In the last few days I felt like Odysseus – roaming through centuries of thought. Plato’s Protagoras took me to Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, and reading Homer aloud, just for myself, is always a treat. Odysseus’ encounter with the dead in that Book made me go back to see how Odysseus got there, and start at the beginning. Not long ago I recorded a number of Books form the Iliad (putting the recordings on my website), and so I was struck by the difference between the beginnings of these two poems. The Iliad is a compact story, displaying in great detail one great theme, which is set in its opening words: Mȇnin aeide (Sing the wrath), thea (Goddess), Pȇlȇїadeȏ Achilȇos (of Achilles the son of Peleus), oulomenȇn (destructive), hȇ muri Achaiois alge ethȇke (that caused distress to tens of thousands of Achaians), pollous d’ iphthimous psuchas (many mighty souls) Aїdi proiapsen (it sent to Hades) hȇrȏȏn (of heroes), autous de helȏria teuche kunessin oiȏnoisi te pasi (and made them prey to dogs and to all birds), Dios d’ eteleieto boulȇ (the will of Zeus was brought to pass, Il. I. 1-5).
Note that in Homer the dead heroes ‘themselves’ became prey of the dogs and birds, while their souls, ‘the phantoms of the deceased mortals’ (brotȏn eidȏla kamontȏn, Od. XI. 476), were sent to Hades. In contrast, for Socrates the soul is what we truly are (see e.g. Plato, Alcibiades 130e), and Plato says that ‘the body (to sȏma) follows us about in the likeness of each of us (indallomenon hȇmȏn hekastois hepesthai), and therefore, when we are dead (kai teleutȇsantȏn), the bodies of the dead are quite rightly said to be our shades or images (legesthai kalȏs eidȏla einai ta tȏn nekrȏn sȏmata, Laws XII, 959b1-3, tr. B. Jowett)’. E. B. England notes ad loc.: ‘Ast says that Plato, in calling the dead body an eidȏlon, is consciously contradicting Homer’s view that the psuchȇ is an eidȏlon.’
In the Odyssey the poet prays: ‘Tell me the man (Andra moi ennepe), Muse (Mousa), versatile (polutropon), who wandered a lot (hos mala polla planchthȇ) … of these events (tȏn), from some point (hamothen ge), Goddess (thea), the daughter of Zeus (thugater Dios), tell us also now (eipe kai hȇmin, Od. I. 1-10)’. W. B. Stanford notes on line 10: ‘The poet faced with the immense mass of epic material needs the Muse help in choosing a beginning ‘at some point’.’
The poet begins by saying that all others, who avoided death and destruction in the war or on the sea, were at home, while Odysseus was still held back by Calypso, but when the year came when he was destined to return to Ithaca, his home, all the gods – with the exception of Poseidon, who was in rage with Odysseus for blinding Cyclops, his son, and was away in the realm of the Ethiopians – assembled in the house of Zeus. Zeus opened the meeting with a complaint against the mortals: ‘Dear me (Ȏ popoi), what charges the mortals are bringing against the gods (hoion dȇ nu theous brotoi aitioȏntai). For they say that we are the cause of their ills (ex hȇmeȏn gar phasi kak’ emmenai). But they themselves also (hoi de kai autoi) by their own reckless sins (sphȇisin atasthaliȇisin) have sufferings beyond their measure (hupermoron alge echousin).’ – Stanford notes: ‘kai implies that Zeus does accept some responsibility for the amount of sufferings apportioned to each man by destiny.’
Zeus gives as an example of such ills for which gods ur unjustly blamed the death of Aigisthos in the hands of Orestes; he sent Hermes to advise the former against marrying Agamemnon’s wife and against killing Agamemnon: ‘there will come revenge from Orestes (ek gar Orestao tisis essetai), the son of Agamemnon (Atreidao), when he grows up (hoppot’ an hȇbȇsȇi) and yearns after his land (kai hȇs himeiretai aiȇs, 40-41)’; Hermes told him thus (hȏs ephat’ Hermeias), but he did not persuade the mind of Aigisthes (all’ ou phrenas Aigisthoio peith’), meaning well (agatha phroneȏn), and now he paid for all (nun d’ athroa pant’ apetise).’ (Od. I. 32-43).
