Three Decades in Exclusion from Academic Philosophy with Socrates and Plato as Companions
Socrates and Plato Volume 1: Plato's Struggle With Socrates
Chapter One: In Search Of Socrates
In the Apology Plato presents us with a picture of Socrates at his trial. Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth, of not worshipping the gods that the city worshipped, but worshipping new divine beings (24b-c). What brought these accusations upon Socrates was his philosophic examination of himself and of others (21b-24b, 28e). Socrates nevertheless vows to practise philosophy as long as he breathes (29d4-5). For him philosophy is the source of true happiness (36d-e), and life without philosophic self-examination is not worth living (38a).
Socrates was sentenced to death, and in the Phaedo we find him on his last day fulfilling the vow he publicly made in his Defence: he does practise philosophy as long as he breathes. In prison, among his closest friends, he spends the last day of his life ‘in philosophy’ (en philosophiai, Phd. 59a2), and in his doing so philosophy becomes supreme action. In other words, on his last day Socrates overcomes any split between word and action, philosophy and life. The power of his last philosophic discourse was such that it did not allow his friends to abandon themselves to sorrow. Thus Phaedo, Socrates’ young beloved disciple (89a-c), although stricken with pain, could not help experiencing an admixture of pleasure (hêdonês 59a6) when listening to Socrates in his last hours (59a4-6), for Socrates was radiating happiness (58e3), turning the day of his death into the culmination of his whole life (84d-85b).
This picture of a true philosopher has been relegated by modern Platonic scholarship into the realm of philosophic fiction.(1) There seems to be a weighty reason for this relegation, for in the Phaedo Socrates attempts to prove the immortality of the soul by taking recourse to the theory of Forms. It therefore seems that if we take the Phaedo as a true account of Socrates’ philosophic thinking then we must ascribe the theory of Forms to the historical Socrates. Modern Platonic scholarship is built on the supposition that Plato conceived the Forms after the death of Socrates. If this supposition is right then the Phaedo must be fictional, and on the principle of charity it may be conjectured that Plato attributed the Theory to Socrates because he considered it the proper justification of Socrates’ attitude, which Socrates himself would have given if he had fully developed his theory.(2)
I shall argue that in the Phaedo there is no place for this kind of charity. For if the Phaedo is fictional, if the historical Socrates on his last day thought and behaved differently, if he did not discuss the immortality of the soul, if he did not derive from his philosophic discourse the strength to face his death with courage, then by staging the dialogue on Socrates’ last day and by making a fictionally transformed Socrates into its hero Plato expressed a profoundly negative verdict both on the historical Socrates and on philosophy itself, implying that one could be true to philosophy only in fiction. This view of philosophy appears to be the dominant view among interpreters of Plato, but it is in discord with Socrates' words and actions depicted by Plato in other dialogues and derived from Socrates’ other contemporaries, as will be shown.
From Diogenes Laertius we learn that Antisthenes, Socrates’ close friend and disciple, held that virtue was sufficient to ensure happiness if one had the power of Socrates (autarkê de tên aretên pros eudaimonian, mêdenos prosdeomenên hoti mê Sôkratikêsischuios, VI.11), which can only mean that in Antisthenes’ view Socrates had the power to act in accordance with what virtue commanded him to do. In Plato’s Gorgias Socrates tells Callicles: ‘If you find me assenting to your words, and hereafter not doing that to which I assented, consider me to be an entirely worthless fool, and don’t bother reproving me in the future’ (488a6-b1).
In Plato’s Crito Socrates acts according to his view that a true philosopher would not run away from the consequences of his thoughts, words, and actions. As his end is approaching, Crito tries to persuade him that he should escape from prison, and Socrates explains why he must stay (Crito, 44b-45b). He argues that if he escaped from prison then by this act he would undermine the laws of Athens (50a-b) and confirm in the minds of the judges their view that they were right in condemning him (53b-c); by staying and facing the death to which he was condemned he demonstrated that the verdict was completely wrong. In all this his integrity as a philosopher was at stake; he asks Crito: ‘Did our arguments seem to be right before I was condemned to death, and were they now exposed as mere talk for the sake of talking, all in vain, mere childish nonsense?’ (46d2-4) Socrates' emphasis on the unity between philosophic discourse and the life of a true philosopher finds its strongest expression in his philosophic discourse on his last day; the Crito can be fully understood only in the light of the Phaedo.
