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Eros, Wisdom and Silence of Plato (Part I)

Eros, Wisdom And Silence Of Plato (Part I)

What, if anything, does Socrates know about Eros?

The Platonic Socrates is renowned for proclaiming his ignorance. His repu­tation owes primarily to several statements that he makes in Plato’s Apology of Socrates. For example, he denies that he is a clever speaker (17a-b). He argues that his enemies have said “nothing true” (ούδέυ άληθές 18b6) in their snide accounts of him, one of which is that he is a “wise man” (σοφος άνήρ, 18b7). He disclaims any share of wisdom about “the things under the earth and in the heavens” (19b-d). He insists that he has no knowledge of the virtue of the human being and the citizen (20b-c). He remembers that he was profoundly shocked when the priestess at Delphi, the Pythia, pronounced him the wisest man, “For I am aware that I am not wise at all, not much, not little” (21b4-5). He relates that the prophecy began to make sense when he questioned a politician who falsely judged himself wise. Then he thought to himself: “I am wiser than this person. For probably neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he assumes that he knows something when he does not, whereas I neither know nor suppose that I know” (21d2-6).

He reacted in much the same way after he ques­tioned some poets. Then, when he also interrogated some artisans, con­scious that he “knew nothing, so to speak” (22c9-d1), he learned that they knew their trades, but not “the greatest things” (22d7-el). He decided that he was wise in his understanding of his ignorance, and that “it is likely, men, that actually the god is wise, and that in this oracle he is stating that human wisdom has little or no worth” (23a5-7). Therefore, he concludes that the god has announced that Socrates “is worthless with regard to wis­dom” (23b2-3). Socrates deprecates his wisdom and knowledge in other Platonic dialogues, too. Perhaps the most famous instance follows the de­mand of Thrasymachus in the Republic that Socrates present his own defi­nition of justice. The philosopher replies that he neither knows nor claims to know (337e4-5). We take it, then, that Socrates asserts that he has no wisdom and knows nothing.

However, this concept of a modest Socrates dissolves when we read further. Later in the Apology, just after Socrates has denied that he has any information about Hades, he startles us by declar­ing: “But that to do injustice and to disobey one’s better, whether god or human being, is evil and shameful, that I do know (οίδα)” (29b6-7). Ap­parently, he claims some grasp of the virtue of the human being and the citizen after all. Socrates surprises us even more in the Symposium. He states there that he cannot oppose an agenda of speeches praising the god Eros, given that “I say that I know (έπίστασθαι) nothing but the things of eros (τα έροτικά)” (177d7-8). This use of έπιστασθαι constitutes an indirect but fairly strong claim to a more scientific (but not perfectly scientific) knowl­edge of erotics, as compared with his use of οίδα in the Apology, which is a weaker affirmation of a general grasp of the bad and shameful. Next, the seemingly diffident Socrates floors us in the Theages by asserting an extremely powerful claim to some sort of science of erotics (even though it seems to be an incomplete one): “Rather I always say, you know, that I happen, so to speak, to know (έπιστάμενος) nothing except a certain small subject of learning, the things of eros (τω). As regards this sub­ject of learning, I claim to be more clever than any human beings living previously or now” (128b2-4).

The contrast between Socrates’ protests of his ignorance and his claims to a science of erotics makes us wonder: What, if anything, does Socrates know about eros? Why is eros so important or interesting that it is the only subject that Socrates elects to master? Is acquiring a science of the things of eros difficult? Or is eros such a trivial matter that an ignoramus could mas­ter it easily? Is Socrates’ science of eros the foundation of his unscientific awareness of the virtue, or proper excellence, of the human being and the citizen? Are his flat assertions of his ignorance consistent with his claims to be amazingly clever beyond anyone with regard to the things of eros? Is Socrates ignorant, wise, or, somehow, both?1 This book attempts to answer these questions.

Eros and Wisdom

To ascertain whether Socrates knows anything about eros, we must study the relevant texts. Having yet to do that, we begin in ignorance. However, scholars will think it right to ask for a preliminary Socratic definition of eros, one that delineates the subject of inquiry.

Unfortunately, an initial survey leaves us somewhat confused, both as to what Socrates and Plato believe eros is in itself and as to what they deem its object to be. Regarding the essence of eros, Socrates formally defines what it is and what power it possesses in his first speech in the Phaedrus. He states: “It is clear to all that eros is a certain desire (έπιθυμία, epithymia)” (237d2).2 In the Symposium, Aristophanes also says that eros is an epithymia (192el0-193al). This seems simple enough. However, then, in his second speech in the Phaedrus, Socrates starts to call eros a “yearning” ( ̀ίμερος, himeros, 251d4, e2), and one wonders whether he has merely deployed a synonym or changed his mind. The switch might be more than semantic, for the “charioteer” of the soul, upon experiencing himeros, beholds “the erotic vision” (το έροτικὸν  ́ὸμμα, 253e5) and then remembers “the nature of beauty” (254b5-6), a reality encountered in a previous existence.

Eros is evidently becoming a himeros activated by a mystical anamnesis, or recol­lection. Again, in the Symposium, all of the characters except Socrates re­fer to Eros as a god. Under the influence of Diotima, Socrates maintains that Eros is not a god, but a daimon. However, in the Phaedrus, Socrates contends that Eros is “a god or something divine” (242e2). This suffices to baffle us. We are compelled to conclude that eros is a desire or yearning that surfaces as human passion (which might not be well understood itself) and shades into a mysterious anamnesis and an ambiguous suprahuman reality. For now, that is all we can say.

