|© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE||Last updated November 21, 1998|
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This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.
To: plato <email@example.com>
Date : June 5, 1996, 19:05:08
Subject : re: nobility in Plato
Christopher (1) writes:
> Platon, it seems to me, was very careful to select the event behind many of the dialogues, the places where they took place, and who were there to witness the discussions ....
> He was almost ridiculously careful and precise! WHY!!!???
One direction that was not explorerd yet in this discussion is, in the case of names of people, the fact that most greek names are meaningful and that their meaning might have influenced Plato in his choices.
Sure! many people in the dialogues are "historical" people. But not all. Besides, even with historical people, once you admit (which I do), that the dialogues are not journalistic reports of actual conversations, but carefully composed works of art and philosophy, there remains that Plato had a choice of whom to place in one or another dialogue, and the meaning of his name could be one criterion in his choice.
I have already explored this in my web pages about early dialogues (I mean dialogues of the first tetralogy: Lysis, Laches, Charmides). I am currently working on a page on the second tetralogy (Protagoras, the two Hippiases and Gorgias) where I explore this again: what does it mean for instance that among Protagoras' followers, there is a guy named Philippides, that is phil-hippo-eides or " he who has the appearance, the "form", of a friend of horses", son of Philomelos, that is "friend of the black", if you relate that to the analogy of soul with a winged chariot in the Phædrus where the two horses represent the two lower parts of the soul and the lower one, the epithumiai, is a black horse? Could it mean that this guy (Protagoras, I mean) pretend to be a charioteer, that is, a logos while being prejudiced for the "black horse", that is the feeling, "material" part of the soul?...
Another exemple: Why is the middle dialogue of the last trilogy called Critias, after its main speaker? Sure, Critias is a historical figure and what one! And Plato wanted to show, as with Alcibiades, that Socrates was not responsible for their behaviour. But how does it go about doing it? The last trilogy was supposed, on Plato's own indications, to be Timæus, Critias, Hermocrates. Yet the Timæus alone was completed, the Critias is interrupted, and the Hermocrates was replaced by the Laws. So what?...
Without going into too much detail, my take is that all this is deliberate: at the start of the Timæus, the whole program is set by Critias and Hermocrates in answer to a request by Socrates to "animate" the "ideal" city of the Republic and see it behave "for good". Yet what is Critias doing? He is about to rewrite a new Illiad, hardly disguising the Persian wars by moving them west and pushing them way in the past, trying to explain that there is nothing new in Socrates'revolutionnary ideas, that they are no more than a golden age of the past, and he pretends to know that from, not Greek, but Egyptian sources!... And when does the story stops? At the exact time when "the god of gods, Zeus, who reigns by laws" is about to talk in the assembly of the gods to interviene once more in human affairs to straighten up the mess created by men...
S T O P !!!
Is that the ultimate ideal of Plato/Socrates?... Not at all! It is the ultimate test of the reader, the passing exam if you'd prefer!...
"Mr Reader, please complete the missing lines... if you'd like! But if you really miss the end of Critias' speech, you failed your exam, go back to square one...."
Why Critias, then? Because it shows how Critias understood Socrates' ideals and because Critias comes from krisis, which means "judgement"!...
And who was to come next? A Syracusan general, quite historical too, who defeated Alcibiades and Nicias in Sicily, named Hermocrates. Why? Because everybody knows he did as much wrong to Athens as Critias, so they should be careful about what he might have said... ...and because his name means "he who has the power of Hermes", Hermes being the messenger of the gods, the "word", the logos of god!...
The missing Hermocrates is the shut up pseudo-gods of mythology, those gods Critias didn't believe in, him who said somewhere that gods were the invention of an astute man to better enslave and rule his fellow citizens...
And the true message of the gods to men is their god-given logos that they should use to set laws in the city, in the image of Zeus, "the god of gods who reigns by laws", while ascending the lengthy road toward the cave of that Zeus, which is precisely what the Laws is doing, whose first word is "Theos...", god...
