What Socrates Knew:
Socratic Ignorance, Eros, & the Daimonion, Part 2 of 2
On August 31st, 1999 I gave the second lecture course called “What Socrates Knew.” What follows is a transcription of the second half of that lecture by V.S. The readings referred to are passages from Plato’s dialogues Euthydemus, Apology, Theages, and Symposium. The thirty Socrates theses referred to are listed below, as are links to the audio of the lecture.
The “Thirty Socratic Theses” are:
- The primary philosophical question is: How should I live? What is the good life?
- All human action aims at happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).
- Well-being is not necessarily well-feeling, for well-being may require ill-feeling from time to time.
- Wisdom and luck are the two causes of well-being.
- Wisdom = the ability to make right use of all things.
- Wisdom is unconditionally and intrinsically good — all other things that contribute to the good life are merely conditionally and extrinsically good.
- Folly is the opposite of wisdom. It may not be unconditionally bad.
- Wisdom is not an art or technique. No technique is sufficient for the pursuit of happiness.
- Wisdom enlarges the realm of human power and efficacy, pushing back the frontiers of luck.
- All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.
- Good action follows directly upon knowledge of the good.
- Evil action happens only out of ignorance of the good.
- Virtue is knowledge of the good; vice is ignorance of the good.
- The soul is susceptible of structural and dynamic analysis.
- The soul has parts (reason, spirit, desire) and these parts can function together in
harmony (spiritual health) and in disharmony (spiritual disease).
- The soul also has a dynamic power: eros. Eros is the soul’s longing for growth toward the good: for completion, self-actualization, and immortality. Eros is the desire for the good of the soul aroused by the beauty of the body.
- Each part of the soul has its appropriate erotic object–knowledge, ideals, the necessities of life.
- Wisdom produces the inner harmony of the parts of the soul and guides them to their completion.
- Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom = the care of the soul.
- Happiness = the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the soul’s powers over time, just as physical health is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the body’s powers over time.
- Wisdom is itself a kind of inner harmony and completion of the soul.
- Wisdom both leads to happiness and is part of happiness itself.
- Happiness is unconditionally good as well.
- Once achieved, happiness as health of the soul, can never be corrupted by external actors; external forces can kill us, but only we can corrupt our souls.
- It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.
- True politics and true friendship aid the soul in its striving for happiness.
- False politics and false friendship (flattery) retard the soul’s striving for happiness.
- Freedom is doing what one really wants to do (pursuing happiness).
- Doing what one really wants to do is not necessarily the same as doing what one thinks one wants. (We can be ignorant of the good, mistaken about our interests.)
- One can be forced to be free.
* * *
The phrase “great or small” recurs like a Wagnerian Leitmotif throughout this entire text [excerpts from The Apology]. Why is that? Well, it’s absolutely significant for a number of reasons. First of all, if you read Aristophanes’ Clouds, which in the Apology Socrates claims is the basis of the accusations against him, Socrates is portrayed as a student of nature who is interested in great things like mapping the whole Earth and knowing how the heavens are organized, and in very small things, like the feet of fleas and the anuses of gnats and things like that. But he’s totally ignorant of middle-sized things, and the most important middle-sized things are human beings living in cities trying to struggle their way through life and lead a good life. He’s totally ignorant of all that.
Now, here, Socrates saying, “I am not wise in anything great or small,” is a denial of that specific portrayal of himself in Aristophanes as, if you will, a natural philosopher or scientist, who’s interested in great things and small things and who is ignorant of the middle. Here the claim that he’s not wise in anything great or small is completely consistent with claiming that human wisdom is about the middle. And what lies in the middle? Well, the human realm.
This is important. This image of the middle will recur when we look at some of the passages out of the Symposium.
There’s a kind of perennial mythic quality to this image of the middle. In the Greek, the term is metaxy. What does the middle mean? Well, it’s the middle between the gods, the purely divine, and gnats and dogs and fleas and cats, the purely natural. And what lies in the middle? Man.
