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      Lesson 11                     Plato's Euthyphro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Socrates takes on the inside-out men!

 

 

 

We read Plato's comic dialogue on piety, Euthyphro, but maybe it's not so funny!


Anchors
(on this page):

Pairs
Aristotle & Plato
human awakening
Thersites' wisdom
Teacher wars
Socrates' last days
Euthyphro summary
Inside-out Man

Additional topics

 

 

 


With this Lesson, our course moves forward to Greek classical times and the dialogues of Plato. It has been said that all of western philosophy is only a series of footnotes to Plato, but is Plato a footnote to Homer?

Pairs in consciousness

Image based on Raphael Sanzio, Self-Portrait (cir 1509), now in the Uffizi, FlorenceWith its dream-like form, and recurring interest in "noos" or mind, the Odyssey portrays an inner world of thought that differs in obvious ways from the outer world of action in the Iliad. The spirit-world and flesh-world appear so unlike one another that many readers have wondered whether the same "Homer" could have composed both.

When Achilles avenges Patroklos in the Iliad, Patroklos remains a shadowy ghost in the background of the physical action that he motivates. When Telemakhos avenges Odysseus in the Odyssey, however, the avenging spirit is brought into focus so sharply that we hardly see the physical acts of the murderer Telemakhos at all. Achilles and Telemakhos are both cases of daemonic possession, but this heroic insanity is presented objectively from the outside in Achilles, and subjectively from the inside in Telemakhos. We see the differing points of view in, for example, the primary targets of revenge: Hektor is characterized objectively as flesh and blood, with a family and his own personal hopes and fears, but Antinoos ("anti-mind") is an abstraction, an illusory figure seen almost entirely though the biased judgment of an angry rival. 

The Homeric songs borrow this external/internal dualism from hero religion where the two opposed but inter-connected states, outer and inner, are labeled "living" and "dead." In this scheme, the living are present in the physical world of bodies, but they are weak-minded creatures who are not in control of their own behavior. Control resides in the heroic dead; they are the compelling spirits, motivations or drives, the forces or powers that animate behavior of the living. Warriors are driven by revenge for their dead comrades; children are directed toward adulthood by their haunting, dead parent. The dead are present in consciousness.

Two-world systems consisting of outer and inner states have remained a bedrock structure of western thought ever since the age of heroes. The names of the two worlds have been changed from time to time, of course. Among the more recent dualisms, superseding the heroic "living/dead" description, have been:

  • body/soul, body/mind, animal/spiritual,

  • time/eternity, earth/heaven,

  • becoming/being, appearance/reality,

  • material/ideal, fact/idea, physics/metaphysics,

  • nature/transcendence, nature/art,

  • public/private, object/subject,

--and many others. 

In the modern world science and religion sometimes square off in debates filled with claims that only one world really exists. The religious advocates may claim that mankind is not an animal, while the scientists say that mankind is only an animal. But most people appear to recognize the existence of both worlds, and a duality of human nature seems to be embedded in our language itself. For example, our word animal derives from the Latin word anima, meaning "spirit" or "ghost." What the spirit moves is animal. What the animal does, while alive, is animated.

Of course, the universe is one place, not two, but those with minds and senses experience it in two different ways. Our two-world systems, in Homer and so much other literature, reflect the apparent division between outer and inner worlds in ordinary human experience:

  • The macrocosm is the external and transitory place of things, time present, change, the body and experience of its senses, physical nature, other living people and creatures;

  • the microcosm is the internal and imagined world of hopes and fears, past and future time, ideals, dreams, superstitions, fantasy and the transcendent, unnatural and supernatural. 

Normal human consciousness vacillates constantly between these two dissimilar places. We are drawn "out" of ourselves to consider the external world, and then we retreat "into" ourselves again. Yet human awareness is designed to process only one world actively at a time. It's impossible for us consciously to be in both places simultaneously without negligence, confusion, failure of concentration, or similar defect of consciousness. We are mental amphibians--and often disoriented, too,  personally favoring one environment or the other as an extrovert or introvert.

The focus of literature similarly is extroverted or introverted, macro or micro in its subject matter. Literary analysis often classifies particular works of literature as either Illiadic or Odyssean. Novels, for example, are said to be either social or psychological; the prototype novel heroes (using the term "heroes" now in the modern sense: heroes = protagonists or main characters) are the physical action-hero, Achilles, and the wily sage-hero, Odysseus. Poems are similarly described either as mirrors (reflecting the external world) or as lamps (illuminating interior space). Poets are classified as either natural (object-oriented, interested in externals) or transcendental (subject-oriented or self-absorbed).

A comparable division is found in philosophy, where not all of the worthies are by any means of the sage type. Philosophers are classified as either Platonists or Aristotelians. The group that follows Plato and the Odyssean way is concerned primarily with an inner realm of thoughts, ideals, words, spirits and abstract things apprehended by mind but not present to the physical senses. The rival camp, following Aristotle and the Iliadic direction, is interested mainly in external reality, bodies, the natural and physical environment, society, and laws or patterns recognizable in observable, objective facts.

Figures of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from Raphael's painting, The School of Athens (cir 1509), in the Vatican, Rome..Even when Plato and Aristotle walk side by side, as in Raphael's famous painting The School of Athens (detail shown left), they do not see eye to eye or point in the same direction. We can't hear what the two are saying in Raphael's scene, but it seems clear enough that they belong to different generations and aren't listening too carefully to one another.


Tragic masks

Aristotle and Plato on literature
scholar and poet don't see alike

Aristotle and Plato developed the original, opposing pillars of literary criticism and the first, conflicting models for teaching literature. Aristotle's approach is historical, formal, technical and Iliadic; Plato's is interpretive, moral, spiritual and Odyssean. The differences come from perspective. Aristotle regards literature from the outside view, while Plato sees it from the inside. We can see these perspectives in their writings on Greek tragedy, in particular. 

Greek tragedy was the elaborate dramatization of stories about the Hellenic heroes that developed at Athens over the course of several centuries after the time of Homer. It evolved from solo story-telling of the old bardic type by the addition of actors, scenery, costumes, masks, mechanical stage equipment, songs, music, dance and choreography. The form reached its spectacular height during the 5th century BC in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

By the time of Plato and Aristotle in the 4th century BC, however, tragedy was in decline. Why? It had become too expensive to produce after Athens had lost her empire to Sparta and its allies in the disastrous Peloponnesian War (ended 404 BC).

In the glory days of the Athenian empire, wealthy patrons had sponsored new tragedies every year. They had competed with one another in ostentation, each one wanting to sponsor the biggest and best show of the season. There were try-outs before city judges who decided which productions would be performed during festival days. Money for lavish productions had been available in those days because Athens had taken old-fashioned Hellenic piracy to new levels of profitability that even Agamemnon could not have dreamed. 

