Socrates’s Desire to Die: On Xenophon’s Apology

Xenophon’s Memorabilia (“recollections”) is his public defense of Socrates, but the title is notably silent about whether or not the recollections are exclusively of Socrates. The text is, instead, rife with the recollections by Xenophon on the Socratic, and therefore, the philosophic life. As an alternative, his shorter Socratic writing, the Apology of Socrates, is clear about who delivers the apologia: Socrates is the subject. The same may be said of Xenophon’s writings of Cyrus, who is also called out by name in the Cyropaedia. Thus both the Apology of Socrates and the Cyropaedia share some things in common. Xenophon’s Apology also shares kinship with Plato’s Apology, as well. Xenophon acknowledges at the beginning of the dialogue that “others have written” on Socrates’s apology. However, perhaps Xenophon acknowledges certain elements lacking from Plato’s account thus his need to give a new account of the apology.

At the outset of his Apology Xenophon announces the goal of the text: to justify Socrates’s “big” speaking, perhaps even boasting about himself. In Xenophon, Socrates speaks in a brash and uncouth manner, in which case Xenophon would agree (to a degree) with Aristophanes’s charge against Socrates of speaking too freely. Whenever reading Xenophon, we are aware of his first-person perspective, unlike Plato’s disguised poetry that often comes from multiple narrators. At any rate, Xenophon’s text is also polemical against what he calls Plato’s “lofty” portrayal of Socrates (he never calls Plato out by name), and Xenophon’s conviction that Socrates clearly prefers death to life, rather than begging for his life from the jury. In this way, Xenophon’s praise of Socrates is regarding his honorable decision to die rather than to debase himself, however Xenophon’s critique of Socrates is against his uncourtly and disrespectful way of speaking that cost him his life (less so the charges against him).

Hermogenes, a close follower of Socrates who also appears in Plato’s dialogue on language, the Cratylus, engages in dialogue with Socrates regarding his defense. In fact, Hermogenes is the source of Xenophon’s text (thus Xenophon, like Plato, removes a certain degree of blame from himself as the author). Socrates responds that he looks forward to a pleasant death that will leave a strong memory in his followers minds -an extraordinarily different account than is found in Plato.

Then Socrates appears before the jury of his accusers, led by Meletus. Socrates remarks on his first charge: that of atheism, or not believing in the gods of the city. He defends himself by noting that everyone, including Meletus, has seen him sacrificing in public. However, to what extent is Socrates replacing his faith, with the practice of following the appropriate religious ceremonies. He replaces speech with deeds as justification for himself.

Next, on the charge of Socrates introducing new gods into the city, he defends himself by comparing his revelations from his daimonian to omens and oracles. How are they different activities? Asks Socrates. His “divine thing” or “divine sign” tends to appear jus as Socrates and companion(s) are about to do something. Suddenly the daimonian advises Socrates against doing something inadvisable. In Plato, Socrates’s divine sign appears at: Theages 128D, 129B; Apology 31D, 40B, 40C, 41D; Republic 496C; Euthydemus 272E; Phaedrus 242B. Socrates further reinforces his statements, after an uproar from the men of the jury, that he has been divinely chosen, as evidenced by Chaereophon’s (an enthusiastic follower of Socrates) inquiry to the oracle at Delphi claimed that no man was more free, nor just, nor prudent than Socrates.

Socrates makes mention of his lifestyle, being moderate and requiring very little money and most continent in his deeds, as well. He is both frugal and possesses fortitude. Could such a man corrupt the youth by behaving in such a way? Meletus takes objection to Socrates, noting that he has persuaded young men to be educated by him rather than from their parents (recall the ‘Thinkery’ in Aristophanes’s The Clouds). Socrates compares himself to a doctor, a healer of the city, and people go to a physician, not their parents, for certain needs.

Xenophon ends his account of Socrates’s apologia without repeating the full trial, as Plato does. Xenophon instead says his account is sufficient to show that Socrates was willing and ready to die. He was not willing to escape death at any opportunity, which is both a praise and criticism of Socrates.

After this brief interlude from Xenophon he recreates the conclusion of Socrates’s trial, per Hermogenes. Socrates compares himself to Palamedes -a man who was wrongly put to death at Troy by Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Diomedes (not mentioned in Homer’s Iliad but is found in the writings of Ovid and Virgil). After leaving the courtroom Socrates goes with his followers to die a happy man, though they are sad. Along the way, he hurls insults at Anytus. And thus, Socrates departed his life in a “cheery” but uncouth way. Xenophon closes his short account of the apology by praising Socrates’s “wisdom” and “nobility of character.” And if a man who is seeking virtue can be a better helper than Socrates, Xenophon claims such a man is most blessed.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Shorter Socratic Writings as edited by Gregory A. McBrayer, a Professor at the University of Ashland and translated by Andrew Patch, along with an accompanying essay by Thomas Pangle.

