Sunday, December 4, 2016

The dating of Plato’s Phaedrus with a reference to his Republic

Richard Sorabji wrote to me on December 31, 1980: ‘I have read ‘Socrates in the Phaedrus’ with the greatest pleasure and interest … I do think your comparisons with Aristophanes are extremely valuable … May I, however, urge that you separate these important researches from any connexion with Diogenes Laertius’ claim that the Phaedrus was Plato’s earliest writing? Like Hackforth and the many people he names, I cannot at present view this even as a serious possibility, although I have many more reasons than Hackforth records. My reasons have to do with the central philosophical doctrines of the Phaedrus … I did not feel that I could attach any importance to Diogenes Laertius’ claim, until someone considered what it would mean for the central philosophical doctrines … I realise that you do not intend to argue for Diogenes’ claim but ‘only to see what it would say about the Phaedrus’. But part of this task would have to be seeing what it said about the central philosophical doctrines … I don’t know of anyone who has yet undertaken to show this.’

The point Richard Sorabji makes concerning ‘the central philosophical doctrines of the Phaedrus’ is important.

Socrates’ assertion that ‘if the victory be won by the higher elements of mind guiding them [the lover and his beloved] into the ordered rule of the philosophic life (ean men dȇ oun eis tetagmenȇn te diaitan kai philosophian nikȇsȇi ta beltiȏ tȇs dianoias agagonta), their days on earth will be blessed with happiness and concord (makarion men kai homonoȇtikon ton enthade bion diagousin, 256a7-b1, tr. Hackforth)’ is central to the Phaedrus. In the light of this assertion, Socrates refers to Polemarchus as a man turned to philosophy (epi philosophian tetraptai), and as such worth emulating (257b).

Polemarchus was executed by the Thirty Tyrants in 404. The question is, whether after his death, the unsavoury circumstances of which were widely publicised by Polemarchus’ bother Lysias in his speech Against Eratosthenes (one of the Thirty), Plato could see him and present him to his readers as a man guided by philosophy, a man whose days on earth were therefore blessed with happiness.

For the answer to this question we must go to Plato’s Republic, which as a discussion took place in the house of Polemarchus. If the dialogue was written before the death of Polemarchus, we may expect that his death profoundly affected Plato’s view of him, and that his presentation of him in this dialogue gave him an opportunity to retract his Phaedran view of him. But if it was written after the Republic, as ‘Hackforth and the many people he names’, and Richard Sorabji, suppose, then we may expect to find in the Republic a view of Polemarchus that prompted Plato to present him in the Phaedrus as a man turned to philosophy, or at least allowed him to do so.

Socrates opens the dialogue by narrating how he and Glaucon were returning to the city from Piraeus: ‘Polemarchus the son of Cephalus chanced to catch sight of us from a distance when we started on our way home (katidȏn oun porrȏthen hȇmas oikade hȏrmȇmenous Polemarchus ho Kephalou) and told his servant to run and bid us wait for him (ekeleuse dramonta ton paida perimeinai he keleusai) … and in a few minutes (kai oligȏ husteron) Polemarchus appeared (ho te Polemarchos hȇke) … Polemarchus said to me: “I perceive, Socrates, that you and your companion are already on your way back to the city (Ȏ Sȏkrates, dokeite moi pros astu hȏrmȇsthai hȏs apiontes).” – Socrates: “You are not far wrong (Ou gar kakȏs doxazeis).” – Polemarchus: “But do you see (Horais oun), how many we are (hȇmas, hosoi esmen;)?” – Soc. “Of course (Pȏs gar ou;).” – Pol. “And are you stronger than all of these (Ê toinun toutȏn kreittous genesthe)? for if not, you will have to remain where you are (ȇ menet’ autou).” – Soc. “May there not be the alternative (Oukoun eti hen leipetai), that we may persuade you (to ȇn peisȏmen humas) to let us go (hȏs chrȇ hȇmas apheinai;)?” – Pol. “But can you persuade us (Ê kai dunaisth’ an peisai), if we refuse to listen to you (mȇ akouontas)?” – Glaucon: “Certainly not (Oudamȏs).” – Pol. “Then we are not going to listen (Hȏs toinun mȇ akousomenȏn); of that you may be assured (houtȏ dianoeisthe).”’ (327b2-c14, tr. Jowett).

Am I overinterpreting, if I see here Plato introducing Polemarchus as a man used to command and not as a philosopher used to listen to argument and to respond to it? Polemarchus after all suggests a supper (deipnon) and then seeing a festival (kai tȇn pannuchida theasometha): ‘there will be a gathering of young men (kai sunesometha te pollois tȏn neȏn autothi), and we will have a good talk (kai dialexometha). Stay then (alla menete), and do not be perverse (kai mȇ allȏs poieite)’ – Glaucon: ‘I suppose (Eoiken), if you insist, we must (meneteon einai).’ – Socrates: ‘Let us do so, if you wish (All’ ei dokei, meneteon einai).’ (328a8-b3, tr. Jowett)

Socrates responds positively to Glaucon’s desire to stay, not to Polemarchus’ insistence. Is this of any significance?

I shall leave the discussion that takes place in the house of Polemarchus, in which Polemarchus’ father Cephalus and Polemarchus figure as Socrates’ interlocutors, for my next post.

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