Plato’s TheagesGreg Johnson
The following essay on Plato’s Theages is based on a transcript of a taped lecture, which I revised based on notes for two later lectures on the same dialogue that offered a more complete interpretation. I want to thank V.S. for the original transcript.
The Theages is a short Platonic dialogue that can be read as a response to Aristophanes’ Clouds. In both texts, Socrates is approached by a country gentleman to educate his son. In the Clouds, the father is insistent, the son reluctant. In the Theages, it is just the reverse. In the Clouds, Socrates takes on the youth as a student and corrupts him. In the Theages, however, he refuses to take on the student for fear of corrupting him. Like the Clouds, the Theages is a comedy, and as in the Clouds, by the end of the Theages, Socrates ends up the butt of the joke, despite his best efforts.
The subtitle of Theages is On Wisdom. Theages, for whom the dialogue is named, wants Socrates to teach him wisdom. But the wisdom Theages seeks is not the wisdom philosophers pursue. Indeed, philosophy is never mentioned here at all. Nature is never mentioned at all. The soul is never mentioned.
Aristophanes ultimately derives his wisdom from understanding human nature, and not just the nature of the body (even the sophists knew the body) but the nature of the human soul and the kind of care it requires. This is also the foundation of Socratic philosophy. Ultimately, Socrates is all about the nature and care of the soul. Yet the soul is never mentioned here.
Socrates would never have a conversation about philosophy without mentioning nature or the soul. So, the Theages is not a philosophical discussion. Instead, it is a non-philosophical discussion between a philosopher, Socrates, and two non-philosophers: Demodocus and his son Theages.
The Theages displays how Socratic philosophers deal with non-philosophers. As we will see, the Socrates of the Theages keeps his philosophy close to his chest, unlike the Socrates of the Clouds, who all too readily shares philosophy with two non-philosophers, Strepsiades and Pheidippides, with amusing though ultimately disastrous consequences for all involved.
Who is Theages? He was an actual historical person who is mentioned elsewhere in the Platonic writings. Theages is mentioned in Book Six of the Republic. Socrates is talking about the kinds of people who might be seduced away from the study of philosophy by politics, and how they might resist: “. . . some might be held back by the bridle that restrains our friend Theages — for he’s in every way qualified to be tempted away from philosophy, but his physical illness restrains him by keeping him out of politics.” Socrates then immediately mentions what kept him out of politics, namely his daimonion, which also plays an important role in the Theages.
Socrates knows Theages well enough to call him a friend. Although Theages is interested in philosophy, Socrates does not think he is drawn to philosophy by his very nature. In fact, Socrates thinks Theages is by nature more drawn to politics than philosophy. You can say that he has a political rather than a philosophical temperament, character, or soul. This is consistent with the Theages of this dialogue.
What keeps Theages from politics is his body. He’s too sickly to pursue politics. But Theages’ sickly constitution does not prevent him from talking about philosophy. In fact, it predisposes him to intellectual pursuits. Theages, in short, sounds like the worst possible candidate for studying philosophy. He is not drawn to it by his soul but pushed toward it by his body.
The dramatic date of the Republic is 411 BCE, and the dramatic date of Theages is 409 BCE, two years later. If the Theages of this dialogue is the same one in the Republic, Socrates already knows him and has a pretty good idea that he is not a philosophical type. But in the dialogue, Socrates asks Demodocus, the father of Theages, to introduce his son. Does this imply that Socrates does not already know Theages? Or does it merely imply that Socrates wishes to conceal the fact that he already knows Theages from his father?
Theages was apparently dead by 399 BCE, because Socrates mentions that he is dead in Plato’s Apology. Perhaps his illness killed him.
Theages’ father Demodocus is a country gentleman. He’s also wealthy and politically prominent. He might well be the general Demodocus mentioned by Thucydides in Book 4 of The Peloponnesian War. Socrates treats him with respect and deference.
Socrates is apparently out and about, and Demodocus and Theages run into him by chance. Demodocus says, “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 that Demodocus doesn’t know that Socrates never has any business, that he doesn’t do anything practical, and he’s always at leisure.
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.”
Demodocus asks Socrates if he’d like to speak in private. We know that Socrates did speak in private, and of course in the Clouds, Socrates teaches in the privacy of the Thinkery. But Plato and Xenophon tried to dispel Socrates’ shady reputation by emphasizing that he usually conversed in public. Demodocus suggests they go to the stoa or portico of Zeus the Liberator. The stoa, however, was a public place. It is also a shelter dedicated to a god, which is also in stark contrast to the Thinkery, where Socrates proclaims that Zeus doesn’t even exist. The stoa is also an appropriate place for a non-philosophical conversation. And as we shall see, Socrates makes both reference to and use of the divine and quasi-divine throughout this conversation.
The stoa of Zeus the Liberator was erected in honor of Zeus’ help in delivering the Athenians from the Persians. This hearkens back to the previous generation who fought off the Persians. They had been supplanted by this time by Pericles and other demagogues who had transformed Athens from a tough-minded, independent little city-state into an empire. These two generations represent two different forms of life: Athens the old republic — small, self-contained, and 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. It eventually overstepped itself and was destroyed in the Peloponnesian War, which came to an end in 404 BCE, 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. Demodocus says:
Socrates, all living things tend to follow the same course — particularly man, but also the other animals and the plants that grow in the earth. It’s an easy thing, for us farmers, to prepare the ground for planting, and the planting is easy too. But after the plants come up, there’s a great deal of hard and difficult work in tending to them. It seems the same goes for people, if others have the same problems I’ve had. I found the planting or procreation — whatever you’re supposed to call it — of this son of mine the easiest thing in the world. But his upbringing has been difficult, and I’ve always been anxious about him. (121 b–c, Smith)
Demodocus is like the natural philosophers. He has an understanding of non-human nature from tending it, and he wants to apply his knowledge to the tending of human beings, namely his son. This is creating conflict, 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. The son, it seems, wants to become wise. So finally, the father has been led to the city to seek out a teacher for Theages, and he comes across Socrates.
Maybe Demodocus intended to come across Socrates. We don’t know. As we have seen, Demodocus doesn’t know Socrates well. But he certainly knows something about Socrates. Specifically, as we will see, Demodocus thinks Socrates is a sophist, or something in that camp.
Demodocus continues: “There are many things I could mention, but his current passion really scares me — not that it’s beneath him, but it is dangerous. Here we have him, Socrates, saying that he wants to become wise” (121d, Smith).
Theages wants to become wise, yet the dialogue keeps philosophy (true philosophy) hidden. We have to understand Theages’ idea of wisdom in that light. Theages wants wisdom understood in a popular way, not understand the way that Socrates understands it. As it turns out, Theages wants wisdom as understood by the sophists, who claim to make people wise in the ways of politics and persuasion.
Demodocus goes on:
What I think is that some other boys from his district who go into town have got him all worked up by telling him about certain discussions they’ve heard. He envies them, and he’s been pestering me for a long time — he’s demanding that I take his ambition seriously, and pay money to some expert who’ll make him wise. The money is actually the least of my concerns, but I think what he’s up to is very risky. (121d, Smith)
Now, if the account in the Republic is correct, Theages is already known to Socrates, although his father is unaware of this. This is analogous to the Clouds. Strepsiades doesn’t even know who Socrates is, but Pheidippides knows his name. So, in both texts, the son is more urbane than the rustic father. Because his friends spend time in the city, Theages has heard about intellectual discussions and what they promise. Thus he wants to take part.
Demodocus is willing to grant that pursuing wisdom is somewhat noble. But he thinks it is also a very dangerous thing. On this point he agrees with Strepsiades, too. Strepsiades knows very little about the Thinkery, but he knows that it will teach him how to do wrong. Strepsiades, however, wants to do wrong, whereas Demodocus wants to avoid it and keep his son safe as well.
