Believed to have been sculpted during Plato’s lifetime.
A portrait of cold, distant superiority.
It is easy to form a misleading impression of Plato. An American’s first encounter with Plato usually occurs in a freshman philosophy class; the assigned reading is almost invariably “The Republic,” which is presented as primarily a study of politics, a utopian tract describing the “perfect society” by direct analogy with works by social and ideological thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Plato’s take on it is supposed to be more radical and shocking, since he dares to criticize democracy, but then, clearly the most compelling way to prove the superiority of contemporary 21st-century society is by comparing it to Athens in 400 BC.
If one seriously attempts to read “The Republic” in this way, it can only be horrifying, because the “city” that it describes adheres to a totalitarian caste system where the warrior class is forbidden from owning property and their wives are shared. This, in turn, gives rise to the “negative” myth of Plato, the flip side of the “positive” myth of him as a bold utopian thinker, in which he now becomes an elitist ideologue who planned out in full detail the modern repressive ideological state 23 centuries in advance. This view is also quite widespread, as can be seen from the fact that it even made its way into Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which “The Republic” is castigated for its advocacy of “ant-like communism.” Heinlein’s version of an ideal society is almost a direct application of “The Republic,” right down to the egalitarian warrior class that exercises tight control over the study of philosophy, but evidently the irony was lost on the author.
At this point, any normal person could be forgiven for simply refusing to have any part in this weird unpleasantness, then walking out the door and forcing themselves to forget that they had ever heard of Plato in the first place. In the future, they won’t even get that far — one day, Plato will be banned from freshman philosophy classes altogether. So, let us try to make some sense out of him, while we still have time.
Perhaps we should take as our starting point the notion that “The Republic,” regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad,” is simply not very important to the overall significance of Plato — and then, with that tiresome debate out of the way, perhaps something new and unexpected shall emerge.
Of great help to me in forming a more accurate perception of Plato was this short book by Alexei Losev (1893-1988), perhaps the leading Russian expert in ancient history and philosophy of the 20th century. Plato is very unassuming — it simply presents an exposition of whatever biographical information could be compiled about the subject, followed by a concise summary of his contributions to philosophy, written in simple and accessible language by someone who had read every conceivable primary source. Ironically, although it was written in the Soviet Union when the power of the state was at its peak, it is far less ideological in tone than any Western freshman philosophy class. It thus offers a practical gateway to meaningful self-study of Plato’s writing.
Plato never described himself, but there are many half-mythical accounts that themselves date back to antiquity. Ancient Greek scholars agreed that Plato came from a wealthy and noble family that claimed descent from the gods, and allegedly was related to the legendary Athenian lawgiver Solon. Losev summarizes all of this information as follows: “Thus, Plato was fated to grow up in a noble, renowned family of royal lineage with strong aristocratic traditions, conscious of the history of Athens as the history of their own name. Statesmanship and political struggle furiously captivated these men, and none of them would ever die quietly in his bed of old age. They participate in wars and political coups. But they are also talented and educated, excellent public speakers, poets, clever and sharp in conversation, who take a lively interest in philosophical questions.” (13-14) The young Plato received the best education that money could buy in the late 5th century BC. In full accordance with the Greek principle of “kalokagathia,” or “well-roundedness,” it placed equal value on both athletics and art. In fact, Plato got his name from his instructor in gymnastics, one Aristo of Argos, who “bestowed upon his student Aristocles, who had been so called in honour of his paternal grandfather, the name of Plato, either for his broad chest and powerful constitution, or for his wide forehead,” (18) much like the word “plateau” originates from the Greek word for “flat” or “broad.” There are 25 “epigrams,” or short poems, attributed to Plato, most likely from his aristocratic youth, which did not last long.
Socrates, pretending to be a simpleton,
but with some of the irony showing through.
