“Saint Socrates, pray for us”; so wrote Erasmus at the end of his Religious Symposium, comparing the pagan philosopher to Saint Paul. The comparison can be extended in curious ways. Both Plato and Paul had a Master, condemned to death by law, but posthumously triumphant; each was the highly literate disciple of a Master who left not a word on paper; each was the system-building successor who turned the Master’s utterances into a stately structure of thought, soon hardening into dogma. In each case, finally, posterity has scratched its head as it tried to separate the contribution of the disciple from that of the Founder himself.

The history of the interpretation of Plato is a great part of the history of philosophy. Every generation has found it necessary to deal with that huge presence. Not, of course, that they have all found him to their taste. For many years he was in the shadow, dark and malign, of Karl Popper’s bitter The Open Society and its Enemies, which casts him as a villain, the precursor of other wicked system-builders, notably Hegel and Marx; and at Oxford recently one professor used to open his lectures by saying, “I shall be talking about Plato the Fascist.” A few years ago Sir Kenneth Dover, editor of Plato’s Symposium although highly antipathetic to Plato, said to me: “A wonderful stylist, of course; but have you ever been convinced by anything he said?”

And yet: there he still is, still fascinating some of the subtlest and most interesting philosophers of the day. The new books of Alexander Nehamas, of Princeton, and Charles Kahn, of the University of Pennsylvania, are very different. Together they are lively testimony to the continuing vitality of Platonic studies; as for Socrates, who did not even bequeath any books to us which we could put on our college syllabuses or excerpt in our anthologies, his personality is as magnetic as ever.

Socrates must certainly have been one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. Athens in the late fifth century was a democracy, and it was humming with artistic and intellectual activity; but it was a highly elitist society, in which family connections and stylish behavior counted for a great deal, and in which also there was an extraordinarily high premium on good looks. A popular tag of the time listed the good things of life: “Good health is top for a mortal man; the next best thing is to be good looking” (the third, rather charmingly, is “to be rich without cheating”); and when an Athenian wanted to write on a wall “I love X,” what he actually wrote was “X is beautiful.” Of course, he loved her (or, more often, him); but the interesting thing was less the lover’s feeling than the beloved’s good looks. It was thus doubly amazing that an eccentric, a social nobody—the son of a stonecutter and a midwife—who also happened to be grotesquely ugly, should have become the darling of the most desirable society in Athens, and enjoyed both intellectual and personal ascendancy over some of its liveliest minds.

Socrates was often seen in the company of Alcibiades, the glamorous rogue aristocrat, the most sought-after person in the city. Plato describes him in intimate conversation with blue-blooded patricians, Plato’s own kinsmen; with the great comic poet Aristophanes; with generals and statesmen and internationally famous intellectuals. After his death a new genre of literature was invented, the “Socratic” dialogue, in which he played the leading part.

We know something of the dialogues produced by half a dozen writers apart from Plato. Charles Kahn opens his book with a survey of them. It is striking that they were written by men from all over Greece, not only by Athenians: by Phaedo of Elis, after whom Plato named his own account of the Master’s death, and Eucleides of Megara, and Aristippus of Cyrene, the Greek city in North Africa. Socrates actually seems to have been the first person whom the Greeks found interesting enough to write anything biographical about; and in the visual arts he was the first to be the subject of a real (as opposed to an ideal) portrait.

His fascination is twofold. On the one side he plays the leading part in most of the dialogues of Plato, which are not only important for philosophy but also, in many cases, literary masterpieces of inexhaustible interest. On the other, he is the first historic martyr in the European tradition (Antigone is the first in imaginative literature), put to death unjustly and accepting his execution with serene courage as the price of living his chosen philosophic life.

It is the latter aspect that appeals particularly to Alexander Nehamas in his Sather Lectures. He is unhappily aware, as many people are, that philosophy has lost much of the special prestige that it used to possess: “Philosophy today is faced with the irreparable loss of the authority it once derived from being thought to constitute the best way of life”; that goes with the fact that it “has few implications for the life of those who practice it.” In the ancient world that was not so. A man who called himself by the proud title of philosopher was expected to have a system, and to live in conformity with it; that idea came above all from the example of Socrates’ life and death. Nehamas declares bravely that


This book aims at opening a space for a way of doing philosophy that constitutes an alternative, though not necessarily a competitor, to the manner in which philosophy is generally practiced in our time.

