In spite of the bewildering number of conflicting interpretations of Plato’s work as a whole and of the individual dialogues, modern Platonic scholarship shares one common assumption: that all Plato’s dialogues were written after Socrates’ death. In The Lost Plato I argue that this assumption is without grounds, and that as a consequence of it several years of Plato’s real-life interaction with the living Socrates have been lost from view. It has severely affected the interpretation of the dialogues that can be assigned to this period, most prominently current interpretations of the Phaedo, that is the dialogue devoted to Socrates’ intercourse with his friends and followers on his last day, in prison. In the Phaedo Socrates proves the immortality of the soul by taking recourse to the theory of Forms, which is rightly believed to be Plato’s. Because this theory is central to the dialogue, Socrates on his last day has been summarily relegated by scholars into the realm of Plato’s philosophic fiction. The resulting loss of the historical Socrates goes hand in hand with the loss of Plato’s creative period in his twenties, and so I begin my search for the latter by recovering the former.
One thing is certain; if modern scholars are right in their claim that Plato conceived of the Forms only after Socrates’ death, then the whole picture of Socrates’ last hours has been profoundly distorted by Plato in the Phaedo. At the beginning of the last century John Burnet, perhaps the greatest British Platonic scholar of all time, vehemently protested against such a view of the dialogue. He could not bring himself to believe that Plato falsified the story of Socrates’ last hours on earth by using him as a mere mouthpiece for novel doctrines of his own, but his view of Plato and Socrates was rejected. A whole section of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, held in 1927 in New York, was devoted to the condemnation of his views. The section began with a brief introductory preamble:
‘The first paper in Division D, Section i, was to have been read by John Burnet (Edinburgh), but sudden illness made Professor Burnet’s presence at the Congress impossible. In Professor Burnet’s absence, W.D. Ross (Oxford) spoke briefly, summarizing Professor Burnet’s views on the Socratic and Platonic elements in the doctrine of Plato’s dialogues.’
What followed was a chorus of contempt in which the great Platonic scholars of those days joined forces under the chairmanship of G.S. Brett (Toronto) and P.E. More (Princeton): R.C. Lodge (Manitoba), Leon Robin (Sorbonne), Paul Shorey (Chicago), W.A. Heidel (Wesleyan). The printed Proceedings do not give W.D. Ross’ summary of Burnet’s views, but since he is the only scholar who in his edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics brings a valid argument against Burnet’s views, it may be safely assumed that not a word in support of Burnet was uttered on that occasion.
What enabled Burnet to believe that the Phaedo presents us with Plato’s true account of Socrates’ last-day philosophic discourse was his conviction that the theory of Forms was not originated by Plato, or even by Socrates, but was essentially Pythagorean. This was refuted by W. D. Ross who showed that Aristotle viewed Plato as the author of the Theory of Forms. But just as Burnet did not pay sufficient attention to the testimony of Aristotle in so far as it designates Plato as the man who first maintained the existence of the Forms, so Ross missed the fact that on Aristotle’s testimony Plato discovered the Forms under the impact of his original encounter with Socrates. For Aristotle says that Plato in his youth, prior to his encounter with Socrates, embraced the Heraclitean doctrine according to which everything is in constant motion, always changing, and that when he met Socrates whose mind was fixed on definitions of moral terms, he realized that these entities were unchangeable and called them Forms (ideas, Metaphysics A 987a29-b9). Aristotle’s testimony is therefore totally incompatible with modern interpretations of Plato, for on the modern dating of Plato’s dialogues we are to suppose that after his encounter with Socrates Plato’s own thinking literally froze for the next twenty years, preserving his Heraclitean view of the world intact and unchanged for the first decade spent in the company of Socrates and then, after Socrates’ death, another ten years preserving the thoughts of the historical Socrates in his early dialogues. Only then, some two decades later, did Plato’s thought de-frost, and he began to think for himself, realizing that the entities that Socrates had spent all that time talking about – both the living Socrates of the decade Plato spent with him as his disciple, and the written Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues – were exempt from change, and therefore must be conceived of as Forms.
Aristotle’s testimony concerning the origins of the theory of Forms, and its relevance for our view of both the historical Socrates and of Plato, which I will discuss in more detail in the first chapter of this book, allowed me to rehabilitate the ancient story according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. In the second chapter I shall examine doctrinal arguments for the late dating of the Phaedrus, demonstrating that they are based on inattentive readings of Plato. In the third chapter I will show that attempts to underpin the current late dating of the Phaedrus by stylometric arguments are faulty, and that the relevant stylometric data are fully compatible with the ancient dating of the Phaedrus. In the fourth chapter I will consider what prompted Plato to write the Phaedrus and determine the dating of its composition.