Peloponnesian War map

But now, after the empire had been lost, the golden age was past. The fleets that had maintained the power of Athens in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean were sunk or destroyed, and tribute money no longer was flowing into the treasury from the "allies." Sparta had liberated Greece, as the Spartans put it, and the Athenians were facing starvation. 

So who could afford the arts? Work stopped on all major public building projects in Athens, including even the unfinished Parthenon, where apparently an artisan named Socrates (among many others) had been employed carving statues of the gods. The production of expensive new tragedies ended just as abruptly. 

The re-run had been invented, and a few oldies were staged each year, but tragedy limped along in the era of Plato and Aristotle, with few new plays produced. The one-man bard show also was revived, with recitals of Homer performed in festival competitions by solo rhapsodes. (Our word "rhapsody" comes from these songs.) The quality of these Homer imitators may have been amateurish. The performers had no real understanding of the songs that they memorized, in the critical opinion of Socrates. (See Socrates' comic interview with a rhapsode in Plato's dialogue, Ion.)  

Such then were the humble origins of "the classics." The classics were born when the money ran out, just like the oldies but goodies today on low-budget radio or TV.

Aristotle, who was not a man of the theater, could see that tragedy was in trouble, but he misdiagnosed what the trouble was. Apparently he believed that nobody remembered how to compose tragedies properly any more, and so he told how to do it in a treatise on literature called The Poetics (c. 350 BC). This book gave the lost recipe for composing plays in the elegant traditional style of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Theater of Dionysus, Athens

Aristotle's advice may have been accurate enough, technically, but it was quite useless because it didn't say how to raise the money. And in fact tragedy never again was revived on stage in any big way until it became fashionable at neo-classical Versailles and in other super-wealthy aristocratic circles of later western empires that could afford such a luxury. Even in Rome during its heyday, and in all of Europe prior to the age of Shakespeare, whatever new tragedy was composed tended to be "closet drama" (that is, intended only for reading) or else scripts for use in (often hilarious) children's school productions. Even today in the USA, the wealthiest nation of all time by any material measure, live professional theater is a cultural extravagance, not economically viable. 

Aristotle's Poetics didn't rescue tragedy, but it nonetheless makes important contributions to literary theory. Aristotle sees art from the outside view, so his central theme is that tragedy in its essence is "imitation of action," as if the purpose of tragedy is to imitate, copy or mirror the outer world. Aristotle wants the plot to seem plausible, and he wants the characters to appear to be life-like so that audiences will feel toward them strong emotional sympathies, like pity and fear. In this external approach, Aristotle is the founder of "realist" theory in the arts: art is best when it fools us by its apparent resemblance to the outer world, for that's what engages us on an emotional or empathetic level. Realists typically favor the relative objectivity of the Iliad over the apparent nonsense of the Odyssey.

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Aristotle with a bust of Homer" (1653), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Plato, by contrast, was an artist, not merely an art historian or critical observer like the scholarly Aristotle. (Plato wrote lyric poetry in his youth. According to tradition, he also had tried to write tragedies, but the manuscripts ended up in the fire.) With this insider's view of art, Plato understood the real problem of the decline of Greek tragedy, and he solved it, too. He let it go away. He didn't like its sound and fury anyway. He had a better idea, he thought. He would turn art away from being a feast for the senses and make it over into a delight for the soul, mind or inward life.

In his art Plato disposed of the physical theater altogether, and he substituted in its place a low-budget, manuscript or read-only form, the Platonic dialogue. It was a great invention, one of the greatest in all of literary history. The new medium gave a boost to writers, as men and women with little or no state support or aristocratic patronage began to produce imaginative dialogues on all kinds of subjects.  The dialogue was to become a prevalent literary form for the next 2000 years(!), throughout the Age of Manuscripts: in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the European Middle Ages, and even up to the time of Erasmus, Thomas More, Galileo, and Copernicus. A few learned dialogues are being published still today.

The dialogue form was relatively cheap to produce, as it didn't require performers or costumes or scenery or musicians or rehearsals or memorization. Moreover, it could be distributed widely, even internationally, simply by circulating the manuscripts, and it even allowed authors with new or controversial ideas to masquerade behind independent or fictional characters like Socrates or Salvati. (Salvati is Galileo's proponent of the scandalous idea that the earth revolves around the sun.)

There was an important tradeoff, however: the audience had to be literate. The whole city no longer could attend. To be admitted now, you had to be part of an elite group or sub-culture of literate and educated people, people who valued knowledge and wisdom, the goods of the internal world. Illiterates were excluded.

Plato, from a classical bust. Plato developed a revolutionary theory of art to support his literary practice of dialogue writing. What mattered about art, for Plato, was only how it influenced the thoughts and attitudes of its audience.  Unlike Aristotle, Plato saw little value in the outward spectacle of theater or other arts. For him good art takes its inspiration from the inner world, and it firmly rejects the outer world:

  • Micro-art (like Plato's own art) that reflects the inner life of the mind can capture or at least intimate the perfect realm of  "ideas" or "forms" that exists apart from the imperfect material world of the senses. 

  • Macro-art or theater-art (of the Aristotelian or realistic kind), art that reflects the outer world of the senses, is far less uplifting or thoughtful. In Plato's theory, the macro physical world of the senses is itself an imperfect imitation of God's perfect world of ideas and forms. Hence, an artist who copies this imperfect world of the senses produces nothing better than an imitation of an imitation of true reality. The false images and illusions of this kind of art may distract or divert the attention of an audience, but amusements of this kind cannot advance the search for truth, which (Plato thinks) should be every serious person's real business on earth.

The demotion of the physical world to second-class status is one of Plato's most introverted notions. It's as if, when Plato's God said "let there be light," there was light but it wasn't exactly what God had in mind. We don't need literature to show us the light, Plato observes; what artists need to show us, or help us to imagine somehow, is the original idea for light in the mind of God. For us today, I suppose, that would have been before the Big Bang, the time that observation can't reveal, the time that can be known only through speculation, the beginning.

In any event, Plato's own art forgets about the macro environment of the senses to focus on the ideas or forms, the inner life of the mind. This representation of higher or more perfect reality is philosophy, not a separate branch of learning but a new introspective direction within literature. Plato's new form of Greek tragedy does away with the physical theater, the actors, the singing and dancing, the grunting and groaning about fate, and most other appeals to tragic emotional sentiment in order to reveal thoughts and to stimulate mental activity. Plato's Socrates never asks anybody to pity him or to fear for him, as an Aristotelian kind of tear-jerking hero does. For Plato's new tragic hero, even death is an intellectual opportunity to discover something that is unknown. When sentenced to be executed, Socrates happily imagines himself going home to the land of the dead, a far better and more interesting place than Athens.

