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April 7, 2005

9:30 am

Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, Università degli Studi di Palermo
Viale delle Scienze





David K. O'Connor

University of Notre Dame

Draft; not for quotation or publication.


            Plato gives depth to character by writing in three dimensions. In the Republic's main speakers --Socrates and his two younger friends Glaucon and Adeimantus, Plato's real-life brothers --Plato characterizes fully human beings. First to the reader's sight are arguers and arguments, so the logical dimension of character becomes most immediately visible. But these men are not mere talking heads or disembodied minds. They have about them the smell of mortality, with their individual histories, personalities, and commitments. It is not just a question of what arguments are made, but of what sort of man would make a particular argument, or accept it, or long for it. Indeed, Socrates virtually begins his conversation with the brothers by saying he would respond to their arguments differently if he had a different view of their character (368a-b). We catch something of this ethical and psychological dimension of Plato's writing when, for example, Socrates must playfully defend himself in a mock trial, reminding us that one day he will be tried in deadly earnest; when Glaucon lets slip an erotic streak he would prefer not to own; when Adeimantus' limitations are implicitly revealed by having Socrates go beyond them in conversation with his more brilliant brother.

So Plato's characters do more than reveal the explicit logic of an argument. The ethical dimension of the words puts us on the scent of secret motives and unacknowledged ironies. But what the characters mean goes beyond anything the mere individuals Socrates and Glaucon and Adeimantus could say, no matter how logically keen and psychologically apt Plato's writing may be. For in Plato's hand, Socrates and the rest are not just individuals; they become representatives and exemplars of human possibilities as such. Plato invests his characters with this further dimension of significance by projecting them onto the gigantic figures of myth. The Republic depends for this projection primarily on Homer's story of Odysseus' descent to the underworld (Odyssey XI), known as "The Visit to the Dead" (in Greek, Nekuia).

This intimacy with myth is, to say the least, not trumpeted in the Republic. In its tenth and final book, Socrates reflects on the shortcomings of the poets who have been the educators of Greece, especially Homer. He all but excludes them from his best city-in-speech. Socrates comes to this judgment with a sense of loss and an almost embarrassed reluctance. "A certain friendship for Homer, and shame before him, which has possessed me since childhood, prevents me from speaking," he says, yet "still and all, a man must not be honored before the truth" (595b-c). But it is a harsh truth nonetheless, and a little later Socrates suggests that if someone can give an argument showing the poets are good for the city, "we should be delighted to receive them back from exile, since we ourselves are charmed by them" (607c).

By this point, readers may think Plato has banished the friendship and enchantment of the poets for good. But if we keep our ears open, the Republic discreetly echoes with the tones of Homer. The most sustained resonance comes in Plato's massive appropriations in the great myth of the afterlife that concludes the Republic, and his rewriting of Homer rings throughout the work, and gives the Republic its three dimensional character.

            To hear the voice of Plato, reader of the poets, reverberate in the characters of Plato, writer of the Republic, opens us to the third, mythic dimension of this gigantic dialogue. When Plato makes his own Homer's story of "The Visit to the Dead", he brings an undertone of mythic commentary to the dialogue's logical analysis and ethical drama, a commentary constructed from the echoes of his exiled predecessors in the education of Greece.


We have been prepared for Socrates' harsh judgment in book X by his infamous discussion with Adeimantus of "censoring" the poets in books II and III (376d-398b). If some great poet arises in the city we are founding, says Socrates, "we would send him to another city, . while we ourselves would use a more austere and less pleasing poet and maker of myths for the sake of benefit" (398a-b). Socrates has in mind the benefit for the education of the guardians in his city-in-speech, and he focuses on the need to reform the content of "music" (which means especially the poetry of Homer) to make it a vehicle of civic virtue and patriotism. In the first passage scrutinized for the way it portrays humans, Socrates criticizes Homer's presentation of the fate of heroes who die in battle (386a-d):


"And what if [the guardians] are to be courageous?" [said Socrates]. "Mustn't they also be told things that will make them fear death least? . Do you suppose anyone who believes Hades' domain exists and is full of terror will be fearless in the face of death and choose death in battles above defeat and slavery?"

"Not at all," [said Adeimantus].

               "Then, concerning these tales too, it seems we must supervise those who undertake to tell them and ask them not so utterly to disparage Hades' domain, but rather to praise it, because what they say is neither true nor beneficial for men who are to be fighters."

               "Indeed, we must," he said.

               "Then, we'll expunge all such things," I said, "beginning with this verse:


Better to be bound to the fields, serving

A landless man with scanty means of life,

Than over all the wasting dead to rule."