Zeus’ complaint against the mortals creates the framework within which the Odyssey is unveiled. Athena tells Zeus that Aigisthos got what he deserved; it’s time to think of Odysseus. With Zeus’ approval, she goes to visit Telemachos, the son of Odysseus, who, as everybody, believes his father to be long dead, and is unhappy about the suitors of his mother who live in the house at his expense. The goddess tells him to call an assembly, to appeal to the suitors of Penelope and their parents and relatives, urge them to have the decency and leave the house. The assembly takes place, Telemachus makes an eloquent plea, but the suitors (and their relatives) spurn him. Leocritus dissolves the assembly saying that nobody can fight the illustrious suitors, they are too many; even if Odysseus himself comes back and attempts to throw them out of his house, he will pay with his death (Od. I. 246-250). – And so the suitors themselves, their friends, relatives, and parents co-determine their own fate – the suitors will end up slaughtered by Odysseus.
Telemachus and Athena (who accompanied him in the guise of Odysseus’ old friend Mentor) then sailed to Nestor, to enquire about the fate of Odysseus. As they reached Nestor’s Pylos at the beginning of the 3rd book, before returning to Plato’s Protagoras, I felt like reading another chapter from Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
In ‘The Theory of Ideas’, Russell gives a masterful summary of Plato’s theory of Forms (Russell, Ch. 15, p. 121), but in discussing the theory he makes mistakes. He says: ‘Those who are destitute of philosophy may be compared to prisoners in a cave, who are only able to look in one direction because they are bound, and who have a fire behind them and a wall in front. Between them and the wall there is nothing; all that they see are shadows of themselves, and of objects behind them, cast on the wall by the light of the fire. Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due. At last some man succeeds in escaping from the cave to the light of the sun; for the first time he sees real things, and becomes aware that he had hitherto been deceived by shadows.’ – So far so good; but then he goes on: ‘If he is the sort of philosopher who is fit to become a guardian, he will feel it is his duty to those who were formerly his fellow-prisoners to go down again into the cave, instruct them as to the truth, and show them the way up. But he will have difficulty in persuading them, because, coming out of the sunlight, he will see shadows less clearly than they do, and will seem to them stupider than before his escape.’ (p. 126)
Compare what Plato says about the ascent from the cave and the descent back into it that takes place within the framework of the ideal State. Socrates: ‘The business of us (Hȇmeteron dȇ ergon) who are the founders of the State (tȏn oikistȏn) will be to compel the best minds (tas te beltistas phuseis anankasai) to attain that knowledge (aphikesthai pros to mathȇma) which we have already shown (ho en tȏi prosthen ephamen) to be the greatest of all (einai megiston), namely, the vision of the good (idein te to agathon); they must make the ascent which we have described (kai anabȇnai ekeinȇn tȇn anabasin); but when they have ascended (kai epeidan anabantes) and seen enough (hikanȏs idȏsi) we must not allow them to do (mȇ epitrepein autois) as they do now (ho nun epitrepetai).’ – Glaucon: ‘What do you mean (To poion dȇ)?’ – Socrates: ‘They are permitted to remain in the upper world (To autou katamenein), refusing to descend again (kai mȇ ethelein palin katabainein) among the prisoners of the cave (par’ ekeinous tous desmȏtas), and partake (mȇde metechein) of their (tȏn par ekeinȏn) labours and honours (ponȏn te kai timȏn) (519c8-d6) … we shall explain to them (eroumen gar hoti, 520a9) … we have brought you into the world to be the rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens (humas d’ hȇmeis humin te autois tȇi te allȇi polei hȏsper en smȇnesi hȇgemonas te kai basileas egennȇsamen, 520b5-6) … Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down (katabateon oun en merei hekastȏi) to rejoin his companions (eis tȇn tȏn allȏn katoikȇsin), and acquire with them the habit of seeing things in the dark (kai sunethisteon ta skoteina theasasthai). As you acquire that habit (sunethizomenoi gar), you will see ten thousand times better (muriȏi beltion opsesthe) than the inhabitants of the cave (tȏn ekei), and you will know (kai gnȏsesthe) what the several images are and what they represent (hekasta ta eidȏla hatta esti kai hȏn), because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth (dia to alȇthȇ heȏrakenai kalȏn te kai dikaiȏn kai agathȏn peri).’ (Pl. Rep. 519c8-520c6, tr. B. Jowett)
Pace Russell, the philosopher-guardian does not have any choice in going or not going back into the cave; he must go when his turn comes to do so. He is not going down to instruct the inhabitants of the cave as to the truth; the truth, that is the Forms, is beyond their capacity of understanding; their mind operates within the framework of mere opinion. He is not going to show them the way up; the inhabitants stay in the cave – with the exception of those few who are or are to become philosopher-guardians – each at his or her place doing the work for which they are suited; the philosopher-guardian descends into the cave to help them in doing so and to make sure that they do so.
Let me note that Jowett’s ‘to rejoin his companions’ for Plato’s eis tȇn tȏn allȏn katoikȇsin is misleading; the bees in the beehive can hardly be companions of the rulers and the kings in the beehives; [katabateon] eis tȇn tȏn allȏn katoikȇsin means ‘[to descend] into the dwelling of the others’.
Russell’s (and Jowett’s) mistake is understandable, for Plato begins the description of the ascent from the cave by contemplating it within the framework of the situation in Athens.
Socrates: ‘And now look again (Skopei dȇ), and see in what manner they would be released from their bonds, and cured of their error (autȏn lusin te kai iasin tȏn te desmȏn kai tȇs aphrosunȇs, hoia tis an eiȇ), whether the process would naturally be as follows (ei phusei toiade sumbainoi autois). At first, when any of them is liberated (hopote tis lutheiȇ) and compelled (kai anankazoito) suddenly (exaiphnȇs) to stand up (anistasthai) and turn his neck round (te kai periagein ton auchena) and walk (kai badizein) and look towards the light (kai pros to phȏs anablepein), he will suffer sharp pains (panta de tauta poiȏn algoi); the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows (te kai dia tas marmarugas adunatoi kathoran ekeina hȏn tote tas skias heȏra); and then conceive someone saying to him that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, – what will be his reply (ti an oiei auton eipein, ei tis autȏi legoi hoti tote men heȏra phluarias, nun de mallon ti enguterȏ tou ontos kai pros mallon onta tetrammenos orthoteron blepoi)? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them (kai dȇ kai hekaston tȏn pariontȏn deiknus autȏi anankazoi erȏtȏn apokrinesthai hoti estin), – will not he be perplexed (ouk oiei auton aporein)? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw (te an kai hȇgeisthai ta tote horȏmena) are truer (alȇthestera) than the objects which are now shown to him (ȇ ta nun deiknumena)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Far truer (Polu ge).’ (515c4-d8, tr. Jowett)
When Plato then asks Glaucon to imagine the descent back into the cave, he goes back in time to the days of Socrates, whom he has in front of his mind.
