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The Trial of Socrates: 
Plato’s Theages

WingedEros [1]8,631 words

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on Plato’s dialogue Theages [2]. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness.

Unlike earlier transcripts in this series, I have also added new sections and rewitten others. These changes are based on notes for another lecture on Theages that I delivered two years later.

The quotes are from Thomas L. Pangle’s translation of Theages in Plato, The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues (Agora Editions) [3], ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

Theages is a short Platonic dialogue. The subtitle is On Wisdom. Theages, for whom the dialogue is named, comes to Socrates in search of what he calls wisdom. But the wisdom Theages seeks is not the wisdom philosophers pursue. Indeed, philosophy is never mentioned here at all. The love of wisdom is never mentioned at all. Nature is never mentioned at all. The soul is never mentioned. Now, the soul and nature are two things that are, if you will, models of what ancient philosophers investigated. And Nature and the soul are not mentioned at all. So, this discussion is not what you’d call a philosophical discussion.

Or put it this way: there’s a discussion here between a philosopher and a non-philosopher, and the discussion never rises to the level of actually dealing philosophically with the questions that it discusses. Because if it were to rise to the level of philosophy, Socrates would begin to mention nature and the soul.

Let me just state that dogmatically. When you talk philosophy, and you’re serious about it, you’ll end up talking about what is natural, and you’ll end up talking about specifically the nature of the soul. This is what Aristophanes derives his wisdom from, ultimately: the understanding of human nature, and not just the nature of the body (even the Sophists knew the body) but the nature of the human soul, and what its needs are, and what kind of care it requires.

That is the center of what is distinct about Aristophanes, and it’s the center of Platonic philosophy, too. Ultimately, Socrates is all about is the care of the soul: self-perfection, i.e., the perfection of our moral sensibility, and the perfection of our tastes, too, our aesthetic tastes, the capacity to appreciate the beautiful. These are the two main aspects of the care of the soul. Yet, that’s never mentioned here.

So, the first point is that this dialogue makes no explicit reference to philosophy. It’s not philosophical by nature. So what kind of discussion is it? Well, it’s a discussion between Socrates, who is a philosopher—but who’s keeping his philosophy close to his chest, so to speak—and a young man named Theages, who is mentioned in the Republic.

Let me read you the passage in Republic where Theages is mentioned. It’s in Book Six of the Republic. Socrates is talking about the kinds of people who might be attracted to philosophy or to politics. “And perhaps a very few men from another art who justly despise it because they are good-natured might come philosophy.” Then he goes on, “and the bridle of our comrade, Theages, might be such as to restrain him, but in Theages’ case all the other conditions of exile from philosophy were present, but the sickliness of his body shutting him out of politics restrained him.”

Theages is a valetudinarian. He’s sickly, and his sickliness prevents him from entering into politics. Now, the dramatic date of the Republic is 411 B.C. and the dramatic date of Theages is 409 B.C. Two years later. I don’t know what to make of this fact. Apparently, if it’s the same Theages in the Republic, Socrates already knows him. And he knows he’s the kind of person who’s prevented from entering into politics because of the sickliness of his body. Even if he had other things that would restrain him from going into politics, the fact that he’s so sickly prevents it. So, if this is the same Theages, we’re dealing with somebody who’s rather sickly. He has a desire to go into the political realm, but can’t.

Demodocus is a country gentleman. He’s also involved in politics. He’s got a certain amount of money. And he’s an important man in Athens. He might be the general mentioned by Thucydides in Book 4 of The Peloponnesian War. Theages is apparently dead in 399 B.C. when Socrates is on trial, because he’s mentioned in the Apology. So apparently Theages had wasted away by that time and he is mentioned in the Republic as a sickly person.

Demodocus, the general and country gentleman, brings his son Theages to Socrates. It seems like they meet by chance. Socrates is apparently out and about, and Demodocus and Theages run into him. So, let’s just begin.

Demodocus: “Socrates, I have been needing to talk to you in private about some matters, if you have leisure, and even if you don’t and your business is not very important, make some time for my sake.”

This is important because it reveals what Demodocus knows about Socrates. Demodocus doesn’t realize that Socrates never has any business, that he doesn’t do anything practical, and he’s always at leisure.

And Socrates says, “Why, I happen to be at leisure in any case and, indeed, for your sake, very much so. If you wish to speak about something, you may. Would you like to go over here out of the way into the portico of Zeus the Liberator?”

Now, this is important. He also asked Socrates if he’d like to speak in private. We know that Socrates did speak in private with people, but one of the things that Plato and Xenophon tried to do in defending Socrates against the charges was to claim that he was always in the open. He was always in public talking to people. Demodocus wants to talk to him in private, and Socrates doesn’t really go for that. Where they do go to speak in private, is really in public. It’s in the stoa or portico that was erected to Zeus the Liberator in honor of Zeus’ help in delivering the Athenians from the Persians.