We seem to partake in both an animal and a divine nature. We have complex souls. We have animal qualities, but we also have divine qualities. Our rationality is divine according to Aristotle, for instance. Man is the being in the middle of the cosmos, because we partake of the nature of the divine and the nature of the mortal.
The soul for Plato is specifically the most middling thing in the cosmos, because it encompasses both desire, which is low, and also rationality and longings for transcendence and immortality, which are very high, and so the soul is that thing which is stretched out between the extremes of the cosmos and binds it together into a whole. The center of the Platonic philosophy is an attempt to describe the nature of the soul and then to prescribe how to care for the soul to assure that it’s healthy and actualized, and that’s what well-being is.
I would like to go back into the text now. But again, I just want to go through the stuff in the Apology and show that the denials of knowledge are completely consistent with a certain kind of knowledge, because Socrates never makes global denials of knowledge. He only denies certain things, but he also affirms other things. His claim of human wisdom is completely consistent with his claim that he doesn’t know anything about what the sophists claim to know, namely the techniques or arts of pursuing well-being, and he doesn’t know what the natural philosophers claim to know, namely the nature of the macro-cosmos and the micro-cosmos, but it’s perfectly consistent with him claiming to know the important things, namely the nature of the middle, and the primary middle thing is the soul, and having a kind of non-technical knowledge of how to care for the soul. That non-technical knowledge is what wisdom is and philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom and wisdom is the only unconditionally good thing there is.
Always remember that if you have any questions about what you should be spending your time doing during the week. If somebody says, “Let’s go to the Braves game!” you have to say, “No, I’m sorry! I’ve got to read philosophy! The Braves are only conditionally good, but the pursuit of wisdom is unconditionally good and I need to set aside a couple hours a week for the pursuit of the unconditional good.”
Then what Socrates does starting on the bottom of page 69 is he talks about how he went around the city of Athens and he started questioning people who claimed to be wise. He went to the politicians, the statesmen, and found that these people thought that they were wise, but they weren’t.
So, at the top of the next sheet where it says page 70, second line: “It seemed to me that this man, this politician, seemed to be wise both to many human beings and most of all to himself but that he was not. Then I tried to show him that he supposed he was wise but he was not. So, from this I became hateful both to him and to many of those present.” Because no one likes to be shown to be a fool.
“For my part, when I went away I reasoned with myself that I am wiser than this human being for probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he is in this very thing that whatever I do not know I do not even suppose I know.”
Now, knowledge of what’s noble and good is kalos kagathos, which is the Greek term which is best translated as “gentlemanliness.” It means noble and good. Kalon means “noble” or “fine” and “agathos” means “the good.” The sophists claimed to teach gentlemanliness. Socrates doesn’t claim to have knowledge of that in the sense that the sophists are claiming, namely a technique for teaching it.
He does have knowledge of the noble and good in another sense, namely the sense in which philosophy pursues knowledge of the right use of all things, which presupposes some knowledge of the good or the fine and noble. We have to be careful about that.
So, then he talks about how he went on to the poets. The poets didn’t know anything either, but they thought they knew something, and so he showed them that they didn’t know what they thought they knew and went away much disliked.
Then on page 71, a little above the center, he says, “Finally then I went to the manual artisans, the craftsmen. Now, these people did know something.” This is why he’s always using craft analogies or art analogies to talk about wisdom, because wisdom has a certain knowledge component to it. He never uses the poet analogy or a statesman analogy, because the statesmen and poets think they know something but don’t. So, he’s always using the craft analogy, because he discovers that the craftsmen really know something, but they know something that is morally neutral, highly specialized, and teachable. But it is still knowledge, and it is still practical, and, therefore, it’s a useful thing to liken wisdom to.
But he also says, “Finally then I went to the manual artisans for I was conscious that I had knowledge of nothing, so to speak, but I knew I would discover that they at least had knowledge of many noble things. And I was not played false about this. They did have knowledge of things that I did not have knowledge of,” namely the crafts. So, he’s saying he doesn’t know means he doesn’t know the art of bridle-making and pottery and carpentry. He doesn’t know that.
