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      Lesson 12                       Plato's Apology








We descended from the clouds. No kidding!



We read Plato's Apology

the trial defense of Socrates.

(on this page):

academic life
the first think shop
scapegoat Socrates
classical civilization
opposed views
undemocratic Plato
caves of art

additional topics



The origin of academic life

Socrates, late classical figurine.Plato holds particular interest for us in the study of literature because we can see so clearly how he used his art. He was the founder of a cult, and he composed literature to promote it. 

The Socratic dialogues are among the world's all-time greatest advertising. They are the propaganda or "foundation myth" for Plato's cult, much as the story about Alexander's dream of Homer makes up the foundation myth for the City of Alexandria and its museum and great library [recall Lesson 9; also Lesson 11, footnote 4 ]. The dialogues are the scriptures for Plato's Academy, the school for philosophy that Plato founded in a sacred grove outside of Athens in about 387 BC, some dozen years after the historical Socrates had been executed. 

The inspiration for the school came from several sources. After Socrates' trial, and before the founding of the Academy, Plato had traveled to Italy where he had encountered the cult of the dead mathematician and sage Pythagoras (6th century BC?). Pythagoras, from Raphael's "School of Athens" This group originally may have branched out from an earlier cult, the Orphics (followers of the pre-Homeric poet Orpheus), but in any event the Pythagoreans were not a cult of the kind described in Homer or found at Athens. This group was not organized as a biological family or clan based on ancestor worship.

Detail from Raphael's School of Athens. Plato held the revolutionary belief that women should be educated. The Pythagorean sect was a spiritual brotherhood, one of the early European forerunners of the great monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Pythagoreans were known for, among other things, vows of poverty, silence and vegetarianism, a regimen markedly counter-cultural to the prevailing heroic way of wealth, speech and animal sacrifice. Pythagoreans also studied numbers and astronomy, and they held mystical beliefs in the transmigration (cyclical rebirth) of souls and personal recollection of past lives--all scientific and pseudo-scientific themes that fascinated Plato, as reflected in most of his writings.

The Pythagorean counter-culture was a model for Plato's school, but mainstream heroic Hellenism also had an essential role in the formation of the institution. The city of Athens was directly responsible for the Academy's establishment. It gave Plato permission to found a temple to the Muses (a museum) near his house, about a mile from the city in an area of public groves and gymnasia (exercise gardens) said to be sacred to a local hero named Hekademos.

A view from Delphi, site of Apollo's oracle.The association of the Academy ("place of Hekademos") with hero territory is important. The Athenian war dead were buried nearby, just down the Sacred Way toward the city. (The topographical symbolism of the land chosen by Plato is that, from the Academy, you go down the Sacred Way to reach the hero cemetery, and further down to reach the city of Athens, and further down to the port of Pireus where the commerce and piracy of Athens were conducted, and further down to the watery chaos of the sea. Like other ancient peoples, the Hellenes usually associated the gods, prophecy and divination with the high ground: Mount Olympus, Delphi, Mount Parnassus, Mount Sinai, Mount of Olives, the mount of Jesus' sermon, etc. To most of the world, the Academy was up.)

Map of Plato's Academy, in relation to Athens.

As a city-chartered institution the Academy seems to have been one of the official membership associations (called thiasoi) in which small groups of Athenians joined together for social ritual and meditation, especially for the burial and memorial of their deceased members. These organizations were classical Athenian updates of the traditional Hellenic hero cults (and also forerunners of modern cemetery associations). The tension between traditional religious conventions and the intellectual pursuit of truth that we find in Euthyphro, The Apology and Plato's other dialogues may reflect the frictions between old and new elements within the distinctive organizational structure of the Academy itself.

Due to Plato's renown as a writer and lecturer, and the fame of his hero Socrates, the Academy soon superseded the old Pythagorean school as the best known think shop in the classical Mediterranean world, prior to Ptolemy's establishment of the great library at Alexandria. Yet Plato's operation was less like a modern university than it was a kind of avant-garde supper club or cafe. The Academy was a society of adult and young adult "learner-companions" who ate light meals together and, for the customary Hellenic after-dinner speech, engaged in "dialectic" or more or less serious intellectual discussion aimed at finding out the hidden truth about things. [Recall Lesson 2: compare Odysseus' after-dinner speech to the Phaeacians and the Paleolithic covenant with the animals.]

In this place of conversation, all topics apparently were open to discussion, and academic freedom was born. That is, all ideas were subjected to rigorous examination and debate. There were disagreements over the validity of even headmaster Plato's theories--some of which indeed were "far out" along the axis of credibility. The high priest of this temple was a poet of great imagination, not an infallible mouthpiece of the gods!

Plato passed his professional career trying to distinguish the Academy for excellence. He ran the school for the last forty years of his life, apart from a few sabbaticals, and he was singularly successful. From all over Hellas he attracted learner-companions, including the scholarly Aristotle who stayed for some twenty years, and the school eventually specialized as a think-tank that turned out politicians versed in the social engineering of city-states. The government contract work appears to have been a good business because of demand for city charters and model laws. The Hellenes still were setting up new colonies, which needed organizational concepts and documents. Questions about the best form of government were timely, too, because political instability was widespread, as kings, aristocrats and democrats vied for power in city-states throughout the turbulent late-Hellenic world. 

