the one who has sciences of just, beautiful, and good things
understands the weakness of all writing again points to the connection
between ignorance about morality and other irrational beliefs. Therefore,
each half of the dialogue highlights Socrates’ clear awareness that this
ignorance, a form of ignorance he knows to be always “worthy of reproach”
(277d10–e3), is a source of beliefs in such gods as surpass his understanding. Furthermore, by showing himself that someone with such beliefs is
confused about morality, Socrates provides himself with a compelling reason to distrust this person’s claims about the gods. Socrates would not
thereby know that these claims derive from ignorance about morality
rather than from a divine gift, but he would be clearly aware that they
could derive from this ignorance and are therefore not trustworthy.39
Socrates may well have suspected, then, and wished to confirm to the
degree possible that all who claim to have information about the gods
from a source higher than human reason are also confused about morality40 or that everyone with knowledge of just, beautiful, and good things
also regards the gods as he himself does. In this case, teaching this knowledge to others would provide Socrates an opportunity to confirm his view
One might be inclined to regard Socrates’ attempts to get Phaedrus to pray, the first of
which fails while the second succeeds (257b7–8, 279c6), as an aspect of his study of religious
psychology, but getting Phaedrus to pray would merely confirm an aspect of psychology that
Socrates does not need to confirm. That is, Socrates confirms his opinion by discovering that
a believer is confused about morality, but he already sees as clearly as possible that those
confused about morality will be inclined to pray. On the other hand, cultivating piety in
Phaedrus may not only make his soul relatively healthier; sending a more pious Phaedrus
back to the sophists would make more compelling Socrates’ messages to them about the difficulty of genuine education (which is implied by Socrates’ argument about the usefulness of
eros in education and by his critique of writing). Consider in this regard the piety of Socrates’
final message to Lysias (278a7ff.).
Shortly before referring to those who do not understand the weakness of writing as
“simpleminded,” Socrates goes out of his way to describe those who reported hearing the
first prophecies as “simpleminded.” To be sure, Socrates here seems to be speaking ironically
about these adherents of prophecy, but he does not make clear that they investigated the
truth of what they heard, as he advises Phaedrus to do (275b5–c2). Furthermore, shortly
after this, Socrates speaks in such a way as to indicate that one can be simpleminded while
understanding a prophecy (275c7–8). As we have seen, Socrates traces the simplemindedness
of those who fail to understand the weakness of writing to their ignorance of good and just
things (277d10–e2).
of the soul, which explains why he says such teaching also “assists” the
teacher, using the same word he had used when referring to a writing’s
need for theoretical vindication (276c4–5, 276e4–277a1, 275e4–5).41
Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge vindicates as far as possible his own
way of life—a life lived in accordance with reason—by confirming that he
has grounds to distrust those who claim to have information about the
gods from a source higher than reason.42
As regards Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge, the Phaedrus is organized as follows: the treatment of eros provides a psychological account of
the origins of a pious view and the path to the philosophic view; the treatment of writing calls attention to Socrates’ possession of sciences of just,
beautiful, and good things and the understanding of unreasonable beliefs
in general that follows from these sciences; and the treatment of rhetoric
On the meaning of “assist,” see Yunis, Phaedrus, 231. The above interpretation of the
assistance this education offers the teacher is supported by the following consideration. As
we have seen, at the outset of the discussion of writing, Socrates gives the impression that the
discussion will also address how one should speak and act regarding speeches of gods
(274b9–c3). Socrates’ report of Ammon’s view of writing then shows how one should speak
about speeches by or about gods, by presenting a rational theology, that is, by having Ammon
express a view of writing consistent with what human reason would expect from a divine
ruler (274e7–275b2, cf. Statesman 295b). If Socrates also indicates in this section of the
dialogue how to act with regard to speeches of the gods, it would appear to be by his account
of the activity of teaching sciences of just, beautiful, and good things. Furthermore, since
Socrates stresses the seriousness of teaching these sciences in contrast to the playfulness of
writing (276b1–277a4, 277e5–278b2), and since he has earlier indicated that his pursuit of
self-knowledge leaves him little leisure, we may suggest that this teaching, as well as the study
of those incapable of education which would necessarily accompany it, is especially what
prevented Socrates from writing.
Our suggestion about the character of Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge perhaps allows
us to account for the most striking changes he makes in his final account of the requirements
of an art of speeches. First, in keeping with his recent indication of the possibility of sciences
of, at least, just, beautiful, and good things, Socrates now demands that one knows the truth
about the subjects about which one speaks or writes (277b5–6). Second, Socrates now calls
for an ongoing process of discovering the form of speech suited to “each nature” (note the
present subjunctives and participles at 277c1–3, in contrast to the aorists at 277b6–8), that
is, Socrates now demands that one makes sure one understands each kind of soul one meets.
Finally, Socrates suggests that in discovering the form of speech suited to each nature, one
will focus on two kinds of souls and speeches: the complex and the simple soul and speech
(277c2–3). We may regard as complex those souls and speeches that are divided within
themselves about morality (cf.263a2–10) and as simple those free of self-contradiction. After
indicating that one must understand each nature, Socrates suggests that one focus on
whether or not each nature is confused about morality.
then clarifies the character and limits of Socrates’ understanding, indicating
the need for his ongoing pursuit of self-knowledge and the role played in
that pursuit by both the erotic psychology and the sciences of just, beautiful, and good things. In this way, the dialogue confirms and clarifies our
initial suggestions about the character of this pursuit. Still, although we
have seen that Socrates regards himself as simple compared to non-­
philosophers, so far as I can tell, the Phaedrus leaves it to the reader to
discover on his own the way Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge could lead
him to consider himself to be more complicated and arrogant than he
currently does. We must consider what would happen if Socrates met
someone who failed to conform to Socrates’ psychological theory,
someone who claimed to have information about the gods from a source
higher than reason but in whose soul Socrates could find nothing that he
clearly understood to be a natural cause of such belief. Through the meeting alone, Socrates would not be able to believe the other’s claims, but
Socrates would also lack the reason he currently has to support his disbelief. His disbelief would become groundless. He would therefore be forced
to reassess his disbelief, and lacking a clear reason for it, he could not help
but wonder whether its basis lies in pride and a wish to be free of divine
masters. Socrates would then have to be open to the possibility that what
he had regarded as a straightforward consequence of his attempt to live
with the clearest possible view of the world was rooted all along in
Typhonic arrogance. It is, then, a testament to the enormous strength of
his pursuit of clarity that Socrates remains to this extent open to the
possibility that this pursuit is more complicated than he currently has any
reason to believe it is.
Socrates’ Exhortation to Follow the Logos
James Carey
The Meaning of logos
On the last day of his life, Socrates speaks of a wondrous desire he had as
a young man for a kind of wisdom called “inquiry into nature” (peri physeō s
historia), an inquiry aimed at knowledge of the causes of things: why they
come into being, why they perish, and why they are.1 Socrates found out,
he says, that he was not fit for this inquiry as it was generally practiced. He
thought for a while that he might find a solution to his difficulties in a
Phaedo 96a9. Cf. 97b5; Cf. Philebus 59a2–c7. All references to line numbers in the
Phaedo will be given as they occur in John Burnet’s text, Plato’s Phaedo (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1911). All references to line numbers in the Republic will be given in accordance with the inner margins of John Adams’ text, The Republic of Plato (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 1963). References to line numbers in other
Platonic texts will be given as they occur in the Oxford series, Platonis Opera (1900–07).
I have made use of the translations of the Republic by Allan Bloom (Basic Book, 1968) and
of the Phaedo by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport, MA: Focus
Classical Library, 1998), though I have altered them here and there. When I cite a line number from the Phaedo, it will be preceded, as above, by “Ph.” When I cite a line number from
the Republic, it will be preceded by “R.”
J. Carey (*)
St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_6
book written by Anaxagoras, who advanced the intellect (nous) as responsible for all things. Because the intellect does not operate blindly, as material causes do, Socrates inferred that if the intellect indeed ordered the
world and all things in the world, it would do so in the best way.2 As he
became more familiar with Anaxagoras’ teaching, however, he discovered
that this philosopher never showed just how the intellect was a cause of
things. Because Socrates discovered that he could not make much progress
in an inquiry into nature by “looking at things with the eyes and trying to
grasp them with each of the senses,” even under the guidance of Anaxagoras’
teaching, he undertook what he called “a second sailing.” This alternative
way of inquiry Socrates described as “taking refuge in logoi and looking in
them for the truth of beings.”3 To understand what this means, it is necessary to survey how Plato employs the word logos, especially in the Phaedo
but also in the Republic where the logos is not only at work—obviously, it is
at work in all the dialogues—but is a recurring theme in its own right.
Plato often uses the word logos to mean an argument, which is to say, a
reasoned account or speech.4 A logos is usually an attempt at a good argument. But the attempt does not always succeed; and sometimes there is
only the pretense of an argument. So there can be false, wrong, or bad
arguments as well as true, right, or good arguments.5 Consequently, there
can be a tension, indeed even a battle, between them.6 They cannot be
simply trusted.7 The experience of finding that arguments one has once
trusted are in fact defective can lead to a cautious skepticism. But it can
Ph. 97c4–6. I understand Socrates to be reasoning as follows. Desire, choice, and action,
in the case of a being that possesses intellect, aim at what appears best (Gorgias 466d8–468c7;
cf. Meno 77b7–78b2; Protagoras 352d4–7). If there were an intellect unencumbered by a
body, it would presumably know what is best. If this intellect acted in such a way as to order
the world, and had the power to do so, it would aim at what really is best, not at what merely
appears best. Hence the world ordered by this intellect would be ordered in the best way.
Ph. 99c9–e6.
For example, Ph. 62b2; 63a2; 70c2; 70d5; 77c 8; 77d8; 78d1; 86c9; 91e2–6; 95a8;
108d6. R.349a3,7; 357a1; 362e2; 363e6; 364c5; 367b3; 368b2; 368c5; 376d4; 435d3;
450b4,6; 450e4; 475a4; 485a3; 518c3; 522a5–7; 527a3; 538c4; 606a7; 606c1; 607c3;
607d; 612a7; 612d1.
For example, Ph. 90b6–8; 92d2; 94a1; cf. 72e4; 73a10; 77b1; 88a1; R.376e7; 560b6–
c1; cf. 388e3; 472a6; Cratylus 385b2–11; 408c2–7. Logoi can possess degrees of truth:
R.522a5–7; cf. Ph. 86c9.
Ph. 89c2; 91c3; 92c3; 92d3; 94a12–b2; 915a6–b4; 101a6. R.453a6; d6; 457e2; 534b7c3; 610c4. Cf. Ph. 88e3; 89b 9–c2; 94b1; R.368a7–c3; 369a5; 499d 2; Sophist 225a12–c1.
Ph. 87e6; 88c1–d1.
also degenerate into hatred of logos (misologia), which precludes access to
the truth and knowledge of the things that are.8 Misology is that than
which, Socrates says, there is no greater evil.9 Assuming that Socrates was
not lying, we can plausibly infer that he considered the greatest human
good, or a condition or essential component of it, to be knowledge of the
things that are.
Let us look a bit more closely at Socrates’ second sailing metaphor. It
echoes and appears to develop a simile of Simmias’ that occurs earlier in
the dialogue. Concerning the obscure problem of what becomes of the
soul after death, Simmias says that if it is not possible to learn or discover
what is the case, then “taking the best and least refutable of human logoi
and letting oneself be carried upon this as on a raft (epi schedias), one must
venture sailing through life.”10 According to the standard interpretation,
Socrates’ second sailing metaphor refers to lowering the sails when there
is a dead calm and taking to the oars. There is some support for this interpretation in other classical texts.11 But it is not the only possible interpretation. A second sailing could also mean literally sailing a second time,
perhaps after an earlier shipwreck and now on a different vessel. Odysseus
leaves Calypso’s island on a raft (epi schediēs), his ship having been wrecked
earlier. The raft (schediē) he built was a small sailing vessel, perhaps not as
easy to sail as a fully equipped ship (nēus) would be, but still moved along
by the wind.12 This interpretation of the second sailing metaphor need not
be insisted on, as very little of substance turns on it. It does, however, have
the advantage of fitting not only with Simmias’ earlier simile but also with
Socrates’ exhortation in the Republic, “[W]herever the logos, like the wind,
might go, there we must go” (hopēi an ho logos hō sper pneuma pherēi, tautēi
iteon).13 Since the wind is not visible, we can go where it goes only if we
let it fill our sails. The wind has its own movement. Late in the Phaedo,
Ph. 90d6–7.
Ph. 89d1–90e2. Cf. R.411c3–e3.
Ph. 85c7–d2. (I have quoted only the first part of the sentence here.) See Burnet’s note
on ē mathein…ē heurein at 85c7. Plato’s Phaedo, 81.
The earliest source that Burnet cites for the standard interpretation of the deuteros plous
is Pausanias, second century AD (through Eustathius, twelfth century AD). The relevant
passage from the paroemiographers, as Burnet quotes it, says nothing about oars or rowing.
Plato’s Phaedo, 108.
Odyssey 5.33; 129–133; 140–142; 173–176; 233–284: 12.403–425. See Frank Brewster,
The Raft of Odysseus, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 37 (1928): 49–53.
Socrates says to Simmias, “If you sort out [the first hypotheses] sufficiently, you shall, I think, be following (akolouthēsete) the logos as much as
it is possible for a human being to follow it up (epakolouthēsai).”14 This
way of speaking is not unique to Socrates. In the Phaedo, Echecrates asks,
“In what way did Socrates pursue the logos?” In the Republic, Adeimantus
says, “If we are going to be happy, we must go this way, where the tracks
of the logoi lead.”15 The Socratic exhortation, “Wherever the logos might
go…there we must go,” has two implications. The first implication is
obvious and frequently noted: to philosophize, we must subordinate our
private interests to the logos, which is no man’s private possession but
something common.16 The second implication is also obvious but not frequently noted: we can go wherever the logos might go, we can follow the
logos, only if the logos is itself going or headed, or at least pointing, somewhere. What is most striking about the logos, then, is that it has, so to
speak, “a mind of its own.”17 The logos can lead us toward that which is,18
though only if we allow it do so.
One could not be fully human without logos.19 In the practical affairs of
life, just as much as in theoretical investigations, we give accounts and we
reason our way to this or that course of action. But the philosopher has a
special relation to logos.20 It pertains to him, in particular, to advance a
logos for what he is saying.21 In fact, philosophy and logos are so intimately
related that Socrates can speak in the Phaedo not only of following the
Ph. 107b7–8. Cf. R.604c6; d4.
Ph. 88d9; R.365d2; cf. Sophist 224e5.
That the logos is something common, not private, and something to be followed had
already been declared by Heraclitus. “We ought to follow (hepesthai) what is common…but
though the logos is common, the many live as though they had a private understanding.”
Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, by Hermann Diels, edited by Walther Kranz (Zürick: Weidmann,
1972), Vol. 1, Frag. 2, p. 151. Cf. Frag. 50, p. 161: “Listening not to me but to the logos, it
is wise to agree that all things are one.”
With his metaphor in the Republic, Socrates cannot mean that the wind is aimless, for
then there would be no point to our going where it goes. Rather, where the wind goes cannot be known in advance. Nor can we force the wind to go where we might like it to go. We
can go along with it, or we can resist it. And this is true of the logos as well. Cf. Ph. 75a 9;
87a8; 90dc8–e2. R.388e2; 503b1; 538d7; 611b1.
R.403c2–4; 511b2–4; 604c6; 607b2.
Aristotle, Politics 1253a10–11; 1332b3–6. Cf. Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter, NE),
Ph. 76b5; b8; 78d1; 88d1; 95d8; R.533c3; 534b4. Cf. Ph. 61b3; 63e9. Socrates’
defense of his way of life takes the form of an apo-logia.
logos but also of following philosophy, of following philosophy wherever it
leads.22 This is possible only if philosophy itself, even understood as a kind
of erō s, is somewhat impersonal—not existing separately from us, to be
sure, but not entirely under our control either. This relative independence
is due to the natural movement of logos, which animates, or should animate, philosophy totally. In the Republic, Socrates speaks in close proximity of desires that follow knowledge and logos, of desires that follow truth,
and of the whole soul as following philosophy, as though all this “following” is essentially one and the same thing.23 So to the extent—though only
to the extent—that philosophy is bound up with logos, it too can be said to
have “a mind of its own.”
Following the logos in Speculation
When Socrates says that he wished to know the causes of things, he distinguishes between why they come into being, why they perish, and why they
are. These questions and the causes they ask for are different.24 Why something comes to be is not the same as why it passes away. But why something comes to be is also not the same as why it is. Why something comes
to be can be answered more or less satisfactorily by referring to what generates or makes it. And why something perishes can be answered more or
less satisfactorily by referring to what destroys it.25 But why something is
cannot be answered so easily. And the question of why something is, the
question of being as distinct from coming to be and passing away, is the
Ph. 82d5–7.
R.586d5; 586d9; 586e7. (Though epistemē and alētheia, unlike logos and philosophia, are
not themselves progressing toward the telos that is sophia, the interconnectedness of the
knowledge of one thing with the knowledge of another, and the interconnectedness of one
truth with another, has the effect of directing the soul from one truth to another.) Cf.
548b6; 549b4; 587a5; Aristotle, De Anima 433a7–8.
Socrates repeats the threefold distinction between coming to be, perishing, and being
shortly afterwards, at Ph. 97b5 and at 97c7.
I say more or less satisfactorily because the question why there is an order of coming to be
and passing way at all is not satisfactorily answered by reference to individual members, to
any individual members, of this order of coming to be and passing away. The whole of what
comes to be and passes away cannot be caused by any one, or by any number, of its parts.
The “why” of coming to be and passing away can be answered (if at all) only by reference to
what neither comes to be nor passes away, that is, by reference to what is without
question that is paramount for the philosopher.26 Philosophy involves,
Socrates says, a turning around of soul, from a night that seems like day to
the true light. It is an ascent to being (or that which is—to on).27 This
ascent is the accomplishment of logos as reasoning (logizesthai). It is
through reasoning, if anywhere, that something of the things that are (ti
tō n ontō n) becomes clear to the soul.28
The noun logismos can mean reasoning. And so Socrates can describe
the philosopher’s soul as “following reasoning” (hepomenē tō i logismō i).29
But this noun can also mean calculation, as can the verb logizesthai. The
activities of reasoning and calculation, and even simple counting,30 are
activities proper to man as an animal possessing logos, as possessing reason.
We should not, then, be surprised to find a close relation between these
Counting presupposes recognition of something common. One naturally counts six apples, six oranges, six horses, and so forth.31 One could,
for the fun of it, count up six things that have virtually nothing in common: a goose, plus a galaxy, plus the Pythagorean theorem, plus a week,
plus conversational French, plus a missed opportunity equal six “somethings.” But this is not how we naturally count. Nor do we naturally count
five oranges plus one house as six things, nor five trees plus one shoelace
as six things.32 We count in the focused awareness, made possible by logos,
R.479e4–480a8; 484b2–4; 485a6–b2; 500b7–d2; 534b2–3. Cf. Ph. 82d9–83b4;
83b1–2; 101e6.
R.521c 4–6.
Ph. 65c2. Socrates states this in the form of a question, to which Simmias answers “Yes.”
Cf. 62e1; 83b8; 84a2. R.606b5.
Ph. 84a7; cf. 79a3; R.431c4.
On the relationship between counting and calculating, and between arithmetic and
logistic, in Plato, see Jacob Klein, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra
(translated by Eva Brann, Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992, hereafter, GMT), 17–25. (For the sake
of consistency, I bring Klein’s Romanization of Greek words into accordance with mine; e.g.,
“kinēsis” for his “kinesis”). What I have to say in this chapter about the “ontological” significance of numbers for Plato owes very much to, and departs only occasionally from, what
Klein has to say in Part 1 of this book. Leo Strauss called attention more than once to the
importance of Klein’s remarkable, and still remarkably underappreciated, study, referring to
it as “a work which I regard as unrivaled in the whole field of intellectual history, at least in
our generation.” Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity (edited by Kenneth Hart
Green, Albany: State University of New York, 1997), 462. Cf. 450–451, 454.
GMT, 46–47; 53; 56.
We can surely say that three books plus two pencils plus one ashtray equal six items on
the table. But, even in this case, the six items have something in common: being on the table.
that several things have something in common, in particular, a form (or
intelligible “looks”—eidos).33 Socrates’ taking refuge in logoi brings forms
into view. If there were no eidē, if things had nothing at all in common, if
there were no “one over many,” then we would not be able to use common nouns or adjectives either. Instead we would have to use a separate
name for every entity we wished to speak about—which would be impossible. If there were no forms, neither speech nor counting would be possible. A nominalist cannot speak and he cannot count, not, that is, without
temporarily suspending belief in nominalism.
In recounting his early attempts at an inquiry into nature, Socrates
speaks of the difficulty he had in understanding increases in size, the pair
greater and less, and the relationship between numbers. In trying to understand what motivated Socrates to engage in philosophy, we must remember that philosophy begins in wonder.34 And wonder about numbers played
no small role in his philosophizing, from the beginning to the end.35
There are three different kinds of numbers. There are sensible numbers—for example, two hands, two apples, two thunderclaps, two planets,
and so forth. Each of these is a sensible dyad. In each case, the units that
make up the sensible dyad are perceptually distinct from one another. One
of the two hands is a left hand, and one is a right hand. One of the two
apples is larger or redder than the other. And there are further differences,
including spatial and/or temporal differences, between members of a sensible dyad. In the case of the mathematical two, or dyad, however, and in
the case of every other mathematical number, the pure, non-sensible but
intelligible, units it contains differ from each other solely by virtue of not
being the same.36 Finally, there are eidetic numbers, which we shall consider shortly.37
Apprehending common features, or forms, which is required for both
naming and in counting, is the achievement of logos. And so is the r­ easoning
that relates several statements together and, if possible, brings them into
GMT, 21: “For…Plato that ability proper to man, to be able to count, corresponds to the
countableness of things in the world, a fact which determines the systematic aspect of his
teaching.” GMT, 23: “[T]heoretical logistic raises to an explicit science that knowledge of
relations among numbers which, albeit implicitly, precedes, and indeed must precede, all
calculation.” Cf. ibid., 51, 53, and 54.
Theaetetus 155a2–d5. Metaphysics 982b12–13.
Ph. 96e1–97b7. Cf. Metaphysics 983a12–17.
R.525c5–526b2; GMT, 22–23.
GMT, 91.
agreement (or sameness of logoi—homologia) with one another.38 Once
certain statements, claims, or propositions are posited as premises, other
propositions can follow from them as conclusions. This deductive “following” can have the character of necessity.39 It characterizes mathematical
demonstrations and all sciences that rely on them. In the Republic, Socrates
speaks of premises as “hypotheses.” Hypotheses can be regarded in two
ways. On assuming them to be true, certain consequences follow. If no
contradiction follows from the hypothesized premises, a whole series of
interrelated propositions emerges. If, however, a contradiction does follow from the hypothesized premises, one or more of these must be rejected
as false, as happens in a reductio ad absurdum argument. One might think
that if no contradiction emerges, then one has achieved knowledge, and
geometrical reasoning is often taken as the paradigm of knowledge. But
such reasoning is always colored by at least a tincture of uncertainty. For it
is incapable of yielding knowledge of the very premises that were assumed
at the outset. Socrates says:
As for …geometry and the arts following on it, we observe that they apprehend something of being (or something of what is—tou ontos ti)—we see
that they dream about being (to on); but they are unable to see (idein) wakefully, as long as making use of hypotheses they leave them unchanged
(akinētous), not being able to give a logos for them. For when the beginning
(archē) is what one does not know, and the end (teleutē) and what comes in
between are woven out of what one does not know, what contrivance is
there for such agreement becoming knowledge (epistēmē)?40
R.510d2; 533c5; cf. 374a4–6.
R.610c3–6; 611b6–7. According to Aristotle, “a syllogism is a logos in which, certain
things being posited (tethentō n), something other than the things proposed (tō n keimenō n)
follows (or results—symbainei) of necessity from their being so.” Prior Analytics 24b18–20.
(Compare Plato’s use of the verb symbainein at Ph. 80b1; R.438e6. Cf. Cratylus 396a9.)
The weighty term “necessity” (anagkē) appears in the sentence I just quoted, and again in
the sentence immediately following it. See Gunther Patzig, Aristotle’s Theory of the Syllogism
(Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Pub. Co. 1968), 16–42. Aristotle, of course, explores the
different kinds of syllogismoi in detail and at length. But though there is no comparable
exploration in Platonic dialogues, the word syllogizomai with the sense of inferring or concluding does occur; for example, at R.516b14; 517c1. See Joseph A Novak, “Substantive
Syllogisms,” which can be found online at http://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi
R.533b10–c6. Glaucon, who is Socrates’ interlocutor at this point, concedes that this
procedure does not yield knowledge. Cf. Symposium 202a5.
Geometry rigorously deduces conclusions from given premises. But some
of these premises have, and must have, the character of hypotheses or postulates. Because of its irreducibly hypothetical beginning, geometry falls
short of knowledge strictly so-called.41
Though the reasoning characteristic of geometry is “unable to go out
of, and ascend beyond, hypotheses,”42 Socrates discerns an alternative way
of working with hypotheses. With reference back to his earlier analogy of
the divided line, which coordinates different degrees of reality with different degrees of awareness, he says:
The dialectical procedure (hē dialectikē methodos) alone goes in this direction, destroying (anairousa) the hypotheses, to the archē itself in order
secure it, and when the eye of soul is really buried in a sort of alien muck (en
borborō i barbarikō i tini), dialectic pulls it out and leads it up, using the arts
we went through as helpmates and assistants in turning [it] around. The
things we many times called knowledges (epistēmai) as matter of habit need
another name, brighter (or more distinct—enargesterou) than opinion but
dimmer (or more obscure—amydroterou), than knowledge…. It is acceptable…to call the first part [of the divided line] knowledge, the second
thought, the third trust, and the fourth imagination (or seeing an image as
an image—eikasia)….And do you call him who apprehends the logos of the
being (ousia) of each thing dialectical? And, the one not able to, as far as he
is not able to give a logos to himself and to another, to that extent would you
deny that he has understanding (nous) of it?”43
The alien muck in which the eye of the soul is buried is sensation, mere
opinion, or both. The proper element for the eye of the soul is the knowable. The sensible as such, despite our generally thoughtless familiarity
with it and our trusting of it as what is most fundamentally real, is not
knowable.44 It depends on what is both genuinely knowable and more real
Modern science relies on geometry. Additionally, as an empirical endeavor, it makes
generalizations from experience, generalizations that necessarily carry with them some measure, however slight, of uncertainty. It follows that modern science cannot accomplish a
definitive refutation of even the most “fundamentalist orthodoxy.” See Strauss, “Progress or
Return” (in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity), 128. Cf. ibid., 100; Spinoza’s
Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1956), 28–29. If the claims of revelation are not
internally inconsistent, or inconsistent with anything that we definitively know, then they are
strictly speaking irrefutable.
R.511a 4.
R.533c7–d5, 534b2–5. Glaucon accepts the thrust of Socrates’ final question here.
than itself. The enquiry into being is not, for Socrates, reducible to physics. Through dialectic (dialektikē, which, like logizesthai, logsimos and
logistikē, is also cognate with logos) the eye of the soul is drawn up from the
region of the visible, from the topos horatos, to the region of the intelligible, to the topos noētos.45 Dialectic accomplishes this, Socrates says, by
destroying hypotheses.
Geometry and similar investigations argue from hypotheses, however
few in number, to conclusions without calling the hypotheses themselves
into question. If no contradiction results from assuming a certain hypothesis, then in the best case a coherent body of propositions, something like
what modern thinkers call an “axiomatic deductive system,” comes into
being. But, again, this system does not count as knowledge for Socrates,
not even if it can be proved to be internally consistent, not even if, in addition, it has wide technological application and impressive predictive power.
For if the original hypothesis (or hypotheses) is not known, in the emphatic
sense of the word, to be true, then no subsequent proposition in the system is known to be true either, however so rigorously it may be deduced
from the original hypothesis or additional hypotheses.
Something different happens if what necessarily follows, sooner or later,
from a given hypothesis is a contradiction. When that happens, the original hypothesis is “destroyed.” This destruction yields knowledge, properly
so called, because the hypothesis is known to be false in itself or at least
inconsistent with prior propositions. This may seem at first glance to be a
barren form of knowledge, but it is not. For once the hypothesis is
destroyed, one is induced to consider or reconsider other hypotheses.
Socrates employs this kind of reasoning again and again in the Platonic
dialogues. He asks for a definition of something. His interlocutor will
sometimes begin with a “laundry list” of examples of the thing in question
or sometimes with just a single example, to which Socrates will typically
respond that his interlocutor has not actually defined the thing in question, that he has not exhibited its being or eidos. At that point, the interlocutor (or interlocutors) will attempt to advance actual definitions. These
definitions have the character of hypotheses. They are provisional. Pressed
by Socrates’ questioning, his interlocutor attempts to say, not just how a
word is used (a “nominal definition”), but what the thing named by the
word in fact is (a “real definition”). Socrates then shows that these
R.508c2–3; cf. 517b4; Statesman 286a5–7. For example, the topos noētos cannot be
construed as a region within space—somewhere up in the sky. It is a prejudice of materialism
to insist that whatever is must be within space.
­ efinitions are defective, either because they covertly include the thing
being defined in its own definition, or because they contradict themselves
or something else either better known or more firmly held than they are.46
If the hypotheses or definitions are necessarily limited in number, and if all
but one is shown to entail a contradiction, then that one prevails and the
conversation can build upon it.47 Because of the intrinsic complexity of the
matter under consideration—such as virtue, knowledge, moderation,
courage, justice, piety, and friendship—and because Socrates’ interlocutor
is not thinking at the same level that he is, full clarity is never achieved in
the dialogues. But progress is made. For one comes to know that one did
not know as much as one thought one knew. Having arrived at this apparently negative result, one is projected beyond it to the possibility of something more positive.
Understand that by the other segment of the intelligible (tou noētou) I mean
what logos itself reaches (or grasps—haptetai) by the power of dialectic, making the hypotheses not beginnings [as do geometry and the like] but really
hypotheses, such as steppingstones and springboards (or impulses—hormai), in order to come all the way to the non-hypothesized, to the principle
of the whole (mechri tou anypothetou epi tēn tou pantos archēn), and this
being reached [logos] holding to the things held fast by this [principle]
(echomenostō n ekeinēs echomenō n) goes down to the end (teleutēn) using
nothing sensible at all, but forms themselves through themselves to themselves, it [i.e., logos] ends (teleutāi) in forms too.48
Socrates claims here that logos can ascend dialectically to the principle of
the whole. Having arrived at this principle, that is, having attained knowledge of it, logos can then descend more or less deductively to the end,
using only forms, proceeding through forms, and ending in forms. That
is, through this dual procedure of a dialectical ascent followed by a largely
deductive descent, the logos can lead to knowledge—conceivably to
­knowledge of the entire sphere of the intelligible, which according to the
divided line analogy is co-extensive with being, with timeless being.
It is not only his interlocutors who advance hypotheses. Socrates does so as well. See, for
example, Ph. 100a3–4; compare 101c9–e3. But Socrates does not leave his hypotheses
In geometrical reasoning, ruling out alternative hypotheses is usually easy. See, for example, Euclid, Elements, Book 1, prop. 6. Socrates is fully aware of the difficulties involved in
ruling out all alternative hypotheses in philosophical inquiry. See, for example,
R.430e3–431a2; 436b5–437a7.
In presenting his second sailing metaphor in the Phaedo, Socrates
c­ ontrasts looking at (or examining—skopein) things directly with looking
at them in logoi. If “second sailing” means “second best”—and this is how
the expression is used in other Platonic dialogues49—then we can say that
an unmediated noetic apprehension of the ultimate causes of things would
be, if possible for human beings, superior to a noetic apprehension mediated by logos, given the difficulty of sorting out good from bad logoi, a
sorting out that is possible only through logos itself. Socrates found out
that an unmediated noetic apprehension of ultimate causes was not possible for him. His procedure, mediated by dialectical destruction of
hypotheses, and itself the consequence of taking refuge in logoi, is a second
sailing. In the passage from the Republic quoted above, Socrates clearly
speaks as though it is possible for this second sailing, even if second best, to
reach its final destination, its telos, not at once but ultimately.
It is obvious that both the dialectical ascent to the archē and the consequent descent to the multiple eidē that, according to Socrates, depend for
their intelligibility and being on the archē,50 presupposes what today is
called “the principle of non-contradiction.” If this principle is itself merely
hypothesized or postulated, then dialectic, indeed philosophy itself, just
like geometry, only “dreams about being” and is “unable to see wakefully.” The principle of non-contradiction must be something not assumed
or merely postulated, but self-evident and known as such, if the reasoning
that presupposes it is to arrive at genuine knowledge. Socrates states this
principle, though not by this name, several times in the Republic;51 and he
does so elsewhere as well.52 That Socrates states but, wisely, does not try
to demonstrate the principle of non-contradiction and that he nonetheless
says that “logos itself reaches the intelligible by the power of dialectic…in
order to come all the way to the non-hypothesized, to the archē of
the whole” implies that he considered the principle of non-contradiction
Statesman 300c2; Philebus 19c2–3.
Taking the archē at 511b6 and at 533c8 to be the idea of the good, the causative character of which Socrates speaks of in his analogy of sun. 508e1–509b8.
R.436b5–c1; 436e6–437a1; 439b3–5; 602e4–5. Cf. 430e7–431a6, and 604b2–3.
For example, Ph. 102e6–8; Theaetetus 188a1–6 (where the principle of excluded middle,
which is equivalent to the principle of non-contradiction, is stated). Cf. Sophist 230b4–8.
to be, not demonstrable, but self-evident.53 One archē, then, is the principle of the whole, which Socrates says the logos can reach by the power of
dialectic. Another archē is the principle of non-contradiction, which animates logos continuously. How are we to understand the relation between
these two?
The principle of non-contradiction, understood as governing all propositions, states, “A proposition and its contradictory cannot both be true.”54 It
can be shown in several ways, most simply by truth tables, to be logically
equivalent to the principle of the excluded middle, which states, “Of two
contradictory propositions, one must be true and the other must be false.”55
Moreover, both the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of the
excluded middle can be shown to be logically equivalent to the principle of
propositional identity, which states, “A proposition implies itself.”56 In terms
of logos and its movement, the principle of p
­ ropositional identity has a priority.
If a proposition, on being reiterated, changed its meaning or changed from
They are logically equivalent because they are logical tautologies. They differ in meaning, however. Aristotle says that the principle that today goes by the name of non-contradiction is known and, indeed, the most certain principle of all (Metaphysics 1005b4–26), that it
is not hypothesized (1005b14–16), that it must be known for anything else to be known
(1005b16–17), that it is not demonstrable (1011a8–13), that it is a sign of a bad education
to demand a demonstration of it (1006a5–9), and that it is so well known that it is impossible
for anyone to be mistaken about it (1005b11–12; 22–23)—though one person may not
understand the principle as stated, while another may deny it solely because it cannot be
demonstrated. That Aristotle at one point refers to this principle as an opinion (doksa—
1005b 33), after referring to it several times earlier, and afterwards as well, as an axiom, can
be explained by the context. He is speaking there of conflicting opinions—there cannot be
conflicting knowledges—and there must be one of these to which all parties to a disputation
can appeal. Doksa does not have to mean “mere opinion.” It can mean, more broadly, a
“notion” or “thought” of any kind, just as the verb dokein can mean, broadly, “to think” as
well as, narrowly, “to opine” merely. Similarly, eilēphamen at Metaphysics 1006a3 is better
translated as “we have apprehended” than “we have assumed.” Both translations are possible, but only the former fits with a coherent account of the principle of non-contradiction.
See Posterior Analytics 71b19–34; 99b15–100b17.
In the language of symbolic logic, where “p” stands for any proposition whatsoever,
where the dot “.” stands for “and” (conjunction); and where the tilde “~” stands for ‘not,”
the principle of non-contradiction is expressed thus: ~(p . ~p), and is read, “not both p and
Where “v” stands for “or” (Latin, vel), the principle of the excluded middle is expressed
thus: (p v ~p), and is read, “either p or not-p.”
Where “>” stands for “implies,” the principle of propositional identity is expressed thus:
(p > p), and is read, “p implies p,” which can be immediately transformed into “p is equivalent to p” (p ≡ p).
being true to being false, neither coherent discourse nor coherent thought
would be possible.57 Nor would knowledge be possible.58 There are, of course,
deceptive cases, or paralogisms, such as when a term used in an argument has
a variety of meanings, as is the case in English with “trunk” and with “bank.”
But paralogisms can be cleared up; and this clarification, too, is an achievement of logos. Since it is not possible to demonstrate that a proposition is
identical to itself, this principle is either an indemonstrable hypothesis or an
indemonstrable but nonetheless known axiom. Since it is necessarily relied on
continuously by logos, both in dialectic and in deduction, and since, according
to Socrates, logos can lead to non-hypothetical knowledge, we can reasonably
infer that he understood the principle of propositional identity to be a known
axiom, indeed, a self-evident truth. It underlies everything he says, and everything we say too, when we speak meaningfully.59 Though logos can veer into
falsity, strict adherence to this principle and its logical equivalents enables logos
to “course correct.”
One might be tempted to entertain the possibility that the principle of
non-contradiction and its logical equivalents hold in most cases, but not
in all. Such a thing, however, is not a logical possibility. For if there is
even one entity or subject (x) that possesses both a certain property (F)
and its contradictory (~F), it can be easily proven that for any entity
whatsoever (z), and for any property whatsoever (H), that entity possesses both that property (H) and its contradictory (~H).60 It follows that
Thought (dianoia) and logos are basically the same. Sophist 263e3–5. According to Seth
Benardete, “dianoia and nous are for Plato not subjective.” (The Archaeology of the Soul, ed.
Ronna Burger and Michael Davis, South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2012, 83).
Benardete’s statement that nous [intellectual intuition or understanding] is not subjective is
perhaps not so surprising, particularly when one thinks of Aristotle. But his statement that
dianoia [discursive thinking, or moving through nous] is “for Plato not subjective” is quite
surprising, at least at first hearing. If Benardete is right about this, then it follows that logos
is, for Plato, not subjective either.
Cratylus 439d3–440b4.
A person who denies the principle of non-contradiction can be refuted if he speaks
(meaningfully). He can avoid this refutation only by not speaking. But in that case he is “like
a vegetable.” Metaphysics 1006a14–15.
In the symbology of quantification logic, the proof is as follows (where the arrow marks
an assumption, as in steps 1, 2, and 3; the horizontal lines mark what falls within the scope
of the assumption, as in steps 2–9; and the underlining marks the closing of the scope of the
assumption, as in steps 7–9):
the denial of the principle of non-contradiction implies the truth of any
proposition.61 This is important. For if any proposition is known to be
false, then it logically follows, by the principle of transposition,62 that the
→1. (Ǝx)(ƎF)(Fx . ~Fx)
| →2. (ƎF)(Fy . ~Fy)
Assumed for existential instantiation of 1.
| | →3. Gy . ~Gy
Assumed for existential instantiation of 2.
| | | 4. Gy
3 simplification.
| | | 5. Gy v (z)(H)(Hz . ~Hz)
4 addition.
| | | 6. ~Gy
3 simplification.
| | | 7. (z)(H)(Hz . ~Hz) 5 , 6 disjunctive syllogism; closing the scope of
assumption 3.
| | 8. (z)(H)(Hz . ~Hz)
2, 3–7 existential instantiation; closing the scope
of assumption 2.
| 9. (z)(H)(Hz . ~Hz)
1 , 2–8 existential instantiation; closing the scope
of assumption 1.
10. (Ǝx)(ƎF)(Fx . ~Fx) > (z)(H)(Hz . ~Hz) 1–9 conditional proof.
If the principle of non-contradiction is violated in one case, it follows logically that the
principle of non-contradiction is violated in all cases. Even if one does not actually deny the
principle of non-contradiction but only proposes that it might not hold in some particular
case or other, one is thereby proposing, implicitly if inadvertently, that it might not hold in
any case at all.
That is, for any subject z, and for any property H, this property can be predicated of z,
and its contradictory can be predicated of z as well: every proposition is true. Cf. Metaphysics
(p > q) ≡ (~q > ~p). One can object that the reasoning above makes use of logical principles that doubt about the principle of non-contradiction should also render dubious. For
example, the inferential principle, disjunction syllogism, appealed to in the seventh line of the
proof in fn. 60, supra, is usually proven by appeal to the principle of non-contradiction. But
it can also be proven by truth tables. Truth tables, of course, presuppose both the principle of
propositional identity—again, that a proposition retains its identity when reiterated (paralogisms excluded)—and the distinction between true and false. Even just doubting whether the
principle of contradiction is true, and wondering whether its contradictory, (p . ~p), might be
true instead, requires recognizing that the “p” that is not preceded by the tilde is identical to
the “p” that is preceded by the tilde, and it of course requires distinguishing between true
and false. Those who call into question the self-evidence and universal scope of the principle
principle of ­non-­contradiction holds universally. Is there a proposition
that is known to be false?63 There is. One thing that Socrates knows, and is
quite emphatic about, is that he does not know everything. And we too
know, know beyond the shadow of even a Cartesian doubt, that there are
certain things that we do not know. Accordingly, the proposition, “I know
everything,” is (when uttered by anyone other than God) a known falsehood. And because it is a known falsehood, we can immediately infer that
the principle of non-contradiction is universally true. It admits of no
“Not,” or negation, is expressly present in the principle of non-­
contradiction; and it is explicitly present in the principle of the excluded
middle too. It is also present, though unexpressed, in the principle of
propositional identity. For in saying that a proposition or a term retains its
identity, or remains the same proposition or term, when reiterated (paralogisms excluded), one is saying that the proposition or term does not lose
its identity, that it does not become an other proposition or term, when
reiterated (again, paralogisms excluded). The elemental distinction
between same and other propels the movement of the logos. Attending
closely to this distinction is the very essence of following the logos.
Logos and Being
In the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger speaks of the relation between being (or
that which is—to on) and change. To clarify this relation he has to introduce
rest. These three classes (genē—they are also called eidē) are connected in a
surprising way. Being, it emerges, is precisely change and rest—neither
change by itself, nor rest by itself, but both together. Jacob Klein argues,
of non-contradiction are implicitly calling into question the principle of propositional identity, the distinction between true and false, consistency as a canon, and thereby the whole of
reason. Of course, one can give up on being consistent and say farewell to reason—though
not if one wishes to philosophize.
By a proposition, I do not mean a sentence. For one and the same proposition can be
expressed in two different sentences, most obviously in two different languages. Even within
one language, the same proposition can be expressed in two different sentences, for example,
“Cows eat grass,” and “Grass is eaten by cows.” Some sentences—most obviously questions,
but many exclamations as well—do not express propositions. Sentences employing indexical
terms can generate ambiguities (e.g., “It is raining here right now.”) and apparent paradoxes
(e.g., “This sentence is false.”) Whether or to what extent such sentences, though grammatically coherent, should count as expressing propositions is a question that I hope to address
on another occasion.
persuasively, that Plato understood being to be like the ordinary number
two, which is neither of its two component units in isolation from the
other, but both together.64 A number in Greek mathematics is essentially a
countable multitude.65 It is always both one number and, at the same
time, a multitude, at a minimum, two.66 The components of a sensible
dyad are in different places or occur at different times, and they differ in
other ways from each other. But the components of the mathematical
dyad, because they are pure units, differ from each other solely by not
being the same. The Eleatic Stranger shows that the components of the
dyad that is being are, unlike pure units, significantly different, even
opposed, eidē: change and rest. Being is a dyad, but it is neither a sensible
nor a mathematical dyad. Being is the eidetic dyad. Klein writes, “Just as
the dianoia finds in the realm of the ‘more and less’ ­(mallon kai hētton)
GMT, 93: “The ‘first’ eidetic number is the eidetic ‘two’; it represents the genos of
‘being’ as such.” GMT 91: “The Platonic theory of arithmoi eidetikoi is known to us in these
terms only from the Aristotelian polemic against it (cf., above all, Metaphysics M 6–8).” See,
in this connection, Shlomo Pines “A New Fragment of Xenocrates” (Studies in Arabic
Versions of Greek Texts in Arabic and in Medieval Science, Jerusalem: The Magnes Press,
1986), 48, n.130.
Number is a multitude composed of units (Euclid, Elements, Book 7, def. 2). It is a
limited multitude. (Metaphysics 1020a10–13). Infinity, an ostensibly unlimited multitude is,
from the perspective of Greek mathematics, not a number at all, because it is impossible to
add a unit to it or subtract a unit from it. The Greek conception of number, narrow though
it appears from the modern perspective, is true to how we naturally speak. One is not a number, because it is not a multitude; and dividing it into fractions, however convenient for
practical purposes, deprives it of its character as one (cf. Ph. 97a5–b2; R 525d7–526b 2). We
do not naturally say things like, “The earth has a number of moons circling it, namely one.”
Much less is zero a number. It is, rather the absence of a number (and of a unit as well). And
the absence of something can hardly be an instance of it. We do not naturally say things like,
“There are a number of planets between the Mercury and the sun, namely zero.” The ancient
Greeks, if confronted with modern mathematics, would say that the symbol “−2” names not
a certain kind of number, namely a negative number, but an operation only, and a limited one
at that: we cannot in any meaningful sense “take away” two apples from no apples at all, or
even “take away” two purely mathematical units from no units at all. The Greeks would say,
furthermore, that the symbol “√2” names a mathematical impossibility: there is no number
(construed as a multitude of units) that, when multiplied times itself, yields 2 as a product.
And they would say that the symbol “√−2” (or “2 times √−1”) names not so much an
impossibility as nonsense: no meaning can be assigned to this symbol (if “symbol” is even the
right name for it—what, exactly, does it symbolize?), though we can indeed devise rules for
manipulating it consistently.
GMT, 49. Ibid. 77: “[A]ny ‘number’ represents precisely a limited number of unit
the ‘opposition,’ the ‘obstacle’ (enantiōma) which first ‘awakens’ it…so it
must finally, at the end of its ‘dialectic’ activity, come to see that the ‘conjunction’ of opposites is in truth the ‘coexistence’ of elements other in
kind—a community no longer accessible to the logos.”67 Klein draws the
following conclusion: “In respect to on, kinēsis, and stasis, the logos fails! It
fails because it must count ‘three’ when in truth there are only ‘two,’
namely stasis and kinēsis, which are ‘each one’ and ‘both two’!” This “failure” of the logos in articulating being is by no means total, however. For it
is only through the dialectical movement of the logos that its numerical
character can be apprehended in intellection (noēsis).68 And though the
logos finds to on, Platonically conceived, difficult to express, it does not find
it altogether impossible to express.69
Once the Eleatic Stranger has brought the essentially dyadic character of
being into relief, he has to introduce two more classes, namely same and
other. Rational discourse, or logos, concerning being, change, and rest discloses the fact that change and rest are each, like every other eidos, the same
as itself and other than another, and that being, though other than change
taken by itself, and other than rest taken by itself, is the same as change and
rest together.70 Being, change, rest, same, and other—these are the five
greatest classes, the megista genē.71 They are presented by the Eleatic
Stranger as intimately bound up with each other. None of them is by itself;
and the same is true of everything else that is. “To separate each thing from
all [things] is the uttermost obliteration of all logoi. For the logos has come
to be for us through the interweaving of eidē with one another.”72 But
GMT. 96. Ibid., 87; Sophist 250a8.
Note the role that perplexities about number play in “leading by nature to noēsis” and
“drawing toward being (ousia)”—R.523a1 ff; cf. 524b3. Consider Seventh Epistle, 342e
2–243a4, in light of 341b7–d 2; cf. 342c4–d 2.
As Klein’s own impressive study bears out.
This disclosure is an act of discovery, not of constitution. Klein says, “Only dialectic can
open up the realm of true being, can give the ground for the powers of the dianoia and can
reveal Being and the One and the Good as they are—beyond all time and opposition—in
themselves and in truth.” (GMT 79). Klein also says, curiously and without elaboration, that
the dianoia (which is presumably not beyond time) “causes” noēta to underlie aisthēta (76;
cf. 78). It is not clear how he thought these two statements could be brought into agreement
with each other.
Sophist 254b7–255e6.
Sophist 259e4–6. The Eleatic Stranger is saying here that there could not even be logos
for us unless the eidē interwove. For contemporary thinkers, the great question about the
eidē is how multiple (sensible) individuals can participate in one (intelligible) eidos. But for
Plato, the greater question concerns the community (koinō nia) of the eidē, that is, how and
to what extent one eidos can participate in another eidos. GMT 86–99.
whereas change and rest are, so to speak, components of being, same and
other are principles of being. That is to say, being, as the eidetic dyad of
change and rest,73 is founded on the yet more original dyad of same and
other. But the founding and more original character of same and other
does not mean that these two principles exist apart from what they found,
the eidetic dyad of change and rest that is being. Same and other are immanent, not transcendent, archai of being. At the same time, as we have seen,
same and other are present in the self-evident and logically equivalent
archai of non-contradiction, of the excluded middle, and of propositional identity, which motor the logos throughout its activity.
But, one might say, the presentation of the megista genē in the Sophist
is not Socrates’ doing, but the Eleatic Stranger’s. True. But Socrates does
not object to it.74 (At the beginning of the Statesman, which is the immediate sequel to the Sophist, Socrates expresses his appreciation to Theodorus
for introducing him to the Eleatic Stranger.) According to Klein, the “the
good,” which Socrates speaks of in the Republic (and speaks of as “the
good and binding,” in the Phaedo) and “the limit,” which he speaks of in
the Philebus, are different names for one and the same principle, which the
Eleatic Stranger calls “the same” in the Sophist, and renames as “the precise itself’ in the Statesman. The same principle is called “the one,” in the
Parmenides.75 This single principle, called by different names in different
settings, is the archē that is responsible for unity, limitation, and definiteness. It is responsible for the distinctness of different forms, hence for their
As for what the Eleatic Stranger calls “the other,” which has a kind of
doubleness by virtue of its implicit reference to what it is other than, this
Sophist 250a4 ff. See GMT 88: “The strange koinō nia among on, kinēsis, and stasis
[being, change, and rest] is none other than that between ‘being’ and ‘non-being.’” Cf. 87.
96. Note that the Eleatic Stranger is not declaring an identity of opposites, of the kind that
one meets with in Hegel, in the Science of Logic more than anywhere else. The Eleatic
Stranger is not saying that the opposites, change and rest, are identical, but rather that being
is no third “thing” in addition to them. Being is, rather, the togetherness of the two opposites. It is not the identity of, but the tension between, change and rest.
In the Theaetetus, at 185a8–b 2 (cf. 203c4–d5), Socrates uses a formulation that the
Eleatic Stranger will later use in speaking about being. Sophist 243d8–244a2 (cf. 250a8–12).
Socrates uses this formulation elsewhere as well. See GMT 79 ff.; Hippias Major
301d5–302b3; R.524b2–c1.
“About Plato’s Philebus” (in The Lectures and Essays of Jacob Klein, Annapolis: St. John’s
College Press, 1985), 324.
Socrates calls the “more and the less.”76 Now in this dyad of more and less,
the two members blur into each other, as do pleasure and pain as well.77
Similarly, what is great in one context is small in another. According to
Aristotle, this archē was understood by Plato to be the indeterminate dyad
(aoristos dyas).78 The number two, whether a sensible dyad, the mathematical dyad, or the eidetic dyad (again, being, as change and rest, both
together), is, however, not an indeterminate dyad. As a number it is a determinate dyad. The number two, and every other number of whatever kind,
owes its being more than one to the indeterminate dyad. But it owes its
being one number—and every number is one number—to the principle of
determinateness, again, variously called “the same,” “the precise itself,”
“the good,” “the limit,” and “the one.”79 Neither of these two archai is
presented by Plato as reducible to or derivable from the other.
Cf. Philebus 24a7–25a4. Compare 25a6–b2.
Ph. 60b1–c7; R.583c1–584a7.
GMT 83. “[T]he aoristos dyas is the archē of all duality and thus of all multiplicity.” See,
“About Plato’s Philebus,” 323–324; Metaphysics 1081a5–b33; 1082a13. For further mention by Aristotle of the indeterminate dyad, also referred to as the great and the small, see
Klein, Lectures and Essays, “A Note on Plato’s Parmenides,” 285. The Platonic dialogues
contain multiple allusions to the indeterminate dyad, though not by this name. To stay just
with the Phaedo and the Republic, and to cite just a few examples from these, consider: Ph.
69a8–9; 70e6–71a4; 75c9 (“the equal” here names “the one” or “the same”; “the greater”
and “the lesser” names the indeterminate dyad); 96d8–e1 (and compare with the “more
distinct” determinate dyad in 96e1–e4); 102b5–6; R. 438b3–c4; 479a5–b7; 523e1–525a 4;
605c1–2. The expression, “the archē [sing.] of the whole” (R.511b6) should not be interpreted as meaning that this principle, “the idea of the good” (or “the one,” fn. 75, supra)
produces (much less creates!) everything else, but that it rules (archei) everything else,
including even the indeterminate dyad. The latter, as underivable, is an archē; but it is a subordinate archē.
Metaphysics 1081a14–15: “number is [derived] from the one and the indeterminate
dyad” (ho gar arithmos estin ek tou henos kai tēs dyados tēs aoristou). Klein interprets Plato as
identifying “the one” with “the whole” (GMT 98). But the text from the Sophist that Klein
cites in support of this interpretation, 244d–245d, does not, in my opinion, bear it out. To
be sure, the whole is not two or more wholes; it is only one whole. But the whole is not
identical to the very archē that is responsible for its being one whole. It is this archē, and not
that of which it is an archē, that is the one (or the good, the same, the precise itself, or the
limit). In support of his interpretation in GMT, Klein also cites Parmenides 137c and 142d.
But in these passages Parmenides is expounding his own view, not that of (the young)
Socrates, who is only his interlocutor. Klein shows that something of capital importance is
overlooked by Parmenides, though, as Klein points out with marvelous perspicacity, it is
mimetically and ironically present in the dialogue. See “A Note on Plato’s Parmenides,”
285–287. Klein may have come to have doubts about whether, for Plato, “the whole” could
be identified with “the one.” Cf. ibid., 324: “and perhaps the Whole.”
These observations do not constitute so much as a sketch, much less a
defense, of Plato’s account of being. I make them chiefly to bring into
relief the affinity that logos, quickened by the principle of non-­contradiction
(and its logical equivalents), has for being and its principles.80 This affinity
is responsible for the teleological movement of the logos, which is movement toward knowledge of what is.
Doubts about the Forms
Though the Platonic dialogues advance sound arguments for forms, that
is, for aspatial and atemporal principles of what, according to the Republic,
is intelligible and is without qualification (to ontō s on),81 and for these principles’ being distinct from the perishable and sensible things that we mistakenly take to be genuinely real, it is sometimes suggested that Plato was
not quite serious about the forms. In the Phaedo, Socrates refers Cebes to
what he says he has never stopped speaking about, both at other times and
in the logos that has just occurred: he will try to show Cebes the form
(eidos) of the cause he has concerned himself with and will go back to what
he calls ekeina ta polythrylēta, hypothesizing some beautiful itself by itself,
and a good, and a great, and all the others.82 This Greek expression can be
translated as “those much babbled-about things.” But it can also be translated as “those much repeated things.”83 Still, even if by ekeina ta
polythrylēta Socrates meant “those much babbled about things,” it does
not follow that he did not take the forms seriously. Plato, or Plato’s
Socrates, surely recognized that what he had discovered could become
“sedimented” in the speculations of his followers to the point that what
was most remarkable about it could get lost sight of, even come to be
“babbled about.” Moreover, like the Eleatic Stranger, Socrates seems to
have thought that the logos, on nearing and at the height of its ascent,
According to Aristotle the principle of non-contradiction, the investigation of which
“belongs to the philosopher,” is a principle both of being and of analytics, that is, logic. See
Metaphysics 1005a19–1005b2; 1005b17–22. According to Thomas Aquinas the principle of
non-contradiction is the ratio entis et non entis. See Summa Theologiae (hereafter, ST), 1–2,
q. 94 art. 2.
R.490b4. Cf, Phaedrus 247c 8, e 1.
Ph. 100b1–c2; 76d8. Cf. 65b3; R. 507a6–c1.
Cebes does not ask about this “babbling,” if that’s what he understood Socrates to
mean. Instead, he is eager to hear Socrates out. And Cebes is said to be, and shows himself
to be, somewhat skeptical. Ph. 63a1–3; 77a6–9; 87e6–88a–b8.
c­ annot easily express what it discovers. And this is indeed a limitation of
logos.84 But, again, it is a limitation that logos itself discovers.85
The denial of forms is the denial that there are intelligible principles of
sensible things. Without such principles, there would be no knowledge of
anything. The suspicion that Plato might not have really thought that there
were forms such as Socrates speaks of them in the Republic and Phaedo may
stem from a concern that the forms, particularly if they are thought to be
eternal, sound a bit too much like something divine and from the conviction that a genuine philosopher cannot take the possibility of the divine
seriously. But there is nothing “mystical,” much less religious, about the
forms. The forms as they are presented in the Platonic dialogues are impersonal. They are intelligible;86 but they seem not to be intelligent.87 They are
surely not presented as possessing free choice, without which they are incapable of contingently revealing themselves, on their own inscrutable initiative, to this man rather than that one. It is, in any case, not the possibility
of the divine as such, but only of the divine as capable of freely revealing
itself, or rather himself, to man, that poses a problem for philosophy.88
In the passage from the Phaedo cited above, it is not forms as intelligible principles that
are called ta polythrulēta, but rather “some beautiful by itself, etc.” This is a likely reference
to the so-called “third man problem” (Parmenides 132c12–133a7; Metaphysics 990b15–17;
1079a11–13; cf. 1031b28–30; R.597c1–d2), which, as Plato surely recognized, can be easily
resolved by denying that the form of, for example, a man, or what all men as such have in
common, is itself man, or a man. If an individual man participates (metechei) in the eidos of
man, it does not follow that the individual man and the eidos man participate together in a
third something that is “man” or “a man” in any sense of that word. Cf. R.472b5–c3.
According to Maimonides, form is a principle of necessary determination and limitation
and a properly philosophical concept. It is the believer—not the philosopher—who, in trying
to make a case for the possibility of miracles, reduces forms to accidents merely. Guide of the
Perplexed (translated by Shlomo Pines, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), Volume
1, 206–208. Maimonides goes so far as to fault believers who, in arguing against philosophers, invoke a fundamental distinction between form and matter, for this is, strictly speaking, “a philosophical doctrine.” Ibid. 227. It is hardly coincidental that William of Ockham,
the most fideistic and least rationalistic among the great Scholastics in matters of theology,
argues relentlessly against the reality of universals, that is, of forms Platonically conceived.
According to Strauss, forms, or to use his expression “natures” (note the plural), are immutable principles of limitation and necessity, not of freedom. Natural Right and History
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 90.
See Sophist 248e6–249b6; though consider Socrates’ formulation at R.526 e4–5: to
eudaimonestaton tou ontos.
No one in recent times recognized this better than Strauss. See “Progress or Return”
(Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity), 117; compare Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,
149–154. In the lecture, “Reason and Revelation” (in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the
Socrates’ discovery, achieved by “taking refuge in logoi and looking in
them for the truth of beings,” of a supersensible region of immutable and
intelligible principles, in light of which alone we can make any sense at all
of the world with which we are familiar, is as momentous as any in the history of philosophy. Passages that could appear to be hints to the effect that
there are no forms can be interpreted, instead, as expressing only a recognition of the enormous difficulty, though not the utter impossibility, of
the ascent and descent of the logos described in the Republic. To support
the view that Plato did not take the forms seriously, one would have to
show that the arguments advanced on their behalf in the dialogues are
irremediably flawed. One cannot do this by appeal to dramatic context
alone. Dramatic context, though it must be considered in any attempt at
a comprehensive interpretation of a Platonic dialogue, cannot render
unsound a sound argument that occurs within it or elsewhere. Parmenides
raises questions about the forms in the Platonic dialogue named after him.
But not all the criticisms he advances are directed at the forms, and those
that are so directed are not difficult to blunt.89 Aristotle’s criticism of the
Theological Political Problem, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Strauss says
that “Since no demonstration can presuppose the demonstrandum, philosophy is radically
atheistic” (146). Given the context, the protasis, and the emphasis that Strauss places on
“radically,” rather than “atheistic” in the apodosis, I interpret him to be elaborating his earlier claim that philosophy originates, not with the acceptance of something on the authority
of someone else, but with the demand for a demonstration. (145). A few lines after his “radically atheistic” formulation, Strauss says, “Plato’s and Aristotle’s attempts to demonstrate the
existence of God far from proving the religious [!] character of their teachings, actually disprove it.” (On the distinction between theism and deism, see Kant, Critique of Pure Reason,
B 660–661.) Note what Strauss says about “natural theology” on pages 153, 155, and 162
of “Reason and Revelation”; on page 219 of “How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy”
(in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, edited by Thomas Pangle, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1989); on page 129 of “Progress or Return” (in Jewish Philosophy
and the Crisis of Modernity); and on page 381 of “Jerusalem and Athens” (also in Jewish
Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity). Consider Strauss’ use of the expression, “rational
truths about divine things,” on page 20 of Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe IL:
The Free Press, 1952).
Parmenides advances six distinct criticisms pertaining to the forms (or ideas—eidos and
idea are used interchangeably, e.g., at 132a1–3; cf. Theaetetus 203e4). Here is the briefest of
summaries. The first criticism (130a8–e4) is that the young Socrates has excessively narrowed
the region of the forms (cf. R.596a4–7). The second criticism (130e4–131e7) is that Socrates
has mistakenly (and even inconsistently—compare 130b1–6 and 131a8–10) situated the
forms within individual things rather than separate from them. (On the great and the small,
see the texts cited in fn. 78, supra.) The third criticism (131e8–132b2, which overlaps with
the second criticism), likewise the fifth criticism (132c12–133a7), is essentially the “third
man” objection, already addressed in fn. 85, supra. The fourth criticism (132b2–c11) is that
Platonic conception of the forms is that, if they are separate from the sensible individuals of which they are forms, then they cannot be causative of
these individuals. The Platonic countercriticism is that if the forms are
literally within the sensible individuals, then they cannot be intelligible; for
then there would be a different form of each individual, in which case,
many individuals could not be members of a single species. What we call
“abstraction” today does not solve this problem. For such abstraction presupposes the prior recognition that individual things have something in
common. Without this prior recognition, abstraction is impossible, and
with it, abstraction is unnecessary. The human intellect can surely make
the universal a theme for itself. But it does this only by paying close attention to it, not by producing it—as though things would have nothing in
common unless we humans made them have something in common.90
There is a difference between Plato and Aristotle regarding the forms. It
turns, however, not on their existence but on the nature of their relation
to individuals and to each other. Aristotle agrees with Plato and with
Plato’s Socrates that if there were no forms, or universals of some kind,
there would be no epistemē.91
According to Socrates, knowledge is not of what is visible, that is, of
what comes to be and passes away, but of what is (or being, to on) and is
invisible.92 By “what is,” or “being” he means preeminently what is, not
for a while only, but always.93 As for why we are inclined to regard material
the forms cannot be thoughts in the soul. Like the second criticism it reinforces the separateness thesis. The sixth criticism (133a8–134e8) concerns not the existence of the (atemporal)
forms but how they are related to each other, and how they can be known by us, as well also
how worldly things can be known by the (ostensibly atemporal) god, if there is such being.
These are serious questions, to say the least. But in no way do they, or any of the prior criticisms, require jettisoning the forms. It is striking that, after advancing his criticisms and
insisting on the difficulty of the matter, Parmenides asserts that he who denies the forms
“totally destroys the possibility of discourse” (tēn tou dialegesthai dynamin pantapasi diaphtherei)—in which case, what can one make of philosophy? (134e9–135c7).
Kant argues otherwise. But he is consistent enough to argue that the human intellect is
responsible not only for universals but for individuals as well, to the extent that they too are
wholes and not just manifolds of unconnected, pointillist, data. Critique of Pure Reason, B
Posterior Analytics 75b21–40; Metaphysics 1003a13–17; cf. 1039b27–1040a7;
R.476e5–477a3; 479e4–6; 509b1–8; 525b3–5; 527a1–b 4; 533e2–534a5. Cf. Strauss,
Natural Right and History, 89–90.
things, things that we can squeeze with our hands,94 as what really is,
Socrates gives a startling but powerful answer in the Phaedo.
