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Killing Socrates: Plato's later thoughts on democracy*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2012

C.J. Rowe
University of Durham


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The paper has two main aims, one larger and one slightly narrower. The larger aim is to undermine further a tendency that has dogged the interpretation of Platonic political philosophy in modern times, despite some dissenting voices: the tendency to begin from the assumption that Plato's thinking changed and developed over time, as if we already had privileged access to his biography. The slightly narrower aim is to reply to two charges of intellectual parricide made against Plato. The first is explicit and well known: that he recommended political structures of a sort that would exclude the free-ranging philosophical inquiry sponsored by Socrates. The second is implicit in the standard reading of the Politicus, and says that Plato actually came to approve (however reluctantly) of Athens' execution of his teacher. I argue that the relevant passage (Plt. 297C - 302B) has been misunderstood, and that it is in fact fully consistent with the blanket criticism we find in the Republic of all existing forms of constitution. The Athenian democracy still got it wrong, both in general, and in making the particular decision to kill off old Socrates. I also argue that so far from proposing to abolish Socratic inquiry, Plato's political works as a whole (Republic, Politicus and Laws included) are actually designed to show the need for it.

Research Article
Copyright © The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies 2001


1 The premisses of the arguments will naturally be a different matter.

2 See e.g. Gill, C., ‘Rethinking constitutionalism in Statesman 291-303’, in Rowe, C.J. (ed.), Reading the Statesman (Proceedings of the III Symposium Platonicum, Sankt Augustin 1995) 292305Google Scholar.

3 Laws 693Dff. This last view, to judge e.g. from the participants in the Symposium on the Politicus (see n.2), is probably close to being standard (see also below); it may be combined with one or more of the previous three.

4 Orator 151.

5 Phronesis 2 (1957) 104–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 CPh 57 (1963) 220–34Google Scholar.

7 The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1: The Spell of Plato (2nd edn, London 1952) 194Google Scholar. Popper's critique of Plato would not now be widely accepted in its details; however, in its general terms it remains extraordinarily influential (not many, I think, would put up resistance for long against attributing totalitarian tendencies to Plato – though I myself believe the case for doing so rather weak).

8 The Politicus identifies three broad types (those ruled by one person, those ruled by few, and those ruled by many) split two ways (into law-abiding, or law-bound, and lawless).

9 I.e. (in Sabine's view) the best practicable state.

10 Sabine, G.H., A History of Political Theory (3rd edn, New York 1961) 75Google Scholar. Cf. also Annas, J. and Waterfield, R. (eds.), Plato: Statesman (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Cambridge 1995) xviii–xxGoogle Scholar.

11 See esp. 300C1-3 (in Waterfield's translation): ‘And that is why, when laws and statutes have been established … the second-best course is to prevent any individual or body of people from ever infringing them in the slightest.’

12 ‘And … it will be necessary to establish a law against all the following things: if anyone is found looking into steersmanship and seafaring, or health and truth in the doctor's art, in relation to winds and heat and cold, above and beyond the written rules, and making clever speculations of any kind in relation to such things, in the first place the law will be that one must not call him an expert doctor or an expert steersman but a star-gazer, some babbling sophist; and then that anyone who wishes of those permitted to do so should indict him, and bring him before some court or other, as corrupting other people younger than himself and inducing them to engage in the arts of the steersman and the doctor not in accordance with the laws, but rather to take autonomous control of ships and patients; and if he is found guilty of persuading anyone, whether young or old, contrary to the laws and the written rules, that the most extreme penalties must be imposed on him. For it will be laid down that there must be nothing wiser than the laws' (299B2-C6). This is of course caricature, and the extreme case, but the implicit reference in the whole context to Athens' treatment of Socrates gives it a special edge (cf. Sabine's ‘irony’).

13 299B-E forms the climax of a passage which describes the consequences of a form of government which adhered with absolute strictness to the established laws; 300A, however, declares that to have officers of state infringing the laws without a second thought, because they had been bribed or because they owed some personal favour, would be far worse; we then have the passage at 300C1-3 quoted above (n.11). It is reasonable, then, given the ‘And that is why’ (διὰ ταῦτα) in 300C1, to suppose that the Visitor from Elea is advocating absolute adherence to the laws despite the appalling consequences, including those described in 299B-C (cited in n.12). ‘Preventing any individual … from ever infringing [the laws] in the slightest’ will evidently include, if necessary, ‘imposing the most extreme penalties’ on those who look into the truth about things, on the ground that it might turn out that the law is in some respect or other less good than it could be.

