Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Socrates as Daedalus

Since I identify autochthony as the central (but “secret”) theme of the Platonic dialogues, it is a reasonable question to ask: if so, where does Socrates fit in? How does the central character in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, fit into the theme of autochthony? The identity and meaning of the character of Socrates is not something I have addressed.

My reading of Plato, it might be objected more generally, is anti- or at least non-Socratic. Following ancient tradition, I usually put the Timaeus and the Parmenides at the centre of the dialogues, a cosmology and a metaphysics. But Socrates is not the primary speaker in either of those works, both of which are usually designated as “late” in the supposed chronology of Plato’s works. They are not “Socratic” dialogues like the supposedly early works. My autochthony theme is largely extracted from a reading of the Timaeus and Critias ensemble. What of Socrates? If my larger reading of Plato has any merit then I must explain the place of Socrates in the Platonic autochthony.

My first response to this is to emphasize all the ways in which Socrates was an Athenian and, I would argue, Plato presents him as the archetypal Athenian. Only the archetypal Athenian could describe the archetypal Athens, as Socrates does in the Republic. There is a wealth of evidence in the dialogues in support of this view, but Crito 52b and 53a are enough. Socrates was a loyal son of Athens, who never left Athens for any other land. Autochthony is the boast of the Athenians. There is no one more Athenian than Socrates. He is autochthonous in that general sense just because he is a native born Athenian.

More specifically, though, in Euthyphro, 11c and 15b we are told that Socrates’ genealogical claim is through Daedalus. This is why ancient tradition tells us that Socrates was a stonemason. The name Daedalus means “skilful worker”. Socrates was a craftsman. The Daedalus from whom he claimed ancestry, though, is specifically the Athenian, and not the Cretan, Daedalus. The Athenians had acquired the Daedalus mythos from Crete. In this appropriation, Daedalus becomes a native of Athens, the grandson of Erectheus, the autochthonous line.

In Euthyphro 15b, moreover, Socrates is not merely in the line of Daedalus but is portrayed as Daedalus (sort of). I think this is the key to understanding the character of Socrates in Plato. He is a Daedalus figure. He is, pre-eminently, the “skilful worker”. In this we must understand “skill” as an aspect of “sophia” (wisdom) and as an attribute of the goddess Athena.

Objection: why would this "key" to Socrates be hidden in the Euthyphro and not be mentioned, for example, in the Phaedo?

Answer: The "fortunate coincidence" at Phaedo 58a by which Socrates' execution is delayed concerns the story of Theseus. This puts the whole of the Phaedo in the context of the Theseus/Daedalus mythos. 

Further: to consider Socrates as Daedalus casts new light on the dialogue called the Laws, the only dialogue in which Socrates does not appear and the only dialogue not set in Athens. Instead, we find an unnamed generic "Athenian" in Crete. This Platonic configuration of references surely alludes to the shared mythology of Athens and Crete.

By extension, Socrates in the Phaedo is the man who knows his way through the labyrinth, the minotaur being in this analogy the fear of death.

No doubt Socrates-as-Daedalus is a well-covered motif. My specific interest here is the connection to autochthony.

I point out, too, that the reference at Euthyphro 15b reminds us of the beginning of the Timaeus. In the Euthyphro Socrates is Daedalus, he says, because he is bringing Euthyphro's ideas into motion. But in the Timaeus he asks Timaeus to do this: the Locrian answers Socrates' request to see his ideal state in action. The Locrian, therefore, plays the demiurgic role there, not Socrates. It seems, then, that this is the role of the central figures in Plato's dialogues, both the Socratic and the non-Socratic dialogues. The central figure, in all cases, uses "skilful means'.

- Harper McAlpine Black


No comments:

Post a Comment