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Socrates Plays Stesichorus

CHS Research Symposium, April 27-28 2012

Socrates Plays Stesichorus

Andrea Capra

I will take my cue from Attic comedy. Here is a sleight of hand scene where Socrates plays Stesichorus to the lyre while stealing a wine jug:

1. δεξάμενος δὲ Σωκράτης τὴν ἐπιδέξι’ 〈ἄιδων〉
Στησιχόρου πρὸς τὴν λύραν οἰνοχόην ἔκλεψεν (Eupolis, 395 PCG)

A possible connection between Stesichorus and Socrates, as well as with Plato, provides some background to my argument. Stesichorus was very much in vogue among Plato’s Pythagorean friends. They had appropriated his biography and interpreted his verse so as to make him the champion of a purified form of poetry. This was part of a broader strategy: as Marcel Detienne has shown, their final goal was to moralize the epic heroes, and especially Helen and Achilles. Plato, then, had every reason for ‘playing’ Stesichorus himself. In a way, Socrates does play Stesichorus in the Phaedrus, and the obvious starting point is of course his celebrated quotation from Stesichorus’ Palinode:

2. ἐμοὶ μὲν οὖν, ὦ φίλε, καθήρασθαι ἀνάγκη: ἔστιν δὲ τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσι περὶ μυθολογίαν καθαρμὸς ἀρχαῖος, ὃν Ὅμηρος μὲν οὐκ ᾔσθετο, Στησίχορος δέ. τῶν γὰρ ὀμμάτων στερηθεὶς διὰ τὴν Ἑλένης κακηγορίαν οὐκ ἠγνόησεν ὥσπερ Ὅμηρος, ἀλλ᾽ ἅτε μουσικὸς ὢν ἔγνω τὴν αἰτίαν, καὶ ποιεῖ εὐθὺς

οὐκ ἔστ᾽ ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος,
οὐδ᾽ ἔβας ἐν νηυσὶν εὐσέλμοις,
οὐδ᾽ ἵκεο Πέργαμα Τροίας

καὶ ποιήσας δὴ πᾶσαν τὴν καλουμένην Παλινῳδίαν παραχρῆμα ἀνέβλεψεν. ἐγὼ οὖν σοφώτερος ἐκείνων γενήσομαι κατ’ αὐτό γε τοῦτο· πρὶν γάρ τι παθεῖν διὰ τὴν τοῦ Ἔρωτος κακηγορίαν πειράσομαι αὐτῷ ἀποδοῦναι τὴν παλινῳδίαν, γυμνῇ τῇ κεφαλῇ καὶ οὐχ ὥσπερ τότε ὑπ’ αἰσχύνης ἐγκεκαλυμμένος (Phaedrus 243a-b)

Socrates has offended the god Eros, and is in need of expiation, lest he gets blinded like Homer. The palinode marks Socrates’ divine turn, namely the transition from his first speech to the second, divine one.

This three-line quote from Stesichorus is the culmination of a poetic climax, whereby Socrates presents himself as an inspired poet. Other notable moments of this strategy are the following. First, Socrates’ first speech begins with a curious invocation to the Muses:

3. ἄγετε δή, ὦ Μοῦσαι, εἴτε δι᾽ ᾠδῆς εἶδος λίγειαι, εἴτε διὰ γένος μουσικὸν τὸ Λιγύων ταύτην ἔσχετ᾽ ἐπωνυμίαν, ‘ξύμ μοι λάβεσθε’ τοῦ μύθου (Phaedrus 237a)

Second, this same speech ends on a poetic note, that is with some kind of epic verse, although there are philological complications and (at least) two different texts are possible:

4a. ὡς λύκοι ἄρνας ἀγαπῶσιν, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί (Phaedrus 241d)
4b. ὡς λύκοι ἄρν’ ἀγαπῶσ’, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί (Phaedrus 241d)

Whatever the case, this explains why a bit further, Socrates claims that he is beginning to deliver epe, epic verses:

5. οὐκ ᾔσθου, ὦ μακάριε, ὅτι ἤδη ἔπη φθέγγομαι ἀλλ᾽ οὐκέτι διθυράμβους, καὶ ταῦτα ψέγων; (Phaedrus 241e)