Socrates is reciting here a passage of Homer's Odyssey (XI.489-491), from the famous section called "The Visit to the Dead". To make his way home from Troy, Odysseus must descend into the underworld to receive guidance from the soul (in Greek, psyche) of the blind prophet Teiresias. While there, he converses with the souls of various other dead heroes, including Achilles, the Greek champion in the Trojan War. When Odysseus tries to cheer up the gloomy Achilles -he is, after all, dead -by pointing out the great honor he now receives below, Achilles will have none of it. "About death, do not try to comfort me, bright Odysseus," says this hero, "I would rather be the living slave of a peasant, than the king of all the dead."

Socrates criticizes this Homeric hell, not so much because Homer's account is false, but because it undermines the courage and patriotism of the city's soldiers. We will not teach public spirit, Socrates tells Adeimantus, if we let Achilles, the most glorious of all the heroes, declare that his self-sacrifice was a mistake, and that even the greatest life in Hades' domain, the life of political leadership, is not worth the smallest life on the green earth.

Some four books later, in the so-called "Allegory of the Cave" that begins book VII, Socrates makes a comment with an oddly familiar ring to it, this time to Glaucon. Socrates has told Glaucon that the man who has ascended to gaze on true reality and then is forced back into politics is like a man who has climbed his way up from a cave and now is forced back down to find his way among its shadows (516d-e):


"In your opinion," [said Socrates], "would [the man who has been out of the cave] be desirous of [the honors the cave-dwellers give out], and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men? Or, rather, would he be affected as Homer says and prefer very much 'to be bound to the fields, serving a landless man,' and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to opine about those things and live that way?"

"Yes," [Glaucon] said, "I suppose he would prefer to undergo anything rather than live that way."


This is Socrates' second recitation of Achilles' soul, and it presents us with a puzzle. For now Socrates uses Homer's words exactly to undermine the attachment of one particular man to political leadership and to the affairs of any city. These very words had been censored for their tendency to produce precisely the effect Socrates wants to produce here: they tend to undermine one's wholehearted attachment to politics and the city. The guidance Socrates gives Glaucon now flatly contradicts the pedagogy he and Adeimantus had agreed to earlier.

Socrates criticized Homer's gloomy hell for disheartening the guardians on whom the city must rely for their courage. But does not Socrates' identification of politics with hell have the same effect, if for different reasons? Socrates seems to be as poor an educator of this particular man Glaucon as Homer was claimed to be of the guardians. Socrates quotes Homer to make the choice between philosophy and politics the choice between life and death. Does this not sit ill with the optimistic and radical ambition of founding a "pure" city, even if only in speech?


These are awkward questions. Are they also Platonic questions?

Some readers will doubt that they are. It could, after all, be a coincidence or a slip, a minor infelicity, that Plato created this Homeric echo across 130 pages of text. All of the arguments given, all of the positions defined, in short all of the logical complexity of the dialogue that has passed between these points may eclipse the significance of Homer's small voice, a whisper of myth lost in a whirlwind of philosophy.

But the whispers start very early. "I descended to Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon," say the opening words of the Republic. This opening could be unremarkable; taking a friend down from the city of Athens to its port was not in itself a portentous event, though Socrates seems not to have done it very often. His host Cephalus, an old man obsessed with his fears of the afterlife, complains, "Socrates, you don't descend to us in the Piraeus very often" (328c). These twice-repeated forms of the word "descent" (in Greek, katabasis) have mythological overtones. For katabasis is the word for a trip to the underworld. In particular, it is the word Odysseus himself uses when he recounts to his wife Penelope his "Visit to the Dead" (Odyssey XXIII.252).

This initiating descent, which by itself might be too faint for allusion, is recalled in "The Myth of Er", the Republic's concluding myth of the afterlife. Socrates tells Glaucon how the souls of the dead ascend from punishment under the earth or descend from reward in heaven (614d), and prepare to choose a new life, which they will live when they are shortly reborn in a new incarnation. After drawing lots to determine the order of choice, the souls begin making their choices. Many choose unwisely; but not the last soul (620c-d):


"By chance," [said Socrates], "Odysseus' soul had drawn the last lot of all and went to choose. From memory of its former labors it had recovered from love of honor, and it went around for a long time looking for the life of an apolitical private man. With effort it found one lying somewhere, neglected by others. It said when it saw this life that it would have done the same even if it had drawn the first lot, and was delighted to choose it."


It is Socrates himself who seems to be projected onto this chastened Odysseus, who retires to private life from the hurly-burly of his "labors" (in Greek, ponoi) -the word for the adventures and tasks of the hero. The hero will ascend from the underworld back into life with a new understanding that keeps him pure from political ambition.

