In the Introduction, I searched Plato’s corpus for what I called his “self-disclosures”: Plato consistently, albeit implicitly, refers to his dialogues as a form of mousikê, as opposed to other forms of discourse. The book’s four chapters focus on the Phaedrus with such a purpose in mind, and from a number of different perspectives suggested by Socrates’ meaningful mention of four Muses in the cicada myth. Each chapter (or perspective) deals with a particular example of “self-disclosure.” Together, they yield a rich description of philosophical discourse—precisely what Andrea Nightingale’s illuminating discussion found lacking in the dialogues. [1] If my reconstruction were to prove correct, the unraveling of certain cultural codes that have hitherto puzzled modern readers would finally enable us to understand many interesting facets of Plato’s authorial voice. As is often the case, however, the solution of one problem breeds a number of others. I shall now consider some of the questions that arise from my book, and, at the same time, address three fundamental issues.
Firstly, there is the problem posed by what I may refer to as the “return” of mousikê. The Phaedrus and its encoded description of philosophy may be construed as a self-conscious appropriation and reconfiguration of traditional mousikê, as opposed to non-musical forms of discourse, such as sophistry and rhetoric. But why does Plato feel the need to “musicalize” philosophy? Secondly, my reading of the Phaedrus has given rise to a strange paradox: it is well known that Socrates did not write anything, and yet Plato has him go through a process of poetic initiation in the dialogue. Why did Plato adopt this cultural code to monumentalize someone who was clearly not a writer, let alone a poet? Last but not least, there is the status of Plato’s writings. Does Plato’s involvement with poetry detract from the philosophic status of the dialogues? And are the dialogues the new, all-encompassing opus designed to supersede all previous literature in Plato’s ideal city? These questions will eventually take us back to Plato’s entire corpus, as opposed to the four chapters’ narrower focus on the Phaedrus.

Socrates’ Anti-Intellectualism

Socrates’ intellectualism is a much celebrated and discussed milestone in the history of philosophy, so the above heading may sound like a provocation. Nevertheless, I believe I can say, although not without some reservation, that the present study reveals a surprisingly anti-intellectualistic strand in the Phaedrus, and in Plato more generally. I am referring not only to the fact that the Phaedrus appropriates the devastating manifestations of Eros found in lyric poetry (Chapter 2), or to the genetic, cultic kinship of poetic and philosophical discourse (Chapters 3 and 4), but also to a thematic undercurrent that was first dealt with in the Introduction and Chapter 1: that is, the recurrent tension between philosophy and prose. I must, therefore, bring my argument to a close by exploring the ultimate reasons for Plato’s return to mousikê.
That the Phaedrus criticizes contemporary rhetoric is obvious enough, but that Socrates should take sides with “musical” inspiration against “human” prose writing is puzzling, and demands some explanation. On the one hand, I argue that Socrates’ attitude can be explained as an apologetic move on the part of Plato, that is, as a means to counter wide-spread allegations against philosophy. On the other, Socrates’ move helps to define the discourse of philosophy as against the negativity of rhetoric, which adds weight to my previous conclusions.
I shall begin with the apologetic element. [2] By the end of the fifth century BCE, Socrates’ public image, as portrayed by comic playwrights, was more or less the same as that criticized by Nietzsche. The Clouds, which both Plato and Xenophon refer to so often, depicts Socrates as a pointy-headed intellectual who encourages young Athenians to disparage traditional mousikê. [3] Thus, for example, it is after attending Socrates’ “classes” that Pheidippides rejects the time-honored tradition of sympotic music and beats his father for asking him to sing. The chorus comments that this serves the father right, given that he wanted his son to be a “clever orator” (δεινὸν … λέγειν). [4] In the Frogs, Socrates’ alleged propensity for rhetoric makes him Euripides’ accomplice in the murder of tragedy: [5]
χαρίεν οὖν μὴ Σωκράτει / παρακαθήμενον λαλεῖν, / ἀποβαλόντα μουσικὴν / τά τε μέγιστα παραλιπόντα / τῆς τραγῳδικῆς τέχνης. / τὸ δ’ ἐπὶ σεμνοῖσιν λόγοισι/ καὶ σκαριφησμοῖσι λήρων / διατριβὴν ἀργὸν ποιεῖσθαι, / παραφρονοῦντος ἀνδρός.
It’s an elegant thing not to sit by Socrates and chat or cast the Muses’ work aside, forgetting the most vital skills of writing tragedies. Wasting time with pompous words, while idly scratching verbal bits that suits a man who’s lost his wits.
Aristophanes Frogs 1491–1499, trans. Johnson (modified)
The accusation that Socrates was “unmusical” helps us to understand why the Phaedrus aligns Socrates with musical Stesichorus and Sappho (cf. Chapters 1 and 2), and why Socrates asks for poetic initiation while seeming to expect poetic heroization (Chapters 3 and 4). The other allegation, that he was an overly subtle rhetorician, also figures prominently in the dialogues. I shall turn my attention briefly, therefore, to the phrase “clever speaker.” [6]
Remarkably, this is the first accusation Socrates addresses at the beginning of the Apology:
Ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων, οὐκ οἶδα· ἐγὼ δ’ οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπ’ αὐτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην, οὕτω πιθανῶς ἔλεγον. καίτοι ἀληθές γε ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν οὐδὲν εἰρήκασιν. μάλιστα δὲ αὐτῶν ἓν ἐθαύμασα τῶν πολλῶν ὧν ἐψεύσαντο, τοῦτο ἐν ᾧ ἔλεγον ὡς χρῆν ὑμᾶς εὐλαβεῖσθαι μὴ ὑπ’ ἐμοῦ ἐξαπατηθῆτε ὡς δεινοῦ ὄντος λέγειν. τὸ γὰρ μὴ αἰσχυνθῆναι ὅτι αὐτίκα ὑπ’ ἐμοῦ ἐξελεγχθήσονται ἔργῳ, ἐπειδὰν μηδ’ ὁπωστιοῦν φαίνωμαι δεινὸς λέγειν, τοῦτό μοι ἔδοξεν αὐτῶν ἀναισχυντότατον εἶναι, εἰ μὴ ἄρα δεινὸν καλοῦσιν οὗτοι λέγειν τὸν τἀληθῆ λέγοντα· εἰ μὲν γὰρ τοῦτο λέγουσιν, ὁμολογοίην ἂν ἔγωγε οὐ κατὰ τούτους εἶναι ῥήτωρ.
How you, Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I don’t know; but certainly they made even me almost forget about myself, they were speaking so persuasively. And yet they have said virtually nothing true. The one I found most surprising among their many falsehoods was this, when they were saying that you ought to be careful I don’t deceive you, because I’m a clever speaker. Their failure to be ashamed at the immediate prospect of my refuting them in practice, when it becomes apparent I’m not at all a clever speaker, this struck me as the very height of their shamelessness—unless after all my opponents give the title of “clever speaker” to one that tells the truth; if that’s what they are saying I should agree that I’m an orator in a different league from them.
Plato Apology of Socrates 17a–b, trans. Stokes (modified)
Repeated no less than three times at the very beginning of Socrates’ plea, the phrase “clever speaker” (δεινὸς λέγειν) sounds very much like a catchword employed deliberately to rebut the accusation voiced by Aristophanes. One may recall how the Apology singles out Aristophanes as being somehow responsible for Socrates’ distorted image, [7] which seems to have continued to haunt both Plato and Xenophon. [8]
The passage from the Apology plays on the ambiguity of the phrase “clever speaker;” δεινός is in fact notoriously ambiguous, its meaning hovering between positive and negative connotations, between “terrific” and “terrible,” as in the famous choral song from Sophocles’ Antigone. Even more remarkable is Socrates’ suggestion that the term might easily be turned in his favor. Were “clever” to mean truthful, for example, then he could claim to be clever. This, however, never seems to happen in Plato’s dialogues.
Usually, it was the sophists, like Protagoras and the two brothers of the Euthydemus, who taught their pupils how to become “clever speaker(s).” [9] Yet the “clever speaker” par excellence was Gorgias, as a brilliant pun in the Symposium makes clear. Having spotted ample traces of Gorgianic rhetoric in Agathon’s speech, Socrates says:
… ὑπ’ αἰσχύνης ὀλίγου ἀποδρὰς ᾠχόμην, εἴ πῃ εἶχον. καὶ γάρ με Γοργίου ὁ λόγος ἀνεμίμνῃσκεν, ὥστε ἀτεχνῶς τὸ τοῦ Ὁμήρου ἐπεπόνθη· ἐφοβούμην μή μοι τελευτῶν ὁ Ἀγάθων Γοργίου κεφαλὴν δεινοῦ λέγειν ἐν τῷ λόγῳ ἐπὶ τὸν ἐμὸν λόγον πέμψας αὐτόν με λίθον τῇ ἀφωνίᾳ ποιήσειεν. καὶ ἐνενόησα τότε ἄρα καταγέλαστος ὤν, ἡνίκα ὑμῖν ὡμολόγουν ἐν τῷ μέρει μεθ’ ὑμῶν ἐγκωμιάσεσθαι τὸν Ἔρωτα καὶ ἔφην εἶναι δεινὸς τὰ ἐρωτικά, οὐδὲν εἰδὼς ἄρα τοῦ πράγματος, ὡς ἔδει ἐγκωμιάζειν ὁτιοῦν. ἐγὼ μὲν γὰρ ὑπ’ ἀβελτερίας ᾤμην δεῖν τἀληθῆ λέγειν περὶ ἑκάστου τοῦ ἐγκωμιαζομένου.
