In his letter of December 31, 1980 Richard Sorabji insisted that I separate my researches on Plato ‘from any connection with Diogenes Laertius’ claim that the Phaedrus was Plato’s earliest writing’: ‘My reasons have to do with the central philosophic doctrines of the Phaedrus … 2) Temptation and inner conflict: In Protagoras 358 B-E and Gorgias 468 B-C, Plato expresses a view which seems to me very simple and naїve, compared with the more sophisticated discussion in the Republic 435-441, and the Phaedrus. The latter are helped to take a more sophisticated view partly by their recognizing three parts in the soul. But the Protagoras says that no one who knows or thinks other things to be better than x will do x instead. When he is compelled to choose one of two evils, he will not choose the greater, if he can the lesser. The Gorgias says that it is pursuing the good that we walk when we walk, thinking it to be better. Similarly, we exile people, thinking it better for us to do this than not to. We will the good, not the bad or indifferent, and we will exilings only if they are useful, not harmful. The other things only seem good, and are not willed. Can we believe that these over-simplified claims were written after the Phaedrus, where the charioteer and the better horse have a correct opinion about which is the better course of action, but nonetheless sometimes get defeated? Isn’t the Phaedrus discussion actually inconsistent with Protagoras and Gorgias? Isn’t its understanding of conflict more sophisticated? Isn’t it more like that in the Republic, which was written after Protagoras and Gorgias? Again, does D. L.’s order of dialogues make philosophical sense?’
In the Protagoras, Socrates holds ‘that nothing is more powerful than knowledge (epistȇmȇs mȇden einai kreitton), and that no matter where it is [in] it always conquers pleasure and everything else (alla touto aei kratein, hopou an enȇi, kai hȇdonȇs kai tȏn allȏn hapantȏn, 357c2-4)’. Socrates introduced this view by questioning Protagoras as follows: ‘Come now (Ithi dȇ moi), Protagoras (ȏ Prȏtagora), uncover for me this part of your mind as well (kai tode tȇs dianoias apokalupson); how do you stand as regards knowledge (pȏs echeis pros epistȇmȇn;)? Do you agree with the majority there too (poteron kai touto soi dokei hȏsper tois pollois anthrȏpois) or do you think otherwise (ȇ allȏs;)? The opinion of the majority about knowledge is (dokei de tois pollois peri epistȇmȇs toiouton ti) that it is not anything strong, which can control and rule a man (ouk ischuron oud’ hȇgemonikon oud’ archikon einai); they don’t look at it that way at all (oude hȏs peri toioutou autou ontos dianoountai), but think that often a man who possesses knowledge (all’ enousȇs pollakis anthrȏpȏi epistȇmȇs) is ruled not by it (ou tȇn epistȇmȇn autou archein) but by something else (all’ allo ti), in one case passion (tote men thumon), in another pleasure (tote de hȇdonȇn), in another pain (tote de lupȇn), sometimes lust (eniote de erȏta), very often fear (pollakis de phobon); they just look at knowledge as a slave (atechnȏs dianooumenoi peri tȇs epistȇmȇs hȏsper peri andrapodou) who gets dragged about by all the rest (perielkomenȇs hupo tȏn allȏn hapantȏn). Now are you of a similar opinion about knowledge (ar’ oun kai soi toiouton ti peri autȇs dokei), or do you think that it is something fine (ȇ kalon ti einai hȇ epistȇmȇ) which can rule a man (kai hoion archein tou anthrȏpou), and that if someone knows what is good and bad (kai eanper gignȏskȇi tis t’agatha te kai kaka), he would never be conquered by anything so as to do other than what knowledge bids him (mȇ an kratȇthȇnai hupo mȇdenos hȏste all’ atta prattein ȇ h’an epistȇmȇ keleuȇi)? In fact, that intelligence is a sufficient safeguard for a man (all’ hikanȇn einai tȇn phronȇsin boȇthein tȏi anthrȏpȏi;)?’ (352a8-c7, tr. C. C. W. Taylor)