Third, Socrates’ great speech, where he rehabilitates divine madness against human wisdom, begins by quoting once again Steisichorus’ palinode:

6. οὑτωσὶ τοίνυν, ὦ παῖ καλέ, ἐννόησον, ὡς ὁ μὲν πρότερος ἦν λόγος Φαίδρου τοῦ Πυθοκλέους, Μυρρινουσίου ἀνδρός: ὃν δὲ μέλλω λέγειν, Στησιχόρου τοῦ Εὐφήμου, Ἱμεραίου. λεκτέος δὲ ὧδε, ὅτι οὐκ ἔστ᾽ ἔτυμος λόγος ὃς ἂν παρόντος ἐραστοῦ τῷ μὴ ἐρῶντι μᾶλλον φῇ δεῖν χαρίζεσθαι. (Phaedrus 243e-244a)

Ostensibly, passage 2 is Stesichorus’ and, by implication, Socrates’ palinode. Yet most scholars put it down to Plato himself: by juxtaposing Socrates’ inspired second speech to his first uninspired one, Plato would be rejecting his earlier positions as expressed in other dialogues. On this view, Socrates’ quotation from Stesichorus is little more than a stylistic device to attract the reader’s attention on Plato’s own recantation. One problem I see in this interpretation lies in the distribution of the references to Socrates’ inspiration. Here is a list of Socrates’ ‘sources’ (7):

a. Sappho and Anacreon and some prose writer (Sorates’ bosom is ‘full’ of them, 235c)
b. Muses (Socrates summons the Μοῦσαι…λίγειαι to contribute to his μῦθος, 237a)
c. Landscape (it makes Socrates νυμφόληπτος, and results in inspiration, ἐπιόν, 238d)
d. Nymphs (they make Socrates ‘enthusiastic’, ὑπὸ τῶν Νυμφῶν…ἐνθουσιάσω, 241d)
e. Ibycus and Stesichorus (implicitly: Socrates follows their lead, 242d-243b)
f. Muses (they arouse tender souls to a Bacchic frenzy, 245a)
g. The cicadas (they bestow upon humans the gift of the Muses, 258eff.)
h. The local gods and the Muses’ prophets (i.e. the cicadas, inspiring Socrates, 262c-d)
i. Pan and Nymphs (they outsmart Lysias, 263d. Cf. 278b, Νυμφῶν νᾶμά τε καὶ μουσεῖον)

Clearly, Socrates is inspired throughout the Phaedrus, including his first human and impious speech. My reading of the Phaedrus is designed, inter alia, to highlight this problem and to suggest a different solution.

My aim is also to provide a sample of my work as resulting from different approaches. Let me begin with a point of vocabulary, namely the strange beginning of Socrates’ first speech (see above, passage 3). In order to grasp the extravagant sound of this invocation, one has only to recall the funny commentary provided by Dionysius of Alicarnassus: as he funnily remarks, he was quietly reading the Phaedrus until Socrates’ lofty invocation struck him as a bolt from the blue, making him jump out of his skin (De Demosthenis dictione, 7.9 ff ).

One striking feature of passage 3 is surely the epithet ligeiai: this is the only place in extant classical prose to feature this adjective. In archaic poetry, the form ligeia usually modifies the phorminx. Only occasionally does it modify the Muse(s): no individual Greek poet (that is if we discard the Homeric Hymns) has more than one such instance. The one exception is Stesichorus, who uses it twice to refer to the Muses:

8. δεῦρ’ ἄγε Καλλιόπεια λίγεια (Stesichorus, 240 PMG)

9. ἄγε Μοῦσα λίγει’ ἄρξον ἀοιδᾶς †ἐρατῶν ὕμνους†
Σαμίων περὶ παίδων ἐρατᾶι φθεγγομένα λύραι (Stesichorus, 278 PMG)

The analogy with Socrates’ invocation is immediately obvious: note the verb ago, and note also that the subject of the second fragment is paederotic. Another strange feature of Socrates’ invocation is his strange request for cooperation as opposed to full inspiration (ξύμ μοι λάβεσθε). This possibly points to the beginning of Stesichorus’ Oresteia as quoted in Aristophanes’ Peace, which also have the same exceptional “with me” motif:

10. Μοῖσα σὺ μὲν πολέμους ἀπωσαμένα μετ’ ἐμοῦ (Stesichorus, 210.1 PMG)

In sum, one might begin to suspect that Socrates’ odd invocation is a concoction of Stesichorean mannerisms. This is confirmed, I argue, by the conclusion of Socrates’ first speech (see above, passage 4). We now move to a philological issue, which in turn entails a metrical point.