Sighting of Plato's ghost, image from a classical statue found on Crete.On Plato's death at age 80, in 347 BC, his remains were buried on the grounds of the Academy, a shrine was erected there to his memory, and for many generations to come devoted followers heard his spirit speaking to them. The physical plant was handed on like a modern family business, or an ancient priesthood, to Plato's sister's son, Speusippus. (Plato had no children and never married.) 

The school survived under the direction of many other headmasters of various intellectual persuasions (all were "Platonists" but they came in assorted varieties) for almost 900 years, until it was shut down in 529 AD by the Christian Emperor Justinian as part of his dark age cultural campaign to suppress pagans and heretics. Platonism and some form of academic life (generously defined) seems to have survived not only this catastrophe but even the most vicious assaults of medieval and modern times.

We can't be certain how or when any of Plato's dialogues originally were written, published, or circulated, but we can see, simply by reading them, how cleverly they promoted the Academy. They establish Plato as a quiet but leading disciple of Socrates, and they portray Socrates as an entertaining wit, a penetrating thinker, and an inspired teacher, judged by Apollo himself to be the wisest of mortals. They show the master argumentatively routing all of the next-best teachers in Greece, attracting all of the brightest young people to sit at his feet, and exposing the ignorance of the Athenian authorities with a few pointed remarks. Who wouldn't want to be corrupted by Socrates? School just doesn't get any better than this!

Even today Plato's dialogues remain enshrined in colleges and universities throughout the western world, where they continue to be used for institutional promotion. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates concludes in the Apology. So plunk down your tuition money and make your life worth something, say the academics!

Writing about Socrates has been a continuing occupation within academia, where the scholars are still trying to articulate what Socrates really meant--if only Plato had written more clearly! But Plato left no textbook explanation. In the dialogues, he is usually more careful to raise questions than to answer them. (E.g., what is piety?)

A Platonic education is not an indoctrination in particular ideas. It is an experience in the dialectical process of rigorous give-and-take with fellow learner-companions. It's in the maintenance of this truth-seeking discussion process, rather than in any fixed theories, laws, doctrines or dogmas, that Plato's cult endures.

from a classical image of Aristophanes' comedy, The Birds.

The first think-shop of them all:
how Socrates was killed by magic

In the Iliad, Zeus alone understands the stories of fate, and his job is to intervene in the affairs of mortals so that the stories will come true as they are supposed to. [Recall Lesson 5.] In Plato's Apology, Socrates' fate is in the hands of a jury, but the jury like Zeus is prejudiced by a pre-existing story.

Socrates' fate was written, twenty years before his trial, by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes in a comedy called The Clouds (419 BC). This farce features a character by the name of Socrates who is a sophist, who does not believe in Zeus or the Olympian gods, who introduces new gods, and who corrupts young people by teaching them tricks of rhetoric and setting them against their elders. This ridiculous, false image of "Socrates," as presented for laughs in the theater, became the basis for the Athenian prosecutors' indictment of the real Socrates. The Clouds is magic that comes true in the Apology

At the start of his self-defense, Plato's Socrates complains that his reputation has been smeared, and that the charges against him really apply to Aristophanes' absurd caricature of him:

I have had many accusers, who accused me of old, and their false charges have continued during many years; and I am more afraid of them than of Anytus and his associates, who are dangerous, too, in their own way. But far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods. And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they made them in days when you were impressionable in childhood, or perhaps in youth, and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer. And, hardest of all, their names I do not know and cannot tell, except in the case of a comic poet.

The comic poet Aristophanes, that is. From The Clouds and its real-life sequel in the deadly serious prosecution of Socrates, Plato saw first hand  the power of literature, and theater in particular, to form prejudices based entirely on lies and falsehoods. Little wonder that Plato feared the corrupting influence of poetry on society! The Socratic dialogues can be understood as his attempt to set the record straight about Socrates, or to counteract the comic images with a set of positive, idealistic, and heroic ones.

Scene on a drinking bowl from Aristophanes' comedy, The Birds. In the final scene of Aristophanes' comedy, an enraged neighbor, whose son has been corrupted by Socrates, burns down Socrates' "Think Store," with Socrates and his students in it. One reason why this spectacular ending isn't funny is because Aristophanes didn't make it up out of the thin air of his imagination. Roughly thirty years before The Clouds, in about 450 BC, the real think shop of the Pythagoreans in Italy, together with most of the philosophers inside, had been burned by a group of their political enemies. The facts surrounding this catastrophe are lost in history, but we do know that the result was almost the annihilation of the Pythagorean cult. Only a few of the Pythagoreans escaped from the conflagration of the cult compound.

So now you can guess why Plato, after Socrates' execution, visited the Pythagoreans in Italy, in preparation for the founding the Academy. Clearly the Pythagorean survivors and the Socratic ones would have had points in common to discuss. . . and all because of the bad taste of a comedian. We might say that Plato's whole career came from The Clouds, as he restored the think shop to respectability through his uplifting images of Socrates.

So that's the basis for academic life: it all comes from The Clouds.