And so, the last trilogy shows in summary what the philosopher-king should do: look at the world, contemplate it, "theorize" it (from the greek word "theorein" which means "contemplate") based on the sense data provided by the lower part of his soul, without taking too much pride in that (Timæus, whose name means pride); have his thumos use his judgement (krisis: Critias); and use his logos to draw laws of the city after the model of the world to bring kosmos in it (Laws). All that in order to make possible the good of man uncovered by Socrates in the Philebus.
To: plato <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date : June 7, 1996, 20:59:38
Subject : re: nobility in Plato
Christopher (2) writes:
> [CP] On Wed, 5 Jun 1996 Bernard <email@example.com> wrote:
>> [BS] One direction that was not explorerd yet in this discussion is, in the case of names of people, the fact that most Greek names are meaningful and that their meaning might have influenced Plato in his choices.
>> [BS] Sure! many people in the dialogues are "historical" people. But not all.
> [CP] Not to be snooty, honest, but I would like one example of an individual specifically named and identified by Platon in any dialogue who we can clearly say was not historical ... ?
I don't want to answer this one because I know you can give me a lot of reasons to believe any guy is a historical figure, and that is not the point. I don't want to get sidetracked, and I don't think that, for those people we would know almost nothing about except maybe a name cited here or there, it would improve our understanding of Plato, because Plato was not writing journalism or history, but philosophy. Besides, the mere fact that a name appears in Plato and in some other source(s) doesn't guarantee that they are the same. After all, there is and was then only a limited number of available names, much less anyway than people to bear them. OK for Alcibiades, Protagoras, Gorgias or Parmenides... But I repeat that in many other cases, the name of the person might have been more important than the fact that he or she was real; and I don't see why Plato could not have invented characters for his philosophical plays...
> [CP] I do not accept an argument from silence on this matter (e.g., the young Sokrates or the Glaukon of the Symposion), simply because while we today may be in a position to understand if someone was historical or even prominent, we are a long, Long, LONG way from being able to decree by fiat that someone was not.
Sure!.. It's true either way! So let's concentrate on what Plato was expecting of his readers: thinking by themselves and becoming better philosophers, and let's forget about scholarly fights that don't get us very far toward that goal. If you've got to read thousands of pages of history before you can appreciate the dialogues, then, let's forget it and read something else! But twenty three centuries proove the contrary...
> [CP] One primary example of decreeing an individual as unhistoric had been Simon the Cobbler, preserved by Diogenes Laertios. For the longest time, he was dismissed as fanciful (for varying reasons) -- until archaeologists unearthed his shop in the agora!
> [CP] It seems to me that if Platon wanted us to not bother with the historical aspects of his writings he would simply indicate that Sokrates was speaking to an unidentified speaker! I think he does do this in a few of his writings, yes?
But what if the name, when it is not that of a historical figure of momentous proportion, is part of the philosophical message he wants to convey? If Plato wrote most of his dialogues, as I more and more tend to think, late in life and as organized parts of a single program, most of his readers might not have been better off knowing who was the Eudicos hosting Hippias' conference. But Eu-dicos means "good justice" or something to that effect, and Hippias is presented as the paradigm of the "anti-social" man, the perfectly "unjust" man, who needs nobody to help him in anything... That seems to me to have more bearing on the message of the dialogues than knowing who a possible "historical" Eudicos was...
>> [BS] Besides, even with historical people, once you admit (which I do), that the dialogues are not journalistic reports of actual conversations, but carefully composed works of art and philosophy, there remains that Plato had a choice of whom to place in one or another dialogue, and the meaning of his name could be one criterion in his choice.
> [CP] Why do these two positions have to be mutually exclusive?
I never said that! I said "one criterion", not the critetrion... I even took the exemple of Critias to show that both are not mutually exclusive!...
>> [BS] Without going into too much detail, my take is that all this is deliberate: at the start of the Timæus, the whole program is set by Critias and Hermocrates in answer to a request by Socrates to "animate" the "ideal" city of the Republic and see it behave "for good". Yet what is Critias doing?
>[CP] A quick side note ...
