Translating Plato: Some Reflections on Rhetoric

First published in The World & I, July 1987

The ancient liberal art of rhetoric was understood in many ways—in almost as many ways as there were rhetoricians. Its meaning changed and developed as its social function changed, and there is an intellectual history to be written connecting Homer’s description of “winged words” with Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric.

Aristotle defines the art of rhetoric as “the power of seeing in each [case] the possible means of persuasion.” This is avowedly an ability, a faculty, a dunamis, a power of the rhetorician, but it is not the exercise of that power. Conversely, when Homer speaks of “winged words,” he focuses attention on the exercised power, not, however, of the speaker, but of the words themselves. Although different Homeric speak¬ers have different ways of winging the words, ultimately it is the words themselves that are winged.

Nobody supposes that Homer was specifically concerned with an art of rhetoric, as Aristotle clearly was, but his descriptions of speech and of speeches are very illuminating. The words are “winged” because they traverse space—the distance between speaker and hearer—and they do so with speed, force, and accuracy. Initially, the metaphor is derived from birds which, like the words, are winged or feathered and which naturally fly in a purposeful manner. Birds naturally wing their way, but it is their own way which they pursue, moved by an internal principle of motion, their nature. Similarly, the words, once released by the speaker or once they have escaped from the speaker, take on a natural power of their own. They move with force and direction; they are vectors.

The metaphor is transformed, how¬ever, by the technology of war. Birds have a natural power to fly—they are winged or feathered—but the arrow, too, is winged and feathered, and it, too, flies. “Winged words,” as a meta¬phorical phrase, becomes more direc¬tive, more menacing, more penetrat¬ing, and more hostile. The natural power of the feathers becomes a sta¬bilizing device for a pointed shaft. The power of winging comes from the bow and the bowman, and the natural power inherent in the feathers is diminished into a supplementary means.

Moreover, birds fly naturally, by nature, and the wings and feathers are natural parts of the bird. They share in the ends or purposes that the bird, as a whole, serves. The sharing means that they are improved or benefited by accomplishment of those purposes. Arrows fly artificially, by artifice, and the wings and feathers are artificial parts of the arrow which has no purpose of its own. Nor are the wings and feathers improved or ben¬efited; they serve merely as instru¬ments of use. They are pure means, simple technology.

The metaphor which accompanies the winging bird and the flying arrow has to do with the aim, with their direction and destination. The resting place after travel is home, whether for bird or arrow. Birds seek their nests, and arrows their marks—both are lodged. Homing pigeons return on their own, but weapons are thrust home. The home that the bird seeks, its nest, is a sanctuary, a place for rest and recuperation, for peace, for quietude, and for sleep. It is a haven for re-creating, for reconstructing, so that the natural life may continue. The home sought by the arrow is in the vitals of the quarry, there to deal death and destruction that the natu¬ral life of another may end.

Note 1. Interestingly, the word quarrel has a double etymology, the one meaning a dispute, the other meaning a square-headed arrow for a crossbow. Of equal interest, the word quarry, also called “game”—something to be played at or with —is at the same time honored by its other meaning, “spirit¬ed.” Our phrase “a good sport” continues in the same vein.

Homer is too wise to explicate the full meaning of “winged words,” part¬ly because he knows that winged words can be either birds or arrows. After all, he is a rhapsode whose material is composed of the souls of his audience and whose form is to be found in the words that he chants. In some way, his words, recounted by himself or by one of the Homeridae, must find their home in the souls of his audience. If they do not, he will have failed.

Homer is like Apollo—he shoots from afar. But his winged words are arrows directed at his audience, they are not birds simply flying to their own proper home. A rhapsode cannot merely send out his words and let them nest where they will; his suc¬cess depends upon the words lodging in his audience, and not just in one or two members of that audience. He needs his words to find a home, to be at home, in the greatest possible num¬ber of his audience. Plato has the rhapsode Ion tell us this:

For at every performance I look down from the stage at them, now weeping, now glaring fiercely, and now amazed, according to what is said. I must pay a great deal of attention to them, for if I make them weep, I myself will get paid and will laugh, but if I make them laugh, I will lose money and will weep myself.

It is not without significance that in the dialogue Ion the first example quoted from Homer is of

Odysseus leaping onto the threshold, making himself known to the suitors, and emptying out the arrows at his feet.

Nor should we ignore the fact that at the end of the dialogue, Ion maintain that the art of the rhapsode and the art of the general are the same. It is not an unintelligible metaphor to say that Ion thinks he must capture his audience, that he must overpower or even conquer them. He plays with them, they are his game.

However, Ion’s domi¬nation of his audience is clearly temporary. He must take them over so that they feel what he wants them to feel, but he must also release them after the performance. The release is signaled by his payment—the audience then goes away saying, as it were, “That was a good show.” It was a good show. They are free from it in the present. They may have been captured or captivat¬ed, but they did not suffer or die; they are now alive and free. The rhapsode, Ion, is also released—he has no wish to be burdened with the continuing responsibility for the life of his audience.

Apollo is the archer-god, he-who-strikes-from-afar, and his arrows are deadly. But he is also the god of the logos, of oracles, of healing, of music and song, and of the founding of cities. The dual-aspected Apollo has a coun¬terpart in the dual aspects of speech.


There are two rhetorics. The rheto¬ric of words as natural, seeking their proper resting place, and of words as artificial, seeking to take or to take over life. There is a rhetoric of life and a rhetoric of death, a rhetoric of liberation and a rhetoric of domination, a rhetoric of salvation and a rhetoric of damnation, a rhetoric of growth and a rhetoric of decay.

The two rhetorics are easily distin¬guished. The second, more common rhetoric of death, domination, damna¬tion, and decay always has as its object something external to the hear¬er. Its purpose is to get the hearer to do, say, or be something that he is not —to change the hearer in accordance with some external object or form. Its purpose is to get someone to buy a particular make of car, to lobby or agitate, to approve or endorse some¬one or something, or to be angry about this or pleased about that. This is the rhetoric that is concerned with per¬suading someone of something, the persuasion of advertising in all its forms.

The other rhetoric, that of life, lib¬eration, salvation, and growth has no external object about which the hearer must be persuaded. Its purpose is only to persuade the soul of the hearer to persuade itself, to discover and to be true to its own nature.

The character of that form of per¬suasion that we call “teaching” be¬comes clearer in its conventional dupl¬icity. On the one hand, teaching means telling, conveying, instructing, and in¬forming somebody who does not know what he ought to know, even though he may not know that he does not know it. The best virtues of the teach¬er dedicated to this kind of teaching are clarity, orderliness, precision, and direction—virtues primarily connect¬ed with the way in which subject matter is held and presented. The image Plato presented still holds. It is as if knowledge runs from full to empty, from the teacher who knows to the student who is ignorant (at least of that which the teacher teaches). There is an imbalance, an inequality between teacher and student that is measured by the knowledge that the teacher possesses and that the student does not. The teaching virtues are predicated on the assumption that the teacher knows his subject and has possession of the truth. It is the pos¬session of truth that justifies the in¬equality between teacher and student. It is also possession of truth that justifies the authority of the teacher, for he is, after all, the author of the student’s knowledge.

In this view of teaching, the best virtue of the student is being receptive and docile, accepting of the teacher’s authority, and grateful for his willing¬ness to teach the truth he possesses. The teacher’s winged words are arrows—directed with precision at the ignorance of the student. If they hit their mark, they bring with them the knowledge of the teacher to the puta¬tive benefit of the student.

On the other hand, it is possible to see teaching as a very different kind of persuasion. It is, perhaps, more like an exhortation, an encouragement, than a persuasion in the usual sense, for the simple reason that it is intrin¬sically valuable and its worth does not depend on the content that is trans¬ferred. The teacher is not a purveyor or conveyer of information, knowl¬edge, or truth—not that such things may not be useful, but they are not the characteristics of a teacher. This sec¬ond kind of teaching has as its aim the encouragement of the student’s soul to discover by itself whatever lies within it. The purpose is not to make up for the deficiency of the soul by telling it what it needs to know, but to encour¬age, to put courage into the student so that he will find what he needs to know within himself.