I was ready to run away for shame, if there had been a possibility of escape. For I was reminded of Gorgias, and at the end of his speech I fancied that Agathon was shaking at me the Gorginian head of that clever speaker, which was simply to turn me and my speech, into stone, as Homer says, and strike me dumb. And then I perceived how foolish I had been in consenting to take my turn with you in praising love, and saying that I too was clever in things erotic when I really had no conception how anything ought to be praised. For in my simplicity I imagined that the topics of praise should be true.
Plato Symposium 198c, trans. Jowett (modified)
Socrates again hints at the possibility of turning the meaning of “clever” to his advantage. Gorgias, who is compared to the Homeric Gorgo, is of course “terrible” (δεινός), whereas Socrates describes himself as “terrific” in things erotic, that is, where praising Eros means telling the truth.
Socrates’ disambiguation of the term “clever” calls to mind the semantic distinctions of Prodicus, and it is no coincidence that one of the instances in the Protagoras makes a direct reference to this adjective. In this case, Socrates proclaims himself to be a pupil of Prodicus, who, he says, has taught him how to use the notion of deinos so as to retain its exclusively negative connotations (“terrible” as opposed to “terrific”). [10] Socrates must surely be joking when he calls Prodicus his teacher, and yet the above-mentioned examples suggest that he is being serious in some way. Let me summarize the evidence collected so far:
  • Aristophanes accuses Socrates of rejecting “music” and teaching his acolytes how to become “clever speaker(s).”
  • Socrates denies he is a “clever speaker,” unless this means telling the truth.
  • In Socrates’ view, the sophists, and especially Gorgias, are “clever speakers.”
  • A pupil of Prodicus, Socrates often hints at the possibility of a different notion of cleverness.
What we find in the Phaedrus is precisely such a one-sided notion of cleverness, with Socrates erasing all the positive connotations of the word in order to distance “musical” philosophy from “clever” rhetoric. [11]
Before reaching the plane-tree, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the story of Oreithyia, who, it was alleged, was abducted by Boreas on a hill nearby. Phaedrus is skeptical and asks Socrates if he thinks the story is true. To the surprise of modern readers, Socrates emphatically refuses to fall in with the rationalistic doubts of Phaedrus. Unlike the “smart ones” (οἱ σοφοί), he has no inclination to “try and reduce myth to what is likely” (κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς), on the grounds that “such explanations are ‘elegant’ things” (χαρίεντα) and “belong to an over-clever (δεινοῦ) and laborious person, who is not altogether fortunate.” [12] Socrates prefers to stick with tradition (τῷ νομιζομένῳ) and bids farewell (χαίρειν) to such ingenious explanations. [13]
Socrates uses the word “clever” in a wholly pejorative sense, thus activating only one of its two major semantic fields. [14] Socrates’ reply is far from innocent, in that it implicitly makes fun of Phaedrus’ enthusiasm for Lysias, whom Phaedrus had called “the cleverest (δεινότατος) of present writers” (228a). He is deliberately poking fun at the rationalism of the “clever,” “smart” orators and sophists, as is clear from his use of “likely,” which, as the final pages of the dialogue make clear, was one of their favorite catchwords. [15] His defense of traditional myth against rationalism may also be a pointed reply to Aristophanes, who had his chorus declaim that it was a “elegant thing” (χαρίεν) to steer clear of Socrates’ rationalistic nonsense. By way of a riposte, Plato has Socrates declare he has no time for such “elegant things” (χαρίεντα), which are the prerogative of the overly clever.
The deinos motif reappears later, after Socrates has delivered his first speech and begins to feel the pangs of remorse. On that occasion, he had deprecated his own speech by twice calling it “terrible” (δεινόν, δεινόν). Now he feels he must make atonement, for nothing could be more terrible than such a silly, impious speech. [16] In the second half of the dialogue, the adjective is variously used to qualify the clever tricks of orators and the shortcomings of writing, [17] but the culmination of the motif must surely come near the beginning of the palinode, when Socrates introduces the notion of an immortal soul and its prenatal vision of the Forms:
Τοσαῦτα μέν σοι καὶ ἔτι πλείω ἔχω μανίας γιγνομένης ἀπὸ θεῶν λέγειν καλὰ ἔργα. ὥστε τοῦτό γε αὐτὸ μὴ φοβώμεθα, μηδέ τις ἡμᾶς λόγος θορυβείτω δεδιττόμενος ὡς πρὸ τοῦ κεκινημένου τὸν σώφρονα δεῖ προαιρεῖσθαι φίλον· ἀλλὰ τόδε πρὸς ἐκείνῳ δείξας φερέσθω τὰ νικητήρια, ὡς οὐκ ἐπ’ ὠφελίᾳ ὁ ἔρως τῷ ἐρῶντι καὶ τῷ ἐρωμένῳ ἐκ θεῶν ἐπιπέμπεται. ἡμῖν δὲ ἀποδεικτέον αὖ τοὐναντίον, ὡς ἐπ’ εὐτυχίᾳ τῇ μεγίστῃ παρὰ θεῶν ἡ τοιαύτη μανία δίδοται· ἡ δὲ δὴ ἀπόδειξις ἔσται δεινοῖς μὲν ἄπιστος, σοφοῖς δὲ πιστή.
All these and still more are the fine achievements which I am able to relate to you of madness which comes from the gods. So let us have no fears about that, and let us not be alarmed by any argument that tries to frighten us into supposing that we should prefer the sane man as friend to the one who is disturbed; let it carry off the prize of victory only if it has shown this too—that love is not sent from the gods for the benefit of lover and beloved. We in our turn must prove the reverse, that such madness is given by the gods to allow us to achieve the greatest good fortune; and the proof will be disbelieved by the clever, believed by the wise.
Plato Phaedrus 245b–c, trans. Rowe
Here, the contrast is so radical that Socrates ends up pitting wisdom (philosophy) against cleverness (rhetoric). As we saw in Chapter 3, Socrates ends his speech by asking the god to “terminate” Lysias, an implicit reference to the poetic “termination” of Thamyris, the archenemy of the Muses. To sum up, Socrates’ use of δεινός in the Phaedrus is unusually and consistently pejorative, and it highlights the dichotomy between the “musical” discourse of philosophy and that of “clever” rhetoric seen as a manipulative form of rationalism.
Paradoxically, the emphatic re-signification of deinotês is not only a means of acquitting Socrates and philosophy of the allegations insinuated by Aristophanes; it also becomes the conditio sine qua non of any authentic discourse. True philosophy is exercised only insofar as it pursues a form of wisdom that keeps “cleverness” at bay.

The Death of Socrates and the Birth of Philosophical Writing

As we have seen, Plato clearly “musicalizes” philosophy, and he does so by aligning Socrates with a number of poetic traditions: Stesichorus’ “re-vision” (Chapter 1); Sappho’s memory (Chapter 2); the pattern of poetic initiation (Chapter 3); and the heroic cults of poets (Chapter 4). This is quite puzzling to say the least, given that Socrates was neither a poet nor a writer. In fact, he never wrote anything at all. Even so, he was a remarkable inspirer of logos, and as such may be regarded as a kind of poet manqué. It is now time to explore this paradox within a broader framework, that is, beyond the limits of the Phaedrus and Socratic biography.