With respect to the object of eros, the case is equally complex. English-speaking people automatically think of eros as desire for sexual intercourse. In the Symposium, Diotima tells Socrates that Greek speakers also restrict their concept of eros to sexual craving (205b). In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger comments that sexual desire is the eros that is sharpest and most maddening (783a). This explains the conventional usage. However, Dio­tima tells Socrates that eros is generically “desire of all good things and of being happy” (205dl-2). The Athenian Stranger, apparently uphold­ing the same view, mentions that there is eros for food and drink (782e), for what one must do to be perfect in one’s occupation (643d), for fishing and hunting sea animals (823e), for moderate and just practices (711d), for riches (831c), for ignoble gain (727e), and for insatiable, unlimited acqui­sition (870a). In the Alcibiades I, Socrates fears that Alcibiades will become a d?merast?s, one who has eros for the demos (132a). This is not all. Di­otima thinks that eros aims at the varieties of immortality that mankind can achieve (208a). The Athenian Stranger adds: “Nature makes everyone avidly desire immortality in every way” (721b7-c1). It appears that we have many loves, and that all want eternity.3 Eros is not trivial, but vast. Its multiplicity in unity is dazzling. It is much more than genital sexuality. We cannot delimit it.

Although our little survey has not enabled us to settle on one intelligible definition of eros or to assign it a single object, it has shown why eros is so important to Socrates. If eros is “all desire of good things and of being happy,” it initiates everything that we do throughout our lives. If our re­sponses to eros can have outcomes as diverse as tendencies to moderate and just practices, on the one hand, and inclinations to ignoble, insatiable, and infinite acquisition, on the other, these reactions have everything to do with what kinds of people we are. Hence, they are also the chief causes of our felicity and misery. In our seemingly mundane pastimes, they govern how we use food and drink; how we love spouses, children, friends, and sexually attractive beauties; how well we perform our jobs; and how much we involve ourselves in the great scramble to gratify the acquisitive in­stinct.

In our striving for immortality in every way, they aid or impede our progress toward the eternal. In the mythical language of Stesichorus in the Phaedrus, which should be understood poetically, they determine whether we will exist in the next cycles of our souls as animals and insects on this earth or take wing into the heavens, ascending toward the hyperuranian realities (in other words, the realities above the heavens). Socrates finds eros such an all-absorbing subject because this mystery spurs or draws him toward every aspect of his destiny. Eros is so bound up with every­thing about ourselves that matters that Socrates might equate his science of eros with obedience to the bidding of the Delphic Oracle, γνωθ σαυτόν (Know thyself), although eros is not merely the self. It might be fair to call a scientific knowledge of eros wisdom.

Although it aims at self-knowing, Socrates’ preoccupation with eros is not simply self-serving. Socrates’ love of beautiful human beings appar­ently makes him care deeply about the qualities of their souls, for the sake of their happiness as well as his own. For example, in the Alcibiades I, Soc­rates professes his eros for Alcibiades’ soul (131d) and then spends the rest of the dialogue educating the young man to the virtues, urging him to adorn his soul with their splendor. He “agonizes” for his love when Al­cibiades shows signs of rejecting schooling in the virtues, a choice that will certainly ruin him both personally and politically (119c). In the Symposium, Diotima convinces Socrates that the lover undertakes his beloved’s educa­tion, discussing virtue and the good man’s character and pursuits (209b-c). In the Phaedrus, Socrates reiterates this, adding that the worthy lover sees to it that both he and his beloved ultimately take wing to the heavenly realm (256b). Erotic wisdom wants to communicate itself because it loves.

Socrates actively pursues those whom he will love and teach. At the be­ginning of the Phaedrus, he virtually tackles Phaedrus on the street, ask­ing him: “O dear Phaedrus, where are you going, and from where do you come?” (Ω φιλε Φαιδρε, ποι δη και πόφεν, 227al). He conceives this ques­tion sub specie aeternitatis, hinting to Phaedrus that he should consider his spiritual destiny and the adequacy of his motives for his actions. When Soc­rates discovers that Phaedrus is enamored of a vile, sophisticated speech designed to seduce a gullible lad, he does everything in his power to ele­vate his companion’s form of love, finally addressing a heartfelt prayer to Eros that Phaedrus will redirect his life to Eros and philosophic discourses (257a-b).

Although he cannot lavish the same care on every last Athenian as he does on his intellectual comrades, Socrates is also concerned for the condition of the souls of the many. Speaking to his jury of five hundred plus, he contends in the Apology that he has consistently urged “you” (plu­ral, ὺμων, 30a8) to strive for the best possible souls. He has examined peo­ple and engaged them in dialectical discussions when they have proved deficient (30a-b). Some commentators doubt that Socrates has spent much time with the many, for Plato’s dialogues never show him in conversation with common men.4 Although it is true that all the interlocutors in the di­alogues are aristocratic, this is not sufficient reason to distrust Socrates’ word in the Apology. We also hear in the Cleitophon that Socrates has often chided “the human beings” (not the gentlemen, but the ordinary people, tois anthropois, 407a8) asking: “Where are you being carried, O human beings” (407bl), and urging them to educate the young to virtue. If Soc­rates could, he would compel his entire society to confront his “whither” question.5

If the eros that Socrates thinks he knows is real, inquiry into eros is just as necessary to our time as to his, and mastering his science of erotics is just as indispensable to our personal happiness as to his. Again, if that eros is real, Socrates’ praxis is the appropriate model for the teachers of our age. If contemporary instructors manage to recapture Socrates’ science of eros, they too should be impelled to beautiful young people by eros, look into the students’ souls, examine the nature of their eros and virtue, do what they can to repair or at least diagnose defects in these areas, and offer this service to as many people in their societies as possible.