This is Plato's mythologizing of a previous conversation of Socrates with Adeimantus, which at the time seemed merely personal and ethical (496a-e):


"Only a tiny remnant are left, Adeimantus," [said Socrates,] "of those who could worthily associate with philosophy. . [The true philosopher] stays quiet and minds his own business. ... Seeing others filled with lawlessness, he would be satisfied if somehow he could live for himself a pure life here, without injustice and impious deeds, and with fine hopes for his departure; and then depart with cheerfulness and good temper."



Socrates explicitly uses himself as an example of this private, retiring philosopher (496c). The Republic's initiating descent and its consummating ascent provide the mythic commentary on Socrates' heroic life, and particularly on his absence from politics.

Socrates characterizes a "descent" four more times in the dialogue, and all four reinforce and embellish this Odyssean theme. Indeed, three are directly connected to Socrates' second recitation of the lament of Achilles' soul in the "Allegory of the Cave". (The fourth, at 511b, is part of the immediately preceding account of the Divided Line.) In all three, Socrates tells Glaucon that, even in the best city, the guardians who complete their philosophical training will want to flee from politics, finding it a dead-world compared to the life of the mind outside of the Cave. But, says Socrates, they must be compelled to "descend" back into the political world, and bother themselves with all its petty labors (ponoi) and honors (516e, 519b, 520d, 539e).


So far, we have been considering Socrates as Odysseus, the intrepid and intelligent sojourner here, displaced in this land of labors for the good of others. (In their accounts of Socrates' defense speech at his trial, Plato and Xenophon both have Socrates project his examinations of his fellow citizens as heroic "labors" (ponoi); see Plato, Apology 22a, and Xenophon, Apology 17.) But Plato's appropriation of "The Visit to the Dead" is characteristically more ambiguous than this heroic Socrates would be. To see this ambiguity, it helps again to return to the passage where Socrates and Adeimantus "correct" Homer's account of the afterlife.

As it happens, after Socrates and Adeimantus censor the lament of Achilles' soul, the next passage from the Odyssey they disapprove (Odyssey X.494-495) is Circe's advice to Odysseus to seek the soul of Teiresias, the Theban prophet who will be Odysseus' guide in the underworld, and his advisor on how to get home. Teiresias is distinguished from all the other souls by a special gift granted him by Persephone, the Queen of the Dead-World (Socrates quotes only the second line at 386d):


In death, Persephone still grants him thought,

And shrewdness; while they are fretting shadows.


This is the only passage where Homer directly calls the persons of the underworld "shadows" (in Greek, skiai). (Odysseus a little later says his mother Antikleia's soul was "like a shadow" when he tried to embrace her: Ody. XI.207) Plato, with his wonderful sensitivity as a reader as well as a writer, was struck by the word "shadows". In the "Allegory of the Cave," Socrates uses "shadow" eight times in three pages to characterize what the non-philosophical prisoners see (515a-517d). This density of Platonic shadows chimes with Odysseus' conversation with Achilles, reinforcing Plato's appropriation of Homer's myth. (Socrates also uses "shadows" a half dozen times to characterize the lower levels of the Divided Line, at 509d-510d and 532b-c, much as he uses "descent" of both the Line as well as the Cave.)

            But these shadows also add a potentially discordant note to descent, by intruding Teiresias. Other dialogues exploit this projection of Socrates into Homer's character of Teiresias guiding Odysseus' descent, notably the Protagoras (315b9 and c8) and the Meno (100a5). When we conceive of Socrates as himself descending and ascending, we have one mythic projection. But when we project him instead onto the blind and shrewd prophet, guiding someone else through a descent, and even more through an ascent he may not make himself, Socrates takes on a very different mythic character. "I descended," Socrates began; but "with Glaucon," he went on. This casting of Socrates, more Glaucon's charismatic sidekick than himself the leading man, fits very well with the drama of the Republic's opening. An older figure, distinguished by his wit and wisdom, leads a younger, brasher protagonist, and helps him find his way in a shady world. The plot requires the hero to climb the path back out again. But the blind guide may fall to the wayside, no matter how hard he leans on his staff.

            Plato develops the Teiresias theme in the same section where he recapitulated Achilles' lament, in the "Allegory of the Cave". For the Cave is not a story of some self-sufficient hero who, solely by his own efforts, escapes to the light. It is conceived primarily as a story of education (514a), of conversion (518b-d). This conversion is not pleasant, nor is it wholly voluntary. The prisoners in the cave are released only under the ungentle prodding of a guide who will "drag" them up (515e). This unpleasant guide operates by "forcing them to answer his questions" (514d). When the prisoners see how the guide discombobulates one of their own whom he is trying to "release and lead up," they will even want to kill him (515d, 517a). Like the recitation of Achilles' lament, this introduction by Glaucon and Socrates of the theme of an underworld guide adds a mythic dimension to an earlier conversation with Adeimantus. Suppose someone persuades a talented young man, Socrates had said to Adeimantus, to reject the corrupting influence of his friends and flunkies, and "turns him and drags him toward philosophy." Won't these friends and flunkies do everything in their power to destroy such a man, "plotting against him in private and attacking him in public?" (495e). The trial and execution of Socrates for his influence on talented young men is foreseen with Adeimantus, then mythologized with Glaucon.

