Rescuing Socrates from Plato

Without Socrates, there would be no Plato. But in many ways, without Plato, we’d likely never have heard of Socrates. Socrates was well known in his day, and he had various admirers who went on to write about him and his ideas; but it is only in Plato’s Dialogues where we get the full glimpse of the man.

Or do we?

Plato wrote in dialogue form in order to persuade his readers that the ideas expressed there were true through the effectiveness of conversation, but without directly having to engage thousands himself. And he used the character of Socrates – famous for his iconoclastic conversations – to do it. But this does not mean that Plato’s Socrates character precisely mirrors the real Socrates.

Relationship Between Socrates and Plato

While we do not have many details about Plato’s early years, it is clear from his dialogues and other sources of the time that Socrates was a longstanding friend of Plato’s aristocratic family. And that family is an interesting one.

Plato’s uncle Charmides and his cousin Critias were both members of the infamous Thirty Tyrants which took control of Athens after losing the Peloponnesian War. Critias, in fact, became the unofficial leader and is blamed for most of the “tyrannical” acts ordered by The Thirty. Socrates was friendly with both men in their younger years, and each has a dialog named after him.

In fact, many historians believe that Socrates’ relationship to these men was at least in part responsible for his later conviction and execution.

Clearly Socrates must have become acquainted with Plato while running in these circles. And we know that years later, Plato witnessed Socrates’ trial, and he was likely prepared to help pay whatever fines that might result from a finding of guilt. Unfortunately, Socrates was executed instead. Plato seems to have left Athens shortly after his friend’s execution, and it is clear that Socrates’ death made a large impact on him. When Plato returned from traveling abroad years later, he began writing his dialogues, and he founded one of civilization’s first permanent schools: The Academy.

Where Does Socrates End and Plato Begin?

It’s clear that Plato venerated his former friend and teacher, and his use of Socrates as a character in many of his dialogues is evidence of that respect and admiration. But Plato was an impressive thinker himself, so it is not surprising that the ideas in his dialogues would reflect his own philosophy rather than Socrates’.

The Three Periods of Plato

It’s generally agreed that Plato’s dialogues should be split into three periods: the Early, Middle and Late periods.

In the Early Period, Plato tries to represent Socrates as he was, and this includes the Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, and Gorgias. During the Middle Period, Plato’s own thought begins to flower, and he uses Socrates as his mouthpiece. These works include the Symposium, Phaedo, and The Republic.

Finally, in the Late Period, Plato drops Socrates as his protagonist altogether, and the philosopher’s last work, The Laws, is especially representative of this trend.

The differences between the two men arise in many ways due to their different perspectives. Socrates was the son of a stonemason, and he followed his father in that craft. He was born and raised in a time of Athens’ ascendance – this was the city-state that stood against the invading Persian tyranny and later founded an empire. Despite his iconoclasm and his desire for change, Socrates was clearly an optimist.

Plato experienced a different world. Born in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, he saw Athens fall to Sparta. Democracy, as he likely saw it, had failed. And when the more important members of his aristocratic family took charge of the city after the war, he saw them executed or fallen battle after a brief civil war. Plato was raised in chaos – a chaos many blamed on the democracy. And then Athens executed his friend and teacher for speaking his mind and seeking truth. It should not be surprising that Plato was biased against the people.

Major Differences Between Socrates and Plato

Epistemology / Metaphysics

In philosophy, metaphysics is the study of what reality is; and epistemology is the study of how we know or perceive that reality.

One of the most distinct differences between Socrates and Plato is that the former largely did not concern himself with either topic, whereas most of the latter’s thought sprung from these areas. In many ways, Plato is the founder of both philosophical realms in the West.

It is clear that Socrates believed in objective reality. He sought Truth – and for truth to be Truth, it must be true for all. He also believed that finding truth takes work. It is not obvious, since so many – including himself – did not have full access to it. But he did believe that with effort one COULD discover truth. And this truth must have an effect on one’s actions and behaviors.

For Socrates, truth about reality was only important insofar as it affected one’s ethics.

Plato’s Reality

Plato took those ideas and went a bit wild. Plato, in many ways, rejects the truth and reality of the perceived world. He sees reality – much like he saw 5th-century BCE Athens – as chaotic and untrustworthy. And so he postulates his Theory of Forms.

