What Sort of Thing is a Socrates?

Alexandra Baro

Of all the Great Books on all the Great Books lists, why did I start with the Republic? Perhaps Plato stood out like a grand old man in diminished circumstances, and I recognized him without quite knowing who he was. I liked to read, though I found the trappings of serious literature as presented in high-school English class to be thoroughly chilling: the symbolism worksheets, the word searches in which one was to find metonymy and chiasmus. Perhaps I wanted to prove that I was smarter than the teacher who not only assigned these things but had the gall to punish me for not completing them. Or perhaps I simply had little else to do with my new driver’s license. Whatever the reason, I drove to a failing Borders and bought the Penguin Classic.

He got his hooks in me. The translator had translated Socrates and company to Oxbridge, where they addressed each other as “old chap”. This was ravishing. I loved Socrates, mainly because, without understanding much of what was at stake in the conversation, I saw him as a genuine punk. I began waking up at four in the morning to read before school, playing The Clash at the lowest possible volume. Barely audible, but it set a certain mood.

It was the structure of the Socratic question, though, that had the most profound effect: What is Justice? What is Truth? What, in short, is X? I did not know that questions like this were there to be asked. Merely learning that one could say words as weirdly bracing as “Beauty itself” cracked the dull world open and returned it to me enchanted anew. I, a sullen girl who grimaced through most of the ostensible delights of adolescence, began to weep tears of joy and confusion at the sight of ordinary things: a cloud spreading its wings over a Walmart, a needlessly lovely bush in a highway median, individual blades of grass. Why do we get to have a sense of beauty? It struck me, for the first time, as gratuitous, a wonder. I began to live as though life were not trivial. For it was not.

15th-century illustration of Plato teaching Aristotle, a monkey, and others (French manuscript of Tomasso’s 14th-century Fiore di virtù [“Flowers of Virtue”], Morgan Library, New York MS M.771 (c.1460) f.87r).

In Book 7 of the Republic, Socrates speaks of the need to “be turned towards” (τετραφθῆναι, tetraphthēnai) philosophy (519b). To fall in love with wisdom is to alter the orientation of the soul. I suppose that this is more or less what happened to me. In my flat-footed way, I have tried to long for wisdom, and the struggle to do so has been one of the great joys of my life. It’s with the zeal of the convert that I ask what might occasion such a turn to philosophy. Can the love of wisdom spread from person to person, and, if so, how? Or, to put it differently, what can we learn from Plato about pedagogy?

I’m making two assumptions here. First, that the ultimate goal of pedagogy is, in fact, to alter the orientation of the soul. Second, that it makes sense to call whatever Socrates does “pedagogy”. After all, in the Apology, Socrates denies that he was ever anyone’s teacher (33a–b). True enough — he claims no knowledge, charges no tuition, connects himself to no particular school. If teaching is what Gorgias of Leontini and Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis do, then Socrates isn’t a teacher (19e). This denial, however, rests on a glibly limited idea of what teaching is. If Socrates isn’t a teacher, Plato suggests, we need a better definition.

Reconstruction of Socrates’ appearance, reproduced by kind permission of the artist, Robert Kubus.

It’s notable that, although Socrates gives several accounts of ideal educations, they bear very little resemblance to anything that happens within the drama of the dialogues. In the Cave Allegory, for example, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine what would happen if one of the prisoners chained to the wall were “released and suddenly compelled to move his neck around and walk and look up toward the light” (515c). What causes the prisoner to be released, and whether the change comes from within or without or some combination of the two, is a mystery. More than a mystery, it’s a miracle, tucked into a few coy passive verbs. Some of Socrates’ interlocutors might be more promising than others, but we never see any one of them actually experience a decisive, sudden release. Plato’s dramatic content complicates Socrates’ theory.

While Socrates’ theoretical accounts of education tend to focus on vision, the images he uses to describe his activity foreground the sense of touch. In the Cave Allegory, the lover of wisdom is educated by successive shocks to the eye. In both the Symposium and the Phaedrus, one transforms into a lover of wisdom by beginning with the sight of a beautiful body. But when Socrates likens himself to a gadfly in the Apology and a bee in the Phaedo, he uses the language of pricking and stinging. Education befalls us not  through the transmission of content, but through such bee stings of the soul.

Black-figure amphora depicting the nude Laios, Keleos, Kerberos, and Aigolios amid a swarm of bees, c.540 BC (found in Vulci, Italy, and now in the British Museum, London).