Plato has Socrates undergo a proper, albeit potential, initiation into poetry in the Phaedrus, and the final prayer to Pan should be interpreted, as we have seen in Chapter 4, as a request for poetic consecration, or even poetic heroization. In the Phaedo, however, potency comes close to becoming act. Almost at the beginning of the dialogue, once Xanthippe is taken away and the chains removed, Socrates bends down and rubs his legs with a mixed feeling of pleasure and pain. He remarks that the two feelings, however different, are interrelated. Aesop, Socrates claims, “would have made a myth (μῦθον ἂν συνθεῖναι) about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows” (60c). [18]
Socrates’ “mythological” remark reminds Cebes that the sophist-poet Evenus is eager to know why on earth (ὅτι ποτὲ διανοηθείς) Socrates, once in prison, tried his hand at poetry, “turning Aesop’s fables into verse, and also composing that hymn in honor of Apollo.” Socrates replies that he had no intention of rivaling Evenus or his poetic output. Rather, he did it in order to “make expiation”:
ἐνυπνίων τινῶν ἀποπειρώμενος τί λέγοι, καὶ ἀφοσιούμενος εἰ ἄρα πολλάκις ταύτην τὴν μουσικήν μοι ἐπιτάττοι ποιεῖν. ἦν γὰρ δὴ ἄττα τοιάδε· πολλάκις μοι φοιτῶν τὸ αὐτὸ ἐνύπνιον ἐν τῷ παρελθόντι βίῳ, ἄλλοτ’ ἐν ἄλλῃ ὄψει φαινόμενον, τὰ αὐτὰ δὲ λέγον, “Ὦ Σώκρατες,” ἔφη, “μουσικὴν ποίει καὶ ἐργάζου.” καὶ ἐγὼ ἔν γε τῷ πρόσθεν χρόνῳ ὅπερ ἔπραττον τοῦτο ὑπελάμβανον αὐτό μοι παρακελεύεσθαί τε καὶ ἐπικελεύειν, ὥσπερ οἱ τοῖς θέουσι διακελευόμενοι, καὶ ἐμοὶ οὕτω τὸ ἐνύπνιον ὅπερ ἔπραττον τοῦτο ἐπικελεύειν, μουσικὴν ποιεῖν, ὡς φιλοσοφίας μὲν οὔσης μεγίστης μουσικῆς, ἐμοῦ δὲ τοῦτο πράττοντος. νῦν δ’ ἐπειδὴ ἥ τε δίκη ἐγένετο καὶ ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ ἑορτὴ διεκώλυέ με ἀποθνῄσκειν, ἔδοξε χρῆναι, εἰ ἄρα πολλάκις μοι προστάττοι τὸ ἐνύπνιον ταύτην τὴν δημώδη μουσικὴν ποιεῖν, μὴ ἀπειθῆσαι αὐτῷ ἀλλὰ ποιεῖν· ἀσφαλέστερον γὰρ εἶναι μὴ ἀπιέναι πρὶν ἀφοσιώσασθαι ποιήσαντα ποιήματα [καὶ] πιθόμενον τῷ ἐνυπνίῳ. οὕτω δὴ πρῶτον μὲν εἰς τὸν θεὸν ἐποίησα οὗ ἦν ἡ παροῦσα θυσία· μετὰ δὲ τὸν θεόν, ἐννοήσας ὅτι τὸν ποιητὴν δέοι, εἴπερ μέλλοι ποιητὴς εἶναι, ποιεῖν μύθους ἀλλ’ οὐ λόγους, καὶ αὐτὸς οὐκ ἦ μυθολογικός, διὰ ταῦτα δὴ οὓς προχείρους εἶχον μύθους καὶ ἠπιστάμην τοὺς Αἰσώπου, τούτων ἐποίησα οἷς πρώτοις ἐνέτυχον.
… for I wanted to put to the test certain dreams so as to understand what they are saying, and I also wanted to make expiation, in case this was the kind of music that the dreams intimated me to compose. In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams that I should compose music. The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: “Cultivate and make music,” said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of mousikê. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant mousikê in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses and make expiation before I departed. And first I made a hymn in honor of the god of the festival, and then considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, should not only put together words, but should make myths, and that I have no invention, I took some fables of Aesop, which I had ready at hand and which I knew—they were the first I came upon—and turned them into verse.
Plato Phaedo 60e–61b, trans. Jowett (modified)
It is clear that the passage, by warning Socrates against the excesses of rationalism, [19] introduces the theme of mousikê in a way that closely parallels the Phaedrus.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates delivers an impious speech, which would have put an end to the dialogue had not his divine sign prevented him from crossing the river—before returning home, Socrates had to “make expiation” (ἀφοσιώσομαι). [20] This results in the rehabilitation of divine madness (including Muse-inspired poetry) and in Socrates’ great “enthusiastic” speech, whereby the philosopher averts Homeric blindness and delivers a myth that “will be disbelieved by the clever, believed by the wise” (245c). As in the Phaedo, the notion of purification is conveyed by the rather unusual verb ἀφοσιοῦμαι, which in both dialogues presages some kind of musical experience. [21] It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that Socrates identifies with singing and holy animals (sacred to Apollo and the Muses) in both dialogues; [22] indeed, it has often been remarked that the swans in the Phaedo are in many ways the equivalent of the singing cicadas. [23] Yet the analogy goes even deeper.
In the Phaedo, Socrates turns his back on natural science and declares that the study of natural phenomena nearly made him “blind,” so that he had to resort to what he famously refers to as the “second sailing.” [24] The Phaedrus tells a similar story. Socrates risks becoming blind like Homer, but then feels the need to deliver a second speech. He then turns to musical Stesichorus and renounces all forms of narrow rationalism, thus preserving his sight. [25] This is accompanied by a suitably analogous anti-intellectualistic stance, which results in him contrasting “wisdom” and “cleverness.” As we have already seen, Socrates questions the “clever” (deinos) rationalism of Phaedrus, who, in disbelieving the myth of Oreithyia, stings Socrates into making an unfavorable comparison between the clever (deinoi) and the wise (sophoi) (245c). The conclusive eschatological myth of the Phaedo also follows what is basically a similar pattern:
Τὸ μὲν οὖν ταῦτα διισχυρίσασθαι οὕτως ἔχειν ὡς ἐγὼ διελήλυθα, οὐ πρέπει νοῦν ἔχοντι ἀνδρί· ὅτι μέντοι ἢ ταῦτ’ ἐστὶν ἢ τοιαῦτ’ ἄττα περὶ τὰς ψυχὰς ἡμῶν καὶ τὰς οἰκήσεις, ἐπείπερ ἀθάνατόν γε ἡ ψυχὴ φαίνεται οὖσα, τοῦτο καὶ πρέπειν μοι δοκεῖ καὶ ἄξιον κινδυνεῦσαι οἰομένῳ οὕτως ἔχειν—καλὸς γὰρ ὁ κίνδυνος—καὶ χρὴ τὰ τοιαῦτα ὥσπερ ἐπᾴδειν ἑαυτῷ, διὸ δὴ ἔγωγε καὶ πάλαι μηκύνω τὸν μῦθον.
A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and one should charm himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the myth.
Plato Phaedo 114d, trans. Jowett (modified)
As in the Phaedrus, a sensible man is not likely to believe Socrates’ “charming” myth, but the truly wise will. [26]
The parallels with the Phaedrus are extremely interesting from the point of view of Plato’s implicit poetics. In both dialogues, Plato compares rationalistic forms of discourse unfavorably with mousikê and clearly identifies his own activity with the latter. [27] The Phaedo passage, however, would seem to have a more specifically poetological import. Socrates’ conversion to poetry takes place on a day sacred to Apollo, whose “festivity” (ἑορτή) is explicitly mentioned. [28] This is, of course, perfectly consistent with Socrates’ “serious” composition, namely his hymn (προοίμιον) to Apollo. [29] However, an Apollonian connection is equally plausible as regards Aesop, who enjoyed a Delphic cult, [30] founded upon what may be described as a ritual antagonism with Apollo. Historically, this antagonism took the form of a polarity between high and low discourse, [31] which recalls Plato’s “self-disclosures” as discussed later in the Appendix. I am thinking, in particular, of the Symposium, in which Socrates advocates an art capable of combining comedy and tragedy, something scholars are increasingly willing to accept as pertinent to Plato’s own dialogues.
It is in this Apollonian context that the Apology depicts Socrates as a “soldier of Apollo,” who will never desert the post assigned to him by the god. [32] In fact, Socrates’ philosophical life is entirely the product of the Delphic oracle, as he famously recounts in the Apology: when Chaerephon “asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was,” the Pythian prophetess answered in the negative (21a). Consequently, Socrates wondered what the god might mean (τί ποτε λέγει) and resolved to put the oracle to the test (ἐλέγξων τὸ μαντεῖον) by examining people who were said to be wise. Thus, Socrates chose the life of philosophy, something that turned him into a potential rival of Athens’ self-proclaimed educators. This explains why, just before telling the story of Chaerephon’s visit to Delphi, Socrates cites the case of Evenus of Parus, who charged fees for his lessons.
It would seem to be no coincidence, therefore, that Evenus of Paros should resurface in the Phaedo passage, which again introduces him as a potential rival of Socrates. This time, however, the rivalry is different, since it involves the art of poetry much more specifically. Another important similarity between the two situations, however, is that the Socrates of the Phaedo puts his dreams to the test (ἐνυπνίων τινῶν ἀποπειρώμενος) in an attempt to find out what they might mean (τί λέγει). The déjà vu effect should alert us. The testing of the divine dreams in the Apollonian context of the Phaedo, just like the testing of the Apollonian oracle in the Apology, is a sign intended to mark a new beginning. When Socrates was young, the oracle determined his conversion to a life of enquiry. Now, in the Phaedo, the divine dream marks Socrates’ conversion to music and poetry. [33] Thus, Socrates’ Apollonian turns call to mind those of the “man of Paros,” who of course is not Evenus: I am referring to the poet and soldier Archilochus of Paros, whose Apollonian initiation, as we saw in the third and fourth chapters, provides a striking parallel to the poetic initiation of Socrates.
