Feb 212009

Socrates wrote nothing. Plato more than com­pensated for this deficit, for nearly fifty years fashioning brilliant dialogs in which Socrates was the central figure. His early dialogs were written shortly after the events they depicted — maybe around 395 BC — and were intended for a critical audience which would have remem­bered Socrates. They portray Socrates conversing with the citizens of Athens, and describe the events surround­ing his trial and death. These dialogs typically end with­out concep­tual reso­lu­tion, without answers to the questions they pose. In this sense, the philo­sophical impact of Socrates is mainly destructive; he stings like a torpedo fish and his opponents slink away. On the other hand, the early dialogs also provide fascinating glimpses into the char­acter of Socrates — a character so compelling that we begin to understand why Plato could not bring himself to move on, why he built such a remark­able monu­ment to this man.

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades crashes the party — drunk — and proposes a eulogy of Socrates.  He first compares him to the sileni to be found in the statuaries stalls, which when opened reveal figures of the gods inside.  He then describes the effect that Socrates, “with nothing but a few simple words”,  had upon his listeners:

. . . when we listen to anyone else talking, however eloquent he is, we don’t really care a damn what he says.  But when we listen to you, or to someone else repeating what you’ve said, even if he puts it ever so badly, and never mind whether the person who’s listening is man, woman, or child, we’re absolutely staggered and bewitched.  And speaking for myself, gentlemen, if I wasn’t afraid you’d tell me I was completely bottled, I’d swear on oath what an extraordinary effect his words have had on me. . .

Yes, I’ve heard Pericles and all the other great orators, and very eloquent I thought they were, but they never affected me like that; they never turned my whole soul upside down. . .  (215)

After continuing in this vein for some time, Alcibiades returns to the image of the silenus:

I don’t know whether anybody else has ever opened him up … and seen the little images inside, but I saw them once, and they looked so godlike, so golden, so beautiful, and so utterly amazing that there was nothing for it but to do exactly what he told me. . . (217)

In most of the later dialogs it is clear that the Platonic Socrates exists at considerable remove from the historical Socrates, that Socrates has become a symbolic repository for ideas and doctrines that properly belong to Plato. But in his final years Plato returned to the Socrates of his memory, dwelling again on the character of the man who had so strongly influenced him.  At the beginning of his famous Seventh Letter written around 350 BC — Plato referred again to an episode that had been previously recorded in the Apology:

. . . Among other things they sent an elderly man, Socrates, a friend of mine, who I should hardly be ashamed to say was the justest man of his time, in the company with others, against one of the citizens to fetch him forcibly to be executed.  Their purpose was to connect Socrates with their govern­ment, whether he wished or not.  He refused and risked any consequences rather than become their partner in wicked deeds. . . .

Some of those in control brought against this associate of mine, Socrates, whom I have mentioned, a most sacrilegious charge, which he least of all men deserved.  They put him on trial for impiety and the people condemned and put to death the man who had refused to take part in the wicked arrest of one of their friends. (Letters: VII 325)

Later in the Seventh Letter, Plato reflected on what it means to impart wisdom:

. . . I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in the future, for there is no way of putting it into words like other studies.  Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining. (Letters: VII 342)

It seems to me that Plato was still thinking about Socrates. What is touching, though, is Plato’s intimation that after nearly a half century — after all those dialogs — he still had not managed to say what he most wanted to say about Socrates.


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