The dialogue, as invented by Plato, illustrates the idealist theory in the arts. Here, the artist does not copy nature, for what's the point of that? Idealist art seeks to educate or improve its audience by fostering ideas and wonder. Platonists ordinarily favor the moralizing and the magical fantasy of the Odyssey over the blustering blood and thunder of the Iliad. Their model is Odysseus, the beggar in appearance who's a prince in reality.


Wise man say . . . umm, sorry, I can't remember now.The awakening of the human spirit

In his ambitious book The Way to Wisdom (1951), Karl Jaspers, the existentialist philosopher, describes an awakening of the human spirit that seems to have occurred across the ancient world from about 800 BC to 200 BC. This was the time of Confucius and Lao Tze in China, the time of the Buddha and Jainism along with the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita in India, the time of Zoroaster or Zarathustra in Persia, the time of the major prophets in Israelite culture, and the time of the rise of philosophers and scientists in Greece, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid and many others. Jaspers calls this formative time the "Axial Period" in human history, because all thought since that time seems to revolve around it.

Jaspers and other thinkers speculate that perhaps in the future another enlightenment will occur, similar to the awakening of the Axial Period, and humanity then will embark on a whole new set of spiritual or intellectual projects. 

Will it happen again? Well, it did happen once, but it happened for a simple reason that Jaspers apparently did not see and that is still not well appreciated, despite its obviousness.

Although philosophers may dream about the Second Coming of the wise men and the prophets, what happened in the original Axial Period clearly had nothing to do with evolution of the brain, sudden development of thought, visitations from the gods, or any spurt of progress in wisdom. The Axial Period was a result of the invention and widespread distribution of writing. It's the literary record of wisdom-seeking, rather than wisdom itself, that began at that time. The wise men finally gained the leverage of print. If a new axial period is to come, it almost certainly will be due to a similarly monumental break-through in technology: the computer, perhaps, or the internet, or, even more likely, technology for reforming the genetic makeup of human beings. 

Obviously Plato was highly intelligent, but no one fairly can say that Plato was any wiser or more thoughtful than Homer. For better or worse Plato had an advanced technology that allowed him to communicate more fully and clearly than Homer the complex and subtle goings-on of the mind. This same tool allowed Aristotle and his students to record an entire library of almost all knowledge of the time, an ambitious encyclopedia far exceeding the scope of any catalogue of information ever constructed by pre-literate bards.

Homer, and Greek tragedy that Homer inspired, are oral, public performance, not ideally suited to describe the complexities of thought. (The Odyssey is genuinely brilliant but--let's face it--not easy to understand.) In the days before Plato, although Socrates could read, and read with great critical insight, he was not comfortable with writing. He heard songs and voices in his head but, rather than writing down the words, he talked about them. To get at truth, he also relied on conversational routines that he developed through a lifetime of discussions and debates. 

By Plato's generation, however, writing was widespread enough so that even wise men finally had caught on to using it. For better or worse, literature no longer was restricted to what's musical and memorable. It became almost as complicated and entangled as thought itself. Prose came in, and for the most part verse went out. 

It's natural that the philosopher, the lonely thinker, comes into being as soon as the technology is available to give a sharp focus on the detached, inner life of the mind. As Jaspers says about his profession, or withdrawn people like himself:

The philosopher is independent, first because he is without needs, free from the world of possessions and the rule of passions, he is an ascetic; second, because he is without fear, for he has seen through the illusory terrors of the religions; third, because he takes no part in government and politics and lives without ties, in peaceful retirement, a citizen of the world.

Much as science fiction often portrays a future in which intelligent machines will take over and transform the human race, history often shows how we already have been taken over by our past inventions. Life in the inward lane, the life of solitude or Jaspers' life of "peaceful retirement," was produced by writing. It was expressed first by the retreat into thought of the ancient philosopher and later by the contemplative life of the medieval monk. The radical "church and state" dichotomy of the Middle Ages, the parting of the spiritual and temporal ways of life, was the ultimate social separation of the inner and outer worlds, and it was the consequence of the division of humanity into literates and illiterates. 

Writing scripted Plato and it still scripts academic life as we know it today. Take writing away, lose it again somehow, and academic culture will collapse in the same hour. Schools (if any) in post-literate society immediately will return to the kind maintained by Socrates, with a teacher and a few amateur disciples talking in very general terms about the nature of things while life bustles around them and takes little note. 


The wisdom of Thersites
& the nature of cult literature

Inner and outer worlds in consciousness are seldom in harmony. The world wars between them are recorded in the conflicts of literature. There are two basic kinds:

  • World war one is the Homeric or scientific type where the external world is normal, and the internal world (even though it controls) is deviant. Anger, jealousy or some other "tragic flaw" or disturbance in the inner world erupts to cause pain, suffering, or other trouble in the macrocosm. All hell breaks loose when an Achilles or Telemakhos can't control his mental derangements. The mind is the source of all problems.

  • World war two is the Platonic or New Testament type where the external world is corrupt, conventional society is decadent, and the private inner world of contemplation is the only ideal sanctuary or source of illumination. If the Iliad were rewritten in this WW II format, Achilles might simply withdraw into his tent and become a man of peace. 

Along with philosophy and mysticism, social criticism comes to the forefront in this second kind of literary conflict. The central character here has a powerful spirit, personal integrity, and a fully independent sense of selfhood, uniquely differentiated from all others. So this secondary kind of hero is not among equals, is not placed in a heroic setting, and does not slug it out with other heroes, gods or supernatural creatures. The adversaries here are conventional stereotypes, non-heroic or soulless  human opponents who seem to attack heroism itself by slandering, discrediting, defaming, dishonoring or otherwise vilifying the hero’s god, personal character or reputation. Society is ignorant or wicked, as far as spiritual matters are concerned, and the hero stands well apart from it.

The basic plot of this secondary type is the essential stuff of cult literature: the cult hero "gets it," spiritually, and the opponents don't. The opponents brand the cult hero as anti-social, crazy, deviant or immoral, but the charges are false and often intentionally slanderous. Most traditional tales of sages, prophets, saints and virtuous heroines (like patient Griselda, pure Suzanna of the Bible, the good women of Chaucer and Shakespeare, or the faithful but slandered brides of folk tales) belong in this category.

The Gospel of Mark is a notable example, too. "Do you not yet understand?" an exasperated Jesus asks (8:21), as the Pharisees, the Romans, his own family, and even the disciples fail to see who he is. In our own time, this tradition of cult fiction continues to feature heroes and heroines who are uncompromising, unconventional and incorruptible--the last representatives of the purity of the soul or the indomitable human spirit maintaining its integrity amid surroundings that are defiling, corrosive or evil. 