Two philosophical beginnings are juxtaposed in Plato’s narrative of Socrates’ trial and death, and both seem to be inspired by the god. [34] It is interesting to note that the external setting of the Phaedo, the locality where Phaedo meets Echecrates and tells him the story of Socrates’ last day, is Phlius, a relatively insignificant town in the Peloponnese. Is there any particular reason for this? Blessed with the “immemorial shadow” and “poetic seclusion” of the surrounding hills, [35] Phlius had become a martyr city by the time Plato wrote the Phaedo, famous for the virtue of its temperate, courageous citizens, who had paid for their faithful commitment to the declining Peloponnesian League with their lives. [36] This already resonates with the fate of “Apollo’s soldier,” but there is even more to Plato’s choice of site. At the time of the Phaedo’s dramatic setting (as opposed to its date of composition), Phlius had become a kind of “philosophical refuge,” harboring “the last of the Pythagoreans,” as Aristoxenus is reported to have claimed. [37] Echecrates, the speaker in the Phaedo who is particularly interested in the details of Socrates’ death, is one of these, and we are invited to imagine his thoughts as he listens to the report of Socrates’ last words, which include a challenging discussion of several Pythagorean doctrines. [38]
Besides being what was soon perceived to be the site of the virtual extinction of authentic Pythagoreanism, [39] Phlius was also famous for the “beginnings” of philosophy as such, for it was here, according to the famous account of Plato’s pupil Hereclides Ponticus, that Pythagoras, himself of Phliasian origin, invented the word philosophos—to the astonishment of the local ruler. [40] Pythagoras, whom Socrates credits with the invention of philosophy as a way of life in the Republic, had probably been the first to suggest the identification of philosophy with mousikê. [41] Like Socrates, he had never written anything either. [42] Socrates’ poetic turn, introduced with what one critic has described as “a sacramental tone,” [43] has all the solemnity of a new beginning aimed at changing philosophy forever; [44] and it may even shed new light on Socrates’ involvement with Pythagoras in the Phaedo. [45] It is all the more interesting, therefore, that the heroic cult of Socrates in the Academy involved the commemoration of Socrates’ death as his birthday, as if to suggest that everything did eventually come full circle. [46]
As we saw earlier, Socrates experiences a second conversion, one that issues in his prayer to Pan and distances him from his previous self, as well as from Pythagoras’ invention of philosophy. But what kind of a new beginning can one hope to actuate on the eve of one’s death? A possible clue lies in Socrates’ emphasis on myth, which he describes as the conditio sine qua non of poetry. This reminds one of Aristotle. In the Poetics, muthos is by far the most important part of tragedy, that which in some way subsumes all the others: without myth, tragedy cannot even be conceived of. The very beginning of the work has a strange, though hitherto unnoticed, Platonic air about it. [47] Aristotle is intent on exploring the power and inner workings of muthoi, which are so integral to poetry (1447a 9–10 πῶς δεῖ συνίστασθαι τοὺς μύθους εἰ μέλλει καλῶς ἕξειν ἡ ποίησις). This closely parallels the beginning of the Phaedo, when Socrates claims that muthos is fundamental for the very definition of poetry (61b … τὸν ποιητὴν δέοι, εἴπερ μέλλοι ποιητὴς εἶναι, ποιεῖν μύθους and cf. 60c μῦθον ἂν συνθεῖναι).
Admittedly, Aristotle ends by giving muthos an entirely new meaning in the Poetics, similar to plot or structure. Nevertheless, his terminology and certain turns of phrase clearly call to mind the Phaedo. I take this as evidence that Aristotle sensed the poetological import of the passage in question, or that he may have had firsthand knowledge of its intended meaning. Whatever the case, he seems to have construed it as Plato’s own “poetics.” The fact that Aristotle’s Poetics takes into consideration Sokratikoi logoi, including the dialogues, is equally interesting. Plato’s dialogues, in turn, contain many myths. It follows that the dialogues were thought of in both Plato’s and Aristotle’s “poetics” as a form of poetry by definition.
In the very moment in which he claims he is incapable of composing myths, Socrates is in fact fashioning one, as is evident from the Aesopic image he creates to express the intimate bond between pain and pleasure. This seems to argue for Socrates’ new status as an accomplished poet, and is at variance with the manner he usually adopts in other dialogues. Most of the time, when it comes to recounting myths, Plato’s Socrates disclaims authorship: the myths he recounts are not of his own making, so he says, but reflect time-honored traditions. [48] In the Phaedo, however, Socrates refers to his own discourse as myth (muthos) and charm (epaidô and cognates), while the very subject of the dialogue, namely the immortality of the soul, is introduced through the two verbs “to enquire” (διασκοπεῖν) and “to tell myths” (μυθολογεῖν). [49] Thus, the Phaedo is conceptualized not only as an intellectual enterprise, but as a “mythological” one too. Yet the Phaedo is, almost literally, Socrates’ swan song, as he implies when he explicitly identifies himself with Apollo’s birds. What would happen after his death? This is how the question was put to him by his anxious friends:
Καὶ ὁ Κέβης ἐπιγελάσας, Ὡς δεδιότων, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, πειρῶ ἀναπείθειν· μᾶλλον δὲ μὴ ὡς ἡμῶν δεδιότων, ἀλλ’ ἴσως ἔνι τις καὶ ἐν ἡμῖν παῖς ὅστις τὰ τοιαῦτα φοβεῖται. τοῦτον οὖν πειρῶ μεταπείθειν μὴ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον ὥσπερ τὰ μορμολύκεια. Ἀλλὰ χρή, ἔφη ὁ Σωκράτης, ἐπᾴδειν αὐτῷ ἑκάστης ἡμέρας ἕως ἂν ἐξεπᾴσητε. Πόθεν οὖν, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, τῶν τοιούτων ἀγαθὸν ἐπῳδὸν ληψόμεθα, ἐπειδὴ σύ, ἔφη, ἡμᾶς ἀπολείπεις;
Cebes answered with a laugh: “Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears—and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears, but there is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin; him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone with him in the dark.” Socrates said: “Let the voice of the charmer be applied daily until you have charmed him away.” “And where shall we find a good charmer of our fears, Socrates, when you are gone?”
Plato Phaedo 77e–78a, trans. Jowett (modified)
After Socrates’ death, a “good charmer” will have to be found somewhere. We have seen in the Introduction that “charming” (ἐπᾴδω) is a key element in Plato’s meta-poetic strategy, pointing to the “serious” side of his writing. Here, we encounter the exceptional verbal form ἐξεπᾴσητε (from ἐξεπᾴδω, “charm away”), which probably puns on the word pais, triggering the secondary meaning of “get rid of one’s childish fear.” Be that as it may, Socrates’ reply is somewhat mysterious:
Πολλὴ μὲν ἡ Ἑλλάς, ἔφη, ὦ Κέβης, ἐν ᾗ ἔνεισί που ἀγαθοὶ ἄνδρες, πολλὰ δὲ καὶ τὰ τῶν βαρβάρων γένη, οὓς πάντας χρὴ διερευνᾶσθαι ζητοῦντας τοιοῦτον ἐπῳδόν, μήτε χρημάτων φειδομένους μήτε πόνων, ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν εἰς ὅτι ἂν εὐκαιρότερον ἀναλίσκοιτε χρήματα. ζητεῖν δὲ χρὴ καὶ αὐτοὺς μετ’ ἀλλήλων· ἴσως γὰρ ἂν οὐδὲ ῥᾳδίως εὕροιτε μᾶλλον ὑμῶν δυναμένους τοῦτο ποιεῖν.
Hellas, he replied, is a large place, Cebes, and has many good men, and there are barbarous races not a few: seek for him among them all, far and wide, sparing neither pains nor money; for there is no better way of using your money. And you must not forget to seek for him among yourselves too; for nowhere are you more likely to find someone to do it.
Plato Phaedo 78a, trans. Jowett
Socrates’ answer is carefully crafted along the lines of a rhetorical Priamel, which, decoded, reads something like: You can search Greece, you can search far-away countries, you can spend a lot of money on your quest. Nevertheless, the best thing you can do is to look for the good charmer among yourselves, for only there are you likely to find somebody “to do it,” that is, to do the charming; “among yourselves,” says Socrates, pointing to his acolytes. Socrates’ main interlocutors in the Phaedo, starting with Phaedo himself and the “Theban couple” Simmias and Cebes, were writers in the genre of Sokratikoi logoi. [50] In Platonic terms, composing a dialogue might well be described as “to do the charming” (poiein epôidas), a phrase that combines Plato’s poetological epôidê with the verb poiein (“to do,” but also “to compose” or “be a poet”). However, Cebes and Simmias feel lost and have no clue as to where they might find the good charmer: Where is he? And, we might add, who is he?
