Friday, August 08, 2014


Clitophon (or Cleitophon, depending on how you transliterate the Greek) is the shortest dialogue in the Platonic corpus, but what is most distinctive about it is that it is, hands down, the strangest dialogue in the Platonic corpus. The Clitophon was regarded as authentic in antiquity, but it went through a period starting in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when it was usually regarded as spurious. The judgments seem more mixed today. The problem is this: Clitophon is an attack on Socrates, and Socrates just goes silent. There is no consensus at all at how this should be interpreted. Some have argued that Clitophon is a sort of prologue to the Republic. Others have argued that it is an attack on Antisthenes. Others have argued that it is a fragment, an incomplete draft. And those are just the people who think it is Plato's. One reason to think the dialogue might be authentic is that Xenophon's Memorabilia 1.4.1 is often taken to be a response to it -- which, if so, would put it very early, in Plato's lifetime.

You can read Clitophon online in English at the Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource.

The Characters


Clitophon is also a character with a (very brief) speaking part in Plato's Republic, which is the major reason why some people want to link this dialogue with that one. Clitophon is also mentioned in Aristophanes' The Frogs, in association with the Athenian general Theramenes, who had something of a reputation for being an opportunist in the constant fight between oligarchs and democrats, so he may have been regarded as a somewhat slippery supporter of oligarchy.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates opens the dialogue by (somewhat stiffly) remarking that he has heard that Clitophon, talking to Lysias, has been criticizing Socrates "while greatly praising the instruction of Thrasymachus" (406a). Clitophon says he has been misrepresented, since he both praised and criticized Socrates, and says that since Socrates is obviously passive-aggressively scolding him, he would be glad to tell him what he actually said. Socrates replies that he would be glad to hear his good and bad points, so that he could improve. Clitophon begins his speech, and Socrates does not speak for the rest of the dialogue.

Perhaps the most important part of Clitophon's speech is this, as far as interpretation goes:

So, Socrates, finally I asked you yourself these questions and you told me that the aim of justice is to hurt one's enemies and help one's friends. But later it turned out that the just man never harms anyone, since everything he does is for the benefit of all. (410b)

There are several strange elements to this speech. Two are particularly worth noting. (1) That justice is harming one's enemies and helping one's friends was in fact a common saying in Athens, and comes up several times in Plato. However, it is not the view of Plato's Socrates, always being proposed by someone else, and Socrates always leads this interlocutor around to question some aspect of it. In the Republic Socrates opposes it outright. This suggests that Clitophon does not know what Socrates is doing in raising the point. [Xenophon's Socrates proposes the claim, but even there in no case does it seem to me to be clearly a matter of Socrates proposing his own view rather than trying to draw out his interlocutor's view.] (2) Note that Clitophon in the space of two sentences clearly attributes to Socrates not only this view but the opposing view. This strongly suggests that what we are getting from Clitophon is a highly compressed summary of a conversation with Socrates -- so highly compressed it has become garbled. It is not in the least surprising that both of these ideas would come up in a conversation with Socrates; it is also clear enough that if they did, it would be as a result of Socrates asking questions, not merely stating his own views.

Thus we have excellent reason to regard Clitophon's account as showing that he has learned only superficial things, and not really understood the reason for them. We see signs of this elsewhere in the speech. The protreptic or hortatory speech attributed to Socrates by Clitophon, for instance, is such a condensed and hectic jumble of Socratic themes that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine Socrates actually giving this sort of speech. Likewise, in Clitophon's account of his discussion with Socrates' associates, he uses Socratic arguments, but he seems to move through them awfully quickly. 409b and following seems an especially egregious case, in which people give the answer actually called for by the particular question he asks -- but Clitophon leaps immediately to another Socratic trope, that each skill/craft/art/know-how (techne) has to have some distinctive kind of product. This is the trope that we need more than names -- but when people try to give him an answer he immediately leaps to arguing that "the words are to be found in each of the skills" (409c), despite the fact that it's not the words but the things that are relevant in context. This seems to be going continuing with the baffling argument about agreement, in which the interlocutor seems to be talking about justice producing the kind of real agreement requiring knowledge, but the bystanders claim he has gone in a circle in which they treat justice and agreement as if they were being proposed as the same thing -- which they were quite clearly not.

Thus Clitophon can imitate Socrates in superficial ways quite cleverly, but not in a way that actually does what Socrates does. The Socratic approach is not merely a way of leading people around, or coming to the conclusion that they are ignorant; it is not just using particular arguments. People often remark on the silence of Socrates -- but they don't remark often enough, I think, on the fact that we manage to have an entire dialogue between two people in which one of the people actually doesn't speak more than a few lines, and, indeed, after the introduction, never speaks at all. How is this even possible? Because while Clitophon argues that Socrates can only encourage to virtue and not teach what it is, he does this not by drawing it out of Socrates himself, but by a long speech in which he doesn't listen to Socrates at all. And Clitophon's account of Socrates treats Socrates entirely as a speechmaker, and nothing else. Anyone who is a teacher can recognize the type: the bright student who learns the superficial things easily but never even tries to understand their point, because he thinks the superficial things are the point.

  Additional Remarks

* The dialogue obviously has some kind of dramatic link with the Republic, since Clitophon is shown hanging around Thrasymachus in the latter. It also has a great many verbal links with Gorgias -- the beginning of Clitophon's interrogation of Socrates' associates seems to be a garbled version of an argument given by Socrates in that dialogue.

* Christopher Moore, "Clitophon and Socrates in the Platonic Clitophon", argues that a major point of the dialogue is that Clitophon never actually uses the Socratic approach to improve himself:

What this dialogue informs us about Socrates—that he asks leading questions and refutes definitions—makes clear that Clitophon has undergone an examination but has not realized its consequences for himself. He has not realized what the Socratic overturning of a definition amounts to, and so he has not realized that it entails his ignorance. He is like most interlocutors after only a few contradictions, before they reach a genuine aporia. But if Socrates’ effect comes about only through recognizing one’s ignorance, then Clitophon has not yet reaped the benefits of Socrates’ effect. And so he is not yet in a position to judge that effect.


Quotations are from Francisco J. Gonzalez's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., 965-970.


  1. Greta2:06 PM

    Sorry to deluge you with comments (but to my credit I do not always write when I want to!) Since I couldn't find this on perseus, I came to the serendipitous discovery of the collection of Plato texts compiled by William Whewhell ("The Platonic Dialogues for English Readers) at I was so pleased to learn of and find that publication (to be filed under the humanist reach of a certain kind of Victorian 'scientist').
    I agree about the student type-that it is represented in this dialogue and that such exist! The silence of Socrates corresponds to what Confucius says about the student that is like rotten wood Lun Yu 10 102: there is no use reproving them. The one is allowed to continue napping beneath the tree, the other met with silence. But I maintain it requires a great level of wisdom to know when to disengage.

  2. branemrys6:04 PM

    Not a problem at all. I had forgotten that the different ways it is transliterated might cause problems looking for it, but the Whewell find is a good one. I'd forgotten that he'd done an edition of Plato; as I recall, it was part of his general activity of opposing utilitarianism.

    The parallel with Confucius is a very good one; definitely something to think about.

  3. branemrys2:50 PM

    Incidentally, the upcoming order is:

    The Platonic Letters

    Plato's Symposium

    The Platonic Epigrams

    Xenophon's Symposium


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