The soul of every man is necessitated, at the same time when it is vehemently pleased or pained by something, also to suppose that by which most
of all it suffered this to be what is most manifest and most true, though it is
not so; and these are most of all [the] visible things.95
We suppose sensible things to be the truth of things because they please
and pain us more vehemently than things that are intelligible. And every
man, the philosopher included, makes this supposition when vehemently
pleased or pained. When the vehement pleasure or pain passes, most people, remembering this experience, continue to think that what is sensible
is what is most true.96 But, as Socrates makes clear both before and after
the passage quoted above, the philosopher departs from most people. For
he recognizes that there is no intrinsic relation between the vehemence of
a feeling and the truth of being. Materialism cannot account for
­intelligibility. For the intelligible is true, and truth is inconceivable as a
piece or attribute of matter. Falsehood, too, is inconceivable as a piece or
attribute of matter. Materialism cannot even understand itself to be a piece
or attribute of matter. Materialism is the least rational and most easily
refutable of all opinions commonly held by human beings. Not only can it
make no sense of truth and falsity, and of knowledge and ignorance, it can
make no sense of human action either. Socrates explicitly denies that citing
of any number of material facts about the makeup of his body can make
sense of why he refuses to escape from jail and avoid execution when he
has the opportunity to do so. Needless to say, he could not be sitting in jail
Sophist 247c 5–7.
Ph. 83c5–8 (83b5–d6). See. R.584c1 586c5.
Even a non-philosophical but nonetheless thoughtful human being is inclined to take
the sensible as what is most true. How else are we to interpret a mathematician’s otherwise
inexplicable statement that “knowledge is nothing other than perception”? Theaetetus
151e1. As Socrates shows in the sequel, this statement reduces to the thesis of relativism,
which is incapable of extricating itself from itself and from contradiction upon contradiction.
(Cf. Metaphysics 1009b2–1011a2.) Though the Theaetetus addresses the question of what
logos is (206c7–210a9), it focuses chiefly on the characteristics of individuals rather than of
types, that is, of eidē. See F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (New York: The
Liberal Arts Press, 1957), 161–163. That eidē, the proper objects of knowledge, do not get
thematically considered is the chief reason why this dialogue does not get very far in saying
what knowledge is.
without his bones, ligaments, and so forth being arranged in a certain way.
But an appeal to such things as bones, ligaments—and even the brain, we
must add—in attempting to account for his refusal to escape and avoid
execution confuses material causes with final causes, for which there is no
meaningful substitute. Such an appeal cannot make sense of choice (hairesis). The materialist’s substitution of material causes for final causes is due
to the laziness (or heedlessness—rathymia) of his logos.97
The Socratic “what is….?” question projects us beyond the material,
sensible world of individuals to their intelligible principles, beyond becoming to being. The Platonic dialogues never present the comprehensive
achievement of logos that Socrates describes in the Republic—the dialectical ascent to the archē of the whole and the consequent descent to the
derivative eidē in their completeness, that is, the consummation of philosophia in sophia—as an accomplished fact. But the dialogues do present the
beginning of the dialectical ascent, through destruction of hypothesis after
hypothesis. These hypotheses are typically destroyed by being canceled
out. But to the extent that the dialectical ascent that Socrates describes in
the Republic is successful, then the consequent, largely deductive, descent
may destroy some hypotheses as hypotheses by actually validating them and
thereby turning them too into non-hypothetical knowledge.
Philosophy in its original meaning is the “quest for the true and final
account of the whole.”98 As such, it cannot be solely about itself or solely
about the tension between itself and something else, such as the city, nomos,
“moralism,” or religion. Philosophy must attempt to give an account of
what is. It is not only ontology; but it is largely ontology. It should not
speak only of being; but it must speak of being nevertheless. For only if
philosophy is capable of giving a reasoned account, a logos, of being can it
achieve clarity about such things as the distinction between what is necessary, what is actual, what is possible, and what is impossible. Without clarity about these things, philosophy cannot say what it means by nature and
the natural. Nor can it coherently entertain the question of a greatest
possible being, which if indeed possible would be both necessary in itself
Ph. 98c2–99b4. In giving the cause for why he does not flee, Socrates speaks of what is
just and fine, and of choosing what is best. He does not mention what is most pleasant or
least painful in this context. What is pleasant and painful is, for Socrates, primarily something
to be inquired into. It is the first thing that he speaks of after telling Crito to have Xanthippe
taken away. Ph. 60a7–c7. On the irreplaceability of a final cause in human action, see
Metaphysics 994b 9–16; cf. Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter, NE) 1094a1–22.
Strauss, “Reason and Revelation,” 142.
and free in its relation to what is beneath it99—an ontological question
that has an indirect but not insignificant bearing on the philosophical critique of the moral presuppositions of belief in revelation.100 Philosophy
has to occupy itself not just with what comes to be and what passes away,
but of with what is, with what is always—if there is such a thing. Only in
that way can it hope to validate itself definitively as the most choiceworthy
way of life for those who have the wherewithal to live it.
The intellectual apprehension (noēsis) of being, of its principles and its
articulation, is the telos of logos. More precisely, it is the speculative telos of
logos. The question now arises, does logos have a practical telos as well and,
if so, how are these two telē related?
Following the logos in Action
In the Republic, Socrates attempts to determine what justice is by locating
it first in the city and then in the human soul. In the most just regime
conceivable, those who are wise, namely the guardians or philosopher-­
kings, would rule the multitude with the assistance of the soldiers or auxiliaries. In the soul, Socrates says, there is something preventing (kōluon)
us from letting the baser appetites, those we share with irrational animals,
have what they want, and as much of it as they want, whenever they want
it.101 This preventing comes from reasoning (or calculation—ek logismou).
Socrates calls the part of the soul by which it reasons (or calculates
­logizetai) the logistikon.102 It reasons in the ways we have already considered. But it also masters (kratei), and it does so rationally. It is proper
(prosēkei) for the logistikon to rule within the soul. The logistikon engages
in deliberation (bouleuomenon). It ought to rule (or should rule; there is
no difference—dein archein; it often does not rule).103 If we translate logos
as “reason,” we can say that one and the same reason has two distinct functions, one theoretical and one practical. The logistikon is the logos chiefly in
its practical function. And so Socrates can say that what should not be
ST 1, q. 19 art. 4, co; ad 4; Duns Scotus, Quaestiones Quodlibetales q. 16 art. 2, n. 33;
Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, 153–154.
Genesis 1:26.
R.441e3–442d2; cf. 428a1–429a4; 443c6–445a1.
done is determined, not only by the logistikon, but by logos.104 As in the
just city, the philosopher-kings rule the multitude, so, in the just man, the
logistikon, the part of the soul that is rational, rules the part of the soul that
is irrational and appetitive (alogistikon te kai epithymētikon). The logistikon
accomplishes this rule with the assistance of spirit (or spiritedness—thymos) or “the spirited” (to thymoeides), a third part of the soul, which is by
nature an ally of the logistikon in ruling the baser desires, if it has not been
corrupted by a bad upbringing.105
One might say that it is not the logistikon itself that reasons and rules;
it is, rather, the whole soul that does this, though through the logistikon.106
But the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of discord or faction (stasis)
within the soul causes its wholeness to be something of a problem. It
would be odd to say that the whole soul, by means of the rational part of
the soul, prevents the whole soul from pursuing what it longs for with the
irrational part of the soul, and that the whole soul accomplishes this prevention with the assistance of the spirited part of the soul. What is at stake
here is not, for Socrates, just a matter of stylistic nicety. For in saying that
the soul as whole prevents itself from pursuing something that it nonetheless longs for implies the very concept of self-mastery, and hence of radical
self-determination, that Socrates calls into question.107 If, on the other
hand, one part of the soul rules another part through the assistance of a
third part, then no single part of the soul rules, masters, or determines itself.
Socrates, with his division of the soul into three parts,108 each with its own
proper function, is able to arrive at something of a solution to the difficult
problem he sets for himself,109 though this solution does not come without a qualification.110 Socrates can speak of what the just man, by ruling
R.439d 2–440b4; 440e3–441b2; cf. 435e1–3; 441c2–5. In these passages from the
Republic, Socrates refers to the parts of the soul as different eidē in the soul (e.g., 439e2),
and also as genē (443d5–6). That the soul is not some fourth eidos in addition to the rational,
spirited, and desiring eidē, but all three together, and that the virtue of justice is not some
fourth eidos in addition to the virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation, but rather (when
each of the three parts of the soul is functioning properly) these three virtues together
(427e5–428a6; 432b2–435c3; 441c3–e2)—all this suggests that the soul is an eidetic triad.
And its virtue, justice (though only if understood Socratically), is an eidetic triad too.
Note the formulation at R.439d4.
R.430e3–431b 2; 436a5–e6; 437b1–d1; 439c5; 440a 1–b4. Cf. Phaedrus 237d6–238c4.
Or into at least three parts: R443e1; 588b6–e2; Phaedrus 229e4–230a6; 238a3. Cf.
Philebus 63c3 and Heraclitus, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Vol. 1, Frag. 45, p. 161.
R.436a5; cf. 441c3–4; 444d5–8.
Note the formulation “hypothemenoi [!] hō s toutou houtō s echontos….” at R.437a5–7.
himself (arxanta auton hautou),111 is able to accomplish without having to
accept a radical conception of freedom of the will according to which what
(in one respect) rules is really the same as what (in other respect) is ruled.
Socrates says that the just man orders (kosmei) himself, becomes a friend
to himself, and harmonizes the three parts (or entities—onta) within his
soul. He becomes one from many.112 The just man’s soul is characterized
by integrity. Now since, on Socrates’ account, justice is not a fourth virtue
apart from the virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation, but is all
three of these together, a man cannot be just without being wise,113 to the
extent that wisdom is possible for human beings. The just man is the philosopher. The philosopher’s soul is characterized by integrity. Its three
parts fit together harmoniously.
Socrates has earlier argued that philosophers rule only reluctantly. They
rule because of necessity and as a penalty.114 They rule because they do not
wish to be ruled by a worse man, especially by a man who is hostile to philosophy. For philosophers, kingship is a burden. Rather than deliberating
about political affairs, philosophers would prefer to philosophize, that is,
to think about what is and to engage in conversations about it with their
friends. One might expect Socrates to suggest or indicate that the philosopher-kings rule the auxiliaries and the multitude only for the philosopher-­
kings’ own happiness, that is, for their security in philosophizing. What he
explicitly says, however, is that they must rule, not only for their own happiness but for the happiness and benefit of the city as a whole.115 Presumably,
the auxiliaries and the multitude benefit from being ruled by the philosopher-kings. And so we can infer, analogously, that the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul benefit from being ruled by logos, by the logistikon.
Logos in its speculative endeavors surely benefits from the good order of the
soul as a whole: it impossible to reason clearly and at length if one’s soul is
racked by the irascible and concupiscible passions. But, Socrates says more
than this. In his practical endeavors, that is, when he acts, whether in
acquiring money, in looking after his body, in political matters, or in p
­ rivate
R. 443d4–5.
R. 443c6–444a2.
R. 428a1–429a5; 442c3–6. This account of justice enables Socrates to (tacitly) dispose
of a concern voiced earlier by Glaucon. (361b4–362c7). If Socrates is right, the just man,
being wise, would not act so foolishly as to convince everyone else, the gods included, that
he is actually unjust. See NE 1133b29–34; 1107a2; 1134a7–13. If the virtue of justice is a
mean between doing injustice and suffering injustice, then not only the extreme of (habitually) doing injustice but the extreme of (habitually) suffering injustice also is a vice.
R.347c1–d 2; cf. 540a2–b4.
R.420b1–421c5; 519e1–520a4.
contracts, the just man (the philosopher) holds just and noble actions to be
those that preserve the harmony of his soul, and he holds that wisdom and
knowledge supervise these actions.116 This is not “moralism,” to be sure.
But it is internal harmony and wholeness—or consistency, which is to say,
again, integrity—not solely in speculation but in action as well. The speculative and practical telē of logos, knowledge and justice, are related inasmuch as neither can be attained without consistency.
We find a similar account of the rule of logos in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle speaks of two parts of the human soul, one irrational (alogon) and
the other possessing logos.117 Shortly afterwards, he makes a division within
the irrational part. On the one hand, there is that which is common to all
living things and is responsible for nutrition and growth. On the other hand,
there seems to be some other nature of the soul, irrational though [unlike
the nutritive part ] participating somehow in logos.118 We praise the logos and
the [part] of the soul possessing logos of both the self-restrained [man] and
[!] the unrestrained [man],119 for it urges (parakalei) rightly and toward the
things that are best; but there appears to be in them [i.e., in both the
restrained and the unrestrained man] also something else by nature contrary
to the logos, which fights and resists the logos.120
A little later Aristotle says of this puzzling part of the soul—puzzling
because, though irrational, it nonetheless participates in reason and yet
resists, even naturally resists, reason—that it
obeys the logos,121 and no doubt more heedful (isō s euēkoō teron) [to the logos]
is the [part of the soul participating in reason] of the moderate and courageous man, for all [parts of his soul] harmonize (homphonei) with the logos.122
NE 1102a27–28.
NE 1102b13–14: eoike de kai allē tis physis tēs psychsēs alogos einai, metechousa pēi logou.
Cf. 1098a4–5.
Ibid, 1102b14–15. In the Republic, Socrates repeatedly speaks of the three parts of the
soul as being “in each of us;” for example, 435e2; 441c4–5; e1; 580d2 and 581b6–7. Cf.
Phaedrus 237d6.
NE 1102b13–18. Cf. Politics 1254b4–10; Thomas Aquinas ST 1, q. 81 art. 3, ad 2; 1–2
q. 9 art. 2, ad 3; q. 58 art. 2, co.; q. 104 art. 1, ad 3; de Malo q. 3 art. 9, ad 14; de Virtute q.
1, art. 4, co., ad 7.
NE 1102b26. The word I translate here as “obeys” is peitharchei. It is a stronger word
for “obey” than the middle-passive of peithō . Aristotle’s formulation, peitharchei tō i logō i,
could be glossed as “obeys the logos as its ruler.”
NE 1102b26–28. Compare 1106b36–1107a6; 1143a8–9.
Shortly afterwards, Aristotle repeats his claim that this part of the soul,
though irrational, nonetheless participates in logos, “hearkening (katēkoon)
and obedient (peitharchikon) to it.”123 Clearly, this part of the soul cannot
obey, or disobey, the logos unless the logos commands. The relation between
the two telē of speculative and practical logos consists not just in consistency but also in the authority that logos exerts, or ought to exert, in both
thought and action.
The understanding, common to Plato and to Aristotle, of logos as something to be followed in speculation and obeyed in action is common to the
Christian scholastics of the Middle Ages as well.124 Natural reason (ratio
naturalis) is the plane on which they conduct their disputations with the
philosophers.125 The contemporary understanding of reason, not as an
authoritative ruler, but as a kind of servant, is anticipated by Hobbes. The
possibility of coming out “the ill condition that mere nature puts man in”
consists, he says:
partly in the passions, partly in his reason. The passions that incline men to
peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious
living, and hope by their industry to attain them. And reason suggesteth [!]
convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.126
Surprising as this passage is to anyone who has taken seriously the Greek
and medieval claim that it is the proper office of reason not to make sug123
NE 1102b30–31. Cf. 1143a9; 1168b28–1169a18; 1177a15; De Anima 432b5–7;
433a 22–30. See Metaphysics 1015a31–33.
Cf. ST 1, q. 77 art. 3, ad 4; q. 79 art. 8, co.; art. 9, co.; art. 11, arg. 2, ad 2; art. 12 co.,
ad 3; 1–2 q. 17 art. 1; q. 91 art. 2, arg. 2, ad 2.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 1, cap.2. ST 1, q. 2 art. 2, ad 1.
Leviathan, edited by Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994), 78. Hobbes does
say shortly afterwards that “a law of nature is a precept or general rule, found out by reason,
by which a man is forbidden to do what is destructive of his life….” He even speaks of reason
and judgment as dictating to man how he is to use his power (79; cf. 92). Still, Hobbes’s law
of nature is more fundamental than reason, which does not constitute this law but only discovers it. (Contrast Thomas Aquinas ST 1–2, q. 94 art. 1, co.) Hobbes’ law of nature is conducive
to the preservation of life and comfort. It is not conducive to the approximation of any end
proper to reason, either in thought or in action. (Contrast ST 1–2, q. 94 art. 2, co.) Cf. Descartes,
Discourse on Method, Part 1, concluding sentence of the penultimate paragraph.
gestions regarding the passions but to rule them, it is not as dismaying as
the following statement by David Hume: “Reason is, and ought only to
be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office but
to serve and obey them.”127 This statement, like that by Hobbes, occurs in
a passage considering the role of reason in action. The following statement
by Heidegger concerns the role of reason in speculation. “Thinking begins
only when we have experienced that reason, venerated for centuries, is the
most obstinate adversary of thinking.”128 The progressive contemning of
reason that one finds in modernity does not occur without interruption.129
Nonetheless, the general reevaluation of the proper function of reason
must be recognized, along with the new orientation in political philosophy and the emergence of mathematical physics, as one of the differences
establishing the fault line that separates the ancients, and the medievals
too, from most of the moderns. It is arguably the deepest and most consequential difference of the three.
Though the ancients understood reason more deeply than the moderns, their understanding left one large difficulty unresolved. Aristotle, in
the passages quoted above, makes this difficulty explicit, though Plato is
hardly unaware of it.130 There is something in the human soul that resists
the logos.131 Why and exactly how this part of the soul, a part that Aristotle
A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 415 [there is no comma
after “be” in Hume’s text]. What Hume, of all people, could mean by “ought” in this sentence merits a study in its own right. Ibid. 469–470.
“Nietzsches Wort, ‘Gott ist Tot,’” Holzwege (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 4th edition, 1963), 247.
Kant, most conspicuously, insists on the teleological orientation of reason in the spheres
of both speculation and action but argues that the “unconditioned” toward which it naturally strives can be attained only in the latter sphere. Hegel, on the other hand, makes stronger claims for what reason can attain in the sphere of speculation than does any other
philosopher, ancient, medieval, or modern.
Compare R.440b4–c1 with 441e3–5 (oukoun tō i men logistikō i archein prosēkei…tō i de
thymoeidei hypēkoō i einai). The implication of the latter passage is that the spirited part of the
soul does not automatically obey the logistikon.
Cf. R.444a8–c1. Aristotle, after stating the problem in its most salient form (NE
1145b22–29; cf. 1146b24–31) and laboring mightily to solve it (1146b31–1147b14), not
altogether successfully in my opinion, says only that what Socrates sought to establish—that
is, that incontinence, or lack of self-restraint, is due solely to a kind of ignorance (which is not
itself freely chosen and hence not, strictly speaking, morally culpable)—is likely (eoike) the
case (1147b15).
says is not just irrational but somehow rational too,132 can and often does
resist reason is answered neither by Plato nor by Aristotle. This question
becomes a matter of increasing interest and, indeed, urgency to the medieval thinkers, who were familiar not only with the terrain of Athens but
with that of Jerusalem as well.
Compare R.440e2–4, 441a3–4, 441c2, and 441c3: “we have swum through these
things with difficulty.”
Philosophy, Eros, and the Socratic Turn
Mark J. Lutz
In some dialogues, Socrates describes philosophy as a form of erotic love,
and he occasionally includes himself among those philosophers who are
moved by an erotic desire for wisdom or by an erotic desire for philosophy
(e.g. Gorgias 481d; Republic 474c–475c, 496c; see also Phaedrus
247c–250c, 255e–256c; Symposium 203d). At the same time, the dialogues present Socrates spending much of his mature life conversing with
non-philosophers or at least listening while other philosophers carry out
conversations of their own.1 Insofar as the philosopher is moved by a
needy and even obsessive love of learning, it seems to follow that these
conversations must somehow help him to gratify his erotic need for wisdom. But precisely what does Socrates learn from his conversations,
including not only the ones that we witness in the dialogues but also those
refutations of politicians, poets, and craftsmen that he describes in the
Apology (21b–23b)? After all, in nearly every dialogue, Socrates seems to
anticipate what his interlocutors are going to say or do in response to his
Other followers of Socrates who wrote dialogues about him reportedly include Aeschines,
Antisthenes, Alexamenus of Teos, Aristotle, Phaedo, Simon the shoemaker, and Xenophon.
M. J. Lutz (*)
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_7
always incisive questions and comments, leading us to wonder what he is
learning from these exchanges. One possibility is that he does not always
indulge his own love of learning but, for some reason, sometimes takes the
trouble to help others learn things. Another is that as an erotic human
being, he wishes to “procreate” or to “bring forth” some sort of “offspring,” and so he converses with many people, often in public, in order
to shape their lives (Symposium 209). In the Gorgias, Socrates claims that
he is an erotic man and that he feels erotic love for both philosophy and
Alcibiades (Gorgias 481d). He also claims that he practices “the political
art,” an art that appears to benefit those with whom he speaks (Gorgias
521d). Furthermore, the action of that dialogue suggests that one of his
chief purposes in the dialogue is to give Gorgias, or someone akin to
Gorgias, advice about how to use the art of rhetoric to help themselves
and others.2 Yet, in the Symposium, Alcibiades says that even though
Socrates professes to feel erotic love for him and for others, in truth,
Socrates loves no one and feels contempt for their beauty (Symposium
216d–e). Significantly, Socrates does not contradict him about this, even
though he was invited by Alcibiades to interrupt him if he said anything
that is untrue about Socrates (Symposium 214e–215a). Is Socrates so compelled by an erotic love for wisdom that in his heart of heart he wants only
to know “the beings” and cares nothing about the lives of particular
human beings (Republic 486a; Theaetetus 174a–b)? Or does his erotic
nature direct his attention to other human beings, offering him insights
into human nature that would elude other philosophers who care only
about knowing non-human nature or about contemplating eternal beings?
To clarify these matters, it is necessary to ask what Socrates means by
“erotic love,” what precisely is erotic about philosophy, and how such a
passion would lead the philosopher to converse with non-philosophers. A
full investigation of these questions would require an extensive and careful
analysis of every Platonic dialogue that touches upon these questions. Yet
it may also be useful to observe that in four dialogues Plato presents
Socrates at early stages of his philosophic endeavors, during the period
when he underwent his turn away from the study of “pre-Socratic” natural
philosophy and toward political philosophy. These dialogues are, from the
earliest presentation of Socrates to the latest, the Phaedo, the Parmenides,
the Symposium, and the Apology. The purpose of this study is to offer a
See Devin Stauffer, The Unity of Plato’s Gorgias (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010).
preliminary sketch of how these dialogues present Socrates’ development
into the mature philosopher whom we know from the dialogues, paying
particular attention to the roles that erotic love and conversation play in
his transformation.
The Phaedo
Socrates describes the earliest stages of the turn that led him to found
political philosophy in Plato’s Phaedo. On the day of his execution,
Socrates discusses his early life with a small group of friends and admirers.
He says that when he was young, he was filled with a “wondrous desire”
to know nature. He adds that he thought that it was a “magnificent” thing
to know the causes of all the beings (Phaedo 96a6–10). He sought to
know what causes each of the beings to come into being, endure, and perish, evidently wanting to confirm that every effect has a discernible cause
and that nothing comes into being out of nothing. Regarding growth, he
attempts to show that everything can be traced back to unchanging, fundamental elements, but his argument raises questions both about the
changes that take place during growth and also about the origin or cause
of the elements themselves. As Socrates presents it, the natural philosopher seeks to trace each of the elements back to some primary, underlying,
material necessity, or, as he calls it, to “an Atlas” that must “embrace and
hold together all things” (Phaedo 99b–c3). If the philosopher can show
the existence of such a fundamental necessity, then he will have made great
strides toward knowing the nature of the whole. Such knowledge would
be not only wondrous but also very controversial, insofar as it would show
not only that everything comes into being, endures, and passes away
according to intelligible necessities but also that there is no evidence of
any willful and mysterious gods who are free to alter what takes place in
the cosmos. The context provided by the Phaedo as a whole reminds the
readers of what is at stake in the philosopher’s seeking such knowledge
(Phaedo 64b; also, Apology 18c, 23d, 24b, 26d).
While pursuing this goal, the young Socrates became very disheartened
when he discovered a difficulty with coming to know causation itself.
Socrates says that he could not find a single cause that completely accounts
for how one and one become two. While one and one become two
through the combining of one unit with another unit, we can also make
two things out of one by separating a unit into two halves. Two seems to
come into being through two opposite kinds of causes, and so we cannot
say that we know of one, single cause that is always the cause of what is
two (Phaedo 96e–97b). He concluded that it is impossible to identify a
single cause for any single effect and thus that it is also impossible to provide the single, decisive, rational account of the cosmos that would fully
vindicate philosophy.
Socrates says that he was troubled by this discovery until he encountered a book by the philosopher Anaxagoras that claimed that everything
in the cosmos is guided by intellect. Socrates says that he was pleased by
this claim and that it inspired in him a “wondrous hope” (Phaedo 98b7).
He seemed to be especially attracted to Anaxagoras’ argument that intellect guides the whole because it would follow from this that everything in
the cosmos has been arranged in a way that is best. Socrates hopes that he
can learn that the cosmos is fully intelligible and that it is guided by mind
that provides what is best for everything in the cosmos and for the cosmos
itself. But Socrates reports that his youthful hopes about learning how
intellect guides the whole were dashed when he discovered that Anaxagoras’
book offers only a materialist account of causation and that the book fails
to account for how human beings, such as Socrates himself and the
Athenian jury, are manifestly moved by a concern with what seems best,
most just, and most noble (kallion). Socrates adds that he had hoped to
discover an “Atlas” that holds the world together on the basis of what is
good and of a necessary duty (Phaedo 99a–b, 99c).
Rather than abandon his attempt to learn about nature in the face of
these difficulties and disappointments, Socrates says that he approached
the study of nature in a new way. Calling this new approach his “second
sailing,” he stopped seeking out hidden yet fundamental causes of all that
is and turned his attention toward logois or to speeches (Phaedo 90d–e).
Socrates indicates that he believes that the study of speeches is no less
revealing than is the study of actions. Using speech to investigate each of
the beings, he seeks out the “look” or “form” (idea) of each being in
order to learn the class characteristics that enable us to recognize that a
particular thing belongs to a given class. Thus, he does not inquire into
the origins of each being but focuses instead on what each being is or on
how it manifests itself. Insofar as each form limits what comes into being
as a member of a specific class, that form is a cause of what comes into
being, endures, and passes away. Knowing the forms would give the philosopher some knowledge of a part of the whole, yet knowledge of the
different ideas would not necessarily provide Socrates with knowledge of
what binds the whole together nor of how everything is arranged for what
is best for everything and for the whole. Nor would it supply him the
exhaustive account of the whole that would be needed to exclude the possibility that the whole is ultimately unknowable or that purposive gods are
free to alter what comes into being and passes away. But knowing the form
of a being would provide him with some evidence that things come into
being, endure, and pass away in conformity to some intelligible, lasting,
and thus natural limitation.
When Socrates describes the kinds of being that he first examined, he
says that he studied the ideas of the beautiful (or the noble), the good, the
great, and “all the rest” (Phaedo 100b). Socrates does not explain why he
focused especially on the beings that are of the highest practical importance to human beings, leaving us to wonder if he believes that in learning
about these ideas he will come to know not only what causes juries to
render their verdicts and what causes men like Socrates to act as he does
but also whether there is a divine mind that arranges everything in the
cosmos so that it is in the condition that is best for it and for the cosmos
The Parmenides
Plato follows Socrates’ autobiographical remarks in the Phaedo with a dialogue reporting the young Socrates’ conversation with the philosophers
Parmenides and Zeno in the Parmenides. In that dialogue, the young
Socrates has developed what we call his “theory of the ideas” sufficiently
to present it to the two older philosophers as a new way of approaching
the question whether being is one or many. After Zeno argues that being
cannot be many, Socrates offers his own account of the ideas, saying that
there are a number of separate ideas and that all particular things partake
in these ideas. Parmenides expresses his admiration for Socrates, but he
also raises difficulties with the theory, emphasizing that Socrates cannot
readily explain how particular things participate in ideas that are entirely
separate from them nor how we can know of the ideas if they are truly
separate beings. After praising Socrates for advancing this account of the
ideas, Parmenides asks Socrates if he accepts that there are ideas of the just,
See the extensive and valuable commentaries on these passages by Peter Ahrensdorf (The
Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy, Albany: State University Press of New York,
1996) and Dustin Sebell (The Socratic Turn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
the beautiful, the good, and other such things, and the young Socrates
readily agrees. Parmenides follows this by asking if Socrates accepts that
there are also ideas of the human being and of fire and water; Socrates says
that he is at a loss, possibly because he is uncertain whether the ideas of
such beings can be separate from particular, sensible things in the same
way that the just, the beautiful, and the good can be separate from them.
But when Parmenides asks if there are separate ideas of hair, mud, and
dirt, and of other lowly and worthless things, Socrates says that he rejects
the thought that there are ideas of such things. But he says that he is
troubled when he considers that the same principle should apply to all,
and he abandons such thoughts because he fears that he will fall into foolishness and remains focused on the ideas of the just, the beautiful, and the
good. Parmenides says that Socrates says these things because he is still
young and not yet a philosopher. Parmenides predicts, however, that when
Socrates does take up philosophy, he will no longer focus on the opinions
of human beings (pros anthropon apoblepeis doxan) and will no longer dishonor any of the ideas (Parmenides 130c–e). While Parmenides is urging
Socrates to become aware of the obstacle that prevents him from becoming a genuine philosopher, he does not specify precisely what this obstacle
is beyond suggesting that it has something to do with his concern with the
opinions of human beings. Parmenides may consider the young Socrates’
focus on the highest beings to be un-philosophic or pre-philosophic
because it is narrow and because it shows that Socrates is not moved by a
desire to know all that is. But when Parmenides says that Socrates cares
too much about the opinions of human beings, he may mean not that
Socrates is overly sensitive to what others think about him but that Socrates
is moved by very common, human concerns and that these concerns tend
to distort how we understand ourselves and the world in which we live.
He may mean that Socrates must reconsider and overcome some of the
all-too-human concerns that animate him if he would become a true
At 134, Parmenides says that the “greatest difficulty” for anyone who
wants to argue for the ideas is that if the ideas are separate from the many
sensible, particular things, and if knowledge of the ideas is different than
knowledge of those particular things, then it follows that the ideas cannot
be known to us and that the gods, who would know the ideas, would not
have knowledge of human affairs. Socrates responds by saying that conclusions that deprive the gods of knowing are “wondrous” (Parmenides
134e). Having alerted Socrates to yet another important implication and
problem with the theory of the ideas, Parmenides encourages Socrates to
persist in thinking about them. He warns that he needs to learn that the
idea of each of the beings is always the same if he is to avoid being at a loss
and losing the power of conversation or of “dialectics” (Parmenides 135b).
When Socrates acknowledges that he does not know what to do next,
Parmenides says that Socrates’ urgent rush into “speeches” (logous) is
beautiful and divine but untrained (Parmenides 135c–d). Putting this
together with the earlier passage, Parmenides seems to believe that
Socrates’ youthful love of reasoned speeches about the highest ideas is
“beautiful and divine” but not “philosophic.” Following this, Parmenides
suggests that young Socrates can train himself to philosophize by paying
attention to what seems to be useless and what the many (ton pollon) call
“idle chatter,” namely long, reasoned arguments that hypothesize about
whether each of the beings is, or is not, in relation to itself and to other
beings (Parmenides 135d–136d). In an effort to show Socrates the kind of
argument that he must pursue in order to train himself for philosophy,
Parmenides converses with a youth named Aristotle, asking brief questions
and eliciting brief answers, about “the One” and its relation to subjects
such as being, sameness, time, and otherness. Becoming an expert in such
conversations might help the young Socrates to think and speak clearly
about what is and what is not. It would enable him to lead others through
subtle arguments, beginning from a premise that they accepted and helping them to discern the implications of that premise. Yet it is not immediately clear how becoming an expert in dialectics would help the young
Socrates to overcome his desire to know only the loftiest ideas, how it
would liberate him from the opinions of human beings, or how it would
enable him to become a philosopher in the most complete sense.
The Symposium
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates talks about learning about “erotic matters”
in his youth (Symposium 177d–e, 198d, 212b; Charmides 155d–e; Lysis
204b–c; Phaedrus 257; also, Xenophon Memorabilia 2.6.28). Insofar as
Socrates learned some positive knowledge of erotic matters from Diotima,
he appears to have learned it after the experience that he relates in the
Phaedo about turning away from studying nature as a whole and about
studying “speeches” and the ideas. His education into erotic matters also
appears to come after the deep perplexity about the ideas that he seems to
feel through his encounter with Parmenides. In the Symposium, Socrates is
asked to praise the god Eros, and Socrates says that he will praise the god
by reporting what he once learned about erotic matters from a foreign
priestess named Diotima. He adds, however, that he will eulogize the god
by selecting out the most beautiful parts of what she taught him about
Eros and by putting them together in a speech (Symposium 198c–d). By
alerting us that what he is relating is only part of what he learned about
Eros from Diotima, Socrates invites us to infer from the speech what more
he might have learned from her about erotic matters.
While relating what Diotima taught him, Socrates says that he
approached her to learn from her what erotic lovers seek from what they
love (Symposium 206b). The young Socrates who appears in the Symposium
does not come to Diotima in complete ignorance about what moves
human beings to desire or to love. His ability to answer Diotima’s questions about why we desire what is good stands in sharp contrast to his
puzzlement over why human beings love what is beautiful and especially
why those we call “lovers” love beauty so intensely and so seriously
(Symposium 204d–e, 206a–b). Socrates may have been alerted to the
importance of this question for his own life by Parmenides’ observation
that his youthful and urgent pursuit of speeches is beautiful but not philosophic. His decision to study why we love what is beautiful by conversing
with a priestess suggests that he suspects that erotic love is somehow connected to the gods or to a concern with the gods. Perhaps this, too, was
suggested to him by Parmenides’ remark that his urgent pursuit of speeches
is “beautiful and divine.”
According to Socrates, Diotima began her lessons in erotic matters by
asking him why we love what we love. In the account, the young Socrates
agrees that we love something only because we believe that we need and
lack what we do not have (Symposium 200a–b). After securing his further
agreement that the gods are always beautiful and happy, Diotima points
out that because he has already agreed that Eros lacks what it loves and
that the gods lack nothing, he implicitly believes that Eros is neither beautiful nor happy and that the beautiful and happy gods do not experience
erotic love. Here, in Socrates’ retelling, Diotima uses dialectics to elicit
beliefs from the young Socrates and to show him how they contradict one
another. Moreover, she shows him how conversation can help him to analyze and judge which of his conflicting beliefs seems stronger and more
credible (cf. Phaedo 101d–e). Reflecting on Diotima’s claim that Eros is
not a god, Socrates asks her if Eros is mortal, and she replies that he is a
“daimon” who is between the mortal and the immortal. She says that Eros
is what connects us to the gods, which suggests that it can be a source of
piety, insofar as it leads us to make prayers and sacrifices to gods who
receive them (Symposium 202d–203a). She describes the origin of Eros by
saying that he was conceived at a banquet when the gods became drunk
with nectar; Poverty laid down with Resource and conceived Eros, who is
both needy and resourceful. She describes Eros as poor, tough, and homeless. Being resourceful, however, he is also a courageous hunter of what is
beautiful and good and a trapper of phronesis. Finally, she describes him as
a philosopher, a magician, a druggist, and a sophist (Symposium 203b–e).
According to Diotima, Eros philosophizes in that he is needy but sufficiently resourceful to recognize his ignorance, and so he knowingly seeks
wisdom (Symposium 203e–204a).
When Socrates asks who the philosophers are if they are neither ignorant nor wise, Diotima takes him to be asking for an answer that should be
evident even to a child (Symposium 204b), and thus she overlooks, or
brushes aside, the possibility that he asks it because he finds it implausible
that philosophers pursue wisdom in the manner of those who feel erotic
love, perhaps because lovers are notorious for their shamelessness, for their
willingness to do outrageous things, and even for their madness (e.g.
Symposium 183a–e; Republic 572e, 574c). Socrates might accept that genuine philosophers are needy, resourceful, and very desirous of wisdom, but
we might suspect that there is a fundamental difference between those
who love what is beautiful and those who desire wisdom, as such. Yet
Diotima indicates that the philosophers are erotic because Eros desires
what is beautiful (to kalon), and wisdom is among the most beautiful
things (Symposium 204b). The young Socrates replies to this by calling her
“Stranger” and by saying that what she says is beautiful, but he has a reservation about her account of Eros and philosophy. He asks her what use
(tina xreian) or what good could Eros be to human beings if what she says
is true (Symposium 204c). She responds by asking Socrates why lovers love
what is beautiful, and Socrates answers that they want the beautiful things
to be their own. But he cannot say what they hope to acquire as a result of
having the beautiful things. When asked why lovers love good things,
Socrates says without hesitation that they want them to be theirs so that
they can be happy. Furthermore, he knows that it is unnecessary to ask
why they want to be happy, for that is understood to be the object of all
our desires (Symposium 204c–205a). Even though the young Socrates
believes that he knows all these things about desire and love, he cannot
explain why we seek something beyond our own happiness in things that
are beautiful rather than good. His interest in this question suggests that
he has reflected on what Parmenides called his “beautiful and divine”
desire for speeches and that he has begun to wonder if he seeks to find his
happiness in knowing the causes of all the beings or if he is moved by some
other, more mysterious concern.
In order to explain the love of the beautiful or the noble, Diotima
begins by winning Socrates’ agreement that we love only what is good for
us and by emphasizing that we do not love what is merely “our own”
unless we believe that it brings us some benefit. She reminds Socrates that
we are willing to have our own arms or our own legs amputated if we
believe that they are not good. When she asks Socrates if human beings
love anything other than the good, Socrates replies emphatically “By Zeus,
they do not” (Symposium 205c–d). By earlier referring to Eros as “homeless” (Symposium 203b), Diotima has already signaled that Eros feels no
attraction to what is merely “one’s own.” But precisely if we love only
what is good or what seems good, what could possibly lead us to love the
beautiful? According to Diotima, we love the beautiful for the sake of
immortality (Symposium 206b–207a). Socrates is understandably puzzled
by this, but Diotima evidently means that at the root of erotic love is an
anguish at the thought that we must someday die. We desire the good for
the sake of our own happiness, but at some point we recognize that we can
never secure the lasting happiness that we seek. The lover wishes that he
might feel despair at this insight, but when he experiences a kind of
“drunkenness” associated with erotic desire (Symposium 203b), he conceives the hope that we might find in beauty something to console or
compensate us for our mortality. He hopes that beauty or nobility might
even give him a way somehow to overcome death itself. According to
Diotima, the lover is “pregnant with immortality” but in pain because he
is unable to give birth to his immortality, unable to bring forth something
from within himself that is beautiful enough to overcome the limitation
imposed on us by death. He longs to “be together” with a beautiful
beloved because he believes that he can thereby share in his beloved’s
beauty and bring from within himself a beauty that he could not bring
forth on his own and that could survive him after he dies. Most lovers
experience this giving birth in beauty through the procreation of children,
but their love affairs can also yield beautiful works of art or even noble
laws (Symposium 207a–b, 208c–209e).
Socrates concludes his report of his lessons by recounting what Diotima
calls “the complete revelation” concerning erotic matters. Here, Diotima
describes how the lover of beauty must be led through a series of love
affairs with more and more beautiful beloveds until he eventually encounters the “one idea” of the beautiful itself. This lesson would begin with the
young lover being led to many beautiful bodies and then coming to love
one surpassingly beautiful body while making beautiful speeches. Loving
this one beautiful body, the lover must be led to recognize the greater
beauty to be found in the beauty of the soul. Loving someone with a beautiful soul without regard to the beauty of the body, the lover will make
beautiful speeches about virtue. Recognizing beauty in actions and in
laws, the lover would perceive that all sorts of beautiful things share in the
same quality of being beautiful, and he would come to love the beauty
that is manifest in knowledge. Finally, he will discern that what underlies
the beauty of all that he sees, perceives, and knows is the lone idea (monoeides) of beauty itself (Symposium 211b). This idea is wondrously beautiful:
Its beauty always endures, never changing in any way and never mixed
with anything that is not beautiful. Nor does the idea of the beautiful exist
in any body or in any particular thing. Even though all beautiful things
partake of its beauty, the idea of the beautiful remains apart from them and
is completely unaffected by them. According to Diotima, the lover who
can “be together” with the lone idea of the beautiful finds that a life spent
together with the idea is the only life that is worth living (Symposium
211d). More than this, the lover who is able to grasp the idea will be able
to procreate and give birth to true virtue rather than to a mere image of
virtue. Even more, the lover who gives birth to true virtue may be loved
by a god and through this love he might become immortal, if this is at all
possible for a human being (Symposium 212a).
Socrates concludes his report of what he learned from Diotima by saying that he is persuaded that there is no greater helper to human nature
than erotic love, even though he is not sure if what he has just said should
be called a “eulogy” (Symposium 212b–c). He might have doubts because
then we can ask if what he says points to critical implications about erotic
love. Among the questions that he might ask is, if it were truly possible to
discern the monoeides of the beautiful, what would it mean to be together
with it and to give birth to true virtue? Diotima’s description of the ascent
suggests that at each stage of the ascent the lover comes to share more and
more in the beauty of the beautiful itself, so that the lover can finally bring
forth from within himself virtue itself rather than a mere image of virtue.
The lover’s virtue comes about by partaking in the beautiful itself, but the
lover is able to join with the beautiful itself only because he becomes
­ rogressively transfigured and purified as he ascends through the stages of
his erotic education. He becomes more and more beautiful as he ceases to
care about all bodies, about all particular things, and even about the different arts and sciences. Learning to overcome and even to disdain the
pleasures of his own body and even the importance of his own particularity, he becomes so devoted to what is kalon that he finds that his life is
now “livable” or worthy of being lived. Through this process of self-­
overcoming, the lover seems to find a rare and blissful union with what he
loves, yet the lover is not entirely fulfilled, for he goes on to find even
greater satisfaction in giving birth to true virtue. What is more, at the peak
of erotic love, the lover can now hope that he will be loved by a god and
that through the god’s love he might attain the immortality that he has
longed for all along.
It may be tempting to identify Diotima’s account of Eros with Socrates’
own view. Yet Socrates begins his speech about Eros by indicating that he
will say only what he learned from Diotima that praises Eros, thus omitting
what he learned that does not praise it. In the course of his lessons, he challenges Diotima’s teachings without necessarily being satisfied with her
answers (Symposium 206b, 208b). When he ends the speech by questioning whether it is truly a praise of Eros, he invites us to consider the cogency
of what Diotima says about erotic love. Furthermore, he must have wondered whether, or to what extent, his own philosophic desire is, or has
been, similar to the needs, desires, and hopes that she ascribes to the erotic
philosopher. He may wonder if his youthful belief in the magnificence of
studying nature or his wondrous hope that a god-like intellect governs the
cosmos is rooted in the hope that those who devote themselves to knowing and loving lofty beings such as the beautiful itself will become so beautiful, so noble, and so virtuous that they might win the love of a god and
achieve some sort of immortality or lasting happiness. But in scrutinizing
what he learned from Diotima, Socrates must question how truly beautiful
or how perfectly noble the lover is who has ascended to be together with
the beautiful itself. In Diotima’s account, the lover becomes increasingly
beautiful by overcoming his concern with both his mortal body and with
his particular self. Yet in describing what gratifies the lover who yearns to
be with the beautiful itself, Diotima promises that the lover will find that
his particular life is worth living. Moreover, he is gratified when he is able
to give birth to true virtue, especially because this will allow him, in particular, to win a god’s love. Moreover, he may hope that the god’s love will
enable him as an individual human being to achieve immortality. If a god
were to immortalize such a lover, and if the lover were able to keep gazing
on and communing with the beautiful itself, then the lover would have
achieved what seems like lasting fulfillment or perhaps even lasting happiness. Insofar as the young Socrates’ love of the beautiful itself is fueled by
these or similar hopes, he must question whether he has ever loved the
beautiful by itself or for itself and whether he has never ceased to care
about himself in particular. Moreover, insofar as the lover of the beautiful
seeks the only life that is livable for a human being (Symposium 211c–e),
he must suspect that the lover seeks not only immortality but lasting happiness and that his concern with what is good is stronger and deeper than
his concern for what is beautiful.
It might seem from this reasoning that the erotic lover of the beautiful
itself has failed to love the beautiful enough. Perhaps his heart has not
been pure enough to love the beautiful itself by itself and for itself. Perhaps,
to care for the beautiful, to become beautiful, the lover would need to love
the beautiful without regard to his own immortality or happiness. But
Diotima’s account of the lover’s pursuit of the beautiful itself points to
fundamental questions about what it means to love the kalon and about
what is the kalon. While conversing with Diotima, Socrates agrees that we
desire things because we believe that they meet our needs (Symposium
200a–b), that we desire good things because they make us happy, and that
we desire beautiful things for the sake of something other than our own
happiness (Symposium 204d–205a). Thus, at the root of the desire for
good things is a need for our own happiness, while at the root of the desire
for beautiful things is something other than the need for our own happiness. We may find beauty in things that are also useful to us, such as in a
beautiful table or a beautiful horse, but we are especially moved by
thoughts or actions that involve someone giving up what is good for him
for the sake of something higher, and this sacrificing for a higher purpose
is what seems beautiful or noble. The serious admiration that we feel for
the beauty of a thought or action is diminished when we discover that it is
pursued not solely for its beauty but because it benefits those who have it.
As Socrates points out in the Laches, courage, or steadfastness in battle,
seems to be most beautiful or most noble insofar as we understand the
soldier to be taking a great risk. If, however, we discover that the soldier is
so proficient in his art that he does not believe himself to be at risk, then
he seems less beautiful or noble than prudent (Laches 192c–d). At the
same time that we understand caring about to kalon to entail putting aside
our own good, we nonetheless distinguish beautiful thoughts or actions
from those that seem simply wasteful or harmful to oneself. If we are able
to distinguish a selfless concern for what is beautiful from self-destruction,
then it is because we see something in beautiful or noble selflessness that
elevates and justifies it, something that allows us to admire those who are
selfless rather than merely to pity them or wonder at their imprudence. It
appears, therefore, that we consider selfless thoughts or actions to be
beautiful only when they serve something greater or higher than ourselves. We regard a great sacrifice for the sake of something trivial or temporary as foolish or base, but we regard a similar sacrifice as beautiful if it
is made for the sake of someone or something of importance to us, such
as a person, a community, or a god. Perhaps we admire those who do
noble things for the sake of what is noble.4 But if a thought or an action
helps someone or something for whom we care deeply, then would it not
contribute to our happiness, and thus would it not be properly called
“good” for us rather than purely and simply “beautiful?” Even though we
may say that someone gives up what is good for him for the sake of someone or something beautiful, it is not clear how we can understand this as a
purposive decision to give up his happiness. For if we are necessarily animated by our needs and desires (Symposium 200a–b), then it is difficult to
conceive how we could knowingly and willingly choose to forsake our
happiness, insofar as happiness is the condition in which all of our needs
and desires are satisfied (Symposium 205a). Perhaps the lover of beauty
believes that he needs beauty or nobility in his life in order for his life to
be worth living. But this implies that were he to forsake beauty, then the
life that he would lead would not seem worth living to him and thus that
it would not satisfy him; he may not expect to find happiness in doing
what is beautiful, but he would be pursuing the beautiful because it is a
necessary condition of his happiness.
Someone might respond that it is possible to find great beauty or great nobility in those
who love to kalon by itself and for itself. The soldier who risks his life simply because he wants
to display his own noble courage may seem to have accomplished a great achievement. Yet
when Diotima asks Socrates why we love good things, he replies that we love them because
we believe that they will make us happy, and they agree that no one thinks it necessary to ask
why we want to be happy. But when Diotima asks him why we love beautiful things, neither
Socrates or to Diotima believes that it is sufficient to say that we love beauty for its own sake.
We expect devotion to the kalon to yield something beyond itself. Thus, when, for example,
a soldier fights and is injured or dies in battle, we admire the beauty of his courage. Even
though we may believe that his nobility needs no reward, we nonetheless want to honor him,
believing that he would be missing something important if we failed to recognize and
remember him (Symposium 208c–d; also, 180a–b).
Someone might object that the lover of beauty pursues it precisely
because he believes that he cannot be happy with or without it. After all,
if the erotic love of the beautiful is bound up with our anxieties about
death, it may be that our awareness of our mortality makes us at least
dimly aware that we cannot have lasting happiness. It may be that our grief
at the inevitable limitation of our happiness leads us to look to the beautiful for something that brings solace or consolation for this inevitable disappointment. The question remains, however, whether this solace is not
important to the lover of the beautiful only because it eases the pain associated with our need for good things and for happiness.
Finally, we might distinguish what is good from what is kalon because
we seek the former because it meets our needs while the latter does not.
This would seem to explain why we admire those who pursue the beautiful
more than those who pursue the good, for those who pursue the good are
compelled by necessity to do so, while those who pursue the beautiful do
so freely, choosing to set aside their needs for the sake of something
greater. The beauty of an act would consist in overcoming one’s own
needs. Yet if it is possible to set aside what is needed, then we must wonder
how needful or how necessary the goods that we seek truly are. If they are
needed, then would not we be compelled to pursue them? It is not clear
how we could need something that we are able to deny ourselves. If we
have needs for good things that we can nonetheless disregard, then how
much do we truly need them? If the good things are not needed in the
strict sense, then it is not easy to understand how we should distinguish
them from beautiful or noble things that we pursue but do not need. Is
the difference between those who prudently pursue their own good and
those who nobly pursue noble things that the former happen to prefer
what we call “good” while the latter happen to prefer what we call “noble?”
Socrates, of course, would pursue other, far more incisive questions about
the relation between the beautiful and the good than these questions. But
the ease with which questions about the difference between the beautiful
and the good can be raised indicates that much more thinking is required
in order to conceive of a separate idea of beauty that is completely distinct
from what is useful or good.
If the young Socrates recognizes that his passion for learning has been
fueled, at least in part, by the problematic hope that philosophy makes
him so noble that he is worthy of divine concern and care and perhaps
even of immortal happiness, then he would begin to understand what
Parmenides had in mind when the philosopher told him that his youthful
desire to know only the ideas of the just, the beautiful, and the good
stands in the way of him becoming a complete philosopher. He would
recognize that his erotic hopes have led him to yearn to conceive of a perfect beauty to which he could devote himself and ennoble his life. Socrates
would wonder if, in loving the beauty of the ideas, he embellishes their
beauty and perfection, and he might also wonder if he is able to distinguish between the beautiful and the good as clearly as he wishes to distinguish them. The thought that there is something problematic about an
erotic love of beauty is suggested in the Republic immediately after the
passage where Socrates says that the philosopher is “erotic” and therefore
an indiscriminate lover of learning. Socrates compares such a philosopher
to a lover of youths who finds beauty in every feature of each of the youths
whom he loves, regardless of how they actually look (Republic 574d–575a).
His example shows that lovers embellish the beauty of whoever and whatever they love, much as the youthful Socrates may be exaggerating the
beauty of what he knows and of who he is. If the young Socrates came to
doubt that it is possible for him to regard something as completely beautiful at the same time that he regards it is as good for him, then this would
help to explain why he later says that he does not know anything that is
both “beautiful and good” (Apology 22c, 22d). It would also explain why
he declares that the only life worth living is the life spent examining himself and others about virtue and the other things that he discusses rather
than the life spent gazing upon and being together only with the monoeides of the kalon itself (Apology 38).
The young Socrates may be disappointed to find that he does not know
how to satisfy his erotic longings through devoting himself to the beauty
of philosophy and that he may not have discovered a way to achieve lasting
happiness. Yet Plato’s dialogues show that, as he matured, he learned
about “erotic matters” and that this knowledge allowed him to persevere
in his study of nature. His expertise in erotic matters provides him not
only with the knowledge that he is needy but also with greater knowledge
of what he needs, and thus it must include some insights into what is beautiful and into what is good. It helps him to recognize what the soul needs
and what its capacities are or what its virtues and vices might be (Republic
504a). He remains intensely interested in clarifying the relationship
between what is beautiful and what is good, and he pays special attention
to how they differ. While advancing his knowledge of what is beautiful and
good and of why it is difficult for something or someone to be both,
Socrates is able to recognize and minimize some of the all-too-human
concerns that obscure the nature of the world in which we live. Even if
Socrates’ knowledge of human and of non-human nature remains limited
in many ways, he seems to find so much satisfaction in his progress in that
knowledge that it sustains him even when he reflects on his own mortality:
At the end of his life, he describes philosophy as dying and learning how
to die (Phaedo 64a). It is not certain, of course, that Socrates actually participated in the conversations that he says that he had with Diotima. Even
if they did not take place as he says, they suggest that at some early stage
in his philosophic endeavors, the young Socrates found that conversation
is crucially important for philosophy, insofar as it allows the philosopher to
discover which of his opinions about what is beautiful and what is good
seems strongest and truest to him.5
The Apology
Plato’s final account of Socrates’ turn away from pre-Socratic natural philosophy to the founding of political philosophy comes in the Apology of
Socrates, where Socrates offers an account of how he came to lead his
distinctive way of life and thus how he came to be accused of doing injustice by not believing in the gods of the city, by corrupting the young, and
by introducing strange daemonic things. In that account, Socrates explains
that he once learned that his companion Chaerephon asked the Delphic
Oracle if anyone is wiser than Socrates, and the Oracle replied that there is
not. Socrates says that he was puzzled by this because he knew that he was
not wise in any respect. Knowing that it is not just (themis) for a god to lie,
Socrates says that he resolved to find someone wiser than him and to bring
this evidence to the Oracle in order to compel an explanation from the
Pythia. But, of course, when Socrates examined those who were considered wise in Athens, he found that none of the politicians, poets, or craftsmen knew what they supposed they knew about what is “noble and good,”
and he adds that they grew angry at him when he tried to show them their
ignorance (Apology 21c–e, 22e, 23b–24b). Socrates, however, concluded
that he was wiser than others insofar as he knows what he does not know,
and he regards his superiority to others as his “human wisdom.” He says
that he continues to examine and refute all Athenians and foreigners who
seem wise “on behalf of the god” (Apology 22a, 23b–c).
For a more detailed discussion of Diotima’s speech, see Mark J. Lutz, Socrates’ Education
to Virtue (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).
What we learn from the other dialogues about the Socratic turn sheds
light on several questions raised by Socrates’ initial account of his encounter with the Oracle. Socrates does not say why Chaerephon asked the
Oracle if anyone is wiser than Socrates, but it appears that he was greatly
impressed by Socrates’ inquiries into nature or into the ideas. Nor does
Socrates say how he knew that he was not wise in any respect, but these
other dialogues suggest that, during his youth, he intensely examined
what he knew and discovered problems with his early philosophic endeavors. Yet the Phaedo and Parmenides, at least, might make us wonder why
a young philosopher who is deeply attracted to natural philosophy and
who looks up to philosophers such as Anaxagoras and Parmenides would
take what the Delphic Oracle says so seriously that he would allow it to
change how he lived his life or at least the manner in which he philosophized. The Phaedo informs us that the young Socrates recognized that
natural philosophy was unable to produce a complete account of the
whole that explained how everything that comes into being or passes away
is determined by intelligible necessities rather than by willful gods. While
Socrates regarded his turn to speeches and to the ideas as a more promising approach to the study of nature, the Parmenides and the Symposium
alert us that the young Socrates was aware, or was made aware, of questions about his own philosophic inquiries. As is reflected in Socrates’
approaching Diotima to learn about Eros, his awareness of the limits of his
own, philosophic knowledge leads him to wonder if those who claim that
they have received a greater, divine wisdom from prophets, inspired poets,
and divine lawgivers know something that is not intelligible to the philosopher who seeks wisdom only through his own reasoning and experience. Socrates recognizes that if he is to answer the challenges posed to
philosophy by its orthodox critics, then he needs to examine those who
claim to have learned about virtue or about what is “beautiful and good”
to find out whether they know what they suppose they know.6
Because Socrates cannot refute the possibility of revelation, he must
remain open to the possibility that someone has received an insight into
ethics, political, or spiritual matters from the gods. He must wonder if
someone has learned directly through prophecy or indirectly from poetry
For learned and helpful examinations of the Apology, see David Leibowitz, The Ironic
Defense of Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Thomas Pangle and
Timothy Burns, “Plato’s Apology of Socrates” (in Key Texts of Political Philosophy. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2015).
or law how something can be both completely and purely beautiful and at
the same time good. When Socrates investigates what his fellow citizens
know or do not know about “the greatest things,” he is not content merely
to observe what they say and do. Instead, he engages them in conversation, drawing out their beliefs about what they regard as important. When
he finds that his interlocutors contradict themselves, he takes the trouble
to show them the deficiencies in their arguments, evidently because he is
not content to dismiss what they say on the basis of his high standards of
rationality but wants to confirm that his interlocutors are troubled when
they recognize that their arguments fail to meet their own standards of
rational coherence. Socrates finds that many of his interlocutors do not
fully admit that they do not know what is noble and good, but they grow
angry at Socrates. Yet Socrates welcomes their anger because he believes
that it shows that his interlocutors are bothered by their ignorance and
that it confirms that they do not know what they suppose that they know
(Apology 24a). According to Socrates, he continues to refute and anger
both Athenians and foreigners and that, as a result, he lacks adequate time
to care for his family and his city (Apology 23b). Insofar as Socrates converses with non-philosophers to learn new things about the soul or to
affirm his hypotheses about it, he need not limit his conversations to irritating refutations of his interlocutors’ beliefs. He might also draw out
some of their beliefs in order to learn whether and to what extent he can
use his knowledge of the soul to evoke various passions and beliefs, such as
when he converses with Alcibiades in the First Alcibiades in order to learn
if he can awaken in him piety and a desire for education.
Socrates’ need to examine what others know about the “beautiful and
the good” or about “the greatest things” may be the principal reason why
he spends much of his time conversing with non-philosophers. Nonetheless,
Socrates also says and does things that are not readily explained by this
concern. In the Apology, Socrates mentions that he carries out his refutations in public, where they can be witnessed by young men who find the
refutations to be very attractive or pleasing (Apology 23c, 33c). He also
says that he spends his time exhorting others to virtue, an activity that
seems to be distinct from his refutations. While refuting or exhorting others, he has cultivated or at least accepted numerous companions and
admirers (Apology 33e, 34a–38b). Moreover, Socrates points out several
times to his jury that he has a wife and children. Most remarkably, his
willingness to be convicted and executed suggests that he wants to die
heroically for the sake of philosophy so that his fellow Athenians will one
day come to admire and at least tolerate if not welcome future philosophers. All of these associations suggest that Socrates is moved by concerns
other than satisfying his desire to learn. Yet, if his education in erotic matters teaches him that he is inevitably concerned with what is good for him
rather than with what is beautiful or with what his “his own,” why does he
sometimes help others or even turn his attention to them? It follows from
this reading of the Symposium that the mature Socrates would feel free to
associate with non-philosophers only if he was not fully persuaded by
Diotima’s description of philosophy and of the desirability of communing
only with the lone idea of the beautiful itself. For if Socrates was moved by
an erotic love of the beautiful itself, then he would devote himself fully to
contemplating that one idea and would sunder every possible connection
to all worldly things, including to particular human beings. Only if Socrates
has become unerotic or post-erotic, can he willingly associate with the
likes of Chaerephon, Apollodorus, and Crito. On the other hand, if he is
not concerned with what is beautiful or with what is his own, it is not clear
why he would associate with them at all. Regarding his relation to his wife
and children, it is suggested in Xenophon’s Symposium that Socrates married Xanthippe as an experiment, wishing to learn how to manage a difficult woman like her so that he could learn how to manage other human
beings (Xenophon Symposium X.2). If this were his sole reason for marrying her, however, it would not explain why he remains married to her.
Another reason for Socrates’ remaining with Xanthippe may be that he has
sexual desires that he gratifies through the institution of marriage. Yet
Socrates seems to have a genuine fondness for Xanthippe, as is reflected in
his desire to spend the last night of his life with her and with their young
son. Moreover, in her last moments with Socrates, she displays an affectionate sympathy for Socrates and his companions, lamenting that soon he
would no longer be with his friends nor would they be with him (Phaedo
60a). These scenes suggest that even if Socrates was not an especially
responsible husband or father, he found some satisfaction or comfort in
family life. In the Symposium, Eros is said to be homeless (Symposium
203d). At the end of the dialogue, however, Socrates is said to follow a
long night of wine-drinking and conversing about Eros by doing what he
did every other day: He went directly to the gymnasium known as the
Lyceum, washed himself, and passed the day talking. At the end of the
second day, Socrates went “home” or to “his own” (oikos) to rest
(Symposium 223d). Plato includes these elements in his portrait of Socrates
to indicate that Socrates finds some comfort in his routines and in the
places and people whom he sees every day. The notion that Socrates would
feel any affinity for his own things may seem to conflict with the philosopher’s clear-eyed and tough-minded concern for what is good. Yet if we
look at the passage in the Symposium where Diotima asks young Socrates
what lovers of the good love, he replies “that they become his” (Symposium
205a). The lover of what is good is necessarily concerned with his satisfying his own needs and thus with what is emphatically his own (Symposium
200a–b; Lysis 220d–e; cf. Republic 347d). If there is a love of one’s own
implicit in our concern for what is good for us (Symposium 205e7–206a2),
then perhaps Socrates feels an affinity for what is his own when he enjoys
his routines and when he welcomes the presence of familiar people. By
contrast, the erotic lover of what is beautiful seems to feel disdain for what
is merely one’s own. According to Diotima’s speech, the lover does not
care for what is one’s own unless it also happens to be good for oneself,
and to prove this, she points out that we are willing to give up a hand or a
foot if it does not seem good to us. Responding to this example, the
young Socrates exclaims “by Zeus!” and agrees that lovers love only what
is good (Symposium 205e7–206a2). Her example indicates, however, that
we are willing to sacrifice our limbs only on the condition that by giving
them up we will preserve our own lives.
Some might object to the suggestion that Socrates sometimes feels a
love of his own toward his companions because in the Republic Socrates
associates the love of one’s own with thumos or spiritedness (e.g. Republic
375d–376a). Yet Plato’s portrait of the cheerful and always unflappable
Socrates suggests that he has a nature that is free from spiritedness
(Republic 410c, 411b; cf. 536b). If he is neither erotic about the kalon nor
spirited, why does he care for the non-philosophers and potential philosophers whom he encounters? It may be that Socrates’ affinity for familiar
routines, places, and people is rooted not in spiritedness but in a milder
form of the love of one’s own that derives from his necessary concern for
his own well-being. If we are inevitably concerned with what is our own
because we care about ourselves, this does not mean that Socrates fails to
distinguish what is good for him from what is his own or what is akin to
him. He would not allow a mild fondness for old acquaintances to interrupt his philosophizing, whether it is undertaken on behalf of the Delphic
Oracle or because he regards it as the greatest good for a human being.
Nonetheless, nothing prevents him from taking extra enjoyment from
those occasions when he can benefit not only himself but also those who
are familiar and friendly to him.
According to Plato’s presentation, Socrates was not committed to public service (Apology 23b, 32e). He did his duty in the Athenian army, but
he is careful to conduct himself in a way that is safest for him and for his
comrades (Symposium 221a–c). It is true that when he was chosen by lot
to serve as a public official, he courted danger by refusing to carry out
illegal orders (Apology 32a–d). Yet in none of these cases did he suffer any
harm, and he may have thought it necessary to risk some danger for himself by displaying a strict reverence for the law in order to attract the attention of the high-minded people whom he wanted to examine or instruct.
If Socrates did not devote much attention to the city of Athens, he sometimes shows a concern for the well-being of his companions. Again, in the
Gorgias, he shows Gorgias how to use rhetoric to speak safely, responsibly,
and effectively to problematic followers such as Polus and to skeptical
political men such as Callicles. In the Republic, Socrates devotes most of a
day of his life persuading Plato’s brothers that justice is good for the individual and that philosophy is a most admirable way of life (Republic 487a–
d). The greatest example of this concern for others is, of course, his
willingness to endure a trial, imprisonment, and the pain associated with
drinking hemlock to encourage and protect a few philosophers whom he
knows and other, future philosophers whom he does not know. It is true
that Socrates says that his goal in the trial is to explain his innocence and
to defend and enhance his reputation (Apology 18e, 19a, 34e), but it seems
that he is concerned with his good name because he is concerned with the
reputation of philosophy. He seems willing to help other philosophers
even more than those non-philosophers who are familiar to him; he seems
to feel more akin to the former than to the latter (Apology 34d; Phaedo
63b–c). Yet as difficult as dying must have been, Socrates indicates that it
was not as great a sacrifice as it at first appears, for he was growing old and
would soon die anyway. Beyond this, he has found that his life was worth
living only because of the progress that he was making in examining himself and others, and he could not sustain that progress as his intellectual
powers waned (Apology 38c; cf. Xenophon Apology 22, 32). He may have
calculated that a small sacrifice on his part could singularly promote the
greatest good for many kindred spirits and that he was willing to pay that
small price for them.