“In this way, they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good craftsmen also seemed to me to go wrong in the same way as the poet, because he performs art nobly each one deemed himself wisest also in the other things, the greatest things, and this discordant note of theirs seemed to hide that wisdom.”
“The greatest things” doesn’t mean the biggest things. It means the most important things, namely things about morality. The greatest things, I think, are the things that moral philosophy deals with. But it could mean the greatest things in the sense of the biggest things, but I think that unlikely because it’s not usually the case that a skilled craftsman thinks that because he knows the art of, say, the physician that he then goes on and applies that to claiming that he knows how the planets move and the nature of the cosmos and things like that. But it isn’t uncommon for a person who’s a good doctor or a good lawyer to appoint themselves as a moral advisor to other people and go around and pretend to be an expert with greater expertise than they really have. The prestige of the professions can sometimes breed a certain amount of arrogance.
The relationship between philosophy and poetry is very delicate. I’ve just been reading a book by this guy named Julius Elias called Plato’s Defense of Poetry, and it’s just a magnificent book. I wish I had written it. Plato does attack the poets, but the fact of the matter is that Plato is a poet, and there’s a strong defense of poetry that you can find in Plato that I think Elias is bringing out and the other people I’ve read hadn’t brought it out. I was going to write a book on this, but I think the guy beat me to it. It’s a great book.
But what he argues is that there’s no denying that poets are great teachers of mankind, but why are the philosophers against them or why is philosophy critical of poetry? Well, for this reason: poetry has a tendency to think of itself as purely autonomous. There’s this notion of art for art’s sake. The poet doesn’t have to justify himself to anybody.
Plato is very much against that view. Why? Because nothing is autonomous for Plato except for wisdom or philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom. Philosophy as an activity is entirely justified, because its goal is the unconditional good.
Art has many different aims. It aims for fame, it aims for pleasure, and it also aims to teach. And it also aims towards wisdom, too. Great artists are oriented towards wisdom, but the fact that art had so many conflicting aims means that it needs to be governed by something higher than itself. Just like techniques. Arts, in the sense of techniques, need to be governed by wisdom, because art can be used badly.
Student: Can’t philosophy be used badly, too?
No. Philosophy can never be used badly.
Student: But you’re assigning a purity to philosophy. I mean, Heidegger and Nietzsche were the Nazis’ philosophers, in a sense.
But the objection to them should be not that they used philosophy badly, but that they failed to be philosophers.
That’s how Plato would say it. If you find a bad philosopher, they’re not really philosophers.
Student: Is he holding himself to the same criteria that he’s holding the poets?
And indeed he can’t, because if he does, then we just have a collapse into a kind of relativism. There’s got to be some access to some absolute standards by which everything else can be judged, and if philosophy doesn’t provide that than nothing can.
If a philosophy is conditionally good, then it has to reach for something else to guide itself, and what else is there? Well, it can reach the poets, but the poets need the philosophers and we have this circle. The quest for the absolute collapses.
The point against the poets is simply this: the poets claim that they are autonomous in a sense, that poetry does not need anything to govern it. It can exist and be justified in and of itself. Now, poetry can be a source of great wisdom, but only if it aspires to be philosophic. But the poets are also sources of great corruption. The rappers are poets, too. The Beatles were poets, too. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is poetry, too. And the fact is that a lot of this stuff isn’t good for the soul. A lot of its crap.
Even The Beatles.
Student: The Grateful Dead?
Especially The Grateful Dead.
Listen, if you want to look at pop music, the fact of the matter is that, as sentimentally attached to it as I am from my youth, most of it leads people to corruption and glorifies permanent immaturity. Most of it’s wicked, and Plato would have driven it out. The only ones who would have survived would probably be U2
Student: Lawrence Welk?
Not even Lawrence Welk.