Already we have seen a little preview of this hero-slander problem in the Iliad. Remember Thersites? He is the only social critic at Troy, the lone disenchanted non-conformist. He wanders around the Achaean camp complaining about those in charge. When we meet him in Scroll 2, he is jeering that the supreme commander Agamemnon is a greedy, thieving, womanizing, petty, self-important jerk. The jeers appear to be true--they are true at least to Achilles' anger toward Agamemnon--but they bite too much to be tolerated for long. Thersites soon is beaten into tears by Odysseus and ridiculed as a fool by the whole Achaean army.

The scape-goating of Thersites restores morale and reunites the Achaean camp. Everybody laughs, except of course Thersites, who has had his laughs at everybody else already and now must pay for them with his own degradation and infamy. In the Homeric cycle of sarcasm the joker becomes the butt (much as the sacrificer becomes the sacrifice), which is no laughing matter.

That's the Homeric version of the story, but now just imagine for a moment that the Troy story is retold in a world war two format. Imagine that, instead of bringing thousands of heroes and only one foolish social critic to Troy, the Achaean ships are ships of fools. They bring thousands of fools and only one hero to the war. In this new inverted setting of Trojan War II, the lone hero wanders around the fool-Achaean camp wisely criticizing the immorality, stupidity and defective ideas of its leaders. Hearing themselves criticized, the fool-leaders decide that the hero is clearly a public nuisance. (They CANNOT imagine themselves to be fools, after all!) They decide to silence the hero so that their foolish war can go on. So Thersites gets beaten again, but this time we see the beating from poor Thersites' point of view. It's not justice any more. It's repression.

Troy II, that you are asked to imagine now, is what the outer world of thoughtlessness looks like from the perspective of the thoughtful inner world. If you've got this perspective in mind, you're no fool! You’ve imagined a city of madness much like classical Athens, Plato's world of Socrates.

Head of Socrates, from a Hellenistic bust.The foremost social critic or "gad-fly" of Athens, Socrates is a new and improved Thersites--but still a Thersites all the same. A short, physically unattractive and outspoken man of too many words (not only winged but barbed ones) he is moved by his spirits to tell the Athenians that they are not as wise as they claim to be--in fact, that they are not wise at all, that what they think they know is really only pretense and nonsense.

It's not a popular message that these Socratic gods put in the mouth of their prophet. While some Athenians are amused, most agree that this bad mannered fellow should keep his mouth shut. When he won't oblige them, they arrange for his public condemnation and execution.

But there's a further wrinkle in Plato's story, and it makes all the difference. Because the story is told from the view of the spirit world--that is, the inner world--Socrates' death is not the end of the story. In the spiritual view, the charges and prosecution against Socrates ultimately fail. The Athenian politicians are so ignorant that they think they can rid their city of the troublemaker simply by poisoning him. They don't know about the life of the mind. They can't kill Socrates' ideas, especially when the ideas are written down, and there's nothing they can do to stop young Athenians from being "corrupted" by them. Dead, Socrates is simply a hero to Plato and other Socratic disciples who write his story.  Now the damfool Athenians have got to contend with schools of Socratics.


Teacher wars
Socrates vs. the sophists

The foolish, corrupt society that sentenced and executed Socrates was a democracy. The creation of democracy had very big implications for literature.

Democracy had been invented by the Athenians only about 100 years before Plato's time. In fact, some of Plato's direct ancestors--Solon, Cleisthenes and others--were responsible for the invention. Under democracy, the traditional Hellenic love of arrogant verbal sparring (remember the war councils and also the battlefield boasts in the Iliad?) was institutionalized in popular politics and law courts. Democracy permitted almost anybody to accuse almost anybody else of almost anything. There were many casualties, as in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

The development of democracy was a particular boon to teachers of oratory or rhetoric--speech, as we call it nowadays. Skill in argument, debate, persuasion and verbal abuse became as critical as spearmanship and archery for survival in Athens. The Athenians called it "Eristics," their fancy term for word-fighting. Lawyers hadn't been invented yet, so citizens attacked their enemies in court by reciting memorized speeches that they bought from the professional speech teachers.

Wise men (that is, writers) from everywhere in the Greek-speaking world flocked to Athens to cash in. They soon encountered a peculiar problem there, however. That was Socrates.  

Socrates, penetrating, demonic, from a classical statue.Socrates did not claim to be a teacher, and he never charged fees for his services (who would pay?), but he made it his business to examine every mage who came to town to teach. The confrontation between Socrates and the visiting professor was a public affair, usually conducted in front of a crowd of gleeful students who gathered to see whose words would draw the most blood.

The local champion had a well known style, developed through years of practice. It was a low key, straight-forward approach. (Today we call it the Socratic method.) Socrates asked the visitor to define some simple term or basic concept that the visitor himself casually had mentioned in his opening remarks. It was usually some moral abstraction like "courage," "piety," "fineness," or "justice." Socrates realized that high-sounding words of this sort were used every day for show by self-important people, who never took the words to heart or considered their meanings.

In a heroic world, a virtue-word like “courage” may not even exist in their vocabulary, but people are courageous anyway. In the non-heroic Athens that Socrates sees, by contrast, “courage” and other virtue-words are used all of the time in everyday speech, but their meanings are not clear, and nobody really cares. It is as if the words have substituted for the reality, so that people don't need to be courageous, or don't need to know what courage is, once they have learned to say it. 

In Plato's dialogues, the teachers who spar with Socrates, and promote these empty words, are called sophists. The term "sophist" comes from the Greek word sophia, which means wisdom. The sophists in Plato claim to be wise, and try to appear wise, but they are fools, the inverse of Socrates, the great thinker who proudly wears the mask of the fool. The sophists' concern is style (the outside look of language or its emotional appeal), not substance (the content inside or real meaning).

The sophists are hollow beings of the outer world, the macrocosm, who use speech purely for external reasons: to manipulate other people, usually to extract fees from them. They have little or no concern for the inner world, where personal integrity, truth and consistency of thought might be found. There's no coherence beneath all of their rhetoric, because they have trained themselves to argue any position and to make any case as the need arises. As we say of lawyers in America, they are hired guns. Their thoughtlessness shows, when Socrates draws them into serious discussions about what they really believe, because they don't really believe in anything at all. Today the sophist speaks in praise of X; tomorrow he speaks against it, because he argues on behalf of a different client.

In Socrates' day or our own, sophistry takes a "relativity of values" approach where there’s no such thing as good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, except in a relative or personal sense. If values are relative, I can say that something is “good” for me or “right” for me or “true” for me without saying that it is good or right or true for you or for anybody else. In this approach, Plato’s opinion is no better than Aristotle's or yours or mine or Humpty Dumpty's or Hitler's. (In Nazi circles, however, Hitler's might be preferred until he's dead.)

