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Topic #B17

[Plato], Theages


17 October 2001

Scribes: Maddy Macdonald and Rana Lee


These minutes were spoken on 19 October.



The whole history of ancient philosophy can be conceived of as the legacy of Socrates.  Plato and Aristotle learned directly from Socrates, while the Stoics, Epicureans, and the Skeptics were also inspired by Socrates.  He was seen as a kind of a secular saint, a philosophical hero. 


         Professor Hutchinson wished to approach Socrates as a teacher rather than a thinker. 


A brief summary of the story of Theages:  A father is concerned about his son, who demands higher education which the father cannot provide himself.  They go to see Socrates, to consult on the matter.  The father tries to get Socrates to take on his son, but Socrates is reluctant to.


A student then asked the following question:  You mentioned that there are two ways to view Socrates, that of teacher and that of thinker.  But, Socrates claimed in one text that he never taught anyone anything.  How then do you propose to look at Socrates as a teacher?


Professor Hutchinson’s response was as follows:  Socrates is clearly a thinker, but it is not at all clear what exactly he thought.  It appears that he was constantly changing his mind, with his ideas more of a “work in progress.”  Contrary to Empedocles, who conceived of a full system, Socrates never settled on one answer to a question and may even have been too sceptical.  People disagreed a lot about Socrates’ conclusions soon after his death, even more than they did about Wittgenstein’s ideas although Wittgenstein was more influential.


Socrates produced a rich stream of clearly inspired, gifted students.  This stream created a living legend out of Socrates, which spurned a literary tradition, Socratic dialogue, as a way of memorializing him.  Socrates and Plato also never accepted payment or their instruction, and so maybe saw this as the definition of teaching, which would also explain why they avoided the title of teacher.  But not accepting money, Socrates retained his freedom with regard to which students he would or would not help.  If their relationship didn’t work out, he might refer students to other teachers.


Socrates developed quite particular relationships with his students.  In Xenophon’s dialogue, Socrates approaches Euthydemus, unlike other stories of Socrates, in which he is the one approached.  Socrates was attracted to 18 year old Euthydemus, and it appears that this attraction crossed into sexual attraction. 


The relationships between Socrates and his students also included sexual attraction of the  student towards the teacher.  This was odd, because Socrates was remarkably ugly.  He is said to have been pudgy, had bulging eyes, thick lips, bushy eyebrows, an so on.  He had no visible means of employment, and hung around places where pretty young men hung out, such as the gymnasia.  So this is what people must have thought: Socrates is not only a superstitious weirdo, but a homosexual pedophile.


In most Greek cities, homosexuality was a crime.  It is sometimes said that homosexuality was accepted in ancient Greece, but this is false.  However, in certain larger cities, usually those with trade and seaports, homosexuality was tolerated in a few social strata.  For example, the upper strata of Athenian society, to which Socrates belonged.  But even in more liberal Athens, not just any kind of homosexuality was tolerated and effeminate affection for other men was ridiculed and scorned.  Aristophanes frequently criticized people for outrageous queerness.


Professor Hutchinson believes that the gay orientation was not tolerated in Athens, but a type of avuncular bisexuality was somewhat commonplace.  A son might be set up with his fathers business partner who would become a sort of mentor and uncle figure.  They would develop a relationship of trust, and sometimes the older partner might take advantage of this trust and initiate a sexual relationship, but this relationship was never spoken of.  However, it was not looked upon favourably if this avuncular bisexuality was to turn into an actual sexual ‘perversion’, for example, homosexuality.


Sometimes Socrates’ relationships with his students turned into homosexual ones, but this wasn’t made into a big deal.  Socrates had a wife and children.


Plato, however, seemed thoroughly homosexual.  There is good evidence for one or two gay affairs, and he never demonstrated any interest in women.


Professor Hutchinson’s diagnosis of Socrates’ sexual orientation as leaning toward men is not a criticism.  In his view, homosexuality is ethically irrelevant.


A student then asked the question:  Is it possible that Socrates was attracted to men because women were not educated and therefore not involved in debate, and much of Socrates’ attraction to these men was intellectual?  Perhaps if women had been educated there would have been less homosexuality and more intellectual attraction between men and women.


Professor Hutchinson: This is a very good point, women were purposely not educated to make them more malleable for their future husbands.  Socrates was radically attracted to intelligent people, so basically men formed his only options.


Another student then asked how old Socrates’ crushes were thought said to be.  Prof Hutchinson replied that Socrates’ relationships would begin when the youths were around the ages of 15 to 18.  Young men went into mandatory military service at age 19 and the relationships generally took place before that.  Socrates was older, more learned, and in general, had the upper hand in every way.  So, any relationship Socrates would have had has all the classical power imbalances.  This would be much like a relationship between Prof Hutchinson and a student.  The only difference would be that there was no formal evaluation of students.


Socrates was famous for never giving in to temptation.  He fell in love with students, and spent all his time with them, but never actually consummated his relationship with any of them.  There is also evidence from Xenophon that Socrates never laid a hand on his students, except accidentally, and that once, when a student kissed him, he was upset and said it would take years to get rid of the poison.


Socrates understood the power of sexual attraction, and so avoided letting it focus on anyone.  He seems to have a physical and emotional/intellectual desire focused on beautiful young men who could benefit from his teaching and company.


Socrates’ relationship with his students was special.  It was more than just a typical master disciple relationship, but involved and exchange of affection.  Students would benefit and learn from their association with Socrates.  What you learned and how far you took it all depended on who you were and what your relationship to Socrates was.  Socrates was teaching a personal frame of mind not a set of facts.  This was not merely an intellectual transfer.


A student wondered whether the fact that youths may have less formed minds, while older people have more set ideas might account for Socrates’ preference of young men. 


Prof Hutchinson replied that he agreed with half of the statement.  While yes it is true that older people stop learning – at this an older student interjected “I resent that” -- Socrates was more interested in teaching self-development, which is generally complete by one’s 20s.  Nor was this focus on youths an attempt to reach them before they became members of a particular school or system of thought, because there was little competition between systems.  Socrates was not transmitting communication skills, but drawing out better person to be communicated. 




         Professor Hutchinson then returned to the reading, Theages. The author of Theages is not Plato, but pseudo-Plato.  Instead of calling him that, we should just refer to him as the anonymous author.  The author was someone working in the Academy, but not Plato.


Socrates tells Theages that he can’t guarantee anything from the association because he sometimes gets premonitions that things might not work out.  These are so powerful that he finds from experience it is always a good idea to listen to them.  These premonitions can be described as “authorless emanations from divine realm giving information of a future event which otherwise would be beyond knowledge.”  They have no words, and are not sent from one distinct god, but all of them.  All evidence suggests that Socrates didn’t act on the advice of these signs, but that they always commanded ‘stop!’ as he was about to do something.


This sign of his is sometimes interpreted as a conscience, like the feeling you get when you eat someone elses lunch and you know you shouldn’t.  The difference is that when you experience an attack of conscience, it is something that you could have known.  Socrates’ premonitions are different, because all the events are completely unforeseeable.


For example, with Euthydemus, he gets up to leave, but the sign says not to go. Shortly after he has reseated himself, a whole group of scholars and students walk into the room, who he would otherwise have missed talking to. 


To conclude, Prof. Hutchinson reminded us of three things about how Socrates must have appeared.  First, that he was a homosexual, second, that he was a pedophile, and third, that he was a superstitious weirdo, which one can’t argue away.