Thursday, June 9, 2016

8 Socrates in Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon

Dover says: ‘Many points of contact between Nu. (Clouds) and the extant corpus of Socratic dialogues have been considered, and many have been thought to show that Aristophanes knew, and expected his audience to recognize, characteristic peculiarities of Socrates’ methods and manners. The test case is 137, where the student tells Strepsiades that by knocking at the door so noisily he has “caused the miscarriage of a discovery” (phrontid’ exȇmblȏkas exȇurȇmenȇn). The metaphor reminds us of the famous passage in Theaetetus where Plato makes Socrates speak of his technique as ‘midwife’ to the birth of ideas from the minds of others; the term exambloun [‘miscarry’] is used there (150e) of those who have left Socrates’ company too soon.’ (xlii)

Dover argues that ‘if this is a genuine point of contact, some remarkable conclusions follow’ … These conclusions so lack plausibility that they tempt us to seek another explanation of exȇmblȏkas [‘you caused the miscarriage’], and the obvious explanation is that since tiktein [‘give birth’] and gennan [‘beget’] were so freely used in a metaphorical sense the corruption of an intellectual exercise by a shock and a loud noise was appropriately described as ‘miscarriage’. Strepsiades, whose life has been spent in close acquaintance with sheep and goats (45, 71 f.), creatures which are sensitive to sudden fright when pregnant, is naturally interested.’ (xlii-xliii)

Dover names three such ‘remarkable conclusions’, and I shall discuss each separately.

‘The first is that Aristophanes is so well acquainted with Socrates’ terminology that he can allude to it in a single word, without any enlargement.’ (xlii)

Not only this; Aristophanes must expect that his audience would get it.

In Theaetetus Socrates introduces his technique as a ‘midwife’ by asking the young Theaetetus: ‘Do you mean to tell me you haven’t heard that I’m the son of a fine strapping midwife called Phaenarete? – Theaetetus: ‘Yes, I’d heard that.’ (149a1-3, tr. McDowell). The reference is not only to Socrates with his ‘midwifery’, but to his mother as well. Aristophanes thus reminds the audience of the Acharnians, the comedy with which he won the first prise in 425. In it he made a long sequence of elaborate jokes the butt of which was Euripides and his tragedies; the sequence ended with a joke directed at his mother who was a gardener and used to sit in the market selling her herbs. Dicaeopolis: ‘My own Euripides, my best and sweetest, perdition seize me if I ask aught else save this one thing, this only, only this, give me some chervil, borrowing from your mother.’ – Euripides: ‘The man insults us.’ (Acharnians 475-9, tr. B. B. Rogers) To say more would spoil the joke. The link between the Acharnians and the Clouds, between Euripides and Socrates is reinforced towards the end of the play. Pheidippides came from Socrates’ House-of-thought full of Euripides. Strepsiades says that his son began to beat him for speaking ill of Euripides. Pheidippides: ‘Not justly (ou dikaiȏs), you, who doesn’t praise Euripides as being the wisest (hostis ouk Euripidȇn epaineis sophȏtaton, 1377-8)?’ – Contemporary comic writers depicted Euripides as deriving the ‘wise ideas’ for his plays from Socrates (see Diogenes Laertius, II. 18).

‘The second is that, if this is so, the play should be full of similar allusions; yet, as we read on, we find that the words and phrases which sound like allusions (479 f. mȇchanas … prospherȏ, 489 f. hotan ti probalȏmai sophon … eutheȏs hupharpasei) are not attested in Plato.’ (xliii)

Let us consider line 479 to which Dover refers. Socrates opens his preparatory education of Strepsiades by asking him ‘make plain to me your character (age dȇ kateipe moi su ton sautou tropon), so that, knowing it (hin’ auton eidȏs hostis esti), I then, accordingly, apply to you knew methods of teaching (mȇchanas ȇdȇ ’pi toutois pros se kainas prospherȏ).’ Strepsiades understands mȇchanas as ‘engines of war’: ‘What now (ti de)? Do you have in mind to besiege me (teichomachein dianoei moi pros tȏn theȏn)?’ – Socrates: ‘No (ouk), but I want to ask you a few things (alla brachea sou puthesthai boulomai). (477-482) Socrates knew methods of teaching consist in method of questioning.

In Plato’s Symposium Diotima depicts the Eros in terms ‘reminiscent of the jokes the comic writers directed at Socrates at Dionysia’ (atechnȏs hoia auton Sȏkratȇn eskȏpton en Dionusiois hoi kȏmȏidoi, as Maximus Tyrius observed, dis. XXIV. 4): ‘He is bold (andreios ȏn), enterprising (kai itȇs), strong (kai suntonos), a mighty hunter (thȇreutȇs deinos), always weaving some intrigue or other (aei tinas plekȏn mȇchanas), keen in pursuit of wisdom (kai phronȇseȏs epithumȇtěs kai porimos, 203d5-7, tr. Jowett).’ In Plato’s Apology Socrates tells Meletus, his accuser: ‘But no one who has a particle of understanding will ever be convinced by you that a man can believe in the existence of the things divine and superhuman, and the same man refuse to believe in gods and demigods and heroes.’ (27e5-28a1, tr. Jowett) Somewhere in Jowett’s ‘no one will ever be convinced by you’ is hidden Socrates’ mȇchanȇ [mȇchanȇ, nom. sing, mȇchanas, acc. pl.]: hopȏs su tina peithois … oudemia mȇchanȇ esti ‘there is no way in which you might persuade’). Finally, in Cratylus, Socrates’ attempt to get to the deeper meaning of mȇchanȇ by discovering its etymological roots indicates that he gave it some thought, nay, that it was in the centre of his philosophical activities. For having explained the term technȇ as ‘possession of intellect’ (hexin nou), Socrates next explains mȇchanȇ as anein epi polu ‘to accomplish a lot’, deriving it from mȇkos ‘length’, ‘which somehow signifies “a lot” (to gar mȇkos pȏs to polu sȇmainei)’, and anein, which signifies ‘effect’, ‘accomplish’. Socrates’ questioning was a lengthy process, and in the course of it he achieved, or hoped to achieve, a lot. His explanation of mȇchanȇ is followed by his deliberation on ‘virtue’ aretȇ and ‘vice’ kakia. (Pl. Cratylus 414b-415a)

Dover’s next reference is line 489 f hotan ti probalȏmai sophon peri tȏn meteȏrȏn eutheȏs hupharpasei ‘when I throw at you something wise concerning the celestial matters snatch it immediately’. Strepsiades: ‘What now (ti dai), shall I be fed wisdom like a dog’ (kunȇdon tȇn sophian sitȇsomai)?

Plato’s Socrates used the term proballȏ, and he used it as Aristophanes’ Socrates did. In Laches Socrates says: ‘It seems to me that Homer must be thrown in’ (ton Homȇron dokei moi chrȇnai proballesthai, 201b1-2). In Hippias Major Socrates’ alter ego pesters Socrates (and thus Socrates pesters the sophist Hippias) with uncomfortable questions. Referring to his alter ego, Socrates tells Hippias: ‘But sometimes (eniote de), as if having a pity (hȏsper eleȇsas) on my inexperience (mou tȇn apeirian) and lack of education (kai apaideusian), he himself throws at me (autos moi proballei) asking (erȏtȏn) if beauty seems to me to be this (ei toionde moi dokei einai to kalon), or concerning anything else (ȇ kai peri allou) what he happens to be enquiring about’ (hotou an tuchȇi punthanomenos, 293d1-4). Hupharpazȏ can be found in the Euthydemus. Socrates tells the story how the sophist Dionysodorus snatched the ‘opportune’ moment to have his say (ephȇ hupharpasas ho Dionusodȏros, 300d1).

In the Clouds can be found other ‘similar allusions’ to Socrates’ philosophizing. Thus when Strepsiades, after being thrown away from Socrates’ House-of-thinking as hopeless, insists that his son must go and become Socrates’ disciple, Pheidippides asks: ‘What could one learn from them that might be useful (ti d’ an par ekeinȏn kai mathoi chrȇston tis an, 840)?’ – Strepsiades: ‘You will know thyself (gnȏsei de sauton) how ignorant you are (hȏs amathȇs ei) and how thick (kai pachus, 842).’ In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates avers that his whole effort is focussed on ‘knowing myself’ (gnȏnai emauton) in obedience to the Delphic adage (229e-230a). Aristotle maintained that Socrates propounded the Delphic ‘Know thyself’ as the principle of philosophic investigation (Peri philosophias fr. 4,).

