© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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E-mail Archives :
The portrait of the philosopher in the Theætetus

November 20-23, 1996

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
Date : November 20, 1996, 21:19:15
Subject : re: perfect society

Nicholas Denyer writes:

> In a society like 5th century Athens, late 16th century England or France, 1930s America, or 1940s Britain, such people are going to be like Thales, who when stargazing fell down a well, much to the amusement of a pert Thracian miss (Theaetetus, 174a - 175e). Such people will have their minds so full of (to adapt an example from Theaetetus 175c) the Car itself that they will not be bothered about where their own cars are parked.

Be careful that the portrait of the philosopher in the Theætetus you are refering to, which is at the exact center of the dialogue, in opposition to the portrait of the rhetor, might not be the portrait of the philosopher according to Socrates/Plato's mind! If you read carefully the Greek text (not a translation that adds subjects that aren't there to split the too long phrases of Plato), you will find out that the word philosophos is used only once in the whole description, at 175e, where Socrates says to Theorodus "the one you call philosopher (hon dè philosophon kaleis)". At the beginning, at 172c, Socrates mentions "those who spend a lot of time in philosophic [studies] (hoi en tais philosophiais polun chronon diatripsantes)" and a few lines later "those who have been raised amidst philosophy and such pastimes (tous en philosophia kai tè toiade diatribè tethrammenous)", but from there down to 175c, no mention of philosophos. At 173c, when starting the description that includes the Thales' anecdote, Socrates is talking of the "master of the choir (koruphaion)", following up on an image introduced a few line earlier comparing the company to "our choir".

The portrait that Socrates is drawing there might well be (and that's my take) that of the philosopher according to Theodoros, not according to Socrates, the philosopher according to a "scientist" who himself withdraws in his ivory tower, is reluctant to engage in the discussion, to come forward in defense of his friend Protagoras, to take side in the discussion, in short, the kind of person Socrates is drawing a portrait of, and the kind of person Aristophanes wanted the Athenians to believe Socrates was in the Clouds!.. Remember that the Theætetus takes place just before Socrates goes to court to be tried: it might be that the central piece of the Theætetus hints at the trial in pitting face to face the accusing rhetor, and the image of philosopher he thinks he is accusing, neither one being the true philosophos, and that the ones who are falling in the ditch (digged by Plato) are not those we might think at first reading...

The Theætetus is not in opposition with the Republic and the rest of the dialogues. It does not preach for a philosopher withdrawing from the world of politics. Socrates doesn't consider a stargazing Thales to be a model to be imitated (and he will soon pay the price for having been assimilated to such a philosopher). The Theætetus is meant to show the limits of what we nowadays call "science" or "scientific knowledge", and the central part of the dialogue shows that that kind of philosophy is no more to be commended than the pseudo-philosophy of the rhetoricians à la Isocrates.

From: Nicholas Denyer <ncd1000@cus.cam.ac.uk>
To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
Date : November 21, 1996, 16:12:46
Subject : re: perfect society

Bernard Suzanne:

>Be careful that the portrait of the philosopher... [till] ... that of the philosopher according to Theodoros, not according to Socrates,

The "choir" is the company of those who give time on philosophy. The "head choristers", "choir masters" or what have you, are those who give time on philosophy in the right way. These are the people spoken of in the subsequent description. "Let us speak of the head choristers," says Socrates in 173c; "for why should one speak of those who give time on philosophy in the wrong way?"

Compare also 174b, where Socrates says that the joke made about Thales fits "all who pass their lives in philosophy".

Note that on both occasions, Socrates is speaking in propria persona: on neither occasion does he mean "those whom Theodorus, though not I, would say are {giving their time in the right way on} / {passing their lives in} philosophy".

The fact that Socrates uses constructions with the abstract noun philosophia, rather than philosophos, simply does not show that he is not talking about those whom he would himself call philosophers. On the contrary, these constructions indicate that he is speaking, not just of anyone who might be called "a philosopher" (the junior choristers included), but of those who fully merit that name by having the proper connexion with the subject.

It is a contorted exposition of 175e1 "hon dè philosophon kaleis" to translate it as "the one you call philosopher". This is not "hon su ge..." or anything of that sort. And in any case this text, though probably correct, is not certainly so: P gives "kaloumen" ("we call") instead.

Best wishes,

Nicholas Denyer

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
Date : November 23, 1996, 09:40:16
Subject : re: The philosopher in Theaetetus (was perfect society)


The problem is, how can you accept this portrait of the philosopher as Socrates' ideal of it when it is so far away from all that is said in the Republic, when it is precisely the portrait that Socrates himself is fighting against in the Apology?