The well-known Socratic ignorance is ironical because he claims, at the same time and in the same set of Greek letters in the Apology, that he knew what he did not know, that he knew that which he did not know, and that he knew because he did not know. What he needed was already with¬in him—in some sense. The Platon¬ic view of knowledge as recollection, as anamnesis, only says again that what we need to know is generated from that which is within us. In the Meno, the famous episode with the slave-boy makes manifest the internal power of the soul to search and see the rightness of things. This dialogue has led one commentator to remark that you could teach Meno’s slave geometry, but you could not teach the sons of Pericles virtue. In a sense, this is true, but there is hidden shift in the mean¬ing of “teach.” The dialogue shows that geometry, an apt subject for exposi¬tion and for teaching of the first kind, may also be taught by “putting ques¬tions in the right way” (as Cebes has it in the Phaedo), that is, by the second kind of teaching. It also shows that virtue can never be taught by the first kind of instruction—the kind that the unfortunate sons of Pericles experi¬enced. It is a contradiction to suppose that the freedom and self-control re¬quired by virtue can be structured into the soul from without, that they could find their origin outside of ourselves.

Socrates is a teacher of the second kind—although he claims to teach no one and only to ask questions. I am content to allow him his own formula¬tion but must insist that he does admit to encouraging and exhorting the citi¬zens of Athens to care more for virtue than for wealth. He is a persuader of the citizens, and especially of the young men—but, in the conventional sense, there is no content to the per¬suasion.

Socrates’ winged words are not ar¬rows. He has no target audience—he will talk with anyone who will play question and answer with him. He seeks to let those he talks with display themselves both to themselves and to others—for often, like Thrasymachus. they “have a fine answer ready,” but sometimes they discover unexpected beauty in themselves, as did Charmides and Theatetus. Socrates does not try to tell or inform people of what they should think, believe, or say. That is their business, not his. If, in spite of his protestations, he is a teacher, his business is with the souls of his stu¬dents, of those who talk with him, and even of those who just listen to him talk with others. The teacher, like the lover, must know about the soul.


Meno’s soul is stuck with the glue of sophistic argument. Even his name punningly tells us that he will not move as the Greek word menein means to remain or stay. The task of Socrates is to get his soul to move. If he can do that, with Meno or with anyone, then the soul will find its own proper direction. It will seek for what¬ever truth there is, whatever truth it needs. That is the easy part. The hard part, the part in which we all need assistance, is helping the soul to move and, having moved, to keep moving. That is the true business of the teach¬er, of the teacher whose winged words are not arrows but birds seeking their proper home and lodgment in the hu¬man soul. Socrates cannot control whose soul will be open to his words and those of the people he speaks with; the words, like birds, can be set free but where they will alight, where they will nest, and who will give them sanctuary cannot be known.

If Socratic teaching is of this second kind, then the conduct of Socrates in the dialogues becomes more intelligi¬ble. His purpose is simply to help souls to move—to help them order themselves inwardly. His prayer at the end of the Phaedrus, the dialogue dedicat¬ed to love and rhetoric, is most apt:

Beloved Pan, and all you other gods of this place, grant that

I become beautiful within, and that such out¬ward things as

I have be friendly with me inwardly.

The relation between what is within and what is without is clear. Primacy is to the inward ordering of the soul; outward possessions must conform themselves to that inner order.

The purpose of love or friendship, purpose in the sense of its business, its work, is to assist in the right ordering of the soul. The greatest external sign of love, the greatest work of love, is to encourage, exhort, persuade the be¬loved to pay attention to the ordering of the soul, to what in the Republic is called justice. But the lover’s persua¬sion is not simply based in words, it must be based ultimately in the life of the lover himself. The final way to encourage the beloved to attend to his soul’s ordering is, of course, for the lover to attend to his own soul’s order¬ing. As Socrates knew, this is a full-time job. To quote from an altogether different era:

He who would nor be slothful,

Let him love.

This lofty conception of the lover’s task and of its role in his own improve¬ment, in his own growth in virtue, has its matter-of-fact counterpart in Aris¬totle’s technical treatise on rhetoric:

Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character

when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him

credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily

than others: this is true generally whatever the question is,

and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and

opin¬ions are divided. This kind of per¬suasion, like the others,

should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people

think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as

some writ¬ers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal

good¬ness revealed by the speaker con¬tributes nothing to his power

of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the

most effective means of persuasion he possesses (Book 1.2.3).

This is technical in the sense that it totally ignores the ultimate moral questions involved in persuasion and addresses only the efficacy of the means. Who should be persuaded, of what things, by whom, and on what occasions is not the concern of a tech¬nician. His moral character may well be the most effective means of persua¬sion that the speaker possesses, but the term “moral character” means the character of the speaker as it is per¬ceived by the audience on a specific occasion. This perception is subject to some measure of control by the speak¬er himself because he can, to some extent, adopt the character that seems appropriate to the situation, the character that promises to work most effectively to his advantage. He pre¬sents himself in a certain way.

Socrates the rhetorician is not above giving himself a “moral charac¬ter” or, at least, an “intellectual char¬acter,” which amounts to the same thing for him. He will change, adapt, modify, falsify, or simply repeat words; again, he will remember or misremember or forget beliefs; he will quote, interpret, apply, and extrapolate from received opinion; he will treat seriously or comically views of other thinkers, present or not; he will even tell the truth, as he sees it, on occasion. What saves him from moral obloquy is the simple but unmistakable fact that he reaps no advantage, at least no personal, private advantage, nothing that anyone else would consider an advantage.

The aim of Socrates is to help the soul to move, be it the soul of Glaucon, Phaedrus, Simmias and Cebes, even of Callicles. It makes no difference. Once a soul starts to move it will find its proper direction and proceed toward its own right ordering. It is not neces¬sary for Socrates—or for any teacher —to know what that right order is. It would be arrogant to presume that knowledge. The right order and the right ordering of the soul is the busi¬ness of each and every soul; if a soul can be helped to move, or to move more forcefully or more directly, then the work of the teacher is being ac¬complished. Nothing more is neces¬sary.

The teacher, Socrates, gains no ad¬vantage. He is not richer or more powerful politically, he is not more honored or higher in the social scale, he is not better able “to help friends and harm enemies” in the manner of Polemarchus, he gains nothing of the conventional goods that others seek or admire. All he gets is everything that matters: the continued exercise of his own soul in its search for and mainte¬nance of its right order and the contin¬uing companionship of others. That is all, and it is everything.

As Socrates admits in the Phaedrus, he never leaves Athens:

I am a lover of learning, and trees and open country will

not teach me anything, whereas men in the city do.

The soul learns from and with other souls.

Socratic rhetoric and Socratic teaching are directed toward helping the soul discover its own proper order. It does not claim to know what that order is, although in the Platonic dia¬logues the soul’s elements, or powers, that need ordering are sketched and the possible orderings or relationships between the parts are indicated. But to have a sketch (or even a full-blown theory) is not to have an ordered soul. If Socrates has some idea of the nature of the soul and its parts, that does not give him the power to bring about the right ordering in anyone else. The right ordering is a continuing process for each of us.


Socratic persuasion, or Socratic teaching, (indeed, all true teaching), has to do with the soul’s discovery (or rediscovery) of its own proper order in the process of achieving that order. Thus education and philosophy are intimately linked in a therapeutic en¬deavor to cure the soul of its disorder. The curious nature of the soul as that which moves itself becomes apparent in this endeavor, for the soul will find its proper peace in the realization of its own order. It will recognize the rightness of the order, and by that recognition it will know that it is rightly ordered. The knowing and the being will be one and the same. No external criterion is necessary.