On the Theages

The Theages dialogue is now considered a spurious Platonic dialogue. It mirrors the form but not the content of the Laches. Whereas in Plato’s Laches, the theme explicitly concerns ‘Courage,” the theme of the Theages is wisdom.

Demodocus, perhaps the noted military man from Thucydides, is frantic and goes to visit Socrates. They speak in private at Socrates’s “leisure” under the portico in dedication to Zeus who helped the pious old democrats – Marathon fighters – to win over the Persian enemies. Demodocus is a retiring statesman. military man, and farmer who infrequently visits the city. He is the Platonic counterpart to Strepsiades, the farmer father in Aristophanes’s Clouds. He is fearful as his son desires to visit the sophists, like many of the other boys, and Demodocus is worried about the counsel and education his son will receive. He is not as much concerned with the money charged by the sophists but wants for his son to receive a good and proper education.

Through the elenchus, Socrates speaks directly to Demodocus’s son, Theages, a “noble” name (meaning “god-revering” or perhaps “god-envying”), and Socrates discovers that Theages is interested in wisdom, but he understands this wisdom to mean finding a teacher who will instruct him in how to rule as many men as possible. In other words, he has tyrannical impulses. At the root of the pursuit of wisdom is some desire to rule over men who are less wise. After testing his soul with three analogies, Socrates discovers Theages is unsuitable for the task, and instead Socrates rebukes him and offers the option of a more civic-minded pursuit. Eventually Socrates invokes the “daemon,” as a cover for his mode of inquiry which has dangerous political ramifications, thus removing the totality of blame from himself and his followers or progeny. The short dialogue is an example of how Socrates deals with the young who are ill-prepared for the pursuit of wisdom, rather than merely the acquisition of wisdom, and also with those who are drawn to the radical idleness of the sophists.

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 Thomas Pangle.

On the Authorship of Plato

Opening a Platonic dialogue shines new light on ancient wisdom, a sorely necessary art in our modern age of decadence and decay. In looking back, in order to understand the mind of the ancients, we must proceed cautiously and respectfully. We do not seek the vainglory of pain-loving antiquarianism, nor do we venture back as Robespierran revolutionaries by condemning to death those with whom we disagree. Rather we must work to understand the ancients as they understood themselves.

Plato reveals himself to us only by his nickname, “the broad”. Nowhere in his writings, except perhaps in the “Seventh Letter” do we encounter Plato, the man. In the remainder of his writings that have come down to us as Platonic, Plato is silent, only appearing marginally as a pupil of Socrates. In the Phaedrus we are given a clue as to why this might be the case: Socrates explains to the young Phaedrus the inferiority of writing as an art, because writing shares the same information equally to all people, a defect of technology, and there is, presumably, some knowledge that is not meant for all people to possess. Nevertheless, the Platonic writings were created. The memory of Socrates was preserved not merely as a biography of the man, but as a mode of transcending custom and opinion in consideration of truth, for knowledge is reoriented by Socrates: virtue is knowledge. What kind of knowledge? Knowledge of self, as the Oracle at Delphi scrawled on the wall. This kind of historia, or “inquiry”, is a dangerous pursuit. Questioning the conventions of any city is a dangerous practice, as the city relies on its conventions for perpetuation. For this transgression, punishment must be actuated. Therefore, there is need for the writer, Plato, to conceal himself, his claims and convictions, from the city. He must pay deference to the pieties of the city, as Plato does to the poets and the gods of ancient Athens, as Descartes does to the papal authorities of Europe, and as the modern philosopher is compelled to pay deference to the authority of liberal democracy and science. Recall, Aristotle noted certain “unwritten teachings” of Plato when discussing Plato’s Timaeus in his founding doctrine of science, the Physics. At any rate, in order to get a better sense of where we are, we must gaze back over the long arc of the past, to understand what has come down to us and what came before us.

Consider, for a moment, the journey a Platonic dialogue must have traveled before the age of mass production. The early dialogues are popularly believed to have been written long after long after the death of Socrates, long after the frenzy of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens. What little we know of Plato is shrouded in myth, and delivered in fragments to us from the writings of his pupil, Aristotle, and the self-proclaimed biographer of the philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, who wrote his Lives and Opinions of  Eminent Philosophers hundreds of years after the death of Plato. We imagine the early dialogues resting, protected, in Aristotle’s library at the Lycaeum, his famous school in Athens, modeled after Plato’s Hekedemia, his school outside the walls of Athens named for a classical hero and which evolved into the Akedemia, or better known as “The Academy”. When the fiery son of Macedon, Alexander, took what he learned from Aristotle and conquered the known world as a young emperor, he created the so-called “Hellenistic World”, and with it came a great opening. Homer was read in the Indus Valley. Aristophanes was brought to Babylon. And Plato was preserved by the Egyptians. Alexander founded his city, Alexandria, and within its walls the world’s greatest library was built: The Library of Alexandria, greater still than the ancient Library of Ashur-Banipal, and was possibly one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as told by Herodotus and others. We recall Euclid, the great Platonic geometer, studying at Alexandria. At the library, inquiry flourished. We are told this is, in part, due to the favorable climate for preserving writing, the preferred economy of papyrus (named for the plant in Egypt from which we derive the word “paper”), and the location of Alexandria as a water-bound city in Egypt. At the library, all writing, whether Barbarian or Greek, was preserved, carefully copied, documented, cataloged. An account of the obsessive timelines and cataloging of the Egyptians is given by Critias in Plato’s Timaeus dialogue. Nevertheless, time gave way and the library disappeared leaving no memory, save for the historians who recount for us the lush gardens, many classrooms, and hundreds of thousands of scrolls translated into Greek from across the world.

Perhaps it was the fire caused by Julius Caesar burning his boats in surrender, or the decay of the scrolls, or the decline of political will. Whatever the catalyst, the library has vanished from the earth, but still the Platonic dialogues were salvaged. They were brought to Rome, where the rigid bureaucracy of the Latins, kept alive the Hellenistic world under the protection of an embattled empire. The “Rage for Order” of the Romans took the cataloging of the Egyptians and reinvigorated its longing for preserving the greatness of the past. From here, the early Gnostics and Christian followers of “the way” sought to harmonize the Gospels, Greek testimonies about Aramaic events, with Greek philosophy, in particular Plato. In the collapse of the great empire of Rome, from without and from within, and the preservation impulse came to the Byzantines and the so-called scholars of the Middle Ages: St. Augustine attempts to find Plato in his theology, and Thomas Aquinas searches in vain for Aristotle in his theology. Plato was kept alive and studied convincingly by the noted Arabic and Islamic scholars: Alfarabi, Averroes, and Avicenna. During the latter-named European “Renaissance”, a ‘rebirth’ of the classical world was sought by romantic artists to recapture the heights of Greek civilization, though perhaps a re-popularization of the Hellenes is what was actually longed for.

Let us pause for a moment and acknowledge the modern reader’s skepticism of the authenticity of Plato. Is it not possible that the ancient scribes made errors? Didn’t the ancient patrons influence and encourage revisions? At the root of this concern is an anxiety about the true authorship of a work. That is the autoritas, or authority, of the book is under scrutiny, and we hope the perfection of the writer’s vision has not been sullied by the work of many hands. Like Homeric scholarship, the modern skeptic believes in the concept of ‘Platonic works’ or ‘Platonic concepts’ or ‘Plato’s theory of ideas/forms’, they simply do not believe in Plato. As if the unmasking of the author, an impossible task, is of primal concern. Consider the contemporary problem of the whole of an author: What of an author’s work can be attributed to earlier works teachers -‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as Newton put it? What about neuroses or irregular impulses or passions of the brain? How much of a work is organic to an author? How can be assume the burden of proof for such a task?

It is, after all, a relatively recent phenomena to question the Platonic corpus with such scrutiny. Today, dialogues like the Hipparchus, Eponimis, Cleitophon are regarded as spurious, and therefore unworthy of review, though the ancients regarded these as proper gateways to the Platonic teaching. That is not to say there was uniformity of acceptance, for example Diogenes Laertius tells us of Aristonexus and Flavorinus doubting portions of the Republic as being written by Protagoras, rather than Plato. There were early canonical arrangements of the Platonic dialogues, such as the famous organization of Aristophanes of Byzantium, chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria circa 200 B.C.) Diogenes Laertius also tells us of Thrasyllus, the court astrologer of Emperor Tiberius, who organized the dialogues into nine tetralogies, mirroring the tragedian’s arrangements of their plays. Thrasyllus organized them as follows:

1st tetralogy:
Euthyphro, Socrates’ Apology, Crito, Phaedo

2nd tetralogy:
Cratylus, Theatetus, The Sophist, The Statesman

3rd tetralogy:
Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus

4th tetralogy:
Alcibiades, Alcibiades II, Hipparchus, Rival lovers

5th tetralogy:
Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis

6th tetralogy:
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno

7th tetralogy:
Hippias a, Hippias b, Ion, Menexenus

8th tetralogy:
Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias

9th tetralogy:
Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Letters

Divisions of the Platonic corpus have been varied. Some have attempted to chronologically order the dialogues according to the life of Socrates, while the more prevailing modern project is to order the dialogues according to when Plato might have written them: for example the Apology of Socrates is thought to have been written in the early period, the Republic in the middle period, and the Laws much later. Though the desire to discover the whole is a noble endeavor, we will close this essay with a quotation from Thomas L. Pangle taken from his introduction to the Roots of Political Philosophy:

“Suffice it to say that the doubts about much of the Platonic canon went hand in hand with similar suspicions about Homer, the Bible, and the classical historians; that these doubts came to be linked with a new and unprecedented concern with questions about historical and biographical development; and that this kind of approach waxed in the shadow of a belief in the historical progress of civilization in general and of philosophy in particular. In other words, scholars came to be convinced that they had a new and superior understanding of what Plato could and could not have written at the same time that they succumbed to the delusion that they were in possession of a deeper understanding of the issues of philosophy than that held by Plato and the great medieval Platonists” (5).

What is Law in the Minos

The Minos dialogue is the natural introduction to Plato’s Laws. It comes down to us as a dialogue which is Platonic, though it is popularly considered to be apocryphal. The Minos is the natural partner to the Hipparchus: both of which are performed, take place between Socrates and an unnamed comrade, and conclude in an ascent beyond the common opinions of the Athenians. In both dialogues, unusually, the title mirrors the title of a tragedy, by naming someone ancient who has been, perhaps unjustly, judged by the Athenians.

Socrates opens the Minos by asking “What is law, for us?” As is common, the unnamed comrade assumes Socrates refers to particular laws. Instead Socrates compares law to gold. Socrates wants to know law as a whole, the “look” or eidos.

Definition 1: the comrade suggests that law is nothing else but what is lawfully accepted. This definition is quickly rejected on the grounds that speech cannot be the things that are spoken, neither can sight be the things that are seen, nor hearing the things that are heard.

Definition 2: Next the comrade suggests that law is the official opinions and decrees passed by votes: the official opinion of the city. In denying the second definition, Socrates conflates law and justice. Those who are lawful are just, and the unlawful are unjust. The just and the lawful save and protect cities, however some laws are good and others are wicked, though it was agreed before that law is not wicked. This contradiction poses problems for law, yet Socrates admits that law must be some kind of opinion – a true opinion, or the discovery of what is.

Definition 3: Therefore, as proposed by Socrates, law comes to light in the third and final definition. Law wishes to be the discovery of what is, or what possesses being. The key to this exhortation is that law is nothing more than an attempt at discovering being. It is an art, or activity. To what extent is this another kind of inferior definition which Socrates might have rejected? Some laws are written, and others are unwritten. However, law is in need of a justification, a divine justification. The comrade suggests Lycurgus as the sacred lawgiver of Sparta, but Socrates redirects the comrade not to Solon, but instead to Minos, the lawgiver of Crete. Despite the popular opinions of Minos from the tragic poets, Socrates praises Minos, the lawgiver of Zeus’s laws. During his reign, Minos prevented drinking parties, and he delivered the noble laws to Crete, with a view toward education in virtue. However the tragic poets are to be doubted, as they wield great power over opinion. Tragedy being the most soul-alluring and praised by the masses. Socrates dangerously praises a foreign leader, Minos, for a just war waged against Athens and just punishments of sacrifices to the Minotaur. The laws which bring strength to the body and virtue to the soul are to be praised.

The comrade remains unconvinced at the conclusion of the dialogue, and the praise of the Cretan laws is in need of justification, as made explicit in the Laws. Law is fallible, and it varies from city to city, however the existence of law is universal. Every city has laws, and perhaps as the comrade sees them as prescriptive of the ills of human nature. Man is in need of a delineation between punishment and reward. Contemporary social science sees laws as merely infinitely variable, mere products of the particular place and time of each society. Perhaps there is a nature to law, as Socrates suggests. Law is a longing to discover being.

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 Thomas Pangle.