THE POETS IN PLATO'S CHARACTERS
David K. O'Connor
of Notre Dame
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.
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).
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"
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):
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,"
"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:
to be bound to the fields, serving
man with scanty means of life,
all the wasting dead to rule."
"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?"
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.
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?
awkward questions. Are they also Platonic questions?
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
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):
[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
"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."
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,
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
Persephone still grants him thought,
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"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
the question toward the end of the dialogue when he says to
"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'
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.