The most obvious metaphor for this activity is drawn from music. The classical Greek language was itself music. It varied in pitch even in ordi¬nary discourse, and so had a power¬ful musical dimension. When it was chanted by rhapsodes or sung by min¬strels, the music, coupled with the meter or measure, must have strongly affected the soul. In addition, the musical search for measure and harmony affords exactly the kind of conception and language (or rhetoric) needed to describe the right ordering of the soul. It is not just a happy accident that in the Republic Plato speaks of mod¬eration or temperance as stretching “from top to bottom of the whole scale” of the city, so that everybody sings the same song together. And finally, of course, music by its very nature is the quintessence of rhetoric in that it sets out to persuade us of nothing but itself.

That Socrates and Plato under¬stood this relationship between phi¬losophy and music cannot be doubted. To offer but one example from the Phaedo, consider Socrates’ discussion of his dream whilst in prison. He dreamed there, as he had dreamed periodically throughout his life, of a figure who came and said, “Socrates, work and make music.” Previously, he had assumed that the figure was encouraging him to do what he was already doing; for, he says, “philoso¬phy was my work, and philosophy is the highest music.” In case he had misunderstood the meaning of the figure, Socrates decided to compose a hymn (prooimion) to Apollo, whose festival had postponed his death for a few days, and then to set Aesop’s fables to music. The Phaedo is a dialogue for the Pythagoreans, as is well known, for the identification of music and philosophy originated with Pythagoras.

The music of the Greek language, with all its inherent charm, and enhanced in the dialogues by Plato’s genius, has an additional component, in the meaning of the winged words. That Socratic rhetoric is powerfully persuasive is clear (it seems to have persuaded Plato, although not Alcibiades). Yet the function of the words as words with meaning and not just as the bearers of musical melodies requires some consideration.




We would normally assume that winged words are specific words car¬rying a specific meaning. But, con¬trary to Aristotle, Platonic words are not univocal, they do not have one identifiable specific meaning or def¬inition. In a certain sense, they have no definition at all, in that they do not have clearly prescribed limits. The Greek for definition is horos, the same word used for boundary, and for Plato the meaning of a word is like a zone or a region. Although in the context of a particular conversation some things clearly fall within the zone and other things equally clearly fall out¬side of it, there are some things that seem both to belong and not to belong.

This may seem a vague view of language, more suitable perhaps for the thought factory of Aristophanes’ Clouds, but properly speaking it is a view of language as vague. This view is connected with the Platonic notion of images, of things that are not what they are. It does have a certain vagueness about it, but that is be¬cause words are images, and any attempt to give words a constant precision would give a totally false impression of what they referred to: Images are signed by words that, in their turn, are also images. Only the Platonic ideas or forms are really what they are, and they are beyond discourse.

In my library there is, I tell you a statue of Socrates. Calling it a statue is only a way of saying that it is an image. It is, in fact, if not in truth, a resin composition made from a mold —at least two more stages removed from the original—which, in turn, was made from a Roman copy of a Greek original dating from the third century B.C., which means at least two more stages of imaging. Moreover,



the Roman copy was a miniature of what seems to have been a life-size statue, and it is not clear how many stages of imaging that entailed. The life-size original could not have been carved from life, so the relation of the statue to the original Socrates is problematical at best. In any case it involves a number of further stages of imaging. Since the statue suits my library so well, I have decided to photograph it and circulate a photo¬copy of the photograph among my associates, the Friends of the Forms. Some of them, in turn, photocopy the photocopy and show their colleagues. I shall not pretend to be able to count the number of imaging stages that will have been gone through. I do know that each stage of the imaging process reduces the definition of the statue and that if the process contin¬ues, it will be impossible to identify the image, without the use of a title or label. Even with a label, credulity might well be strained. During the process, someone might decide that the image is getting blurred and at¬tempt to give it a better definition. Whether it is a better definition of Socrates or just a better definition would be moot.

A word is like that. A word has and ought to have a certain indistinct¬ness, room for the meaning to move around in. Every word ought to have an indefinition as well as a definition, since it must have an indefiniteness. The indefiniteness, however, is not necessarily a disadvantage, and we should not, out of impatience or frus¬tration, seek to make our words total¬ly clear and distinct. Without produc¬ing an extended argument to support this view, the value of flexible word meanings can be seen in the var¬ious understandings poetry express¬es with its multiple meanings and types of ambiguity.



Cornford’s Translation of The Republic


One of the most popular edi¬tions of Plato’s greatest dia¬logue,

the Republic, was produced by Francis Macdonald Cornford in 1941.

The presupposi¬tions lying behind this edition are contained, implicitly

and explicitly, in its preface, and they seem somewhat strange in retrospect.

Cornford finds it “a curious fact” that where the dialogue is most

dif¬ficult, the smallest number of words are used. He takes this as a license

to expand. On the other hand, he has “not hesitated to spare the reader time

and effort by omissions.” By expanding and contracting, Cornford has tried

“to keep this version to nearly the same length as the text.” Any reason

for wanting to do this is lacking.

It would be good to suppose that Cornford had some notion of the

mu¬sical and metrical character of the dialogue but there is no evidence to

suggest so. In fact, many of the re¬sponses of Glaucon and Adeimantus,

the “formal expressions of assent,” have been left out altogether. It does not

seem to matter that the assents might be material rather than for¬mal, or that

they might indicate metrical units of discourse. Cornford claims, tout court,

that “the conven¬tion of question and answer becomes formal and frequently

tedious.” Again, it is assumed that question and answer is a convention and

that we all find it tedious.

Not only is the reader spared Pla¬to’s tedious conventions, but

some passages are simplified or omitted altogether. One that undergoes

sim¬plification concerns the number that measures the distance of the tyrant

from the good man, and another that is omitted is the one concerning

the “geometrical number that presides over better and worse births.”

Cornford points out that certain key terms have shifted their meaning

or acquired false associations.

One who opened Jowett’s version at random and lighted

on the state¬ment (at 549B) that the best guardian for a

man’s “virtue” is “philosophy tempered with music,” might

run away with the idea that, in order to avoid irregular

relations with women, he had better play the violin in the

intervals of studying metaphysics. There may be some truth in

this; but only after read¬ing widely in other parts of the book

would he discover that it was not quite what Plato meant by

de¬scribing logos, combined with mousike, as the only safeguard

of arete.

However, the opening word of the dialogue is kateben, literally, down-went-I.

Cornford renders this “I walked down.” Why? There is a per¬fectly good Greek word

for that, and Plato did not use it. Why does Cornford know better? It is very puzzling

know what Cornford thought he was doing. Perhaps all that can be said is that he

seems to have prized “knowing opinions,” allegedly Plato’s, over the learning process

we call ordering of the soul.

—John Bremer



The view here under consideration is that, again contrary to Aristotle, all language is metaphorical. Or that all language is poetic. Everybody knows that metaphors are like math¬ematical proportions, or series of ra¬tios, with some of the terms sup¬pressed. They derive their effective¬ness as our knowledge of one set of things, or of one universe, is used to extend our knowledge of another set of things, or of another universe.

For example, everybody in ancient Athens knew the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and yet, in the Phaedo, Plato is at great pains to remind them (and us) of its details. It seems an act of supererogation until it becomes clear to us that the story being told again is about Socrates and the fourteen named people who were with him on his last day. The number fourteen is the giveaway, simply be¬cause they must be the seven youths and seven maidens, the famous “sev¬en pairs,” who were sent as the Ath¬enian tribute to Minos. The story of Theseus is a metaphor for the story of Socrates, and if we read the dia¬logue with this in mind, doubtless we shall seek to identify the Minotaur that Socrates killed. The story will help us, in our turn, to slay the same monster. The metaphor is undoubted¬ly there, but explicit verbal reference to it is suppressed, and it is left to us to see the connection.

There is not a total and explicit one-to-one correspondence between the parts of the metaphor and the elements of that which the metaphor represents. There is an overlap of boundaries, as it were. It must also be borne in mind that if Theseus is a metaphor of Socrates, Socrates is equally a metaphor of Theseus. The process is not clear and distinct, how¬ever, and it makes a demand upon the hearer or reader by making him sup¬ply the connections. That effort re¬quires a greater investment of one’s energy and a consequent greater com¬mitment to the result, an educational outcome which is not minor.