            The drama of Socrates telling Glaucon the "Allegory of the Cave" enacts the very story of education the "Allegory" told. Socrates plays the role of Glaucon's guide in the ascent from the cave of political ambition. He emphasizes to Glaucon that one who has ascended to the light would never go back down into the cave's shadows, unless forced by some necessity. The world of politics takes on the mythic significance of being the dead-world, a world of mere souls. Socrates' identity as mentor takes on the added mythic significance of prophet, the guide of souls through the underworld, and he stakes out his implicit claim to a special discernment in a realm otherwise inhabited by empty shadows.

            Suppose Socrates is playing Teiresias to Glaucon's Odysseus, as well as playing Odysseus himself. This doubling of mythic identities would be the Republic's version of the fateful ambiguity at the heart of Socrates' avowals and disavowals of knowledge in so many of Plato's dialogues. Does Socrates himself have the sort of knowledge required for the ascent out of the Cave, or can he only point the way out for someone else? The closest the Republic comes to an answer is at the beginning of one of its most problematic sections, the discussion of the form of the Good. This absolute Good, Socrates tells Adeimantus, "is what every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does everything. The soul divines that this Good is something, but is in confusion about it. . Will even those best men in the city, into whose control we put everything, have to remain in obscurity about a thing of this kind and importance?" (505e-506a). Readers share Adeimantus' expectation that Socrates' answer is "No," and naturally think he is about to remove the confusion (in Greek, aporia) and obscurity by providing something more clear than divination (a word with the same root as "prophet"). But it is not so. "I divine," Socrates goes on, "that no one will adequately know what is just or noble before knowing this Good" (506a). The repetition clangs; does Socrates also only "divine" what this absolute Good is? When Adeimantus and then Glaucon press him to explain this mysterious Good, Socrates puts them off. He tells Glaucon cryptically, "What my thinking is on these topics appears to me more than can be reached with the present effort," leaving in obscurity whether his refusal is prompted by his limitations or theirs (506e). His final demurral is just as discreet, when Glaucon asks him to leave behind the image of the cave and tell plainly how this saving knowledge is obtained: "What you wish to see would no longer be an image, but the truth itself, just as it appears to me. Whether or not it is really that way isn't worth insisting on further; but that there is some such thing to see, must be insisted on" (533a). Socrates discerns that there is something to see, but he will not say that he sees it.

            Plato has contrived a most garrulous silence to suspend the satisfaction of his readers' curiosity. But both of his brothers were treated no better by Socrates.


What sort of guide does Socrates become for Glaucon? This depends on where we take Glaucon to start from. Plato characterizes Glaucon in considerable psychological detail. Socrates senses in him an extreme manliness (357a), and notes his military courage (368a), a talent for music (398e), and strong erotic passion (402d-e, 468b-c, 474d-475a; see also 458d). Glaucon also displays a penetrating intellect throughout the dialogue, not to mention a sometimes sarcastic wit at Socrates' expense (for example, 509c, 547a-b, 595c and 596d). Finally, his interest in founding a city, if only in speech, hints to us of Glaucon's very intense political ambition (a hint confirmed by Xenophon, Plato's contemporary, in Memorabilia III.6). He combines the love of honor characteristic of military and political ambition with more musical and erotic traits, a combination rarely found (see 375c-376c, 475a-b, 485b, 548d-e).

In brief, Glaucon seems to have just the natural endowments he and Socrates enumerate when they characterize the guardians and philosophers in their ideal city (474b-487a). Or perhaps more precisely, this description of the ideal philosophic nature is also an idealization of Glaucon, a focus for his aspiration rather than simply an analysis of his present self. It must be with some exhilaration, then, that at the end of this passage the actual Glaucon hears Socrates say of this potential Glaucon, "When such men are perfected by education and age, wouldn't you turn the city over to them alone?" (487a).

