BMCR 2011.03.77

Apologizing for Socrates: How Plato and Xenophon Created Our Socrates

, Apologizing for Socrates: How Plato and Xenophon Created Our Socrates. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 280. ISBN 9780739132449. $75.00.

Dr Danzig’s exciting, scholarly and partly convincing book centres on the strategies and tactics used by Xenophon and Plato in defence of Socrates and also of his friends. Xenophon and Plato in his view were answering not just charges brought at Socrates’ trial but also accusations made subsequently. The book anchors such controversies in the fourth century BCE rather than in the history of the fifth. Danzig seeks to go beyond the categories of literature and philosophy into the realm of political writing. He interprets from this point of view several works and passages in Xenophon and Plato and indeed other authors too. He scrutinises the two Apologies, the two Symposia, Lysis, Crito, Euthyphro and Oeconomicus. Two chapters study the theme of Love, arguing that the word διαθερεῖν, used in the indictment of Socrates, referred not so much to the corruption of Socrates’ companions’ general morality as to Socrates’ actual sexual seduction of young men.

The political point seems most convincing in the case of the Crito. Crito there argues in favour of Socrates’ escape that if he stays to die people will accuse him and friends of unmanly failure in a crisis. This is surely a vaticinium post eventum, foolish to offer if it were not fulfilled before Crito was written. Danzig’s acute summary (pp. 36-9) of Plato’s Apology points similarly to later controversy rather than to an actual courtroom defence. He plays down – perhaps rightly – the role of dramatic plausibility or of the piquant extreme case in which Socrates lays down his life for justice.

The Euthyphro Danzig reads as defending Socrates by discrediting his accuser Meletus. At the dialogue’s opening Meletus and Euthyphro are both prosecuting charges of impiety. Socrates implies or exposes the ignorance of each. His dismay at Euthyphro’s disrespect for his father tends to clear Socrates of the charge of alienating young men from their parents. Euthyphro compares himself to Socrates as a prophet misunderstood. He resembles a false image of Socrates, but is (in his ignorance) a true image of Meletus. Despite some skating on thin ice, this chapter seems likely to be near the truth.

The Oeconomicus Danzig in his conclusion intriguingly calls a ‘Xenophontic apology for Socrates and a Socratic apology for Xenophon’ (p. 263); the description is well supported with observations on Socratic elements in the dialogue.

The heart of the book concerns Love and seduction, and the meaning of διαθερεῖν, ‘corrupt’: Danzig prepares his readers for his interpretations of Plato and Xenophon with evidence from other authors. Not all of this is germane. He offers proof that the word could mean ‘seduce [sexually]’, but the evidence that it meant this in Socrates’ case, if not in court then in street whispers and innuendoes, is thin. It consists largely of suspicion about what there was in it for Socrates when he ‘taught’—clearly not money. Danzig adduces (155f.) the evidence of Phaedo’s Zopyrus—but that points to womanising, not homosexuality; he cites (154-6) Aristophanes’ Clouds – but that play deals not at all with Socrates’ own sexual mores, only with his bad effect on the characters of his young admirers. Not incidentally, Socrates causes Pheidippides’ alienation from his father. Also concerned with the effect he had on others’ morality, rather than his own, is the episode of Critobulus, at Mem. 4.23ff. Danzig (156ff.) brings ‘fairly direct’ evidence from Xenophon, which speaks of alienation of young men’s affections and obedience from their parents. He says this brings us ‘very close to the charge of fornication’; readers may differ. The episode of the Syracusan entertainer (X. Smp. 4.52ff.) shows Socrates affecting not to know the ambiguity of ‘corrupt’, thus, according to Danzig (157), defending Socrates against a charge of corrupting the young; it is intelligible as a mere example of Socratic wit and irony. So also is the way Socrates rejects Alcibiades’ advances in Plato’s Symposium.