Through his “human wisdom” and his “knowledge of erotic matters,”
Socrates knows much about the soul and about its virtues and vices. He
knows that he has a healthy soul and even that he has a “philosophic
nature” that many others do not possess (cf. Republic 496c with 410c,
490c–491a, 494a, 495a, 497b). He also recognizes that those who have
philosophic natures also share in human nature. Because human nature
inclines us to associate with other human beings, Socrates is drawn to
other human beings. Philosophy leads him to question the beliefs and
expectations that we tend to hold as members of our associations. He not
only examines the nature of erotic love, family, friendship, and political
community but also enters into some of these relations from time to
time. Nonetheless, he remains clear-sighted about the limits of his knowledge and about the limits of our lives, and so he also remains free of the
hopes and illusions, and also many of the consequent disappointments
and resentments, that others can experience as members of these associations. Socrates will, to be sure, sometimes distance himself from those
around him in order to contemplate (e.g. Symposium 175a–b). He may
spend much of his time alone, reflecting on what each being is. Yet Plato’s
portrait of Socrates shows that philosophy does not compel a philosopher
like Socrates to sunder every connection with other human beings and to
strive to dwell in an otherworldly realm. Instead, Plato shows that philosophy permits Socrates to devote his life to learning while he engages
in various human associations in a way that he finds useful, healthy, and
Free to Care: Socrates’ Political Engagement
Roslyn Weiss
Of all the images Socrates uses to convey his engagement with those
whom he labors to awaken, to influence, and to improve at the behest of
the god, the most tender by far is that of father or older brother (Apology
31b). Unlike the pesky irritation of the Apology’s gadfly (30e), the paralytic stun of the Meno’s stingray (80a), the salutary but painful ministrations of the Gorgias’ physician (521e–522a), or even the obstetric
attentions of the Theaetetus’ midwife (149a),1 it is the unconditional
paternal and fraternal care, a care reserved by most people for their own
kin but selflessly lavished by Socrates seemingly indiscriminately on his
Athenian fellow citizens,2 that has a gentle sweetness about it. Although
this image is most familiar from the Apology—“I always do your business,
The image of philosophy, and particularly of Socrates’ way of practicing it, is compared
by Alcibiades in the Symposium to the bite of a snake or the venom of a viper that attacks his
heart or his soul (218a).
Although this special relationship seems to obtain primarily between Socrates and specifically the Athenians, Socrates asserts at Apology 30a that he will reproach whomever he happens to meet, whether foreigner or townsman—though more so his townsmen. Perhaps we
can say that his divine mission is to Athens, but he will not withhold his services from for1
R. Weiss (*)
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_8
going to each of you privately, as a father or an older brother (hō sper patera
ē adelphon presbuteron) might do, persuading you to care (epimeleisthai)
for virtue” (31b)—it appears as well in a single additional place in the
Platonic corpus. It is found for the second time in the Symposium, sputtered by the young, dashing, and drunk Alcibiades, who complains that
his night with Socrates “was as chaste as if I had slept it with my own
father or older brother” (meta patros kathēudon ē adelphou presbuterou—
Symp. 219d1–2).
This essay will contend that the care typical of a father or older brother
requires a certain kind of freedom. In the Symposium, the Apology, and
several other Platonic dialogues, Socrates characterizes himself as free and
others as slaves or as slavish. People who are mastered by or enslaved to
anything other than their own thoughtful best judgment,3 he thinks, cannot be fully virtuous and cannot, therefore, care wholeheartedly for others. As a point of entry into the relation between Socratic freedom and
Socratic care, we shall consider the implications of the image of father or
older brother as introduced by Socrates in the Apology and as echoed (and
turned on its head) by Alcibiades in the Symposium. We shall turn our
attention first to the Symposium.
Alcibiades in the Symposium
Let us begin with Alcibiades. It is evident, and perhaps also surprising, that
the expression, “father or older brother,” as uttered by Alcibiades, is pejorative, hurled angrily by him at Socrates. Alcibiades is resentful of Socrates’
chaste resistance to his charms4 and shamed by his own failed attempts at
seduction. Indeed, since we know from Alcibiades I that Alcibiades does
not abide lovers who are needy,5 we may reasonably surmise that he would
abhor being the needy one in a relationship with Socrates, “as if I were his
eigners whom he happens to encounter. We know from the Crito (52b) that Socrates rarely
traveled, that he almost never left Athens except to serve in the army.
See Crito 46b: “I, not only now, but always, am such as to obey nothing else of what is
mine than that argument which appears best to me upon reasoning.”
As Alcibiades notes, it is Socrates who charms (ekēlei—215c1)—even without musical
instruments, that is, with words alone (215c).
In Alcibiades I, Socrates observes that Alcibiades believes he has “no need of any man in
any matter” (104a).
lover and he my young prey” (Symposium. 217c7–8).6 We may assume,
furthermore, that Alcibiades is conflicted. On the one hand, he wants
Socrates to treat him as a father or older brother would, that is, to care for
him and guide him. He reports that Socrates makes him “think my life as
it is is not worth living” (216a1–2), so that he now yearns for Socrates to
be his “helper” (sullēptora—218d3), aiding him in becoming “the best
possible” (beltiston … genesthai—218d2). As he declares, “there is no
abler assistant” (218d3) than Socrates to aid him in his quest to become
better. Alcibiades even believes that Socrates is the only person who can
help one “who has any hope of becoming a gentleman” (tō i mellonti kalō i
kagathō i esesthai—222a6). On the other hand, and at the same time,
Alcibiades does not want Socrates to treat him as a father or older brother
would—if that means being cared for only asexually, leaving him no leverage.7 Alcibiades wants Socratic instruction only in exchange for the sexual
favors he provides (217a; 218c–d); he spurns what would surely have been
a free gift, given generously and gladly by Socrates.8
Alcibiades does not get his wish; he cannot have it both ways. Although
he is willing to gratify Socrates not only sexually but through anything else
of his that Socrates might need (deoio—Symposium 218d1)—including his
own property and that of his friends,9 Socrates makes it quite clear that any
“Lover” (erastēs) is ambiguous and need not imply a relationship that includes overt
sexual activity. Although Alcibiades uses this term for Socrates in the Symposium, it is clear,
at least in the Symposium, that he and Socrates had never been sexually intimate (218c). And
this is so despite Socrates’ saying of himself In Alcibiades I that he was Alcibiades’ first lover
(103a). In the Protagoras, Socrates says of Protagoras that he sought to “preen himself”
(kallō pisasthai—317c7) on Socrates’ and Hippocrates’ having come to him as “lovers”
(erastai), where the intent is probably something like “fawning admirers.” “Suitor” might be
a better translation in many cases. (The Greek term for suitor, mnēstēr, as it appears in the
literature, refers specifically to the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey.)
Alcibiades is apparently a failure as an older brother. As we learn in the Protagoras at
320a, when Pericles became the guardian of the two sons of Cleinias, he sought to protect
the younger son, Cleinias, from the corruptive influence of the older son, Alcibiades, by
keeping them apart: Alcibiades certainly did not take care of his younger sibling or work to
improve his character.
Socrates will talk to anyone and never charges a fee (Apology 31c)—a fee, one may assume,
of any kind.
Alcibiades takes note of Socrates’ indifference to money: “he was far more invulnerable
to money than Ajax was to iron” (219e1–2). Interestingly, Socrates returns the compliment
in Alcibiades I at 104a–c. Here Socrates observes that, insofar as Alcibiades is endowed with
beauty and stature, is well-connected on both sides of his family and to Pericles as well, and
exchange Alcibiades could propose would be an exchange of bronze for
gold (219a1).10 Indeed, what has Alcibiades to offer Socrates that would
be of value to him? What need does Socrates have that Alcibiades might
satisfy?11 Moreover, even if Socrates were to desire Alcibiades’ sexual
favors, availing himself of them would undermine his ability to improve
Alcibiades’ character. In order for Socrates to make Alcibiades more worthy, to help him become a better man, he would have to interact with him
as a father or older brother—that is, only as a father or older brother.
Despite what is presupposed by the mores of the time, namely, that an
older man can be a mentor to his younger beloved at the same time that
is wealthy, he believes himself to need nothing, “yet you seem to presume least of all” on
wealth (104c1).
It is possible that Alcibiades’ reference to his own money and that of his friends is Plato’s
reminder that both in the Apology (38b) and in the Crito (45b) what Socrates’ companions
offer in order to save his life is their own money and that of their friends. Even in the
Republic (1.337d), Glaucon offers Socrates’ friends’ money as well as his own to pay
Thrasymachus for his enlightening instruction about justice.
Homer, Iliad 6.236. The reference to bronze may call to mind that Socrates, at Prot.
329a, compares orators who go on and on to bronze bowls that continue ringing once they
are struck until they are stopped. Perhaps Socrates sees Alcibiades in this context as just such
an orator—one who will go on and on unless he is silenced.
In the Euthyphro Socrates suggests that, in any business transaction between human
beings and gods, the gods would be getting a raw deal (Euthyphro 14e–15a). The implication
there as here is that there can be no fair exchange when only one party is needy: there is
nothing the gods need that we human beings can supply; there is nothing Socrates needs that
Alcibiades can supply. Socrates may enjoy speaking with the young; indeed, he may enjoy
conversing with others generally. Moreover, conversation with others may enable him, generally, as he frequently says it does, to examine his own views as he examines theirs—to reassure himself both that he is not professing to know what he does not know and that his belief
set is a coherent one. Nevertheless, there is no specific interlocutor from whom he stands to,
or hopes to, learn—even when he pretends otherwise (as in the case of Euthyphro, Protagoras,
Gorgias, and many others). On the rare occasion when Socrates traces the source of his
beliefs to a particular person (as, e.g., to Diotima), it is not to someone whom he has subjected to examination. He has no doubt learned much from many when he was a young man,
but his divine mission, which concerns “the greatest things” (ta megista—Apology 22d7), is
one in which he benefits particular others, while those particular others have nothing to
teach him. In the Charmides, Socrates assures Critias that his concern in refuting him is the
same as it would be if he were investigating his own statements, namely, fear of thinking he
knows what he does not (166c7–d2), and although he goes on to say that he is now examining the argument mainly for his own sake (166d2–3), he immediately adds: “But perhaps
also for the sake of my friends” (166d3).
he is sexually intimate with him,12 Socrates unequivocally conveys his view
that such a thing is not possible by lying next to Alcibiades but not touching him.13
By tempting Socrates, Alcibiades hopes to gain power over him, to turn
Socrates into the needy one, but Socrates will have none of it. Socrates
maintains his power by needing nothing—neither sexual relations nor anything else—from Alcibiades, and in this way, Socrates remains free to care
for him, for his soul, and to reproach him as is appropriate.14 Indeed, it is
by refusing Alcibiades’ advances, and thus preserving his own incorruptibility, that Socrates ensures his ability to care for rather than corrupt the
young Alcibiades. Had he been seduced, he would have forfeited his own
virtue and with it the ability to cause Alcibiades to doubt his. At the same
time that Socrates preserves his virtue by remaining impervious to
Alcibiades’ attempts at seduction, he also confirms and reinforces his own
Unlike Socrates, Alcibiades is needy, and his desperation to seduce
Socrates is a measure of his lack of power and diminished freedom: he is
enslaved (katadedō loumenos) to Socrates (219e3–4), whom he needs and
whose approval he craves. Not content with the purity of Socrates’ love,
the beloved (paidika) becomes the jealous lover (erastēs) (222b). As
Alcibiades himself admits, he is “still in need of much myself” (pollou
endeēs ō n autos) (216a5). It is this need that contributes to his “slavish”
(andrapodō dō s—215e6–7) condition. Had Socrates yielded to Alcibiades’
overtures, he would have become, like other lovers, a slave to his beloved.
The one thing that enables Socrates to care for the young is that he, unlike
other besotted older men, never attaches sexual strings to his benefactions.
Socrates loves without need.
See, for example, Phaedrus’ speech in the Symposium: “I cannot say what greater good
there is for a young boy than a gentle lover, or for a lover than a boy to love” (178c).
See Republic 3403b-cm where a law is to be set down in the city that is being founded
that a lover may kiss, be with, and touch his boy as though he were a son, “for noble purposes” (tō n kalō n charin) if he persuades him, but it may not go any further.
Alcibiades notes that Socrates is the only person who has made him feel shame
(Symposium 216b).
Alcibiades even seems aware that Socrates’ cool indifference, like his ability to endure
harsh weather conditions, is effortless or certainly appears so. Alcibiades remarks that at the
retreat from Delium, it was Socrates’ composure (emphrō n) and calm (ērema) (221b) that
kept the enemy at bay and saved both him and the general Laches.
Socrates’ freedom from sexual entanglements is thus related to his ability to care for the young. His not needing sexual favors enables him both
to serve as a model for young people and to be in a position to (try to)
improve rather than corrupt them. It is not unlikely that Socrates’ being
frequently seen trailed by a group of young men with too much money
and too much time on their hands would itself have aroused suspicion that
he is a corrosive influence on them. Socrates could hardly convincingly
insist he hasn’t corrupted young people if his involvement with them were
sexual. And Socrates certainly was suspected of being susceptible to the
sexual allure of young boys, as is evident from the opening scene of the
Protagoras. There Socrates’ anonymous friend takes it for granted that
Socrates must be just returning “from the hunt for Alcibiades, in his
bloom” (309a1–2)—that is, from a sexual tryst with his beloved. It may
seem as if Socrates does nothing to disabuse his friend of his lewd supposition.16 Yet, Socrates does express to the friend his decided preference for
wisdom over superficial physical beauty, that is, for Protagoras—“if you
think he is wisest” (309d1–2)—over Alcibiades: “How could the wisest
not appear more beautiful?” (309c9–10).17 Moreover, the scene that
Socrates next recounts to his friend proves decisive. In it, the young
Hippocrates appears at Socrates’ door before dawn, while it is still dark,
but, far from considering how he might take advantage of the situation,
Socrates is concerned exclusively with the lad’s soul and how to preserve
its uncorrupted state.
Robert C. Bartlett, in his Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras’ Challenge to
Socrates (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 10, notices that Socrates
does not directly set his friend straight, and suggests that this is “perhaps because the truth
of the matter would be less intelligible, or less acceptable, to the comrade.”
In the Charmides at 154d, when all who are gathered at the palaestra of Taureas swoon
at the entry of the extraordinarily beautiful Charmides, what interests Socrates is whether
Charmides happens to have “one small thing in addition.” What Socrates wishes to know is
“whether his soul is beautifully formed” (eu pephukō s). Socrates’ confession that he is smitten—indeed aroused—at the sight of Charmides’ private parts needs to be taken with a grain
of salt. Is he as discombobulated by his accusers, as he claims to be at the beginning of the
Apology (17a), that he “nearly forgot himself”? Is he so entranced by Protagoras’ speech, as
he professes to be at Protagoras 328d, that he could “barely pull himself together” and manage to ask about the “one small thing” that troubles him (329b)? See Rep. 3.402d8–11,
where it is said of the musical man that he would love (erō iē) those who are without defect
in their souls and would be patient and would delight in one whose defect was bodily.
Socrates in the Apology
In proceeding to the Apology, we may note the many echoes of the Apology
in the Symposium’s Alcibiades episode. Consider the following: (1)
Alcibiades says of Socrates: “He leads me to think that my life as it is is not
worth living” (mē biō ton) (216a), which recalls Socrates’ pronouncement
in the Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living (ou biō tos) for
a human being” (Apology 38a). (2) Alcibiades says that Socrates “forces
me to admit that, sorely deficient as I am, I do not care for myself (emautou men amelō ) while I attend to (prattō ) the things of Athens (ta d’
Athēnaiō n)” (216a). This recalls not only Socrates’ constant refrain in the
Apology concerning what one ought to care about and what is not worthy
of care, what is actually cared about and what is neglected, what is professed to be cared about but is in fact of little or no concern (24c8, 24d4,
d9, 25c3 [twice], 26b2,18 28b5–9, 29d9, 29e2,19 e3, 30b1, 31a7, 31b2,
b3, b5, 32d2, d3, 36b6, 36c6 [twice], 36d1, 41d2, and 41e4–520),21 but
also his assertion that he has not cared for (ēmelēkenai) all his own things
(tō n men enautou pantō n), and has allowed the things of his family to be
uncared for (ameloumenō n) as well, and that he (and thus not Alcibiades
and those of his ilk) has done the Athenians’ business (to humeteron prattein) insofar as he (unlike Alcibiades and other prominent public politicians) has been a busybody (polupragmonō ) only in private (31b–c). (3)
Alcibiades notes that: “It could not matter less to him [viz. Socrates]
whether a boy is beautiful. You can’t imagine how little he cares whether a
person is beautiful, or rich, or famous in any other way that most people
admire” (216d–e), which recalls not only the passage in the Protagoras
(309d) cited in the previous paragraph but also Socrates’ statement in the
Apology that he “did not care for the things the many do” (36b). (4)
Alcibiades refers to those present as “gentlemen judges (andres dikastai),
for that is what you are in fact” (219c), which recalls Socrates’ addressing
The first six references are to Meletus’ putative but not actual caring about the young.
At 29d–e, Socrates explains how he deals with those who profess to care about prudence,
truth, and how their souls will be the best possible.
Here Socrates expresses his worry that his children might care about “money or anything else before virtue.”
In most of these instances the term is some cognate of epimeleisthai, although a few
other terms or expressions are used, such as kēdomenos at 31a7. It is significant, and ironic,
that Socrates’ main interlocutor in the Apology is Meletus, whose name is a play on the Greek
term for “care”: Meletus is shown not to care at all about the moral state of the youth.
only those who voted in his favor as “gentlemen judges” (andres dikastai)
at 40a.22 (5) Alcibiades remarks that Socrates is “utterly extraordinary, a
miraculous man” (219c), one who does things that are “strange” (atopian)
(221d), which is reminiscent of the same expression Socrates applies to
himself in the Apology, where he recognizes that his strictly private counseling might be thought “strange” (atopon) (31c). (6) Alcibiades’ recommendation that Socrates not be compared to anything human (221d) is
reminiscent of Socrates’ observation at Apology 31b that the way in which
he conducts his life “does not seem human” (31b1).
Significantly, it is on the heels of Socrates’ remark that his way of life
“does not seem human” that the phrase “as a father or older brother”
appears in the Apology. After asserting at 30e–31a that, sent by the god, he
has “awakened and persuaded and reproached each one of you,” Socrates
explains that the reason he does not seem human is that he has neglected
(or not cared for [or not cared about?]—ēmelēkenai) “all my own things”
(tō n men emautou pantō n—31b1–2) and “for so many years now” has
“endured that the things of my family be uncared for” (anechesthai tō n
oikeō n ameloumenō n—31b2–3), “instead always doing yours” (to de humeteron prattein aei—31b3).23 In other words, had Socrates cared for his
own things or for the things of his family, he could not have “done yours.”
Had Socrates tended to his own needs, he could not have tended to
“yours.” Thus, certainly, had he indulged his passion for Alcibiades, he
could not have tended to him, could not have awakened and reproached
him, as a father or older brother, and persuaded him to care for virtue. If
Socrates can only pursue his ministry, and can only lavish paternal or fraternal care if he neglects his own things and those of his family, how could
he do so if he were to give priority to sexual satisfaction?
Socrates’ seeming not to be human is linked first, then, to his divine
mission to awaken, persuade, and reproach—to the point that he must
neglect his own things and those of his family. It is connected second,
however, to his taking no wages at all. His activity would no doubt be
made “more reasonable” (eichon an tina logon—31b7), that is, seem more
human, if he were receiving anything (ti—31b5) for it, any type of wage
Cf. Gorgias 522c, where Socrates uses this term mockingly.
Socrates presents his spending his life doing something that does not seem human as
proof that he was sent by the god to awaken, persuade, and reproach. Immediately following
his representation of himself as a gadfly sent by the god to alight upon and awaken the sluggish horse that is Athens (Apology 30e), Socrates says: “That I happen to be someone of this
sort you might apprehend from this: it does not seem human …” (31a–b).
(misthon—31b6, 31c2). Insofar as what Alcibiades sought was to exchange
sexual relations for instruction, it is clear that that sort of wage, no less
than monetary compensation, is not something Socrates, qua exhorter
(parekeleuō mēn—31b6–7), could or would accept. For this reason, too,
Socrates does not seem human.
There are, then, at least two sorts of wages that Socrates does not and
will not accept: sexual favors and money. These are wages that would have
been, had he accepted them, remuneration for instruction provided.
Socrates’ brand of instruction, however, takes the form of awakening,
reproaching, persuading, and exhorting—hardly familiar or standard
modes of instruction. It is this form of instruction that is utterly incompatible with compensation of any kind; it can be provided only gratis. Not
only is Socratic instruction incompatible with compensation—the fact that
Socrates refuses payment plays, in the Apology, an important role in his
defense. It is just about the only rebuttal he advances against the “old”
charge against him that he “makes the weaker argument the stronger”
(23d), the second part of a two-part charge leveled against Socrates by
Aristophanes in his famous play, the charge upon which, according to
Socrates, the “new” charge that he “corrupts the young” (24b) relies.
Indeed, whereas Socrates in the Apology flatly denies the first part of
Aristophanes’ charge, namely, that he “investigates the things under the
earth and the heavenly things” (18b, 19a)—of this he says, “I have no
share in these things” (19c8), and he denies that he ever converses about
them, either much or little (19d)—he never actually denies the second
part, namely, that he makes the weaker argument the stronger. Indeed,
how could he? But, what he can say in all honesty is that he has never
charged a fee.
Why is it so critical that Socrates does not charge a fee for his instruction? Of course, it is a way of distancing himself from the sophists, but it
is surely more. To charge no fee, and to accept no fee, is to be free; it is to
owe nothing to anyone. One needn’t pander to one’s clients or to one’s
supporters; one needn’t fear the loss of wages and feel constrained to
resort to flattery; one needn’t tailor one’s message to please anyone or to
save one’s reputation. One is free to reproach and reprimand, free to
examine and exhort. In the Gorgias, where Socrates observes that both he
and Callicles have two loves—Callicles has Demos, son of Pyrilampes, and
the Athenian demos; and he has Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, and philosophy (481d)—Socrates goes on to say that, whereas Callicles will always say
what Demos says, and will always seek to please the Athenian Assembly,24
Socrates will only say what the far less fickle—indeed, the constant and
unwavering—philosophy says (481d–482b).25 Socrates does not have to
please the Athenian Assembly; nor does he say whatever Alcibiades says.
He thus implies that his relationship with Alcibiades differs in this (and
likely in at least one other) significant way from Callicles’ relationship with
Socrates’ craft, the political craft, the craft of improving souls, is not, of
course, the only caring craft. Indeed, Socrates argues in Republic
1.341c–342a, that there are many such crafts and they are distinguished
by being self-sufficient: they themselves lack nothing, and they care for
that over which they are set. Socrates mentions medicine, piloting, and
horsemanship. These caring arts look after something other than themselves. And their practitioners, “the stronger,” benefit and seek the advantage of, not themselves but others, “the weaker.” If the rulers and craftsmen
themselves—and here Socrates includes the housebuilder—are to receive
any benefit, they must practice not only their own art but the wage earner’s art as well (346a–347a).26 Despite what Socrates says, however, it is
evident that rulers and craftsmen do not practice a second art; what they
do is earn money as a by-product of the art they practice. Although their
art proper benefits another, and would benefit another even if the practitioner “worked for free” (346e), in most cases it also produces wages for
the practitioner, if only as a side-effect.
What does it say about Socrates that he will not accept a wage even as a
corollary to his attempt to improve others, let alone as its main aim (as it
perhaps is in the case of the sophists)? Whereas the practitioners of all
other arts remain needy—if not insofar as they are professionals then at
least insofar as they are men—Socrates does not. Other practitioners,
therefore, cannot be quite as selfless as Socrates in their devotion to oth24
Socrates later calls the kind of political engagement to which Callicles summons him
“flatterer’s work” (kolakeusonta—521b). Cf. Crito 53e, where the Laws caution Socrates
against escaping to Thessaly, where he would be living by “fawning upon all human beings
and being their slave.”
See Gorgias 509b: “For my speech is always the same.” Indeed, in the Gorgias, Callicles
berates Socrates for always saying the same thing (491b). In the Crito, Socrates insists on the
importance of not abandoning the beliefs one has always held, even in the face of impending
death (48b–49b).
The same term, misthos, is used for “wage” in both the Republic (see, e.g., 1.346d) and
the Apology (see 31b–c).
ers. Socrates is the only practitioner whose craft is simple, pure, and free of
side benefits. An art whose aim is the moral improvement of others surely
works best when unmixed with the practitioner’s need to make money:
need inevitably complicates one’s practice. Only those who are not themselves needy are able to respond to a higher calling without having to
combat the distraction of competing interests.
What makes Socrates not needy is his indifference to most things that others desire. Because of the many things Socrates cares neither for nor about,
things he thinks no one ought to care for or about, he is free to care for or
about what matters and is free to serve the god by ministering to others.
What are these unworthy things? And which things are worthy? The
answer may be found in the Apology at 36c5–d1, where Socrates says:
I attempted to persuade each of you not to care for any of his own things
until he cares for himself, how he will be the best and most prudent possible,
nor to care for the things of the city until he cares for the city itself,27 and so
to care for the other things in the same way.
Socrates distinguishes here between the person himself and the city
itself, on the one hand, and the person’s things and the city’s things, on
the other—and so, too, in other cases.28 If we return to 31b, where
Socrates speaks of his not seeming human, we see the very same distinction: Socrates neglected all the things of his own and allowed the things of
his family to go uncared for. He does not say that he neglected himself or
that he neglected his family.29 Furthermore, Socrates does not say that he
Caring for the city itself entails caring for the moral improvement of the citizens rather
than for the gratification of the citizens’ appetites. On this, see Gorgias 517b–c and 521d–e.
This is “the true political art” (521d). See, too Euthydemus 291c–292c, where “the kingly
art” (hē basilikē) or “the political art” (hē politikē) is “that by which we make others good.”
The identical distinction is drawn, and in the same way, at Alcibiades I 127e–128a,
between caring (epimeleisthai) for oneself and for one’s things. Socrates goes on to identify
one’s self with one’s soul at 130c. See Phaedrus 229e5–230a3: Socrates will look into himself
(emauton) rather than into alien things (allotria). At Charmides 173a, Socrates insists on the
importance of examining rather that ignoring the ideas that occur to one, “if one cares even
a little about oneself.”
I shall return to the question of Socrates and his children at the end of this essay. The
implication, however, of this passage, is that Socrates did not neglect his family or, for that
cares for “your things” instead but rather that he does (prattein) your
thing—note the shift to the singular, to humeteron, as well as the change in
verb.30 Socrates does for them the one job that is properly theirs to do,
namely, to improve their souls or their moral character. We may cite 23b
in this connection as well. Here Socrates says that he does not have any
leisure “either to do any of the things of the city worth speaking of or any
of the things of my family.” Indeed, because of his occupation (“lack of
leisure”—ascholia) in service to the god, namely, his showing the unwise
that they are unwise, or, in other words, because he concerns himself with
the people themselves and how they stand with respect to wisdom and
virtue, he is unable to turn his attention to the less pressing matter of
tending to the things of the city or of his family.31 In the Symposium, as we
recall, Alcibiades is willing to gratify Socrates by supplying anything of
which he might be in need, whether it be of Alcibiades’ own property (tēs
ousias tēs emēs—“the property of myself”) or of that of his friends (tō n
philō n tō n emō n—“[the property of] the friends of myself”) (218c–d). He
offers Socrates precisely those superficial things, possessions or belongings, which Socrates does not need and does not care about, things that
Socrates cautions everyone against valuing unduly. Tellingly, it is himself
that Alcibiades neglects (emautou men amelō —216a), while he does the
business of the Athenians (ta d’Athēnaiō prattō —216a6).32
Let us consider, then, what constitutes oneself, one’s family, and one’s
city, as opposed to the things of oneself, one’s family, and one’s city. It is
matter, himself, but only their things. He sought to become as virtuous as possible and no
doubt wanted that very thing for his children.
Compare the similar expression at Apology 33a: “speaking and doing my own things.”
Rather than caring about or tending to his own things, Socrates does them, does what he is
supposed to be doing, the business that is his, viz. encouraging the moral improvement of
others. Cf. Charmides 161–162, where temperance is surely not doing one’s own business in
the sense of providing only for oneself. See, too, Republic 2.369e–370a, where doing one’s
own, when understood in this way, is rejected in favor of division of labor.
Socrates, in seeking an appropriate counterpenalty to recommend in his own case, considers what he most needs, namely, “leisure to exhort you” (Apology 36d). The activity of
exhorting, which was formerly his occupation (ascholia), leaving him no leisure to care for
the things of the city and those of his family, is suddenly a leisured one: in the face of the
prospect of death, exile, or imprisonment, the freedom to exhort becomes a luxury.
Leisure is, of course, something of which the wealthy young people who follow Socrates
around have far too much (Apology 23c).
In Alcibiades I, Socrates’ goal is to get Alcibiades to recognize about himself, that, given
a choice between living with what he currently has (echō n ha nun echeis) and dying immediately if he cannot acquire greater things, he would choose death (105a).
clear that for Socrates the self, the family, and the city themselves are their
respective souls. One ought to care, then, that one’s own soul be as just
and virtuous and wise as possible; that one’s children’s souls be as just and
virtuous and wise as possible; and that, if one is in a position to rule or to
advise a city,33 that one’s city—that is, one’s fellow citizens—be as just and
virtuous and wise as possible.34
What, then, counts as the things of oneself, of one’s family, of one’s city?
These are the things that are external to the soul, all the things that can be
assigned to the body (Apology 30a8) and beyond. These are indeed the
things that Socrates declares that he does not care about and which he
seeks to get others to care less about.35 The list of these things is rather
long,36 containing such things as reputation, power, political intrigue,
wealth,37 pleasure, and pain (see, e.g., Phaedo 60b3–4, where Socrates
Socrates sees himself in just such a role in the Gorgias at 521d. He says of himself that he
is in fact the only one to try his hand at the true political art and to practice politics—though
not, to be sure, in the approved public way.
Socrates often offers lists of “goods,” as, for example, at Meno 87e–89a, and at
Euthydemus 279a–c. Unless, however, the goods listed are genuine virtues, they are not
necessarily good but are generally the sorts of things people regard as good. There is one
good in particular other than virtue which may be thought to matter to Socrates, viz. bodily
health and fitness. After all, he asks in the Crito whether “life is worth living for us with a
wretched and corrupted body” (47e) and appears to expect and to accept an answer in the
negative. It seems, however, that Crito’s assent to the proposition that life is not worth living
for us with a wretched and corrupted body is simply something that Socrates must secure in
order to make his a fortiori argument for the proposition to which he does subscribe, viz.
that life with a wretched and corrupted soul is not worth living. (“Soul” is implicit in the
circumlocutions Socrates uses for it—“that thing which the unjust maims and the just profits”; “whatever it is of the things that belong to us which both injustice and justice concern”
(Crito 47e–48a). He seems to be trying to avoid saying the word soul when speaking to
Crito.) For his own part, Socrates asserts that to live nobly and justly is to live well and indeed
that they are one and the same (Crito 48b8–9). The body does not figure at all in this
As Socrates says in the Gorgias, a true statesman leads the desires in a different direction
Despite the frequent references in the Platonic corpus to Socrates’ being smitten by
good looks, his offhand remark in the Protagoras at 309c9–10, mentioned above, about how
much more attractive wisdom is to him than physical beauty, should suffice to set the record
straight. In the Symposium, Alcibiades, in comparing Socrates to a Silenus, says that on the
outside Socrates appears to lust after beautiful people but inside he cares not at all. Indeed,
he is indifferent to the things that most people admire, not caring “whether someone is
beautiful, or rich, or famous” (216d–e).
It is likely that the reason Socrates had no objection to a fine as his penalty is precisely
that money was of so little consequence to him that giving up some of it did not strike him
speaks of “this thing which people call pleasure” [touto ho kalousin hoi
anthrō poi hēdu]),38 living itself (as opposed to living well—that is, justly—
which does matter—Crito 48b),39 and even “nurture of children” (paidō n
trophēs—Crito 48c3).40
It is Socrates’ not-caring for power, prestige, wealth, or reputation, that
makes him the freest of men. Nothing has power over him. No one and
nothing has any hold on him. Only a man who is free can serve the god:
there is nothing Socrates needs from the god and nothing he fears from
him; he can approach the god with deep reverence alone.41 And only a
man who is free can care wholeheartedly for others.
How are we to understand the nature of Socrates’ freedom? On one
conception of freedom, it is the license to do as one pleases. It is probably
because Thrasymachus harbors such a conception that he thinks injustice
is both “mightier and freer”—that is, less constraining—than justice
as anything bad. Since he did not regard proposing a fine as visiting a harm upon himself, he
did not think doing so would violate his principle of never intentionally committing an injustice against anyone—including himself. All the other penalties he considered were, at the
very least, unpleasant. See Apology 37b–e.
Socrates rebukes those who care most about money, reputation, and honor, saying: “are
you not ashamed?” See Apology 29d. And it is the possibility that his children might care
specifically about money that most worries Socrates (see Apology 41e).
We see, too, in the Phaedo (64c–67b) that philosophers do not care about pleasures of
the body. Pleasure and pain rivet the soul to the body and prevent it from ascending to the
transcendent realm. In Rep. 6.485d Socrates observes that those who are lovers of learning
and of the pleasures of the soul cannot also be lovers of pleasures of the body.
In the Apology, Socrates frames his indifference to life itself as his not caring at all about
death. See Apology 32d: “I do not even care about death in any way at all.” He is, however,
not so “possessed by much love of life” (philopsuchia—Apology 37c) that he cannot think
clearly about his likely reception in exile. In the Gorgias at 512e, Socrates says “the true man
ought not to concern himself with living a certain length of time, ought not be a lover of life”
(ou philopsuchēteon—512e2). If all that mattered were staying alive—rather than living well—
the pilot’s art or the engineer’s art would be the most valuable (512b).
Socrates’ view on the matter of children will be discussed at the end of this essay.
I do not think Socrates has to be taken to believe in a literal divine being in order for him
to be truthfully and sincerely serving the god. Socrates has reverence for something higher,
something more stable and permanent than the flux and change that characterize the realm
of opinion. It is out of this sort of piety that Socrates devotes his life to the moral improvement of others.
(Republic 1.344b). As Gorgias understands freedom, which he takes to be
the greatest good, the good that his art of oratory produces, it comprises
both not being subject to the rule of others and subjugating others to
one’s own rule (Gorgias 452d). Callicles sees freedom as being governed
by no master at all, or more specifically, allowing one’s appetites free reign,
not subordinating them to the higher authority of reason42; for, unless our
appetites swell how will our pleasure increase?43 Socrates would, of course,
reject these crass notions of freedom,44 would regard them as unworthy,
ignoble. And Socrates will do nothing that is not suitable for a free man
(Apology 38a).
It is here that we can appreciate Socrates’ uniqueness. Not only does he
not think freedom is license or unbridled desire, but he also does not see
freedom as a matter of existing for one’s own sake. For Socrates, the man
who is most free is one who lives not for himself, not for his own sake, but
for the sake of others. It is the person who lives for something outside
himself who is truly free.45 Such a person is the one who is free to care.
Perhaps Socrates’ distinctiveness may be captured by the difference
between the two “divine” communications that guide his life: his daimonion and the oracle. The freedom from, that is, from attachments to
things of little worth, is represented by the daimonion, the naysayer.
Socrates can easily avoid what is wrong, can readily say no to injustice, can
steer clear of obstacles to living as he ought because of his freedom from.
But, this freedom from—which is, in effect, the freedom that protects
Socrates’ own soul—is enhanced by his freedom to: he walks away from the
There is a rather obvious irony here that is lost on Callicles. The person who is constantly
engaged in satisfying appetites is not his own boss but his appetites’ servant: “He must be
able,” Callicles says, “to serve (hupēretein) them through courage and intelligence” (Gorgias
A person whose appetites are satisfied and do not continually increase might as well be,
Callicles thinks, a stone or corpse (Gorgias 492e5–6; 494a8–b6–7).
In the Gorgias, it is the arts that deal with the body that are called “slavish” (douloprepeis)
and “unfree” (aneleutherous) (518a).
Even Aristotle’s view of freedom, as found in the Metaphysics (I.ii.982b25–28), fails to
capture the essence of Socratic freedom. For Aristotle, “we describe a free person as one who
exists for his own sake and not for someone else’s.”
things that ensnare most people and thus frees himself to tend to others46
in service to the god.47 Socrates may serve the god, but he is a slave to no
As we conclude, let us return to the image of father or older brother. The
fathers we encounter in the Platonic dialogues are, for the most part, concerned about the virtue of their children. We see this in the Euthydemus
(306d–307a), where Crito seeks a teacher for his son Critobulus. We see
it in the Protagoras, where Socrates assumes that fathers want their children to be good and would send them to appropriate teachers—if only
virtue could be taught (319e–320a). We see it in the Meno, again in the
context of fathers wishing to have their children become good men (93c–
94e). Fathers are not jealous of their children; they are not competitive.
They want the best for them, without a return for themselves. There is
thus a selflessness, an altruism, about the care they provide.49
Socrates’ tending to others, which is the form his political activity takes, is what is meant
by his “going down.” For example, he “goes down” (katēben) to the Piraeus at the start of
the Republic (1.327a), the very thing the philosophers in Rep. 7 at 520c must be compelled
to do (katabateon). Cephalus complains that Socrates has not “come down” (katabainō n) in
a while and ought to do so more often (328c). What Socrates will not do, however, is “go
up” (anabainō n) to counsel the city (Apology 31c); Socrates advises the city only by going
It is Strauss who, in “Jerusalem and Athens,” observes with the greatest perspicacity and
clarity the similarity between Socrates and the Hebrew prophets. Though he may arguably
have been more concerned to show the differences between them, nevertheless a case could
be made that the greater contribution of his essay was its highlighting of their shared mission.
See Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” in Studies in
Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983),
147–173, esp. 168–173. Note how Socrates says in the Apology: “Then you would spend the
rest of your lives asleep, unless the god sends you someone else in his concern for you” (31a).
Striking, too, is Socrates’ awareness—so like that of many of the Hebrew prophets—that he
was becoming hated (21e, 23a).
On one occasion—in the Phaedo at 85b—Socrates calls himself a slave of the gods, applying to himself the expression “fellow-slave” (homodoulos), and noting that he, like the swans
who sing sweetly as death approaches, does not fear death. Despite the expression Socrates
uses here, there is no indication of anything slavish in his relationship to the gods. It is in the
Phaedo as well that Socrates speaks of our being the gods’ possessions (ktēmata—62b8)—
though he does so, surely, simply to make the case against suicide.
Even Adeimantus at Republic 2.362e–363a thinks fathers want their children to be just,
even if for the wrong reasons.
Socrates models his own care for the Athenians on this idealized paradigm of fatherly care. What is, however, special, what does not seem quite
human, about Socrates is that he exhibits the same fatherly care with
respect to everyone that most fathers reserve only for their own children.
As Alcibiades concedes, Socrates is a father or older brother not only to
him but to “Charmides, son of Glaucon, Euthydemus, son of Diocles, and
any number of others” (Symposium 222b). Indeed, there are several
­indications in the dialogues that Socrates regards most people as children.
In the Crito (at 49a–b), he says to Crito: “And although at our age, Crito,
we old men have long been seriously conversing with each other, were we
unaware, then, that we ourselves are no different from children?” In other
words, to the extent that we fail to remain steadfast in our commitments
in the face of death, we are like most people, that is, like children. And in
the Gorgias (521e–522a), Socrates considers how he might fare when facing a jury of children: how can one speak the bitter truth to grown-ups
who are children? But if, indeed, adults are like children, what they require
is to be reproached, like children, for failing to do as they ought.
There seems, however, to be something more offensive about Socrates
than that he is a father or older brother to all rather than exclusively or
especially to his own children. For, the men/de contrast at Apology 31b
implies that what Socrates recognizes as something about himself that
seems not human is that, while caring for everyone, going to “each of
you” as a father or older brother, he actually neglects or fails to care for the
things of his own family. Yet, a more careful reading of this passage recognizes, as we noted earlier (see n. 29), that Socrates never says that he failed
to care for his own children. What he failed to care for are “the things of”
his family; what he failed to care for are “the things of” himself. There is no
reason to think he neglected his family any more than there is reason to
think he neglected himself. There is no reason to think that he did not care
for his own children—care that they care for virtue—even as his own virtue
was of concern to him.
Or is there? When Crito remonstrates with Socrates about his neglect
of his children, it seems that all Socrates can say is that “nurture of children,” like spending money or losing one’s reputation, is a consideration
of the mindless many. Yet, here, too, a bit of caution could forestall the
overhasty conclusion that Socrates dismisses concern for one’s children as
foolish or worthless. For, whereas Crito chides Socrates for abandoning
his orphaned children to chance when it was possible for him to “nurture
and educate them” (ekthrepsai kai ekpaideusai—45c–d), the only parental
responsibility that Socrates disdains as a consideration of the mindless
many is nurture, trophē (48c3); he does not scoff at the consideration
concerning education. The Laws, in their speech, also pair the two—nurture and education—without distinction (54a); they, too, like Crito, fail to
see the difference between them. Yet, for Socrates, his children’s education—if not their nurture—is paramount.
What is of utmost concern to Socrates is that his children understand
what is important and what is unimportant, that they care about what is
important and not about what is unimportant. Although this is a lesson he
fervently wants them to learn, what he may not see is why he must be the
one to teach it to them. And if he is better equipped than most to turn
people to virtue, why, he no doubt wonders, should he guide only his own
family in this way? In the final analysis, the best education Socrates can
provide—for his own children and for the children of all fathers—is to do
always and only what is just.
That Socrates cared deeply about his children’s education—about the
education to virtue that alone really matters—is, ultimately, indisputable.
That his sons be properly educated, that is, punished, pained, and
reproached, “when they grow up” (41e)—even his oldest, then, is not
quite grown up—is his final wish, his last request, that for which he begs,50
even as his trial, and thus his life, draws to a close. Socrates’ children are
not his “things”; they are not possessions. Indeed, he identifies so strongly
with them that for them to be treated in a certain way is, in his view, for
him to be so treated: “And if you do these things, we will have been
treated justly by you, both I myself and my sons” (41e–42a). Socrates will
be satisfied, then, as he says, if his accusers and those who voted to condemn him treat his children as he did them. What he asks for, indeed, is
simply that justice be served. For him, every concern, even a concern for
his children, is, in the end, a concern for justice. If Socrates’ opponents
treat his children as he has treated them, the scales of justice will be set
aright; indeed, this would be a perfect instance of justice, the requiting not
of evil with evil, of wrong with wrong, but rather the requiting of good
The Greek is deomai, reminiscent of Republic 6.489b, where Socrates says that those
who need to be ruled ought to beg those who are able to rule to rule them. Cf. Republic
1.338a, where “Glaucon and the others begged (edeonto) him [viz. Thrasymachus] not to do
otherwise”—that is, to remain and teach about justice as per Socrates’ request. At 1.344d5,
Socrates says: “And I, too, on my own, begged (edeomēn) him.” Cf. Euthydemus 282b2–3:
“who begs and beseeches them to give him wisdom” (deomenon kai hiketeuonta sophias
with good, of right with right. For, although Socrates’ detractors could
not see it, his harshness was a kindness to them, a gesture of care. And so,
if the very people who sought to harm him, the people who are therefore
most blameworthy (41e), do him this one kindness, that will make up for
the injustice of his conviction and sentence. This one deed will amount to
a supreme act of justice, both to him and to his children. And so he pleads
(Apology 41e–42a):
If they care for money or anything else before virtue, if they are reputed to
be something when they are nothing, reproach them just as I did you: tell
them that they do not care for the things they should, and that they suppose
they are something when they are worth nothing. And if you do these
things, we will have been treated justly by you, both I myself and my sons.
Socrates: Sisyphean or Overflowing?
Joshua Parens
Our task in this book is to consider Plato’s motives for writing and
Socrates’s motives for conversing, especially with his intellectual inferiors.
To frame an inquiry into the latter question, it is worth considering at least
preliminarily, the character of the few conversations he has with his equals
and perhaps even a superior: the not-so-dialogical and wholly fictitious
conversation of the young Socrates with his apparent superior Parmenides,
the likely fictitious and all-too-brief conversation with his apparent equal
Timaeus, and the comparable all-too-brief conversations with the Eleatic
stranger. The most striking and obvious feature of these conversations is
how undialogical they are. Among these conversations, perhaps the closest
one comes to dialog is in the conversation with Parmenides, when he takes
Socrates to task about the forms in much the same way Socrates takes his
interlocutors to task about the virtues. Either there is something unseemly
about Plato’s portraying Socrates engaged in what the Eleatic stranger
describes in the Sophist as a gigantomachia regarding metaphysical matters
(245e–249d) or there is little or no room for dialog in the Socratic sense
between equals. Even this cursory glance at his conversations with equals
or superiors suggests that what we have come to recognize as Socratic or
Platonic dialog may well never be a conversation between equals. Indeed,
J. Parens (*)
University of Dallas, Irving, TX, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_9
such conversations seem to presuppose significant inequality between the
ruler of the conversation, Parmenides or Socrates, and his interlocutors.
If Socrates learns little if anything from his conversations with his intellectual inferiors—and what seems to be his complete rule over these conversations indicates that it is unlikely that he learns much—then why does
he participate in them? To begin to answer this question, it is worth considering first whether Socrates really knows only that he does not know or in
fact knows a great deal more. His relation to his inferiors depends to a great
extent on whether he is really as barren as he seems so often to present
himself as being, or perhaps his self-presentation is merely one facet of his
renowned irony. If he is in fact more pregnant than he leads most of his
interlocutors to think he is, and he is as clearly as we have suggested their
superior, then it is almost certain that his conversations with his inferiors are
not for the sake of his gaining any greater wisdom from them. If not, then
the next presumption would be that they are somehow for the benefit of his
interlocutors. But a distinction must be made between Socrates’s inferiors:
some are presumably limited in some way by nature or upbringing from
ever rivaling Socrates, others are only temporarily so, namely, the potential
philosophers. Oddly enough, it appears that the conversations Socrates has
are almost solely with the former group. Obviously, we see no conversations between Plato and Socrates. And Socrates very rarely mentions that
any of his interlocutors show philosophic promise.1 Could it be that it
serves better the education of potential philosophers for Socrates to engage
in elenchus and frequently aborted definitions primarily with those who are
less than potential philosophers? If this can be shown at least in some preliminary way to be the case, then we might have a clearer idea of Socrates’s
primary motive in engaging in these conversations with his inferiors.
Among those who take most seriously the difficulties of explaining why
Socrates engages in the conversations presented by Plato, many base their
interpretation on a relatively naïve reading of his self-presentation in the
Apology. That is, they take at face value Socrates’s appeal to the oracle and
claim to be having these conversations with his inferiors because they all
presume to know, while he knows only his ignorance, about which they
The main exception is Polemarchus, whom we are informed in the Phaedrus (257b) has
turned to philosophy, though of course his life was cut short by the Thirty Tyrants. We
return to Polemarchus eventually. One could consider Simmias and Cebes in the Phaedo as
devotees of Pythagoras as potential or actual philosophers, but these interlocutors seem,
especially in their attitudes toward morality, death, and immortality, more like acolytes of a
mystery religion than philosophers properly speaking.
lack comparable self-knowledge. According to this interpretation, he must
engage in these conversations to confirm his superiority due solely to his
knowledge of his ignorance. This line of interpretation, which is being
taken to task by other authors in this collection, leads to the view that
Socrates really possesses no knowledge other than of his own ignorance.
And he engages in these conversations in the vain attempt to find someone
else who knows more or to prove his superiority to others solely in this
respect, knowledge of ignorance.
In thinking about how to view what Socrates knows, there appear to be
two possible poles of thought, with many grades in between: either
Socrates in his claims to knowledge of ignorance is a Sisyphean character
indeed or hidden behind his irony one finds not merely hidden knowledge but a great wealth of knowledge. In part because the former pole
seems so much more widely espoused in recent times even by profound
interpreters who characterize Socrates or philosophy more generally this
way,2 this chapter explores the latter pole. Another reason to explore this
pole is that the recent emphasis on Socratic ignorance may result from the
need to counteract millennia of hyperbole about Socratic-Platonic quasimystical knowledge of or belief in the forms or ideas. Correcting this
misinterpretation of Plato may well have had much to do with the popularity of, what I call in brief, the “Sisyphean pole.” If this pole was adopted
in large part to temper hyperbole about what Socrates or Plato knew, then
it might be time to reconsider a revised version of the other pole. What I
call the “overflowing pole” is inspired by Maimonides’s Guide of the
Perplexed, part 2, chapter 37. Lest this chapter turn into an extensive
defense of a particular reading of the whole of the Guide, I hope the
reader permits me to pluck this vision of the philosopher from the pages
of the Guide without such a defense. One of the reasons for the title of
this chapter is that ultimately Maimonides characterizes all knowledge in
terms of “overflow” (2.11–2.12, 2.37). Regarding this overflow, he is
quite clear that it is used purely as a simile (2.12).3 Nevertheless, this
simile contributes to a view of philosophy as more substantive than a runof-the-mill form of skepticism.
Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 40.
Strauss notes that it is in comparison of the aim of philosophy with its achievement that it can
appear Sisyphean. Elsewhere he encapsulates Socrates in terms of the knowledge of ignorance claim. Ultimately, his interpretation of Socrates is much more complex than this simple
claim, though.
The imagery of overflow is borrowed from Neoplatonic thought.
Maimonides does not refer specifically to Socrates but he gives two
different accounts either of which could be thought to coincide with
Socrates or philosophers like Socrates. He contrasts the men of science
(ahl al-‘ilm, philosophers) with the prophets—though his portrait of the
prophets proves ultimately to coincide to a surprising extent, perhaps
completely, with Socrates’s account of the philosopher-king (cf. 2.37 with
2.32)! More importantly, Maimonides distinguishes between types of philosophers and types of prophets by observing that among both philosophers and prophets some merely inquire and come to know for their own
benefit, but others are brimming over and cannot help but overflow. He
claims about the latter that they are the reason that the sciences are taught
and books are composed (Guide 2.37). This vision of philosophy is clearly
a highly philanthropic one, motivated apparently by an excess—somewhat
reminiscent of mania, as it is discussed in Plato’s Phaedrus. This chapter
explores the possibility that we might understand the relation of the philosopher to his students better if we understand it in terms of Maimonides’s
insinuation that some simply cannot help but overflow than if we see that
relation in terms of a rather Sisyphean philosopher’s self-interest.
It might appear at first that Socrates’s claim regarding ignorance is connected to the fact that he never wrote anything. He cultivates about himself an air of barrenness. He is not himself pregnant but merely the midwife
to the ideas of others (Theaetetus). This chapter’s focus on overflow is
intended, as no doubt many if not all of the chapters in this collection are
intended, to encourage a redoubling of our efforts to understand Socrates
when confronted with such things as knowledge of ignorance, the forswearing of writing, and being a mere midwife. To begin with, it is worth
considering why he might want to leave the Sisyphean impression. Two
obvious reasons come to mind: The Sisyphean appearance plays an important role in his defense of philosophy. It is one of Socrates’s foremost
pieces of ironic armor. I pose no threat to the city or to you because really
I know nothing. He might also cultivate this appearance to inspire others
to make their own inquiries rather than to depend upon him for answers.
(Yet this latter line of argument would seem to be at odds with the suggestion that Socrates’s rule over conversations is so complete precisely because
of the extent of his superiority over his interlocutors.) Of course, this is of
a piece with the typical pedagogical interpretation of the character of
Socratic dialectic. That is, it is so frequently aporetic due less to Socratic
ignorance than to Plato’s desire that philosophy not decay into doxosophy, which it seems to have in the tradition that views Plato as possessing
mysterious metaphysical knowledge.
Before we forget, it would be useful to return to the suspicion that the
ignorance claim is linked to the choice not to write anything. Even a casual
glance at the Phaedrus reveals, however, that Socrates’s reasons for not
writing are at times at odds with the Sisyphean appearance of the ignorance claim. Why would Socrates need to be concerned about the dependability of writing as a form of communication to individuals if he merely
knows his ignorance? Wouldn’t concern regarding communicating the
same thing to everyone be more fitting if there were something substantial
to convey (275e)? And who could be harmed if all Socrates’s claims
amounted to were knowledge of ignorance?
In the Apology, Socrates does not claim to know nothing or to know
only that he knows nothing, rather he is aware of what he is ignorant
about as no one else with whom he speaks seems to be aware (21d) and,
in a more challenging formulation, he is lacking in wisdom greater than
human wisdom (anthrō pinē sophia, 20d–e). It almost goes without saying
that the phrase “human wisdom”—and that with which it appears to be
contrasted “divine wisdom” by implication—can mean at least two things:
wisdom befitting a human being or wisdom of human things (and perhaps
human things only)—indeed, the phrase “the human things” is
tanthrō pina. That Socrates would claim to be ignorant of the divine in the
Apology would also serve the purpose of his defense regarding the impiety
accusation. Of course, the other knowledge Socrates claims is of erō s or
the erotic things (Symp. 177d, Phaedr. 257a). When we put together the
reputation for barrenness with Aristotle’s pronouncement that Socrates’s
inquiries were ethical and not into the whole of nature (Meta. 987b1),
one becomes tempted to conclude that Socrates was limited to knowledge
of human things and that knowledge somehow coincides with erotics.
On the one hand, at first, knowledge of erotics seems to be at odds with
the impression of barrenness. Put crudely, wouldn’t knowledge of erotics
make one all the more productive, so to speak? But immediately another
obstacle is thrown up: if we may trust the Symposium, its movement—
from a number of speeches praising erōs as a god, whether as embodied by
the lover or the beloved, to the claim that erōs is not a good god but
simply a desire for some good which one lacks (200b)—seems to indicate
that erotics might well go together with barrenness. On the other hand,
Socrates’s Diotima at least seems quite pregnant with insights as she
ascends the renowned ladder of love. Unfortunately, whether Socrates can
be identified with what appears to be his own creation leaves us once again
with mixed results.
Now erotics seems to have as its objects things such as the good, the
beautiful, and immortality or the eternal possession of the good (Symp.
204d–205b). Erōs so characterized seems to have the divine at least loosely
construed as its object. To say that knowledge of erotics amounts to
knowledge of human things seems to suggest at least that erōs is central to
the human things. Might it be the case then that erōs for the divine is
central to the human things—and perhaps the only mode of access to the
divine we have is by way of the human things?
That Socrates in his second sailing turns from an effort to know the
divine things in the manner of his pre-Socratic predecessors (including
Parmenides)—that is, by attempting to know the divine things more or
less directly—to an effort to begin with speeches or opinions about the
human things (Phaedo 97a–100a) is undeniable. The question lingers,
however, whether the pursuit of wisdom regarding the divine things does
not remain the leading and ultimate aim of Socratic inquiry.4 More importantly, one wonders whether the inquiry into the human things might not
provide the only viable avenue by which to approach the divine things.
An apparent difficulty with the overflow view is that it would seem to
imply that philanthropy or even altruism is readily explained. But neither
I nor Maimonides means to suggest that there are many who are so overflowing—as if one could explain the well-being of cities on the assumption
that altruism abounds, in much the same way that contemporary anthropologists and evolutionary biologists attempt to explain the functioning of
cities on the basis of innate sympathy on the part of animals. Rather, it
appears that such overflowing types are extraordinarily rare—just as true
philosophers are extraordinarily rare. But as it happens, the exemplary
profusion we associate with Socrates can well serve as an image upon
which lower and more common forms of virtue are based. That is, what
Socrates does out of care for the potential philosophers of the race—and
others insofar as their education is also of potential benefit to potential
philosophers—can serve as an image that others might imitate. Socrates’s
actions have a beauty that others should emulate by being self-sacrificing
and loving the beautiful.
Seeing how educating even one’s inferior is especially of benefit to the
potential philosopher should help us to understand the other key question
of this volume, namely, Plato’s motives for writing.
Pace at least the apparent meaning of Aristotle’s claim that Socrates is not interested in
the whole of nature in Meta. 1.6. But his interest in reading with his friends books of ancient
wisdom in Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.6 may well be in harmony with this interpretation of
the intended movement from human to divine things.
Socrates’s effusive love of the potential philosophers of the race then is
due to his love of the good rather than the beautiful (Symp. 204d–205b).
His love is no more self-sacrificing than is a parent’s love of his child—as
his own. In other words, love of potential philosophers is a form of self-­
love but only as a love of one’s own goodness. In contrast, the parent’s
love is characterized by self-love without necessary reference to the goodness of one’s own.
Even if we have determined something about why Socrates participates
in such conversations, we have not determined much about why this
arrangement—a conversation between an intellectual superior, Socrates,
and his intellectual inferiors, who seem ultimately to lack real potential for
philosophy—might be an optimal arrangement for the sake of potential
philosophers. Why doesn’t Socrates have more conversations with potential philosophers? To begin with, there’s the problem of how rare is a true
potential philosopher. Also, if the distance between what Socrates thinks
and what Athens believes is great enough that he was suspected of impiety
and put to death for it, then we may need to wonder whether conversations between philosophers and potential philosophers would bring into
the open too readily what is at stake between philosophy and the city.
Might a conversation between a philosopher and a non-philosopher provide the best public education of a philosopher that can be provided? That
is, might such an education enable the ruler of the conversation to lead it
with the greatest propriety? And might such an education still succeed in
opening up the gap between the philosopher and the city?
To begin to answer these last two questions, we consider the different
roles of two representatives of these two types, the potential philosopher
and a more permanent intellectual inferior, in Plato’s most famous dialog
the Republic. We refer here, as hinted at in an earlier footnote, to
Polemarchus as the potential philosopher. There are a number of reasons
we think that Glaucon represents the more permanent intellectual inferior of Socrates: (1) We find no subsequent report that Glaucon became
a philosopher, which we do find for Polemarchus. Rather we find Glaucon
(or at least his namesake) in two dialogs gathering Socratic speeches,
­having apparently left aside his political ambitions.5 (2) From bks. 2
Although some wonder whether the Glaucon named in the initial framing dialog of the
Symposium’s multi-layered frame is necessarily Plato’s and Adeimantus’s brother (Glaucon
IV of Collytus, son of Ariston), almost no one doubts whether the Glaucon who appears in
the Parmenides is their brother, since Glaucon there appears together with Adeimantus. That
the Glaucons in these two dialogues are one and the same seems evident from the fact that
through 4, he evinces inattention to the limitations of Socrates’s many
analogies—failing again and again to attend to key ways in which the
analogies break down. One might call this his pre-demonstrative testing
in reasoning. (3) He embraces Socrates’s long digression on war in bk. 5,
indicating his spirited concern for honor, despite his early apparent affirmations of his willingness to look beyond honor (347b). (4) As we will
see, Glaucon gives clear and repeated indications that he misconstrues the
aim of the philosophic education in Rep. bk. 7 away from theoretical
things to very mundane military uses. (5) Bks. 8 through 10 would seem
to be unnecessary if, by the end of bk. 7, Glaucon had been convinced
that all he need do to become a philosopher-king is to pursue the education set forth by Socrates in bk. 7. Instead, Socrates proceeds with the
negative teaching (bks. 8 through 10) after having provided the positive
one. It is as if Glaucon needs to be warned off a turn to tyranny after he
has come to the realization that he lacks what it takes to become a philosopher. Although it is tempting to suppose that Glaucon is a sufficiently
extraordinary type that he does not need the myth of Er to stay on the
straight and narrow, his role as Socrates’s interlocutor in bk. 10 suggests
Before turning to Glaucon at greater length, let us attend to
Polemarchus. The most obvious differences between Glaucon and
Polemarchus concern their relative speaking roles in the dialog and their
relative importance as drivers of the dialog’s action. In keeping with our
hypothesis about the challenges of having public conversations with
potential philosophers, Polemarchus’s role as a speaker in the dialog is
very small, but, more surprisingly, his role in moving the action of the
dialog, muted as that action is, is probably more substantial than that of
Glaucon or Adeimantus. Polemarchus is the one who commands the slave
in each case, the character reveals himself to be a collector of Socratic dialogues. In the opening page of the Symposium, Glaucon converses with Apollodorus in hopes of hearing a rendition of the conversation that was the Symposium. And in the opening page of the Parmenides,
Cephalus inquires with Adeimantus and Glaucon about the speech of Parmenides as reported
by Antiphon. Though neither Adeimantus nor Glaucon is responsible for recalling the conversation, they serve as go-betweens for this speech. In short, the overall effect of the
Republic on Glaucon and Adeimantus seems to be to have rendered them neither eager to
pursue politics nor apparently capable of rising to the level of their brother, Plato, by becoming composers of Socratic conversations. Regarding the Glaucon in the Symposium, I take
him to be the Glaucon of the Republic and Parmenides, as does Debra Nails with many more
historical details to back up her suspicion (The People of Plato (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002),
boy to catch up with Socrates, thus leading to the conversation between
Socrates and Glaucon being made more public. And he leads in the playful
call to force Socrates to go to his house where that conversation can take
place semi-publicly. And Polemarchus is the one who initiates the second
half of the dialog by grabbing a hold of Adeimantus (449b) and whispering to him to demand a further accounting of the call in bk. 4 to hold
women and children in common. It is Polemarchus more than any other
character who playfully enacts the fate of Socrates—as well as his own, as
philosophers before the city, to be brought to trial and put to death, in no
small part due to effects of the Peloponnesian War over which they have
no control. One could also claim that Polemarchus is in a way responsible
for initiating the conversation in bk. 1 both by virtue of the shocking
things he says and the surprising speed with which he reverses his position—both of which seem to contribute to Thrasymachus’s bursting on
the scene.
Can we make sense of the fact that Polemarchus’s role is primarily at
the level of action rather than that of speech? Let us begin by observing
that Polemarchus’s relative silence squares well without our suggestion
that Socrates tends to avoid public conversations with potential philosophers—which may also help explain why Plato decided never to present a
conversation between Socrates and himself. Before we make any further
attempts to understand why Polemarchus’s role is great at the level of
action, we must first attend to the prejudices against Polemarchus among
scholars, which is considerable. Fortunately, Carl Page, following somewhat in the footsteps of Strauss, Bloom, and Mary Nichols, has both
described that prejudice and paved the way for a correction of it in his
article, “The Unjust Treatment of Polemarchus.”6 Those prejudices have
been expressed strongly, for example, by I. M. Crombie, Cross and
Woozley, and Julia Annas.7 Because of how strong they take Socrates’s
refutation of Polemarchus to be in bk. 1, they view Polemarchus as “incoherent and thoughtless, and as embodying … ‘moral complacency.’”8 I
cannot do justice to Page’s impressive and detailed refutation of this interpretation here. Rather, I need to extract some of his conclusions, very well
Carl Page, “The Unjust Treatment of Polemarchus,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 7.3
(1990): 243–267. On the direction taken from Bloom and Strauss, see Page, “Unjust
Treatment,” 263n.2.
Ibid., 263nn.1–2.
Ibid., 263n2, Page citing Annas.
argued and defended as they are. Polemarchus believes not in a superficial
way in friendship. His movement from reducing his father’s definition of
justice as “returning what is owed” to “doing good to friends and harm to
enemies,” when read with care, reveals a man who cares deeply for his
friends—among whom he counts not only Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the
other young men present, but also and quite clearly Socrates. Page shows
that, for Polemarchus, friendship takes precedence over the relation to the
enemy. Furthermore, when it comes to a comparison of Glaucon’s attitude toward enemies and that of Polemarchus, Page shows that
Polemarchus relates to enemies defensively—rather than imperialistically,
as does Glaucon. The feverishness of the Feverish City reveals for all to see
how enflamed is Glaucon’s spiritedness by his erō s for luxury.9 I agree fully
with the clarity and depth of the distinction Page draws between
Polemarchus and Glaucon. It bolsters my claim that Polemarchus is more
philosophic than Glaucon.
There are a couple of apparently minor claims of Page with which I
disagree slightly, however: his assent to the widely shared view that it’s
surely not by chance that it is this character, Polemarchus, whose name
means literally “battle commander” or “general,”10 and his unwillingness
to make even more out of Socrates’s “apparently stray remark in the
Phaedrus, to the effect that ‘Polemarchus is turned toward philosophy.’”
When these two thoughts are combined, it becomes tempting to infer that
the suggestion that Polemarchus turned to philosophy was not meant seriously. After all, like Glaucon, he could be thought to be too much of a
glory seeker to be a philosopher. With this insinuation, I disagree.
Furthermore, there is one notable fact about Polemarchus that Page does
not attend to sufficiently, namely, that he is not a citizen but a metic. This
alone must temper some of Page’s insistence that Polemarchus exemplifies
the political, more than the philosophic.11 Although Page takes seriously
Ibid., 252–256.
Cf. ibid., 252 with Leon Craig, The War Lover: A Study of Plato’s “Republic” (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1994), 2.
