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Abstract: Socrates plays Stesichorus


Title: “Socrates plays Stesichorus”

During my stay at the CHS I have worked on Plato’s authorial voice against the background of archaic poetry, with an emphasis on Plato’s “self-disclosures”, that is passages where he implicitly refers to his dialogues (see below, outline of the book in progress). One such passage, namely the myth of the cicadas in the Phaedrus, was the subject of my work-in-progress research talk: I interpret it as a scene of poetic initiation, comparable to the Dichterweihe of such figures as Hesiod, Archilochus, Epimenides and Aesop. At 259c-d, the myth mentions four Muses (Terpsichore, Erato and the couple Ourania – Kalliope). I read this as a hint at the “ingredients” of philosophical discourse: Ourania and Calliope, the most philosophical Muses, introduce the second, dialectical part of the dialogue, whereas Terpsichore and Erato point back to Socrates’ great speech, which in many ways appropriates the voice of lyric poetry. My talk for the CHS Symposium focuses on “Terpsichore” and Socrates’ appropriation of Stesichorus: I examine a number of overlooked linguistic, philological, performative and even metrical factors, and I conclude that the first half of the Phaedrus is, among other things, a consistent re-enacting of Stesichorus’ Helen poem in performance. Plato builds on the traditional opposition between Stesichorus and Homer, and thus conceptualizes philosophy as a topical or flexible discourse to be set against the notion of fixed and crystallized discourse as exemplified by epic rhapsodies. Needless to say, my 15-minute slot only allows for a very selective presentation, which I propose as a sample of my work on under-explored passages. Accordingly, my focus will be more on points of detail than on the overall picture that emerges from their exploration.


Working title: “Plato’s four Muses and the poetics of philosophy”

The aim of the book is to work out Plato’s self-portrait as an author through a fresh reading of the Phaedrus, with an introduction and a conclusion that contextualize the construction more broadly. The Phaedrus is Plato’s most self-referential dialogue, as I argue through a number of under-explored data, both internal and external. I take my cue from Plato’s mention of four Muses at Phaedrus 259c-d (Terpsichore, Erato and the couple Ourania – Kalliope), which I read as a hint at the “ingredients” of philosophical discourse.

My Introduction steers clear from the usual question “why did Plato write (dialogues)”: more radically, I ask what is a Platonic dialogue. My starting point is Plato’s “self-disclosures,” that is, passages where he implicitly refers to his dialogues. Such “self-disclosures” have been partially studied by K. Gaiser, S. Halliwell and others. My Introduction provides the most thorough discussion so far and paves the way for my reading of the Phaedrus, where I detect a new set of powerful “self-disclosures”.

Chapter 1, “Terpsichore”, argues that the first half of the Phaedrus is, among other things, a consistent re-enacting of Stesichorus’ Helen poem and, more specifically, of its performance, as I show by discussing a number of unexplored linguistic, philological and even metrical data. By appropriating Stesichorus, who was highly valued by Plato’s Pythagorean friends, Plato builds on the opposition between Stesichorus and Homer, and thus conceptualizes philosophy as a topical or flexible discourse as opposed to “rhapsodic”, that is crystallized, speech. In this formulation, philosophical discourse is unique in its capacity to adjust itself to the needs of different interlocutors and listeners.

Chapter 2, “Erato”, focuses on Helen: in his great speech, I argue, Socrates reproduces the quadripartite structure of Gorgias’ Encomium and also toys with Isocrates’ Helen. Both works allude to Sappho 16 Voigt, and so does Plato. I show how the so far unnoticed reworking of this poem proves crucial to Plato’s definition of philosophy as a form of eroticized rhetoric. Plato inherits from Sappho a notion of erotic oblivion: lyric eros proves crucial for severing the ties that bind us to the sensible world, and for sparking the process of recollection. Plato’s recollection, however, differs markedly from Sappho’s in that it uncovers the general as opposed to the particular

Chapter 3, “Ourania & Kalliope”, takes its cue from the Ion‘s magnet simile. I argue that the image applies equally well to philosophy, which the Phaedrus specifically assigns to the two Muses. Sokratikoi logoi take the form of an oral chain of accounts, whereby the human “rings” experience precisely the same symptoms as Ion and his audience. This points to philosophy as inspired mousike, which, however, distances itself from epic rhapsodies in that the rings are vigilant and active. Similarly, the story of the cicadas is Plato’s re-enacting of a common myth, i.e. the poet’s initiation as a result of the Muses’ epiphany in the country (cf. Hesiod, Archilochus, Epimenides). Again, deviations from the pattern highlight the special status of philosophic poetry, which is, e.g., rationally vigilant and intrinsically dialogic (whence two Muses).