Socrates: ‘Imagine once more (Kai tode dȇ ennoȇson) such a one coming down suddenly out of the sunlight, and being replaced in his old seat (ei palin ho toioutos katabas eis ton auton thakon kathizoito); would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness (ar’ ou skotou an anapleȏs schoiȇ tous ophthalmous, exaiphnȇs hȇkȏn ek tou hȇliou)? – Glaucon: ‘To be sure (Kai mala).’ – Socrates: ‘And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows (Tas de skias ekeinas palin ei deoi auton gnȏmateuonta diamillasthai) with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave (tois aei desmȏtais ekeinois), while his sight was still weak (en hȏi ambluȏttei), and before his eyes had become steady (prin anastȇnai ta ommata), and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable (houtos d’ ho chronos mȇ panu oligos eiȇ tȇs sunȇtheias), would he not make himself ridiculous (ar’ ou gelȏt’ an paraschoi)? Men would say of him (kai legoito an peri autou) that he had returned from the place above with his eyes ruined (hȏs anabas anȏ diephtharmenos hȇkei ta ommata); and that it was better not even to think of ascending (kai hoti ouk axion oude peirasthai anȏ ienai); and if anyone tried to lose another (kai ton epicheirounta luein) and lead him up to the light (te kai anagein), let them only catch the offender (ei pȏs en tais chersi dunainto labein), and they would put him to death (kai apokteinein, apokteinunai an).’ – Glaucon: ‘No question (Sphodra ge).’ (516e3-517a7, tr. Jowett)
On the margin of my text, as I was sitting at Oxford in the Bodleian Library years ago, I wrote down Adam’s remark ad loc.: ‘a manifest allusion to the death of Socrates’.
Follows a paragraph in which Plato explains the simile of the cave, with his eyes firmly fixed on his ideal State.
Socrates: ‘This entire allegory (Tautȇn toinun tȇn eikona) you may now append, dear Glaucon (ȏ phile Glaukȏn, prosapteon hapasan), to the previous argument (tois emprosthen legomenois); the prison-house is the world of sight (tȇn men di’ opseȏs phainomenȇn hedran tȇi tou desmȏtȇriou oikȇsei aphomoiounta), the light of the fire is the power of the sun (to de tou puros en autȇi phȏs tȇi tou hȇliou dunamei), and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my surmise (tȇn de anȏ anabasin kai thean tȏn anȏ tȇn eis ton noȇton topon tȇs psuchȇs anodon titheis ouch hamartȇsȇi tȇs emȇs elpidos), which, at your desire, I have expressed (epeidȇ tautȇs epithumeis akouein) – whether rightly or wrongly God knows (theos de pou oiden ei alȇthȇs ousa tunchanei). But whether true or false, my opinion is (ta d’ oun emoi phainomena houtȏ phainetai) that in the world of knowledge the Idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with effort (en tȏi gnȏstȏi teleutaia hȇ tou agathou idea kai mogis horasthai); although, when seen (ophtheisa de), it is inferred (sullogistea) to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right (einai hȏs ara pasi pantȏn hautȇ orthȏn te kai kalȏn aitia), parent of light and of the lord of light in the visible world (en te horatȏi phȏs kai ton toutou kurion tekousa), and the immediate and supreme source of reason and truth in the intellectual (en te noȇtȏi autȇ kuria alȇtheian kai noun paraschomenȇ) and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in private or public life must have his eyes fixed (kai hoti dei tautȇn idein ton mellonta emphronȏs praxein ȇ idiai ȇ dȇmosiai).’ – Glaucon: ‘I agree (Sunoiomai kai egȏ), as far as I am able to understand you (hon ge dȇ tropon dunamai).’ (517a8-c6, tr. Jowett)
The brightness of this vision of the Idea of the Good appears to have thrown Plato’s thought back to the last days of Socrates.
