Friday, July 21, 2017

3 An interlude with Xenophon’s Hellenica, focussed on Plato’s Phaedrus, with reference to his Seventh Letter

Xenophon went on to say: ‘As for the Thirty, they held a review (hoi d’ exetasin poiêsantes), the Three Thousand (tôn men trischiliôn) assembling in the market-place (en tê̢ agora̢) and those who were not on “the role” (tôn d’ exô tou katalogou) in various places here and there (allôn allachou); then (epeita) they gave the order to pile arms (keleusantes thesthai ta hopla), and while the men were off duty and away (en hô̢ ekeinoi apelêluthesan), they sent their Lacedaemonian guardsmen (pempsantes tous phrourous) and such citizens as were in sympathy with them (kai tôn politôn tous homognômonas autois), seized the arms of all except the Three Thousand (ta hopla pantôn plên tôn trischiliôn pareilonto), carried them up to the Acropolis (kai anakomisantes tauta eis tên akropolin), and deposited them in the temple (sunethêkan en tô̢ naô̢). And now, when this had been accomplished (toutôn de genomenôn), thinking that they were at length free to do whatever they pleased (hôs exon êdê poiein autois ho ti boulointo), they put many people to death out of personal enmity (pollous men echthras heneka apekteinon), and many also for the sake of securing their property (pollous de chrêmatôn).

One measure that they resolved upon (edoxe d’ autois), in order to get money to pay their guardsmen (hopôs echoien kai tois phrourois chrêmata didonai), was that each of their number should seize one of the aliens residing in the city (kai tôn metoikôn hena hekaston labein), and that they should put these men to death (kai autous men apokteinai) and confiscate their property (ta de chrêmata autôn aposêmênasthai). So they bade (ekeleuon de) Theramens also (kai ton Thêramenên) to seize anyone he pleased (labein hontina bouloito); and he replied (ho d’ apekrinato): “But it is not honourable, as it seems to me,” he said (All’ ou dokei moi, ephê, kalon einai), “for people who style themselves the best citizens (phaskontas beltistous einai) to commit acts of greater injustice than the informers used to do (adikôtera tôn sukophantôn poiein). For they (ekeinoi men gar) allowed those from whom they got money, to live (par’ hôn chrêmata lambanoien zên eiôn); but shall we, in order to get money, put to death men who are guilty of no wrong-doing (hêmeis apoktenoumen mêden adikountas, hina chrêmata lambanômen;)? Are not such acts altogether more unjust than theirs were (pôs ou tauta tô̢ panti ekeinôn adikôtera;)?”’ (II.iii.20-22, tr. Brownson)

As far as our understanding of Plato and his work is concerned, the seizing of the aliens, confiscating their property, and putting them to death by the Thirty is primarily important for the dating of the Phaedrus. Socrates ends the Palinode with a prayer to Eros: ‘Thus then (Hautê soi), dear God of Love (ô phile Erôs), I have offered the fairest recantation and fullest atonement that my powers could compass (eis hêmeteran dunamin hoti kallistê kai aristê dedotai te kai ekteteistai palinô̢dia) … And if anything that Phaedrus and I said earlier sounded discordant to thy ear (en tô̢ prosthen d’ ei ti logô̢ soi apêches eipomen Phaidros te kai egô), set it down to Lysias, the only begetter of that discourse (Lusian ton tou logou patera aitiômenos); and staying him from discourses after this fashion (paue tôn toioutôn logôn) turn him towards the love of wisdom, even as his brother Polemarchus has been turned (epi philosophian de, hôsper h’adelphos autou Polemarchos tetraptai, trepson). Then will his loving disciple here present (hina kai ho erastês hode autou) no longer halt between two opinions (mêketi epamphoterizê̢), as now he does (kathaper nun), but live for Love in singleness of purpose with the aid of philosophical discourse (all’ haplôs pros Erôta meta philosophôn logôn ton bion poiêtai).’ (257a3-b6, tr. R. Hackforth)

How could Plato have written this prayer to Eros after the death of Polemarchus, the richest resident alien in Athens, in the hands of the Thirty, thus linking the dialogue indelibly with the most tragic events in the life of his country?

Apart from the shadow this incident cast over the Phaedrus, those events played no small role in Plato’s life as a citizen of Athens. In his old age, in the Seventh Letter he wrote: ‘In my youth (Neos egô pote ôn) I went through the same experience as many other men (pollois dê t’auton epathon). I fancied (ô̢êthên) that if, early in life, I became my own master (ei thatton emautou genoimên kurios), I should at once embark on a political career (epi ta koina tês poleôs euthus ienai). And I found myself confronted with the following occurrences in the public affairs of my own city (kai moi tuchai tines tôn tês poleôs pragmatôn toiaide parepeson). The existing constitution being generally condemned (hupo pollôn gar tês poleôs tote loidoroumenês), a revolution took place (metabolê gignetai) … thirty were appointed rulers with full powers over public affairs as a whole (triakonta de pantôn archontes katestêsan autokratores). Some of these (toutôn de tines) were relatives and acquaintances of mine (oikeioi te ontes kai gnôrimoi etunchanon emoi), and they at once invited me to share in their doings, as something to which I had a claim (kai dê kai parekaloun euthus hôs epi prosêkonta pragmata me). The effect on me was not surprising in the case of a young man (kai egô thaumaston ouden epathon hupo neotêtos). I considered that they would (ô̢êthên gar autous), of course, so manage the state as to bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one (ek tinos adikou biou epi dikaion tropon agontas dioikêsein dê tên polin) … And seeing (kai horôn), as I did (dêpou), that in quite a short time they made the former government seem by comparison something precious as gold (tous andras en chronô̢ oligô̢ chruson apodeixantas tên emprosthen poiteian) – for among other things (ta te alla) they tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons (kai philon andra emoi presbuteron Sôkratê, hon egô schedon ouk an aischunoimên eipôn dikaiotaton einai tôn tote, epi tina tôn politôn meth’ heterôn epempon) to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution (bia̢ axonta hôs apothanoumenon), in order that (hina dê), whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct (metechoi tôn pragmatôn autois, eite bouloito ê mê); but he would not obey them (ho d’ ouk epeitheto), risking all consequences (pan de parekinduneusen pathein) in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds (prin anosiôn autois ergôn genesthai koinônos) – seeing all these things (ha dê panta kathorôn) and others of the same kind on a considerable scale (kai ei tin’ alla toiauta ou smikra), I disapproved of their proceedings (eduscherana te), and withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time (kai emauton epanêgagon apo tôn tote kakôn).’ (324b8-325a5, tr. J. Harward)

May I hope that at least some Platonic scholars will take time to re-read Plato’s Phaedrus hand in hand with Xenophon’s account of the years 405-403 B. C. in his Hellenica? If they do, may I hope that a university will be found somewhere in the English-speaking world, where I shall be allowed to present, and with interested students and academics discuss, my views on Plato? If that happens – preferably at Oxford or/and Cambridge University because of the long involvement of those two universities with Czech philosophers, which began with the visits of Oxford dons in my philosophy seminar in Prague in 1979, including the visit of the Master of Balliol, Dr Anthony Kenny – perhaps I shall be allowed to present my views on Plato even at Charles University in Prague.


It is only because of the neglect of Xenophon by Platonic scholars that the late dating of the Phaedrus can prevail.

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