Plato at a Glance
Essays Society Philosophy

Plato at a Glance

Alex Priou

Apologies are likely in order for having the audacity to title my essay “Plato at a Glance,” to give so great a thinker so few pages, and thus such superficial treatment.[1] But blame lies no less with you, for expecting to find anything of value in such ungenerous brevity. The man who gave us such grand works as the Republic and its big brother, the Laws; whose mind was the fountainhead of more than one renaissance, inundating us with countless commentaries and critiques; whose thought’s millennia-long shadow famously induced Whitehead to christen all successors mere footnotes—who in good conscience could reduce Plato to these few pages or dignify this essay with eye or ear? Who could dishonor the dialogues with a mere glance? Well, Plato. For he thought it appropriate to put his name on the Cleitophon, a dialogue so unsettlingly short that it encourages his readers to take him in at a glance, just as its titular character seems to have given Socrates no less superficial treatment. Plato seems to think such glances deserve his careful eye, that there’s something worth looking at seriously in Cleitophon’s cursory treatment of his teacher. Plato deems it no affront, but even encourages us to give him short shrift.

So, if we want to know what is at stake in our glance, we must ask who would read the shortest dialogue—who the Cleitophon’s chosen reader is, if you will. Clearly it’s a reader who doesn’t want to invest too much time. Or too much money, as it must have been a relatively cheap scroll. The value of philosophy is bound to appear to this reader rather negligible, and so too its most famous spokesman, Socrates. The bulk of the dialogue is thus a critique of Socrates, one to which we witness no response. Indeed, of its 176 lines in the Oxford edition, he speaks only eight. It should be noted that one of these lines has only two words in it, another just one—the garrulous Socrates is cut down to size. What little Socrates does say is bound to strike the chosen reader as servile and petty, much as it strikes Cleitophon himself. Socrates’s deeds thus appear to affirm Cleitophon’s speeches and what the chosen reader, in choosing this dialogue, also tacitly affirms. Nevertheless, philosophy must certainly have some appeal if this reader is to invest anything at all, even if it is only pocket change and some fifteen minutes reading time. There must be some curiosity. Thus, it’s to this curiosity that Plato must appeal if he’s to convert the unserious desire to give philosophy just a glance into something more serious, if he’s to have this reader read anything more than this dialogue’s four pages. To consider how Plato might accomplish this, let us begin with what such a reader might take seriously, since it’s what Cleitophon himself takes most seriously. This is the promise of Socratic exhortation.


Cleitophon opts to discuss Socratic exhortation by imitating Socrates, and, like all imitations, his preserves elements of the original while conforming to the limits of the material in which it is rendered. Much of it is thus familiarly Socratic. The claim that the majority of human beings, in their pursuit of wealth, evince their ignorance of what is best is surely familiar from the Apology of Socrates, though the concomitant account of philosophy as knowledge of ignorance is notably missing. Likewise, the exhortation to replace such trifling pursuits with attention to justice is rendered beautifully elsewhere, as at the end of the Alcibiades. But there, too, it appears alongside the all-important need to be aware of one’s ignorance. And finally, there is the famous Socratic paradox that no one does bad willingly, familiar from many dialogues but, again, absent the emphasis on ignorance of the good as the reason for all such errors. Having heard many Socraticisms, either from those around Socrates or from the man himself, Cleitophon seems to have filtered out Socrates’s insistence that human ignorance is pervasive, perhaps even insurmountable. For the Cleitophontic Socrates, ignorance lies rather in his audience, who are instructed to seek out “teachers of justice,” such as could put to rest the faction both within and between cities. But incredibly his Socrates deftly avoids this condition and rises high above the mass of men. So lofty is Cleitophon’s imitation that he imagines Socrates flying through the air, singing to the entire human race this scolding song, as though some exhortative god (theos tis protreptikos).

Cleitophon’s vision of Socratic philosophy thus strikingly erodes the centrality of ignorance while introducing a vision of universal instruction. No surprise, then, that his appraisal of Socrates culminates in the longing for a technical skill of piloting human souls called statecraft or the art of politics (politikē)—the virtue of justice (dikaiosunē) raised to the level of a judicial art (dikastikē) or science, as he will ultimately suggest. Some form of this longing is no doubt present elsewhere in Plato’s works, as in the Lysis. But again in that conversation Socrates emphasizes their shared ignorance, and the discussion is shot through with levity. As before, the image’s material distorts the features of the original. The argument’s thrust is no longer that the lack or even impossibility of such an art or science stifles our longing for it. Rather, Cleitophon stresses yielding all we have and, indeed, all we are to the one most competent to use it and us. The result is a vision of Socratic philosophy as aiming at what looks like the most complete tyranny—over the citizens’ bodies and per impossibile over the very workings of their souls. If the Lysis inspired Aristotle’s charming portrayal of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, then the Cleitophon guided his chillingly sober account of natural slavery in the Politics.