This, of course, hearkens back to the previous generation who fought off the Persians. The previous generation in Athens was a generation of tough old republicans, if you will. Strong believers in the republican virtues of Athens. They had been supplanted by this time by a generation we call radically democratic, led by people like Pericles: demagogues. Pericles and other demagogues had transformed Athens from a tough-minded, independent little city-state into an empire. It represents two generations and two different forms of life: Athens the old republic, small, self-contained, more concerned with its independence than anything else, versus the imperial Athens sprawling all over the Mediterranean, constantly grasping for new conquests and new taxes that eventually overstepped itself and was destroyed in the Peloponnesian War, which came to an end in 404 B.C., only five years after the date of this dialogue.

It’s clear that Demodocus is a farmer, and his understanding of how things grow is based on his understanding of farming. He’s trying to deal with how his son will grow, how his son has to be educated, and he’s quite disturbed because his son keeps talking about wanting to become wise.

Let’s go into the text. One the first page again, Demodocus says:

As regards the plants, it is very easy for us who farm the earth to make all the preparations that precede the planting and to do the planting itself. Then what has been planted takes on life. Then a great, difficult, and vexatious tending begins and it seems likely that the same holds concerning human beings. From my own business I draw inferences about the rest.

This is interesting, because in a sense Demodocus is like the natural philosophers. He has an understanding of nature from tending it, and he wants to apply that understanding of non-human nature to the tending of human beings, namely his son. He’s coming into a certain amount of conflict with that, because his son does not want to be tended like a plant or livestock. He has needs that are distinctly human that are chafing against his father’s tutelage. There’s a conflict between father and son, and finally the father has been led to the city to try to seek out a teacher for Theages, and he comes across Socrates. Maybe he intended to come across Socrates. We don’t know. But then they have this conversation.

Demodocus continues:

Because whereas regards this son of mine here the planting or the child-begetting whichever one ought to call it may be the easiest of all things, the upbringing has been vexatious and has made me anxious with constant fear concerning him. There are many other things that might be mentioned, but the desire that is now present in him is for me a great source of fear. For it is not ignoble, but it is risky since he is before us, Socrates, desiring as he declares to become wise.

This is interesting because Theages wants to become wise, yet the way the dialogue is carried out it keeps philosophy (true philosophy) somewhat hidden. We have to understand this notion of becoming wise in that light. What Theages wants is wisdom understood in a popular way, not understand the way that Socrates understands it, but understand in a popular way. As it turns out, it’s wisdom as understood by the Sophists, who claim to make people wise. It becomes clear that he’s desiring this because he’s been in contact with young men who have spent time in the city talking philosophy, or talking with Sophists, and who have brought this information out into the country, and he’s begun to envy them.

Now, if the account in the Republic is correct, Theages is already known to Socrates as somebody of interest. Theages is maybe within the orbit of Socrates and his companions already, although his father is unaware of this. This is very much like Strepsiades and Pheidippides. Strepsiades doesn’t even know who Socrates is, but Pheidippides does know his name. So, the son is more urbane than the father in both of the texts. Again, the father is a farmer in both of the texts. There is a parallel that emerges here.

The father does know that pursuing wisdom is a very dangerous thing. There are a lot of charlatans around. Although he does regard it as somewhat noble. He says that money is no object. He apparently has a lot of money, and he’s willing to lavishly spend it on his son. Sounds like Strepsiades again, too. Strepsiades spoiled his son by spending all his money on him. He’s opposed him for a long time, but he’s finally giving in, which is a sign of being an indulgent father. Of course, many indulgent parents always tell themselves the story that Demodocus tells: “Now, for a while I held him back with placating talk, but since I can’t any longer, I consider it best to give in to him lest he chance to be corrupted by frequenting someone when I’m not there” (122a). If you can’t control your kid, you might as well just give in.

Demodocus continues: “So, now I’ve come for this very purpose: to place this boy with one of those who are reputed to be “sophists.” You have, therefore, shown up at a fine moment for us, you whom I would especially like to take counsel with when I am actually going to do something about such matters.”

Socrates replies, “Well, Demodocus, it is said certainly that counsel is a sacred thing.” And here Socrates is appealing to the sacred. And Socrates always appeals to the divine when talking with ordinary folks. This is a pattern that you find in the Platonic dialogues. He’s speaking in the public language.

Socrates continues: “If indeed it is ever sacred, it would be in this case concerning the matter in which you are taking counsel. For a human being could not take counsel about anything more divine than about education, both for himself and for those who belong to him. ” Here, Socrates is making claims about things he knows. Those who believe he doesn’t know anything or claims not to know anything, please listen up.

So, a human being could not take counsel on anything more divine than about education. Nothing’s more important than that. Why? Because education cultivates the soul, and that’s the most important thing you can do.

Socrates continues: “First though, let’s you and I come to an agreement as to whatever this may be about which we are taking counsel. Otherwise, if I should take it to be one thing and you another then after we have been together a while we shall perceive ourselves as laughable.” I don’t want to seem too comic, in other words. Of course, one of the main reasons why the Clouds is funny is all the equivocations. They think they’re talking about the same thing but they’re really not. “Let’s talk about meters.” “Yes, I haven’t had any barley today. I’d like ten meters, please.”

