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In order to better understand the meaning of Socrates’ philosophic life, Nichols explores the theme of caring that is prominent in Socrates’ Apology. What is the relation between the examined life that he says is the only one worth living for a human being and the care he claims and shows for others, especially the young of Athens? Nichols discusses Socrates’ illustrations of philosophic caretaking from the Symposium, Phaedrus, and Theaetetus, both his own caretaking activities as well as his teachings about love and generation, the art of words, and midwifery. Finally, she argues that the god who “commands” an answer to his oracular riddle, as Socrates interprets it in the Apology, serves as a model for the union of questioning and caretaking central to Socrates' life of philosophizing. Through his presentation of Socrates, Plato therefore offers an alternative to the Eleatic Stranger’s view of divine and human care in the Statesman that forms a backdrop to Socrates’ defense in the Apology.
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References in parentheses are to Plato’s works, as found in the Loeb Classical editions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). Translations from the Greek are my own. I am grateful to Rachel Alexander, Steve Block, Jason Lund, and Sara MacDonald for their helpful comments on the manuscript.
“To care” ( melein) in Greek means both “taking care of ” and “having a care for” or “caring about.” When Socrates in the Apology accuses Meletus of having no care for the youth of the city (24d), he implies both meanings. Socrates also uses the verb kēdomesthai to apply to the care he has for others, as when he says in the Theaetetus that he cares more for the young in Athens than in other cities (143d; see also Apology 31a).
As many have noted, Socrates must have stood out for his wisdom, at least to Chaerophon, before the latter approached the oracle. Why else would he have singled Socrates out in his question? And Socrates himself had been aware of his own ignorance before he heard the god’s pronouncement. This is why, in fact, he claims to have been puzzled by it (21b). This does not mean, however, that Socrates was engaged in his philosophic conversations before the god intervened. As Catherine H. Zuckert points out, the timing of Chaerophon’s trip to the oracle is unclear, and in the background might have been Socrates’ cosmological inquires that he describes in the Phaedo rather than his dialogues with others. Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 205, n48; see also David Leibowitz’s The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato’s Apology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 64–65. In any case, Socrates’ discovery that his own knowledge of ignorance is human wisdom, as he presents it, is a response to the oracle. See also Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991), 177.
Unlike most scholars, who emphasize Socrates’ philosophic life as one of questioning and pursuing the truth, Joseph Cropsey refers us not only to Socrates’ love of wisdom but to his “lifetime of caring.” Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 160. Cropsey asks whether Socrates’ efforts arise “because his well-being depends on the virtues of those around him,” or “because for some reason he cannot help caring about them.” 146. My essay, as does Plato’s World, explores this issue. Although we both trace Socratic care to human need, and the way in which philosophy for Socrates meets that need, my argument traces caring to the incompleteness of the soul, and does not depend as does Cropsey’s on the precarious human condition that lacks the care of both the god and nature. See, for example, 62, 134, and 164.
See David D. Corey’s helpful discussion of the divine sources of authority that Socrates offers in his Apology, the Delphic oracle and his daimonic voice, in relation to the way in which Socrates practices citizenship. “Socratic Citizenship: Delphic Oracle and Divine Sign,” The Review of Politics (Summer 2005): 203.
Catherine H. Zuckert traces the stages of Socrates’ early philosophic development in the Phaedo, the Parmenides, the Symposium, and the Apology. “The Socratic Turn,” History of Political Thought 25 (Summer 2004): 189–219.
My discussions of the Symposium and the Phaedrus are drawn from my Socrates on Friendship and Community: Reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
For example, he “wonders” about what Diotima says or tells her that he does not understand what she means (e.g., 206b). At other times, he offers not an enthusiastic “absolutely” to her teachings but a begrudging “let it be so,” as if he is neither persuaded nor is able to make an objection (e.g., 204c and 206e). At other times, he responds to her question with the observation only that it is “likely” or “possible” (204e–205d). At 208c, Socrates calls Diotima “a perfect sophist.”
The Alcibiades I and II were set dramatically before the time of the symposium. As far as we know from the Platonic corpus, the symposium was the last meeting between Socrates and Alcibiades.
It was to his lover Eryximachus that Phaedrus made the proposal that there should be praises of love, and Eryximachus who proposes it at the symposium for the evening’s entertainment (177a–d). Eryximachus ensures that Phaedrus as well offers a praise of love. Eryximachus even suggests that Phaedrus speak first, since he reclines in the first place at the gathering and is “the father of the speech ( logos)” (177d).
For further discussion of how the Phaedrus deepens the understanding of love and philosophy found in the Symposium, see my Socrates on Friendship and Community, 87–89. For a contrary argument about the relation between these two dialogues, see David Levy, Eros and Socratic Political Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 113–119.
At 229c and 234e, Phaedrus’ oaths indicate the strength of his responses.
See my discussion in Socrates and Friendship and Community, 112–113.
Phaedrus initially describes Lysias’ speech to Socrates as “somehow or other erotic” (227c). As we now see, Socrates might reply with equal validity that the speech is also “somehow or other unerotic.” So too are Socrates’ two speeches in the Phaedrus. The idiom translated “somehow or other” is “I do not know in what way.” It expresses a knowledge of what one does not know.