There are good reasons to believe that this view was held by the historical Socrates. For Aristotle writes in Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics: ‘Now we may ask (Aporȇseie d’ an tis) how a man who judges rightly can behave incontinently (pȏs hupolambanȏn orthȏs akrateuetai tis). That he should behave so when he has knowledge, some say is impossible (epistamenon men oun ou phasi tines hoion te einai); for it would be strange – so Socrates thought – if when knowledge was in a man (deinon [‘terrible’, ‘awful’] gar epistȇmȇs enousȇs, hȏs ȏieto Sȏkratȇs) something else could master it and drag about like a slave (allo ti kratein kai perielkein autȇn hȏsper andrapodon). For Socrates was entirely opposed to the view in question (Sȏkratȇs men gar holȏs emacheto pros ton logon), holding that there is no such thing as incontinence (hȏs ouk ousȇs akrasias); no one, he said, when he judges acts against what he judges best (oudena gar hupolambanonta prattein para to beltiston) – people act so only by reason of ignorance (alla di’ agnoian).’ (1145b21-27, tr. W. D. Ross)
If Aristotle is right, and this is the view held by the historical Socrates, then I find it very problematic to deduce any developmental consequences, as far as Plato’s own thoughts are concerned, from comparing Socrates in the Protagoras with Socrates in the Phaedrus. Against this it might be argued that Plato in his early dialogues faithfully reproduced the views of the historical Socrates and only later began to use Socrates as a mouthpiece for expressing his own views. This indeed appears to be the prevailing view among scholars subscribing to the developmental view of Plato’s thought, arranging the sequence of dialogues so as to suit their views of what is more simple (Socrates) and more sophisticated (Plato).
Let me therefore get to the crux of Sorabji’s argument: ‘Can we believe that these over-simplified claims were written after the Phaedrus, where the charioteer and the better horse have a correct opinion about which is the better course of action, but nonetheless sometimes get defeated? Isn’t the Phaedrus discussion actually inconsistent with Protagoras? Isn’t its understanding of conflict more sophisticated?’
To answer this objection, I must re-enact the Phaedran true love. In the Phaedrus Plato’s Socrates introduces the Forms to prove that ‘love is sent by the gods to lover and beloved for their benefit (ep’ ȏpheliai ho erȏs tȏi erȏnti kai tȏi erȏmenȏi ek theȏn epipempetai)’, and ‘that this sort of madness is given by the gods to allow us to reach the greatest happiness (ep’ eutuchiai tȇi megistȇi para theȏn hȇ toiautȇ mania didotai, 245b5-c1)’. The philosopher-lover and his beloved direct their lives towards Love (pros Erȏta), spending their time in philosophic discussions (meta philosophȏn logȏn, 257b6). At the sight of the beauty of his beloved the philosopher-lover is reminded of true Beauty (to tȇide horȏn kallos, tou alȇthous anamimnȇiskomenos, 249d5-6), which he saw prior to his fall and incarnation, and fills the soul of his loved one with love as well (kai tȇn tou erȏmenou psuchȇn erȏtos eneplȇsen, 255d2-3): ‘In the beginning of our story we divided each soul into three parts (Kathaper en archȇi toude tou muthou trichȇi dieilomen psuchȇn), two being like steeds (hippomorphȏ men duo tine eidȇ) and the third like a charioteer (hȇniochikon de eidos triton) … Now of the steeds (tȏn de dȇ hippȏn), so we declare, one is good (ho men, phamen, agathos,) and the other is not (ho d’ ou, 253c7-d2) … Now when the driver beholds the person of the beloved (hotan d’oun ho hȇniochos idȏn to erȏtikon omma), and causes a sensation of warmth to suffuse the whole sole (pasan aisthȇsei diathermȇnas tȇn psuchȇn), he begins to experience a tickling or prickling of desire (gargalismou te kai pothou kentrȏn hupoplȇsthȇi); and the obedient steed (ho men eupeithȇs tȏi hȇniochȏi tȏn hippȏn), constrained now as always by modesty (aei te kai tote aidoi biazomenos), refrains from leaping upon the beloved (heauton katechei mȇ epipȇdan tȏi erȏmenȏi); but his fellow (ho de), heeding no more the driver’s goad or whip (oute kentrȏn hȇniochikȏn oute mastigos eti entrepetai), leaps and dashes on (skirtȏn de biai pheretai), sorely troubling his companion (kai panta pragmata parechȏn tȏi suzugi te) and his driver (kai hȇniochȏi), and forcing