Sophistry and relativism are non-heroic. If I’m a sophist or relativist, I don't listen to any internal heroes or guides or principles, and my own example (because my spirit is not recognizable, even to myself) is not a model or inspiration for anybody else. In the long run, what will have been the meaning of such a relative, isolated, non-heroic life? [Recall the choice of Achilles from Lesson 4: he could die a hero or else go home and be forgotten.] 

Socrates doesn't want philosophers (or others) to peddle arguments for a living or to go off into their own private dream worlds in disregard of society. One irony is that philosophers ever since Socrates have tended to specialize in precisely these areas. As it seems to be practiced today, philosophy is only the name given to the arena where individuals come together from various universities to see which one of them can make the most sophisticated arguments on topics of such extreme generality or uselessness that they have not been absorbed into practical areas of study. 

To Plato, however, the philo-sopher (= "lover of wisdom") unlike the soph-ist (= "professor of wisdom") seeks the good, or truth, and becomes a model or example for others to do the same. The object of teaching is a cult or way of life, and it is a heroic one: the proof of the teacher is inside the student where the teaching lives. Without the powerful example of uncompromising Socrates to guide him, Plato himself might have grown up to become an obscure politician in exile, or perhaps a forgotten minor poet, almost certainly not an inspired thinker of any kind.


  Socrates' last days
our readings for Lessons 11-14

Plato presents the story of Socrates’ last days in a series of dialogues or separate short scenes. We will study four of them that form the core of the story, dealing with Socrates' accusation, trial, imprisonment, and execution:  

  • 1. Euthyphro (described further below on this page) discusses the accusation. Socrates is to be tried in a religious court on charges of impiety. He wonders what these charges really mean, so he engages in a discussion about piety with Euthyphro, a self-styled religious seer or prophet. Euthyphro claims great expertise on all spiritual matters, but he is unable to help Socrates understand what piety is. The dialogue ends inconclusively, after Socrates has poked holes in various conventional ideas about piety.

  • 2. The Apology (to be discussed in Lesson 12) is Socrates’ trial defense addressed to his accusers and jury. Socrates summarizes his life, including his public contributions to Athens and his personal mission statement, his commitment to the pursuit of wisdom. He refuses to be contrite in court or to beg for mercy from the jurors because he believes that he has done nothing wrong. The jury votes to convict and then votes for the death penalty. 

  • 3. Crito (to be discussed in Lesson 13) takes place before dawn in the quiet of Socrates’ jail cell several days after the trial. Execution has been delayed temporarily because of a civic holiday. Socrates’ faithful friend, Crito, urges him to escape and to flee into exile, while there is time and opportunity, but Socrates is not persuaded. He sees nothing to gain by running away. Compare Achilles at Troy.  

  • 4. Phaedo (to be discussed in Lesson 14) presents an eye-witness account of Socrates’ day of execution, particularly his willing acceptance of death and hope for immortality. The eye-witness, Phaedo, relates the story in detail to another admiring philosopher.  

These four dialogues are only a sampling of Plato's writings, but they illustrate his range as an artist. The progression of the story from scene to scene gradually reveals more of Socrates' inner life. It starts with the public figure who must defend himself against vague charges by political enemies, and it leads to more private conversation and ultimately to a personal summary of deeply held hopes and aspirations. This story is also a journey of faith from a dissatisfied view of the official state religion, based on ancient and strange stories of the gods, to an inspired new mythology that is more responsive to human needs.


Euthyphro: summary
link to Plato's dialogue here

The Euthyphro takes place outside the so-called “King’s porch” in Athens. This is the place where, under Athenian law, preliminary arguments were held in religious cases.  The presiding magistrate or judge was not a king, but an elected official who was in charge of all religious affairs of the city. At the preliminary argument, the indictment (the prosecutor’s accusation) was presented to the defendant, and the defendant had an opportunity to persuade the judge that the charge was groundless. The judge then decided whether to throw out the case or to send it on for a trial by jury.

At the opening of the dialogue Socrates has just left this preliminary hearing, where his accuser has won, when he happens to see Euthyphro, an acquaintance. Euthyphro regards himself as a faithful religious man who has been blessed by the gods, even to the point that he possesses some powers to prophesy future events. Socrates would not normally debate with such a person, for Euthyphro is not a sophist or a student. But Socrates is anxious to talk with Euthyphro because of the charge of impiety that has been made against him at the hearing.

What is piety (also sometimes translated as "holiness" or "reverence"), Socrates wants to know. Euthyphro is very sure that he knows, but as the discussion unfolds it becomes clear that Euthyphro cannot define it in any satisfactory way. Piety is believing in the stories of the gods. Piety is doing things that the gods approve of. Piety is taking care of the gods by performing the conventional rituals for their benefit, such as sacrifice and prayer. Socrates points out that none of these conventional definitions makes sense. He wants to pursue the subject further, to discover a better explanation of piety, but Euthyphro has a short attention span or may be feeling uncomfortable under Socrates relentless questioning. In any case, he does not have the time to stay and talk further, he says. The dialogue ends abruptly with its issue unresolved.

Even though it fails to define piety to Socrates' satisfaction, the Euthyphro shows clearly enough why Socrates has been accused. As Euthyphro immediately recognizes, the complaint against Socrates is based on Socrates' belief that he receives direct communication from a divine or semi-divine spirit, his “daemon” or "divine sign." It's a common trait of heroes to be guided by spirits (e.g., Odysseus guided by Athena), but it is easily misconstrued by people of ill will as the mark of a subversive, a reformer, a crackpot or a witch.

The Euthyphro also makes clear that Socrates is a free thinker. His skeptical spirit of inquiry is upsetting to those who don't care to have their beliefs questioned. For Socrates, there are no sacred cows; no subject matter is too holy or too popular or too obvious to be examined by logic or reason or common sense. Socrates is unafraid to point out to Euthyphro why some conventionally-held religious beliefs cannot be correct. He makes his points quite openly, even outside of the door of the chief religious officer of the city. (Surely the high priest would be interested in finding out what the real truth is about the gods?!?)


Aurelian panel, cir. 170 AD, from Rome.

Socrates meets an inside-out man
the new theater of Athens

Like Homer, Plato has been recruited to support a variety of causes down through the centuries. Remarkably, the Christian Fathers saw Socrates and Jesus united in opposition to paganism--as if the famous persecutions of this pair justified massive Christian retaliation against all pagans and Jews. Centuries later, with the secular ideological attack on all religion in the West, interpreters came to view the Euthyphro as a debate between religion (i.e., Euthyphro the seer) and philosophy (Socrates the irreligious philosopher or skeptic), with philosophy winning the argument, hands down.