In his youth Plato wrote poetry. When he was just about to to enter for competition with the tragedy he had written, he encountered Socrates discussing philosophy; this encounter impressed him so much that he abandoned the art of tragedy and became Socrates’ disciple. This story chimes well with the derision with which Socrates views the art of writing in the Phaedrus, contrasting it with the spoken word as the only proper instrument of philosophy, and so we may therefore assume that if Plato made a decision to write the Phaedrus during Socrates’ life-time, the provocation for his doing so must have been very strong. I shall argue that what provoked Plato to write the Phaedrus was Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, which was staged in 405 BC, some four years after Plato had become Socrates’ disciple. The Frogs chorus sings: ‘How pleasant it is that I won’t sit at Socrates’ side in vain talking, having thrown away mousikê and all that is the greatest in the art of tragedy.’ Within the comedy‘s dramatic framework these words are directed against Euripides, lampooned by the comic writers as an assiduous follower of Socrates. But Euripides was dead when the comedy was written, and the comic song’s sharp criticism is clearly aimed at Socrates and his living disciples. The words ‘thrown away’ strongly evoke the tradition according to which Plato threw his tragedy into the flames after attaching himself to Socrates; Plato must have viewed the comedy as being directed at himself as much as at Socrates. In the Phaedrus a genuine disciple of a true philosopher is defined by his ability to defend his teacher’s teaching, which face to face with the Frogs meant defending philosophy as the greatest mousikê, inspired by Calliope and Ourania, the two most venerable of the Greek Muses (259b-d).
I view the Phaedrus as composed in the months that followed the staging of Aristophanes’ Frogs, five years before the death of Socrates. After the Phaedrus, to the last five years of Socrates’ life I assign the composition of eight dialogues of Plato – Charmides, Hippias Major, Lysis, Hippias Minor, Clitopho, Meno, Euthyphro and Apology – devoting a chapter to each. These years were marked by great upheavals in the Athenian political life, which greatly affected Plato’s own life and thought, the impact of which can be seen in the dialogues composed in this period; I shall therefore discuss these dialogues in relation to Plato’s autobiographic remarks in the Seventh Letter.
Plato was approaching his mid-twenties when the Athenian democracy was in its death-throes and an aristocratic revolution was on the cards; he believed that a society built on the principles of justice was what the aristocrats were aiming for, and that he was destined to actively participate in creating that society. In chapters four and five I shall contend that Plato’s philosophic preparation for his task as a politician is reflected in his two first dialogues, the Phaedrus and the Charmides: Plato could not imagine embarking on a political career without having Socrates on his side. In the Gorgias, retrospectively, Socrates is presented as the only true politician and in the Phaedrus we can see that it was not only in retrospect that Plato viewed Socrates in this light. For in the Phaedrus he presented the aristocrats with Socrates opening up for them a truly good life at the time when he genuinely believed that such a life was about to be made politically possible by virtue of the aristocrats’ self-proclaimed determination to lead the city towards a life in accordance with justice, a life in which virtue would prevail.
However, in the Phaedrus Plato underestimated Socrates’ attachment to his self-proclaimed ignorance, as I shall argue in the fifth chapter. We see in the Phaedrus how Socrates’ – ‘I do not even know myself’ – goes hand in hand with his flights into the realm of heavenly Forms without any apparent conflict. Since Plato shrouded Socrates’ enthusiastic flights into the realm of Forms in the language of myth, Socrates may have acquiesced in it, but in the Phaedrus Plato put into Socrates’ mouth the definition of the soul as self-moving mover and the proof of the immortality of soul founded upon it. This Socrates could not accept, as can be seen in the Charmides, in which Plato gives a much greater role to Socrates’ ignorance, particularly as regards the notion of ‘movement that moves itself’, which Socrates in the dialogue defers to some great man, capable of analysing such notions (168e-169a). Preoccupied with the prospect of taking part in ruling the country, Plato did not suffer from an inferiority complex. Plato wrote the Charmides in the heady early days of the aristocratic revolution, believing that Socrates’ active participation in the city affairs was sorely needed, and although he did faithfully record Socrates’ scrupulous insistence on his ignorance, at the end of the dialogue he simply discarded it as irrelevant: Critias and Charmides wave aside Socrates’ professions of ignorance and impose on him the task of educating Charmides. After briefly remonstrating, Socrates submits: ‘When you are determined on anything and are ready to use force, no man can resist you.’ Charmides: ‘Do not resist me then.’ Socrates promises: ‘I will not resist you.’ The dialogue is dramatically set in the time prior to Plato’s birth, but when he wrote it, both Critias and Charmides were prominent members of the ruling body of the aristocrats.