The content of Socrates’ conversations forms the content of much of Plato’s work, and so we will discuss it later. But I imagine that Plato, who was at most 20 years old when he first met Socrates in 408 BC, was just as struck by the latter’s ethos as by his philosophy. By all accounts, Socrates paid little attention to his appearance, wore shabby clothes and walked barefoot (in Plato’s “Symposium,” one of the speakers observes that Socrates “had washed and put on sandals, which was rarely the case with him“), and lived in poverty. He was, however, highly educated (and, several times throughout Plato’s work, refers to various subjects that he had studied), suggesting that most likely he also had an aristocratic background and that these were all deliberate life choices. In any case, he struck a distinctive contrast with many self-proclaimed philosophers, known as “sophists,” who travelled around Greece giving paid lectures on any subject the audience cared to hear about, and prided themselves on their polished image and financial success:
from “Greater Hippias”
Many of Plato’s dialogues feature famous sophists (like Hippias) as the title characters, and revolve around Socrates’ debates with them, ostensibly about abstract subjects like the nature of rhetoric, but really about the ethics of selling wisdom (hence the pejorative term “sophistry”). Socrates had very little respect for money, and his willingness to act out his convictions in both private and public life must have made a deep impression on Plato, as it always does on anyone.
Socrates did not seek out positions of power, but at one point held office on the city council (such positions were often assigned by lottery). At that time, the council “wished to condemn ten strategists, who had failed to collect the bodies of the fallen in a naval battle — to put them on trial, in violation of the law, as everyone acknowledged later” (quotes will be from “Apology of Socrates” until stated otherwise). The battle in question occurred when Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War; the city pressed criminal charges against its own commanders, on the grounds that they did not give proper burial to the bodies of the fallen. Of course, there was no way that they could have done this, since the battle took place at sea and the casualties had fallen in the water, but the public needed scapegoats on whom to take out their frustration. Socrates, “alone among the prytanes did not wish to allow the law to be broken and voted against.” Later, in 404 BC, when the Athenian government was overthrown for a short period of time by an oligarchical group known as the “Thirty Tyrants,” the latter called upon Socrates “and four others to the tholos and ordered…to bring from Salamin a man called Leon, in order to execute him. They gave many similar orders to others, so as to distribute the guilt for their crimes as widely as possible.” This time, Socrates saw no way to influence the outcome, so he simply disregarded the order and went home.
This independent stance earned him many enemies. In the former case, the enraged public came close to charging Socrates together with the strategists: “When the speakers were ready to accuse me and have me arrested, and all of you demanded it and screamed for it, I thought that, despite the danger, I should stand on the side of the law and of justice, rather than join you out of fear of death or imprisonment, because your decision was unjust.” In the latter case, the oligarchical regime was unpopular, but Socrates’ defiance still did not do much for the public view of him, because one of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias, had previously been among his associates…and, perhaps, because most other people had found it much easier to make a deal with their conscience, and Socrates had reminded them of something that they preferred to forget.
Aristophanes, grinning with a hint of malevolence.
Socrates had even been ridiculed by the comic playwright Aristophanes in his play “The Clouds,” which survives and can be read first-hand. In this comedy, Socrates is shown as a charlatan, who operates a “thinkery” in which gullible Athenians pay money to listen to ridiculous nonsense, which is written out in elaborate, loving detail by Aristophanes, the undisputed master of obscene humour in the entire ancient world. Aristophanes probably did not intend any particular offense, since he wrote about everyone in the same way, but the play may have left a mark in the minds of people who did not know Socrates personally. Plato says as much: in the “Apology,” Socrates recalls how, “when you were still children, they instilled in you an accusation that did not contain a shred of truth: that there is a certain Socrates, a man of ‘wisdom,’ who questions and scrutinizes everything that is above and below the earth, and makes lies appear to be truth.”
In short, Socrates’ name was very familiar to the Athenian public, as well as the ruling class, but his reputation was divisive and, outside his immediate circle, he was viewed as a strange annoyance. It was only a matter of time until the city decided that it would be better off without him. In 399 BC, he was charged with the following: “Socrates breaks the law by corrupting our youth; he does not recognize the gods that are recognized in our city, but instead recognizes the signs of strange new divinities.” The spokesman for the accusers was one Meletus, about whom almost nothing is known, other than that the “Apology” depicts him as an inarticulate boor. He may have been chosen precisely because of these very qualities to serve as a figurehead by the actual organizers of the charge.