            But Glaucon does not get the chance to give the emphatic "Yes" to this question that must have been on his lips, not to mention in his heart. Adeimantus interrupts, with a challenge that complicates the optimism about how a man like Glaucon might pass from his actual to his perfected self, becoming in the process a philosopher-king. This all sounds good in theory, says Adeimantus, but it isn't true in practice. When it comes to politics, philosophy makes those who "linger in it for any length of time" politically useless, or even vicious (487b-d). To the brothers' surprise, Socrates does not try to refute this charge. He even makes it more extreme, saying that most are made vicious (489d, 490e). "Each one of the traits we praised in the philosophic nature has a part in destroying the soul that has them and tearing it away from philosophy," says Socrates, and so do endowments such as wealth and good connections (491b, 495a). The same natural endowments that are the necessary prerequisites for philosophy also expose a man to almost irresistible temptations toward tyranny. The worst can only come from the corruption of the best (491d-e); the potential philosopher is also the potential tyrant. We would expect to find Socrates associating with young men who find something fascinating about tyranny, who are open to its seductions, to exactly the extent we would expect to find him consorting with those with a talent for philosophy.

Glaucon wants to loathe tyrants, but he feels their fascination, and he is the potent if reluctant heir of the conception of tyranny proposed (in book I) by Thrasymachus and attacked by Socrates. The sophist was too easily charmed, says Glaucon, like a snake (358b), and he asks Socrates for a more convincing refutation of the tyrant's life of unbridled desire. His own speech (at the beginning of book II) brilliantly sets the snake free again. He protests, a bit too much, that he "rejuvenates" tyranny only for the sake of clarity -"Of course, Socrates, I myself don't think this way at all; though I am confused" (358c; also 361e). This alleged "confusion" (aporia) has a rather rotten smell, like a sweet perfume over a fetid sweat, and his rejuvenation is pungent with the intimacy of his hidden passion.

Glaucon's manly vigor (see 359b with 357a and 359a with 361d) in defending the tyrant is most on display in the thought-experiment he composes of "The Ring of Gyges" (359c-360b). Once upon a time, an ancestor of Gyges was tending sheep, where he was "bound to the fields" (359d; the same word as Achilles used in his lament) of the king. A great storm and earthquake broke open a chasm in the earth, into which he descended. There he saw many wonderful things worthy of a myth (359d), and retrieved a magical ring. When he discovered this ring had the power to make its wearer invisible, the shepherd used this power to murder the king, commit adultery with his wife, and assume the throne.

Glaucon asks his audience to consider whether they would act any differently if they put such a ring on their finger. Invisibility is revealing of hidden desire. The just man and the unjust "would act no differently from the other, but both would go the same way" (360c). This immoral moral, whatever its general applicability, surely tells us much about what Glaucon finds within himself. The reason he feels "confused" by arguments in praise of tyranny is that a part of him is in accord with these arguments. His thought-experiment uncovers what he would prefer to conceal, and perhaps to be rid of altogether.

His confusion is caused by a mixture of obsession and revulsion, brought closer to the surface when book IX lays bare the erotic nature of the tyrant. This helps to motivate Glaucon's unwillingness to acknowledge his own manifestly erotic temperament. When Socrates cites him as an authority on what "an erotic man" would say, Glaucon gets defensive: "If you want to point to me while you speak about what erotic men do, I agree for the sake of the argument" (474d-475a). But his thought-experiment has been too successful for this dodge. Why, after all, does he lay such stress on adultery, and sexual license more generally (360b), in the story? It is for the same reason that, when Socrates suggests the young men and boys should reward the courageous soldier with crowns, handshakes, and kisses, Glaucon suggests going further: "No one whom [the courageous soldier] wants to kiss should be permitted to refuse, so that if a man happens to be erotically attracted to someone, male or female, he would be more eager to win the rewards of valor" (468b-c). Erotic passion is as deep a part of Glaucon as anything could be. It is a central part of what makes him the right man for philosophy (see especially 474c-d), but at the same time it is what threatens to unman him.

Glaucon might successfully avoid confronting his erotic self, were it not that he has bad dreams. Socrates and Adeimantus see our unguarded dreams as the proof of this hidden self, dreams that adumbrate the Greek classics of the tyrannical and the tragic: incest, patricide, and cannibalism (571c-d). "The laws and better desires, with the help of argument," can weaken these bad desires, but yet are they present, "even in some of us who seem to be ever so measured" (571b, 572b). The most we can do is to calm these desires in the hopes of rousing a different part of ourselves. Socrates calls this best part of us the "calculating" or "thinking" part, but its work in sleep and dream gives us a shock of recognition: "The best part, alone and pure and by itself, inquires and strives to perceive something it does not know, something past, present, or future. . And it is in such a person that the best part most touches the truth, and least then do those lawless dream visions appear" (571e-572b). Socrates seems to describe the same faculty that he earlier described as divinatory of the Good: "The soul divines that this Good is something, but is in confusion about it, and is not able to grasp sufficiently what it is" (505e). Opposed to the savagery of erotic desire is not the secure knowledge of the philosopher, but the obscure intuition of the prophet. This passage recalls to us how Cephalus' prophetic faculties about the afterlife (330d-e) were roused only when he, like Sophocles, had gotten old enough to be sexually impotent, escaping the "many mad masters" that also enthrall the tyrant (329b-d and 573a-c). In Glaucon, too, the erotic self competes with the prophetic self, and he has not the wisdom to be old. No wonder, then, that in his confusion he needs a Teiresias.