The fact of the matter is we have to be tough-minded about this and unsentimental. Most popular music and popular culture is crap, and that’s true of any age in history, but what is the particular crapulence of it all? To coin a Platonic-sounding term. What is the essence of its crapness? Well, the essence of its crapness is its spiritually corruptive power.
This is why Plato is a critic of the poets, because the poets think that they don’t have to submit themselves to any higher standards, that as poets they are simply be all and end all. Art for art’s sake. Plato believes that art is absolutely necessary, and indeed I think that Plato himself indicates that poetry in a sense can get you to deeper truths than philosophy itself.
This is why the Platonic dialogues often end with philosophical myths, which are poetic creations, but the difference between Platonic poetry and the autonomous poetry of the other great artists of the time is that Platonic poetry is governed by the orientation towards the care of the soul, towards the good. Platonic poetry is edifying.
It’s unfashionable to be edifying. Modernist tastes hate edification. The Ezra Pounds of the world hate edification. The attack on Dante is really edifying. It’s a sign of a deep sickness of the soul for Plato.
For Plato, poetry has to be edifying in the sense that it builds the soul up and cares for it. That’s what good poetry is and there’s a place for that in Plato’s city, but the bad poets, the ones who corrupt the soul or are just about vanity or pleasure or whatever, they have to go. They’re driven out.
When you have kids listening to music that glorifies rape or cop-killing or things like that. There’s an example of something bad, because that sugarcoats acts that are truly evil. The funny thing is that Books II and III of the Republic is that Socrates talks about the things that need to be edited out. If you make a list and then you set down the Iliad then you start saying, “This has to be blue-penciled, this has to be blue-penciled . . .” Pretty much it’s all gone, because as magnificent as Homer is, he constantly shows the gods to do evil.
And that’s deeply disturbing, because if the gods are evil, and the gods are the models for men, then the Greeks had a serious problem. The Greeks really did have a problem. Father Zeus, the King of the Gods, the patron of the family, was a notorious philanderer who castrated his father and threw him out of office. How can this figure be treated as the guardian of family values? And yet he was. This was deeply problematic for the Greeks, and Socrates said, “If we want to make ourselves better people we have to do away with our gods. They’re corrupting us.” You would never want your children to grow up to be like the gods whereas it’s much easier to say you’d like your children to grow up to be like Jesus, for instance. Jesus didn’t castrate his father or marry his mother or cheat on his wife or do all the kinds of colorful, wicked things that the Greek gods were doing. He didn’t steal anybody’s cattle. He didn’t skin people alive and turn them into bagpipes.
Socrates does believe in censorship. Put it this way, if you lived in a Socratic society, the pop culture industry wouldn’t exist probably. Sad to say, it would be more like Iran than it would the United States.
You have to be frank and honest about this, but the pop culture industry . . . the plug would be pulled on it. Why? Because most of it is bad for the soul. You listen to the absolute rank sentimentality of most popular music or the glorification of aggressive and violent attitudes in much of this music. Or just the sheer dulling bad taste of a lot of this music. You have to say that it’s not good to be brought up on a diet of that stuff.
Now, there’s some of it that’s good.
One of the great things about being human too is the fact that we can learn from mistakes, and we don’t pass on the mistakes to the next generation, and so the idea is that we should’ve gained enough wisdom, culturally speaking, by this time to know certain kinds of things are not right. So, we don’t have to make certain mistakes over and over, and we don’t have to allow every generation to make the same mistakes of the past, because we can learn from the past. We don’t let every generation start out like the cavemen started out, raping women and enslaving weak people and things like that. We teach them these are wrong, because through long experience we’ve discovered that this is just not the proper way of caring for the soul.
Plato’s all for educating people even better about these sorts of things. There’s a kind of cumulative moral wisdom that needed to be passed on, and popular culture seems to be premised on the idea that no one knows anything about this, and we should all be left free to be the horny little devils that teenagers supposedly inevitably are.