Although he claims in court that he has been set upon the city of Athens by divine command, the likening of his activity to the gadfly’s makes it seem directionless or, at the very least, inefficient. The gadfly needles the horse because that’s what gadflies do, but the horse will not be permanently affected by any particular attack from a gadfly. The two creatures are only locked into the natural terms of their relationship. Until, that is, the pest is put to death:

If you kill me, you won’t easily find another one like me, who (even if it’s ridiculous to say so) has been joined to the city by the god, just as to a great and well-bred horse that is sluggish because of its size and needs to be woken up by some kind of horsefly. I think that the god has attached me to the city to be something like that, one who won’t stop waking you up and persuading you and taking each one of you to task, hunkering down right by you all day long and everywhere you go (Apology 30e–31a).[1]

I have translated the word that conventionally comes into English as gadfly – μύωψ, muōps – as “horsefly” because it is worth asking anew what exactly a muōps is.

In fact, a muōps need not be an insect – it may also be a spur. Laura Marshall makes a compelling case for this alternate rendering, which was conventional until Benjamin Jowett’s 19th-century translation.[2] When muōps appears in tragedy prior to Plato, it is often accompanied by the word οἶστρος (oistros,“horsefly”) or a qualifying adjective. In Aeschylus, writing two or three generations earlier, the muōps is the horsefly that Hera sends to punish Io for attracting Zeus. In the Suppliant Women (458 BC), King Pelasgus calls it the “cattle-prod” which “drove her from her land in a great flight” (307–8). In Prometheus Bound (attributed, somewhat controversially, to Aeschylus), Io herself laments that she is endlessly “stung by a sharp-toothed muōps” (675).

Juno surprises Jupiter and Io, Jan Jansz van Bronkhorst, c.1650 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands).

According to Marshall, when muōps means “horsefly”, it requires a less ambiguous synonym to clarify the meaning”. By contrast, when in the 4th century BC Xenophon and Theophrastus use the word in the context of horsemanship, it seems that “no synonym is necessary to make the meaning clear”.[3] This suggests that spur is its more dominant sense. If we think of Socrates’ muōps as a horsefly, then he is inviting disquieting traces of madness and lust. If we think of Socrates as a spur, then he’s an instrument of a god with an aim in mind.

Madness and lust are certainly not out of place in Socrates’ various accounts of the formation of the soul. Although the Apology is the only dialogue in which we find a muōps, its near synonym, oistros, makes several appearances. An oistros can be a horsefly, but Plato also uses it more generally to describe various stinging sensations within the body and soul. In the Republic, for instance, the soul of the tyrant is “always dragged along by an oistros against its will” (577e). That oistros is desire — a prodigious ἔρως (erōs)that Socrates dubs the “great winged drone” (573a). When “the other desires, full of incense and myrrh and garlands and wine… buzz around it, fattening it up and feeding it, they fix a sting of longing in the drone,” at which point it is “stung into madness” (573a–b). The verb I’ve translated as “stung into a madness” is oistraō. In the soul of the tyrant, the oistros is an affliction. For the philosopher, though, this affliction is a gift. In the Phaedrus, Socrates describes a special form of madness that is “the best of all forms of divine inspiration”: that of the lover (249e). When the lover is parted from the beloved, his soul “is pricked all over and stung into madness and pained, and yet it rejoices in the memory of the beautiful one” (251d). Socrates uses the same verb, oistraō, that he uses in the Republic to describe the suffering of the tyrant, except here the erotic sting occasions the turn to philosophy. Eventually, if he isn’t dragged down into the swamp of earthly love, the beauty of a particular person might cause him to set his sights on Beauty itself and eventually reach ecstatic contemplation of the world behind the world. The possibility that the sting of desire may result in a philosopher rather than a tyrant does not neutralize its danger. Whether or not you become a philosopher is contingent on both the strength of your longing and where it leads.

Alcibiades, wood engraving by John Archibald Austen (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). The inscription reads ho pais kallos, meaning “the beautiful boy”.

The word muōps contains the associations of the oistros with longing, madness, and philosophical transcendence, but it also contains the associations of the spur with control and skill. Perhaps the question of whether Socrates’ muōps ought to be understood as a fly or a spur ultimately depends on the horse.