Socrates: ‘Moreover (Ithi toinun), you must agree once more (kai tode sunoiȇthȇti), and not wonder (kai mȇ thaumasȇis) that those who attain to this vision (hoti hoi entautha elthontes) are unwilling (ouk ethelousin) to take any part in human affairs (ta tȏn anthrȏpȏn prattein); for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world (all’ anȏ aei epeigontai autȏn hai psuchai) where they desire to dwell (diatribein); which desire of theirs is very natural (eikos gar pou houtȏs), if our allegory may be trusted (eiper au kata tȇn proeirȇmenȇn eikona tout’ echei).’ – Glaucon: ‘Yes, very natural (Eikos mentoi).’ – Socrates: ‘And is there anything surprising (Ti de; tode oiei ti thaumaston) in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man (ei apo theiȏn theȏriȏn epi ta anthrȏpeia tis elthȏn kaka), appearing grotesque (aschȇmonei) and ridiculous (te kai phainetai sphodra geloios); if, while his eyes are blinking (eti ambluȏttȏn) and before he has become accustomed (kai prin hikanȏs sunȇthȇs genesthai) to the surrounding darkness (tȏi paronti skotȏi), he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places (anankazomenos en dikastȇriois ȇ allothi pou agȏnizesthai), about the images or the shadows of images of justice (peri tȏn tou dikaiou skiȏn ȇ agalmatȏn hȏn hai skiai), and must strive (kai diamillasthai) against some rival about opinions of those things which are entertained by men who have never yet seen the true justice (peri toutou, hopȇi pote hupolambanetai tauta hupo tȏn autȇn dikaiosunȇn mȇ pȏpote idontȏn)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Anything but surprising (Oud’ hopȏstioun thaumaston).’ (517c7-e2, tr. Jowett)
Adam in his ‘Commentary’ on the Republic remarked, as I noted on the margin of my text: ‘Plato is doubtless thinking of Socrates and his judges throughout the whole of this passage.’
Plato was still deeply steeped, in memory, in the days when he discussed philosophy with Socrates when he made him say the following: ‘But then (Dei dȇ), if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes (hȇmas toionde nomisai peri autȏn, ei taut’ alȇthȇ, tȇn paideian ouch hoian tines epangellomenoi phasin einai toiautȇn kai einai. Phasi de pou ouk enousȇs en tȇi psychȇi epistȇmȇs spheis entithenai, hoion tuphlois ophthalmois opsin entithentes).’ – Glaucon: ‘They undoubtedly say this (Phasi gar oun).’ – Socrates: ‘Whereas our argument (Ho de ge nun logos) shows (sȇmainei) that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already (tautȇn tȇn enousan hekastou dunamin en tȇi psuchȇi kai to organon hȏi katamanthanei hekastos); and that just as if it were not possible to turn the eyes from darkness to light without the whole body (hoion ei omma mȇ dunaton ȇn allȏs ȇ sun holȏi tȏi sȏmati strephein pros to phanon ek tou skotȏdous), so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming to that of being (houtȏ sun holȇi tȇi psuchȇi ek tou gignomenou periakteon einai), and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being (heȏs an eis to on kai tou ontos to phanotaton dunatȇ genȇtai anaschesthai theȏmenȇ), or in other words, of the good (touto d’ einai phamen t’agathon. ȇ gar;).’ – Glaucon: ‘Very true (Nai).’ (518b6-d1, tr. Jowett)
Jowett does not translate Plato’s hekastou ‘of everyone’ and hekastos ‘everyone’; is it because within the framework of the ideal State of the Republic it is unacceptable to think of everyone as having the power of knowing the Forms in his soul? only the few, those who have gold in their souls (415a), the philosophers, can become rulers; only they have in their soul the power to see the Forms.
Yet Plato, immersed as he was, in memory, in the days he was with Socrates, echoes in this passage the days of the Phaedrus, his first dialogue, in which he maintained that ‘no soul can enter human body that had not beheld the Truth [that is the Forms, J.T.]’ (ou gar hȇ ge mȇpote idousa tȇn alȇtheian eis tode hȇxei to schȇma, Phdr. 249b5-6) prior to its first incarnation, and of the Meno, where Socrates discusses a mathematic problem with Meno’s slave, with his questioning awakening the boy’s capacity of transcendental Recollection. (For the dating of the Phaedrus and the Meno see The Lost Plato on my website.)