DISCOURSE ON PLATO AND HIS ASSOCIATIONS WITH SOCRATES
Submitted by Irene Brodsky
Instructor of Philosophy/Literature
Brooklyn College/Adult Education Program
Discourse on Plato and his associations with Socrates will reveal that regardless of many public accusations made against Socrates, Plato was his loyal student, friend, witness to his trial (399 B.C ) and documented four dialogues (Plato: Trial and Death of Socrates). For those of you who may not be familiar with Plato, Socrates , his trial and death, let me begin by properly introducing Plato and Socrates.
Plato (429 – 347 B.C),) son of Ariston and Perictione, was one of the most brilliant writers in the Western literary tradition as well as the most penetrating, wide-ranging and influential authors in the history of Philosophy. He was an Athenian citizen of high status who displayed his works in the political events and intellectual movements of his time. The profound questions raised by Plato are suggestive and provocative. Educated readers of nearly every period have, in some way, been influenced by him. In practically every age, there have been Philosophers who counted themselves Platonists in some important respects.
Plato was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word “Philosopher” should be applied but he was self-conscious about how Philosophy should be conceived. He transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled and concluded the subject of Philosophy is a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, metaphysical, political and epistemological issues. It was his invention.
After pursuing the liberal studies of his day (407 B.C.) , Plato became a friend and student of Socrates and lived at the court of Dionysius the Elder, Tyrant of Syracuse. On his return to Athens, he founded a school where he taught Mathematics and Philosophy for the remainder of his life (until age 80). And yet, he called himself a student of Socrates, a student of the philosophical teachings and discussions of Socrates which led to their becoming friends.
Plato’s early works include a group of dialogues called “Socratic”. These dialogues include “The Apology” (the defense of Socrates), “The Meno” (which asks if virtue can be taught) and “The Gorgias” (concerning the absolute nature of right and wrong). Plato’s group of dialogues present Socrates in conversations that illustrate his main ideas, the unity of virtue and knowledge of happiness. However, each dialogue treats a particular problem without resolving the issues raised.
Influenced by Socrates, Plato was concerned with the fundamental philosophical problem of working out a theory of the art of “living and knowing”. Like Socrates, he was convinced of the harmonious structure of the universe. His goal was to show the rational relationship between the soul, the state and the cosmos. In this respect, Plato went one step further than his mentor & friend Socrates in trying to construct a comprehensive philosophical scheme.
Socrates (C.469 BC – 399 BC), son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete, was a Classical Greek Philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western Philosophy, he was an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato (and Xenophon) and the plays of his contemporary Aristophanes. Aristophanes may be best known today for his play “Clouds”….a spoof of Socrates . He was also a poet, dramatist, comic and playwrite of 40 plays. However, his own personal life remains private.
Through his portrayal in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of Ethics, and it is this platonic Socrates who also lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socrates method (elenchus). The latter remains a commonly used tool in a wide range of Discussions, is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions are asked to draw individual answers and to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. It is Plato’s Socrates that also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of Epistemology and logic. The influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much Western Philosophy that followed.
Plato claimed to be a student of Socrates. Socrates stated that he was not a teacher because he never accepted any payment for what he described as discussion of Philosophy. This led to the issue of how did Socrates earn a living for himself and his family? There was some talk of Socrates taking over his father’s stonemasonry business and creating “The Three Graces” which stood near the Acropolis until the 2nd century AD.
The friendship of Plato and Socrates is evident by Plato’s attendance at his trial. But less known is another student, Xenophon, who was also present. “The Trial and Death of Socrates” by Plato includes some accounts by Xenophon. To date, there are three translated editions and one revision of what is known as one of the most famous trials in all history. It is said that Xenophon continued to preserve the sayings of Socrates which was surely one of the reasons he was exiled from Athens. Other possible reasons include Xenophon’s taking service with the Persians and not believing in the political morals of the Athenians.
Xenophon (431 BC – 354 BC), son of Gryllus, was a Greek Historian, soldier and admirer of Socrates. In his writings, he noted that he had asked Socrates for advice on whether to go with Cyrus The Younger on an expedition against his older brother (the Emporor Antaxerxes of Persia) in 401 BC. He claims that Socrates referred him to the divinely inspired Delphic Oracle. Xenophon was more concerned who he should pray to and do sacrifice; and not if he should actually go with Cyrus. The oracle told him which Gods to pray to and do sacrifice but when Xenophon told this to Socrates, he was chastised.
The Trial and Death of Socates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of Socrates in 399 B.C.. On his way to his trial, Socrates encounters Euthyphro. Euthyphro, a religious expert, was there for problems of his own but found time to have a brief conversation with Socrates regarding definition of piety and Socrates’ universal search for the definition of ethical terms. As usual, nothing was resolved.