them to approach the loved one (anankazei ienai te pros ta paidika) and remind him (kai mneian poieisthai) of the delights of love’s commerce (tȇs tȏn aphrodisiȏn charitos). For a while they struggle (tȏ de kat’ archas men antiteineton), indignant (aganaktounte) that he should force them to as monstrous and forbidden act (hȏs deina kai paranoma anankazomenȏ); but at last (teleutȏnte de), finding no end to their evil plight (hotan mȇden ȇi peras kakou), they yield and agree to his bidding. And so he draws them on (poreuesthon agomenȏ, eixante kai homologȇsante poiȇsein to keleuomenon), and now they are quite close (kai ep’ autȏi t’ egenonto) and behold the spectacle of the beloved flashing on them (kai eidon tȇn opsin tȇn tȏn paidikȏn astraptousan). At that sight (idontos de) the driver’s memory (tou hȇniochou hȇ mnȇmȇ) goes back to that form of Beauty (pros tȇn tou kallous phusin ȇnechthȇ), and he [his memory] sees her once again (kai palin eiden autȇn) enthroned by the side of Temperance upon her holy seat (meta sȏphrosunȇs en hagnȏi bathrȏi bebȏsan); then [his memory having seen it] in awe and reverence he falls upon his back (idousa de edeise te kai sephtheisa anepesen huptia), and therewith is compelled (kai hama ȇnankasthȇ) to pull the reins so violently (eis t’oupisȏ helkusai tas hȇnias houtȏ sphodra) that he brings both steeds down on their haunches (hȏst’ epi ta ischia amphȏ kathisai tȏ hippȏ), the good one willing and unresistant (ton men hekonta dia to mȇ antiteinein), but the wanton sore against his will (ton de hubristȇn mal’ akonta.’ (253e5-254c3)
At the sight of the beautiful face of his beloved, the memory of the philosopher’s soul is carried to the sight of the Form of Beauty, and the charioteer, i.e. the intellect, thus finds the power to curb his lower desires and passions. It is noteworthy that at this point the philosopher-lover is still far from acquiring knowledge of the Form of Beauty, for knowledge is stable, permanent; the moment the philosopher-lover loses the sight of his beloved, the bad horse, his lower passions and desires, take the upper hand again, and the whole struggle is repeated, again and again, until the intellect with its memory directed towards the Form of Beauty takes permanently the upper hand.
Let me end with the lines on the basis of which Richard Sorabji maintains that ‘the charioteer and the better horse have a correct opinion about which is the better course of action, but nonetheless sometimes get defeated’.
After pointing to the blessed life on earth and the great gain obtained in the afterlife by those whose ‘better elements of mind won the victory, guiding the lover and the beloved to the ordered rule of the philosophic life (ean men dȇ oun eis tetagmenȇn te diaitan kai philosophian nikȇsȇi ta beltiȏ tȇs dianoias agagonta, 256a7-8)’, Socrates goes on to describe the situation of faithful lovers who fail to achieve such victory: ‘But if they turn to a way of life more ignoble and unphilosophic, yet covetous of honour (ean de dȇ diaitȇi phortikȏterai te kai aphilosophȏi, philotimȏi de chrȇsȏntai), then mayhap in a careless hour, or when wine is flowing (tach’ an pou en methais ȇ tini allȇi ameleiai), the wanton horses in their two souls (tȏ akolastȏ autoin hupozugiȏ) will catch them off their guard (labonte tas psuchas aphrourous), bring the pair together (sunagagonte eis t’auton), and choosing that part which the multitude account blissful (tȇn hupo tȏn pollȏn makaristȇn hairesin) achieve their full desire (heilesthȇn kai diepraxasthȇn).’ (256b7-c5, tr. R. Hackforth)
Hackforth translates Socrates’ labonte tas psuchas aphrourous ‘will catch them off their guard‘, but the original is stronger: ‘catching their souls without their guard’; i.e. their correct opinion is absent in such situations. This cannot happen to knowledge as Socrates understands it.
By contrasting the Protagoras and the Phaedrus, and interpreting the contrast developmentally, Richard Sorabji – and other like-minded Platonic scholars – prevent themselves from understanding Socrates’ and Plato’s view of knowledge as opposed to correct opinion.