In Athens, capital charges were fairly easy to avoid with a little money. One could hire a sophist to write a speech on one’s behalf; one could flatter the judges and the public, or appeal to their emotions by “begging and pleading with the judges with bountiful tears and, in order to soften their hearts as much as possible, [bringing] their children here and many other relatives and friends[.]” Failing that, a convicted defendant was given the opportunity to suggest an alternate punishment for himself, and one could always volunteer to pay a large fine as a substitute for execution. Many of Socrates’ friends were present and would have happily paid the fine for him; he names, “Crito, of the same age and from the same district as myself, father of Critobulus, who is also here; then there is Lysanias of Sphettus, father of this Aeschines right here; here also is Antiphon of Cephisus, the father of Epigenes; and here are those whose brothers had often spent time with me — Nicostratus, son of Theosotides and brother of Theodotus…and here is Paralus, son of Demodocus, whose brother was Theages; and here is Adeimantus, son of Ariston, whose brother Plato [One of only two occasions, in the entire Platonic corpus, when Plato mentions himself. -FL] is also here; and Aeantodorus, brother of Apollodorus, who is also present.”
But Socrates refused to follow any of these avenues, and instead made a flamboyant mockery of the court — after a 280-221 vote to convict him, when he was given the usual chance to suggest an alternate punishment, he proposed to have himself “punished” by “a lifetime of meals in the Prytaneum…[would be] far more suitable than for those who win in the horse or chariot races at the Olympic games: they give you only imaginary happiness whereas I give you the genuine article; they have no need of support, but I do. Thus, if I should objectively evaluate what I deserve, I would justly condemn myself to a lifetime of meals in the Prytaneum.” This was one of the highest possible honours in Athens, usually reserved for Olympic athletes who were regarded as living demigods. Of course, after this open challenge to the court’s authority, Socrates was condemned to death. His execution was delayed by a month, during which his friends repeatedly offered to arrange his escape (as shown in Plato’s dialogue “Crito”), but he declined, and willingly drank poison, surrounded by his followers at the end of one final day of philosophical conversation.
“The death of Socrates,” Antonio Canova, 1790.
Socrates’ death was the central experience of Plato’s life. Plato never truly overcame it. Socrates returned as the central figure in the vast majority of Plato’s writing; an entire series of dialogues was devoted to the circumstances of his trial (“Euthyphro,” the “Apology,” “Crito,” and “Phaedo”). Even as a successful philosopher and teacher, creator of the first university in the world (the “Academy,” which functioned for 300 years), as a wealthy man who was not above taking donations for his lectures, Plato continued to return to Socrates’ conversations again and again, celebrating his teacher’s intellectual independence, ironic wit, indifference to material wealth, and the absolute inner freedom that allowed Socrates to speak his mind without ever feeling compelled to write anything down — this last aspect being so different from Plato himself.
All of Plato’s philosophical writing is rendered in dramatic form, as “dialogues” between various speakers. Each dialogue proceeds like a play, alternating between each speaker’s lines. There is no other descriptive or expository text, although some introductory material may be inserted into the spoken parts of the participants.
As an Athenian and younger contemporary of Aristophanes and Euripides, Plato was likely inspired by the golden age of Greek theater, but the use of drama to stylize a philosophical text appears to be his invention and personal signature; at least, his illustrious student Aristotle expressed himself in much more straightforward scientific prose. Because of this stylistic choice, Plato’s work took on a literary quality — half philosophy, half literature. Every reader will, at one point or another, be struck by some purely literary aspect of Plato, some sharp exchange or aside that creates the illusion of “being there,” during a lively conversation, with all the philosophy coming out on the spur of the moment, seemingly by itself. Right when the “Symposium” is at its intellectual peak, at the end of Socrates’ philosophically intricate speech on the nature of love, the gathering is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the playboy Alcibiades:
Apollodorus narrating Alcibiades’ introduction, in “The Symposium”
“Symposium,” Anselm Feuerbach, 1869.
Alcibiades has just barged in.
This is not mere comic relief, as Alcibiades subsequently gives the final speech, in praise of Socrates, which serves as a coda to Socrates’ own purely philosophical developments. Many of Plato’s dialogues, especially the early ones, take the form of competitions — the “Symposium” is structured as a sequence of speakers taking turns trying to outdo one another in increasingly elaborate praise of the god Eros, while many others focus on the rivalry between Socrates and different sophists.