Only in his last days did Socrates become a “real” poet by trying his hand at a hymn to Apollo and at some of Aesop’s fables. His poetic initiation was completed at last, but there was no time left for him to practice the art. As we learn at the beginning of the Phaedo, “Plato was ill” (59c) and so could not visit his dying master. [51] This is the one and only time that the name Plato appears in the dialogues, [52] and I believe the reason for this is that he is in fact the “good charmer,” who, though not physically present at Socrates’ deathbed, was most certainly among his friends. [53] As in the Phaedrus, then, Socrates’ late metamorphosis into a fully fledged poet merely prefigures the reality of Plato. [54]
At the moment of his death, Socrates passed his poetic status on to Plato, who, in his Seventh Letter, famously declares that he has never written his philosophy down on paper. Just as Plato and Socrates were portrayed together in a double herm from the Hellenistic Age, [55] so the two complementary half-figures formed a single poetic entity, which may be seen as a circumspect attempt to effect a partial transition from oral to written philosophical dialogue. [56] The end product of this strategic turn was, of course, destined to become the most read and most studied corpus in the history of philosophy and literature: in terms of authorship, there could hardly have been a more radical, or, indeed, more astonishing result.

The Status of Plato’s Dialogues

Plato “musicalizes” the discourse of philosophy in carrying out an apologetic maneuver: Plato defends Socrates (and to some extent himself) from the widespread accusation of being an enemy of musical paideia. At the same time, he attacks all forms of discourse—be they sophistic, rhetorical, historiographical, or other—that present themselves as purely human and dispense with the divine. When it comes to the really important divide between the musical and non-musical arts, Plato adopts a provocatively old-fashioned attitude and crucially opts for the former. Musical philosophy, moreover, implies philosophical composition, as against Socrates’ and Pythagoras’ rejection of writing. Thus, Socrates, the poet who never wrote, and Plato, the writer who never acknowledged his own authorship, form an unprecedented complementary pair in embodying a new form of mousikê.
So far so good. But what are the implications of hypothesizing a new attitude on the part of Plato towards the divide that separated the musical arts, such as poetry, from the non-musical arts, such as the various forms of scientific prose, for example? One possible objection—one that philosophers have often raised with respect to my present thesis—may be summed up as follows: are we to believe that Plato’s dialogues are poems rather than philosophical arguments? My answer is that such an opposition is misplaced and stems from modern habits of thought (one might even say from hardened prejudices). [57] It is not my intention to diminish the importance of argument in Plato’s dialogues in any way, and there are very good reasons for not doing so, as I shall now try to make clear.
When he compares philosophical discourse with poetry, Plato clearly emphasizes the irrational nature of the latter, as well as its inability to put forward credible arguments. When he compares philosophical discourse with non-musical prose writing, however, Plato does the opposite: indeed, he frequently underlines the musical (mythical, poetic …) nature of his own philosophical writing. Thus, his attitude would appear to be ambivalent, though even this may be the result of modern misunderstanding. In the Introduction, I repeatedly stressed the extent to which the Greeks, including those like Aristotle, tended to unite, rather than separate, poetry and knowledge. More pertinent still is the fact that Plato’s Socrates assumes that to argue for a given thesis is a normal function of poetry: the poets are said to claim, maintain, and argue for something. [58] This is hardly surprising, since Plato’s contemporaries had no difficulty in crediting poetry with “philosophical” procedures such as demonstration (apodeixis). [59] Nevertheless, even as he implicitly conceptualizes the dialogues as poetry, Plato is taking a crucial step towards what we would call philosophy. And in the very moment in which he highlights essential differences between the two activities, he is careful to emphasize how these differences, bound as they are to poetic tradition, are also essential to the unprecedented philosophical nature of the dialogues. For the sake of clarity, and at the risk of both repetition and significant omission, I shall summarize these differences very briefly.
Firstly, Socrates adopts the persona of Stesichorus, but points out that mousikê, unlike Homeric poetry, entails the “knowing of the cause” (Chapter 1). Secondly, the Phaedrus appropriates the extraordinary role played by memory and recollection in Sappho. However, these faculties, while preserving the emotional power they had in lyric poetry, are now redirected towards the universal (the Form of the beautiful), as opposed to Sappho’s particular memories (beautiful forms, as discussed in Chapter 2). Thirdly, Plato aligns Socrates with the traditional pattern of poetic initiation, but he makes it quite clear that philosophical initiation amounts to vigilant and dialectic “dialogue and song,” as opposed to the hypnotic nature of traditional poetry (Chapter 3). Fourthly, Plato appropriates the tradition of the heroic cult of poets, but his heroization of Socrates is construed as a potentially universal phenomenon, as opposed to the parochial nature of the cults of “normal” poets (Chapter 4).
Plato’s remodeling of tradition is apparent even at the level of vocabulary. [60] In the Phaedrus, Socrates adopts the persona of an inspired poet who proves superior to both poets (Homer, Thamyris, Stesichorus, Sappho, etc.) and prose writers (Lysias and, implicitly, Isocrates). It is interesting to note, however, that he reserves the phrase “mere poets” for poets and prose writers, whereas the true composer, who has more to say than he writes, is called philosophos, “philosopher.” [61] In other words, there is absolutely nothing “anti-philosophical” in Plato’s eagerness to remodel philosophy on music. Nevertheless, a serious, and possibly insoluble, dilemma remains. Are the dialogues, written as they are by the true poet, i.e. the philosopher, meant to educate the Kallipolis? Is this the new poetry for Plato’s ideal city, or are the dialogues a mere approximation in the guise of a mold, blueprint, or paradigm of some kind? It is certainly not my intention to embark on a lengthy discussion of such an arduous problem at this point in the present study. I shall, however, sketch the outlines of a possible solution.
We have seen in the Phaedo how Socrates fashions a new myth in the very moment he confesses his incapacity to do so. Plato’s proposals for a reformed kind of poetry in the ideal society of the Republic and of the Laws present another difficulty. On the one hand, the dialogues seem to meet many of the conditions laid down by these two works as indispensable for the creation of acceptable poetry, something I have already dealt with at length in the previous chapters. On the other hand, an essential requirement of Plato’s reformed poetry, which he insists upon almost obsessively, is that it be pure and unmixed: there must be no mixing of genres or musical modes, nor indeed will any form of innovation be tolerated. And yet one of the few certainties we have regarding the dialogues is that they are an unprecedented and hugely experimental mixture of well-established genres, rivaled only by Isocrates’ works. [62] Would Plato’s dialogues be suitable for Plato’s ideal city? And if that were not enough, the epic war between Atlantis and Athens in the Critias, which seems to meet all of Plato’s conditions for good mimêsis, [63] breaks off suddenly and, it would seem, self-consciously, right at the beginning of the real “poem.” [64]
Plato’s ambivalence is even more apparent in two passages of the Republic and the Laws, both of which deal with the role of poets in the ideal city. In the first, Socrates draws an important distinction between poets and city founders:
Ὦ Ἀδείμαντε, οὐκ ἐσμὲν ποιηταὶ ἐγώ τε καὶ σὺ ἐν τῷ παρόντι, ἀλλ’ οἰκισταὶ πόλεως· οἰκισταῖς δὲ τοὺς μὲν τύπους προσήκει εἰδέναι ἐν οἷς δεῖ μυθολογεῖν τοὺς ποιητάς, παρ’ οὓς ἐὰν ποιῶσιν οὐκ ἐπιτρεπτέον, οὐ μὴν αὐτοῖς γε ποιητέον μύθους.
Adeimantus, we are not poets, you and I at present, but founders of a state. And to founders it pertains to know the patterns on which poets must compose their fables and from which their poems must not be allowed to deviate; but the founders are not required themselves to compose fables.
Plato Republic 378e–379a, trans. Shorey
The second passage, from the Laws, follows the Athenian’s claim that the legislator is the author of the most beautiful tragedy that can possibly be imagined. This was discussed in the Introduction when we broached the subject of Platonic “self-disclosure,” since it would seem to be a reference to Plato’s own production. Here are the Athenian’s words:
ποιηταὶ μὲν οὖν ὑμεῖς, ποιηταὶ δὲ καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσμὲν τῶν αὐτῶν, ὑμῖν ἀντίτεχνοί τε καὶ ἀνταγωνισταὶ τοῦ καλλίστου δράματος, ὃ δὴ νόμος ἀληθὴς μόνος ἀποτελεῖν πέφυκεν, ὡς ἡ παρ’ ἡμῶν ἐστιν ἐλπίς.
We are poets of the same things as yourselves, we rival you as artists and actors of the most beautiful drama, which by nature is the nobly effective one, according to our hope.
Plato Laws 816b–c
Apparently, the two speakers express points of view that are comparable, and yet wholly incompatible. In expressing their views, Socrates and the Athenian are speaking as prospective legislators, and both have been looked upon as spokesmen for Plato himself in these instances. And yet one affirms the exact opposite of the other: we are not poets, says Socrates; we are poets, says the Athenian. How can such a blatant contradiction be resolved?
The question allows for different answers. Were one a developmentalist, one would claim that Plato, by the time he composed the Laws, had come to conceptualize his work as a form of poetry in spite of, or as a reaction to, the earlier views of the Republic. The reader will be well aware by now that this is a hypothesis the present author is never likely to subscribe to. Nevertheless, given certain premises, it may not seem entirely unreasonable, and many readers would probably be prepared to accept it. On the other hand, it should be quite clear that we are dealing here with two different speakers: Socrates never put pen to paper, so Plato could not possibly have had him making claims to being a poet; conversely, many see the Athenian as Plato himself, who, unlike Socrates, considered writing to be part of his philosophical activity. This interpretation may or may not seem reasonable; yet I am inclined to think that Plato is being self-consciously ambiguous on this point. Are we poets, he is asking? It all depends, is the answer.