Most of the popular music of any time has been crap, but the difference is that the creation of crap has become a science and an industry in the 20th century, starting in the middle of the century, whereas before then it was less of a science and an industry, and there were fewer cynics making huge amounts of money.
Yeah, it was much less profitable. If you look at popular music throughout history most of it is transgenerational. The same songs were passed down from generation to generation. People realized that if that was the pattern permanently that they would sell far fewer songs, far fewer pieces of music than if they could create genres of music that were specifically tied to certain generations and then market that to them. And then a few years later after they grow up market to their nostalgia. So, now we have 70s nostalgia as a market now that people who grew up in that time were old enough to start longing for their disco youths, and they’ll keep marketing that stuff until everybody who grew up in that time is dead. They’ll just keep finding new ways of packaging it.
It’s the application of planned obsolescence to culture.
Page 80 at the very top: “Do not take into account death or anything else compared to what is shameful,” says Socrates. “So, I would have done terrible deeds, men of Athens, if when the rulers who you elected to rule me stationed me at Potidaea, Amphipolis, or at Delium,” these are at three battles that Socrates was at, “I stayed there when they stationed me and ran the risk of dying like anyone else, but when the gods stationed me in the city to philosophize, as I supposed and assumed, ordering me to live philosophizing and examining myself and others, I had then left my station because I feared death or any other matter whatever.”
He’s saying the most important thing is to be concerned with the goodness of one’s soul not with mere survival. Do not take into account death or anything else compared to what is shameful or what is good for that matter. It is better to die than to lead a shameful life, because even life itself is not unconditionally good. There are only certain conditions under which Socrates is willing to live and if he’s not allowed to live under those conditions, namely pursuit of wisdom, constant care of his soul, then he prefers to die.
The next paragraph, four lines down, he’s talking about fearing death. He says, “For to fear death then is nothing other than to seem to be wise but not to be so, for it is to seem to know what one does not know. No one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being.”
Here he’s bringing in a claim of not knowing. He doesn’t know what lies on the other side of death. The response that I would make is that fearing death does not presuppose that you know what happens after death. What might be so fearsome is precisely the fact that you don’t know. Not knowing is a threatening thing, too. But it’s less frightening maybe than being certain that once you die you go to Hades and you live in a kind of insensate gibbering condition, and that’s for all eternity or until you fade away into nothingness, which is what the Greeks believed.
Now, that is a very unpleasant afterlife, and the fact that it was given out to the virtuous and vicious alike usually without any distinction sort of upsets the whole moral order of the cosmos in Plato’s view.
So, one of Socrates’ claims he says has to be written into proper myths is that the good are treated better after death than the evil. So, he’d love the Divine Comedy. That lays it out very nicely. Gnawing on one another’s skulls and the deeper levels of hell appropriate to their bad behavior in life.
A little further down, a little below the center of the page, he says, “But I do know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one’s better whether god or human being. So, compared to the bad things, which I know are bad, I will never fear or flee the things about which I do not know whether they even happen to be good.”
So, here’s a very strong knowledge claim. He doesn’t know what happens in Hades, but he does know that what happens in this world when you behave shamefully is you become wretched.
He says, “I do know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one’s better whether god or human being. So, compared to the bad things that I know are bad . . .” That’s a strong knowledge claim. And Socrates is always making strong knowledge claims about good and bad. That’s what he knew. He’s a moral philosopher. And how does he know this? Because goodness and badness inhere in the soul, and he knows the nature of the soul.
Next column, page 81 about 8 lines down, he says, “What would I say to you if you told me, ‘Well, Socrates, we’ll let you live, but we won’t let you philosophize. Will you live under those conditions?’” He says, “I, men of Athens, love you and salute you, but I will obey the god rather than you and as long as I breathe and am able to I will certainly not stop philosophizing, and I will exhort you and I will explain this to whomever of you I happen to meet and I will speak just the sorts of things I am accustomed to.”
