© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated July 1st, 1999
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
Tetralogies : Next tetralogy : The Sophists - Previous tetralogy : none

1st tetralogy : the soul

The purpose of this first tetralogy is to instill in us, young and old alike, the desire to learn more about some basic questions in life by following in the footsteps of Socrates. It does so by shaking our confidence in ourselves through the examination of a few seemingly easy questions whose answers keep eluding us when submitted to Socrates' inquiry. And the goal of this learning process is set right away : it is not learning for the sake of learning, or for the beauty of it, or to shine in social circles, but learning how to govern oneself and others, others only in so far as we are able to govern ourselves.

Alcibiades : what does it take to become a ruler ?

Please, be amazed !

This is made clear by the introductory dialogue, the Alcibiades. Without the slightest preparation, we are thrown in the midst of a discussion between Socrates and a young Alcibiades about to embark in politics, and we are expected to show the same amazement as him (Alc. 103a, the first words of the dialogue) at Socrates' attitude, because, as we will learn later (Theætetus, 155d), amazement is the beginning of philosophy. And what this discussion is all about is what makes Alcibiades think he is fit to rule over Athens, what kind of preparation he had for that (first part of the dialogue) and what kind he should have before it's too late, once he has been led to admit he had none so far (second part of the dialogue). An answer is given to that question through the Delphic precept "know thyself (gnôthi sauton)" (Alc. 124b) ; but, as we learn in the Charmides from the mouth of Critias, who uses it as one possible definition of wisdom, this answer is more of a question, a riddle that itself needs to be deciphered (Char., 164d-165a).

Whose work is it, anyway ?

In fact the Alcibiades is so much of a summary of Socratic/Platonic doctrines that some have doubted its authenticity for that very reason, saying it looks more like the job of a conscientious pupil than of the master himself ; they add that, though they can find nothing unPlatonic in it, it lacks the freshness and enlivening details which are the hallmark of Plato's so-called "early dialogues" of which it should be a part if authentic. Yet, from early on, it was used in Platonic circles as an introduction to Plato's dialogues, as was still the case several hundred years later with Neo-Platonists such as Proclus.

Royal fireworks

But why should we be surprised that the first piece in such a long program be a sort of manifesto, a summary of the whole program, thrown at the reader without much explanation to arouse his desire to read the next volumes : "know thyself"(Alc. 124b) ; thyself is your soul, because "man is soul" (Alc., 130c) ; to know your soul, you should look into the brightest, most godlike part of someone else's soul, the one capable of sophia (Alc., 133b-c) ; you can't rule other if you can't rule yourself first (Alc., 134b-c) ; only justice and wisdom can make men happy (Alc., 134c-d) ; better obey those who possess those virtues than become a ruler so long as we don't have them (Alc., 135b) ; and if we don't have them, we should do all we can to acquire them and become free men (Alc., 135c-d)... Pffffh !... What a fireworks ! It goes faster and faster as we proceed and we can only say "Yup !... Yup !.. Yup !..." between Socrates' statements. But, once the pounding is over and we can breathe, it's time to get back to all these statements one at a time and think them over, which is the program of the dialogues...

Freedom fighters

No frills here, that's true ! The scenery comes with the ensuing trilogy, where we will have a little more time to rehash the questions, and a little more breathing room, though all three dialogues evoke fighting : the two extreme because they both take place in a wrestling-school (a "palaistra"), the middle one because it involves two fathers looking for wrestling teachers for their sons. Thus, the pounding is not over yet, and each new step in the discussion will raise more questions than it answers. We left Alcibiades admitting that, to become a free man, he should learn what justice is and obey wiser men in the meantime, at the end of a discussion that got started with the Delphic motto (the second part of the dialogue on what to do to become a ruler) ; we start the trilogy with a dialogue whose main character is named "liberation" (that's what lusis, the Greek for Lysis, means) to end it with a long discussion on the possible meaning of the "know thyself" and its relationship to wisdom. Liberation starts with mastery over passions, at the level of the lower part of the soul, and knowledge is the business of the higher part. We are thus in line with the general pattern of the trilogies, proceeding from the lower pat to the upper part of the soul.