The once promising rule of the aristocrats soon turned into tyranny and Plato withdrew from the evils of those days, as he says in the Seventh Letter; soon after, both Critias and Charmides fell in the decisive battle in which the democrats defeated the aristocrats. In chapter six I shall argue that during the days of his withdrawal from politics Plato wrote the Hippias Major, in which he gives perhaps the most profound portrait of Socrates steeped in his ignorance. We find in the dialogue Socrates’ mind split in two personalities: a man who had been recently engaged in a discussion on Beauty (in the Phaedrus, as I argue), and his critical self that sharply reprimands him for his views on Beauty expressed on that occasion, illegitimate as they were on his part because of his ignorance. When I say that Plato in the Hippias Major presents us with perhaps the most profound portrait of an ignorant Socrates, this does not mean that he, or Socrates for that matter, viewed that state as a desirable one. The very opposite is the case. In the Hippias Major Socrates’ critical self ends his criticism by asking Socrates whether his life is worth living in the state of ignorance in which he finds himself, and whether it would not be better for him to be dead.
Because the Hippias Major was written during the brief period during which Plato renounced on politics, Socrates’ ignorance is presented in the dialogue as a deeply personal problem, with no political overtones. This changed when Plato began to see a re-engagement with politics as a possibility within the framework of the restored democracy. When that happened, he could not but view Socrates’ self-proclaimed ignorance as a serious obstacle in the way of he and Socrates fully exercising a positive influence on political life in Athens. In the seventh chapter I shall argue that on these grounds this period is characterized by an intensification of Plato’s struggle with and against Socrates, beginning with the Lysis. The Lysis opens with a display of protreptic skills with which Socrates persuades Lysis that as soon as he, Lysis, acquires the wisdom requisite for the governing of the city, the Athenians will entrust him with their affairs and accept him as their political leader. Then, in stark contrast to Socrates’ ability to interest the boy in the pursuit of wisdom, the subsequent discussion displays Socrates’ self-professed ignorance in all its negativity. At the end of the dialogue Socrates’ young interlocutors are left completely at a loss concerning the knowledge that is essential for anyone who wants to be of any use to themselves, to their friends and loved ones, and to their city.
Ancient biographers tell us that the Lysis occasioned Socrates’ remark that Plato was ‘telling a lot of lies’ about him. Plato responds with humour in the Hippias Minor, where Socrates argues that a man who lies intentionally is a better man than the one who does so unintentionally. Humour aside, in the eighth chapter I shall show that in the Hippias Minor Plato further raises the stakes in his struggle with Socrates’ ignorance, letting Socrates argue that a deliberate criminal is a better man than an unintentional one, and thus exposing his ignorance as a basis for arguments unacceptable both to Socrates and to his interlocutor. However even this attempt failed to bring positive results, and Plato made his final assault on Socrates’ not-knowing in the dialogue that followed, the Clitopho, his shortest dialogue. Here Socrates is told bluntly that if he persists in refusing to say plainly what virtue is and how it is to be pursued, he will become a stumbling block on one’s way to acquiring virtue and attaining true happiness. The ninth chapter and the following ‘Interlude’ are devoted to the Clitopho, in which I discuss S.R. Slings’ monumental book on the dialogue, for it exemplifies some of the difficulties with which modern Platonic scholarship is encumbered.
After the Clitopho, and Plato’s telling Socrates that he was becoming a stumbling block on the road to virtue, Plato had a choice: either give up on Socrates or find a way of interpreting his ignorance as a positive moral and political factor. In the Meno to which Chapter 10 is devoted I show that Plato opted for the latter, incorporating Socrates’ self-proclaimed ignorance within the framework of his ambitious plans for the moral and political renewal of the city. In this dialogue Socrates proudly proclaims that any Athenian would laugh if asked whether virtue can be taught or in which way it can be acquired. Like Socrates, they would reply ‘I do not even know what virtue is’. Meno thinks that such ignorance stands in the way of any meaningful search for virtue, but in facts, Socrates’ hands it now becomes a viable starting point on the road to the discovery of virtue and to its appropriation. The progress on this road is possible because of the Recollection of knowledge that our souls acquired prior to their incarnation, which begins with one’s awareness of one’s own ignorance, knowledge which every human soul can recover if properly guided by a skilful questioner. This opened the possibility of moral renewal not only for every citizen of Athens, but even for slaves. With this prospect in view, the credentials of leading Athenian politicians had to be challenged and subjected to strict examination, and so in the Meno Socrates subjects to such an examination Anytus, whose political significance in those days was second only to Thrasybulus, the leader of the democrats.