The manuscripts feature a quasi-hexameter (4a ὡς λύκοι ἄρνας ἀγαπῶσιν, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί). Yet recent editors and commentators usually print or favour a different text, resulting in a full hexameter line (4b ὡς λύκοι ἄρν’ ἀγαπῶσ’, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί). Is this reasonable? The grounds for preferring the hexametrical text are the following:

– first, there is some support from the indirect tradition, as is clear from Moreschini’s Belles Lettres apparatus (ἄρν’ἀγαπῶσ’ HERMIAS 61,26 Bekker ἄρνα φιλοῦσιν HERMIAS 61,7 Stephan. ἄρνα φιλεῦσ’ HERMOG.);

– second, Socrates claims he is uttering epe, epic verse (see above, passage five 5): accordingly, commentators have no doubts: “It is certain” – I quote from the new Cambridge commentary by Harvey Yunis – “that Plato composed a hexameter verse for this spot” (ad loc.);

– third, the alleged hexameter is slightly irregular, in that it violates Hermann’s bridge as a result of an unexpected caesura (παῖδα | φιλοῦσιν). This calls to mind the two ‘Homeric’ lines that Socrates will quote later, one of which features the same violation (252b-c, see below, passage 13). Jules Labarbe, then, interpreted the violation as Plato’s jocular ‘signature': on this view, the very irregularity of the verse, somewhat paradoxically, becomes an argument against the text of the manuscripts.

In my opinion, none of these arguments is persuasive:

– first, the indirect tradition is inconsistent, as is clear from the apparatus. This seems to reflect different attempts to create a full hexameter line so as to confirm Socrates’ claim to epic inspiration as expressed in passage 5. The reverse scenario – a full hexameter got lost in the tradition – is much less likely: as a general rule, the metre tends to ‘protect’ the original wording;

– second, epe does not really mean “hexameters”, but can refer equally well to the quasi-epic verse of Stesichorus, as is clear from the following passages:

11. καθάπερ Στησιχόρου τε καὶ τῶν ἀρχαίων μελοποιῶν οἳ ποιοῦντες ἔπη
(Heraclides Ponticus, 109.23 Schütrumpf)

12. ἐπιδεικνύουσι δὲ Ἡρακλέους τῶν παίδων τῶν ἐκ Μεγάρας μνῆμα, οὐδέν τι ἀλλοίως τὰ ἐς τὸν θάνατον λέγοντες ἢ Στησίχορος ὁ Ἱμεραῖος καὶ Πανύασσις ἐν τοῖς ἔπεσιν ἐποίησαν. (Pausanias, 9.11.2);

– third, the parallel with the lines from the Homeridae simply backfires. Let us have a look at the relevant passage:

13. τοῦτο δὲ τὸ πάθος, ὦ παῖ καλέ, πρὸς ὃν δή μοι ὁ λόγος, ἄνθρωποι μὲν ἔρωτα ὀνομάζουσιν, θεοὶ δὲ ὃ καλοῦσιν ἀκούσας εἰκότως διὰ νεότητα γελάσῃ. λέγουσι δὲ οἶμαί τινες Ὁμηριδῶν ἐκ τῶν ἀποθέτων ἐπῶν δύο ἔπη εἰς τὸν ἔρωτα, ὧν τὸ ἕτερον ὑβριστικὸν πάνυ καὶ οὐ σφόδρα τι ἔμμετρον· ὑμνοῦσι δὲ ὧδε

τὸν δ᾽ ἤτοι θνητοὶ μὲν ἔρωτα | καλοῦσι ποτηνόν,
ἀθάνατοι δὲ Πτέρωτα, διὰ πτεροφύτορ᾽ ἀνάγκην.