Insofar as he gazed deeply into students’ souls-which is not to say in ev­ery possible respect-Allan Bloom was perhaps the most Socratic teacher of the twentieth century. In his controversial book, The Closing of the Amer­ican Mind, which he offered as “a meditation on the state of our souls, par­ticularly those of the young,” Bloom spells out the responsibilities of the Socratic praxis admirably. The teacher, he maintains “is, willy-nilly, guided by the awareness, or the divination, that there is a human nature, and that assisting its fulfillment is his task.” Then he argues:

“The teacher, particularly the teacher dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever seeking to under­stand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to approach it. Attention to the young, knowing what their hungers are and what they can digest, is the essence of the craft. One must spy out and elicit those hungers. For there is no real education that does not respond to felt need; anything else acquired is trifling display.”6

Having spied out and elicited his students’ hungers tirelessly for three decades, Bloom gives this depressing report of the state of their souls: American students believe that truth is relative. They are astonished by anyone who does not accept this proposition as self-evident. Consequently, they lack intellectual seriousness and learn little. Their relativistic fam­ilies are also spiritually dreary, colorless, devoid of inspiring visions of mankind’s meaning and good, intellectually moribund, bourgeois, and incapable of transmitting ethical principles effectively because their relativism has robbed them of moral authority. The students do not read great books anymore, thanks to relativism and the successful feminist as­sault on the Western canon. Instead, they are addicted to rock music.

This music has “one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire-not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. . . . Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse.” Like severe drug addic­tion, this “gutter phenomenon . . . ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” The sexual frenzy of the rock music is part of a broader phenomenon. Sex has become “the national project.” The students have joined this enterprise. They have abolished sexual limits and modesty and now engage in multiple “rela­tionships,” not promiscuously, but serially. The sex is so easy that it has become “no big deal.” The result is that “sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity.” Young people, and not only they, “have studied and practiced a crippled eros that can no longer take wing, and does not contain within it the longing for eternity and the divination of one’s re­latedness to being.”

This eroticism is sated, sterile, lame, and “is not the divine madness that Socrates praised.” Casual relationships have also fos­tered the habit of approaching marriage with egocentric attitudes that lack constancy. This has contributed to the runaway divorce rate that “is surely America’s most urgent social problem.” The children of divorced parents are irreparably harmed. It does not matter that armies of psychologists are hired to persuade them that their parents love them and will spend “quality time” with them. The children feel grievously wronged, come to mistrust love, and develop a slight deformity of the spirit that closes them to the serious study of philosophy and literature. In addition to all this, the students are self-centered, that is, more interested in their careers and enjoyments than in other human beings or in great spiritual or political is­sues. In the vast majority of cases, they arrive at their universities seeking vocational training, without the sense that they are embarking upon grand intellectual adventures that might yield answers to the question, “What is man?” Thus, a defective American eros, not only in its sexual forms but also in all its branches, has prevented our students from waxing in wisdom and grace. By and large, American students become “flat souled.”7

Allan Bloom

I myself am a professor of more than thirty-five years standing. I, too, have attempted to model my praxis on that of Socrates. I suppose, with Bloom, that the teacher’s function is to assist the fulfillment of human na­ture and that one must study the students to do that work well. Like Bloom, I have gotten to know many of my students. I do not need to claim that I have done this as well as Bloom did. He devoted a great deal of time to soliciting his students’ opinions, much more than I. However, I have had ample occasion to see and hear a lot. The students are talking when one en­ters classrooms and cafeterias; they acknowledge one’s arrival with a nod and continue their conversations without embarrassment. At other times, students come to see one because they desperately need help, not with their studies, but with problems in their personal lives. These youngsters have cheerful, confident, public personas. Privately, they are wretched. They say why. The numbers of such unhappy youths never approach half of one’s enrollment in a given year, but they might come to a fifth or a third when those who choose other advisers are counted. At any rate, a professor does get to know what is going on generally, if not in every particular.

Having seen what I have seen, I have the distinct impression that Bloom has diagnosed genuine dangers and trends in the United States but that our youth are not as far gone as he thinks.8 It may be that my perceptions differ from his because I teach at a Catholic university. America’s social cur­rents course through every institution in the land, but, in Catholic culture, they still meet some resistance, flow less strongly, and can occasionally be redirected. Whether this or somebody’s keener or duller eye explains my partial disagreement with Bloom, I believe that our situation around the turn of the new millennium is as follows.

First, it is true that the great majority of American students believe that truth is relative. So do most of their professors. The propositions that there is a human nature and that happiness depends on fulfilling it inspire sus­picion, if not mockery. However, the students’ relativism is received rather than systematically deduced. Hence, it is soft rather than hard.9 A Socratic professor can interest perhaps half of his or her students in ceasing to re­gard relativism as self-evident and in weighing questions about its validity self-consciously.

Both intellectual honesty and prudence prohibit attempts to impose truth and natural right on the students as dogmas. The Socratic teacher must make whatever headway is possible by conceding the legit­imacy of relativism provisionally and then starting the philosophic enter­prise of careful, open-minded inquiry from scratch with every student who responds. If the educator does begin every quest sincerely convinced that the relativists might turn out to be right, the students become excited about the investigation and fruitful conversations ensue. This process requires self-discipline and endless hard work of the teacher, but there is no other way. It also keeps the instructor in the thick of the philosophic life, so it is a happy labor.