The Euthyphro, however, is not finally a matter of religion versus philosophy, or faith versus reason.  Socrates never claims to be the voice of reason or enlightened thought, and he is certainly not a critic of paganism or the gods. In fact he considers himself to be religious, extremely so. Socrates' whole mission in life, as he says in both The Apology and Phaedo, is to serve God.

The real conflict between the prosecutors and Socrates is spiritual or cultural. The charge against Socrates is that he's a poet:

Socrates. Oh, he [Socrates' accuser Meletus] brings a wonderful accusation against me! At first hearing it may surprise you. He says that I am a poet or maker of gods, and that I invent new gods and deny the existence of old ones. That's the basis of his charge.

Euthyphro. I see, Socrates. He's attacking you for the familiar sign that sometimes, as you say, comes to you. He thinks you're a heretic, and he's going to have you tried for it.

The poet listens to inner voices. People in the outer world who cannot hear the voices may have the political power to decide whether any particular voice is proper or improper to be heard. This is the power to define heresy or the power of censorship. So Socrates' "familiar sign" or daemon, the inner voice of conscience that warns him against bad actions, will not be tolerated if the public prosecutors have their way. The trial of Socrates is a spiritual contest matching the new spirituality of the artist against the conventional spirituality of the censors.

Of course, Euthyphro is not one of Socrates' accusers. He sees himself as a kindred spirit of Socrates, a kind of fellow-poet who like Socrates is persecuted for his extraordinary statements about spiritual matters. The Athenian assembly laughs at him for his claims to prophetic powers. Evidently Euthyphro is thought of as a harmless lunatic, but from his ideas of piety we should see him as a zealous cult believer in traditional Hellenic mythology and religious ritual. He would have been right at home with Kalkhas and Teiresias among the Zeus-men of the old days depicted in Homer.

Euthyphro does not see that those days are past. The worlds depicted in archaic poetry define Euthyphro's reality. He really believes the old story that Zeus imprisoned his father Kronos for swallowing gods. Since he is a follower of storybook Zeus, he claims that it is a godly thing to prosecute his own father for impiety. He reenacts the mythological story, taking for himself the role of the god, of course. It's as if a religious conservative today were to disown his or her kids for sneaking forbidden candy bars, cigarettes or drugs because that's roughly what the God of Genesis did under comparable circumstances.

Fragmentary scene from a classical temple showing Zeus battling his father Kronos.The strange story of Zeus and his father Kronos comes from Hesiod's poem called The Theogony, or "The Birth of the Gods," cir. 650 BC, which borrows stories of gods from Near Eastern sources and gives them Hellenic names and a few Hellenic features. Whatever merits this poem may have, it doesn't help Euthyphro to understand piety--which is the question of moment both for him and for Socrates.

Euthyphro is trapped in The Theogony; he believes that he must follow its story, but he does not understand what it means. His literal interpretation of it does not help him to act sensibly toward his own family or to know who the gods are or how to behave toward them. Was Zeus guilty of impiety for imprisoning Kronos, the former king of the gods? Was Kronos guilty of impiety for swallowing gods? Are all of these gods guilty of impiety for fighting with one another? How can all of the gods be impious? 

Euthyphro takes a similarly external and unreflective approach to traditional religious ritual and ceremony: he practices it with strict orthodoxy but without understanding. Performing ritual is pious, he thinks, since it draws him to do what the gods want to be done. But what do they want? They want sacrifices and hymns, he supposes. 

Euthyphro's belief in sacrifice and praise is a survival of the archaic belief in "gifts and fair words" of hero ritual. (Recall Phoenix' speech on the mission to Achilles in the Iliad and also the parody of "gifts and fair words" that the banqueting suitors offer to Odysseus.) When Socrates examines these ancient ceremonies of Hellenism, however, he asks how the gods would want or need such poor gifts and praises as mere humans can offer them? Socrates can see how people want things from the gods, and consequently how they might try to bribe the gods in order to receive blessings or favors--but what kind of gods would want or need to be bribed by the likes of us? Euthyphro has no answer. He doesn't know.

Euthyphro is Inside-out Man. His spirituality--the part of him that should be within him, in his inner life of thought--is worn on the outside like some conspicuous religious vestment to display his piety to the world. But when Socrates probes him about this evident piety of his, Euthyphro exposes himself as lacking in any personal spiritual depth or inner understanding about the gods. 

In Plato's characterization of this figure, the normal layering of the two worlds of consciousness is reversed: the spiritual aspect shows on the outside, and the material aspect is hidden on the inside. The inside-out technique of characterization is much the same as that used in Plato's portraits of the sophists, mentioned before: they pose as wise men but their mental or inner lives do not measure up to their public claims to wisdom.

Socrates holds the mirror up to others through his relentless questioning.Socrates does not see the truth, or claim to see it, but he claims to see behind the masks that others wear. In this sense, he dramatizes Athens. That is, through dialogue he penetrates the superficial pretenses of others to reveal their inward condition or spiritual reality. Behind their masks, he finds knaves like the sophists, who use deceit to manipulate others, and he finds clowns like Euthyphro, who simply lack understanding or knowledge that they claim to have.

Under Socrates' investigation, Athens reveals itself as a kind of stage play, where the false appearances of things hide the true realities, so it is entirely fitting after all that Plato tells the story in the quasi-dramatic form of dialogues. Socrates' probing of inward or mental worlds of Athenians exposes their pretending to knowledge and virtue. The culture of Athens is a masquerade of spirituality, piety and wisdom. The old art of Homer and Hesiod that centuries earlier had helped to create this culture now has been copied over and over by imitators until it has been reduced to a pile of superstitions, jargon and unexamined beliefs in the ridiculous figure of the prophet Euthyphro. The relic of the ancient vision is the seer who only pretends to see.

Lesson Summary: This lesson has introduced Plato as a poet of the inner world of consciousness. He followed Homer's Odyssean way in his interest in mental powers, but he understood and capitalized on the technology of writing, as nobody before him had done. He invented or was among the first to use the literary dialogue. Through Socrates' rigorous questioning of sophists, zealots and other character types, he exposed the confused thinking of the Athenians.


Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. Paired worlds in consciousness: The two-world systems suggest a fundamental structure of human awareness, not much different in the age of the modern novel than it was in the time of Homer or Plato. We really don't need brain surgeons to prove the existence of the two worlds because we know them by everyday experience. We know them very well because they awkwardly get in each other's way nearly all of the time. Your day-dream sends you off wandering like Odysseus while your teacher is lecturing on some subject of enormous importance to mankind (that is, on the final exam). Conversely, you are so bogged down in your classes and homework that you haven't had time to figure out what your major should be, or what career or personal goals you should aim for, let alone what the meaning of life may be or how you spend the next weekend. 

It's a limitation of our consciousness that we can pay attention to only one world at a time--outer or inner--while our lives demand that we live in both.