Suppose you "descended" out of "storm and earthquake" (359d) into a cavern broken open in the earth, into the hushed magnificence of the tomb where the ring of invisibility resides. Where would you be?

Socrates answers the question toward the end of the dialogue when he says to Glaucon (612a-b):


"In the argument," [Socrates] said, "haven't we both cleared away the other parts of the criticism and also not brought in the wages and reputations connected with justice as you [plural] said Hesiod and Homer do? But we found that justice by itself is best for soul itself, and that the soul must do the just things, whether it has Gyges' ring or not, and, in addition to such a ring, Hades' cap."


Socrates is referring back to a complaint Adeimantus, not Glaucon, had made against Hesiod and Homer (363a; Glaucon had made this complaint only against "the many", 358a), and giving his answer a mythic dimension. If your invisibility would release the desires Glaucon has suggested, your ring and cap may as well be gifts from the devil; because you're in hell. The mythic resonance of Glaucon's thought-experiment complements its psychological penetration.

It is easy to hear, in the tyrannical shepherd's "descent" into a chasm, all the other descents and caves in the dialogue. And the "storm and earthquake" that break open the earth have their Homeric echoes, too. At the very end (621b), "thunder and earthquake" mark the ascent of the reincarnated souls from Plato's underworld. More striking, in the second Homeric passage Adeimantus disapproves for its depiction of the underworld (at 386d, quoting Iliad XX.64-65), Hades worries lest the earth be broken open, exposing the dead-world to the view of the living, by the contention between the thunder of Zeus from above and the shaking of earth from below by Poseidon (XX.55-63). Once again, what Adeimantus disapproves as pedagogy, Glaucon enacts as myth. This echo would explain the singularity of this particular Homeric passage among the seven grouped by Socrates in a list (386c-387a). Of the other six, three concern underworld descents in the Odyssey, and three the death of Achilles' beloved friend Patroclus in the Iliad, all of which have a more obvious connection to the mythic dimensions of the dialogue.


The tensions in Glaucon's eroticism leave the reader of two minds, or better, of two moods, with regard to Socrates' guidance of Glaucon. Socrates promotes an activist, reforming mood, which places a high value on a purified politics. This reaches its highest development just as Socrates is prevented by Adeimantus' interruption from turning over the city-in-speech to Glaucon. From that point, Socrates promotes a dismissive, retiring mood that denigrates political leadership by comparing it to ruling in hell rather than living in the sun. When Socrates recites the lament of Achilles a second time, are we forced to put an ironic smile on his earlier nurturing of Glaucon's radical ambition?

I believe it is a mistake to let Plato's dismissive mood eclipse his more positive valuing of politics. Though his moods may not believe in each other, they do not contradict each other either. But the native hue of the reforming mood is sicklied over with the pale cast of doubt, doubt that reform can ever expect to earn the name of action. At the dialogue's thematic center (473c-e), Socrates suggests that human ills will cease only when either philosophers become kings or kings philosophers. While it is just barely possible this blessing should come to pass --Socrates says it is "not entirely a mere prayer" (540d; see also 499b-c) --it is also nothing one could bring about merely through resolution. The greatest political blessing possible for human beings is a matter of coincidence (473d), chance (499b), or some divine happenstance (499c).

This brute resistance of the highest political goals to human control does not look so important when one is in the grip of the dismissive mood. Indeed, to be deprived of any opportunity at all to be a ruler is merely to avoid a distraction, and the sense that this lack of political opportunity would involve a real loss is attenuated, or suppressed altogether. But I also hear a kind of regret in the Republic, as for something beautiful that must be forgone. This regret is the product when the reformer realizes that reform is out of his control.

Socrates expresses the reformer's regret memorably when he discusses with Adeimantus the attitude of a true philosopher to politics, given its dangers and corruption (496d-497a):


               "Seeing others filled with lawlessness, [the true philosopher] would be satisfied," [said Socrates], "if somehow he could live for himself a pure life here, without injustice and impious deeds, and with fine hopes for his departure; and then depart with cheerfulness and good temper."

               "Well," [Adeimantus] said, "then he would depart after having accomplished no small thing."

               "But not the greatest either," [Socrates] said, "unless he chanced upon a fitting regime, since in a fitting one, he would grow more himself, and save the common with the private."


Here a reformed politics is not some necessity to be happily avoided. Socrates acknowledges that ruling a city well serves the private good of the ruler. The "growth" the ruler experiences is an intrinsic good, not just the instrumental good of avoiding the rule of worse people. But it is a growth that cannot be pursued; we must await some divine chance to experience it. The dominant mood is resignation at unavoidable loss, lightened only by gratitude for extraordinary beauty.