The insistence upon language as metaphor, with its advantage of viv¬idness and vitality and its disadvan¬tage of possible blurred vision and imprecision, draws attention to the fact that in language one thing stands for another, although we have to be careful about the sense of “thing.” Language is a sign system, and Plato is constantly drawing at¬tention to the relation between the sign and what it signifies. This is also the concern of the rhapsode and of the rhetorician but in a somewhat differ¬ent manner.

In the dialogue Ion, Socrates chal¬lenges Ion to say who will understand better the chariot race instructions in Book 23 of The Iliad, the rhapsode or the charioteer. The answer cannot be doubted in the context nor can the sense of Socrates’ challenge. For the charioteer, the instructions from Nes¬tor to his son have to be related to the actual conduct of a chariot race. In the process of turning the corner of the course, is the advice good or not; if followed, will it ensure a safe, tight, and fast turn? For Ion, the instruc¬tions have to be related, not to the chariot race (in which he is not com¬peting), but to the effects they have upon the audience (for whose approv¬al he is competing). In the simplest terms possible, do they sound good? Now since some members of the audi¬ence will know something about char¬ioteering, the instructions, as written by the poet and as chanted by the rhapsode, must not be contrary to what a skilled charioteer would do, yet they need not say all that he will do. The test for the congruence of the instructions with what a charioteer would do is mainly negative; nobody expects or wants a complete and ex¬act treatise on charioteering.

Socrates is well aware that the true subject matter of Ion and the other rhapsodes and of Homer him¬self is the soul of man. He is well aware because, as a teacher, he shares the same subject matter. That is also the reason for his criticism of the poets in the Republic. The poets and the rhapsodes appear to be talk¬ing about one set of things, but they are really dealing with another set of things—“no small matter, but how a man should live.” It is not so much that they are dealing in images, for Socrates himself deals in images. And it is not that the images are ill-founded because they write and speak, for example, about medical matters without medical training. It is really that they are not aware of or do not accept the responsibility for the fact that their business is to affect the human soul.


The rhapsodes and rhetoricians see language as a sign system, but the words are signs of power to arouse the soul; they are not signs of what they name, of what they would normally be thought to signify, of their meaning. This is philosophically and educational¬ly objectionable because it has no vision of the right ordering of the soul, it has no concern with justice. In fact, Ion’s success, in his own terms, depends precisely upon the disordering of the soul. In the dialogue which is effective¬ly his obituary notice, the following exchange occurs:

Ion: How clear your proof is to me, Socrates. I will tell you and

hide nothing. Whenever I recite some¬thing pitiful, my eyes are

filled with tears, and whenever I recite something fearful or

horrible, my hair stands on end with fright and my heart throbs.

Socrates: Well then, Ion, are we to say that such a man is in his

right mind who, being dressed up in gorgeous garments and

golden wreaths, bursts into tears at fes¬tivals and feasts, although

he has lost none of his finery, or who, while standing among more

than twenty thousand friendly people, is terrified, although no one

is rob¬bing or injuring him?

Ion has certainly told all and has hidden nothing. There is no sense here that he deliberately makes tears come to his eyes or his hair to stand on end in order to affect the audience. He himself really is affected, which is only another way of saying that he is not in his right mind. But the effects upon himself, contrived or not, are an indica¬tion to the audience as to how they should feel, what effects they should suffer on hearing the rhapsode’s chant. The rhapsode acts as a leader—which partly explains Ion’s claim that the rhapsode’s art and the general’s art are the same. Payment by the members of the audience (or by the judges of a contest on their behalf) is their ac¬knowledgement that the rhapsode has been their general.

The ultimate subject matter of both Socrates and the rhapsodes is the soul, but the proximate subject matter is language, the words. The purpose for Socrates is to encourage the soul to “work itself and make music,” that is, to bring about the right ordering, the harmony, of the parts of the soul. Words must be attended to simply because they are a most powerful means by which this harmony can be encouraged. The purpose for Ion, for all rhapsodes and poets in fact, is not to let the soul of each audience member make its own music, but to let the words strike the soul as an instrument, just as the plectrum strikes the lyre, so as to bring forth the music already written by the poet. Paying the rhap¬sode is only a continuation of the same pattern—it expresses gratitude for having been made a fine instru¬ment, a gratitude that the rhapsode is pleased, graciously pleased, to accept. It also marks the termination of the audience as instrument; the perform¬ance is now over.

Thus for Socrates and for Ion, for the philosopher and for the rhapsode, there are two matters in common, the soul and words. The topics are common but the ways and purposes of under¬standing are different. For the rhap¬sode, the words are winged toward a particular part of the soul, to this feeling or that, to arouse and give the feeling a kind of life of its own, indepen¬dent of the whole soul and of the person and independent of any circumstance that might cause such a feeling in ordinary life. The subject matter of the words, their meaning and reference, what they signify, is truly incidental and all that is necessary is to observe some simple rules. Words about death are not usually capable of arousing laughter, and words of buffoons are not usually capable of causing grief. But even these simple rules are not inflexi¬ble and, with special care, may be violated in order to achieve a greater triumph by the surprising arousal of an unexpected feeling. Otherwise, words are used as necessary to arouse, re¬strain, or fulfill a feeling, or become, as the arch-sophist Pooh-Bah says, “Mere¬ly corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

For Socrates, for Plato, and, indeed, for Aristotle, language is not a useful tool or a mere means to provide corro¬borative detail, it is the realm between sensible things and ideas, the connect¬ing kingdom between particulars and universals. It is the world in which meaning is most readily accessible to us. To understand, go first to the words used to name and describe and discuss what you seek to understand. Hear what is commonly said, for somewhere in what is commonly said, in the re¬ceived opinions, what is sought is to be found. Socrates, in the famous passage of his intellectual biography in the Phaedo, reports turning to his “second sailing.” He had heard someone reading from a book of Anaxagoras in which the philosopher claimed that intelli¬gence (nous) orders everything. Soc¬rates understood this to mean that explanations were given in accordance with the good, that explanations would state why it was better for things to be the way they are rather than some other way. He was, however, disap¬pointed on reading the books of Anax¬agoras, for no use was made of the good but, rather, the explanations were in terms of “air and aether and water and many other absurdities.” Socrates offers to share with Cebes his second sailing, his second attempt, his use of oars when the wind had failed him. Although the Greek phrase deuteros plous meant, in part, and metaphorically a second best simply because no one would prefer rowing over wind-power, there is a certain advantage in Socrates’ sec¬ond sailing: its accomplishments re¬sult from his own efforts and remain in his own power.

This second sailing consists in turn¬ing away from a deductive method, from the good, or from intelligence, as Anaxagoras had seemingly and falsely promised, and away from mechanical explanations in terms of “bones and sinews,” to take refuge in logoi, in words, in language. Socrates no longer investigates the things themselves but rather their truth. It is the truth that connects the rational part of the soul with what can be known. It is truth that makes possible both the intellect’s power to know and. simultaneously, the intelligibility of what is knowable.


Socrates shares questions and answers with others, and it is in these shared, common words that he searches for the truth of things. He lays down in words in the most reliable, the strongest statement he can about what he seeks to understand. Other statements that harmonize with this are taken to be true, and those that do not harmonize are taken to be false. This method leads to what are known as the Ideas or the Forms (eide) and Socrates reverts to those “much bab¬bled about” words in which it is taken for granted that there is something “beautiful itself by itself” and so forth. Something is beautiful because it shares or partakes in this “beautiful itself by itself”—and this is the para¬digm for all statements about cause.




It is not necessary here to give a full account of the forms and of Socrates’ second sailing. What is necessary, how¬ever, is to note the crucial role of language in philosophical investigation as Plato understands it. The truth about things is somehow lurking in the language ordinary people use, and truth is accessible to those people be¬cause they share in the language.