The Platonic corpus even contains one pure comedy — “Euthydemus,” in which Socrates watches in amusement while two sophists, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, make fools of themselves. This dialogue has very little philosophical content, but Plato no doubt enjoyed writing this ridiculous caricature of his intellectual opponents:
intellectual discourse in “Euthydemus”
The number of Platonic dialogues is quite limited and has only shrunk with time. The most traditional catalogue, said to have been organized by a Greek scholar named Thrasyllus during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, consists of 35 dialogues and one set of 13 letters (“epistles”). However, the authenticity of many of these dialogues (around 10 out of 35, but can be more or fewer depending on whom you ask), as well as most of the letters, is now disputed — they are said to be forgeries or, at best, imitations of Plato’s style by his associates, although in some cases there seems to be room for differences of opinion. On the other hand, there have never been any new additions to Thrasyllus’ catalogue, no “newly discovered” manuscripts from archeological digs (fortunately).
The dialogues contain no dates, and Thrasyllus grouped them by topic, so it is difficult to identify an accurate chronological order. Nonetheless, Losev describes the view, standard among scholars, that they can be classified into three broad groups:
- Early: “Apology of Socrates,” “Euthyphro,” “Crito,” “Protagoras,” book I of “The Republic,” “Laches,” “Lysis”
- Middle: “Ion,” “Greater/Lesser Hippias,” “Gorgias,” “Meno,” “Cratylus,” “Euthydemus,” “Menexenus”
- Late: “Phaedo,” “Symposium,” “Phaedrus,” “Theaetetus,” “Timaeus,” “Critias,” “Parmenides,” “Sophist,” “Statesman,” “Philebus,” books II-X of “The Republic”
The classification is not set in stone; “Phaedo” and the “Symposium” are sometimes seen included in the middle period, while “Ion” and “Gorgias” are often moved to the early one, and the authenticity of “Menexenus” is sometimes disputed. In any case, in addition to all of these, it is generally agreed upon that Plato’s final work, the “Laws,” was written much later and stands alone in many ways. Losev describes it thus: “Finally, the aged Plato, in the 50s of the 4th century BC, writes the massive work ‘Laws,’ and attempts to show in it, not the ideal society that was reflected in ‘The Republic,’ but a society which, in his opinion, is more accessible to ordinary human understanding and ordinary human capabilities. Although the ‘Laws’ are usually called a dialogue, this is more of an inner reflection by Plato on the practical implementation of the ideas of high statesmanship within a base human existence, occupied as it is by practical concerns. Here, for the first time, the immutable Socrates is absent. Plato left the ‘Laws’ in draft form, and a clean copy was prepared after his death by one of his closest followers, Philip of Opus.” (Losev, 101-102)
In fact, reading through the entire corpus, the texts in each category do appear to have more in common with each other than with those in other categories. The early dialogues focus exclusively on ethical concepts such as piety, courage, and beauty, and tend to critique various commonplace interpretations of these concepts without really offering any positive alternative. The middle period still has many of these themes, but presents more elaborate arguments and intellectual constructions; Plato is more willing to offer new ideas here, and our knowledge of what he might have believed is largely based on his writing from this period. The late period is very academic and shows much less interest in engaging with the surrounding world. The first two periods always have Socrates in the leading role; the last period increasingly moves him to the sidelines, and finally removes him altogether in “Laws.”
Many of the characters in Plato’s dialogues are historical figures. Some of them are very well-known from other sources, for example Aristophanes, who has a speaking role in “The Symposium.” Others are political figures, such as Alcibiades (“The Symposium,” “Alcibiades I/II”), a wealthy and ambitious opportunist who repeatedly changed his allegiance between Athens, Sparta, and Persia, trying to manipulate each of them against the others, and finally was assassinated; or Critias (“Protagoras,” “Critias”), a leader of the Thirty Tyrants whose association with Socrates was viewed as incriminating evidence at the latter’s trial. Socrates’ sophistic opponents, who star in a series of eponymous dialogues, such as Hippias, Gorgias, and Protagoras, were all real scholars who indeed gave paid lectures on philosophy and aesthetics; likewise, Parmenides, who receives a more respectful portrayal in the dialogue that is named after him, was a real and renowned pre-Socratic philosopher.