‘The third conclusion is that a Socratic metaphor so important and well known that one word in Nu. (Clouds) sufficed to make a humorous allusion was wholly neglected by Plato in his earlier representations of Socrates (including Apology) and exploited, at a comparatively late date, in one dialogue alone.’ (xliii)

This is an interesting observation, but it has very little to do with the question of Socrates’ intellectual ‘midwifery’. To settle this question we must compare Plato’s Theaetetus with Xenophon’s Symposium. In the Theaetetus Socrates connects the art of midwifery (maieia 150d8, maieuesthai 150c7, technȇ tȇs maieuseȏs, 150b6) with the art of match-making (promnȇstikȇ, 150a3), that is with his ability to guess quite well from whose intercourse would benefit those, whom he does not find intellectually pregnant: ‘I arrange matches for them (promnȏmai) … I’ve given several of them to Prodicus, and several to other wise and gifted gentlemen.’ (151b, tr. McDowell) In Xenophon’s Symposium Callias asks Socrates: ‘What are you proud of?’ Socrates: ‘The trade of match-maker’ (epi mastrȏpeiai, iii. 10) When Callias asks Socrates ‘What can you advance in support of your pride in that disreputable profession?’ Socrates explains procuring as the art of making people attractive to each other, and he says that Antisthenes is good at it; he finds him good not only in the art of match-making (mastrȏpeia), but even in the art of ‘procuring’ (proagȏgeia). Much incensed, Antisthenes asked: ‘What knowledge can you possibly have of my being guilty of such a thing as that?’ – Socrates: ‘I know several instances. I know that you acted the part between Callias here and the wise Prodicus, when you saw that Callias was in love with philosophy and that Prodicus wanted money. I know that you did the same for Hippias, the Elean, from whom Callias got his memory system … And just recently, you remember, you introduced the stranger from Heraclea [Zeuxippus, the painter. Cf. Plato, Protagoras 318 b, c] to me, after arousing keen interest in me by your commendations …’ (iv. 56-63, tr. and n. on Zeuxippus by O. J. Todd.) Promnȇstikȇ Socrates professes to be good at in Plato’s Theaetetus corresponds to mastrȏpeia he professes to be good at in Xenophon’s Symposium. The difference in terms in which Socrates refers to it is due to the different situations in which he speaks of it.

Dover’s observation that Socrates’ ‘midwifery’ ‘was neglected by Plato in his earlier representations of Socrates (including Apology) and exploited, at a comparatively late date, in one dialogue alone’ may have something to do with the provenance of the dialogue. The main dialogue is prefaced by an introductory conversation between Eucleides and Terpsion of Megara, friends and followers of Socrates, who were present at his death (Phaedo 59c2). In it we learn that Theaetetus was being taken to Athens from the army at Corinth, suffering from some wounds and from the disease that has broken out in the army. Eucleides accompanied him a long way towards Athens: ‘I recollected with admiration how prophetically Socrates had spoken about him … It was shortly before his death, I think, that Socrates came across him, when Theaetetus was a boy. He met him and had a discussion with him, and he was extremely impressed by Theaetetus’ natural gifts. When I went to Athens, he repeated to me what they said in their discussion … I made notes on that occasion, as soon as I got home, and later, when I had time, I used to recollect it and write it down. And whenever I went to Athens, I used to ask Socrates again about what I didn’t remember, and make corrections when I came back here. So I’ve got just about all of what they said written down.’ (142c-143a, tr. McDowell)

Cornford says in his Introductory note on the dialogue that ‘The anonymous commentary on the Theaetetus, believed to date from the first or second century of our era, records the existence of a second ‘rather frigid’ introductory dialogue of about the same number of lines, beginning, “Boy, are you bringing the dialogue about Theaetetus?” It has been argued that this lost introduction was probably written by Plato – for why should anyone forge such a document – and that the obvious occasion for substituting the existing one would be the death of Theaetetus.’ (F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935, p. 15)

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