τούτοις δὴ ἔξεστι μὲν πείθεσθαι, ἔξεστιν δὲ μή (Phaedrus 252b-c)

By assigning them to the Homeridae, Socrates is no doubt discrediting these two lines. He even registers the shameless irregularity of the second one!

In sum, there is nothing wrong with the manuscripts. What are we left with, then? In my view, Socrates’ closing words do form a complete verse anyway, as should be clear from the following outline (14):

> a) ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί  (Phdr. 241d1 = final words of Socrates’ first speech)
≈ b) Οὐκ ἔστ᾽ ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος (PMG 192.1 = line 1 of palinode according to Plato)
≈ c) οὐδ᾽ ἵκεο Πέργαμα Τροίας     (PMG 192.3 = line 3 of palinode according to Plato)
≈ d) Δεῦρ’ αὖτε θεὰ φιλόμολπε     (PMG 193.9f. = incipit of palinode 1, cf. Chamaeleon)
≈ e) Χρυσόπτερε πάρθενε*       (PMG 193.11 = incipit of palinode 2, cf. Chamaeleon)
*<Μοῖσα> suppl. West (or a Siren, as suggested by Giovanni Cerri)

No matter how we call it, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί is precisely the type of verse one finds in Stesichorus’ palinode. To begin with, it scans precisely like two of the three verses that Socrates quotes from Stesichorus’ palinode to introduce his second speech (14b and 14c). Even more importantly, it scans like the very incipit of Stesichorus’ twofold palinode as quoted by Chamaeleon (14d and 14e). This is crucial for my argument: to the ears of Plato’s original audiences, then, Socrates’ final words announce the rhythm of the palinode. This is why Socrates calls them epe. Both of Socrates’ speeches are in fact inspired by Stesichorus, and Socrates is probably re-enacting Stesichorus’ own movement from one song (let us call it the Helen) to another (let us call it the Palinode).

Stesichorus’ Helen poem(s) is a notorious conundrum: how many odes and palinodes were there? This is not the place to address such a complex question. Let me just mention that the consensus is moving towards the idea that there was just one song, as David Sider, Graziano Arrighetti and Adrian Kelly, among others, have argued. In a highly charged performance, the poet would first denigrate Helen, which results in his notional blindness. At a later stage, he would move to a second and possibly to a third section of the song and rehabilitate Helen against the epic tradition. At this point, the performer would pretend to regain his sight as a result of his recantation. When reading came to replace performance, the different sections began to circulate as independent poems, which accounts for the contradictions we find in later sources. Now, this spectacular scenario fits very well the Phaedrus: we now move to a performative factor.

Some years ago, Marian Demos drew attention to Socrates’ strange ‘acting’ in the Phaedrus. Socrates covers his head before delivering his first, “impious” speech, only to uncover it when he launches ingo his palinode: I am referring back to passage 2, and in particular to the phrase γυμνῇ τῇ κεφαλῇ. Demos makes the important point that – I quote – “the legend that Stesichorus lost his sight because of his defamation of Helen is analogous to Socrates’ lack of vision during the speech he delivers with his head covered” (p. 70). Once we replace “legend” with “performance” this makes perfect sense: Socrates’ delivering of his two speeches is clearly analogous to Stesichorus’ performance, and Socrates goes so far as to ask Phaedrus for directions:

15. ΣΩ: ποῦ δή μοι ὁ παῖς πρὸς ὃν ἔλεγον; ἵνα καὶ τοῦτο ἀκούσῃ, καὶ μὴ ἀνήκοος ὢν φθάσῃ χαρισάμενος τῷ μὴ ἐρῶντι. ΦΑ: οὗτος παρά σοι μάλα πλησίον ἀεὶ πάρεστιν, ὅταν σὺ βούλῃ. (Phaedrus 243e)

As if he were a blind man, he asks “where’s my boy, the one I was talking to”? and Phaedrus promptly reassures him “He’s here”.