Demodocus says that money is no object. He apparently has a lot of money, and he’s willing to spend it lavishly on his son. This also sounds like Strepsiades. Demodocus opposed Theages for a long time, but he’s finally giving in, which is a sign of being an indulgent father. Of course, many indulgent parents tell themselves the story that Demodocus tells: “For a while I held him back with reassurances. But since I can’t hold him back any longer, I think I’d better give in to him, so that he won’t get corrupted, as he might by associating with someone behind my back” (122a, Smith). If you can’t beat them, join them.
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” (122a, Smith).
Socrates replies, “Well, you know, Demodocus, they say that advice is a sacred thing, and if it is ever sacred, then it surely is in this case” (122b, Smith). Here Socrates appeals to the sacred. 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: “There’s nothing more divine for a man to take advice about than the education of himself and his family” (122b, Smith). Here, Socrates is making claims about things he knows. Those who believe Socrates’ claims not to know anything, please take note. Why is education so sacred? Because education cultivates the soul, and that’s the most important thing you can do.
First, then, let’s settle what you and I intend to discuss. I might perhaps be taking it to be one thing, and you another, and then, after we’d discussed it a while, we’d both feel silly because I, the one giving advice, and you, the one taking advice, would be thinking about entirely different matters. (122c, Smith)
We don’t want to seem too comic, in other words. Remember that in the Clouds, some of the funniest exchanges between Socrates and Strepsiades are based on 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.” Socrates is taking some precautions to ensure that this old farmer knows exactly what they’re talking about, so they don’t misunderstand one another and become comical, as in the Clouds.
Then Socrates urges another precaution: “. . . 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, not only do Socrates and Demodocus need to understand one another, they also need to understand what Theages wants. They can’t just presume it. They’d better ask. Thus begins Socrates’ discussion with Theages.
The name Theages 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 envy them. The Just Speech says, “Do as the gods say.” This is piety. The Unjust Speech says, “Do as the gods do.” This is blasphemy, but it can cloak itself in piety. The gods are bad, however, so imitating them is a path to moral corruption.
Of course, Theages is a historical figure. Plato did not coin his name. Thus, this parallel to the Clouds is merely a coincidence. But perhaps it inspired Plato to construct a response to the Clouds around the characters of Theages and his father.
Since Theages wishes to become wise, Socrates asks him about the nature of wisdom, hence the subtitle of the dialogue: “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?” Note that these are the same things that the Just Speech includes in his description of the education of young gentlemen.
Theages: Yes, he has.
Socrates: Do you still suppose then that you are lacking in some knowledge which is fitting that your father look to on 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. Theages thinks his father is playing dumb as a delaying tactic. Pretending not to know, of course, is a form of irony. But if people suspect you of it, it makes them angry. Irony, if undetected, protects you. Irony, if detected, actually endangers you. Socrates discovered this much to his chagrin, as indicated in Plato’s Apology.
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.” This is a pregnant passage. First of all, the talk of witnesses obviously alludes to Socrates’ later trial. Second, things said with and without witnesses obviously correspond to public and private forms of conversation. Socrates had a bad reputation in Athens for being ironic, which means keeping his opinions to himself and a select circle of friends. Here, however, Socrates champions public discourse in front of witnesses. The apologetic intent is clear.
Then Socrates asks Theages if he wants the kind of wisdom that people who pilot ships have (steersmen, navigators). Theages says no. That’s the piloting art, not the kind of wisdom he wants. But what about the art of the charioteer? Is this the kind of wisdom that he wants? Again, no.
Socrates is identifying wisdom as a kind of art, a kind of knowledge. This is highly questionable. In fact, Socrates is highly critical of just this idea. But Socrates 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 he was accepted. There was no test. Whereas Socrates is testing a prospective student here, and he’s asking him which kind of knowledge is wisdom.