From kids to philosophos aner

This trilogy organizes the shake up process according to the answer that will become clear at the end : the only fit ruler is the philosopher ; in other words, in order to rule you must be a philo-sophos aner, a philosophical (etymologically, "friend of wisdom") man. But, in order to understand that, you must know what friendship (philia) means, which wisdom (sophia) you should befriend, and what it means to be a "man" (aner). Friendship stems from the "feeling" soul and its desires ; wisdom is what the logos is looking for ; and to be a man has to do with how the "willing" part of our soul behaves. Thus, three dialogues, one at each level of the soul, will help us realize how little we know about this vital question.

To make it clear that we are only at the beginning, there is an atmosphere of juvenile freshness in these three dialogues, as there is also in the Alcibiades, though it is less visible there due to the lack of staging indications. Yet, if all these dialogues involve kids, they are not limited to them : in the Laches, where manhood is the topic, kids are there but don't talk ; their parents do the talking, but only to find appropriate teachers for them, and, at the end of the dialogue, Socrates concludes that he and the parents as well, and not only the kids, should look for an able teacher (Laches, 201a-b). And in the Charmides, young Charmides shares center stage with his older cousin Critias, whose wisdom is put to a test.

Lysis : Liberation's school

Enrolling Socrates in the Academy

The Lysis, first dialogue of the first trilogy, starts in the vicinity of the Academy. In all the dialogues, this is the only mention of the Academy, which, at the time of Socrates, was still only a park and a gymnasium in the suburbs of Athens, and this allusion cannot be fortuitous. Actually, there is a way of reading the beginning of the Lysis as a set of allusions to Plato's Academy, including maybe even a joke on Plato's name in the name of the teacher of the wresting-school where the discussion takes place, who is presented to Socrates as "one of your pupils, for sure, and a panegyrist of yours" (Lysis, 204a), and goes by the name of Miccos : miccos is a beotian form of micros, which means small, while Plato's name means large !

This page tells of the "interception" of Socrates by a bunch of youth led by Hippothales ("one who raises horses", or, if we go by the image in the Phædrus, where horses stand for the two lower parts of the soul, "who raises souls"), son of Hieronymus ("whose name is holy"), and Ctesippus ("owner of horses", or, by the same token as earlier, "of souls"), who drag him into their wrestling-school, to meet their friends and loved ones, especially Lysis ("liberation"), son of Democrates ("power of the people") and Menexenus ("one who stays a foreigner"), son of Demophôn ("voice, or else light, of the crowd"). None of these people are otherwise known, and we may read in the deciphering of their names quite a program. And see in the "enrollment" of Socrates for this speech-wrestling party a "physical" analog of his enrollment by Plato as "soul-breeder", or as he will have him say in the Theætetus, in a section reminiscent of these early dialogues, as "midwife of souls" (Theæt., 148e-151d, and, for the parallel with the first tetralogy, see the overview of the tetralogies).

Dialectic vs. eristic

The discussion on friendship stems from the example of the friendship between Lysis and Menexenus, who both answer in turn Socrates' questions. But Menexenus, who shows up here at the start of the journey, is the same we find at the end of the "short path" through the dialogues, the one that stops at rhetoric along the lines of Isocrates' program (see the overview of the tetralogies) and ends on the dialogue that bears Menexenus' name. It is worth noting, then, that Menexenus is described by Socrates at Lysis, 211b, as an eristikos, a qualification reserved by Socrates to sophists à la Euthydemus, but also used by Isocrates to characterize the dialectical exercises of Plato's school ; and that Lysis answers this remark by saying that it is precisely why he wants to see him dialegesthai with Socrates ! Sure, dialegesthai means to discuss, but it is the verb from which comes the term "dialectic" and, for Plato, to dialegesthai with Socrates is loaded with deeper meaning, especially in such context, unless we accept to fall into the petitio principii which consists in saying that it cannot be the case in an early dialogue while calling the Lysis early because it doesn't present more developed Platonic doctrines.