Kahn, too, emphasizes that Plato began by wanting to convey the effect of Socrates’ character, more than his actual doctrines: and that for him philosophy is inseparable from a way of life. It is tempting to detect here a sense of dissatisfaction in the modern academic philosopher at the contemporary definition of his subject. That dissatisfaction may well be the strongest among those who study the thinkers of the ancient world.

Nehamas takes an intriguing set of thinkers, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault, as examples of those who have based their philosophy on reflection on the problems of constructing a real life. He observes that there are others in the same category: Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Thoreau, “and, on one reading at least, Wittgenstein as well.” His chosen three are discussed in their relation to the figure of Socrates, with whom the considered art of living may be said to have begun, in the sense of creating for oneself a striking, original, and harmonious style of life. Nehamas emphasizes the importance of personal style: it has in recent times been thought a (merely) literary matter, not fit for the attention of philosophers.

The results are very different in his three different cases. That is essentially because Plato’s Socrates is inscrutable. Plato treats him with a bottomless irony, which does not reveal either Socrates’ real attitudes or Plato’s toward him—“Plato,” Nehamas writes, “whose disdain for people is matched only by his passion for improving them.” Plato’s attitude toward his reader, even, is left ambiguous: we feel encouraged to identify with Socrates as he triumphs over his obtuse or bigoted or indifferent opponents, but we are revealed to be just like them. Thus in the Euthyphro we find the eponymous part is played by a man of outstanding stupidity, who is unmoved by Socrates’ arguments, and who ends the dialogue by announcing that he has something else to do. What a boor, we think; and yet we, too, have no real intention of allowing Plato/Socrates to change our attitudes and our lives. Because this Socrates is inscrutable, Nehamas comments, “to imitate Socrates is therefore to create oneself, as Socrates did; but it is also to make oneself different from…Socrates as well.”

He well compares the irony of Plato with that of Thomas Mann toward Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. We see events through Castorp’s eyes, we are involved in his self-deceptions; he is both exceptional and ordinary; despite his endless conversations, he remains essentially a blank. The comparison is a fair one. Even more suggestive, and much more controversial, is the idea that Plato himself did not understand Socrates. Socrates is never shown in the process of self-formation: we never hear him explainhow and why he became so different from everybody else. He disclaims any knowledge of virtue, yet, we are told, he lives an outstandingly virtuous life. How are we to interpret that puzzle? Most scholars treat it, like Socrates’ denial that he is a teacher, as essentially an educational ploy (“I incite you to seek for the truth that I hold back”). This is not a superficial but a deep irony, and the paradox is especially acute for Plato, whose own thought tends to identify virtue with knowledge. Plato himself found Socrates in important respects inexplicable; the bewildering variety of the depictions of Socrates in the books his disciples wrote about him showed that he really was not easy to fathom, and “his secret…is that we cannot comprehend him.” *

Plato’s early dialogues do not explain Socrates’ virtuous and exceptional existence—an existence, a style of life, which itself (rather than his opinions) is his great achievement. Then, Nehamas argues, in the dialogues of the middle period, Meno, Gorgias, and Phaedo, Plato set out to explain how Socrates became the man he was, serenely claiming to live a life of philosophical virtue; and in the Republic, finally, Plato tried to prove the superiority of his mode of life to all others. In the Meno Plato shows that sure knowledge is possible after all, since it can be acquired before birth and remembered in this life; in the Gorgias he shows why he is right to reject the life of power and political activity for that of philosophy; and in the Republic he sets up a system of institutions which will ensure the production of more Socrateses in the future (the present one being apparently the result of a fortunate but inexplicable chance). Thus it is in order to justify and defend Socrates’ extraordinary way of life, and not for the sake of the logical problems themselves, that Plato was forced to invent philosophy.