> [CP] I have never understood why people insist that the city-built-in-speech "recalled" at the opening of the Timaios is the city-built-in-speech of the Politeia. The Timaios' city-in-speech is a very truncated and abridged version of what appears in the Politeia. It stops abruptly at 466c of the Politeia -- omitting war and any mention of the philosopher ruler. Nonethless, I have had many an argument over this with Platonists of all sorts. Sokrates even asks Timæus directly if anything had been omitted in the Timæus .... Timaios is emphatic -- NOTHING had been omitted! I might forgive forgetting war (or faction), but the "philosopher ruler?" Cripes! Timæus would be one poor listener. My own reading of the dialogue concludes that Platon pratically forces me to understand that Sokrates had not related the whole of the Politeia to Kritias, Hermokrates, Timæus, and the unknown fourth individual. Furthermore, Platon is quite clear in what precisely Sokrates omitted: the city-in-speech at war and how the philosopher ruler ruled it.
I don't say that the dialogue that is supposed to have taken place on the day before the Timæus is the Republic, which is obviously wrong (not the same place, the same people, the same time...). What I say is that, in a consistent program as I suggest the dialogues are, the beginning of the Timæus is meant to remind the reader of the Republic, as it does to any reader who has read both dialogues even today, and that this reminder is a way of bringing in the idea of justice described in the Republic, and to show this idea outisde time and space, as the ultimate idea of man, before bringing in, inside the time and space of the muthos, other "forms" of man, namely, soul, biological "design" and "form" of matter.
Speculating a little bit more, I could also suggest that the missing second part (the philosopher-king) has to do with the missing fourth speaker (the one that was ill), who might well be the true philosopher, already "missing" after the Statesman, and that this is a way of asking the reader to be careful about what will be said next by a guy named Timaios (from timè, honor, knowing that timocraty is not the best of constitutions) and a bunch of enemies of Athens such as Critias and Hermocrates, preparing for the "test" of the Critias...
> [CP] [snip]
>> [BS] Why Critias, then? Because it shows how Critias understood Socrates' ideals and because Critias comes from krisis, which means "judgement"!...
> [CP] Please forgive me, but I have lost your reasoning here. If we assume that the Kritias of the Timæus/Kritias is the Oligarch (Platon's great uncle -- and, note, that is a BIG assumption), then I fail to see how this obsolves or even helps Sokrates. In fact, it pratically damns him. Xenophon informs us that one of the charges against Sokrates specifically included Alkibiades and Kritias as examples. Therefore, if what you advocate is true, namely that Kritias truly "understood" Sokrates, then why the hell would Platon advocate this considering Kritias later became one of the more radical members of the Thirty, executioner of Theramenes!? To me, this just doesn't follow. In the Protagoras, Alkibiades I/II, and Symposion, for example, Platon is quite clear to show that Sokrates was NOT responsible for Alkibiades' behaivor. This may also be said for Kritias and Charmides in the Charmides. Why would Platon suddenly do a 180 in the Timaios/Kritias, i.e. by advocating Kritias was a good student?
Where did I say that? I said the contrary all along! I didn't write "it shows that Critias understood..." but "...how Critias...", and I thought the rest was clear enough about that "how"!... I think that what Plato meant was that Critias was smart enough to have perfectly well understood what Socrates was at and how revolutionary his ideas were, but was not a "good student" at all, no more than Alcibiades was. But Alcibiades was not, due to his lack of will whereas Critias was not because he tried to defuse Socrates' ideas and compromize him rather than puting them in practice. Rather than saying like Alcibiades (in the Symposium) how great Socrates was though he couldn't set himself to follow him, Critias is shown saying also that he understood (and it was probably true) but restating not what he actually understood but what could best defuse these theses. And this is the whole purpose of Plato's "test", of this ultimate krisis before the Laws: see who gets caught in Critias' net and who sees through his game...