Anyway, Socrates answers Lysis' request by asking if he wants him to become the laughing stock of the crowd by such a dialegesthai, which is exactly what happened to Plato and his school in the eyes of Isocrates and his pupils. And from his next answer, we learn that Menexenus is the pupil of his cousin Ctesippus. But we will learn later, in the Euthydemus, just before finding out what became of Menexenus, that, when it comes to logos, Ctesippus himself, endowed with a good nature but excessive boldness (hubris, see Euthyd., 273a-b), was quick to learn the tricks of Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus, only to turn these against them.

Forever a stranger

And that's not all as regards Menexenus in the Lysis : no sooner did the discussion get started between Lysis, Socrates and him that, when Socrates is "about to ask which one of the two friends is the more just and the wiser" (Lysis, 207d), Menexenus leaves for some religious rite he has to accomplish, so that he misses that part of the discussion with Lysis where Socrates shows him that only knowledge and wisdom can set men free. So, right from the start, we know that Menexenus is the one who will stay forever a stranger (see the meaning of his name) to Socrates' higher teaching, preferring the traditional cults and the call of the crowd (see his father's name)... And it's no excuse that, along with Ctesippus, he was among those (silently) present at the last moments of Socrates (see Phædo, 59b), there are many reasons why you may want to witness an execution, and many ways to eulogize a dead, including the one exemplified in the Menexenus !...

Two friends, two paths

Thus, at the start of the journey, we see two people getting hold of Socrates : one is a horse breeder who makes horses (i.e. : souls) prosper and flourish (Hippothales) and wants Socrates to meet the boy he is currently in love with, who goes by the name of "Liberation" (Lysis), and help him in his love ; the other one keeps his horses for himself (Ctesippus) and doesn't care much for Socrates, except that he might enjoy a good discussion between him and a pupil of his, the eternal foreigner (Menexenus), who happens to be the best friend of Liberation, at least for the time being... One of the two friends, Liberation, want to master the crowd (his father's name, Democrates), while the other one only wants to be his voice (his father's name, Demophôn). Two ways of starting, which will lead to two different results, a short path and a longer one... But real freedom is at this price.

Laches : freedom fighters (2)

Words and deeds, brains and guts

In the Laches, we are at the level of the intermediate part of the soul, the thumos, the one which must make choices, choices between passions (epithumiai) and reason (logos), between body and mind, between matter and spirit ; choices between looking upward toward the godly or downward toward the earth. So, to make the point, most everybody goes by pairs in this dialogue. Two sons of famed politicians, Lysimachus, son of Aristides, and Melesias, son of Thucydides (the politician, not the historian), are looking for a teacher for their own two sons, and ask advice to two of the most famed generals of the time, Nicias and Laches, on the worth of armed fighting, as demonstrated just before the dialogue starts by a self-proclaimed teacher who goes by the name of Stesilaus, for their son's education.

But that's not all ! This pairing of characters is but a way of staging the opposition between two views on courage, andreia, that is, manhood, when the discussion comes to it in the second part of the dialogue : Laches' down to earth view of courage as mere guts, and Nicias more elevated view of it as some sort of sophia. And the whole dialogue revolves around the dialectic of words and deeds, logoi and erga, well stated by Laches when he praises "the beautiful harmony, not of a lyre or other toy instruments, but of the one who, in his own life, attunes his deeds to his words" (Laches, 188d), and exemplified by the fact that :

Soul's play

From that standpoint, we may look at the different characters in the "play" (remember the dialogues are modeled in tetralogies after the Greek theater), as standing for different parts of the soul, why not even say, playing the role of one or another part of a soul.

Using the Republic as a guide, along with the staging details of the Laches itself, we come up with the following "cast of characters" :

If the mention by Lysimachus at 179b of common meals with Melesias and their children anticipates the Laws, where such common meals are described at length as replacing war in the mind of lawgivers as the act par excellence of a well behaved city, the fact is both are still looking for education in armed fighting (that is, looking for willpower) at the hands of a certain Stesilaus, not otherwise known, whose name means "the one who stays in the crowd". But the crowd, often referred to as "the many", hoi polloi, by Plato, is, in the analogy of the Republic between city and soul, an analog of the lower part of the soul. We are kind of walking upside-down... (But what were all these politicians doing other than looking for directions in the will of the people ?...)

But what about Socrates ?