14 I emphasize ‘in principle’: what the Visitor from Elea is suggesting is that if it is true, as Young Socrates suggests, that keeping to one's existing legal traditions is the best thing to do, then it will also be true that one may have to kill off people like Socrates. Since Athens in 399 BC did kill Socrates, the implication perhaps is that she was herself operating on Young Socrates' principle; and no doubt that principle would have been widely accepted. If the motives behind Socrates' execution were in fact different, then so much the worse for Athens and its judges. See further below.

15 Any researcher must be called a ‘star-gazer, some babbling sophist (μετεωρολόγον, ἀδολέσχην τινὰ σοφιστήν)’, and be indicted ‘as corrupting other people younger than himself…’ (299B7-8).

16 Of course it might turn out that a city got things wholly right by accident, or divine good fortune; but if Plato ever recognizes this possibility, he does so only to treat it ironically (I refer here to the case of the ‘good’ politicians discussed at the end of the Meno).

17 I add ‘populist’ to exclude whatever aspect of the city of the Laws might be considered as democratic; whatever else it is, Magnesia is not governed on ‘populist’ principles. For the role of the assembly in law-bound states (in fact oligarchic as well as democratic), see Politicus 298Cff.

18 293E, 297C (cf. n.41 below).

19 299C, with 297E.

20 Plato's Statesman, tr. Skemp, J.B., ed., with an introduction, by Ostwald, M. (Indianapolis 1992)Google Scholar. I use this translation because it and/or Skemp's original version has certainly been the most widely used since its first publication in 1952. If it has not helped form the consensus, it has at any rate been a part of it.

21 See 294Cff.

22 This is what I shall call a ‘bad imitation’ of the best constitution.

23 So producing a ‘good imitation’.

24 The Development of Plato's Political Theory (New York 1986)Google Scholar.

25 Campbell, L., The Sophistes and Politicus of Plato (Oxford 1867)Google Scholar, summary attached to text of 300A–B.

26 Klein, J., Plato's Trilogy. Theaetetus, the Sophist and the Statesman (Chicago 1977) 189–90Google Scholar.

27 Miller, M.H. Jr., The Philosopher in Plato's Statesman (The Hague 1980) 100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Scodel, H.R., Diaeresis and Myth in Plato's Statesman (Hypomnemata 85, Göttingen 1987) 154CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Griswold, C., ‘Politikê epistêmê in Plato's Statesman’, in Anton, J. and Preus, G. (eds.), Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Albany, NY 1989) 3.141–67Google Scholar, and Annas and Waterfield (n.10 above).

29 G.R.F. Ferrari, ‘Myth and conservatism in Plato's Statesman', in Reading the Statesman (n.2) 395; cited without a footnote which strongly asserts the connection of 300A with 298A–300C (‘[t]he assembly is to lay down once and for all the laws by which medicine and helms-manship will be governed … (298E2–3)’).

30 Morrow, G.R., Plato's Cretan City (Princeton 1960), e.g. 585Google Scholar.

31 Grote, G., Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (2nd edn, London 1888) 267 ffGoogle Scholar.

32 For Rowe, C.J., Plato: Statesman, with translation and commentary (Warminster 1995)Google Scholar.

33 For this – ‘looser progressive’ rather than, as on Skemp's reading, inferential – use of οὐκοῦν, see Denniston, , The Greek Particles (2nd edn, Oxford 1954) 434Google Scholar. On the reading proposed, οὐκοῦν here belongs to the third of the four types of non-inferential οὐκοῦν recognized by Denniston, ‘… proceeding to a new point, or a new step in the argument: “Now”, “Again”’ (the clearest of Denniston's examples are probably in Protagoras 330C-D). The ‘great variety’ (Denniston) of Platonic usage in relation to οὐκοῦν means that there is no presumption in favour of the ‘strictly inferential’ use: in the immediate neighbourhood in the Politicus the word is once used like this (300E7), once not (299A8), while on two occasions any inferential sense is surely less than ‘strict’ (300D4, 301B5). In that case the choice between my ‘well’ (= Denniston's ‘now’ or ‘again’) and Skemp's ‘then’ depends on the requirements of the context – which seem to me to speak unequivocally for ‘well’ (‘now’, ‘again’). (I have little useful to say on the following μέ: I take it to look forward to a contrast which is not, in the event, marked by the expected δέ – but no doubt the interpretation which I am opposing will have its own way of handling it. The contrast in question is, of course, with other – and less successful – sorts of ‘imitations’.)

34 οὐκοῦν again (see n.33).

35 οὐκοῦν again (see n.33).