That account is very attractive in many ways. What I miss is an important place given to two central Platonic dialogues: the Phaedo, in which Plato proves the immortality of the soul, and the Symposium, in which he sets out the cosmic power of love and describes the soul’s ascent, as it seeks the supernatural vision of the unity and beauty of the world and of the timeless and changeless Form of the Good-and-Beautiful. Plato believed that Socrates had experienced that vision, and he based the solidity of Socrates’ wisdom and virtue on his familiarity with the unseen world of true, eternal reality. That quasi-mystical side is rather neglected by Nehamas in favor of representing Socrates as a self-made figure of impressive, but (it seems) essentially this-worldly, virtue and wisdom. Kahn, by contrast, gives full value to precisely those dialogues and that eternal aspect of Plato’s portrait.

Nehamas’s discussion of followers of Socrates is fascinating. For Montaigne, who as time passes mentions Socrates more and more frequently, he is the model of a man living according to nature, but in a special sense. One should imitate Socrates, but not slavishly as a single model:

Montaigne finds himself by recreating Socrates…. [He] has therefore fashioned a Socrates of his own, a creature that exemplifies what it is to be natural, how one can oneself be the object of one’s primary care, how one can fashion oneself. He writes that Socrates followed nature by changing his soul through training and universal reason.

The natural, that is, is achieved by art and by self-discipline. Socrates is an indirect model: “Socrates,” Nehamas writes, “also taught Montaigne that there is little to learn from him, even though one can learn a lot through him.” Thus Montaigne “uses the ironic Socrates ironically,” and in spite of his constant self-revelation remains as opaque to us as Socrates himself.

Nietzsche was an admirer of Montaigne—“Truly, the fact that such a man has written adds to the joy of living on this earth”—but he attacked Socrates with bitterness and with none of the generosity he occasionally showed an opponent. Socrates for him was the murderer of tragedy and of the tragic view of life; he had introduced into the world morality, justification, optimism—all the bad things. His influence was “a shadow that lengthened with the evening sun.” Socrates, in fact, was decadent: he had “the sarcasm of the rachitic.” Unable to act well by instinct, being in fact a mere chaos of impulses, he made reason a tyrant over instinct.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, Nehamas writes, “believes that he has himself attained a state of harmony.” Nehamas allows himself the wry pleasure of comparing the two: Socrates, tough, barefoot, indifferent to cold and heat, brave in battle, a husband and father, capable of great feats in drinking, always in public, happy to talk with anyone; and Nietzsche, constantly bundled up against the cold, celibate but syphilitic, unable to cope with even a single glass of wine, permanently sickly, racked with migraines, shy and reclusive. Some of that, indeed, is perhaps irrelevant to Nietzsche’s philosophy. More relevant, and more deeply unattractive, is the figure of the neurasthenic professor relishing (from a distance) the thought of violence, writing “What is good, do you ask? To be brave is good!” and “Thou goest to women? Forget not thy whip!”—and then, when he sees a cab horse being beaten in the street, flinging his arms round its neck and bursting into tears. Such a person, Nehamas suggests, is perhaps not well advised to call Socrates decadent.

Nietzsche called on us to “give style to one’s character—a great and rare art!” We should be self-consistent, life-accepting, unique, inimitable. And who had memorably achieved all that? Why, Socrates, hélas! In opposition to his society, and apparently (in the absence of any rational account of how he did it) acting on instinct, Socrates had created a personality which was consistent, courageous, unique. And so Nietzsche, even if he achieved no less, would be in a way imitating Socrates. No wonder his response was sour. Nehamas’s argument here is not only convincing but delicious.

Michel Foucault also had views on Socrates, and indeed he proposed a new interpretation of his famous last words. (“We owe a cock to Asclepius. Take care that you pay it and don’t forget.”) Foucault wanted them to refer to the care of the self, his great topic in the last years of his life: “Take care of yourselves!” In the index to The Use of Pleasure, the second volume of his History of Sexuality, the entry for “Plato” is equal in length to that for “boys” (that for “marriage” is slightly shorter). The set of three dialogues dealing with Socrates’ death, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, were interpreted by Foucault in his unpublished final lectures as a cycle, linked by the themes of fearlessly speaking out, and of caring for one’s fellow citizens as if one were a father or an elder brother: showing those citizens that the one important thing is the care of oneself, of one’s own soul. At moments he speaks in a Socratic voice, almost to the point of ventriloquism:

If I attend to you, it is not in order to transmit to you the knowledge that you lack, but so that, having realized that you know nothing, you will learn thereby to care for yourselves.