Where does Socrates stand in this picture ? Right in the middle : everybody is calling on him as the arbiter, the judge, the diakrinountos (Laches, 184d), which is the proper role of the will, under the rule of the logos. Besides, by his age, he is associated with Laches and Nicias (Laches, 180d), which places him at the intermediate level of the will by the same "key" we used earlier.

Accordingly, we should view Socrates as the "model" of what a well behaved "will" should be. He keeps saying that he cannot decide until he has been properly educated, that he is not the one who knows. He reminds the will who mistakes itself for a logos (Nicias), that it should take lessons (through his son) in "mousikè" (the "intellectual" part of education, along with gymnastics for the "physical" part) and even provides a teacher for that, as Nicias himself relates at 180c-d, a certain Damon (whose name is quite ambiguous : as a Doric form of Demon, it relates to demos, the people, who is not such a good master ; yet it might as well evoke the daimon of Socrates, this divine voice within him...), himself a pupil of Agathocles ("good reputation" or "glory of the good"...) And he reminds the hot-tempered will who loses patience at seemingly confusing speeches (Laches) that it should listen more carefully to the logos. And he shows that the will should not be too prompt to speak when, at 181d, he uses his age as an excuse to let the elder speak first.

One-sided souls

But where do we go from here, and why is it the discussion fails to come up with an appropriate definition of courage, the distinctive virtue of the thumos ?...

The problem is that all these souls are deficient :

United we stand

Yet it is Laches who comes closest to identifying the crux of the problem when he suggests Lysimachus that the answer to his problem might lie within his own kin, his own demotes (that is, within himself), in the person of Socrates/will (180b-c), rather than in this outer "willpower" named Stesilaus, or even in these one-sided "wills" he and Nicias play, which would only increase the tendency of their souls to lean one way or the other. The proper answer can only be found, as we will learn later on the same "line" (middle dialogue of a trilogy) in the Republic, when the threefold structure of the soul has been properly identified, and all parts are taken into account at their due place as parts of the same unique person.

Though courage is the distinctive virtue of the thumos, it cannot be properly defined by the thumos alone (under the guise of either general), be it the well behaved thumos of Socrates. Its proper definition requires the participation of the whole soul under the leadership of the logos, after an appropriate training of each part. Hence the conclusion that, in view of the current state of affairs, everybody should look for a teacher, young and old alike. And they should do that together, because education is both an individual and a social affair.

Then, as we go along, we will learn that the thumos does not have to choose either passions (epithumiai) or reason (logos), either body or mind, either matter or spirit ; either looking upward toward the godly or downward toward the earth, but to side with reason to give each part its due.

Charmides : family feud

From fountain to temple

With the Charmides, we reach that part of the soul where we might find rest and get all the answers to our questions, except that it is too early and we are with the wrong people. The fighting is over, Socrates is back from the battlefield (the battle of Potidæa, in which Alcibiades tells us in the Symposium (Symp. 219e-220e) that Socrates saved his life), but the "war" is only beginning (the battle and siege of Potidæa took place at the very beginning of the Peloponesian war, and is related in the first book of Thucydides' work, I, 62 ff.) and Socrates is back to the wrestling-school to talk philosophy with kids and their grown-up admirers.

There are a lot of similarities in the staging of the Charmides and Lysis, but a close comparison shows noteworthy differences. Without going into a detailed comparison of both dialogues, we will only point at a few details that strengthen our reading :

Disreputable parents

The ensuing discussion proceeds from sophrosune, the kid's version of sophia, often translated by "self-control", to the knowledge of good and evil, while it moves from young Charmides to his older cousin and guardian Critias as the interlocutor of Socrates.