So what’s the right answer? Based on other Platonic dialogues, there’s a fundamental difference of kind between wisdom and the sorts of skills and knowledge that Socrates mentions here. So Socrates is intentionally assuming a false premise. “What kind of knowledge is the wisdom you seek?”
The right answer is something like this: Wisdom 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 Socrates’ examples of knowledge (piloting, charioteering, medicine, music, gymnastic) can be used foolishly, and therefore they can’t be wisdom. To be used well, they need wisdom to be added to them, which means that they’re not wisdom.
But isn’t wisdom some sort of knowledge, some sort of know-how? The Socratic-Platonic concept of wisdom is “the ability to make right use of all things.” Isn’t that a kind of knowledge, a kind of art? Fair enough. But one must clearly grasp that there is a difference in kind between wisdom and ordinary examples of knowledge or know-how. With ordinary knowledge, you can always ask: Is this knowledge used wisely? Ordinary knowledge needs the supplement of wisdom to steer it to good ends.
But you can’t ask if wisdom is wise. So wisdom not only governs everything else according to the good, it also governs itself. Wisdom is necessarily and unconditionally good, whereas everything else is good only on condition of being used wisely. Now, if you want to call wisdom a kind of knowledge, for instance “knowledge of how to make right use of all things,” this is fine as long as you understand that wisdom is different in kind from every other form of knowledge. All forms of knowledge require wisdom to direct them to the good, but wisdom is unfailingly good, thus it needs no supplementation. If wisdom is knowledge, it is no ordinary knowledge.
In the Theages, wisdom and ignorance are being opposed to one another, 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. So, even if you’re not sure if wisdom and knowledge are the same thing, the difference becomes clear if you ask if folly and ignorance are the same thing. Are ignorant people fools? Are foolish people ignorant? Not necessarily. It’s possible to be very knowledgeable and still be a fool — as, for instance, Socrates in the Clouds.
It is also possible to have a certain amount of wisdom and still be ignorant. Interestingly enough, in the Clouds Strepsiades actually shows more wisdom than Socrates. Remember when Strepsiades leaves the Thinkery after being expelled. He goes to Pheidippides and tries to get him to go into the Thinkery in his place. Then Strepsiades swears Pheidippides to secrecy before informing him that Zeus doesn’t exist. Strepsiades realizes that Zeus’ nonexistence could have terrible consequences if widely known. So he’s not going to just tell it to just anybody. He’s not going to tell Pheidippides unless he promises not to blab it around. Old Strepsiades may be dumb, he may be ignorant, but he’s no fool.
So ignorance and wisdom can go together, just as folly and knowledge can go together. Thus, wisdom is not equivalent to knowledge, and folly is not equivalent to ignorance. But in the Theages, the underlying assumption is that wisdom and knowledge are the same and that folly and ignorance are the same. Socrates, of course, knows better than this. But he’s trying to see if Theages can grasp the difference.
This is how Socrates teaches throughout the Platonic dialogues. Plato teaches by indirection. His philosophy is not explicitly stated in any of the dialogues. He says this in his seventh letter. If that’s the case, why read his dialogues if he does not present his philosophy there? Because the teaching isn’t stated, but it is implied, and it’s implied in this way: A problem is set up 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. So Plato forces you to find out what his teachings are. They’re never stated directly, but they can be inferred if you find the solutions to the problems he sets forth.
Poor Theages is going to be running around this little exercise wheel a bit. But at a certain point, Socrates does the strangest thing. He tries to get rid of Theages. He has evidently decided that Theages is not a suitable student. But Theages won’t go, so this Platonic response to the Clouds still ends on a comic note at the expense of poor Socrates.
Let’s go back into the text. Socrates asks Theages if wisdom is equivalent to several arts: piloting, charioteering, medicine, music, and gymnastic. Theages says he doesn’t want to learn any of these arts. Finally, at 124a, he makes clear the kind of wisdom he wants to learn, and it is an art: 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 all people in cities. That’s what he wants.