Can Socrates seriously say (and Plato seriously write, after taking all through the dialogues Socrates as the model of true philosopher) that "from youth, he doesn't know the way to the marketplace" (173c), when Socrates is pictured all through his life roaming on the marketplace; that he ignores "where is the assembly chamber and the usual location of the other city's meetings" (173d), when Socrates himself tells us that he once presided over the assembly; that he ignores the laws and decrees, when Socrates impersonates them in the Crito; that "gatherings, dinner parties and festival with flute players, not even in his dreams does he envision participating in" (173d), when the introduction of the Republic shows Socrates in Pireus for a festival and the Symposium shows him taking part in a dinner party where flute players are present (though sent away before the discussion starts); that he doesn't care for "the good or evil that happens in the city" (173d), when Socrates pictures himself in the Apology as endowed by the god with the mission to bug his fellow-citizens so they take better care of their souls; that he is so enthralled by looking at the stars and studying the nature of all things that he no longer touches ground (173e), stopping short of mentioning the basket and the clouds of Aristophanes' play!... Can we seriously think that Plato wants his students to be like the Thales of the story, falling in ditches rather than drawing laws for their cities? And if so, why the Laws at the end of his career?...

The only way to accept that is to assume, as most scholars do, that Plato changed his mind over time. But, as far as I am concerned, before resorting to such extremities, I want to give a honnest try to any interpretation that might save consistency between all the dialogues. And I think it is possible here (as anywhere else) without stretching the text to unacceptable lengths.

The whole "digression" we are talking about is described by Socrates himself as just this, a digression (177b: "parerga"), and it is introduced by a reference to "scholè" (172c), a quite ambiguous term which may as well mean leisure, idleness as serious talk (and is the root of the English word "school"). This should make us wary of what's happening, and should incite us to search for a reason for this "digression" in the economy of the whole dialogue, especially when we realize it takes place at its exact center and we know from other dialogues that the center often holds the key to the dialogue.

None of what you say is binding for a "serious" interpretation, if we remember Socrates' irony. He may perfectly well be teasing Theodorus and "play his game" to see if he will notice. Why should the choir masters of a defective choir be held in high esteem?.. What is wrong with my stressing the "you" in the translation of "the one you call philosopher"? Sure the stress is not in the text, but the only thing you may reproach me in my translation is to put the "you" in bold characters. OK, this is interpretation, but it doesn't twist the text, kaleis properly means "you call", not "I call" or "we call" (and the "we call" lection you are mentioning only confirms that there is a problem for some readers, the kaleis being the lectio difficilior, thus the most likely genuine one).

Indeed, as I said, I hold this to be a caricature of philosopher. But remembe that a good caricature must have a lot in common with the model, enough to fool quick readers (too willing to find excuses to retreat from the "real world" in that case, --and be assured that I don't say that for you personnaly). The fact is, philosophers, and Plato first among them, would like things to be that way, and that they might stick to their belowed studies, as he tells in the Republic. But this is a trend that has to be fought if you want to be a true philosopher!

And this might be a clue to the interpretation of the dialogue. Why would Plato provide such a misleading portrait of the philosopher at that point? Precisely to "try" the would-be philosophers in the process of being "schooled", to test them. Remember where we are (and here, I have to call upon my global scheme for the dialogues): we are about to embark in the last step of training, the lessons on dialectic. If we are willing to take the "long path", and not to be satisfied with the "short path" of Isocrates, that stops at the Menexenus, with politics limited to rhetoric à la Pericles and Aspasie (see my web site for more details on these interpretations, especially the overall presentation of the dialogues, accessible through a link in the text of the "map of dialogues" page), we must learn true dialectic. The first step in this process is to understand what dialectic is not, and this is the purpose of the Parmenides, the introduction to the sixth tetralogy.

Next, we must understand the limits of "scientific" knowledge in order to position dialectic at its true place. This is the purpose of the Theætetus. In such a scheme, testing the student's understanding of the true role of a philosopher makes sense before the key dialogue of the Sophist, where the path to dialectic is freed by the liberating "parricide" of Parmenides, the counterpart in the intelligible world of the wrongful killing of Socrates in the visible world, wrongful killing that turned out to be a good at the hands of Plato, once Socrates was "resurected" by the dialogues in the intelligible world. To become, not a politicial like Menexenus (the one that will forever "stay foreign" to dialectic, the meaning of his name), but like the one in the Statesman, the crowning of the dialectical trilogy, we must first get rid of false images of the philosopher, those images that led to Socrates' trial, a trial that is in the background of the Theætetus.

And in fact there is still more to it! In my reading, the 6th trilogy is a summary of the whole set of dialogues, the Theætetus recalling the first five tetralogies and the Statesman anticipating the seventh one, while the Sophist is the heart and summary of the sixth trilogy itself.

And indeed, the plan of the Theætetus shows a divison in 5 almost equal parts (see my web pages, again in the general introduction to the dialogues) with the discussion with Theodorus standing in third place, that is, guess what, at the place of the third tetralogy, the one on Socrates' trial! The central section of that central part is indeed a reinterpretation of Socrates' trial: the rhetor is Meletus and the philosopher is the image the accuser and most of the Athenians have of a philosopher and of Socrates especially. This is a replay of the trial for the reader to try himself!.. The portrait of the philosopher Socrates draws is not the one he draws in the Apology, but the one Meletus should have drawn of him, had he been more clever...

... And yet, there are truths in this picture, as in any picture that resembles a model enough to fool the jurors, especially when it comes to interpretation, starting a 176a, after the end of the portraits proper.

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 15, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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