In your journal, explore one or more areas or subjects in which your world of private thought is at odds with the outer social or physical world in which you find your material self.

Do you see yourself as an extrovert or an introvert? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this orientation?

2. Plato and Aristotle on literature: If you have a serious interest in literary criticism or interpretation, you should read or at least skim Aristotle's Poetics (c. 350 BC). Plato's critique of literature appears in many of the dialogues; we will note it in the Euthyphro, The Apology and the Crito. Plato's most famous formulation, however, appears in The Republic (c. 360 BC), where the tragic poets who mimic the outer world of the senses are said to have an immoral impact on society. 

On the basis of this passage in The Republic, philosophers often claim that Plato was a censor or hater of poets. A majority of them agree about this point, but I'm certainly not persuaded. The much better explanation, it seems to me, is simply that Plato hated bad poets. He promoted his own art by lampooning the superficiality of his competitors' theatrical tragedies and other literary undertakings. 

Aristotle admired imitation; he and his followers thought that art should imitate the external world. But Plato dared to ask the simplest and most difficult question about imitation. That is, shouldn't we prefer originals to imitations? Why bother with imitations at all? 

It's a fair question. We all know plenty of people who don't have time for literature or any other art because, to their way of thinking, it simply isn't true or real or factual. They just don't believe in it. Are they right? Are we wasting our time studying the arts? 

I believe that Plato answered his own question. He preferred originals to imitations, and he recognized that originals are seldom available. We don't have any real access to Socrates, for example. We have access only to imitations or presentations of Socrates by philosophers, historians, painters, and other artists. Even if some archaeologist could dig up Socrates' bones, those remains wouldn't be Socrates. As an artist, Plato realized that he traded only in illusions of Socrates. It bothered him that other poets were so much more pretentious about their work.

More about this issue in coming lessons. 

3. It's not easy being Athenian: Athens has plenty of critics these days, including many teachers who object to teaching Athenian culture for one reason or another. Yet their objections are consistent with the classical tradition of social criticism, that includes Plato, Thucydides, Aristophanes and other Athenian critics of Athens. No one was ever harder intellectually on Athens than her own intellectuals. 

There's no question that the Athenian empire thrived by taxation, extortion, rape and enslavement of its neighbors. This civilization was an echo (and not the last one) of the Achaean way of life, as it had been described without affection in the Iliad

While this society is not an ideal model for all subsequent human existence, history is clear that the Athenians were no more inconsiderate of their neighbors than were the Spartans, Persians, Egyptians, Israelites, Macedonians or other cultures at the time. If the Athenian empire had not existed, there would not have been any power vacuum in the region, nor probably any improvement in the lives of ordinary people in the area. In all likelihood, a different empire would have produced as much violence and oppression, but it would not have produced a Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles, or any other social critic of comparable skill, since Athenian civilization was unique in the ancient world in its tireless self-analysis and soul searching. Democracy opened social discussion and debate from a variety of points of view. Athens was not ideal, but it did not pretend to be, and that was the whole point.

The Athenians were not the world's first (or last) thieves, murderers and sex offenders. They were only the earliest and most vocal to describe the horror of these and other evils. Their most important contribution to the world (and Socrates was among the foremost in contributing) was conscience. We don't know much about the executions of intellectuals in ancient Asia, or Africa, or Europe outside of Athens because in these places there was no such public trial and no such written record for posterity as there was in Socrates' famous case. Thought was persecuted everywhere; it was allowed to develop to an unprecedented degree in Athens.
The ancient city of Athens web site.
Maps of classical Athens.
 

4. Plato's museum vs. Ptolemy's:  We have noted how Alexander the Great was laid out in a museum where priests tended manuscripts of Homer, like so many scholarly preservers of trivia in modern U.S. presidential libraries. [Recall Lesson 9.] The original model for Ptolemy's great library was the funerary temple of the Pharaoh, an antique institution that was as familiar to Plato as it was to Ptolemy. Where Ptolemy built his museum at Alexandria, Plato's museum was the Academy at Athens. 

Of course, in his library, Plato did not keep Socrates' body or relics, and apparently he possessed few or no physical memorabilia of Socrates' life, either. So naturally, as Plato portrays him, Socrates does not care about having any tomb for his mortal remains; he has contempt for the body and for material possessions in general. He's a being of spirit only, pure thought. In Socrates' museum, we don't find an embalmed body, or braggart records of the great man's deeds, or statues, engravings or paintings of his image, as in Pharaoh's temple. 

As in any mortuary temple, however, the purpose was to immortalize the dead. The manuscripts kept by Plato at the Academy appear to record Socrates' words directly, so that the master seems to live for all time, at least whenever anyone repeats or hears a Socratic dialogue. This is only an illusion of Socrates, of course, but like any good magician, Plato persuades more gullible audiences that his art is real. 

The Socratic dialogues are funerary art, and yet (as we have seen already in the Euthyphro) Plato manages in this art to tackle religious hypocrisy and other highly nontraditional subject matter. Is he impious? 

(More on the subject of Plato's Academy in Lesson 12.)

5. Sophistry: For Socrates' debates with the sophists, some of the best examples in Plato's dialogues are the comic Euthydemus, Gorgias and Protagoras. The last has several interesting allusions to the Odyssey, as Socrates descends into a Hades of sorts--a house full of Sophists. Homer's clever Odysseus might be seen as the original or prototype of the sophist, since he always can manipulate others by talking, even if he lies to gain his ends.

The concept of sophistry isn't too hard for us to grasp because it's still with us everywhere, even in modern academia. Sometimes it is blatantly advertised, as in law schools where the art of verbal trickery is packaged and sold to students as the ability “to think like a lawyer,” or the skill “to think on your feet,” which is not thinking at all of course but the audacity to advocate the indefensible or to attack the unimpeachable by using clever words. In the modern adversarial justice system, as in the US Congress and other high places where students of the language congregate, words are used for any personal advantage that can be gained, to promote or defend anything, without regard to the merits or facts. The confrontation between self promoting idiot-debaters is still perceived to be a form of entertainment, too: watch the adversarial talking heads on any political "talk show" on TV.

In philosophical circles, the tradition of sophistry is continually reborn under new names. A modern example is the school of "Emotivism" where the statement "this is good" is understood to mean nothing more than "I approve of this." In emotivism, the good is what each one of us separately and subjectively finds desirable, and we collectively shall never agree about what it is because it has no objective reality of any kind. See, for example, C.L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (1945). 

Other modern thinkers still follow in the tradition of Socrates, fighting emotivism, subjectivism, relativism and other variants of sophistry. They search for objective standards, if not the Platonic realm of the ideas or forms. It cannot be said that these thinkers have been more successful than Socrates in wiping out sophistry. For a recent example, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Against the Self-Images of the Age (1971) and After Virtue (1984). MacIntyre thinks that, to escape from the moral uncertainties of our times, we ought to return for moral guidance to a classical idea of the virtues!

