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Socrates, Guilty in Law, Equity, Owls, Essence and Frogs

Page in Brief. The ancient Greek philosophers saw free speech (Gorgias 461e) as the search for truth through discussion (Protagoras 343b, Iliad 10.224, "when two go together"; cf. Acts 17.22-32), in Schweitzer's words "for truth must be exalted above everything else"; the gods of the philosophers were fully good because fully rational. Conceptual investigation: law versus equity or justice. Aristophanes' The Frogs and Euripides: "For who knows if life be death and death be life?"

Topics on this page ...

Context: these are logic of language remarks (How is sense distinguished from nonsense?), some of which are first draft. Note: the strings of words that follow "Query" were found in my site's server logs.


"Essence Belongs to Grammar"

Note: there is a later discussion of essence as conjecture about a thing's nature, e.g. "the essence of man".

God's essence is said to guarantee his existence -- what this really means is that here what is at issue is not the existence of something. (CV p. 82 [MS 138 30b: 17.3.1949 § 1]; there is also a discussion of this quotation in the context of the question "Is the word 'God' a name?")

According to Wittgenstein, "essence belongs to grammar" (PI § 371), and although rules of grammar depend for their usability -- i.e. for whether it is empirically possible to follow them or not -- on some very general facts of nature (ibid. II, xii, p. 230a), concept-formation is discretionary (and that means somewhat arbitrary), although not as if human beings had once upon a time chosen their concepts. And Wittgenstein did believe that some concepts do "force themselves on us", the concept 'object' e.g. CV p. 86 [MS 174 1v: 1950 § 2]).

What exactly can be deduced from a rule of grammar? Surely not the existence of anything. That elves do not exist does not prevent us from talking about them -- i.e. having a concept 'elf'. St. Anselm: "God is that than which nothing more perfect can be conceived ... and to exist is more perfect than not to exist." Well, I don't know about the second rule; it would belong, not to a definition of 'God', but to a definition of 'perfect'.

Essence is expressed by grammar. (PI § 371) Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.) (ibid. § 373)

But aren't there cases where we would say that essence does not belong solely to grammar? There are, that is, some words for which we can give essential or general (or Platonic-Socratic) definitions. The grammar of every word is not like the grammar of 'game', even if the grammar of most words is that way. But, of course, if we wanted to, we could revise the grammars of all words with essential grammars to make them non-essential or simply remove such words from the language.

Query: words do not have exact meanings, Wittgenstein.

"Generally, we do not use language according to fixed rules ..." (BB p. 25) -- What does it mean? It is not a statement about the particular case; what Wittgenstein meant is that most words do not have "general definitions" [essential, Platonic-Socratic definitions]. Instead, in most cases there is nothing more (or less) than family resemblances. -- But "family resemblances" is not an explanation (unlike the "theory of abstraction"); it is simply a description of the relationship between different instances of the use of a word.

We can give words exact meanings in the particular case (cf. Zettel § 467); but there is no "exact meaning" that carries over between cases necessarily, or, in other words, there is no "halo" [of meaning] that accompanies a word through all contexts. Thus, note well, Wittgenstein did not intend to encourage carelessness or imprecision in speech by his remark.

Indeed he was stressing the need, the necessity, for the philosopher to be precise in speech in each particular case, because we should not (cannot) assume that words have fixed meanings -- i.e. meaning that is independent of context. The assumption that meaning is like a halo that a word carries with it through all contexts prompts philosophers to talk without ever saying (or knowing) what they are talking about: "When one learned a word, one abstracted and now knows its meaning ["halo"]," they think. But if there is no such halo, then we must take care to explain what we mean in each particular case.

Are some concepts forced on us?

It does seem that some concepts do "force themselves on us"; cf. "Indeed, doesn't it seem obvious that the possibility of a language-game is conditioned by certain facts?" (On Certainty § 617b) If we imagine a tribe who had always been confined in a place where it never rained, where water never fell from the sky, will we imagine them to have a concept 'rain'? Will we imagine that a tribe that was familiar only with the tropics would have a concept 'snow'? H.G. Wells saw no place for the word 'see' in his Country of the Blind.

