The Doctor Is In … But Also Out: Machaon in Plato, Republic 3. 405d-406a

  Ferrari, G. R. F. 2022. “The Doctor Is In … But Also Out: Machaon in Plato, Republic 3.405d-406a.” Classics@22: Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

The passage in Plato that I have selected for investigation is a mention of Homer that occurs in Book 3 of the Republic, but not in the notorious pages in which a variety of Homeric lines are proposed for excision from the body of poetry that the Guardians will get to hear. I choose instead to investigate Plato’s use of Homer in the discussion of the medical practices best suited to the ideal society, Callipolis. This occurs in the pages of Book 3 that follow the censorship of poetry—pages less commonly attended to by scholars. That is one reason for attending to them now. Another is the fact that the Homeric passage in question crops up also in a different dialogue, the Ion. In both places, Plato looks to us to be misrepresenting Homer, but in different ways: in the Republic, two distinct incidents in Homer’s narrative are combined into one; in the Ion, although the incident itself is now correctly reported, two distinct portions of Homeric text are combined into one in order to report it. If we rule out as too much of a coincidence the notion that Plato blundered twice, but differently, over the same event in the Iliad, we can raise interesting questions about his reasons for so toying with his Homeric target in different contexts. And when it comes to the Ion, there is an additional point of intrigue: the fact that Xenophon in his Symposium toys with the same incident in somewhat similar ways. This raises the possibility that there existed in Socratic circles a conventional practice of pressing Homeric lines into playful service when making philosophic points.
Before giving you my account of this nexus of misrepresentations, I should acknowledge that one cannot simply rule out the possibility of Platonic blunder in this case. Jules Labarbe in his L’Homère de Platon is quite happy to locate the cause of misrepresentation on these two occasions in lapses of Plato’s memory of the Homeric text—different lapses at the different times in the author’s life at which he wrote the Ion and the Republic. [1] “Blunder” (bévue) seems in fact to be Labarbe’s favorite term of analysis; he reaches for it throughout his treatise. (The misrepresentation in the Republic continues to be attributed to a lapse of Plato’s memory in the new Loeb translation of the work.) [2] A different kind of explanation, but one which similarly refuses to countenance purposeful misrepresentation on Plato’s part, relies on the hypothesis that Plato’s text of Homer may have been quite different in some places from the text that we have received. This is the explanation that James Adam offers in his commentary on the Republic. [3] (The same possibility has more recently been entertained by Georges Leroux in the notes to his French translation of the work.) [4] Neither of these types of explanation, it seems to me, can be dismissed as just impossible. The best one can do to contest their validity is to give as convincing an account as one can of why deliberate misrepresentation of Homer on Plato’s part would be appropriate to the context in which it occurs in the dialogues. And where the same Homeric passage is mentioned in more than one dialogue, as here, the opportunity for contextual explanation is all the richer. (Nevertheless, my primary focus in what follows will be on the misrepresentation in Republic Book 3; Xenophon and the Ion will be brought in only at the end.)
One final preliminary: in work published over the last decade or so I have come to adopt a methodological principle of distinguishing what motivates the writer Plato from what, within the fiction, motivates his character Socrates; and I will be applying that principle here. In particular, I will be attributing motivations and behaviors to the character Socrates that may seem quite mundane, even banal and scarcely worth scholarly attention—until, that is, we turn our attention to what Plato is getting at by scripting these motivations and behaviors for his literary creation. [5]
Let us begin at the point in Republic Book 3 where Socrates has completed his account of the young Guardians’ musical and poetic education and has turned to the topic of their physical training (403c). Discussion has quickly devolved on questions of diet. For our “athletes of war,” who will need to be ever alert and to endure unpredictable deprivations and hardships on campaign, the diet will need to be leaner and less fastidious than the one typically administered to regular athletes (404a–b). Thoughts of war then suggest in Socrates’ mind a corroborating point from that war-story par excellence, Homer’s Iliad. (This would be one of those “mundane” behaviors that I mentioned I would be attributing to the character Socrates.) Homer’s heroes never dine on fish, despite being encamped on the sea-shore, nor on boiled meat, but are only said to spit and roast their meat on an open fire. Their meals offer little variety, then, nor do they involve any but the simplest of utensils. Theirs is an austere cuisine fit for soldiers on campaign, as well as happening to offer a parallel in its austerity to the strictures on music and poetry that Socrates has just finished imposing on his Guardians (404b–c). Still less does Homer mention sweets and pastries as forming any part of his heroes’ diet (404c). Not for them, then, nor for our Guardians, the luxurious table and the overindulgence whose deleterious consequences for health keep contemporary doctors in business (404d–405d). These modern-day “Asclepiads,” as the guild of physicians calls itself, adopt a cossetting style of care, best suited to the anxieties of hypochondriacs whose maladies are self-induced. They prove to be unworthy heirs of their ancestral and patron deity, Asclepius. And once again, Homer’s Iliad is brought in to make Socrates’ point for him. Asclepius’ own sons, back in the day—Podalirius and Machaon, the doctors in the Greek army at Troy—made no criticism either of the woman who gave the wounded Eurypylus a posset of strong Pramnian wine sprinkled with lots of barley-meal and grated cheese, nor did they reprimand Patroclus, who prescribed the potion. Any of our modern doctors would tell you that such a brew is going to provoke inflammation; yet here the very sons of the patron deity of doctors feel no such fastidious qualms—or so Socrates implies—about the advisability of administering a brew of such strength to a weakened man (405d–406a). Glaucon’s reply reinforces Socrates’ implication about the boldness of the prescription: “That is indeed a strange drink to give to someone in this condition” (406a).
This reference to the incident of the posset in Homer is the passage that I wish to take as my target; for it gives a confused account of the story that Homer actually tells. Socrates is out to make a point about the new-fangled fastidiousness of dietetics in his day; what comes to mind in Homer, accordingly, is the crudeness, by comparison, of the posset that was given to a wounded man in the Iliad. And why is Socrates’ mind turning once again to Homer? Because, in the course of berating modern physicians for their over-exquisiteness, he has just called them by their hereditary guild name: Asclepiads. This reminds him that Asclepius’ sons were the two notable Greek physicians at Troy, and got on quite well without such milquetoast medicine. Look no further than the famous Iliadic posset for that. (The posset itself would have been famous because unique in the Iliad, in which medical treatment was otherwise limited to external interventions such as the removal of arrowheads, the cleansing of blood, and the application of herbal salves and bandages.) Socrates’ reference to Homer, then, is guided by two interests: assaying the contents of the posset, and showing that they met with the approval of Homeric physicians. Other details would be far less to his point.