            The Teiresias motif in the Republic, then, casts a pall of regret and resignation over Glaucon's political ambition. Socrates will lead Glaucon to be too worldly to dismiss politics, and too otherworldly to be confident of reforming it. The erotic self has not been harmonized with the prophetic self. This is not Plato's only word on the relation between the prophetic and the erotic, and perhaps it is not his last word. For example, the Symposium (which invites a hundred comparisons, not least by beginning (172c) with a report of Glaucon's own intense interest in its subject matter) certainly suggests a much closer relationship between the erotic and the prophetic (see 192d and 202e). But it is the end of Glaucon's story in the Republic.

            The famous "Allegory of the Cave" is many things. But prominent among them, it is a rewriting of Homer. Socrates has guided Glaucon to a new mythic identity, from an ambitious Achilles to a chastened Odysseus. But this rewriting has complicated and elaborated Socrates' own mythic projection into the triumphant hero. The terms of the rewriting prohibit us from saying Socrates simply is or simply is not this prose epic's hero. Is he the intrepid Odysseus himself, hero of a philosophical epic with its own nostalgia for a heavenly home (see 592a-b); or is he Teiresias, the hero's guide, intelligent and prophetic, but still essentially blind, with only a divination of the hero's way? Plato's myth refuses us the satisfaction of Homer's Odyssey, since we cannot say whether the main character found his way through many labors at last to home, or remained stranded in that dead-world of politics and ambition, saving others though he could not save himself. It is hard to see an accident in an ambiguity so subtly composed.


            Having trained the reader's ear with these two Homeric themes, Plato offers us an entertaining coda. Socrates and Adeimantus censor one last Odyssey passage for the disheartening way it presents the dead-world (387a). Odysseus returned home and took his revenge on the would-be suitors of his wife Penelope. When they were dead, Hermes the Psychagogue (Leader of Souls) summoned them down to hell. In the Homeric description that Socrates and Adeimantus disapprove (Odyssey XXIV.6-7), they fret and flutter behind the divine leader:


                Falling, the suitors' souls go squeaking down,

                 like bats in nooks of eerie echoed caves.


This citation is as careful in its assonance as the previous two. As it was only in the Teiresias passage that Homer called souls "shadows", so is this the only passage where he explicitly likens the underworld to a cave. But the passage also prefigures one last aspect of the mythic dimension of the underworldly Socrates. He too becomes a psychagogue (from the Greek psyche "soul" and agagein "to lead"), the priest leading others in a ritual of initiation and purification, into the mysteries of the afterlife.

            Such initiation rituals, most famously the Eleusinian Mysteries, were central to Greek religious life. They typically involved a ritual journey, during which the presiding priest taught secret doctrines to the initiates, to purify them and protect them in the underworld. (Participation also often involved considerable expense.) The initiation culminated in the sudden revealing of a cult object, a sacred vision to be gazed upon only by the purified. The Republic appropriates the spiritual depths of these religious ideas. This is obvious in the grand concluding myth, where the soul is led on a purifying journey (611c) culminating in a vision of a pure column of light at the deep heart's core of the world (616b). But equally striking is the way Plato rings the changes on the schema of a leader conducting an initiate to gaze (in Greek, based on the root the-, from which derive the English "theater" and "theory") on a sudden vision, reaching a crescendo in the "Allegory of the Cave".

            This was clearly a myth Plato intended to nurture. In the Phaedo, philosophy itself is presented as a purification rite (69b and 82d; in Greek, katharmoi), and the dialogue's tone is set by Pythagorean religious lore. The Symposium is even closer to the Republic. In its central speech, the prophetess Diotima makes elaborate use of the vocabulary of an initiation into a mystery (209e-210a), conducted by a leader (210a, 210e), to a sudden vision (210e; in Greek, exaiphnes "sudden" and kathoran "see intensely"). In the Republic, these themes receive their first statement in Socrates' opening sentences (327a-b, emphasis added): "I descended to Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, wanting to pray to the goddess, and to gaze on how they would put on the cult celebration, since they were leading it for the first time. After we had prayed and gazed on the spectacle, we went off toward town." Polemarchus, Cephalus' son, interrupts their departure, and he and Adeimantus tempt Glaucon and Socrates to visit Cephalus' house with the promise of "something worth your gaze" (328a). When they arrive, old Cephalus, fresh from making one sacrifice, chides Socrates for not descending more often, and soon leaves to sacrifice some more (328c and 331d). He speaks of his past like a man with a guilty conscience, in search of the sort of reassurance that can be bought and sold, and he claims a special vision of the things of the underworld, especially its punishments (330d-331b). We fully appreciate how compact Plato's introduction of these themes has been in this opening only later, when we learn the deity honored in the new cult being led in was Bendis, a Thracian deity associated with Persephone, queen of the underworld (354a).

