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.

Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.

However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.

In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.

The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.

Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.

Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.

Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

Wandering Thoughts on the Philebus

Plato’s Philebus is a teleological dialogue -it is focused on the finality of things. On the surface, the subject matter of the Philebus concerns the question of pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure, as opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness”- is a limitless activity. However there is the question of the finality of the philosophic life -what is the end? Where is the horizon?

The Platonic answer is that the philosophic life finds its horizon in a limitless pursuit of eidos (“ideas” like the true, the good, and the beautiful). However, throughout the Platonic dialogues, we encounter Socrates, whom Cicero once called the man who brought philosophy ‘down from the heavens,’ as a political man. In the Philebus is project is directed clearly, and at times explicitly, to subordinate the true and the good to the beautiful. That is, Socrates’s desire might be said to dethrone the political or ethical questions in favor of the arts and sciences, though his quest is often situational and the locust depends on the person he is speaking with. For example, occasionally an interlocutor needs to pursue the true, rather than the beautiful or the good.

In the Philebus we encounter a series of Socratic jokes about stamina, tiredness, and willingness. It becomes apparent that neither Philebus nor Protarchus possess the same willingness that other Socratic interlocutors possess, like Theaetetus, to continue along with Socrates. In addition, unlike other Socratic dialogues, I have very little to say about the Philebus. We encounter no moment of Socratic aporeia and no moment of abrupt ending. It is a dialogue without a beginning and without a conclusion. It occurs entirely en media res. The dialogue simply continues without end or conclusion, alluding to the unending nature of the philosophic quest.

For this reading I used Seth Bernardete’s translation of Plato’s Philebus.

Thoughts On The Gorgias

In the Gorgias dialogue, Socrates travels with his friend and follower, Chaerephon, to the house of Callicles, whose name means “famed for visible excellence”. At Callicles’s house a distinguished guest and self-proclaimed rhetorician from Sicily named Gorgias resides, along with his follower, Polus. Callicles, the host, is important to the dialogue because he is also a close follower of Gorgias and he speaks the first words of the dialogue: “In war and battle…” (447A). War and battle, as stated elsewhere in Plato’s Republic, exemplifies the city in motion, rather than at rest. How is the theme of rhetoric connected to war and battle?

Underlying the setting of the Gorgias is the set-up of a tense confrontation between Gorgias and Socrates, rhetoric and philosophy. It begins as Gorgias has already given a beautiful demonstration to Callicles. Prior to arriving, Socrates and Chaerephon were held up in the marketplace and ‘missed the feast’ so to speak. Chaerephon, not Socrates, claims they have arrived to listen to Gorgias. Socrates, however, corrects Chaerephon to see if Gorgias might be interested in having a conversation with them. Socrates wants to discover what power Gorgias believes belongs to his art (rhetoric) and what it teaches.

The confrontation begins when Chaerephon tries to engage in a dialectic with Polus, Gorgias’s follower, and Socrates interrupts when it becomes clear that Polus is not responding genuinely. Therefore, Gorgias claims he is skilled in the art of rhetoric and they discuss what the art of rhetoric is in contradistinction from the other arts, such as being a doctor. Gorgias claims that rhetoric is concerned with the greatest of human concerns, the power to persuade multitudes (452E). Socrates refutes this claim by pointing out that other arts also persuade, and therefore Gorgias makes the claim that rhetoric is concerned with persuasion for the just and the unjust (political). Rhetoric, to Gorgias, has to be used like other skilled combat. Socrates requests that Gorgias embrace a conversation, rather than a debate. A new beginning starts.

The next portion begins with a question by Socrate regarding Gorgias’s claim to be able to make other people rhetoricians. He presses Gorgias to distinguish between teaching and persuading. Socrates presses him further on the question of whether or not a student needs to know the just and the unjust in order to become a rhetorician. The exchange with Gorgias concludes when Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that a rhetorician must sometimes speak unjustly, and Polus interrupts. Polus says he will interrogate Socrates in the same way. Socrates says rhetoric is a kind of experience of gratification or pleasure, not beautiful, and belongs to the soul of someone who is good at guessing, brave, and clever by nature at dealing with people. He says it isn’t an art at all, but is rather a kind of pandering and is a matter of repetition and experience. It is shameful and a part of politics. He connects sophistry with rhetoric, alluding to his other dialogue on sophism, the Protagoras.

The remainder of the dialogue (approximately 70 pages) includes a demonstration, by Socrates, that Gorgias’s followers do not believe in justice. Polus has an exchange with Socrates in which he tries to defend tyranny -Polus would prefer to be a tyrant if offered the option. Similarly, Callicles prefers injustice to justice and he refuses to converse, from Socrates. He proceeds with Socrates, even as Socrates closes the dialogue with a myth. Appropriately, Callicles maintains his disposition “in war and battle…”.

For this reading I used the Joe Sachs translation as featured in the Focus Philosophical Library in conjunction with Aristotle’s Rhetoric.