By the way, I see the Protagoras as casting Socrates caught in between the "soul" of Athens, made up of three of its best citizens: Callias, the richest man in town as the epithumiai (he is the one providing food and lodging to the sophists), Alcibiades as the thumos, the "will" (and what a will at that, he who could never know which side he was on!), and Critias as the logos (and, again, what a logos at that, who no sooner he reached power, started killing his fellow citizens like nobody before), and the "soul" of sophistry, played by Protagoras in the role of epithumiai, Hippias as the thumos, and Prodicus as the logos, or the logoi should I rather say. I explore this in the web page soon to be added to my site, and, believe me, the scene of Socrates arrival in Callias' house takes a whole new colour in that light (only look at the positions: Protagoras standing and walking, Hippias seated on a throne, and Prodicus lying in a bed: this is a soul upside-down!...)
To: plato <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date : June 15, 1996, 08:11:58
Subject : re: nobility in Plato
Answering Christopher (3):
> [CP] On Fri, 7 Jun 1996 Bernard <email@example.com> wrote:
>> [BS] I don't think that, for those people we would know almost nothing about except maybe a name cited here or there, it would improve our understanding of Plato, because Plato was not writing journalism or history, but philosophy.
> [CP] I simply do not understand why these positions are mutually exclusive!
Where is it I said they were mutually exclusives? What I mean is that the primary purpose of Plato is not to write history, to report facts of Socrates' life as they occured, but to compose a work of art and philosophy with a purpose which is to lead the reader along a path toward philo-sophia with Socrates as a guide and a role model, staying true to his spirit if not to his "history".
In that perspective, he "stages" dialogues according to the role they are to play in the overall design, using history as a background, and historical characters as he sees fit for his purpose. People and events have a "paradigmatic" role in that design. So, sure, the better known the guy was, the stronger the case and the easier Plato's job, because he didn't have to give details to make himself understood. This is true, I think, for the "lead" characters, Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias, Parmenides, Alcibiades, Critias, among other; but as we move toward lesser characters, down to those that are only silent player, mentioned once or twice here or there, I'm not sure it adds much to our understanding of the dialogues to know who they where (though I admit that if we do, it may add a touch of colour here and there!). And I think that the meaning of their names may often be more to the point than their "historical" import.
I also think we have more to gain, for a deeper understanding of the dialogues, in trying to find out from the dialogues themselves what is the relationship between the "setting" of the dialogues, the "scenic" details, and its "philosophical" theme and purpose, between the names of lesser characters and what the dialogue is trying to point at, than in trying to reconstruct the Athenian history of Socrates' time.
What difference does it make for Plato's purpose whether the meeting between Socrates and Parmenides actually took place, at least in the form he is retelling it? What's at stakes is the confrontation of two understandings of man, life, being and so on. And Plato wants to make it more lively for us by presenting it as a dialogue. But he doesn't care whether the dialogue took place or not. If it didn't between the two of them, it did through their disciples, and it does in our minds...
But to better illustrate the might of Parmenides' "doctrine" over people's mind, including Socrates', he choses to make Socrates a youngster and Parmenides an elder. If you want to stick to a strict historical perspective, how would you reconcile that with the "spiritual autobiography" of Socrates in the Phædo, where he says himself (or rather, so you don't pick at me again, Plato has him say) that he started by being interested in "physical" matters until he read Anaxagoras? Could he then hold a "theory of forms" at the age he is supposed to have in the Parmenides?...
What difference does it make whether Euthyphro is a real person or a creation of Plato, and whether his case is a true one or a creation of Plato. I, for my part, am pretty certain that they are creations of Plato to oppose one who pretends to speak in the name of the gods and pushes the letter of the law to its most extreme absurdities at the cost of his own father's life to one who is accused of impiety but can speak in the name of the spirit of the laws better than anybody else and yet accept the most absurd consequences of imperfect existing laws at the cost of his own life to better upheld that spirit. For that purpose, the characters only have to be realistic, not real. Socrates was real precisely because he represents the side of this picture that is most hard to imagin; but Euthyphro doesn't have to be to be realistic!
Gorgias has to be real, otherwise we wouldn't make much sense of what little he says in the dialogue that bears his name; Callicles doesn't have because he is and will forever be what his discussion with Socrates in that dialogue makes him...