Bidding my own farewell to any pretense of scholarly exhaustiveness, I shall conclude with one final, tentative comparison, which doubtless many will find surprising. As Stanley Mitchell once observed, Walter Benjamin saw “Brecht’s epic theatre as a form not merely of ‘Socratic,’ but of truly Platonic drama.” [65] More recently, Slavoy Žižek has claimed that Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian theater is in fact a fully “Platonist theatre.” [66] At first, I was inclined to regard such statements as mere boutades, but, on closer inspection, I came to the conclusion that Benjamin and Žižek were fundamentally right and I undertook a detailed study of the analogies between Brecht and Plato. [67] What I found was wholly unexpected, for though there is no evidence whatsoever that Brecht had firsthand knowledge of the dialogues, his critique of the theater of his day, and his proposals for its reform, are very close to Plato’s own, down to the minutest detail. For once one has to agree with Voltaire that “les beaux esprits se rencontrent.” [68] Or perhaps Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian theater, insofar as it was a reaction to Aristotle’s ultimately anti-Platonic stance, turned the clock back to Plato’s day. [69]
As Hellmut Flashar notes, Plato and Brecht share the same “structure of critical thought.” [70] Indeed, the analogies are so strong that Brecht’s writings on the theater—more numerous and detailed than Plato’s, of course—could even serve to illuminate the elusive fabric of the dialogues. It could be argued, for example, that Plato resorts to narrated dialogue (as opposed to the purely dramatic form of most of his works) when he needs to “filter” morally dangerous content. [71] This insight derives from a reading of Brecht’s anti-epic (i.e. narrative) theater and dramatic theory, and the Brechtian hypothesis, when tested on the Platonic corpus as a whole, proves to be correct: the “forbidden” contents censored in the Republic are found almost exclusively in the narrated dialogues.
Though he did not like to talk about the matter very much, Brecht had a clear idea of the difference between his theater, which he theorized as a “negative” form of resistance literature designed to question the status quo, and the “positive” education that the theater ought to be able to promote in a reformed society. In a secret fragment, he called the former “Minor Pedagogy” (kleine Pädagogik)—as opposed to the prospective “Major Pedagogy” (große Pädagogik) that ought to be implemented systematically in reformed societies. [72]
The distinction Brecht makes between these two forms of theatrical pedagogy is fluid and results in a certain overlapping. Yet its most valuable implication is that all distinction between performers and audience is destined to disappear in the “Major Pedagogy.” This reminds one of Magnesia, Plato’s (semi-)ideal city in the Laws. It has been suggested that the name Magnesia was a literal derivation from the Magnetic power of inspiration conferred by the Muses of philosophy, who were destined to replace the traditional Muses. [73] This power would then appropriate, and ultimately replace, the deficient magnetism of traditional poetry as described in the Ion, in which Plato again elaborates a distinction between true music and mere poetry. Magnesia was to feature revised festivals, twelve in all, corresponding to the twelve Olympian gods. In these new festivals, the distinction between existing poetic genres would be allowed to collapse, as if what Plato had in mind was a merging of all the major festivals of Athens—the “epic” Panathenaia and the “theatrical” and “lyric” Dionysia—into one. The purpose of this was to resurrect a very primal, undifferentiated mousikê, where the distinction between audience and performer would cease to exist. [74]
Besides fascinating suggestions of this kind, Plato tells us that “magnetism” (as we discussed it in Chapter 3) is no longer to be the exclusive prerogative of epic rhapsodes, but the distinguishing feature, albeit in a strikingly revised form, of Socratic logoi too, and, by extension, of his own dialogues. Revised “magnetism” is also present in the Phaedrus, where it occurs more than once. It characterizes the magic chain that binds together dialoguing men, dialoguing cicadas, and the dialogical Muses; it also informs the relationship between the beloved, the lover, and one of the twelve gods (depending on the character of the couple). [75] Thus, Socrates’ palinode envisages twelve-minus-one potential choruses and magic chains, which seem to foreshadow the twelve festivals of the Laws. [76]
These two examples of transposed magnetism, whereby the dialogues prefigure the dream of philosophy in a minor key, point to a fluid and dynamic relationship between Plato’s actual production and the potential poetry of the philosophical polis. My final suggestion, therefore, comes in the form of a modest proposal aimed at stimulating discussion and shedding some light on Plato’s baffling ambivalence: perhaps the dialogues are Plato’s “minor pedagogy” as opposed to the “major pedagogy” that was to be foisted on reformed societies—even if, like Brecht, he preferred, understandably, not to talk too much about it. Philosophy shapes both, but identifies with neither. Writing is, and always will be, the ephemeral fruit of “Adonis’ gardens.” However, the “real crop” is what Aristotle, with a novel word possibly inspired by sweet memories from his “Platonic” youth, calls sumphilosophein: the everyday life and discussion shared among friends. [77]


[ back ] 1. As I mentioned in the Introduction, page 23.
[ back ] 2. Apologetic traits are ubiquitous in the writings of both Plato and Xenophon. Danzig 2010 offers a good discussion.
[ back ] 3. Polycrates, in turn, seems to have suggested that Socrates has perversely distorted the meaning of a number of influential poems. Cf. Lasserre 1987 for a lucid reconstruction.
[ back ] 4. 1314–1315.
[ back ] 5. See Brancacci 2004. Socrates was not always represented as an enemy of mousikê in Greek comedy; for a thorough discussion of the relevant passages, see Segoloni 2003. The Frogs, however, was comedy’s last word on Socrates, as well as being an extraordinarily successful play, which resulted in new productions in the fourth century BCE (see the Introduction to the current volume). As such, and coming in the aftermath of Athens’ final defeat in 404, Athenians would have naturally taken it to imply that Socrates, together with Euripides, was responsible for the decline of the city. And this explains why the Socratics were particularly anxious to rebut the Frogs. As a vir Socraticus, Panaetius, too, was very concerned about this passage, as the ancient scholia testify (cf. Lapini 1999 for a thorough discussion of the text and meaning of the scholia).
[ back ] 6. For a general discussion of deinos and deinotês, see e.g. Lombardo 2003. Cf. also North 1988. Despite its title (“Socrates Deinos Legein”), the article does not address the issue I discuss in this paragraph. Rather, it draws attention to rhetorical clichés, which are found both in rhetorical speeches and in Plato’s Apology.
[ back ] 7. This is, of course, an oversimplified account. I agree with Stephen Halliwell that in “the relevant passages of the Apology—passages whose one-sided interpretation has become one of the stalest received opinions in classical scholarship—a distinction is indicated between the comedian Aristophanes (and by extension other comic poets too who wrote plays about Socrates) and those who over the years have maligned Socrates with real ‘malice and denigration’ (φθόνῳ καὶ διαβολῇ, 18d)” (Halliwell 2008:254–255).
[ back ] 8. Cf. Guthrie 1971: “Xenophon and Plato make several references to the treatment of Socrates by the comic poets, though not all are certainly to Aristophanes. In the Oeconomicus (11.3) he says he is ‘supposed to be a poor man’ and in the Symposium (6.6) Xenophon makes a direct reference to the Clouds when the impresario rudely asks Socrates not only whether he is ‘the one they call phrontistes’ but also whether he can tell him how many feet away a flea is, ‘for this is the sort of geometry they say you do’ (cf. Clouds 145f.). At Phaedo 70b–c Socrates says drily that if, as a man condemned to death, he discusses the possibility of immortality, ‘not even a comic poet could say that I am a chatterer about things that don’t concern me’, and the remark in the Republic (488e) that in the ‘democratic’ ship the skilled steersman will be called a ‘sky-gazer, a chatterer, and useless’ is a fairly obvious reference to the Socrates of comedy. In Plato’s Symposium (221b) Alcibiades quotes the actual words from the Clouds about his ‘swaggering and rolling his eyes.’ But the most striking allusion is in Plato’s Apology (18b, 19b–c)” (Guthrie 1971:54).
[ back ] 9. Only once does Socrates apply the phrase to himself, in the highly ironic context of the Menexenus, where he mentions a woman, Aspasia, as his teacher of rhetoric. In the same text, however, he closely associates cleverness with the knowledge of “music,” that is, with the quintessentially traditional art that Aristophanes had maliciously accused Socrates of rejecting so deplorably. For the occurrences of the phrase in Plato’s dialogues, cf. Euthydemus 272a, Protagoras 312d (twice) and 312e (twice); see also Menexenus 95c.
[ back ] 10. Protagoras 341a–b. Deinos, says Prodicus, is synonymous with kakos (τὸ γὰρ δεινόν, φησίν, κακόν ἐστιν).
[ back ] 11. It is interesting to see that, on proclaiming himself a pupil of Prodicus, Socrates calls his art a form of mousikê (Protagoras 340a).