All this is of course a very far cry from Nietzsche’s view of Socrates as an enemy of society, and hardly less from Montaigne’s, of a sage preserving himself from a menacing world by his inscrutability. It is even further, one might think, from the familiar destructive and apparently nihilistic Foucault, who for most of his career denied the possibility of improvement, or even of change. For the Foucault of Discipline and Punish the relentless round of power and subjection might take on different superficial qualities from one period to another, but essentially it remained constant. It is interesting to read in Nehamas’s book that California played a vital role here:

Out of the sometimes silly, often valuable, and to him always fascinating self-absorption of his California friends, colleagues, and students, Foucault formulated his deepest and most important idea, the idea of the care of the self.

The Sather Lectures are, of course, given at the University of California. The emergence of the movement for gay liberation had to be welcome to Foucault, and it had to look like real progress, of a kind that his system had seemed to rule out:

In particular, he became progressively more fascinated with the sado-masochistic subcultures of New York and San Francisco.


Foucault’s sado-masochism… proved in the end to be a kind of blessing in his life…. It was the theater of power, in which discipline could bring happiness and domination itself be dominated….

Thus, Nehamas writes, by living a life consonant with his ideas Foucault expressed his deep love for the excluded and marginalized, and did it in practical terms. “His private project was of public significance”—as Socrates by his elenchos, his commitment to showing up the mistaken or contradictory ideas of his fellow citizens, was a general benefit to the community, yet primarily cared for his own self. And Foucault also had Socrates’ self-creation in mind when, like Nietzsche, he said, “We have to create ourselves as a work of art…. Couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” Like Socrates, like Montaigne and Nietzsche, Foucault, for Nehamas, is an example of the kind of philosophy which makes its impression as much by the philosopher’s life as by his arguments: a kind of philosophy unfamiliar in university departments.

Charles Kahn sets out on a project which is hardly less ambitious than that of changing the way departments of philosophy see their function. He presents a radical reinterpretation of Plato’s early and middle dialogues: of all those, that is, which the nonprofessional is keen to read. Most recent scholars have been convinced that we can see Plato’s thought developing in these works: his central doctrines, such as the theory of Forms, were not Socratic, and we can watch them taking on shape and complexity from dialogue to dialogue. Not so Kahn. In the tradition of such scholars as Paul Shorey, Werner Jaeger, and Paul Friedländer, but with even greater thoroughness, he proclaims:

The Plato presented here is a thinker with a unified world view, consistent throughout his life…. I firmly dissent from the standard view of Plato as an author who defends fundamentally different philosophies at different stages of his career.

Kahn’s picture is of a Plato who began by writing dialogues not so very different from those that other members of the Socratic circle were writing, in which the memory of Socrates’ manner and personality were central. First came two which described his trial and his refusal to evade the death sentence passed on him (Apology, Crito), and then two dialogues which answered rival works by Antisthenes, and which showed the Master refuting men who were experts in particular skills (Ion, Hippias Minor). Meanwhile, Plato’s serious concern was with pursuing a political career in Athens.

At about the age of forty he left Athens, disgusted with Athenian politics, both in their democratic and in their oligarchic forms, and went to the court of the despot Dionysius at Syracuse. As he left he composed a much longer and incomparably more powerful dialogue, the Gorgias, in which he defended the decision to abandon politics for the life of philosophical argument. It exalted that hitherto rather humble literary form, the Socratic dialogue, to heights undreamt of by his rivals.

This very early dating of Plato’s third-longest dialogue has not, it is fair to say, convinced everyone since Kahn first put it forward. The reader may feel that the leap from relatively slight and short dialogues to the huge scale of the Gorgias is a very sudden one. The work also reveals hitherto unsuspected emotional depth, as the Nietzschean superman Callicles puts forward the case for the strong to break through the shackles of law and morality imposed upon them by the weak, and Socrates refuses to follow him, even if the price of refusal to use the weapons of power will be his own imprisonment and death. The last part of the Gorgias reveals Plato at the very summit of his literary powers. And finally: Is it even so clear that, as Kahn argues, in going to Syracuse Plato really had abandoned the idea of political activity? He was in fact to become embroiled in Syracusan politics to an extent which proved a great embarrassment, later, both to him and to his supporters.

