The Lost Plato Volume 1: Plato's Struggle With Socrates
Chapter 12: The trial of Socrates and its aftermath
Platonic scholars usually date the Apology among Plato’s early dialogues, written within the first few years after the death of Socrates.(1) In this chapter I shall argue that Plato wrote it prior to Socrates’ death, during Socrates’ imprisonment.
The Apology is divided into three parts: in the first part we find Socrates delivering his defence speech at the trial, in the second he responds to the guilty verdict, and finally he reflects on his having been sentenced to death. In his defence speech Socrates answers the charges of ‘corrupting the youth (tous te neous diaphtheironta) and of not believing in the gods of the state (kai theous hous hê polis nomizei ou nomizonta), but believing in other new divinities’ (hetera de daimonia kaina, 24b9-c1). In the course of interrogating his accuser Meletus Socrates reduces the charge of corrupting the youth to the charge of ‘teaching the young not to believe in the gods of the state, but in other new divinities’ (26b4-6). Further questioned, Meletus modifies the charge, accusing Socrates of outright atheism: ‘This is what I say, that you do not believe in gods at all’ (Tauta legô, hôs to parapan ou nomizeis theous, 26c7). Socrates then points out that Meletus is contradicting himself, accusing Socrates of believing in gods and of not believing in gods (26d1-28a1), and so he concludes his examination of Meletus:
‘I have said enough in answer to the charge of Meletus: any elaborate defence is unnecessary. You know well the truth of my statement that I have incurred many violent enemies; and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed; – not Meletus, nor yet Anytus, but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men.’ (28a2-b1, tr. Jowett).
Socrates then considers his position concerning the possibility of being found guilty and sentenced to death:
‘Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by generals whom you chose to command me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any other man, facing death – if now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods ... And therefore if you let me go now ... if you say to me, Socrates ... you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to inquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so you shall die; – if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one of you whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend, – a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, – are you not ashamed of heaping up the largest amount of money, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul? ... For know that this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought of your persons or your properties (mête sômatôn epimeleisthai mête chrômatôn, 30a8-b1), but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.’ (28d6-30b2, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates closes his defence with the words:
‘I believe in gods (theous ... nomizô), O men of Athens, more firmly than any of my accusers (hôs oudeis tôn emôn katêgorôn), and to you and to God I commit (kai humin epitrepô kai tôi theôi) judging me (krinai peri emou) as is best for me and for you (hopêi mellei emoi te arista einai kai humin).’ (35d5-8).
From Socrates’ opening words in the second part of the Apology we learn that Socrates had been found guilty and that his prosecutors suggested death as his penalty. It is now Socrates’ task to suggest the penalty which he would consider as appropriate, but he views this task somewhat differently:
‘And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly that which is my due. And what is my due? What ought I to have done to me, or to pay – a man who has never had the wit to keep quiet during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care for – wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live (hêgêsamenos emauton tôi onti epieikesteron einai ê hôste eis taut’ ionta sôizesthai, 36b9-c1), I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do privately the greatest good (as I affirm it to be) to everyone of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions. What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing, O men of Athens, if he has his reward ... As I am convinced that I never wronged another (pepeismenos dê egô mêdena adikein), I will assuredly not wrong myself (pollou deô emauton ge adikêsein). I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil (kai kat’ emautou erein autos hôs axios eimi tou kakou), nor propose any penalty (kai timêsesthai toioutou tinos emautôi).’ (36b3-37b5, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates then considers the evils that he might be or indeed was expected to propose:
‘Shall I say imprisonment? And why should I live in prison, and be the slave of the magistrates of the year – of the Eleven? Or shall the penalty be a fine, and imprisonment, and imprisonment until the fine is paid? There is the same objection. I should have to lie in prison, for money I have none, and cannot pay.’ (37b8-c4, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates then rejects exile as a penalty, and finally proposes to give money he could afford to pay, which would do him no harm, and which he would not consider an evil:
‘I have never been accustomed to think that I deserve any harm. Had I money I might have estimated the offence at what I was able to pay, and not have been much the worse. But I have none, and therefore I must ask you to proportion the fine to my means. Well, perhaps I could afford a mina, and therefore I propose that penalty: Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, my friends here, bid me say thirty minas, and they will be the sureties. Let thirty minas be the penalty; for which sum they will be ample security to you.’ (38a8-b9, tr. B. Jowett).
I have used Jowett’s translation, for I could not convey better the flair with which Socrates addressed the court. But one corrective is sorely needed. In Jowett’s rendering Socrates plainly contradicts himself; he begins by proclaiming that he will not propose any penalty for himself, and yet he ends by proposing a penalty. In the Greek original there is no mentioning of penalty, for the word Socrates uses is timasthai, which is used both in proposing a reward for oneself, as Socrates clearly uses it in proposing for himself something good (timasthai agathon, 36d3), and in proposing for oneself something evil (timêsesthai kakou tinos, 37b4-5). Throughout his address to the jury Socrates consistently refuses to propose anything evil to himself, anything that could harm him. Jowett’s ‘I have never been accustomed to think that I deserve any harm’ renders Socrates’ ‘I have never been accustomed to think that I deserve any evil’ (ouk eithismai emauton axioun kakou oudenos, 38a8-b1). Jowett’s ‘Had I money I might have estimated the offence at what I was able to pay’ renders Socrates’ ‘For if I had money (ei men gar ên moi chrêmata) I might have considered myself worthy of paying as much money as I could afford’ (etimêsamên an chrêmatôn hosa emellon ekteisein, 38b1-2). Jowett’s ‘and not have been much the worse’ stands for Socrates’ ‘for I would not be harmed at all’ (ouden gar an eblabên, 38b2). In making his proposal Socrates does not admit of any offence on his part and speaks of no penalty. Had the jury accepted his proposal, in the given circumstances they would have done the greatest good to themselves, and to the city as a whole.
The final part of the Apology is divided in two. In the first part Socrates addresses those who sentenced him to death:
‘Not much time will be gained, O Athenians, in return for the evil name which you will get from the detractors of the city, who will say that you killed Socrates ... If you had waited a little while, your desire would have been fulfilled in the course of nature. For I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death. I am speaking now not to all of you, but only to those who have condemned me to death.’ (38c1-d2, tr. B. Jowett).
In the second part Socrates speaks to those who voted against the verdict:
‘To you, who voted against the sentence, ... whom I consider to be my friends, I should like to show the meaning of what has happened to me. O my judges (ô andres dikastai, 40a2) – for you I may truly call judges (humas gar dikastas kalôn orthôs an kaloimên, 40a2-3) (39e1-40a3) ... if death is a journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my judges, can be greater than this (ti meizon agathon toutou eiê an, ô andres dikastai, 40e6-7)? For if a man who arrives in the world below, delivered from these self-proclaimed judges (apallageis toutôni tôn phaskontôn dikastôn einai, 41a1-2), finds the true judges (heurêsei tous hôs alêthôs dikastas, 41a2) who are said to give judgment there (hoiper kai legontai ekei dikazein, 41a2-3) ... wouldn't that journey be worth making? ... But you too, O judges, face death with good hope (Alla kai humas chrê, ô andres dikastai, euelpidas einai pros ton thanaton¸ 41c8-9), and know it to be true that no evil can happen to a good man either in life or after death.’ (39e1-41d2).
Addressing the court, throughout his defence speech and in his considerations concerning the proposed penalty Socrates addressed the members of the jury either as ‘men of Athens’ (ô andres Athênaioi, e.g. 17a1, 18a7, e5, 20e4), or simply as ‘men’ (ô andres, e.g. 19e4, 23a5), in stark contrast to his accuser Meletus, who addressed them as ‘judges’ (ô andres dikastai, 26d4). Now, addressing those who voted against the sentence, Socrates explains why he did so. When he addressed the jury, it was as yet unclear to him, who deserved to be called judge and who did not. By attributing the title of judges only to those who voted against the verdict Socrates rejects the verdict not only as wrong; he rejects it as an unlawful act, perpetrated by men who were not judges. Since the jury was selected according to the existing laws, Socrates thereby rejects the central plank of the Athenian legal system. Socrates was facing death, and had nothing to lose. Throughout his life, he challenged Athenian morality and Athenian legal and political practices on a private level; the trial and the sentence provided him with the opportunity to do so openly in front of the Athenian public.
