In a sense there are two authors responsible for these three texts: Euthyphro, Crito, and the Republic. Plato composed the dialogues Euthyphro and Crito, but it is widely believed that the conversations that comprise these magisterial works of literature and philosophy were based on discussions that his teacher Socrates engaged in at the time of his trial and death. The Republic is a later production and though Socrates is the central character in this work, the views and arguments expressed therein are widely held to be those of Plato himself.
Born in Athens in 469 B.C., Socrates revolutionized thinking to such a degree that most scholars regard him and the dialectical method he developed as the starting point of Western philosophy. Today the philosophers who preceded Socrates, such as Anaximander, Xenophanes, Protagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, are routinely grouped together under the heading "the Pre-Socratics."*
Socrates never wrote a word, perhaps because he believed that one needed to appropriate one's thoughts on philosophical matters and that writing was merely an aid to rote memorization.
In the Golden Age of Athens, in which Socrates matured and flourished, the ability to persuade assumed new importance. The great city state was a democracy and in order to accrue power in this type of government you had to learn how to convince others of your opinion. Philosophical sparring was common over questions such as: Are morals based in nature or in custom? Can virtue be taught?
Though a stonemason by trade, Socrates was an intellectual martial artist by calling. He became both famous and infamous for publicly dissecting the reasoning of the powerful and elite, often making them seem foolish in the eyes of the crowd gathered at these examinations. A cadre of admirers swirled around him and listened intently as he debated sophists such as Gorgias and Protagoras.
Socrates did not regard his skills of analysis as a tool for amassing power in the worldly sense, but rather as a means of ferreting out the truth. His thinking may have been that both the internal and external worlds are always shifting. In order to achieve some degree of stability, humans need to have a compass. The only reliable compass in the face of flux is reason and argument. Socrates is not alone among our moral philosophers in seeking this ballast within the self.
In a way, Socrates had nothing to teach but a method. After all, he claimed only one piece of knowledge, namely, that he knew that he did not know anything. Paradoxically enough, it was on the basis of this self-awareness that the oracle at Delphi judged him to be the wisest person in the world. Plato, who was born in 428/427 B.C. and died in 347 B.C., was one of Socrates's informal students: informal because unlike the Sophists, Socrates accepted no fees and did not profess anything.
As Aristophanes's brilliant play The Clouds reveals, there were citizens who believed that Socrates's style of questioning undermined faith in the gods of the city, and it was for this lack of faith that Athens was being punished. Socrates was brought up on charges of sowing doubts about the gods and of corrupting the youth. He was unsuccessful in his ironic self-defense and was executed by being forced to drink hemlock. One of the selections, Crito, is set in Socrates's prison cell as he awaits execution.
Plato was surely present at his mentor's trial. A stern critic of democracy, Plato recognized the intimate bond between the health of the individual and that of the state. On his account, one needed to know the Good in order to steer the state in a good direction. Trying to put theory into practice, Plato, on more than one occasion, undertook the task of trying to transform upstart kings into philosophers. These adventures ended in disaster, making for a certain hidebound quality to Plato's late works.
It is difficult to parse out the ethical positions of Socrates from those of his genial student. Both placed enormous emphasis on the relation between knowledge and moral goodness; so much so that it seems that Socrates, at least, held the extreme view that moral virtue is essentially knowledge. If you truly know the Good, you will do it. For him there is no weakness of the will. Also, as the renowned classicist Terence Irwin notes, Socrates seems to have held that we ought to lead a moral life whether or not such a life leads to happiness. Plato, in contrast, argues that the righteous life is not only good in itself but also a necessary condition of a eudaimonia or a happy life. These issues as well as the question of whether or not moral laws are customs or objective realities are taken up in the Ring of Gyges excerpt from Book II of the Republic.
persons of the dialogue
scene:--The Porch of the King Archon
euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the porch of the King Archon? Surely you can not be engaged in an action before the king, as I am.
socrates: Not in an action, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.
euth: What! I suppose that some one has been prosecuting you, for I can not believe that you are the prosecutor of another.
soc: Certainly not.
euth: Then some one else has been prosecuting you?
euth: And who is he?
soc: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.
euth: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. And what is the charge which he brings against you?
soc: What is the charge? Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am anything but a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends. And of this our mother the state is to be the judge. Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of virtue in youth; he is a good husbandman, and takes care of the shoots first, and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. That is the first step; he will afterward attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor.
euth: I hope that he may; but I rather fear, Socrates, that the reverse will turn out to be the truth. My opinion is that in attacking you he is simply aiming a blow at the state in a sacred place. But in what way does he say that you corrupt the young?
soc: He brings a wonderful accusation against me, which at first hearing excites surprise: he says that I am a poet or maker of gods, and that I make new gods and deny the existence of old ones; this is the ground of his indictment.
euth: I understand, Socrates; he means to attack you about the familiar sign which occasionally, as you say, comes to you. He thinks that you are a neologian, and he is going to have you up before the court for this. He knows that such a charge is readily received, for the world is always jealous of novelties in religion. And I know that when I myself speak in the assembly about divine things, and foretell the future to them, they laugh at me as a madman; and yet every word that I say is true. But they are jealous of all of us. I suppose that we must be brave and not mind them.
soc: Their laughter, friend Euthyphro, is not a matter of much consequence. For a man may be thought wise; but the Athenians, I suspect, do not care much about this, until he begins to make other men wise; and then for some reason or other, perhaps, as you say, from jealousy, they are angry.
euth: I have no desire to try conclusions with them about this.
soc: I dare say that you don't make yourself common, and are not apt to impart your wisdom. But I have a benevolent habit of pouring out myself to everybody, and would even pay for a listener, and I am afraid that the Athenians know this; and therefore, as I was saying, if the Athenians would only laugh at me as you say that they laugh at you, the time might pass gaily enough in the court; but perhaps they may be in earnest, and then what the end will be you soothsayers only can predict.
Copyright © 2010 by Gordon Marino. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.