That a charge of actual seduction of young men was ‘in the air’ (Danzig 159) is not proved by all this, even taken cumulatively. The incentive we are offered to look for such defences elsewhere is too weak for comfort. In an isolated episode Xenophon’s Charmides says he saw Socrates touching heads and shoulders with the handsome Critobulus over a book. This smacks of accidental contact, and Socrates’ reply of joking exaggeration – the whole perhaps a trivial piece of banter. The obscurity of one difficult sentence (Xenophon Mem. 1. 3 .14) Danzig explains (163f.) as suggesting in its ambiguity that in Xenophon’s view Socrates was not always as celibate (homosexually) as he pretended. The passage however, warns against falling in love, not against sex in itself. That is why Xenophon and Critobulus are advised to flee and to take a year away respectively. οὕτω δή thus brings a natural consequence of the preceding sentence (omitting the often inserted comma after χρῆναι). I find no genuine ambiguity here.

Danzig points out that the prosecution and their supporters would have to walk a tightrope between arousing envy and stirring up disapproval of Socrates’ supposed sexual success. Socrates’ defenders would have the reverse problem: would approval or scorn result? The natural consequence of this would have been much tiptoeing round the subject – which is what Danzig claims to detect.

Some caveats need to be entered. In leaving behind the categories of literature and philosophy Danzig nowhere says what kind of literature the Socratic writings belong to. Not only Xenophon’s but also Plato’s may go back in their different ways to the ancient snd widespread genre of wisdom literature, first attested in the 3rd Millennium BCE. A summary history of the genre may be found in the Introduction to M.L. West’s edition of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Oxford 1978, 3-25). Its persistence in Greek prose down to the 4th century BCE has been documented by V. J. Gray The Framing of Socrates (Hermes Einzelschriften 79, Stuttgart 1998, 158ff.). This literature purported to record instructions on behaviour and techniques from an older and more experienced person to someone young or inexperienced. Conversations are rare: normally there is a single addressee who usually does not reply. Justice is a common theme, occasionally in the context or the mouth of a victim of injustice. (One thinks of the Apologies, of Crito, or even of the Republic.) Farming (cf. Oeconomicus) is a frequent topic. Homoerotic love would have been a natural subject for instruction and advice in certain Athenian circles. Both moral and technical advice are often platitudinous. The framing narrative is ‘more or less fictitious’ (West). Hesiod, like some other poets, couches some of his argument in mythic form, as did Plato and (much less often) Xenophon. Gray (op. cit. 184) thinks the comparison with Plato invalid. Plato, however, was quite capable of manipulating a genre, even of turning one upside down (cf. Stokes in Gower-Stokes edd., Socratic questions (London. Routledge, 1992), 60f.). Plato’s Socrates accordingly is a wise man – but his wisdom is peculiar. He gives no direct instruction. Contrary to normal practice in the genre (Gray op.cit. 159), Socrates goes for depth rather than breadth. Sages in the literature do not use chains of questions; both Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socrates’ do, perhaps because Socrates did in fact.

The Socratics, writing in or against such a tradition, argue more powerfully than their predecessors, but less tightly than a modern philosopher would. In my view much of their argument is dialectical, that is to say ad hominem. Danzig does not deny this, but attributes some of what looks like weak philosophy or even weak dialectic to the exigencies of political advocacy. In some cases (notably Crito) I suspect he is right at least some of the time. But dialectic was important to the Academy – witness Aristotle’s Topics. The combination of dialectic and advocacy needs accounting for. In such accounting the category of wisdom literature may help. One-to-one speech was regular in the wisdom Literature as in Plato’s dialogues. Audiences will not have expected deductive rigour such as Eleatics and mathematicians were attempting at the time. It remains a question how much lack of rigour is to be explained by the demands of advocacy and how much by the lax requirements of the literary genre Plato and Xenophon manipulate.

Overall, the book contains many subtle analyses which readers should examine and judge for themselves. It is perhaps a pity that the book lacks a concluding chapter to pull threads together. Such a conclusion might have reminded readers that Plato and Xenophon wrote not as philosophers or as biographers but as advocates – a conclusion I should find easy to accept. Another rather regrettable omission is an index of passages discussed. But the book should be urgent reading for all serious students of Socrates.