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Home > Meet the Author > Introduction to Four Texts on Socrates

Four Texts on Socrates: Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, and Aristophanes' Clouds:
Translator's Note and Beginning of Introduction

Four Texts on Socrates: Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and Aristophanes' Clouds. Revised edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Translated by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West
Introduction by Thomas G. West

Translator's Note

We have striven for the most accurate possible English rendition of the Greek. In spite of the wide gulf between modern English and ancient Greek, this collection offers reliable translations that can be studied with profit by Greekless readers. Currently available versions of these works are unnecessarily loose. In the case of the Clouds, particularly, most translators forgo precision in their concern for style and humor. Our versions may seem strange at first, but with greater familiarity the read will appreciate the simplicity and vigor of the straightforward Greek diction.

A perfect literal translation from the Greek is impossible. The Greek words have connotations whose resonances are rarely caught with lexicon equivalents, and many Greek idioms would be unintelligible if translated literally. Furthermore, Plato and Aristophanes often use traditional terms in novel ways, and their deliberate play with the meanings of such terms is integral to the meanings of their works. If the translator tries to capture the particular shade of meaning intended on each occasion a given word appears, the reader remains ignorant that the word recurs at all. But if the word is rendered by a consistent English expression, distortions and awkwardness inevitably mar the translation. Our inelegant and incomplete solution has been to use, wherever possible, consistent translations of important words and phrases supplemented by explanatory notes.

The four works were translated from John Burnet's edition of Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito and K. J. Dover's edition of Aristophanes' Clouds by permission of Oxford University Press. The translation of the Apology of Socrates was previously published; the present version incorporates a number of mostly minor changes. Occasionally we have departed from Burnet's and Dover's texts in favor of the original manuscript reading or a manuscript different from the one followed by them. In the notes to the translations, we have mentioned these departures when they make a difference in the interpretation.

The notes also explain translations that may not be immediately clear and identify persons and events referred to in the texts. These notes often rely on the editions of other scholars, notably Burnet and Dover.

We have used paragraph divisions and quotation marks in the translations. There were no such divisions or devices in the original Greek. Long sentences have sometimes been broken up for the sake of clarity. We wish to thank the Earhart foundation for the generous grants that enabled us to undertake this project.

INTRODUCTION (first four pages only)

This collection contains four well-known works that present the thought and way of life of Socrates as they come to sight in confrontation with his political community.

The Platonic dialogue Euthyphro takes place just before Socrates' trial on a charge of impiety and corrupting the young. The theme of the Euthyphro is a question—"What is piety?"—that is crucial to understanding the charge against him.

In the Apology of Socrates, we are given Plato's version of Socrates' defense speech at that trial.

The Crito shows us Socrates, now in prison awaiting the death penalty, persuading his oldest friend that it is better for him to stay in Athens and die, rather than to escape to another country and live in exile.

Aristophanes' Clouds puts forward in comic form a profound critique of Socrates by a leading poet of the day—a critique that appears to lend support to the much later prosecution presented in Plato's Apology. Socrates mentions the play in his defense speech. It is a leading cause, he says, of the prejudice against him that led to his trial.

To understand these seemingly simple but actually very rich writings, there is no substitute for close study and meditation on the texts themselves. This Introduction and the works in the Selected Bibliography at the end of this book may be consulted as aids to that study.

The Modern Rejection of Reason

The modern image of Socrates on trial is of a defiant philosopher standing alone against his city and daring to repudiate its narrow-minded superstitions. Socrates is often hailed as a forerunner of modern liberalism. But he did not assert against Athens a right to individual self-expression. He did not believe in "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." (U.S. Supreme Court, opinion by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 112 S. Ct. 2791 (1992), 2807.)

Instead, Socrates insisted that life, both public and private, ought to be guided by knowledge of what is right. But knowledge is not the same as opinion. Socrates refused to defer to opinions for which no reasoned account could be given. It did not matter whether those opinions were grounded in venerable tradition, poetic inspiration, or sincere personal convictions about "one's own concept of existence." Socrates' standard was the truth about right and wrong. He did not think that truth was easy to come by. He sometimes wondered if it could be discovered at all. But he never gave up trying. He never stopped "conversing and examining both myself and others" on the topic of human excellence or virtue (Apology 38a).

In our time, the idea that reason can discover permanent truths about right and wrong is ridiculed or denounced by many among our academic elites. Richard Rorty, for example, a Stanford philosophy professor, argues that "there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves,… no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions." (Rorty, "The Fate of Philosophy," The New Republic, October 18, 1982, quoted in Sanford Levinson, Constitutional Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 176.) In other words, to use a Socratic metaphor from Plato's Republic, there is no possibility of escape from the cave, of transcending the limits of our own time and its prejudices.

