Originally, my idea for this post was going to be somewhat angry. Not annoyed, mind you. I was thinking up a full on, bile-spitting rant of hate directed at Plato and the mob of spineless sycophants he transparently manipulates to make his opinions seem sagacious and effective. There’s a clear basis for this, especially with Adeimantus, a thoroughly uninvolved and transparent character whose only real lines are booming approval, even willingness to vote on, the arrogant and pseudointellectual convictions of a supposedly ignorant man. No joke, several of the many Post-Its in my copy of the text are just telling him to shut up. For a man who wants his disciples to live the unexamined life, Socrates seems to be fine with blind obeisance to his dictums, and maintains that almost all literature containing any kind of emotionally reactive (and therefore perspective-inducing) potential be eliminated, so as to better ensure that the citizens of his kallipolis adhere mindlessly to their niches under the watchful eye of a philosophical ruling class. And as I was preparing to wind myself up to deliver this rant, I realized something very important. Specifically, that Plato, as the writer, is using Socrates as a mouthpiece.
Not an earth-shattering revelation, certainly, but it raises some interesting questions. Socrates exists entirely out of context for us save for the writings of Plato and Xenophon, both of whom identified as his students. Both men recounted his discourses, his relationship with his students, his wife, the sophists, and the Athenian government that ultimately ordered his death. In considering this, I’m given to a bizarre conjecture – did Socrates actually exist?
Plato and Xenophon were similarly inclined, in the philosophical sense. Both were dyed-in-the-wool elitists, with Plato’s ideal state being a caste-based dictatorship and Xenophon being an outspoken supporter of Sparta, an authoritarian nation even by Ancient Greek standards. Today, we take them seriously, but I’m a suspicious man not inclined to trust such obviously self-aggrandizing text, and I theorize that Socrates never existed. He was a collective construct, made to express the views of a demographic that knew the price of speaking one’s mind. His identification with the gadfly is essentially an admittance of this purpose, which both used to make him a martyr in their renditions of the Apology.
Basically, I’m thinking Plato, Xenophon and a few other aristocratic lads created a philosophical Dread Pirate Roberts. The wisest man alive (Plato), or the most free, just and sound of mind (Xenophon), who accomplishes his brilliance through feigned ignorance. I can picture Plato, the young ideologue, expounding on his slant of the ideal city, and somebody (possibly a still-surly Thrasymachus) standing to challenge him, only for the caviling worm to lay his argument at the feet of that great unwashed genius, Socrates, of whom he is just a student. The trial could’ve been complete fiction, and once the written account is circulated, I’m guessing a few citizens could recall sitting in on the trial of some youth-corrupter who could have been Socrates. If there were refutations, they’ve been lost to time, as have many of the period’s texts. Socrates, as a character, was a legend in his own time, but not a public figure (he was pilloried by Aristophanes, but was never recorded as challenging him on it), and lived in vagrant-like conditions according to some accounts. It would be easy to say you’ve missed him, or didn’t peg him for a great philosopher, but Plato here will be glad to fill you in on his opinions.
I’ve grown to truly resent Plato’s views for over the course of this reading, especially given the modern context of totalitarianism that Russel and Popper railed against. He’s elitist, condescending and openly hateful of democracy. For a man so hell-bent on temperance (a word that reminds me of Prohibition, a concept that I just hate to my core), his views are pretty absolutist. His idea of government is you ceding your freedom to him and his ilk because you’re too stupid and uncontrollable to use it. I’ve gone past wanting to refute his arguments and more into the territory of having imagination segues involving confronting the man with a lumber ax. Now, if I’m right, he’s also a huckster and a coward. If I’m wrong, well, at least I’m least I’m making that conjecture under my own name.