Page, “Unjust Treatment,” 248, 252n26 citing Bloom’s Interpretive Essay, p. 318. On
the previous page, Bloom exemplifies the risk of not attending to the status of Cephalus
(father) and Polemarchus (son), when he suggests that Cephalus represents “justice conceived as one’s own good” and “justice conceived as the common good.” Although the
former may be accurate of Cephalus, Polemarchus’s attachment to the common good, at
least of Athens, is rendered more problematic by his metic status. Metics as resident aliens,
though they held some property rights, some rights of participation in public Athenian reli9
the parallelism between Polemarchus’s death at the hands of the Thirty
Tyrants and Socrates’s death at the hands of the democrats,12 he does not
seem to credit sufficiently what effect his non-citizen status might have
had on his political ambitions.13 All of this is to say that Page’s rehabilitation of Polemarchus is very much in order, but at times he may not give
sufficient credit to all of the factors that make Polemarchus more promising as a potential philosopher than Glaucon.14
Let us consider now why Polemarchus’s importance as driver of action
and relative unimportance as speaker fit well with the thesis of this chapter.
Is it not fitting that Polemarchus in driving the action of the Republic
should play a role reminiscent of Socrates himself—who even when he
might appear to have refuted an interlocutor by some sleight of hand still
displays how much further he can see than his interlocutor by virtue of his
unparalleled ability to dictate the outcome or the action of every conversation Plato has him participate in? Even when it can be shown that a Socratic
argument contains some flaw or rests upon his obscuring of some key
point, Socrates’s control of the action suggests his greater insight if it cannot prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. After all, he must know the blind
spots of his interlocutors to be able to deploy so artfully such flaws, precisely where he deploys them. That Polemarchus initiates the playful
exchange in the opening of the dialog foreshadowing the trial and death
not only of Socrates but also of himself (327b–328b), that he pushes forward the action in the opening of bk. 5 (449b), which once again reinvigorates the trial imagery (450a–b, 450d–451b), suggests that, far from
being a bully of Socrates as he is sometimes taken to be, Polemarchus
gious celebrations, had “no political rights” (Deborah Kamen, Status in Classical Athens
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), chap. 4, esp. 53).
Polemarchus’s metic status adds a strange twist to the typical insistence that he is like a
“battle commander.” Starting early in the fifth century, “polemarch” lost this meaning at
Athens. Interestingly, polemarchs took on the task of representing metics on trial as well as
serving to protect the property of metics! Polemarchus was neither a battle commander nor
an overseer or aid to metics, but a metic whose metic status likely facilitated his being put to
death. Like Socrates, he was primarily not an unambiguously patriotic Athenian.
Page, “Unjust Treatment,” 245.
Consider Socrates’s account of “exile” as one of the things that drives a man with great
potential away from politics to become a philosopher (Rep. 496b).
Strauss may also not credit Polemarchus quite as fully as he should. Consider the implied
criticism in Strauss’s comment, “Polemarchus is More Important for the Action of the
Republic Than One Might Desire,” in The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1964), 123, cited by Page at 264n4.
really is the compatriot in arms Socrates portrays him as being (335e).15
And when Polemarchus does speak he reveals himself to be far from a
bully or a lunkhead primarily by his actions: Indeed, it is immediately
before 335e that he declares his agreement with Socrates even though he
has been led to the exact opposite of his starting point: by this point, it
appears that doing harm to enemies is not desirable (335d–e)! Would a
true war lover or battle commander be willing to concede that it is not
desirable to harm enemies? Polemarchus demonstrates surprising docility,
despite his name.
At last we turn to Glaucon. Our main task is to show that he, though
in some positive senses ambitious, demonstrates again and again his lack of
suitability for philosophy—thus lending weight to our thesis that Socrates
converses at greatest length not with equals but with his intellectual inferiors. One of the most striking features of the Republic is Socrates’s heavy
reliance on images and especially analogies. We begin with Socrates’s
antagonizing of Glaucon by his portrayal of the City of Necessity (372a).
This city is of course conjured up in the conversation with Adeimantus—
and his obligingness in envisioning it surely lends some weight to observations that Adeimantus is less ambitious and even somewhat prosaic in his
tastes in comparison with Glaucon.16 Of course, Socrates leaves us with
doubts that Adeimantus is wholly wrong in finding this city somewhat
acceptable when he describes it as the “true [or truthful] city.”17 Glaucon’s
disgust with this city is obvious from his interruption of Socrates’s description with his demands for relishes and his labeling of the city as a City of
Sows (372c–d). Of course, the city that Socrates conjures up through
Glaucon’s inspiration is filled with excess leading to war (373a–c). From
the beginning then, Glaucon’s excessive desires lead rather directly to war,
and the imagery of excess leads directly by way of war to the well-bred or
noble puppy analogy (375a). Because the city’s luxury has led it into war,
the necessarily high status of the war lover in a small Greek city comes to
the fore. Skill in war is not something one learns overnight—any more
than one learns the other arts overnight. Leisure is required to perfect
these abilities (374d–e), but more problematically we find ourselves in
need of the very combination of doing good to friends and harm to enemies that Polemarchus originally defended. As many have noted, Socrates
Cited by Page, “Unjust Treatment,” 243.
Ibid., 254.
Bloom, bk. 2, n. 31.
refuted this definition only be narrowing the focus from its role in peace
rather than in war.18 In effect, Polemarchus’s definition of justice cannot
but play an important role in every city in the context of war. Where then
does the noble puppy enter into the equation? The reason for Socrates’s
appeal to this analogy is that it proves somewhat paradoxical that the same
being should be capable of being friendly to friends and harsh to enemies
only. It appears that the greatest risk is that by becoming harsh toward
enemies one is prone to become the same toward friends (375b8). It is
hoped that the analogy solves the problem. Since the puppy can love its
owner or pack and hate all those outside of its group, why shouldn’t the
citizen guardian? The puppy loves what it knows (its own) and hates what
it doesn’t (what is not its own). It almost goes without saying that the
puppy’s love is not, pace Socrates, that of the philosopher. More interesting than this obvious difference between man and beast is a consideration
of the root that makes man capable of far greater savagery than the beast,
which I have discussed elsewhere.
Ultimately, Glaucon raises no challenges to the possibility that human
beings should be like puppies. That such challenges should have been
raised is made evident only after more than a book in the Republic (from
near the middle of bk. 2 to near the end of bk. 3). Over the course of that
intervening book, Socrates has discussed the education suitable for the
young guardians—indeed, it is really only after the call for the noble lie
(412d–414c), which itself works to temper the dangers of guardian savagery, that Socrates turns to the elimination of private property among the
guardians—perhaps the most important guarantee that the guardians
won’t be transformed from puppies into wolves (415e–416a). But the
attentive reader is already troubled by Glaucon’s ready assent to the analogy in bk. 2. Although puppies are said to be philosophic because gentle
and guardian-like because of their “great-spirited[ness]” (375c–e), it is
the basis of their gentleness and great-spiritedness that should trouble
Glaucon. They’re hostile toward those they don’t know (supposedly indicating a love of learning!) and gentle toward those they do (376b). As
others have noted, this sort of love is love of one’s own, and though it is
related to love of the good, it should not be mistaken for it. Glaucon’s
obliviousness of this problem with the analogy is due either to a deep
desire to find confirmation of his desires for this city by way of this analogy
or a simple inability to discover this disanalogy, or, more likely, some com18
For example, Page, 253.
bination of the two. Similar problems arise in connection with two other
analogies/images to which Glaucon is the respondent: the noble lie in its
role at the end of bk. 3 and the city/soul analogy in its reprise in bk. 4
(having first been introduced early in bk. 2). In brief, the noble lie reveals
its problematic character, unbeknownst to Glaucon, by virtue of the fact
that the only means of rendering it fully unified in service of the common
good (the clear and evident aim of the noble lie, 412d–413a) is the elimination of the family (which of course ensues in bk. 5). And the city/soul
analogy in bk. 4 suffers from the same problem it faced when it was first
broached with Adeimantus in bk. 2 (368d–369a) only more so. Back in
bk. 2, it may have been less obvious that the analogy fails because cities
have parts—namely, human individuals—while souls though they might
have parts don’t have parts with similar integrity to human individuals. In
bk. 4, however, Socrates gives Glaucon ample chance to see how the analogy fails. Yet Glaucon eagerly and with his eyes open insists that they not
probe any further into the soul (435d and cf. 504a–c). Glaucon’s greatest
actions in the dialog may be inaction before analogies and images he
should challenge. Every instance of inaction serves to support his over-­
weaning desire to see the city Socrates describes—not because it is just but
because it appears to possess the harmony and unity of a noble or beautiful
sculpture (cf. 420b–421c with the city’s identification as the beautiful city
[kallipolis] at 527c).
In other words, that which motivates Glaucon to inaction before problematic analogies is his over-weaning desire to see the beautiful city wielded
as a weapon. This desire comes to the fore in bk. 5 when Socrates digresses
to discuss war (466e–471c). That Socrates is avoiding the task at hand—
which would be to directly address the claim that the communism of
women and children is in any sense possible—becomes more and more
obvious with every page, starting at 458a. That such communism would
be good or of use for uniting the city is obvious. But whether it would be
good for human beings is quite another story. (One cannot help but wonder what element of the proposal of communism of women and children
back in bk. 4 really caught Polemarchus’s attention [cf. 423e4 with 449c].)
Having said all of that, one has to wonder why Glaucon is willing to settle
for Socrates’s various dodges of his responsibility to show that this communism is somehow possible. It is true that eventually Glaucon reverts to
the question of possibility—after being prompted to it by Socrates
(466d5–8)!—though he permits Socrates to squirm out of addressing the
issue of the communism directly in favor of vague calls for evidence that
the regime is possible (471c4). Even this vaguer question, Socrates succeeds in dodging. Glaucon’s most sustained inattention (or inaction)
regarding the possibility of the communism of women and children is the
long digression on war. At a minimum, this digression evinces the profundity of Glaucon’s longing to see a city as unified as a beautiful sculpture.
That no city could be so unified is evident from the differences between
cities and sculptures regarding raw materials (human beings and stone).
Although this digression serves primarily as a way of diverting Glaucon’s
attention from the possibility of communism of women and children, it
succeeds as such a diversion while serving to temper somewhat his love of
the beautiful. True, he is promised honor, which he previously disavowed
(347a–e), as well as special consideration in marriages and bodily pleasure
(468b–e); but the peculiar character of the war Socrates seems to sanction
is that it is a war relatively unheard of among the Greeks—a pan-Hellenic
war against the barbarians. Although this could be considered imperialistic, considering the context of the Peloponnesian war in which Hellas is
tearing itself to pieces, it is more reasonably to be viewed as a way of tamping down on Glaucon’s thirst for glory. Be that as it may, one thing is
certain: Glaucon cannot stand up to his responsibility to test each of the
waves of bk. 5 for their benefit as well as possibility (457d5)—one more
indication that his heart is elsewhere, and he is lacking the focus, attention, and insight of a philosopher.
Let us turn to bk. 7 to see how Glaucon holds up in the face of Socrates’s
account of the preliminary philosophic education. Whenever opportunity
arises, Glaucon resists Socrates’s intention to make souls look up or turn
around from becoming to being. There are five preliminary inquiries:
number and calculation (522c–526c), geometry (526d–527c8), solid
geometry (528b–e), astronomy (527c9–528b, 529a–530d4), and theoretical harmony (530d5–531e). The most obvious problem is indicated by
the misstep concerning astronomy, namely, that Glaucon assents to its
being the next inquiry after geometry (527c9–528b). He is so untheoretical that he wasn’t even aware of the existence of solid geometry. But as
early as 526a4–c6, Glaucon assents to the toilsome-ness of these inquiries
(526c). Although back in the beginning of bk. 6 Socrates was at pains to
portray philosophy as a very pleasurable activity (485d8), by the time
Socrates begins to outline this preliminary philosophic education, it begins
to becomes apparent that it isn’t all pleasurable. Only after completing his
account of this education, is Socrates willing to admit that “love of labor”
plays an important role in philosophic education (535c). Glaucon likely
acknowledges the toilsome character of these inquiries as early as the
account of number and calculation because Socrates begins with the paradoxical account of the summoners (523b–525a), which revisits one of the
most elusive moments earlier in the dialog, the discussion of part and
whole that touched on the principle of non-contradiction (438a–c). In
both instances, Socrates seems to be engaged more in a sort of conjuring
trick to stump Glaucon than a lucid explanation of what is at stake. In
other words, far from starting with the easiest subject and working his way
up to the most demanding, he begins the inquiry into number and calculation with what can easily appear to be metaphysical mysteries. Few if any
of his subsequent discussions in the preliminary philosophic education
make as many demands on the reader.
At the bottom of Socrates’s challenge to Glaucon is what we saw from
the beginning in the noble puppy analogy. Even though Socrates
announced the philosopher-king conceit as early as the end of bk. 5
(473d), here in bk. 7 led by Socrates he reverts to a contrast between philosopher and warrior (525b–c). Indeed, Socrates has from the beginning
of this discussion noted that their inquiries should be useful both for turning the soul around from becoming to being and war (521c–d)—even
going so far as to highlight the connection of number and calculation to
excellence in war (522c–d). When Socrates turns from number and calculation to geometry (526c), Glaucon’s first observation is that they should
study geometry to the extent that it proves useful for war (526d). This
emphasis upon war was surely not Socrates’s, though he planted the seeds
of this focus in Glaucon’s mind merely by noting how these studies needed
to be useful for both turning around toward being and war (526d4–e).
Perhaps it is because Glaucon finds geometry so useful for battle, that
Socrates here takes the opportunity to identify the city, more often than
not mistakenly identified by readers and interpreters as Socrates’s city, as
emphatically “your [soi, pl.] beautiful city.”19
As mentioned earlier, Glaucon’s premature turn to astronomy
(527c9–528b)—roundly criticized by Socrates—underlines his ignorance
of solid geometry. Though Socrates sets the trap by offering astronomy as
the next study after geometry (527d), Glaucon embraces astronomy solely
for its utility for the city, especially, again, for war—specifically generalship.
Socrates’s scolding then highlights the underlying problem: Glaucon
For a similar use by Socrates of the second-person plural personal pronoun to identify
the city with the young men with whom he is speaking, see 427c–d.
wants these studies to be practically useful, especially for war. His punishment is to be told of a study he’s never heard of, saying as he does that it
hasn’t yet been discovered (528b).
Once they’ve moved beyond solid geometry, Glaucon attempts to indicate that he has finally understood what Socrates is after by noting that
astronomy enables “the soul to see what is above and leads it there away
from things here” (529a). Glaucon thereby demonstrates just how literal
minded he has been when Socrates underlined the turn from becoming
toward being. He thinks of being as somewhere—not as “what is and is
invisible” (529b). Rather than study the actual heavens, as had, for example, the Egyptians and Sumerians, it is necessary to study the underlying
regularity. Rather than learning how to take advantage of the ignorance of
barbarian peoples by exploiting their ignorance of the underlying regularity, their studies need to be devoted to discovering said regularity.
When Socrates turns to theoretical harmony, we’re nearly as mystified
as the poor forsaken Glaucon, who demonstrated back in bk. 3 his love for
music (398c ff.). Denigrating the Pythagorean obsession with actual
music, we must turn away from actual performance to the underlying theory regarding ratio and proportion as they bear on solid bodies in motion
making sounds. That this challenging discussion contributed to the importance given to music in the medieval quadrivium can hardly be gainsaid.
That being said, the more obvious upshot of the entire discussion of the
preliminary education in bk. 7 is that Socrates goes far out of his way to
highlight Glaucon’s focus on the practical utility of these studies for war—
rather than their importance as philosophic preparation.
The preliminary philosophic education is followed by the challenging
discussion of when philosophy or dialectic should be studied, when one is
young or when one is old, to which Socrates is unable to give a fully
­satisfactory answer—the problem ultimately traceable again to the incompatibility of the warlike with the philosophic, the steady with the shrewd
and quick (503c). No one could deny that the end of bk. 7 is the peak of
the Republic, even though it ends with a whimper rather than a bang, with
the disturbing observations about what will happen with everyone over
the age of 10 at the founding of the kallipolis. Starting in bk. 8, we observe
the descent into tyranny. What logographic necessity determines this
descent? Presumably, Plato is not compelled this way solely by virtue of
the arc of any good drama, which requires its denoument. We need look
no further than the drama of Glaucon to see why this descent is necessary.
By the end of bk. 7, this inquiry into philosophic education must surely
have brought home to Glaucon that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a
philosopher. And Socrates has so arranged the conversation that Glaucon
has become convinced that if he cannot be a philosopher he cannot
become a good ruler. No king is truly a good king unless he’s a philosopher first. Although I don’t believe that Plato seriously intended this
literal-­minded reading of the Republic, I also believe that Socrates intends
for Glaucon to believe this about himself. Having been shown that he
can’t be a decent king without being a philosopher, and realizing that he
doesn’t have what it takes to be a philosopher, Glaucon cannot help but
incline somewhat toward the dark possibility of tyranny. Despite Glaucon’s
disgust with Thrasymachus’s view that justice is the advantage of the
stronger expressed at the end of bk. 1 and beginning of bk. 2, Glaucon
could hardly have argued so powerfully for that unjust and tyrannical
vision of justice as he did in the opening of bk. 2, without having found
something attractive about it (see 361d). The remainder of the Republic is
devoted to painting as unremittingly grim a picture of the descent from
kallipolis in general and the bottoming out in tyranny in particular as
Socrates can paint. That he should have to paint such a picture is yet
another indicator that Glaucon does not have what it takes to be a
Just how forced is the descent from kallipolis to tyranny is evident from
the forced character of the descent from best to worst outlined in bk. 8. As
if genealogy must reflect ontology. As Aristotle observes, it is far more
natural that the best regime, the rule of the philosophic-king one, should
turn into “its opposite” the worst regime, the rule of the tyrannical one,
than that kallipolis should turn into “a neighboring sort.”20 The reason
Socrates argues this way becomes evident once one considers the potential
effect of Aristotle’s argument on Glaucon in his state of mind at the end
of bk. 7. If kallipolis can so readily become tyranny, then why not? By
attributing to genealogy the same pattern as ontology, Socrates guarantees
that Glaucon will see tyranny in as poor a light as possible. Indeed, Socrates
takes his arguments to great lengths to get across to Glaucon just how
undesirable is tyranny: the tragic imagery at the end of bk. 8 regarding the
tyrant who tastes the blood of his father (cf. 565e with the condemnation
of the tragic poets for praising tyrants, 568b); the long and drawn out
discussion of tyranny, the tyrannic soul, and the tyrant himself—which
See Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, 2013),
5.12, 1315b38–1316a23.
brings into stark relief just how far Glaucon seems willing to go in entertaining such a way of life (562b–578c); and finally the somewhat comic
three “proofs” of the superiority of the kingly to the tyrannical life, culminating in the laughable calculation that kingship is 729 times more pleasurable than being a tyrant (578d–588a).
Considering how hyperbolic all of this is, we are not surprised that
Socrates feels compelled in bk. 10 to abandon their original agreement to
avoid all appeals to the consequences of injustice in his argument in favor
of justice (cf. 358b with 612b–c). Socrates’s account of the afterlife is of
course an open appeal to consequences. And that the argument for the
immortality of the soul and of its otherworldly itinerary is something of a
revelation to Glaucon, though we today have come to take it for granted,
is evident from the beginning of Socrates’s argument for its immortality
(608d). The very core of the teaching regarding the afterlife is that no
crime is as horrific as the harm man does to man under tyranny
(615b–616a)—not even impiety toward the gods and parents.
Although we’ve abstracted from Socrates extended conversations with
Adeimantus to focus on those with Glaucon, we’ve been able to consider
a large amount of evidence suggesting that Glaucon is remote indeed from
philosophy. As we conclude this chapter, let us consider however briefly of
what use this conversation might have been for the more philosophically
promising Polemarchus. Ranging from Glaucon’s blindness to the disanalogy of the noble puppy to the philosopher, to the hyperbolic condemnation of tyranny, Polemarchus would likely have seen that the unity of
philosophy and political power is not the panacea Socrates makes it appear
to be to Glaucon. The warlike and the philosophic cannot be brought into
easy harmony. And this rift between politics and philosophy serves as a
pointer to the very nature of being—or at least to the nature of our beliefs
about being and the divine.21 Polemarchus might well have wondered initially what could necessitate Socrates’s hyperbolic condemnation of tyranny—especially since his love of justice and friendship run so counter to
a desire for tyranny—but if there’s anything that Socrates’s conversation
with Glaucon demonstrates, it is that Glaucon’s love of the beautiful or
noble harbors within it the seeds of a love of tyranny.
See Joshua Parens, Leo Strauss and the Recovery of Medieval Political Philosophy
(Rochester: Rochester University Press, 2016).
Socrates’ Motives and Human Wisdom
in Plato’s Theages
Travis S. Hadley
This chapter began from the question whether Plato’s Socrates acts from
philanthropic motives in any aspect of his philosophic activity. From this
I was led to the theme of this volume: the motives of Socrates broadly
considered. Plato’s dialogue Theages presents a conversation of Socrates
with a father and son addressing the issue of to whom his son should be
sent to be educated, and to be educated in politics in particular. The question of motive is therefore amplified here, with the dialogue presenting a
student (or potential student) of Socrates. For it is generally assumed that
Socrates either was a “teacher” (in our conventional use of the term) or
sought to be a teacher, despite his numerous denials of doing any such
thing (e.g. Theaetetus, Apology of Socrates). With our dialogue, Socrates
also backs away from simply accepting a young “student.” And what
makes Socrates’ reluctance of greater interest are two characteristics of his
philosophic activity that we are all familiar with but perhaps do not receive
the appropriate weight: Socrates’ profession of ignorance save for his
T. S. Hadley (*)
University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_10
expertise in erotic matters and his appeal to the daimonion or demonic
voice. Scholars have long noticed a connection, especially in light of
Socrates’ account in the Symposium.1 But the application of these characteristics to a coherent overview of how they affect our understanding of
Socrates is lacking. Such an overview is not possible here, since we would
need to consider additionally the accounts in Xenophon, as well as weighing the later Platonists that treated the issue. But Plato’s Theages does
demand that we approach these characteristics since this dialogue contains the longest Platonic account of Socrates’ daimonion and shows us
Socrates directly discussing education with a father and son.2
Now what we first learn, and remains a refrain throughout the dialogue, is that young Theages desires wisdom. But what he means by “wisdom” and what Socrates reveals through his questioning also casts light
on education, that is, in the highest sense, on the possibility of knowledge
for human beings because it helps us to understand what Socrates (as
opposed to others) means by wisdom. And certain it is that Socrates’
motive or motives must include wisdom or rather examinations that
have culminated in what he is able to call his “human wisdom” (Apology
20d8–e3). How Socrates understands his own pursuit though teaches us
something about why he conducted himself in the manner in which he
did and what this means about the character of wisdom itself. And in
considering Socrates’ own pursuit, we can try to pin down his actions
especially in his relations with others and consider whether these actions
provide each of us with a model. For, as we know, Socrates as philosopher
is more or primarily distinct in his practice of philosophy (including of
course his “second sailing”—Phaedo 97c–100b) than whatever he shares
with his predecessors.
Let us glance at the action of the dialogue before exploring these
themes in further detail: Demodocus, the father, approaches Socrates
apparently by chance and asks Socrates to speak with him. Socrates obliges,
not begrudgingly, but especially for Demodocus (Theages 121a4–6) who
For example, Paul Friedlander, Plato (trans. Hans Meyerhoff, Princeton University Press,
1958–70), 44 (with note 22); Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1983), 46–47.
Plato’s Laches shares some similarities with the Theages. But there, the question of
whether a specific art should comprise part of a young man’s education is the guiding question and this then leads to a consideration of courage. In other words, the issue of Socrates
as educator does not directly arise there (until the very end of the dialogue), nor does
Socrates directly question the youths (even though they know of him: 181a).
has grave fears that his young son will be corrupted by those who usually
teach politics in the city, the sophists. But his son Theages is insistent and
so the older, pious farmer cannot stop the youth from visiting the city to
seek this knowledge or wisdom even if his father refuses. After the father
expresses his concern with corruption (stemming from certain discussions
that Theages enthusiastically repeats at home), Socrates eventually begins
to question him. This questioning reveals the following: Theages seeks the
skills that his young companions have, which entail defeating others in
arguments. And in the course of this revelation Theages admits that he
wants not simply to win arguments but to be a political ruler and perhaps
even a tyrant. After Socrates chastises him for this statement, Theages
mockingly proclaims he only wants what all human beings (including
Socrates) want: to be a god. Plato’s Theages then, as the characters and
narrative comparisons suggest, must be read as a response to Aristophanes’
Clouds. There, Socrates’ outright atheism was a key if not the major theme;
and it is where we see another type of philosopher, a type much more in
keeping with what Socrates admits of his youthful self in the Phaedo and a
type that he had to defend himself against as Plato presents in his Apology
of Socrates.
Yet unlike the Clouds where young Pheidippides uses dialectic and
novel poetry to undermine his father’s rule (and traditional Athenian
piety), the Theages ends with the young man willingly submitting to
Socrates’ daimonion and, from what we can determine, being persuaded
that his abilities and safety are guided or determined by a higher power
that he cannot control, or more specifically, rule. While Theages admits or
voices a belief that all human beings seek to become a god, he will submit
himself to the authority of a power that appears to be like or from a god.
By contrast, Aristophanes’ Socrates liberates the son Pheidippides to such
a degree that he challenges the authority of his father in the most radical
ways (Clouds 1443–46). What is to explain this difference? Or, in other
words, why is Plato’s Socrates not the impatient and impolitic and rude
homebody found in Aristophanes? Perhaps instead we can ask: does
Socrates here benefit Theages by placing him under some authority, something he is able to look up to and to guide him, since all sources of reverence are lost for the youth? And if Socrates does benefit Theages in this
way, is it due at least in part to this change (from disobedience to reverence) that allows Theages to be mentioned by Socrates in the Republic as
one type of philosophically inclined young man? Could this result have
been achieved without Socrates’ (or his daimonion’s) guidance? However
there is a complication with this view: Theages mentions Socrates’ own
speeches more than once. The initial disagreement between father and son
that resulted in this very discussion is itself the result of Socrates’ speeches
being passed around. Yet, by Socrates bringing Theages back under control, he solves Demodocus’ problem of finding an education for Theages
that is not the one offered by the sophists. And, is it not the belief or fact
that the sophists’ views on the traditional gods were suspect (or they were
declared to be atheists) that animated Demodocus’ greatest fear? What
else could he mean by corruption other than impiety? Demodocus’ suggestion at the beginning of the dialogue leads it to take place in a religious
temple, while Socrates’ most extensive discussion of his own divine or
demonic sign concludes it, framing the entire dialogue with allusions to
And, before considering the action of the dialogue in more detail, we
must note a final consideration by explaining our previous statement:
Eros, or erotic matters, is the one subject of learning (mathema)3 Socrates
admits he knows. Socrates’ daimonion is linked to eros. This admission
leads us to ask what the relationship is between Socrates’ erotic wisdom,
which seems to be included in, or comprised of, his human wisdom, and
his relationship to his students or followers, as well as to the political community as a whole. After all, it is particularly this latter relationship that
causes issues for Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds. But Plato’s Socrates is a
Socrates that educates, even as he investigates, and seems to show genuine
care with those around him.
This term occurs elsewhere in Plato; we note that it is perhaps distinct from techne, episteme, or sophos (all of which occur in Theages). Benardete, Plato’s Symposium (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2001) translates it as “science” at Symposium 211a; Nichols, Jr.,
in Thomas Pangle, The Roots of Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987),
translates it as “study” in Laches 182b (however compare Pangle, Roots, 253 note 24); Lord
as “science” in Alcibiades I (see 126a in Pangle, Roots). Leake translates it as “things that can
be learned” (Lovers 134d in Pangle, Roots). I am partial to this latter translation to distinguish it from other terms of knowing. Given our concern with the type of knowledge or
wisdom that Socrates possesses, as well as how it relates to the story of the daimonion, it is
worth noting that Socrates presents erotic matters as learnable and not simply (as the account
of the daimonion throughout Plato suggests) as divinely granted or inherited. Whatever the
source of Socrates’ expertise in erotic matters, he has certainly honed it while seeking to
understand it.
The Problems of Education
This question of corruption and what it entails must be kept in mind when
considering the plot of the Theages. In seeking a solution to Theages’
insistence and Demodocus’ fears, Socrates will eventually suggest that
Theages be placed for his education with an Athenian gentleman and citizen who knows the art of (respectable and just) politics and not with one
of the sophists. This results (as we detail) from Socrates’ eliciting an admission from Theages that he desires to be a tyrant in the city. This shift in the
dialogue, from tyranny to what we may call political rule, will be a shift in
the respectability, at least from the point of the view of Theages’ father
Demodocus, of the type of individual that would be responsible for the
youth. Socrates attempts to ease the concerns of the father in recommending an Athenian education (although we must note that elsewhere, particularly in the Apology, Socrates goes to some lengths to suggest that the
politicians do not know what they are talking about and certainly do not
teach virtue). But this will only lead to a new proposal: Theages insisting
that Socrates is such a gentleman and that he can be Theages’ teacher. But
Socrates, as he is wont to do, denies that he teaches and seems hesitant to
take responsibility for the youth. What is the reason for this hesitation? Is
this desire of Theages for tyranny, or at least the willingness to admit it
without hesitation, a suggestion as to the problems with the potential of
the young man?
Before arriving at this request, we must observe how father and son
come to entertain such a notion that Socrates is the teacher they are looking for. This proposal, the most dramatic moment in the dialogue, is
especially surprising since the dialogue opens with a discussion between
Demodocus and Socrates that, properly considered, implies that there
could be serious disagreement between the two, specifically on what is
meant by “education” (paideia). Demodocus’ views are revealed in his
detailing to Socrates the problem of corruption that we noted above.
More precisely, Demodocus’ views on education are rooted in his views
of nature; he draws inferences about the world from his own business
(farming).4 In other words, Demodocus knows that the nature of a thing
requires a specific tending to bring it to the best possible condition; failing this, it will be corrupted. In this instance, the comparison of the
We note that this is precisely the error Socrates elsewhere attributes to the craftsmen
(Apology 22c9–e1).
nature of plants and that of human beings is perhaps not particularly problematic but it lacks specificity. The health of plants is rather obvious, but
what Demodocus understands by corruption is not clear and likely not
even clear to him (apart from who is leading that education, a foreign
sophist or a gentlemanly citizen). Demodocus is fearful that his young son
desires something dangerous because it is ambitious and especially a problem because it is beyond the scope or capacity of Demodocus to control.
That ambition, at least at first blush, is the desire to speak, to become wise,
and as the content of the sophistic education suggests (and the movements later in the dialogue confirm), we know that Theages wants to be
victorious in arguments as a means to ruling in the city (in this way,
Strepsiades’ goal for Pheidippides and Theages’ own are the same, the
former as a ruler over his fellow citizens by defeating their lawsuits).
Now, Socrates’ cryptic response to Demodocus’ presentation of his
problem hints at not only the disagreement between the two but also its
basis and gravity: the question of education for oneself and for those who
belong to one is divine, and the character of counsel is itself sacred. And,
despite Demodocus’ indication that Theages is seeking to be placed with
a sophist, Socrates wants to discuss precisely what it is that they are “taking
counsel” about. Is it not obvious that Theages wants to learn rhetoric and
the art or arts of politics, as many of his young friends seem to have? But
as Socrates makes clear here, he is the one (or supposed to be the one)
giving counsel, that is, giving counsel for Theages in particular, a youth
whom he has apparently not met, much less questioned. Based on
Demodocus’ own comparisons then, Socrates cannot possibly know the
nature of Theages and whether he is even suited for a sophistical education
and thus for the active, political life that such an education aims at. But the
more serious problem might be precisely this: the nature of any human
being and how their nature is best educated points to the purpose of the
human being and thus to their place within a larger whole, be it family,
city, nation, or cosmos. While Socrates does not mention “virtue” in this
dialogue, he points to it here. And, is not this what he and Demodocus
would be most likely to disagree on: the excellence of the human being?
And does any consideration of this excellence not direct us beyond education to questions of the purpose and meaning of human life as such? Does
Socrates use language (“sacred,” “divine”) alluding to the gods because
the purpose of human life is inextricably linked to questions about the
gods, both their existence and what they demand of us?
What we may take as Demodocus’ view of this unstated question, that
of virtue, may be answered by his fear of Theages’ corruption at the hands
of the sophists, a fear which seems to be rooted either in the sophists being
foreigners (as Socrates later emphasizes—127e8–9) or due to their teaching about politics and religion, or both. But for Socrates, to use a formulation he uses elsewhere, what corruption would entail and who teaches
human and political (or citizen) virtue (Apology 20a4–20b2) is a question
precisely because Demodocus would not make such a distinction. But
Socrates does make such a distinction and therefore the dialogue opens by
considering the nature and corruption of a young man as its guiding
theme.5 Whatever teaching Socrates will provide, it is not insensitive to the
genuine needs of the young man at which it is directed.
For our immediate purposes, we are interested in Socrates’ investigation of Theages because this will give us a glimpse into how he assesses
him and what, if any, teaching he might have to offer. We also now will be
watching for how Socrates proceeds in considering the nature of Theages
and thereby a solution to Demodocus’ problem. For Socrates does not
simply continue the conversation with the father, as he does in the Laches,
for example. Rather, it is on Socrates’ urging that the dialogue proceeds as
it does. Now this might be due to the possible disagreement just mentioned. But any resolution to this disagreement would still require Socrates
to know something about Theages himself, if he is going to help his fellow
citizen confront his problem. Socrates, in other words, is in no way compelled to continue this conversation as he does; he did not have to talk
with young Theages. Given our theme, it would be remiss not to add that
Socrates does not simply walk away from this conversation either, but as
noted, the opening of the dialogue even indicates an eagerness on his part
to help his fellow citizen (121a; compare the closing of the Meno as well
Contrast Michael Davis and Gwenda-lin Kaur Grewal, “The Daimonic Soul: On Plato’s
Theages” in Socratic Philosophy and Its Others, ed. Christopher Dustin and Denise Schaeffer
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 44, who argue that “[t]he underlying theme of the
Theages is the nature of the sunousia formed by a teacher and a student.” Sunousia here
translates as “being together” or “intercourse.” It is a term used throughout Theages and as
Davis and Grewal correctly argue, it links education and eros, including, as we will see, the
nature of the student himself. However, in my view, this formulation is too broad because it
abstracts from the action of the dialogue, driven by Demodocus (compare Christopher
Bruell, On The Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues
(Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1999), 108–109) and thus negates the pious and
political concerns necessarily contained in one’s view of corruption.
as Cleitophon as a whole). But is Socrates’ concern then only his care for
Demodocus’ problem? Or do we not also need to consider that Socrates
might be searching for something himself in this questioning of Theages?6
After all, Socrates later recounts a story of his questioning of another
young man, Aristeides, on the power of Socrates’ influence over him.
Perhaps Socrates seeks to know something from Theages himself as well.
Theages’ Desire for Wisdom and Socrates’ Guidance
Since it becomes apparent that Socrates and Demodocus may not understand education in the same way, the question of the views of each on
education leads readers of the Platonic dialogues to expect certain themes
to follow. But, surprisingly, Plato does not present Socrates discussing
such details here, at least not directly. Rather, the obvious question involves
whom the educators are, but little about what they teach. Plato, in other
words, does not present discussions of nobility or gentlemanliness, happiness or virtue, including no mentions of justice, or the other virtues besides
wisdom, or the soul. Would all of these topics be points of disagreement
between Demodocus and Socrates? It is worth noting that if they are, then
the basis of Demodocus’ trust in Socrates is a point of interest (again, noting the beginning of the dialogue). Yet, more significantly, and as indicated by the subtitle On Wisdom (that has always been appended to the
dialogue), wisdom is the theme. But what is wisdom in this dialogue and
are other themes related to education still in fact treated within the
Theages? We begin then with Theages’ vague desire “to become wise.”
As Socrates begins to question Theages, Socrates immediately conflates
wisdom and knowledge (122e5–7). This allows him to speak about wisdom in a plural sense, as many bodies of knowledge (or knowing). It also
results in a hard dichotomy between wisdom and ignorance. Socrates
quickly establishes that the model of knowledge is the arts, and the knower
is the artisan who has a demonstrable body of knowledge; Socrates thereby
reveals his directing of the discussion in a particular way. In other words,
our hope that wisdom would be discussed in a more substantive manner
appears to be disappointed. Further, Socrates then transitions to knowledge as an art, a “wisdom” that has a specific use. This is the opposite
procedure to that in the Clouds, where Strepsiades wanted to learn rhetoric to win lawsuits in court (i.e. a specific skill) but Socrates there insisted
Bruell, Socratic Education, 112.
on teaching him natural science first, including correcting Strepsiades’
views on the gods. In other words, this step (along with our realization of
its problematic character) makes us wonder about the content of Socrates’
own wisdom, his “human wisdom,” a wisdom that is an awareness of one’s
own ignorance as attained through observing the inability of others to
give a clear account of the noble and good or political and human virtue
(consider the Delphic Oracle story in the Apology). Theages claims to want
wisdom, but Socrates quickly moves from wisdom as an art to wisdom as
an activity, and that activity is ruling. Through noticing Socrates’ procedure, we suspect, in other words, that this is really what Theages wants as
“wisdom” when he complains of not winning arguments against his
friends: he wants to win that contest. But this contest is only a testing
ground as it were for a young man’s political success, since that success
(according to sophists) is based on the ability to speak well (a view shared
by both Unjust Speech and Pheidippides in the Clouds). This is the fear
that Demodocus is harboring. And, it is due to the movement of Socrates’
inquiries (reducing the arts, which are the models of knowing or “wisdom” to various forms of rule) that Theages agrees with the conclusion
that his desire to rule over human beings in the city is to be a tyrant and
to rule tyrannically.
Now given Theages’ vaguely articulated desire, we might wonder
whether Demodocus was hiding something and whether it is possible that
Theages expressed this desire for tyranny all along; after all, this would
explain Socrates’ chastisement (124e9–125a10).7 Certainly, the articulating
of, or reticence regarding, Theages’ desire proves to be an obstacle in the
early part of the dialogue. But if tyranny was always the aim contested in
their household “battles” (123a4–7), then why does Demodocus respond
emphatically and with an oath, as if hearing Theages’ desire for the first
time? I would also add that Theages’ disavowal seems genuine. In fact, he
treats Socrates’ conclusion as a function, not of his desire but of the argument itself (124e10). After all, it was Socrates who chose the rulers that he
did, a who’s who of ancient tyrants many of whom, interestingly, have had
a number of family problems (124c1–e4). And we also know that Theages
is aware of Socratic speeches and it is almost certain that he has observed
Socratic dialectic through the imitative examinations conducted by his
friends. Either way, it seems clear that Theages does not genuinely desire
violent rule over anyone, especially his fellow citizens, since he seeks to be
recognized as a wise ruler in the vein of a Pericles (126a9).
Compare Bruell, Socratic Education, 106.
Returning to the dialogue with these considerations in mind: Socrates,
on his own initiative and without the prompting of his interlocutors,
inquires of the relationship between the tyrant and the poet. This is with
the apparent goal of finding Theages the company of someone to make
him a “wise tyrant” (despite Socrates’ apparent rejection of this as a morally sound path for the young man). We thus learn implicitly that Socrates
seems less than serious in his concern with this possibility, leaving us to
consider the purpose of this section of the dialogue.
In turning to the poets, Socrates quotes Euripides saying: “Tyrants are
wise through keeping company with the wise,”8 creating a fictional dialogue in which he and Theages interrogate Euripides as to what it is that
the tyrants are wise in. To elucidate his procedure here, Socrates now asks
Theages, who is not given a chance to answer this initial question, what
one would answer were “tyrants” replaced by “farmers.” In that case,
Socrates suggests “wise in the things of the art of farming,” and Theages
agrees. The next and central example involves cooks: what belongs to
cooks is the knowledge of how to prepare foods correctly. Here Socrates
avoids the term “art” in his question. Art is absent because it is what is at
issue in this example. In other words, the end of knowledge in “correct”
cooking could be what is most pleasurable to the one eating the food or
what is most conducive to good health. In the former case, the cook would
be ruled by the taste of the one eating the food, whereas in the latter case
by the knowledge of either the doctor or trainer. Socrates allows us to see
this through his next example of wrestlers. Wrestlers train their body for
the sake of strength and agility, and are therefore concerned with the
needs of the healthy body. With cooking, then, we must ask for the sake of
what or whom is the art being practiced. These examples bear on the issue
of the “wise tyrant” since Socrates did not consider the end toward which
the tyrant’s rule is directed (124e2–8). Is the tyrant’s “wisdom” not an art
because its end is ambiguous? And if it is not an art, then how can Theages
expect to learn it (with finding him a teacher in this being the aim of this
section of the dialogue)?
Socrates now asks Theages, based on what has preceded, what the wise
are wise in, those whom the tyrant keeps company with? Theages admits
his perplexity (with his first oath in the dialogue). He need not be utterly
perplexed, for based on the pattern of the previous examples, the obvious
This exact quotation, again attributed to Euripides, occurs in the Republic (568b1–2)
during the investigation of the tyrannical soul and tyranny.
answer would be that the tyrant is wise in the things of the art of, or in
what belongs to, tyranny. Therefore, Theages’ confusion lies elsewhere.
Does Theages not believe that the tyrant is “wise” and that this is proven
by the fact that the tyrant has attained a position superior to those he rules
over? His ability to rule successfully would seem to be an indication of his
knowledge and Theages sees victory as a proof of superiority. To relieve
Theages’ perplexity, Socrates again appeals to a poet: the poet Anacreon
declared that the tyrant Callicrite knew “the things of the tyrannic art”
(125e2). And this makes clear what Theages has been missing all along:
the poet knows about tyrants and what the tyrants know. Hence, the poets
must keep company with the tyrants. Therefore, the tyrants are wise for
keeping company with the poets, who (in turn) praise them for their wisdom in doing so. If this is indeed the case, then Euripides’ claim reflects
well on the wisdom of the poets and is a jesting critique of the tyrants. But
then another question remains: what can Theages learn from the poets
about tyranny that he could not learn just as well from the sophists? In
other words, what is poetic wisdom, the wisdom of an Aristophanes, for
Socrates now attempts to confirm that Theages desires the company of
a man (andros) who happens to have this art, so that he may tyrannize over
“us and the city” (125e4–5). With this question, Theages protests.
Though it has perhaps only become fully clear to him now, the youth
accuses the philosopher of mocking and joking with him “for a long time.”
Theages had previously allowed the argument to declare that he wanted to
be a tyrant (124e9). But now he seems to recognize that Socrates has
drawn a ridiculous conclusion. Is the mention of Callicrite and her mother
Cyane as tyrants what evokes Theages’ response? If so, Theages’ objection
points to the fact that he does not accept the conclusion that these women
were tyrants by simply “knowing the things of the tyrannic art.” That is,
he seems to reject the notion of their actually ruling tyrannically merely by
having only some “knowledge” of how to do it. Socrates’ apparent suggestion that knowledge or wisdom of how to rule is sufficient for having
the ability to rule is now undermined by Theages’ objection. By i­ mplication,
then, it would seem actual ruling requires something else in addition,
above or besides simply knowing how to do it.9
If we consider that the poets generally teach about love and war, we may note that what
the tyrant could learn from the poet is the desires of men, something not simply reducible to
an art, as Socrates speaks here of an art of rule. Therefore some understanding of man’s eros
Socrates responds to Theages’ protest by asking him if he did not desire
the wisdom to rule, and if he assented to this desire, would he not then be
a tyrant? Socrates in a manner ignores Theages’ protest. His response
addresses the protest only by implying that Theages’ desire is worthy of
mockery. Theages had indeed admitted to such a desire, with the exception that Socrates now speaks of “citizens,” whereas before it had been
simply “all the human beings in the city” (compare 124e5–6 with 125d7).
Unable to escape this conclusion, Theages alters his admission. He now
concedes that he supposes he would “pray” to become a tyrant, but, he
further supposes, so would all other human beings, including Socrates. If
one could not tyrannize over all human beings, then one would tyrannize
over as many as possible. Indeed, he declares, one would even pray to
become a god. But, quickly adding “this is not what I said I desire”
But why does Theages articulate this as a desire for “wisdom” and what
explains Socrates’ procedure as a response? For if Socrates intuited that
Theages wanted to rule, it seems that these questions lead Theages to a
number of considerations as to the means of, and basis upon which rule,
both tyrannical and political, rest. As noted above, Socrates details those
whom we would call tyrants (124c1–d8). In three of the four examples,
Socrates includes “the son of.” In the case of these tyrants (if that is the
only appellation appropriate here, as the central example of Periander
forces us to ask), we note the prevalence of violence including fratricide.
The ascension of the tyrant follows from the death of the previous tyrant,
that is, his father, and we might add also the tradition upon which his
father’s rule was based. This consideration takes on larger significance
when we note the drama of the dialogue: family and piety. Father and son
disagree on the way of life best for the son and the corruption of the latter
is the basis of that disagreement. Yet in light of Socrates’ allusions to fratricide, this corruption seems laughable. But it is not laughable for
Demodocus. Rather it is the comic equivalent of Socrates’ ignorance in
the Clouds regarding the uneducable nature of the old, pious farmer
would be the prerequisite for the transition from tyrannical rule, as Theages crudely but possibly accurately characterizes it as rule by force, to political rule which requires some willingness on behalf of those being ruled. This willingness is generally achieved through an appeal
to the common good; that all those in the polity will benefit more or less from the arrangement the ruler proposes. This is indeed so much the case that even most tyrants of any perception would understand it to be to their advantage to at least appeal to this common good
initially, thereby reducing possible resistance to their rule.
Strepsiades and thus his being replaced by his son, Pheidippides.
Pheidippides’ education at the hands of Socrates there is so thorough that
he completely relinquishes his way of life as a horseman.10 But more significantly, he now believes that the previous family structure is upside
down: his father lacks wisdom and thus should be ruled for his own good,
since this was (Pheidippides believes) the basis on which fathers rule their
sons. But Plato’s Socrates knows better and therefore these allusions to
tyranny and fratricide comprise a part of Plato’s response to the poet. But
more immediately within the action of this portion of the dialogue:
Socrates has revealed to Theages that his desire “to become wise” and thus
to rule is unclear at best and misguided because it is morally suspect at
worst. Theages in a manner, and with his profession of perplexity, has
begun an ascent to Socratic ignorance through his inability to properly
understand what precisely his own desire and aim is.
Considering these conclusions regarding knowledge or wisdom, and
against what we know and in an effort to articulate what we mean by
Socratic wisdom, Socrates’ inadequate account of wisdom in the Theages
points directly to a more adequate one and we would expect the philosopher in particular, as a lover of wisdom, to offer clarity here.11 As tyranny
apparently liberates one from the rule of others, wisdom liberates one
from the opinions and judgments of others. But is this how one would
properly characterize Socratic wisdom? Or to state this differently: does
Socrates believe he himself has freed himself from all restraints that impose
themselves on us?12 Viewed more closely, the tyrant lacks liberty in a higher
sense because his wisdom is borrowed from his advisor or counselor, the
poet, who appears to have access to a better understanding of human
nature. The poet is the other candidate for being a specialist in erotic mat10
Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966),
Consider Alfarabi’s account of the Theages in his “The Philosophy of Plato, Its Parts,
The Rank Order of Its Parts, From The Beginning To The End,” in Philosophy of Plato and
Aristotle (trans. Mushin Mahdi, Cornell University Press, 2001; originally published by
Glencoe Free Press, 1969), 59–60. At first blush, Alfarabi’s account seems to have little basis
in the actual dialogue. I do not fully comprehend Alfarabi’s interpretation of the dialogue;
however, I believe that once we notice Socrates’ challenges to what Theages believes wisdom
is as well as the possible wisdom of the political men, sages, and poets, the themes Alfarabi
brings out in his cryptic summary do in fact illuminate the dialogue.
We should recall that the dialogue takes place in the portico of “Zeus the Liberator”
(121a7–8). And this reminds us of the topics of the dialogue, education, and wisdom, as well
as one possible source of wisdom, the gods.
ters, that is, all human longings. But Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom is not a
bowing to the authority of the city or the poet on their claims to know,
including of special importance, their claims about the gods. Both make
such claims, the poet as perhaps a maker of sorts (Apology 22b9–c2) and
the city as enforcer of its official version (of the poet’s civic pieties). And if
it is the view of the poets that through their inspiration they communicate
to human beings the will of the gods, Socrates raises a challenge to that
wisdom as well: Socrates himself has divine experiences and investigates
the experiences of others (Apology 21b1–c2, 23a3–5, 23b4–c1). And
Socrates also understands the political men better than they understand
themselves, since they both fail to give an adequate account of virtue and
cannot impart this to their sons, casting doubt especially on the source of
these virtues, the gods who watch over justice in particular (Clouds
900–904). Despite Theages’ appeal to the omnipotence of a god, he does
not notice Socrates’ subtle suggestion that it is not a “man” at all who
possesses the true tyrannic art (125e1).
What Socrates points Theages toward, then, throughout the discussion
of tyranny is the problem with political rule and education. The premise
that such an art exists and that it can be taught (as the sophists claim) is on
display here for Theages. For even those who appear to know, the tyrants
and political men, either rely on others (tyrants rely on poets) or have
ascended to their rank despite a lack of knowledge, at least in the sense
that it is as demonstrable as an art. Socrates therefore shifts from speaking
of “wisdom” (sophos) to speaking of “cleverness” (deinos), particularly by
those who are actual rulers in cities. And these moves through this section
are apparent enough that they constitute an education of Theages. He
thus moves away from an apparent (although manipulated—see Republic
487b1–d4) admission of tyranny to the desire to rule over the willing citizens of the city in a manner consistent with a good reputation. As will
become obvious, the sophists (Demodocus’ great fear) no longer will
appear as an option for Theages even as he rejects the political men as
educators. And, upon reflection and perhaps motivating his turn to the
search for a “gentleman,” Theages might, and certainly should, wonder at
how the sophists are able to impart their “wisdom” to others. Now
Socrates’ shift from wisdom to cleverness culminates in his “definition” of
rule. It is doubtful that we can understand in any serious manner Socrates’
claim here that javelin throwers not only possess their art but also “use
javelins all the time, both many belonging to others and their own”
(126c1–2). This example makes sense though when Socrates describes
“the things that pertain to the art of politics,” a description which sounds
much less like Pericles (who Socrates just mentioned) and much more like
Alcibiades (126c4–11). And this possibility is strengthened when we consider that in a matter of moments Socrates will allude both to the Sicilian
expedition (of which Alcibiades was the architect—Thucydides 6.15.1–4,
6.19.1) as well as other expeditions ongoing in the Peloponnesian War.13
It was Alcibiades who uses his own city and many others and carries on
business with both Greek and barbarian cities. In other words, in the very
instant when Socrates moves Theages toward the view that respectable
political rule is what he should desire, Socrates undermines the basis of
this very rule by pointing to one who was clever at manipulating others for
his own end, and not the end of the city itself.
This question of the teachability of a political “art” goes for the gentlemen as well, since the gentleman Demodocus has also not imparted onto
his son the wisdom that Theages seeks. Perhaps it is less surprising than it
seems then that Theages now asks a question Socrates cannot directly
address: is Socrates not one of the gentlemen who can teach Theages “the
things that pertain to the politic art”? Socrates will, of course, deny this.
But has Socrates not done some of this educating already? Does Socrates
not continually do this educating? Here, Socrates has shown Theages,
first, that what it takes to rule is not immediately clear; second, that how
one rules is not as obvious as Theages had previously assumed; and finally,
that the one who teaches men how to rule is far from clear and even successful rulers are something of a mystery. Whatever Theages thinks he
knows about politics is at best superficial, or at worse, delusional. But this
is the significance of Theages finally ascending to Socratic ignorance when
he admits not knowing what exactly the wisdom he seeks is, after Socrates
reveals to him that what exactly it is that successful tyrants know is very
much unclear in Theages’ own mind. Socrates has corrected Theages’ presumptions about what he thinks he knows and wants to know, along with
bringing him to a salutary if not entirely true understanding of the distinction between tyranny and political rule (to use a term from Aristotle).
But in response now to Theages’ request for Socrates’ instruction,
Socrates instead returns to an endorsement of Demodocus and the sophists as educators. The first is a rebuke to Theages’ proposal on the grounds
that Socrates does not have the level of political involvement that Theages’
Thucydides’ account ends in 411, but Xenophon’s continues and ends in 404 or 403.
The Theages takes place in 409.
father has had; the latter because they are able to persuade many of the
young to both spend time with them and pay with money and gratitude.
If Socrates hopes these appeals to work on Theages, he will be disappointed. In the case of Demodocus, the qualification that the father will
make Theages a “good citizen” might have been noticed even by Theages
himself, that is, as at odds with the original goal of placing him with someone (anyone!) but his father (and not of course for the goal of citizenship).
In the case of the sophists, we notice on a moment’s reflection that their
wisdom is in persuading others of their wisdom, especially the young and,
as we hasten to add, therefore, those with the least practical experience.
And it is practical experience in addition that directs one away from the
sophists and toward the Pericleses of the world. Yet this line of thought
raises the issue that Socrates himself has no such experience. But this problem itself is perhaps disguised from Theages since Socrates has so masterfully displayed a grasp on the distinction between tyranny and political
rule, the possibility of an art of politics and who might teach it, and the
experience and cleverness required to achieve political successes. Socrates,
in other words, hardly seems at a loss for understanding not simply the
practice of politics but the “wisdom” that allows one to navigate their way
through the city. Would this not be Theages’ impression of the exchanges
we have just considered, keeping in mind that he also has heard other
Socratic speeches? And is it perhaps telling that Theages recalls in this
context not a speech by a sophist, but one by Socrates himself (126d8)? Is
not the problem of the Theages, in other words, a problem of Socrates’
own creation, or more cautiously, a byproduct of Socratic investigations,
especially as he presents them in the Apology or Charmides or Republic?
And, if this is so, does Socrates believe he bears responsibility to quell
whatever danger or even distress that this might cause to the city or even
just to a concerned father?
With these considerations in mind, we might marvel at the glaring
weaknesses in Socrates’ defense against Theages’ desire to be placed with
him. And this includes the problematic return to the foreign sophists
whom Demodocus so openly rejected. Instead, Socrates plays off of
Demodocus’ fear, in a speech addressed to him (127d3ff.). Does Socrates’
appeal to the sophists, knowing that Demodocus fears their corrupting
influence, not actually aid in recommending Socrates as an alternative for
Theages, instead of achieving the aim this speech is ostensibly intended
for—namely, to dissuade father and son from considering Socrates as
someone who may benefit Theages? Or is Socrates instead setting up his
defense knowing (at this point) that he will be unable to avoid Theages’
proposal, now so emphatically endorsed by Demodocus? Why, in other
words, does Socrates choose to reveal his knowledge of erotic matters to
Theages and Demodocus?
Socrates’ Daimonion and the Placement of Theages
in the Development of Socrates’ Wisdom
Socrates introduces his daimonion when Theages refuses to believe the
claim that Socrates knows nothing that Theages wants to learn. Since the
sophists, politicians, and other citizens have been disqualified though as
educators for Theages, Socrates becomes Theages’ (new?) choice.14 Here
we must digress to note that the daimonion appears in other Platonic dialogues and the ordering of these dialogues might help explain the action
of the Theages as a whole. Plato’s Theages comes after Aristophanes’ Clouds
historically, and more notably and thematically within Plato, after Socrates
reveals his erotic learning in the Symposium, but before the sequence of
Euthyphro, Theaetetus, Apology of Socrates, Phaedo, and Crito.15 We can of
course consider Platonic dialogues thematically or chronologically or in a
manner that seems to best reveal what the exegete believes is a key theme
or issue. However, Plato gives us some indication of a timeline, from
young Socrates to his death that, it seems to me, begs to be followed in
addition to any other grouping of the dialogues that might be considered.16 In other words, we are interested in the development of Socrates’
own wisdom. A dialogue such as the Phaedo, where Socrates reflects upon
and explains his more youthful philosophizing, naturally directs us to this
issue. We must consider then, the motivation of Socrates at this juncture
in his life, especially given his reluctance to simply take Theages on as a
Consider Davis and Grewal, “The Daimonic Soul,” 43.
This sequence can be established based on narrative clues and the physical location mentioned within each dialogue.
This is not to be confused with the order in which Plato wrote the dialogues, that is, with
the attempt to discern and thus impart the designation of “early,” “middle,” and “late.” This
attempt presumes a change in Plato’s thought, rendering certain dialogues of less importance
than others. By now, this attempt has come under attack since its Plato’s Socrates whom we
are witnessing, and more importantly, because one must make the assumption of perfect
knowledge of what Plato could and could not have written to assume that one thought is less
developed than another. See Thomas Pangle, “Editor’s Introduction” (in Roots), for one
treatment of this issue.
student. Socrates’ development can be considered and placed along with
other dialogues that contain mentions of both the daimonion and Socrates’
erotic expertise. We know that the Symposium dates to 416, the year of
Agathon’s victory alluded to in the dialogue; and the Theages is set in 409
based on Socrates’ reference to an ongoing expedition to Ephesus and
Ionia, reported by Xenophon (Hellenica I.2.6–10). The Theages, in other
words, is after Socrates’ account of his having apparently learned about
eros from Diotima. Additionally, as we discuss shortly, Socrates presents a
conversation he had with another young man, Aristeides, that appears to
present an investigation of that young man’s attachment to Socrates. More
specifically, it presents Socrates inquiring with Aristeides as to the effect
that Socrates had on Aristeides’ own learning, a young man to whom
Socrates was introduced to in the Laches. This dialogue can therefore be
added to our sequence given what we know about the deaths of its two
main characters, Nicias and Laches (in 418 and 413), as well as the peace
treaty of 421 (during the Peloponnesian War—Thucydides 5.25); it would
have to take place before the Symposium. Socrates, in other words, has
both learned about erotic matters and has tested others with a view, it
seems, to investigating these phenomena.17
Returning to the dialogue: Socrates here invokes this knowledge of a
small subject, erotic matters. Theages responds by accusing Socrates of
joking with him; he does not take this claim seriously for a moment.
Rather, Theages thinks that the political wisdom he seeks is easily obtained
and Socrates’ choice to educate him or not will determine his progress.
One reason why Socrates turns to his story of the daimonion is to explain
to Theages how those who progress do so (progress despite Socrates still
denying that he teaches). Socrates’ explanation obviously has the character
of a mythical or religious (even mystical) account. It is the longest account
of the daimonion; it occurs before Socrates’ mention of it in the Apology.
There, he uses it to explain or justify his restraint from politics, that is, its
deadly character. In the Theages, it is presented as a protection for Socrates
and his friends and it also aids in determining their “progress.”
Socrates’ tale of daimonion thus appears to achieve three things: first, it
presumably explains to Theages how those who spend time with him
improve (thereby providing a warning to Theages). Second, it tests
whether Theages is receptive to this tale (possibly of interest to Socrates).
Compare Bruell, Socratic Education, 63–64 for important observations on the relationship between Laches, Euthydemus, and Theages, along with Alcibiades I and Theaetetus.
Third, it allows Socrates to spend time with Theages but also control the
duration of their interaction (or more precisely, explains to Theages that
his own improvement is not in Socrates’ hands). And after its acceptance,
Theages’ continued belief or disbelief in the daimonion may be of interest
to Socrates (since others did not believe or heed it or attempted to interpret it). Understanding, in other words, the tendencies to accept or be
open to belief in a god that speaks to a particular individual and gives
directions for one’s life, that is, a revelation.
There are two parts to the story Socrates tells. First, the warning power
of the daimonion, where it predicts bad things will happen to those who
undertake a specific action. Second, the benefit it confers on those who
spend time with Socrates and here Socrates focuses on those that profit.
The connection between these two categories of stories is, according to
Socrates, due to the “all-powerful” involvement of the daimonion in his
relationships with the young who seek his company. In other words,
Socrates relates to Theages stories that may have been fabricated or at least
exaggerated for the purpose of controlling his association with Socrates,
since this is the primary goal of Socrates’ account here (compare the
Apology’s Delphic Oracle story with Chaerephon to the Timarachus/Clei
tomachus/Philemon story here). Socrates’ portrayal of the daimonion
therefore teaches Theages (and others like him, since Socrates urges him
to ask around about it) that Socrates has complete and unquestioned control over their association. Charmides tried to interpret the daimonion
himself and suffered for it (128e1–129a1). And those others who did not
heed Socrates’ warnings died. These warnings, we notice, were especially
regarding involvement in politics: the assassination of Nicias by Timarchus
and Philemon; the expedition to Sicily; and the ongoing expedition of
Thrasyllus against Ephesus and Ionia (which the “beautiful” Sannion is a
part). In this manner, the account in the Theages agrees with what we
know of it from Plato’s other dialogues: the daimonion is a protective
power. Socrates’ daimonion will then guide both a young man’s association with him as well as their involvement in Athens itself, including
­especially it seems, involvement in the more dangerous aspects of political
life. This is not to suggest that Socrates expected all his warnings to be
successful. As he himself presents it, some refused to listen just as some
failed to profit from spending time with him.
Yet these two results are obviously not a perfect parallel and we must
return to the second part of the story: in his discussion of Aristeides,
Socrates relates that Aristeides related to him that despite making
“enormous progress in a short time” he did not retain this benefit while
away on a military expedition (130a1ff.). Rather, Aristeides seems to have
progressed most because he was attracted to Socrates. When we consider
the details of the story, this seems rather fantastical or mystical yet has a
somewhat straightforward explanation: Aristeides was able to progress
because he was able to imitate Socrates’ investigative procedure after having paid careful attention (i.e. “looking at you”—131d–e) in comparison
to when he was not (“progress” is defined by Aristeides as “appearing
inferior to none in arguments”—130c3).18 It seems to me that the mystical or mysterious nature of the daimonion is presented in this way to
Theages (and his father) because, at least in part, it lends the daimonion
that much more authority, authority over a recalcitrant young Theages
who has shown himself willing to push his father and whose views (or
articulation) of human motivation are without limits and universal in
their claim. The link between the two stories would then appear to be the
nature of the companions themselves, their reaction both to Socrates’
warnings and to their abilities in learning from observation of his investigations of others. Is the aspect of their nature Socrates is concerned most
about their justice or their piety or both? That is, is the involvement in
political plots or even in politics itself (consider Apology 36b6–10) an
obstacle to their progress? In the case of Theages, he himself expressed a
tyrannical desire or at least an acceptance of a tyrannical desire in others,
even as he steps back from endorsing an illegitimate form of politics
(instead clarifying, on Socrates’ urging or correction, that he wants to
rule over “citizens”—126a4–b2). And while Socrates does chastise him
for this desire, he does so, it seems, playfully and fails to dwell on it.19
Does the daimonion and its pious implications open Theages up to a consideration of things above him, that is, things that govern the cosmos that
he has failed to appreciate? Or more directly: does the daimonion have the
effect here of reeling in Theages because Socrates reveals to him something
that is outside of his power? For does the young Theages not believe that
anything is possible (save perhaps for becoming a god), as young men are
wont to believe and therefore that he is above any governing power, natural or divine? Unlike his father, Theages does not understand the nature of
things, particularly the nature of human beings (compare 121c1–d5 with
This is not to deny that Aristeides’ attraction to Socrates is relevant to his progress. It is
though, more broadly, the nature of the young man that determines their progress, since
simple attraction to Socrates is not enough.
Bruell, Socratic Education, 106.
128b5–c4). But with Socrates’ daimonion, Theages will be compelled to
obey an authority over which he cannot tyrannize.20
But we have yet to fully articulate the daimonion, to the extent that we
can here. From Socrates’ first two stories about his daimonion, we learn,
first, that its commands are not to be interpreted; and second, that it is to
be unquestionably obeyed, since disobedience to it results in harmful consequences. But we should note also that Socrates has not indicated that it
never fails to signal a harmful action, nor that its silence can be relied upon
as indicating a good outcome. Returning to the other two stories: Socrates
suggests that Theages may now ask others what Socrates said about the
expedition to Sicily which ended in disaster,21 presumably offering this as
further evidence of the power of his daimonion, although we immediately
note that Socrates does not actually mention this power here. Rather, he
says that he, Socrates, said many things having to do with the destruction
of the expedition. Additionally, it is not clear whether Socrates had a
“friend” on the expedition nor whether anyone in particular consulted
with Socrates. The possibility that Socrates had a friend on the expedition
though is overshadowed by another individual noted above, an individual
Socrates is familiar with: Alcibiades.22 Therefore, it may be possible that
Socrates’ predictive claims in this case were based on something else altogether, namely, his own judgment or wisdom. Nonetheless, he leaves the
rhetorical impression for Theages that his predictions were due to his daimonion. In this third example, Socrates subtly conflates himself and his
Contrast William S. Cobb, “Plato’s Theages,” Ancient Philosophy 12 (1992): 267–284,
who wants to explain away the mystical or mysterious aspects of the daimonion, albeit with a
view to authenticating the content of Plato’s Theages and thus its status as genuine Plato.
And while noting the parallel between the passage on erotic expertise here with Symposium
(and others), Cobb does not connect eros to the presentation of the daimonion, thereby
misreading the Aristeides story (see especially 281–284).
This is a reminder that Plato set Theages during war, as did Aristophanes with his Clouds.