Query: the opposite [of two] objects cannot occupy the same space [at the same time].

The difficulty is not the imagine the opposite (Examples of the opposite are easily given) -- but to imagine the thing itself. Well, it cannot be imagined (although you can of course picture two billiard balls colliding if you like, but you can also as easily imagine them passing through one another): you simply state a rule -- a rule of grammar, and matters of fact are not to be deduced from that, surely.

Query: which scientist said two masses cannot occupy the same space at the same time?
Query: laws of matter, two objects cannot occupy.

What is the word 'masses' a euphemism for -- 'solid bits of matter'? Drury wanted to know what "matter" is (cf. The Danger of Words p. 69: "particles of what"). After the atomic bombing of Japan, is anything to be imagined as being "absolutely solid" -- or "atomic" in the Greek sense of "uncuttable"? (The notion 'uncuttable matter' ['uncuttable cuttable'] is subject to the same criticism as 'unmoved mover', the criticism Francis Bacon made of 'uncaused Cause'.)

One mistakes a picture with application to particular cases for a "law" applicable to all cases. "A picture held up captive" (PI § 115), for how could two solid objects occupy the same space at the same time? Well, given the way we define the word 'solid', of course they could not.


The Owl and the Egg

Without waiting to be asked he embarked upon that well-worn theme, a notorious puzzle to philosophers, the Owl and the Egg. (C.E. Robinson, Days of Alkibiades (3rd. ed. 1925), p. 97)

If we are unwilling -- or rather, "unable", but not because there is a logical impossibility, which there is not -- to set a criterion (a standard by which to decide), then there is no saying "which came first" (because that combination of words is undefined = nonsense in this context). To 'set a criterion' here means: to describe and adopt a set of rules to create a satisfying picture-answer to the question (It is a satisfying picture that we are "unable" to invent).

And that is another case where there is a picture we see no alternative to, although the picture that we have "makes [or "seems to make" (Is there a difference?)] no sense". At whichever point we start we find an endless recession and procession of owls and eggs, eggs and owls, and we think of no alternative picture to replace the picture that holds us captive -- a picture of our own invention ["apparently" (Is there a difference?)].

Query: nonsensical language games.

Those words do not lose their original meaning by becoming Wittgenstein's jargon words. The word 'nonsense' is still used to mean 'foolishness', 'silliness' (in the American-English sense). On the other hand: is this an example of an "nonsensical language game" (in Wittgenstein's sense): Which came first the owl or the egg? And the next query:

Query: what color is the number 3?

"What is the color of sound?" and "What is the size of a geometric point?" These are certainly examples of nonsense, also known as "grammatical jokes". The combination of words 'What color is the number 3?' is nonsense -- i.e. an undefined combination of words -- that syntax allows the creation of: a combination that "sounds English", but for which we have no normal use in our language. (Of course, any combination of words can be given a meaning -- i.e. a use invented by us for some special purpose; but no combination of words has a meaning merely because it sounds English.)


About the Ancient Greeks

Only Plato and Socrates were Athenians. The rest of the Greek philosophers came from elsewhere, from Ionia (as did Thales of Miletus) and Magna Graecia. Thus freedom of speech was not confined to Athens, and yet ...

Things [Ideas] the Greeks Created [Invented]

According to H.D.F. Kitto, Plato created God. (Zeus the god of the Greek polis could not also be the god of barbarian ways of life; and Yahweh the god of the Jews exclusively could not also be the god of the Gentiles.) "It was Greek philosophy, notably Plato's conception of the absolute, eternal deity, which prepared the world for the reception of a universal religion" [such as Christianity] (The Greeks (Penguin 1951) xi, p. 202-203). Kitto's account of 'the gods' is like Gilson's (according to which I should write 'gods' rather than 'Gods', at least with respect to Greece): anything with power over man may be a god, whether that power is moral or immoral or indeed amoral, benevolent or malevolent. "... the Greek word theos does not mean God." (ibid. p. 195); Greek polytheism was a nature religion (ibid. p. 200). However, if Kitto's account were correct, then why would Xenophanes and Plato object to the gods being portrayed as immoral? Must it not be because they regarded the gods as not only powers -- but also as divinities?