Quote: “Best of men, you are an Athenian from the city that is greatest and best reputed for wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible and reputation and honor but that you neither care for nor give thought to prudence and truth and how your soul will be the best possible? And if one of you disputes it and asserts that he does care, I will not immediately let him go nor will I go away, but I will speak to him and examine and test him and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue but only says he does I will reproach him saying that he regards the things worth the most as the least important and the paltrier things as more important.”
So, this is the core of Socrates’ philosophizing, exhorting people to care for the soul. Why does he do that? Because he knows that this is what well-being is.
The beginning of the next paragraph: “Know well, then, that the god orders this and I suppose that until know no greater good has arisen for you and the city than my service to god.” He’s god’s gift to Athens. That’s a strong claim. “For I go around and do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to care for bodies and money before nor as vehemently as how your soul will be the best possible. I say not from money does virtue come but from virtue comes money and all the other good things for human beings both privately and publicly.”
We come to another very strong knowledge claim at the top of the next sheet. Third line down: “Perhaps then someone might say, ‘By being silent and keeping quiet, Socrates, won’t you be able to live in exile for us?’ It is hardest of all to persuade some of you about this. For if I say this is to disobey the god and that because of this it is impossible to keep you quiet you will not be persuaded by me on the ground that I am being ironic. And, on the other hand, if I say that this even happens to be a very good thing for a human being to make speeches every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining both myself and others and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. You will be persuaded by me still less when I say these things. This is the way it is, as I affirm, men, that to persuade you is not easy.”
That’s a strong knowledge claim. The unexamined life is not worth living. What’s the examined life? The life of pursuing wisdom. What’s the unexamined life? The life of stagnant folly. And he’s saying that people like that are better off dead, which is an extraordinarily strong claim. He would not choose to live if he had to live a life of stagnant folly, and he doesn’t think that life is worth choosing. Death is more choice-worthy than it.
Of course, the people who live lives of stagnant folly wouldn’t know that they’re better off dead, so they continue to live. That’s one sign of their folly. They spend their lives talking about spending money and getting drunk, which is the people I grew up with, I’m afraid.
Center of page 93. I didn’t mark this for you, but still let’s look at the other column on that page. “I suspect that it is not hard, men, to escape death, but it is much harder to escape villainy for it runs faster than death and now I, since I am slow and old, am caught by the slower while my accusers, since they are clever and sharp, are caught by the faster, by evil. And now I go away condemned by you to pay the penalty of death while they have been convicted by the truth of wretchedness and injustice. And I abide by my penalty and so do they perhaps these things even had to be so and I suppose there is due measure in them.”
Again, villainy is worse than death. This is a strong knowledge claim. And he not only claims that that’s a general truth, but he also claims that his accusers are villains and that they would be better off dead, but unfortunately their folly is such that they will cling to life which is a juster punishment for them, in a way. Very strange. Very interesting.
Now, the two excerpts from the Symposium, I’m going to give these short shrift, I’m afraid, in the interest of time, but I just want to point out two knowledge claims which are interesting.
On the first sheet, Symposium excerpt one, where it says 198d in the margin on the left side. Well, actually where it says 198c just above it. He’s talking about a speech about love that he’s just heard: “His speech made me think of Gorgias,” which is appropriate foreshadowing, “so that I was struggling on like that character in Homer,” namely the Gorgon, “I was afraid that at the end Agathon would hold up the terrifying head of Gorgias in his speech, cast it at my speech, and turn me into a wordless stone.” The Gorgias head will turn anyone who looks upon it into stone. It’s a cute joke.
“When I realized that it was ridiculous of me to join in with you in praising love and to have claimed that I was terrific in the activities of love.” This is something of a bad translation. He says that he is “expert in the erotic things.” That’s what he claimed. The most literal translation would be “knowledgeable of the erotic things” or “expert in the erotic things.” Socrates claims to be phenomenally knowledgeable about erotic things. OK, what does that mean?
Well, let’s look at the next excerpt. Again, this is wonderful, because it talks about how the erotic drives of the soul are ultimately towards self-perfection and immortality even though they begin with fascination with the beauty of bodies they are really directed towards the good of the soul and that’s an eternal kind of goodness.