That’s one of the common conceits of the Clouds, so I think this is a reference to the Clouds. Here, Socrates is making sure that the old farmer knows exactly what they’re talking about so they don’t misunderstand one another and become comical like they are in the Clouds.

Socrates at the top of 134: “I am indeed saying what is correct, though not entirely. I change it slightly. For it occurs to me that this youth may desire not this thing that we suppose he desires but something else. And then again, we’d be even more absurd taking counsel about something else.”

So, again, he’s trying to say not only do we need to understand ourselves, we need to understand what he wants. So, he begins his discussion with Theages. The name Theages, according to the note, can mean either “revering god” or “envying god.” This is an interesting ambiguity.

It’s the very same ambiguity that you see in the battle between the Just and the Unjust Speech, because the Just Speech says we should revere the gods and the Unjust Speech says if you revere them you should act like them, which is to want to be them, which is to envy them. Not so much to look up to them, but to want to be like them, to want to be them. Of course, this is one of the tools of corruption.

The name is ambiguous in a delicious way which indicates the ambiguity of religious education for morals. You can make them either envy the gods and let them become corrupt or fear the gods and become pious. This is all wrapped up together. This ambiguity is, of course, one of the things that makes a religious education perilous.

Since Theages wishes to become wise, Socrates asks him about the nature of wisdom: “Which do you call wise? The ones who know concerning the matter, whatever it may be, about which there are knowers or the ones who don’t?”

In other words, are wise people knowers or not knowers? Good question.

“The ones who are knowers,” says Theages.

And Socrates replies, “What then, didn’t your father teach and educate you on the things in which the other sons of gentlemanly farmers here are educated such as letters, cithara playing, wrestling and other kinds of contests?”

Theages: “Yes, he has.”

Socrates: “Do you still suppose then that you are lacking in some knowledge which is fitting that your father would do in your behalf?”

Theages: “I do.”

Socrates: “What is this? Tell us so that we may gratify you.”

Theages: “He [Demodocus] knows, Socrates, because I’ve often told him. But he says these things to you on purpose as if he didn’t know what I desire and with other talk of this kind he battles against me and isn’t willing to place me with anyone.’”

The son is chafing at the father again.

Socrates: “But the things you said to him before were said, as it were, without witnesses. Now, however, make me your witness and in my presence declare what this wisdom is that you desire.”

Then Socrates asks if it is the kind of wisdom that people who pilot ships have (steersmen, navigators)? And Theages says no. That’s a piloting art, and that’s not the kind of wisdom he wants. But what about the art of the charioteer? Is this the kind of wisdom that you want?

Wisdom is being identified as a kind of art, a kind of knowledge. This is a very peculiar thing to do. What Socrates is basically doing now is testing Theages. He wants to see if Theages is the kind of student he wants to take on, which is something that is conspicuously absent with the Socrates of the Clouds. All Strepsiades had to do was say, “I’m here to be a student,” and that’s fine. There was no test. Whereas Socrates is testing a prospective student here, and he’s asking him which kind of knowledge is wisdom.

The right answer to that question is what? Let me ask you: What kind of knowledge is wisdom? There’s a sense in which wisdom really isn’t a kind of knowledge when you get right down to it. What Socrates does is he begins with a false premise built into the argument. “What kind of knowledge is the wisdom you want?” And really, the right answer would be something like this: It isn’t really knowledge, because wisdom is the ability to make right use of things, including knowledge. Knowledge isn’t really wisdom because you can use knowledge foolishly. All of the kinds of knowledge that he brings out as examples, all the different crafts or arts (piloting, charioteering, medicine), can be used foolishly, and therefore they can’t be wisdom. They need wisdom, but they’re not wisdom.

Wisdom and ignorance are being opposed to one another here. And wisdom and knowledge are being identified. But that’s really not the way to look at it, because wisdom is not equal to knowledge. The clearest way to appreciate this fact is to ask: What’s the opposite of wisdom? Foolishness. Folly. And the opposite of knowledge is ignorance, right? So, even if you’re not sure if wisdom and knowledge are the same thing, you can get some clue to answer that by asking if folly and ignorance are the same thing. Are ignorant people fools? Are all foolish people ignorant? Not necessarily. It’s possible to be very knowledgeable, to have a lot of knowledge, and still behave in folly, and that’s Socrates in the Clouds.