Second, it is true that relativism, bankrupt education, popular culture, and the immaturity that is natural to the undergraduate age group deprive students of intellectual ambition.10 Thus, professors face appalling igno­rance every day. However, I also think that college teachers are subject to amnesia and optical illusions. We forget how frivolous we were and how little we knew when we were eighteen or twenty. Soon, we imagine that we were always as well read and well informed as we are now. We owe the students the same chance to develop that we had. We must remember that it is not for nothing that Socrates requires his apprentices to reach their fifties before they take up philosophy. Socratic professors might be able to inspire half of their students to diligent study by awakening their wonder about the great questions. Stimulating wonder is our job. We ought not to complain because no one has done this work for us.

Third, it is not clear whether Bloom drew his conclusions about the fami­lies of his students from face-to-face contact, inferred them from the maxim “by their fruits shall ye know them,” or generalized from the character of his own family, with which he is widely reported to have been at odds. I meet some of the families of my students annually. They are not as uni­formly relativistic and vulgar as Bloom leads one to expect. True, they are almost never philosophic, and they cannot always avoid being influ­enced by mass opinion. However, they are generally thoughtful, interest­ing, committed to the ethical good as they understand it, and dedicated to the welfare of their children. If they have not always made their off­spring as virtuous as they wished, their difficulties have often been the same as those noted by Socrates in the Republic, where he comments that it is virtually impossible for a human education to counter the effects of mass culture (492d-493a). We should sympathize with such parents rather than denounce them. The Socratic professor must build on the good work that parents have done and try to support them in cases in which they have been overwhelmed by the prevailing forces. On the other hand, divorce really is a grave problem. It scars children permanently. Still, the plights of these youths are not hopeless. As often as not, I have seen young victims of divorce driven toward the philosophic life by their injuries rather than away from it.

Fourth, Bloom is certainly right to contend that our college youth culture consists mostly of rock music.11 One must grant that a lot of rock appeals to sexual desire and has a sexual beat. Further, much rock music (and also much of rap) is sheer alienation and unbridled aggression. A great deal more is revolting kitsch, chock-full of maudlin, artificial feeling, not unlike most of the popular music of earlier generations. However, if I may pervert Hamlet to a good end, there is much more in rock music, and intelligent students see much more in it, than is dreamed of in Bloom’s philosophy. Some rock celebrates sexuality in a wholesome way that makes it a wel­come addition to the education of the young. Some is not sexual at all, but has a happy-go-lucky bounce that expresses sheer joy of living. It is pure fun. Some is what the students call “social commentary.” Although oftentimes naive, it has some beginnings of thoughtfulness. The excep­tional rock piece might capture glimpses of beauty or otherwise depict grave problems, ennobling human experiences, and profound insights dif­ferently from, but as authentically as, anything in classical music.

Much as Louis Armstrong was the starting point from which I naturally moved to Bach, Mozart, and philosophy, in an era that seems Paleolithic to students now, some good rock might propel our youths toward meditation on the eternal realities. So, rather than tarring all rock music with the same brush, as Bloom does, we should distinguish cases, differentiating the pernicious from the healthful. To prevent needless disputes, and also to avoid cut­ting the ridiculous figure of a deluded, finger-snapping grandfather who supposes that he could be up-to-date in the music of our young, I shall not attempt to give examples of bad and good rock. It is more important to observe that our students have been exposed to both kinds throughout their lives. Accordingly, some will become casualties of rock and end up sexually, erotically jaded, in the manner that Bloom so adroitly analyzes. Others will fare better. The outcomes are not predetermined. Professors can help decide which influences will win out by throwing invitations to the philosophic life into the balance.

Fifth, it cannot be denied that sex has become the American national project. A great many of our students have been swept up in this enter­prise. Together with their countrymen, many have abolished sexual lim­its and modesty, as evidenced by their conversation and jokes, by the en­tertainments that they enjoy (including steamy movies, MTV, and frankly sexual dancing), and by their clothing. Many do have serial sexual relation­ships. Indeed, many young people feel tremendous pressure to establish their credentials as liberated individualists by cohabiting with their sexual partners ostentatiously. The recent annihilation of the great barrier to this behavior, fear of pregnancy and childbirth, has probably made such casual sex more common than it used to be. It seems likely that in the majority of these cases, the students’ sex has really become so easy that it is “no big deal.”

In these instances, the eros has surely become sterile, devoid of Socratic divine madness, and incapable of taking wing into eternity, as Bloom contends. Also, there is usually exploitation in these kinds of relationships. Almost invariably, somebody gets hurt. Undoubtedly, there are exceptions. There must be a number of cases in which there is perfect mutual giving of self to other and a firm intention of permanence. These instances are marriage in all but name and can be expected to eventuate in the Socratic winged flights. The normal result, though, is heartbreak.

Socratic teachers cannot save students from these mistakes by prying into their private lives or policing bedrooms. Neither can they prevent the errors by preaching religious morality or the lessons of Plato’s dialogues from their bully class­room pulpits; words are mere abstractions to the young until the realities of their self-inflicted injuries become manifest as pain. All the Socratic pro­fessors can do is to wait for the heartbroken students to crash-land in tears in their offices and classrooms. When this occurs, the youths do not need pinch-faced authorities in tall, pointy hats to inform them that something has gone badly wrong with their love affairs. Rather, they need advice on how to heal their wounds and fulfill their erotic natures in true love. Here, Bloom seems mistaken if he supposes that the eros of the damaged souls can never take wing. Sometimes, it is disaster that opens unhappy souls to philosophy. The teacher must be prepared to lead the students to a more philosophic eros when it is needed and wanted. In this role, the Socratic professor can help some of the sorrowing youngsters.