Plato then found himself, in Kahn’s view, needing to reinforce the argument and make it impregnable by adding elaborate structures of theory regarding the nature of the mind, the theory of knowledge, systematic patterns of watertight argument (dialectic; the “hypothetical method” of deduction), the function in the world of love, and the posthumous fate of the soul. These were duly created, in the middle dialogues: Symposium, Phaedo, and above all The Republic. Before them he had composed seven more works to which Kahn gives the name “threshold dialogues”: Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Protagoras, Meno, Lysis, Euthydemus. Meanwhile he was founding the Academy and teaching pupils.

These seven dialogues were intended to be popular and accessible, but they are not transparent. “The reader must be as cunning in interpreting a dialogue as the author has been artful in composing it.” The early and middle dialogues, in Kahn’s view, form one “single complex literary enterprise culminating in the Republic“:

What I have tried to show…is that at least half a dozen dialogues, from the Laches and Euthyphro to the Republic and Phaedrus, can be read as the progressive exposition of a single, complex philosophical view of essential Forms, a view different aspects of which are displayed in different contexts.

The threshold dialogues all contain hints of doctrines not yet explained, and Kahn sets out to read each of them in the light of its place in Plato’s thought as a whole. That is, as he puts it, the “ingressive” method, one of looking for and finding hints and traces. Thus in the Meno there is mention of the doctrine of recollection, which implies the doctrine of the Forms, and which will only be developed elaborately in the Phaedo. In the Euthydemus we find “the most striking case of proleptic [i.e. anticipatory] reference in any early dialogue,” a reference to “the dialecticians,” practitioners of pure argument, who surpass the mathematicians, and yet the full theory of dialectic will not be explained until The Republic. And so on.

Kahn must accept certain consequences of his view. Repeatedly he must make such acknowledgements as these:

Unless they have some privileged access to what may have been his oral instruction, the first readers of the Charmides and Euthydemus will not easily guess where Plato is bound. For readers of the dialogues all this will become clear only retrospectively, when they reach Republic VI.


Read retrospectively, from the vantage point of the Republic, these passages [allusions to dialectic in Meno, Euthydemus, and Cratylus] are fully intelligible; read in their immediate context at least two of these texts must seem enigmatic. For only in the Republic do we learn….


These future developments are all implicit here in the text of the Meno, like the tightly packed petals of a Japanese flower that will unfold in water.

Kahn is well aware that “some readers may balk at…an authorial design that is only conveyed indirectly”; but he insists that the evidence is present. There remains, of course, an obvious question:Why was Plato so devious? Kahn is fertile in answers. First, “his lifetime loyalty to the dialogue form suggests a temperamental aversion to direct statement”; a point well taken. Plato in fact went on putting Socrates into dialogues in which he had got far away from any Socratic views; and he never put himself, as Plato, into any of them. His own name is mentioned only twice, and in passing. The more famous reference, the inscrutable remark in the Phaedo that at the death of Socrates “Plato, I think, was ill,” on which stately mounds of conjecture have been erected (Does Plato here half express his lasting shame at having failed to be present at such a moment? Do Socrates’ last words refer to Plato’s recovery from this convenient sickness?), surely is no more than Plato consistently refusing to include himself, and using the simplest way of explaining it, on the one occasion when some explanation was clearly called for.

Second, Plato was aware of the pedagogical advantages of setting his pupils a puzzle, to set them thinking. Third, he was aware that the otherworldly thoughts which he would be expressing in the middle dialogues—the unreality of the physical world, the doctrine of Forms, the posthumous rewards and punishments of the soul—would be very alien to most of his Athenian audience, and in general he was careful not to lose touch with that audience. Only in the special context of the death of Socrates, in the Phaedo, would he unpack his most exotic teachings about survival after death.

Reviewers in the professional journals will find plenty to pick over in the details of Kahn’s extremely rich account of Plato and his work; he has written an important book, one on which all those interested in Plato will want to form an opinion. On one central point I find it hard to be convinced, and for two reasons. First, if Plato had died before finishing The Republic, the dialogues he left behind would, on this view, have been importantly misleading. A more difficult problem is that Kahn is several times driven into what look like rather desperate ad hoc explanations of passages where Plato, in the threshold dialogues, appears, on the face of it, to say something notably different from what he will say in the great works of his middle period.