The following is from C.E. Robinson's Zito Hellas (1946) [Hellas, Beacon Press (1955)]

[Aristotle created ether] ... finding that the hypothesis of four elements -- Earth, Air, Fire and Water -- did not account for the "circular" movement of heavenly bodies (since Air and Fire only move upwards and Earth and Water downwards), he proceeded to postulate the existence of a fifth element, Ether, which, possessing itself a rotary motion, carries the heavenly bodies along with it. (Chapter xii [p. 170])

[Air was only proven not to be an element by Karl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley in the 18th Century. For the Greeks 'element' would be meant in the sense of chemistry's 'periodic table of elements'.]

[The Greeks "created the Individual Man".] It was Man [not gods nor God] that they placed at the center of their universe; and it was their intense preoccupation with man's affairs and problems that made them what they were. Their Humanism ... (Chapter xiii, 3 [p. 195])

[And] Individualism ... that the State exists for the Individual, not the Individual for the State. And Toleration, that hall-mark of a truly civilized society, implies the threefold right of the Individual, to think his own thoughts, to utter them in public, and, so far as the welfare of his fellows will permit, to act in accordance with his own private conscience. [These conceptions] we owe to the Greeks ... (ibid. [p. 198])

Freedom in Athens

Freedom of speech and thought was certainly their normal practice. Criticism of authority was unhampered. Aristophanes [even in the midst of Athens at war] could speak his mind frankly on policy and make what fun he liked of politicians. When Cleon on one occasion protested [Aristophanes, Acharnenses l. 377], he met with no sympathy.

Occasionally, it is true, exception was taken to unorthodox religious beliefs. Shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the philosopher, Anaxagoras, was arraigned for impiety: had he not said dreadful things about the Sun -- that it was "a red hot stone much larger than the Peloponnese". He was heavily fined and retired from Athens.

After the close of the war, Socrates, too, fell victim to [the] spite [of "Conservative-minded opponents frustrated in the political field"]. Yet against this must be set the fact that already for the better part of a life-time the pertinacious old critic had been allowed complete freedom to carry on his discussions and to call in question every belief of contemporary society. (Chapter viii, 2 [p. 131-132])

But did Pericles make the Athenians better?

In Gorgias 517b says that Pericles did not persuade and compel "citizens to adopt courses that would improve them" [cf. 502e, 503a], the proper aim of the statesman being the ethical perfecting of the individual and of society.

After [Prodicus, who has urged, "Let your conversation be a discussion, not a dispute. A discussion is carried on among friends with good will, but a dispute is between rivals and enemies" (337b), using "that art of yours whereby you discern the difference between 'wish' and 'desire' and make all those other elegant distinctions which we heard just now" (340a-b)] the wise Hippias spoke up. Gentleman, he said, I count you all my kinsmen and family and fellow citizens -- by nature physis], not by convention [nomos]. By nature like is kin to like, but custom, the tyrant of mankind, does much violence to nature. For us then who understand the nature of things, who are the intellectual leaders of Greece and in virtue of that very fact are now assembled in Athens, the center and shrine of Greek wisdom ... (Protagoras 337c-e)

Does that Plato puts these words in the mouths of rather silly characters mean that he does not regard Athens as "the center and shrine of Greek wisdom"? That form of speech is in fact Thucydidean-Periclean rhetoric; maybe Plato regarded it as bombast.


Aristophanes - the Poet [Aeschylus] versus Socrates [Euripides]

The shift of interest from the group to the individual upset the traditional relation between the state and the citizen. (A History of Greece to 322 B.C. by N.G.L. Hammond, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1967 [1st ed. 1959], p. 422)

If that account is correct then a contrast arose: the question of what is a good man was no longer identical with the question of what is a good citizen; man, the individual, becomes autonomous: the good life is [or can be] found outside the community. [But Socrates did not teach that, nor did Plato.]