The ridicule to which Socrates exposed Anytus in the Meno presumably compounded Anytus’ unpleasant experiences of being challenged by Socrates in real life (Xenophon in Apology of Socrates 29 reports on Socrates’ confronting Anytus concerning the education of Anytus’ son). As we know from Plato’s Apology, Anytus became the man directly responsible for Socrates’ death sentence, and it could not have been long after the publication of the Meno that Socrates was indicted for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ indictment comes to the fore in the Euthyphro, which I shall discuss in the eleventh chapter, arguing that the dialogue was written after the indictment of Socrates, but before the trial. The Euthyphro radiates Plato’s profound conviction that Socrates will win the case; in the dialogue he gives free reign to Socrates’ repudiation of morally objectionable traditional beliefs about the Gods. After Socrates unexpectedly lost the case and was executed, this aspect of the Euthyphro had to be corrected; Plato undertook this task in the Cratylus, which he dramatically closely associated with the Euthyphro. After the death of Socrates, the Euthyphro presented Plato with yet another challenge, for it stood in sharp contrast to Socrates’ discourse on the immortality of soul on his last day, in which he embraced the Forms, as depicted in the Phaedo. In the Euthyphro Socrates does not ignore Forms, but his enquiry into them is steeped in his ignorance, which lacks the deeper philosophic foundation that ultimately propelled him to embrace Forms as causal agents. I shall argue that in later years, after he wrote the Phaedo, Plato felt that Socrates’ philosophic ignorance had to be shown as anchored in profound thought, directed all the time towards the eventual overcoming of ignorance, and that he clarified this point in the Theaetetus, which, like the Cratylus, he dramatically closely associated with the Euthyphro.
The twelveth and final chapter, is devoted to the Apology, in which Socrates stands for trial. My contention is that the Apology was written during the days that Socrates spent in prison prior to his execution. This dating is obtained by virtue of viewing the Apology against the background of the Crito, in which Plato reports on Crito’s attempt to get Socrates out of prison when Socrates’ execution becomes imminent, and by taking into account Plato’s temporary refuge in Megara after the death of Socrates. In the Apology Socrates flatly refuses to view as judges those members of the jury who sentenced him to death and thus the death sentence is viewed simply as illegal. I regard the Apology as Plato’s justification of the intended liberation of Socrates from prison and as a psychological and political preparation for the prospect of a future life in exile, within the framework of which Socrates and his followers would fully devote themselves to the pursuit of philosophy. In the Crito, arguing against the escape, Socrates self-critically revises his attitude to the judges who were all elected according to the laws of Athens, and thus does his best to open the possibility for all his followers to be and to be viewed as model law-abiding citizens. On this platform Plato returned to Athens after his short sojourn in Megara, hoping that the widespread remorse that followed Socrates’ execution might at last provide an impulse for a moral and political renewal of Athens in which he could participate.
Socrates’ changed attitude towards the jury, the court, and the laws of Athens that resulted in his refusal to escape from prison was not the only transformation that he had undergone during his days in prison. Even more important was his change from strident ignorance to his embracing the theory of Forms on his last day, which meant that Plato’s prolonged struggle finally bore fruit. Decades later, anxious that his role in Socrates’ philosophic progress should not be forgotten, Plato dramatically concentrated his mediating role by exposing Socrates, after the indictment, to philosophic thought unimpeded by ignorance. He does so in the Sophist and the Politicus, taking on the robe of a Stranger from Elea: in his old days, having given up on attempts to engage in the Athenian politics, Plato felt he was a stranger in Athens, just as he felt himself to be an Athenian Stranger, when abroad (in the Laws).
The picture of Socrates and Plato that I have given a taste of here, and that I shall expand on in The Lost Plato differs radically from everything that has been written previously on these two philosophers. The crucial question is: Can this view be upheld and backed up face to face with the evidence, that is Plato’s dialogues and related ancient sources? The answer to this question can be found in the twelve chapters that follow.