Words as spoken, language as used, are then somehow the home of truth. It is the realm in which both particulars and ideas coexist.

There is, however, another kind of sharing, another kind of participation, which takes place in the realm of language—that of human sharing. As we say, language is a medium of com¬munication, a substratum for having or being in common. Socrates shares his quest, his second journey, with anyone and everyone, whether they initially will it or not. It has already been reported that, as a lover of learning. Socrates will not leave the city, for men teach him and the countryside does not. The philosophical quest of Socrates (and. of course, of Plato) takes place between two pairs of poles, between particular things and the ideas, and between Socrates the philosopher, and another man, a friend such as Glaucon or an opponent such as Prota¬goras. If the Republic needed a motto, it would not be inappropriate to take (from St. 424) “the things of friends are common,” “friends share,” (koina ta philon), and it is not accidental that it is precisely this proverb that is used to identify the best city in the Laws (St. 739c).

The realm of words, of the logos, provides a local habitation for the ideas and for human souls. It could almost be said that it is the matrix out of which being and knowing—and better men —are generated. This gives to the world of the logos a status far different from that which it holds in the operations of the poets and rhapsodes. For the philosophers, words are the means of access to the intelligible world, to the realm of ideas that somewhat like Homeric gods “stand, hidden in air,” and the means of access to other human beings. For the poets and rhapsodes, words are tools to be used and laid aside at will; for the philosophers, the logos is a nurturing habitat sup¬porting an inquiring and self-examining life. For the poets and rhapsodes, the value of words is extrinsic, derived from their utility in stirring the souls of men; for the philosophers, the value of the logos is intrinsic, for it is self-subsisting and connects the human with the divine, and one human with another.

Words are not feelings, yet the rhapsode uses them to arouse the feelings he chooses in others. Words are not ideas; yet the philosopher uses them to arouse in others the ideas he himself has (and possibly those he does not have, incidentally). How is this possible? How can this action at a distance come about?

Feelings and ideas are not transmitted directly, but somehow words can bring about the feelings and ideas of one person in the soul of another. That seems to be clear, yet the explanation is not obvious. The poet and the rhapsode do not need, for their purposes, to seek any explanation. There is enough empirical evidence to show that it happens and enough experience to provide a wide range of practical instances for them to draw on in working with their audiences. The philosopher is not and should not be so easily satisfied. The explanation of how Socrates’ idea can become Glaucon’s idea is worth understanding in itself, and it may well be helpful in understanding how a particular beautiful thing participates in the idea of “beauty itself by itself.” There are some obvious differences. The most notable is that there can be an equality —or a sameness—between Socrates’ idea and that of Glaucon, whereas there is no equality between the image and the idea, although there is an interdependence. The image’s existence is its participation in one or more of the ideas. But there is the added fact that the ideas are shared among men, not as possessions, for the idea does not belong to Socrates or to Glaucon, but as that which makes Socrates and Glaucon, and us, a community. Moreover, this community endures through time for, in a sense, the ideas become the soul. The rhapsode may well have all his hearers weeping at the same time but they are not a community, they are an aggregate, a regiment. And after the performance is over, all they have in common is the memory that they wept at the same time as twenty thousand others, under the sway of their general-rhapsode, Ion.

The interest in words common to rhetoricians, the rhapsodes, and the philosophers is vastly different for each in its grounding. The interest in the soul is also common, but the reason for that interest is also different. For all three, the words, which are readily available, sensible sounds, give access to that which is hidden, the soul. But the soul is conceived differently and access to it is sought for very different reasons.

The rhetorician’s interest in the soul extends only so far as is necessary for him to affect it. That is why in the Gorgias Socrates calls rhetoric, as practiced by Gorgias, “a flattery.” The purpose of Gorgias, as rhetorician, is simply to make the soul feel good and he does that, by and large, simply by making the soul feel. In a certain sense, to have any feeling aroused (even an unpleasant feeling) makes us “feel good” for it reassures us of our being alive. Even if the feeling aroused is unpleasant in itself, we can enjoy just being able to feel; we can enjoy the feeling of being secure in the knowledge that there is no external or objective reality causing the feeling—our safety is not imperiled; and we can enjoy our dependence upon the rhetorician who will relieve us of our anxiety when we have reached (or before we have reached, in the case of less skillful speakers) our limit of endurance. The fundamental mechanism of the rhetoricians is the controlled causing and relaxing of tension.

The rhetoric of Socrates and Plato differs from that of the rhetoricians in that it does not aim to make the soul “feel good” but to help the soul “be good.”

Neither Socrates nor Gorgias, neither Plato nor Isocrates, can be effective in their various uses of words unless those words are, in some sense, “at home” in the soul. The rhetorician and rhapsode do not care that the soul welcomes the logos, they simply use it to their own advantage. The philosopher not only cares, he sees it as a sign of never-ending hope, of an always-possible conversion. He sends words out into the air—carefully chosen words, sent in a carefully chosen manner (for he has a repertoire of “winging” styles to choose from). They are addressed, quite often, to a particular person (such as Glaucon or Callicles) but always labeled “to whom it may concern.”


When Socrates talks with Glaucon, he does so in the presence of others. But when Plato writes a dialogue in which Socrates talks with Glaucon, he does so in the presence of us all. We all become hearers—if we are “concerned.” The rhetorical problem Plato faced was quite clear to him, and he draws attention to it in the Phaedrus (St. 275):

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about

writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s

products stand before us as though they were alive: but if you question

them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written

words: they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if

you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed,

they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is

put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the

place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but

equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to

address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated

and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being

unable to defend or help itself.

There is another kind of discourse, Plato writes,

that does not have this disadvantage: the sort that goes together with

knowledge, and is written in the soul of the learner: that can defend

itself, and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say


Phaedrus: You mean no dead discourse, but the living word, the original of

which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.

The writing of dialogues seems to be the form Plato chooses to minimize the problems both of fixity of written words and of inappropriate audiences. The dialogues imitate most closely the spoken and living word, like a mime of Sophron, as Aristotle remarks. But since they imitate ordinary conversation (sometimes about very extraordinary things), there is no formal announcement of a conclusion, although the discussions reach various stages just as they do in ordinary life. Although Socrates (or his interlocutor) sometimes draws a comparison between the conversation and a trial, there is no defendant, no prosecutor, no evidence, no jury, and no verdict except within the soul of the hearers. Each hearer does as he sees fit. There is no charge from the judge to render a verdict, no arrows of winged words. Each decides for himself whether he wants to decide, and if he does want to make a decision, he does so on his own accord.

Some do not see that they need to make a decision. They have heard, been amused, intrigued, refreshed, frustrated, annoyed, or placated, each to his own. They can pass on their way, without even hearing the conversation to its end. Presumably, this freedom to stay and listen or not is one of the ways of guaranteeing that the words only reach those who are willing to hear them, those who will know how to let the words do their work of the soul.

It seems that those who paid attention, those to whom the conversations of Socrates made a difference, were either very constructive in their own way, such as Plato and Xenophon, or highly destructive, such as Alcibiades and Charmides. They were all, in some sense, powerful. Of those who were impassioned by the dialogues, it seems that some approved of Socrates and some did not—and with great vehemence in either case. Those who disapproved most strongly were people like Anytus—a not very attractive character in the dialogues—but a man with great ambition and not inconsiderable talent. Presumably, he saw Socrates as a rival, but not for political office; rather, Anytus saw that Socrates exemplified a way of life in which the goods that Anytus could offer had no value. In fact, he accuses Socrates of “corrupting the youth,” which must mean changing their values. That would be much more disturbing to Anytus than a mere competitor for political office. When Socrates says in the Gorgias that he is the only true politician, the Anytuses of this world get the message.