36 E.g. 292A–C.

37 The first-best is, of course, the state ruled by the expert king on the basis of his expertise.

38 Thus the οὐκοῦν in 300C4 marks, not an inference, but the introduction of a new stage in the argument: see n.33 above. (But once again, what kind of inference would it be? What, in all that the Visitor and Socrates have agreed together so far, would allow them to infer that all (?) ‘laws and written rules [which is how, in this context, I translate συγγράμματα] about anything whatever’ (300B8-C1) are ‘written copies of scientific truth … copies based … on instructions received from those who really possess the scientific truth …’ (Skemp's version of 300C3-6)? It is, surely, a fairly bizarre proposition in itself, even apart from the question of how it might be arrived at in this particular context.)

39 David Sedley, in discussion, raised the question whether οὗτος (C4 ταῦτα) could properly be seen as looking forward (‘these, namely …’); but in principle οὗτος can look toward (LSJ s.v. C.I.2; see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 6.12, 1144a13 for one apparently unambiguous example), the position of ταῦτα in the sentence is at least not against it, and the impossibility – in light of the preceding caricature of ordinary legislative processes – of identifying ‘those who establish laws and written rules about anything whatever’ (B8-C1) with ‘those who know’ (C5) seems to show that it cannot look back (cf. also CR 47 (1997) 278Google Scholar).

40 I.e. of 300C5-7, understood as proposing that existing laws are ‘imitations of the truth’. I say that the interpretation in question relies ‘almost wholly’ on 300B1-C7; it might also (as one reader pointed out) appeal to 297D3-8, where the Visitor suggests that constitutions other than the ‘correct’ one should preserve themselves by ‘using the written prescriptions [συγγράμματα again: cf. n.38 above] of this one’ (see also following note, on ‘good imitation’). But again, it is hard to see how they could literally ‘use’ the prescriptions of the correct constitution, especially since it does not (yet?) exist; perhaps the Visitor means just that if they were to be saved, they would have to employ those ideal prescriptions (without which they are doomed: 301E-302D). See Rowe, Plato: Statesman (n.32), on 297D5-8.

41 ‘Good imitation’, then (as the same reader pointed out [see n.40]), will generally still turn out to be something pretty bad. But (a) it will be good insofar as it is a genuine imitation (as it were) – using a principle that is also used by the best constitution (‘don't change the laws in the absence of knowledge’: see text above); (b) this requirement that constitutes ‘good imitation’ appears to be derived (300E11 δέ) from the claim that large numbers of people cannot possess the requisite knowledge (300E4-10), something that the Politicus assumes will inevitably lead to trouble (301E-302B is again here the star exhibit); (c) and when the contrast between the two kinds of imitation was originally set up, it was put only in comparative terms: one kind of imitation was to be ‘for the better/finer’ (ἐπὶ τὰ καλλίω/καλλίονα), the other ‘for the worse/more shameful’ (ἐπὶ τὰ αἰσχίονα/αἰσχίω: 293E, 297C). Sticking to the laws is simply the best that the ignorant can do – but it is certainly better than the ‘bad’ kind of imitation, which is (one might say) mere mimicry. 293E even allows that it will give rise to (‘what we call’) εὐνομία; but even being ‘well-lawed’ like this, according to the same passage, will not make constitutions other than the best one into real constitutions.

42 That he has a prescription is not in doubt (see the Laws); whether it is ‘viable’ or not is of course another matter. But if once again we ask ourselves what Plato's utopias are really for, then the position is considerably less bleak. (See below, and especially my claim that Plato remains fundamentally committed – despite all appearances – to the Socratic model of philosophy.)

43 Admittedly Plato and Xenophon, from whom the evidence comes, are themselves scarcely friendly to democracy; and there is no indication that Socrates thought any other system would be better in practice. But insofar as government has to do with the conduct of life, and insofar as he (evidently) thought that a matter for the expert, if only one could be found, his thinking is in principle, from the point of view of Athenian democracy, anti-democratic.

44 See especially 506B–E.

45 According to Symposium 204A, the wise do not philosophize. The same dialogue appears to envisage the possibility of the acquisition of wisdom; yet it is dominated by the figure of Socrates, who like Eros seems permanently suspended between wisdom and ignorance.

46 Cf. Theaetetus 174A (Thales).

47 More precisely: if Plato's cities are (primarily) imaginary constructs, designed (primarily), as I believe they are, to make his contemporaries think about the institutions they presently have, then there is little point in trying to fill in the gaps in the accounts he has given us – in the way that we might, if they were intended as blue-prints of some sort.

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