Sunday, May 29, 2016

3 Socrates in Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon

The Clouds opens with Strepsiades’ soliloquy; he cannot sleep, he curses the war – The Clouds was staged in 423, during the Peloponnesian war – he curses his extravagant son, he dreads his creditors. Finally, he thinks up a way of how to avoid paying the creditors. He wakes up his son Pheidippides: ‘Look here! Do you see this door and this house?’ – Ph.: ‘I do. But what is this all about, father?’ – Str. ‘This is a Thinkery of wise souls (psuchȏn sophȏn tout’ esti phrontistȇrion). There live men (entauth’ enoikous’ andres) who persuade by speaking that the heaven is a “choker” (hoi ton ouranon legontes anapeithousin hȏs estin pnigeus), and it is around us (k’astin peri hȇmas houtos), and we are charcoal (hȇmeis d’ anthrakes). They teach (houtoi didaskous’), if someone gives them money (argyrion ȇn tis didȏi), to win by speaking (legonta nikan), right and wrong (kai dikaia k’adika).’ – Ph.: ‘Who are they (eisin de tines)? – Str.: ‘I don’t exactly know their name (ouk oid’ akribȏs t’ounoma); they are subtle thinkers (merimnophrontistai), beautiful and good (kaloi te k’agathoi).’ – Ph.: ‘Ah (aiboi), those wretches (ponȇroi g’), I know (oida). You mean those braggarts (tous alazonas), pale (tous ȏchriȏntas), barefoot (anupodȇtous legeis), among them the miserable Socrates (hȏn ho kakodaimȏn Sȏkratȇs) and Chaerephon (kai Chairephȏn).’ (91-104)

Strepsiades, who wants to send his son to the Thinkery of the ‘wise souls’ to learn forensic oratory so that he wins any lawsuit his creditors might bring against him, does not even know the name of Socrates. And so he mixes together bits of relevant information and complete misinformation. Consider his introductory identification of Socrates and his disciples as ‘wise souls’ (psuchȏn sophȏn). Dover comments: ‘psuchȏn: Souls are insubstantial and, as we shall see, the philosophers are not “real men” but pale and feeble.’ This certainly is how Strepsiades’ son Pheidippides views them (lines 102-4). But there is much more to it, for in Plato’s Alcibiades Socrates persuades his young friend that ‘man is the soul’ (hȇ psuchȇ estin anthrȏpos, 130c5-6), ‘so that he commands us to know our soul (psuchȇn ara hȇmas keleuei gnȏrisai) who commands “Know thyself”( ho epitattȏn gnȏnai sauton, 130e8-9). At the time when Aristophanes wrote The Clouds the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades must have been the talk of the town.

When Strepsiades tells his son that the men are ‘subtle thinkers beautiful and good (kaloi te k’agathoi), this phrase, which expresses Socrates’ ideal of moral and intellectual integrity, triggers an instant recognition in the city-wise Pheidippides. Let me quote two passages from Xenophon’s Memorabilia concerning Socrates and his ideal of kalokagathia: ‘He always discussed human things in his investigations (autos de peri tȏn anthrȏpinȏn aei dielegeto skopȏn). What is godly (ti eusebes), what is ungodly (ti asebes); what is beautiful (ti kalon), what is ugly (ti aischron); what is just (ti dikaion), what is unjust (ti adikon); what is prudence (ti sȏphrosunȇ), what is madness (ti mania); what is courage (ti andreia), what is cowardice (ti deilia); what is a state (ti polis), what is a statesman (ti politikos); what is government (ti archȇ anthrȏpȏn), and what is a governor (ti archikos anthrȏpȏn); – and concerning other such things (kai peri tȏn allȏn), the knowledge of which (ha tous men eidotas), he believed (hȇgeito), would make men beautiful and good (kalous k’agathous einai).’ (I.i.16)

Pheidippides linked Socrates’ kalokagathia with his being barefoot. Xenophon links it in his next passage with ‘Socrates’ endurance of cold and heat and every kind of toil’ (pros cheimȏna kai theros kai pantas ponous karterikȏtatos): ‘Making his followers desire virtue (aretȇs poiȇsas epithumein), he gave them hope (kai elpidas paraschȏn) that if they take proper care of themselves (an heautȏn epimelȏntai), they will become beautiful and good (kalous k’agathous esesthai).’ (I.ii.2-3)