Making the seas safe for pirates
Athens without the bull

In the Apology, Socrates recognizes that Aristophanes' Clouds has poisoned his reputation with some of the jurors past any cure. Yet he sees a second problem, too, which is almost as difficult: the accusation of Anytus and his political followers. To grasp the politics of the situation, let's review the culture depicted by Homer once again. 

Heroic society was organized biologically. As we saw back in Lesson #6, even the Trojan War was described as a family squabble within old father Zeus' family, with the eldest branch of Zeus-men (the lineage of Priam/Hektor) attempting to maintain its power against the more recent upstart lines of Atreus/Agamemnon, Peleus/Achilles and others.

The heroic pecking order generally was genealogical, so that the eldest ruled and was succeeded by the eldest, but this normal seniority system was disrupted from time to time because family fortunes always remained dependent on the wisdom (or whims) of father Zeus. The love of old Zeus toward his children was changeable, even capricious to the point of abusiveness. Hence, the children were insecure, but they could test and measure their father's love precisely at any time through the practice of warfare, at which consequently they excelled.

Scene from a Corinthian vase, 7th century BC: hoplites in battle formation, marching to the song of a flute.

In the Trojan War, for example, the god's "hatred" for Priam, Agamemnon and Achilles was demonstrated in his extermination of their lines, while his favor and blessing were revealed in the salvation and promotion of the most "pious" man, Aeneas. Thus long before the Euthyphro, and before Homer too, the nature of piety was quite obvious to everybody. Piety was the quality attributed to the fittest survivor, the alpha-male with the winning genes. 

Centuries later in classical times, Socrates' Athens still carries on the old heroic ways, with absurd results. [Recall the superstitious delusions of the pietistic Zeus-man Euthyphro from Lesson 11.] The Zeus-men now wear clothes that hide their genitals some of the time, and they have modernized the field of battle too, so that legal wrangling replaces trial by combat as the game that establishes who is pious and who isn't. As always, however, the survivors of the ordeal are pious, and the dead are dead.

In the new-fangled ritual of the Athenian trial-at-law, Zeus has handed down the scales of justice so that fatal decisions now are put to a jury of mortals. Yet these good citizens, who will condemn Socrates to death, know exactly how Zeus is feeling and what the god wants them to do. They don't need to consult Euthyphro or the augurs about this because the signs are obvious: the Athenians have lost the Peloponnesian War, their navy, their empire and its piles of income, and the people have lost their theater entertainments and are facing starvation. Under the circumstances, only a fool would ask for more proof of Zeus' anger.

Because the city's fortunes aren't measuring up to those of the former glory days, Anytus and the officials are busy restoring the old piety, to win back the god's favor. Their holy work consists of hunting down potentially impious residents and offering them up as human sacrifices to appease the angry spirits. Like the ancient hero rituals, these legal ceremonies are intended to induce good fortune by smoothing things over with the angry spirits. The new twist is that there are no bulls or oxen or goats being offered to the god. There are human scapegoats instead. The heroes now are not dead ancestors, but dispensable people (like strange old Socrates at age 70, an obvious good-for-nothing) who can be killed to make the necessary hero-fertilizer of the rite. 

It's not the purpose of Socrates' trial to define "piety," or to examine the nature of human relations with the gods, or to investigate Socrates' particular religious beliefs. Socrates wants his trial to turn on any of these more or less relevant considerations (as a Socratic dialogue might do), but the trial simply doesn't work that way. The whole point of the ceremony is only to affix the label of "impiety" to Socrates, by common agreement among the citizens, so that impiety itself (whatever it is) can be killed off. The idea, as in any witch hunt, is to find fault so that fault can be removed, thereby restoring prosperity to the faithful who have endured so much suffering due to the presence of evil-doers in their midst. Ridding the city of Socrates will make the seas safe once more for pirates, if it so pleases father Zeus to accept the sacrifice.

Is this witch hunt the echo of some vary ancient form of ritual human sacrifice, or cannibalism, used in times of starvation to improve the chances of group survival? Perhaps. In the context of Socrates' time, however, the trial is a crude display of political hypocrisy, used by inept politicians to divert public attention from their own political blunders, and it's a testimony to Plato's art and tact that he can make this point in the Apology without adding his own name to the official list of Athenian witch-suspects. All of the words spoken in this particular "dialogue" are presented as the words of Socrates, which Plato among other named witnesses was present in person to have heard. Presumably there was no stenographer's trial transcript to contradict Plato's account.

The most interesting point about the "trial" is not its ritual character, which was common in the ancient world (compare the sham "trial" of Jesus), but Plato's portrayal of the the official religious proceedings against Socrates as a political charade. The trial is inside-out, like the characters of Euthyphro and the sophists described earlier [Lesson 11]. The spirit that ought to direct the proceedings in the court of the high priest (love of God) is only a mask worn for show, while the facts that should be obvious (political ineptitude of the leaders who have destroyed Athenian society) are hidden beneath the disguise. 

Multiculturalism and classical civilization

In a bad world, the good news is that the vote is not unanimous. Socrates has many supporters (including Plato, of course) who refuse to go along with the prosecutors' charade. The majority of jurors vote that Socrates is impious and that he should be put to death, but sizeable minorities vote to acquit Socrates and, even after he has been found guilty of impiety, to spare his life.