Finally, it is true that a majority of the students are self-centered. To il­lustrate this problem, I can contribute a story of my own to Bloom’s report. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon speaks of a magic ring that makes its wearer invisible. A lowly man who found this ring, a shepherd, got himself ap­pointed messenger to his king. Then he seduced the queen, with her help murdered the king, seized the throne, took whatever he wanted from the marketplace, snuck into houses and slept with anybody he pleased, killed whomever he wished, released prisoners from jail if the whim took him, and generally did as he desired, like a god among mortals (359c-360b). In the eyes of this man, the good things in life were sex, wealth, and power.

For thirty-five years, I have been asking students in my introductory courses what they would do if they had the ring. I have administered this survey by secret ballot to some three thousand youths. The results have been re­markably consistent. Every term but one, around 55 percent of the respon­dents have answered that they would use the ring in the same manner that the shepherd did.12 The 55 percent hastily assure me that they would not kill anyone. That would be too gruesome. However, they would make progress with the sexually attractive, empty vaults, peek at the answer keys of law school entrance exams, take steps to ensure corporate promotions or political victories, and, occasionally, play Robin Hood.

These students charmingly exhibit the lower varieties of eroticism. They, too, perceive the greatest goods in human existence to be sex, wealth, and power. They plan to grab these greatest goods for themselves as comfortably as they can, again failing to see misery ahead. The 45 percent are scandalized but find themselves both incapable of persuading their peers to be more just and accused of lying to themselves about how they would react if they had the ring. One frequently voiced minority rebuttal is that the pursuit of the goods of life would be boring and insufficiently challenging if one em­ployed the ring at every turn. What this means to me is that more than the 55 percent perceive the good as the shepherd did.

To be sure, someone will object that my study is scientifically invalid because I have not taken a random sample of the U.S. population. I answer that this is exactly why my findings are dismaying. We are discussing the fantasies of political sci­ence majors in a Catholic university, where one hopes for more reassuring results. The Socratic teacher who loves the students must raise questions about the shepherd’s actions, striving to change the numbers. This effort does not always go unrewarded. The students are not bad at heart. All of us begin life self-centered; all need to learn to recognize a higher good. That is the point of education. A Socratic teacher can help effect the transform­ation.

Let us assume, therefore, that Bloom identifies real threats to the United States but is a little too alarmist about our situation. Many Americans are erotically ailing, but none inevitably end as dead souls. A Socratic philos­opher can minister to a sick eros. I have noted that Socrates’ first step is to engage his beloveds and his fellow citizens in inquiry. Although we do not see why, Socrates holds that a recovery from erotic diseases requires the quest for wisdom. His dictum that “the unexamined life is not viable for a human being” (Apology 38a5-6) applies to the ill especially. People still need Socratic teachers to urge philosophic inquiry upon the erotically infirm. Where, then, should the examined life lead?

To determine this, we shall have to turn from Bloom back to the Platonic Socrates. As I reflect upon Bloom’s critique of the souls of the young, I be­come rather anxious, both about the treatment that he might prescribe for them and about his fidelity to Socratic philosophy. Bloom seems to deliver his jeremiads with an aggressive confidence. Does he suppose that he al­ready knows the nonrelativistic truth of natural right? If so, does he try to impose it on his charges, not in obviously doctrinaire fashion, but subtly? Is that what Socrates does?

If the families of potentially philosophic students are impossibly bourgeois, does Bloom believe that we should break the families up in order to rescue the students, perhaps by setting the students against their parents? Would this be in keeping with Socrates’ judgment in the Republic that radical changes of the family cannot be shown to be pos­sible (472e)?13 What is the healthy opposite of “sexual desire undeveloped and untutored”? Whatever one’s sexual orientation might be, a point not germane to the concern that Bloom’s language raises here, does his “love” involve an artful hedonism or an elevated sexuality?14 Is it compatible with what we uncomprehendingly regard as “Platonic love”?


And what is the completion of human nature? Is it the antithesis of “sexual passion that no longer includes the illusion of eternity”? Thus, is it a passion that does embrace the “illusion” of eternity? Are we to understand that the terminus of the philosophic quest is indulgence in a mere illusion? Perhaps it will be appreciated that Bloom’s phraseology sometimes causes us to doubt that he was a Socratic teacher in every respect. To decide fairly, we would have to peruse his books more carefully. More to the point, we would also have to learn how Socrates himself might answer such questions.

First, though, we need to consider another preliminary matter. Socrates has suggested that eros and its relationship to wisdom are critical to man­kind’s happiness and the teacher’s work. American experience appears to verify that. There is a third sphere to which Socrates thinks eros and its need for wisdom are vitally important: politics. Plato indicates this by in­tegrating the same story line into at least six of his dialogues: the Alcibiades I, the Protagoras as read in combination with the Symposium, the Theages, the Republic, and the Phaedrus.

In the opening speech of the Alcibiades I, Socrates states that he is the first erotic lover, or erastes of Alcibiades, and the only one who has not deserted him.15 Socrates has been a weird erastes, one who would have excited panicky calls to the police in the United States. For years, he has followed Alcibiades around town silently. Only now, with the recently granted permission of his daimon, has he spoken to an Alcibiades who has come of age and is about to attend the Assembly. Socrates knows Al­cibiades’ secret wish. Alcibiades wants to become the master of Athens, Hellas, and the world.