Alcibiades seems to share a similarity with Aristeides: by the account Plato has him give in
the Symposium, he is able to be benefited only while he is with Socrates. But unlike Aristeides,
Alcibiades left Socrates not by chance, that is, a military expedition, but because he was “incapable of contradicting him or of saying that what he commands must not be done” (Symposium
216b3–5). Thus, having had this experience and unable to resist the lure of politics, he fled
Socrates’ company. His speech in the Symposium reveals that, once apart from Socrates, he was
susceptible to the flattery of the many—Alcibiades was overly preoccupied with honor (compare Thucydides 6.15.2 on Alcibiades’ first two reasons for his speech). He was persuaded by
the truth of Socrates’ speeches, but would flee him to avoid the shame he experienced at not
acting in accordance with their agreements (Symposium 216a2–c4). But this means he was not
genuinely persuaded or did not truly understand the ground of Socrates’ critiques and therefore could not fail to act in a manner that revealed his true concerns.
daimonion; or stated differently, we are left to wonder what might be the
difference between the arrival of the daimonion and Socrates’ own judgment when it came to his involvement in politics or concerns of his friends,
that is, when he involved himself with others. For while Socrates’ account
here seems to treat the daimonion’s arrival or signaling as experience-by-­
experience, his account of his resistance to politics elsewhere treats the
daimonion as blocking him from political activity generally.23
It is appropriate after Socrates’ allusion to the Sicilian expedition to
note how Thucydides’ account of that expedition sheds light on Platonic
psychology, including the account of eros here. While all human beings
desire to preserve themselves, eros seems to be the means by which one
risks all to achieve an end, especially an end we deem beautiful or noble.
Or, more precisely, eros offers us a goal that reason would not on its own
have considered, in part due to its apparent possibility, but especially due
to its risk. The Athenians “fell in love” (eros) with the expedition to Sicily,
an expedition that appealed to their desire for beauty and grandeur, and
along with Nicias’ leadership, their desire for safety and security. Fostering
the various desires of the people in the city, the expedition promised, in
their minds, things that (carefully considered) one could only hope or pray
for (6.24.3–4, 6.30.2—6.31.1–6. Compare 3.45.5–7). Certainly a complete account of eros as Thucydides presents it cannot be undertaken here.
Nevertheless, it seems to me these brief observations, if correct, share
similarities with the Platonic account and perhaps this is how we can
understand Socrates’ daimonion as a voice keeping him out of politics:
nowhere in Socrates’ soul resides the desire to achieve renown through
imperial conquest or ruling a city through great or noble actions. These
aims have clear risks, soberly considered, but this consideration may not be
solely or even primarily responsible for the activity of the daimonion, or
Socrates’ eros. It is rather his natural aversion not simply to the risks of
these actions, but to the actions themselves, and most notably, the motives
from which these actions spring. The desire for beauty pervades Socrates’
examples and Thucydides’ account. Socrates’ human wisdom or knowledge of erotic matters, in other words, is of the human longing for beauty
and the manner in which beauty deludes and fosters a longing at odds with
even self-preservation. So if Socrates is seeking to learn something from
Noteworthy in his account of his political activity also is the fact that Socrates discusses
the injustice of the Athenians both in the case of the ten generals and when he was summoned by the Thirty Tyrants. He drops from this discussion during his trial any further
connection between the daimonion and his avoidance of politics (Apology 31c–32e1).
his interlocutors, in observing their responses to his speeches and perhaps
especially to his daimonion (seeing if they too have had such an experience), is this the manner by which Socrates liberates himself from these
delusions that hinder most human beings, that is, the delusions that animate politics in particular? And, if this is the case, does Socrates not additionally relieve his interlocutors from their delusions, offering through his
questions a path to their own liberation? It is in this way that we may
understand Socrates’ eros, his daimonion, and its aptitude for understanding other souls, yet distinguish it from the characterization and critique of
eros in classical political philosophy generally, including especially the dangers and blindness it fosters. Socrates’ daimonion contributes to his philosophic activity because those to whom Socrates is attracted seem most
likely to benefit from that activity; and yet eros itself, for the reasons
adumbrated, is a problem for that activity.24 Socrates’ human wisdom,
with his attraction to and understanding of his fellow human beings, leaves
Socrates between indifference on the one hand and misguidance because
of misunderstood longings on the other hand.
Socratic education then reminds us of a theme shared by both the
Clouds and the Theages: the tension between the old and the new, between
tradition and the newfangled ways of a city at war is characterized by
extremes. Theages openly avows a position that, even if mocking, expresses
a view of human nature alien to Demodocus since it implies no notion of
corruption. Socrates’ reigning in of Theages then is a moderating i­ nfluence.
Unlike Socrates of the Clouds, Plato’s Socrates possesses moderation and
teaches moderation through his awareness of the problems of political life
and the claims to virtue that that life demands.25 And even more importantly, Socrates takes seriously, despite his refutations of his fellow citizens,
the deeper concerns that those refutations point to, one’s longing for justice and piety, and thus to the question of the possibility of human wisdom
about these deepest human concerns. Socrates’ moderation is part of his
wisdom, an awareness of its incomplete character. Attuned to the eros of
young men such as Theages, as well as his own, Socrates exerts his influence, benefiting both the city and the young men themselves.
The word never appears in Socrates’ most obvious discussion of his activity: his speeches
in the Apology. This needs to be tempered of course by the mentions of the daimonion in the
aforementioned dialogue: but again, there we see that philosophy as a way of life is contrasted with political activity, an activity characterized, to speak broadly, by both ignorance
and a concern with things besides wisdom (36b4–9).
Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, 33.
The education of Theages we have observed is for Theages. While Socrates
is learning about Theages individually, what he gathers from this type of
young man is something he has come to be aware of, as evidenced by his
presentation of the daimonion. And what he learns about most of the
young men he has investigated is that they desire “wisdom” because they
seek political prominence for themselves, a desire that they take all human
beings to share. We need only mention Alcibiades or Charmides or
Glaucon (two of the three whom are alluded to in the Theages itself) to
confirm this observation. But contrary to Theages’ initial desire, he ultimately ends up being ruled, ruled by Socrates’ daimonion. Socrates does
not try to avoid association with Theages; he tries to avoid the responsibility of educating him, especially educating him in the so-called art of politics. After all, Socrates’ story of Aristeides is hardly dissuading, unless
Theages was entirely turned away by the daimonion’s role in his success;
but he does not think Socrates a madman and walk away at this point.
Additionally, Socrates has not determined the abilities of the boy and, even
if he had, he or the daimonion would then seem to have erred based on his
own testimony elsewhere. For even if Theages’ ambitions were political,
and his sickly body kept him from it, as the Republic testifies, once it kept
him out, he profited from his “being together” with Socrates (Republic
496a8–e2). Not all of Socrates’ companions benefited from their association with him. But Socrates knows both what Theages wants and what
Theages needs, and this might thus be a case of Socrates’ philanthropy: his
sharing of wisdom in a manner in which it may be profitable to another
(compare Euthyphro 3d5–e3). If this is the case, then perhaps even beyond
the immediate circumstances, the teaching of the daimonion may be what
Theages needs. This teaching reels him in and is pious in character, and
while not being in accord to the beliefs of the city, it may still be acceptable
to Demodocus (recall the reaction of Strepsiades to Socrates’ teachings in
the Thinkery: he accepts them, despite their novelty, because they can be
interpreted in line with the traditional gods).26 But the question of more
significance for our understanding of Socrates is whether his wisdom
about human eros has freed him from others in some way, possessing a
However, as Bruell, Socratic Education, observes (110–111), the question of
Demodocus’ satisfaction with Socrates as the solution is left as a question by Plato, since we
do not see the interaction between father and son (and thus cannot as clearly compare it to
that of Pheidippides and Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ Clouds).
self-reliance that a young man such as Theages (currently) lacks. Socrates’
daimonion is a part of his wisdom, a wisdom about human eros. But as we
alluded to, the daimonion is also a great puzzle for Socrates himself and
cannot be understood only within the immediate purpose it serves in the
Socrates’ activity, the way of life that is philosophy, would seem to
necessitate that the investigation of the daimonion remain an open
inquiry.28 The daimonion will always remain mysterious unless we have
perfect knowledge of human nature, of the particularities of the nature of
each being. In this sense, eros seems to be more than erotic desire. It is the
bearing of the whole soul toward the cosmos, its disposition, tendencies,
and inclinations. This is of course complicated by the nature of each soul;
but in Socrates’ case, his education never stopped the daimonion from
playing into his interaction with others. It was with him from his childhood until the end.
There is a temptation to judge Socrates because of the daimonion or to
overemphasize Socrates’ obedience to it as a clear, rational calculation
(since little sense can be made otherwise of such a “voice”). But the daimonion does not render Socrates’ rational life as irrational or mystical or
grounded in mere belief. If the Theages is evidence that Socrates investigates the daimonion, both the way others respond to it, why he is drawn or
repelled from certain individuals, as well as the means by which he has
knowledge of other souls and thus of the basis for the particular views those
souls hold, this would only mean that Socrates’ investigation of himself in
this regard remains open. Does Socrates, in other words, ultimately understand the “why” of the daimonion? Certain it is that Socrates could only go
so far in sharing the views of the city, most notably the city’s apparent ability to know what the gods want from human beings and thus what piety
must entail, over and against the claims of others (compare Euthyphro 3b5–
c4). For Socrates, philosophy then appears not as choiceworthy but a
necessity due to an awareness of ignorance or lack of complete wisdom
regarding piety and justice. And even if we take revealed wisdom and its
communication from the poets (or soothsayers—124d8) as the source of
our answers to questions of what is expected from a pious and just human
being, does this wisdom not require some understanding, some application
Contrast Xenophon, Memorabilia I.1.3–4.
Compare Thomas Pangle, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 1–3.
of reason to comprehend it? In other words, does ambiguity in revelation
(i.e. knowledge of the gods and their commands) compel the philosophic
pursuit of questions that otherwise remain answered only unreflectively?
Viewed in this way, Socrates’ daimonion (as well as his Delphic investigation) became necessary and this necessity is perhaps felt by Socrates more
than, or differently than, others who philosophize.
Socrates presents his questioning of the city’s view of its virtues (piety
and justice) as his driving concern in his other prominent account of the
daimonion, Plato’s Apology of Socrates.29 Let us note a few points here that
might help our understanding of Socrates (without pretending to account
for all the complexities for the Apology as a whole). In questioning the
conventional account of virtue during his trial, especially the Athenians’
views (and application) of law and justice, along with their piety, Socrates
raises in particular the radical question of the opinion of most human
beings that death is a bad thing, indeed, the greatest evil of all. Now
Socrates does not go on to argue that death is a good thing; he hints only
that death may be somewhat good for him now, since he is an older man
and since it is shameful to act in any way simply to avoid it (29a–b9,
34e1–35b1, 38c6–38e6, 39b1–3). Instead, Socrates’ argument seems to
place him between life and death; there is a mean between life and death,
that is, a mean between the views that it is either the greatest good or the
ultimate evil, and this mean is the acceptance of it as not simply either.30 It
is, in other words, a part of Socrates’ eros or understanding of erotic
­matters, his human wisdom, to accept not only death but the fact toward
which death points: that he is human. And this means an acceptance of the
dispositions of eros, of the soul, toward life, even when such dispositions
include cares and concerns that seem at odds with reason or calculation.
Socrates is aware of his reliance on others beyond simply calculation of
basic needs (compare Clouds 175–179); and being human he understands
such concerns as those of a father for his son. Since he does not blame
human nature, he shares a care for the erotic longings that guide human
beings (Apology 25d6–26a7, Laws 866e6–867a3; compare Thucydides
3.42.1 with 3.44.1). The acceptance of the human is Socrates’ correction
of the natural philosophers, Anaxagoras and others, who rejected the
human and thereby distorted their study and understanding of the cause
I leave aside the Symposium here since there we hear an account of Socrates’ education
on eros and the demonic, not a discussion of his experience of it.
Compare Bruell, Socratic Education, 151–153.
or causes of nature (Phaedo 96e5–99e4); it is also his correction of
Aristophanes’ Socrates and thereby the Theages provides a portion of
Plato’s response. For while Aristophanes’ Socrates taught “doctrines”
which formed the basis of his unexamined beliefs (including a lack of
examination of himself), Plato’s Socrates does nothing but live, and teach,
Plato’s Euthyphro on Divine and Human
Wayne Ambler
I come to this ancient text very much under the influence of works written
more or less recently. Let me summarize the gist of this influence so its
merits can be more easily judged.
Impressive books and articles of relatively recent vintage have brought
more focused attention to an issue of long-standing importance, that of
fully establishing the possibility of philosophy or science.1 Among the challenges important in this regard are claims that the first causes are supernatural deities. Science is characterized not only by relentless investigation
but also by the view—whether premise or conclusion—that the permanent
causes of things are to be found in nature or necessity. If, on the other
hand, active deities are the most fundamental causes, there are no permaI am thinking especially of Leo Strauss’ studies of both historicism and the tension
between “Jerusalem and Athens.” For one striking statement, see Natural Right and History
(Chicago: U of Chicago, 1975), 75. Of course others have helped bring out the richness of
his reflections on these issues. Some appear even to have added to them substantially.
W. Ambler (*)
University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_11
nent causes for science to understand, and what may look for a moment (or
for millennia) like nature or necessity proves to be the manifestation of one
or more mutable wills. If science merely assumes that nature exists but cannot prove it against those who maintain the contrary, is it even science? For
reasons like this, it seems to me that the opposition between philosophy
and belief in supernatural gods is one of the issues that must be addressed
to make a full evaluation of the possibility of science, even if one might
dearly wish to effect a compromise between these two influential ways of
viewing the world and guiding our lives.2 Since Euthyphro calls proud
attention to his knowledge of the divine and is confident that the gods will
respond favorably to his prosecution of his father, I wonder whether the
dialogue that bears his name might help show how Socrates confronts the
view that the will of the gods is primary.
The contemporary importance of this issue is hard to overstate. The
effort to guide politics by a rational understanding of the world is at the
center of the Enlightenment project, but how and how well did the early
modern philosophers and scientists meet the intellectual challenge of
revealed religion as they advanced their work? At least one powerful line
of thought—again Strauss’—suggests they may not have done so adequately, which would then call into question the victories they have so far
won in the West and seek to win elsewhere.3 Adding force to this question
is that confidence in modern science or philosophy has in fact been met by
powerful attacks not only from without but also from within the tradition
of western thought.4 In view of these attacks, which might even constitute
a crisis, it could be useful to see how Socrates approaches the challenge
posed to philosophy by those who appeal to gods rather than nature.
This theme is a frequent one in the works of Strauss, who is perhaps most emphatic about
it in “Reason and Revelation,” in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political
Problem (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2006), 141–179. His lecture on the Euthyphro
concludes with a caution against underestimating the tension between the Bible and philosophy. “An Untitled lecture on Plato’s ‘Euthyphron,’” Interpretation Fall (1996). See also
David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2010),
66–72, and Dustin Sebell, The Socratic Turn (Philadelphia: U of Penn Press, 2016), 32–40,
51, 96–105.
Consider Strauss, Philosophy and Law (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 28–39 and Spinoza’s
Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1965), 28–31. See also “Progress or Return?” in
Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Pangle (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1989),
Strauss has made this a familiar point. For one succinct example, see The Political
Philosophy of Hobbes (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1963), xv. More generally, consider his
analyses of radical historicism as rooted in early modern philosophy.
Coming to the Euthyphro with these thoughts in mind, one naturally
wonders whether Socrates, who declared himself to be possessed only of
human wisdom, found a way to converse usefully with Euthyphro, who
claimed not mere belief or faith but divine wisdom.5 The challenge arises,
I think, because Euthyphro understands his wisdom to be divine not only
in being of the gods but also in descending from them in some supernatural way. His proclivity to think that the divine communicates with us is
evident in his quick (but incorrect) surmise that the alleged visits of
Socrates’ daimonion are the cause of Meletos’ impiety charge. The same is
true of his proud announcement that he has a perfect record of accurate
prophesies delivered before the Athenian Assembly (3b5–c4). Something
similar is indicated by his enthusiastic affirmation that the stories of the
gods told by the poets and depicted by the artists are true (6b3–c7). The
subjects of the knowledge he professes or allows Socrates to attribute to
him are especially the divine things (ta theia), the divine (to theion), the
gods (hoi theoi), and piety;6 but the character of this knowledge—as he
understands it—is that of the seer not of the theologian.
On the Euthyphro7
It is surprising that the conversation reported in the Euthyphro lasts more
than two minutes. The beginning of the dialogue is devoted to showing
how radically different Socrates and Euthyphro are, and Plato quickly
The Euthyphro does not use these terms, but when Euthyphro’s wisdom or knowledge is
referred to, the subject matter is generally said or implied to be “the divine things” or
“piety,” as I note later in this paragraph and elsewhere. Of course I take “human wisdom”
from Apology of Socrates 23a5–7, 20d8–9. (Socrates refers in the Cratylus to a certain
“Euthyphro the Prospaltion,” and refers to his wisdom as “daemonic” [396d5–9].)
It is keeping with Euthyphro’s high assessment of his wisdom that he can speak as if “the
human beings” are a lower species (5e5–6a3). It is a sign of Socrates’ gradual devaluation of
Euthyphro’s wisdom that he later reports him as saying he knows the divine things best
“among human beings” (13e7–8). Euthyphro’s acceptance of this compliment is still a
boast, but it no longer represents a claim to have escaped the limits of our species.
For these subjects of Euthyphro’s knowledge, see especially 3c1, 4e5, 6c6, 13e7–9, 16a1;
4e2; 5e5–6c7, 9b4–5 and context; 15d8–e2. “Piety” here translates both to hosion and to
eusebes, as well as the abstract nouns cognate with them. I do not notice an essential difference between them, though I believe Socrates uses only asebeia to characterize the charges
leveled against him (5c6–8, 12e2–3).
Like my Preface, my chapter as a whole is indebted especially to both Strauss
and Christopher Bruell, though their readings of the dialogue are strikingly different. I hope
this will become clear below, but to start with a general point, Strauss’ essay was written
drives it home that Euthyphro is unable to grasp anything of Socrates’
core activity or his troubled relationship to Athens. Indeed, only a few
moments pass before Socrates states with shocking directness his annoyance at those, including the very man with whom he is speaking, who
circulate the traditional but wild stories of gods who eat their children and
castrate their fathers. In this very context, he then challenges Euthyphro
to say whether he really believes these tales, which Euthyphro proudly
declares he does, adding only that he also knows others that are even more
amazing, which he cluelessly offers to share with the philosopher (6a1–
c7)! Everyone else in Athens laughed at Euthyphro (3c2–4), as we would
have also: why doesn’t Socrates?
Nor is this all: the shadow of Socrates’ trial and conviction hangs over
the dialogue, and the philosopher has every reason to invest such time as
remains for him in the activities to which he devoted his life as a whole.
Could Socrates not come up with a graceful way to escape this man?
Remarkably, it is Socrates himself who drives the conversation forward. To
exaggerate only slightly, after Euthyphro asks the first 5 questions of the
dialogue, Socrates asks the next 95.8 Why is Socrates so interested in
I see three possible motives for Socrates’ decision to prolong and intensify this surprising conversation. The explicit one is that Socrates wishes to
become Euthyphro’s student so that he can better defend himself against
the impiety charge that Meletos is bringing against him.9 The second is
that he wants to benefit Euthyphro and his family by keeping him from
pursuing his foolish case.10 The third, which may seem as bizarre as the
to be presented orally, and it contains no precise references to the pages of Plato’s text. See
Strauss, “An Untitled lecture on Plato’s ‘Euthyphron,’” and Christopher Bruell, On
the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Dialogues (Lanham, MD: Roman
and Littlefield, 1999), chapter 10. Subsequent references to Bruell are primarily to the numbered paragraphs of chapter 10 of this book. References to Strauss are by page number.
Once Socrates takes the lead, Euthyphro asks only two questions, at 15a5–10. Even these
are not genuine questions but only ways of registering resistance to Socrates’ line of argument (“πῶς γὰρ οὔ;” also occurs, but it is not a question!).
For references to this amusing plan, see 5a3–c8, 12e1–4, and 15e5–16a4.
David Leibowitz sees evidence for this motive in the fact that Socrates intensifies the
conversation only when Euthyphro says that he is prosecuting his father. (“Reply to Levy,”
Interpretation, 39:1, p. 96, note 1.) But this is also the moment at which Euthyphro shows
how confident he is of his imagined wisdom by indicating that he is perfectly willing to
expose himself and his entire family to serious consequences by acting in accord with it.
first, is that Socrates really thinks he can learn something of philosophical
interest from Euthyphro. The differences among these motives are important, and especially the second raises the question of the overall economy
of Socrates’ life: when and in what ways was he a “philanthropist,” as he
says he seems to have been to the Athenians at 3d6–9? But note that if his
(possible) theoretical goals should require shaking Euthyphro’s confidence that he knows the divine as well as he thinks he does, it would at the
same time contribute to the second motive mentioned above. And it
would also make him a student of Euthyphro, as the first suggests, though
Euthyphro would have no idea of what he was “teaching”! What I said at
the outset already indicates that I would stress the primacy of the third
motive, whether or not it is compatible with the other two, and I hope
what follows defends this judgment.
Overview of the Dialogue
I divide the dialogue into an introduction, two distinct groups of attempts
to define piety, and an epilogue. First we are introduced to the characters,
their court cases, and the subject of the ensuing discussion, piety
(2a1–5d6). Then Socrates elicits and cross-examines Euthyphro’s first
attempts to define piety, which maintain that it is pious to punish the
unjust and that the gods love such actions (5d7–11b1). The division
between “the first attempts” and “the second attempts” is marked when
Socrates refers for the first of two times to Daedalus to illustrate the instability of Euthyphro’s statements (11b1–e1, 15b7–c12) and calls for them
to start the discussion all over again. Socrates then initiates the second
group of attempts to define piety, which turn out to be silent about
­punitive justice and which explore instead different ways of serving or
relating to the gods directly (11b1–15e2). It too fails, and it ends with
Socrates’ second call for a new beginning and second reference to
Daedalus. Euthyphro then chooses to leave, and Socrates’ brief epilogue
ends the discussion.
Previously, Socrates had downplayed the stakes involved in Euthyphro’s divine claims, when
he mentioned appearing before the Assembly as a (loony) prophet (3c6–d2, 3d9–e2).
Perhaps it is not only the claim that interests Socrates but also the evidence that Euthyphro
believes the claim so deeply as to expose himself to real risks by acting in accord with it.
Socrates later stresses these risks (15d4–e1).
The Subject of the Conversation
After introducing two very different men and their court cases, the beginning section of the dialogue shows Socrates confirming that Euthyphro is
dead serious about his claim to possess superior wisdom (4a11–b3,
4e4–5a2). Socrates soon thereafter steers the conversation toward one
aspect of this wisdom, piety, which remains the guiding subject of the
dialogue for the duration.
It is not obvious why Socrates makes piety the heart of the conversation.
If we think first of Euthyphro’s case, his report of it indicates that he has
decided two questions. The first is that his father killed a man unjustly; the
other is that it is his pious duty to prosecute him for this unjust act. Euthyphro
reports that his family disagrees on both points, but it appears that the disputants agree that the justice of the father’s action is the prior of the two
(4b7–c2, d5–e3). If Euthyphro could be persuaded that his father’s actions
were not unjust, he would no longer have a pious duty to prosecute him.
If Socrates’ primary goal were to help Euthyphro and his family, it
would make sense for him to press Euthyphro directly on the reasons he
thinks his father’s actions are unjust. After all, the case is complicated by
several mitigating circumstances. Instead, Socrates passes over this question to focus on piety directly. Indeed, the dialogue ends without Socrates
ever initiating a direct discussion of the justice of the father’s actions
(though he comes close at 9a1–b2).
The ostensible reason that Socrates chooses piety for their subject is
because of his own case, not Euthyphro’s (5c4–d5). He purports to want
to take advantage of his lucky encounter with the wise Euthyphro to learn
from him what he most needs to know to win the case Meletos is bringing
against him. Since Socrates may be said to be accused of impiety (5c7–8,
12e2–4), it makes some sense for Socrates—if he really means to become
Euthyphro’s student with this goal in mind—to make piety the main subject. On the other hand, the core charge against Socrates was, to abbreviate, that he did not believe in the old gods, and what he says he needs to
learn from Euthyphro is “the divine things,” which he seems to have been
trying to understand for a long time, though without success (5a5–b2,
3b1–4). He was accused of impiety because he did not believe in the old
gods; he was not accused of having misunderstood piety. I wonder, then,
why Socrates does not make “the divine things,” or the case for the old
gods, the immediate subject of the conversation.11
I am influenced here by Bruell (paras 3, 7–8), who raises the question of whether the
pious is actually prior to the divine. To note influence is not to claim full understanding.
Although piety and the gods are surely related subjects, the difference
between them is indicated when Socrates briefly leaves the subject of piety
to confirm Euthyphro’s belief in the gods that are at the heart of Athens’
official religious practices and are the subject of so much poetry and art
(6b3–c7). After these remarks directly centered on the subject of the gods,
Socrates resists firmly when Euthyphro volunteers to tell him more of what
he knows about them. Rather, Socrates returns the conversation to its focus
on piety or on how human beings should act in light of the gods (6c5–9;
cf. Ion 530d6–531a1). Why does Socrates not ask Euthyphro to instruct
him where he needs it most, on the gods, which Euthyphro also considers
the most wondrous aspect or apex of his wisdom? Or, why does he not
press Euthyphro on the subject of justice, which his family-­threatening
actions require him to understand far better than he really does?
Socrates’ focus on piety is not the most obvious choice of subjects from
the point of view of either case. Seeking the fruits of Socrates’ investigation of piety is surely the best next step to learning why he undertakes it.
So let us turn to Euthyphro’s first attempts to define piety (5c8–11b5). Of
special note are the two methodological agreements Euthyphro makes
with Socrates and the two main substantive challenges Socrates poses to
Euthyphro’s first attempts to define piety.
Methodological Agreements
During Euthyphro’s first account of piety, Socrates asks him to agree to
methodological points on two different occasions, and he does. The first
is that he define piety in general terms: Socrates asks Euthyphro to capture
its form or “idea,” such that one might use it to recognize all pious and
impious acts as such.12 By this agreement, Euthyphro tacitly—and not
with full awareness of the implications of his agreement—denies that the
gods can make anything pious by their will or, as becomes important later,
by their love. He implies that there are forms or ideas that are prior to the
gods. The gods would surely know these forms, but the implication of his
methodological agreement is that they could not change them.13
5c8–d7 and 6d9–e9. I simplify: the second of these statements is similar but not identical
to the first.
Strauss uses different evidence to establish a similar point, which he then develops at
greater length and more boldly than I do here. When Euthyphro says Zeus is “most just,”
Strauss observes that he tacitly accepts a stable idea in accord with which Zeus must be
understood and in light of which he must act. His reading sees Euthyphro as already imply-
The second agreement is that all statements must be examined (9e4–9).
Euthyphro here indicates a willingness to be cross-examined. He thus
abandons any claim he might have made to speak as an authority beyond
question. Whatever his experience of the divine, this statement suggests it
cannot have been so overwhelming as to cause him to declare his opinions
to be above scrutiny. Moreover, Euthyphro’s agreement would seem to
show willingness to submit all authorities to question, including the poets,
artists, and those responsible for the civic cults.14
These two methodological points are reasonable requirements for conversation. How can we converse with someone claiming: “My divine experience or wisdom is not subject to your merely human analysis,” and “The
gods can make anything anything”? But natural though these requirements are for ordinary discourse, are they not improper constraints on
such wisdom as comes straight from the gods? Should a Moses be obliged
not only to deliver the Ten Commandments but also to defend them?
Would it be consistent with laws against blasphemy that they be subject to
Socratic critique?15 In accepting these two methodological agreements,
Euthyphro risks sliding down a slippery slope in the direction of admitting
that the gods are not the primary causes and that his wisdom does not
enjoy the privilege of a divine source.
For all of his excesses, Euthyphro here steps back from even more
extreme claims, which would deny intelligibility to the very notion of piety
and affirm that authorities like himself are above question. This enables
Socrates to explore his views further, but does it mean that Euthyphro has
already conceded the lofty heights from which he might have resisted
Socrates’ assault? Since we sometimes agree to things we do not really
believe, it is good to wonder whether Euthyphro’s consequential methoding these fundamental alternatives, gods or ideas, so in accepting ideas Euthyphro hereby
testifies against the gods (15–17).
Bruell’s impressive rescue of a bracketed eirētai gar (7b1) enables him to show that
Euthyphro’s agreement at 9e4–9 represents an abandonment of the principle of authority
(“it has been said”) in favor of the principle of investigation (“we must examine”) (para 8,
127b). This “it has been said,” along with another one three lines later, may help to suggest
that important beliefs about the gods depend at least in part upon authoritative reports
passed down among human beings. Recall the importance of poets, artists, and civic rituals
Note that Socrates recasts the charge against him so that it holds him to be guilty of not
knowing the truth about the gods, not that he does not believe in the old gods (5a3–b2,
12e1–4, 15e5–16a2). Athens, however, requires conformity, not wisdom, and does not tolerate the degree of inquiry that Euthyphro allows here.
ological concessions are reliable indicators of his most deeply held views.
Further evidence that Euthyphro’s methodological agreements do reflect
his deeply held views appears in that while discussing piety he never protests that he is above question, and he allows Socrates to describe what he
is doing as teaching what he knows (not merely declaring it, as a seer
might).16 Euthyphro himself thus declines to make an even more radical
claim to divine wisdom. But to make further progress, we must consider
the content of what he says about piety.
Substantive Challenges to Euthyphro
In the course of Euthyphro’s first attempts to define piety, Socrates challenges him especially by two lines of argument. The second of these is the
distinction between saying that the pious is pious because the gods love it
and that the gods love what is pious because it is pious, which he develops
at surprising length and through examples that sound like gibberish
(10a1–11b1). By emphasizing this distinction, Socrates brings into the
light the connection between the lower and presumably derivative subject,
piety, and the higher, the gods. Socrates’ questions help reveal that
Euthyphro (partly) thinks there must be some content to piety to make it
worthy of the gods’ love: it cannot be the mere consequence of arbitrary
love—as if Zeus’ affections could one day make Hera pious, another day
Ganymede, Danae, or Europa!—so he agrees that the gods love what is
pious because it is pious.17 By accepting or volunteering this point of view,
Euthyphro indicates again that he is prepared to accept the limit on the
power of the gods that it implies. Perhaps it is important that in return he
secures consistency and dignity for a quality on which he prides himself.
On the other hand, he also says that “[whatever is] loved by the gods” is
pious (6e10), and Socrates drives him to see that this opinion suggests a
fundamentally different way of understanding why pious things are pious.
In compensation for the arbitrariness it introduces, this view enhances the
Socrates refers to Euthyphro’s actual or promised teaching with striking frequency: 5b2,
b4, 5c5, 6d2, 6d10, 6e3, 7a4, 9a1, 9c3, 9d8, 11e3, 12e1–4, 14c1. This said, it is perhaps
only at 5b8–c3 and 7a5 that Euthyphro really embraces Socrates’ description of him as a
teacher. Euthyphro may be more confident of his wisdom than of his ability to transmit it to
ordinary human beings, try though he does with Socrates.
10d1–4. As noted above, his first methodological agreement also implies that piety is
prior to divine action. The substantive and methodological points collaborate in showing
restrictions to which Euthyphro subjects his gods.
power of the gods by making their love the determinant of everything
pious. Now drawn in this direction, Euthyphro can see his other view as
posing improper limits on the gods’ power and activity or, as Socrates puts
it, as reducing their love to a mere “pathos” or automatic consequence of
piety (11a6–b1). Nothing in Socrates’ line of questioning denies that what
is worthy of the gods’ love would receive its due, but this happy result is
not enough to keep Euthyphro from being vexed at seeing the gods’ love
reduced to being a mere reaction to what is more fundamental than itself.
Content with neither horn of this dilemma, Euthyphro is ready to trade
accusations with Socrates regarding who is to blame for the confusion.
With regard to the other of the two lines of argument by which Socrates
challenges Euthyphro in this section, Socrates reminds him of his confident belief that the gods are frequently at war and leads him to grant that
their many quarrels show that they disagree about what is just.18 He then
stresses to Euthyphro that he must show what evidence establishes that all
the gods would agree that his father’s actions were unjust and that
Euthyphro is right to prosecute him: Socrates rubs Euthyphro’s nose in
the difficulties he faces in defending the two theses central to his court
case (9a1–b5 and 8a10–b6).
Apart from his court case, the two points just discussed imply that for
Euthyphro, at least, the gods do not determine what is just or pious, so
Euthyphro cannot derive his own presumed knowledge of justice and
piety from them. The gods themselves are, by his agreement, at loggerheads over justice; and their love of piety is a response to it, not its cause.
Both of these points trouble Euthyphro, while also helping to confirm the
suggestion of the two methodological agreements: Euthyphro himself
does not hold his knowledge to descend from the gods, at least in the
important cases of piety and justice. He appears to apply it from the bottom up, not receive it wholly from the top down.
In keeping with these two main ways of challenging the substance of
Euthyphro’s view of piety and the two methodological agreements he
secures, Socrates tests Euthyphro also in other ways to see to what extent
he is consistent in experiencing his wisdom as coming from on high. An
I simplify a complicated text that considers not only the just as a cause of divine quarrel
but also the good and the beautiful (7b6–8b6). Whether it is especially the just that stimulates the gods’ love is a question (7e6–7), for of course they might prefer what is beautiful or
beneficial to what is just. Perhaps it was with beauty in mind that Socrates added “human
being” at 7a7. If so, it would fully justify my earlier reference to Ganymede and company.
important example is that when Socrates confronts him with the troubling
consequence of his top-down wisdom that the gods fight about what is
just, Euthyphro can resist only by proposing one principle with which no
one of the gods would disagree: whoever kills a man unjustly must pay the
penalty (8b7–9). This, of course, is the very principle he invokes in his case
against his father.
But does he really learn this from above? It seemed so in his first speech
mentioning piety, for he there implied that one had to know the divine
first; then one could understand the pious (4e1–3). It was because he
thought he knew the divine, as his family did not, that he was able to know
that it was his pious duty to prosecute the unjust, whoever they may be. It
could easily appear then that Euthyphro thought the conduct of Zeus, the
best and most just of the gods, was an example that could help him to
learn his pious duties, which also suggests the unsurprising conclusion that
piety takes its bearings from the gods.19 But now, when confronted with
the problem that his divine knowledge holds that widespread quarrels
plague the gods, he seeks a way to limit these quarrels and establish that
all the gods agree on a fundamental point. Socrates proves willing to help
him do this, but at a steep price. After he first forces Euthyphro to recognize that it is his very own divine wisdom that reports the quarrels among
the gods—certainly not anything that Socrates affirms—Socrates allows
him to claim that the gods do not quarrel about whether the unjust must
pay the penalty, only about who or what is unjust. But how or on what
grounds does Socrates advance this important conclusion? Socrates offers
it to Euthyphro on the grounds that this is how we human beings think
and act: we quarrel incessantly about who and what is unjust, but we agree
that the unjust must pay the penalty, so this is how it must be also with the
5e5–6a5. Euthyphro sees himself as doing what Zeus did. This leads Strauss to characterize Euthyphro’s first definition of piety as maintaining that piety is imitating the gods, not
obeying them. This is indeed an unorthodox view: it even implies that piety would no longer
include prayer or sacrifice (14). Strauss’ treatment of the issue has the advantage of raising a
fundamental question: should we imitate the gods or obey them? Bruell stresses instead that
Zeus too conforms to a law that is prior to him, one which both he and Euthyphro obey
(5e3; para 9, 129t). This difference between Bruell and Strauss is in turn closely tied to the
question of how Euthyphro and Socrates are related to orthodoxy. Strauss stresses
Euthyphro’s radicalism: piety as imitation is radical, and prosecuting one’s father defies filial
piety. He thus sees Socrates as trying to bring Euthyphro back to orthodoxy (18b–19t).
Bruell, on the other hand, stresses that Euthyphro accepts the old gods whereas Socrates
does not, so he can describe Socrates as giving Euthyphro the chance to bring him back to
orthodoxy (para 5, 123m).
gods (8b10–e6). Euthyphro embraces this argument without hesitation,
even though it reasons from the conduct of human beings to that of gods,
from low to high. If Euthyphro is willing to regulate or guide his purportedly divine wisdom by arguments fully accessible to human beings, even
on questions directly touching his case against his father, he would seem
to hold that his this-worldly opinions are more determining than any
guidance he receives from above.
Perhaps this related detail is also worth noting as evidence that the
apparent primacy of Euthyphro’s views of the gods is really subordinate to
his moral opinions: he now says, “The guilty must pay” (8b7–9), whereas
in his earlier remarks he had said it was pious to prosecute the guilty (5d8–
e2). A pious duty has become a “must.” Socrates’ excavations make it look
increasingly as if a keenly felt “must” is buried more deeply in Euthyphro
than his sense of a pious duty.
To speak generally, Socrates uses Euthyphro’s first attempts to define
piety as an opportunity to bring out and explore his most deeply held
views on the gods by seeing how he understands piety and justice. The
results show evidence of “low to high” thinking: he thinks he knows or
must know piety and justice even before and independently of his knowledge of the gods. Examples of powerful “mundane” opinions so far
include the two points I have called “methodological” and the two substantive problems that Socrates has brought out regarding his first attempts
to define piety. Lesser evidence points in the same direction.
Socrates’ Strategy
We are all familiar with ways of responding to claims like those made by
Euthyphro. In addition to neglect or ridicule, we might be inclined, as a
different Socrates was in the Clouds, to criticize directly the conventional
stories of the gods on the grounds that they violate natural principles and
transgress an alluring or accepted view of morality. Our own Richard
Dawkins is but one prominent example who fits this mold; he even seems
to be a modern caricature of Aristophanes’ caricature.20 Now that the
Consider what Socrates (365–411), the Unjust Speech (esp. 900–06), and the postconversion Pheidippides (1399–1400, 1421–29) have to say in the Clouds. As for Dawkins,
nothing excites him more than attacking the God of the Old Testament on moral grounds
(consider his often-quoted opening words of chapter 2 of The God Delusion [NY: Houghton
Mifflin, 2006]), and he never tires of assuming, implying, or declaring the moral and intellectual superiority of modern science to religion. For but one example, see The God Delusion,
Enlightenment has made the educated in the West much more skeptical of
belief in active gods, a cottage industry of explaining such belief on natural
grounds has arisen, with its contribution to the survival of the species now
enjoying a dominant market share. The Socrates of the Euthyphro, however, takes an entirely different course.
Claims that purport to transcend reason and deny nature cannot be
refuted by showing that they contradict reason or what we take to be
nature. And unless divine claims are first shown to be unfounded, it is
premature to explain them away as the product of natural causes. If
Euthyphro’s wisdom comes from above, its authoritative origins would
make its coherence and relationship to “nature” beside the point. Socrates
thus does not try to defeat Euthyphro by defending his own position in
this confrontation, which is why the dialogue proceeds without any mention of philosophy and why “science” and “nature” appear only in meanings shaped by Euthyphro’s belief in the primacy of the gods.21 Rather
than comparing this belief unfavorably to his own, Socrates seeks to look
at it from within.
To put this in other words, Socrates refutes a man, not a thesis; and the
man himself is the only “evidence” that he is truly inspired. Nothing and
no one else point in this direction, which is just possibly the way it would
be with someone truly inspired. Why should prophets be easily identified?
So what does Socrates do to test this single witness? He cannot test the
content of his testimony, for there is no reason a revelation should be
rational, in accord with “nature,” or even faintly plausible. He is examining a prophet, not a theologian. But can he somehow test the inner convictions of the man who thinks he has communed with the gods? Can he,
by carefully designed “tests,” come to see, or see well enough, what is
deepest in him, and, then, judge whether that core testifies to the man’s
more easily visible and professed insight into the divine? Or if, for example, Socrates could somehow persuade him to drop his claim (and I mean
chapter 8, where the presumed truth and goodness of modern science are taken to discredit
its main rival, a satisfying and persuasive procedure for all who begin with the same presumption. Of course the differences between Dawkins and Aristophanes’ Socrates are also striking,
especially since the former is animated by a universal political project.
Euthyphro is excited about a science of prayer and sacrifice (14b2–5, c5–6, and d1–3).
4e4–8 refers to his professed knowledge of the divine things more generally. It is also apt that
the only word cognate with “nature” occurs in a poem referring to Zeus “who begat [ephuteusen] all these things” (12a10). Science and nature are in this context subsumed into the
focus on things divine. For a similar point about Euthyphro’s wisdom, see notes 5 and 6.
this to be a genuine hypothesis, for Socrates does not enjoy this kind of
success), Euthyphro would cease to be evidence of a possible case of supernatural wisdom. Socrates could then dismiss his claim not because it
appears to be contrary to nature in its content but because the man who
made it now thinks he had been wrong to imagine it was of supernatural
origin. This would not entitle Socrates to claim in general terms that he
had solved the question of whether there are active gods, but it would
allow him to dismiss one witness to this view.
Now Socrates does not induce Euthyphro to retreat from his confident
belief in his divine insights; but the two methodological agreements he
wins from Euthyphro show that he is willing to submit his discourse about
the gods to limits that rule out transrational claims to supernatural deities.
Similarly, when Euthyphro grants the priority of the pious to the gods’
love of the pious, he again implies that he sees himself as belonging to a
world in which divine action is governed by preexisting moral categories.
And when he grants that the gods’ unceasing wars are evidence that they
do not agree about what is just, he implies that we cannot learn what is
just from the gods. Euthyphro looked at first like one who was confident
that his understanding descended from the top down, but Socrates’ questioning brings forth evidence that it is really bottom up, at least in important respects. Socrates’ focus on piety has revealed that in Euthyphro’s
view the gods are in important respects secondary or subordinate to piety
and justice. Socrates does not persuade Euthyphro to drop his claim to
wisdom, but he does show that this claim emerges from a profusion of
mundane opinions that limit and, therefore, even trump it.
The Interlude and Second Attempts to Define Piety
An interlude results when Euthyphro balks at Socrates’ call for a new
beginning and, in particular, a renewed effort to disclose what piety is.
(Socrates’ definition of their task leaves the gods’ possible love as a mere
“pathos” or consequence of piety, which may add to Euthyphro’s agitation: 11b1–5.) The two men insist that the other is the “Daedalus,” who
is the one responsible for making the “works in speeches” move on their
own (11b9–e1). No less than Socrates, Euthyphro is troubled by the
instability of his definitions of piety. He may feel at some level that the
divine mysteries do not reveal themselves to mere mortals’ clumsy attempts
to grasp them, but he mostly blames his peculiar interlocutor for making
his statements “go around and not stay put.” Nevertheless, he had
accepted the assignment of teaching what he knows, and he is frustrated
by the failure to make progress. Even the seer seeks a stable understanding
of piety. In his own hunt for this stability, Socrates takes the lead and summons Euthyphro to toughen up so that he might yet succeed in teaching
what piety is.
On assuming leadership in the conversation and because of the importance of justice in Euthyphro’s preceding attempts to explain piety,
Socrates begins by suggesting, in the form of a question, that piety is a
part of justice. Doing so makes it easy for Euthyphro to specify that piety
is that part of justice that concerns the gods, while he makes justice regarding human beings a distinct part of justice in general.22 This in effect kicks
piety upstairs, away from the quarrels that beset human beings. Under this
heading, they consider piety in three main ways. One is that it is the artful
service or “caregiving” (therapeia) of the gods. Another proposes piety as
the servile support (hypēretikē) men offer to the gods in the works they do.
The third understands it to be the science of how to sacrifice and pray.
Nothing in this section refers to Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father or
to punitive justice in general, and nothing here could lead him to think he
had a pious duty to prosecute his father. If Socrates can bring Euthyphro
to any such view of piety and if it sinks in, he will have done the family a
service. His effort will also help him to test the power of the link between
justice and piety in Euthyphro’s understanding.
Socrates proceeds in a similar fashion in these three successive cases.
He elicits Euthyphro’s view and then shows it to be problematic in ways
that Euthyphro at least partly acknowledges. Skilled “caregivers” help
horses, dogs, and cattle, benefitting them and making them better; piety
as skilled caregiving for the gods, if it is serious caregiving, requires gods
who are in serious need of care or improvement, but Euthyphro cannot
accept the notion that his pious deeds make the gods better (13a1–d3).
And, of course, though it is not mentioned explicitly, these caregivers
give their care with their own advantage very much in mind, not that of
12e5–8. I here pass over Socrates’ unnecessarily long argument to explain to Euthyphro
the very simple part/whole relationship (11e4–12d4). As for the poem that Socrates uses as
one illustration of this relationship, Bruell has to be correct that it makes other contributions
as well. Its subject matter is the very subject of the dialogue as a whole (for awe is a close relative of piety), and it alludes to the question of the justice of Zeus. I cannot capture fully his
rich interpretation, which develops a remarkable correspondence between Socrates’ revised
interpretation of the poem and his effort to weaken the connection between piety and justice
in the conversation as a whole (para 10, 131–132).
the horses, dogs, or cattle they take care of. Euthyphro could never
accept so crude a view of piety, one that approaches the extremes of
Aristophanes’ Birds, since we know why ranchers caringly fatten their
cattle. In the second case, if piety offers servile support to the gods, then
for the accomplishment of what particular divine work is this support
offered, as such support for doctors helps them promote health? Here
the problem is that Euthyphro cannot or will not identify the work the
gods accomplish with the help of servile support from human beings.
Since it is easy to identify the fine work that is done by generals or farmers, Socrates’ questioning can be seen as doubting that the gods really
perform any such work at all (13d4–14b1). Finally, Euthyphro loses his
initial enthusiasm for the view that piety is the science of sacrificing and
praying, at least as Socrates’ questions lead it to be understood. If we
offer up sacrifices in order to give to the gods what they need from us,
and if we pray in order to get what we need from them, piety comes to
be a kind of art of commerce. This demeans both the pious man and the
gods, once again attributing neediness to the latter and making of the
former a mere gain-seeker, who would naturally try the equivalent of
purchasing Manhattan at the price of some plastic beads. At a minimum,
Euthyphro cannot tolerate the idea that our sacrifices really benefit or
improve the gods (14b2–15a10).
Not surprisingly, all three of these views of piety dissatisfy Euthyphro,
at least when viewed through the lens of Socrates’ questions. Euthyphro’s
proposals stress our dutiful service to the gods (whether therapeia or
hypēretikē) and the blessings the gods bestow on the households and cities
of their pious followers (14b2–5), but Socrates’ questions strip away the
moral seriousness of Euthyphro’s proposals. To simplify, they reduce the
gods to needy beings, question whether they do anything, and envision
the pious man as a selfish bargain hunter. Resisting all these suggestions
leads Euthyphro to say again that piety is what is dear to the gods.
Since this view was rejected earlier, Socrates refers to Daedalus a second
time to underscore the lack of fixity in Euthyphro’s views, and he summons Euthyphro to begin the conversation all over again, pointedly
reminding him that he really must know what piety is, since he is undertaking such consequential actions against his father (15b7–c12).
Euthyphro, however, announces he has other things to do and breaks off
the conversation. Although he likens Euthyphro to Proteus, with whom
Menelaus grappled until he divulged the divine secrets he sought, Socrates
makes no mention of following the advice of the original Proteus, who
called for offering sacrifices to Zeus and the other immortal gods (Odyssey
The Conclusion of the Dialogue
The dialogue’s conclusion suggests that Socrates’ progress has been significant but limited. His last speech complains to Euthyphro that his hopes
of learning from him what is pious and what is not have been disappointed,
and that he thus cannot demonstrate to Meletos that he has become wise
in regard to the divine things by having become Euthyphro’s student.
Of course this statement reeks of irony, and Meletos prosecuted Socrates
for heterodoxy, not for insufficient wisdom. But Socrates’ epilogue nonetheless rings true in reporting that he has failed to learn the divine things
from Euthyphro. This leaves him in the same boat as far as his impending
trial is concerned, though with one additional voice that could testify
against him; his investigation of Euthyphro has entailed some risk.
Socrates’ assessment of their conversation also implies, without saying so
directly, that his failure to learn was because of Euthyphro’s failure to
teach. In one or more ways, he judged his human wisdom to be entitled
to assess and reject Euthyphro’s claims of a higher wisdom. Socrates says
he loses his hope in Euthyphro not primarily because Euthyphro abandons
the conversation, I think, but because he has concluded that there is nothing more to learn from the man. Note in this regard that Socrates did not
put up a fight when Euthyphro announced he would be leaving, in sharp
contrast to Menelaus’ determined struggle with the original Proteus
(Odyssey 4.472–80).
If Socrates’ rejection of Euthyphro’s claims represents a certain success,
his conclusion also calls attention to its limits. To dismiss Euthyphro’s
claims to divine wisdom is not yet to dismiss all such claims. It could thus
appear that Socrates’ dialectical approach can proceed only on a case-by-­
case basis. Beyond this, one may easily doubt that Euthyphro is the one
most entitled to make the claims he advances. For these reasons, I can
easily imagine that Socrates would be eager to take the issue up again, if a
more able or apt interlocutor turned up and circumstances should permit.
Further, were not similar limits in evidence also at the beginning of the
dialogue? Even though Xenophon reports that “what is piety” was one of
the questions Socrates was “always” asking (Mem. 1.1.16), Socrates was
still on the hunt to make such progress as he could, that is, confirming his
ignorance of the divine things by refuting one who pretended to possess
higher knowledge. It would hardly be necessary for Socrates to be so
engaged if he had already settled the question.23
On the other hand, these limits do not mean that the discussion in the
Euthyphro is suited only to one strange interlocutor. Euthyphro is only
Euthyphro, but Socrates is always Socrates. He manages, in spite of his
interlocutor’s weaknesses, to make the conversation a rich one, and both
the methodological and the substantive points he explores are fundamental. Although the Euthyphro does not contain a final refutation of all claims
to divine wisdom, it shows the seriousness of their threat to philosophy
and sketches a powerful if challenging approach to their investigation.
I wonder whether it is some sense of these limits that guide the opening paragraph of
Strauss’ “On the Euthyphron.” He stresses the incompleteness of the dialogue’s teaching and
adds, “Thinking may be said to be the most satisfying activity regardless of the result.” Might
it turn out, perhaps to our surprise, that the case for Socratic philosophizing does not depend
entirely on its ability to defeat conclusively all possible rivals?
On the Question of Socratic Benevolence
Gregory A. McBrayer
One of the many puzzles surrounding Socrates and his way of life is the
question of what motivates him to engage in conversation with others. In
the Euthyphro, he frames his entire dialectical project in philanthropic
terms, saying that the cause of his apparent willingness to say profusely
whatever he happens to possess to every man free of charge is his benevolence or philanthropy (literally love of human beings or humanity
“philanthrō pia” 3d).1 Indeed, he says he would even gladly pay others to
listen if only they were willing. This claim accords with Socrates’s self-­
presentation elsewhere in the dialogues. In the Apology, for example,
Socrates claims that he was always concerned with the affairs of others,
going around to each citizen and privately exhorting him to care for virtue
I would like to thank Alex Priou for his critical remarks on this chapter.
This is the only use of the word philanthrō pia in Plato. Of course, Socrates also claims to
be desirous of Euthyphro’s wisdom, suggesting a less than benevolent motive for conversing
with him (14d).
G. A. McBrayer (*)
Ashland University, Ashland, OH, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_12
(Apology 31b). From these and similar statements, Socrates is taken to be
a paragon of virtue, someone who spent his entire life selflessly in service
to the city and to the divine, sacrificed his own good for the sake of others,
and ultimately died for the good of his fellow citizens.
Regrettably, Socrates’s claim that he says profusely whatever he happens to possess to every man is not exactly borne out in the dialogues.
Socrates does not seem to be willing to speak with anyone and everyone.
In fact, the type of people with whom Plato presents him speaking is limited in many ways. First, as proof of his love of human beings (anthropoi),
Socrates says he is willing to talk to any man (anēr), free of charge; we are
reminded that we only ever see Socrates speaking to men in Plato.2 Further,
Socrates does not, despite his claim, speak to all men; Socrates usually
seeks out young men and unconventional types; rarely does he converse
with citizens so typical that are not worth naming (hetairoi). And, to be
fair, it is not even all young men that attract his attention. Plato usually
presents Socrates speaking to young men who were members of the
Athenian upper crust. Taking this train of thought to its conclusion, one
could argue that Socrates only sought to speak with promising young
upper-class men guided by selfish, narrow considerations: with some he
sought political influence, with others gifts or financial support, and with
others still possibly even sexual satisfaction.3 By this logic, Socrates’s interest in others was strictly mercenary, and any claim to benevolence would
have to be taken as deeply ironic, which is to say entirely untrue.
This chapter seeks to arbitrate this dispute and to treat Socratic benevolence as a question. What might Socrates mean when he claims to be
benevolent? By his own account, Socrates’s speeches are at the heart of his
benevolence. So in order better to understand Socratic benevolence,
adumbrating his various kinds of speeches would be the appropriate starting place. Accordingly, this chapter first provides a cursory outline of the
opening conversation in each of the dialogues in search of patterns among
This of course leaves aside the two, likely fictional, second-hand accounts Socrates gives
of having spoken to Diotima in the Symposium and Aspasia in the Menexenus. However,
Xenophon, unlike Plato, presents Socrates in conversation with a woman, Theodote
(Memorabilia III.1).
For financial support, consider Socrates’s relationship with Crito. For political influence,
consider his pursuit of Alcibiades, as well as Seth Benardete’s concluding comments in “On
Plato’s Symposium,” in Plato, The Symposium (trans. Seth Benardete. Chicago, IL: University
of Chicago Press, 2001), 198–199. For the last possibility, consider Charmides 155d,
Protagoras 309a, and Alcibiades 103a and ff. But contrast Symposium 217a–219a.
Socrates’s conversations, treating cases where Socrates is particularly interested in speaking to his interlocutors as well as others where Socrates
appears to be indifferent or even disinclined to speak with someone. Finally,
I look to Book I of the Republic, where Socrates outlines a rather passive
view of justice—understood as doing no one harm—in an attempt to bring
Socrates’s alleged care for human beings into sharper focus. Ultimately, the
goal is to understand better the role of philanthropy in the philosophic life,
and thus to come to a better understanding of the demands of living the
philosophic life. While I believe the evidence shows that Socrates’s primary
motivation for conversing with others is his relentless pursuit of wisdom,
he nevertheless exhibits a kind of care for his fellow human beings in his
pursuit of wisdom; admittedly, it is an unconventional care for others free
of the illusions of both how far our care for others can be extended and
how much humans are truly capable of benefitting one another.
Schema of the Dialogues
Since Socrates links his unproven claim to benevolence to his alleged willingness to speak profusely to anyone, we can arrive at a satisfactory assessment of the former claim by evaluating the latter. If Socrates’s claim to be
benevolent is genuine, then we would expect to find unmistakable evidence that Socrates speaks indiscriminately to a wide range of human types
in the dialogues. Socrates presumably has some interest in every conversation in which he takes part, otherwise he would not participate in them at
all. However, in the best case, we would find abundant examples of
Socrates going out of his way to initiate conversations with a variety of
human types from all walks of Athenian life. This is not to say that if someone else initiated the conversation, Socrates was not interested in participating or listening. At the beginning of the Statesman, for example,
Socrates thanks Theodorus for introducing him to the stranger to whom
he had listened in the Sophist. So he has obviously listened with personal
interest. Rather, examining conversations initiated by Socrates would offer
the most fertile grounds for swiftly invalidating the view that Socrates only
spoke to others out of strictly mercenary considerations. While a lack of
such examples would not necessarily disprove Socrates’s claim, a positive
result would weigh heavily in its favor. Of course, our evidence is limited
to what is supplied by Plato,4 and may reflect Plato’s choices, not Socrates’s.
We could also examine this question in Xenophon’s Socratic works.
Turning to the dialogues, we can initially divide them into two categories: performed and narrated.5 Of course, it is difficult to assess every conversation in every dialogue, and the difficulties are particularly acute in the
case of the narrated dialogues. For in the case of narration, we are trusting
that the narrator accurately recounts the conversation when he may misremember certain details, omit points he deems unimportant, or even intentionally misrepresent the conversation.6 Moreover, many of the dialogues
contain accounts of many different conversations, or even conversations
within conversations. Think of how many layers there are between the
reader of Plato’s Symposium and Socrates’s account of his conversation
with Diotima, for example.7 And in the Protagoras, an unnamed comrade
initiates the frame dialogue with Socrates, Hippocrates opens the first narrated conversation with Socrates, and Socrates initiates the conversation
with Protagoras a little later. Socrates’s motivation for speaking with
Protagoras is initially unclear. Socrates’s younger companion, Hippocrates,
first suggests going to speak with Protagoras (Socrates speaks to
Hippocrates whether he wants to or not, as Hippocrates comes barging in
at the crack of dawn to wake him). After having persuaded Hippocrates of
the folly of trying to associate with Protagoras, Socrates nevertheless takes
him there.8 One could say, to be sure, that Socrates is motivated to speak
with Protagoras for the sake of his friend Hippocrates. In other words, the
entire conversation with Protagoras could be motivated by the desire to
benefit his young friend by curing him of the desire to associate with
Protagoras. However, Socrates more or less admits to Protagoras that one
of his driving desires to speak with him is so that he can earn for himself a
good reputation.9 Recall that Socrates is around thirty-five years old for
the dramatic date of this dialogue and that Protagoras, not Socrates, is the
one highly regarded for wisdom. This might help us to understand
Socrates’s willingness to repeat the conversation with Protagoras immediately afterward to a gossipy comrade.10
Leo Strauss, On Plato’s “Symposium” (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 13.
Consider, Symposium 178a, Euthydemus, 290e–291a.
Symposium 173b, 201d.
Protagoras, 311a–314c.
Protagoras 343c. At the end of the dialogue, Protagoras says now people will say that
Socrates is wise (361e).
Robert C. Bartlett, Sophistry and Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2016), 10.
The performed dialogues are not entirely free of difficulties: the
Philebus, for example, begins mid-conversation, so it would seem impossible to be able to say with certainty who initiates the conversation. And
while Callicles initiates the dialogue in the Gorgias, it is clear that Socrates
has sought out Gorgias. Within the Gorgias, Socrates approaches the
rhetorician after he has given a display speech, and Socrates appears to
be interested in the possibility of learning rhetoric from Gorgias, despite
his suspicion that no such art is possible.11 To overstate a bit, Socrates
pursues a conversation with Gorgias principally from a desire to learn a
skill. But there is a puzzle here. The conversation with Gorgias wraps up
fairly quickly, and the overwhelming majority of the dialogue consists of
Socrates’s conversations with Polus and Callicles. Even if Socrates sought
out Gorgias to learn from him, he nevertheless carried on lengthy conversations with Gorgias’s students. And there seems to be little to no
evidence that Socrates aimed to learn anything from these two young
men. And while Socrates may have had an effect on Polus, it seems clear
that Callicles completely tuned him out. Recognizing, then, that many
of my decisions are contestable and that caveats abound, I nevertheless
aim to determine which of the dialogues are initiated by Socrates and
which are not. I believe we can gain some insight into Socrates’s purported willingness to speak profusely to everyone from trying to take a
comprehensive view of the dialogues, even if it is at a bird’s eye perspective. From such a viewpoint, important patterns may emerge. Moreover,
I am limiting myself in the present study to evaluating the first conversation in each dialogue (and, if the dialogue is narrated, I am evaluating
both the narrative frame and the first narrated conversation). There are
undoubtedly limits to this introductory approach, but I nevertheless
think it will lead to fruitful investigation and also lay the groundwork for
a fuller account of all the conversations.
Let us begin, then, with the performed dialogues initiated by
Socrates.12 Looking first at the twenty-three Socratic dialogues that are
performed, we find that Socrates initiates the conversation in thirteen
Gorgias, 464b and ff.
Here, I am accepting the authenticity of all thirty-five dialogues that have come down to
us as Platonic. However, since the question of the chapter is Socrates’s philanthropy, I disregard the Laws and the Epinomis, since Socrates is not present in them. Of the thirty-three
Socratic dialogues, twenty-three are performed and ten are narrated.
of them.13 In four of the thirteen cases, Socrates pursues an interlocutor
who lays claim to an intellectual skill or knowledge of some sort, including a rhapsode (Ion),14 a sophist (Hippias), and two men who are called
philosophers (the Eleatic Stranger and Timaeus).15 In six cases, the
interlocutor Socrates approaches is a handsome, promising youth from
the Athenian Aristocratic class: Alcibiades (twice),16 Menexenus,
Phaedrus, and Cleitophon in their eponymous dialogues, and Protarchus
in the Philebus. In Hipparhcus and Minos, Socrates speaks with an
unnamed comrade (hetairos). These dialogues also have in common
that they are the only two dialogues named for someone long deceased
and therefore not present. The only dialogue Socrates initiates with
The twenty-three performed dialogues:
Initiated by Socrates
Initiated by someone else Omitted
Alcibiades I
Alcibiades II
Hippias Major
Philebus (*starts mid-conversation)
The Statesman
Lesser Hippias
Apology of Socrates
With respect to the Ion, it seems that Socrates is quite eager to converse with this eponymous character, too. And this strikes the reader as particularly strange, since Ion reveals
himself to be so completely unimpressive. Is this a case where Socrates aims to benefit Ion?
That seems to be far from the case. No one else is present, so Socrates is surely not trying to
embarrass Ion. Why then does Socrates speak to Ion? What could Socrates have aimed to
learn from someone so mediocre? Ion shows no signs of having been affected by Socrates’s
line of questioning, so if Socrates was driven by a desire to benefit Ion, his attempts seem to
have been entirely unsuccessful.
Socrates actually initiates this dialogue with Theodorus, but it becomes clear he is interested in what the Stranger has to say. Theodorus identifies the Stranger as a philosopher
(Sophist 216c). Socrates identifies Timaeus as a philosopher (Timaeus 20a).
In the case of Alcibiades, Socrates seems to be testing his suitability as a student in
Alcibiades I. In Alcibiades II, a more interesting possibility is presented; it appears Socrates
aims to prevent Alcibiades from doing something terrible.
someone who is unquestionably neither a promising youth nor an intellectual is the conversation he starts with Crito. But in this case, Socrates
has just woken up to find himself alone with Crito in his jail cell.17 One
would be hard pressed to say his initiation of this dialogue springs from
philanthropic concerns (although the ensuing conversation does seem
to spring from a concern for his old friend).
As we turn to the ten narrated dialogues, we see that six of the external
frames are narrated by Socrates and four are narrated by someone else.18
Among the six dialogues narrated by Socrates, he initiates the narration in
four of them, and in all four cases, he recounts his story to an unnamed or
unspecified audience who never speaks, interrupts, or responds.19 It is difficult to imagine just anyone passively listening to the entire narration of a
Socratic dialogue, especially in the case of the Republic. However, since we
cannot clearly identify the audience of these narrations, we cannot reject
out of hand the possibility these dialogues contain the kinds of speeches to
which Socrates alludes to in the Euthyphro.
Socrates takes part in all ten of the internal conversations in the ten narrated dialogues, but he initiates the internal conversation in only four or
five of them: Lovers, Euthydemus, Theaetetus, and Phaedo. He also initiates
the conversation in Parmenides, but not until after Zeno has concluded an
Crito 43a.
External Frame of ten narrated dialogues:
Narrated by Socrates
Narrated by someone else
Parmenides (Cephalus)
Symposium (Apollodorus)
Theaetetus (Euclides reads a narration)
Phaedo (Phaedo)
Dialogues narrated by Socrates:
Socrates initiates narration
Someone else initiates narration
Charmides (to nameless companion)
Republic (to nameless companion)
Lysis (to nameless companion)
Lovers (to nameless companion)
Protagoras (Comrade)
Euthydemus (Crito)
unrecorded speech.20 In Lovers, Socrates initiates a conversation with a
lover of two young men remarkable for their good looks, ostensibly to
draw the youth into conversation. In the Euthydemus, he initiates a conversation with a handsome youth, ostensibly to gain the attention of two
sophists. In Theaetetus, he initiates a conversation with a mathematician
(Theodorus). In the Phaedo, Socrates initiates the conversation with all of
his students and friends who have come to see him on the day of his execution.21 The same pattern emerges in the narrated dialogues as in the performed: Socrates seeks out conversations with promising youths and
intellectual types.
Our initial, brief overview unfortunately provides scant evidence that
Socrates initiated conversations with all human types. Indeed, there is no
clear and unequivocal evidence that Socrates spoke indiscriminately to all.
We cannot rule out the dialogues where Socrates speaks to someone
entirely unnamed (Charmides, Republic, Lysis, and Lovers), but the likeliest candidates for evidence that Socrates spoke to all human types are
those he conducts with an unnamed comrade, the Hipparchus and the
Minos. Indeed, unlike the Republic, the conversation in Hipparchus and
Minos ostensibly would have been of interest to an average citizen in the
marketplace. The Hipparchus is about gain or avarice, and in the Minos
Socrates asks a question about law that the comrade takes to be a more
typical question about legality. Nevertheless, if we focus on the cases where
we can clearly identify the person or persons with whom Socrates initiates
the conversation, a clear pattern emerges. The evidence is that Socrates
principally pursued conversations with two classes of individuals: the
promising youths and the (professedly) wise. Perhaps Socrates’s willingness to speak with anyone can nevertheless still be saved. It is entirely pos20
Internal Conversations of narrated dialogues.
