Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.

Clouds of Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates.  Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle).  At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.

Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask.  When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance.  Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted.  On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s  Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions.  We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.

Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,

I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.

We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato.  The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made.  Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates.  His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors.  After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead.  Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.

The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education.  The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier.  The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking  to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly.  To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy.  As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.

“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions.  We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books.  On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education.  At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints.  The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman.  Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates.  More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach.  The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.

In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy.  This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.

Free Speech in Ancient Athens: Acharnians of Aristophanes

Today this blog returns to the Greek theater with the works of Aristophanes.  Aristophanes is the only writer of the Greek genre known as “Old Comedy” for whom complete plays have survived.  Comedy, which tends to rely on pop culture references and current events, is often an ephemeral genre.  The fact that Aristophanes’ plays still get laughs 2400 years after their first performance is the main reason they have survived so long.  Like Shakespeare and Molière, he is one of an exclusive group of comedians whose work is timeless.

Buste van Aristophanes en putto met masker, in cartouche, Abraham Delfos, 1759 [public domain via Rijksmuseum.  color added]

Buste van Aristophanes en putto met masker, in cartouche, Abraham Delfos, 1759 [public domain via Rijksmuseum. color added]

The earliest extant Aristophanes play  is The Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE when he was about 20 years old.  Acharnia is a rural region of Attica which was particularly devastated by the Spartans’ annual raids during the Peloponnesian War, forcing its inhabitants to live as refugees within the walls of Athens.  The Acharnians trivializes the Athenians’ reasons for going to war and criticizes the state for not making peace.  The main character, Dicaeopolis, is an Athenian farmer who manages to negotiate a personal peace with Sparta, allowing him to live a comfortably hedonistic life, free from the hardships of war.  Cameo characters of Euripides and Lamachus (whom we met in Thucydides as one of the generals of the Sicilian expedition) make appearances as Dicaeopolis’ next-door neighbors.  In the final scene we see Dicaeopolis packing a food basket and preparing for a drinking party while Lamachus packs his arms and prepares to repel a Spartan attack (Euripides has long sense retired to an attic to bury himself in his poetry).  At the close of the play Lamachus is carried back on stage, having been injured in battle, while a tipsy Dicaepolis wobbles in supported by two flute girls.

1886 Production of the Acharnians at  University of Pensylvania [public domain via U. Pennsylvania Archives fair use justification: images was taken in 1886 and is out of copyright]]

1886 Production of the Acharnians at University of Pensylvania [public domain via  University of  Pennsylvania Archives]

It is simply incredible that a young playwright was allowed to ridicule state policy in time of war, and even make fun of a popular general.  This is even more exceptional in that the play was performed in the Dionysian theater during one of the most important religious festivals of the year.  It would be as if, at the height of World War II, the Church of England sponsored Benny Hill to write a play, put on in Westminster Abbey as part of the Christmas program, in which the main character mocked the government and made a personal peace with the Nazis.  This would never have happened, even in England.

Admittedly, Aristophanes frequently ended up in hot water for his criticism of Cleon, but Cleon’s revenge took the form of private lawsuits, and he was never effective at shutting the playwright up.  If anything, Cleon’s response seems to have inspired Aristophanes to greater heights of polemic.  For example the next play we have, The Knights, is one long personal attack on Cleon.

Donald Kagan, in his open Yale lecture series, makes the point that the right to free of speech is one of the main factors that set the Athenian democracy apart from other Hellenistic governments.  The Athenians considered it one of the most critical aspects to a functioning democracy.  This is interesting, because when we think of the Athenian democracy, we tend to think of the Assembly.  In fact, however, nearly every Greek city had an assembly, normally made up of all citizens of the Hopelite class and above.  Only Athens had complete freedom of speech–in the assembly, on stage, and everywhere else.  Contrast this to Sparta, where an Assembly vote was required to ratify declarations of war and some treaties.  In these meetings the regular Spartans, who may have been mustered in ranks, were not allowed to speak.  The council offered them a yes or no question and they voted by banging on their shields, with the louder side carrying the vote.  In fact, Spartans did not even enjoy freedom of speech in private; Sparta was known for having one of the most efficient and ruthless secret police forces in the ancient world.

The United States today is more like Athens than Sparta.  The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, and there is effectively no censorship of the theater.  Even the the censors of broadcast media tend to be more concerned about obscenity than politics.  This is a fairly recent state of events, though, particularly in war time.  At any point from the Civil War to at least the end of the 1960’s a public performance criticizing the government during war would have landed the writer in federal prison.  It was only with the backlash against McCarthyism, followed by the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s, that Americans began to take back their First Amendment rights.

Today, as in Classical Athens, freedom of speech is essential to Democracy.  I have written in the past that Democracy, as a political system, seems to be on the wane.  Once artists no longer have freedom of political speech, we will know for certain that it is finally gone.

Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.