Socrates was tried on the basis of two alleged charges:
- For corrupting the youth and impiety
- For failing to acknowledge the Gods by introducing new deities .
A jury of 50l Anthenian citizens were chosen by lot to serve. The majority voted to convict Socrates. He had choices to go to prison, be exiled to another country or to die by drinking hemlock in liquid form.. Socrates chose to die. It was a most unusual choice considering that he had a wife and three sons, was obviously in good health to have lived 70 years and could have chosen to be exiled.
Plato gave great detail to the events of Socrates’ trial and death. His words have been painstakingly translated by George M. A Grube and revised by Professor John M. Cooper, Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. He begins with Socrates’ Apology which was actually a defense speech made by Socrates who had no public defender or legal experience. Socrates chose to defend himself against those who would make accusations against him. Considering his lack of legal assistance and training , he effectively held his own for the duration of the long trial.
In the courtroom, it is rumored that his students/followers were there to show their support. 501 men from Athens were called as Jurors. Many of them were said to probably be farmers. And it is uncertain how many of these men might have been friends of Socrates. In his many years of wandering the streets and countryside to get answers to his questions, he approached endless men. This attracted students to follow Socrates to see how he did this and what were the results. But somewhere along the line, such devotion was seen as something bad. It was said that Socrates was corrupting the young minds of these students.
In today’s world, Socrates would probably be seen as a pest…someone who talks too much…someone who thinks he is smarter than everyone else…but certainly not a bad person. However, 3 major accusers had a different view of Socrates. Sad to say, there are those who would want to harm someone they envy. Socrates was a very brilliant man and such qualities are said to be envied by others. Perhaps the most envious man was Meletus…..the main accuser at Socrates’ Trial.
Meletus’ motivation to bring charges against Socrates remains a topic to be debated. One opinion is that, as a poet, he was upset with Socrates’ low opinion of poets…..saying poetry was “only for women, children and slaves”. However, Plato did not seem familiar with Meletus or his poetry. It is also interesting to note that there were no official records of Meletus’ trial speech. There is also no official record of the Jury being so remorse after the trial that they banished Meletus from the City. This “rumor” is often questioned and said to be inconsistent with earlier writings which offer no such indications of such widespread regret over the actions of the jury.
The other accusers at the trial were Anytus and Lycon . Anytus, son of Anthenian, was a middle-class powerful politician who was the driving force of Socrates. Prior to his political career in Athens, he served as a general in the Peloponnesian War. His motivation to prosecute Socrates is rumored to be his concern that Socrates’ criticism of Athenian institutions could be harmful to the democrary that Athens has so recently gained. Socrates was associated with persons allegedly responsible for the 404 B.C. overthrow of Athenian democracy, and disdain of politicians such as Anytus.
Plato offers some clues to the animosity between Anytus and Socrates. He refers to Socrates’ argument that the great statesmen of Athenian history have nothing to offer in terms of an understanding of virtue. Plato quotes Anytus as warning Socrates , “Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men, and if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be much more careful!”
It is alleged by Plato that Anytus had an additional personal gripe with Socrates. Plato quotes Socrates as saying “I had a brief association with Alcibiades, the son of Anytus and I found him to be lacking in spirit”. It is not sure if this association included sex but Socrates, as were many men of that time, was bisexual and slept with some of his younger students. Anytus did not approve of his son’s relationship with Socrates. According to Xenophon, Socrates encouraged the son of Anytus “to not continue working in his father’s family tanning of hides business.” Socrates predicted to continue doing so would cause the son to fall into disgrace.
In regard to the third accuser, Lycon, he was alleged to be an orator, a profession seen as low regard by Socrates. Socrates claimed such careers were less concerned with truth and more interested in power/influence. Lycon was also said to be a demagogue who made necessary preparations for trials and may have been a supporter of the common man (i.e. a rabble-rouser). It is rumored Lycon also saw Socrates as a threat to the democracy he highly valued.
And so, the trial went on as scheduled and Socrates bravely faced his accusers and jurors. His speech and defense was eloquent. But the majority of the vote was guilty as charged. At this time, Socrates was quoted to say “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die. You go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one except the Gods”.
Socrates is said to have spent the next 30 days in prison due to an annual religious mission on the Agean Aisle. No executions were allowed until the ship returned. At this time, yet another friend, Crito, came to visit Socrates in Prison. However, Crito had the ulterior motive and wealthy means to help Socrates to be able to escape from prison, and take his wife and sons to another country. By now it is quite obvious to the reader of this paper that Socrates will not do so. He will stay and die as the verdict predicted. But his wish to die was falling on “deaf” ears of his friend, Crito.
Crito arrived with a long list of reasons & excuses for Socrates to get up and let Crito and his friends (waiting outside) to help him escape to another country. It is rumored, by Plato, that the guards and warden were quite willing to look the other way. And yet, it is said that Socrates quoted “It would not be fitting at my age to resent the fact that I must die now.”