Plato makes sure we see how casual Socrates is prepared to be with those other details when he has him fail to give a name to Hecamede, the servant in Homer who mixed and served the posset. Socrates contents himself instead with the vague description “the woman giving the drink.” (In fact, he does not even say “woman,” using only the feminine form of the participle: τῇ δούσῃ πιεῖν, 406a2.) Has the name slipped Socrates’ mind? Is he simply not concerned with the name right now? This would be a detail that does not need to be settled to make Plato’s point, which is to draw the reader’s attention to what Socrates’ summary may be omitting or only loosely conveying. The ingredients of the posset, which we have seen to be one of Socrates’ two main interests in retelling the story, he gets right: Pramnian wine, barley-meal, grated cheese. Or at least he gets right the three ingredients that are listed in the two lines to which he chooses to allude; for it would seem from a comparison with the Odyssey that the honey which Hecamede sets on the table alongside the barley-meal at Iliad 11.631 was also intended to go into the drink. (Circe adds honey to the same three ingredients for the version of the posset that she mixes at Odyssey 10.234–235.) Socrates does also alter the phrase “white barley-meal” (ἄλφιτα λευκά), formulaic in Homer, to “much barley-meal” (ἄλφιτα πολλά). But this too serves his interest. Socrates could be making the substitution deliberately, or through a fault of memory; either alternative makes for a dramatically plausible touch on Plato’s part, since the substitution serves his character’s aim of emphasizing the grossness of the beverage, and does so whether it is conscious or a matter of unconscious wish-fulfilment. (And let us bear in mind that Socrates is reporting a Homeric incident in this passage, not quoting Homer directly; this gives him more liberty to paraphrase.)
In the treatment that follows, I will throughout be allowing the character Socrates to maintain a degree of opacity. His misrepresentations of Homer’s story could be due to a lapse of memory or could be deliberate. We do not need to decide which, because in either case Socrates’ behavior would be determined by the interests of the argument that he is making. Either his memory is erroneously but conveniently supplying him with a summary or a citation that best serves his argument, or else he is being deliberately loose in his references, and with just the same outcome. (The Greeks were more indulgent in their habits of citation and reference than we permit ourselves to be in an age of print culture, copyright, and concerns about plagiarism.) The crucial point for my purposes is that either explanation for Socrates’ behavior preserves dramatic plausibility and permits us to distinguish between Socrates’ interests as the character making an argument and Plato’s interests as the writer who gives his character that particular argument and those particular interests; for the two sets of interests are not the same.
A largely correct account of which ingredients went into the posset serves Socrates’ interests; but a correct account of the involvement of Asclepius’ sons in the incident, as we are about to see, would serve his interests far less well. To begin with, in the Homeric original not one but two medical interventions are narrated, and Book 11 of the Iliad (504–847) dovetails them neatly together. [6] The physician Machaon is wounded in action, and is taken by Nestor to the safety of Nestor’s own tent. Shortly thereafter, the hero Eurypylus is wounded in the same engagement and begins making his way back to his tent alone. Both men sustain arrow wounds delivered by the Trojan prince Paris—Machaon in the right shoulder, Eurypylus in the right thigh. We next find the wounded Machaon seated in Nestor’s tent, where Nestor’s maidservant Hecamede prepares refreshment for both of the battle-weary men. It is to Machaon and to Nestor, not to Eurypylus, that the famous posset is served. Nor is its purpose forthrightly medical, since the unwounded Nestor is given the brew along with his wounded guest. Even to the extent that the refreshment would have a salutary effect beyond the relief of thirst (which is all that is mentioned in the text, 11.642), Patroclus is not in fact the person directing the treatment. He shows up at the tent after the brew has been prepared, and is there only to inquire after the identity of the wounded man. So far as we are told, Hecamede concocted the posset on her own initiative—just as, later on, Nestor will be happy to leave her to bathe Machaon and to cleanse his wound (14.1–8). We never get to hear when or how the arrow was extracted. No doctor, at any rate, is in charge; Machaon never speaks to his own treatment. Patroclus, for his part, is neither consulted on the matter nor does he offer any medical advice. The patient whom Patroclus gets to heal is Eurypylus, just as Socrates says; but this happens only after he has left Nestor’s tent to return to Achilles with the results of his inquiry (11.804–848). On the way, he chances upon the arriving Eurypylus, who appeals to him for medical assistance in the absence of the wounded physician Machaon as well as of his physician brother (still fighting on the battlefield). Back in Eurypylus’ tent Patroclus cuts out the arrow, washes the wound, and applies analgesic herbs that staunch the bleeding—a skill he learnt from Achilles, who was himself taught it by the centaur Cheiron.
Two incidents so alike to begin with, which then get braided together in the narrative, almost beg to be jumbled up with each other in memory. Socrates is either succumbing to this danger himself, or he is taking advantage of what may well seem to him a rather otiose duplication of incidents by condensing the story into a single event, so that it best serves the needs of his argument. If the latter, then Socrates could also expect the looseness of his summary to escape the notice of his partner in the conversation, Glaucon—as indeed transpires. Socrates could expect this because of the apparent duplication in Homer’s tale that gave Socrates the opportunity to abbreviate the narrative in the first place. Glaucon could well jumble the incidents together in his own memory. Plato thus preserves dramatic plausibility on all sides.
Socrates, we saw, has two main interests in referring to the incident of the posset: one is to assay the contents of the beverage (which he accurately does); the other is to show that they met with the approval of Homeric physicians. It is the second of these interests that is served by Socrates’ inaccuracy. Both physician brothers are imagined to have had ultimate authority over the treatment, although in Homer only one, Machaon, was present, and he was patient rather than doctor. Podalirius, on the other hand, cannot be supposed to have treated his own brother’s wound, for this action simply never occurred in Homer. Socrates’ memory-lapse, if such it was, would lose all plausibility; or, if the inaccuracy was strategic, it would have been implausibly risky; Glaucon, an aficionado of music and literature (see 398e, 548e), would likely have called him on it. What Socrates’ memory can plausibly be thought to have offered him, or what a more strategic Socrates could plausibly have expected to get away with in his summary, is rather an incident that did indeed happen in the Iliad, and at the same time as Machaon’s wounding: the wounding of Eurypylus and his subsequent treatment by Patroclus. The position of the doctor as ultimate medical authority can thereby be preserved: both Hecamede’s initiative and Patroclus’ medical skill can be minimized by subordinating them to the physicians’ say-so, while the posset can take on for itself the forthrightly medical purpose that Patroclus’ herbal poultice served in Eurypylus’ case. Nor is Socrates wrong, exactly, to claim that the physician brothers were involved, although at a certain distance, in the portmanteau incident that he relates. But he fails to mention the original reason that their involvement was at a distance—namely, that they were both of them, each in his own way, prevented by circumstances from intervening more authoritatively.
It is important for us to appreciate what Socrates pays no attention to when recalling these Homeric incidents: the reasons of narrative art that prompt Homer to say what he says. Socrates is plundering the Homeric text for information (notice the phrase he uses at 404b: “one could learn (μάθοι) this sort of thing also from Homer”). He is treating Homer as a walking encyclopedia in much the way he will later complain that his whole society has a tendency to do (Book 10, esp. 598e–601a). When a Homeric reference will serve to color his argument with conviction, Socrates is evidently willing to indulge the habits of his culture and put the reference to use. The result here, in these pages describing the medical practice appropriate for Callipolis, is that he is inferring an entire medical regimen from passages in Homer that carry no such implication. And the strain shows.