And it’s possible to have a certain amount of wisdom and still be ignorant. Interestingly enough, in the Clouds, Strepsiades actually shows more wisdom than Socrates. This is one little dramatic detail that I neglected to mention. But remember when Strepsiades leaves the thinkery after he’s been expelled, and he goes to Pheidippides, and he tries to get him to go into the thinkery, and he swears Pheidippides to secrecy on the matter, and then he informs him that Zeus doesn’t exist. So, Strepsiades is much wiser in a practical sense because he realizes that this is dynamite. And he’s not going to just tell it to anybody. And he’s not going to tell it to his son if his son goes and blabs it around. He wants to be secretive about this. That is, in a sense, an indication that as dumb as old Strepsiades is and as ignorant as he is, he’s no fool. He’s managed to farm all these years. He’s managed to raise a kid. He’s spoiled him, but still he’s raised him. You can’t do that without a little bit of practical sense, and that’s what he displays.

And so, ignorance and wisdom can go together just as folly and knowledge can go together. So, these things are not equivalent. Wisdom is not equivalent to knowledge. Folly is not equivalent to ignorance. But if you look at this whole discussion very carefully, the underlying assumption is that wisdom and knowledge are the same and that folly and ignorance are the same.

Now, there are many discussions in Plato where this is done. It’s done in a systematic way in a number of Plato’s dialogues. The reason Plato does this is that he teaches by indirection. The lesson that Plato teaches is really not explicitly stated in any of the dialogues. He says this in one of his letters, that he never states his teaching explicitly.

Well, if that’s the case, then why read his dialogues, if there are no teachings in his writings? Well, the teaching isn’t stated, but it is implied, and it’s implied in this way: a problem is created in the dialogue that begs for a certain kind of solution, and if you figure out what that solution is, that’s Plato’s answer. That’s Plato’s position. So, Plato forces you to find out what his teachings are. They’re never stated directly, but they can be indirectly inferred when you realize what the problems are in the dialogues and then try to figure out what the solutions are.

Poor Theages is going to be running around this little exercise wheel a little bit. And then Socrates is going to do the strangest thing. He’s going to try to get rid of him. After a certain point, Socrates tries to get rid of Theages. It’s interesting because Theages won’t go, and Socrates is in trouble.

Socrates goes through several arts. There’s piloting, charioteering, medicine, and then, at the top of 136, there’s the musical art. Then after that there’s gymnastic. Theages finally says he doesn’t want to do any of these arts. At 124a he says this is what he wants to learn: about the art that rules those in the city, not the art that rules the sick or the art that rules the exercising or the art that rules singers and choruses, but the art that rules people in cities. That’s what he wants.

And Socrates says, Oh O.K., well, that would be a kind of controlling or ruling art. So, would you like to be a farmer, because farmers rule the threshers and the reapers and the harvesters and the sowers? But Theages says that he doesn’t want to be a farmer. If he did, he’d just stay on the farm. “What about the art that rules “sawyers and borers and planers and turners,” namely the carpenter’s art? No, he doesn’t want to do that either. “Well, what art do you want to know?”

At the bottom of 136, Socrates says, “perhaps that by which we have knowledge how to rule all these arts, as well as the farmers and the carpenters and all the public craftsmen and private non-craftsmen both women and men? Perhaps this is the wisdom you’re seeking!” What he’s asking is, “Do you want a comprehensive art? The art that rules all the other arts.”

This is not in any way different from the assumption that wisdom is equal to a kind of knowledge. It’s saying that wisdom is a kind of comprehensive technical knowledge that rules the arts. It puts all the arts in their place. This is getting closer to wisdom though. Let me just state this in a dogmatic way. For Plato, wisdom is the capacity to make right use of all things. It has two aspects: right use and all things. It’s not wisdom if it doesn’t have the dimension of rightness to it or the comprehensiveness, of being able to rule over all things, to make right use of all things.

If you were to say that wisdom is just the capacity to use all things that would be to say it’s a kind of comprehensive art, which is what he’s referring to here in asking Theages, “Is this what you want? The art of using everything?” This is comprehensive technical knowledge, but there’s no mention of the Good here, and that’s what is so crucial. Because to be truly wise in Plato’s sense, you have to know what the Good is and make good use or right use of all things.

Then he gives a list of tyrants. “Didn’t these people, all these tyrants (Aegisthus, Peleus, Periander, Archelaus, Hippias and so forth), have this comprehensive technical capacity to use everything?” And Theages agrees. And then he says, “What do we call Bacchus and Sybil and Amphilytus? What’s their art?” “They’re soothsayers.” “And what’s the art of all these men we named earlier?” “Well, they’re tyrants,” is the answer.

So, what Theages wants to learn is to be a tyrant. And tyranny is identified with comprehensive technical knowledge. This is what he thinks wisdom is. Wisdom is tyranny, and tyranny is understood as comprehensive technical skill or art; the art that rules over or can manage all the other arts. But there’s no reference to doing it rightly or wrongly here. It’s just a purely morally neutral technological skill. Of course, that makes perfectly good sense when you look at the immoral behavior of all these tyrants. The notes detail some of these people’s behavior patterns. Then wisdom is tyranny (understood as comprehensive technical skill).

