Plato’s Criticisms of Socrates

Plato offers a number of subtle criticisms of Socrates throughout his corpus. Most of these consist in fairly minor challenges to how Socrates carries out his elenchtic project. The Gorgias, for instance, demonstrates Socrates’ lack of rhetorical success. The Protagoras and Parmenides might suggest issues with Socrates’ metaphysical and ethical theory. The Republic probably challenges Socrates’ anti-democratic political ideology. All of these criticisms ̶ if they are criticisms at all ̶ are subtle and gentle. But there is one dialogue that is much crueler and much more fundamental in this respect. Plato’s Cleitophon is a vicious attack on Socrates’ elenchtic project as a whole. It shows Plato wrestling with his mentor’s example and inadequacy while also overcoming these difficulties. It is in response to the criticisms laid out in the Cleitophon that Plato has crafted not only his philosophy but Philosophy per se. Understanding Plato’s criticisms of Socrates, and especially the Cleitophon, is therefore a metaphilosophical exercise as well as a historical one.

The Cleitophon begins with an insulted and betrayed Socrates confronting his student:

“Cleitophon, son of Aristonymos, we have been told recently that while having relations with Lysias, you have been criticising the time you’ve spent discussing with Socrates and fawning over your intercourse with Thrasymachus.”[i]

Don’t let the sexual language be lost on you. Socrates really is accusing Cleitophon of cheating on him. And Cleitophon doesn’t take this lightly: he spends the remainder of the dialogue breaking up with his old mentor, praising him for what he does well and criticising him for his shortcomings.

But Cleitophon is also doing something else. He is giving his own apology, much like that of Socrates. This is the reason for Socrates’ use of his own name in the third person and the first person plural in his accusation despite being alone with Cleitophon. He is charging Cleitophon not only with cheating on him as a teacher but with a crime against the state. Recall what Socrates claims about his own activities in his Apology:

“This is certainly what the god has commanded of me, and my service to the god is, I believe, the greatest blessing that can be bestowed upon a city, for I make it my business to do nothing but exhort the young and old amongst you to care for the optimal state of your soul as much as or more than your body or wealth.”[ii]

He repeats this sentiment later on:

“Men of Athens, I am certainly not making a defense of my own accord, which could be thought: I am making a defense on yours. By condemning me, you are mistreating a gift from the god. It is this error that I want to prevent . . . For I believe that the god attached me to the city for some purpose, I will never fail to provoke and inspire you, to persuade and challenge each and every one of you in whose presence I find myself at any time and in any place.”[iii]

The idea is simple: by denying Socrates, Cleitophon is likewise denying his service to the city. And here there are a few autobiographical details to mention that count against Cleitophon. We of course don’t know whether Cleitophon really ever followed Socrates. But we do know that he was an influential politician during the political tumult at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He was an ally of Anytus, first in favour of the oligarchic rule of four hundred but later against this, leading to Aristophanes’ description of him as an opportunist, “more clever than wise.”[iv]  This all culminates in Cleitophon’s role in the Republic as a thoroughgoing normative relativist. None of this would endear him to much of Plato’s democratic or philosophical audience. Yet Cleitophon attempts to defend himself.

He begins by denying the charges. He says that he did criticise Socrates for some things, but he also praised him. He wants to avoid hurting Socrates, who is pretending not to feel hurt, by telling him himself what he said in order to improve his now former mentor. His subsequent speech can then be broken into two parts. The first half praises Socrates and the second half criticises him. The structure is the same structure employed consistently by Socrates in his hortatory speeches, and the overall themes are thoroughly Socratic despite concluding in a very anti-Socratic manner.

For my purposes here, the first half of the speech is uninteresting. It details Socrates’ commitment to exhorting others to care about justice and the state of their soul. But for Cleitophon, this isn’t good enough. He relays to Socrates questions he asked of Socrates’ other followers and of Socrates himself:

“Men of highest esteem, I ask: what should we think about Socrates’ exhorting us to virtue? Should we think that there is nothing else than this exhortation and that it is impossible to pursue the matter further and understand it fully? Should this be our life-long purpose, simply to exhort men who have not been exhorted so that they themselves can exhort others? We may agree that this is what we should do, should we also ask Socrates and each other what comes next? How do we say we should begin to learn about justice?”[v]

The answers that Cleitophon received to this question were unsatisfactory, both from Socrates’ followers and from Socrates himself. Socrates, as it happens, gave Cleitophon the answer that Polemarchus will give him in the Republic, possibly suggesting their closer connection. But that answer is there and here found to be inadequate for the same reason, and it says nothing in the Cleitophon itself that Socrates knows what justice really is, especially since we do not know whether what Socrates says in the Republic is what the real Socrates believed (and likewise what he says in the Cleitophon).

Cleitophon says that he endured this ultimate vacuity “for quite some time,” and was thereafter forced to one of two conclusions: either Socrates is capable of praising justice without knowing what justice is, or he knows justice but does not wish to share his knowledge of it. It is here that most commentators jump off the train. The usual response is that Plato cannot be criticising Socrates, so there must be an implicit answer to Cleitophon in the dialogue. Usually that answer consists in Socrates embodying justice by exhorting others to justice. Justice, on this view, just consists in making others care about justice. Another response is to suggest that the Cleitophon is unfinished, with Plato intending Socrates to answer Cleitophon’s criticism. And another further is to deny that Plato was the author of the Cleitophon at all. All of these responses are inadequate. Committing to justice being no more than exhorting others to justice is obviously inadequate and inconsistent with Plato’s life and corpus. The dialogue concludes naturally given how it began. A defense of this sort need not beg a response, after all, just as Socrates’ defense does not receive a response in the Apology. And finally, the stylistic and thematic evidence strongly suggests that Plato was the author of the dialogue, even if it seems odd for him to be criticising his mentor. We need a better reason to deny authorship than that our cherished view of a philosopher is inconsistent with the evidence of his writings. On those grounds, Lakatos must not have been a spy who destroyed the careers of many of his peers and Frege must not have written about Jewish conspiracies.

So we must conclude that the Cleitophon is an authentic criticism of Socrates by Plato. But Plato’s criticism is more than just what Cleitophon says. Here the sexual language returns. One does not break up with a person after praising him so greatly. One breaks up with someone because one has found another who provides one with what was missing in the preceding relationship. And with Cleitophon, he found that in Thrasymachus. For Plato’s audience, this is a dangerous and detestable eventuality. Most Athenians do not end up in Thrasymachus’s influence, but Socrates’ exhortation to virtue and lack of follow-through drove Cleitophon there.

Cleitophon offers Socrates a way to change that, a way to get Cleitophon back: “If you were willing to refrain from exhorting me, but instead, willing to do what follows exhortation . . . do that now.”[vi] Socrates can say nothing. And hence Socrates is not merely an impediment to virtue, as Cleitophon concludes: He is actively harmful to it. Ultimately, Cleitophon gets his revenge on Socrates through his political allies: he was executed for corrupting the youth just like he corrupted him. Plato must have believed this to be a great evil, and Socrates was not blameless in this. He did not take care to keep the end in mind when he conversed, and that is something that philosophy must do. Philosophy must take care to identify what precisely virtue is while it inspires concern in others for it.


Works Cited:

[i] Plato, Cleitophon, 406a; All translations are my own

[ii] Plato, Apology, 30a-b

[iii] Plato, Apology, 30d-e

[iv] Debra Nails, The People of Plato, 285

[v] Plato, Cleitophon, 408d-e

[vi] Plato, Cleitophon, 410d-e

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.