Those who date the Apology after Socrates’ death avoid the question how could Plato have faced living in Athens and aspiring to a political career in that city – which he did for almost ten years after the death of Socrates, as we know from his Seventh Letter (325b5-326b5) – while giving all the strength of his pen to such radical condemnation of the Athenian political system? As we know from Plato’s Crito and from Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates (Xen. Ap. 23), Socrates’ friends wished to free Socrates from prison and take him into exile, and as we know from the ‘Life of Plato’ and from the ‘Life of Euclides’ by Diogenes Laertius (ii.106 and iii.6), after the execution of Socrates Plato and the other followers of Socrates took refuge in Megara. After the verdict Socrates spent thirty days in prison on Xenophon’s account (Xen. Mem. IV.viii.2), and according to Plato Socrates died ‘long after the verdict had been passed’ (palai genomenês autês [tês dikês] pollôi husteron phainetai apothanôn, 58a4-5). I propose that Plato wrote the Apology during this period. In the Phaedo we learn the reason for the delay of Socrates’ execution:
‘the stern of the ship which the Athenians send to Delos happened to have been crowned on the day before he was tried ... and the whole period of the voyage to and from Delos, beginning when the priest of Apollo crowns the stern of the ship, is a holy season, during which it is strictly forbidden to pollute the city by executions; and when the vessel is detained by contrary winds, the time spent in going and returning is very considerable’ (58a6-c1, tr. B. Jowett).
To consider this dating, let me contrast the Apology with the Crito, in which Crito informs Socrates of the preparations for his escape from prison and tries to persuade him to save himself, while Socrates argues against it, determined not to do anything that might undermine the Athenian state and its legal system. The aged Crito, Socrates’ life-long friend (2), who was anxious that it be known that he did his best to save Socrates (Crito 44b5-c5), undoubtedly talked both about his role in an attempt to free Socrates from prison and about Socrates’ determination to die rather than injure the Athenian state and its laws. We may presume that it was because of this determination of Socrates, which he communicated to Crito as his true legacy, together with his wish that his actions have no adverse effects on his friends, that no one has to go to exile because of him, that no recriminations against Socrates’ friends and followers were forthcoming. It was time for Plato to reinforce those arguments by the power of his pen and thus create the basis for his return to Athens and for reinvigorating Socrates’ influence on the city, to which his refusal to escape from prison and his death prepared the ground. I date the Crito as the first dialogue written by Plato after Socrates’ death, during his short self-imposed exile in Megara.
Crito visits Socrates in prison before daybreak, for the ship returning from Delos has reached Sunium, a headland near Athens, and he expects its arrival later that day. Socrates must die a day after its arrival, and Crito breaks the news to him:
‘Therefore tomorrow, Socrates, must be the last day of your life (43d5-6)... But, oh! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape (44b5-6, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates’ friends were aware that it would not be easy to persuade Socrates to agree to the plan. The obstacles they envisaged were twofold; Socrates’ concern for his friends and his unwillingness to spend the rest of his days in exile. Crito tackles the first point as follows:
‘Socrates, are you not afraid that if you escape from prison we may get into trouble with the informers for having stolen you away, and lose either the whole or a great part of our property; or that even a worse evil may happen to us? Now, if you fear on our account, be at ease; for in order to save you, we ought surely to run this, or even a greater risk; be persuaded then, and do as I say’ (44e2-45a3, tr. B. Jowett).
When Socrates admits that he does think of what would happen to his friends if he escaped (kai tauta promêthoumai, 45a4), Crito tries to assuage his fears:
‘Fear not – there are persons who are willing to get you out of prison at no great cost; and as for the informers, you know that they are far from being exorbitant in their demands – a little money will satisfy them. My means, which are certainly ample, are at your service, and if out of regard for my interests you have a scruple about spending my money, here are strangers who will give you the use of theirs; and one of them, Simmias the Theban, has brought a large sum for this very purpose; and Cebes and many others are prepared to spend their money in helping you to escape.’ (45a6-45b5, tr. B. Jowett).
Anticipating the second obstacle, Crito continues:
‘I say, therefore, do not shirk the effort on our account, and do not say, as you did in the court, that you will have a difficulty in knowing what to do with yourself anywhere else (hoti ouk an echois exelthôn hoti chrôio sautôi, 45b8). For men will love you in other places to which you may go. (45b6-c1, tr. B. Jowett).
In response, Socrates makes the question of escape a matter of principle, of what is right and what is wrong:
‘Dear Crito ... we ought to consider whether I shall or shall not do as you say. For I am and always have been one of those natures (hôs egô ou nun prôton alla kai aei toioutos) who must be guided by reason (hoios tôn emôn oudeni allôi peithesthai ê tôi logôi), whatever the reason may be which upon reflection appears to me to be the best (hos an moi logizomenôi beltistos phainêtai); and now that this chance has befallen me, I cannot repudiate my own doctrines, which seem to me as sound as ever: the principles which I have hitherto honoured and revered I still honour, and unless we can at once find other and better principles, I am certain not to agree with you; no, not even if the power of the multitude could let loose upon us many more imprisonments, confiscations, deaths, frightening us like children with hobgoblin terrors.’ (46b1-c6, tr. B. Jowett).
Let me note on this paragraph that Jowett captures well Socrates’ endeavour to present the final decision as fully consistent with all his previous discussions on morality, and with his disregard for the opinions of the ‘many’ so powerfully displayed by him at the trial, but in his translation he settles Socrates with a breathtaking inconsistency. For in the Apology and in all his previous life Socrates denied having any ‘doctrines’, yet Jowett’s translation turns him into a man of doctrines. Jowett’s ‘doctrines’ and ‘principles’ stand for Socrates’ logous, best translated in this context as arguments that in all his previous discussions always proved to be the strongest.
What are the arguments on the basis of which Socrates is determined to make his decision?
Life is not worth living ‘if that part of us is corrupted, which injustice deforms, but justice benefits’ (47d6-7). Interestingly, Socrates avoids here the term ‘soul’ (psuchê), and speaks of ‘that part of us, whatever it is (ekeino, hoti pot’ esti tôn hêmeterôn), which is concerned with justice and injustice’ (peri ho hê te adikia kai hê dikaiosunê estin, 47e8-48a1). After all his discussions about the soul, and the prominence that Socrates gave to the care for the soul in the Apology ‘that it becomes as good as possible’ (tês psuchês hopôs hôs beltistê estai, 29e2), it is unlikely that Socrates tries here to find words with which Crito and his other friends and followers could agree and which they could accept; through Crito, Socrates addresses rather the broadest sections of the Athenian public, confident that Crito would report his words to his friends and that Plato would grasp their importance and give them the power of his pen.
‘Not life as such, but a good life is to be valued most of all’ (ou to zên peri pleistou poiêteon, alla to eu zên, 48b5-6), ‘and a good, just, and honourable life is one and the same’ (48b8).
‘We must never commit injustice intentionally in any way’ (49a4), for ‘committing injustice can never be good and honourable, as we have many times previously agreed’ (49a5-7).
‘Contrary to the opinion of the many, we must not commit injustice in return for injustice inflicted upon us’ (49b10-11).
At the end of the dialogue Socrates’ concerns about exile and about his friends come clearly to the fore in the arguments that the Laws of Athens, to which Socrates gives his voice, raise against the escape:
‘You might in the course of the trial, if you had liked, have fixed the penalty at banishment; you might then have done with the state’s assent what you are now setting out to do without it. But you pretended that you preferred death to exile, and that you were not unwilling to die. And now you have forgotten these fine sentiments, and pay no respect to us the laws, of whom you are the destroyer; and are doing what only a miserable slave would do, running away and turning your back upon the compact and agreement of your citizenship which you made with us ... That your friends will be in danger of being driven into exile and deprived of citizenship, or of losing their property, is tolerably certain’ (52c3-53b3, tr. B. Jowett).’