For the other side of the coin now. Sure, history has import on dialogues. And I thank you again for your most interesting posts on the <plato-republic> list of last year about the Bendideia and many other things. But the choice of the 1st Bendideia for the Republic is not the result of historical exactitude about Socrates' life. It is Plato's choice, to add "symbolism" to the dialogue, to have the one who was condemned to death for introducing new gods to the city present his understanding of justice as koininia, friendship within and without, on the very day of the first festival Athens organizes for a new foreign godess (and a godess at that, when Socrates will "preach" equality between men and women)... It adds "symbolism" that the conversation takes place in a Metic's house, that is, that of a half-foreigner; and so on...
Along the same lines, Plato chooses to stage the big myth of Timæus enlarging our view to the whole of space and time, and the "test" of Critias on the day of the Panathenaioi, that is, the national feast of Athens! This is because it adds "symbolism" to the dialogue, not because it so happened in real life! And the choice of characters has nothing to do with whether this dialogue is a direct "actual" continuation of the Republic, but is dictated by the purpose Plato has in mind. And, in the overall design of the dialogues as I see it, the beginning of the Timæus is meant to remind us of the Republic as a dialogue, not as an event, and the fact that the summary only covers half the dialogue (exactly half, by the way) has to be explained from the standpoint of the economy of the dialogue, not on historical grounds!
These are but a few examples of what I mean. So, when I say that I don't want to have to read thousands of pages of history to understand the dialogues, it is only partly true. I leave it to the historians to give me background information on events and people seen in the dialogues, and I respect their work. But at the same time, I want to warn them not to make too much out of the dialogues as sources for history, and to be very careful when doing so, because Plato was not writing history, only using it, and used it for his purpose, thus taking liberties with it: sure, he wouldn't invent a battle or a big historical event, but he could have invented characters, facts of everyday's life (such as Euthyphro's trial against his father), and certainly was not "reporting" on Socrates' detailed life and conversations...
And I want to have them forget about "history" when time comes to understand the "staging" of the dialogues. This must be done based on the "economy" of the dialogues themselves and their purpose, not on historical grounds, though using the historical background can, as I showed through examples, help in understanding the economy, because Plato used as many devices as he could to help us get where he wanted to lead us.
Once again, I was probably too short an yet too long, and I'm sure that parts of this post may be open to criticism. I only ask each one of you to try and get to the "spirit" of what I try to convey, not to stick to the letter.
And I once again thank Christopher for all the background information his wealth of historical knowledge gave me since I started reading his most interesting posts some months ago.
To: plato <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date : June 17, 1996, 21:03:10
Subject : re: nobility in Plato
Answering Christopher's post of June 17, 1996:
> [CP] By downplaying history, you open yourself to the criticisms I have raised. For example, a serious study of Kritias, and his legacy on Athenian History, reveals many grey areas. And, it might not be so much that Platon comments on Kritias in a particular dialogue but rather that Platon comments on the Athenian Democracy using Kritias. The question is one of Platonic irony.
Plato is using people and events of his time or the near past not so much to explain how and why things happened the way they did, but to help us realize we shouldn't do it again. For this purpose, he obviously develops, or implies, some understanding of what happened, but this is secondary to his main purpose. It is enough for it that his interpretation be plausible. And I would even go as far as to say that, even if he were completely wrong in his retelling and interpretation of the facts, it would at most challenge the "again", not the "don't do it"!
Besides, we don't know enough to be sure our interpretation of far away events is better than his, or to know if our interpretation of his interpretation is right. And we are not sure that a new archaeological find will not completely change our understanding of these events in some near or not so near future. And, again, imho, this is not what Plato expected us to do from his dialogues.
Plato doesn't tell us about the past for us to become experts in the past, but to help us become better in our own time. You are right to say that it has to do with Platonic irony, that is, it adds extra savor to the dialogues to know the background, but it is not key to understanding the primary purpose. That's why I thank you again for all the wealth of information you gave us that helped me better appreciate some of Plato's irony, and gave me extra confirmations of some interpretations of mine, but I'd like on this list more discussions on what was primary to Plato, and less scholarship (maybe the fault is not yours, but that of those who keep silent).
