On the Cleitophon

As with many other unusual Platonic dialogues, the Cleitophon is believed to be a spurious dialogue. Nevertheless we must consider it, as the ancients once considered the Cleitophon a legitimate source of Platonic wisdom. After all it was Thrasyllos, the ancient 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.” In the scene, Cleitophon 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 Aristophanes in the Frogs. 

The Cleitophon dialogue is Cleitophon’s unanswered attack on Socrates. It is the shortest dialogue in the Platonic corpus and it is the only dialogue where an interlocutor provides a quotation, or an “exhortation,” of a verbatim speech from 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 only 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 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 ideologue.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” and edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by Clifford Orwin.

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