A group of prominent humanities professors has echoed Rorty in these words: "all thought inevitably derives from particular standpoints, perspectives, and interests." Scholars should therefore abandon the "ideal of objectivity and disinterest" that has been the aspiration of Western science and philosophy at least since Socrates. These professors reject out of hand the Socratic attempt to discover the truth about how we should live. ("Speaking for the Humanities," a report of the American Council of Learned Societies, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 11, 1989, p. A14.)

There are some who half-heartedly try to deny the relativism that obviously flows from these claims. Gordon Wood, a highly reputed historian, insists that he too is "looking for truth—truth that may not be eternal, but that at least cuts across a decade or two or across several cultures at the same time." Does Wood mean that if it is wrong to commit murder today, that in "a decade or two" it might be quite all right? That is exactly what Richard Rorty, quoting the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, asserts: if Hitler had won World War II, it would have established "fascism [as] the truth of man, and so much the worse for us." (Gordon S. Wood, "The Fundamentalists and the Constitution," New York Review, February 18, 1988, p. 34. Rorty, quoted in Levinson, p. 176.)

One might wonder why any of this matters. Perhaps it is all empty academic talk, and life will go on fine with or without it. Unfortunately, what people believe sooner or later affects how they act. If people become convinced by these relativistic doctrines, they will eventually realize that nothing but blind habit holds them back from indulgence in the most predatory passions. We already see such passions celebrated in rap music and the nastier varieties of rock. We see a growing coarseness in the relations between men and women. At the same time, relativism is taught ever more routinely in high schools and universities. As economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote, "the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else." (General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1935; repr. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1965), p. 383.)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can look back on the twentieth as a time of great achievement and invention—but also a time of tremendous brutality and moral disarray. The most murderous tyrannies of world history thrived in Hitler's Germany, in Stalin's Soviet Union, and in Mao's China. The men who ruled these three empires all rejected the idea of permanent moral truth—Stalin and Mao because they embraced Marx's historical dialectic, Hitler because he turned to the triumph of the will over reason. These tyrannies are gone for now, but the abandonment of reason that helped to bring them about is now everywhere.

There is an ominous tribalism growing throughout the Western world. There are dark hints from people of one ethnic group or another that race is what matters, not our common humanity or citizenship. Principles like "all men are created equal," once regarded as self-evident to every rational person who understands what it means to be human, are now often dismissed as the quaint ideology of eighteenth-century America.

The Socratic Alternative

In light of the obvious dangers spawned by the modern rejection of reason, it is worth reexamining the case for reason. Socrates was the first in a long Western tradition of philosophic rationalists. He looked to reason as a guide to life. He relentlessly refused to accept answers untested in conversation and debate.

In the Apology, Socrates tells us that when he examined the opinions of the Athenians, he discovered that they did not know what they presumed to know. He pointed out their errors. They were annoyed. To his fellow citizens, he seemed to be questioning the authority of the city's gods and its laws. He was, of course. But Socrates also appeared to be unable to provide the Athenians with a satisfactory alternative account of the ends of human life. He insisted that he was as ignorant as they in regard to "the greatest things" (Apology 22d).

By undercutting the laws and the tradition, he seemed to be justifying the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure—the argument of Unjust Speech in Aristophanes' Clouds. From this point of view, Socrates' quarrel with the city and its traditions, carried on in daily conversations and listened to by many impressionable young men, was bound to appear irresponsible. This difficulty, presented in comic form in the Clouds, is a leading part of Aristophanes' case against Socrates.

But the Socrates of Plato's dialogues does not oppose Athens without offering a substitute for its defective opinions and institutions. Knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance. Socrates knows that he does not know, and, we may add, he knows what he does not know, namely, "the greatest things."

Therefore, he knows enough to establish for himself a way of life devoted to asking and thinking about those most important matters. He calls that way of life "philosophy." Tentatively, but for practical purposes finally, virtue is defined as the philosophic life. The conditions for that life include qualities of soul and political institutions conducive to supporting the philosophic life. This is the Socratic answer.

Thus Socrates' thought is characterized by an uncompromising dedication to knowledge, but also by a moderation that stems from his awareness of his own ignorance. Socrates' achievement, which deserves our careful consideration, was to combine rigor with skepticism without giving in to the temptation of absolutism on the one extreme or relativism on the other.

This Socratic insight, applied to our own time, may offer a basis for defending a healthy constitutionalism—one that secures political liberty on the basis of the consent of the governed, without hesitating to check the licentious conduct that would destroy freedom as well as the philosophic way of life. Freedom secures the philosopher’s ability to inquire. Democracy and limited government are a reasonable response to the boastfulness of those who claim on the basis of expertise that they alone should rule—the same boastfulness exposed by Socrates when he examined the intellectuals and politicians of his day. And finally, morality secures the conditions of freedom by teaching citizens to stand up against those who would oppress them, to restrain their destructive passions, and to respect each other's rights. (For a fuller account, see Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), chs. 4 and 7.)


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