Initiated by Socrates
Initiated by someone else
Euthydemus (Cleinias)
Theaetetus (Theodorus)
Lovers (unnamed lover of good looking boy)
Phaedo (All present)
Parmenides (after Zeno reads a speech)
Protagoras (Hippocrates)
Charmides (Chaerephon)
Symposium (Aristodemus)
Republic (Polemarchus’s slave)
Lysis (Hippothales)
To be more precise, Xanthippe makes the initial remarks in the Phaedo and Socrates asks
Crito to take her away (60a), but Socrates opens the conversation.
sible, for example, that Plato simply chose to omit Socrates’s conversations
with ordinary citizens (though we would still expect to hear something
about such conversations other than mere assertions that they occurred).22
While Socrates apparently spoke regularly about blacksmiths, cobblers,
and tanners (Symposium 221e), we are not aware of examples of him
speaking to such types.
Most problematic, there is evidence that seems directly to contradict
Socrates’s claim to speak profusely whatever he possesses to every man: there
are several examples in the dialogues of Socrates avoiding people or actively
attempting to extricate himself from conversations. Anyone who wants to
argue that Socrates perpetually benefited everyone with whom he came into
contact would have to account for the frequent examples of Socrates attempting to excuse himself from conversing with others, especially when one
comes to recognize that the type of people he seems most interested in leaving are usually unpromising, uninteresting, or people from whom he is
unlikely to learn. Socrates often evinces a reluctance to speak with someone,
he habitually has to be compelled to start23 or to continue a conversation,
and, perhaps most troubling, he occasionally lies in order to extricate himself
from a conversation.24 Socrates’s friend Crito, for example, seeks a teacher
for his sons, yet Socrates makes no offer to teach them.25 In fact, Socrates
encourages his friend Crito to send his son to study with two sophists who
seem to be of very questionable moral character, Euthydemus and
Dionysodorus, and he even suggests using Crito’s sons as bait to gain the
attention of the sophists for his own purposes.26 In the Laches, Nicias informs
us that Socrates suggested a teacher for his son, Damon the student of
Agathocles.27 Later in the same dialogue, Laches encourages two men,
Lysimachus and Melesias, to send their sons to Socrates to be educated, but
there is no evidence that Socrates ever undertakes this task, despite his promise to do so the following day.28 In the Theages, Socrates makes an argument
for why Theages should become a student of an Athenian gentleman instead
Cf. Apology of Socrates 22d. While Socrates claims to have gone around speaking to
manual artisans, Plato never presents them. See David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of
Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 90–92.
Republic 327b.
Protagoras, 362a.
Euthydemus 306d and ff.
Euthydemus 272d.
Laches 180d.
Laches, 200d, 201c.
of himself, despite Theages’s desire to become Socrates’s student, and then,
after Theages rejects this suggestion, Socrates proposes several sophists as
possibilities.29 He seems very reluctant to become Theages’s teacher, ultimately resorting to the claim that his daimonion opposes it, presumably
because Theages is a headstrong and unpromising student.30 This seems to
be the consistent reason Socrates pulls away from certain young men and
these examples unquestionably contradict Socrates’s claim to be willing to
speak profusely to everyone.
The unfortunate conclusion one could draw from this is that Socrates
evinces very little interest in benefitting the unpromising youth of Athens.
Socrates seems to be interested, above all, in speaking to promising young
men who were members of the Athenian upper class and questionable
types like sophists and philosophers. Now, one could argue that Socrates
benefits these youths by pointing them to other teachers, but at the very
least, it is difficult to maintain that Socrates willingly spoke to anyone who
would listen. Further, the kind of education that Socrates provides would
not be beneficial for these types, just as an expert diver’s lessons might be
wasted on someone who lacked the ability to swim. Worse, it could even
be harmful, like giving weapons to someone who is not of sound mind.
Do No Harm
Socratic philosophy seems to be an inherently risky undertaking, insofar as
interrogating commonly held opinions by submitting them to rational
inquiry may lead an interlocutor to abandon those opinions. But if Socrates
cannot rehabilitate these shattered opinions, or establish something new in
their place, the interlocutor risks being put to sea adrift, with no port or
anchor. While the humbling experience of coming face to face with the
contradictory character of one’s most deeply held opinions can be a spur to
further investigation, it can also be a cause of great despair. Not all who are
humbled by cross-examination have the desire or capacity to pursue further
inquiry and some may simply reject moral and intellectual questions altogether. In the end, conventional opinions about things like justice or the
Theages, 127a–128a.
Theages 128d. See “On the Theages,” in Thomas Pangle, The Roots of Political Philosophy:
Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 167 and
“Theages” in Christopher Bruell, On the Socratic Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1999).
gods may be more salubrious than having none at all. Given the inherently
risky character of Socratic inquiry, perhaps Socrates’s unwillingness to
speak profusely to all types arises in part from a desire to avoid causing
harm. Cleitophon, in the dialogue named for him, blames Socrates for his
unwillingness to share his knowledge directly after attributing to him the
view that the just man never harms anyone (410c). Perhaps this is the particular form of benevolence Socrates practices: do no harm.
Although the position that the just man never harms anyone is attributed to Socrates in the Cleitophon, the argument for that position occurs
in the first book of the Republic, in conversation with Polemarchus.
Socrates’s uncomfortable line of questioning regarding the character of
justice has prompted Cephalus to withdraw from the conversation with a
group of young men and, as he departs, he bequeaths the argument to his
son Polemarchus. Socrates had imputed to Cephalus the view that justice
consists of telling the truth and paying back what one owes (331c). In
defending his father’s conception of justice, Polemarchus drops any mention of truth telling and focuses on paying back what one owes. He proceeds to focus on what is fitting for a friend, namely to do something good
and nothing bad. Then, following Socrates’s suggestions, Polemarchus
distinguishes friends and enemies (332a) and declares that it is fitting to
do good to friends and harm to enemies (332d). Socrates brings up examples of the doctor and the pilot, asking when they would prove helpful,
getting Polemarchus to agree that a doctor is useless for one who is not
sick and the pilot is useless to one who is not sailing. He then offers the
unacceptable conclusion that the just man is useless in peace. Polemarchus
insists that the just man is also useful in peacetime but cannot initially say
what the just man is useful for. He offers contracts as a possibility, then
more narrowly says contracts involving financial matters—and finally says
the just man is more useful than others in guarding money. Returning to
the previous examples, Socrates gets Polemarchus to agree that the person
who is most clever at preventing disease is also the person most capable of
producing disease, and the same holds in the case of boxers. The result is
that the just man, insofar as he is the best guard, would also be the best
thief, and the just man would come across as a kind of robber. Polemarchus
professes he does not know what he meant when he went down this line
of argument but insists that he still believes that justice is helping friends
and harming enemies (334b). Socrates switches tracks and starts to focus
on the difficulty of correctly or accurately distinguishing friends from enemies. It turns out all human beings make mistakes regarding who their
actual friends and enemies are, for some merely seem to be friends but are
not and similarly with enemies. Instead of defining a friend as someone
who seems to be good, Socrates now defines a friend as someone who
seems to be and is good, and similarly with an enemy. Socrates then asks
whether the just man will ever harm anyone, a question to which
Polemarchus answers emphatically in the affirmative (335b). Socrates then
aims to show that harming a human being, like harming a horse or a dog,
makes it worse, and the just man, insofar as he is just, cannot make another
human being worse by means of justice. A man talented in music cannot
make another man unmusical by means of music, so a just man cannot
make another man unjust by means of justice. Harming someone is the
work of the unjust man, a conclusion Polemarchus concedes. Curiously,
Socrates fails to draw an obvious conclusion from his conversation with
Polemarchus, that the just man will benefit everyone. Instead, he only
draws the more modest conclusion that the just man will not harm anyone: “Then it is not the work of the just man to harm either a friend or
anyone else, Polemarchus, but of his opposite, the unjust man… For it has
become apparent to us that it is never just to harm anyone” (335d–e).31 So
why does “benefit friends and harm enemies” become “harm no one”
rather than “benefit everyone”? In this conversation, Socrates has just said
that benefitting human beings would mean making them better with
respect to human virtue (335c), but to what extent is it possible to improve
all human beings with respect to virtue? Although in the present context,
Socrates equates justice with virtue, elsewhere in the dialogues he famously
equates virtue with knowledge.32 To benefit everyone would then mean to
teach everyone, but, alas, the evidence in the dialogues is that many human
beings cannot be taught. Some lack leisure, some lack the capacity, and,
for some, ethical, political, or religious beliefs prove to be a hindrance.
Indeed, virtue may not be teachable at all.33 Later in the Republic, when
Socrates paints a picture of our education and want of education in his
famous allegory of the cave, the prospects for human improvement seem
bleak.34 If this is correct, Socrates’s refusal to benefit everyone would not
necessarily come from an unwillingness to do so or from hostility to his
If Cleitophon is recounting this speech from the Republic in the Cleitophon, he has incorrectly attributed to Socrates the view that the just man acts for the benefit of all (410b).
Consider Meno 87d and ff., Protagoras 329b and ff.
Protagoras, 319a–b.
Republic, 514a–519b.
fellow human beings; rather, it would come from a recognition of the
impossibility of such a task.
The demand to help all, to benefit all, is an unreasonable hope, given
human limitations. The just man is not beneficent even if he is benevolent.35 One can be well disposed toward all human beings without pursuing the unattainable end of benefitting them all. Socrates may be well
disposed toward all human beings, he certainly harbors no ill will, but that
good will does not give birth to an attempt to benefit all human beings.
Socratic benevolence sometimes means leaving some people alone, doing
others no harm, and in some cases it means minimizing the harm done.
The above inquiry contests the evidence Socrates offers in support of his
purported philanthropy, namely, his willingness to speak profusely with
anyone. We thus have good reason to reconsider his philanthropy. While
Socrates may not have aimed to benefit everyone with whom he came into
contact, and certainly does not seem to have sought out people to benefit,
he appears to have subscribed to the more modest, realistic philanthropic
goal of avoiding harming anyone. The question of Socratic Benevolence is
surely not settled, and there are serious examples worthy of further or
closer examination that might rehabilitate a more robust account of
Socratic benevolence.36 The most serious contender for an example of
Socrates benefitting others with no expectation of benefit is provided by
the Apology of Socrates, where it seems possible that Socrates voluntarily
sacrificed his life for the sake of his friends. A full account of Socratic
benevolence would necessarily have to account for the death of Socrates.
Finally, perhaps the very question has been poorly framed. For the inquiry
aims to view the dialogues principally through a moral lens, searching for
something in Plato’s dialogues that does not exist: a conversation entirely
free of philosophic interest.
As Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978),
says, “Justice is not beneficence. Perhaps Socrates means that there are human beings whom
he cannot benefit: regarding fools only negative justice (abstention from harming them) is
possible; justice consists in helping the wise and in harming no one” (73).
Socrates’s relationship with Alcibiades, for example, deserves greater consideration, as
does his conversation with Euthyphro. There are chapters devoted to each in this volume.
For Alcibiades, see Roslyn Weiss’s “Free to Care”; for Euthyphro, see Wayne Ambler’s
“Plato’s Euthyphro on Divine and Human Wisdom.”
Philanthropy in the Action of the Euthyphro,
Apology of Socrates, and Crito
Michael P. Harding
Wie im Meere lebtest du in der Einsamkeit, und das Meer trug dich. Wehe,
du willst an’s Land steigen? Wehe, du willst deinen Leib wieder selber
Zarathustra antwortete: “Ich liebe die Menschen.”1
When we read Plato’s Socratic writings, we enter into a rich world not
just of philosophical argument but of action, drama, and character. What
we discover is a Socrates who engages with many interlocutors of varying
degrees of capability—from misologists to potential philosophers to (arguably) actual philosophers. Despite the shortcomings of many of his interlocutors, the Platonic Socrates proves to be a figure of patience and
philanthropy: he does not cut off his conversations with such types in
frustration (as many of us might), but instead pursues them doggedly with
an eye not just toward philosophic dialectic and midwifery (for himself or
Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung 6, Band 1, Also sprach
Zarathustra: ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin:
DeGruyter, 1968), 6–7.
M. P. Harding (*)
Montgomery College, Germantown, MD, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_13
for others), but toward the moral improvement of his interlocutors. Even
the most stubborn find themselves caught up in his dialectic. A philanthropic Socrates is easily seen in these conversations. In this chapter,
I show, first, that a very modest philanthropy is the motive animating
Socrates in the Euthyphro and, second, that there is a broader philanthropy
that allows us to make sense of both the curious manner of his defense in
the Apology of Socrates and his choice for death in the Crito.2
To begin with, the Euthyphro is arguably one of the clearest examples of
Socratic philanthropy. Many today read or teach the dialogue with an eye
toward the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma, or certain technical questions
of philosophy, or use it as a springboard for discussions of divine c­ ommand
theory and the like. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such an
approach, but something interesting begins to emerge when the dramatic
details are attended to more carefully. It is useful to approach the dialogue
as though it is not, chiefly, about the theoretical question (raised at 10a)
but rather about the edifying effect Socrates sought to have on those
around him. That this is so becomes evident by attending to some of the
rhetorical and psychological features of the dialogue. Early in the dialogue,
the discussion of piety transforms itself into an attempt to lead Euthyphro
to recognize his own ignorance, and all of the subsequent possible answers
to the Socratic question—what is the eidos of piety (6e)—prove, upon
closer inspection, to be bait designed to appeal very specifically to
Euthyphro. At this point, we remember that Euthyphro’s name can be
taken to mean something like “straight-thought” or “instant mind.”3
Both of these interpretations are humorous: the first because of the circularity of the dialogue, the second because it accurately describes
Euthyphro’s own approach to the discussion. What looks good to him,
unreflectively and at first glance, is what he will agree with.4
The details of the dialogue are known well enough: Euthyphro prosecutes his father for murder on the grounds that he let a murderer die while
awaiting instructions about what do with the murderer. That Euthyphro
undertakes this course of action is shocking to his fellow Athenians and his
All quotations of these three dialogues are taken from the translations presented in
Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, Four Texts on Socrates: Revised Edition (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1998).
On “instant mind,” see Marlo Lewis Jr., “An Interpretation of Plato’s Euthyphro,” in
Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 13.1 (January 1985): 33–66.
On this note, many of his responses seem to emphasize his own subjectivity, especially
starting at 11e.
family. Customarily, one did not prosecute members of one’s own family.
Euthyphro defies custom in doing this, for he thinks the only thing that
matters is whether or not the killer killed with justice.5 Kinship is unimportant. Euthyphro’s family feels differently, however, and they are “indignant” (4d). Further, Euthyphro himself takes the stories about the gods to
be literal truths.6 We can note in passing that Socrates inquires twice about
Euthyphro’s literalism: first at 6a–b, and again from 6b–c. In both cases
Euthyphro gives his assent. This is of some small importance, because this
is the claim that will undermine Euthyphro’s position later. More importantly, this particular detail—the fact that Socrates asks twice—indicates
the manner in which he is looking ahead to the development of the conversation. He gives Euthyphro the opportunity to change his mind,
though Euthyphro does not take it.
Next, we should consider how Euthyphro understands himself. At
3b–c, he claims to be a prophet, though he admits others mock him.7 At
4b, in response to a question from Socrates about his actions, he suggests
that he is far advanced in wisdom. At 4c, we see that Euthyphro is serious
about justice. At 4e–5a, we find that Euthyphro differs from all other
human beings because of his knowledge—note that this is a bit of braggadocio on his part, and it does not answer the question Socrates has
asked. We see the same at 13e, when Euthyphro again responds to a direct
question with a boast instead of an answer. At 5c, Euthyphro describes
how he would behave in Socrates’ position. At 6b and 6c, in response to
Some might suggest that Euthyphro is motivated by anger at his father not for this injustice, but for consulting the exegetes in Athens rather than Euthyphro himself, who is, we
know, a self-proclaimed expert in such things. While such a motive is plausible and possible
for one such as Euthyphro, I do not find a warrant for such a view in the dialogue.
Richard J. Klonoski suggests that Euthyphro’s Homeric fundamentalism is at odds with
the common Athenian view of such matters. See Klonoski, “The Portico of the Archon
Basileus: On the Significance of the Setting of Plato’s ‘Euthyphro,’” in The Classical Journal,
81.2 (December 1985–January 1986): 130–137. Klonoski describes Euthyphro as a “man of
strange, confused and very ancient religious beliefs” (134).
This, incidentally, undermines the claims of readers such as William D. Furley, (“The
Figure of Euthyphro in Plato’s “Dialogue,”” Phronesis 30.2 (1985): 201–208) that
Euthyphro is “a high priest of the conventional dogma” (205), and G. M. A. Grube,
“Euthyphro,” in Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo—Second Edition
(Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), who suggests that Euthyphro is “a professional
priest,” an “expert on ritual and on piety,” and “generally” regarded as being such (Grube,
Five Dialogues, 2, note 1). When experts who are generally regarded as experts speak on their
area of expertise, they are not usually mocked.
questions concerning his literal belief in the gods, Euthyphro claims to
possess uncommon knowledge that is both “wondrous” and “astounding.” At 9b, he admits that it is “no small work” to prove that the gods
agree about his action, but nonetheless he claims that he could display it
quite plainly.
From the foregoing, we can say that Euthyphro flatters himself as being
different from and superior to other people. Nor is he shy about proclaiming himself so, and we can note that whatever faults he possesses, he is
nonetheless quite serious about what he takes justice to be. He also takes
his religious beliefs (whatever they might actually be) quite seriously, and
while he is an innovator of religious things, he nonetheless grounds his
innovations upon the traditional Olympian religion. His heterodoxy is
built upon a foundation of orthodoxy. Lastly, we can note that there seems
to be something good-natured about Euthyphro: this comes through in
the dialogue itself, and in comparison to someone like Adeimantus.8
Nonetheless, his fanatical prosecution of his father, born out of the belief
that he possesses privileged knowledge about the gods, is a cause for concern. How so? Euthyphro is in danger of retaliation from his family, who
may prosecute him if he successfully prosecutes his father; from his fellow
citizens, who may prosecute him for impiety due to his heterodoxy (which,
when turned against his own father becomes less a matter for laughter
than something that ought to be taken seriously); lastly, Euthyphro is in
danger from the gods as he conceives them—the gods both disagree about
moral matters (7a–8b) and, according to Euthyphro, are known to interfere in human affairs (this is the implication of his literalism). The discussion with Euthyphro, then, is not merely theoretical; it concerns, for
Euthyphro, matters of the weightiest practical import, even if Euthyphro
himself does not recognize this. Euthyphro’s actions place him in danger,
because he thinks he knows that which he does not know. Socrates
attempts to turn Euthyphro from this dangerous path by compelling him
to recognize his own ignorance.
Consider Adeimantus’s presentation of the moral implications of Greek piety in Republic
II. When Euthyphro pronounces piety to be an art of commerce with the gods, he does not
realize, as the far more thoughtful Adeimantus does, that this view undermines the need to
be just: it is better to be Tony Soprano and pay the gods to forgive you out of your ill-gotten
largesse. Note also that some have rejected this view of Euthyphro as being good-natured or
mostly harmless—for example, Jonathan Adler and Iakovos Vasiliou, “Inferring Character
from Reasoning: The Example of Euthyphro,” in American Philosophical Quarterly 45.1
(January 2008): 43–56. They describe him as “conceited, rigid, brittle, self-righteous, and
defensive” (45), which seems a little harsh.
Socrates asks Euthyphro for the eidos of piety. Euthyphro’s first answer
is formally defective, amounting as it does to the claim that “piety is what
I’m doing now,” that is, prosecuting those who do wrong—though upon
reflection Euthyphro implies that piety is imitation of the gods. Euthyphro’s
second response is the claim that piety is what is dear to the gods. Because
of his belief in the literal truth of the old stories about the gods, however,
he is forced to admit that they disagree about moral matters. Faced with
this difficulty, Euthyphro claims that all the gods would agree that what he
does is pious, though he is incapable of actually establishing it. For the
sake of the argument, Socrates grants that this is the case and offers a correction to Euthyphro’s now-refuted claim about piety: it is what all the
gods love, and impiety is what all the gods hate (9e). Socrates asks
Euthyphro if this is “said nobly,” and Euthyphro, unreflectingly, supposes
that it is, though it should still be considered. The difficulty is that this
modification of the first formally correct account does not establish what
piety or the pious are. Socrates raises the famous question immediately
thereafter (10a).
We can bypass that famous question, however, and focus instead on
Euthyphro’s response, at 11b, to Socrates asking once again what the
pious and the impious are. He laments that he cannot tell Socrates what
he has in mind—Euthyphro still thinks he knows, but he cannot effectively
communicate it to Socrates. In response, Socrates jokingly compares
Euthyphro to Daedalus. Euthyphro in turn (11c–d) blames Socrates for
the difficulty: it is Socrates’ fault the argument goes around and does not
stay in the same place. At 11e, Socrates suggests that he himself will “take
an eager part” in the discussion. How does he do so? He makes a suggestion about piety that serves as a fishhook—both because it seems calculated to appeal to Euthyphro’s own moral concern with justice and because
it flatters Euthyphro’s pretensions. Euthyphro, frustrated and having just
accused Socrates of being the Daedalus here, is now drawn back into the
conversation through a combination of flattery (Socrates is still his student) and bait, that is, a possible account of piety that appeals to
Euthyphro’s twin concerns for the gods and for justice. If Socrates had
ever entertained the possibility that Euthyphro actually knew what the
pious and the impious are, he has surely been disabused of it.9
Obviously it is doubtful whether he ever held to that notion; his earlier discussions of how
he will learn from Euthyphro in order to defend himself in court strike me as possessing a
tone of gentle and mocking irony mixed with some degree of affection. One also cannot help
Piety, Socrates suggests, is a kind of justice; Euthyphro agrees that
Socrates appears to speak correctly. When asked to clarify the relationship,
Euthyphro says that piety is the part of the just that concerns tending
(therapeia) to the gods, while the rest of justice involves tending to human
beings. In what follows, Socrates asks a series of leading questions, beginning with horsemanship: not everyone possesses the skill of tending horses
but only the one skilled with horses (13a).10 Socrates then asks whether all
the tendances he has named aim at improving the things over which they
are set. Euthyphro readily agrees to this, because (as we saw previously
with the refutation of his first formally correct definition) he does not
think past his initial impression of things. The attentive reader has already
discerned the offensive claim implicit in the view that piety tends to gods
as horsemanship tends to horses. Euthyphro does not see this, and
Socrates, from 13b–13c, has to lead him by the nose to see how his own
premises give rise to a conclusion that he rejects. This is different from the
earlier refutation of the view that piety is what is loved by the gods, however: there, Euthyphro could plausibly modify his view (with the addition
of “all”) and attempt to salvage it. Here, however, he recognizes that what
initially seemed to him to be a plausible understanding of piety actually
turns out to be quite blasphemous—on this account, men stand to gods as
they do to the animals they tend.11 In forcing the pious yet heterodox
Euthyphro to confront the blasphemous implications of his own view,
Socrates more effectively allows Euthyphro to recognize his own ignorance and thereby lays the groundwork for what Diogenes Laertius suggests is the ultimate effect of the conversation.12 That Euthyphro is shaken
but wonder: given the shocking nature of Euthyphro’s intention to indict his father, has
Socrates already heard of it through the Athenian gossip mills?
Marlo Lewis Jr. notes that when Socrates gets to his discussion of piety as care (therapeia), the examples he gives all follow a certain structure: hippikei is the care of the hippoi
(horses); kunegetike is the care of the kunes (dogs); boelatike or herdsmanship is the care of
boes or cattle. Euthyphro agrees to all of this. Marlo Lewis Jr. notes that on this basis, if there
were a care of the gods, it would be theotikes, or “godsmanship”—as nonexistent in English
as in Greek (Lewis, “An Interpretation,” 52–53).
Marlo Lewis Jr., “An Interpretation,” suggests that this shows, when we consider traditional Greek ideas about the gods, that “piety… is the art of taming and controlling the gods
for our benefit. Its modern counterpart is the conquest and domestication of nature by
means of scientific technology;” further, piety is not a virtue if the gods are not benefactors,
and Socrates, per Lewis, implicitly has argued that they are not (pp. 54–55).
Cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Books 1–5. Translated by R. D.
Hicks (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1925), II.28.
by the implications of his just-enunciated view is indicated by the strength
with which he voices his rejection of these implications at 13c: “By Zeus,
not I!”
This rejection leads to a new consideration of piety as therapeia to the
gods; this time understood as skilled service. This account of piety has the
advantage of allowing Euthyphro to preen as though he possesses a special
skill, and on the face of it, it lacks the blasphemies implied by the previous
understanding of piety as therapeia. When Socrates asks what the work
pursued by this skilled service to the gods actually is, however, Euthyphro
does not answer—instead he boasts that his assertion is true. He has been
drawn back into the conversation once again; his self-image has been flattered and he is confident that he is correct. Euthyphro eventually adopts
an evasive formulation: the gods achieve “many noble things” with us as
their servants (13e). From here, Socrates draws from Euthyphro the view
that piety is an art of trading with the gods and that we give them what is
dear—piety, then, is what is dear to the gods (15b).13
The crucial point is that the narrative of the dialogue suggests that the
chief concern motivating Socrates is not a theoretical question about piety
so much as Euthyphro’s own well-being, and while Plato denies us a dramatic resolution (his Euthyphro merely runs off), Diogenes Laertius tells
us that when Euthyphro indicted his father, “Socrates, after some conversation about piety, diverted him from his purpose.”14 If Socrates was
already aware of Euthyphro’s intention when they met at the porch of the
archon basileus, then his own nonchalant willingness to engage in a conversation with Euthyphro, while having his own urgent business to which
to attend, appears justified. If he sincerely wanted to learn from Euthyphro
the truth about piety, his decision to stop and speak with Euthyphro also
makes perfect sense: surely someone would not pursue the course of action
Euthyphro is pursuing unless they possessed knowledge. Nevertheless, it
becomes clear in relatively short order that Euthyphro lacks the ­knowledge
he claims to possess and, further, lacks knowledge of his own lack of
knowledge. When the dramatic action of the dialogue is considered, we
can see that Plato’s Socrates is engaged in the kind of philanthropy that we
more easily associate with the Xenophontic Socrates. Recognizing the
As mentioned above, the “mostly harmless” Euthyphro does not recognize the implications of the view of piety as commerce. For a radical statement of what this understanding
really implies, see Republic 363a–366a; also see note 7 above.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers II.29.
danger Euthyphro presents to himself, Socrates tries to cure him of his
religious enthusiasm. In doing so, he benefits Euthyphro himself insofar as
if Euthyphro’s beliefs, as he has stated them, are true, he will surely attract
the anger of at least some of the gods. If his beliefs are erroneous, since
they nonetheless lead him to a course of action that is controversial, he
runs the risk of retaliation from his city and family.
Euthyphro, as the dialogue makes clear, does not know the truth about
the gods. In this ignorance he is like Socrates. But in thinking that he does
know the truth about the gods, he embarks on a course of action that is in
no way good for him. Socrates gently leads Euthyphro toward knowledge
of his own ignorance and in doing so, prevents Euthyphro from embarking on a course of action that is both destructive of himself and of his
family. In the Euthyphro we see not the world-historical, legislating Platonic
political philosopher occasionally glimpsed by Nietzsche but a humbler
and more decent Socrates who is motivated by a philanthropic concern for
the good of this particular individual, Euthyphro.
Having established the modest philanthropy at work in the Euthyphro,
I want to suggest that philanthropy is also the principle motive for the
somewhat bizarre defense speech given in the Apology of Socrates and even
his choice to die in the Crito. In this case, however, it is not a philanthropy
aimed at one specific person, but rather at three different classes of people:
the non-philosophic many, the smaller subset of potential philosophers,
and, lastly, the actual philosophers of the future (i.e., those potential philosophers who become actual philosophers). Socratic philanthropy has a
larger scope than initially might seem to be the case. He is interested in
preserving both the conditions for the possibility of vulgar or civic virtue
among the Athenians and the conditions for the possibility of philosophy.15 To accomplish this goal, however, he must compel the Athenians to
kill him.
Against the view that the emergence of the philosopher depends on external circumstances, one might object that the philosopher is a natural type not dependent upon antecedent conditions, appealing to accounts found in the Republic. There are of course difficulties
with such an appeal (on the difficulties with these accounts, see Roslyn Weiss, Philosophers in
the Republic: Plato’s Two Paradigms. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). More importantly, though, even if the philosopher is a natural type, there is no guarantee that this natural
type will “become what it is.” The parallels offered in the Republic between the soul of the
philosopher and that of the tyrant serve to illustrate this rather well (recall the last lines of
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester
smell far worse than weeds”). Such a nature emerges by chance, but as the image of the cave
The first indication that Socrates is interested in something other than
a simple defense comes from the character of the defense speech itself in
the Apology. Not only is it rife with insults and provocations, he begins by
reminding the jury of certain other things he’s been publicly accused of:
investigating the things in the heavens and below the earth, making the
weaker speech the stronger, and teaching for pay. The reference is of
course to Aristophanes’ Clouds. We know that Socrates is guilty of the first
charge in two ways: first, he explicitly admits it in the Phaedo. Second, the
tale of Chaerephon at the Oracle subtly admits it as well.16
How so? The tale is meant to explain the Socratic turn to political and
moral questions, that is, the human things. But Chaerephon does not ask,
“who is the wisest?” Instead, he asks if anyone is wiser than Socrates. At
least to Chaerephon, Socrates is already reputed wise. If it is not wisdom
about the moral and political things—that is, the human things, the
inquiry into which is the result of the oracular revelation—it must be
about the non-human things (i.e., gods or nature). The pre-Delphic
Socrates has been engaged in the very thing he was accused of in the
Clouds.17 By the end of the discussion of the first accusers, the attentive
reader sees that Socrates is guilty of investigating the things aloft and
below the earth and has subtly admitted such. We might ask ourselves if
the subtlety of that admission is a case of making the weaker speech the
emphasizes, there are powerful obstacles, both political and natural, to even the best nature
making a turn toward philosophy. There is a reason that Socrates lives all his life in Athens
rather than in a city such as Sparta. The philosophic life may not be truly possible in such a
city. The notoriously ugly Socrates would likely have been put to death, and the “uselessness” (cf. Thomas G. West, Plato’s Apology of Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1979), 210) of Socratic activity would not have been long tolerated among the austere
Spartans (cf. Hippias Major 283b–286b, where it becomes apparent that the only learning
the Spartans are interested in receiving from Hippias concerns the genealogies of heroes).
The entire discussion of the Oracle is fraught with difficulties. The dead Chaerephon is
said to have gone to the Oracle to ask if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Oracle says no
one is wiser. Socrates’ use of the oracle through the Apology is quite interesting, as the significance and meaning of it continually changes. Consider the manner in which his usage of it
varies (cf. 21a–23c); Socrates transforms his doubt about the oracular claim into pious service under a divine command.
Consider also Apology 26d, which is practically an admission of having read the works of
Anaxagoras; consider the account of his own intellectual development in the Phaedo as well
(especially 98b–e). See also Xenophon, Memorabilia (trans. Amy L. Bonnette. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1994), IV.7.5–7, in which Socrates rejects the studies of the physiologoi on the ground that they could (a) occupy an entire human life and (b) prevent one
from pursuing many things beneficial to a human being.
stronger. As for pay, he frequently appeals to his extreme poverty. Socrates
begins, then, with a speech in which he invokes old accusations and subtly
admits his guilt in regard to at least one of them.
His response to Meletus, too, is fraught with difficulties. They do not
require substantive discussion here, except to note that Socrates’ two
responses to the corruption charge are unconvincing, and his response to
the charge of impiety is simply irrelevant to the charges against him. Some
readers have suggested that the weakness of his response to Meletus indicates his guilt in this regard as well.18 This is certainly the case from the
point of view of the city: he does not believe in the gods of the city,19 and
by teaching that knowledge ought to replace received and authoritative
opinion, Socrates corrupts the young. Legally or formally speaking, he is
For example, Thomas G. West, “Introduction,” (in Four Texts) 19, and Thomas G. West
Plato’s Apology of Socrates, especially 147–150. Socrates is guilty from the point of view of the
city, but as West points out, this is not just grounded in the inadequacy of his speech hitherto: “Socrates seems to go out of his way to boast about himself and to antagonize the
jury… Socrates was voted guilty as charged—but for the wrong reasons. It was the judges’
envy, not their understanding of Socrates’ corruption of the young and impiety, which
caused them to convict him. This fact, however, does not absolve Socrates from his injustice.
Indeed, Socrates must accept responsibility for his judges’ indulgence in envy, since they
behave as they do as a direct consequence of his deliberately provocative (because truthful)
speech” (West, Plato’s Apology of Socrates, 149).
Cf. Euthyphro 6a.
Cf. West, “Introduction,” in Four Texts, 19–21. Though outside the scope of the Apology
itself, the Republic presents a Socrates who reforms Olympian theology to prepare the way
for acceptance of the forms and who jettisons even that reformed theology once the forms
are introduced, introducing, in effect, new gods into the city. We know that Socrates does
not know the truth about the gods—he admits as much at Euthyphro 6a. Are we entitled to
say that he knows the truth about the forms? It is difficult to say, and the forms are a notoriously difficult teaching (cf. Leo Strauss, The City and Man. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978, 119). Given that the Republic’s central discussion of the forms is part of the
“short road” rather than the longer, perhaps it does not matter—Socrates himself has already
admitted the inadequacy of the account. If he does not know the truth about the gods or the
forms, why would he offer them as a replacement for the gods? Perhaps he does know the
forms, or at least know them better. Alternatively, one might offer a theological teaching (or
in this case, a metaphysical teaching) which supported a superior moral teaching regardless
of whether one believed it to be true or not. One need not be a believer in any gods to introduce new gods into the city. The doctrine of the forms seems to be intended as a replacement
for the gods. Of course, Aristophanes has made the next relevant question clear to us: if the
forms are meant to be replacements for the gods, are they adequate? Or is it the case that
Socrates, in presenting the forms in the Republic, does much the same thing as the
Aristophanic Socrates, who replaces the conventional piety of Strepsiades with the belief in
The ultimate goal of the first two speeches in the Apology seems to be a
guilty verdict followed by execution. Socrates chooses to be put to death.
The natural question is: why does he make this choice? What does he hope
to achieve? Xenophon’s Socrates raises the possibility that he may be ending his life when only “difficult things are expected” for his future.21
Plato’s Socrates might be said to make a similar suggestion at the end of
the Apology, when he castigates the Athenians, who “for the sake of a little
time” (38c) have put him to death, when such a thing would have occurred
naturally if only they had been patient. But is that all there is?
In the Crito, as Socrates calmly awaits the time of his execution, Crito
describes the trial and the events that led to it as farcical, noting that he is
ashamed for both Socrates and his companions, because “the whole
affair… will seem to have been conducted with a certain lack of manliness
on our part: the way the lawsuit was introduced into the law court, even
though it was possible for it not to be introduced; the way the judicial
contest itself took place; and now this, the ridiculous conclusion of the
affair” (45e). Crito’s comments provide a lens through which to consider
the entirety of the affair: if the introduction of the suit could have been
avoided, then in some sense Socrates can be said to have chosen, through
either action or inaction, to have it introduced.
The recognition that Socrates is himself somehow responsible for the
trial, not just through his activity as a philosopher, but through his specific
choices in response to the indictment, allows us to begin to make sense of
the clouds (who are clearly intended to lampoon the doctrine of the forms)? At the very least,
Adeimantus, in the Republic, highlights for us the challenge that Greek piety presents to any
teaching on justice or moral virtue, because he highlights the fact that the Greek gods can be
bribed—just as Cephalus had suggested in much less blunt language in Republic I, and just
as Euthyphro had claimed toward the end of the Euthyphro. Thus, the gods are a way of
covering over the truth: Socrates may have told his acquitters that they ought to believe that
the gods in no way harm a good man, but Adeimantus’ account of the poets suggests that
not only might the gods harm a good man, they might refrain from harming a bad man who
does them some benefaction. The gods, like the ring of Gyges’ ancestor, serve to obscure
moral reality.
Xenophon, Apology of Socrates (trans. Andrew Patch. In The Shorter Socratic Writings,
ed. Robert C. Bartlett. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), §27. Socrates tells
Hermogenes, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, that his daimon resisted him when he attempted
to think through a defense (IV.8.5). A few lines later, Socrates invokes the burdens of old
age—failing eyesight, declining wit, slowness in learning, and ease in forgetting; even if one
were unaware of such decline, he says, life would be burdensome; for one who recognized
such decline, it would be even worse (IV.8.8).
some of the more bizarre features of the Apology. Socrates begins his
defense with an attack on his accusers and a comment to the effect that he
will not defend himself as a young man would (i.e., someone with an
entire life ahead of him). In what follows, Socrates reminds the jury of
other things of which he’s been accused. He justifies his activity on the
basis of the Oracle at Delphi while also continually modifying the significance of it. He makes a series of, at best, problematic arguments with
Meletus—arguments that ultimately do not seem to establish anything
about his own guilt or innocence. At the same time, he makes a series of
puns based on the similarity between the name Meletus and melete, or
care.22 He compares himself to the superhuman and daimonic Achilles as
well as the parasitical gadfly.23 He criticizes the custom of begging for
mercy on the grounds that it is ignoble and unmanly, knowing full well
that many on the jury have likely done just that in court. Lastly, he says
that those who do such things are really guilty of impiety and corruption.24 Is it any wonder they find him guilty?
But there is a difficulty. It may be harder to find a majority in favor of
execution than it is to find a majority in favor of condemnation. The jury
must be provoked yet further.25 We can also note that when Meletus
Cf. Apology 24b. See also West & West, Four Texts, 73, note 39; West, Plato’s
Apology of Socrates, 134–150; David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato’s Apology
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 129.
One might note in passing that flies in the family Oestridae, of which the gadfly is one,
in their larval stages are all parasites internal to mammals (i.e., the horse, or Athens). If
Socrates is aware of the life cycle of the gadfly, then Socrates, in choosing this particular and
unflattering comparison also suggests (contra Aristophanes) that he is aware of his own
dependence upon the city.
We might also consider his proofs of his own justice—the trial of the ship’s captains and
the execution of Leon of Salamis. West notes that both of these examples indicate that
Socrates is “politically useless” (Plato’s Apology of Socrates, 210); see also Republic 487b1–d5.
Cicero, in On Duties, ed. M. T Griffin and E. M Atkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991), describes this approach to justice as really being a kind of injustice, finding the
Platonic account to be insufficient: “They observe one kind of justice, indeed, that they
should harm no one else by inflicting injury, but they fall into another; for hindered by their
devotion to learning, they abandon those whom they ought to protect” (On Duties, I.28).
See West, Plato’s Apology of Socrates, 208–209: Socrates says that the outcome of the vote
is ouk anelpiston (36a2): “not unexpected” or “not unhoped for.” He is surprised at the
closeness of the vote: “his speech turned out to be more persuasive than he expected… The
typical juryman is perhaps more tolerant of the philosopher than he ought to be. If the city
were healthier, it would have reacted more vigorously against the one attacking its ancestral
manner of life” (West, Plato’s Apology, 209). The success of this provocation is indicated by
demands death, he may be sincere, or, now that Meletus has a politically
useful victory, it may be an attempt to give Socrates a way out by proposing something like a fine.26 So what does Socrates do? He provokes the
jury. He begins with a list of things about which he does not care at all—all
of them concern the things of the city, the family, or the body. He reminds
them that he looks down on things for which they care. He criticizes
Athenian law for deciding capital punishment cases in one day instead of
over many days, as other human beings do (and surely some in the jury are
reminded of the Spartans, who had a law specifically requiring longer trials
in death penalty cases).27 In making his counterproposal, he proposes that
he get what he deserves as a benefactor of the city, but such an argument
will obviously not be persuasive to the slim majority who found him guilty.
If they will not reward him, he will accept death: the other possible punishments are all known to be bad, but death might be either good or bad.
The entirety of the second speech, too, seems intended to incite. Taking
the first and second speeches of the Apology together, we are forced to
conclude that Socrates is deliberately provocative in the first speech, and
(perhaps given the slim margin of the guilty vote) yet more so in the second. The outcome he pursues is death at the hands of the city rather than
legal vindication. The trial and death of Socrates is not a judicial murder,
but a “disguised and well disguised” suicide: “the victim wanted to die”
and toward that end “he employed the hand of human injustice to drive
the sword into his own breast.”28
Why did he want to die? What are the benefits of execution? These
questions are simple enough: if Socrates does truly seek to be liberated
from the burdens of old age, this allows him to do so in a way that is perhaps more dignified and ultimately more useful. The most important
thing it accomplishes is the apparent reconciliation, in deed, of philosophy
to the city, after Socrates has given speeches aimed at criticizing the
­common opinions. The execution of Socrates displays, with a visceral illustration that no mere argument could supply, that the philosopher and the
good citizen are not incompatible. The Socratic philosopher questions all
Diogenes Laertius, who says 80 more jurymen voted for execution than had voted for a
guilty verdict (cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, II.42).
It probably is sincere, given the degree of animosity that presumably underlies his inability to resist calling Socrates an atheist.
See West and West, Four Texts, 91, note 68.
Nietzsche, Human All Too Human, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), II
(Assorted Opinions), §94.
those opinions which the citizen holds as final, and does so relentlessly and
intransigently, but in the end, gives complete devotion to the laws of the
city. In the Crito, Socrates refuses to escape on the grounds that the speech
of the nomoi is booming in his ears. There is more to be said on this score,
and it is ultimately this that proves the key to recognizing why the Platonic
Socrates chooses to die.29
The procedure Socrates employs in the Crito aims, in part, at reconciling Crito to Socrates’ own death; we can note in passing that this care for
Crito, like the care exhibited toward Euthyphro, is yet another example of
modest Socratic philanthropy toward an individual. With prodding from
Socrates, Crito voices his agreement that opinions are not all equally valid
and that one obeys the expert, in the area of that expertise, precisely
because of that expertise. This is not all that important for our purposes.
It is the second principle they discuss that is significant for the current
argument. Socrates argues (48a) that one should avoid doing injustice,
because whatever it is that is preserved by acting justly would be damaged
by acting unjustly.30 The third point of agreement is that “no human being
should do injustice in return or do evil, whatever he suffers from others”
(49c); those who disagree will necessarily “have contempt for each other”
and for whatever “counsels” might be offered by the others (49d). It is
really the second principle, that regarding justice, which is most important
for the suggestion that follows.
In reconciling Crito to his trial and eventual execution, Socrates presents the speech of the nomoi—what the Laws would say, if the Laws could
stand before them and speak. This entire discussion is rich with material
upon which to reflect, but for our purposes, it suffices to note that the
Laws present themselves as being the ground of human life—“[n]ever was
­natural place more outrageously usurped by convention.”31 They claim
parental and educative responsibility for the citizens, usurping the place of
the biological parents, and their commands are authoritative simply
This extremely brief discussion of the Crito is heavily indebted to the discussion found
in West, “Introduction,” Four Texts, 24–28, and Strauss, “On Plato’s Apology of Socrates and
Crito” (in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
We can note that while the reader might infer that this is the soul, Socrates does not use
the word “soul” in this dialogue. On the importance of this, see West, “Introduction,” Four
Texts, 27.
Joseph Cropsey, Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1995), 171.
because they issue them. They are like the gods, if the answer to the question of the Euthyphro is that piety or goodness depends wholly on the will
of the gods, that is, the nomoi in their self-presentation deny the existence
of a pre-legal or extra-legal order upon which their own legitimacy and
authority would be grounded.32 Why is this? In part, it has something to
do with the fact that men like Socrates are rare and men like Euthyphro
are rather more common. Laws that admit of their own contingency cannot command respect as strongly as laws that deny the existence of a standard beyond themselves or laws that claim the divine mandate of a god or
gods.33 The law has to claim divinity and antiquity even if lacking them,
because there is a need for human beings to believe that the way they have
ordered their lives is somehow meaningful. When people realize the contingency of their customs, habits, and mores, they will not necessarily continue to abide by them (again, we can see why Socrates was considered to
have a corrupting influence).34
Starting around 51d, the Laws begin a new line of argument, claiming
that, since one might depart the city at any time, the decision to live under
and obey them entails tacit consent to their authority. By the end of their
This theme—the relation between a possible natural standard and the claims of authority—emerges in the narratively prior two dialogues as well: in the Euthyphro, the question is
whether or not there is a quality (piety) independent of the authority of the gods; in the
Apology, whether there is a standard of justice independent of the nomoi of the Athenians.
The death of Socrates shows a philosopher willing to submit to the demands of such a possible standard rather than the deficient standard of the city. Socrates chooses natural right
over conventional right, and that puts him at odds with the community. Yet he also chooses
something not unlike loyalty to the laws of Athens.
Hence the philosophic Numa Pompilius in Plutarch nevertheless announces his new
legislation by claiming to have developed it in consultation with a nymph (cf. Machiavelli,
Discourses on Livy I.11.1). Recall also Federalist Papers No. 49: even the “most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on
its side.”
Recall Nietzsche’s analysis of the need for all life to be bounded by horizons in The Use
and Disadvantage of History for Life. There, the problem proves to be a horizon grounded
in modern science and philosophy that is destructive of all horizons. The parallel between
Nietzsche and Socrates is perhaps obvious: both pursue their projects during periods of crisis.
Socrates lives in a time when the burgeoning pre-Socratic enlightenment is undermining the
previous answers to moral and political questions (i.e., it is destroying the older Greek horizon by undermining, intentionally or not, the possibility of belief in the gods), and Nietzsche
is writing during a time in which modern philosophy and science have brought about the
“death of God”—an undermining of the older answers to moral, political, and metaphysical
speech, the Laws turn to Socrates’ own self-interest: if he has to go to
“one of the nearest cities” with “good laws,” he “will come as an enemy”
and soon find himself in the same position (53b). Alternatively, he could
decamp for someplace more distant, like Thessaly, where there “is very
much disorder and lack of restraint,” and Socrates “will hear many things
unworthy” of him (53d–e). In a well-governed city nearby, Socrates would
soon be back in this position, and in a poorly governed city far away the
way of life would likely be incompatible with Socratic philosophizing, and
burdensome for a man of his age.35
Socrates claims that the booming echo of these speeches has the effect
of drowning out all other possible arguments, such that further conversation is in vain (54d). Why does he submit to them, then? Because of his
philanthropic concern with justice and in particular with justice toward
the innocent. Benjamin Franklin, I think, presents one aspect of the philanthropic concern behind Socrates’ decision quite well. In response to the
author of an attack on particular providence, Franklin wrote:
You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance
afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of
virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution
sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great
a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of
inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the
motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and
retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great
point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is,
to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now
justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our
most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the
Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should
prove his manhood by beating his mother.
There is of course a third option: a well-governed city far away, that is, Crete. Some take
Aristotle as identifying the Athenian stranger in the Laws as being Socrates: see Aristotle,
Politics, 1265a12; also Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1989), 31–33. Practically speaking, it does not matter if Socrates escaped: even if he
did, it was necessary for the preservation of philosophy that Plato’s poetic art present him as
I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to
burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save
yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you,
and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with
religion, what would they be if without it.36
As Franklin points out in this letter, not all men can live by reason
alone, that is, not all men can discover the requirements of virtue through
unaided reason. It would be unjust for Socrates to disobey the laws because
in doing so he would be subverting them, and that in turn would be morally harmful to the Athenians, who may rely on the legal regime for their
own instruction in (vulgar or civic) virtue—if not all of them, at least some
of them, and perhaps even most of them.37 In submitting himself to execution by the city of Athens, Socrates shows through the way he ends his life
that he did not subvert the laws of Athens but in fact remained ever-­
faithful to them. He makes the claim, through his own death, that even
though the city and philosophy are in conflict, even though the philosopher chooses natural right (i.e., the right ordering of the soul) over conventional right, the city and the philosopher can coexist. In choosing to
defend himself the way he did, Socrates showed that he was a man willing
to die for a way of life opposed by the city, a way of life grounded in obedience to the possibility of a standard above the nomoi. In choosing deliberately to stay and die, he also shows that the philosopher can be a law-abiding
The problematic of philosophy and the city in the time of Plato’s
Socrates is both a permanent problem, due to the necessary antagonism
between philosophy and opinion, and a special problem, due to the precariousness of philosophy at its origins, before it has become sheltered (or
Date and recipient uncertain; The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, ed.
William Temple Franklin (London: AJ Valey, 1817), Volume I, 279–281.
We might usefully recall that in the last speech of the Apology, Socrates charges those
who voted to condemn him with the responsibility for the virtue of his children (41e),
thereby suggesting that even though there are fundamental confusions in the mind of the
moral man, there is nevertheless something laudatory or desirable about civic or political
virtue and that a political education may be better for the young than a philosophical education. Those contradictions or confusions might even usefully be left in place rather than
thoroughly debunked, both because of the impossibility of rendering a multitude philosophic and as puzzles by which the nascent philosopher might be entranced and seduced.
Thus, the survival of philosophy might require moderating the prejudices of the multitude
rather than thoroughly correcting them (if such were even possible).
blurred) in the respectability of tradition. We see in Plato’s writings philosophy not far removed from its pre-Socratic origins, and we see philosophy as concerned with the human things at its origins. What this means is
that philosophy itself is not yet established: there is no so-called tradition
of philosophy such as the one that we take for granted today. Philosophy
in the Socratic mold is new, it is zetetic, and it is endangered, as the prosecution of Socrates shows.38 Despite the responsibility of Socrates for
allowing the trial to occur (cf. Crito 45e), the danger to philosophy is real.
Socrates took advantage of that danger in order to present a justification
of his new way of life, because it is not, from the point of view of the city,
self-evidently good. Socrates (or Plato’s Socrates) must transform the city,
rendering it hospitable to philosophy. We may note that the city was
already somewhat hospitable to philosophy insofar as it was democratic: of
the regimes discussed in Republic VIII, it is only the democracy that is not
simply hostile to philosophy (we can also note that Socrates avoided prosecution until the age of 70, and could have avoided it altogether if he so
chose). All the other regimes described in Republic VIII promote a part of
virtue at the expense of true or complete virtue. But the indifference of
the democracy to virtue makes it the one regime in which complete virtue
or philosophic virtue is possible. Nevertheless, it is not hospitable simply,
and it is questionable if any regime ever could be.39 But the city can be
made more hospitable to philosophy.
How can such a goal be accomplished? If one dismantles the laws and
traditions of the city—if one debunks them—some, at least, who ought
not to be harmed will be harmed. Plato’s Socrates recognizes that the
Consider West, Plato’s Apology of Socrates: “The fact that Meletus cannot distinguish
Socrates from the philosopher Anaxagoras supports Socrates’ view that he is being persecuted as philosopher (26d). By putting Socrates on trial, the accusers have attacked philosophy” (157).
Not just any actual regimes either—even the kallipolis is problematic; as Socrates points
out, at Republic 413c, in the best case even the rulers will be persuaded by the noble lie, and
a regime in which philosophers are forced to rule is not a regime that is simply hospitable to
philosophy. Recall also that Socrates called the city of pigs the “true city” (Republic
369b–372e), and as remarked above, with the exception of the democracy, the regimes
described in Republic VIII all prove to be hostile to complete virtue in one or another sense,
while democracy is merely indifferent to it, and therefore open to the possibility of philosophy. Christopher Bruell, On the Socratic Education: an Introduction to the Shorter Dialogues
(Rowman & Littlfield: Lanham, MD, 1999) notes that Athens is a political community
“which recognized a right or obligation to determine the beliefs” of her citizens, “but carried
out the task badly” (Bruell, Socratic Education, 155).
philosopher, while superior to the city, nevertheless depends on the city
and must, for the sake of his own activity, be cognizant of the effect of
philosophy upon the city. Insofar as blindness to this is the true accusation leveled by Aristophanes in the Clouds, the Euthyphro-Apology-Crito
sequence of dialogues seems to offer a defense. Socrates, in the course of
these three dialogues, comes to light as concerned with moderating
Euthyphro’s pious cruelty, with defending the life of inquiry as distinctively human before the city, and lastly, as being concerned not only with
the survival of philosophy and the moral health of his companions but the
moral health of the city as a whole. We see both a modest philanthropic
concern with his friends and a higher philosophic concern with philosophy itself.
It is for this reason that Socrates must allow, or more accurately, compel, the city to put him to death, or alternatively that Plato’s writings
(propaganda on behalf of philosophy, albeit not merely so) must present
him as being put to death. If he flees, he harms the city of Athens by
undermining its laws. While some may be able to determine for themselves what is right or moral, many cannot—subversion of those laws
harms those innocents who depend upon the laws for guidance.40
Additionally, by fleeing, he teaches through his actions that the Athenians
are right to distrust philosophers and does an injustice to the philosophers
of the future. But by staying, and submitting to execution (albeit an execution that he has deliberately pursued), he shows the Athenians that
being a philosopher is not, as at least some among them suspected, incompatible with the demands of good citizenship. Socrates qua philosopher
can question all that is claimed on behalf of the city, and Socrates qua citizen shows himself nevertheless wholly devoted to the city (we may recall
in this regard that the only times he is reported to have left Athens was as
a soldier in the Peloponnesian War). Future philosophers and nascent philosophers will perhaps be under less suspicion than Socrates. Lastly, it is in
Athens herself that Socrates received the upbringing, the education, and
the permissive democratic regime that allowed him to become what he is.
By preserving the laws he preserves the conditions which allowed Socrates,
son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete, to become what he is—Socrates the
philosopher, the world-historical Socrates of Plato and Xenophon.
As Bruell points out (Socratic Education, 220), Socrates introduces the speech of the
nomoi with the phrase “hoi nómoi kai to koinòn”—the laws and the many.
In summary, the philanthropic Socrates defends the life of reason
against the claims of the political community, while gently trying to
reform, or at least moderate, its suspicion toward philosophy. In doing so,
he defends not just Athens, but political community as such, against the
potentially corrosive effects of philosophically intransigent reason. This
sets in motion the improvement of the community through (a) the preservation of law, (b) the apparent reconciliation of philosophy and law; it
also sets in motion the preservation of philosophy through (c) the preservation of the conditions that allowed him to become what he is (for the
Laws are not wholly wrong in their account of what he owes to them) and
(d) the transformation of Athens into a city slightly more hospitable to
philosophy. How does Socrates do this? He preserves the laws through his
obedience to them. Even though the soul is of higher dignity than the
body, and philosophic virtue is of higher dignity than merely civic virtue,
Socrates nevertheless willingly gives his life at the command of these laws.
In doing so, he shows that Socrates, reputed for “a certain wisdom” (20d),
submits to the laws of Athens, and (as the Phaedo shows) he dies with
dignity and grace. Additionally, he is aware that he has some reputation
among human beings (34e) and that abandoning his ostensibly divinely
mandated station would be “shameful” (28d). Even the Laws recognized
something high in Socrates when they characterized the discourse in
Thessaly as “unworthy” of him (53e). Socrates shows final obedience to
the laws, then, in giving up his body to be executed, but he shows fealty
to philosophy by continuing to philosophize as he awaits his execution.
The external presentation of this would simply be that Socrates, the gadfly
of Athens, reputed for his wisdom and prosecuted for his philosophy, nevertheless gave his life at the command of Athens. Through deed, Socrates
shows himself a loyal son of Athens, even though his pursuit of knowledge
puts him in opposition to the authoritative opinions of the city. He maintains the authority of the laws rather than subverting them. In doing so,
he also achieves what might be called a partial or incomplete reconciliation
of philosophy to the city. The laws maintain their authority in the face of
Socratic skepticism, and Socrates, through his obedience, shows viscerally
that the philosopher can question the laws and the opinions of the city
while nevertheless remaining loyal to the city. This is not a complete
­reconciliation, for such a reconciliation is simply not possible.41 But he
Even the modern project of tolerance cannot fully secure philosophy, because communities will always be grounded on what can be shared by the many—opinions—rather than the
truth that can only be known (if at all) by the few. The desire to hound the heterodox is a
permanent feature of political life: it can be moderated, but not eliminated.
does display, in action, that the philosopher can still be a good citizen, at
least of a certain kind of regime. Additionally, we recognize that the claims
of the Laws to paternity and authority in the city, while exaggerated, possess a great deal of truth nonetheless—those laws concerning “the nurture
and education” of Socrates are noble (50d–e). Socrates is a singular figure,
to be sure. And philosophy is the highest human activity. Nevertheless,
there may be more than a mere accident of birth that leads a Socrates to
emerge in Athens rather than elsewhere.42 The natural type of the philosopher must nevertheless be educated rightly, or at least not wrongly (perhaps the moral and intellectual permissiveness of a democracy is
sufficient).43 Lastly, through the manner of his death, Socrates shows that
the zetetic and intransigent philosopher can nevertheless remain a good
citizen, giving the laws the final measure of his devotion.
Consider Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), XLVI.46:
“Leisure is the mother of philosophy; and Commonwealth, the mother of peace and leisure.
Where first were great and flourishing cities, there was first the study of philosophy.”
Consider Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (in The First and Second Discourses.
Trans. by Judith Masters, ed. Roger Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964)), in this
regard: the natural geniuses would be stunted if they’d had preceptors (63); but similarly,
such natural geniuses would not be able to fulfill their natural genius without living in a
certain kind of political order that allowed for them to pursue what their natures incline them
Philosophic Care in the Life of Plato’s
Mary P. Nichols
The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. With this declaration, Socrates defends himself in court against the charges of corrupting the young and not believing in the gods of the city (Apology 38a).1
Socrates therefore will not cease philosophizing even if it costs him his life
(29d). He traces his life of questioning others to the god: when the oracle
of Apollo announced that no one was wiser than Socrates, Socrates
explains, the god gave him the task of questioning others in search of the
meaning of its “riddle,” since Socrates knew that he possessed no special
wisdom. The god himself encouraged Socrates’ life of questioning. And so
Socrates became a gadfly, as he recounts in his Apology, arousing others as
the god aroused him, as he urges them to care for (epimeleisthai) their
souls, reproaching them when they think they know what they do not, just
as he cares for his own soul in questioning others to discover the god’s
meaning. In this way, the god gives the city a gift (21a–d; 23b; 29c–30b;
References in parentheses are to Plato’s works, as found in the Loeb Classical editions
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press). Translations from the Greek are my own. I am
grateful to Rachel Alexander, Steve Block, Jason Lund, and Sara MacDonald for their helpful
comments on the manuscript.
M. P. Nichols (*)
Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_14
30d–31b). Socrates models his life on the god, as he interprets the oracle,
at least insofar as his life conjoins questioning and caring or caretaking.2
The god himself asks Socrates a question, insofar as he gives him a riddle,
and in doing so gives Socrates a gift,3 endorsing his way of life, just as he
gives Socrates as a gift to his city.
My chapter explores the place of caring in Socrates’ life of philosophy,
a theme of his Apology, by discussing three explanations of philosophic
caring that Socrates gives in the Platonic corpus, and how Socrates’ deeds
in those dialogues illustrate that caring.4 First, in the Symposium, Socrates
gives a speech in praise of love, in which the lover gives birth in the presence of the beautiful and nurtures his offspring. His account, which he
learned from the prophetess Diotima, applies to all lovers, from human
parents who risk their lives for the sake of their children to the philosopher
“To care” (melein) in Greek means both “taking care of ” and “having a care for” or “caring about.” When Socrates in the Apology accuses Meletus of having no care for the youth of
the city (24d), he implies both meanings. Socrates also uses the verb kēdomesthai to apply to
the care he has for others, as when he says in the Theaetetus that he cares more for the young
in Athens than in other cities (143d; see also Apology 31a).
As many have noted, Socrates must have stood out for his wisdom, at least to Chaerophon,
before the latter approached the oracle. Why else would he have singled Socrates out in his
question? And Socrates himself had been aware of his own ignorance before he heard the
god’s pronouncement. This is why, in fact, he claims to have been puzzled by it (21b). This
does not mean, however, that Socrates was engaged in his philosophic conversations before
the god intervened. As Catherine H. Zuckert points out, the timing of Chaerophon’s trip to
the oracle is unclear, and in the background might have been Socrates’ cosmological inquires
that he describes in the Phaedo rather than his dialogues with others. Plato’s Philosophers: The
Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 205, n48; see also
David Leibowitz’s The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato’s Apology (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2010), 64–65. In any case, Socrates’ discovery that his own knowledge of
ignorance is human wisdom, as he presents it, is a response to the oracle. See also Gregory
Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press,
1991), 177.
Unlike most scholars, who emphasize Socrates’ philosophic life as one of questioning and
pursuing the truth, Joseph Cropsey refers us not only to Socrates’ love of wisdom but to his
“lifetime of caring.” Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1995), 160. Cropsey asks whether Socrates’ efforts arise “because his well-being
depends on the virtues of those around him,” or “because for some reason he cannot help
caring about them.” 146. My essay, as does Plato’s World, explores this issue. Although we
both trace Socratic care to human need, and the way in which philosophy for Socrates meets
that need, my argument traces caring to the incompleteness of the soul, and does not depend
as does Cropsey’s on the precarious human condition that lacks the care of both the god and
nature. See, for example, 62, 134, and 164.
who gives birth and nurtures true virtue. The philosopher too is therefore
a lover—and a caretaker—for love and caring arise from the incompleteness of every human soul. Second, in the Phaedrus, Socrates describes how
a philosophic lover is both reminded of the beautiful by his beloved and is
moved by his love to educate him, as well as how someone who possesses
the art of words is able to give fitting speeches to individuals with different
soul types. His account in the Phaedrus, which involves speaking to others,
brings us closer to the particular way in which Socrates is a caretaker.
Finally, Socrates describes himself as a midwife in the Theaetetus, whose
questions help his interlocutor give birth to his own conceptions and to
test them in conversation with Socrates. On each of these occasions,
Socrates gives an account of philosophic caring, and each reflects and conveys the truth of his own life. His presenting these images of philosophic
caretaking to others as ways in which they too might understand themselves manifests his own caring.
I conclude with a brief account of Socrates’ encounter with the Eleatic
Stranger, which occurs shortly before his trial, especially of the Stranger’s
description of the statesman as a caretaker, who acts in a world that has
become bereft of divine care (Statesman 274b–d). In the sequence of dialogues that lead up to Socrates’ death, the two dialogues in which the
Stranger leads the inquiry are followed by the Apology of Socrates. Socrates’
description of his caretaking there, and its relation to the god who endorses
his questioning others, offers an alternative to the Stranger’s view of a
godless world and the life of human beings within it.5 Socrates’ alternative,
I argue, involves his own caretaking, its service to the community, and his
recourse to the divine for its explanation.
Philosophic Caretaking in the Symposium: Generating
and Nurturing in the Presence of Beauty
When the guests at a drinking party in the Symposium propose to give
speeches in praise of love, and Socrates’ turn rolls around, he insists on
praising love in his own way (kat’ emauton). He would like to begin with
a few questions for the previous speaker, the tragic poet Agathon, whose
See David D. Corey’s helpful discussion of the divine sources of authority that Socrates
offers in his Apology, the Delphic oracle and his daimonic voice, in relation to the way in
which Socrates practices citizenship. “Socratic Citizenship: Delphic Oracle and Divine Sign,”
The Review of Politics (Summer 2005): 203.
recent victory in the dramatic contests the gathering is now celebrating.
Socrates leads the poet to admit that he “knew nothing about what he was
saying” in his praise of love (201b). Socrates softens his refutation of
Agathon by explaining that as a young man he made the same error as
Agathon and was corrected by a prophetess named Diotima, whose conversations with him he then recounts. Having embarrassed this darling of
the Athenians—Socrates mentions the large audience before whom
Agathon’s winning tragedy was received (194a–b; also 198a)—Socrates
then allows him as it were back into the fold. Agathon’s mistake is no
more than one that Socrates himself made, for which he too received correction. As a result, he can pass on his correction from the prophetess to
others. Caring proceeds from Diotima, to Socrates, to Agathon, whose
position as winning tragedian in the city gives him a special opportunity
for caretaking.
Socrates’ story about his lessons from Diotima is one of the few times
in the Platonic corpus in which Socrates describes his early life and his
philosophic development (see also Phaedo 96a–102a),6 and it is the only
time in which Socrates claims to have had a teacher (201d; 207a; cf.
Phaedo 97c–98c). Because we love what we lack or need, Diotima leads
Socrates to admit, love desires the beautiful and the good, but does not
possess them. Inasmuch as he is neither beautiful nor good, Love is not a
god, as some of the early speakers in the Symposium assumed, but “a great
daimon” who acts as an intermediary between human beings and gods by
carrying requests and messages from one to the other (202e). Love derives
his “in-between” status between mortal and immortal, she recounts, from
his parents, Poverty and Resource: Love like his mother is “always poor,”
and like his resourceful father “a plotter after the beautiful and the good.”