At this point, Socrates says, “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 down on the farm.
So Socrates asks about the art that rules “sawyers and borers and planers and turners,” namely the carpenter’s art. Theages doesn’t want to do that, either.
Then Socrates suggests that he wants to learn the art, “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.”
Defining wisdom as a comprehensive art still presumes that wisdom is a kind of knowledge or know-how. Wisdom is a kind of comprehensive technical knowledge that rules the other arts. It puts all the arts in their place. But this comprehensive art still isn’t wisdom, because we can imagine it being used for bad ends.
Still, though, this definition is getting closer to Plato’s authentic idea of wisdom. 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 rightness or comprehensiveness. At least Theages grasps that wisdom is comprehensive. But there’s no mention of the good here, and that’s also crucial, because to be truly wise in Plato’s sense, you have to make right use of all things.
Then Socrates goes on the offensive. He gives a list of tyrants: Aegisthus, Peleus, Periander, Archelaus, and Hippias. These tyrants used the art of tyranny to rule over the other arts of the city.
Socrates: When someone wants to rule over all the people in the city together, doesn’t he want the same sort of rule as these people had — tyranny, and to be a tyrant?
Socrates: Isn’t this what you claim to desire?
Theages: It seems so, from what was said.
Socrates: You rascal! So you want to be a tyrant over us . . . (125e)
Theages somewhat reluctantly agrees with Socrates here, and with good reason, for this argument is shameless sophistry. Theages has arrived at the idea that wisdom is a comprehensive art that rules over the other arts of the city. Socrates has established, at best, that tyranny is one example of a comprehensive art that rules over the other arts of the city. But he has not established that it is the only such art. Thus, he is wrong to accuse Theages of desiring to be a tyrant.
At this point, 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 to “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 you can 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, 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 already wise in the art of farming.
The next example is that cooks are wise by keeping company with the wise. Who are these wise people? People who are already wise in the ways of cookery.
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.
Socrates is actually 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?” At this point, Theages pushes back against Socrates.
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.”
This seems like a rather shocking admission. But we have to be very careful here. Theages is saying that everyone, even Socrates, would probably want to be a tyrant, or even a god. This, he thinks, is common opinion, to which he will pay lip service (“pray”). But, he says, “This is not what I said I desire.” Theages is willing to stand against what he sees as the popular desire to be a tyrant.
Theages would indeed like to rule over the city. “But not by violence, the way tyrants do. I want to rule over those who voluntarily submit. This is the way other people — men of good repute in the city — rule over other people” (126a, Smith). If wisdom is the ability to make right use of all things, then Theages’ conception of wisdom is far closer to the truth than the tyrannic art, for tyranny is a comprehensive technical skill exercised without concern for what is right. But Theages wishes to acquire a comprehensive art of rule that is consistent with “good repute.” Now, having a reputation for goodness is not necessarily the same thing as being good. But Theages is still concerned with goodness, which makes him much better than a tyrant.
Theages wants to be a democratic statesman, a demagogue, which means “leader of the people.” Socrates gives the examples of 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. Is this the kind of man Theages wants to become? “Yes, by Zeus, that’s what I mean!” is Theages’ reply.
At this point, it is clear to Socrates that Theages isn’t a bad lad. Nor is he stupid. But neither is he a philosopher. He simply wants to go into politics, and he has mistaken Socrates for someone who can teach him political science and rhetoric.
Then Socrates asks Theages if, just as horsemen learn the horseman’s art from other horsemen, doesn’t he believe that a would-be demagogue should learn the demagogic art from other demagogues? “Or,” Socrates adds, “do you believe you’ll become wise in what these men do by associating with other people and not with the politicians themselves?” (126c, Smith). These other people, of course, are the sophists, who are paid teachers of political science and rhetoric, which is what Demodocus and Theages think Socrates is.