Socrates insists that the simple diet of the Homeric heroes at Troy and the limitation of medical intervention to cases of trauma was the result of deliberate medical policy on the part of the sons of Asclepius, who, he imagines, inherited a conscious rejection of sophisticated dietetics from their father (406c). But there is a reason that Socrates can only insist on this point rather than argue it from Homer’s text: no trace of such a policy can be detected in the Iliad. And when Socrates goes on to attribute a complete program of socialized medicine to Asclepius and his sons, Plato draws the reader’s attention to the extravagance of the argument by making Glaucon cavil at it. Socrates proposes that Asclepius valued a practice of medicine that restored to health from occasional illness those whose constitutions were basically robust but at the same time denied medical treatment to those whose chronically unsound constitutions rendered them unable to do their job for the city. At this, Glaucon raises a quizzical eyebrow: “Quite the statesman, this Asclepius of yours” (407c–e). Socrates defends himself by pointing out that the sons of Asclepius in the Iliad were not just physicians but also excellent warriors (implication: their father made sure they had something useful to do for their warlike society when they were not treating occasional wounds and diseases). Moreover, he continues, when the wounded Menelaus was treated on the spot, they followed up with no recuperative dietary recommendations for the long term—any more than they did when treating Eurypylus. They thereby demonstrated their concurrence in their father’s beliefs about the social goals of medicine (407e–408b). (Once again, Socrates here involves both brothers in an incident where Homer mentions only one of them, Machaon: Iliad 4. 218–219.) Glaucon’s response is as quizzical as before: “Super-subtle, your sons of Asclepius” (408b). And because Socrates has seen fit to bring back the case of Eurypylus and the posset for comparison, Glaucon’s scepticism casts a shadow backwards over the hermeneutics that Socrates has been applying to Homer throughout the discussion of medicine.
Socrates left poetry behind as his topic when he made the turn to physical education and matters of the body. And even when poetry was the direct topic, he had treated it in the main as a socially formative resource. Socrates had sketched the pattern of a socialized poetry for his Guardians—one whose austerity matches that of the socialized medicine that he proceeds to propose for them (404b). And now that his direct topic is medicine, he has ceased altogether to pay attention to the specifically poetic values of the poetry he cites. Thus, he pays no heed to the fact that the Iliad has a story of war to narrate, which means that traumatic injury will play a role in it. Nor does he think to himself that a storyteller who wants to pack his war-story with action and give it grip will ensure that the role played by traumatic injury is a substantial one. Among the medical issues faced by actual armies when on campaign, contagious diseases have always featured alongside trauma; but an extended tale of dysentery in the trenches would be a very different kind of war-story than the Iliad. Homer launches the Iliad with a plague, of course; but he does not continue his story in this vein. Nor are doctors so much as mentioned when it comes to fighting that contagion: it is assumed to be a matter for the soothsayers (1.62–64). The Iliad begins with a sacrilege that requires expiation; the plague is, almost literally, a mere symptom of that sacrilege; and the story begins in this way in order to kickstart its plot into high gear. (Sacrilege carries exclamation marks in its train.) Homer is not interested in medical issues per se; he is not interested in asking what the sons of Asclepius could or could not have done in the face of such a plague; he is interested in his story. The episode, famous though it is, is therefore nothing to Socrates’ purpose, and he is silent about it. But a reader who is alert to this silence can see that the reason for the Iliad’s containing more traumatic injury than disease has nothing to do with a general medical policy of the day (and therefore is no evidence for one), while having everything to do with the requirements of a story that aims to evoke the lion’s share of its pathos through violent action.
When it comes to Socrates’ combining two Homeric episodes into one in order to make his point about medical regimen, Plato once again has his character ride roughshod over storytelling values. For the braid that Homer plaits from two quite similar cases of a hero sustaining an arrow wound is anything but otiose. It is carefully constructed around the movements of Patroclus; and these are slow, foreboding movements towards his own doom. Let us consider the details of its construction, for they will help illuminate Plato’s purpose in scripting Socrates’ conflation of the two episodes as he does.
The first element to be put in place is the wounding of Machaon. He is no run-of-the-mill casualty: when the warrior who is put out of action is also the army doctor, there will be a knock-on effect among the other casualties. Idomeneus, appealing to Nestor to remove Machaon by chariot for maximum speed, draws attention to the situation with a line that seems to have become proverbial: “A medical man is worth more than many others together” (11.514). [7] At the end of Book 11, the irony in the situation will be clearly stated by none other than Eurypylus, whose wounding becomes the second of the elements in Homer’s narrative construction. Appealing to Patroclus for medical help, Eurypylus justifies himself by pointing out that both army doctors are unavailable, and that Machaon, who is back in camp, wounded, is “himself in need of a skilled physician” (11.835).
This strand of the braid, however, is plaited only at the end of Book 11. When Eurypylus receives his injury, quite soon after Machaon receives his (11.581–595), Homer’s audience cannot yet appreciate how the two events will be connected. Instead, the poet cuts directly from Eurypylus’ withdrawal to the progress of Nestor and Machaon back to Nestor’s tent—a progress that Achilles happens to notice. This fateful coincidence is the point at which Patroclus is brought into the story. Achilles sends him to Nestor’s tent to ascertain whether the wounded man in the chariot is actually Machaon, as, from a distance, it seemed to be. And here the poet chooses to make the workings of his plot explicit: Patroclus came at Achilles’ summons, “and this was the beginning of his doom” (11.604).
How this errand will bring on Patroclus’ doom we discover only when Nestor, comfortable in his tent, gets to the end of a long reminiscence of his own youthful military exploits, a story he drags out in order to complain to the visiting Patroclus, by contrast, about the passivity shown by the champion Achilles, even while so many brave Greeks are being wounded on the field of battle. (Homer ensures that we are reminded by Nestor that among these wounded men—hit “by an arrow, in the thigh”—is Eurypylus, 11.662.) Nestor concludes by proposing to Patroclus what will become the main tragic plot-twist of the Iliad: even if Patroclus cannot prevail on his boon companion Achilles to rejoin the fray himself, he might at least prevail on him for the loan of his armor, wearing which he could impersonate Achilles long enough to cow the Trojans into temporary retreat and so provide the Greeks with a much-needed breathing-space from combat (11.791–803).
The proposal rouses Patroclus’ mettle, and we see him run to Achilles’ tent to put it into action. Homer then turns the final knot in the braid: before Patroclus can reach Achilles, he bumps into Eurypylus staggering his way back into camp, and takes pity on him. Together, they move to Eurypylus’ tent, where Patroclus begins treating the wound (11.809–848). The long delay this encounter introduces between Nestor’s fateful proposal and its presentation by Patroclus to Achilles at the opening of Book 16 is the artistic reason Homer chose to make a doublet of the woundings of Machaon and of Eurypylus, rather than contenting himself with the wounding of Machaon. The audience has been primed for Patroclus to approach Achilles immediately with what it knows will be a fatal request; instead, the audience must wait, with sharpened appetite. An issue of dramatic plausibility is also involved. [8] The intransigent Achilles has sworn not to return to battle unless the Trojans reach his very ships; so far, they have not even reached the Greek camp. Why should so obstinate a man give way to the considerable extent of allowing Patroclus to impersonate him on the field, unless, say, he can at least hear the clamor of the Trojans among the other Greek ships? Just this, at any rate, is the reasoning that Homer supplies for Achilles when Patroclus finally comes to him with his request (16.49–82). The intervening books are filled with the to-and-fro of alternate Greek and Trojan attack and counter-attack, along with other episodes that build suspense in the audience, and culminating in the Trojan invasion of the Greek camp. And lest we should forget, we are twice reminded of the events whose original braiding got the plot tied up in this ever more ominous delay. At the opening of Book 14, as Hecamede is continuing to treat the wounded Machaon, Nestor hears the sounds of battle come nearer camp and goes out, weapons in hand, to gauge what is amiss, only to find that the Trojans have broken through the barricade (14.1–15). Again, in Book 15—in a replay of the order in which first Machaon and then Eurypylus were wounded—we find Patroclus still engaged in ministering to Eurypylus’ injury, when he too finally notices that the Trojans have broken into the Greek camp and rushes off to make his request of Achilles (15.390–404).