Socrates ironically offers to help Alcibiades do this. However, he suggests that Alcibiades is not ready for his chosen career because he is ignorant of the fundamentals of politics: justice and injustice. Alcibiades inquires why he should not be assumed to have learned these things from his fellow citizens, just as all children have learned to speak Greek from them. Socrates proves to him that he cannot have acquired knowledge of justice and injustice from the many because they contradict themselves on the subject. He tries to persuade Alcibiades that he should accept an erastes who loves his soul rather than his body, that he must study his soul, especially the part of it that is the seat of wisdom, and that he must become virtuous, learn how to impart virtue to other citizens, and repudi­ate tyranny.

Alcibiades assents to this, not because he rationally accepts it, but because he is fascinated by Socrates’ apparent ability to compel peo­ple to say the opposite of what they think. He starts to pursue Socrates, not for who or what Socrates actually is, but because he wants Socrates to teach him the politically useful trick of manipulating minds.16 Therefore, Socrates fears that his beloved will end badly as a demerastes.

So, in the first iteration of the political drama that Plato incorporates in the six dialogues, the essence of the story is this: A young aristocrat who is blessed with abun­dant natural gifts feels a massive eros for tyrannical political power. This would-be master of his polis and world lacks the knowledge that a states­man needs. When he becomes aware of this, he immediately conceives an urgent desire for political wisdom. However, he misunderstands the nature of political wisdom, supposing that it must be the science or art by which he will be enabled to realize his despotic dreams. He needs correction, but his eros for power and popularity might prevent this. (In his real life, Alcibiades becomes pathologically addicted to sex, victory, and power.) Ev­idently, the sickest eros must change its objects before it can be cured by inquiry. Political wisdom is compatible only with a nontyrannical eros.

The dramatic date of the Alcibiades I is 432 b.c. The action of the Protagoras occurs in the same year, some weeks or months later. In this dialogue, the first exchanges bring our attention back to Socrates’ eros for Alcibiades. A companion asks Socrates how his love affair with the now bearded Alcibi­ades is going. Socrates allows that the youth is well disposed to him. This may be so, but we see clearly that there is trouble in store, for Alcibiades is no longer pursuing Socrates. Instead, he is going around with the fu­ture tyrant Critias. Actually, says Socrates, deftly changing the subject, he has just seen a beauty who caused him to forget about Alcibiades, namely, the wisest man of the time, Protagoras. The praise of Protagoras is surely ironic, for Socrates made mincemeat of him not an hour earlier. However, Socrates’ companion has no inkling of this. He is thrilled to hear that the great sophist is in town and asks Socrates for an account of the meeting.

It transpires that Protagoras has been in Athens for two days profess­ing to teach a new political technē, or art (πολιτικην τέχνην). Pro­tagoras argues that the many possess virtue and transmit it to the young (322c-324d). He himself claims to excel the many. He is especially expert at making gentlemen good citizens (318a-319a). He teaches them to exercise sound judgment in their household economies. In the affairs of the polis, he shows them how to become the “most capable in action and speech” (319al-2). This is as much as to say that he purveys political wisdom. His positions give Socrates ample reason to doubt his wisdom, for Socrates found it easy to convince Alcibiades that a people that contradicts itself with regard to virtue is scarcely capable of improving the characters of the young. However, this difficulty will not bother anybody who hopes to be­come the master of his city and universe. A technē that makes a gentleman the “most capable in action and speech” in the polis is precisely the kind of political wisdom that an ambitious youth like Alcibiades voraciously covets.

Socrates gets involved with Protagoras because Alcibiades is not the only young man in Athens who wants despotic power. On the morning of his meeting with the sophist, Socrates is awakened by Hippocrates, son of Apollodorus. This scion of a rich, slave-owning aristocrat is all in a tizzy because Protagoras has come. He suggests, with a laugh that does not con­ceal his earnestness, that Protagoras has done him an injustice by being the only wise man and not making him one, too. Hippocrates has little appre­ciation of Socrates, for he does not imagine that Socrates might be wise. He supposes that being wise means being a clever speaker (312d).

Socrates knows well that Hippocrates is actually a gifted youth who aspires to be held in high regard in the city (316bl0-cl). Like Alcibiades, this lad is in danger of becoming a demerestes, or he already is one. Hippocrates regards the technē that Protagoras teaches as the means to his end. Thus, he wants Socrates to fix him up with Protagoras. After attempting to sensitize Hip­pocrates to the dangers of sophistry, Socrates reluctantly accompanies him to the house of Callias, where Protagoras is holding forth. It is no surprise that Alcibiades and Critias appear at Callias’s door shortly after Socrates and Hippocrates. The two would-be tyrants are seeking the same technical shortcuts to power that Hippocrates craves. If they can pay Protagoras for his technē and absorb it in a few easy lessons, they can ignore the Socrates whose harping on the statesman’s need for virtue militates against their ambitions.

Before rehearsing his discussion with Protagoras, Socrates tells his com­panion who was present at the meeting. He starts with the words: “‘And next I observed,’ as Homer says” (315b9).17 He thereby casts himself in the role of Odysseus in Hades. He is indicating that he descended spiritually alive into hell when he entered Callias’s abode and that he now will call the roll of the spiritually dead. He reports that the enchanting Protagoras was lecturing two groups of notables that included the sons of Pericles. Also present were the sophists Hippias and Prodicus. Hippias was speaking to the lovers Eryximachus and Phaedrus about the nature of heavenly bodies. Prodicus was instructing the lovers Pausanias and Agathon.