In other words, in spite of its official state religion and intolerant persecution, Athens is not a unified cult. Not all Athenians share the same beliefs, and not all of them are silent in fear of the majority, the prosecutors, or the high priest of the city. That is to say, Athens is multi-cultural. 

Multiculturalism arose with the emergence of cities in the classical Hellenic world, when genetically based societies no longer could meet growing social needs of the time. 

In form, the Hellenic city-state was stratified with the old family cults in the foundation layer below and a new multifamily, multicultural layer superimposed above. The collective overlay is what we call "politics"--a term derived from "polis," the Greek word for city. Politics did not grow out of religion, blood relationship, neighborly love or fellow feeling. It came from the practical need for groups to achieve more massive scale, to survive in competition against much bigger social organizations, such as the older, highly developed empires in Persia, Phoenicia and Egypt.

In the place that became Athens, politics is said to have started with Theseus. Before his time, the region had been occupied by independent families, each ruling its own turf in the name of the first ancestor to be buried there: the Cecropidae, the Eumolpidae, the Gephyraei, the Phytalidae, the Lakiadae and others. Each family or "house" was a separate culture because each one called up its own heroic dead and its own spirits (gods and goddesses, usually) who attended these ancestral heroes in death. 

For example, the important family of the Cecropidae, who occupied the rocky outcropping by the sea where the city of Athens later would be built, worshipped Athena and Poseidon as their escorts in death. The Eumolpidae who lived a few miles away, at the place that later would become Eleusis, home of the Eleusinian mystery rites, worshipped the grain goddess Demeter. Other nearby families worshipped Apollo (several different Apollos actually), Ares, the Dioscuri Twins, and other immortals.

Phidias' collosal statute of Pallas Athena was housed in the Parthenon.Theseus was the Athenian Moses. He was an heir of the Cecropidae (the descendants of the hero Cecrops) who united twelve local tribes under the common worship of "Pallas Athena." She was not the same cunning trickster celebrated by Homer but a new Political Athena, a goddess of awesome military power and virgin motherhood (that is, non-biological or symbolic motherhood: the members of her congregation were related by the blood of their enemies, not by their own blood). Theseus founded Athens by establishing in that place the festival celebration of the Panathenaea, or all-Athenian sacrifice. And this event, although religious in name and claim, was much more like a civic parade down Main Street, followed by a big picnic and ballgames in the park, than it was like feeding the angry ghosts of your ancestors in a spooky graveyard in the middle of the night.

Theseus apparently differed from Moses in his religious tolerance. In any case, the supremacy of Political Athena did not mean that all other gods and spirits and forms of ritual were abolished. Neighboring cults joined in a confederacy or league of allies under the political leadership of Athens, and they brought their worship with them. For example, the powerful Eumolpidae at Eleusis retained their own religion and priesthood, even after their territory eventually was folded into the Athenian political structure. Hence, the Eleusinian rites, or "mysteries" of rebirth of the dead, became popular among Athenians outside of Eleusis, and eventually many other Hellenic peoples were initiated into these mysteries, too. 

This then is the general profile of classical Athenian civilization: a polytheistic, multicultural society created by the overlay of a common military/political veneer over an underlying group of traditionally separate, local family religious cults.

The complexity of this new social arrangement was disorienting. Fundamental questions arose that were to endure in western history up to our own day. In such a multicultural world, do you serve Political Athena or your ancestral spirits? Do you take your values from the politicians or the priests? Do you follow man's law or god's? Are you practical or mystical? Superficial or superstitious? Realistic or spiritual? Reformed or orthodox? These are the kinds of questions, and the general reexamination of personal identity and divided loyalties, that arose with politics. 

Political and priestly readers
opposed views of Socrates

In Plato's Athens, and in classical Greco-Roman civilization generally, the political state coexists uneasily with underlying spiritual organizations. This dual politico-religious social structure itself may be an expression of our two worlds of human consciousness. [Recall the outer macro world and inner micro world of consciousness from Lesson 11.] Conflicts between political and spiritual factions are the central theme or problem in Plato (in the thoughtless state's prosecution of the thinker Socrates, for example) and also in many other classical writers. They are also a central issue in modern histories of classical civilization.

In Plato, this duality is described not only in interpersonal conflicts (Socrates versus the politicians) but also in characterizations of individuals. Selves are dissociated or split into public and private identities that seem unrelated or even opposed to each other. We have seen this kind of split personality in Euthyphro and the sophists, the inside-out characters who traded their souls for political power or public image [recall Lesson 11]. The reverse case is the character of Socrates, the figure of inward spiritual depth and wisdom who is misunderstood by superficial politicians as a political subversive with dangerous ideas. Socrates is spiritual man living in a world  of politics. We will take up Plato's characterization of him in more detail in the next lesson (Lesson 13).

Political writing has no use for the gods, the soul or salvation, the happiness of private individuals, or the brilliance of personal thought. It glorifies the victories of politicians over the forces of spirituality, or it laments the defeat of political factions by religious adversaries, as in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), where classical Rome decays mainly due to the growth of Christianity.