In those cases where independent information about these people exists, Plato’s characterizations are plausible — Alcibiades is a spoiled and petulant prima-donna, Aristophanes is witty and loquacious — and indirectly lends credence to his portrayals of the others. That is, even if he may have put words in the mouths of Hippias, Gorgias et al., one can believe that those were words with which they might have agreed. This again underscores the unusual dual nature of Plato’s work. It is philosophical prose in which characters serve as mouthpieces for various ideas, but it is also half-documentary, these characters are not purely fictional and there is a possibility that they may have said something similar to each other. This has a great effect on the reader’s perception of Socrates, as the power of Plato’s writing largely derives from his ability to make his protagonist seem real.
But there is also independent confirmation of Socrates’ existence. He had another famous student, Xenophon of Athens, who also left extensive reminiscences about him, which survive and can be read first-hand. Xenophon was much more of a man of action than Plato — his most famous literary work is the Anabasis, which chronicles how he joined a Greek mercenary company hired to overthrow the Persian king and install his younger brother Cyrus on the throne.
(Anabasis, book III, chapter 1)
The plan failed and the surviving Greek fighters, now led by Xenophon, had to make their way back home across hostile territory; their greatest difficulty, however, was not fighting the enemy, but rather overcoming their own intransigence and unwillingness to cooperate with each other or to follow orders. Ironically, in trying to manage this unruly group, Xenophon found himself relying quite heavily on Socratic philosophy, except that here it was turned to the sole purpose of crafting long rhetorical speeches exonerating Xenophon from any blame for any of the misfortunes that occurred:
(Anabasis, book VII, chapter 6)
One can see Socrates’ influence in Xenophon’s speech. The first rule of Socratic dialogues is that the speaker must preempt possible objections from the listeners; in Plato, Socrates often has a similar smug tone, and a slight hint of manipulation that, in Xenophon, becomes much more overt. The widely accepted view among scholars is that Plato’s early period presents a generally accurate portrait of Socrates and his ideas, but that by the middle period Plato had begun to use Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own beliefs.
Roman-era mosaic showing Socrates. Apamea, Syria.
The Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues does not appear to have any well-defined philosophical system of his own. Instead, he questions those around him regarding ethical concepts that everyone takes for granted, but no one seems to have thought out carefully. In “Euthyphro,” for example, he meets the title character on his way to the courthouse where he has just been summoned to hear Meletus’ accusation. Despite this ominous suggestion, the dialogue is very light-hearted; Euthyphro assures him, “Most likely, my Socrates, nothing serious will come of it, and you will successfully win your case, as I believe that I will win mine.” Euthyphro considers himself to be an expert on piety, which leads Socrates to ask the insidious question, “Then tell me, what is it that you call pious and impious?”
Euthyphro’s first answer is that “pious is anything that pleases the gods; impious is whatever displeases them.” But Socrates is quick to point out that, in any mythological or poetic source, the gods are rarely seen to agree with each other on anything. Euthyphro then amends his answer to say that, “I would say that anything that is loved by all the gods is pious, and anything that they all hate is impious.” Socrates then asks him to clarify the cause and effect, i.e., whether something is pious because it is loved by the gods, or whether they love it because it is pious; Euthyphro has no answer, but offers the explanation that “righteous and pious is that part of justice that pertains to serving the gods; anything that is related to humanity constitutes the remaining part of justice.” But this only makes Socrates ask what it means to serve the gods — all other types of service benefit whomever is being served, but the gods hardly benefit from any human actions. Euthyphro then states that piety is a type of service that pleases the gods, which leads to this humorous exchange:
Straining to find a way out, Euthyphro then defines piety as that which is pleasing to the gods, but Socrates points out that this was exactly where he started. Euthyphro then leaves, citing his busy schedule; Socrates is left with no answer, and the dialogue ends. There are many others like this — in “Greater Hippias,” Socrates asks Hippias to define beauty; in “Laches,” the discussion focuses on the definition of courage; in “Meno” Socrates tries to define virtue; in the first book of “The Republic,” believed to have been written much earlier than the remainder, the subject is justice. In all of these cases, Socrates refutes the definitions offered by his interlocutors, but is unable to come up with one that would be satisfying to himself. Many of these open endings have a note of humour — for example, Hippias simply storms off in frustration, while the wily sophist Protagoras wriggles out of the debate with these lines:
ending of “Protagoras”
Coined the phrase “man is the measure of all things,”
which was no doubt popular with his audience.