For Aristotle, politics is, of course, the architectonic art. That is, it rules all the other arts. It claims by the exercise of its lawful authority to oversee all that goes on in the city. It has, at one level, all the other arts as its subject matter. But this is equally claimed by both rhetoric and dialectic, both of which claim the right and power to deal with all subject matters. Socrates is, perhaps, the most flagrant example of all the “wise men” because he not only assumes that he can talk about anything with anyone, but even insists on doing it with those who are supposedly most expert in their field. And even if the experts, as named in the Platonic dialogues, had been dead for many years, the dialogues themselves bring into question the authority of all who, like Ion, claim or can be expected to have expertise.

The dialogue Laches, for example, contains Socrates’ discussion of courage with Generals Laches and Nicias, the former noted for action, the latter for thought and words. The dramatic date of the dialogue is about 420 B.C. At that time Laches had established a reputation as a good soldier, having assisted in the capture of Messenia, but he had been overshadowed (as Alcibiades reports in the Symposium) by Socrates who had shown more courage at the retreat from Delium in 424, a fact for which Laches admired him. Nicias had a better reputation, but more as a politician than as a general, and in 421 he had negotiated the so-called Peace of Nicias with Sparta. The dialogue itself must have been written and publicly read around 390, after Nicias, by his superstition and indecision, had destroyed the Athenian force sent to Syracuse, in 415, and himself with it. Laches had been killed at the battle of Mantinaea in 418, which the Spartans had won simply because of their own courage. It could not have been comfortable being an Athenian general at that time, witness the careers of Conon and Iphicrates. But to have the supposed characteristic of a soldier and a general (namely, courage) publicly discussed in a way that showed the limitations of understanding of past generals must have given pause to current officeholders and ambitious future candidates.

Plato has Socrates invite the opinions of experts (publicly known or self-proclaimed) on the subjects he discusses. Laches and Nicias speak on courage, Gorgias on rhetoric, Callicles on power, Protagoras on the teachability of virtue, Meno on virtue itself, Agathon on love, and so forth. Presumably, the historical figures in the dialogue represent views that they actually held in life, or that were consistent with those that they held in life. But Plato goes further than letting or requiring historical figures to represent philosophical positions in a manner which may or may not be historically exact. He requires that the subject matter of the dialogue be exemplified in the dramatic action of the dialogue itself.




If rhetoric is seen as an art of persuasion, that means that it is an art that transmits a thought, feeling, or motive for action from one person to another. To say that it involves a transmission may beg too many questions, although it is a popular way of speaking. The process of rhetoric may be the arousal in one person of what is in another, but even then the word “in” requires a first and elementary distinction. The matter of persuasion may be “in” the persuader as something of which he himself is already persuaded, but it may be “in” him as something which he wants others to believe although it is and remains external to him. The persuaded must take “in” the thought or motive for action so that he acts upon it. if the persuader is to be successful and the persuasion is to take place.

This means that, in one aspect, rhetoric is the art of transmission or, loosely, of communication. It is the art by which thought, feeling, and desire are brought into being in another. Whether that is a transmittal remains an open question, but in any case, words are a significant element in the operation.

In Plato, words are images of ideas, but it is equally true that actions are images of the soul. One would look for some kind of congruity between words and deeds, between words and ideas, and also between ideas and actions. If they are not congruent, then integrity of the soul is missing. In the dialogues, as in life, we hear people speak, we see them act, and we note the congruences and the discrepancies. We are affected by the degree of congruity. A speaker’s impact is influenced by the degree of congruity he manifests. If Laches had been a coward (which he was not), our opinion of his views on courage would be different. If Nicias had not been so indecisive, we might have respected his views more. As it is, we look for continuity between ideas, words, and deeds —and it does not matter in which we begin or how we choose to begin. The dialogue named after Meno begins with a question, a multiple choice question, that he puts to Socrates:

Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue something that can be taught? And

if it’s not taught, is it acquired by practice? And if neither by practice,

nor by learning, does it come to men by nature, or in some other way.

Looked at as words, the question offers five possible answers and the rigid structuring of Meno’s mind requires him to suppose that only one answer is correct. The dialogue shows, with incredible wit, that they are all correct and that none of them are correct. But the opening question reveals something more. The questioning of someone is an action, and Meno’ questioning of Socrates is a revealing action. Although, as we learn later in the dialogue, Meno and Socrates had seen each other and talked on the previous day, there is no gentle word of greeting from Meno. He is arrogant and ill-mannered. His question is abrupt, peremptory, and controlling, and the character of Meno begins to be revealed as the opening question reflects in part in the soul of Meno. The haughty and demanding manner leaves no doubt as to how Meno thinks virtue is acquired and—more importantly—what it is.

It is best, perhaps, to use a well-established Platonic word to designate this whole activity. The ideas of courage or virtue or whatever are imitated by words and by actions. We inhabit a world of mimesis.

When Shakespeare’s King Henry V urges his men to “imitate the actions of a tiger,”he does not expect them to go around on all fours, swishing their tails and growling. Nor does he expect them to conform to Old Possum’ Growltiger:

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

Harry expects his men to be fierce. The imitation is of the idea of the tiger, as it were, or of the moral virtue of the tiger, not of its appearance. Although we can make fun in

Tiger, tiger, my mistake,

I thought that you were William Blake,

the truth is that the well-known poem takes the tiger as an access to the Creator, of whom it is an imitation. It asks:

What immortal hand or eve

Could frame thy tearful symmetry’

But the imitator is not easily known by the imitation:

Did He smile His work to see’

Did He who made the lamb make chee.’


Rhetoric is the art of using one set of things to stand for another set of things; it is, in fact, the art of translation. Persuasion, the conventional and commonsense view of rhetoric, is clearly a special case of translation. The opinions in the persuader are translated into another who, if the translation is successful, becomes the persuaded.

The word “translation” itself is etymologically derived from that highly irregular Latin verb fero, I carry, with the highly regular preposition trans, across—as in the word transfer. Although we use the word translate, it is by no means clear that the word should be taken literally. It is clear that the opinions in one mind can come into being in the mind of another and that winged words have been involved; it is not so clear that the opinion has been “transferred” or “carried across.” How it got across, or, to use the colloquialism, how it was put across, is another question.

The activity of translating from one language into another—in the case of the Platonic dialogues from classical Greek into modern American English —is not different in kind from the activity of Socrates talking with Glaucon, of our talking with one another. As has been observed many times, communication is strictly impossible, but it takes place. Talking with one another, we suppose that what the words mean to us is the same as what the words mean to others. A little reflection might prompt us to add “more or less,” but we assume that we mean the same things “by and large,” that there is enough overlap of our meaning with theirs to make communication possible. That still leaves the puzzling question as to how that more-or-less same meaning is aroused by the word. And yet, for various reasons, we change the words we use to express our meanings in the light of circumstances, in the light of our audience, in the light of the subject matter, and in the light of the time we have.


As a side note, this draws attention to another aspect of the art of rhetoric —expansion and contraction. It has already been pointed out that Gorgias claimed to speak on any subject whatsoever. In the Meno he is reported to “have offered himself to any Greek who wanted, for questioning, on any topic, refusing an answer to no one.” And in the dialogue named after him, Gorgias has the following exchange with Socrates:

Socrates: Then would you be so kind, Gorgias, as to continue

in the manner of our present conversation, asking and answering

questions, and lay aside for a subsequent occasion . .lengthy exposition. . . . Don’t deceive me; keep your promise and be good enough to

answer briefly what I ask you.

Gorgias: There are some answers, Socrates, which must necessarily

be stated at length; but I shall certainly try to give them as briefly

as possible. This is, in fact, another of my claims; no one can say the

same thing more briefly than I.

Socrates: That is exactly what we want, Gorgias; give me a display of

your brief style and we can reserve the lengthy one for a later occasion.

Gorgias: I shall be glad to do so. You’ll say you’ve never heard

anyone speak more briefly.

Socrates: Very well. You say that you have knowledge of the rhetorical

art and can make anyone else a rhetorician. With what class of objects

is rhetoric concerned? As, for example, the art of weaving is concerned with the making of clothes, is it not?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And likewise music with the composition of melodies?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: By Hera, Gorgias! I am certainly delighted with your

replies; you answer in the very fewest possible words.

Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I believe I do it tolerably well.

Socrates: You certainly do. So give me the same sort of answer

about rhetoric.. .

The brief style of Gorgias is akin to the style of the Spartans who dwelt in Laconia, which gives us the word laconic. The oft-quoted example is of the Spartan woman Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, sending her son to war: She hands him his shield saying. “This, or on this.” For a soldier to return without his shield was a disgrace because it meant that he had thrown it away in flight. Conversely, to return with it meant either a victory or death, for if a soldier fell in battle his body was carried home on his shield. Thus, the Spartan mother —in four words, or eight Greek syllables—required victory or death.

On the other hand, one can imagine Ion in his guise, as, say, General Laches encouraging the troops. It may be an inappropriate comparison, but the famous funeral oration of Pericles, in Thucydides, has over four thousand syllables and the counterpart speech of Socrates in the Menexenus is about six thousand syllables. Very different from the eight syllables of Gorgo.




The rhetorician must be able to speak briefly or at length, just as he must be able to speak on happy or unhappy occasions, to small or to large audiences, and upon this subject or that.

In writing the dialogues, Plato must have been acutely aware of their length. The word length is somewhat misleading to us since it implies a space or a distance in space. In fact, the dialogues were read aloud, as were all writings in the ancient world, and therefore it would be truer to say that Plato must have been acutely aware of the time each took to read aloud or to recite.

What elements would go into determining the length? It is hard to say, partly because we do not know in what circumstances Plato expected his dialogues to be read. Nor do we know how available they were to people outside the immediate circle of the Academy. If their circulation were somewhat restricted, then Plato could have controlled the circumstances in which they were heard. They might have been ceremonially recited on specific occasions, so that the audience, whatever its composition, might have known, in advance, how much time was needed for a total reading.

The connection of the dialogues with time is important. Indeed, some of the dialogues tell the day on which they were dramatically recited. That is, we are informed of the date of the dramatic conversation. It does not follow that the dialogues would be read only on the day of their dramatic date, but it is curious that Plato often indicates the day of the year the conversation took place.

The conversation of the Laws, for example, is quite explicitly stated to have begun at dawn on the day of the summer solstice, more or less June 21. The Republic (or Polity as I prefer to call it) reports a conversation “yesterday” in the Piraeus on the feast of Bendis, reputedly 19 Thargelion, or about June 5. The Apology occurs on or about 7 Mounichion (April 23), the Crito on 6 Thargelion (May 24), the Phaedo on 8 Thargelion (May 30), and so forth.

Even if the dialogues were recounted, originally, on their dramatic dates in some annual cycle of ceremonial readings, it would be hard to know how to translate that into a meaning for the modern student of Plato. What is even harder to deal with is the fact that the modern Platonist will read the dialogues to himself silently, while Plato clearly wrote them to be heard. The rhetoric of writing to be read silently is different from the rhetoric of writing to be heard. Nobody thinks that looking at the musical score of a Bach cantata is the same as hearing the cantata performed.

Reading aloud and hearing what is read are more public activities than reading to oneself. Because of its public character, reading aloud creates a more extreme response; it is hard to ignore what is said, and it is equally hard to evade responsibility for one’s response to what is said. This is especially true among a group of friends, for friends share.

It should also be noted that reading aloud demands a slower and more measured pace than reading silently, and the text has a better chance of being true to itself. When we read to ourselves, silently, we can easily take great liberties with the text.

Little attention has been paid to the dramatic dates of the dialogues, but it is possible that they are related to the cycle of the year and that where they come in that cycle is an element of their meaning. The relation between Socrates and Theseus has already been alluded to, but that connection was only possible because of the religious festival’s date in the civil year. The Laws begins when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, when it is at its most powerful, or. if you prefer it, at the beginning of its decline, on the day reputed to be the birthday of Zeus. The Timaeus (which is not a successor to the Polity) takes place at the annual festival of the Lesser Panathenaea, which had a fixed date, although modern opinions differ as to what it was. The Greater Panathenaea, which took place every four years, was held between 23 and 30 Hecatombaion; some scholars suppose that the lesser festival took place at the same time, but others, following Proclus, put it in the month of Thargelion. What matters is that Plato knew when the festival was held.

The other temporal aspect of the dialogues is the duration of their reading, the length of time taken for their recounting. Is this determined by the subject under discussion? The Symposium, the dialogue on love, has 36,000 syllables and takes two hours and twenty-four minutes to read aloud, in the style of Plato. What does 36,000 have to do with love? The Politicus or Statesman also has 36,000 syllables. Is that connected with the length of the Great Year that, we are assured, was 36,000 regular years? The Phaedo has 45,000 syllables and takes exactly three hours to read. Why? What does that have to do with Theseus and Socrates, with the immortality of the soul? The Meno has 19.600 syllables and takes one hour and eighteen minutes to read aloud. What does that have to do with virtue and “how it comes to man”? It clearly has something to do with a square, the dialogue’s well-used geometrical example, since the square root of 19,600 is 140, which in turn is the diagonal of the square with a side of 100. Is the dialogue constructed on the basis of a geometrical diagram? And if so, how should the translator deal with it?

Any translator of the dialogues must understand that they have a musical and metrical structure as well as a verbal content. The words may signify ideas, but those ideas are to be understood in relation to the mathematical structures provided by the nonverbal aspects of the dialogue. Every dialogue and speech has a rhythm, a metrical pattern, which contributes to its meaning. And every dialogue has a definite length of time for its reading. To disregard these aspects is to falsify Plato.

One of the universally acknowledged key passages in all of Plato is the discussion of the divisions of and relations between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, contained in what is called The Divided Line (Polity, end of Book 6). This images the structure of being and knowing and the connection of both to the idea of the good or, simply, to the good, which is beyond being and knowing. The Divided Line obviously divides the dialogue, and it does so in the ratio of eight to five. What does this mean? It would not be unreasonable to assume that the Divided Line, since it claims to image all knowing and all being, suggests a way of understanding all of the dialogues, including the Polity itself. Should a translator try to preserve the relative lengths of various Greek passages? If he does not there is no question but that something will be lost.

What gets lost is the architecture, as it were, of the dialogue, the geometrical and arithmetical structure within which the words are formed. This use of such architecture is well attested throughout the ages; a simple and straightforward example is contained in Dante’s Divine Comedy. First, it has, in all, one hundred cantos. Second, after an introductory first canto, each of the three parts of the work, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, has thirty-three cantos. Moreover, each part ends with what has been called “the sweet and hopeful word stelle.” That this structure is deliberate and conscious could scarcely be doubted, but the effect of such ordering can easily be ignored or underestimated. Metrical patterns have rhetorical effects. They also affect the memory. There was a time in the ancient world when all public utterances by leaders were made in verse, which meant that commands tended to be remembered and repeated. Especially in Plato, the metrical structuring cannot be dismissed as a mere “artistic device” or even as a “Platonic idiosyncrasy”; the metrical or numerical arrangements not only aided the retention of the meaning but were themselves part of the meaning.

The meter itself and the repeating metrical patterns of the syllables and their duration through time must have grown out of the rhythms of the body and of the soul. If they had not, then they would not have endured as they did. The rhythms of writings that last must in some way imitate or accord with the rhythms of the combined body and soul. We are told on the authority of the learned medical man Galen, who was himself following Herophilus, that there is a similarity between the systolic and diastolic beats of the pulse and the arsis and thesis of the two-beat metrical foot called the iamb. No one has ever lived removed from the continuing iambic di-dum, di-dum, di-dum of the heartbeat. It would not, therefore, be surprising if we responded to rhythmical sound, if we felt “at home” and comfortable in a properly pulsating universe, in a patterned universe of discourse.

The importance of rhythmical speech has always been appreciated by rhetoricians, and audiences have always enjoyed measured cadences. The reason must be that, in some way, the rhythms of speech are the rhythms of the soul, which is not really surprising since speech comes from the soul.