After some prolegomena that will be examined in another context, Soc­rates begins his conversation with Protagoras by gainsaying the sophist’s assumption that virtue is teachable. Socrates appeals to the authority of public opinion to cast doubt on his interlocutor’s position: the many rec­ognize no preeminent guides to virtue. He reasons this way because Pro­tagoras himself frequently bases his calculations on the authority of public opinion. Socrates also says that a great politician such as Pericles cannot even teach virtue to his sons, who graze everywhere like sacred oxen, try­ing to pick up virtue wherever they find it. He wants to anger the sophist with this calculated, stinging insult, which suggests that Protagorean doc­trines are the kinds of fodder upon which cattle might feast but are not good food for healthy human souls.18 To tell the truth, Socrates hopes to provoke a fight with Protagoras because he needs an excuse to destroy the sophist’s potential influence over Alcibiades, Hippocrates, and Critias.

Protagoras replies with a myth and an argument designed to prove that Socrates is much mistaken about the people’s opinion of teachers of virtue.19 Socrates reacts by shifting the grounds and method of the debate. He asks Protagoras to give an account of the nature of virtue, especially with regard to the question of whether virtue is one or many, and with the response based on dialectical logic. When the sophist complies, Socrates exposes his answer as self-contradictory.

Protagoras defends himself by engaging in a filibuster, whereupon Socrates threatens to leave. Callias ineffectually urges him to stay. At this point, Alcibiades interrupts the proceedings, pro­longing the dialogue by praising Socrates’ dialectical skills and daring the proud Protagoras to compete by Socrates’ rules. Protagoras agrees to ac­cept the challenge but immediately reneges, demanding that the company consider a poem by Simonides. Socrates evades the snares that Protago­ras lays for him in this byway and then insists that they return to the di­alectical study of virtue. Alcibiades intervenes again, successfully coercing Protagoras to join in the dialectic. Playing somewhat unfairly by mixing appeals to logic with appeals to public opinion, Socrates then pushes the argument to a conclusion that is lame because he and Protagoras flip-flop their positions without solving the problems.

Frustrated modern scholars wish that Socrates’ doctrines on virtue were worked out more neatly. How­ever, that has not been Socrates’ purpose in the conversation. From Soc­rates’ point of view, the vague result is a smashing success, for Protagoras’s  claim to political wisdom has been undermined. The would-be autocrats Hippocrates, Alcibiades, and Critias think that political wisdom should be able to win eristic competitions. Thus, they have been shown that they cannot obtain the technē that they want from the dialectically inept “wisest man” of their age.


Then what is the path to political wisdom and virtue? Is it right for Soc­rates and Plato to destroy other people’s views about this issue and then to leave the question hanging? Plato will not be guilty of this offense. It has already been observed that a nontyrannical eros is a prerequisite for polit­ical wisdom. Plato invites his readers to move from the Protagoras to the Symposium, one of his great works on eros, political wisdom, and virtue. He ties the two dialogues together by means of a number of interesting dramatic inversions.

First, in the Protagoras, Socrates meets the grand sophist, who boasts of teaching a political technē without ever speaking of eros. Socrates is dragged to this engagement by a rich young man who does not perceive his philosophic superiority. In the Symposium, Socrates encounters lesser sophists who glorify Eros while soft-pedaling their intentions to act on the political implications of their eroticism. He goes to dine with them eagerly, dragging along a hesitant student who adores the ground on which he walks.

Second, in the Protagoras, the eminent sophists Hippias and Prodicus also expound their nonerotic opinions at garrulous length, whereas the lovers, Eryximachus and Phaedrus, and Pausanias and Agathon, remain utterly silent. In the Symposium, the lovers find their voices, presenting four highly eroticized versions of the views of their teachers, Hippias and Prod­icus, while their masters have become the absent and silent sources of their premises.

Third, as noted above, Socrates quotes Homer in the Protagoras to hint that he has entered hell as a spiritually living Odysseus and that he is con­sorting with the spiritually dead. In the Symposium, while he is en route to Agathon’s dinner, he persuades his student Aristodemus to accompany him by stating: “When two go together, one precedes another in devising what we shall say” (174d2-3).20 With this, he ironically takes the part of Diomedes and casts Aristodemus as Odysseus in the scene from the Iliad in which the two go to spy on the camp of the enemy. He is setting out to beard physically living adversaries, one or more of whom might like to see him physically dead in Hades.

Fourth, in the Protagoras, when Socrates and Hippocrates arrive unin­vited at Callias’s home, a eunuch accuses them of being sophists and bars the door. Socrates must gain entry by denying the charge. In the Symposium, when Socrates has an obligation to arrive on time at a sophist’s house for dinner, he stops outside to meditate and refuses to budge when the ser­vants are sent to fetch him.

Fifth, in the Protagoras (347b-348a), Socrates says that he prefers gath­erings of “the beautiful and good” (καλοί κάγαθοί, a term for Athenian gentlemen) in which flute girls do not play, the works of absent poets who cannot be questioned are not interpreted, the participants test each other in dialectical exchanges, and the conversation is orderly no matter how much wine is drunk. In the Symposium, a sophist suggests getting rid of the flute girl, Socrates takes her place as an alleged flautist, everyone present creates a poem, dialectical exchanges are rare, and the discussion degenerates into chaos when wine begins to flow and the many are admitted.

Sixth, in the Protagoras, Socrates prevents a sophist from making long speeches and forces him to converse dialectically.  In the Symposium, Soc­rates is compelled by a vote of the entire company to give a long speech (along with everyone else), and he is commanded to cease and desist from a dialectical discussion when he starts one.

Finally, in the Protagoras, Alcibiades breaks into a debate that is ending prematurely because he wants to delight in the spectacle of an eristic brawl. He celebrates Socrates’ dialectical skills because he wishes to goad an over­confident sophist into continuing a contest that he believes Socrates will win. In the Symposium, Alcibiades prolongs a program beyond its logical end because he fears that a sophist has already fallen under Socrates’ spell. He applauds Socrates’ rhetorical abilities in order to poison the minds of the company against this seductive speaker, imagining that this is how he can defeat Socrates, whom he perceives as his opponent.