6. Other Euthyphro commentary on-line: 

http://www.friesian.com/euthyph.htm

http://homepages.uc.edu/~fitzsiry/euthyphro.htm

7. Piety  (or holiness or reverence): what is it? You pass the course with high honors if you can answer this question persuasively. Link to the Catholic Encyclopedia definition.

Way back in Lesson 1, we read Genesis to say that contradictions arise with multiple creators. What is good, in the mind of one, may not be good according to another. Genesis looks at this problem from an external point of view, where the story simply explains how culture arises: people need to worship the same God so that everybody gets along, or else the nonconformists need to be driven out of Paradise. But imagine this same expulsion story from an internal perspective, from the point of view of the one who's being driven out, and you get the orientation for the story of Socrates. He's accused of not worshipping the same gods as other Athenians worship; that is, he's thought to belong to some different cult.

It seems then that Socrates must have eaten the forbidden fruit that opened his eyes to the ignorance of Euthyphro and other conventional thinkers in Athens. Where could he have found this fruit? What do you think may be the source of his special knowledge or wisdom or disillusion?  

8. The gods of the old poetry. Histories or genealogies of the gods may have been a common subject in early Hellenic poetry, but the only example to survive today in complete form is Hesiod's Theogony. The narrative of the Theogony can be compared with The Hebrew Bible, for it begins with a creation story and passes through the legendary past to more recent history to tell a complete story of a people. 

Comprehensive songs like Hesiod's seem to be pre-literate catalogues of information, where music is a method for transmitting basic cultural knowledge. The pre-literate, rote learning process assures that the words are remembered precisely, but it does not assure that they are understood. Euthyphro knows the Theogony, but he has little insight into its meaning. He belongs to the Age of Memory, not creative thought.

Plato's attempt to rewrite the Theogony into a new and improved creation story appears in his dialogue on cosmology, the Timaeus. It is much too long to be recited from memory. Plato approaches us as readers, not as listeners, and readers generally have fun with characters like Euthyphro who don't really know how to read.

9. The superstitious man: The character Euthyphro is the original portrait for a common figure in literature, the superstitious man (or much less often, woman). In this inside-out or hollow character type, spirituality has been copied, superficially, but not absorbed, internally. E.g., Euthyphro imitates the outward behavior of Zeus without understanding it. The superstitious man claims that his behavior is driven by spiritual concerns, but when we investigate his claims we can't find the spirits. So we think that he is deluded. 

Members of foreign religions often appear superstitious to us: we can see how they are behaving in apparent response to their religious beliefs but, since we don't share their mental activity, we don't see the spirits that they claim are motivating them. Their spirits are, to us, mere illusions--mistaken or implausible beliefs.

Our own superstitions are hidden from us. Do I have a superstition? What is it? Where do I think that it comes from? To answer questions of this sort, I must detach or stand back from myself so that we can observe the false spirits that I serve. Since such an examination is difficult or impossible to perform on ourselves, we may need a Socrates to help us. But will we be grateful to him when he exposes this superstition of ours? Will we say that he is "impious"? That was the conclusion of the Athenian jury.

Related to the superstitious figure, and even more prevalent in literature, is the hypocrite. This character also claims to be motivated by spirits, but he knows that his claims are false. His only purpose in making such claims is to deceive others for his own personal gain. (Again this type is almost always male.) Moliere's hypocrite Tartuffe is perhaps the most famous example: Tartuffe is a phony "man of God" who uses false piety to swindle generous donors out of their wealth and even their women, too. (This 1664 comedy was banned for its "impiety" by King Louis XIV and the Archbishop of Paris.) English literature provides many specimens, more than a few of them Puritans, including Shakespeare's Malvolio in Twelfth Night (to be discussed in a later lesson).

Can you see why the satiric view of religion would be prevalent in literature, given all that we have said about the relationship of cults and culture to poets and poetry?

10. Hollywood on the Aegean. Plato's great satire on the literary scene of Athens in the golden age appears in his dialogue The Symposium (or The Drinking Party). Plato subtly exposes Socrates' artful contemporaries including a celebrated tragic playwright Agathon, the famous comic writer Aristophanes, and the ultimate politician of the time Alcibiades. The after-dinner discussion of these characters and Socrates on the topic of love gives a rough idea of what it may have been like to be a member of Plato's supper club, the Academy, if too much wine had been served there. More on the Academy in the next lesson.


Here's the good stuff! Homer and Plato pages
 
in
Powers of Literature

(
Try the Subject Index for links by topic.)

 

Powers of Literature

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2001


 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: a portrait by Raphael Sanzi (cir 1509 AD). Raphael is featured on the Plato Lessons of this web.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: in Greek tragedy, the actors wore masks with exaggerated facial expressions, a technique probably borrowed from hero impersonation in hero cult ceremonies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Image left: Remains of the Theater of Dionysus at Athens, where the tragedies were staged. This view looks down from the Acropolis (where the gods are enshrined) over the shoulders of the audience to the supporting underworld of the heroes.

 

 

 

  Children's productions: when Shakespeare parodied the Troy story in his tragic farce, Troilus and Cressida, the fun began when all of the roles were performed by pre-adolescent boys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure left: Rembrandt's "Aristotle with a bust of Homer" (1653).

Note Rembrandt's contrasts. See the materialism of Aristotle, with his modern rich man's costume, and the spirituality of Homer in simple traditional peasant's garb. Aristotle is in the flesh but Homer is all art.  Aristotle seems to be examining Homer's cranium physically with his hand, but the light in the gloomy painting comes from disembodied Homer's direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plato is to the Age of Manuscripts as Homer was to the Age of Memory. Homer probably used writing [recall Lesson 10] , but he used it only to enhance songs. Plato fully grasped the use of the new technology. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: The medieval ship of fools, vision of the thoughtless outer world as seen from the detached inner life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Classical statue of Socrates. Artists loved to portray Socrates, possibly because Socrates never cared about his appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Image left: egg head Humpty Dumpty, in Alice's wonderland, is a sophist. His words, as he tells Alice, mean nothing more or less than what he chooses them to mean. Poor Alice, being young and innocent before meeting Humpty, had thought that language really meant something!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: sacrifice ritual as depicted in late classical times (cir. 170 AD). Emphasis now falls on the human actors performing the rite. The poor victim can barely squeeze his head into the picture, as if he were in some Christian nativity scene. Contrast this image with European cave painting of food animals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Zeus overthrows his father Kronos. Euthyphro uses the myth to justify taking his own father to court. Another bad case of  immoral gods!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Socrates' questioning is an art, letting Athenians see who they are.