At this point, Socrates accuses Theages of being a scoundrel for wanting to become a tyrant. But then, somewhat contradictorily, Socrates asks Demodocus if he is not ashamed of his unwillingness to send Theages to a school for tyrants. But if it is shameful to want to become a tyrant, then surely there is no shame in resisting Theages’ desires. Then, using the language of the law courts, Socrates asks Demodocus “But now—do you see—since he has accused you in my presence, shall we in common, I and you, deliberate about whom we should send him to and by means of whose company he might become a wise tyrant.”

But here Socrates sneaks in something crucial. If wisdom and tyranny are the same thing, then it would be repetitive to talk about a wise tyrant. But if it’s meaningful to talk about a wise tyrant, that implies that you can also have foolish tyrants as well. And if you can have a foolish tyrant, then being a tyrant is not equivalent to being wise. There’s a distinction between wisdom and tyranny that’s being sneaked in here.

Then Socrates quotes Euripides: “Tyrants are wise through keeping company with the wise.” So, here’s a sense where tyrants are not wise in and of themselves, but wise derivatively by keeping company with wise people. Who are the wise? Sophists or philosophers.

Then the question is in what are these people wise?

Socrates illustrates with a series of craft analogies.

Farmers are wise by keeping company with the wise. Wise in what? Of course, wise in farming. A farmer becomes wise by keeping company with somebody who is wise in the art of farming.

The next example is cooks are wise to keep company with the wise. Who are these wise people? People who are wise in the ways of cookery. Now, it’s interesting that Socrates refers to cooks here, because in the Gorgias, Socrates talks about cooks, or pastry chefs. A cook is a person who basically panders to your tastes or your appetites, flatters your tastes. He doesn’t make you a good person, but just sort of flatters you. A flatterer who doesn’t improve your health. Because that sometimes means you don’t sugarcoat things, right? But instead feeds you all sorts of sugarcoated things that you like that are bad for you. This is a perfect analogy to politicians. He draws this analogy between politicians and pastry chefs and out in great detail in the Gorgias. Both are flatterers that sell you sugarcoated things that rot you away.

Then Socrates asks about wrestlers: wrestlers become wise by associating with the wise, namely those who know the art of wrestling.

Then he asks Theages: if tyrants become wise by associating with the wise, what sort of wisdom do they have? What is the “tyrannic art.”

But Theages thinks that Socrates is just mocking him. After all, Theages is there so Socrates can tell him what the tyrannic art is. But Socrates, of course, does not teach by putting information into people, but by trying to draw it out of them. And Theages will have none of it. He is just not Socrates’s kind of student.

But Socrates is being deadly serious and presses on: “Didn’t you assert that you desire this wisdom by which you might rule over all citizens? If you did thus, would you be anything other than a tyrant?”

Theages says, “For my part, I would pray, I suppose, to become tyrant preferably over all human beings and, if not, over as many as possible. And so would you I suppose and all the other human beings. Or moreover, probably to become a god.” Theages says he would pray for these things He thinks everyone would. But, he says, “This is not what I said I desire.” What he desires is different from what he prays for. The fact that he prays for them indicates that he thinks they are outside the scope of his own agency. What he desires is something that he would like to get on his own.

Then Theages makes clear that what he really wants is not to be a tyrant but to be a demagogue. The examples given are Themistocles, Pericles, and Cimon. These were the leaders of the popular party in Athens that created Athens’ great empire and eventually led it to ruin. This is what he really wants to be. He doesn’t want to be a tyrant, but a leader of the democracy. He wishes to learn how to rule by persuasion, not force. He wants to be a democratic statesman.

Socrates basically tells him: if you want to be a demagogue then you should go and study with the demagogues. You should go and follow them because the kind of knowledge they have that allows them to use their cities and the cities of other people (which is a hint about the imperial nature of Athens) is based on practical knowledge. So, if you want to become a demagogue you get an internship with them, basically, and learn the art of demagoguery.  Demagogue literally just means “leader of the people.”

Socrates says, “Or is it your opinion that you will be wise in these matters which these men practice by having intercourse with certain others rather than with these men themselves.” Intercourse means interaction here. Of course, he’s referring to the Sophists.

Theages says something, and this is very funny. This is comical, and Socrates is the butt of the comedy here as he is in the Clouds. Theages says:

Well I’ve heard Socrates, the arguments they assert you present to the effect that the sons of these men versed in the political art are in no way better than the sons of shoemakers. But it is my opinion that what you say is very true from the things I am able to perceive. So, it would be mindless if I were to suppose that one of these men were to hand over his wisdom to me but benefit his own son not at all.

Socrates has been trapped by his own teaching here. Apparently, it’s gotten back to Theages, which is an indication that Theages was in contact with people who discussed things with Socrates. But we find in a number of dialogues, that Socrates proved that these statesmen really don’t have an art, because if they had an art they would be able to teach it, and you’d think that they’d teach it to their own children first of all. Yet, the sons of Pericles and all these others turned out to be political ignoramuses. They didn’t grow up learning how to be demagogues.