Such promises appear to be what attracts Cleitophon to Socratic philosophy, why one might take Socrates or Plato in at a glance. As Cleitophon puts it, Socratic philosophy woke him up and turned him toward new possibilities for political life. It promised to erase all faction between and among cities through the discovery and dissemination of a judicial and political science, and in this its aims appear no doubt admirable. Indeed, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to Cleitophon to characterize him as a sort of Enlightenment thinker, albeit one with a peculiarly single-minded devotion to justice, the most minimal of virtues. But still, his attention to Socratic philosophy amounts to little more than a glance. Faced with an apparently petty and naggy Socrates, Cleitophon felt pressed to sugar-coat his criticisms. What he now praises as an awakening he will finally call an impediment. And the impediment is that all he encountered in the wake of this awakening was an occluding ignorance. Cleitophon judiciously omitted from his praise what he surmised would embarrass the petulant Socrates. And there can be no doubt that for Cleitophon the chief embarrassment is the ignorance that attends Socrates and his entire coterie. Cleitophon can only postpone discussing this embarrassment so long. Socrates may have turned him, but still he turned away.

Cleitophon’s next move was to turn to the Socratics, a group that had come to gather around Socrates and concern themselves with his questions—a group Cleitophon, moved by Socrates’ exhortations, may well have joined, had something he experienced there not driven him away. The repulsive experience was their inability to articulate to his satisfaction the nature of the science of justice promised in Socrates’s exhortations. Exhortation is for Cleitophon prefatory to “the study of justice,” whose precise character he is at a loss to understand. The Socratics, he complains, offered him no help in this regard, for when pressed to identify the product of this science, each Socratic proposed his own answer: the advantageous, the necessary, the beneficial, the profitable, and so on—terms applicable to nearly any art, as Cleitophon rightly points out. For Cleitophon, the disagreement among the Socratics is borne of a collective ignorance, what we are accustomed to see as inseparable from Socratic philosophy, but which Cleitophon identifies as its irredeemable defect. For him, Socratic refutation, such as he admittedly here imitates, paves the way for exhortation, which turns the one exhorted to the study of justice, that is, the acquisition of a universal science of guiding the human soul. What Cleitophon expects of those learned in justice isn’t the collective perplexity of Socrates’s cohort, but a single-minded agreement as to the nature of justice.

Because of this expectation, Cleitophon singles out a particular conversation in which a Socratic proposed friendship as the product of this science, by which he means the oneness-of-mind (homonoia) among those who have knowledge. Cleitophon’s universal tyranny is to be accomplished through a universal enlightenment. But as Cleitophon or the Socratics pointed out—it’s ambiguous in the Greek—oneness-of-mind is common to all the arts and sciences.[2] On this refutation, all those present agreed. This moment constitutes a wonderful and revealing Platonic joke. Drawn to the possibility of a scientific unanimity that would put to rest the factions he so laments, Cleitophon was left only with a unanimous ignorance as to the nature of justice. As much as Socratic exhortation may engender the longing for a scientific tyranny, as much as it may hold out the promise of unbounded competence in action—sometimes to almost unwieldy proportions, as with Alcibiades—nevertheless what it delivers seems (to those like Cleitophon) to be little more than head-scratching and shoulder-shrugging. The teaching of the Cleitophon appears to be that, when faced with this particular reaction to political discord, Socrates offered a twofold education constituted by exhortation and refutation. Socratic exhortation promises to settle all disputes through a universal science of how to rule, such as would justify complete control over mankind. But Socratic refutation holds that science to its own standard of competence and precision only to find that it is altogether lacking. At its peak and only at its peak, the longing for such a science discovers the impossibility of its own object.

Because of Alcibiades’s political ambition, this education appears to have contributed to his infamy, and likely to that of Socrates, as well. But with Cleitophon’s specific longing, it seems to have engendered a bitter dissatisfaction with every option before him. For him, there is a ridiculous circularity in the back-and-forth between refutation and exhortation—between the moderating exposure of ignorance of what justice is and the encouraging call not to flag in one’s attention to it. But it’s precisely in this circularity that one witnesses the enduring question of justice. The teaching of the Cleitophon thus proves especially relevant to us now, as heirs to the Enlightenment—us for whom it is common to envision the purpose of politics not so much as building consensus through compromise, but as producing universal agreement through education. Such agreement, Plato shows us, could only arise through a truly scientific political science, a science that appears neither possible nor desirable. Instead, we are given a general impression of Socrates’s cohort, united not in knowing but in ignorance—or really not so much in ignorance, as in their unflagging devotion to the question of justice. But the most philosophically interesting part of the dialogue, a discussion of this question in the form of how justice relates to necessity, the advantageous, profit, and benefit, that is, the discussion taking place among the Socratics—all this Cleitophon completely excises. The promise of such a science occludes from Cleitophon’s view the lessons latent in the Socratics’s treatment of the question of justice. Cleitophon wants Socrates to be a means to a predetermined end, good governance. And though this end is borrowed from the pre-philosophic experience within which philosophy necessarily operates, still philosophy is not bound by it. Cleitophon demands that it be so bound. And so, like us, he takes Socrates in at a glance.