All these inversions inspire a hunch. If budding young tyrants force Soc­rates into nonerotic conversations with sophists because they ignorantly want a spurious political wisdom, failing to get it because Socrates delib­erately contrives ambiguous results, perhaps a discussion about eros with sophists that Socrates freely joins will offer real political wisdom to aspiring tyrants who intellectually reject it. This would fit the impression that one gains from reading the Symposium. Each of the four sophists who speak in that dialogue appears to be afflicted with his own sort of tyrannical eros. Aristophanes, another of the orators at Agathon’s party, has a questionable eros, too. Alcibiades, the final speaker, has a raging eros for tyranny. One speculates that the Symposium must be therapy for a tyrannical eros and, thus, the completion of the Protagoras and a necessary beginning of political wisdom.



1. Allan Bloom delivers himself of a tantalizingly paradoxical remark: “Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance is identical with his perfect knowledge of erotics” (The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, 133).

2. “Desire” is the usual translation of epithymia, although this rendering might be a little too tame, for the concept contains the idea of thymos, the “spirited element” of the soul. “Spirited desire” might be more appropriate. However, I shall use the traditional “desire.”

3. I am grateful to Zdravko Planinc for this insight, and for calling my attention to the passage in the Laws that suggests it.

4. All these scholars follow Leo Strauss, The City and Man, 57.

5. Zdravko Planinc, “Homeric Imagery in the Phaedrus,” chap. 5 in Politics, Philosophy, Writing: Plato’s Art of Caring for Souls, holds that the Platonic dialogues refigure scenes in Homer. This implies that Socrates’ interlocutors are aristocrats not because Plato has an animus against commoners, but because their models are the comrades of Odysseus, all of whom were aristocrats. I think that Planinc is right.

6. Bloom, Closing American Mind, 19, 20.

7. Ibid., 73, 79,106,122,132,119,134. These quotations summarize and paraphrase pt. 1 of Bloom’s book.

8. In what follows, I am not attempting to provide an original critique of Bloom. Ev­erything that I shall say has already been said more comprehensively and eloquently by one or another of the authors in Robert L. Stone, ed., Essays on “The Closing of the American Mind.” My primary interest here is to provide an accurate description of the phenomena as I see them shortly before and after the turn of our new millennium.

9. As Eva Brann remarks, “[S]hallow opinions are most shallowly rooted” (“The Spirit Lives in the Sticks,” in Essays on “Closing Mind,” ed. Stone, 185).

10. I agree with George Anastaplo that it is surprising that Bloom ignores the role of television in the miseducation of the United States (“In re Allan Bloom: A Respectful Dissent,” in Essays on “Closing Mind,” ed. Stone, 270-71).

11. I am speaking of university students. There is another large segment of the U.S. population, including adults and young people, that is devoted to country music, which is not so popular among the students with whom I am familiar.

12. The odd semester had a 50-50 percent split.

13. This question arises out of Bloom’s comments in Love and Friendship, 441.

14. This question is inspired by something odd noticed by Anastaplo in “In re Allan Bloom,’ in Essays on “Closing Mind,” ed. Stone, 269. Bloom says: “Aristotle said that man has two peaks, each accompanied by intense pleasure: sexual intercourse and think­ing” (Closing American Mind, 137). However, it is doubtful that Aristotle said that. He classifies the hedonistic life as one fit for beasts (Nicomachean Ethics 1095bl5-20), argu­ing that the good for human beings is an activity of the soul in accord with excellence (1098al5-20); saying that excellence, or virtue, is of two sorts, moral and intellectual (1103al0-25); and concluding that the activity of the intellect according to its proper excellence would be perfect happiness, such that the activity of perfect happiness is contemplative (1177al-35).

15. In Greek homoeroticism, the erastes (lover) was an older male, usually thought to be on the giving end of homosexual intercourse, and the eromenos (beloved) was an adolescent boy or young man, ordinarily thought to be on the receiving end of this intercourse.

16. It is quite easy to see in the drama of the dialogue that this is Alcibiades’ motive. In real life, Alcibiades’ purpose seems to have been the same. At least this is suggested by Xenophon (Memorabilia 1.2.39-40). Xenophon says that Alcibiades and his friend Critias were never in sympathy with Socrates when they associated with him, but de­sired political advancement. I am grateful to Zdravko Planinc for reminding me of these Xenophon passages.

17. The quotation is from Odyssey 9.601.

18. Cf. 313a-314b. This is to say nothing of the contempt that Socrates expresses for Pericles and his sons with this insult.

19. The myth and the argument are extremely interesting. I am glossing over them, together with virtually all of the substantive debate between Protagoras and Socrates, because I wish to focus on the dramatic plot of the dialogue, and also because I do not want to get caught up in the reasoning, which would force me to write an entire book on the Protagoras.

20. The inexact quotation is from Iliad 10.224.


This excerpt is from  Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues  (University of Missouri Press, 2003) This is the first of two parts with part two available here. Also see his “Modern Views of Plato’s Silence” in three parts: part one, part two, part three, and our review of the book.

James M. RhodesJames M. Rhodes

James M. Rhodes

James M. Rhodes (1940-2015) was Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Marquette University in Wisconsin. He was author of The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution ((980) and Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (2003), both winners of the Alpha Sigma Nu Award. His posthumously book is Knowledge, Sophistry, and Scientific Politics.

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