Theages heard this argument, and he’s been convinced that he should not become a student of the demagogues. Now, Socrates, of course, wants him to. And at this point Socrates is really just trying to get rid of him. He does not want to take Theages on as a student. So he’s trying to place him with somebody else, first with the demagogues.

Then Socrates suggests that Theages take up with one of the gentleman:

Now then, when you yourself are doing these same things to your father are you amazed, and do you blame him, if he is at a loss as to what to do and where to send you? For we will place you with whomever you might wish of the gentlemen—Athenian at least—versed in the things that pertain to the political art who will keep company with you gratis [free of charge].

Now, the gentlemen represent the older faction in Athens, not the followers of the demagogues, but the more conservative faction represented by, say, Strepsiades in the Clouds, by Demodocus his father, and by Aristophanes’ own political sympathies. These are the people that didn’t think that Athens should have an empire. They resisted the wide use of democratic voting. They thought that good government required limiting the franchise. You should have good men—gentlemen—running things rather than any guy who can whip up a mob into action. So, this is the next group that Socrates wants to place the kid with and these would be the friends of his own father.

On the other hand, you won’t spend any money. He’s trying to sell him. It’s not going to cost you anything, OK? Also, your reputation would not be harmed by keeping company with bad men, either demagogues or Sophists, right?

Theages’ answer is quite amusing. He says, “Look here, Socrates, aren’t you one of the gentlemen? Because if you would be willing to keep company with me, that will suffice, and I will seek no one else.” This, of course, is what Socrates does not want to do at all. He wants to avoid at all costs taking on Theages as a student. Now, why he does this is a question we can deal with later.

Demodocus pipes up at this point, though, and he’s quite emphatic. He says,

Oh Socrates, what he says isn’t bad and at the same time it would gratify me. For there is nothing I would consider a greater godsend than if this boy were satisfied with your company and you are willing to keep company with this boy. Indeed, I am even ashamed to say how intensely I wish it, but I beseech both of you. Will you be willing to keep company with this boy and you [Theages] not to seek to have intercourse with anybody except Socrates, then you will relieve me of many fearful thoughts. For now I am very fearful on his account lest he [Theages] fall in with someone else such as will corrupt this youth.

Here’s a father who’s saying, “Socrates, take on my son as your student because I don’t want him to be corrupted by somebody else.” Now, of course, Socrates is shown as a corrupter of the youth in the Clouds and accused of corrupting the youth in his trial. You can see the apologetic, the defensive nature of this text. It’s an attempt to portray Socrates in a way that refutes some of the claims of the Clouds. Here’s Socrates is being treated not as a man who corrupts the youth, but as the person who could prevent Theages from being corrupted.

But if Plato really wanted to show Socrates as a really nice guy, Socrates would have said, “Sure! Come on aboard!” But, of course, Socrates doesn’t. In fact, what Socrates tries to do is hook him up with a Sophist by the end of the thing, the real corrupters of the youth. So, in a way, Socrates is a corrupter of the youth not by design, but by his refusal to take on this student, which is an interesting point. Socrates doesn’t benefit everybody whom he comes into contact with. He keeps himself to himself.[1]

Finally, out of desperation, Socrates suggests Theages go to Prodicus of Chios or Gorgias of Leontini or Polis of Agrigentium. These are prominent Sophists. He’s trying to send the boy to the Sophists. He doesn’t want to deal with him.

Socrates claims that the Sophists have genuine knowledge. They can teach you things. But he claims that he has no knowledge:

For I know none of these blessed and noble subjects of knowledge. I wish I did. Rather I always say surely that I happen to know, so to speak, nothing except a certain small subject of knowledge, what pertains to erotic love. [The Greek there is ta erotica, the erotic things.] As regards this subject of knowledge, to be sure I rank myself as wondrously clever beyond anyone whether human beings of the past or of the present.

This is what Socrates knows. He knows the erotic things.[2] Now, Socrates is not boasting of sexual prowess. In Plato, eros is essential to understanding the nature of the soul. Thus knowledge of erotic things means knowledge of the soul. When you look in the different dialogues where Socrates claims to have knowledge of eros, it’s equivalent to knowledge of the nature of the soul. Socrates never explicitly mentions the soul in the Theages, but when he does talk about the soul he uses this term eros. And later, his knowledge of the soul will take another form. It will take the form of what he calls his sign, the daimonion. So, let’s go to that.

Theages responds:

Do you see, father, Socrates is, in my opinion, still not at all willing to spend some time with me since, for my part, I am ready if you are willing, but he says these things to us in jest.” [He just treats this as a joke.] Because I know boys of my age and a little older who before they kept company with him were of no account, but since they started to frequent this man in a very brief time became manifestly superior to all those to whom they were previously inferior.

Then Socrates says, “Do you know, then, what sort of thing this is, child of Demodocus?” Emphasis added.

Theages: “I do, by Zeus! That if you wish, I too shall become like those.”

Socrates says, “No, good fellow, but it has escaped your notice what sort of thing this is. I shall explain it to you. ” Emphasis added again.