In 399 Aristophanes' charges [in The Clouds; see Plato, Apology 18b, 19c, Symposium 221b] against Socrates [the same as those Aristophanes made against Euripides, namely that as a preacher of individualism he had led the young away from faith in the city's gods and taught them through the art of dialectic "[to juggle] with black and white, with right and wrong"] were to be correctly interpreted, but they were to be enforced against the person of Socrates with a severity which he cannot have condoned.... Aristophanes and Socrates may have been close friends, but as a poet Aristophanes judged the philosopher [as he judged Euripides] by his value to the state. (ibid. p. 427)

Contrast Aristophanes' alleged judgment of Socrates' value to Athens with Plato's, Apology 30e, 36b-e, that Socrates deserved public maintenance for his service to the Athenians. The Clouds shows Socrates of sowing doubt, but Plato says he only shook complacency.

In the context of "real definitions" I offered five hypotheses about the cause of thunder, but if we wish we can add Aristophanes' gross suggestion in The Clouds (l. 394) and have six. In what spirit should Aristophanes really be read? Socrates: "I am chaffed" -- is there really anything more than teasing in these plays?

I am chaffed in the theatre as in a wine-party [symposium]. (Plutarch, De educat[ione] puerorum 10c, quoted by B. Roger's in the introduction to his translation of Aristophanes' The Clouds, Loeb Classical Library, 1924, p. 263)

Poetic wisdom or Socrates?

At the end of The Frogs (l. 1491-1499) Aristophanes had said -- or may have said (that is, if there really is an author's message in this extremely amusing play) -- that for instruction in wisdom one should turn to the poets-playwrights (the best of whom is Aeschylus), not to the philosophers-sophists (in the person of Socrates):

Right it is and befitting,
Not, by Socrates sitting,
Idle talk to pursue,
Stripping tragedy-art of
All things noble and true.
Surely the mind to school
Fine-drawn quibbles to seek ...
Is but the part of a fool! (tr. B.B. Rogers)

Plato (in Gorgias 464b-465a) will say just the opposite, because the poet is unable to justify his claims to insight into the right way to live, whereas the philosopher has put his insights to the test [through dialectic].

Hammond says, but does not say how he knows this, that Aristophanes "cannot have condoned the severity" of Socrates' punishment, although Hammond implies that Aristophanes would regard the jury's verdict of guilt as just (as does Hammond himself at least in so far as it was a question of law). Here the question, never asked, is who knew what and when? There were no newspaper in Athens, no radio, no television news. When would Aristophanes have learned of Socrates' fate and what version of events would he have heard? Attica is not large, but there was no 10 o'clock news: "Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of Alopece was tried and sentenced to death today." How did anyone know "what was going on in the world"? If we were transported to those days, would we not feel as if we were living in the dark (like a rabbit knowing no more of the world than its own neighborhood)?

When we read histories, we are given the impression that everyone knew what was happening, but how could that be? Of course it could not. Even after the fact, how did anyone learn what the fact was? "A visitor coming from ... said ..." or "I heard this from ..."

However [on the other hand], concerning Marathon, Herodotus writes:

First of all, when the generals were still within the city, they sent to Sparta a herald, one Phidippides, an Athenian, who was a day-long runner and a professional. (6.105, tr. Grene; in Rawlinson's tr. "Pheidippides ... by profession and practice a trained runner.")

And of course there were horses as well. Besides which Attica at its fullest extent was only about 53 miles by 41 miles, rather resembling an equilateral triangle with the city of Athens occupying the midpoint of its baseline. From Athens to Marathon was 16 miles, and from Athens to the old port of Phalerum was 3.5 miles (the same as the distance from Athens to Alopece). From Athens to Plataea and Thebes, in straight line distance ignoring any highland obstacle, was a bit more than 30 miles.