Because he is born from a mother who lacks wisdom and a resourceful and
wise father, he himself “philosophizes all his life.” In-between ignorance
and wisdom, he seeks what he does not possess but is not so ignorant that
he does not know his own neediness (203b–204b).
Diotima’s mythical account of Love as a “daimon” between mortal and
immortal reflects something in the human soul that directs us to the gods
of whom we make requests and that enables us to receive their gifts. All
human beings are therefore lovers, not just those to whom we give the
Catherine H. Zuckert traces the stages of Socrates’ early philosophic development in the
Phaedo, the Parmenides, the Symposium, and the Apology. “The Socratic Turn,” History of
Political Thought 25 (Summer 2004): 189–219.
name (205b). So too, she continues, are lovers pregnant. They therefore
become in a flutter when they approach the beautiful, which acts as a midwife in providing relief from their pangs of labor. The lover needs the
beautiful to draw forth his offspring (206b–e). Generation follows from
her understanding of love as in-between human and divine. As needy
beings, we are incomplete and are moved to generate; as resourceful
beings, we are able to do so. Diotima makes the conjunction of poverty
and resource in generation clear from her description of a (needy) lover
who meets someone with a beautiful soul: the lover is “resourceful” in
speaking to him about virtue and about what he should be and pursue.
The lover becomes able “to teach” (209b–c). In order to teach, the lover
must learn. This is the beloved’s gift to him.7
The lover depends on his beloved not only for his generation of speeches
about virtue but also for caring for the offspring of their union, which they
“nurture together” (sunektrephein) (209c). Diotima’s account of generation is modeled on and applies to the generation of children. In leaving
behind another like oneself, human beings share in immortality. Parents
are willing to do anything, even to give their lives, she observes, to preserve and nurture their young. She also describes Love’s generating arts or
crafts, works of poetry, and laws of political communities. Nurturing
remains essential to love even when a lover ascends from the visible beauty
of his beloved to the knowledge of beauty itself, permanent and unchanging—“the perfect end” of the lover’s labors, as a result of which he “gives
birth to and nurtures true virtue” (212a) (emphasis mine). And, by implication, he would nurture the human beings in whom virtue is generated.
The lover’s ascent may reach an “end” in knowledge of the beautiful, but
that end is therefore also a beginning. The lover has further work to do in
the course of time. Nurture, or upbringing, is necessary for the flourishing
of what is generated. And one’s offspring, whatever form they take, also
generate in turn, insofar as generation addresses the human longing for
immortality. Lovers therefore depend on others to care for what they have
begun. Their descendants continue the work of their progenitors when
they do their own work in turn, whether they become parents who continue their family’s line, community leaders who make their own contributions to the communities that others have passed on to them, or the friends
My discussions of the Symposium and the Phaedrus are drawn from my Socrates on
Friendship and Community: Reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
and students of lovers of wisdom who keep their argument or speech
(logos) alive, as Socrates on the day of his death asks his companions to do
(Phaedo 89b–c). Enduring communities—not only the relationship
between lover and beloved but also a community in which the arts, poetry,
and political institutions can flourish—are required for such fulfillment.
If human beings are indeed like the daimon Love whom Diotima
describes—sprung from the conjunction of poverty and resource and
thereby in-between mortal and immortal—then the deeds of generating
and nurturing with others constitute a life lived in accord with that truth.
Diotima has given Socrates a way of understanding a philosophic life in
terms of caretaking, or perhaps through his story of Diotima’s lessons
Socrates has found a way to make his life intelligible both to others and to
himself. Caring, by implication, is not simply a means of pursuing the
truth but an expression of the conjunction of poverty and resource that
constitutes human life. Our love teaches us both our need and our
resources to give to those we love.
Although from time to time in his narration of Diotima’s lessons,
Socrates expresses doubt about what she says,8 he concludes his narration
by claiming that he was persuaded by her and that he attempts to persuade
others (212b). Socrates is the only speaker at the symposium who expresses
a concern to persuade others of what he has said about love. His lessons
from Diotima will generate conversations with others, just as love in her
account generates speeches about what we should be and pursue. Whether
Socrates has been successful in persuading others, he does not say. His
meetings with Diotima, as Socrates presents them, occurred in the past.
There is a gap of time to fill in and experiences to recount. Plato, in ­writing
his dialogues about Socrates’ conversations with others, fills in that time.
Socrates’ experiences test Diotima’s teaching about love, just as Socrates’
questioning others tests the oracle’s words that no one is wiser than he.
Does his speaking to others about virtue, for example, demonstrate that
the soul is open to the ascent that Diotima describes to a beautiful itself
that transcends its particular manifestations, and does such an ascent generate offspring that Socrates and his interlocutors nurture together?
For example, he “wonders” about what Diotima says or tells her that he does not understand what she means (e.g., 206b). At other times, he offers not an enthusiastic “absolutely”
to her teachings but a begrudging “let it be so,” as if he is neither persuaded nor is able to
make an objection (e.g., 204c and 206e). At other times, he responds to her question with
the observation only that it is “likely” or “possible” (204e–205d). At 208c, Socrates calls
Diotima “a perfect sophist.”
Plato immediately gives us an example of someone who is not persuaded by everything Socrates has said about love. One of the guests, the
comic poet Aristophanes, objects to an allusion Diotima made to his own
speech about love, when she claimed that one loves one’s own only insofar
as it is good, for someone would even cut off his hands or feet if he thought
they were harmful (212c; see 205e). Perhaps he notices that her argument
treats amputating a diseased limb as if it were the same as turning away
one’s kin or beloved if he poses a danger to oneself. In any case, his speaking up for love of one’s own here is consistent with the criticism of father-­
beating—and of Socrates—that the playwright made in the Clouds.
Aristophanes’ attempt to defend his own speech at the symposium
also manifests his own love of his own, including his desire to show that
his speech is worthy of defense. The Symposium leaves open whether
Aristophanes would be willing to give up his thesis if Socrates refuted it,
for a drunken Alcibiades bursts into the party and interrupts their brewing
Since Alcibiades was a young man whom Socrates loved and urged to
care for his soul, and to whom Socrates offered his assistance (216d–e; also
Alcibiades I 108a), he serves as a test case for Diotima’s account. In this
case, her teaching did not guide Socrates to success with Alcibiades. Within
a year of the symposium, Alcibiades led Athens to undertake the disastrous
expedition to conquer Sicily and then betrayed Athens by advising Sparta
how to prosecute war against his city. Perhaps due to Alcibiades’ desire for
preeminence, or even his tyrannical nature (consider Thucydides
6.16.4–6), Socrates was unable to bring him into the human community
of love and nurturing that Diotima described. Alcibiades was unwilling to
receive what Socrates tried to give him, even stopping his ears to Socrates’
speeches as if they were Siren calls that would lead him to ruin (216a–b).
That Alcibiades “escaped” both Socrates and his city itself when he
defected to Sparta suggests that her teaching is limited by the ambition of
others and how difficult the work of loving and nurturing may be.
One test case, even as important a one as Alcibiades, of course, does not
decide the matter. Socrates claims to love Phaedrus as well, although
somewhat playfully (228e). Phaedrus is the only one who attends the symposium whom Socrates meets again in the Platonic corpus.9 I will turn to
their conversation, which Plato dramatizes in the Phaedrus, in the next
The Alcibiades I and II were set dramatically before the time of the symposium. As far as
we know from the Platonic corpus, the symposium was the last meeting between Socrates
and Alcibiades.
section of my chapter. Indeed, Phaedrus appears even in the Symposium as
a test case. In that dialogue, the plan to praise love originates with
Phaedrus, and he is therefore called “the father of the speech” (177d), not
only of his own speech but of all those made at the symposium.10 When
Socrates begins to engage Agathon in conversation before all the guests
have given their encomia to love, Phaedrus interposes: he “must take care
(epimeleisthai) for the praise of love and receive speeches from each one
[at the party]” (194d). Although he does not know what any of them will
say about love, and therefore how worthy any of their speeches will be, he
insists that each makes his speech. He is their “father.” They are his offspring, and he wants them delivered regardless of whether they are good
Philosophic Caretaking in the Phaedrus: Socrates
in Action
At some point after the Symposium takes place, Socrates encounters
Phaedrus, on his way for a walk in the countryside. He is planning to
memorize a speech written by the rhetorician Lysias that he admires. The
speech attempts to persuade a youth whom it addresses that a sexual relationship with a non-lover (such as the speaker claims to be) is more advantageous than one with a lover. Given the benefits the speaker promises, he
in effect claims to be a caretaker without the caring that proceeds from
love. Love appears in that speech not as the “helper” (sunergon) to human
nature that Socrates claimed in the Symposium (212b) but as a degrading
sickness that deprives the lover of good sense and self-control. The lover
jeopardizes not only his beloved’s reputation but also his possessions, and
even his body and soul (Phaedrus 231d–e). In admiring this speech of the
non-lover, Phaedrus ignores Diotima’s statement at the symposium that
“all are lovers” and shows that he is open to Lysias’ reduction of human
relations to the crassest self-interest. His admiration is foreshadowed by
his own “praise” of love at the symposium, when he praises love for its
advantages and reserves his highest praise for the beloved rather than the
It was to his lover Eryximachus that Phaedrus made the proposal that there should be
praises of love, and Eryximachus who proposes it at the symposium for the evening’s entertainment (177a–d). Eryximachus ensures that Phaedrus as well offers a praise of love.
Eryximachus even suggests that Phaedrus speak first, since he reclines in the first place at the
gathering and is “the father of the speech (logos)” (177d).
lover. The former needs no “help” from his love of another for his virtuous deeds (Symposium 178c–179a; 179e–180b). Socrates’ attempt in the
Phaedrus to persuade its title character of a more elevated view of love
serves as another test case for Diotima’s teaching, and also demonstrates,
I argue, how Socrates builds on that teaching as he attempts to take it as a
After Phaedrus has read Lysias’ speech to Socrates, Socrates indicates
that he does not share Phaedrus’ enthusiasm and offers to show Phaedrus
a superior version of a speech with the same thesis (236b). Socrates thus
avoids attacking directly what Phaedrus admires, but in several ways he
calls the thesis of Lysias’ speech into question. For example, he delivers his
speech with his head covered, he says, so that he does not become ashamed
when looking at Phaedrus (237a). He implies that Phaedrus too should be
ashamed, both for reading Lysias’ speech to Socrates and for inducing
Socrates to give one like it. Socrates then prefaces the address with a
description of the man who delivers it as a crafty lover who disguises himself as a non-lover in order to win the favors of the youth to whom he
speaks. Socrates in effect asks Phaedrus to question whether he too has
been manipulated and deceived by Lysias’ speech. By describing the man
who delivers the speech as a lover who is hiding his love, Socrates questions the non-lover; he is only a mask behind which a lover hides. Moreover,
when criticizing the lover as one whose desire for pleasure leads him to
“the beauty of bodies,” Socrates’ speaker admits that everyone, even non-­
lovers, desire the beautiful (237d–238c). Unlike Lysias’ speaker, Socrates’
speaker acknowledges his “desire.” He does not pretend to be self-­
sufficient, a man acting only after deliberating about what is best for himself. Rather, Socrates attributes to his speaker a version of Diotima’s view
that all are lovers, although we call only one sort by the name that should
rightfully apply to the whole (see Symposium 205b–c). Finally, Socrates
breaks off his speech after his criticism of love and before his praise of the
non-lover (241d). He has no praise of the non-lover to give. But he finds
many tacks left to take, other resources for appealing to Phaedrus.
After he stops speaking, for example, Socrates insists that Phaedrus was
involved in the generation of his speech, for he compelled Socrates to
For further discussion of how the Phaedrus deepens the understanding of love and philosophy found in the Symposium, see my Socrates on Friendship and Community, 87–89. For
a contrary argument about the relation between these two dialogues, see David Levy, Eros
and Socratic Political Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 113–119.
compete with Lysias by offering his own speech. Socrates goes so far as to
claim that his speech criticizing love comes “from Phaedrus” (244a; see
236a–e). And now Phaedrus is the “cause” of another speech by
Socrates—a speech that is more worthy, and, indeed, more beautiful, than
the first one; Socrates even praises Phaedrus as the cause of more speeches
than anyone in his generation (242b; 257c). If one did not love oneself as
well as the beautiful, one would experience no contentment or happiness
by contributing to the beautiful rather than simply seeing it produced by
another. At the same time Socrates appeals to Phaedrus’ love of his own,
he thus insists that his speeches meet a standard of worth. He declares that
he and Phaedrus should be ashamed before a well-born and gentle lover
and beloved who upon hearing their accounts of love would think they
had been nurtured among sailors. “Perhaps, by Zeus,” Phaedrus declares
(242a–243d), his oath indicating that he has become invested in the
speech for which he bears some responsibility.12 Shame manifests and at
the same time encourages a care that one’s own be beautiful, a witness to
one’s worth. If one did not love the beautiful as well as one’s own, one
would feel no shame. By involving Phaedrus in the generation of another
speech, a recantation (a palinode) of the criticism of love, Socrates offers
him a way beyond shame.
Socrates goes beyond Diotima’s formulations about love when he
claims in the palinode that understanding the soul requires understanding
both “how it is acted upon and how it acts” or “its passions and its actions
or deeds” (245d) (emphasis mine). Diotima’s emphasis was on the first,
inasmuch as the lover is moved by the beautiful. In the palinode, however,
Socrates defines the soul not as erotic, as we might expect from his intention to defend love and from the fact that Diotima’s lesson that all human
beings are lovers suggests as much. Instead, “self-motion” is “the being
and definition (logos) of soul” (254c–d). Self-moving soul is acted upon by
itself rather than by something external, whereas love is moved by the
object that attracts it and that it loves.13 Socrates defends love in the palinode by making room for agency, and thus for the control that Phaedrus
admired in the non-lover in contrast to the lover (see 231a–d; 237e–238c;
238e). Socrates’ challenge in the palinode is to show how the soul of the
lover is self-moving, for self-motion defines soul. After all, Phaedrus is in
part a cause of the palinode, someone for whom Socrates has learned to
At 229c and 234e, Phaedrus’ oaths indicate the strength of his responses.
See my discussion in Socrates and Friendship and Community, 112–113.
refine Diotima’s lessons, giving greater weight than she did, for example,
to love of one’s own, as he develops the implication of her claim that we
not only love the good but that we also desire it to be ours, even ours
forever (206a). That is, we desire the good to be our own.14
Socrates captures the complexity of the soul in his myth about the
soul’s preexistence, which is part of his palinode. He likens the soul to a
charioteer and two winged horses, who are assigned places in a great army
of souls in the heavens, which is led by Zeus and other gods. There are
many blessed sights and passageways within the heavens, Socrates explains,
and the gods go this way and that, each doing his own thing, and whoever
wishes and is able follows (247a). The Zeus of Socrates’ myth does not
rule tyrannically. Souls are also moved to ascend along with their divine
leaders to the surface of the heaven where they can behold justice itself,
moderation, and knowledge (247a–e). Although self-motion is the definition of the soul, and the motion of these souls proceeds from themselves,
it also depends in part on their divine leaders whom they follow in their
ascent and in part on the superheavenly beings that attract their ascent.15
Socrates’ tale is one of struggle, as unruly horses distract the soul from
seeing the beings. Eventually souls fall to the earth and unite with bodies
to become human beings as we know them, who belong to different types
depending on how many of the beings they have seen as well as the duration of their vision (247b; 248a–d; 250a). Love occurs when seeing a
beautiful beloved reminds us both of the superheavenly beings we once
saw and the god we followed in the heavens (249d–250c). As in Diotima’s
myth of Love’s birth, love is born from poverty and resource—in this
account, it is born from our fallen state and our memory of our former
life. And just as Diotima connected love with caretaking, Socrates describes
a lover who looks within himself to discover the character and practices of
Phaedrus initially describes Lysias’ speech to Socrates as “somehow or other erotic”
(227c). As we now see, Socrates might reply with equal validity that the speech is also “somehow or other unerotic.” So too are Socrates’ two speeches in the Phaedrus. The idiom translated “somehow or other” is “I do not know in what way.” It expresses a knowledge of what
one does not know.
The theology of the palinode, in which gods both belong to the army of souls they command in the heavens and strive along with other souls to behold the superheavenly beings,
contrasts with that of the Republic, where Socrates assimilates the gods to the ideas (380d–e;
485b). The Phaedrus’ definition of soul as self-moving, on which the palinode rests, is suppressed by the Republic’s analogy between soul and city. See Socrates on Friendship and the
Political Community, 109–110.
the god that he and his beloved once followed in the heavens, and,
“becoming resourceful,” he persuades and educates his beloved to become
as like their god as possible (cf. 253a–b with Symposium 208b–c).
Whereas Diotima speaks of the lover’s ascent to beauty itself, and of the
generation and nurturing that follow, Socrates speaks in the palinode of
both the soul’s ascent (to view the beings) and descent (its fall to the
earth). Diotima’s emphasis is on what all human beings have in common;
moneymakers, lovers of gymnastics, and philosophers, for example, are all
lovers (205d). In Socrates’ classification in the palinode, philosophers,
moneymakers, and gymnasts are among different soul types. So too are
tyrants. Diotima never uses the word for tyranny or any of its derivatives
in her speech about love. Of course, the only experience we know that she
has with an interlocutor is with Socrates himself. Since his meeting with
Diotima when a young man, Socrates has had many different interlocutors, at least in Plato’s dialogues. These include Alcibiades, who admits a
desire to rule the whole world and who was suspected by the Athenians of
plotting tyranny (Alcibiades I 105b–c; 106a; Thucydides 6.15.4).
Although the lover Socrates describes in the palinode seeks a beloved
like himself, Socrates’ own vision in delivering the palinode extends to the
different types of human beings he lists, and the different gods they followed in the heavens.16 Even the soul “who has seen most” (who becomes
a philosopher, lover of beauty, or a musical and erotic type) has not had a
divine or complete vision. Otherwise, it would not have fallen to the earth.
Human vision remains solipsistic without the help of others different from
oneself.17 Consequently, Socrates turns in the latter part of the Phaedrus
to a discussion of an art of words, which requires knowing the various
forms of soul, the various forms of speeches, and what speeches are appropriate to each soul. Moreover, this art of words requires that the speaker
recognize different types of soul when he happens to meet them
(271d–272a). It therefore requires learning about his addressees. Whatever
one has learned previously about soul types and speeches cannot take the
For arguments about how the palinode itself—Socrates’ deed in delivering it—qualifies
its content, see Joseph Cropsey, Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1977), 245 and Charles Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato’s
PHAEDRUS (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1986), 151–156.
In reference to the diverse visions of the beings that souls experience in the palinode’s
account, Griswold warns that “the problems of skepticism and solipsism are thus ingrained
in the Phaedrus’ account of the knowledge available to human souls.” Self-Knowledge 108;
173; 103, and 133.
place of experience, just as Diotima’s lessons about love must be tested by
experience. The speaker cannot look only “within himself,” as does the
lover who encounters a beloved of the same type as himself, but he must
also look outward. So too Socrates does not simply see himself in others,
for he encounters a diversity of human beings, both like and unlike himself. If he engaged only those like himself, he would have nothing to teach
them, or they to teach him. He might help them to be more themselves,
but not to see what is beyond themselves. Nor would he see further than
himself. He has things to learn from others, just as he has things to share
with them. His practicing the art of words he describes in the Phaedrus
thus indicates both his ignorance and his knowledge, both his need for the
help of others and the resources that enable him to help them. Socrates
refers to the art of words he describes in the Phaedrus not only as “an art
of rhetoric” but also as an “art of conversation” or “dialectic” (dialektikē)
(217a and 276e). Conversation takes place only when more than one contributes, even when it involves someone especially adept at asking questions (see Phaedo 73a). The giving and receiving that takes place in
conversations, like love as Diotima presents it, therefore proceed from a
conjunction of poverty and resource. And that conjunction, like Diotima’s
love, is able to generate, if it begets in a fitting soul speeches that are also
not barren but have seed, from which other speeches are generated and
passed on to others (277a; see also 278a–b).
Philosophy—the love of wisdom—therefore connects the philosopher
not merely to a beloved like himself but to a community of different types.
And it is entirely appropriate that Socrates makes this point in a dialogue
with Phaedrus. In a monologue, a speaker might be speaking only to himself, whereas a dialogue necessarily takes into account the responses of an
interlocutor. The discussion of speaking in the latter half of the Phaedrus
therefore not only builds on Diotima’s connection between love and the
political community in which one nurtures one’s offspring but also
expands the world of the palinode: in speaking to diverse types and speaking to them as is appropriate, the speaker cannot simply remember the
beings he once saw in the heavens or god he once followed, but he must
also come to understand the different visions that others have had in order
to make appropriate speeches to them. Knowledge is incomplete without
caring for those unlike oneself, whereas speaking to another like oneself
resembles speaking to oneself, or speaking with one’s head covered rather
than looking at one’s addressee.
It seems to follow from Socrates’ account of beautiful speech, which
tailors speech to the particular addressees, that writing cannot be as serious as the spoken word, for writing says the same things to everyone.
Socrates soon makes this criticism of writing explicit. It can be bandied
about from person to person, saying the same things to those to whom
they are appropriate and those to whom they are not, not knowing to
whom to speak and to whom to be silent (275d). We know of Socrates’
criticisms of writing, however, only because of Plato’s writing. Plato’s
ironic self-depreciation of his written work in comparison to Socrates’ spoken word, as Leo Strauss argues, suggests that “the Platonic dialogue is a
kind of writing which is free from the essential defect of writings” and so
“we may conclude that the Platonic dialogue says different things to different people.”18 Socrates’ description of the art of conversation might
apply to the written as well as the spoken word, for either might plant
seeds in fitting souls that come to fruition and from which spring others in
other souls, capable of continuing the process forever (277a). Socrates
indicates that his account—and hope for the future—applies to the conversation he has had that afternoon with Phaedrus, when he urges
Phaedrus to deliver a message to those who write, specifically, to speechwriters like Lysias, to those who compose poetry, and to legislators whose
proposals become written laws. His message is that they should rank their
writings below the serious pursuit underlying them, their love of wisdom.
“Wisdom” is a fitting name only for the god (278d).
Phaedrus accepts the commission to deliver to the leading men of the
day the message that in spite of the wisdom seemingly embodied in their
writings human wisdom remains knowledge of ignorance (see Apology
23a–b; 23e–24a). Phaedrus, in turn, asks Socrates what message Socrates
will take to his darling, the speechwriter Isocrates (278e). For Socrates too
the conversation with Phaedrus will lead to further speeches, even if
Phaedrus may not know exactly to whom Socrates will deliver a message
about writing and speaking.
Although Plato does not give Phaedrus the privilege of mentioning
Plato’s name, Phaedrus returns to the city after his speaking with Socrates
a changed man, one more appreciative of beauty and willing to judge the
beauty of speeches (e.g., 257c; 258d; 259e; 269d; 274a–b; 276c;
277c–278b). Nor does Phaedrus object when Socrates refers to him as a
lover of Lysias (257b). He even manifests a humble piety, for he would
Leo Strauss, City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 52–53.
like to “share [Socrates’] prayer” to Pan and the other gods of the place
that they grant Socrates wisdom and moderation (279c; cf. 229c and
257b–c). The caretaking Socrates manifests throughout this dialogue is an
expanded version of that of the lover whom Diotima describes, and perhaps an even more difficult task (see 272c), because it involves others different from oneself, whose very differences require one to question oneself
when one questions them. In the next section of my chapter, I turn to yet
a third description of Socratic caretaking, when in a dialogue set shortly
before his trial and execution, the Theaetetus, Socrates describes his vocation as that of a midwife. In that dialogue, Socrates also explicitly practices
the vocation that he describes. Once again, Plato shows us Socrates in
Philosophic Caretaking in the Theaetetus: Socrates
as Midwife
Although Diotima’s description of the lover in the Symposium and
Socrates’ account of the art of words in the Phaedrus remind the reader of
Socrates, it is in the Theaetetus that Socrates describes his own “practice”
and “art.” Here he draws a parallel between his mother’s occupation as
midwife and his own: just as she helps women to give birth, he helps others to give birth to the offspring of their souls. Because his midwifery
involves souls and the conceptions that they bring forth, he explains further, it requires not only assisting those in labor but “testing” the offspring that are born, in order to see whether they are “phantoms” or “true
and genuine” (149a–150c; see Phaedrus 278a). Some whom he helped,
Socrates explains further, gave birth to many beautiful things, but supposing that they themselves were the cause, they went away sooner than they
ought and “nurtured them badly and lost them” (150e). Perhaps he has
Alcibiades in mind. Socrates’ help is needed not only to give birth but also
to nurture what is born. Of those who went away too soon, some desired
to associate with Socrates again, and they improved when that happened
(150d–151a). As midwife, Socrates is not only a “cause” of generation,
along with the goddess of childbirth Artemis (150d; 149b), but, like the
lover and beloved whom Diotima describes, he and his interlocutor “nurture [offspring] together” (see Symposium 209c).
Contrary to Diotima, however, who described beauty as the midwife
before whom lovers pregnant in soul give birth, it is Socrates who is the
midwife who assists those who are pregnant. Socrates’ revision of Diotima’s
account is based on her own deeds, for she asked Socrates questions and
tested the answers he brought forth. Diotima’s and Socrates’ midwifery is
more active than that which she attributed to beauty itself. As we see
Socrates practice his midwifery in the Theaetetus, it demonstrates that the
soul not only is acted upon but also acts, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus,
and uses the “art of words” he describes there, which gives speeches that
fit the souls of its addressees. In the Symposium, Socrates speaks before
lovers and beloveds and in the Phaedrus to a young man interested in
“love” speeches, even if they are only “somehow or other erotic” (227c).
In the Theaetetus, in contrast, his interlocutors are the young mathematician Theaetetus and his teacher Theodorus. Another of Theodorus’ students, who happens to be named Socrates, is also present. In this dialogue,
Socrates associates with mathematicians rather than with lovers. Theodorus
even denies that anyone could think that he praises Theaetetus because he
is the young man’s lover, for Theaetetus is ugly (143e). What sorts of
speeches are appropriate to those who study mathematics?19
The very question of the dialogue, what is knowledge, arises from
Theaetetus’ study of mathematics. Manthanein means to learn; a mathema is what has been learned, and is therefore known. Mathematicians are
therefore fitting interlocutors for inquiring what is knowledge, for to ask
them about knowledge, in effect, is to ask them about what they do and
who they are. Indeed, the question about knowledge arises in that dialogue when Socrates asks Theaetetus what he learns from Theodorus
(145c–146a). But if mathematics serves as a model for learning, then
answers to Socrates’ question will bear not only on Theaetetus’ activity
but also on Socrates’ own activity or way of life. When Socrates asks
Theodorus about any young men he has met who are promising in geometry or the rest of philosophy, Theodorus ignores any difference between
geometry and philosophy when he responds (143d). And Theaetetus later
agrees that “knowledge and wisdom are the same” (145e). Should Socrates
turn to mathematicians for the wisdom he seeks? Mathematics resolves
perplexities, as Theaetetus illustrates when he tells Socrates about how he
See Zuckert’s analysis of the Theaetetus, which she entitles “What the Geometers Don’t
Know or Understand.” Plato’s Philosophers, 597–639. As she asks, if the mathematicians have
a knowledge or expertise, are they not wiser than Socrates? Socrates’ discussion with the
mathematicians illustrates his search for wisdom, as he continues his examination of the
meaning of the oracle. 596.
and his fellow student Socrates solved a geometrical problem that
Theodorus left them (147c–148b). The midwifery Socrates claims as his
own, in contrast, produces perplexities (149a). The Theaetetus is what
scholars call an aporetic dialogue, one that ends with Socrates and his
interlocutors “at a loss” (in Greek, in a state of aporia). At the end of the
dialogue, Socrates declares that the three conceptions of knowledge that
Theaetetus offered have each proven to be “a wind-egg” and “unworthy
of nurture” (210b). Are Theaetetus and this younger Socrates better co-­
workers than Theaetetus and the elderly philosopher? When Socrates hears
about the successful resolution that Theaetetus and young Socrates gave
to a geometrical problem, he proclaims that “this is the best that human
beings can do” (148b). Is he foreseeing the failure of his midwifery with
Theaetetus and his place in the pursuit of wisdom taken by a younger
Socrates whose expertise is math?
The mathematicians in the Theaetetus, however, are not able to say
what knowledge is. They cannot explain their own activity. Theodorus
does not come into the discussion to help his student; in fact, Theodorus
tries to avoid participating at all, when Socrates urges him to do so
(e.g.,146b; 168d–169c; 183c). Nor does young Socrates come to help his
friend, as when they solved their geometrical problem together. If we can
count what the mathematicians of the Theaetetus do as evidence for the
best that mathematicians can do, mathematicians cannot serve as a model
for self-knowledge. They lack knowledge of the human soul, a question
that lurks behind Socrates’ question about knowledge. In response to
Theaetetus’ proposal that knowledge is perception, Socrates leads him to
see that while we perceive colors through our eyes, and sounds through
our ears, there must be something else that compares how the different
perceptions are alike and unlike that cannot be explained in terms of perception itself. When Theaetetus suggests that it is “the soul, itself through
itself, that examines the common things about all of them,” Socrates dramatically proclaims that Theaetetus is not ugly, as Theodorus said, but
beautiful, inasmuch as whoever speaks beautifully is beautiful and good
By leading Theaetetus to consider the soul, Socrates leads him to
look beyond mathematics, and thus to examine himself, and his own
wisdom. Theaetetus admits that having heard reports of questions that
“came from [Socrates],” he has tried to work them out, and cannot
“escape caring” about them (148e). Socrates asks the sorts of questions
that stir someone like Theaetetus and are remembered by him. The
young man is not merely a mathematician.20 If Socrates shows Theaetetus
that mathematics cannot answer his questions about knowledge, then
the success or failure of Socrates’ midwifery may turn not on how well
Theaetetus defines knowledge but on how well he understands why he
has trouble doing so. If mathematics does not serve as the model for
knowledge, the dialogue leaves space for philosophy.
As Socrates examines in turn each of Theaetetus’ proposals about what
knowledge is, their defeat eventually turns on Socrates’ introduction of
the city into the discussion. When Theaetetus proposes that knowledge is
perception, for example, Socrates points out the implications for the city:
insofar as it implies that the truth about the just and noble things is nothing more than each individual—and city—perceives them to be, truth—
and hence knowledge—varies by time and place (167c and 177c–e). How,
then, can knowledge be nothing more than perception? When Theaetetus
then suggests that knowledge is true opinion, Socrates shows the inadequacy of his conception by reference to the rhetoricians, who might persuade their audiences of what is true without teaching them (201b–c). In
that case, their addressees would have true opinion, but not knowledge.
Since knowledge is not the same as true opinion, perhaps, Theaetetus
offers, it is true opinion with logos. Theaetetus’ third attempt seems more
promising. Socrates himself implies such a conception when in the
Phaedo he asks Simmias whether “someone who knows (epistamenos) must
be able to give an account (logon) of what he knows” (76b). And earlier,
Socrates heard from Diotima that opining correctly cannot be knowledge
unless one is able to give an account (logon) (202a; see also Gorgias 465a).
Whatever knowledge may be, it is accompanied by giving an account, or
having reasons, or more generally, speech.
As Theaetetus elaborates: “what does not admit of speech is not knowable; and what does admit of speech is knowable” (201c–d). Although his
elaboration reduces what is knowable to what can be articulated by speech,
it also recognizes that something may remain unknowable beyond speech
itself. He seems to have become aware of the limits of speech, in articulating and communicating the truth. He also now admits his own limits in
Paul Stern makes a helpful observation about Theaetetus in light of the divided line in
the Republic: his “soul stands ever more precariously poised between the ‘downward’ movement of ratiocination, of mathematical analysis, and the ‘upward’ movement of dialectics.”
Knowledge and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 264.
saying what knowledge is. His latest conception, he says, did not originate
with him; rather, it is what he “heard someone say it was, but forgot, and
now has it in mind” (ennoein) (201c–d). His pregnancy in this last case
comes from someone else, and might well have originated with Socrates
himself.21 Socrates says that he has heard this as well—at least something
“along the same lines” (201e). Theaetetus claims he does not know
whether he would be able to distinguish what is knowable from what is
not, but should another speak, he suspects, he would be able to follow
(201d). With Theaetetus’ gentle prodding, Socrates offers three conceptions of what speech is. Theaetetus seems to have learned to practice the
art of midwifery himself.
Socrates begins, however, with yet another question of Theaetetus,
whether he “says that the all and the whole are the same or different.”
Theaetetus says that there is no difference between them (204a–205a).
The model from which this conclusion comes, Socrates indicates, are
“those things that are [constituted] out of number” (204d). There is no
whole that is more than the sum of parts that can be counted. Does
Socrates agree? At the risk of simplicity, we might say that mathematicians
arrive at wholes by counting rather than by loving. To love another is to
love him as a whole, not as someone who can be reduced to the sum of his
parts or to the elements that he shares with others. Aristophanes’ defense
of his own at the symposium against Diotima’s reduction of love of one’s
own to the good is at the same time a defense of love against mathematics.
Our ancestors whom he describes there, who are cut into half by the gods
as punishment for their hubris, seek their other half out of love, longing to
be whole again (Symposium 189d–191d). The “half beings” cannot be
added indiscriminately to any other half to produce a whole.
Socrates attempts to push Theaetetus beyond the mathematician’s
whole in the direction of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts,
by showing him that there is a difference between letters and numbers in
the way that they form wholes (201e–206b).22 When Socrates asks whether
an army constitutes a whole beyond the sum of its parts (204d–205a), he
points to the city as such a whole. Like the different ranks and positions in
Although scholars have offered numerous speculations about from whom Theaetetus
heard this conception of knowledge, his emphasis on the importance of logos for knowledge
is Socratic.
For discussions, see Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers, 635–638; and Stern, Knowledge and
Politics, 266–275.
an army, the citizens are not simply interchangeable parts. That they have
their own role to play that is not identical to that of all the others means
that they are not merely parts of the whole. Given Alcibiades’ description
of Socrates’ service in the Athenian army, no one could imagine that he
was a soldier like any other (Symposium 220c–d; see also 219e, 220d–e
and Laches 181b). Nor was he a citizen like any other, as is clear from the
Apology and the charges brought against him. Plato highlights the conflict
that can occur between a citizen and his community, even when he serves
it, when Socrates leaves the gathering in the Theaetetus to take care of
business concerning his indictment (210d).
Because Socrates’ attempts to define speech prove inadequate, Theaetetus’
third conception of knowledge as true opinion with speech aborts. Bringing
the discussion to a conclusion, Socrates summarizes the three wind-eggs
that have been born and proven unworthy of nurture (209e–210a). As if
acknowledging his own contribution, Socrates asks whether “we are still
pregnant with something” or “have we given birth to everything?” (emphasis mine). Theaetetus too acknowledges Socrates’ contribution, when he
observes that he “has already said more on account of [Socrates] than all
[he] used to have within [him]self” (210b). Although Theaetetus does not
in turn ask Socrates if he has anything more to say (cf. Lysis 223a), Socrates
cannot stay longer because of his business at court. Had any of their offspring been worthy of nurturing together, Socrates would not have time to
stay around to do so. This time it would have been Socrates who would go
away too soon. And by having Socrates mention his upcoming trial, Plato
reminds us of Socrates’ execution. Theodorus, we can assume, knew nothing of Socrates’ pressing obligation; otherwise he might not have given
wholehearted acceptance to Socrates’ contrast between public life, which is
constrained by time, and the leisurely life of the philosopher whose vision
ranges over “the whole earth,” indeed, over “all eternity” (174e–175a;
175b). He assumes that Socrates’ description of the latter life applies to
his own life of mathematical investigation (173c), just as he did not distinguish geometry from philosophy. Plato captures the difference between the
foreign mathematician, who finds students to his liking anywhere, when
Socrates asks him about promising students “here” (143d).
As Socrates leaves, he tells Theaetetus that if he attempts to conceive
other thoughts “after these” that they have examined, he will become full
with better ones “on account of [their] present search.” Or, if Theaetetus
remains “empty,” Socrates says, he will become less harsh and gentler to
his associates, for he will not believe that he knows what he does not know
(210b–c). Such “emptiness” nevertheless cannot be mere emptiness in
terms of Diotima’s lessons, for Poverty is more resourceful than her name
implies, as she contrives to mate with Resource (Symposium 203b–c). So
too the one who knows he does not know lies “between ignorance and
knowledge” or between poverty and resource. Although Socrates does
not “teach” in any ordinary sense (see Apology 19d and Theaetetus 150d),
as a result of conversing with Socrates, Theaetetus has learned what
Socrates in the Apology calls “human wisdom.” Unlike Theaetetus, who
agrees that Socrates has shown all his offspring unworthy, many interlocutors whom Socrates refuted, he recounts in the Apology, came to despise
him (21d–e and 23a; see also Theaetetus 151c). Socrates’ questioning
Theaetetus therefore provides a model of the relationship he sought to
have with others in the city. In light of the Apology, the “aporetic”
Theaetetus is not a story of Socrates’ failure but of his success.
Although Socrates does not have long to help Theaetetus, the dialogue
itself is introduced by an exchange between Euclides and Terpsion that
occurs many years later, when Euclides reports to Terpsion that the dying
Theaetetus is being carried home to Athens from his service in the army
(142b–c). We learn in other words, that although Theaetetus has become
a renowned mathematician he nevertheless answered his city’s call. He did
not travel “the whole earth.” As far as we know from Plato, Theaetetus,
like Socrates (Apology 28c; Crito 52b) traveled from Athens only when
serving in its army. In any case, Plato reproduces the difference between
the Athenian Socrates and the foreigner Theodorus when he shows the
difference between Theaetetus, who presses to return home to Athens
when he is dying, and the foreigners Euclides and Terpsion, who are surprised by his wish (142c).
As the dying Theaetetus is being carried home, Euclides has his slave
boy read to him and Terpsion the conversation that is the greater part of
the Theaetetus. Euclides has preserved a written account. As he explains,
after Socrates narrated the dialogue to him, Euclides wrote it down, went
back several times to check with Socrates about the details, and made corrections (142e–143a). Of all the conversations Socrates may have had in his
lifetime, this is the one that Plato shows us that Socrates chooses to leave
behind. Although Socrates confirms some of the details about the speeches
in the Symposium when Apollodorus asks him, Socrates does not himself
narrate the whole to Apollodorus (Symposium 173b), as he narrates his
conversation with the mathematicians to Euclides.23 Nor does Socrates fill
in any of the details forgotten or missed by Apollodorus’ source (180c;
When Apollodorus is asked whether Socrates himself told him about the gathering at
Agathon’s house, he replies emphatically, “no, by Zeus” (Symposium 173a–b).
223c–d). Most important, Apollodorus expresses no intention to write
down an account of what was said at the party. It is left to Plato to write it
down. Of the Platonic dialogues, Socrates’ conversation with Theaeteus is
the only one that Socrates is shown to authenticate and to know will be written.24 The Theaetetus is therefore unlike any other dialogue in the Platonic
corpus, at the same time that it serves as a component of a greater whole.
Whereas Socrates gives Euclides a verbatim account of his conversation
to help him write it down, in the Phaedrus he gives his interlocutor a message for others in the city about the conclusion of their conversation. He
relies on Phaedrus’ memory rather than on a writing that he in effect
dictates. Of course, once something is written, as Socrates says in the
Phaedrus, it can be bandied about everywhere, among those for whom it
is not fitting; but it can also reach those for whom it is. If there is a message from Socrates in the Theaetetus, a conclusion to the discussion, it is
the one that the reader must draw for himself. That it is written down
makes it possible for the reader to do so, just as his image of midwifery
suggests the major part that Socrates’ interlocutor must play. By including
in his dialogue Socrates’ narrating his conversation with Theaetetus to
Euclides, Plato shows us Socrates giving another gift, not merely to his
city but to anyone who can pick up the writing and read. Socrates himself
has in effect “kept the speech alive,” as he advises his companions to do in
the Phaedo (89b–c). And Plato does as well by writing the Theaetetus. As
Socrates says in the Phaedrus, the speech that is kept alive lives in the souls
of those who hear it and are able to give it to others in turn (276a). And
Plato does his part by writing the Theaetetus. More immediately, as he
departs Socrates suggests to those present, which includes Theaetetus,
that they meet again at dawn the next day (210d). In the Apology Socrates
says that he will not cease philosophizing as long as he lives; now we see
that he will not cease caretaking as well.
Conclusion: The Withdrawal of God, the Eleatic
Stranger, and Socratic Caretaking
When Socrates meets with the group the next day, a new figure has joined
the company, a Stranger from Elea, whom Theodorus introduces as a
“manly philosopher,” indeed a “divine man,” as he calls all philosophers
Stern therefore suggests that “Plato inclines us to regard this conversation in the
Theaetetus as more directly expressive of Socrates’ views than other dialogues.” Knowledge
and Politics, 29.
(Sophist 216a–c).25 We soon see that the Stranger does not approach philosophizing as if it were a feminine art of midwifery. Socrates asks him
whether the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher are considered by
those in Elea to be the same or whether they distinguish them from one
another. Socrates’ question about opinion in Elea might conceivably lead
to his examining the Stranger about how he himself understands these
activities, their relationships, and indeed his own activity as a philosopher.
The Stranger, however, replies that the answer requires “a long speech,”
which he can deliver with or without an interlocutor. He is willing to do
the former only if his interlocutor “causes no trouble” and is “tractable”
(euēnios, literally, “easily reined”) (217d). He has no expectation that his
interlocutor will contribute to the outcome nor that he himself will learn
anything he does not already know. What the Stranger will expound, as
Theodorus says, is “something he has heard thoroughly and remembers”
(217b).26 The Stranger speaks, he says, because as a visitor it would be
discourteous if he did not comply with their request (217e).
At Socrates’ suggestion, the Stranger accepts Theaetetus as an interlocutor. Socrates, as it were, yields his place to the Stranger, or, more
accurately, withdraws from practicing midwifery in favor of a man who
wants reins over his interlocutor, if he has one. When the Stranger expresses
concern that Theaetetus might become tired from the length of the discussion, Theaetetus suggests that his place might be taken by his comrade
Socrates (218b). Theaetetus too in effect yields his place, for he has no
place in the discussion that could not be taken by another. From the
Stranger’s perspective, either of the young men will serve the purpose.
And after the Stranger succeeds in defining the sophist, the young Socrates
does replace Theaetetus as the Stranger’s interlocutor when he turns to
the statesman (Statesman). Neither interlocutor expresses any interest of
In introducing the Stranger, Theodorus twice refers to him as “a man” rather than
merely a human being (216a–b).
For a good statement about the differences between Socrates and the Stranger that emerge
at the beginning of the Sophist, see Matthew Dinan, “On Wolves and Dogs: The Eleatic
Stranger’s Socratic Turn in the Sophist,” in Socratic Philosophy and Its Others, ed. Christopher
Dustin and Denise Schaeffer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 115–117. Cropsey
argues that the divisions to which the Stranger elicits his interlocutors’ consent are “determined” by the definitions that he has in mind at the outset. He thus “makes no parade of being
a midwife of knowledge who quickens the latencies of his interlocutor’s mind” and demonstrates by way of contrast that “a profound conception of the human being as intelligent wonderer” belongs to the Socratic method of interrogation. Plato’s World, 72, 74, and 111.
his own in what the discussion will address, as Theaetetus had in the question of knowledge (Theaetetus 148e). The Stranger’s goals in talking to
the young men are not Socratic.27
In his attempt to define the statesman, the Stranger tells a myth about
the course of the cosmos: in the age of Cronos, the god himself acted as a
shepherd to human beings, providing them with the fruits of the earth
without any labor on their part. The climate was temperate, and there was
neither war nor faction, neither regimes nor families. When the allotted
time arrived, however, the god withdrew his guidance (as a helmsman lets
go the tiller, the Stranger says), leaving human beings to their own care
(Statesman 268e–274d). In this “age of negligent Zeus,” which replaces
that of Cronos,28 humanity is without the guidance of either god or nature.
The harsh conditions of life that humans face when left on their own lead
to the Stranger’s view of the statesman. His “care” appears to be primarily
protection or defense. The Stranger models statesmanship on an art of
weaving that protects human beings from the natural elements, just as
statesmanship protects them from threats posed by human nature itself
(279a–b; 280c–e; 305e; 307e–308a). Inasmuch as a god-like statesman
who rules with knowledge (and without law or written rules) is not likely
to be found in the present state of the world, the laws must rule, without
permitting the questioning that undermines them (299b–d).29
The Stranger leaves little room for politics, or anything between a
divine rule in which human beings need take no care for themselves and
the inflexible rule of law. Nor does he leave any room for Socrates, who
raises questions about the just, the noble, and the good. Indeed, the art of
refutation, for which Socrates is famous (see, e.g., Apology 28e and Gorgias
458a–b), is one of the Stranger’s definitions of the sophist (Sophist 213b).
As to how the Stranger would define the philosopher, we cannot know for
What actually happens as both “dialogues” proceed, of course, is a different matter. The
Stranger encounters stumbling blocks that appear unforeseen, and his interlocutors play a
greater role than he imagined at the outset. One wonders if Socrates’ suggestion that the
Stranger take an interlocutor rather than give a long speech was for the sake of the Stranger
as well as for the sake of his interlocutor. Dinan argues that in the course of the dialogue the
Stranger jettisons his way of proceeding in favor of a more “Socratic” way, but nevertheless
does not reach a characteristically Socratic self-knowledge. “On Wolves and Dogs,” 117.
The reference to the age of “negligent Zeus” is Cropsey’s description of the Stranger’s
account of how human beings are abandoned “to utter autarky” by divine indifference.
Plato’s World, 119.
Kevin Cherry, Plato, Aristotle, and the Purpose of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2012), 152–155.
sure, for Plato left us no dialogue called the Philosopher, which along with
the Sophist and the Statesman would address Socrates’ question. The
Stranger does not propose meeting the next day to continue the discussion, as Socrates did at the end of the Theaetetus. Like the god who withdrew his hand from the tiller, the Stranger disappears from the world of
Plato’s dialogues without completing the assignment Socrates gave him,
even what might have been the most important part of the question since
it bears on the Stranger’s way of life as well as on Socrates’. The Stranger
thus gives no explicit statement on this question in Plato’s dialogues.
Plato, however, shows us differences between the Stranger’s “way” (see
Sophist 216b) and Socrates’ way in conversing with others, in questioning
and in caretaking. Moreover, by writing the Apology, Plato addresses
Socrates’ question. In the dramatic sequence of dialogues that Plato presents, the next time that Socrates speaks, after he listens in silence to the
Stranger’s exposition of the sophist and the statesman, occurs in court
when he delivers the Apology. Plato responds to the final part of Socrates’
question by giving us Socrates himself and his account of his life.30
In the Apology, Socrates describes himself as a caretaker for the city, the
gadfly who exhorts those whom he meets, especially his fellow Athenians,
to virtue. As he explains, he went to the Athenians as a father or elder
brother to persuade them to care for virtue (31b). He indicates that the
city, in contrast, has not taken good care of itself, when he alludes to the
misdeeds of his city in which he refused to participate (32b–d). Nor do the
Athenians take good care of the young, Socrates suggests when he cross-­
questions Meletus. Although Meletus has accused Socrates of corrupting
the young, Meletus is not able to say who improves them, even though he
refers to the laws, the judges, and the members of the council and the
assembly in an attempt to answer Socrates’ question (24e–25a). Socrates
even accuses Meletus of having “no care for” the youth of the city and
puns on Meletus’ name, which means one who “has a care” or “takes
care” (Apology 24d; see also Euthyphro 2c–d). Meletus is a caretaker only
in name. Socrates does not focus on the negligent god as does the Stranger
when describing the Age of Zeus, but rather on the negligent Athenians,
whom he reproaches in order to correct.
Zuckert also argues that there is a close thematic connection between the Eleatic dialogues and the dialogues that follow dramatically in Plato’s corpus. She shows how the
Apology and the Crito respond to the Stranger’s implied charge that Socrates did not understand politics, and how the Phaedo responds to the Stranger’s criticism of Socrates’ argument
about the ideas. Plato’s Philosophers, 736.
Not only is Socrates the caretaker that Meletus is not, but he urges the
Athenians to become caretakers as well, as when he asks them to act as a
gadfly for his sons, reproaching them if they suppose they are worthy
when they are not, or if they care for money or anything else more than
for virtue (31b; 41e; see also Crito 54a–b). That Socrates neglected his
own affairs to care for those of the city, as he tells them (31b), does not
mean that he does not care for his own family, no more than it means he
neglects his own soul when he cares for theirs. His call to the Athenians to
care for his sons by correcting them when they are mistaken about their
own worth implies that the greatest care is a philosophic one—to arouse
his interlocutors to hate the lie in their souls (see Republic 382a–c) by
showing them that they do not know what they think they know. Socrates
understands that questioning accompanies caretaking. In his request that
they care for his sons, Socrates thus urges the Athenians to take his own
caring as a model for their own. He acknowledges and supports the part
that others should play, unlike either the Stranger’s statesman, who rules
with knowledge, or the laws that in the absence of that statesman do not
allow questioning. Socrates’ account of his own life of questioning and
caretaking thus addresses the question of the philosopher left hanging in
the Stranger’s exposition, while providing a model for a “politics” different from the alternatives with which the Stranger leaves his listeners.
In his closing words, after the verdict is announced, Socrates continues
to show his care for the city, and once again to present his own life as a
model for the Athenians, when he proposes a new law, which would
require deliberation in capital cases to extend for several days. Socrates
thinks with more time he might have persuaded a majority of the jurors to
acquit him (37a–b). In other words, he proposes that the Athenians incorporate greater deliberation and speech into their political life, for the sake
of bringing the truth to light. By the same token, Socrates’ presentation of
the divinity whose oracle he must explore offers an alternative to the view
of the divine in the Stranger’s myth about the cosmos.
The god at Delphi takes no account of Socrates’ activities until
Chaerophon asks him whether anyone is wiser than Socrates. He is silent
until he is questioned, but when questioned he answers. His answers typically leave questions about their meaning, as Socrates interprets his oracle
to do. Socrates even imagines finding someone who is wiser than he is
and showing the god that he is “refuted” (21c). The god leaves it to
human beings to understand what he says and to choose what to do. He
encourages questioning by his oracular speech because his words require
interpretation.31 His oracle about Socrates’ wisdom in particular encourages Socrates to question others whose “wisdom” or lack thereof might
shed light on the oracle’s meaning. And Socrates understands the god to
allow Socrates to question him, and even to refute him, if he can. The
Apollo of the oracle differs from the god the Stranger describes whose
care of human beings in the age of Cronos leaves little to human beings
themselves. And yet his oracular pronouncements show more care than
does the god who gives the Stranger’s age of Zeus its name (Statesman
272b), a state in which human beings are left bereft of any guidance as
they face the harsh conditions of life. The god of the oracle is more like
the Zeus in Socrates’ palinode, who “arranges and cares” for the army of
souls who follow him only if they wish and are able (247a). Zeus does not
hold the reigns for the charioteers who drive horses in his army, as the
Stranger would like to have over his interlocutor. Because the charioteers’
reins for their horses remain in their own hands, their work is more difficult, but it is their own (see Phaedrus 246b, 247b, and 248a). So too
the Apollo of the oracle does not issue commands to Socrates, but rather
a statement that requires interpretation. Like his sister Artemis, from
whom Socrates and his mother receive their arts of midwifery (Theaetetus
210d), he is less a ruler than a gift-­giver, at least to those who seek his
help and know how to use it.
Socrates finds yet another way to express his relation to the divine by his
account of his daimonion, literally “a daimonic thing,” which he describes
as a sort of voice or sign that comes to him throughout life and warns him
against doing something he is about to do (Apology 31c–d and 40a–c).
Socrates speaks as if it were some inner voice or insight, but one that does
not come from himself. He never claims to understand exactly what his
daimonic voice is or where it comes from, although he associates it with
the divine. The “voice” does not give Socrates reasons for its warnings; it
is a “voice,” not a logos, an argument, speech, or reason. These latter
Socrates must supply.32 For example, when the daimonion opposes
Socrates’ engaging in politics, Socrates provides the explanation—he
would not long survive if he pursued justice in political life (31d–32a; see
Zuckert points out that because oracles “were notoriously difficult to understand correctly,” “Socrates’ attempt to discover what the oracle could have possibly meant may have
not appeared to be as impious to his Athenian judges as it has to some modern commentators.” Plato’s Philosophers, 730. See also Corey, “Socratic Citizenship,” 212.
Corey describes the role of the daimonion as “an intuition or a hunch, which sets reasoning in motion.” “Socratic Citizenship,” 224–225.
also 40b). The daimonic voice acts as a caretaker for Socrates, although
allowing him to decide what to do. Instead of becoming a statesman,
Socrates “becomes a busybody (polupragmonō ) in private” (31c)—something the daimonic voice apparently does not oppose—and although
Socrates lives a long time, his activity eventually costs him his life. Socrates
interprets its caretaking so as not to preclude his own.
Socrates’ own caring as expressed in his conversations with others is
therefore modeled on the divine caring he describes in his tales in Plato’s
dialogues33 and in turn illustrates what caring for human beings would
require: facilitating the contributions of others, pursuing agreement or
consent, and giving gifts that might be rejected rather than accepted. Care
leaves room for human freedom, just as divine caring as Socrates presents
it leaves room for human care. At the Symposium, as we have seen, Socrates
reports Diotima’s inclusion of the works of craftsmen, poets, and legislators among those of love, and in the Phaedrus Socrates sends a message by
its title character to the legislators, poets, and rhetoricians that would lead
them to question their own wisdom. And in the Apology, he asks the
Athenians to care for his own sons.
So too in the Phaedo, on the day he dies, he asks his interlocutors to
keep the argument alive. Their tears do not preclude their doing so, and
might make it even more likely that they remember to do so (59a and
117d–e). The form of the Phaedo is a narration that Phaedo delivers to
two foreigners who inquire about Socrates’ death. He repeats Socrates’
arguments about the immortality of the soul because they are embedded
in his account of Socrates’ death. His keeping the argument alive also
keeps alive the man who gave it to them. Unlike the god in the Stranger’s
myth, when Socrates’ allotted time to depart rolls around and the guard
brings him the poison, Socrates does not depart without leaving anything
of himself behind.
Because Cropsey understands Socrates to silently subscribe to the Stranger’s view of the
cosmos, he speculates that “if there was any seriousness in [Socrates’] implication of ‘the
god’ in his doings, it lay in the microcosmic resemblance of his own caring to what the absent
Olympian was withholding from mankind.” Plato’s World, 157. My interpretation finds a
greater difference between the Stranger and Socrates, and therefore a resemblance between
Socrates’ caring and the god’s gift to the city. In spite of the Stranger’s view of the harshness
of nature, Cropsey nevertheless observes Socrates’ “innate inclination to the right and the
good,” that reminds us that “nature sends the better angels of caring and nobility as well as
the afflictions of cruelty and baseness.” Plato’s World, 157.
Plato’s Sons and the Library of Magnesia
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos
The Socratocentric Approach and the Significance
of the Laws
Plato’s depiction of Socrates is crucial for Plato’s presentation of the
philosopher. Although Socrates is not the only philosopher in the
dialogues,1 he is undoubtedly the most important.2 This has led to what
For an interpretation of the corpus focused on its five philosophic characters and structured by the dialogues’ dramatic datings, see Catherine Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Even scholars who argue that Plato’s dialogues should be read “developmentally” (moving from Plato’s early fidelity to and straightforward presentations of Socratic philosophizing
to a later, independent mode and content of philosophizing presented primarily through
non-Socratic characters) cannot deny the preeminent importance of Socrates as a philosophic
character in the Platonic corpus, precisely because the “late” Plato is understood as a development of the “early,” Socratic Plato. But such scholars are not Socratocentric, because they
tend to view each dialogue as an expression of Plato’s thought, sometimes to the point of
neglecting the distinction between the relevant philosophical protagonist (Socrates, Timaeus,
the Eleatic Stranger, or the Athenian Stranger) and the author Plato (e.g., Trevor J. Saunders,
“Introduction” to Plato, The Laws, translated by Trevor J. Saunders (New York: Penguin,
P. L. Papadopoulos (*)
University of Dallas, Irving, TX, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1_15
we might call a Socratocentric approach to the corpus, found in Leo
Strauss’s suggestion that “Plato’s dialogues as a whole are less the presentation of a teaching than a monument to the life of Socrates—to the
core of his life: they all show Socrates engaged in his most important
work, the awakening of his fellow men and the attempting to guide them
toward the good life which he himself was living.”3 Though Strauss
immediately qualifies this statement by noting that Socrates is not always
the chief character and is in fact absent from the Laws, he reaffirms the
difficulty of speaking of “Plato’s teaching.” This difficulty, together with
Socrates’s manifest concern with various ways of life, has encouraged the
Socratocentric approach: a reading of the dialogues that focuses
on Socrates as the model philosopher, which attends not only to his evident interest in wisdom but also to his every relation, decision, intention, and motive. Socrates seems to be the model for what Plato thinks a
philosopher is and should be, the embodiment of the “good life” or way
of life (ho tropos tou biou) of the philosopher. This way of life and its
alternatives is the explicit topic of conversation in many dialogues,
including the first (Apology) and the most famous (Republic). The
Socratocentric approach to the corpus recognizes that the portrait or
question of the right or philosophic way of life is of the greatest importance in the interpretation of Plato’s dialogues.
It is typical for Plato that such discussions of various ways of life consider both their desirability (what sort of life is good or beneficial for a
human being?) and normativity (what are the ethical and political dimensions of a given way of life?). But Socrates himself would be the first to
point out that an inquiry into the nature of “philosophy” and “the philosopher” cannot be confined to a description of what sort of thing philosophy or the philosopher’s life is: desirable or undesirable, noble or base,
just or unjust, politically responsible or irresponsible.4 A fully adequate
treatment, one that would satisfy a philosopher, would seem possible only
after answering the definitional question, “what is philosophy?” or “what
is the philosopher?” Plato’s apparently deliberate failure to write a promised dialogue that would directly and dialectically take up this question,
together with the manifold interrelations between the dialogues, has
Leo Strauss, “Plato,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph
Cropsey, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 33.
See, for example, Socrates’s criticism of Polus for describing rather than defining rhetoric
(Gorgias 448d–449a) and of Meno for asking what kind of thing virtue is rather than asking
what it is (Meno 71b).
f­ urther encouraged scholars’ focus on the model philosopher, Socrates, as
he speaks and acts throughout the dialogues.5 It is as if Plato the philosophic author decided to take up the question, “who is the philosopher?”
instead or as a way of answering the definitional question. Strauss thus
suggests that the dialogues are a “monument” to Socrates insofar as they
depict “the core of his life,” his “most important work”; the defining
activity of the model philosopher will disclose the nature of philosophy.
On this Socratocentric interpretation, Plato’s understanding of philosophy and the philosopher must be sought not only in the relevant discussions within the dialogues but also in the various decisions of Socrates,
both depicted and reported.
Among these decisions, one stands out as among the most fundamental, for without Plato’s departure from it we would have no access to the
Platonic depiction of Socrates: “the most obvious difference between Plato
and his teacher Socrates is that Plato wrote and Socrates did not.”6 That
this difference is significant for Plato’s understanding of the way of the life
of the philosopher is evident from the fact that Socrates’s critical discussion of writing in the Phaedrus culminates in a prescription for whom
properly may be called “philosopher” (277d–278d). We who encounter
philosophy or its fruits primarily in books, who take for granted philosophy as a genre of writing, and who hardly think of a philosopher who is
not also an author, must remind ourselves that Plato’s decision to write
was a momentous departure from his teacher and endures as a surprising
contrast between the author and the character whom he presented as the
model philosopher.
This chapter considers Plato’s departure from Socrates in becoming a
philosophic author through an examination of the Laws, the only dialogue
The promised dialogue Philosopher would complete the trilogy begun in the Sophist
(217a) and continued in the Statesman (cf. 257a–258b, 311c). The Apology seems to be the
next dialogue in dramatic order; see Debra Nails, The People of Plato (Indianapolis: Hackett,
2002), 321–322. Zuckert argues that the Apology–Crito–Phaedo includes Socrates’s rebuttals
to the Eleatic Stranger’s political and philosophical criticisms (Plato’s Philosophers, 736). It
would be plausible to narrow the identification of the missing Philosopher from the dialogues
as a whole to these final three dialogues, but they like all the others seem to demand a transtextual treatment: “Each Platonic dialogue seems to stand on its own and declare its dependence on others” (Seth Benardete, The Archaeology of the Soul (South Bend, IN: St.
Augustine’s Press, 2012), 343). Thus we are turned back to the Platonic corpus as a whole
as we seek to find or define the philosopher.
Catherine Zuckert, “Plato’s Laws: Postlude or Prelude to Socratic Philosophy?” The
Journal of Politics 66.2 (2004), 374–395: 374 (emphasis in the original).
from which Socrates is absent. Plato’s Socrates speaks most extensively and
precisely of writing and texts when he is criticizing the activity and its artifacts, and when he tries his hand at writing while awaiting his execution,
he does so in a reverent and playful rather than practical mode, without
any intention that what he writes will be read by or have an effect on anyone.7 Not so Plato. How then does Plato conceive of himself as an author,
even as he depicts the way of life of the non-author Socrates in his dialogues? What does Plato expect will become of his carefully crafted dialogues? How, in his understanding, will his philosophic writings affect the
practice of philosophy and the practice of politics?
The Laws gives us reason to believe that Plato was concerned with these
questions.8 Indeed a broader treatment of the Platonic corpus, beyond the
scope of the present chapter, suggests that the Laws contains the complement to the more famous treatment of writing found in the Phaedrus:
in the latter, the philosopher maintains the ultimate priority of philosophizing as a spoken, interpersonal practice integral to his way of life, while
in the former, the philosopher considers and assumes responsibility for the
political and philosophic consequences of his becoming an author.9 My
treatment of the Laws will focus on the Athenian Stranger’s proposal to
record his conversation with Kleinias and Megillus in Book VII, the relation of this proposal to the theō roi (observers) in Book XII, and the
Nocturnal Council discussed in Books X and XII. I will argue that the
Athenian Stranger intends the city in speech, Magnesia, to contain a library
of texts both philosophic and non-philosophic including Plato’s dialogues
and with the Laws itself as the principle and paradigmatic text. This library
is meant to be studied by the elite citizens who compose the Nocturnal
Socrates criticizes writing at Phaedrus 274b–279b; he reports his own writing at Phaedo
This would be particularly unsurprising if the Laws were the last work composed by Plato,
as some scholars have argued following the rumor reported by Diogenes Laertius (Lives of
Eminent Philosophers, III.37). (Aristotle notes that the Laws was written after the Republic
but does not discuss its compositional date relative to the other dialogues, Politics II.6
1264b25). However, my argument does not depend upon any compositional dating of the
Laws, much less any form of the developmental hypothesis.
This is a particular application of what might be called the hermeneutic of inter-textual
complementarity, according to which Plato has divided his treatments of fundamental topics
(such as erō s, rhetoric, or in this case, writing) into partial or one-sided treatments contained
in two or more dialogues. For articulations and examples of this interpretive approach, see
Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 111–112, and
James H. Nichols, Jr., “Introduction: Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Politics,” in Plato’s Phaedrus
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 18.
Council. In the Laws Plato portrays a city that is not directly ruled by philosophers, one in which what we today would call an academy, formally but
indirectly associated with the political establishment, preserves philosophic
texts and thus enables philosophic inquiry and the philosophic way of life
for certain citizens.10 Simultaneously, Magnesia’s institutions are designed
to utilize the philosophic or semi-philosophic activities of the Council in
guarding the city from corrupting and antinomian opinions which might
arise in its own citizens, intrude from outside the city, or even overflow
from the Council itself. In this way, the Laws contains Plato’s distinctive
prescription for mitigating the conflict between the philosopher and the
city, attempting to ensure the good of each while acknowledging that their
division cannot or ought not be overcome. As we shall see, Plato’s own
writings play a central role in the project of the Laws, giving us insight into
his motive for writing and his expectations for his own works.
Who or What Rules in the Laws?
Plato’s Laws depicts an Athenian Stranger and two elderly Dorian statesmen, Kleinias the Cretan and Megillus the Spartan, who converse with
each other during a dawn-to-midnight pilgrimage to the cave where
This interpretation builds upon but goes beyond those offered by Glenn R. Morrow and
Trevor J. Saunders. Morrow observes the parallels between the Nocturnal Council and what
we know of Plato’s Academy, but he does not explore the possibility that I argue for in this
essay: that, through Stranger’s proposal in Book VII and the institution of the theō roi, Plato
provided for the Council to study his own texts. See Plato’s Cretan City: A Historical
Interpretation of the Laws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 500–515; cf.