Both of them are relatives of Plato, who ended up as members of the Thirty Tyrants. Critias was even one of their leaders, and the worst of them all. They are the most prominent among those Plato refers to without naming them at the beginning of the VIIth letter : "When I was young, I felt as so many in that situation : I expected, as soon as I would become master of myself, to go straight to the city's affairs. And here is how I happened to find the state of public affairs then : many being dissatisfied with the existing constitution, a revolution took place, and fifty-one men took the leadership of the revolution, eleven in the city and ten in Piræus -each one of these two groups having in charge the marketplace and all the city's affairs- while thirty assumed full power as commanders in chief. Of these were some of my relatives and acquaintances, who immediately asked me to join them, as in something fit to me. Feeling not the least surprised, owing to my youth, I expected them to govern the city so as to lead it from a life of injustice toward a just behavior, and so I watched with the utmost attention what they would do, only to see these men make in very little time the former constitution look like a golden age. Among other things, they called on my friend, old Socrates, whom I wouldn't shy to call the most just man there was in his time, to join some other men in arresting one of their fellow citizen that was to be put to death, in order to involve him in their activity, whether he liked it or not. But he didn't obey, preferring to expose himself to all sorts of troubles rather than getting associated with their impious deeds Seeing all this, and other no less serious affairs, I couldn't stand it and fled away from the evils of the time." (VIIth letter, 324b-325a) Thus they were in no small part, but in a very negative way, responsible for Plato's conclusion that only philosophers are worthy of governing and of his decision to open a school that would form such philosophers !...


It is not likely then that Plato would choose them to teach us important truths, at least not directly. In fact, Critias will be back in the last trilogy, and will even give his name to its middle dialogue. But we'll see then that there too, Plato doesn't give him a positive role, and even shuts him up, using this as a test for us readers : by our judgment of the interruption of the dialogue, he wants to see if we have become able to disentangle Critias' sophistry before reaching the ultimate, and most important, step of the program, the building of new laws for the city (this is, as I will show then, the whole idea, as I see it, behind what I consider the intentional interruption of the Critias at the very time Zeus is about to talk to straighten up human affairs). And, once again, the choice of Critias to play this part may have to do, not only with his deeds, but also with his name : Critias comes from krisis, a word that means judgment, choice, sorting out... So, we might as well start right away to "sort out" what's wrong with Critias' speech.

It's all right, but it's all wrong !

The problem is, Plato doesn't make things easy for us. In fact, it is Critias who gives all the right answers and Socrates who keeps pounding at them ! So, what does that mean ?...

For the answers, first : what are the definitions Critias gives of sophrosune" in the discussion ?

His master's voice

What's wrong with all these definitions ? Nothing, except precisely that there are so many !... Definitions, in the hands of Critias, are like statues of Dædalus, which run away unless you tie them down, and which are used as an example by Socrates to help Meno understand the difference between true opinion, which may be true only by chance, and knowledge, which is tied by dialectical reasoning (Meno, 97d). By playing sophist with a sophist, Socrates is trying to show us that Critias may be able to recite all the right answers, like a good pupil reciting a lesson, but that he is unable to stand by them, because they are no more than opinions to him, and he will change them as he sees fit to please his interlocutor. You may have the words, but it doesn't mean you have the meaning behind them ; you may speak the truth (by chance), but it doesn't mean you understand it...

True, Critias was a friend of Socrates, and Alcibiades too, for that matter, but the fact that they acted as they did and wronged the Athenians doesn't necessarily mean Socrates was wrong ; it may simply mean that they didn't understand what he was saying, even if they were able to use the same words. The true criterion is not speech, but consistency between speech and deeds, and from that standpoint, Socrates proved by his deeds that he stood by his words, even at the price of his own life, while Alcibiades kept changing sides to save his life and Critias was ready to kill anybody to stay in power rather than risking to be overthrown or himself killed by attempting to bring law and order to Athens and its empire.

Save Our Souls !

Thus, the first tetralogy starts with Alcibiades and ends with Critias, two of the most famed acquaintances of Socrates, whose evil deeds were not foreign to his condemnation. Both of them will show up again later along the road :

(1) If Lysimachus and Melesias, or at least their fathers Aristides and Thucydides are well known historical persons, whose names Plato could not invent, at least did he have the choice of picking them rather than other sons of known politicians (for instance those of Pericles, also mentioned in the Meno) to play a part in the Laches, once we admit that the dialogues are not journalistic reports of actual conversations of Socrates, but brilliant creations of Plato, truer to the spirit of his master than to his "material" life. It then becomes possible to assume that the names were a criterion in these choices. (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
Tetralogies : Next tetralogy : The Sophists - Previous tetralogy : none

First published May 16, 1996 - Last updated July 1st, 1999
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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