"Socrates was Guilty in Law"

Following the Peloponnesian War [431-404 B.C.], Sparta imposed on Athens "that thirty men should be appointed to draft "the ancestral laws" as the basis for a permanent constitution and meanwhile to direct the administration" (Hammond, p. 443). [Among this Thirty was the Critias who was to prohibit Socrates from "teaching the art of words" (Xenophon Memorabilia i, 2, 29-37).] This "provisional government was formally established in the summer of 404 ..." (Hammond, p. 443) In the following months "the Thirty [tyrants] executed 1,500 and banished 5,000 of their fellow-countrymen. Their excesses proved to be their undoing. The exiles and fugitives found a welcome" outside Attica. (p. 444) These democrats took over the Peiraeus, while the oligarchs held Athens (The Acropolis was occupied by a Spartan garrison) (p. 445). Sparta mediated to reconcile these two groups, and the Thirty were removed from Athens to form an independent state at Eleusis in Attica; but in 401 the restored democracy of Athens defeated the oligarchs at Eleusis to re-form a single state (p. 448).

"The terrible sufferings of these years left their mark. Political concord [amnesty for all but murderers] did not put an end to personal animosities. Hatred and fear of oligarchy in any form were so intense in the restored democracy that the word 'oligarch' became a term of abuse ... The prejudice against the extreme oligarchs [of whom the Thirty tyrants were representative] spread to the social and intellectual circles from which they had sprung -- aristocratic, free-thinking, and outspoken. Their intellectual association with the Sophists, and not least with the Athenian Socrates [and his "quizzical methods" (p. 426)], was more widely known than understood by the average citizen, who was less interested in the niceties of philosophical discussion than in the practice of traditional religion (p. 448) [which included many superstitions: belief in oracles [but, on the other hand, remember that the counsel of Apollo's oracle at Delphi had shown itself to be wise] and divinations "by stars or entrails" and omens (as typified by Nicias and the eclipse at Syracuse which he regarded as an omen to delay the Athenian retreat), and "miasma" (which required the sacrifice of a human scapegoat to free the state from the pollution brought about by sacrilege) (p. 434)].

"In 399 Socrates was prosecuted on the charge of impiety "for not worshipping the gods whom the city worships, for introducing religious innovations, and for corrupting the young men" ... Socrates drank the cup of hemlock as the last rays of the sun were lingering on Mt. Hymettus.... In equity Socrates was innocent. In Attic law he was guilty of the charge preferred against him ... (p. 448-449)

The indictment against Socrates is preserved in Diog. L. ii, 40. It accuses Socrates of "introducing other new divinities", presumably the daemon (daimon) Socrates spoke of as a warning sign [a premonition, we would say] he experienced.

The community's relationship with the gods was contractual; legally, it was not a mere question of individual conscience, for impiety endangered the entire community. Not recognizing the state's gods or other any other form of impiety was thus an act of sedition. [See the background to Plato's Euthyphro.]

Xenophon defended Socrates against the "corrupting the youth" charge in Memorabilia i, 2, 1-3, 12-28 (with respect to Critias and Alcibiades' association with him).

'Equity' and 'Law' are Different Concepts

A distinction between equity and law. The word 'equity' surely means 'fairness': we have a sense of fairness that may or may not accord with the laws in any particular case. Indeed, without a sense of right and wrong independent of the law, the question of physis versus nomos could not have arisen -- i.e. our concept 'law' is different from our simple concept 'rules': we expect the laws to coincide with our sense of right and wrong and with our ethics [reason], or some may say that even a king's laws are not the "true laws", "the unwritten laws of God that know not change" (Antigone, tr. Plumptre).

... most civil actions in Athens ... were preceded by ... attempts at public or private arbitration. Only when that failed was the dispute referred to a court, and it is in the nature of arbitration that it cannot simply "enforce the law". Aristotle ... (Rhetoric 1374b20-22): "an arbitrator looks to equity, a judge to the law, and arbitration was invented in order that equity might prevail". (M.I. Finley Ancient History: evidence and models (1985), p. 102-103; the meaning of that passage from Aristotle (and perhaps the translation itself) is apparently disputed (p. 125n57).)