A few examples of what I mean:
- There is extra savor, when listening Socrates tell Alcibiades how well guarded the wife of the king of Sparta is to ensure purity of breed, to know that Alcibiades was accused of having an affair with Agis' wife and might have been the father of her son, but it is not key to understanding the purpose of the dialogue.
- It is not the knowledge of newly found data on the cult of Bendis who prompted me to develop my understanding of the Republic and its ideal of justice, but it adds an extra twist to it to know that the conversation on justice by a man accused of introducing new gods in the city was staged on the very day of the first festival in honnor of a new god, and that that new god was a goddess when Socrates speaks in favor of equality between men and women, and a foreign goddess when he preaches koinonia within and without.
- It is not the knowledge of who Meno was according to Xenophon and others, which I had not read at the time, who prompted me to view in the Meno an introduction to a tetralogy about pragmatism centered on Socrates' trial, but the actual contents of the dialogue, the experiment with the slave, the missed dialogue with Anytus, etc. Now, knowing that Meno might have been a man who was willing to do anything to reach his goal of power and glory, and who might have died about the same year as Socrates, possibly after having betrayed the other generals commanding the Ten Thousands, adds savor to Plato's choice, and gives more weight to the hypothesis. That's all.
- It is not the knowledge of the track record of Critias who prompted me to assume that the interruption of the Critias was deliberate, but what I read in the introduction of the Timæus and Critias about the program Socrates was expecting and the one Critias was proposing, the way Critias, in the dialogues, criticizes Solon for not being a new Homer rather than a politician, mixes up the future Socrates is looking for and the past he is rewriting, the way he replaces the "try what I suggest you" of Socrates by "that's not what he meant", "don't bother, it has been tried already", and the like, and eventually, the fact that the dialogue stops exactly when the god Critias doesn't believe in is about to talk; and then, the meaning of the names of Critias (judgment) and Hermocrates (power of Hermes, messenger of the gods). So, even if Plato was wrong in overcriticizing Critias, even if Critias was not such a monster after all, It wouldn't change the message Plato is delivering, the test, the krisis he is submitting us to: what are we to do with Socrates ideal, and do we prefer to rewrite the past to better justify the present, or to change the present to better the future?
So, give us more reasons to better appreciate Plato's irony, but not at the expense of forgetting what Plato is all about: how to behave here and now to build a better world for the future...
To: plato <email@example.com>
Date : June 17, 1996, 06:34:14
Subject : re: names and dates
What I am trying to tell Christopher and all of you on this list who silently listen our debate without taking side is that, imho...
Plato wrote his dialogs to help us think by ourselves here and now about what it means to be a human being and how we should go about living our own lives, using our reason to bring peace and harmony within and without,
to make us scholars specializing in the persons that lived, and events that occured, in Athens and Greece in the late fifth and early fourth centuries.
In order to reach this goal, rather than writing dogmatic treatises, he chose to write dialogues and to "stage" in them real persons of his time and that of his teacher, that he manage to make in some cases truer that life, and to have them live and talk within the framework of their own time, alluding to actual events and the like.
It is thus true that whenever we may have some knowledge of these people and events from other sources, it may add brightness to the picture. But Plato, again imho, never intended this to be a prerequisit to reading his dialogues and attaining the goal he had set to have the reader think by himself. And it certainly shouldn't be at the expense of this primary goal of his!
What I am trying to say is that, if, on a list named <plato>, we are devoting more time to discussions about these persons and events of the past, going into scholarly discussions about the various sources and interpretation of available data, to the point of often forgetting Plato for long periods of time, and at the expense of the problems Plato is trying to have us address and our own thinking about these problems and our own life here and now,
we are not doing what Plato expected us to do!....
(1) Christopher Planeaux, in a post dated Tue, 04 Jun 96 17:25:47, subject : re: nobility in plato . (back)
(2) Same, in a post dated Thu, 06 Jun 96 17:37:53, same subject, answering the above post. (back)
(3) Same, in a post dated Fri, 14 Jun 96 19:17:38, same subject, answering my earlier post. (back)
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First published December 15, 1996 ;
Last updated November 21, 1998
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