Within this tradition of political writing, Socrates is not necessarily understood as a wise man, creative thinker, or ideal character of any sort. He is seen as a menacing figure, a dangerous troublemaker and an ally of Athens' arch-enemy Sparta. This prosecutorial view overlooks the fact that Socrates fought for Athens in the war against Sparta, and that he was recognized by the city for outstanding valor in several important battles. Nonetheless, political presentations of Socrates as a bad apple persist; see books by I.F. Stone and Karl R. Popper cited in note 1 at the bottom of this page.

Hoplites (Hellenic infantry) of the classical period in battle formation.

The bulk of classical literature, however, is spiritual rather than political. It endorses spiritual over political life, a Socrates over an Anytus without any question. Remember, for example, how the Iliad opens with the wise man Chryses, the faithful servant of Apollo, holding all of the real power while the bumbling politician Agamemnon tries to make himself look important by ranting, hoarding gifts, and pulling rank. 

Another example is Sophocles' Antigone, perhaps the greatest of all Greek tragedies.  In Sophocles' story, the king of Thebes rashly declares the traditional religious practice of heroic burial to be a crime, punishable by death. When young Antigone violates the king's new law by burying her dead brother, the king sentences her to be buried alive in a cave. But the king suddenly is punished for this outrage against the gods when his own wife and son die. Sophocles' point is simple. Religious persecution, even when committed by kings, is not tolerated by the gods. (For a more complete summary of Antigone, see note 10 at the bottom of this page.)

When political rule was superimposed over the older network of traditional spiritual beliefs in the ancient world, one of the important results was the emergence of the idea of injustice. Social rewards and social punishments no longer were seen as divine judgments. Good people could be sentenced to bad ends because politicians could be wrong, depraved or mistaken. Like Antigone, Plato's Socrates is tried and condemned without having violated any divine law. The jury's verdict is not the truth about him. The justice system in The Apology is a mechanism of the flawed external world of politics, so it can declare Socrates guilty even while the man himself remains entirely virtuous and loyal to his deeper spiritual beliefs. Such is Plato's detached, secularized and multicultural view of the social order.

So is Socrates a holy man or a dangerous subversive? There are spiritual and political points of view. The two aren't easily reconciled, but there are similarly opposed, antithetical views of many other prophets, martyrs, saints, poets and philosophers. Our ambivalent perception of the movers and shakers of history often seems to be split along the lines of consciousness itself, with irreconcilable inner and outer aspects. 

Undemocratic Plato

Political writing sometimes takes Plato to task not only for supporting good-for-nothing Socrates but for criticizing Athenian democracy. Some commentators (misleadingly, I think) have called Plato an aristocratic elitist, even a totalitarian and an enemy of free society. Much of this hard opinion comes from an idealized view of classical Athens as the first of the world's great democracies, somehow above criticism.

Image of Plato from Raphael's School of AthensThe Athenians who lived there knew better, and they left unambiguous records of their city's imperfections. Democracy was young in those days and entirely capable of blunders. It put many gifted Athenians to death, or it drove them into exile, before it completely self-destructed through internal bickering and ill-informed decision-making on a variety of issues. Read Thucydides' great history of the Peloponnesian War for everything you need to know about this self-inflicted blow-up. The framers of The Constitution of the United States read Thucydides with care, in fear that their new democracy similarly might fall apart. 

Plato's basic criticisms of the primitive democracy at Athens still have sting today. The barbs appear in one of Plato's best known dialogues The Republic, the first ever literary utopia. ("Utopia" = "nowhere," a kingdom of the mind or ideal dream-state.) In this dialogue, which takes place only days before Socrates is indicted, Socrates gets into political hot water for three general criticisms of democratic politics:  

  • Superficial leadership: leaders in democracy aspire to popularity, not statesmanship. The leaders pander to the wishes of the voters rather than doing what is right. They focus on short-term goals as opposed to long-term needs of society. They tend to spend more than they take in since it is easier for them to give things to people than to ask for sacrifices. In fact leaders who ask for sacrifices are likely to be thrown out of office, even when sacrifices may be required.

  • Social decay: Democracies breed social problems in that their people lose a sense of shared values. Personal values dominate over group values, leading to social instability and disorder, increase in crime, distrust of government and authority, increase in gaps between generations (since young people want to do their own thing and do not share the values of their elders), and an empty succession of fads and fashions to fill the vacuum left by the loss of shared values.  

  • Preoccupation with images: Debate in democratic politics tends to be superficial, dominated by images rather than substantive issues, emotion rather than reason. How the candidate looks in debate is more important than what the candidate says, and both of these are more important than what the candidate actually does. Democracies are thus caught up with appearances or illusions, not realities or wisdom. Societies focused on images and appearances are an easy prey to those interested in manipulating public beliefs to their own advantage, rather than finding the truth. In other words, democracy is an ideal target for sophists who love power rather than wisdom. They use words to manipulate public opinion and to fulfill private desires, not to advance the public good.

Can Socrates have predicted the media consultants, advertising agents, lobbyists, spin doctors and public relations experts who control public discourse in Western democracies in our time?  He appears to have foreseen that manipulative propaganda and diversionary entertainment would flourish in the literature of democratic societies--and that the theater would re-assert itself if the masses had their druthers.

At the same time, Socrates is not a practical politician. He recognizes that his ideas of an ideal society in The Republic are merely fantasies. [See my Suggestions for further study of Plato.] He knows that he is not cut out for political life. He has no wish to enter politics or to change Athens or its form of government. He is at home only in the world of thought.  He is, again, spiritual man in a disorienting political world.

