Raphael School of Athens

This ancient philosopher left mankind a decidedly mixed legacy: real achievements in epistemology and metaphysics combined with a virulently anti-democratic politics. Plato's mentor Socrates, a man who asked questions, would only have been possible in a free and open democracy like Athens; yet his followers did everything in their power to subvert that democracy. Socrates is remembered as a martyr to free thought and free speech; yet the citizens of Plato's ideal commonwealth have no freedom, of thought, or speech, or anything else. To top it all off, the reader of the Symposium may be excused for wondering whether the discussion took place in the Rec Room of the State Pentitentiary, which is where it ought to have taken place. Still, Plato is an author of such inevitability that readers who have not read him likely believe many of the novelties he introduced, without knowing that they do so. The best cure is more of the same poison, administered openly.

Included also are Xenophon's recollections of Socrates, so that the reader may judge to what extent the 'Socrates' of the Platonic dialogues is a sock puppet for Plato. A contrary evaluation, that of Aristophanes, is also included, along with Plato's complete dialogues:

Aristophanes The Clouds
Plato Apology
  The Laws
  The Republic
Socratic Dialogues Alcibiades I
   of uncertain authorship Alcibiades II
Greater Hippias
  Lesser Hippias
Xenophon Defense of Socrates
  Memorabilia of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates

Socrates was executed by the Athenian criminal justice system in 399 B.C. on a charge of corrupting the young. Plato is careful to answer the physical aspect of this charge with the Michael Jackson defense: 'nothing actually happened.' Those who believe this of Michael Jackson may also believe it of Socrates. Socrates was a political agitator against democracy, yet his political activity never advanced from talk to action. He was not accused of violence against the state, although the thirty tyrants who overthrew the Athenian democracy included familiar names from his circle. This makes his trial a landmark in the history of human rights: can Socrates, Gus Hall, or Elijah Muhammad lawfully condemn his own society and form of government and openly praise his country's enemies, whether they be Sparta, the Soviet Union, or Japan? It is remarkable that Socrates' defenders convinced the world that the answer is 'yes,' as indeed it surely is, without so answering this question with respect to their own ideal commonwealths.

Readers interested in understanding what happened to Socrates should read I. F. Stone's 'The Trial of Socrates,' which does a good job of digging behind the pro-Socratic propaganda to recover a world where 'the many' were, not only ignorant fools devoid of any virtue as Plato explains the matter, but also a self-governing people with very good reason to look with apprehension toward the continuance of their right to govern themselves. Socrates wanted to take this right from them. His associates and admiring harem of Athenian golden youth had taken it already, in league with the Spartans he could not stop praising, but the people had got it back, so far as to find themselves sitting in judgment on him.

Plato likened 'the many,' whose verdict governed democratic Athens, to cattle:

"Like cattle, with their eyes always looking down and their heads stooping to the earth, that is, to the dining-table, they fatten and feed and breed, and, in their excessive love of these delights, they kick and butt at one another with horns and hoofs which are made of iron; and they kill one another by reason of their insatiable lust. . .

"Verily, Socrates, said Glaucon, you describe the life of the many like an oracle." (Plato, The Republic, Book IX, 586].

Plato won the propaganda war and tyranny overshadowed the earth. The lights went out on the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic. Tyrants of all ages have found a kindred spirit in Plato. Caligula was inspired to emulation: "He had thoughts too of suppressing Homer's poems: 'For why,' said he, 'may not I do what Plato has done before me, who excluded him from his commonwealth?'" (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Caligula, XXXIV.) There is nothing in the Christian scriptures which requires autocracy; Cromwell's troops were fully convinced they were obeying the letter of the Bible in overthrowing the monarchy. Yet, after Augustine's embrace of Plato, the middle ages never considered any other political paradigm than top-down control. The best resolution is to go back to the source: are 'the many' incapable of self-government as Socrates alleges, or is no one else entitled?

Detail from Raphael's School of Athens: Silenus

The promotion of child molestation in this literature must distress all who care to protect the innocence and rights of children. The tradition of bowdlerizing this material cannot stand up to scrutiny; these short-eyed gentlemen are not after all talking about 'friendship.' What an irony that a philosophical movement which set out to discover 'virtue' ended instead by seizing upon one of the vilest of vices! Plato himself sounds a cautionary note on occasion, saying in the Republic,

"Then I suppose that in the city which we are founding you would make a law to the effect that a friend should use no other familiarity to his love than a father would use to his son..." (Plato, The Republic, Book III).

Included on this site are those Socratic dialogues of uncertain authorship included by Benjamin Jowett in his 'Dialogues of Plato.' One of this translator's criteria of Platonic authenticity is the author's perceived sympathy for Socrates: is the 'Socrates' of the dialogue attractive or the contrary? That the authors of 'Alcibiades I' and 'Alcibiades II' want to hang this albatross around Socrates' neck indicates a lack of sympathy. Alcibiades, a flamboyant traitor who explained to the Athenians that it was all right he sold them down the river because he also double-crossed the Spartans to whom he sold them, may serve as 'Exhibit A' for evaluating Socrates' self-proclaimed career as an educator and promoter of virtue amongst the young. Child molestation, it would appear, does not produce virtue in its victims, and Socrates was no asset to the community.

It is to be hoped that the reader can pick the pearls out from the manure, and retrieve what is worthwhile in Plato's theories of knowledge and being from the surrounding matrix of bad politics and worse behavior. The translations offered, by Benjamin Jowett, are generally excellent, with the caveat to the reader that Jowett's 'absolute truth,' 'absolute justice,' etc., are in the original the less showy 'truth itself,' justice itself,' etc.

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