BMCR 2000.06.16

Lyric Quotation in Plato

, Lyric Quotation in Plato. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999. 99. $21.95 (pb);.

Lyric Quotation in Plato is part of the “Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches” series, edited by Gregory Nagy, who supplies the Foreword. This slender volume numbers 99 pages, including the bibliography and index. Of the three chapters of substance (Chapter One is the Introduction, Chapter Five the Conclusion), two have been previously published as articles. The stated subject of the book is “Plato’s incorporation of lyric poetry into his own work” (p. 1), the goal being “an appreciation of the significance of these references to lyric poetry within their respective contexts” (p. 9). Demos (D.) devotes each of three chapters to a specific quotation of lyric by Plato; these chapters will be examined in turn.

Chapter Two: Simonides’ Ode to Scopas in the Protagoras

This is the only previously unpublished chapter in the book and perhaps the least satisfactory. It revolves around the interpretation of some lines from Simonides in the Protagoras, the most famous being quoted at Prot. 339b1-3, translated:

Hard is it on the one hand to become
A good man truly, hands and feet and mind
Foursquare, wrought without blame.1

Protagoras quotes these and other lines in order to demonstrate that Simonides contradicts himself later in the poem. This feat of criticism illustrates Protagoras’ contention that “the greatest part of man’s education is to be an acute commentator on poetry” (338e7-339a1: περὶ ἐπῶν δεινὸν εἶναι. Socrates replies with an obtuse ‘interpretation’ of his own, which scholars have tended to treat as a burlesque parody of sophistry or as Plato’s willingness to show Socrates in an unflattering light.2

D. begins by asserting that Socrates’ interpretation of the poem is “fundamentally sound” and that he manages to ascribe his own views to Simonides. If some of Socrates’ statements seem ludicrous, D. suggests, it is because we lack the knowledge which the intended audience possessed (p. 11). Socrates’ interpretation, which focuses largely on the difference between ‘being’ good and ‘becoming’ good, is met with approval by another sophist in attendance, Hippias, who immediately offers to present his own interpretation of the poem. D. accepts this as evidence that Socrates’ interpretation is one of several alternatives which would have been considered valid by Plato’s intended audience. With this consideration in mind, “Socrates’ interpretation should not be dismissed as an unsound display of literary criticism” (p. 33).

However, D. offers another possible scenario as well — that Socrates’ “seemingly unintelligible line of argumentation” (p. 17) is “intended to be understood as a feeble attempt on the philosopher’s part to resemble a sophist” (p. 19). The chapter ends with a weak attempt to resolve these two contradictory scenarios by asserting that Socrates makes the most of a bad situation, turning the interpretation of poetry into “the medium for promoting philosophical tenets” (p. 37).

D.’s argument would benefit from a wider consideration of other elements in the dialogue. For example, Protagoras, with his voice like Orpheus and ‘chorus’ of ξένοι (315ab), is depicted in language appropriate to his claim of being the heir to ‘closet sophists’ like Homer, Orpheus, and Simonides (316d-317c). It is important for Protagoras to make this claim; coming to Athens as a foreigner professing to teach Athenians about ‘the art of citizenship’ (319a4: τὴν πολιτικὴν τέχνην), he draws upon the universality and authority exemplified by the panhellenic poets. The ‘myth’ he relates (320d ff.) stakes a double claim on universality by asserting that all humans have a portion of civic virtue ( πολιτικὴ ἀρετή) in a genre appropriate for a poet. In light of this tactic by Protagoras, D.’s first conclusion becomes more attractive, for the existence of multiple valid interpretations of poetry erodes Protagoras’ claim to exclusive authority. When Socrates follows this up with a summary dismissal of poetic exegesis as a moral exercise (347c-348a), he sweeps away the very foundation of Protagoras’ claims to be taken seriously. Socrates, rather than attempting to rescue Simonides from the ravages of sophistry, as D. understands it, is more than happy to let Protagoras’ claim on the poets work to the mutual denigration of both parties.

Chapter Three: Callicles’ Quotation of Pindar in the Gorgias

In the Gorgias (484b3-c3),3 Callicles recites a snippet of Pindar (fr. 169a) as support for his ‘might makes right’ view of the νόμος vs. φύσις debate, a favorite topic among sophists. The lines (according to a scholion on Aristides) refer to Heracles’ theft of Geryon’s cattle. The problem is that the Gorgias manuscripts contain a variant reading of one of the lines, though Plato refers to it ‘correctly’ at Laws 715A. D. undertakes to defend the variant of this highly controversial text as a misquotation deliberately put in Callicles’ mouth by Plato (p. 40) rather than being due to a scribal error.

The generally preferred reading is δικαιῶν τὸ βιαιότατον (‘justifying the most violent deed’); the manuscripts, however, have Callicles saying βιαιῶν τὸ δικαιότατον. D. translates this variant as “enforcing (i.e. effecting by force) that which is most just,” taking ‘the most just’ to mean the “ideal scene”, or “state of affairs that is in itself right and just” in Callicles’ view (p. 64). D. does an admirable job of sorting through the troubled textual history of this line. The primary obstacle to accepting Callicles’ revision is the fact that the verb βιαιόω is nowhere else attested (p. 59), though D. points out that δικαιόω is rare as well (p. 51).

D. first attempts to reconstruct Pindar’s understanding of νόμος, called ‘king of all’ ( πάντων βασιλεύς) in the quotation, and the apparent justification for Heracles’ criminal action. She suggests that Pindar uses νόμος in the basic sense of the verb νέμω (‘allot’), and that nmow as ‘king of all’ refers to “the way in which things are (apportioned),” or “the existing state of affairs” (p. 55). She further describes Pindar’s νόμος“an overarching principle that is greater than gods and men” (pp. 55-6). This sounds suspiciously like the term μοῖρα in both definition and description, but one need not be convinced by D.’s reconstruction in order to accept that “Callicles transforms the meaning of Pindar’s poem to suit the particular philosophical stance that he himself is espousing in the Gorgias” (p. 58). This is nothing new; Herodotus had done the same thing, calling νόμος‘king of all’ within the context of his own ideas (as noted by D. on pp. 47-8). D. makes an attractive but not compelling argument that Callicles extends this transformation extends to the very wording of the poem itself.

Ch. 4: Stesichorus’ Palinode in the Phaedrus

D.’s stated purpose for this chapter, “to argue that Plato portrays Socrates in the Phaedrus as an inspired poet and lover who, unlike Lysias, can teach Phaedrus about the true nature of love by way of philosophy rather than through the medium of rhetoric” (p. 66), is hardly earth-shattering. And, while it is true that Socrates praises Stesichorus for composing the Palinode to Helen, D.’s view that Plato may be “indirectly lauding lyric poetry” (p. 67) and that Socrates “places himself in the ranks of lyric poets” (p. 77) is overly optimistic. A sampling of Plato’s other references to lyric poets (e.g., Rep. 3.408b) reveals that he is just as critical of lyric as any other genre of poetry.

Moreover, the pattern throughout the Phaedrus in which seeing is rendered superior to hearing undercuts any alliance of poet and philosopher. As D. notes (p. 70), Socrates is figuratively blind by having his head covered during his first speech. Socrates behaves exactly like a poet, with no need of eyes for inspiration streams in through the ears (235cd); he invokes the Muses (237a); he is ‘possessed’ by a divine presence (238cd). The product of all this inspired behavior is his dead-wrong first speech on Love. Socrates must make amends with a palinode; with his head now uncovered, he sees clearly, literally and figuratively (as D. notes on p. 70). This superiority of seeing foreshadows the seeing of the Forms by the soul in Socrates’ ensuing myth, both the vision of the Forms by the soul on the great carousel of Heaven, and the glimpses of the Form of Beauty caught on earth. D. sporadically notes the importance of seeing and hearing in the dialogue, as when declaring that “Socrates is superior to any poet … because he alone can see ‘the region’ ( τὸν τύρον) where ‘true being’ resides” (p. 84), but could tie these observations together more systematically. Also significant is Nightingale’s observation that the Phaedrus contrasts ‘things heard’ from ‘alien’ sources with an individual’s ‘authentic’ discourse which rises from within and is developed by philosophical inquiry.4 These observations undermine D.’s conclusion that “a relationship based on φιλοσοφία” is “the best possible relationship one can have with the external source of inspiration, the Muses” (p. 86). Plato depicts the ‘external source of inspiration’ as pouring into the passively accepting vessel of the poet (235cd), whereas the stream of Beauty pouring into the eyes stimulates something which the budding philosopher already has within (251ac). This contrast brings to mind Socrates’ description of himself as a ‘midwife’ in the Theaetetus; unlike the Muse, he does not ‘plant’ ideas, but rather coaxes them out of his patients, who have discovered them within themselves (150d).

It is also important to note that Socrates tailors his speeches for his audience, Phaedrus (as observed by Nehamas and Woodruff in their translation/commentary), and that this observation could be applied to the Protagoras as well, which D. dealt with in Chapter Two. Socrates in both dialogues does exactly what he describes the best orator doing in the Phaedrus (277bc): he discerns the soul of his audience, and tailors his speech accordingly. The Phaedrus‘ criticism of a written text, namely that it cannot defend itself and is open to multiple interpretation (275de), is also important for the Protagoras. The fact that poets and sophists are aligned so closely in all three dialogues under scrutiny deserves some comment as well. This lack of communication between chapters is a major weakness of D.’s book, for it reads more like a mini-collection of disparate articles rather than a sustained, cohesive investigation of an interesting and important topic.

Finally, D.’s analyses of the quotations at hand would further benefit from comparisons drawn from other dialogues — for example, Pindar is quoted in the context of another ‘might makes right’ argument besides the one found in the Gorgias, namely at Rep. 2.365b. There Glaucon (continuing Thrasymachus’ argument) makes a reference to ‘Pindar’s question,’ sprinkling in allusions to Simonides and Archilochus for good measure. Furthermore, additional lyric ‘quotations’ in Plato should be considered in order to do some justice to the title of this book. For example, there is the famous quotation from Pindar about Persephone (fr. 133 Snell, found at Meno 81bc). Moreover, one could go well beyond mere ‘quotation’ in examining Plato’s interactions with lyric poetry. An instructive example would be the consideration of Pindar fr. 150 Snell ( μαντεύω, μοῖσα, προφατεύσω δ’ ἐγώ) in light of Plato’s consistent use of the term μάντις (‘prophet’) in connection with poetic inspiration. Plato’s use of the term to help describe the passive, frenzied possession of the poet is clearly the polar opposite of what Pindar has in mind in fr. 150, where the Muse herself is to be the μάντις, not Pindar. One may further compare this fragment with Plato’s description of the roles of μάντις and προφήτης at Timaeus 71e-72b.5 Then there are even broader considerations on the level of genre; for example, Nightingale notes Plato’s appropriation of the genre of lyric love poetry in describing the vision of Beauty by the embodied soul in the Phaedrus.6 While such investigations may fall beyond the strict scope of ‘lyric quotation in Plato’, this very short treatment gives only a hint of the role of lyric, in quotation or otherwise, within Plato’s dialogues.7


1. D. relies on the Hamilton and Cairns edition of The Collected Works of Plato (corrected printing, 1963), rather than the more recent J.M. Cooper edition of Plato: Complete Works (1997), for English translations throughout this book. I have avoided quoting Greek at length due to the electronic format.

2. W.K.C. Guthrie refers to Socrates’ argument as “fallacious and unscrupulous” ( The Sophists, p. 265).

3. It is found at Gorgias 484b, not 481 as D. has it.

4. Andrea Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), ch. 4.

5. Gregory Nagy, in Pindar’s Homer and elsewhere, has drawn on the Timaeus passage for illumination of early usage of the terms μάντις and προφήτης, though I do not agree with his conclusions.

6. Nightingale, op. cit., pp. 158-161.

7. My thanks to Andrew Ford for his comments on a draft of this review.