Again we have the phrase “what sort of thing this is.” What’s going on here? What does “this” refer to?

Theages thinks “this” refers to how people are improved by associating with Socrates. But Socrates says, “No, good fellow, but it has escaped your notice what sort of thing this is.” Socrates is clearly referring back to the previous topic, namely his knowledge of erotic things. Then Socrates identifies his knowledge of erotics with his daimonion:

I shall explain to you. For there is something demonic which by divine dispensation has followed upon me beginning from childhood. [Now, I don’t think it begins from childhood, but let’s put that aside for now.] This is a voice which, when it comes, always signals me to turn away from what I am going to do, but never urges on, and if one of my friends consults with me and the voice comes it’s the same. It turns away and will not allow the action. To those things I will furnish you witnesses.

Then Socrates talks about a number of people who have failed to heed his divine sign and have come to ruin. Basically, what he’s saying is this: “Theages, my divine sign has said not to take you on as a student.”

This divine sign is Socrates’ famous daimonion. A daimonion is a little daimon, and a daimon is a half-divine, half-mortal being that exists in between the realm of the gods and the mortals. Like an angel, for instance. Socrates’ daimonion is his guardian angel, if you will. Eros, if you read Plato’s Symposium, is treated as a daimon, as one of these things that lies between the mortal and divine. Think of the classic images of Eros or Cupid as a winged baby with a bow and arrow, conveying the gifts of Aphrodite or Venus to mortals.

So what sort of thing is knowledge of erotics? It is a daimonion, a divine guardian. Notice that Socrates is not identifying the daimonion with eros itself, but with knowledge of erotic things. Socrates’s daimonion is his personification of his knowledge of the soul. Socrates never speaks openly of the soul here, as he does in the Republic. The Republic is a philosophical conversation, but the Theages is not. The Theages is a conversation with a non-philosopher, with a reject from the Thinkery. So Socrates only speaks of the soul indirectly, under the guise of the daimonion.

The daimonion is not just a personification of psychological knowledge, but also of moral knowledge, of knowledge of right and wrong. What’s good is what perfects the human soul; what’s bad is what corrupts it. So, to know the nature of the soul, and the forces that move it, and what perfects it and what corrupts it, is to know the difference between right and wrong. That is moral knowledge.

How is Socrates’ daimonion a guardian angel? Socrates’ knowledge of the soul and morality allow him to make prudent decisions regarding himself and others. In the Theages, we see Socrates trying to rebuff a would-be student based on the judgment of the daimonion. Socrates thinks that philosophy would corrupt Theages, and being a corrupter of the youth would be bad for Socrates too—bad intrinsically, no doubt, and also bad if his fellow citizens wished to take revenge.

Is knowledge of right and wrong innate in human beings? I would say yes and no. It’s clearly innate if you understand it as a capacity that we can all develop. But it’s not innate as something that’s actualized. Because there are many people who don’t know it. So, the issue is this: Theages does have this capacity to know the difference between right and wrong. Everybody does.

However, Socrates’ refusal to consort with Theages is not based on the assumption that Theages can’t know the difference between right and wrong, but simply that philosophizing is not going to help him make that distinction, that he’s not the kind of person who can sharpen his moral insight by trying to discover the nature of the soul and what’s right by nature. That’s the substance of his judgment here.

Socrates, by rejecting Theages as a student, is not saying that he doesn’t think Theages can know right from wrong, because I do believe that for Plato and for Socrates that capacity is innate for human beings, but simply it’s his judgment that philosophizing is not the thing that is going to develop that capacity.

Socrates’ daimonion is a kind of sixth sense about human character. Knowledge of erotic things is knowledge of the soul. But the soul can take on many different forms, because there are many different types of human beings. Socrates’ capacity to act rightly, to act prudently, is based on his capacity to discern the different types of human beings and then speak with them and deal with them appropriately to what type of person they are. To fit his speeches to the person he’s speaking to. This is exactly what he’s doing. He recognizes that the kinds of speeches that Theages needs are not the kinds of speeches that he can give him, and he thinks that Theages might be better off even with the Sophists than with him. But he certainly doesn’t want Theages to become his own student.

Why? Because he recognizes that Theages would probably be corrupted. So, in a sense, by refusing to take on this student, Socrates is refusing to corrupt him. The father is wrong to think that Socrates couldn’t corrupt him. Socrates knows he can corrupt the youth. He could make Theages a worse person by teaching him philosophy, but he chooses not to, and so he sends him on his way. He realizes that even a Sophist couldn’t corrupt Theages as much as philosophy could. Of course, I think his preference clearly would be for Theages to study with the gentlemen, to be like his father. He doesn’t linger too long on trying to persuade Theages to follow the demagogues.

The way Socrates talks about the daimonion in this dialogue is very interesting, and it gives a sense of his understanding of Theages. Theages is from the country, and it turns out that he is rather superstitious, so Socrates speaks of the daimonion as if he were telling ghost stories. “Those who followed it turned out well, but those who refused to listen to it came to ruin.” And he piles it on.