[ back ] 12. 229c–d. Socrates describes this form of rationalism as a “rude kind of wisdom” (ἄγροικός τις σοφία, 229e). Apparently, the adjective χαρίεις “was used in the classical era with reference to measuring various different degrees of sophistication in the practice and understanding of the verbal arts” (Nagy 2011 §95, cf. §112, and §117).
[ back ] 13. 230a. Socrates also mentions the Delphic motto, “know thyself.”
[ back ] 14. The pejorative use of σοφός is also exceptional. Cf. Ion 532d, with the commentary of Rijksbaron 2007 ad loc.
[ back ] 15. Cf. Chapter 2 in the current volume.
[ back ] 16. 242a Εὐήθη καὶ ὑπό τι ἀσεβῆ· οὗ τίς ἂν εἴη δεινότερος;.
[ back ] 17. 260c, 267c, 275d. Cf. 272a (δεινώσεως) and 273c (δεινῶς).
[ back ] 18. McPherran 2012 tries to imagine which of Aesop’s extant fables might have inspired Socrates’ versifying, as mentioned immediately afterwards. Betegh 2009 notes that the tale shares a number of structural features with other fables found in the dialogues, such as Aristophanes’ in the Symposium and the myth of origins recounted in the Protagoras. According to Betegh, by presenting the gods as “rational and benevolent agents” (91) these tales meet Plato’s conditions for ethical narratives.
[ back ] 19. And pointing to what Letter 7.340a refers to as the “weakness of logos.” For this interpretation of Socrates’ dream, see Roochnik 2001, who concludes that the dream is a crucial warning for Socrates: without myth, philosophy “would present itself in the misleading guise of hyper-wakefulness, of pure or systematic rationality” (257).
[ back ] 20. Cf. Chapter 3 in the current volume.
[ back ] 21. These are the only two passages in the entire corpus where the verb is referred to Socrates. Like the Phaedrus, the Phaedo displays a number of poetic features, including a number of lines that scan like verse (cf. Bacon 1990).
[ back ] 22. “A cigarra é protegida não só pelas Musas, mas também por Apolo, como evidenciam moedas de Camarina, Caulonia e de Atenas, nas quais ela figura ao lado do deus” (Cunha Corrêa 2010:195).
[ back ] 23. Cf. e.g. Pinnoy 1991. The Phaedo’s swans embody the anti-tragic nature of Plato’s philosophical discourse, as Susanetti 2002 has argued. Castrucci 2013 offers further fascinating insights.
[ back ] 24. There should be no room left for doubt as to the meaning of δεύτερος πλοῦς (“second sailing”). Martinelli Tempesta 2003b has provided an extensive analysis of the phrase that amounts to conclusive evidence.
[ back ] 25. The equivalence between blindness and rationalism probably had poetic precedents (cf. Pindar Paean 7b 11–22, with Ferrari 2004).
[ back ] 26. However, there is a notable difference in the way this same idea is formulated. In the Phaedrus, Socrates uses δεινός, which refers back to a rhetorical catchword, rhetoric being one major target of the dialogue. In the Phaedo’s perfectly parallel statement, the expression is “a man of sense,” that is, someone equipped with nous. This is hardly coincidental: Anaxagoras’ nous is Socrates’ major polemical target in the Phaedo, and Socrates tries hard to distance himself from it, in an attempt to clear his name from the accusations voiced by Aristophanes and others that he was a natural philosopher.
[ back ] 27. According to Acosta-Hughes and Stephens 2012 (31–29), both the cicada myth and Phaedo 60e–61b are echoed in Callimachus’ proem to the Aetia. If true, this is a further connection.
[ back ] 28. 61a, and cf. 58a–c.
[ back ] 29. It should be noted that the meaning and etymology of the word προοίμιον are discussed in relation to whether it is formed after οἴμη, as is generally believed, or after οἶμος, as argued by Maslov 2012.
[ back ] 30. The clearest testimony is P. Oxy. 1800 fr. 2 ii 32–63 = Aesop Testimonia 25 Perry.
[ back ] 31. See Nagy 2011, with added bibliography (including references to Nagy’s own previous work and to Kurke 2011, who articulates the polarity between Apollo and Aesop in ways that significantly differ from Nagy’s). For the parallels between Plato’s Socrates and the life of Aesop, see the Introduction to the current volume
[ back ] 32. Cf. 28d–29a and 33c.
[ back ] 33. This is probably part of a broader strategy. In many ways, Plato has crafted both the Apology and the Phaedo in such a way that on close inspection they prove to be perfectly complementary, despite some alleged discrepancies. See the excellent discussion of Jedrkiewcsz 2011.
[ back ] 34. Quarch 1994 has dealt with this juxtaposition sensitively, and interprets it as a mythological turn in Socrates’ philosophical career: “An die Stelle der rationalen Rechenschaftsgabe, des logon didonai, ist die mythische Rede getreten, das mythologein. Beide sind von Apollon verordnet: erstere für den freien Sokrates in der Polis, letztere für den gefesselten im Kerker” (114).
[ back ] 35. I owe these phrases to Geddes 1863:175. Geddes also quotes Pindar’s reference to Phlius’ hills and shade (Nemean Odes 6.45–46).
[ back ] 36. On Xenophon’s lengthy excursus on Phlius, see Daverio Rocchi 2004, who refers to Phlius as “la città martire, che ha offerto un tributo pesantissimo … alla coerenza delle sue idee” (51).
[ back ] 37. F 12 τελευταῖοι τῶν Πυθαγορείων. In the words of Nails: “In Aristoxenus’ list of the last of the Pythagoreans, nine or ten generations after Pythagoras, Xenophilus of Chalcidice, Phanton, Echecrates, Diocles, and Polymnastus are from Phlius. The Phlius area consisted of a valley with a settlement of the same name on its eastern side; it was something of a Pythagorean refuge, lying on the way from Athens to Elis” (Nails 2002:138). Cf. also Horky 2013:107–108. The identity of Echecrates, and his Pythagorean affiliation, is a thorny question. For a skeptical view, besides the issues and scholarly objections discussed critically in Horky 2013, cf. Prontera, who argues for the existence of “due Echecrati … un fliasio legato alla cerchia socratica, lontano dal maestro il giorno della sua morte, cui Platone immaginò che Fedone raccontasse le ultime ore di Socrate, ed un pitagorico locrese” (Prontera 1974:19).
[ back ] 38. As Sedley 1995 puts it, the Phaedo, while suggesting Plato’s debt to Pythagoreanism, exposes “the shortcomings of Simmias’ and Cebes’ Pythagorean training” (11). Needless to say, the choice of the characters is no less important. Phaedo’s biography and philosophy resonate in important way with Socrates’ and Plato’s, as Boys-Stones 2004 and Kamen 2013 have shown.
[ back ] 39. This is another thorny problem. For a clear introduction, see Huffman 2010:3.4.
[ back ] 40. Heraclides Ponticus 87–88 Wehrli, discussed in the Introduction to the current volume. From a different, but fully compatible, perspective, Notomi highlights the Phliasian setting as well: “The audience who listen to Phaedo’s report include some famous Pythagoreans, above all Echecrates. But again, why did those Pythagoreans reside in this country place? It is probably because Phlius is (according to legend) the birth place of the ‘philosopher Pythagoras.’ Pausanias tells us that an ancestor of Pythagoras was a citizen of Phlius who flew the native land to Samos for political reasons. I associate this report with another famous anecdote: when Pythagoras moved to South Italy to found his own community (against the tyranny of Polycrates), he stopped in Phlius (or Sikyon, the neighbor city) and had a conversation with a local lord; it is in that conversation that the word ‘philosopher’ (philosophos) was used for the first time in the history. The small city Phlius is remembered as the home land of Pythagoras’ family and as the birthplace of the notion of ‘philosopher.’ Phaedo, by telling the people in Phlius the memory of Socrates on his last day, sets out his new life as a philosopher, probably back in his native city, where he is reported to have founded his school of philosophy. The author Plato (who Phaedo says was absent) confronts Socrates with the Pythagorean ideal of the philosopher and depicts his master as the model philosopher, who died without fear. Narrating about the life of Socrates is not just a pleasure, but a great stimulus and encouragement for people—first speakers and listeners, then readers of the dialogue—to start philosophy” (Notomi 2008:357). Cf. also Peterson 2011:166–167. Geddes 1863, however, had already made the connection between Pythagoras’ invention and the setting of the Phaedo.
[ back ] 41. As explicitly stated by Strabo 10.468. According to Caruso 2013, the Academy’s Mouseion “si pone in linea con la tradizione dei mouseia pitagorici di cui lo stesso Platone aveva fatto esperienza a Taranto” (193, with further bibliography).
[ back ] 42. Socrates’ reference to Pythagoras and Pythagorean life is found in the Republic (600b). It is the only mention of Pythagoras in the dialogues.
[ back ] 43. Bacon 1990:151.
[ back ] 44. For a classic discussion of the sources related to Pythagoras’ “silence,” see Burkert 1972, who deals convincingly with the few texts that appear to attribute writings to Pythagoras (218–220).