The theology of the palinode, in which gods both belong to the army of souls they command in the heavens and strive along with other souls to behold the superheavenly beings, contrasts with that of the Republic, where Socrates assimilates the gods to the ideas (380d–e; 485b). The Phaedrus’ definition of soul as self-moving, on which the palinode rests, is suppressed by the Republic’s analogy between soul and city. See Socrates on Friendship and the Political Community, 109–110.
For arguments about how the palinode itself—Socrates’ deed in delivering it—qualifies its content, see Joseph Cropsey, Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 245 and Charles Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato’s PHAEDRUS (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1986), 151–156.
In reference to the diverse visions of the beings that souls experience in the palinode’s account, Griswold warns that “the problems of skepticism and solipsism are thus ingrained in the Phaedrus’ account of the knowledge available to human souls.” Self-Knowledge 108; 173; 103, and 133.
Leo Strauss, City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 52–53.
See Zuckert’s analysis of the Theaetetus, which she entitles “What the Geometers Don’t Know or Understand.” Plato’s Philosophers, 597–639. As she asks, if the mathematicians have a knowledge or expertise, are they not wiser than Socrates? Socrates’ discussion with the mathematicians illustrates his search for wisdom, as he continues his examination of the meaning of the oracle. 596.
Paul Stern makes a helpful observation about Theaetetus in light of the divided line in the Republic: his “soul stands ever more precariously poised between the ‘downward’ movement of ratiocination, of mathematical analysis, and the ‘upward’ movement of dialectics.” Knowledge and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 264.
Although scholars have offered numerous speculations about from whom Theaetetus heard this conception of knowledge, his emphasis on the importance of logos for knowledge is Socratic.
For discussions, see Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers, 635–638; and Stern, Knowledge and Politics, 266–275.
When Apollodorus is asked whether Socrates himself told him about the gathering at Agathon’s house, he replies emphatically, “no, by Zeus” ( Symposium 173a–b).
Stern therefore suggests that “Plato inclines us to regard this conversation in the Theaetetus as more directly expressive of Socrates’ views than other dialogues.” Knowledge and Politics, 29.
In introducing the Stranger, Theodorus twice refers to him as “a man” rather than merely a human being (216a–b).
For a good statement about the differences between Socrates and the Stranger that emerge at the beginning of the Sophist, see Matthew Dinan, “On Wolves and Dogs: The Eleatic Stranger’s Socratic Turn in the Sophist,” in Socratic Philosophy and Its Others, ed. Christopher Dustin and Denise Schaeffer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 115–117. Cropsey argues that the divisions to which the Stranger elicits his interlocutors’ consent are “determined” by the definitions that he has in mind at the outset. He thus “makes no parade of being a midwife of knowledge who quickens the latencies of his interlocutor’s mind” and demonstrates by way of contrast that “a profound conception of the human being as intelligent wonderer” belongs to the Socratic method of interrogation. Plato’s World, 72, 74, and 111.
What actually happens as both “dialogues” proceed, of course, is a different matter. The Stranger encounters stumbling blocks that appear unforeseen, and his interlocutors play a greater role than he imagined at the outset. One wonders if Socrates’ suggestion that the Stranger take an interlocutor rather than give a long speech was for the sake of the Stranger as well as for the sake of his interlocutor. Dinan argues that in the course of the dialogue the Stranger jettisons his way of proceeding in favor of a more “Socratic” way, but nevertheless does not reach a characteristically Socratic self-knowledge. “On Wolves and Dogs,” 117.
The reference to the age of “negligent Zeus” is Cropsey’s description of the Stranger’s account of how human beings are abandoned “to utter autarky” by divine indifference. Plato’s World, 119.
Kevin Cherry, Plato, Aristotle, and the Purpose of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 152–155.
Zuckert also argues that there is a close thematic connection between the Eleatic dialogues and the dialogues that follow dramatically in Plato’s corpus. She shows how the Apology and the Crito respond to the Stranger’s implied charge that Socrates did not understand politics, and how the Phaedo responds to the Stranger’s criticism of Socrates’ argument about the ideas. Plato’s Philosophers, 736.
Zuckert points out that because oracles “were notoriously difficult to understand correctly,” “Socrates’ attempt to discover what the oracle could have possibly meant may have not appeared to be as impious to his Athenian judges as it has to some modern commentators.” Plato’s Philosophers, 730. See also Corey, “Socratic Citizenship,” 212.
Corey describes the role of the daimonion as “an intuition or a hunch, which sets reasoning in motion.” “Socratic Citizenship,” 224–225.
Because Cropsey understands Socrates to silently subscribe to the Stranger’s view of the cosmos, he speculates that “if there was any seriousness in [Socrates’] implication of ‘the god’ in his doings, it lay in the microcosmic resemblance of his own caring to what the absent Olympian was withholding from mankind.” Plato’s World, 157. My interpretation finds a greater difference between the Stranger and Socrates, and therefore a resemblance between Socrates’ caring and the god’s gift to the city. In spite of the Stranger’s view of the harshness of nature, Cropsey nevertheless observes Socrates’ “innate inclination to the right and the good,” that reminds us that “nature sends the better angels of caring and nobility as well as the afflictions of cruelty and baseness.” Plato’s World, 157.
- Philosophic Care in the Life of Plato’s Socrates
Mary P. Nichols
- Chapter 14