In the Phaedo Socrates argues that a philosopher is not afraid of death and is therefore truly courageous (67e-68d); these are not empty words in the mouth of Socrates as we know him from the Apology, the Symposium, or the Laches. In the Apology Socrates simply states that when he took part in the military campaigns at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium, he obeyed the orders given to him by the military leaders, and kept his ground facing death (28e); in the Symposium Alcibiades gives colour to Socrates’ statement. Neither Alcibiades himself nor any other soldier was a match for Socrates when it came to endurance of fatigue, lack of food, or any other privation (Symp. 219e-220b); Alcibiades was wounded in the battle and no one else had the courage to stand by him except for Socrates. During the rout of the Athenian army at Delium Alcibiades had a better opportunity to observe Socrates than at Potidaea, for he himself was on horseback and comparatively out of danger. He says that Socrates walked on the battlefield with as much assurance as in the streets of Athens, calmly watching both his comrades in arms and the enemy, so that it was clear to anybody even from a distance that whoever attacked him would meet with a stout resistance; Socrates was retreating together with Laches, a courageous Athenian general, and Alcibiades observed how much greater presence of mind had the former than the latter (220e-221c). Plato chose Laches as Socrates’ interlocutor in the Laches, a dialogue devoted to the discussion of courage. Laches says that he hates listening to men whose words are not matched by their deeds, but loves hearing a true man discoursing on virtue,a man who is worthy of his theme, and adds that he has had no experience of Socrates’ words, only of his deeds (tôn ergôn epeirathên), yet concerning these he found him worthy of noble words (kai ekei auton hêuron axion onta logôn kalôn, 188e6-189a1).
As can be learnt from the Apology, it was the freedom with which Socrates spoke his mind in his defence that greatly contributed to his death sentence, for when he was found guilty, and the prosecution demanded that he be sentenced to death, had he himself suggested exile and appealed to the mercy of the judges, there is a great likelihood that the jury would have preferred it to the death sentence.(3) But he said that what he truly deserved was something very different; as a philosopher he greatly benefited the city, he needed leisure (scholên, Ap. 36d5) to do his job properly, and since he was poor, the most fitting thing for him would be free meals in the Prytaneum (Ap. 36d-37a). With this proposal Socrates made it very hard for the judges to be merciful.
Socrates spoke in his Defence as freely as in philosophic discussions in which he discussed virtue, examining himself and others, refuting (elenxô, 29e5) all those who pretended to know what virtue was, that is to know what they should do with their lives (28e, 29d-30e, 38a). This freedom of speech was perceived by the politicians as dangerous. It is of paramount importance for our understanding of Plato to realise how strongly he emphasized Socrates’ freedom as an essential part of Socrates’ philosophic legacy and how staunchly he defended it. He did so in a conspicuous way in the Apology. He corroborated it in the Laches in a less provocative manner, and therefore perhaps more effectively. In this dialogue, presumably one of the first dialogues written after the death of Socrates, Laches asks Socrates to teach him and refute him as he pleases (kai didaskein kai elenchein eme hoti an boulêi, 189b2-3), for so high has been his opinion of Socrates ever since the day when Socrates was his companion in danger (189b3-6). It was the way in which Socrates lived his life that justified the freedom with which he chastised his fellow countrymen.
The Crito and the Laches are short dialogues, and the discourse contained in these two works is written so as to be accessible to the broadest readership; Plato wanted to bring home to the Athenians what they did to themselves, to the whole city, and to their young in particular, when they condemned Socrates to death. Both dialogues remind the reader of Socrates as he thought and behaved facing the death sentence. In the Crito the connection is obvious;Socrates in the dialogue prefers death to subverting the laws of Athens by escaping from prison. That Plato in the Laches wants to remind the reader of Socrates’ last day is for the modern reader harder to detect, but it becomes clear when we compare the Laches with the Phaedo. In the Phaedo Socrates says that throughout his life he had a recurrent dream that commanded him to do art (mousikên, 60e6), which he interpreted as an exhortation to do philosophy, for he considered philosophy to be the greatest musike (hôs philosophias men ousês megistês mousikês, 61a3-4). In the Laches Laches says that he is delighted beyond measure when he compares the speaker and his words and finds them in complete harmony (harmottonta, 188d2): ‘And such a one I deem to be a man of music (mousikos), attuned to the fairest harmony (harmonian kallistên hêrmosmenos) ... whose life is truly harmonious because his words accord with his actions (ton bion sumphônon tois logois pros ta erga, 188d3-6)’. If the Laches was written prior to the Phaedo, as is generally and rightly assumed, then Laches’ words cannot echo the Phaedo; instead, they must be reminding the reader of what Socrates actually said on his last day.
The Laches thus corroborates the authenticity of the dream episode in Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ last day, but even if we view the Phaedo on its own, the manner in which the dream is introduced and the immediate setting within which Socrates refers to it strongly indicate that Plato relates something that actually happened. For Socrates’ words in the Phaedo concerning philosophy and mousikê are part of his reply to a poet and philosopher Evenus, and to some other people (kai alloi tines, 60d2) who wanted to know why Socrates wrote poems after coming to prison, when he had never written poetry before (60c8-d7). Socrates replied that he did so in response to certain dreams that had often visited him in his past life and always said the same thing: ‘Socrates, make art (mousikên, 60e6) and practise it.’ In the past he had thought that the dream was urging him to do exactly what he was doing, that is to do philosophy, for he believed philosophy to be the greatest art. But now, after he had been sentenced and with his execution delayed because of the festival of Apollo, he thought it safer (asphalesteron, 61a8) not to depart from life before fulfilling his sacred duty, if by any chance the dream was urging him to do art as it is normally understood, that is to write poetry. (60d8-61b1).