The Conclusion focuses on Socrates’ conversion to “demotic” vs. metaphorical music in the Phaedo, which, I argue, closely parallels the Phaedrus. In the Phaedo, poetry is defined by mythos (a hymn to Apollo and Aesop’s fables). This points to the new genre of Sokratikoi logoi, which is conceptualized as a simultaneously old-and-new form of poetry, combining the lofty and the low. I interpret this move as a twofold reply. On one hand, Plato counters the accusations of Aristophanes, who attacks Socrates for his alleged rejection of mousike; on the other, Plato addresses aggressive forms of discourse such as historie, oratory, and eristics, all of which take their leave of myth and the Muses. Plato’s return to mousike, I argue, is a recurring theme in a number of dialogues, the Phaedo and the Phaedrus being just the most spectacular examples. Within the new prose genre of the Socratic dialogue, this amounts to a self-conscious paradox, which I construe as the hallmark of Plato as an author.

4 Responses to Abstract: Socrates plays Stesichorus

  1. Hello Andrea,
    Your book looks very interesting. I agree with you about the idea that the first half of the Phaedrus is a consistent re-enacting of Stesichorus’ poem: while a student is doing philosophy, he has to experience directly the vision of Forms, just like the proto-philosopher (or his teacher). Teaching philosophy does not consist in the mere transmission of any crystallized discourse. But what about the content of Socrates’ palinodia? What is the connection between Helen and the Eleusinian disclosure? The “back of heaven” might be more connected of Stesichorus’ cosmology (fragment about the travel of sun during the night) than with his conception of Helen. Moreover, I suppose, lyric poetry deals more with voice (ops) than with reason (logos). Do you answer these questions in your book?
    Best (see you soon),

  2. Hello Alexis,
    thank you so much for your comment! The connection with the fragment you mention is no doubt intriguing, it’s too bad we know so little. One might look, however, at the way Helen was ‘purified’ by the Pythagoreans. Detienne has a full discussion of this fascinating subject. Among other things, it turns out that they were the ones who identified Helen with the Moon. Detienne concludes that “l’histoire fantasque d’une Hélène lunaire et la légende d’une Palinodie attribuée à Stésichore ne sont que deux aspects d’une tendance profonde de l’ancien pythagorisme: l’épuration de la mythologie dans le cadre des livres sacrés qu’étaient pur eux l’Iliade et l’Odyssée” (Detienne 1957, 149-150). My guess is that Plato’s Italian friends were a major influence on the Phaedrus. Reason as opposed to voice? Hard to say. It’s like the opposition mythos/logos: no clear-cut solution can work for Plato – even his own philosophical excursus from the Seventh Letter is called μῦθος καὶ πλάνος (345d)! However, philosophical discourse as depicted by Plato in the Phaedrus and elswhere can be described as a vigilant form of enthusiasm, or – say – as the beguiling “Voice of Reason”. From this perspective yes, I do (try to) provide answers.

  3. Andrea,
    I am a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation about the rhetoric of Isocrates, dealing especially with two speeches that bear an intertextual relationship with the Phaedrus: Helen and Busiris.

    Your argument about Plato performing Stesichorus potentially lends weight to an argument I’m forwarding about the relative dating of these texts. I would love to see your fuller argument and be able to cite you. I know the book is still forthcoming. Is there anything you can share?

    • Dear Steven,
      thank you for your comment and apologies for my slow reply. When is your thesis due? I’m also very interested in your arguments, and I hope we’ll share ideas. Let’s write to each other: my current email is andrea.capra@unimi.it All best, Andrea

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