If you live in a democracy, does it over-value "images" and under-value "thought"? Is it superficial or spiritually empty? Is it ruled by The Clouds? Or are criticisms of this kind merely the remnants of our soul's ancient quarrel with the external life of politics? 

Caverns of art

Plato is an artist--one who struggles with the intellectual limitations imposed by art, certainly, but an artist nevertheless. He is not above using images as propaganda for his own way of life, the way of philosophy at the Academy. He doesn't write treatises, essays, articles, arguments or expositions about the Academy, Socrates, philosophy or anything else. Unlike nearly all modern "philosophers," he writes dialogues, and the dialogues are full of stories and echoes from Homer, Greek tragedy and literary tradition.

Perhaps the most well known and memorable piece in all of Plato's writing is the allegory or parable of the cave in The Republic, a story that advocates philosophy but illustrates humankind's preoccupation with false images! To summarize Plato's cave very briefly:

The unenlightened masses of humankind are like cave people chained to the floor of the cavern with their backs to the fire watching their own shadows flickering on the walls of the cave. All they can see are these flickering shadows, and so they suppose that these illusions are reality. If they could break their chains they would come to realize that there's real light, and a true world that includes more than shadows, outside the cave. Only philosophy can break the chains of the cave people and lead them up into the sunshine of the real world beyond.

Figurine from the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean, dating to perhaps earlier than 2000 BC, before the arrival of the Hellenes. The Cycladic figurines are found in cave burials. While it warns about illusions, this parable itself is an extended illusion or metaphor: human awareness is like the restricted view of prisoners in a cave. Moreover, this likeness isn't just any metaphor but one that is rich in associations in traditional Hellenic art. Compare Plato's cave with the cave of the Paleolithic cave artist where the spirit of the victim animal was released and immortalized. [Recall Lesson 2.] Compare the cannibal Cyclopes' cave of fame where notorious people are consumed and "no man" escapes alive. [Recall Lesson 2.] Contrast Trophonius' underground chamber where descendants learned wisdom from the dead. [Recall Lesson 7.] Compare Antigone's cave of religious martyrdom where those who are faithful to traditional hero rites are loved by the gods though buried alive by politicians [see Note 10 below]. 

Where is Plato's cave? It's the Academy, of course, the place of spiritual enlightenment where the chains of illusion can be thrown off so that the learner-companions can see the truth. This is the model of academic life, and Plato links it back through his imagery to the earliest recorded form of western art.

Lesson Summary: Plato's Socratic dialogues are the scriptures or foundation myth for Plato's Academy, the world's first western think tank. This was a separate place for reflection set apart from the polis of Athens. The hero of the Academy, Socrates, is spiritual man at odds with the political order.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. The trial of Socrates: Much has been written about Socrates and his trial. For a quick introduction, C.C.W. Taylor, Socrates (Oxford University Press 1998) contains a brief life of Socrates, description of the Socratic writings, analysis of Socratic methods, and summary of Socrates’ influence on later philosophy.  

Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton University Press, 1989) is a good in-depth scholarly review of the trial that emphasizes Socrates’ strength of character and unfailing commitment to principles.

I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (Little, Brown & Co. 1988) is a controversial, unsympathetic but interesting discussion of the political backdrop of Socrates’ trial. Stone emphasizes Socrates’ aristocratic connections and anti-democratic leanings to make the point that Socrates would have been regarded as a serious threat to the newly restored democracy in Athens. Stone makes the case for the prosecution. (Does it really need to be made again?)  Other scholars, on the contrary, point out that Socrates fought for democratic Athens, that his thought was non-political, that he had friends and associates among the democrats as well as among the aristocrats.

Students seriously interested in political history should read Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: Plato (Princeton University Press 1962) which presents a more dramatic and stimulating discussion of Plato's supposed anti-democratic politics. Whether or not it is fair to Plato (and I think it isn't fair at all), this book is an intriguing intellectual reflection of 20th century politics of the Cold War. Popper contrasts the "open society" of classical Athens versus the "closed society" of its enemy Sparta, but the two warring political systems are an intricate metaphor for West versus East in twentieth century politics. Athens is the free world of capitalism and democracy fighting for survival against Spartan totalitarianism and communism. Within this larger story, Plato is portrayed as a communist sympathizer promoting radical leftist propaganda among unsuspecting young democratic college students.

An obvious update (and corrective) to Popper is the contrast between the "open" societies of western democracy and their current antagonists, the "closed" societies of militant Islamic fundamentalism. Plato is clearly NOT on the side of the closed society or closed mind. Western education in the tradition of his Academy is a defining cultural difference with the "religious" indoctrination of the radical Islamic schools where memorization of the Koran forms most or all of the curriculum.

For on-line info about Socrates' trial see Thomas Martin, "The Prosecution of Socrates" from Overview of Archaic and Classical Greek History (Perseus Project); also Arguments in the Apology by Dr. Michael Sudduth, St. Michael's College, Vermont (a handout for his Ancient Philosophy course); also, Kelley Ross, PhD Commentary on Plato's Apology from the Friesian School; also "I. F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story",  Originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1979, pp. 22 ff.  Courtesy of Grover Furr of Montclair State University.