This handsome structure is set aside by Socrates, intent as he is on making a point for his argument; but it is alive, I contend, in Plato’s memory, intent as he is on composing a literary work to rival Homer’s. Unlike Homer, Plato tells his story by writing a philosophic conversation; but this does not alter the nature of their rivalry. In Homer, how Machaon and Eurypylus cope with wounds received on the battlefield and how Patroclus gets caught up in both events become moves on the narrative chessboard, at one side of which sits the poet, at the other, his audience. Characters in the story are game pieces. Our job as players is to come to understand the larger narrative strategy to which individual moves in the tale contribute. This is not something that the characters themselves can appreciate, any more than a game piece knows why it is being moved. It is an interaction between the players—between author and audience. In Plato, too, how Socrates chooses to use Homer’s story to make his argumentative point is no less a move in the larger narrative game that Plato is playing with the reader, who must answer the question: why did Plato make Socrates misrepresent Homer in just this way, just here? In this interaction between author and reader the character Socrates serves as a game piece; he does not know the game his author is playing. On Plato’s chessboard no blood is shed, no sounds of battle are heard; the action here is tame, as it is too in other dialogues. An appreciation of Plato’s strategy is therefore better adapted to make readers think than to make their hearts beat faster in anticipation. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that in both cases the interaction between author and audience is in essence the same.
What, then, should we make of Plato’s strategy at this point in the Republic? What should we make of how he chooses to have Socrates misrepresent Homer here? I take the misrepresentation to make its small contribution to a very large theme that Plato finds myriad ways to keep the reader’s mind trained upon as the fictional conversation develops. The theme is that of the fraught relation between self-control and social control, or, more positively, between self-development and social development. That this theme is important in the Republic should require no argument; but how does Socrates contribute to it by mangling his Homer?
We see how when we notice what Socrates’ substitution of Eurypylus for Machaon leaves out from Homer: a case in which a physician is himself in need of medical attention. (Socrates ignores that it was the doctor, not the hero, who had been wounded and needed the pick-me-up.) We see this when we stop thinking of how Socrates’ omission serves the point that he wishes to get across to his partners in the fictional conversation, and start thinking instead of how it serves the point, which is a different point, that Plato wishes to get across to his reader. Now that we have come to appreciate the dramatically plausible sense that Socrates’ conflation of the two episodes makes within the action of the story—indeed, only because we have first come to appreciate this—we can understand what sense it makes for Plato to have constructed that dramatic plausibility on Socrates’ behalf. We can turn our attention to what the author is planning that his character is not. We did so no less when, in our analysis of Homer, we saw how the noose of events was tightening around an unwitting Patroclus. But where Homer achieves his effect by braiding the actual movements of his actors on stage, Plato achieves his with a more cerebral braid. And I mean “cerebral” literally as well as metaphorically; for the arena in which Plato braids the movements of Homer’s characters is Socrates’ brain. It is there, rather than in the relation between events in a plot, that the woundings of Machaon and of Eurypylus are intertwined. I take this to be at once a tribute made by Plato to Homer and an implicit declaration on Plato’s part of the new kind of writing in which he intends to engage. It is as if he were telling us: “Homer composed a stretch of narrative that on the surface may seem repetitive in its episodes but to those with an eye for plot-construction reveals its beauties. My Socrates had other matters on his mind when bringing this stretch of Homeric narrative into the discussion. But I, unlike Socrates, am a writer; like Homer, I have plot-construction on my mind at all times. I can see what Homer was at. On the other hand, where Homer tells stories of how people live, I tell stories in which people discuss how people live. So, do not expect my plot to manifest itself through actions and events; expect it to manifest itself, for the most part, in what I make my characters say and, by so saying, appear to think.”
By having Socrates substitute Eurypylus for Machaon, Plato has elided, in plain sight of the readerly eye, the figure of a physician who is himself in need of medical treatment. As we have seen, Homer too makes hay with this idea when his Eurypylus points out that Machaon is currently unavailable to treat him, Eurypylus, because he, Machaon, is himself in need of a physician. It is a memorable irony, and Plato’s readers, unlike the character Socrates, have no reason to ignore it. Encountering Socrates’ conflation of the two episodes, they are likely, therefore, to be reminded of it. So reminded, they can proceed to enrich Socrates’ recommendations for medical practice with themes which, in context, were not to his purpose.
Let us, accordingly, take Plato’s hint; let us go ahead and weave Machaon’s case into the context provided by Socrates’ recommendations. We immediately notice that it counts as something more than just a case of a physician being himself in need of a physician. It seems also to be a case in which a physician might have healed himself, but does not. For it is striking that we never hear from Homer about when or how the arrow by which Machaon was wounded came to be removed. We hear nothing of this, even though the arrow-wound was the reason that Machaon was withdrawn from battle in the first place; even though removing arrows safely is the only skill that Idomeneus sees fit to mention when praising the doctor as worth many other men together (11.515); [9] even though we are told that cutting the arrow from Eurypylus’ leg is the very first thing Patroclus does when called upon to give medical care (11.844–845).
There is ample evidence that in ancient times the scholarly commentators on Homer fretted over this topic. One scholiast claims, on no evidence, that Nestor removed the arrow himself; some wonder if Machaon’s wound was only superficial; others go so far as to deny that he was even wounded. These last two explanations also provide them with a reason why Machaon, in his condition, would have been served an inflammatory drink, or one that was merely a pick-me-up. Still others share the view of Plato’s Socrates that Homeric heroes were not cossetted as are men today. [10] All of these explanations respond to the scholars’ perplexity over the fact that Machaon is never shown intervening in his own care—not even to the extent of issuing instructions to others. (Let us grant that it would have been more difficult for him to perform manual operations on himself.) The Life of Homer makes the issue especially clear: whereas Patroclus gives painstaking care to the wounded Eurypylus on several fronts, it notes, Machaon is given more casual treatment, whether because his shoulder wound is neither fatal nor even serious, or “perhaps as a way for the poet to put Machaon’s skill on show; for he, taking as it came such treatment as he received, had the ability to heal himself.” [11] Precisely because we never hear the physician say a word about his own care, our thoughts turn to the fact that he could readily have done so.
Plato the writer ensures that this thought—the thought that Socrates’ conflation elides—is taken up and rendered thematic in the account of the Guardians’ physical regimen and medical care. To begin the account, Socrates insists that his Guardians should abstain from drunkenness, since someone whose job is to keep watch is the last person we would want confused about their surroundings. Here Plato allows Glaucon to embroider with a joke: “yes, it would be funny for a guardian to need a guardian” (403e). And yet, as we have seen, sometimes a doctor may himself stand in need of a doctor. What is more, Socrates is in the process of making clear that the guardians do, in a sense, need their guardian. It is all very well for Glaucon’s brother Adeimantus to have proposed at the outset of Book 2 that each man should ideally be his own best guardian (367a); in what follows in Books 2 and 3, Socrates imposes a strict regimen of moral and physical education on the Guardians. After the regimen is in place, he explains that its purpose is to “guard against” (φυλακτέον) the possibility that the Guardians, as dogs who take care of the civic herd, should turn wolf against their own citizens. “Yes,” says Glaucon, “we must guard against that” (φυλακτέον) (416a–c). It seems we must indeed guard against our “guardians” (φύλακες).
If imposing a guard on the Guardians is like imposing medical attention on a doctor, then it seems significant that Plato should have Socrates frame his discussion of moral education with a controlling medical metaphor. At the point in the argument at which Guardians are deemed to be a necessary component of society, Socrates has agreed to consider how a city containing civilized luxuries should be organized. Socrates represents this move as a turn from the “healthy” society that had previously been their focus to an “inflamed” (φλεγμαίνουσαν) society (372e). (The word is from the same root as that applied to the “inflammatory” posset—φλεγματώδη, 406a.) Approaching the point at which, many pages later, he will bring his account of the Guardians’ strict moral education to a close, Socrates points out that they have been “purging” the city that they had earlier allowed to be luxurious—although they “had not noticed” this (λελήθαμεν διακαθαίροντες, 399e). The purging may have crept up on the character Socrates unawares; but it has been carefully organized by Plato the writer, who, for good measure, has Socrates utter his typical oath “by the dog” as he makes his declaration. In proposing how the Guardian “dogs” should be trained to behave, Socrates has, unwittingly, been doing his author’s bidding; and his author’s plan is to show that the Guardians, at this stage of their development, are not to be thought of as physicians who could heal themselves.
The point is reinforced by a distinction that Socrates makes between good doctors and good judges, just after he has finished praising Asclepius and his sons. A doctor who is to become good at what he does should seek out experience of a wide variety of illnesses, and will benefit if some of that experience comes firsthand—if he himself is not an especially robust individual and has suffered from a wide variety of ailments. The reason for this is that a doctor does not use his body to treat the bodies of his patients; he uses his mind, his soul (408d–e). With a judge, things are different. He too uses his soul to provide treatment, but what he corrects are the souls of others, not their bodies. A judge cannot afford, then, to gain firsthand experience of the faults from which his “patients” suffer; were he to do so, he would himself be corrupt, and ought to be disqualified from his position. He should instead come late to the experience of injustice, viewing it then from the outside; while young, he must be shielded from bad influences (409a–b).
A doctor uses his soul to treat the body; just so, as we have seen, Machaon could have supervised his own care, hurting though he was. A judge uses his soul to treat the soul; the domain on which he operates, unlike that of the doctor, is a moral one. His moral education when young, then, requires careful attention. The building of character will be a more important feature of that education than will the transmission of expertise or the sharpening of wits (409c–d). And this is exactly the kind of education that Socrates has been recommending for the Guardians in Books 2–3. A doctor could conceivably manage without the kind of education that builds character; a Guardian cannot. The Guardians cannot, then, be trusted to serve as physicians of their own souls. [12]
These are among the thoughts prompted by pursuing into its context the implications of Plato’s deliberate garbling of some episodes in Homer. And these thoughts naturally prompt another: are there those who could indeed be trusted to serve as physicians of their own souls? Yes, the Republic will respond: they are the philosophers. Adeimantus’ ideal, that each should be his own best guardian, will return to the argument, but properly complexified. What each must be on guard for will extend beyond the social transgressions that Adeimantus had in mind, so as to include disorder within one’s individual soul (Book 4); and by “each,” it will be acknowledged, we must understand only “each philosopher” (Books 5–7; cf. Book 9.590c–591a). The misrepresentation of Homer that we have been considering belongs, then, in a skein of thought that ultimately binds the entire Republic. [13]
What I take myself to have been doing here is to fasten on a single case in which Plato allows his character Socrates to make use of Homer in one way while Plato himself is using Homer in another. The implications of the case could be generalized; for what Plato does here is not at all untypical of how he uses Homer elsewhere in the Republic and in the corpus of dialogues. It would take a book, however, to justify that claim. Let me instead make two further points with broader application that are well illustrated by the particular case we have been considering. The first is that it would make little sense to attribute to the character Socrates any of the allusive play with Homer that I have been attributing here to Plato. What are we to imagine: that Socrates conflates two episodes in Homer’s narrative, not because the conflation serves his immediate purposes in the argument he is making, but in the hope of stirring in Glaucon’s mind the thought that a person could aspire to become physician of his own soul? It stands to reason that nothing of the sort will arise in Glaucon’s mind; nor does it in Plato’s text. Just think for a moment of how quick on his literary critical toes Glaucon would have to be to put two and two together in real time on this point. (It has taken me many pages of text to make that particular “four.”) But let us assume, simply for the sake of argument, that Glaucon has succeeded in putting two and two together: what, then, would Socrates have gained? What but a distraction from the onward thrust of his still incomplete argument, which targets not those who can take care of themselves but those who require supervision? There is no dramatic plausibility, then, to the idea that Socrates has in mind at this point what his author has in mind and is acting for his author as a kind of “secret agent” in the dialogue.
It is true that in earlier work on Socratic irony I have supposed the character Socrates to employ on occasion a special kind of irony, a “solipsistic” or solitary irony. [14] This is the irony with which superiors sometimes console or, it may be, amuse themselves in the face of their uncomprehending inferiors, neither expecting to be understood by them or by any audience, nor otherwise expecting to achieve some external result by their irony. Could Socrates, then, be engaging in solitary irony when he garbles the Machaon-episode? Hardly. Solitary irony in Socrates is suited only to relatively straightforward contexts in Plato: where Socrates is being diplomatic, or where he is engaged in small-scale elenctic interrogations for which he can plausibly be thought to hold all the cards. It is thoroughly implausible to suppose that Socrates, working in real conversational time, could have invented for his own amusement, never expecting to be understood, so subtle a literary allusion as is involved in the reference to Machaon. This is every bit as implausible as we saw it would be to suppose that Glaucon could actually appreciate the allusion. Scholars have been in the habit of attributing superhuman powers of devious control to the character Socrates in Plato’s dialogues; I believe it is high time we dropped the habit. For it blunts our appreciation of Plato’s powers as a writer. [15]
No; the subtlety of the allusion to those who could be physicians of their own soul is pre-eminently a subtlety of writing, not of speaking. It is made and appreciated by those who rise above the flow of the narrative, which in this case is the report of a conversation, and employ thematic associations across potentially large stretches of text to set and locate markers bobbing in that flow. That is how Plato composed the Republic, and it is how he must have taken Homer—whom he doubtless thought of as a fellow-writer—to have composed the Iliad. [16]
This brings me to the second of the broader claims illustrated by the particular case we have been considering. For I freely admit that the Homeric allusion uncovered here does not modify the substance of the position on which it depends for its point: the relation between social development and self-development in Callipolis. One could surely miss this particular allusion completely and still be able to say what needs saying about that larger issue. Indeed, since the issue is a classic one, and since I have not found the allusion mentioned elsewhere (although I have probably not looked hard enough), I can only assume that just this is what scholars have been doing for quite some time. [17] But to be clear about the methodological claim I am making: we will, nevertheless, not be able to say what needs saying about the larger issue if we imagine we can fully appreciate Plato’s views about it simply by listening in, as it were, on the philosophic discussion between Socrates and his interlocutors and responding as if we had been there. This particular allusion we might miss; but we cannot permit ourselves to neglect Plato’s “writerliness” entirely—to neglect to consider how he chooses to make the fictional philosophic discussion transpire, and what light those choices cast, at various levels of magnification, on what he makes his characters say.
Acknowledging the limits of the contribution made by Plato’s Homeric allusion in this particular case, however, should not prevent us from appreciating that Plato had his good, writerly reasons for cutting the facets of this little gem so painstakingly. As we have seen, for the type of reader from whom he expects repeated readings of his work the allusion amounts to running commentary; it offers reassurance that Socrates’ proposals for medical practice are to enter the stream of Plato’s larger intention for the Republic in the manner that the reader supposes. More generally, it plays its part in maintaining the high degree of allusive resolution that characterizes Plato’s text throughout. It helps keep readers on notice that this is the kind of text they are dealing with.
Finally, let us glance at the parallel passages in Xenophon’s Symposium and in Plato’s Ion. A good stretch of Xenophon’s Symposium plays out in short, self-contained scenes, in which each speaker at the drinking-party is invited to describe the achievement of which he is most proud. Niceratus brings up the fact that his father made him learn the whole of Homer by heart, as rhapsodes do (3.5–6). When the moment comes for Niceratus to explain what good came of it, he points out that Homer’s topics include almost the entire domain of human expertise and present all sorts of heroic models for emulation. With a bravado that seems at least half tongue-in-cheek, Niceratus claims that, from conning his Homer, he would be in a position to transmit this compendium of wisdom to the assembled guests (4.6). Challenged to say whether he has learnt the art of kingship from Homer’s portrayal of King Agamemnon, he retreats to simpler cases and turns the conversation to outright comedy. Not that art only has he learnt, he replies, but also how a charioteer should round the turning-post in a race—quoting three lines at this point from the advice given by Nestor to his son at Iliad 23.335–337—and, to top it all, he has learnt something that could prove of immediate use to everyone at the party: to wit, that “an onion adds relish to a drink” (4.6–7). The rest of the scene dissolves into a series of quips on the likely consequences of eating raw onion at this point in the evening (4.8–10).
Xenophon’s satirical scene makes the serious point that those who know their Homer should think twice before treating the poet as a direct source of technical information or of moral counsel. Earlier, we saw Socrates do just this, treating Homer as a walking encyclopedia when in Republic Book 3 he plunders the Iliad for models of medical practice in society. And we further saw that he does this despite warning society against taking its Homer in an encyclopedic manner in Republic Book 10. The character Socrates is thus playing for Plato the role that Niceratus plays in Xenophon; both Socrates and Niceratus are willing to use Homer as an encyclopedia even while expressing reservations about the practice. Niceratus does this by his lightheartedness over the whole issue; Socrates’ reservations are more philosophical.
This correspondence between the two characters is reinforced by the striking precision of the intertextuality between the Ion and Xenophon’s Niceratus-scene. In the latter half of the Ion a series of Homeric passages are directly quoted and discussed, each of them connected in some way with technical expertise. Remarkably, the first two of the five passages are the very two that appear in the Niceratus-scene, and they appear in the same order. First comes Nestor’s advice on how to steer a chariot around the race-post. Socrates asks Ion to recite the lines containing that advice, and the eager rhapsode (note 537a2–4) goes on for six lines to Niceratus’ three. Where Niceratus left off with the treatment of the right-hand horse, Ion adds the lines that deal also with the left-hand horse. Socrates has to cut his recital short (“Enough,” he says at 537c1).
Next comes the tag about the onion as relish to a drink. These words, as it happens, come from none other than our old friend the Hecamede-scene in the Iliad. And once again, Socrates garbles something in the scene. The event itself he gets right this time: “what about when Homer says that Hecamede, Nestor’s concubine, gives a posset to the wounded Machaon to drink?” (538b–c). But when he proceeds to quote the lines naming the three ingredients of the beverage that he recalled correctly in the Republic, he lists only two, the wine and the cheese, and substitutes for the sprinkling of barley-meal the placement of an onion as a side-dish (538c2–3). In Homer, the hemistich about the onion comes some ten lines before those that describe the mixing of the drink (Iliad 11.630 vs. 11.639–40). It forms part of Hecamede’s mise en place, when she lays out honey and barley-meal on the table as ingredients for the drink, along with an onion for relish.
Plato’s treatment of the two citations looks very much as if it sets out to top Xenophon’s both times. Not just the right-hand horse but the left-hand horse, too, gets its mention; and the length of the citation is emphasized in the text by Socrates’ decision to intervene in order to bring the performance to an end. As for the onion: first its mention is highlighted for the savvy reader by the fact that the hemistich is out of place in its Homeric context; then Socrates comments that the person who could best judge the value of such a potion would be a doctor. Where Xenophon allowed Niceratus to ignore the event at which the onion was supplied as relish and to treat the hemistich as a self-standing culinary recommendation, Plato allows Socrates to manhandle the hemistich into what he can present, in context, as a medical prescription. By comparison with Xenophon, then, Plato is symbolically raising the artistic stakes with both citations: an accomplished charioteer must pay attention to his left-hand horse as well as the right; the onion is no mere antipasto, it is medicine. And the symbolism is entirely apt, when we consider that Plato’s Ion deals with the same basic issue in Homeric hermeneutics that is implicitly addressed in Xenophon’s little scene, but in a manner not only more explicit and detailed but also more philosophically sophisticated by far. I take it, then, that Xenophon wrote first and that Plato came along to absorb Xenophon’s idea into his more substantial work, marking the relation by giving Xenophon’s two citations a satirical turn. Satire, after all, must post-date its target. By contrast, it is difficult to see how the satire could work in the opposite direction—how Xenophon’s citations could be taken as marking their distance from Plato’s. In particular, Xenophon would in that case have done nothing to draw attention to Plato’s misplacement of the hemistich about the onion, as he surely ought to have if intertextual satire had been his aim. [18] But perhaps more important than settling this issue is to appreciate that both Socratic authors are in their own way attributing a misrepresentation of Homer to their speaking characters. A common practice seems to be involved.
When considering Socrates’ garbled report of Homer in Republic 3, I respected the opacity that Plato accords his character and avoided commitment on the question whether Socrates is misremembering his Homer, however conveniently, or is being consciously strategic. Either way, Socrates’ interests were being served in the argument he was making. But the situation is different in the passage we have been examining in the Ion. In this case, it seems to me that we are expected to come down on the side of a memory-lapse on Socrates’ part. It makes good sense that Socrates’ memory should be made to fail him when it comes to correct placement of the hemistich about the onion, if, by this dramatically plausible means, Plato is giving a sly wink in Xenophon’s direction. [19] The misplacement would make little or no sense, however, as a strategic ploy on Socrates’ part. The character Socrates knows nothing of the contents of Xenophon’s Symposium. What, then, are we to imagine a Socrates who was acting deliberately here could be doing? Slipping the misquotation in as a test for the rhapsode Ion, perhaps, just to see if he is astute enough to catch the error? But Socrates in the Ion is not interested in what Ion remembers of Homer; he is interested in what Ion may have learnt from Homer (530b). (That a prizewinning rhapsode such as Ion does not in fact object to Socrates’ misquotation, by the way, is adequately explained by the fact that Socrates gives him no opportunity to do so, but moves on directly from the quote to ask a question about who could best judge, not its accuracy as a citation, but its efficacy as a medical prescription.) [20]
That Socrates’ misreporting of the incident in Republic 3 could be strategic is due to how it serves his interests in the argument. But his misquotation here in the Ion does not further the point he wishes to make; if anything, it thwarts it. Socrates wants to cast Hecamede’s posset in a medicinal rather than a culinary role; he wants Ion to agree that its contents would be for a doctor to judge, not for a cook. Homer’s original lines, featuring wine, cheese, and barley-meal, would have done at least as well to make Socrates’ case as could the altered version, featuring wine, cheese, and onion. There is therefore no strategic reason for Socrates to have made the substitution. But this is not all: the substitution comes across as more culinary, in fact, than does the original. The onion is described as a “relish” to the drink; but a relish is something one serves with a meal, not with a medicine. (The company in Xenophon is acting understandably, then, in treating the line as fuel for culinary jokes.) There would therefore be a strategic reason for Socrates not to make the substitution.
That Plato nevertheless has his Socrates commit what we are compelled to recognize as a Labarbian “blunder” is to be explained, then, by Plato’s writerly purposes. Primary among them, no doubt, is the authorial jousting with Xenophon, Plato’s fellow Socratic. But there may also lurk here an implicit assertion by Plato of the authorial control he exercises over his game-piece, the character Socrates. The lines from the Hecamede-scene come second in the series of Homeric citations that are offered in this portion of the Ion. They are the first of the series, however, that Socrates himself is attempting to recall. The series began with a passage that Ion had proudly volunteered to recite for Socrates, after Socrates had shown some diffidence in his powers of memory (537a). Next come the lines from the Hecamede-scene, with Socrates taking over the task of recitation. Once again, he expresses diffidence: “[Homer] says something like this … (λέγει πως οὕτως)” (538c1). Then he misquotes, egregiously. And by his ignorance he serves the interests of his author. [21]
Plato has complete control at all times, of course, over what his characters say in any of the dialogues. But there is a special reason in the Ion for him to draw attention to his control over the character Socrates. Socrates in the Ion has put forward a model of poetic production according to which both poets and those who perform their poetry are not in control of the words they utter; instead, they serve as channels for verses ultimately inspired by a god—the Muse (533d–536d). They themselves do not understand what they are saying; they are not in their right minds; the real author of their words is the god (534d, 535d). Socrates too, misquoting lines from the Hecamede-scene, is engaged in a performance that he does not understand. He is “not in his right mind,” for he forgets his lines. In his ignorance, he says exactly what the person who occupies the position of the absent god—his author, Plato—wants him to say. This “god” inspires in Socrates an allusion to a work by Xenophon about which, as author, he allows him to know nothing. [22] In effect, Plato takes a poetic model proposed by one of his characters and turns it against that same character, in order to reassert as author—as poet—the control that this poetic model had seemed to deny all poets.
A fuller account of the Ion would be needed to make this last point stick. But the subject of this article is Plato’s use of Homer, not Plato’s Ion. When it comes to the Ion, then, let our account of how the dialogue plays fast and loose with Homer in this one case suffice.

Works Cited

Adam, J., ed. [1905] 1963. The Republic of Plato. 2 vols. Cambridge.
Benardete, S. 1989. Socrates’ Second Sailing. Chicago.
Bloom, A., trans. 1968. The Republic of Plato. New York.
Bowen, A. J., ed. 1998. Xenophon. Symposium. Warminster.
Emlyn-Jones, C., and W. Preddy, trans. 2013. Plato: Republic Books 1–5. Cambridge, Mass.
Ferrari, G. R. F. 2008. “Socratic Irony as Pretence.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 34: 1–33.
Ferrari, G. R. F. 2010. “Socrates in the Republic.” Plato’s Republic: A Critical Guide, ed. M. L. McPherran, 11–31. Cambridge.
Ferrari, G. R. F. 2015. “Plato the Writer.” Epoché 19.2: 191–203.
Hainsworth, B., ed. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 3, Books 9–12. Cambridge.
Labarbe, J. 1949. L’Homère de Platon. Liège.
Leroux, G., trans. 2002. Platon: La République. Paris.
Thesleff, H. 1978. “The interrelation and date of the Symposia of Plato and Xenophon.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 25: 157–170.


[ back ] 1. Labarbe 1949:101–108.
[ back ] 2. Emlyn-Jones, Preddy 2013:298.
[ back ] 3. Adam [1905] 1963.1 ad 405d–e.
[ back ] 4. Leroux 2002:585.
[ back ] 5. For a general defence of this principle see Ferrari 2015.
[ back ] 6. “Dovetails” is the word used by Hainsworth 1993:331, who notes the structure with admiration.
[ back ] 7. Plato quotes it in full at Symposium 214b, but is able to allude to it with just the phrase “worth more than many others” at Statesman 297e and Laws 730d.
[ back ] 8. As Hainsworth points out: Hainsworth 1993:311.
[ back ] 9. Indeed, the line was athetized by the Alexandrians on the ground that it failed to do justice to the range of medical skills any doctor would possess (see Hainsworth 1993:280).
[ back ] 10. Scholia in Homeri Iliadem, at 11.515c, line of scholion 33; Porphyry, Quaestionum Homericarum ad Iliadem Pertinentium Reliquiae, Il. Book 11, sect. 623, l.8, and Il. Book 16, sect. 25 sq., l.8; Eustathius 3.289.
[ back ] 11. [Plutarch] De Homero, ed. Kinstrand, ll. 2575–2579.
[ back ] 12. Nor, indeed, can the doctor, at least in the society that Socrates is engaged in projecting. Socrates made the point earlier in Book 3 with yet another appeal to Homer. None but the rulers, he insists, may make the moral decision about when to conceal information for the public good. The “craftsmen,” as Homer calls them, may not do so, whether they be “prophet or healer of affliction or builder in wood” (Odyssey 17.383–384). Doctors will be among those requiring moral supervision; but exactly how does not become clear until later, when Socrates issues his policy for socialized medicine, thereby singling doctors out from Homer’s list for special attention. Once again, then, Plato has a Homeric citation imply more than its immediate use by Socrates would suggest. Indeed, there is much more that could be said about this particular citation, beginning with the fact that Plato has Socrates leave the list of craftsmen incomplete, and that the craftsmen thereby omitted are the poets. See e.g. Benardete 1989:68.
[ back ] 13. It is Aristotle rather than Plato who makes quite explicit the application of the metaphor “physician of one’s own soul” to an ideal of self-maintenance: “If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. The best illustration is a doctor doctoring himself; nature is like that” (Physics 2.8).
[ back ] 14. See Ferrari 2008.
[ back ] 15. Again, see Ferrari 2015. One might, however, seek to restore control to the character Socrates in this case by appealing to the fact that the Republic is a dialogue narrated by Socrates himself. Socrates is reporting to an unspecified audience a conversation supposed to have been held “yesterday” (Republic 327a). “Today’s” audience listens in silence. Would it not be possible, then, for Socrates to edit the contents of the conversation on his audience’s behalf with the kind of writerly eye that I attribute only to Plato? (I thank Gwenda-lin Grewal for raising this question with me.) A first point in response is that the dramatic situation we would be compelled thereby to imagine would be implausible in the extreme. It is not at all the situation portrayed at the opening of the Theaetetus, for example, where Euclides sits down with Terpsion so that both can listen as a slave reads the manuscript of a Socratic conversation—the very conversation we ourselves are about to read. Euclides was present at the original event, and has written it up at leisure, laboring over his work repeatedly. Socrates in the Republic, by contrast, would have had one night to re-order his thoughts into more writerly shape (even assuming the original conversation did not itself take all night to complete!), and is now delivering live a work some five times the length of the Theaetetus. More fundamentally: what, in any case, would be gained by attributing such heroic literary powers to the character Socrates? Would he not simply become a duplicate of “Plato, the writer of the Republic”? And to what end? Furthermore, if it is unclear what would be gained by such a move, what would be lost is evident: the gradient between Socrates’ motives and strategies in live conversation and those of his author Plato in a carefully considered process of writing. In other words, the very gradient that I have been relying on to make my case in the current article, and elsewhere, even when dealing with Platonic dialogues that are not themselves narrated. I have had more to say on this topic in Ferrari 2010, where I contrast how the narrator Socrates is presented in the Republic with how he comes across in the Euthydemus (namely, as an unreliable narrator in that instance); and I take Plato’s reason for making the Republic a narrated dialogue in the first place to be that he wished to bring out the contrast between Socrates’ lack of control over the run of the argument and his own mastery of it.
[ back ] 16. My interpretation implies Plato to be capable of the kind of scrutiny of written works, and to demand of his reader the kind of scrutiny of written works, that we who live in the age of the codex are in the habit of employing and demanding. But Plato lived in the age of the scroll, not of the codex, and in a culture of speakers and listeners more than of writers and readers. Is my interpretation therefore at risk of anachronism? I think not. For one thing, there is the reference in the Phaedrus to the writer’s habit of cutting and pasting phrases, and of taking all the time he needs to shuffle his words around (Phaedrus 278d). For another, we have the opening scene of the Theaetetus for evidence that, if Plato needed to refresh his memory about how the details of the story went in what we now know as the eleventh book of the Iliad, he could have ordered a servant to find the relevant scroll and read it out to him. And we have the Phaedrus, again, to show us that a reader could be stopped in mid-sentence, or asked to repeat himself, in order for the listener to refine his understanding even of snippets of text (Phaedrus 263e–264a).
[ back ] 17. Allan Bloom, as one would expect, is also alert to the thematic potential of Socrates’ misrepresentation of Homer. But the larger theme to which he finds an allusion here is that of “abstraction from the needs of the body.” Following Leo Strauss, he takes such abstraction to be “the condition of the actualization of this best regime.” See Bloom 1968:454n59. Socrates, on Bloom’s view, is minimizing “the attention necessary to the bodies of even heroes.” He does so by substituting the wounded Eurypylus for Machaon; for Eurypylus’ wound requires a more thorough-going treatment from Patroclus than a mere posset could offer, whereas “Machaon’s wound is apparently not serious,” since “this draught is prepared for him and Nestor as refreshment” (Bloom 1968:454n55). For all that Bloom has some ancient commentators and scholiasts on his side in making this assumption (see nn. 10 and 11, above), Homer gives us no reason to accept it. Certainly, nothing is ever said about Machaon’s wound being trivial; and Idomeneus, who was present when Machaon received it, evidently thought it serious enough to warrant his immediate evacuation from the battlefield. Hence, if Socrates had wanted merely to minimize the amount of attention heroes required for their wounds, he could have done so quite satisfactorily by retelling the episode as it actually occurs in Homer. For in that episode a man who may (for all we are told) still have an arrow lodged in his shoulder is content to accept a pick-me-up as treatment. The interpretation proposed in the current article, by contrast, gives the substitution of Eurypylus a point that could not have been made without eliding Machaon. Bloom’s interpretation suffers also from a failure to distinguish Socrates’ purposes from those of his author: “Socrates deliberately changes Homer’s emphasis so as to minimize …” (Bloom 1968:454n59). I have already explained why this type of move attributes too writerly a stratagem to Socrates to fit plausibly within the confines of a discussion that supposedly takes place in real time.
[ back ] 18. I am indebted here to Thesleff 1978, who uses the same pattern of reasoning to argue that Plato’s Symposium largely post-dated Xenophon’s. (Thesleff allows that Xenophon’s eighth chapter was calqued on Plato’s work and supposes it was a later addition.) Thesleff’s argument is endorsed by Bowen 1998:9.
[ back ] 19. The memory-lapse would be plausible, both because of the formulaic nature of many components of the Homeric verse-line (allowing for ready substitution of kindred phrases), and because of the presence in the immediate context of the various elements that can be imagined to combine in Socrates’ memory in order to construct his erroneous line. See Labarbe 1949:105 (who, however, attributes the lapse directly to Plato, not to his character).
[ back ] 20. Although the character Socrates shows no interest in how much Ion does or does not remember of Homer, it is possible that Plato, as a writer concerned for the transmission of his own text, is here offering implicit criticism of the contemporary state of Homeric transmission, as displayed in the practice of rhapsodes. The variations that have come down to us in the manuscript tradition of Homer suggest that substitutions of the kind that Socrates is portrayed as unconsciously making in Homer’s poem—substitution of entire phrases of a standard metrical shape—were not uncommon. Plato may well have been alert to the role played here by the inattentiveness of rhapsodes. Ion’s lack of protest at Socrates’ garbling of the Homeric lines might, then, be intended to characterize the looseness of memory possible in even a prizewinning rhapsode. (Admittedly, all of the Homeric passages cited in the Ion show small variations from the Homeric vulgate; but these are minor enough to be put down to the vagaries of transmission; only the violation perpetrated here by Socrates on what is the unanimous reading of our Homeric manuscripts is so startling as to leap to a reader’s eye.)
[ back ] 21. Exaggerated modesty is among the characteristics of Socrates in the dialogues, and his diffidence about citing Homer here in the Ion is no exception to the portrayal. For despite his diffidence he goes on to cite three more passages with no hesitation, two of them of considerable length. Also, his ability to recall Homeric passages relevant to a wide range of manual and technical skills is itself something of a tour de force. Hence his memory-lapse with the passage concerning the posset is all the more salient.
[ back ] 22. The historical Socrates, of course, could not have known the contents of a work written only after his death. Still, Plato could, had he so wished, have given the character Socrates the kind of prescient awareness of Xenophon’s career that he grants him of the career of Isocrates at the end of the Phaedrus (278e–279b). But he chooses to do nothing of the sort. The fourth wall is kept intact.