All of this is of course over Cleitophon’s head, and much, but not all, over that of the chosen reader. Guiding him by the thrust of its argument, the dialogue presents him with a new choice. Either he can follow the embittered and disillusioned Cleitophon to legal positivists like the sophist Thrasymachus, who guarantee actual instruction in the nature of justice, rather than the false advertisements of Socratic exhortation. Or, taking to heart the fact that Cleitophon himself appears dissatisfied with Thrasymachus’s product, the reader can investigate the promising, but omitted parts of Cleitophon’s education. Specifically, Cleitophon says he is unsure of how to reconcile two things he’s heard from Socrates—that justice is benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies, on the one hand, and that the just man never harms anyone, on the other. Contradictory though these views may be, still Cleitophon is at an impasse about whether Socrates lacks the science of justice or is just unwilling to divulge it to him. To storm off with Cleitophon to Thrasymachus is to preclude without examination the possibility that Socrates is withholding something, a possibility Cleitophon himself entertains but absent Plato’s dialogues cannot examine. To dismiss this possibility in a manner true to his own standard of precision, the chosen reader must bring to light the substance of the Socratic teaching Cleitophon here paraphrases. The chosen reader must read on—he must give Plato a second glance.

Fortunately, Plato wrote a dialogue in which these views are juxtaposed and tested, following which the nature of justice is explored. That is, he shows us what Cleitophon omitted. This we find in his most renowned work, the Republic. There, the teaching that so confounded Cleitophon is presented not as Socrates’s self-contradiction, but as a conversation between him and Polemarchus. Already, Socrates is somewhat redeemed. Thereafter, much to the chosen reader’s delight, he is also treated to the view of Thrasymachus, along with Cleitophon’s (by this point) altogether disillusioned emendation. And finally—feast of feasts!—he even witnesses a confrontation between Thrasymachus and Socrates, at the end of which Socrates emerges the cool-headed victor, Thrasymachus a whining, red-faced brat. The petulant Socrates of the Cleitophon gives way to the Republic’s Socrates, who is by comparison unfailingly cool and competent.[3] And if the reader continues beyond Book I and into the city in speech that Socrates and his interlocutors go on to build, there he will witness not only the friendly reconciliation of Socrates and Thrasymachus, but still more Socrates’s articulation of an education that grants its pursuer such knowledge as would justify unbounded control over others. In short, the Republic appears to answer all his prayers.

Of course, it’s highly questionable, if not demonstrably impossible, that one could complete such an education—and even if one could, whether it would also be possible to act on it. But that’s another, much longer story. The point is that Plato directs the glancing reader to the Republic and would have him read it through to the end. In this way, the Cleitophon pops its own bubble. And should the chosen reader’s glance contain even a modicum of seriousness, his expectations pop along with it. With the bait and switch of his pen, Plato exposes his readers’ pretenses by engendering in them a playful distance on themselves, and in that way makes them for the first time genuinely serious. And what a wonderful bit of play it is: the reader who picked up the Cleitophon because it’s the shortest dialogue is directed to read the Republic, the second longest! “Well,” such a reader might sigh to himself, “at least it’s only the second longest.”

  1. Originally presented as a lecture to undergraduates and non-specialists. The texts used are that of John Burnet’s edition of Plato, Opera in five volumes, published in 1903 by Oxford: Clarendon Press and the S. R. Slings edition of Plato, Respublica, published in 2003 by Oxford: Clarendon Press. While I have consulted much of the secondary literature on the Cleitophon, I have benefited most from the essays found in Christopher Bruell, On the Socratic Education (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), and Michael Davis, The Soul of the Greeks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). ↩︎

  2. The Greek elegon is either the first person singular or the third person plural. I owe this observation to Davis 2011, 171. ↩︎

  3. Cf. Republic 526b1–c6. ↩︎

Featured image: Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, painting (1776) by Marcello Bacciarelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Alex Priou is an instructor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides, as well as a number of articles on the history of philosophy. His academic work can be found here. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.