2. School comparisons: How does Plato's school, or learning under Socrates, compare with your (present or past) schooling? Review some of the promotional material for your school--or any other school that interests you. What's the basic message?  Is it effective? Do you think that the school can deliver on its promises? How can you actually tell?

3. Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism: this is an obscure subject area because of the early destruction of the cult and its disappearance into the mists of history at about Plato's time. The fullest, most scholarly treatment is Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (1972). For much easier reading see John Burnett, Early Greek Philosophy (1920): and also

4. Youth rebellion: Socrates was regarded as something of a cult figure to the youth of Athens. Whether they thought he was fun or brilliant or just unconventional, they followed him. The elders accused him of misleading the young people, and the majority sentenced him to death for it! 

Look at youth-cult figures in today’s world, particularly those that parents hate. What is their attraction? Why do young people follow them? Should they? Why are protective parents horrified? How should parents respond?

The youth-cult phenomenon today sometimes is seen as a means for young people to achieve identity, separate from the identity of the parents or conventional society.  Rebellion against the elders meets a need for growth, in the creation of an independent self, independent from the expectations of the parent.

5. Too smart for your own good: One reason for Socrates’ unpopularity, at least as Plato presents it in the Apology, was that Socrates was so wise. "Nobody likes a wise-guy." Apollo’s oracle had called him the wisest man on earth. Socrates recognized the social consequence of his wisdom: that others would envy him. He put on a self-effacing masquerade that he really didn’t know anything at all. He said that he was smarter only than the hypocrites who claimed to know things that they did not know.

Obviously, this mask wasn't a completely effective solution to the problem. Or Socrates didn't play it convincingly enough.

In your experience, are unusually smart people envied?  (Ask yourself the same question about unusually athletic people, unusually rich people, unusually handsome people, unusually educated people, unusually devout people, etc.) How do unusual people prevent unpopularity or otherwise cope with their extraordinariness? Can’t unusual qualities also be ideal, admirable, or even heroic?  

Blaming the odd-ball, or the individual who is different, reinforces stereotypes and conventional behavior, driving group conformity. In social persecutions, it's the unusual individual bearing the signs of the scapegoat who becomes the victim of mob ridicule and sometimes violence. When the collective group seeks to place blame or responsibility for some catastrophe that it's suffering, the primitive instinct seems to be to accuse some foreigner, outsider, stranger, a deformed or crippled person (e.g. a Thersites or Oedipus), a mentally impaired person, or someone of a different race or creed. Some monstrous crime may be attributed to these scapegoats in order to justify the violence against them: e.g., the Jews in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages poisoned all of the drinking water, causing the Black Death, so of course it was appropriate for mobs to lynch them in revenge. The fantastic or imaginary quality about such blaming is that it makes individuals accountable for general natural or social problems like crop failure, lack of game, famine, disease or military defeat. Magical powers may be attributed to the scapegoat to make these stories more plausible, as in witchcraft and heresy trials.

Bias and discrimination are survivals of this inappropriate blaming in our own times. What people, in your opinion, are the most different from yourself? Do you find yourself blaming them for anything? If so, are they really responsible, as you have accused them?

6. State control of the spirits: consider the thought police in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 20th century. Soviet psychiatrists routinely committed and tortured political and religious dissidents who showed no signs of psychopathology. To justify their terrorism as if it were medical treatment, they developed a diagnosis called "sluggish schizophrenia" characterized by symptoms of "delusion of reformism" or "heightened sense of self-esteem." There was also a diagnosis called "unitary activity" characterized by a high level of commitment to a single cause, such as political reform, failure to adapt to society, and inability to live in society without being arrested for "antisocial" behavior. The "sick" were quarantined and worse. One form of treatment was to administer sulfazine as an "antipsychotic." This drug causes severe pain, immobility, fever and muscle necrosis. D. Rathe, Psychiatric Times/Medicine & Behavior (September 1989) pp. 23-27. 

What differentiates the case of Socrates and the Soviet dissidents from criminal cases in your society?

Think about the label that Athens puts on Socrates for his thinking and speech: he is "impious." Compare the labels that modern psychiatry put on people for their mental conditions or "personality disorders." 

7. Clarification about the son of Achilles: it is in the Iliad, Homer's objective social poem, that Zeus's "hatred" for Priam, Agamemnon and Achilles is shown by the extermination of their family lineage. Of course, in the Odyssey, consistent with Telemakhos' fantasy which controls all of the story-telling, Achilles (Agamemnon too) is given an outstanding son to succeed him, and this Odyssean tradition about Achilles' line was taken over, as if it were a historical matter of fact, by tragedy writers and poets later in the classical period. Homer's story was distorted in these retellings so that aristocratic families could trace their pedigrees back to the Homeric heroes. The ruling family of Macedonia, from which Alexander the Great emerged, claimed descent from Achilles; accordingly it was politically correct by Hellenistic times for Achilles to have had a son.

