On the Cleitophon

As with many others, the Cleitophon is believed to be a spurious dialogue. Nevertheless we must consider it, as the ancients considered it a legitimate source of Platonic wisdom. After all is was Thrasyllos, the Hellenistic critic, who closely associated the Cleitophon with the Republic.

Who was Cleitophon? In short he was an oligarchic Athenian statesman. He speaks briefly in Book I of Plato’s Republic in defense of Thrasymachus and the definition of justice as the “advantage of the stronger”. He draws swords with Polemarchus by stating, in effect, that whatever is the advantage of the stronger is just, and the advantage of the stronger merely implies whatever the stronger believe to be to their own advantage. Cleitophon is a pure relativist. He also appears and is satirized by Arostophanes in the Frogs. 

The Cleitophon dialogue is his unanswered attack on Socrates. It is the shortest dialogue in the Platonic corpusand  it is the only dialogue wherein an interlocutor provides a quotation, or “exhortation”, of a verbatim speech of Socrates. Cleitophon represents the city, or at least how the city views Socrates. The dialogue begins when Socrates cites an unnamed third person who told him of a conversation between Lysias and Cleitophon in which Cleitophon had less than flattering remarks about Socrates. Cleitophon uses the exhortation as an attempt to justify himself and his criticisms of Socrates. He begins by providing examples of agreements between him and Socrates – questions of virtue being teachable and so on. However, he quickly rejects Socrates’s supposed idea that the body is to be rejected in favor of enriching the soul. He concludes by praising Thrasymachus for his straight answers. Cleitophon demands an answer to a question, whereas the in the apology, Socrates points to the happy life of a man ceaselessly inquiring into the nature of things. Cleitophon bears the soul of a tyrant, and is appropriately a student of Thrasymachus, not of Socrates. The exhortation against Socrates goes unanswered because the philosopher has no words to give to the pure relativist, the idealogue.

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