How could Socrates’ friends have hoped that they might overcome Socrates’ ‘no’ on account of all these obstacles, which they were bound to anticipate? For at the trial, after he had been found guilty, Socrates rejected exile in no uncertain terms:
‘And so he [Meletus] proposes death as the penalty. And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? ... if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life, if I am so irrational as to expect that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and arguments, and have found them so grievous and odious that you will have no more of them, others are likely to endure them. No indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely. And what a life should I lead, at my age, wandering from city to city, ever changing my place of exile, and always being driven out! For I am quite sure that wherever I go, there, as here, the young men will flock to listen to me; and if I drive them away, their elders will drive me out at their request; and if I let them come, their fathers and friends will drive me out for their sakes.’ (Ap. 36b3-37e2, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates’ friends heard him in the court rejecting exile as penalty, which would have amounted to his accepting the legality of the guilty verdict, to which he was opposed on principle. Since he himself proclaimed the verdict as unlawful – insisting that all those members of the jury who deserved to be called judges found him not guilty – they must have felt fully justified in conceiving of his escape from prison as a proper remedy. Furthermore, his proposal of paying the state as much money as he could afford, combined with his insistence that he would never harm himself, was bound to be understood by his friends at least as his willingness, if not desire, to go on living. Finally, and most importantly, by insisting that he would continue practicing philosophy as long as he lived (29d4-5), and by proposing the proper material provisions for his work as the only appropriate response of the state to his life-long work, Socrates seemed to have clearly indicated how he wanted to spend the rest of his days, and it is in response to this wish of his, the expression of which undoubtedly contributed to his death sentence, that his friends prepared for his escape from prison and his exile. To make this point clear, let me quote Socrates’ proposal as it stands in the Apology:
‘What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, and who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no reward so fitting as maintenance in the Prytaneum (en prutaneiôi siteisthai) (3), O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or many.(4) For I am in want, and he has enough; and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty fairly, I should say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return.’ (36d4-37a1, tr. B. Jowett).
Jowett’s ‘And if I am to estimate the penalty fairly’ does not do justice to Socrates’ ei oun dei me kata to dikaion tês axias timasthai (36e1-2) for a more precise rendering would be ‘If I am to propose a proper reward in accordance with justice’. It is these words in particular that must have led Socrates’ friends into engaging in preparations for his escape. Compare Socrates’ proposal with the prospect of exile that Crito offers him in the Crito:
‘There are friends of mine in Thessaly, if you like to go to them, who will value and protect you, and no Thessalian will give you any trouble.’ (45e2-4, tr. B. Jowett).
Add to this that Socrates’ Athenian friends were ready and willing to join Socrates in exile, and that his friends and disciples in Megara, in Thebes, and presumably in Phlius and other Greek cities would have been only too happy to have Socrates and his followers in their midst. The prospect they envisaged and prepared for Socrates thus corresponded in their eyes as closely as possible to his actual wishes expressed at the trial.
However, during his stay in prison Socrates realized that the view on justice that animated his response to the verdict at the trial was deeply misleading, if not outright mistaken, and in his discussion with Crito he rectified it, giving the voice to the Laws of Athens and subjecting himself in the first place to their sharp criticism, and only by extension to Crito and his other friends:
‘Imagine that I am about to run away ... and the laws and the state appear (hoi nomoi kai to koinon tês poleôs) to me and interrogate me: “Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you about? are you not going by an act of yours to bring us to ruin – the laws, and the whole state, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals? ... O Socrates, do not be astonished at what we say, but answer, for you are used to asking and answering questions. Tell us, what complaint have you to make against the city that leads you to ruining us? ... Do you have any objection against those of us who after birth regulate the nurture and education of children, in which you also were educated (trophên te kai paideian en hêi kai su epaideuthês, 50d6-7)? Were not the laws, which have the charge of education, right (ê ou kalôs) in commanding your father to educate you in music and gymnastic (se en mousikêi kai gumnastikêi paideuein)?”’ (50a6-e1). (5)
Socrates answers the Laws with a simple ‘Right’ (kalôs, 50e1).
It appears that during his days in prison Socrates profoundly revised his attitude towards his fatherland (pros tên patrida, Crito 51a2). Compare the words that the Laws of Athens say on behalf of the traditional education of the Athenians in music and gymnastic in the Crito with Socrates’ diatribe against it in the Clitopho:
‘You don’t find your children teachers of justice ... You see that reading and writing, music and gymnastic you and your children learnt sufficiently well, which you regard as complete education in excellence, and nevertheless you see that they use very badly the property you bequeath to them. So how is it possible that you do not despise the present education?’ (407b4-c5).
The ridicule to which Socrates in the Apology exposes Meletus’ suggestion that the members of the jury, the members of the City Assembly, as well as other Athenians were capable of educating the youth (24d9-25c4), chimes well with the Clitopho, but is in discord with the Crito. In the Crito, the Laws argue that ‘the fatherland ought to be complied with, flattered and soothed when angry’ (hupeikein kai thôpeuein patrida chalepainousan, 51b2-3). These are strong words, which contrast sharply with everything that Socrates said in the Apology.
This does not mean that Socrates in the Crito accepts the guilty verdict as a just verdict; the Laws of Athens argue:
‘For just consider, if you transgress and err in this sort of way ... you will confirm in the minds of the judges the justice of their own condemnation of you (kai bebaiôseis tois dikastais tên doxan, hôste dokein orthôs tên dikên dikasai, 53b7-c1). For he who is a corruptor of the laws is more than likely to be a corruptor of the young and foolish portion of mankind.’ (Crit. 53a8-c3, tr. B. Jowett).
Note that here, in sharp contrast to the Apology, Socrates through the mouth of the Laws of Athens attributes the title of judges to those who condemned him to death. Judges can make mistakes, they can pass wrong verdicts, but this fact does not alter the fact that they remain judges in the full sense of that word.
It might be argued that although it is difficult to see Plato writing the Apology in the years that followed Socrates’ death when Plato still had hopes of becoming a politician, nothing stands in the way of dating it after Plato definitely abandoned his hopes of a political career in Athens. For in the dialogues written in that period, notably in the Gorgias, the Theaetetus and the Republic, he views the Athenian judicial system in terms that are in full harmony with the Apology. Relevant passages from the Gorgias and the Theaetetus were quoted in the preceding chapter concerning the Euthyphro, so let me present here just a few passages from the Republic. In the sixth book of the Republic Socrates discusses the Forms, that is Beings that truly are, and in particular the Form of justice, which only true philosophers can see. ‘The many’, who formed the main political force in the Athenian democracy, were incapable of seeing it:
‘And this was what we foresaw, and this was the reason why truth forced us to admit, not without fear and hesitation, that neither cities nor States nor individuals will ever attain perfection until the small class of philosophers whom we termed useless but not corrupt are providentially compelled, whether they will or not, to take care of the State, and until a like necessity be laid on the State to obey them.’ (499a11-b6, tr. B. Jowett).
It may be argued that Plato wrote the Apology after he conceived of this idea of a state ruled by philosophers, as he was approaching his fortieth year, as he speaks of it in the Seventh Letter. The Seventh Letter makes it abundantly clear that the fate of Socrates was an event that played a crucial role on Plato’s road to the Republic, and we can find its powerful echoes in the Republic itself. In the seventh book Plato depicts the life of ordinary men as that of prisoners in a cave, who never see the real world, only shadows cast on the cave wall in front of which they sit bound in their fetters, and he describes a dangerous attempt to free such a prisoner from his chains and drag him to light:
‘He is reluctantly dragged (helkoi, 515e6) up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself; is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. (515e6-516a3, tr. B. Jowett).’
On his return to the cave his eyes would be full of darkness, he would be unable to discern the shadows that the prisoners could see:
‘Would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes (diephtharmenos hêkei ta ommata); and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.’ (517a2-6, tr. B. Jowett).
Let me note that by translating Socrates’ words as ‘down he came without his eyes’ rather than ‘he came down with his eyesight corrupted’ (diephtharmenos hêkei ta ommata, 517a2) Jowett loses the reference to the charge of ‘corrupting the youth’ that Socrates faced at his trial (tous neous diaphtheironta, Ap. 24c4). Jowett attempts to restore the reference in his translation of the closing line of the passage by speaking of the philosopher as ‘the offender’: ‘let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death’. In doing so he again distorts Socrates’ words, for Socrates does not speaks of the philosopher as ‘the offender’, he simply refers to him as ‘the man who attempts to free and lead up’ (ton epicheirounta luein te kai anagein, 517a5) a prisoner from the cave.
The Apology in some ways fits into this context, but there are strong reasons for rejecting its dating alongside the Gorgias, the Republic, and the Theaetetus. Such reasons can be derived especially from the Theaetetus, the dialogue which is dramatically closely associated with Socrates’ trial. In the preceding chapter I spoke of the light that the Theaetetus sheds on the Euthyphro, now I shall explore the way in which it elucidates the Apology. I shall argue that in the Theaetetus Plato refers to Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates in the Clouds so as to correct Socrates’ dismissal of the Clouds in the Apology; had Plato written the Apology later in life, he would not have recorded Socrates’ dismissal of Aristophanes in the Apology as he did.