            These themes are taken up again with special emphasis by Adeimantus. After Glaucon rejuvenates Thrasymachus' praise of the tyrant with "The Ring of Gyges", a speech uncomfortably revealing of his own erotic ambivalence, it is his brother's turn. But the arguments Adeimantus longs to hear from Socrates respond to different anxieties. It is the ghost of Cephalus that Adeimantus remembers, and the old man's fearful invocation of the torments in the afterlife. "The man who finds many unjust deeds in his life often even wakes from his sleep in a fright," says father Cephalus (330e), and at least a part of Adeimantus inherits this concern for what dreams may come. These disturbing stories -Cephalus calls them "myths" (330d) -are understood by Adeimantus to be literary in origin, and he ascribes them to the poets Orpheus, Musaeus, and Musaeus' son, apparently Eumolpus, the founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries (363c, 363e, 364e). Adeimantus is anxious about all this Orphic religious lore. He is especially critical of Cephalus' greatest comfort, compensatory sacrifice (364b-e). But he also disapproves accounts of being led (agagein; 363c) into Hades by initiations (365a, 366a); of purifications (364e); and of rituals of "release" from punishment (in Greek, lusis; 364e, 365a, 366a). Is this intended to recall Glaucon's fantasy of the power of the ring, which gave license to "release from bonds" anyone we want (360b)? With Adeimantus, the manipulation of "release" is a religious nightmare; with Glaucon, it is a political dream. At any rate, Adeimantus is like his brother in denying any personal attachment to the position he will so vigorously build up for Socrates to tear down. Others would make these arguments in earnest, he would have Socrates know, "but I, just because I desire to hear the refutation from you -after all, there's nothing I have to hide from you -I speak as vehemently as I can" (367a-b). A man doesn't choke like this unless he has something to swallow.

            Plato returns to Adeimantus' themes with his characteristic pattern of elaboration: What Adeimantus rejected becomes the cornerstone of a myth Socrates and Glaucon enact in the Cave.

The prisoners there are "released from their bonds" (lusis; 515c, 517a, 532b) by a mysterious "someone," obviously a Socrates figure (see especially 515d and 517a). This release requires them to be reoriented and turned around, or more literally to be "led to turn" (in Greek, agagein with peri "around"; 514a, 515c, 518c, 518d, 521c). Socrates invites Glaucon to consider "how someone will lead them up to the light, just as some are said to have gone from Hades up to the gods," and adds that this leading up will be "a turning around of a soul from a sort of nocturnal day to true day, the path up to being, which is indeed what we call true philosophy" (521c). So being turned around is at the same time a being led up, a forced ascent. This conversion from darkness to light, we learn, is at first blinding, when the released prisoners "suddenly" try to adjust their "vision" to what the light illumines above.  Similarly, they will be just as blind if they try to descend back for a "sudden vision" in the shadows (515c, 515e, 516a, 516e, 518a). The passage repeatedly characterizes the freed prisoners by their "gaze," upon the heavenly (516a), the enlightened (516b), the intelligible (517b), the divine (517d, and the real (518c). The shadows of the Cave are thick with echoes from Adeimantus and his old man.

            Finally, the account of philosophical and mathematical education that follows the "Allegory of the Cave" continues the Orphic resonance. Socrates and Glaucon consider how we are "led to gaze" on the highest things by concerning ourselves with unity (524e), number (525c), geometry (526e), and astronomy (529a). "All this concern for these arts we've gone through," Socrates recapitulates, "has this power to release and turn around, and to lead up what is best in the soul to gaze upon what is best in what exists" (532b-c). After this long "prelude," Glaucon asks Socrates for "the song itself," an account of the true philosophical art, dialectic (532d), which would be the consummation of Glaucon's initiation. In response, Socrates again makes his own an earlier passage of Adeimantus' explicit censure. Adeimantus had complained that in their writings, the Orphic poets "bury the impious and unjust in mud in Hades" (363d). Now, it turns out, this is the same fate from which dialectic will win our release: "Since there really is a sort of 'barbarous mire' in which the eye of the soul is buried," says Socrates, "dialectic gently drags and leads it up above, using the arts we described as helpers and assistant leaders of the turning around" (533c-d). When Socrates says there is really or literally a "barbarous mire" that buries the soul's eye, he is surely recalling the same Orphic theme as Adeimantus, and perhaps the specific language of a particular text.


            "I descended": eerie echoes indeed. The small bell tolled in the first word resounds like a carillon in a cave.



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Università degli Studi di Palermo