Is our concept 'justice' closer to our concept 'law' or to our concept 'equity'? The State pretends -- the Courts of the land would like it believed -- that law is justice [The courthouse is titled in stone above its portal "Hall of Justice"]. But the child says, "But that's not fair!", and this shows that justice belongs essentially to equity and only accidentally to law. Further, however, even the laws of God can be unjustly applied if equity [fairness] is ignored; thus it must be that there is a flexibility, a fluidity, about divine as opposed to human law, because the aim of divine law is only to do justice [The eye of God is not blind]. A system of fixed rules, "of laws, not of men", cannot be looked to for justice (although the concept 'justice' [or 'fairness'] is opposed to the concept 'arbitrary'); countering that, however, is the jury system -- i.e. human judgment [human, not divine, "lawlessness"] -- which allows equity to over-rule the law [A jury has flexibility even where a judge has none]. ("Philosophical investigations -- conceptual investigations.")

Query: equity among ancient Athenians.

"Guilty in law, but innocent in equity" -- now, which is 'justice'? (Does that question ask for a definition of the word 'justice'?) We simply do use that word ambiguously [equivocally]. (That the English word 'justice' is only a pseudo-equivalent to the name of whatever Greek notion Plato is talking about in the Thrasymachus (Book One of Plato's Republic) is shown by the dialectic of that dialog.)

Query: why should Socrates not have been found guilty?

Possibly: "jury nullification" -- i.e. a verdict decided by what the jury judges to be reasonable (i.e. fair) rather than by what the law demands (for the law may demand what the jurors judge to be unfair)? But on the other hand, according to Plato's account, many jurors did vote not-guilty: what might their reason/s have been?

Traditional Views about Socrates

N.G.L. Hammond's others views, however, are those usually found in history books:

[Socrates] died a martyr to his faith, that the individual is to be guided by his own intellect in every field of human life. (p. 449)

That is surely the individualism Hammond spoke of. But does his statement not require qualification? What of Socrates' belief in his "divine sign" [which Voltaire ridiculed], and what of his belief in the oracle at Delphi ... One says: surely this is irrational. "Irrational" the divine sign may be (in the sense of: "It works, but we don't know how"), but if an irrational-in-origin guide proves itself useful, will not the reasonable (i.e. wise) man make use of it? Note that Socrates' divine sign only served him as a warning (a premonition); it never took the place of Socrates' ethics, which was always a thoroughgoing use of reason. As to the Delphic oracle, Socrates never confused religion with philosophy: when the words of Apollo's oracle were reported to him, his response was to put those words to the tests of experience and reason in order to discover the god's meaning. In that sense, one really might say that Socrates' fundamental guide was his intellect, even if he "believed in" things that are not rational.

Xenophon wrote that Socrates believed that the gods are concerned for human welfare (Mem. i, 1, 19), even if, as Plato would say, it is the case that we don't even know by what names to call them (Cratylus 400d).

Zeus -- whosoe'er He be, Whose state excels
All language syllables,
Knowing not so much
As whether He love that name or love it not;  (Aeschylus, the Agamemnon, tr. Cookson, c. lines 160-162)

Zeus -- if to The Unknown
  That name of many names seem good --
Zeus, upon Thee I call. (tr. Morshead)

However, when at the end of the Phaedo Socrates asks that an offering be made to Asclepius, in my view this is no more than an expression of Plato's view that the body is a tomb; Asclepius was the god of healing, and the soul was healed by its release from the body (Phaedo 66b-d).) That was not Socrates' own nor even a Greek idea, but instead a doctrine Plato adopted from Orphism, Zeller says.

[Socrates'] martyrdom inspired the greatest philosophers in antiquity. In their eyes it discredited the restored democracy of Athens. (Hammond, ibid.)