Among the dialogues of this type, an especially noteworthy one is “Gorgias.” The title character is another famous sophist who is visiting Athens and offering paid lessons in rhetoric. Socrates asks him to explain what rhetoric is and why it is useful. Gorgias answers that it is “the science of speech.” Socrates points out that virtually any science involves speech, for example, medicine deals with “speech which instructs the sick in the proper lifestyle to follow in order to return to health.” Gorgias answers that, “all the concerns of other arts pertain to craft and so forth, whereas the subject of rhetoric is not a particular craft, but rather, the work and service of rhetoric is performed through speech.” But Socrates argues that this means only that rhetoric is useless — if it does not consider any particular skill, and if one can speak rhetorically about any subject without real knowledge of it, then rhetoric is a mere imitation of wisdom without any content. At this point, a member of the audience, one Polus, erupts in indignation:
This moves Socrates to outline a positive ethical philosophy: the type of power that Polus covets has no value; tyrants are the unhappiest people in the world, unable to do any of the things they truly want; and “an unjust man who hurts others is unhappy in any case, but he is even more unhappy if, in hurting others, he is not subjected to trial and punishment, and he is less unhappy if he is tried and punished by men and gods alike.” This invites ridicule from Polus as well as one Callicles, a wealthy and ambitious Athenian who advocates a typical “ends justify the means” philosophy and rebukes Socrates with what, in hindsight, sound like veiled threats:
Callicles in “Gorgias”
Socrates calmly acknowledges, “I would be truly a fool, Callicles, if I did not believe that anything could happen in this city. At least, I know that, when I go to court and am subjected to the dangers that you have listed, then my accuser will be an evil man, because a good man would never accuse the innocent.” Callicles then retorts, “And you believe, Socrates, that it is good to live in such a condition — to be helpless to help yourself?”
Socrates may never quite define justice, but he has a strong sense of it and is willing to die rather than violate his personal code. Socrates’ ethics are reiterated in other dialogues, such as “The Republic” (at least book I of it), where Thrasymachus offers very similar counter-arguments. Socrates’ main idea is that life only has value if it is virtuous, or, as he says in the “Apology”:
Socrates, after the death sentence was announced
The power of Socrates’ ethics comes, not from their content, but from the moral authority of the man, who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was ready to die for his beliefs, to all of Athens and to the entire world. The short dialogue “Crito,” written in the early stage of Plato’s career, plays a critical role in illustrating Socrates’ character. The title character is a wealthy follower and friend of Socrates who comes to visit him in prison with a plan of escape. There is no trouble bribing the guards and leaving Athens; Socrates would be free to go to any other city, and the blatantly unjust character of his sentence absolves him of any further responsibility to the city’s laws. But Socrates disagrees. He argues that breaking the law would itself be an injustice, and thus cannot be used to correct the injustice that was done to him. In his rebuttal, the Laws of Athens become personified:
There is more to this argument than a simple appeal to patriotism. In their imagined invective, the Laws accuse Socrates of hypocrisy:
And so, Socrates refuses to follow Crito’s plan. Only a few days later, he is executed; his last day on earth is chronicled in “Phaedo,” the most haunting and powerful of all Plato’s works.
We will talk about the philosophy of “Phaedo” later. Its power does not come from philosophy, although it is an important program piece for Plato in which he expounded his belief in the immortality of the soul. But surely it was a conscious choice on his part to place a topic that was important to him intellectually into a setting that was important to him personally. The dialogue is structured as a flashback, narrated by Phaedo, who was present on that day.
This is the only other time that Plato ever mentions himself. Through this calm, matter-of-fact description, there seeps the author’s bitter, helpless rage. “Phaedo” was written during Plato’s middle age, but his profound grief has only become sharper with time. His beloved teacher left of his own free will — left him, Plato, behind — and the perfection that he represents now seems to be completely out of reach. Meanwhile, the years are going by, Plato continues to live among people whom he believes to be hardly worth his time, and he enjoys near-universal respect across Greece…the same respect that Socrates placed so little value on and easily abandoned.