In the Apology, Socrates began his defence by recalling the inveterate charges and calumnies that the members of the jury would have seen in their youth on stage in Aristophanes’ Clouds. He said he was caricatured there as a wise man (18b7) and a busybody, who searched into the earth beneath and the heaven above, made the worse appear a better cause and taught these things to others (19b4-c1), was carried around (Sôkratê tina ekei peripheromenon), and pretended that he walked on air (phaskonta te aerobatein, 19c2-3). In the Clouds we find indeed Socrates carried on stage in a basket hanging above the stage (houpi tês kremathras anêr, 218) and proclaiming that he walks in the air (aerobatô, 224). In the Theaetetus, in a flight of enthusiasm, Socrates depicts a true philosopher, who holds aloof
‘because it is really only his body that sojourns in his city, while his thought, disdaining all such things as worthless, takes wings, as Pindar says, “beyond the sky (ouranou th’ huper, 173e6), beneath the earth”, searching the heavens and measuring the plains, everywhere seeking the true nature of everything as a whole, never sinking to what lies close at hand.’ (173e2-174a2, tr. Cornford).
In Aristophanes’ comedy we find Socrates’ disciples bent down, with their heads searching deep down beneath the earth, beneath Tartarus (192), each bottom turned towards the sky and thus ’itself by itself’ (autos kath’ hauton) learning to do astronomy (astronomein didasketai, 194). The very fact that the Clouds has been preserved testifies that Aristophanes’ satirical picture of Socrates and his disciples survived Socrates’ rejection of it in the Apology: Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates became so wide-spread and influential that Plato in his ripe old age found it imperative to present the reader with the truth behind the comic distortion. Aware of the continuing force of Aristophanes’ comedy, he turned its edge away from Socrates, directing it against those who spend their lives in the courts and political assemblies, rhetoricians, those who accused Socrates and brought him to death. Socrates in the Theaetetus depicts a philosopher as one who drags such a man up to the heights (helkusêi anô, 175b9) on which he himself dwells, away from personal accusations and counter accusations, up into the realm where justice and injustice in themselves can be examined (eis skepsin autês dikaiosunês kai adikias, 175c2). The terms ‘drags up’ is the same as that used in the Republic when Socrates speaks of a philosopher dragging a prisoner out of the cave, but while the Republic would not alert the reader to Plato’s depicting Socrates as caricatured by Aristophanes, the passage in Theaetetus does so:
“Now it is he who is dizzy from hanging at such an unaccustomed height (apo hupsêlou kremastheis) and looking down from mid-air (kai blepôn meteôros anôthen, 175d3). Lost and dismayed and stammering, he will be laughed at, not by maidservants or the uneducated – they will not see what is happening – but by everyone whose breeding has been the antithesis of a slave’s.” (175d2-7, tr. Cornford).
In the Theaetetus Plato goes further back than the Clouds, to the Knights, which was staged a year before the Clouds and was politically the most daring of Aristophanes’ comedies. There the target of Aristophanes’ biting humour is the demagogue Cleon, who after his famous victory over the Spartans became the most powerful politician of the day. Cleon and his fictional rival, the Sausage-seller, vie with each other to obtain the position of the most favourite servant of the people of Athens, trumping each other in presenting their master with the most dainty dishes (1166-1225). In the Theaetetus Socrates likens rhetoricians addressing the people of Athens to slaves directing their speeches to their master (hoi de logoi aei peri homodoulou pros despotên kathêmenon, 172a5), who know how to flatter their master by their words and gain his favour by their actions (epistamenoi ton despotên logôi te thôpeusai kai ergôi hupelthein, 173a2-3). In contrast to the rhetoricians, a true philosopher is useless when faced with a task of a slave (hotan eis doulika empesêi diakonêmata), for he does not know how to flavour a dish with spices and a speech with flattery (mêde opson hêdunai ê thôpas logous, 175e3-5).
There are two important points that must be made concerning this passage. Firstly, in satirizing the rhetoricians who spend their time in the courts and in the people’s political assembly Socrates repeatedly denounces their inevitable stooping to flattering the people (logôi te thôpeusai, 173a2-3, thôpas logous, 175e3-5), which is in sharp contrast to the Laws of Athens that in the Crito vituperated Socrates for not taking customary recourse to flattery in addressing the jury and thus the state (thôpeuein patrida, 51b2). In the Theaetetus Socrates denounces the rhetoricians ‘gaining the favour of their master, the people of Athens, by their actions’ (ergôi hupelthein, 173a3) while in the Crito the Laws of Athens urge Socrates to ‘yield to the state’ (hupeikein patrida, 51b2). When Plato wrote the Gorgias, the Republic and the Theaetetus, the days of his attempting to fit into the strait-jacket of Athenian political life were over. Escaping that strait-jacket, Plato is again in tune with the Apology written in the days of Socrates’ imprisonment, when Plato thought that after Socrates’ escape from prison he would live in exile.
The second point to make is that in the Theaetetus, by pointing past the Clouds to the Knights, Plato points to the very roots of the Socrates-Aristophanes relationship. We know that Aristophanes considered himself too young to produce his first three comedies, Banqueters, Babylonians, and Acharnians; the first comedy he ventured to produce himself was the Knights.(6) An extensive fragment from his first comedy, the Banqueters, suggests that he was familiar with the circle of Socrates’ followers, for he refers to Alcibiades’ use of language and to his pursuit of calocagathy (fr. 198), the Socratic ideal of intellectual and moral nobility. How could Socrates have possibly left alone such a talented young man, when he could not help lecturing a mature Aristophanes? Let me quote from the closing paragraph of Plato’s Symposium:
‘The others were either asleep or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon [at the honour of whose victory with his first tragedy the symposium was held], who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed around, and Socrates was discoursing to them. Aristodemus [a disciple of Socrates who recollected and narrated the event to Apollodorus, the actual narrator] was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy.’ (223c2-d6, tr. B. Jowett)?
In the Acharnians and the Knights, which were written prior to the Clouds, we can observe a distinct sense of direction towards purifying the plays of gross pornographic scenes and transforming them into political comedy par excellence, driven by a deep concern for the state of Athens. Let me suggest that in this development Socrates’ influence played its role, and that his influence was so overpowering that in the end Aristophanes had to rebel against it. He did so in the Clouds, in which, paradoxically, Socrates’ purifying influence is the strongest. Plato intimates earlier on in the Symposium through the mouth of Alcibiades that Aristophanes, like Alcibiades, had been profoundly affected by Socrates, ‘his heart or his soul (tên kardian gar ê psuchên) bitten by philosophic discussions (plêgeis te kai dêchtheis hupo tôn en philosophiai logôn), which hold on more savagely than a viper (hoi echontai echidnês agrioteron) when they get hold of a young and talented soul; they compel a man to do and to say anything’ (neou psuchês mê aphuous hotan labôntai, kai poiousi dran te kai legein hotioun, 218a3-7). Alcibiades looks around, enumerates the symposiasts – Phaedrus, Agathon, Eryximachus, Aristodemus, and Aristophanes – and says: ‘you all have shared philosophic madness and frenzy’ (pantes gar kekoinônêkate tês philosophou manias te kai bakcheias, 218b3-4). He speaks of his feelings of love and hate towards Socrates, of his escapes from him, and he finds no better way of describing Socrates on a battlefield than by quoting Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in Clouds 362: ‘and there you could see him, Aristophanes, as you describe, just as he is in the streets of Athens, “holding his head high and looking fiercely around”’ (brenthuomenos kai tôphthalmô paraballôn, Pl. Symp. 221b3-4). Just as Alcibiades in his drunken speech tells us something very important and revealing about Socrates, so does Aristophanes in his comic caricature of him in the Clouds; this is what Plato wants to tell us in the Symposium.
We must now return to the Apology and see what light the Clouds on the one hand and the Theaetetus on the other can shed on its central theme, Socrates’ examination of his interlocutors. In the Apology Socrates refers to it as the central cause of the guilty verdict and the death sentence: it pained his interlocutors, and they resented it so much that they could not stand it any longer and decided to get rid of him (23c-24b, 29e, 37c-e). In the Theaetetus two aspects of Socrates’ examinations come to the fore – intellectual midwifery and intellectual strip-tease – and both of these aspects can be detected as part of Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates.