But did it? Was not Plato's point, as in Socrates' arguments, that a horse is not improved by just anyone but instead by the true horse-trainer, just as not anyone improves the populace but only the true statesman [i.e. not every political leader is a statesman, just as not everyone who undertakes to train horses is has the necessary skill for that task]. [Is that argument by analogy: training a horse is like improving a man, and a horse-trainer is like a statesman; or is the analogy merely an illustration of a principle ("Nothing is improved by just anyone")?] Thus Plato's objection to democracy was not practical (what does works or does not work); it was "theoretical" (what ought to work or not work). As to Socrates himself and democracy, "His strength of will and attachment to the democracy are evident from his refusal to yield to Critias and his colleagues ..." (Diog. L. ii, 24) The Athens Socrates participated in, and respected enough to be willing to die for, was a democratic city, and Socrates had several times served as a democratic official when he had been called on to do so. So I do not think that anyone can claim that Socrates was an enemy of democracy.

As a man he surpassed all men in justice, in honesty of thought, and in probity of conduct. (Hammond, ibid. This was Xenophon's view.)

"... in honesty of thought". What does that mean? It means: thinking things all the way through -- not only following the argument wherever it may lead, but also initiating the argument to begin with -- i.e. deep not shallow reasoning about things, not jumping to conclusions and counting on first blush judgments -- i.e. not trusting in one's own common sense rather than in step-by-step, point-by-point Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 14-15] Socratic investigation. Reasoning things out, both the reasons for and the reasons against, and asking always: is there not some other possible explanation? This contrasts with philosophical stupidity.

As a citizen he obeyed the laws but not the dictates of those in power, whether they were the People ... or the Thirty Tyrants ... (Hammond, ibid.)

Things I don't understand. Why did Critias not simply have Socrates exiled or put to death if there really was a reign of terror in Athens (1,500 put to death, 5,000 exiled) under the Thirty? Socrates survived the plague at Athens (Diog. L. ii, 25), but if the pestilence was as terrible as Thucydides wrote, why do I recall no reference to it in Plato's Socratic dialogues? or in Xenophon?

There are many such gaps in our knowledge -- if it is knowledge, if uncertainty does not go, if skepticism should not go, to the very roots of our evidence, sources -- of Greek history. Not everything makes sense, but the historian puts the mind to sleep, using his own imagination to "knit up the ragged edges", so that we are not disturbed by the question of How-could-it-be? The historian emphasizes what we think we know rather than what we do not know, but that makes it look as if we knew much more than we do. [There are also purely empirical puzzles: for example, no one knows where the Greeks got most of their tin from.]

Why was Plato not angry with Aristophanes [Socrates: "I am chaffed in the theater as at a wine-party"; that is from Plutarch, but it is consonant with Plato's Symposium], and would not Aristophanes have been troubled after Socrates' death (if he and Socrates really were friends [Diog. L. ii, 38 suggests that they were not] and if he accepted Plato's account in the Apology as historiography)? But Aristophanes' translator argued that Plato did not really hold Aristophanes' The Clouds responsible for the jury's verdict (B[enjamin] B[ickley] Rogers, quoted in the Loeb "Introduction" to The Clouds (1924), which is also the source of the quotation from Plutarch's De educat[ione] puerorum, xiv, 10c).

The Theater of Dionysius

The Theater of Dionysius, Athens, 47 KB

Ruins of The Theater of Dionysius, on the south slope of the Acropolis of Athens. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were presented here. Source: Royal Greek Embassy, Press and Information Service. Reproduced in Brumbaugh, The Philosophers of Greece (1966), p. 98.

Aristophanes' The Frogs: society is built on complacency, not on skepticism and doubt

Tr. B.B. Rogers, in Loeb Classical Library, Aristophanes, vol ii (1924) [I have tried to indicate the starting line number of quotations].

What is Aristophanes' view of the poet-playwright's responsibility? (It is in fact what Plato in the Gorgias criticized the poet-playwright for not living up to.)