But then the conversation takes a comic turn, and as in the Clouds, Socrates is the butt of the joke. Theages says:
I’ve heard, Socrates, about the arguments they say you offer, that the sons of the politicians are no better than the sons of the shoemakers. And I believe that what you said is really true, from what I’ve been able to see. So I’d be foolish if I thought that one of these men would give his wisdom to me, but wouldn’t be of any help to his own son, if in deed he could have been helpful to anyone else in these matters. (126d, Smith)
Socrates really has offered this very argument; for instance one finds it in Plato’s Alcibiades I, the Meno, and the Protagoras. Socrates argued that the demagogues 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 the rest turned out to be political ignoramuses. They didn’t grow up learning how to be demagogues.
Apparently, this argument has gotten back to Theages, so Theages has caught Socrates contradicting himself. Socrates has been trapped by his own teaching, hoist by his own petard. Socrates isn’t as clever as he thinks he is. Nor is Theages as dumb as Socrates takes him to be. This is a comic situation — dry comedy, but comedy nonetheless.
Why is Socrates using an argument that he himself has rejected to persuade Theages to study with the demagogues? Obviously, because he doesn’t want to take Theages on as a student.
When Theages catches Socrates in a contradiction, Socrates’ response is as shameless as any sophist’s. He simply ignores Theages’ point and goes on the attack. He demands to know what Theages would do if he had a son who was pestering him to become a demagogue if he refused to study with the demagogues. But Socrates’ demand presupposes the very assumption that Socrates himself has called into question, namely that the demagogues have an art that they can teach.
Socrates then suggests that if Theages does not want to study with the demagogues, he should take up with one of the gentlemen of Athens:
. . . we’ll place you with any of the gentlemen in politics you want, of the Athenians at least, who’ll associate with you without charge. You won’t waste any money, and you’ll also gain a much better reputation among the general public than if you associate with someone else. (127a, Smith)
The gentlemen are the older, non-demagogic faction in Athens, represented by Strepsiades and the Just Speech in the Clouds, by Demodocus in the Theages, and by Aristophanes’ own political sympathies. They were conservative, elitist, anti-democratic, and anti-imperialist.
Socrates tries hard to sell Theages on the idea of studying with the gentlemen. First, Socrates says, they won’t charge Theages for their teaching. Second, associating with them will bring Theages a better reputation, and it has already been established that reputation matters to Theages.
But Socrates remains silent on the most important question: If the demagogues can’t teach the art of ruling to Theages, what makes Socrates think that the gentlemen can?
Theages’ response to Socrates is again quite amusing. He says, “Well, then, Socrates — aren’t you one of these gentlemen? If you’ll agree to associate with me, that satisfies me, and I won’t look for anyone else” (127a, Smith). Again, Theages has gotten the better of Socrates. After all, is Socrates going to deny that he is a gentleman?
At this point Demodocus pipes up in support of Theages studying with Socrates:
Oh Socrates, that’s not a bad idea at all! And you would oblige me as well; for there’s nothing I would consider a greater stroke of luck than if he were content to associate with you and you agreed to associate with him. Indeed, I’m even ashamed to say how much I want it! I beg you both: you — to agree to associate with this boy, and you — not to seek to associate with anyone other than Socrates. You’ll thereby relieve me of a great load of worry. As it is now, I’m very afraid that he might fall in with some other person who’ll corrupt him. (127b–c, Smith)
Socrates is shown as a corrupter of the youth in the Clouds and accused of corrupting the youth in his trial. But here’s a father saying, “Socrates, take on my son as your student because I don’t want him to be corrupted.” The apologetic intention of this text is clear.