Least amenable, perhaps, to Kahn’s approach is that lively and entertaining dialogue, the Protagoras. We see a young and rather bumptious Socrates conducting an apparently triumphant argument that the virtues are in fact knowledge, and that it never happens that someone who knows what is right is seduced by pleasure into doing something else. These strange opinions are at variance not only with common sense but also with the clear views of The Republic. Kahn must plead that this is only “a cun-ning stratagem,” and that “much of Socrates’ reasoning here is manipulative and insincere.” That is indeed so, I think; but it seems necessary to add that Plato is not really concerned in this dialogue to advance his own serious views, which it is idle to look for (“The author of the Protagoras is playing with a simple model…of deeper thoughts to come”). His purpose is quite different—to show up the celebrated Protagoras, who is so famous and who charges such high fees, as a helpless incompetent who in the hands of Socrates can be made to admit to absolutely anything. So too the notion of wisdom in the Protagoras is not “a partial but deliberate foreshadowing of the stronger, metaphysically grounded notion of phronesis we find in the Phaedo“; it is simply different.

Again, we sometimes find in the threshold dialogues an analysis of the mind in terms of two elements; in The Republic it is analyzed, with great emphasis, into three. It hardly seems sufficient to say, “The bipartite psychology that was adumbrated in the Gorgias is finally spelled out in the Phaedrus…. There we can recognize it as a simplified, less technical version of the tripartite psychology presented in the Republic….”

Another early dialogue, the Lysis, is on the theme, so important to Plato, of love. It does not seem to develop anything like the ambitious and quasi-mystical doctrines of the Symposium; but one passing allusion to “the primary beloved [or ‘dear’], on account of which we apply the term ‘beloved’ to other things,” does indeed look like a compressed reference to the doctrine of Forms. It encourages Kahn to say that the dialogue as a whole looks forward to that dialogue and that doctrine. But this disregards the fact that the Lysis actually ends by endorsing a very different version: love between two people depends on a kinship between them, and all true love must be reciprocated; no true lover loves in vain. We are on the road to Hollywood, and this doctrine contradicts, in its central point, Diotima’s revelation in the Symposium. Her teaching never calls for reciprocation; on the contrary, the individual progresses from one object of love to another, constantly leaving the last behind as he ascends the ladder of Being. At the summit, if he can reach it, he is alone. The difference is complete, and terrible.

It is not difficult to believe that some of Plato’s first readers had more inside knowledge than others of what was being discussed in the Academy, and that some of them understood more in the dialogues than others. Plato may well have slipped in allusions to doctrines which were being debated and had not yet been fully explained to his readers. To make him completely consistent, over the years that it must have taken to compose all those substantial works, is perhaps to go a step too far.

But Kahn’s book has a great deal to offer besides this central argument. His account of the theory of Forms is subtle and profound. He does full justice to the role of love in Plato’s thought. Plato’s intimate linking of virtue with knowledge leaves a gap, in the sense that it is hard to see how such intellectualized virtues can initiate action; that gap is bridged by the agency of eros, which combines the idea that all desire is ultimately desire for the good with the idea of unchanging qualities, of a transcendent vision, and of the yearning for immortality.

It is striking that Kahn, no less than Nehamas, sees the importance of Socrates’ character and personality, not merely for its biographical interest, but for its philosophical significance. In the great debate in the Gorgias the opponents of Socrates, arguing for the life of power and ruthlessness, are refuted not only by the arguments which show up the incoherence of their positions, but also by the impact of Socrates’ personality, the strength and serenity of one whose desires are all in harmony. This Socrates embodies the force of the Socratic argument—as he re-creates for the reader the impact of the historical Socrates on Plato himself. Again, in the Phaedo what Plato creates is a rational religion, made alive by the power and credibility of the depiction of Socrates as its patron saint. As with Nehamas, we see that moral character and pure argument are not to be kept sharply apart; and the agreement makes one hope that this insight will find many supporters. “For Plato,” Kahn concludes, “philosophy is essentially a form of life, and not a set of doctrines.” It is a pleasure to see that both Kahn and Nehamas, in their different ways, agree.

This Issue

May 6, 1999