[ back ] 45. Scholars have always debated the extent to which the Phaedo can be described as “Pythagorean” (cf. for example the well-known views of Burnet 1911, later criticized by Hackforth 1955). Yet even a radical scholar such as Theodor Ebert, who argues for the paradoxical thesis that the Phaedo is meant to discredit Pythagoreanism and to expose the fallacies of Pythagorean arguments, registers a “Stilisierung des Sokrates auf einen Pythagoreischen φιλόσοφος” (Ebert 1994:17)
[ back ] 46. All the relevant evidence is admirably collected and discussed in White 2000.
[ back ] 47. Gilead 1994 has an entire chapter on “The Phaedo in the Light of Aristotle’s Poetics” (109–127), though this point is never actually addressed. Interestingly, however, Gilead concludes that Aristotle’s conditions for good poetry are fully met by the Phaedo, and he also observes that Socrates’ interpretation of the dream “well serves the purposes of Plato also. It entitles him to describe the last day of his master in such a poetic and dramatic manner, just as Socrates himself composes poems at the terminal stage of his mundane life” (Gilead 1994:57).
[ back ] 48. See the convincing discussion by Latona 2004. Among other things, he argues that: “Plato does not see his own use of myth as inconsistent with his critique of poetic myth largely because he views knowing as an act of memory as opposed to a creative act” (184).
[ back ] 49. 61c, and cf. 70b.
[ back ] 50. Diogenes Laertius 2.105, 2.121–124.
[ back ] 51. Plato’s reference to his own absence has given rise to much discussion. An extreme example of fanciful interpretation is Tomin 2001, who suggests that Plato was part of a plot to spring Socrates from prison: Plato’s alleged role was to “secure his safe passage out of Athens,” and a “supposed illness was to be his alibi in case a witch-hunt was unleashed after Socrates’ escape from prison” (Tomin 2001:145). More plausibly, Most 1993 reads the passage in the light of Socrates’ last words, “we owe a cock to Asclepius” (116a), which he interprets as a prophecy that the god intended to cure Plato’s no doubt serious illness.
[ back ] 52. Discounting the Apology, where Socrates mentions the name at 34a–b.
[ back ] 53. In the published version of a “Corso di storia della filosofia antica” held at the University of Milan, F. Decleva Caizzi rightly observes that: “per quanto riguarda i Greci, l’invito ai discepoli a cercare al loro interno può essere inteso come un cenno allo stesso Platone o, più in generale, alla ‘scuola’ che raccoglierà l’eredità del maestro; un esplicito riferimento ai discepoli, che saranno ‘ancor più rigorosi’ di lui verso gli errori del popolo ateniese, si legge in Apol. 39c–d” (Decleva Caizzi 1986–1987:64). One should bear in mind the fact that Plato must have been a relatively minor figure in the eyes of Socrates and his followers (cf. Xenophon Memorabilia 2.6.1, with Clay 1994:27, who notes that Plato was “a minor Socratic” at the moment of Socrates’ death). Consequently, Socrates’ words would have had a different meaning for Socrates’ interlocutors and for Plato’s audiences, a common literary device in both tragedy and Platonic dialogue.
[ back ] 54. This includes his new interpretation of Pythagoreanism. It must be remembered that the cult of the Muses as practiced by Pythagoras and his acolytes was the obvious model for Plato’s own, so that when Plato, unlike Pythagoras, accepted the idea of writing, he was making a momentous and potentially dangerous move that would have exposed him to allegations of betrayal. As Horky 2013 judiciously concludes his discussion of “exoteric” Pythagoreans, “the early heresiological traditions that derive from Timaeus of Tauromenium and Neanthes describe Pythagorean exoterics as those who made available the unwritten teachings of Pythagoras to the wider public and, in certain cases, incurred punishment for having done so: Perillus of Thurii, Cylon and Ninon of Croton, Empedocles of Agrigentum, Diodorus of Aspendus, Epicharmus of Syracuse, Cleinias and Philolaus of Heracleia, Theorides and Eurytus of Metapontum, Archytas of Tarentum, and possibly Plato of Athens” (Horky 2013:119).
[ back ] 55. Cf. Lippold 1956:3.2, reported in Clay 2000:ii, iv.
[ back ] 56. Sedley 1989 addresses Socrates’ and Plato’s authorial cohabitation in the Phaedo.
[ back ] 57. Gerson’s thesis that “representation is not argumentation” (Gerson 2000:205), in other words, that the analogy between (the playwrights’) mimêsis and (Plato’s) arguments “is misleading,” epitomizes the kind of objection I have in mind.
[ back ] 58. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the Protagoras. The sophist begins his discussion of Simonides by claiming that a very important part of paideia is to be “clever” (deinos) in evaluating poetry: one must be able to tell the difference between good and bad in a poem, that is (and the point is a crucial one), to determine whether a poem contains good arguments. Socrates readily goes along with this and never challenges such a view. This is plainly clear in what follows: for both Socrates and Protagoras, the poet “argues” (legei) “as if he were telling a logos” (ὣς ἂν εἰ λέγοι λόγον, 344b). Consequently, he can be proven wrong if he contradicts himself.
[ back ] 59. As in the passage from Lycurgus discussed in the Introduction. By contrast, Plato’s Timaeus claims that the traditional poets do not have the capacity for “demonstration” (ἀποδείξεις, 40e), which is likely to point to Timaeus’ own speech as a more accomplished account (cf. Regali 2012:173–174). Moreover, “demonstration” (ἀπόδειξις) is a key feature of the palinode (245c–246a, on the immortality of the soul), which, as we know from the previous chapters, is delivered by an “inspired” and “poetic” Socrates.
[ back ] 60. Remodeling, or, to quote the definition made famous by August Diès (1927:400–449): “Transposition platonicienne.”
[ back ] 61. 278b–e. Cf. Chapter 4 in the current volume.
[ back ] 62. The important book of Roberto Nicolai (2004) explores Isocrates’ experimentalism in depth.
[ back ] 63. As Regali 2012 has most persuasively shown. Cf. Chapter 3 in the current volume.
[ back ] 64. See Capra 2010, with added bibliography.
[ back ] 65. In the introduction of Benjamin 1998:xv. As Gruber points out: “Walter Benjamin … alludes to Brecht’s ‘Platonic’ drama in a lecture delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris 27 April 1934. Benjamin’s address appears in his posthumous work Versüche über Brecht (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1966)” (Gruber 1987:323n3).
[ back ] 66. Žižek 2002 (from the “Afterword”): “This is what Brecht’s ‘non-Aristotelian’ theatre ultimately amounts to: a Platonist theatre, in which the aesthetic charm is strictly controlled, in order to transmit the philosophico-political Truth which is external to it” (Žižek 2002:193).
[ back ] 67. Capra 2010b, with added bibliography.
[ back ] 68. Voltaire used the expression in the Dictionnaire philosophique, s.v. “Bacchus.”
[ back ] 69. Cf. Gruber 1987. Needless to say, Brecht’s reading of the Poetics “is another reinterpretation of ‘Aristotle’, another creative reconstruction of ‘Aristotle’, another new and sublimely un-Aristotelian coherence” (Silk 2001:190).
[ back ] 70. “… die Struktur des kritischen Gedankens bei Platon und Brecht … die gleiche ist” (Flashar 1974:20).
[ back ] 71. The Republic warns prospective city rulers against certain poetic subjects, unless the poet in question has resorted to the distancing filter of humor and narration (396c–e). In accordance with this view, many prohibited themes censored in the third book of the Republic are dealt with only in Plato’s “narrative,” as opposed to “dramatic” dialogues. Immoderate laughter, grief, and other instances of insufficient self-control, must be mitigated through narration, and, occasionally, humor. See Capra 2003 for a full discussion. Some related points can be found in Tsouna 2013.
[ back ] 72. The distinction is made in a fragment found in the Brecht archives. See Steinweg 1976:51.
[ back ] 73. See the “Excursus on Plato’s Laws” in Nagy 2009a:386–392 (§77–94).
[ back ] 74. In fact, the description of Magnesia culminates in the extraordinary image of the whole citizenry depicted as a compact people busily engaged in enchanting itself (665c). For a convincing analysis, see Panno 2007.
[ back ] 75. Cf. Chapter 3 in the current volume.
[ back ] 76. On the curious twelve-minus-one number and on the relevant choruses, cf. Phaedrus 246e–247a and 252c–253c.
[ back ] 77. Cf. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1272a1–7, with Berti 2012:vii–xii. (Sumphilosophein is the very title of Berti’s beautiful book, which explores the liberal style of life and inquiry of Plato’s Academy.) Plato’s dialogues offer no definition of truth, but provide poetic glimpses of this ideal (cf. Casertano 2007). Besides portraying sumphilosophein, however, Plato’s works—think of the elenctic dialogues—also depict the “Kampf in allen Spielformen, von der Feindschaft bis zum liebenden Ringen, die erste Stufe des Weges also, noch ganz in der Welt der Doxa, dort wo Sokrates allemal erst anfängt” (Gundert 1968:44).