How and Why Does Plato Mention Himself?

In Plato’s vast corpus, consisting of tens of thousands of words, there is scant mention of Plato himself.  This is perhaps more surprising when we realize that, at least in the so-called “Last Days of Socrates” dialogues there is plenty of opportunity to incorporate Plato as a historically and chronologically accurate character.

Nevertheless, as it is, there are only 3 mentions of Plato in the dialogues, twice in the Apology and once in the Phaedo.

In the first appearance in the Apology there is a brief mention that Plato is the son of Ariston, which comes in the context of Socrates mentioning who took part in his “discussions” (diatribai).

This Adeimantos the son of Ariston [also took part in discussions], of whom Plato here is the brother…(Apology 34a1). 1

So we have here pointed out the fact that Plato was present at the trial of Socrates as well as the implication that he took part in Socratic discussion, albeit as one could infer from Socrate’s portrayal, less notably than Adeimantos his brother.

The second reference to Plato comes again in the Apology, four pages later, as Socrates is quite cheekily advocating that his punishment should be a fine, and in a list of people who will provide surety for this fine, who do you think he lists first?

And this Plato, men of Athens, and Critoboulos and Apollodoros urge me to pay a fine of 30 minas, and they themselves are sureties for it (Apology 38b6-7). 2

In both of these appearances, Socrates (through Plato the author) has made mention of the presence of Plato, once using an adverb (here) and then using a demonstrative (this).  This might seem trivial, until we arrive at the last appearance of Plato in the dialogues.

The reference to Plato in the Phaedo is famous for a number of reasons.  It historically is important because from what it tells us Plato was not present at the death of Socrates.  It is also is involved in some interpretations of the end of the dialogue.

As Phaedo himself recites who was present at Socrate’s death, he mentions a number of Athenians and foreigners, buts adds, in the middle, that Plato was not.

But Plato, I think, was sick (Phaedo 59b10). 3

Some commentators on this “sickness,” making use of Socrates’ injunction to offer a cock to the god Asclepius upon his death, see in this an ingenious self-reference to Plato’s own eventual recovery, as such a sacrifice was done to ensure health.  The less glamorous option is that Socrates is thanking the god for the removal of this mortal coil and all the diseased trappings of physical existence.

This seems fully to align with Plato’s literary magnanimity in general.  But could this sickness (lit. not being strong) be a metaphor for Plato not yet being able to stomach Socrates’ death or death in general?  After all, the Phaedo really does concern death: the philosopher and his attitude toward death, arguments for the soul’s persistence after death, a myth about the afterlife, and finally Socrates’ own death.  It would be fitting then, that although not philosophically equipped to handle death at Socrates’ own demise, Plato would eventually gain such strength as to, among other things, write the dialogue on death, the Phaedo.

1 ὅδε δὲ Ἀδείμαντος, ὁ Ἀρίστωνος, οὗ ἀδελφὸς οὑτοσὶ Πλάτων, καὶ
Αἰαντόδωρος, οὗ Ἀπολλόδωρος ὅδε ἀδελφός. καὶ ἄλλους

2 Πλάτων δὲ ὅδε, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, καὶ Κρίτων καὶ
Κριτόβουλος καὶ Ἀπολλόδωρος κελεύουσί με τριάκοντα μνῶν αὐτοὶ δ᾽ ἐγγυᾶσθαι

3 Πλάτων δὲ οἶμαι ἠσθένει.


Why does Plato Shackle the Neck in the Allegory of the Cave?

Anyone who is familiar with Plato has no doubt noticed the emphasis that he places on focusing our attention on the world of being and ignoring the world of becoming.  Another way of saying this is that the present material world is less important than the everlasting eternal world of truth and Forms.

In this post, I want to point out similar imagery which is used in three different dialogues, all concerned with the ultimate apprehension of reality.  In these dialogues, Plato uses the imagery of the head, when it is free and unencumbered, as a symbol for the ability to properly see the intelligible realm, the heavenly realm, the realm of reality.

Let us first look at the Phaedrus.  As Socrates has narrated about the life of the gods, he next wishes to tell us about the life of mortals.  He does so, using the framing metaphor of the charioteer and horses as a stand-in for the soul.

And this is the life of the gods.  But of the other souls, one follows god best and is like him and raises the head of the charioteer into the realm outside, being carried together in the revolution, and being thrown into tumult by the horses and seldom see the things that really are.  But the other soul raises it head, then lowers it, and because the horses are being forceful, it sees some things and other things it does not.  All the other souls are striving to follow the region above, but are unable… (Phaedrus 248a1-e1). 1

Thus, the raising of the head is symbolic of the ability to see truths and real being that transcends the mundane and insubstantial.

In the Phaedo we see a similar line of thought.  A description has just been given of the earth, how it is much larger than we imagine it to be.  Here the comparison is to a fish, if it could lift its head above the water and see what is happening upon the earth.

By weakness and stupidity we are not able to pass through to the farthest aether.  Since, if someone were to go to the heights of the earth or having become winged, took flight, he would lift his head and look around, just as here the fish in the sea can lift their heads to see the things on earth, so someone could see the things there [in the realm above] (Phaedo 109e1-5). 2

It is helpful to keep in mind the kind of philosophical power and freedom which is represented by the head.  With the Phaedo and Phaedrus in the background, a certain famous passage in the Republic, the allegory of the cave, becomes enriched.  Here also the dignity of the head, being the repository of sight, the noblest of the senses, is emphasized, but by negation.  It is not the freedom of the head here, but its imprisonment that merits mentioning.

Being in this [cave] since childhood in shackles around their legs and necks, so that they remain in place only to see straight before them, but they are unable to turn their heads about in a circle because of the bond (Republic 514a5-b2). 3

The prisoner in the cave, ignorant of what is happening outside the cave, has his neck restrained in such a way that he cannot even move it.  It seems plausible to believe the main purpose of the shackles around his neck are not meant to keep him in one place, after all the leg shackles, already described, will do that.  Rather, the purpose of a bond around his neck is meant to keep him undiscerning.  After all, this is the answer when it is asked whether such a prisoner could see through the shadows to the real world:

For how could they, if they were forced to have their necks unmoving through life? (Republic 515a9-b1). 4



1 (a)   Καὶ οὗτος μὲν θεῶν βίος· αἱ δὲ ἄλλαι ψυχαί, ἡ μὲν
ἄριστα θεῷ ἑπομένη καὶ εἰκασμένη ὑπερῆρεν εἰς τὸν ἔξω
τόπον τὴν τοῦ ἡνιόχου κεφαλήν, καὶ συμπεριηνέχθη τὴν
περιφοράν, θορυβουμένη ὑπὸ τῶν ἵππων καὶ μόγις καθορῶσα
τὰ ὄντα· ἡ δὲ τοτὲ μὲν ἦρεν, τοτὲ δ’ ἔδυ, βιαζομένων δὲ τῶν   (5)
ἵππων τὰ μὲν εἶδεν, τὰ δ’ οὔ. αἱ δὲ δὴ ἄλλαι γλιχόμεναι
μὲν ἅπασαι τοῦ ἄνω ἕπονται, ἀδυνατοῦσαι δέ…

2  (e) τόν, ὑπ’ ἀσθενείας καὶ βραδυτῆτος οὐχ οἵους τε εἶναι ἡμᾶς
διεξελθεῖν ἐπ’ ἔσχατον τὸν ἀέρα· ἐπεί, εἴ τις αὐτοῦ ἐπ’ ἄκρα
ἔλθοι ἢ πτηνὸς γενόμενος ἀνάπτοιτο, κατιδεῖν <ἂν> ἀνακύ-
ψαντα, ὥσπερ ἐνθάδε οἱ ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης ἰχθύες ἀνακύ-
πτοντες ὁρῶσι τὰ ἐνθάδε, οὕτως ἄν τινα καὶ τὰ ἐκεῖ κατιδεῖν…   (5)

3 ἐν ταύτῃ ἐκ παίδων ὄντας ἐν δεσμοῖς καὶ τὰ   (5)
σκέλη καὶ τοὺς αὐχένας, ὥστε μένειν τε αὐτοὺς εἴς τε τὸ
(b) πρόσθεν μόνον ὁρᾶν, κύκλῳ δὲ τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσμοῦ
ἀδυνάτους περιάγειν…

4 Πῶς γάρ, ἔφη, εἰ ἀκινήτους γε τὰς κεφαλὰς ἔχειν ἠναγκα-
(b) σμένοι εἶεν διὰ βίου;

Knowledge of Animal Kinds is an Empirical, not a Logical, Enterprise

As Aristotle proceeds in his criticism of division (Parts of Animals 642b ff.), he indirectly illuminates a methodological point about how the ‘branches’ of the tree of the division are supposed to work.  When we have a given animal before us, we first might determine what it has: feet.  Thus we have some first genus (footed) from which we can have differentiae.  These differentiae might be two-footed and four-footed, as in his example.

What this shows is that this process is empirically based on two counts.  The first is that  the divider is aware of a given animal in both what it possesses and what it is.  Secondly, there is a contextual awareness of the animals that are alike, in some way, to this animal.  In other words, the would-be divider knows that there are no one-footed or 563-footed animals.  How does he know this?  By experience.

There might even be an allowance on Aristotle’s part that there is a kind of wisdom of the crowd in understanding animal divisions.  He says that the “bird and the fish are named,” but adds that others “are nameless, such as the blooded and unblooded [animal] (642b14-15).  If this is so, it is reasonable to believe that Greeks, from Aristotle’s perspective, have got it right with regards to birds and fish due to generations of people having seen various birds and fish.  There is thus a kind of group empirical gathering of facts.

This emphasis on the actual is also why, it turns out, that Aristotle says there can be no privations in divisions.  “And yet it is necessary to divide by privation and the dichotomists do divide by privation. But there is no difference of privation qua privation: it is impossible for there to be a species of something that does not exist, such as footless or wingless in the same way there is of winged and footed” (PA 642b21-24 Greek follows below).  This is another indication that for Aristotle, a proper division is always empirically based, since one cannot go out and find footless animals.  What he means by this is that the animal will not have “footless” as part of its definition or essence.  Now of course, a slug, for example, is without feet, but it is also without feathers, and this hardly seems worthy of being remarked upon, much less to make it an opportunity for division.  Thus another way of stating why to exclude privation: whatever privation we choose to divide by certainly is vulnerable to the charge of being arbitrary.  For every animal is deprived of many attributes and features.

Ἔτι στερήσει μὲν ἀναγκαῖον διαιρεῖν, καὶ διαιροῦσιν οἱ
διχοτομοῦντες. Οὐκ ἔστι δὲ διαφορὰ στερήσεως ᾗ στέρησις· ἀ-
δύνατον γὰρ εἴδη εἶναι τοῦ μὴ ὄντος, οἷον τῆς ἀποδίας ἢ τοῦ
ἀπτέρου ὥσπερ πτερώσεως καὶ ποδῶν. (PA 642b21-24)