The Wikipedia defines kalokagathia as ‘a phrase used by classical Greek writers to describe an ideal of gentlemanly personal conduct. Socrates gave it a new meaning, where kalos, ‘beautiful’, means in the first place the beauty of the soul. The best example of the way Socrates understood this ideal can be found in Plato’s Theaetetus. A geometrician Theodorus praises Theaetetus, one of his disciples, as an exceptionally endowed and talented young man. He tells Socrates: ‘He isn’t beautiful (ouk esti kalos), but resembles you in the snubness of his nose and the prominence of his eyes’ (143e8-9). When Theaetetus joins them, Socrates engages him in a discussion on knowledge, and at one point he asks him: ‘But what about the power which makes clear to you that which is common to everything (hȇ de dia tinos dunamis to t’ epi pasi koinon dȇloi soi) … that to which you apply the words “is” (hȏi to ‘estin’ onomazeis), “is not” (kai to ‘ouk esti’) and the others we used in our questions just now (kai ha nundȇ ȇrȏtȏmen peri autȏn)? What is that power exercised by means of? What sort of instruments are you going to assign to all those things (toutois pasi poia apodȏseis organa), by means of which the perceiving element in us perceives each of them (di hȏn aisthanetai hȇmȏn to aisthanomenon hekasta)?’ – Theaetetus: ‘You mean being (Ousian legeis) and not being (kai to mȇ einai), likeness (kai homoiotȇta) and unlikeness (kai anomoiotȇta), the same (kai to t’auton) and different (kai heteron), and also one (eti de hen te) and any other number (kai ton allon arithmon) applied to them (peri autȏn). And it’s clear (dȇlon de) that your question is also about odd and even (hoti kai artion te kai peritton erȏtais), and everything else that goes with those (kai t’alla hosa toutois hepetai). What you’re asking is by means of what part of the body (dia tinos pote tȏn tou sȏmatos) we perceive them with our soul (tȇi psuchȇi aisthanometha).’ – Socrates: ‘You follow me perfectly, Theaetetus (Hupereu, ȏ Theaitȇte, akoloutheis). That’s exactly what I’m asking (kai estin ha erȏtȏ auta tauta).’ – Theaetetus: ‘Well, good heavens (Alla ma Dia), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates), I couldn’t say (egȏge ouk an echoimi eipein); except that I think (plȇn g’hoti moi dokei) there simply isn’t any instrument of that kind (tȇn archȇn oud einai toiouton ouden toutois organon) particular to those things (idion), as is in the case of those others (hȏsper ekeinois) [eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, etc., J.T.]. On the contrary, it seems to me that the soul itself, by means of itself (all autȇ di’ hautȇs hȇ psuchȇ), considers the things which apply in common to everything (ta koina moi phainetai peri pantȏn episkopein).’ – Socrates: ‘Theaetetus, you’re beautiful (Kalos gar ei, ȏ Theaitȇte), not ugly, as Theodorus was saying (kai ouch, hȏs elege Theodȏros, aischros); because someone who speaks beautifully (ho gar kalȏs legȏn) is beautiful and good (kalos te kai agathos).’ (185c4-e5; tr. John McDowell, with few exceptions. McDowell translates tȇi psuchȇi at 185d3 ‘with our minds’, I translate ‘with our soul’ and hȇ psuchȇ at 185e1 ‘the mind’, I translate ‘the soul’; he translates kalos at 185e3 ‘handsome’ and kalȏs at 185e4 ‘handsomely’, I translate ‘beautiful’ and ‘beautifully’; he translates kalos te kai agathos at 185e4 ‘handsome and a fine person’, I translate ‘beautiful and good’.)


Socrates in the Apology is distancing himself from ‘a Socrates’ (Sȏkratȇ tina), whom the Athenians saw in the comedy of Aristophanes (en tȇi Aristophanous kȏmȏidiai) ‘swinging there around (ekei peripheromenon) and saying that he walks on air (phaskonta te aerobatein, 19c2-3).’ It seems that neither Socrates’ rejection of this picture at the trial, nor Plato’s immortalization of this rejection in the Apology succeeded in driving this comic scene out of the minds of Plato’s contemporaries. Or was it Plato’s sense of truth that prompted him to explain what Aristophanes saw in Socrates that prompted him to caricature Socrates swinging high in the air and saying: ‘I would never have truly discovered (ou gar an pote exȇuron) the matters on high (ta meteȏra pragmata) if I had not hung up (ei mȇ kremasas) my intellect (to noȇma) and my subtle thought (kai tȇn phrontida leptȇn) had not mixed in the similar air (katameixas es ton homoion aera, Ar. Cl. 227-9)’? For Socrates in the Theaetetus – on his way to the King Archon’s office to face the charge Meletus has brought against him (epi tȇn Melȇtou graphȇn hȇn me gegraptai, 210d2-3’ – described the true philosopher as follows: ‘It’s only his body that’s in the state (tȏi onti to sȏma monon en tȇi polei keitai), here on a visit (autou kai epidȇmei), whereas his intellect (hȇ de dianoia) … flies about everywhere (pantachȇi petetai), as Pindar says (kata Pindaron), “in the depths of the earth” (tas te gas hupenerthe), and on the surfaces when it does geometry (kai ta epipeda geȏmetrousa), and “above the heavens” (ouranou th’ huper) when it does astronomy (astronomousa), searching in every way into the total nature of each of the things which are (kai pasan pantȇi phusin ereunȏmenȇ tȏn ontȏn hekastou holou).’ (173e2-174a1, tr. McDowell)

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