Just as midwives know which women are pregnant, so Socrates knows which men are pregnant with thought. When the young Theaetetus finds it difficult to answer Socrates’ question ‘What do you think that knowledge is’ (146c3), and cannot answer it satisfactorily, nor give up searching (148e3-5), Socrates says:
‘These are the pangs of labour, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing to the birth (148e6-7) ... Come then to me, who am a midwife’s son and myself a midwife, and do your best to answer the questions which I will ask you. And if I abstract and expose your first-born, because I discover upon inspection that the conception which you have formed is a vain shadow, do not quarrel with me on that account ... For I have actually known some who were ready to bite me when I deprived them of a darling folly (151b8-c7). (Tr. B. Jowett)
The main aspect of Socrates’ questioning, viewed as intellectual midwifery, is Socrates’ eliciting views and opinions from his interlocutors, upon which he subjects them to rigorous testing whether they are true or false, both of which his interlocutors perceived as very painful. Aristophanes’ Socrates applies this method of questioning in the Clouds asking his would be disciple Strepsiades to search and produce his own thought (autos ho ti boulei prôtos exeurôn lege, 737), inspecting step by step all the things of which he is concerned (kata mikron periphronei ta pragmata, 741), and correctly analysing and investigating them (orthôs diairôn kai skopôn, 742). Strepsiades proves to be incapable of producing any thoughts worth cultivating and Socrates dismisses him. Nevertheless, eager to have his son educated, Strepsiades gives us a remarkable insight into perhaps the most important aspect of Socrates’ questioning, his being inspired by the Delphic imperative ‘Know thyself’. For when his son Pheidippides asked what he was to learn from Socrates, Strepsiades answered: “You will acquire knowledge of yourself, how ignorant and thick you are” (gnôsei de sauton hôs amathês ei kai pachus, 842). This is the minimal effect of Socrates’ midwifery, to which Socrates points at the end of the Theaetetus: ‘you will not think you know what you do not know’ (ouk oiomenos eidenai ha mê oistha, 210c3-4).
Against this it might be objected that Socrates’ midwifery in the Theaetetus, although ostensibly interconnected with Socrates’ philosophic ignorance, is in fact Plato’s, and has nothing to do with the historical Socrates.(7) Proof of this can be allegedly seen in Socrates’ radically transcending his ignorance in the middle of the dialogue; he knows the truth, and he knows what true knowledge is:
“Let us state the truth in this way. In the divine there is no shadow of unrighteousness, only the perfection of righteousness; and nothing is more like the divine than any one of us who becomes as righteous as possible. It is here that a man shows his true spirit and power or lack of spirit and nothingness. For to know this is wisdom and excellence of the genuine sort; not to know it is to be manifestly blind and base.” (176b8-c5).(8)
However, a closer look reveals the same contradiction, even more strongly pronounced, in the Apology itself. After the guilty verdict it is Socrates’ turn to propose what he deserves. He proclaims that he deserves free meals in Prytaneum, even more so than an Olympic victor, ‘for he gives you a mere appearance of happiness, and I give you its reality’ (ho men gar humas poiei eudaimonas dokein einai, egô de einai, 36d9-e1). It was not Socrates’ philosophic ignorance that made his interlocutors experience the reality of true happiness, rather, his moments of enthusiastic flights into knowledge and philosophic certainty, as in the Theaetetus. Nevertheless, it may be further objected that those who could share Socrates’ philosophic enthusiasm must have been very few at the best of times, and that Socrates’ elenctic examinations mostly made people angry and viciously disposed towards him, as he himself concedes in the Apology: ‘I know that by virtue of these activities I make myself hated’ (kaitoi oida schedon hoti autois toutois apechthanomai, 24a6-7). There can be only one explanation of the paradox of Socrates’ arousing enmity in his interlocutors, while maintaining that he was making them truly happy: the historical Socrates firmly believed in reincarnation, convinced that his words left a positive imprint even on the souls of those who appeared to be deaf to what he was saying. What he was saying could be of substantial help to them in their pursuit of happiness in their next lives. Plato made this point clear retrospectively in the Republic. Socrates speaks there of happiness as the lot of those who devote themselves fully to philosophy (498c2-4). Adimantus ripostes that most people, and especially the sophist Thrasymachus, will never be convinced by him about this (498c5-8), to which Socrates replies:
“I shall go on striving to the utmost until I either convert him and other men, or do something which may profit them against the day when they live again, and hold the like discourse in another state of existence (ê prourgou ti poiêsômen eis ekeinon ton bion, hotan authis genomenoi tois toioutois entuchôsi logois, 498d3-d4, tr. B. Jowett.).”
Another aspect of Socrates’ questioning was his subjecting his interlocutors to intellectual strip-tease. This theme features prominently in the Clouds, but it is caricatured in a manner that was bound to be misunderstood and show Socrates in a negative light. Socrates’ outright rejection of Aristophanes’ caricature of him in the Apology did not help. Socrates’ method of stripping his interlocutors naked therefore had to be clarified by Plato. Let me begin by examining Aristophanes’ caricature.
A disciple of Socrates boasts about his master’s great accomplishments: “Last evening we had no meal in the evening.” Strepsiades asks: “What did Socrates devise for the barley meal?” Disciple: “On the table he sprinkled fine ashes (leptên tephran): then he bent a skewer, used it as a compass (diabêtên labôn) and snatched the mantle (thoimation) from the wrestling school (ek tês palaistras).” That Socrates on the given occasion captivated his audience by performing geometry is emphasized in the next line. Strepsiades remarks: “Why then do we revere that Thales?” (ti dêt’ ekeinon ton Thalê thaumazomen) (175-180), Thales being the greatest mathematician of the past. This slighting remark on Thales chimes well with the Apology in which Socrates speaks disdainfully about the philosophers of nature. Plato obviously felt that this also had to be corrected; in the Theaetetus Socrates speaks of Thales as a true philosopher, whose thought is directed to the stars (astronomounta, 174a4), who fails to see what is under his feet and is therefore ridiculed by ignorant people: ‘this is the ridicule to which are exposed all those who spend their lives in philosophy’ (tauton arkei skômma epi pantas hosoi en philosophiai diagousi, 174a8-b1).
In the Clouds the definite article that qualifies the wrestling school from which Socrates snatched the mantle indicates that Aristophanes speaks of a wrestling school that was well known as Socrates’ favourite haunt; but what is the meaning of the definite article that qualifies ‘the mantle’? In the light of Plato’s dialogues, Theaetetus in particular, it becomes clear that it is the mantle of false knowledge, of ignorance paraded as knowledge, which is the worst kind of ignorance, which Socrates strips from his interlocutors. But before consulting Plato we must obtain as much clarity as possible concerning this point by following the theme of ‘the mantle’ as it reappears at crucial points in the course of the comedy.
Strepsiades is about to enter Socrates’ school. Socrates orders: “Come now, take off your mantle (katathou thoimation) (9) ... It is the custom for novices to enter naked” (gumnous eisienai nomizetai, 497-8). Unteachable, Strepsiades leaves the school and tells his son: “I straightway forgot everything that was taught to me.” His son Pheidippides asks: “Then, that’s the reason you’ve lost your mantle (thoimation)?” Strepsiades answers “I’ve not lost it (all’ ouk apolôlek’), but disdained it (katapephrontika).” (855-7). At this point of the play, eager to persuade his son to become Socrates’ disciple, Strepsiades endorses the process of ‘stripping’. But at the end of the play, after his son, turned into Socrates’ enthusiastic disciple, gives him a good beating for his old-fashioned views, Strepsiades sets Socrates’ Thinkery (phrontistêrion, 94) on fire, announcing himself to Socrates and his disciples as the one “whose mantle you took away” (houper thoimation eilêphate, 1498);(10) it was Strepsiades’ being stripped by Socrates and his disciples that hurt him most.