I have discussed a sample of lexical, philological, metrical and performative factors, and I could add more. For instance, the “untrue story” motive is touched upon early in the Phaedrus:

16. … ὦ Σώκρατες, σὺ τοῦτο τὸ μυθολόγημα πείθει ἀληθὲς εἶναι; (Phaedrus, 229b)

These words are uttered well before the delivering of the speeches: I interpret this as the triggering of the palinode theme. These and other factors all converge in suggesting one and the same conclusion: Socrates is consistently appropriating Stesichorus’ persona and re-enacting his Helen poem. In other words, Socrates re-enacts both the ode and the palinode of Stesichorus, which eventually helps understand why inspiration is scattered throughout the dialogue and may even promote a fuller understanding of Stesichorus’ song. As for the Phaedrus, far for pointing to Plato’s alleged palinode or philosophical ‘evolution’, this signals a dialectical movement, whereby every concept is analyzed in utramque partem.

Socrates qualifies Stesichorus, and by implication himself, as mousikos as opposed to ‘unmusical’ Homer (see above, passage 2). On the one hand, this revives a traditional opposition, which Walter Burkert once labeled “rhapsodes versus Stesichorus”. There was a rivalry or juxtaposition between the musical performances of Stesichorus’ songs and the increasingly rigid recitations of Homeric rhapsodies. On the other hand, this can be seen as the hallmark of philosophical discourse as opposed to other speech-acts. It comes as no surprise that rhetoric, towards the end of the dialogue, is conceptualized precisely as a form crystallized rhapsody:

17. Ὁ δέ γε ἐν μὲν τῷ γεγραμμένῳ λόγῳ περὶ ἑκάστου παιδιάν τε ἡγούμενος πολλὴν ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι, καὶ οὐδένα πώποτε λόγον ἐν μέτρῳ οὐδ’ ἄνευ μέτρου μεγάλης ἄξιον σπουδῆς γραφῆναι, οὐδὲ λεχθῆναι ὡς οἱ ῥαψῳδούμενοι ἄνευ ἀνακρίσεως καὶ διδαχῆς πειθοῦς ἕνεκα ἐλέχθησαν, ἀλλὰ τῷ ὄντι αὐτῶν τοὺς βελτίστους εἰδότων ὑπόμνησιν γεγονέναι … (Phaedrus 277e-278a).

Thanks to Nietzsche, we all remember the accusation voiced by Aristophanes, namely that Socratic philosophy was an attempt against traditional mousike:

18. χαρίεν οὖν μὴ Σωκράτει
παρακαθήμενον λαλεῖν,
ἀποβαλόντα μουσικὴν
τά τε μέγιστα παραλιπόντα
τῆς τραγῳδικῆς τέχνης. (Aristophanes, Frogs 1491-1495).

In the Phaedrus and elsewhere, Plato provides a powerful reply to that accusation: unlike ‘rhapsodic’ rhetoric, which presented itself as a purely human agency, philosophy is definitely a form of primal mousike, a Muse-inspired art. This paradox of Plato’s authorial voice lies at the heart of my research at the CHS.


This is the written version – a sort of script, as it were – of my talk for the CHS Research Symposium. I develop my argument in full in the first chapter of the book I am completing (see previous post).


Arrighetti G., Stesicoro e il suo pubblico, MD 32, 1994, 9-30.

Burkert W., The Making of Homer in the Sixth Century B.C.: Rhapsodes versus Stesichorus, in A.A.V.V., Papers on the Amasis Painter and his World, Malibu 1987, 43-62, then in W.B. Kleine Schriften, I, Göttingen 2001, 198-217.

Cerri G., Dal canto citarodico al coro tragico: la Palinodia di Stesicoro, l’Elena di Euripide e le sirene, Dioniso 55, 1984-1985, 157-174.

Demos M., Lyric Quotation in Plato, Lanham (Md.), 1999.

Detienne M., Homère, Hésiode et Pythagore. Poésie et philosophie dans le Pythagoreisme ancien, Bruxelles – Berchem 1962.

Kelly A., Stesikhoros and Helen, MH 64, 2007, 1-21.

Labarbe J., Socrate épique dans le Phèdre de Platon, AntClass 63, 1994, 225-230.

Sider D., The Blinding of Stesichorus, Hermes 117, 1989, 423-431.

Yunis H. (ed.), Plato, Phaedrus, Cambridge 2011.

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