The center of page 45 on the right-hand column here, just above the center: “Then how do you expect to become expert in the erotic things if you don’t comprehend these matters.” Again, Socrates is becoming expert in eros. What does that mean?
Well, let’s flip to the next page, the Theages. The Theages is a dialogue that’s been claimed by 19th-century German philologists to be spurious for really no really good reason. These people at one time or another claim that every single Platonic dialogue, including the Republic, is spurious. Why? Because once they got it into their heads that by using their “Platonisches Gefühl,” their “feel for Plato,” they could decide whether a dialogue didn’t fit in with their “feel for Plato” and lo and behold once they accepted that methodological premise they at one time or another excluded them all as spurious.
The Theages was accepted throughout all of antiquity as a completely authentic Platonic dialogue and was often used as the first dialogue that people would read in their Platonic education. And why? It seems odd and not very interesting in some ways, but it’s actually very profound and one of the most profoundly important things is that it reveals the nature of Socrates’ famous daimonion.
So, let’s look on this page in the Theages. Demodocus and his son Theages come to Socrates, because Theages wants to learn from Socrates. What does Theages want to become? Well, if not a god, at least a tyrant, he says. He wants power, and he thinks that Socrates will teach him these things.
Socrates talks to the boy a bit and realizes he’s not very good material, and he doesn’t want to associate with him. So, what does he try to do? He tries to find him somebody who would benefit him more. And the first thing he tries to do is he says, “Theages, maybe you should just learn from men like your father, who are statesmen, the art of being a statesman.” And he says, “No, no, I’m not going to do that, because I heard that you argue that these statesmen don’t teach their own sons how to be statesmen, so how could they teach anybody else? You’d think they’d teach their sons if they had an art and they don’t.” So, he wants to go to Socrates.
And Socrates says, “Well, if you won’t stay with your father and his friends, why don’t you go to a sophist?” He just wants to get rid of this kid somehow. “Go to the sophists, my boy!” And this is what he’s saying on this page a little below the center of 142 in the left-hand column. He says, “Moreover, if Theages here, looks down on the company of men versed in the art of politics and seeks certain others who proclaim themselves capable of educating young persons, there are here Prodocus of Chios and Gorgias of Leontini and Polus of Agrigentium . . .” You’ll see Polus and Gorgias in the Gorgias, of course. “. . . and many others who are so wise that they go into the cities and persuade the most wellborn and richest among the young and keep good company with any of these citizens that they wish for nothing. To leave the company of those others and to keep company with themselves and to lay down in addition a great deal of money as a fee while feeling gratitude. It would be reasonable for your son and you yourself to choose some of these, but to choose me as a teacher that is not reasonable for I know none of these blessed and noble subjects of knowledge,” namely the techniques of becoming a gentleman, the techniques of well-being that the sophists teach or propose to teach.
“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 that pertains to the erotic love” or the erotic things. The Greek is ta erotika. You could translate it as “erotics.” Ta physica is translated as “physics.” So, what is erotics?
“‘As regards this subject of knowledge,’ Socrates says, ‘to be sure, I rank myself as wondrously clever beyond anyone, whether human beings of the past or of the present.” That’s a very strong knowledge claim!
Now, what does knowledge of the erotic things mean? Well, he goes on and he explains one thing that he does mean and this is extremely interesting. “‘Do you see, father,’ Theages says, ‘Socrates is not at all, in my opinion, willing to spend some time with me since for my part I am ready if he were willing, but he says these things to us in jest, 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.’”
And Socrates says, “Do you know then what sort of thing this is, child of Demodocus?”
The question he’s asking about is knowledge of erotic things. Now, Theages misunderstands the question. This is one sign of why Socrates doesn’t think he’s good material. He misunderstands everything. He’s very much caught up in himself.
“I do, by Zeus! That if you wish I too shall become like those.” He’s thinking Socrates is asking about what he was just talking about, namely becoming educated.
