Plato (c 427 – c 347 bce) is probably the most influential thinker in the history of Western culture. But he indicates that he was influenced thoroughly by Socrates before him. Plato was in his twenties when the seventy-year-old Socrates’ career was ending with the trial and death. Plato invests his own philosophy in recounting ostensible conversations and dialogues he witnessed between Socrates and others. Plato founded a school, called the Academy, in 385 b.c.e. This was center for philosophical training until it was suppressed in 529 a.d. by the Roman emperor Justinian.

“The Allegory of the Cave”:

This famous excerpt, often called “The Parable of the Cave,” appears at the beginning of Book VII of Plato’s The Republic, an investigation into the nature of justice. The Republic is an attempt to define the ideal state, taking the form of a dialogue between Socrates and six other speakers. Here Socrates speaks with Glaucus, an older brother of Plato.

The piece may owe its mystical aura to the influence of mystery cults. Otherwise the use of light, chains, and so forth shows reliance on stock parabolic images. The parable highlights the key problem with semiotic systems. But ultimately, the application involves a return of the enlightened philosopher to the crummy world of the rabble.
The parabolic form of this material makes it rife for mythic application. How does it apply to other matters than the engagement of philosophers in public life?

The Apology of Socrates:

In 399 b.c.e., prominent Athenians came forth as Socrates’ enemies and charged him on two criminal counts: atheism and the corruption of youth. Plato writes, and probably witnessed, Socrates’ defense against the charges — not an “apology” as we think of it now, but rather a defense, or a vindication.

  • Why do his accusers claim to want Socrates dead?
  • Why, according to Socrates, do they want him dead?
  • Why do you think they want Socrates dead?

The “Apology” begins with a tongue-in-cheek modesty pose. Socrates realizes that his reputation has already been constructed, and it is always difficult if not impossible to overturn people’s stupid impressions. Socrates claims to have sought out politicians, poets, and artisans, compelled by piety to search for wisdom. Of course all these people showed themselves to be fools. Socrates acknowledges that youth is attracted to irreverence, but that is not his goal nor program.

  • What is the Socratic method?
  • What is its purpose or result?
  • What is the danger of the Socratic method socially?

Socrates engages Meletus in a dialogue and renders idiotic the old sanctimonious “what about the children?” argument. Socrates sees himself as a gadfly buzzing about the horse of the State, stirring the State to life out of its complacency. He will pay no fine, abide by no exile, and never be silenced. Indeed, he should be rewarded as a public benefactor. He was, in fact, not a teacher, per se (although he was penniless at the time of the trial), and certainly not the sophist that Aristophanes portrayed in The Clouds.

  • The charges of impiety (godlessness, blasphemy) and corrupting the youth are the typical accusations by sanctimonious jackasses. Examples from throughout history?

Phaedo — The Death of Socrates:

Socrates is guilty of putting truth to the test and sticking to his own truth. His crime is not selling out, which would have satisfied the accusers and the rabble. In his final dialogue, he attempts to show that, despite the legal outrage, swallowing the hemlock is the best alternative.

Shakespeare borrows elements and wording from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates for his death of Falstaff in Henry V. And fans of Sherlock Holmes will recognize this final statement from Plato:

“Such was the end … of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”

Works Cited

“Plato.” Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 1197-1219.

“Plato.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992. 726-746.