This brings us to the death scene of Socrates as depicted in the famous painting of “Socrates Death Bed’ hanging on the wall today at the landmark New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue & E. 81 Street. Friends came forward to be with Socrates on his death bed but his wife, Xanthippe & sons, Lamprocles, Menexnus and Sophroniscus were encouraged not to stay for Socrates did not want to see tears. However, he did not count on the tears of his friends. He had to explain that “one should die in silence. So it was best for all to be silent and controlled” since the last moment on earth was so near for Socrates. According to Plato, the main topic was the nature of the soul and the argument of its immortality and dwelling places after death. To this very day, this remains biggest issues for debate amoung scholars, religious leaders, mystics, nay-sayers, Doctors, and writers.
The argument of if there is life after death, if there is a soul, and do we have a spirit is the most sensitive topics for it applies to all of us. Rich, poor, sick, healthy, educated, ignorant, etc…, it affects us all. For no one is promised tomorrow. Some say “live life to the fullest”. “Live for today” But it does not seem that this was of vital importance to Plato or Socrates. They seemed to be sure there was a better life waiting for them after death. Socrates did not seem to have very much advice for his wife and children regarding how they were supposed to survive after he was gone….except to know how he wished to be buried.
Finally, the officer arrived with the hemlock. He tried to speak to Socrates but was in tears because he liked Socrates, found him to be a kind and gentle person. At this time, Socrates offered a prayer to the Gods “That his journey from here to yonder be fortunate”. He was interrupted by noisy tears and expressed his anger over a bunch of men crying. It is very obvious that Socrates expected such behavior only of women and children. He had to remind them to control themselves. Such a sign of caring, human feelings, friendship and sorrow for this truly misunderstood man named Socrates. At this point, it is rumored that Plato became ill and left the Prison.
The Trial and death of Socrates is yet puzzling to historians. Why, in a Society enjoying more freedom and democracy than any the world has ever seen, would a 70 year old Philosopher be put to death because of his teachings. Considering his age, he could have died in a few years of a natural death.
To this very day, the precise association between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among Scholars. Plato makes it clear that he was Socrates’ most devoted student. Other students & friends such as Eurthyphro, Crito, and Xenothon were loyal as well.
Such was the end of Socrates, a man who we would surely agree was the best of all men we knew, the wisest and the most upright. And for those who remain unsure, perhaps they should go out and ask everyone else. In conclusion, Plato has effectively shown his associations with Socrates as a loyal, devoted student, friend and witness to his trial and death. Plato went on to live another ten years until age 80. Considering the fact that probably the only thing both men agreed upon was the possibility of a better life after death, what if there was also the possibility of reincarnation of Plato and Socrates? In that case, Plato and Socrates could perhaps come back to life as Professors of Math and Philosophy in a most likely place…New York University…an area filled with poets, artists, creative people, scholars, famous faces, protestors, believers, weirdos, and people too weird to describe.
In this manner, Plato and Socrates could solve the mystery of “is there life after death?” They could tell us if it was a better life as hoped or something to dread. But, would you really want to know? Could you take it? Socrates spent his entire life searching for the truth. Plato spent many hours discussing such issues as a student of Socrates. If the truth were to be known, what would you do?
Another issue is how would Plato and Socrates deal with today’s ultra modern world filled with technology, airplanes, fast cars, trains, sneakers, jeans, dyed hair, heavy-metal music, rap-singers, television, radio, telephones, ipods, kindles, nooks, street lights, condominiums, penthouses, skyscrapers, etc.?
I could just imagine Plato and Socrates holding rallies in Central Park and Washington Square Park to get their message across. They would be seen either as the new gurus of society or taken away by the authorities for causing a riot. If that sounds somewhat familiar, think of how Socrates was forever walking along in search of finding someone who could give him the right answer, the best answer the truth…and look how he wound up being arrested for corrupting the young minds of those who chose to follow him.
Perhaps the world will never be ready to know the truth!
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PLATO – TRIAL AND APOLOGY OF SOCRATES 3RD EDITION
OXFORD HANDBOOK OF PLATO
OXFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ANCIENT GREECE
GREAT DIALOGUE OF PLATO – COMPLETE TEXT OF THE APOLOGY, CRITO AND PHAEDO
PLATO’S SOCRATES’ AS EDUCATOR
PLATO AND SOCRATES – BRISBORNE UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND
PLATO – DEFENSE OF SOCRATES: EUTHYPRO AND CRITO
PLATO – TALKS WITH SOCRATES ABOUT LIFE
PLATO’S PROGENY= HOW PLATO AND SOCRATES STILL CAPTIVATE THE MODERN MIND
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by Irene Brodsky – Teacher of Poetry
Brooklyn College City University of N.Y.
Former nightclub singer