The results of Socratic pedagogy are highly contingent. In the Apology, he includes a pointed illustration of how it can go awry. It is, after all, self-styled disciples of Socrates who land him in a trial for his life:

“The young men who follow me around by choice – the ones with the most time on their hands, that is, the sons of the extremely rich – enjoy hearing people questioned, and they often imitate me and try to question others. Then, I think, they find a great number of men who think that they know something, but in fact know little or nothing at all. So then the ones who have been questioned by these boys are angry with me, not with themselves, and they say that this Socrates character is really abominable and corrupts the young…” (23c–d)

It might seem that in the case of these young men, Socrates has been an effective spur – they take up his pursuit. And yet, although the young men learn to delight in hearing others divested of their false beliefs, there’s no mention of any of them ever being moved to examine their own. Philosophy is not a spectator sport. They may imitate certain formal aspects of Socratic practice, but this practice seems to remain a detachable part of their lives, rather than a way of life in itself.

Plato’s Academy, as depicted in a 1st cent. BC mosaic from the the House of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

These imitations are the kind of legacy that the Socrates of the Phaedo wants to avoid. While he identifies with the muōps, which leaves no trace, his self-comparison to a bee contains some reservations, for a bee leaves something of itself behind when it stings. “You though,” he instructs, Simmias and Cebes,

“if you’ll listen to me, will think little of Socrates and much more about the truth. If I seem to you to say something true, agree with me, and if I don’t, fight me on every point, taking care that in my eagerness I don’t depart having deceived both myself and you, leaving my stinger behind just like a bee.” (91b–c)

The danger is that devotion to Socrates at the expense of the truth will make Simmias and Cebes vulnerable to deception. This is one of the risks inherent to a philosophical education. Because education happens in moments of intimate contact between particular souls, there is the danger that love for one particular, temporary human being will threaten one’s longing for truth. The intimacy that makes education possible also jeopardizes its success.

The word I’ve translated as “stinger” in the passage above is κέντρον (kentron). A kentron is a spur or a goad, and, like oistros, Plato often uses it to describe sensations of stinging and pricking. We’ve seen one of these before: the “sting of longing” fixed in the tyrant’s great winged drone (Rep. 573a). It is also the word that Socrates uses in the Phaedrus when he describes the lover’s “stings of longing” for the beloved (254a). The phrase is the same: pothou kentron. These pricks of longing might prompt the lover’s turn to philosophy.

Nintendo’s 1979 chess boardgame, Socrates.

Desire is ambivalent; it makes such a turn possible, not inevitable. The nature of Socrates’ kentron is ambiguous. If, out of devotion to their mortal teacher, Simmias and Cebes allow themselves to be deceived by a faulty argument, the kentron will be more like the sting that afflicts the great winged drone and plunge them deeper into delusion. But if they continue to fight Socrates on every point even after he is gone, then it might become a longing for wisdom. It depends on Simmias and Cebes, on the quality and arrangement of their souls. All the bee can do is sting.

Socratic pedagogy is more than inefficient – it’s a model of anti-efficiency, in part because it works through relationships cultivated at leisure, and in part because it requires the student to forget his teacher and renew his perplexity before the truth. Plato himself compels his reader to practise starting over again, empty-handed. The dialogues undo themselves like self-destructing mandalas, revealing the impermanence of our arguments and the imperative to begin and begin and begin again. One answer to the question of how to spread the love of wisdom might be as simple and mysterious as this: teach Plato, wait, and see.

Alexandra Baro has an MA in Classical Studies from UCLA. She teaches writing at a private high school in New Jersey and leads a tutorial in Ancient Greek for the Catherine Project, to her great joy.

Further Reading

On the translation of Socrates’ muōps, see Laura A. Marshall, “Gadfly or Spur? The Meaning of ΜΥΩΨ in Plato’s Apology of Socrates,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 137 (2017) 163–74.

For a discussion of animal imagery in Plato’s dialogues, see Jeremy Bell & Michael Naas, Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans, and Other Philosophical Beasts (Indiana UP, Bloomington, IN, 2015).

On the importance of characterization to Plato’s philosophical project, see Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues (Cambridge UP, 2002).

For a comic reading of Socrates’ defense in the Apology, see Sonja Tanner, Plato’s Laughter: Socrates as Satyr and Comical Hero (State Univ. of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2017).


1 All translations from the Greek are my own. Plato’s text can be read freely, in Greek and English, via Perseus here; all other dialogues are similarly available on the site.
2 Marshall (2017) 163: see “Further Reading” for full citation.
3 Marshall (2017) 167–8; Xenophon, On Horsemanship, 8.2–5; Theophrastus, Characters, 21.8.