Perhaps “resonate” would be a better word than “translate” to name the process by which thoughts and feelings in one person are aroused in another person. What the rhapsode counted upon was the natural or current vibrations of the human soul. If his own vibrations could be made to correspond with those of his audience, then he could really increase the amplitude of their vibrations. They would feel more acutely, more keenly.

Every physical object has its own free vibrations, and if a sound can be made with the same period, it will resonate. Something analogous to that happens with the soul. It would be interesting to establish a connection between this and the resonance theory of hearing.


Plato seems to have had a view that could be characterized as a rhetoric of resonance. The soul has a natural, free period of vibration, although this gets distorted by being near things with different periods, or things with no detectable period at all (or near people with disordered souls). The task of the teacher, whether Socrates or Plato or somebody else, is to help the soul recover its free period of vibration and to strengthen it, to resonate. It would not be hard to connect this view with the notion of love in the Phaedrus and the causes for the sprouting of the soul’s wings.

Whatever the appropriate metaphor, it seems to be a fact that the soul responds to meter, to rhythm, to periodicity, and it does this without necessarily being aware that it is doing so. If asked, most people would readily admit that music they had heard was measured, that it had sections or divisions within it, and that these divisions were marked off in some way. If further inquiry were made about the nature of those divisions and the way in which they were marked off, most people would admit that they could not answer.

But the measures of the music would still have had their effect.

This dimension or aspect of Platonic and Socratic rhetoric is, on occasions, referred to by the term “charm,” epadein. The Greek word in its verbal form means to sing to or to sing over, to soothe or to charm in order to heal. The word and its cognates appear about forty-five times in the whole Platonic corpus, about a third of them in the dialogue Charmides (whose name is related to xarma, delight), which takes place the day after Socrates returns from the campaign at Potidaea in 431/430. A characteristic use is found in the Phaedo where Simmias and Cebes wish to be rid of their Minotaur, the fear of death; Socrates does not say that he can argue it away, as they ask, but suggests that they say charms over it every day until it vanishes. In the Polity. St. 608, our childish love of poetry is to be charmed away by the argument, so that we do not take poetry seriously, as if it were connected with truth.

The soul can be charmed by incantations, and it can be healed and soothed by songs. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that it is the musical and poetic dimensions of the charms, not the intellectual content of the words, that produce the desired result. The soul responds to the metrical music, not to the meaning of the winged words. The reason for this must be that, for Plato, the soul has a numerical structure, and it is not for nothing that it was said that music is the number of the soul.

That the dialogues are charming, in the more vague modern sense, is without doubt. People still read them, even when they cannot say quite why they are doing it. Praise is heaped upon the Polity, for example, by translators and commentators for its unity and completeness, although none of them have ever successfully stated the principle of that unity—in fact, some of them have proceeded to deny it. Although there are many wise things said in the dialogues, they do not seem to be read primarily for those wise sayings. Again, many translators treat the dialogues as if they contained information and doctrine that needed to be conveyed to the modern, non-Greek-speaking world—but usually with the proviso that they are only the historical record of Plato’s thought. They should not affect us.

The academic world usually treats the original Academic as if he were an object to be viewed and, perhaps, admired, but not followed. He can be explicated but not understood, he can be almost anything except the one thing that he strove to be—a teacher. We can learn about Plato, but we steadfastly refuse to allow him to affect us. The dialogues, however, have a seductive way, even in the most contorted translations, of still carrying the music which will help the soul to start on its long journey to the back or outside of the world where, in the Phaedrus it can see all that is real.

Some translators, unconsciously no doubt, seem to work on the assumption that Plato is a manufacturer with a salesman called Socrates. The translator’s task is, first, to identify Plato’s product, what he is selling, and, second, to let his salesman speak as aggressively or as rudely as the translator thinks necessary to affect the translator’s audience.

Other translators (usually British) go further along this road by insisting that their translation is “the way we would say this sort of thing these days.” This is not helpful because Plato is precise and does not deal in “this sort of thing,” and in any case, modern intellectual life is not famous for its Socratic conversations.

Yet other translators assume that the truth that they have is the truth that Plato had, or would have had if he had lived now, and translate him to conform to their own understanding. This is either a way of self-congratulation or else a gratuitous act of mistaken kindness.

That the Platonic dialogues have lasted for 2,300 years or more Is amazing. No doubt they will last for at least another 2,300 years, or as long as people can read and discuss the meaning of human life. The history of the physical preservation of the texts is not necessarily related to the content of those texts, but once the contents were known people have always been found to preserve and transmit them. The genius of Plato is the cause of this. The dialogues have, for thoughtful people, an almost irresistible attraction. Part or this attraction is connected with the piety and awe that Plato obviously felt toward Socrates; that a man could say, as Plato does, that he has written nothing of his own, that the writings attributed to him are those of “a Socrates made young and beautiful,” is simply breath-taking. Another part of this attraction is the absolute freedom, modesty, and self-restraint with which Plato acknowledges the greatness of Socrates—

Such was the end . . of our friend, who, we may say, among the

men of that time whom we knew, was the best, the wisest and

the most just.

Here is the affection and respect between equals. Then there is the character of Socrates himself—true to his name which means “safe power.”

The characters who converse with Socrates also play their roles in the enchantment. They are live people, they are like our friends, or our colleagues, or our relations. They are like us. And the discussions themselves seem to lay out all the possible points of view about the subject, and we can find within them, somewhere or other, our favorite and most cherished opinion. We may find it but having found it, we sometimes lose it. And yet we do not feel that the dialogue has done us violence, it has done us no injury.

The rhetoric of resonance is practiced by both Plato and Socrates and we respond. We do not feel any injury because the dialogue has only helped us to persuade ourselves of something we already, in some sense, knew. We have been free to learn and the dialogue has reminded us of our own soul’s structure.

The dialogues imitate—are examples of mimesis—and what they imitate is the human soul in the act of considering the meaning of itself, in relation to some particular aspect of itself. Or, to put it more simply, the dialogues are all examples of metempsychosis.

The translator has to deal with the same transmigration of souls and it is easier to say what not to do than what needs to be done. What is not needed is embellishment and attention to what some translators call “style.” The dialogues do not need to be “improved” or “made palatable to current taste,” they do not need to be dressed in “modern” idiom. Good standard American English is fine, and when Plato uses the same word again and again, it is better to translate it in the same way each time. We should not seek “variety” or “novelty.” The discussion of how a man should live is not to be sought in an amusement arcade or anywhere else where entertainment and novelty are at a premium. The soul does not need sequins in order to discover its proper beauty, and it should be left alone to do its own proper work.

Plato was known, and rightly known, in antiquity as a master of style. He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it—the how and the what were inseparable for him. He understood how to affect the soul because he had a very rare and precious respect for it. He did not try to master it in anyone else, he did not try to use it. His dialogues all conform to the numbers of the soul.

It seems strange to say, after all that, how relatively unimportant the knowledge of classical Greek is to a translator. Of course it is important. But if the translator is convinced that Plato was really a Christian-Hegelian or a totalitarian or a frustrated homosexual or a university pedant, there is no knowledge of Greek that will ever rescue him from disaster. And if the translator sees the dialogues as a substitute for his own writing, as a means to achieve tenure through another publication, as an opportunity for adding never-ending footnotes that unerringly and asymptotically approach irrelevance, in short, as a means of personal aggrandizement, there is no antidote to be found in the mastery of Attic Greek.

Perhaps the best model is to be found in Plato himself. After all, he translated Socrates. While it is true that they both spoke the same language, Plato’s task of translation was harder than that of any modern would-be translator of the texts, for he translated the spoken word of Socrates into the written word—not of Plato, but of the dialogues. The living word written in the soul was translated into a living written discourse that had and still has the power to fill us with the love of learning.

It is usually assumed that Plato’s disavowal of writing anything and the attribution of those works called his to “a Socrates made young and beautiful” is merely a gracious—or evasive—modesty. Perhaps we should begin to take him seriously.