The joke concerning Socrates’ stealing the mantle from the wrestling-school was brilliant, but not easy to understand; it is instructive to see how one of the greatest classical scholars of the past century struggled with it. In his commentary on the Clouds Dover writes:
“The point may be simply that Socrates’ high-minded diversion of the students’ interest from their empty bellies to the abstractions of geometry did not last long, and he had recourse to the crudest remedy. The stealing of clothes and property from baths, wrestling schools, and gymnasia was a well known category of crime, severely punished. ... The real problem, however, lies in the definite articles: ‘the wrestling-school’ (there were many at Athens) and ‘the himation’ [the mantle]... Possibly ‘he stole his himation from the wrestling-school’ was a colloquial expression meaning ‘he’s not to be trusted’ or ‘he hasn’t a penny to his name’.”(11)
Aristophanes himself in the parabasis to the written edition of the Clouds complains that this comedy, which he himself considered the wisest of his comedies (tautên sophôtat’ echein tôn emôn kômôdiôn, 522) and which cost him the greatest labour (hê paresche moi ergon pleiston, 523-4), was misunderstood: ‘I left the stage defeated by coarse men’ (anechôroun hup’ andrôn phortikôn hêttêtheis, 524-5).
Socrates’ robbing the mantle from ‘the wrestling school’ was presumably misunderstood even by the audience, Socrates’ contemporaries, and was bound to be even further misunderstood by later generations, who knew the comedy only from reading it or from hearsay. Plato therefore decided to shed light on this crucial point early on, in the Charmides, which is dramatically set some nine years before the Clouds and thus presents us with Socrates as he was known and caricatured by Aristophanes. Socrates had just returned from the army at Potidaea, and as soon as he had had some sleep he went to the wrestling school of Taureas. Chaerephon, who is closely associated with Socrates in the Clouds, extolled to him Charmides’ beauty: “Has he not a fine face? ... Yet if he would consent to strip (apodunai), you would think he had no face, he has such perfect beauty of form.” Socrates: “What an irresistible person you make him to be, if he has but one more thing – a little thing – besides ... if in his soul he is well developed ... Let us strip (ti ouk apedusamen) that part of him and view it first.” (154d2-e6).
Clearing Socrates of the slander became even more important at the time when Anytus and people around him began to calumniate Socrates. And so it was not fortuitous that in the Meno, in which Socrates confronts Anytus, Plato brought in Socrates’ questioning concerning geometry, to which Socrates took recourse when he was demonstrating the soul’s capability of Recollection, and which had been caricatured by Aristophanes in the joke about Socrates in the wrestling school. It was part and parcel of Socrates’ elenctic questioning whenever he was demonstrating that every human soul could Recollect, if questioned properly, that it had knowledge it could not have acquired in its present life, and which it therefore must have gained in its pre-existence. This could be demonstrated only by questioning persons that had no education in geometry, as was the case of Meno’s slave. That this was Socrates’ speciality is corroborated by Plato in the Phaedo, where Cebes reminds Socrates of his often repeated argument (ton logon ... hon su eiôthas thama legein, 72e4-5) that learning is actually nothing but recollection (hoti hêmin hê mathêsis ouk allo ti ê anamnêsis tunchanei ousa, 72e5-6), and that this argument can be best demonstrated by taking people to geometrical figures (ean tis epi ta diagrammata agêi, 73a10-b1). As we know from the Lysis, young boys were accompanied to gymnasia by trusted slaves, so that slaves could always be found there. If the demonstration had the desired impact of a revelatory experience on Meno, an aristocrat taught by Gorgias, the greatest sophist of that time, it would have had its effect on people assembled in the palaistra, ‘the wrestling school’, and Socrates would not relent in his questioning until all wise men, all the sophists encircling the young men there were left intellectually naked.(12)
As I have argued earlier, both the Charmides and the Meno were written by Plato during Socrates’ life-time. After the death of Socrates the need to clear Socrates’ name was even greater. And so we find Socrates’ questioning presented as intellectual strip-tease in the Protagoras, which was written at the time when Plato still hoped to become an Athenian politician.(13) In the Protagoras Socrates is bent on stripping Protagoras’ mind naked:
‘Suppose some one who is enquiring into the health of another says ... “Uncover your chest and back to me that I may have a better view”. That is the sort of thing which I desire ... Uncover your mind to me, Protagoras, and reveal your opinion about knowledge’ (kai tode tês dianoias apokalupson: pôs echeis pros epistêmên, 352a4-b2).
In the Gorgias, Socrates, always anxious to follow God as far as is humanly possible, connects the theme of stripping souls naked with a myth about the after-life. In the time when Cronus reigned, people left this life fully clad and because of it many were sent to the wrong places. Zeus decided to rectify this:
‘I shall put a stop to this; the judgments are not well given, because the persons who are judged have their clothes on, for they are alive; and there are many who, having evil souls, are apparelled in fair bodies, or encased in wealth or rank, and, when the day of judgment arrives, numerous witnesses come forward and testify on their behalf that they have lived righteously. The judges are awed by them, and they themselves have their clothes on when judging; their eyes and ears and their whole bodies are interposed as a veil before their own souls. All this is a hindrance to them; there are the clothes of the judges and the clothes of the judged – What is to be done? ... they shall be entirely stripped before they are judged, for they shall be judged when they are dead; and the judge too shall be naked, that is to say, dead – he with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked souls ... conducted in this manner, the judgment will be just.’(523c1-e6, tr. B. Jowett).
But all these efforts – in the Charmides, the Meno, the Protagoras, and the Gorgias – were apparently not enough to clear Socrates from the slander generated by Aristophanes’ comedy, for Plato in the Theaetetus finally decided to employ for the purpose the imagery that corresponded much more closely to the scene in the Clouds in which Socrates takes his disciples to the palaistra, takes a compass in his hands, spreads fine ashes on the floor, engages everyone in geometry, and snatches the mantle from that wrestling-school. In the Theaetetus Socrates applies his method of stripping to Theodorus, a famous mathematician, using the imagery that at last gives the reader a proper key to Aristophanes’ joke. When Theodorus tries to avoid Socrates’ questioning, Socrates rebukes him: ‘And if you went to wrestling-schools in Sparta, would you think it proper to watch other people who were naked, some of them with rather inferior physiques, and not take your own clothes off and show your figure?’ (162b1-3). Theodorus attempts to escape the ordeal, suggesting that he might persuade the Spartans to let him have his clothes (162b4-5), but the reprieve is brief. He cannot reject Socrates’ demand that he at least defends the memory of Protagoras, his mentor and friend: ‘I was talking nonsense just now, when I claimed that you’d let me keep my clothes on and not make me take them off ... you seem to be like Sciron [a legendary highwayman] ... acting like an Antaeus [another legendary robber] you don’t let go anyone who comes up to you until you’ve forced him to take his clothes off and wrestle with you in an argument (169a7-b4).’
Xenophon says in the Apology of Socrates that he wants ‘to hand down to memory how Socrates, on being indicted, deliberated on his defence and on his end’. He acknowledges ‘that others have written about this, and that all of them reproduced the loftiness of his words (pantes etuchon tês megalêgorias autou)’, but complains that
‘they have not shown clearly that he had now come to the conclusion that for him death was more to be desired than life; and hence his lofty utterance appears to be rather ill-considered (aphronestera).’ (Xen. Ap. Soc. par. 1, tr. O.J. Todd).
Xenophon was not in Athens when Socrates was tried and sentenced to death; he gets his information from Hermogenes, a close friend of Socrates. Hermogenes was worried when he saw that before the trial Socrates was talking and thinking about anything but his defence, and Socrates told him that he had tried twice to prepare his speech, but that his divine sign each time interposed (enantioutai moi to daimonion, Xen. Ap. Soc. 4). When Hermogenes found this surprising, Socrates said:
‘Do you think it surprising that even God holds it better for me to die now? Do you not know that I would refuse to concede that any man has lived a better life than I have up to now? ... But now, if my years are prolonged, I know that frailties of old age will inevitably be realized, – that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned. If I perceive my decay and take to complaining, could I any longer take pleasure in life? Perhaps God in his kindness is taking my part and securing me the opportunity of ending my life not only in season but also in the way that is easiest.’ (par. 5-7, tr. O.J. Todd).
John Burnet in his introductory note on Plato’s Apology indicates that many scholars referred to these passages from Xenophon’s Apology as proof that it must be spurious, for if it is genuine, Plato’s Apology must be a fiction. Burnet, who has no doubts about the authenticity of Xenophon’s Apology, argues:
‘Even if it is true that Hermogenes and Xenophon put their heads together to find a plausible explanation of the megalêgoria [‘lofty speaking’] of Socrates, that would only prove they were incapable of understanding him, which is likely enough.’ (Burnet, Plato’s Apology, op. cit. p. 146).
