Reponse to "The Death of Plato," by James V. Schall [The American Scholar, Summer 1996] published in The American Scholar, Autumn, 1996

Department of Philosophy
Los Angeles Valley College
5800 Fulton Ave.
Van Nuys, CA 91401-4096

14 June 1996

Joseph Epstein and The Editors
The American Scholar
1811 Q Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009

re: "The Death of Plato," by James V. Schall, The American Scholar, Summer 1996

Dear Sirs:

In his article about Socrates, Plato, philosophy, and politics, James V. Schall demonstrates no awareness that there was any difference between Socrates and Plato, or between Plato's early works representing Socrates, like the Apology, and his later works presenting Platonic theories (Recollection, the Forms, etc.), like the Phaedo and Republic.

The kind of distortion this introduces is evident in several of Schall's statements about Socrates. First, he says, "Many of these same youths [attending Socrates' death] had annoyed their fathers, Socrates' accusers, by going home and playfully imitating Socrates. This semi-jesting imitation was why the fathers thought Socrates was undermining the city." This seriously trivializes the problem Socrates faced: for Schall himself is clearly aware of the career of the "youth" Alcibiades, who was "playfully imitating" Socrates by mutilating the Hermae (the protective statues of Hermes around the city), deserting his post with the army in Sicily to avoid indictment, treasonously going over to the Spartans, and wisely advising them how to win the war with Athens (a war which Athens had restarted at Alcibiades' own urging). This was clearly not a "semi-jesting" matter. It undoubtedly did contribute to "undermining the city," i.e. losing the war, and the citizens of Athens could hardly be blamed for at least wondering about Socrates' role in Alcibiades' education.

Second, Schall says, "This bothersomeness [i.e. the activities of the youths], is what brought Socrates, from his hiddenness in his private life, to their public attention." This is obviously false from the evidence of the Apology itself. A man who stands around by the "banker's [or "money changers" in other translations] tables in the marketplace," as Socrates describes it himself, asking questions all day and drawing large, amused crowds is hardly engaged in any kind of "hiddenness" and needn't worry about whether he will come to public attention. When Socrates talks about avoiding public life, he simply means his refusal to participate in politics, not that he retreats from public notice. Indeed, Socrates says that if anyone claims to have heard anything from him privately that he did not say in public, "be assured that he is lying" [Apology 33B]. This indeed is an important difference between Socrates and Plato. Socrates' "liking for people" (as it puts it in the Euthyphro) led him to ask his questions of the man in the street--young and old, rich and poor, citizen and stranger, as he says in the Apology. Plato retreats outside the walls of Athens to his school at the Academy and then decides, in the Republic, that philosophy is too dangerous to be taught to just anyone. No man in the street questioning for Plato. One consequently wonders about the degree of Plato's own "liking for people."

Third, Schall says, "Socrates seldom talked to those who had already decided, who had already definitively revealed their souls as upholders of the polis, of the ways of life of wealth, pleasure, or power. Socrates could only talk with those who could still change their souls." This is also false, not just in terms of the evidence already cited, but in terms of the basic meaning of Socrates' investigation: to vindicate the Oracle, Socrates' job was to examine anyone who claimed to be wise. Hence the public and indiscriminate nature of Socrates' interlocutors and audience. It was Plato, not Socrates, who wanted to restrict himself to a selected few. The sign at the door of the Academy is supposed to have said, "Let no one enter here who has not studied geometry." Such a test would not just be contrary to the purpose of Socrates' mission from the god, but it would be totally irrelevant. Geometry, however salutary or interesting, is clearly not germane to the "human and political kind of excellence" (Apology 20B)--the issues of "the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad" (Euthyphro 7D)--that was the topic of Socrates' questions.

By lumping Socrates and Plato together into Plato's program for philosophy, James Schall therefore misses the point, the context, the purpose, and the attitude that accompanied Socrates' practice of philosophy. Perhaps Socrates is so hard to understand because no one in philosophy has ever again done what he did: which was simply to stop people on the street and in the marketplace and ask them what they were doing, and why. The "why" then leads into his questions about virtue, piety, justice, etc. Plato, with fine irony, in a sense really agreed with Socrates' accusers that this was a dangerous thing to do. He certainly didn't do it himself.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. Instructor of Philosophy

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1996 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved