BMCR 2005.04.01

Plato’s Cleitophon: On Socrates and the Modern Mind. Applications of Political Theory series. Edited and translated, with an Interpretive Essay

, Plato's Cleitophon : on Socrates and the modern mind. Applications of political theory. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004. 87 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0739108174. $21.95 (pb).

But, it would be shameful indeed, you being so eager to benefit me, not to submit. For it is clear that in learning in which ways I am good and in which ways bad, I will practice and pursue the former, and flee the latter with all my might.1

Plato’s Cleitophon is a collection of four previously published studies by authors who accept the authenticity of the dialogue on the basis of wide-ranging and serious examinations of its philosophical content. The book is presented by its editor, Mark Kremer, in two sections. Part I includes the editor’s Introduction, Translation,2 and a revised Interpretive Essay (1-7, 11-15, 17-39); Part II reprints three essays by David Roochnik (43-58), Clifford Orwin (59-70), and Jan Blits (71-85). The purpose of the book is “to restore the Cleitophon to its rightful place in the Platonic corpus” (ix).

For such a short and often neglected dialogue, Plato’s Cleitophon has generated an amount of controversy seemingly disproportionate to its length. Since its publication in 1513, but especially in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the question of the dialogue’s status has vexed academics. At one time or another, the Cleitophon has been rejected as un-platonic, inauthentic, spurious, dubious, philologically unsound, philosophically thin, and nothing but a “parody and caricature of the Platonic manner”; or, if admittedly by the hand of Plato, it has been censured as fragmentary, incomplete, unfinished, or unpolished.3

Interest in what had become known as the “riddle” of the Cleitophon waned after 1933 — but not because the riddle had been solved. A renaissance of interest in the Cleitophon has surfaced more recently, in part due to the publication of a critical edition of the Greek text with facing translation, introduction, and exhaustive commentary by Slings.4 (This work prompted a thorough rehearsal of the dialogue’s receptive history in light of Platonic scholarship and interpretation in the last century.5)

Kremer’s book reminds us that Slings was not alone in his effort to rehabilitate and polish the tarnished reputation of the Cleitophon. At the time of their first publication, the essays by Orwin, Roochnik, and Blits represented a “new phase” in its reception, for their work inaugurated the first serious analyses and interpretations of this neglected dialogue since the nineteenth century.6 Contrary to prevailing assessments, all three authors argue that, in terms of literary style and philosophic content, the Cleitophon deserves its place in the Platonic corpus as an authentic work, an honor unanimously awarded to it in antiquity (ix, 45, 59).

Orwin’s essay7 opens with emphasis upon the need to interpret the Cleitophon in relation to the Republic, since the former “depicts the ‘missing’ confrontation” implied but absent from the latter (59). Perhaps exaggerating for the sake of making his point (one for which Roochnik takes him to task: 47-48), Orwin interprets the structure of the Cleitophon as a legal defense with Socrates as prosecutor, Cleitophon as defendant — a “counter- Apology” wherein a citizen-politician of Athens is charged with neglecting philosophy and virtue, in favor of rhetoric (61).

In his defense, Cleitophon turns the tables on his accuser (not unlike Socrates in his Apology) by pleading that it is not his unwillingness to learn, but Socrates’ unwillingness to teach virtue which has prompted him to blame Socrates and to praise Thrasymachus. In declaring the Socratic logoi he prefers (e.g., that virtue is a matter of education and justice is the art which produces virtue in the soul) as opposed to those he finds unsatisfying (e.g., exhortations to pursue virtue without clear definitions of what it is or sufficient explanations of how to do so), Cleitophon ultimately attributes his perplexity to Socrates: he cannot be blamed for neglecting virtue, if Socrates refuses to explain justice in a manner that enables him to use it as an art to procure virtue (64-65). From the perspective of Cleitophon, by refusing to educate, Socrates actually obstructs the path to virtue and happiness (410e7-9).

The failure of Socratic justice to conform to the model of a productive art8 would seem to acquit Cleitophon of the charge implicit in Socrates’ opening statement. His acquittal, however, is proof of neither Socrates’ guilt nor Cleitophon’s innocence. Orwin concludes in a key reflection that Cleitophon — as opposed to the companion of Socrates who is reputedly “most accomplished” at speaking (409d5-7) — fails to raise the question “of the relation of justice to the comprehensive human good” (68, 70n10; cf. Apology 38a). In the absence of this question — and the inquiry into the limits of the desire for justice it can stimulate — the Cleitophon is as far from philosophy9 as Cleitophon is from the awareness that the Socratic life is inseparable from protreptic and that the pursuit of wisdom is inseparable from moderation. Cleitophon’s willingness to abandon Socrates for Thrasymachus in order to conquer his aporia and satisfy his craving for justice is, according to Orwin, both an indictment of Cleitophon’s character and a vindication of Socrates’ silence.

Blits’ essay10 interprets Socrates’ arousal and frustration of Cleitophon’s desire for virtue and an art of justice as “itself an act of justice” (71; cf. Apology 30e-31a and Meno 80a-b). Cleitophon praises Socratic logoi (e.g., his god-like condemnation of ‘pious’ gentlemen who neglect the education of their own sons and devote “all their seriousness to the acquisition of wealth”: 72-74; or his rebuke of those who cherish the body but neglect the soul: 74-77) because they exhort human beings to attain the knowledge of how to make use of or rule over something justly. Cleitophon agrees that knowing is the only prerequisite for doing. The distinction between knowers and non-knowers, undeniably a Socratic distinction, is for Cleitophon the key to living a happy life and the only source of legitimate power in political affairs; put simply, “the political art is ultimately identical to wisdom, and the just man to the statesman. Justice in the city is identical to justice in the soul” (75, 81-82; cf. Republic 441c4-443b7, 473c11-e1). Thus, art or techne must be understood as “the leading theme” of the dialogue (75).11

When Socrates refuses to provide the knowledge his interlocutor so desires, Cleitophon cannot help blaming him (77-79). But as Blits insightfully notes, the fatigue he evinces in doing so is really a sign of his lack of eros, i.e., a sign that reveals a fundamental flaw in his character, or a defect of his nature, prohibiting him from engaging in a genuine pursuit of wisdom (80-83).12 Again, unlike the accomplished companion of Socrates (409e3-11), Cleitophon fails to notice the undeniably Socratic distinction between political and trans-political justice, civic as opposed to true friendship (79-80). With his heart hardened to such subtleties, Cleitophon demands that Socrates teach what he knows, for Cleitophon is certain that “virtue is teachable and that Socrates knows what it is.” (81) And yet it is really Socrates who is open to learning — even from Cleitophon, if he has something good to teach (72; cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia I 6.14). Otherwise, as Socrates ironically says in his ‘last words’ of the dialogue, he will at least benefit by learning from what — or whom — he must flee.13

Roochnik’s essay14 begins with a meticulous reconstruction of the criticism the dialogue has endured since the sixteenth century, beginning with the textual confusion surrounding its 1513 publication. The modern arguments for spuriousness are then rehearsed, as Roochnik parses the categories under which such arguments de-Platonize, deconstruct, discard, or merely disregard the Cleitophon. Each position, however, according to Roochnik, attempts to dissolve the riddle of the dialogue “by reference to some external, i.e., non-textual and non-philosophical, explanation” (47). As a transition to his own argument and interpretation, Roochnik notes that only Orwin proposes a real solution to the riddle, although he disagrees with Orwin’s (and later Blits’) conclusion that Socrates is unwilling — as opposed to unable — to share his knowledge of justice due to some deficiency in Cleitophon himself (47-49).

In the second part of his essay Roochnik contends that the riddle of Socrates’ silence is “philosophically explicable” in terms of the near silence of Cleitophon in the Republic. Observing the peculiar “mirroring relation” (53) of the two dialogues, he argues, yields both “the clue to the riddle” of the Cleitophon and insight into the rivalry between Socrates and Thrasymachus (49). On the basis of Cleitophon’s cameo in one of Plato’s longest dialogues, Roochnik redefines Thrasymachus as a “moderate relativist” who cannot break free of his reliance on technical knowledge as an objective standard, though shamelessly subscribing to a doctrine of “radical conventionalism” with respect to justice. The contradiction inherent in this sophistical stance is (to his credit) discerned by Cleitophon, who tries to assist Thrasymachus by proposing that he articulate his position in terms of an extreme or “radical relativism” which would have saved it — and the blushing Thrasymachus — from the embarrassment of refutation by Socratic elenchus (50-52; cf. Republic 339e5-341a4).15

But where Thrasymachus balks, Cleitophon boldly proceeds. Unable — or perhaps simply unwilling — to distinguish between Socratic rhetoric and Thrasymachean sophistry, Cleitophon claims in the dialogue named after him that he is forced (by Socrates’ refusal to teach him what justice is) to embrace a radical relativism which in Roochnik’s view flatly denies “the goodness of philosophical discourse” and “the possibility of attaining knowledge” through it (53).16 As intolerable as Cleitophon’s aporia may be, Socrates cannot answer him or even respond because philosophy (defined here as zetetic skepticism) and radical relativism (a denial of absolute truth) have no meaningful basis on which to converse. Cleitophon’s silent presence in the rest of the Republic, therefore, is a reminder that the serious position he formulated — one never refuted by Socrates — has not been ‘silenced’ by the end of that dialogue; whereas Socrates’ inscrutable silence in the Cleitophon proves philosophically significant, not because it betrays a deficiency in Cleitophon’s character, but because of what it quietly says about Socratic philosophy.

Kremer, following in the footsteps of his contributors, sought in his original essay17 to provide a “thematic and comprehensive account” of this radical shift by Cleitophon from one extreme to the other — i.e., from a strict rationalism, to a hatred of reason; from a firm belief in justice as a universal art of pure reason, capable of establishing peace and harmony for human beings, to justice as will-to-power and the advantage of the stronger, or “legal positivism”.18 Such an account was intended to “open a window on the meaning of the Socratic life” through an examination of the limitations evident in Cleitophon’s conception of techne and justice,19 thereby arguing for the dialogue’s authenticity as well by showing its seriousness as a work of Platonic political philosophy.20 But in his revision of that original essay here, Kremer wants to go beyond the mere restoration of the dialogue as an authentic work; for he proposes to read the Cleitophon in light of provocative questions — and answers — about its relevance to our own times.

Kremer announces (in his Preface and Introduction) that he hopes to use the Socrates of the Cleitophon as a philosophical foil against the “dogmatic” Socrates of Nietzsche, in order to discover “a fresh Plato” (ix), and to throw new light on the tendency of “the modern mind” toward the extremes of technocratic utopianism, with its “sterile rationality” (31) and faith in science, on one hand, and legal positivism, on the other.21 According to this new leitmotif, the non-dogmatic understanding of philosophy embedded in Socrates’ silence and the aporetic character of the dialogue disclose the Platonic portrait of “a Socrates worthy of being Nietzsche’s [and modernity’s] antagonist and even critic” (ix).

Plato’s anticipatory critique of modernity, Kremer argues, is enacted in the dramatic (and philosophic) silence with which Socrates confronts the incorrigibly modern demands of someone intent on acquiring knowledge strictly as a means to rule. The very silence which fosters the “anti-Socratic appearance of the dialogue” and has puzzled scholars for so long is now reinterpreted as the only suitable Socratic response to the revolutionary, yet self-forgetting hopes of the Enlightenment which, when frustrated, threaten to turn into post-modern despair (2-3, 26-27). By his silence, then, Socrates defends philosophy as contemplative insight against the inevitable shipwreck of enlightened thoughts on nihilistic relativism and misology, by setting Socratic “moderation” over against the “madness” that characterizes a soul caught between an extreme longing for effectual philosophy united with techne and the utter rejection of philosophy itself (5, 32-34).

To put this another way, and in terms more appropriate to antiquity, Cleitophon has his heart set upon an empire of reason as the ultimate solution to the perennial problem of political instability and strife, but he lacks the natural virtue and Machiavellian prudence of a Cyrus to acquire it (cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia IV.1.2-5 and Cyropaideia I.1.3). Socrates’ silence, from Cleitophon’s point of view at least, denies him the knowledge he needs to satisfy his ambition and drives him into the desperate embrace of a tyranny authored by the sophistical ‘arms’ of a Gorgias or Callicles.

A thorough critique of the effectiveness (or appropriateness) of the wide-sweeping claims which Kremer makes about the relevance of the Cleitophon to “the modern mind” or to Nietzsche’s criticism of Plato’s Socrates is beyond the scope of a review. It must suffice to say that arguments about any Platonic dialogue which rely as heavily as Kremer does on divining the thoughts, intentions, and longings behind an interlocutor’s words (or, in Socrates’ case, the reason for the lack thereof) are bound to be held suspect by those not already inclined to agree —particularly when the dialogue in question is closer to a monologue; not to mention the fact that Kremer’s urgent concern with Nietzsche and his modern successors appears added as an afterthought22 to his otherwise sound reading of the dialogue.23 (In this respect, the book as a whole just scratches the surface of issues implied in its subtitle.)

Still, whatever disputes arise over the claim that the dialogue reveals Plato’s anticipations of modernity (and post-modernity) and is thus relevant to understanding the modern mind — to say nothing of the prospects for discovering a Socratic remedy to the enlightened hopes which ail us today (3-4, 17-19, 27, 34-35, 36n11, 50-53, 82-83) — should serve to underscore the claim of all four contributors that the Cleitophon is indeed a Platonic dialogue worthy of our attention and serious study.

The usefulness of this book and importance of its contributors’ arguments, which probe deeply into the philosophical content of the dialogue and bring to the surface important Socratic (and Platonic) questions and themes, will be self-evident to anyone interested in the philosophic core and ironic character of the Socratic life, or the concepts of art and justice in Platonic dialogues. By making these essays readily accessible again, Kremer supplies undergraduate students of political theory and philosophy with a good introduction to the dialogue and a brief survey of its complicated reception history. It also acquaints (or reacquaints) graduate students and scholars working on the Cleitophon and/or the Republic with interpretations that explore the depths of meaning inherent in even the shortest of Plato’s dialogues.

Unfortunately, there are reservations to this recommendation. The book does lack a unified Bibliography or a common Index, and it suffers from more than a few typographical errors, ranging from the merely irritating,24 to the disappointing25 and confusing.26 Moreover, there is the problem posed by the fact that, in each essay (including Kremer’s own), direct quotations from the text do not correspond to the translation which is offered here. More importantly — and rather inexplicably — there is the failure of the editor to supplement (say, in brackets) or otherwise revise the frequent (and important) references of each essay to the others according to their present pagination. As a consequence, a book meant to facilitate the study of some of the best recent scholarship on the Cleitophon, by making that scholarship available under a single cover, nonetheless compels careful readers to search out the original essays in order to track down references made by each author to the work of the others.27


1. Socrates’ enigmatic ‘last words’ at the beginning of the Cleitophon (406e-407a).

2. What is of most value in this book, as Kremer admits in his “Note on Translation” (9), is not his new translation of the dialogue; cf. Clifford Orwin’s translation, published in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, edited by Thomas Pangle (Cornell University Press, 1987).

3. See F. E. D. Schleiermacher, Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato (1836) 347; G. M. A. Grube, “The Cleitophon of Plato”, Classical Philology 26 (1931) 302. Scholars denouncing it as inauthentic (either by argument or exclusion) include Wilamowitz, Schleiermacher, Ast, Zellar, Heidel, Jowett, Apelt, Hamilton, and Cairns; those who accept it as genuine, but flawed, include Bekker, Yxem, Grote, Grube, Shorey, and Friedlander.

4. Plato: Clitophon, edited by Simon R. Slings (CUP, 1999). This work is a revision of Slings’ privately published dissertation, A Commentary on the Platonic Clitophon (Amsterdam, 1981). See BMCR 2001.11.06. A fine line-by-line commentary for students of Greek language and philosophy has also been published: Jacques A. Bailly, Plato’s Euthyphro & Clitophon (Focus Publishing, 2003). See BMCR 2004.05.12.

5. Kyriacos Demetriou, “Review Article — Reconsidering the Platonic Cleitophon“, Polis 17/1 & 2 (2000): 133-160. See also, the review by Christopher Rowe, in his “Book Notes: Plato and Socrates”, Phronesis 45/2 (2000): 159-163.

6. Demetriou (2000), Section IV.

7. Originally published as “The Case against Socrates: Plato’s Cleitophon“, Canadian Journal of Political Science 15/4 (1982): 741-753; reprinted under the title, “On the Cleitophon“, in Pangle (1987): 117-131. This later version, revised in response to the essays of Roochnik and Blits, is the one reprinted here (cf. 70n1), although this is not clearly indicated by the editor.

8. Like medicine, as opposed to gymnastics — “the road not taken in the dialogue” (67, 37n13, 84n14).

9. Cleitophon is one of the very few Platonic dialogues never to mention philosophy (68, 82).

10. Originally published as “Socratic Teaching and Justice: Plato’s Clitophon“, Interpretation 13/1 (1985): 321-333.

11. The word techne“appears with more frequency in the Cleitophon than in any other dialogue” (15n5).

12. One of the more striking observations by Blits is that the rational technocratic regime envisioned and desired by Cleitophon “foreshadows the modern or contemporary view of scientific education.” (82)

13. (See the quotation at the head of this review.) The willful failure of Socrates to try to ‘teach’ Cleitophon — on account of “the defects of his nature” (cf. Meno, in Plato’s Meno and Xenophon’s Anabasis) — is central to the discussion of the dialogue by Christopher Bruell, in his On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999): 189-199. Bruell favorably compares Cleitophon with Meno in the sense that Cleitophon, unlike Meno, is not “lacking in self awareness” (Bruell [1999] 199). Cleitophon’s only use of the word “nature” — in a dialogue overflowing with references to techne — bears this out; for in his final request Cleitophon begs Socrates to aid him in understanding the kind of soul he has “by nature” and the kind of “therapeutic treatment” it needs (410c8-d9). Bruell and Orwin are most attentive to the paradoxical implications of the suggestion that “among the things which the soul must learn [or acquire knowledge of how] to use is (a) soul (408a5)” (Bruell [1999] 195).

14. Originally published as “The Riddle of the Cleitophon“, Ancient Philosophy 4/2 (1984): 132-145.

15. See Leo Strauss, The City and Man (University of Chicago Press, 1964/1978) 78.

16. Without resorting to the “elegant remedy” which explains away the uneasiness occasioned by the end of the dialogue by placing the Cleitophon before the Republic, Bruell speaks quietly of the possibility that Cleitophon’s radical relativism — i.e., “the doubt underlying his doubt about Socrates” — is a condition which in fact preceded Cleitophon’s association with Thrasymachus; see Bruell (1999) 193 and 196.

17. Originally published as Kremer, “Socratic Philosophy and the Cleitophon“, The Review of Politics 62/3 (2000): 479-502. In the present revision, only Sections I and VI are significantly expanded.

18. For the origins of this argument about Cleitophon’s “legal positivism”, see Strauss (1964/1978) 76. Kremer defines legal positivism as a doctrine of arbitrary “conformism” and “irrational commitment” to the law as justice — “without recourse” to god, nature, or reason (17-18, 26-27).

19. All four of the contributors are more or less in agreement that the limitations of Cleitophon’s character are the key to unlocking the “riddle” of Socrates’ silence, as well as the “distortion” of Socratic arguments apparent in Cleitophon’s purportedly direct quotation or paraphrase of them.

20. Kremer (2000) 479-481.

21. Kremer claims that the extreme of legal positivism is “the most popularly held opinion today, as it was in the late stages of Athenian democracy” (27). That it is also “the most obvious, the most natural, thesis regarding justice” is an argument which may be traced back to the conflation of Thrasymachus’ view of justice in the Republic with the clarification of that view proposed by Cleitophon — namely, that “the just is identical with the lawful or legal, or with what the customs or laws of the city prescribe” (338d5-e6). Kremer’s debt here to Strauss is again left unpaid: see Strauss (1964/1978) 75-76.

22. This book is published in a series devoted to “Applications of Political Theory”. In its original form the essay made only one or two passing references to modernity: see Kremer (2000) 490n17 and 499n27. The present revision is peppered with modern touchstones, including references to Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Marx, nihilism, post-modernism, Marxists, Stalinists, and even “liberals” — all of which occur in the new Preface and Introduction, in addition to the completely new or reworked sections of the essay (see pp. ix, 3, 4, 5, 17, 18, 19, and 34).

23. As a means to understanding the dialogue itself (rather than its contemporary relevance), readers are likely to find Kremer’s detailed discussions of the dialogue much more helpful and persuasive, such as Cleitophon’s distortion of the recognizable Socratic stance that injustice is involuntary, harmony is health, and discord is sickness; the limitations of justice abstractly conceived as a purely rational and practical “Promethean” art; the purpose of Plato’s allusions to Aeschylean tragedy and Aristophanic comedy as well as poetry’s representation of the fundamental spiritedness of love of one’s own and the civic life of a polis; and a satisfying account of Cleitophon’s overly-optimistic comparison of Socrates (407b) to the Apollonian deus ex machina of Greek tragedy. On this last point: Although there are no direct references to the text of Nietzsche in Kremer’s revised essay, it seems fair for him to identify the collapse of Cleitophon’s initial optimism in and subsequent ire with his Promethean Socrates (“a false god”), with Nietzsche’s disdainful criticism of “the transcendental justice of Aeschylus [which] is degraded to the superficial and insolent principle of ‘poetic justice’ with its customary deus ex machina” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, translated by W. Kaufmann [Vintage, 1967] 91).

24. Distortions of line spacing and the use of the Greek font in Blits’ essay.

25. Slings name is misspelled — and his book mentioned without citation — the very first time it appears (ix). Some typos in the earlier versions of the essays have been corrected, while others persist and new ones are introduced: e.g., “47e” (62) should have been changed to “407a”; “produce” (67) should read “product”; “tender” (70n4) should read “render”; and “407a-c” (72, section title) should be “407a-e”.

26. “Brunet” (44) is presumably “Burnet”; on at least three occasions the name of the dialogue lacks italics and thus may be confused with the interlocutor (49, sixth line from bottom; 59, end of second paragraph; 83, penultimate sentence; see also, 82); “appears to be” (20) should read “appears not to be”; and “justice” should be “injustice” (62, penultimate sentence of the first full paragraph).

27. Finally, let librarians be warned that (at least in the copy sent to this reviewer) the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on the reverse of the title page is completely wrong, giving the full catalog information for a different book.