It’s a bit complicated to get into in this post, but basically Plato believes that concepts and ideas are somehow more real and true than actual instances of those concepts and ideas. These Forms are the unchanging perfection out of which all the sensible objects around us take an incomplete part. No table is truly a table. Each empirical table is an imperfect copy of the metaphysical form “Table,” of which only the philosopher may get a glimpse.

Aside from this very different view of reality, this has a very practical effect on ethics. For Socrates every man can – and must – strive to discover the truth, and it is in that discovery that will be found happiness and virtue. For Plato, the discovery of Truth is restricted to only a select group of people. Only the trained philosopher – most notably his Philosopher Kind – has the capacity to perceive truth, and therefore everyone else must know his lower place and accept the Philosopher King’s judgment. This idea is summed up in one of my favorite (if horror can be considered favor) quotes from Plato’s Republic: “Philosophy should be wooed by true men, not bastards.”

Ethics and Self

Once we understand each thinker’s different approach to how reality works, we can see that this difference has a major effect on their ethics.

As stated above: Socrates demands that every individual examine himself. It is the responsibility and the joy for every person to seek and discover truth. It is that journey which leads to Socrates’ “examined life”.

For Plato, though, that task is reserved for only a select few. And while this elite is left with a similar duty, the majority of people are restricted from it and required to stay in their lanes.

Further, there is a difference in the way the two philosophers talk about “soul”. Before Socrates, ​there is no conception of the soul in Greek philosophy or religion. At most, when a person died, it was thought that his shade would wander aimlessly in the caverns of Hades for eternity.

For Socrates, however, the soul is something within us, a thing special and valuable that encapsulates our personality and moral nature. For the Socrates of the early dialogs, “our soul is our self – whatever that might turn out to be. It is the ‘I’ of psychological function and moral imputation – the ‘I’ in ‘I feel, I think, I know, I act.’”

Self vs. Soul

But this is a far cry from the modern notion of soul that has come down to us from our Christian heritage; it is a far cry from that same notion that the early Christian fathers hijacked from the middle dialogues of Plato himself. Listen to the Socrates of the Phaedo as he councils his disciples:

Answer me then: what is it that, present in a body, makes it living?
– A soul.

Whatever the soul occupies, it always brings it to life?
– Of course.

Is there, or is there not, an opposite to life?
– There is: death.

So the soul will never admit the opposite of that which it brings along, as we agree from what has been said
– Most certainly.

[V]ery well, what do we call that which does not admit death?
– Deathless.

So we have proved that the soul is deathless.

(Phaedo, Plato)

Nowhere in Plato’s early works does Socrates make such a claim. The best he can do in the Apology is to counsel that one should not fear death because no one knows what lies on the other side; and if it is just an eternal sleep, then so much the better. Socrates’ idea of soul had no metaphysical or otherworldly connotation. It was a moral appeal that spoke to our autonomous nature and showed the individual value inherent in us all.

Politics

It should be clear from the above that these differences had to bleed into each philosopher’s politics. As mentioned above, Socrates was a product of the Athenian democracy. Whatever its problems, Socrates loved and respected the democracy. His intention was to heal each individual, so that the individuals could make good collective decisions. He makes it clear in both his word and actions that he believed Athens had the best form of government in existence during his lifetime.

Socrates valued freedom and wanted it extended to as many people as possible. But he realizes there are different kinds and levels of freedom. Of course there is freedom from outward restrictions of the state and from criminal actors, but there is also the freedom from false belief and self-deceit. Since few were concerned by the latter, Socrates chose to emphasize this kind of freedom. But Plato has anything but individual freedom in mind when he proposes his Republic. Plato sought a restrictive society with clear classes, where everyone had a particular task and utility. Many of Plato’s disturbing political ideas stem from the Spartan society of his day; but we can also see some of them reflected in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, if one looks close enough. Hell, even Plato’s Philosopher King and his philosophical elite can be compared to the Catholic hegemony of the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

Socrates had a large impact on Plato, there is no doubt. But Socrates and Plato were different men, with different perspectives. It is not surprising that each would reach different conclusions, and it is not surprising that Plato would make a large impact on how we perceive Socrates. It is important to keep this in mind when we study the thought of either man.

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