8. More ancient legal stuff: Like Hellenic law, English law was born out of trial by combat. The interest in the holiness and religious devotion of the knight in medieval chivalry (e.g., Sir Galahad's holiness in the Grail quests or Sir Gawain's chastity in Gawain and the Green Knight) parallels the piety of the Zeus-men of old. The knightly quest makes "trial" of the knight's spiritual purity, and the greatest knight of all, as far as Englishmen are concerned, is indistinguishable from the saint, in the figure of St. George who slays the dragon/devil. Holy warriors are common in literature because wars of religion have been common throughout history, and the holy cities tend to be the sites of greatest violence (Jerusalem, Rome).

Our English word "trial" is certainly one of the finest words in the language because it combines splendidly all of the connotations. It is at once a social ritual for ascribing guilt or innocence (the "trial" of O.J. Simpson), a test that evaluates (a free "trial" of soap), and an agony to be endured by victims ("These are the times that try men's souls."). 

9. The Ancient City: A brilliant source of information about spirituality and Hellenic social organization is Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (reprint Johns Hopkins Press 1980). This book is dated now, but it gives a big picture view of Hellenic society that is still compelling and insightful.

10. Sophocles' Antigone can be summarized as follows:

Eteocles and Polyneices (the sons of Oedipus), quarreled over the kingship of Thebes, and Eteocles banished his brother from the city. In exile Polyneices went to the enemy Argives and raised an army to attack the city. In this battle (which is recounted in Aeschylus' tragedy, Seven Against Thebes) the Thebans successfully defended their city, but the two brothers simultaneously slew one another. (Note the Homeric theme here: the victim and the slayer are one.)

As Antigone opens, Creon becomes the new ruler of the city, and he decrees that the Theban patriot Eteocles is entitled to full rites of burial, but the body of the traitor Polyneices is to be left unburied for the birds and dogs to eat: anyone who buries and mourns over Polyneices will be put to death.

Antigone, the young sister of Eteocles and Polyneices, must choose between Creon's political law, forbidding Polyneices' funeral, and obedience to traditional hero religion which requires the funeral. She chooses piety and heroically buries her brother, but Creon's guards dig up the body again and arrest her. Creon sentences Antigone to be buried alive by being closed up inside a cave--even though Creon's own son is engaged to Antigone and begs his father to spare her life.

The prophet Teiresias then warns Creon that terrible things are going to happen because Creon has buried the living Antigone while refusing burial to the dead Polyneices. Creon becomes afraid of Teiresias' prophecy and tries to undo his decree against Antigone. When he reaches the cave where she has been buried, however, Antigone already is dead, and her lover, Creon's son, commits suicide over her body. When Creon's wife learns of her son's death, she also commits suicide. Devastated, having destroyed his family, Creon is led away to consider his doom.

It may seem as if Creon is judged harshly here, but behind the ancient funeral practices of hero religion lies a simple natural law: unburied bodies can cause plague. Unburied, the body of Polyneices, Odysseus or anybody else can spread death epidemically. Cult burial practices encode this vital knowledge, so that the right action invariably will be taken, and the practitioners will not question it. Because they are not aware of the reasons for the actions that they are performing, however, their behavior is "unexamined," to use Socrates' term. Politicians are as unconscious as anyone else about the real, practical basis for traditional religious activities, but they have the dangerous power to make new laws, and they tamper with traditional practices at their peril because their decrees may be contrary natural law (or the will of the gods--which is the same thing).

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Homer and Plato pages
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Copyright © 2001

"Plato" may have been a nickname, meaning "broad shouldered," perhaps referring to his athletic build, for he was a noted wrestler.

Plato's family claimed descent from a line of famous Athenian politicians including Kodros, Solon, Peisistratos, Cleisthenes, and Critias-- all of the most important figures in the development of Athenian democracy.

After his death the story spread that Plato had been a son of Apollo and born of a virgin... notwithstanding that he was not a firstborn child. He had two brothers and a sister.

Image left: the sage Pythagoras as shown in Raphael's "School of Athens."




Image left: from the "School of Athens," Socrates was perhaps the first to teach that women should be educated.











Image left: the view from Apollo's high grounds at Delphi.












Image left: location map of the Academy in relation to Athens.






































Image left: from a classical sculpture of Plato found on Crete.























Image left: philosophical conclusions on a blackboard in a modern academy.






Image left: as advertised, here are the clouds that all  academics descended from.
































Image left: scene from Aristophanes' comedy, The Birds, from a classical vase.


































Image left: battle scene (colorized) from an archaic Greek vase.
























































We think of multiculturalism as a new or recent development, but it was well established in classical times.



























Figure left: an enormous statue of Pallas Athena once stood in the center of the Parthenon atop of the Acropolis at Athens.




























Was Socrates a dangerous dissident  or a holy man? Perhaps both?

























Figure left: the orderly Hoplite battle formation of the classical period contrasts with the individual freestyle fighting described in Homer. Larger and larger groupings of warriors in lock-step culminated in Alexander's mighty phalanx formation.




































Image left: figure of Plato from Raphael's "The School of Athens."



















Socrates' concerns perhaps have special relevance now that the news media, from which we receive almost all of our political images, have merged into a handful of multinational business  conglomerates. The first interests of AOL, General Electric, Disney, News Corp, and Fox are not education, journalism or news but entertainment and commercial advertising.)




























Figure left: Early figurine of a bard or harper found at a burial dating from perhaps 1000 years before the Trojan War.