Although I fully agree with Burnet concerning Xenophon’s authorship of his Apology of Socrates, I cannot accept his note which springs from an idealized picture of Socrates. As Xenophon’s Apology indicates, Socrates was very human. And as to Xenophon’s remark that none of those who wrote about Socrates’ defence and his death have shown clearly that Socrates had come to the conclusion ‘that for him death was more to be desired than life’, Plato’s Apology could have been viewed in this sense, for what Socrates says at the end to those who voted against his death sentence is not very convincing:
‘There is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things – either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is a gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?’ (40c4-e7, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates’ argument that any man would be hard pressed to point to a day in his life that he had passed more pleasantly than a night undisturbed by dreams does not square with Socrates’ proclamation to the men of the jury that he was giving them happiness (eudaimonas einai, Apology 36d9-e1). The very fact that Socrates’ friends and followers wanted Socrates to escape from prison and prepared everything for it shows clearly that they were certainly not persuaded by his words. In fact, I believe that the Crito does not tell the whole story, and that the hope of Socrates’ friends that he could be persuaded to escape from prison did not end with Crito’s visit.
In the Crito Socrates invites Crito to a joint enquiry as to whether his intention to get him out of prison ‘has anything right about it’ (ei meta tinos orthotêtos eiê, 46 b2), and on that basis decide whether to follow it or not:
‘For I am and always have been (hôs egô ou nun prôton alla kai aei) a man that listens to nothing but reason (toioutos hoios tôn emôn oudeni allô peithesthai ê tôi logôi) that on reflection appears to me the best’ (hos an moi logizomenôi beltistos phainêtai, 46b4-6).
The Crito ends with Socrates fully absorbed by his vision of his forthcoming life in Hades, and if he was to be persuaded to leave prison, his ‘certainty’ that a better life was waiting for him after the end of his life here on earth had to be shaken. This then is what the discussion on his last day in prison was all about, this is why it was led by Cebes and Simmias, two friends of Socrates from Thebes of whom Crito speaks in the Crito as being actively involved in the preparations for his escape. These two young philosophers had every reason to believe that they could shake Socrates’ confidence on this point, for as I have argued in the chapter on the Charmides, Socrates did not accept Plato’s Phaedran view of the soul as the self-moving principle of motion, which meant that he could not accept his proof of the immortality of the soul that was based on it, and Cebes was sure that Socrates’ conviction was flawed that the theory of Recollection, expounded in the Meno, guaranteed immortality. As the Phaedo shows, Cebes pointing out to Socrates that it was flawed put Socrates in a great difficulty (86d6-89c4, 95e7-96e4), out of which he in the end extricated himself only with the help of the absent Plato, that is with taking recourse to Plato’s theory of Forms (99d4-107b9).
Within this context the riddle of Plato’s ‘absence’ in the Phaedo can perhaps be solved. When Phaedo enumerates those close friends of Socrates who were with him on his last day in prison, he says: ‘But Plato, I think (oimai), was ill’ (59b10). This remark is often taken as Plato’s indication that the philosophical thoughts expressed in the dialogue are to be ascribed to Plato himself. If this were so, it would be a very strange way of claiming the authorship of one’s own thoughts: by proclaiming one’s absence. Rather, Phaedo’s ‘I think’ indicates that Plato had not been ill, for had it been so, Phaedo would have known it for certain. Does Plato want to cover up in this manner his being afraid to be with Socrates in prison on his last day? Phaedo’s ‘uncertainty’ concerning Plato’s absence contrasts sharply with his certainty concerning other two absentees, Aristippus and Cleombrotus. For when Echecrates asks: ‘And what about Aristippus and Cleombrotus, were they present there?’ Phaedo answers vehemently: ‘Certainly not (Ou dêta), they were said to be in Aigina’. Demetrius says (Peri hermêneias 288) that these two ‘did not take the trouble to sail across, though they were not 200 stades from Athens’.(14) Aristippus says of himself in Xenophon’s Memorabilia: ‘I count myself among those who want to live as trouble-free and as pleasantly as possible’ (I.ii.9). Concerning Cleombrotus, ‘Callimachus has an epigram (epigram 24) on Cleombrotus of Ambracia who threw himself into the sea after reading the Phaedo, and he has often been identified with Cleombrotus mentioned here.’(15) I believe that in the Phaedo, by contrasting the way in which Phaedo speaks of these absences, Plato wants to indicate why he was absent: he was preparing Socrates’ escape that on that day was still on, if only Socrates could be persuaded.(16)
But Socrates could not be persuaded to contravene the sentence, and like Xenophon in his Apology, Plato in the Cratylus and Theaetetus, which he dramatically connected with Socrates’ trial and death, goes to great lengths to show that Socrates viewed his life after death with longing.
In the Theaetetus Socrates says:
‘Evils, Theodorus, can never pass away; for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good. Having no place among gods in heaven, of necessity they hover around the mortal nature, and this earthly sphere. Wherefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise.’ (176a5-b3, tr. B. Jowett).
In the Cratylus, inspired by his morning discussion with Euthyphro, Socrates discusses the character of Hades or Pluto, the Lord of underworld. His discussion partner is Hermogenes – the very man to whom Xenophon refers in his Apology as the source of the information about Socrates’ wish to die:
‘Socrates: Pluto gives wealth (ploutos), and his name means the giver of wealth, which comes out of the earth beneath. People in general appear to imagine that the term Hades is connected with the invisible (aeides); and so they are led by their fears to call the God Pluto instead.
Hermogenes: And what is the true derivation?
Socrates: I will tell you my own opinion; but first, I should like to ask you which chain does any animal feel to be the stronger? and which confines him more to the same spot, – desire or necessity?
Hermogenes: Desire, Socrates, is stronger far.
Socrates: And is any desire stronger than the thought that you will be made better by associating with another?
Hermogenes: Certainly not.
Socrates: And is not that the reason, Hermogenes, why no one, who has been to him, is willing to come back to us? ... Such a charm, as I imagine, is the God able to infuse into his words ... Note also, that he will have nothing to do with men while they are in the body, but only when the soul is liberated from the desires and evils of the body. Now there is a great deal of philosophy and reflection in that; for in their liberated state he can bind them with the desire for virtue, but while they are flustered and maddened by the body, not even father Cronos himself would suffice to keep them with him in his own far-famed chains.
Hermogenes: There is a deal of truth in what you say.
Socrates: Yes, Hermogenes, and the legislator called him Hades, not from the unseen (aeides) – far otherwise, but from his knowledge (eidenai) of all noble things.’ (403b2-404b4, tr. B. Jowett).
In the Crito the Laws of Athens end their arguments by reference to Hades:
‘“Now you depart, if it must be so, in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws but of men. But if you leave the city, basely returning evil for evil and injury for injury, breaking the covenants which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least of all to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will give you no friendly welcome; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Crito.” This, dear Crito, is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic; that voice, I say, is humming in my ears, and prevents me from hearing any other. Be assured, then, that anything more you may say to shake this my faith will be said in vain. Yet speak, if you have anything to say.’
Crito: I have nothing to say.
Socrates: It is enough then, Crito. Let us fulfil the will of God, and follow whither He leads.’ (54b8-e2, tr. B. Jowett).
On his last day, conscious of the disappointment he inflicted on his friends by his refusal to go along with their plans for his escape, at the first opportunity that arises Socrates introduces the theme of the after-life and its overwhelming desirability. Cebes tells Socrates that Euenus and some others asked why he began to write poems in prison, he who never wrote a line of poetry before. Socrates answers that it was because of his recurrent dream, and concludes his explanation with the words:
‘Tell this to Euenus, Cebes, and bid him be of good cheer: say that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man, and not tarry; and that today I am likely to be going, for the Athenians say that I must.’ (61b7-c1, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates’ words triggered the following discussion:
‘Simmias said: What a message for such a man! having been a frequent companion of his I should say that, as far as I know him, he will never take your advice unless he is obliged.
Why, said Socrates, - is not Euenus a philosopher?
I think he is, said Simmias.
Then he, or any man who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die; but he will not take his own life, for that is held to be unlawful ... but must wait for the kindness of another (alla allon dei perimenein euergetên).’ (61c2-62a7, tr. B. Jowett).
If then all this is true, if Socrates longed to die, does it not completely invalidate my interpretation of the Euthyphro in the preceding chapter, in which I argued that Socrates was convinced that he would win the case? I derived that argument in particular from Socrates’ promise to Euthyphro: ‘Go on, and try to show me with some clarity that all gods absolutely agree in approving your action. And if you give me a sufficient proof of it, I will applaud you for your wisdom as long as I live’ (9b2-3). I argued that these words would be deprived of all their force if Socrates had expected to lose his case and be sentenced to death, and that they would be farcical if they were written by Plato after Socrates’ trial and death.