Theages’ response is very amusing. At the very end of the dialogue, after Socrates goes through a long story about all the people who have benefited or been harmed by listening to or not listening to his daimonion, Theages responds:

To me, Socrates, it seems that we should do this: Make trial of this daimonic thing by keeping company with one another, and if it permits us this will be best. But if not, then at that time we shall immediately deliberate on what we ought to do. Whether we shall keep company with someone else or whether we will try to placate the divine thing that comes to you with prayers and sacrifices in whatever ways the diviners proscribe.

Theages is a little bulldog. He’s not going to let go of Socrates. He says to Socrates, “OK, Socrates, this is serious. But look, there are ways of managing these daimonic things. We’ll test to see if I make any progress, and if I’m not then we’ll try to placate it through magic.” And he’s very serious about this.

And Demodocus says, “Don’t oppose the lad any longer in these matters, Socrates, for what Theages says is well spoken.” Socrates says, “But if it seems that that’s the way it has to be done, then that’s the way we’ll do.” He’s not off the hook yet. He doesn’t know what to do.

He doesn’t want to hurt the poor lad’s feelings, and his father’s a fairly powerful man. He has to be diplomatic. And he’s being magnanimous, right? Because one of the great virtues of philosophy is, if you’re dealing with somebody you regard as inferior, you don’t make them feel that way. And this, of course, is an aristocratic virtue. If you were dealing with somebody who is inferior, you don’t make them feel that way. And if you do that’s a sign of ill-breeding. Socrates is being very magnanimous here.

He doesn’t think that Theages is the right kind of student. But he’s trying his best not to offend the poor lad, and he eventually is sort of bullied. We never know what the outcome of the story is. But it is comic. And this brings us to another issue.

This is not only, in many ways, a response to the Clouds, but in some ways it also intimates that there are certain truths about what is in the Clouds. It’s trying to show that Socrates isn’t entirely at fault for some of the things that happen. Rumors get around, and people come to him. He’s sometimes strong-armed into taking students he doesn’t want to.

But what’s really interesting is this. This is why I said that Socrates didn’t have this daimonion visiting him when he was a child, or ever since he was a child, because if you look at the Clouds there is no sign that Socrates has a daimonion. He didn’t know how to listen to the voice. He didn’t know the distinction between right and wrong. And he also didn’t have any knowledge of human nature. These are the things that are conspicuously absent in the Clouds. And also absent is this daimonion, and these are the things that are conspicuously present in Plato’s dialogues.

The Clouds was 423 B.C. and this is set in 409 B.C., so this is fourteen years after. In a sense, what we’re seeing here is what Socrates learned from Aristophanes. One of the things you can say is that he learned to have a daimonion. He learned the nature of erotic things, the nature of the soul. And he learned how to distinguish between right and wrong. And therefore he learned how to determine whether or not a person is a good or a bad student so that he doesn’t corrupt him. Socrates in the Clouds doesn’t know these things, but Socrates here does. He is a good judge of human nature now, and this is a sign of change.

Aristophanes in the Clouds shows the pattern of a kind of philosophizing that you later see in Plato’s portrait of Socrates. If you look at Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes and Socrates are together about eight years after the Clouds, and they are very good friends. They’re on good terms with one another. That, I think, is very important. If you also look at Euthyphro next time, there’s a passage where Socrates talks about how if the men who are going to try him are willing to laugh, he thinks he’ll get along quite well. But if they’re not willing to laugh then the outcome is known only to “you diviners, Euthyphro,” he says.

What I take him to mean is this. This is reading a lot into this or bringing a lot out of it. Socrates makes fools out of people all the time in Plato’s dialogues. Now, if you’re made a fool of there are two possible responses to that. You can laugh at yourself. And if you can laugh at yourself that’s a sign that you can take a certain distance from yourself and learn from your folly and grow beyond it. But if you’re a serious kind of person, meaning a person that can’t laugh at themselves, then when somebody makes a fool out of you, you just hate them.

Now, Socrates says, “If these people are the kind that can laugh things will go well because they’ll be my friends, after I make fools out of them and they learn their lesson.” He was made a fool at first. And because he could laugh at himself, he could learn. And who made a fool of Socrates more than Aristophanes? I really do think that Aristophanes taught Socrates a lot. I think he taught him the nature of philosophy.


1. Question: Is this like an entrance exam? Is that what he’s giving?

Answer: Yes, and really the earlier part of the dialogue where they’re questioning about these different arts is the sort of entrance exam. Then when he starts saying why don’t you study with the demagogues, why don’t you study with gentlemen, he’s trying to get rid of him and pass him off on somebody else. Socrates has decided that Theages isn’t a suitable student. He’s not going to get into the Thinkery, in other words.

2. Question: Is this an example of impiety?

Well, it’s certainly an example of boasting. I don’t know if it would be considered impiety because I don’t know what the attitudes were about that. Whether only the gods were supposed to know love or not.