There is no way that “Phaedo” can be an accurate depiction of Socrates’ last conversation. By his own admission, Plato was not present, and even if he had been, he would never have remembered such a long exchange verbatim. The philosophical content is entirely Plato’s own. Perhaps Socrates never discussed philosophy on this day at all, and simply sat in silence together with his close friends. But there is no reason why Plato’s ending could not indeed have been based on Phaedo’s account:
ending of “Phaedo”
“The death of Socrates,” Mark Antokolsky, 1875.
Looking back to “Crito,” one cannot say that Socrates’ remonstrations with the title character constitute great philosophy in and of themselves. One can easily argue against them. In fact this seems to be a sticking point for Western scholars, who engage in lengthy and very dull debates about whether “Crito” might be a disguised manifesto of totalitarian ideology, with Socrates’ insistence on the individual’s submission to the state. It seems to me, however, that the real meaning of “Crito” is that Socrates’ decision to submit is a free one, an individual moral choice. He arrives at this conclusion completely independently; for all that he refers to the state’s role in raising and educating him, his arguments do not indicate a blind belief that the state is always right. On the contrary, he fully understands the corruption of the Athenian system, and the injustice of his trial as a concrete realization of it — and, in a sense, he stands above the law in deciding to follow it; the continued stability and existence of Athenian society is made to hinge on his decision. Socrates’ choice to submit and die is the highest possible expression of the freedom of an individual mind.
Perhaps the real Socrates never set forth any philosophy at all, never gave any beautiful speeches about the nature of love or life after death; perhaps he simply questioned conventional wisdom and voiced his belief that it is better to die as a virtuous man than to live as a vicious one. But he was a moral individual, who was able to freely decide to give up his life, and it is this independence, rather than any specific teaching, that drew Plato to him, and continued to draw Plato long after Socrates had left the world.
Contemplating all of this late in life, Plato surely recognized the relative narrowness and inferiority of his own individuality. In every way that mattered, Socrates was his polar opposite. Socrates was poor and widely ridiculed; Plato was wealthy and respected. Socrates never felt the need to write down any of his thoughts, but Plato was compelled to write hundreds of pages of dense philosophical prose — and the very need to “express” oneself already reflects one’s deep, fundamental incompleteness as a human being. Socrates shut the door on life with no regrets; Plato died in his bed. Plato tried to provide guidance for an ideal society, and tried (as we will see) painfully and unsuccessfully to turn some of these ideas into reality; Socrates only ever spoke of the individual, and yet was much more successful in protecting society, simply by consciously accepting the existing order. Socrates was complete and self-contained. Plato was not, and understood this about himself. Small wonder that he saw in Socrates’ death an image of pure aesthetic perfection, unattainable by anyone else. And when he finally removed Socrates from his writing, it was not because he had finally moved beyond Socrates, but because he had admitted defeat:
Plato himself, in epistle #2
In light of that, perhaps we should also take a quick look at the author of Plato. In fact, Losev is in a unique position relative to his subject, because he had much of Socrates in himself. He was not only a historian of philosophy, but a philosopher in his own right, whose monograph The Dialectic of Myth explored the role of myth and mythology in the life cycle of culture. The skepticism with which this book regarded Soviet ideology got its author arrested in 1930. Losev was sentenced to ten years of hard labour, and served about three before his sentence was commuted. While in prison, he lost most of his vision and became functionally blind. By 1942, however, he was reinstated as professor of history at Moscow State University, allegedly with tacit consent from Stalin, and spent the remainder of his life in ascetic scholarship, leaving behind the multi-volume treatise The History of Ancient Aesthetics and numerous other books and articles.
By the 1980s, Losev had become a legend in Russian intellectual circles, and just as with Socrates it was as much for his ethos as for his scholarship; his discipline and self-renunciation resembled monasticism, and in fact it is widely believed that he had secretly taken the tonsure (and the monastic name Andronicus) as early as 1929. He was often seen wearing a monk’s skullcap, as shown above. Although his personal code was radically opposed to the Soviet state, his calm acceptance of his misfortunes mirrors Socrates’ wise fatalism in “Crito,” and makes it possible to understand, by analogy, the power that Socrates’ personality had over Plato and still exudes in Plato’s dialogues.
To be continued.