Similar expressions of Socrates’ conviction that the trial would not result in his death can be found in the Cratylus and Theaetetus. In the Theaetetus Socrates raises difficulties concerning the thesis that nothing can ever become larger or smaller, either in size or number, as long as it is equal to itself (155a3-5). He says that this thesis comes into a conflict within our soul
‘if we say that I, being just this size, neither growing nor suffering the opposite, now being greater than you, young man, in a year will be smaller than you’ (155b6-8).
When Plato put these words into Socrates’ mouth, did he forget that Socrates was on the way to the office of the King Archon, having been indicted by Meletus?
The Cratylus concludes with a discussion between Socrates and Cratylus on the Heraclitean doctrine of flux, which must be read in full by anyone who wants to understand Socrates and Plato:
‘Socrates: I should not like us to be imposed upon by the appearance of such a multitude of names, all tending in the same direction. I myself do not deny that the givers of names did really give them under the idea that all things were in motion and flux; which was their sincere but, I think, mistaken opinion. And having fallen into a kind of whirlpool themselves, they are carried round, and want to drag us in after them. There is a matter, master Cratylus, about which I often dream, and should like to ask your opinion: Tell me, whether there is or is not any absolute beauty or good, or any other absolute existence?’
Cratylus: Certainly, Socrates, I think so.
Socrates: Then let us seek the true beauty: not asking whether a face is fair, or anything of that sort, for all such things appear to be in a flux; but let us ask whether the true beauty is always beautiful.
Socrates: And can we rightly speak of a beauty which is always passing away, and is first this and then that; must not the same thing be born and retire and vanish while the word is in our mouth?
Socrates: Then how can that be a real thing which is never in the same state? ... Nor yet can they [such things] be known by anyone; for at the moment that the observer approaches, then they become other and of another nature, so that you cannot get any further in knowing their nature or state, for you cannot know that which has no state.
Socrates: Nor can we reasonably say, Cratylus, that there is knowledge at all, if everything is in a state of transition and there is nothing abiding; for knowledge too cannot continue to be knowledge unless continuing always to abide and exist. But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the change occurs there will be no knowledge; and if the transition is always going on, there will always be no knowledge, and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known: but if that which knows and that which is known exists ever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process of flux, as we were just now supposing. Whether there is this eternal nature in things, or whether the truth is what Heracleitus and his followers and many others say, is a question hard to determine ... Reflect well and like a man, and do not easily accept such a doctrine; for you are young and of an age to learn. And when you have found the truth, come and tell me.’ (439b10-440d6, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates’ appeal to Cratylus to search the truth and come and tell him when he will have found it is in tune with his appeal to Euthyphro. Socrates does not mean ‘Be quick, for in a short time I shall be sentenced to death.’
As can be seen, in the two dialogues which are dramatically linked with the Euthyphro, Plato makes a point of making it known that Socrates did not believe that he would lose his case. If there is any inconsistency between Socrates’ longing to end this earthly life as quickly as possible and his conviction that he would win his case, it is an inconsistency that Plato is anxious to preserve. All those who have followed Plato and Socrates along the road from the Phaedrus to the Apology will understand why: Plato was deeply implicated in Socrates’ fate and he wanted to make it clear that Socrates’ fate was of Socrates’ own doing and that his writings had no part in it. Athenaeus has preserved a story that may shed light on his efforts:
‘After the death of Socrates a majority of his followers were dispirited in some gathering. Plato, who was among them, urged them to cease to be disheartened, for he would be well able to lead their school of philosophy (hôs hikanos eiê hêgeisthai tês scholês), and offered a cup of wine to Apollodorus to seal his pledge. Apollodorus replied: “It would give me a greater pleasure to take from Socrates his cup of poison, than to take a cup of wine from you.’ (Deipnosophistai 507a-b).
Whether this story is true or not is impossible to say, but in view of the dialogues that Plato wrote prior to Socrates’ trial and death such stories were bound to circulate.
While Socrates’ closing discussion in the Cratylus sheds light on Socrates in the Euthyphro, it has other, far more ambitious aims. Plato reproduces in it the essential points of his own initial philosophic encounter with Socrates, which, as we know from Aristotle, resulted in his conception of the theory of Forms. I discussed Aristotle’s testimony extensively in the first chapter, at the beginning of my endeavours to find the Plato lost by today’s Platonic scholarship simply because of their refusal to ask such questions as: ‘If the ancient tradition is right according to which Plato wrote dialogues before Socrates died, which dialogues could be considered as written in that period? If the Phaedrus was his first dialogue, what event compelled Plato to write it?’ With Socrates’ closing discussion with Cratylus in front of our eyes it is time to go back to Aristotle’s testimony, which has given me the strength to persevere on my journey to re-discover that which the modern Platonic scholars have lost.
In Metaphysics A. 987a29-b9 Aristotle says:
‘Plato ... in his youth first became associated with Cratylus and with the Heraclitean doctrines according to which all sensible things are ever in a state of flux and there is no knowledge about them ... Socrates, however, was ... seeking the universal in these ethical matters, and fixed thought for the first time on definitions; Plato accepted his teachings, but held that the problem applied not to sensible things but to entities of another kind, because the common definition could not be a definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing. Things of this other sort, then, he called Ideas, and sensible things, he said, were all named after these, and by virtue of a relation to these.’
In Socrates’ discussion with Cratylus we can find all the essential points of which Aristotle speaks in his account of Plato’s encounter with Socrates. But why did Plato dramatically stage the discussion some ten years after his initial encounter with Socrates? He wanted to recreate the situation in which he himself discovered the Forms so that he thus might facilitate their acceptance by his readers. Why then did he put the theory of Forms into the mouth of Socrates, contaminated by his ignorance, offered by him to Cratylus as an impotent dream, its ineffectiveness being emphasized by Cratylus’ rejection of it?
‘Cratylus: I will do as you say, though I can assure you, Socrates, that I have been considering the matter already, and the result of a great deal of trouble and consideration is that I incline to Heracleitus.
Socrates: Then, another day, my friend, when you come back, you shall give me a lesson; but at present, go into the country, as you are intending, and Hermogenes shall set you on your way.
Cratylus: Very good, Socrates; I hope, however, that you will continue to think about these things yourself.’ (440d7-e7, tr. B. Jowett).
As we know from Aristotle, Cratylus ended his days as the most radical Heraclitean
‘who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger, and criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once.’ (Met. 1010a12-15, tr. W.D. Ross)
It appears that Cratylus took seriously Socrates’ words but drew from them the opposite conclusions to the insights derived from them by Plato.
Cratylus’ final exhortation to Socrates can be understood as Plato’s retrospective exhortation directed at Socrates to rethink his dream about the true and unchangeable entities, such as Beauty and Justice, and reach the truth about them. For that is just what Socrates succeeded in accomplishing: in both the Cratylus and Theaetetus he is preoccupied with Heraclitean doctrines and with his ignorance, while being on his way to the philosophic discourse held on his last day in which he finally transformed his dream into firm knowledge, embracing the theory of Forms. But this transformation, at least in Plato’s view, did not come about unaided. Plato indicates the role his discovery of Forms and his discussions with Socrates played in that transformation by introducing to Socrates the Stranger from Elea, who in the Sophist and the Politicus, dramatically staged a day after the Theaetetus, the Euthyphro, and the Cratylus, gives him a lecture on how to reach definitions by a method freed from all Socratic uncertainties and doubts. It is in these late dialogues of Plato, the Sophist and the Politicus, set against the dramatic background of the Cratylus and the Theaetetus, that the situation within the framework of which Plato discovered the forms is re-enacted by Plato in order to give his readers an insight into Socrates’ journey from the Apology to the Phaedo, and to help them embrace the Forms as Plato did originally with Socrates’ help, and as Socrates did also in his turn with Plato’s prompting and help. Indications of this prompting and help, as it took place in real time, can be found in the series of dialogues written by the young Plato during Socrates’ life-time, beginning with the Phaedrus and ending with the Apology, and which mature Plato dramatically concentrated and re-enacted in the series Theaetetus, (Euthyphro, Cratylus) – Sophistes, Politicus – Phaedo.(17)
Notes to Chapter 12