Aeschylus: For boys a teacher at school is found, but we, the poets, are teachers of men. We are bound things honest and pure to speak. (l. 1055))

Aesch: Come, tell me what are the points for which a noble poet our praise obtains. (l. 1008))
Euripides: For his ready wit, and his counsels sage, and because the citizen-folk he trains
To be better townsmen and worthier men. (l. 1009))

But it is the claim of Aristophanes that Euripides had done the very reverse of "trains to be better". He has made the citizen-folk disputatious and offered them ignoble examples. Instead of portraying heroical souls, Euripides has drawn a love-sick woman [sc. Phaedra in Hippolytus] (l. 1044)). Aeschylus is made to say of him:

... to evil repute
Your lessons have brought our youngsters, and taught our sailors to challenge, discuss, and refute
The orders they get from their captains, and yet, when I was alive, I protest that the knaves
Knew nothing at all save for rations to call, and to sing "Rhyppapae" [the rhythmical cry to which the oars kept time (p. 398na)] as they pulled through the waves. (l. 1070))

To reason out the How and Why

And Euripides is made to confess:

Eur: I taught them all these knowing ways
By chopping logic in my plays,
And making all my speakers try
To reason out the How and Why. (l. 971)

[Aristophanes does not make traditional ways, as characterized by Aeschylus' words, come off very well above ("the knaves knew nothing at all" beyond eating and rowing); I wonder why. (Is it only because both Aeschylus's and Euripides' speeches are parodies?) Diogenes Laertius has this story about Socrates' companion Aristippus of Cyrene: "When asked by someone in what way his son would be better for being educated, he replied: If nothing more than this ... when in the theater he will not sit down like a stone upon a stone." (ii, 72, tr. Hicks) What is Aristophanes' judgment? Is his view that the good for society is for the young to conform (obey their elders) rather than question (their elders' ways): Confucius held that view of education as the support of tradition.]

The ruins of a Greek open-air theater, 34 KB

Source: C.E. Robinson, Zito Hellas [Hellas (1955), Plate XI, opp. p. 82]: "The Theatre at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, looking across the dancing area [which in the modern theater became the "orchestra pit"] (in which the chorus performed) to the stone seats of the auditorium. On the left are remains of the stage buildings [These may have been made of wood]."

Who shall best advise the city?

Dionysus: "Now then, whichever of you two shall best advise the city, he shall come with me" (l. 1420), from Hades to Athens, from the world of the dead back to the world of the living. And Aristophanes chooses Aeschylus (with Sophocles given second place).

"Taking the Measure of Poetry"

Dio: Then both come hither, since I needs must weigh
The art poetic like a pound of cheese. (l. 1368)

Xanthias: What! weigh out tragedy, like butcher's meat?
Aeacus: Levels they'll bring, and measuring-tapes for words,
And moulded oblongs.
Xan: Is it bricks they are making?
Aeac: Wedges and compasses: for Euripides
Vows that he'll test the dramas, word by word. (l. 798)

At school in English class a distinction is made between "subjective" -- i.e. non-objective -- and "objective" in the context of judging the truth (and worth) of non-objective matters. Plato sought to do away with that distinction, for ethics to be objective, an exact science -- i.e. knowledge essentially characterized by measurement (Euthyphro 7b-c).

Aristophanes mocks Plato's notion by having Aeschylus and Euripides each hold up a scale to test "whose words are weightiest" (l. 1367), for example:

Eur: O, that Argo had not winged her way --
Aesch: River Spercheius, cattle-grazing haunts --
Dio: Cuckoo! let go. O, look, by far the lowest
His scale sinks down.
Eur: Why, how came that about?
Dio: He threw a river in, like some wool-seller
Wetting his wool, to make it weigh the more.
But you threw in a light and wingèd word. (l. 1383)

"Who knows if death be life?"

In Plato's Gorgias 492e-493a, Euripides is quoted by name. But in the play when Euripides reproaches Dionysus for giving Aeschylus life and bringing him back to advise Athens while leaving Euripides dead ("Have you no heart? Wretch, would you leave me dead?"), Dionysus uses those famous words of Euripides' as his reply (and Aristophanes adds a bit to further mock that type of skepticism in general) --

Who knows if death be life, and life be death, And breath be mutton broth, and sheep a sheepskin? (l. 1477)


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