Theages is willing to study with Socrates, so Demodocus basically offers Socrates a blank check. But Socrates refuses his offer in a very diplomatic way, first heaping praise on Demodocus for wanting what’s best for his son, then denying that he has the knowledge that Theages is looking for. Socrates says:
. . . if Theages here refuses to associate with the politicians and seeks some other men, who claim to be able to educate young people, there are a number of such men here: Prodicus of Ceos, and Gorgias of Leontini, and Polus of Acragas, and many others, who are so wise that they go from city to city and persuade the most aristocratic and wealthiest of the young men — who can associate with any of the citizens they want without charge — these men persuade them to desert the others and associate only with them instead, to pay a great deal of money up front, and, on top of that, to be grateful! It would be reasonable for your son and you to choose one of these men, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to choose me. I know none of these magnificent and splendid subjects. I wish I did! (127e–128b, Smith)
Now, if Plato wanted to depict Socrates as a really nice guy, Socrates would have said, “Sure! Come on aboard!” But, of course, Socrates doesn’t. In fact, Socrates suggests that Theages would be better off studying with the sophists, the real corrupters of the youth — which, in a way, does make Socrates a corrupter of the youth, albeit not by teaching but by his refusal to teach. Socrates doesn’t seek to benefit everybody with whom he comes into contact. He keeps himself to himself.
Interestingly, Socrates claims that the Sophists have genuine knowledge which he himself lacks: “I know none of these magnificent and splendid subjects. I wish I did!” These subjects are political science and rhetoric. But Socrates does not deny knowledge altogether. He continues:
I am always saying, indeed, that I know virtually nothing, except a certain small subject — love [the Greek there is ta erotika, the erotic things], although on this subject, I’m thought to be amazing, better than anyone else, past or present. (128b, Smith)
This is what Socrates knows: He knows the erotic things. 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. Socrates never explicitly mentions the soul in the Theages, but when he does talk about the soul, he uses this term eros.
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. (128b–c, Smith)
Then Socrates says, “Do you know, then, what sort of thing this is, child of Demodocus?”
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.”
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 that’s not what Socrates meant, so he 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 tells us what his knowledge of erotic things is:
I shall explain to you. For there is something demonic which by divine dispensation has followed upon me beginning from childhood. [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, and I dare not disobey it, lest something terrible happen.”
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 between the realms of gods and mortals. Socrates’ daimonion is his guardian angel, if you will. Eros, if you read Plato’s Symposium, is treated as a daimon, as something 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 to mortals.
So what sort of thing is knowledge of erotics? How is it a daimonion, a divine guardian? Notice that Socrates is not identifying the daimonion with eros itself, but with knowledge of erotic things. Socrates’ 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 two non-philosophers, with a reject from the Thinkery and his father. 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. 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 Theages isn’t suited for philosophy, that philosophy would corrupt him. 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 Theages can’t tell right from wrong. For Plato and for Socrates that capacity is innate for human beings. Instead, Socrates may think that philosophizing is not the best way for Theages 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. 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 deal with them appropriately: to fit his speeches and deeds to the person with whom he is dealing. This is exactly what he’s doing.
Why doesn’t Socrates want Theages to become his own student? Because he thinks 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 knows that philosophy can corrupt the youth. He could make Theages a worse person by teaching him philosophy, but he chooses not to and 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.” He lays it on thick.
Theages’ response is again 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, “Okay, 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 don’t, then we’ll try to placate it through magic.” 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 it.” That’s the end of the dialogue.
Despite his best efforts, poor Socrates is not off the hook yet. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want Theages as a student, but he doesn’t want to hurt the poor lad’s feelings, and his father’s a fairly powerful man. He has to be diplomatic. But in the end, Socrates is just too nice and lets himself be bullied. We never know what the outcome of the story is. But it is genuinely funny.
This dry little comedy is clearly a systematic response to a much bigger and juicier comedy, the Clouds. The Clouds presents Socrates as a corrupter of the youth, whereas in the Theages, Demodocus clearly thinks of Socrates as an alternative to the corrupters of the youth. In the Clouds, Socrates is shown teaching in the privacy of the Thinkery, which is a place of rank impiety, whereas in the Theages, he speaks in public under the stoa of Zeus the Liberator. Socrates also speaks piously of the gods of the city. When Socrates rejects Theages, he attributes his decision to the daimonion, presenting an act of discrimination as an act of piety. In the Clouds, Socrates is shown as reckless and undiscriminating in taking on students, but in the Theages, he is shown to be discriminating and diffident.