339–340. Saunders’s careful analysis of the political activities of Academicians includes a
substantial discussion of the Laws, but he assumes that the Athenian Stranger is an
Academician, implicitly according the dialogue a very late dramatic date (during Plato’s lifetime, when the Academy is well-established). As a result, he overlooks the complexity and
misjudges the scope of Plato’s philosophic-legislative project in writing the Laws. By assuming the existence of the Academy during the drama of the dialogue, Saunders loses the incentive to investigate the institution of the theō roi, their charge to gather foreign nomoi and
logoi, and the Nocturnal Council’s study of the Laws itself and related logoi. The same
assumption leads Saunders to read Plato’s ambition in the Laws narrowly, suggesting that it
is strictly concerned with the present and foreseeable future, in which the Academy exists and
teaches certain “right (i.e., Academic) opinions on moral and political matters” that the
Council may initially depend upon; thus Saunders neglects to discuss the Council’s charge to
conduct open-ended studies for the ongoing and future stability and benefit of Magnesia.
See “‘The RAND Corporation of Antiquity?’ Plato’s Academy and Greek Politics,” in Studies
in Honor of T. B. L. Webster, ed. J. H. Betts, J. T. Hooker, and J. R. Green (Bristol: Bristol
Classical Press, 1988), 260.
Crete’s lawgiver, Minos, once passed the time with Zeus. The Laws has
been called Plato’s most political dialogue because only there do we see
political activity: a city founded in deed, not merely in speech as in the
Republic.11 More precisely, we see in the Laws the education of a character,
Kleinias, who has been empowered to legislate for a city and who means
to do so once the dialogue is over.12 Kleinias and nine of his countrymen
have been selected to draw up a law code for a pan-Cretan colony called
Magnesia. He reveals this fact at the end of Laws III. By this point, the
Athenian Stranger has impressed him sufficiently that Kleinias invites him
to help construct a “city in speech” that the Cretans can use as a model for
the actual founding of Magnesia (III 702d). The conversation during the
next nine books describes in sometimes-exhausting detail the legislation
for Magnesia and depicts more or less provisional inquiries into a host of
relevant topics, ranging from the nature of the soul to the gods to the
cosmos. Unlike the city in speech of the Republic, the Magnesian regime
described in the Laws is not ruled by philosopher-kings, and the colonists
who will populate the city carry with them the Dorian character and customs criticized by the Athenian Stranger. The dialogue ends with Kleinias
and Megillus agreeing that the Stranger must, by hook or by crook, be
made to take part in Magnesia’s actual founding (XII 969c–d).
Readers of the Laws are faced with the question: what is the role of
philosophy or the philosopher in founding and maintaining Magnesia?
The textual evidence for one interpretation or another is less obvious than
in the city in speech of the Republic; as is often remarked, the word “philosophy” does not even appear in the Laws. Magnesia is sometimes contrasted with Kallipolis as a regime dedicated to the “rule of law” rather
than the direct, and unconstrained, “rule of wisdom” or rule of
philosopher-­kings. This contrast is good as far as it goes, but fails to grasp
the central fact of the proposed city. Shawn Fraistat has aptly described the
Magnesian regime as a “grammatocracy”: “a second-best regime in which
a philosopher […] rules indirectly, by means of written law.”13 As we will
Leo Strauss, The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1975), 1.
Catherine Zuckert, “On the Implications of Human Mortality: Legislation, Education,
and Philosophy in Book 9 of Plato’s Laws,” in Plato’s Laws: Force and Truth in Politics, edited
by Gregory Recco and Eric Sanday (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013),
169–188; 170.
Shawn Fraistat, “The Authority of Writing in Plato’s Laws,” Political Theory 43.5
(2015), 657–677: 665, 662.
see later, it is above all the dialogue itself, not the law code discussed in it,
which serves as the authoritative text in Magnesia. The Laws argues not
for the abstract principle of the “rule of law” but for the rule of wisdom or
philosophy by means of laws, which are themselves embedded within a
specific piece of writing—the Laws.14 Significantly, the text itself is meant
to be reverenced by the citizens of Magnesia; praise for the text is a necessary condition for becoming a teacher of the Magnesian youth (VII 811e).
In this sense, the Athenian Stranger’s indirect rule of Magnesia via the
Laws more closely resembles the “rule of law” found in God’s or Moses’s
indirect rule of Israel via the Torah than the customs and culture of modern liberal constitutionalism. Because the Magnesian regime is designed to
be ruled indirectly by the Stranger, the Dorians are convinced that he
must continue to work with them, and it is for this same reason that the
Athenian Stranger, like Moses, embeds within the law code a requirement
for the preservation and study of the whole text in which the various, discrete laws are given.15 Magnesia is meant to be ruled by philosophy, but
indirectly and through the medium of a text. By considering both the
status of the ruling text in the regime and the content of the dialogue, we
may discern Plato’s regard for his own authorship.
Writing Down the Laws
We turn now to Book VII. There, the Stranger proposes that the Laws
itself—the dialogue written by Plato, describing the conversation he and
the Dorians have been having on their pilgrimage—should be written
down and preserved as a model (paradeigma) for the Guardian of the
Laws and Educator of the colony. When it comes to the formation of its
citizens, the city in speech of the Laws will be guided not only by its laws,
but above all by the Laws.
The grammatocracy is meant to “comprehensively regulate the conduct of each citizen
from cradle to grave” (ibid., 665). Fraistat argues persuasively that the Magnesian regime,
with its elections and law code, is not a radical alternative to the Republic’s philosopherkingship but a “second-best method for realizing” the rule of philosophers (668).
Cf. Deuteronomy 17:18–19. It is my understanding that this passage requires any king
of Israel to write a copy of the entire Torah or Pentateuch (mishneh torah, “a copy of this
Law”), not merely the discrete “law” or “teaching” about the conduct of kings given in the
immediate context (mishpat hamelech, 17:14–19). Compare with Laws VII 811b–812a, discussed below.
The Stranger makes this remarkable proposal in a speech he addresses
to an official in the Magnesian regime, the Supervisor of Children, regarding “writings that are not in meter” (VII.809b).16 The Stranger begins by
discussing writing (grammata) as a craft, as well as lyre-playing, arithmetic, and astronomy (809e–810b). He then reviews what sort of writings
should be allowed in the city, working his way around from poetry to
prose in a strange fashion. He speaks of “poet’s writings that are not
accompanied by the lyre,” including a certain sort that he calls “writings
that follow logos alone,” lacking rhythm and harmony; and he warns that
“there are harmful writings left among us by some of the many human
beings who have composed such things” (810b). The Stranger neither
describes nor gives examples of the harmful writings (sphalera grammata),
texts that are stumbling blocks to their readers. Nor does he discuss the
possibility of a paradeigma for harmful writings. But when he refers to
“writings that follow logos alone [suggrammata kata logon eirēmena
monon],” I suspect we are meant to think of the Platonic dialogues: a kind
of unmetered poetry, without rhyme and without musical accompaniment, depicting dialogues or proceeding through speeches (dia logoi).17
This suspicion is strengthened soon afterward, when the Athenian Stranger
remarks that the speeches he and his companions have been going through
since dawn “have been spoken in a way that resembles in every respect a
kind of poetry” (811c).18
But at this point, the Stranger pauses in his speech to the Supervisor of
Children to recognize the difficulty posed by the harmful writings. He puts
a question to the Supervisor: “What are you going to do about them, you
The Stranger often speaks directly to the future citizens and office-holders in the regime
they are founding; these speeches, and the various “preludes” to the laws, are an important
component of the regime, and are meant to be actually repeated to the colonists. Thus,
without this proposal in Book VII, at the very least the “preludes” must be either memorized
or written down if the actual founding of Magnesia is to imitate the “city in speech” described
in the conversation.
The importance of dialogue to the Socratic authors is evident from their writings; moreover, the literary record of classical Greece suggests that dialogue was a peculiarly Socratic
concern. Far from being a common term to denote conversation, the first extant use of the
noun dialogos is found in Plato; the cognate verb dialegesthai exploded in popularity only
with the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Plato in particular gave dialogos a strong connotation of inquisitive or truth-seeking discussion. See Katarzyna Jażdżweska, “From Dialogos to
Dialogue: The Use of the Term from Plato to the Second Century CE,” Greek, Roman, and
Byzantine Studies 54 (2014), 17–36.
According to Diogenes Laertius, “Aristotle remarks that the style of [Plato’s] dialogues
is half-way between poetry and prose” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, III.37).
best of all Guardians of the Laws? Or rather, what, indeed, would be the
correct regulations for the legislator to give you to use? I expect he’s going
to be greatly perplexed [mala aporēsein]” (810c). The Stranger shifts from
instructing the future officials of Magnesia to conversing with Kleinias by
indicating the magnitude of the difficulty presented by the existence of
“harmful writings.” Kleinias, remarking that the Athenian seems to be “in
real perplexity” (810c), asks for clarification. Instead of answering him
directly, the Stranger somewhat coyly works to excite Kleinias, telling him
that they are facing a task which is “not at all easy,” namely, to speak against
“what has been said often, by myriads of mouths” and to “risk and dare the
path of legislation now opened by the present arguments” (810d, e). We
know from the very start of the dialogue that Kleinias, despite his age, is a
vigorous and aggressive man in spirit and speech.19 At times, he seems to
embody his agonistic creed.20 Thus the Stranger knows that he will likely
excite Kleinias by offering to enlist him in a struggle—and if this struggle is
against “myriads,” all the better. They will be fighting against those who
assert that the proper education of young citizens requires “learn[ing]
whole poets by heart, and gain[ing] vast experience of hearing, and much
learning, through their readings” (811a).
All this is rather odd. If we understand the Athenian to be speaking
merely about poetry, then this passage in which he works to excite and
enlist Kleinias would seem entirely unnecessary. There is little reason to
Kleinias’s aggression in the opening pages of the Laws is demonstrated by Eric Salem,
“The Long and Winding Road: Impediments to Inquiry in Book 1 of the Laws,” in Plato’s
Laws: Force and Truth in Politics, ed. Gregory Recco and Eric Sanday (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2013), 48–59; 50–51.
Near the beginning of the dialogue, the Athenian helps Kleinias articulate his conviction
that strife or struggle is the defining and inescapable character of cosmic, psychological, and
political phenomena—a conviction that the Athenian will combat directly and indirectly
throughout the dialogue. Kleinias, who praises the Athenian for helping him articulate his
view “that all are enemies of all in public, and in private each is an enemy of himself” (I
626d), affirms that Minos, who received the Cretan laws from Zeus, arranged all things in
their regime with a view to victory in war. We later learn that Kleinias’s emphasis on the strife
within and between individuals extends to a kind of Manichean view of the cosmos. Kleinias
holds this agonistic worldview ‘naturally,’ as it were—without any training in (or even exposure to) the materialist natural science or sophistic political theory that supports or even
requires it—simply as a result of his soul having been shaped by the laws of his Dorian
regime. The Stranger, unlike Kleinias, recognizes that this agonistic worldview aids and abets
the very atheism and antinomianism that Kleinias knows is a threat to civic order and therefore desires to punish, that is, the very tendencies that would be encouraged by the “harmful
writings” alluded to in Book VII.
think that there are myriads of Kleinias’s fellow-citizens advocating for a
poetic education, or that there will be any pressure on or from the pan-­
Cretan legislative committee for this education. In his description of the
Cretan legislation, Kleinias gave no indication that the memorization of or
even exposure to poetry plays any role (cf. I 625c–626b). Indeed, he himself, an elder statesman of Knossos, displays a certain ignorance of poetry.
Poetry is not entirely unknown to the Cretans, yet the Laws is perhaps the
only Platonic dialogue featuring characters—Kleinias and Megillus—
whose knowledge of Homer and Hesiod cannot be assumed.21 The
Athenian Stranger may be thinking of the “myriads” of Athenians, or
other non-Cretans, who believe in the importance of poetic instruction
for the education of citizens. But their opposition to the educational plans
of Magnesia would be irrelevant. The Magnesian Supervisor of Children
whom the Stranger is addressing in his speech would not face the kind of
opposition that an educational reformer in post-Peisistratus Athens would
in seeking to curtail drastically the place of poetry in the education of the
youth.22 The Athenian seems to be stirring up Kleinias’s martial spirit
against a phantom, faraway enemy. When he says to Kleinias, “you’re urging me on to a freedom of speech that will permit me to show these people
which part of what they say is fine and which is not” (811a), it is about as
daring and transgressive as the “freedom of speech” (parrhesia) involved
in preaching to the choir.
Kleinias, for his part, is both eager and confident. And precisely because
of the abovementioned incongruity, the reader’s attention has been raised
for what is to come. The Stranger returns to the theme of the “harmful
writings,” which are not works of poetry alone, saying that their authors
have said many things that are noble but also many things ignoble; thus,
As Catherine Zuckert has noted, the Athenian Stranger “always cites or quotes both
Homer and Hesiod positively, whereas in the Republic Socrates is critical of the poets”; the
Stranger “appears to be taking advantage of Clinias’ lack of learning and Megillus’ simplicity
in an attempt to change their opinions,” a “rewriting” that Socrates could not have done
with his better-read interlocutors (Plato’s Philosophers, 75, 75n49). Zuckert attributes the
Dorians’ guilelessness to their lack of philosophical training (Laws VII 818e–819a), but the
difference begins with their ignorance of Ionian and Attic poetry (X 886c).
Socrates credits Hipparchus, “the eldest and wisest of Peisistratus’s sons,” for bringing
the Homeric poems to Athens and compelling the rhapsodes at the Panathenaia to recite
them (Plato, Hipparchus 228b). The locus classicus of what has come to be called the
“Peisistratean recension” is Cicero, De oratore, III.137. See J. A. Davison, “Peisistratus and
Homer,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 86 (1955):
“there is a danger in imbuing the children with much learning” (811b),
but also a possible benefit, if only one can isolate the noble speeches from
the ignoble. Kleinias asks the Stranger what model (paradeigma) the
Guardian of the Laws “should look to, at any time, to decide what he
would allow all the young to learn and what he would prevent them from
learning” (811b). Despite the Stranger’s warning of the great difficulty
(mala aporia) involved in this issue, Kleinias is confident that the Stranger
can produce a “model”—a single, exemplary text or speech or utterance—
by reference to which a city official may discriminate between noble and
ignoble writings.23
Here the Stranger confesses he is “not altogether at a loss for a model”
to give the Educator. For, looking to the speeches they’ve been going
through since dawn—and it seems that they have “not been speaking
without some inspiration from the gods”—these seem to “have been spoken in a way that resembles in every respect a kind of poetry” (811c). The
conversation of the Laws began at dawn on midsummer’s day, the longest
day of the year, and likely lasted until about midnight; near the end of
Book VII, it is the early afternoon.24 The Stranger is referring to the
entirety of the Laws thus far: beginning with his opening question to the
Dorians (whether it is a god or some man who is given credit for their
laws), progressing through the wide-ranging discussion of law, education,
psychology, history, regimes, and related topics in Books I–III that culminates in Kleinias’s invitation to join him in building a “city in speech,” and
then the Magnesian legislation itself that includes the present discussion of
education. Compared to most speeches the Athenian has heard—whether
they were “in poems, or poured out in prose like” their own speeches—
the speeches that we know as the first seven books of the Laws appear to
him “the most well-measured” and “especially appropriate for the young
to hear” (811d). Their midsummer day’s dialogue, a series of prosaic
The Stranger indulges Kleinias’s request for a paradeigma, and no doubt he intended
Kleinias to ask for one. But it is worth noting that both characters share a great confidence
in the possibility that a single text can serve as the paradigm for judging all others. As I discuss below, the Stranger proposes and Kleinias seems receptive to a textually-defined standard for Magnesia and Magnesian learning.
Eric Salem estimates that the conversation of the Laws proceeds at four books per six
hours; if it began at dawn and it is high noon at the end of Book IV (822c), then it ends
around midnight (“The Night Watchmen: or, By the Dawn’s Early Light,” Ramify 5.1
(2015); 1–19; 18n13). Compare with Morrow’s discussion of the length of the route from
Knossos to the cave of Zeus; Morrow concludes that the cave in question was on Mount Ida,
a 12- or 13-hour walk from Knossos (Plato’s Cretan City, 27–28).
speeches spoken by mortals but tending toward the poetic and perhaps
inspired by the gods, is both noble enough to be heard by the Magnesian
youth and a paradigm for distinguishing noble, beneficial writings from
those that are ignoble and harmful.
The idea that the entire Laws, rather than just the preludes that punctuate its legislative code, should be read to the Magnesian youth might seem
almost incredible; it is difficult enough for scholars to understand.
Moreover, there seems to be an explicit legal obstacle to doing so. Early in
the dialogue, the Athenian praised most highly the Cretan law that forbids
youngsters from inquiring into the goodness of their own laws and that
commands them instead to praise their laws as given from the god (I
634d–e). Only old men (such as Kleinias, the Stranger, and Megillus) in
the presence of a magistrate (such as Kleinias) are permitted to inquire
into the goodness and divine origin of the laws, as they have been from the
opening line of the dialogue. Thus to read the Laws to the Magnesian
youth would seem to violate the Cretan law that the Stranger had praised
in it. This, together with the fact that the Stranger refers to his present
speech as a “myth” (VII 812a), might suggest that there is something
ridiculous about his proposal.25
Indeed, there is something ridiculous happening here, or at least wondrous: before the reader’s eyes, a character in the Laws is proposing that
he and his companions become what they are when we encounter them:
participants in a series of speeches begun at dawn, to be heard or read by
the youths and their educators. In a word, the Stranger proposes that he,
Kleinias, and Megillus become interlocutors in the Platonic dialogue we
are reading. The “fourth wall” has been broken, as a character proposes
that someone write down the drama that he is enacting. The Stranger
thinks that not only the laws and preludes proposed in their conversation
but the conversation itself, as a whole, would serve a vital function for
Magnesia and its regime.
“Speeches that are the brothers of these”
The Stranger continues: “I don’t think I would have a better model than
this to describe for the Guardian of the Laws and Educator, or anything
that would be better for him to bid the teachers to teach the children,
other than these things and things that are connected to them and similar”
Further argued by David Roochnik, “The ‘Serious Play’ of Book 7 of Plato’s Laws,” in
Plato’s Laws: Force and Truth in Politics, edited by Gregory Recco and Eric Sanday
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 48–59.
(811d–e). He now includes among the praiseworthy and “model” logoi
ones that are not his but are linked to or like them. The Stranger is suggesting that it is not only the present conversation in its particularities—
the Laws, insofar as it is the origin story of Magnesia’s law code—but
something in it, by virtue of which it may be similar to other writings, that
will be useful as a guide for the education of the Magnesians. Thus, in
addition to recording the conversation of the Laws and teaching it to the
colonists, the Guardian of the Laws and Educator should “work through
the poems of the poets, as well as prose writings and things that are simply
recited without being written down, and if, as can be presumed, he comes
across speeches that are the brothers of these, he should on no account let
them pass by but should write them down,” compel the city’s teachers “to
learn and praise these writings,” and entrust to those who find them pleasing “the young, to be taught and educated” (VII 811c–812a, emphasis
mine). The written dialogue, a record of the spoken dialogue they are still
in the course of having, will somehow teach the teachers of the youth.
The phrase, “speeches that are the brothers of these [adelpha pou toutō n
tō n logō n]” (811e), requires interpretation. On the one hand, it could
mean something like the earlier phrase “things that are connected to them
and similar [ta te toutō n echomena kai homoia]”—denoting speeches that
share a certain affinity in character or purpose or content with the conversation of the Laws, regardless of their provenance, and that by virtue of
this affinity are suitable teachers of the teachers of the colonists. On the
other hand, if we take the brothers metaphor literally, then the natural or
legitimate or blood brothers to the speeches of the Laws would be brothers from the same mother, or rather, sons of the same father. In this case,
the Athenian Stranger would be proposing that not only the Laws but the
entire Platonic corpus—along with other, more distantly related texts
(cousins, in-laws, or just kindred spirits: texts that are “connected to them
and similar”)—should be brought to Magnesia and employed in teaching
the teachers of the city’s youth. The Guardian of the Laws and Educator
should use these texts as a model for what he should allow the youth of the
city to learn and what he should prevent them from learning (811c).26
This possibility has been noticed occasionally in the secondary literature, but to my
knowledge the point has not been developed. Benardete writes that the Athenian Stranger
“proposes, in short, the writing down of Socratic speeches” (Plato’s Laws: The Discovery of
Being, 215).
There is no immediate indication in the text about how to interpret the
“brothers” metaphor. However, there are two reasons to think that we
should take the metaphor literally, and read “speeches that are the brothers of these” as referring to other Platonic texts. First, Plato uses a familial
metaphor in the most prominent discussion of writing in his corpus. In the
Phaedrus, Socrates subordinates writing a text to “genuine writing,” the
inscription of logoi on a soul.27 What we normally call writing is according
to Socrates an imitation of this psychic writing. He compares book-authors
to celebrants of the festival of Adonis who sow seeds in carton “gardens of
Adonis” and then ritually discard them before the sprouts mature; by contrast, dialecticians who sow logoi in suitable souls are like intelligent farmers, who take seriously the task of sowing and nurturing plants that they
have sown in suitable soil. The same individual may perform both tasks,
but he ought to write texts “for the sake of play, storing a treasure of
reminders for himself” and for “those who follow him,” while recognizing
that the logoi truly worthy of “seriousness” are “the things taught and said
for the sake of learning and really written in the soul, concerning things
just and beautiful and good.” It is only the logoi written in the souls of
others that should be considered “like [his] genuine sons” (Phaedrus,
276c–278a; cf. 275a). Plato’s Socrates thus distinguishes the activity of
interpersonal dialogue from that of authorship, establishes a hierarchy
between them, and indicates in what manner a philosopher would regard
his own writings. Texts, on this account, would be “sons” as well—albeit,
illegitimate sons or bastards.
Does Plato agree with Socrates’s metaphor in the Phaedrus?28 If so, he
would regard the dialogues as a father would regard his bastard sons.
Regardless of whether he agrees with his Socrates on this point, Plato’s use
of a paternal metaphor in the Phaedrus for the relation between an author
and his texts suggests that we should read the Athenian Stranger’s fraternal metaphor—“speeches that are the brothers of these,” in a passage
where he has suggested transforming his conversation into the text that
we know as Plato’s Laws—as a reference to other Platonic writings.
Plato’s Phaedrus, translated by James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
This would seem to be suggested by Plato’s Seventh Letter, 344a–345c.
Magnesia’s theō roi and the Recording of Texts
An additional reason to prefer this interpretation requires a longer explanation and involves a special class of citizens discussed in Book XII, the
theōroi (observers), and their connection to the Nocturnal Council.29 In
the course of Book XII, the Stranger warns of the dangerous innovations
that foreigners might bring to the well-ordered regime of Magnesia (a
topic clearly related to the discussion of harmful writings in Book VII).
Accordingly, he strictly limits the ability of Magnesians to travel abroad
(XII 950a–951a). But he adds: “If certain citizens desire to observe
[epithumōsi … theōrēsai] the affairs of other human beings at greater leisure, no law is to prevent them” (951b). Here is another extraordinary
moment in the Laws: this time, the Stranger forbids the city which tightly
regulates the lives of its citizens from forbidding “certain citizens” a certain kind of travel away from that city.30 The regime is forbidden from
forbidding (but required to regulate) this theoretical travel, for “there are
always among the many [tois pollois] certain divine human beings [anthrōpoi
… theioi]—not many—whose intercourse is altogether worthwhile, and
who do not by nature grow any more frequently in cities with good laws
[en eunomoumenais polesin] than in cities without” (951b–c). The reader
is struck by the Stranger’s recognition that the best human beings, those
who can be called “divine,” arises independently of the laws of cities.31
For a helpful discussion of how fourth century Greek philosophers appropriated the
existing civic institution of theō ros to define and to defend their novel, theoretical enterprise,
see Andrea Wilson Nightingale, “On Wondering and Wandering: Theō ria in Greek
Philosophy and Culture,” Arion 9.2 (2001), 23–58, especially 31–38. Nightingale’s treatment of Plato focuses on the Republic, in which Socrates appears as a quasi-religious theō ros
to “the metaphysical realm” (36), but neglects to discuss the Laws, in which theō roi are
charged to investigate foreign nomoi and logoi and thus enable the political-philosophical
activity of the Nocturnal Council. Consider also Solon’s appearance as a theō ros and an
Athenian Stranger in Herodotus, The History, I.29–30.
As Salem notes, “This is a regime given to forbidding a great many things” (“The Night
Watchmen,” 6).
The sense of “divine” has shifted over the course of the Laws, and by this point a “divine
human being” denotes what might be called a philosopher (a term absent from the Laws).
The characters began on a pilgrimage to the cave of Zeus, where Minos was said to have had
intercourse (sunousia) with Zeus and thus received the Cretan laws (Laws I 624b, Minos
320b). (Sunousia may connote either or both erotic and education activities; see V. Bradley
Lewis, “The Nocturnal Council and Platonic Political Philosophy,” History of Political
A divine man is hard to find.32 This fact justifies the travel of certain
Magnesians abroad in search of (zētein) these “divine human beings,” for
conversing with and learning from them is the worthiest of things, and is
desirable or necessary even for a certain kind of citizen in a city with good
The Stranger stipulates the qualifications for theoretical travel and regulates their conduct. A theō ros must be a citizen between 50 and 60 years
old, “with a good reputation in other respects and in war” (951c–d).
Upon his return to Magnesia, this man who has been “observing the legal
customs among the rest of humanity” (952b) must be debriefed and
judged by “the council of those who keep watch over the laws,” the body
that is elsewhere named the Nocturnal Council (951d). The “intercourse
and speeches” of this Council “are always to be about laws and their own
city, and anything they may have learned elsewhere that is different and
pertains to such matters, as well as whatever branches of learning might
seem to contribute to this inquiry” (952a). The theō ros might contribute
to the Council’s discussions of these topics as a result of what he learns in
his travels.33 If in his travels he has “found some persons capable of explaining some utterance concerning the laying down of laws, or education, or
upbringing, or if he himself should return having thought some things
Thought, 19.1 (1998): 1–20: 5n13.) But the Stranger has corrected the Dorian theology by
replacing Zeus with nous (intellect or mind); the divine is accessed not through the periodic
encounter with a god in a cave, but through the cultivation and exercise of the mind in conversation—the sunousia of philosophic human beings, not the sunousia of a human being
with a divinity.
If by “divine” human beings the Stranger means philosophers, then his observation
seems to contradict a crucial premise of the Republic’s city in speech, which is ruled by philosopher-kings “grown” by its elaborate education. But the organic metaphor itself suggests
that education is a process of cultivation, not construction; perhaps human beings with the
potential to become a “divine human being” are born at the same rate in a well-ordered city
as in a poorly ordered one. In any case, the Stranger here contrasts “cities with good laws”
with those lacking them; Plato may agree with both his Socrates and his Stranger if he
thought a city could have “good laws” without providing a philosophic education for its rulers, assuming that this kind of education is the cultivation that would help potentially divine
human beings “grow” into true philosophers.
As Saunders has remarked, the “philosophic activity” of the observers in “consult[ing]
foreign experts and inquir[ing] into the laws and jurisprudence of other countries” is crucial
for Plato’s attempt “to ensure that Magnesia is founded on philosophic insight: the observers
report to a full meeting of the Nocturnal Council, which no doubt attempts to feed into the
legal system any new ideas and practices of which they approve” (“Plato’s Later Political
Thought,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, 464–492: 477).
up” (952b), he must deliver these speeches to the Council upon his return.
And if it is determined that the theō ros has been improved by his travels
and benefited his city with the speeches he has brought back, he will be
rewarded with praise during his life and an honorable burial at his death
for his service to Magnesia.34
Having recognized that “divine” human beings do not arise more frequently in cities with good laws than in cities with deficient laws, the
Stranger admits that the Magnesian regime may learn something from
other cities, guided by other laws, and from individuals in other cities
whose thoughts are independent of their own cities’ laws and customs.
Further, he recognizes that the theō roi themselves might in the course of
their travels—perhaps as a result of observing different regimes and customs or having heard novel (even if not “divine”) speeches unknown in
Magnesia—think more clearly about legislation, education, and upbringing, and produce speeches of their own that can help the city. Thus
Magnesia is bound by its founding legislation to publicly honor, during
their lives and at their deaths, those citizens who are led by their theoretical or searching desires to leave the city and who upon their return are
both improved in themselves and able to contribute to the legal and educational affairs of the regime.
Should the theōroi actually write down the helpful speeches that they
encounter in their travels? The Stranger does not say, but elsewhere in the
Laws, Kleinias makes the commonsensical observation that it is “a very
great help” to record legislation and related matters (including theological
argumentation) in writing, because then such matters, if difficult to comprehend, can be studied and eventually understood even by slow learners
(X 891a). Presumably, at least some of the “explanations” and relevant
disquisitions that the theōroi come across will be sufficiently long or com34
If the Council determines that the theō ros has been corrupted by his travels, he is sentenced to a kind of internal exile in Magnesia, associating with neither youths nor old men and
never claiming to be wise. If he obeys, he will be permitted to live a private life; if not, he must
be put on trial and may be sentenced to death “for being a busybody in some way concerning
the education and the laws” (XII 952d). It is unclear what the Council should look to when
determining whether or not the theō ros has been corrupted, but it seems to be evidenced by a
moral flaw—perhaps merely the belief that one is wise when one is not, or perhaps the acts and
choices that follow from this belief (952c). Saunders point out that the observers and through
them the Nocturnal Councilors are “encouraged to have wider mental horizons,” but “the
general run of Magnesians are to be totally immersed in Platonic values,” that is, the public
teaching of the Laws (Saunders, “Plato’s Later Political Thought,” 472).
plex to warrant a written record. Moreover, a given theōros may spend up
to ten years (between the ages of 50 and 60, XII 951d) traveling abroad
and investigating the nomoi and logoi he encounters in foreign cities, multiplying the possible speeches he would consider bringing with him back
to Magnesia. All these reasons suggest that the theōros would write down
(or obtain written copies of) the foreign speeches that he thinks would be
useful for the studies of the Nocturnal Council.
In addition to these practical concerns, the theō ros will almost certainly
be mindful of the Stranger’s injunction to the Supervisor of Education in
Book VII to seek out and write down “speeches that are the brothers of”
the Laws. After all, prospective theō roi must be approved by the Guardians
of the Laws, who are members of the Nocturnal Council (XII 951d), and
the Council also includes the present and ex officio Supervisors of
Education (951e). It is even likely that theō roi, extraordinarily inquisitive
citizens in a city that does not as a rule encourage inquiry, would have
been junior members of the Council (between the ages of 30 and 40),
brought along as the companions of senior members (951e). They even
may have been some of the impiously inquisitive youth, sent to the
Moderation Tank (sō phronistērion) for five years and during this time permitted to converse only with the Nocturnal Councilors “for the purposes
of admonition and the salvation of the soul” (X 909a). If a given theō ros
had in his middle age been a junior member of the Council or in his youth
an impious inquirer sent to the Moderation Tank, or both, he would be
familiar with the operations of the Nocturnal Council, and by implication
familiar with the Stranger’s proposal that the Supervisor of Education
record speeches that are the brothers of the text of the Laws. Even if he
were not, whenever a theō ros returns with a speech, written or unwritten,
that passes the muster of the Nocturnal Council, the present Supervisor of
Education (himself a member of the Council) would be obliged to write it
down. Everything suggests that the speeches on legal, educational, and
related topics that the theō roi encounter in their travels eventually will be
written down and preserved in Magnesia, to be studied by the Nocturnal
Our review of the commission and character of the theō roi and the
rules of the Nocturnal Council, together with the use of the familial metaphor in Socrates’s discussion of writing in the Phaedrus, suggests that we
ought to interpret the Stranger’s phrase, “speeches that are the brothers
of” the Laws, as a reference to other Platonic dialogues.35 But this assumes
that Magnesia will have adopted the Stranger’s injunction to write down
the conversations of the Laws and honor it as a model for permissible
texts in the city. When the Stranger makes this proposal, Kleinias seems
hesitant to accept it. In response to the Stranger, who has called his own
speech a “myth […] told about instructors in the written things, and also
about writings [peri grammatistō n … hama kai grammatō n],” Kleinias
remarks: “It is difficult to be sure whether or not our discussion is correct
as a whole,” and thus whether the Laws is worthy of being written down
for the Cretan colonists and their Magnesian descendants. The Athenian
agrees, saying that they will be able to tell only when they’ve “arrived at
the end of the whole discourse on laws” (VII 812a). Just as the characters
should return to the Stranger’s proposal once they have completed their
discussion, so we the readers should return to it once we have finished
reading the Laws.
The Character of the Nocturnal Council
As soon as the Stranger announces the end of their legislation near the
close of Book XII, he asserts that it will only be “complete” once they have
“discovered a perfect and permanent safeguard [sō tērian] for what has
been begotten” (XII 960b). The Stranger is referring to what he, in the
last lines of the dialogue, calls a “divine council”; should such a council
come into being, the city they have founded must be “handed over to it”
(969b). This council is elsewhere called the “Nocturnal Council [nykterinos syllogos]” or the “Nocturnal Council of Rulers” (968a). It is ­appropriate
to call this council “divine” not only because it works to rehabilitate impious youths and investigates the city’s official theology but also because it
might offer a space in an otherwise unphilosophic city for the exercise of
the intellect, that which is most divine in the human.36
Moreover, this interpretation is not incompatible with the alternative (that a “brother”
text would be one similar in content but not necessarily identical in authorship). Many of the
Platonic dialogues depict discussions that more or less directly bear upon the topics at hand
in Book VII—the proper education of the young, and the potential tensions between various
poetic and philosophic teachings on one hand and the requirements of any given political
order on the other—as well as the related legal, psychological, and otherwise philosophical
themes that are described as the proper topics of inquiry for the Nocturnal Council.
See the discussion of “divine” in note 31 above.
The precise role of the Nocturnal Council in the governance of
Magnesia is difficult to determine; this and many other aspects of the
Council have been subject to scholarly dispute.37 Yet it is the Magnesian
institution that the Athenian speaks about most reverently—despite, or
perhaps because, it is not even a strictly political institution. The Council
is composed of certain eminent Magnesians, a who’s who of powerful citizens that includes the ten oldest Guardians of the Laws, the past and present Supervisors of Education (i.e., those officials who are concerned with
noble and harmful writings, and who take the Laws and its brother-­
speeches as paradigms for determining which speeches should be taught
to the youths), and the theō roi, the middle-aged citizens who are authorized to travel abroad and study the laws and writings of foreign cities. The
Council may from time to time include at its meetings foreign theō roi who
visit Magnesia, as the Supervisor of Education is the designated host
(xenos) for such strangers (xenoi) (XII 953c–d).
As Eric Salem has observed, there are several iterations of the Nocturnal
Council in the last few books of the Laws. Taken together, these iterations
account for its heterogeneous membership and complex purpose, which
in turn will illuminate the crucial role of texts and the text-gathering
theō roi in Magnesia. The Council is first presented as a re-education camp
or “Moderation Tank” (sō phronistērion) for impious youths whose nous
(intellect or mind) needs to be set in order by their elders (X 908b–e).
Second, in Book XII, it is presented as the de-briefing center for the theō roi
sent abroad to study the customs of foreign cities (XII 951a, 952b). Their
observations enable the Council to become a kind of think-tank allowing,
in Salem’s phrase, for “comprehensive reflection on political matters.”
And even later in Book XII, the Council appears in its third iteration, as an
“ongoing study group or seminar” that will engage in “something like
Socratic philosophy”: the study of the unity or multiplicity of the virtues,
inquiry into the identity and relation between the beautiful and the good,
and various cosmological, theological, and psychological topics.38 This
final task is the most remarkable: it goes beyond the practical concerns that
See George Klosko, “The Nocturnal Council in Plato’s Laws,” Political Studies 36
(1988), 74–88, and Klosko, The Development of Plato’s Political Theory (New York: Methuen,
1986), 252.
Salem, “The Night Watchmen,” 2, 7, 10. Zuckert argues that the recognized need to
reflect on these characteristically Socratic topics indicates that the Laws is a “prelude” to
Socratic philosophy and should be dramatically dated as the earliest of the Platonic dialogues.
See “Plato’s Laws: Postlude or Prelude to Socratic Philosophy?”
initially justified the creation and character of the Nocturnal Council,
encouraging and even presupposing in its members the activity of philosophizing that goes almost entirely unmentioned throughout the Laws.39
Thus the Council will perform three distinct functions: it will correct
youthful impiety, engage in regime-serving research, and philosophize on
topics of Socratic inquiry. Though distinct, these functions are not contradictory, and the heterogeneous nature of the Council’s goals and the
Councilors themselves does not make it an incoherent institution. As
Salem notes, the Council’s theoretical concerns do not suggest that it has
abandoned its practical purpose. Rather, the Laws seems to be suggesting,
it is only through the study of what we would call political philosophy that
the Council is able to acquire true statesmanship, and therefore “save” or
“safeguard” the regime of Magnesia from the inevitable psychic corruptions of its citizens.40 The fact that its third and most Socratic function is
philosophical rather than legal, practical, and political suggests that in the
Stranger’s estimation, the regime requires that someone, somewhere in it
be concerned with extrapolitical questions, activities that are “noble”
because they are worthwhile for their own sake. As V. Bradley Lewis has
argued, the Nocturnal Council must be understood in the context of
Plato’s overriding idea about politics: “the need for philosophy to influence political practice.”41 By embodying this idea, the Council is an institution “vital to the preservation of the regime,” one meant to “engage in
political philosophy” as well as “initiate younger men into such inquiry.”42
Salem, ibid., 12–13.
Salem, ibid., 11; cf. Laws XII 962b.
Lewis, “The Nocturnal Council and Platonic Political Philosophy,” 3. Lewis identifies
the city in the Republic as “a philosophic regime,” while that in the Laws is “a regime with
philosophy” (18–19n58, emphasis his). This distinction is not so precise as Fraistat’s (see
note 14, above), but if my interpretation is correct, Magnesia “has” philosophy in the sense
that philosophy is practiced by the Council, sustained by a literary tradition including Plato’s
own corpus.
Ibid., 3, 7. This ultimate dependence of the political good on philosophic inquiry is
never so directly addressed in the Laws—a dialogue between a philosophic Athenian and two
unsophisticated Dorians, in which philosophy is neither discussed nor even named—as it is
in the Republic, where the philosopher Socrates is challenged by Plato’s sophisticated brothers to provide a defense and exposition of philosophy, including its utility for the just city. On
the contrary, the Dorians are only slowly brought around to agree that the city requires
philosophy. They display this in their final action by enlisting the Stranger to help the actually
found Magnesia; thus only at the end could they begin to ask the questions at the center of
the Republic.
A Magnesian Library for a Magnesian Academy
I submit that the Nocturnal Council will be able to perform these distinct
functions, and therefore safeguard the regime, all the better if it studies
not only the laws of Magnesia, and the laws of other cities, but also the
Laws itself and other Platonic texts brought to Magnesia by the traveling
theō roi. According to the interpretation I have developed, Magnesia’s
Nocturnal Council should be understood as a politically empowered academy in possession of what we today would call a library.43
By the end of Book XII, Kleinias’s reluctance to affirm that their “discussion is correct as a whole” (VII 812a) has given way to his desire, shared
with the Spartan Megillus, to employ the Athenian Stranger in actually
founding the city. This enthusiasm suggests that he will take up the
Stranger’s specific suggestion that the Magnesian education be guided by
the text of the Laws. Moreover, it should be noted that Kleinias agrees with
Megillus that they detain the Stranger so that he may “be made to share in
the city’s founding” (XII 969d) immediately after the Stranger has said that
Magnesia, once it is founded, must be “handed over to” the “divine council,” that is, the Nocturnal Council (969b). If, as I have argued, those
theō roi who are allowed to travel abroad, and are instructed to bring back
foreign writings that they encounter, are mindful of the educational laws of
Magnesia, they will in time and with some luck encounter, record, and
bring back the entire Platonic corpus, the “speeches that are like the brothers” of their fundamental document, the dialogue of the Laws.
At least some of the confusion about the character of the Council has come from scholars’ failure to consider it in relation to the theō roi and the dynamic relation between these two
institutions. Klosko suggests that the late appearance of the Council is a sign that Plato
changed his mind while writing the dialogue: “At some point in working on the Laws Plato
became dissatisfied with the rigidity of the state and took measures to remedy it. In Book XII
the nocturnal council is assigned a legislative function, though Plato’s account of this is fragmentary, and one cannot be sure exactly what he had in mind or how well his presentation
here fits in with the other eleven books” (The Development of Plato’s Political Theory, 252).
Klosko mistakes the Council’s complex, transpolitical functions for an incomplete legislative
authority. Moreover, as Lewis points out, a deliberative body with no direct power of its own
still possesses influence on its members, who are themselves office-holders, pointing out that
“two of the most important bodies in the executive branch of the United States government,
the National Security Council and the Council of Economic Advisors operate in just this
way” (“The Nocturnal Council and Platonic Political Philosophy,” 20n62). There seems no
better way to achieve a philosophic “grammatocracy” than to institute a college of political
elites and promising youth in which the fundamental text, and those like or pertinent to it,
may be studied in common.
Thus the members of this divine Nocturnal Council, who will “dwell in
the acropolis as perfected guardians” of Magnesia (969c), might come to
possess a library of philosophic writings.44 Educational endeavors throughout history have employed a range of texts for practical and theoretical
purposes, including as occasions for philosophizing, and Plato’s Socrates
links his own youthful philosophizing to the critical reading of texts.45
Plato lived during the rise of a literary culture in Athens;46 my reading of
the Laws suggests he gave considerable thought to the impact that writing
would have on the future of politics and philosophy. Here, in the Laws, we
have a Platonic treatment of an educational institution that will employ
texts in its educational and deliberative discussions.
What might this library contain? The Laws determines the structure or
principle but does not specify the contents of the library; my discussion
here is necessarily speculative. The Laws itself would stand above every
other text studied by the Council, as the model logos for those who aspire
to educate the next generation of citizens. Presumably, the other Platonic
dialogues would have a privileged place below it; but we cannot simply
assume that each dialogue will be equally acceptable to the Councilors. We
can imagine the Councilors inquiring into both the claims made in other
dialogues in comparison to the authoritative claims of their Laws as well as
the dramatic action depicted in other dialogues in comparison to that of
the Laws and that which plays out in the political and intellectual life of
Magnesia itself. In addition, we might expect the theōroi to retrieve texts
ranging from the Homeric epics, Attic lyrics, and Athenian dramas to the
“harmful writings” of natural philosophers (our “pre-Socratics”) and conventionalist sophists and the works of Plato’s contemporaries and near-­
contemporaries, from Herodotus and Isocrates to Thucydides, Xenophon,
and Aristotle, to say nothing of the Greek poetic, philosophic, and scientific
This interpretation solves several perceived defects in the Stranger’s plan for the Council.
For example, Lewis points to the “vague terms” in which the Stranger discusses the kind of
education the Councilors will need (ibid., 7). A library established by the theō roi with the
Laws at its center would enable Magnesia’s educational officials to construct a curriculum
appropriate to the city. As the Stranger notes elsewhere, the Magnesian legislation is a multigenerational endeavor; carrying on this project is the primary purpose of the Guardians of
the Laws and thus of the Council (see Laws VI 769b–770a).
Plato, Phaedo, 97b.
For a helpful discussion of this rise, see Mark Munn, The School of History: Athens in the
Age of Socrates (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For a treatment of its material and technical dimensions, see E. G. Turner, Athenian Books in the Fifth and Fourth
Century B.C. (London: H. K. Lewis and Sons, 1952), especially his evidence for the meaning
of biblion (9–10); cf. Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1963), 55n16.
literature that we do not know as well as non-Greek logoi that the theōroi
might encounter. We who have access to such texts know that they, like
the Platonic dialogues that are brothers of the Laws, contain logoi “connected to [the conversation of the Laws] and similar” (VII.811e). Finally,
we can imagine the theōroi gathering or composing the laws of certain
cities they visited, as Aristotle and his students are said to have written out
the politeiai of contemporary Greek cities. In all likelihood, the theōroi
would suppose that the content of such texts would contribute to the
political-philosophical business of the Nocturnal Council and submit them
as curricular proposals to the Council.
It must be reiterated that Plato’s Athenian Stranger, and the law code he
has elaborated, would permit such texts only if they were organized into a
library which takes Plato’s Laws as the “paradigm” of proper logoi. The
Laws is the first text in the library and functions as a standard by reference
to which the Councilors judge other speeches to be noble or ignoble. We
might then suggest that the Laws enables, in fact requires, the Councilors
to establish a kind of fixed standard in Magnesian learning. This is not to
say that its status as paradeigma for Magnesian public education would
automatically exclude works that contradict it from the Nocturnal Council.
The decision to admit or reject a given text is left to the members of the
Council who debrief the theō roi upon their return, and the new texts themselves are directly for the benefit of the Councilors’ thinking and deliberating. The Council is an exclusive institution; while it and its library will be
“public” or political in their function, they will not be free and open to all
Magnesians citizens. We can imagine that the library could come to include
all available texts, containing and explicating diverse logoi and nomoi, that
might guide the Councilors in determining the public teaching of the
Magnesian youth. The Stranger intends both the indeterminacy of the
library’s specific texts as well as the unquestionable supremacy of the Laws
in and for Magnesian politics and philosophizing.
Just as Plato’s dialogues are generally recognized as the first great works in
the Western tradition of philosophic literature, Plato’s Academy is often
thought of as a distant model for the educational institutions of the medieval and modern periods. But there is an unfortunate absence of reliable
historical information about the Academy during Plato’s own lifetime.
Historical studies of the Academy may aid our understanding of the devel-
opment of Platonism but tell us little about its founder.47 Our historical
ignorance has permitted some scholars a great deal of speculation about
the composition, activities, and resources of the Academy, about Plato’s
intentions in establishing his school of philosophy, and about its intended
and real relation to Athenian politics, while others have confined their
study of Plato to interpreting his texts. Rather than attempting to study
the early Academy directly, scholars interested in Plato’s motive in founding an educational institution, the place of philosophic literature within it,
and his understanding of how this institution might affect the relation
between philosophers and the city would do well to turn to the study of
his speeches.
When we turn to the Laws, we find Plato’s presentation of the proper
place of philosophic texts with a well-ordered city. The Athenian Stranger
proposes to record the Laws and speeches that are akin to it, establishes
the Nocturnal Council as the body that will study and safeguard these
texts and in so doing safeguard the regime, and institutes the theō roi as
ministers to the academic activity of the Council. The Council is a permanent educational institution, at once political and philosophical in its
membership and mandate, with access to an ever-growing library of texts
but guided by a fixed, textually based standard—an institution that will, in
Plato’s view, enable successive generations simultaneously to preserve and
advance the good of the city and the good of philosophy.
A final note is in order. I have argued that the Athenian Stranger of the
Laws made Plato’s own writings vital to the salvation of Magnesia. But if
Plato is sympathetic to Socrates’s understanding of writing in the
Phaedrus, we should expect him to remain guarded or even ambivalent in
his e­ xpectations for the influence of philosophic writings on a political
order. Socrates argues in the Phaedrus that the true philosopher will view
authorship as a “playful” act, less serious than planting logoi in suitable
souls. Even the far more serious Athenian Stranger in the far more serious
Laws sometimes appears unserious or playful to his Dorian interlocutors.
The peculiar mixture of playfulness and seriousness in the Laws is due not
only to the fact that its philosopher is concerned with what transcend the
For a careful study that notes the absence of historical evidence about the Academy in
Plato’s time, see John Dillon, The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347–274 BC)
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). There is “disappointingly little evidence” for the
“precise nature of the relations between master and student, or between associates, in Plato’s
school, and of the educational and research procedures followed” (10).
political but also because he is condescending to intervene in human
affairs through a medium that he must regard with less seriousness than
the logoi planted in souls. Moreover, by choosing the unsophisticated
Cretans as the subjects of the philosopher’s legislative project in the Laws,
Plato indicates the magnitude of the obstacles faced by philosophy when
it seeks both to preserve itself and to improve the political order in which
it exists. Each time Plato discusses the possibility that politics will come
under the sway of philosophy, he or his characters indicate that this is a
“divine dispensation” to be hoped for, not something that can be guaranteed by human effort.48 The Laws teaches us that when Plato became
an author, he was aware that philosophic texts would influence the history of philosophy and politics. But it also indicates to us that his decision, and his intentions for the right relation between philosophic texts
and the political order, were free from the optimism or confidence inherent in the writings of modern political philosophers and in the politicalscientific enterprise of contemporary educational institutions. The fixed
standard in Magnesian learning established by the Laws is required by the
enduring tension between the inquiries of the philosopher and the practical business of the city. In writing, Plato sought to manage this tension
without imagining that it could be overcome.
Lewis, “The Nocturnal Council and Platonic Political Philosophy,” 18.
Achilles, 276
Adeimantus, 110, 180n49, 191n5,
192, 194, 196, 198, 268, 275n20
Adler, J., 268n8
Agathon, 222, 290
Ahrensdorf, P., 8n8, 145n3
Alcibiades, 3, 14, 18, 35, 40, 65, 142,
159, 166–168, 171, 173, 219,
225, 228, 252n3, 256, 263n36,
293, 301, 306
Alcibiades I, 5, 40, 47n16, 166n5,
167n9, 175n28, 176n32,
222n17, 293, 293n9, 298
Alcibiades II, 293n9
Alfarabi, 217n11
Ammon, 105n41
Anacreon, 215
Anaxagoras, 42, 144
Annas, Julia, 193
Antigone, 38
Antiphon, 192n5
Apollo, 12
Apollodorus, 160, 192n5, 257n18, 307
Apology, 4, 5, 12, 13, 17, 20,
23n20, 30n34, 31, 34,
50n24, 61, 63n20, 77,
81, 141, 142, 156–163,
165, 166, 168n9, 176n31,
186, 189, 206, 209n4, 213,
218, 220, 222–224, 226n23,
230, 251, 287, 300, 307,
308, 310, 311, 313, 314, 316
Apology of Socrates, 54, 57n11,
60n15, 205, 207, 221,
230, 235n5, 259n22,
263, 275n21, 289
Aquinas, Thomas, 127n80, 136n120,
Aristides, 223, 224, 225n20,
225n22, 228
Aristodemus, 258n20
Ariston, 191n5
Aristophanes, 55n8, 207, 208, 221,
225n21, 229n26, 244, 248, 273,
283, 293, 305
Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.
© The Author(s) 2019
P. J. Diduch, M. P. Harding (eds.), Socrates in the Cave, Recovering
Political Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76831-1
Aristotle, 19n12, 30n34, 110n19,
111n23, 114n39, 129, 130,
137n121, 138, 139n131,
179n45, 189, 190n4, 202,
280n35, 318n8, 337
Aspasia, 252n2
Athenian stranger, 13, 16n6, 280n35
Bartlett, R. C., 8n8, 170n16, 254n10
Benardete, S., 8n8, 42n5, 54n4,
68n27, 73n33, 80n6, 120n57,
208n3, 252n3, 317n5, 327n26
Blitz, M., 47n15
Bloom, A., 2n1, 193, 194n11
Bolotin, D., 2n1, 8n8
Boreas, 78
Brewster, F., 109n12
Bruell, C., 3n2, 8n8, 58n12, 60n14,
67n24, 211n5, 212n6, 213n7,
222n17, 228n26, 230n30,
235n7, 238n11, 240n14,
243n19, 247n22, 260n30,
282n39, 283n40
Burger, R., 120n57
Burns, T., 3n2, 8n8, 74n34, 75n38,
Callicles, 162, 173, 179, 255
Callicrite, 215
Carey, 8n8
Cebes, 127, 186n1
Cephalus, 35, 39, 56n10, 192n5,
194n11, 257n18
Chaerephon, 157, 158, 160, 223,
258n20, 273, 288n3, 312
Chaerophon, 288n3, 312
Charmides, 13, 20, 41, 46, 147,
168n11, 170n17, 175n28, 181,
220, 228, 252n3, 258
Cherry, K., 310n29
Cicero, 276n24, 324n22
The City and Man, 263n35
Cleinias, 167n7, 258n20
Cleitomachus, 223
Cleitophon, 212, 256, 261, 262n31
Clouds, 18, 55n8, 207, 208, 212, 213,
216, 221, 225n21, 227, 229n26,
273, 293
Cobb, W. S., 225n20
Corey, D. D., 289n5, 313n31, 313n32
Cornford, F. M., 131n96
Craig, L., 2n1, 6n3, 194n10
Cratylus, 108n5, 235n5
Critias, 168n11
Crito, 5, 35n42, 132n97, 160, 166n2,
166n3, 168n9, 174n24, 177n34,
178, 180, 181, 221, 252n3, 257,
257n19, 259, 311n30, 312
Critobulus, 180
Crombie, I. M., 193
Cropsey, J., 3n2, 278n31, 288n4,
298n16, 309n26, 310n28,
Cross, R. C., 193
Ctesippus, 41
Cyane, 215
Daedalus, 237
Damon, 259
Davis, M., 120n57, 211n5, 221n14
Davison, J. A., 324n22
Dawkins, R., 244
De Anima, 111n23, 137n123
De Malo, 136n120
Demos, son of Pyrilampes, 173
Denyer, Nicholas, 2n1
De oratore, 324n22
Deuteronomy, 321n15
De Virtute, 136n120
De Vries, G. J., 83n9, 95n23, 96n25
Dillon, J., 339n47
Dinan, M., 309n26, 310n27
Diocles, 181
Dion of Syracuse, 9n10
Dionysodorus, 3, 259
Diotima, 147–153, 154n4, 157, 158,
160, 161, 168n11, 252n2, 254,
288, 290, 292, 293, 295–299,
301, 302, 304, 307
Dobbs, D., 63n18
Eleatic stranger, 125, 185, 256, 289,
308–314, 317n5
Elements, 117n47
Emlyn-Jones, C., 56n10
Epinomis, 255n12
Erastai, 39, 41, 43, 45, 45n12,
48n17, 49n20, 49n21, 50n23
Eryximachus, 294n10
Euclides, 117n47, 123n65, 257n18,
Euripides, 214, 215
Eustathius, 109n11
Euthydemus, 3, 175n27, 177n34,
180, 181, 222n17, 254n6, 257,
259, 259n25
Euthyphro, 3, 19n13, 35, 168n11,
221, 228, 251, 257, 311
Federalist Papers, 279n33
Ferrari, G.R.F., 2n1, 79n4
Ficino, M., 6n3
First Alcibiades, 159
Foley, R., 63n18, 67n25
Fraistat, S., 320, 320n13, 335n41
Franklin, B., 280
Friedlander, P., 206n1
Furley, W. D., 267n7
Genesis, 133n100
Glaucon, 3, 40, 114n40,
115n43, 135n113,
181, 191, 192, 194–200,
202, 228
Gorgias, 5, 25n24, 28, 29n33, 34,
57n11, 108n2, 141, 142, 162,
165, 168n11, 172n22, 173,
174n25, 175n27, 177n33,
177n35, 179, 181, 255, 304,
310, 316n4
Greater Hippias, 49n21, 90n18
Grewal, G. K., 211n5, 221n14
Griswold, C., 60n14, 79n4, 79n5,
Grube, G. M. A., 267n7
Guide, 188
Guide of the Perplexed, 187
Harvey C. M., 20n16
Havelock, E. A., 337n46
Heidegger, Martin, 138
Heraclitus, 110n16, 134n108
Hermogenes, 275n21
Herodotus, 329n29, 337
Hesiod, 324
Hipparchus or Lover of Gain, 13
Hipparhcus, 13, 256, 258, 324n22
Hippias, 3, 256, 273n15
Hippias Major, 57n11, 125n74,
Hippocrates, 41, 167n6, 170, 254,
Hippothales, 258n20
Hobbes, Thomas, 137, 138, 285n42
Homer, 34, 36, 324
Howland, Jacob, 2n1
Human All Too Human, 277n28
Hume, D., 138
Iliad, 168n10
Ion, 3, 256, 256n14
Irwin, Terence, 1n1
Isocrates, 300, 337
Jażdżweska, K., 322n17
Kahn, Charles H., 2n1
Kamen, D., 195n11
Kant, Immanuel, 129n88, 130n90,
Klein, J., 2n1, 112n30, 122, 123, 125,
126n78, 126n79
Klonoski, R. J., 267n6
Klosko, G., 1n1, 2n1, 334n37, 336n43
Kraut, Richard, 1n1
Laches, 13, 40, 41n2, 153, 206n2,
211, 222, 259, 306
Laertius, Diogenes, 42n5, 270n12,
271, 277n25, 318n8, 322n18
Lampert, Laurence, 3n2
Laws, 12, 13, 16n6, 23n21, 29n32,
30n35, 35n41, 36n44, 37n47,
38, 49n21, 230, 255n12, 280n35
Leake, 208n3
Leibowitz, D., 3n2, 7n5, 8n8, 63n20,
74n34, 74n36, 158n6, 234n2,
236n10, 259n22, 276n22, 288n3
Leon of Salamis, 276n24
Levy, D., 3n2, 8n8, 295n11
Lewis, M., Jr., 266n3, 270n10
Lewis, V. B., 329n31, 335, 336n43,
Lord, 208n3
Lovers, 257, 258
Lutz, Mark J., 8n8, 157n5
Lysias, 78n2, 104n39, 294, 295
Lysimachus, 259
Lysis, 40, 41, 47n16, 147, 161, 258, 306
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 279n33
Maimonides, 128n86, 187, 188, 190
Marsyas, 34
Meier, H., 74n34
Melesias, 259
Meletos, 235, 249
Meletus, 23n20, 171n18, 274, 276,
288n2, 311
Memorabilia, 14, 147, 190n4,
229n27, 273n17, 275n21
Menelaus, 248
Menexenus, 3, 41, 252n2, 256
Meno, 3, 5, 13, 15, 30n34, 61,
108n2, 165, 177n34, 180, 211,
262n32, 316n4
Meta, 189, 190n4
Metaphysics, 113n34, 119n53,
120n59, 121n61, 123n64,
126n78, 126n79, 131n96,
132n97, 137n123, 179n45
Minos, 13, 33, 34, 36, 37, 256, 258,
320, 329n31
Morrow, G. R., 319n10, 325n24
Moses, 240
Munn, M., 337n46
Nails, D., 192n5, 317n5
Narrated dialogues, 257n18
Nichols, J. H., Jr., 68n28, 96n23,
208n3, 318n9
Nichols, M., 3n2, 193
Nicias, 40, 222, 223, 259
Nicomachean Ethics, 14, 19n12, 25,
32, 35, 110n19, 132n97
Nietzsche, F., 265n1, 272, 277n28,
Nightingale, A. W., 329n29
Novak, J. A., 114n39
Numa Pompilius, 279n33
Odyssey, 13, 109n12, 167n6, 249
Oedipus Tyrannus, 38
Oinopides, 42
On Duties, 276n24
Orethyia, 78
Page, C., 193, 195, 196n15, 197n18
Pangle, S., 2n1, 3n2, 7n6, 8n8
Pangle, T., 74n34, 158n6, 221n16,
229n28, 260n30
Parens, J., 203n21
Parmenides, 41, 125, 126n79, 129,
142, 145–147, 158, 185, 190,
191n5, 257
Patzig, G., 114n39
Pausanias, 109n11
Peisistratus, 324, 324n22
Performed dialogues, 256n13
Periander, 216
Pericles, 14, 167n7, 213, 219
Peterson, Sandra, 2n1
Phaedo, 4, 8, 21, 107n1, 127,
142–145, 147, 148, 157, 158,
160, 162, 177, 178n38, 180n48,
186n1, 190, 207, 221, 231, 257,
257n18, 273, 284, 290, 292,
299, 308, 311n30, 314, 318n7,
Phaedr, 189
Phaedrus, 31n38, 35, 57n11, 77,
127n81, 136n119, 141, 147,
169n12, 175n28, 186n1, 188,
194, 256, 289, 293–302, 308,
313, 317, 318, 328, 339
Phaenarete, 283
Pheidippides, 207, 213, 217
Philebus, 107n1, 118n49, 125,
126n76, 134n108, 255, 256
Philemon, 223
Pines, S., 123n64
Plutarch, 71n32, 279n33
Polemarchus, 186n1, 192, 194–196,
198, 203, 261
Polemarchus’s slave, 258n20
Politics, 30n34, 110n19, 136n120,
202n20, 280n35, 318n8
Polus, 162, 316n4
Popper, K., 6n3
Posterior Analytics, 119n53
Press, Gerald A., 2n1
Prior Analytics, 114n39
Protagoras, 40n1, 78, 108n2, 167n6,
167n7, 168n11, 170n17, 171,
177n36, 180, 252n3, 254,
259n24, 262n32
Protarchus, 256
Proteus, 248
Pythagoras, 186n1
Rabieh, L. R., 55n7, 56n9, 62n17,
63n19, 66n23, 68n26, 69n29
Republic, 3–5, 18, 21, 26, 30n35, 34,
36n44, 39–41, 43, 47n16,
56n10, 60n13, 91n19, 107n1,
110, 111, 141, 142, 149, 156,
161, 162, 168n9, 169n13, 174,
176n30, 179, 180n46, 191,
195–197, 207, 214n8, 220, 228,
257, 258, 261, 262, 268n8,
271n13, 272n15, 275n20,
276n24, 282, 297n15, 304n20,
316, 320, 330n32, 335n41
Reshotko, Naomi, 2n1
Rhadamanthys, 33, 36
Rhodes, J., 6n3
Roochnik, D., 2n1, 326n25
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 285n43
Rowe, Christopher, 1n1, 2n1
Salem, E., 323n19, 325n24,
329n30, 334
Sanders, K. R., 57n11
Sannion, 223
Santas, G., 67n25
Saunders, T. J., 315n2, 319n10,
Schleiermacher, Friedrich, 6n3
Schmid, W. T., 69n30
Scotus, D., 133n99
Sebell, D., 3n2, 7n6, 145n3, 234n2
Seventh Epistle, 124n68
Seventh Letter, 29, 328n28
Shakespeare, William, 272n15
Simmias, 186n1
Socrates, 302
Solon, 329n29
Sophist, 26n25, 41, 122, 124n67,
124n71, 124n72, 126n79,
128n87, 131n94, 185, 253,
310, 317n5
Sophroniscus, 57n10, 283
Statesman, 29n33, 32, 41, 47n16,
105n41, 116n45, 118n49, 125,
253, 289, 309, 311, 317n5
Stauffer, D., 7n5, 8n8, 142n2
Stern, P., 304n20, 305n22, 308n24
The Stranger, 309, 310, 314, 314n33
Stranger from Elea, 308
Strauss, L., 2n1, 8n9, 24n22, 36n43,
68n26, 74n34, 75n40, 112n30,
115n41, 128n86, 130n93,
133n99, 180n47, 187n2, 193,
195n14, 206n1, 217n10,
227n25, 233n1, 234, 235n7,
239n13, 243n19, 250n23,
254n5, 274n20, 278n29,
280n35, 300, 316, 317,
318n9, 320n11
Strepsiades, 217, 228, 274n20
Summa Contra Gentiles, 137n125
Symp, 189–191
Symposium, 4, 35, 40n1, 65n21, 77,
81, 85, 141, 142, 147–157,
154n4, 160, 162, 163, 169n14,
192n5, 206, 221, 222, 225n22,
230n29, 252n2, 252n3, 254,
259, 288–294, 298, 301, 302,
306, 307, 314
Terpsion, 307
Tessitore, A., 55n8, 65n22
Theaetetus, 4, 5, 8, 13, 22n19, 57n11,
75n39, 113n34, 118n52,
125n74, 129n89, 131n96, 142,
188, 205, 221, 222n17, 257,
289, 301–309, 311, 313
Theages, 42, 75n39, 77, 259
Theodorus, 256n15, 258n20, 302,
303, 306–308
Theodote, 252n2
Thrasyllus, 223
Thrasymachus, 18, 32, 178, 193, 202
Thucydides, 36n44, 54, 70n31,
71n32, 219, 222, 225n22, 226,
293, 298, 337
Tigerstedt, E. N., 2n1
Timaeus, 185, 256, 256n15
Timarachus, 223
Tisias, 101n35
Tony Soprano, 268n8
Turner, E. G., 337n46
Typhon, 79
Umphrey, S., 60n14
Unjust Speech, 213
The Use and Disadvantage of History
for Life, 279n34
Vasiliou, I., 268n8
Vlastos, G., 2n1, 6n3, 288n3
Weiss, R., 2n1, 6n3, 263n36,
West &amp, 276n22
West, T. G., 273n15,
274n18, 276n22,
278n29, 282n38
William of Ockham, 128n86
Woozley, A. D., 193
Xanthippe, 132n97, 160, 258n21
Xenophon, 14, 147, 160, 162, 190n4,
206, 219n13, 222, 229n27,
252n2, 253n4, 273n17, 275,
275n21, 283, 337
Young Aristotle, 41
Young Socrates, 41, 303, 309
Yunis, H., 79n3, 84n11, 99n31,
101n35, 105n41
Zeno, 145, 258n20
Zuckert, C. H., 2n1, 6n3, 288n3,
290n6, 302n19, 305n22,
311n30, 313n31, 315n1, 317n5,
317n6, 320n12, 324n21, 334n38