But Socrates says, “No, good fellow, I’m not asking about that. But has it escaped your notice what sort of thing this is?” This meaning knowledge of erotic things. “I shall explain to you. For there is something demonic which by divine dispensation has followed upon me beginning from childhood. This is a voice which when it comes always signals me to turn away from what I’m 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 these things I will furnish you witnesses.” And then he goes on and gives examples.
What’s he talking about? He’s talking about his famous daimonion. What is Socrates’ daimonion? Socrates claims in many of the Platonic dialogues at a certain point to have heard a voice and the voice says, “No, Socrates. Don’t go on with this.”
And what is this voice? The daimonion is one of these beings that inhabits the metaxy. The Greek word daimon refers to something like an angel and the daimonion means a “little angel” or a “little daimon.” It’s Socrates’, if you will, guardian angel, and it always steps forward at certain points and says, “Socrates, don’t do this” or “Socrates, your friend shouldn’t do this.”
And what is he doing here? He’s saying that his daimonion, which is so famous and always tells him what not to do and gives him prudent, practical advice, is the same as his knowledge of the erotic things.
What does the knowledge of the erotic things mean? Well, for Plato, eros is his term for the energy and the life of the soul, and knowledge of the erotic things means knowledge of the soul. Socrates’ knowledge of the soul is the foundation of his moral philosophy. His knowledge of the soul includes knowledge of character and the way that events play out in the world, ultimately. It’s knowledge of how human behavior works. It’s on the basis of this knowledge of the nature of the soul, the different types of characters, the different types of health and deformity of the soul, that allows him to say that, “Uh oh, this is not the right thing to do,” and he personifies this insight into the soul and the insight it gives him into right and wrong actions by referring to it as a daimonion. But a daimonion is a thing that is in the middle realm, and this is exactly the realm that his human wisdom encompasses.
This is the strongest knowledge claim in Socrates, the claim that he is stupendously learned, more than any other human being, about erotic things and that is equivalent ultimately to claiming that he is stupendously learned about the nature of the soul and how to take care of it in practical circumstances. The daimonion is the voice of his knowledge, or it’s his personification of his knowledge of the soul that guides his actions and the actions of his students and friends.
So, this is what Socrates knows. It’s knowledge of the nature of the soul, its health and its deformities, its disabilities, its sickness, and it’s not only a descriptive knowledge but it’s a prescriptive knowledge, because it gives practical advice for how to care for the soul, and the voice of the daimonion is the personification of this practical aspect of his knowledge of the soul.
So, what we’re going to do for the rest of the class is examine in greater detail Socrates’ knowledge of the soul in relationship to the pretenders, its great rival, and its great rival is sophistry, which understands itself as a technique of attaining well-being.
Alcibiades, who is the interlocutor of this dialogue, Alcibiades I, was a very famous figure, a political genius, a very bad egg, somebody who had a very strained relationship with Socrates and appears in a couple other Socratic dialogues, including the Symposium. But Socrates and Alcibiades had a strange love relationship between the two of them, but they were very, very different because Socrates was the paradigm of the man who had very little but attained great well-being, whereas Alcibiades is the model of the man who had all the advantages of good fortune and turned into a monster and came to a very unhappy end. Yet the two were attracted to one another. Socrates, because he saw the enormous potentiality of Alcibiades for good or evil and tried to direct it towards the good, and Alcibiades, because of the enormous erotic energy of his soul saw Socrates as somebody who might help benefit him but ultimately never could really be benefited by him.
This is a brilliant dialogue, another one that’s been disputed in its authenticity, but I think my “Platonische Gefühl” says that this is 100% accurate, and this has also been used as an introduction to the Platonic corpus in ancient times. It is a beautiful synopsis of the whole Platonic moral philosophy.
So, it’s kind of long, but it actually goes along fairly quickly. So, just plunge into it, and we’ll have plenty of opportunity for discussing it, although I’ll probably just spend all the time talking like I usually do.
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