But the Theages also has a tragic dimension, for it shows how even an entirely innocent Socrates can end up framed as a corrupter of the youth. If Socrates speaks in public, naturally word will spread about his teachings and abilities. Naturally, students will present themselves. Socrates can do his best to choose only those students who will be helped by his teachings. But some unsuitable applicants, like Theages, won’t take “no” for an answer. Thus, Socrates can be strong-armed into taking students he doesn’t want. In the Theages, Plato depicts Socrates as having noble intentions and taking serious precautions to make sure that philosophy does not go wrong. But, as we know, despite the best of intentions and efforts, ten years later Socrates was on trial for his life.
In the Theages, Socrates says that the daimonion visited him from childhood on. I don’t think that is true. If you look at the Clouds, there is no sign that Socrates has a daimonion, meaning a knowledge of human nature that allowed him to make prudent decisions. In the Clouds Socrates is naïve about human nature. He doesn’t know the distinction between right and wrong. Thus, there was no voice that constrained him from corrupting Pheidippides.
The Clouds premiered in 423 BCE, and the Theages is set in 409 BCE, 14 years after. I wish to argue that the Theages shows us what Socrates learned from Aristophanes. As we have seen, in the Clouds Aristophanes presents a philosophical critique of pre-Socratic philosophy. Aristophanes’ own philosophy is based on an understanding of human nature, which gives him natural standards of right and wrong. This is also a quite accurate description of Socrates’ own mature philosophy, which he personifies as the daimonion. Thus, the Socrates of the Clouds has no daimonion, but the later Socrates does, precisely because of Aristophanes’ philosophical influence on Socrates.
This is borne out by Plato’s Symposium, which has a dramatic date of 416 BC, about seven years after the Clouds. In the Symposium, Aristophanes and Socrates are depicted as good friends.
How could Socrates become friends with Aristophanes after the brutal parody of the Clouds? When someone makes a fool out of you, there are basically two ways you can respond: You can laugh at yourself or you can get angry. If you can laugh at yourself, that’s a sign that you can take a certain distance from yourself, learn from your folly, and grow beyond it. In such a case, one can even come to be grateful to the person who made a fool of you. But if you’re unable to laugh at yourself, then you are unable to be objective about yourself, which means that you have difficulty learning from your follies. Thus, when somebody makes a fool out of you, naturally you are going to hate him.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, the subject of our next lecture, Socrates speaks of his upcoming trial. He says that if the men who are trying him are able to laugh, the outcome is hopeful. But if they’re not willing to laugh, then the outcome is known only to the soothsayers. I suggest that Socrates is actually speaking about men who are willing or unwilling to laugh at themselves. Socrates makes fools out of people all the time in Plato’s dialogues. If they are capable of laughing at themselves and rising above their folly, they can become Socrates’ friends. But if they are unable to laugh at themselves, Socrates is going to make new enemies.
Not only did Aristophanes teach Socrates important philosophical truths, he also taught Plato how to write philosophy. Plato’s dialogues are works of fiction. Many of them are plays. What kind of plays? Of the three ancient Greek dramatic genres — tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays — the Platonic dialogues are closest to comedies. Socrates even jokes around as he dies. Aristophanes taught Socrates wisdom by mocking him in a comic play, and Plato depicts Socrates making fools of his interlocutors in dialogue after dialogue. (The Theages is a major exception, for here Socrates ends up the fool.) For Socrates, confronting people with their folly is the beginning of wisdom. But nobody made a bigger fool of Socrates than Aristophanes, and nobody made him wiser.
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 Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 496b, p. 1118.
 Plato, Theages, trans. Thomas L. Pangle, in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).
 Plato, Theages, trans. Nicholas D. Smith, in Plato, Complete Works.
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