Plato, “Cleitophon”

Plato, “Cleitophon” (trans. W.R.M. Lamb; below, citations and quotes are from Clifford Orwin’s translation. Numbers in parentheses without an author are section numbers from the dialogue.)

You may choose to read the Cleitophon, by far the shortest of Plato’s dialogues. It should take 10-20 minutes to read, and its subject is refreshingly direct: Could Socrates teach justice? The same question, in a more modern, universal guise: Can philosophy make people ethical?

You may wonder why you have not heard of the dialogue. Clifford Orwin relates that its very brevity, as well as featuring “an unanswered blame of Socrates,” led critics of some years past to doubt it as genuine. However, “today its authenticity is generally conceded, although some scholars do view it as unfinished” (Orwin 117).

The Cleitophon, therefore, is in disrepute because it might be incomplete, it is short, and Socrates is blamed. None of these complaints tell us if the dialogue has any value, if it helps reconstruct a picture of concerns related to Platonic thought or Plato’s world. Rather, the silent assumption is that we possess that picture already. This is not so problematic for the skeptics who produce evidence against the Cleitophon as having any serious standing. They certainly pay careful attention to Plato. It does not help the blindness of those inclined to dismiss the dialogue before they have even encountered it.


Socrates has exactly three sentences in the whole work. He begins the dialogue speaking about Cleitophon in the third person. I imagine him doing so loudly, teasingly, and deliberately in order to attract the latter’s attention:

Cleitophon, the son of Aristonymos, as someone was just telling us, was conversing with Lysias and criticized spending time with Socrates, while he could not praise too highly the company of Thrasymachos. (406)

Socrates’ contribution to the drama of the dialogue, um, is to start drama. He claims someone told us – not just him, but his companions – that Cleitophon spoke badly about him to Lysias. Spending time with Socrates was wasteful, according to the hearsay marking him a clumsy talker behind people’s backs. In fact, he apparently continued, saying that time was better spent with Thrasymachos, a sophist who contended “justice was the interest of the stronger,” thus lending argumentative strength to tyrants everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this arouses indignation on Cleitophon’s part. He tells Socrates that he has heard wrong, as Socrates was praised for some things, blamed for others. He takes especial pains to show himself reasonable compared to Socrates. “It is plain you [Socrates] are holding this [hearsay] against me, for all that you pretend that you couldn’t care less.” Now that Cleitophon and Socrates are alone, he will show Socrates how he has been “misinformed,” going through the various arguments he used with Lysias so that Socrates ceases to have a low opinion of him (406).

The dialogue began with a taunt by Socrates, the sort of thing one might see in the schoolyard. Cleitophon’s own concern centers on his being thought reasonable. He wants, in other words, what every teenager wants: to be taken seriously, to be deserving of authority. Cleitophon was a politician in Athens, a member of a faction that proved itself able to be well-regarded under both the democracy and oligarchy. Lest one think they were marked by prudence and moderation, it should be noted that one of the senior members was Anytus, an accuser of Socrates (Orwin 119-120).

I am disposed to think Cleitophon’s adolescent behavior the heart of the dialogue. One might think this a silly observation on my part, deserving of no more attention. Cleitophon was a politician. He is the only one in the Republic who strictly identifies the just with the legal, never changing his stance (Orwin 119). He argues in the present dialogue that Socrates is wonderful for those who have not been exhorted to justice, but for one who has already been so exhorted, Socrates is “almost even a stumbling block in the way of… arriving at the goal of virtue and becoming a happy man” (410e, last sentence of the dialogue). Surely Cleitophon is a serious person with serious complaints!

Usually, we are under the stress of deciphering what Socrates’ playfulness means. But Socrates’ last words in the dialogue turn it over entirely to Cleitophon and his zeal:

Why, it would be shameful indeed, when you are so eager to benefit me, not to submit to it. For clearly, once I have learned the bad and good points, I will practice and pursue the one and shun the other with all my might. (407a)


Cleitophon eagerly continues after Socrates “submits.” He ultimately argues that Socrates’ value is dubious; one notes four distinct parts in what follows. The details below are given so as to highlight the most important aspects of each part:

  • 407a-e: Cleitophon repeats a purported speech by Socrates, addressed to Athens as a whole. Cleitophon’s Socrates says that Athenians are obsessed with hoarding wealth, which they know they have to give to their children anyway. Neither they nor their children care to find teachers of justice, though they find teachers of every other exercise or study. A complete education for Athenians lacks any sense of justice, and as a result Athens as a whole is unmusical: “brother strives with brother and city with city, clashing without measure and discordantly, and in the heat of war do and suffer the utmost.” Cleitophon’s Socrates goes further, saying that injustice is not done involuntarily. Implicitly, virtue is knowledge, and education can combat the ignorance that is injustice.
  • 407e-408b: After the speech of “Socrates” comes a short interlude where Cleitophon makes monstrous statements. He first claims Socrates taught “that those who exercise their bodies while neglecting their souls… are neglecting that which rules while concerning themselves with that which is ruled.” This certainly seems fair. But then he says that Socrates said “that whatever someone does not know to make use of, better that he relinquish the use of it.” This leads to Cleitophon attempting to ascribe to Socrates thoughts like these, which he himself finds praiseworthy: if one “does not know how to make use of a soul, it’s better for him to keep his soul at rest and not to live than to live.” Or, if he should choose to live, he should “pass his life as a slave [rather] than as a free man and… hand over the rudder of his thought, as of a ship, to another, who has learned the art of piloting human beings.” Somehow, I don’t think Socrates ever said or meant that, and I willingly note that Socrates said many preposterous, shocking things. This section rests on Cleitophon holding tight to the notion that statesmanship is an art, the art “of judging and justice.” As a body of knowledge, it would teach people how to live exactly, and anyone who didn’t know it, by definition, wouldn’t know how to live. Before, in the previous section, Cleitophon’s “Socrates” kept his focus on the lack of fraternity and hateful obsession with wealth injustice caused.
  • 408b-410a: Cleitophon tells the story of a fight he picked, imitating the manner of Socrates, with those he says are Socrates’ disciples. He claims to have won. Cleitophon asks them, after a convoluted prompt, what art has to do with the virtue of the soul. After being told this is justice, he pushes for what it is exactly a just man produces, i.e. what good justice is. One disciple begins to argue that what justice gives is oneness of mind among those truly capable of being friends. This answer has a certain similarity to the exhortation of Cleitophon’s prior “Socrates,” who mourns the loss of fraternity among Athenians. However, the disciple eventually contends that oneness of mind must be that of knowledge, not of mere opinion, thus destroying any potential civic benefit and bringing the argument full circle. If justice is oneness of mind, and oneness of mind depends on knowledge, then the question remains what specific art, what specific branch of knowledge, constitutes justice.
  • 410a-e (end): He says he questioned Socrates, but Socrates contradicted himself. First, justice was helping friends and harming enemies, but then “it appeared the just man never harms anyone, for in all matters he acts for the benefit of all.” What exactly, who exactly, justice is good for – this perplexes Cleitophon, and Socrates is not forthcoming with an answer. Perhaps Socrates does not know it, but he says he thinks Socrates actually knows and will not share it with him. Thus, he must spend his time with Thrasymachos. But if Socrates is willing to share, showing the proper training of the soul and not merely exhorting him to be just, then Cleitophon would be pleased. He believes knowing exactly what justice is would make him more virtuous, a happy man.


The four parts of Cleitophon’s speech to Socrates focus on a number of issues, as you can see. It is difficult to assess them all at once. It is even more difficult to understand how all of them bear exactly on the value of philosophy. In Plato’s shortest dialogue, one still feels like there is too much to sort through.

The summaries I gave for each section above are for highlighting the most interesting lines and ideas. However, one element which gives the argument a more formal continuity is lacking. To wit: Cleitophon places an enormous stress on knowledge and art (this is certainly visible above), constantly comparing what is done for the body with what is done for the soul (this, not at all).

That constant comparison – you do this for the body, why do you not do likewise for the soul – tends to grate on one’s nerves when reading the dialogue. It takes extended reflection on who Cleitophon is to understand why this comes up so often in his speech.

Michael Davis, whose commentary on the Cleitophon I highly recommend, finds that Cleitophon feels left out from the Socratic clique (Davis 159-160). At the outset of the dialogue, he thinks Socrates has something specific against him. As he continues talking, it is very clear that he is not in the Socratic circle, and he openly says that Socrates hides the nature of justice from him. I cannot help but feel that this is more schoolyard behavior, that we are meant to see something fundamentally immature about Cleitophon. Given that a member of his faction pushes for nothing less than the execution of Socrates, this is a dark joke indeed.

We must start from a different angle than we have been proceeding. Let us consider what seems most mature about Cleitophon, namely, his earnestness about justice. He wants a principle that dictates exactly what justice is, making the soul better, providing rulers with the knowledge they need to rule well. Regarding that principle, Thrasymachos sets forth a basis: “justice is the interest of the stronger.” However, his thinking and Cleitophon’s diverge. The city’s laws, properly obeyed, create a powerful citizenry, as Cleitophon’s Socratic speech attests. But his talk throughout the dialogue that bears his name is filled with references to Book 1 of the Republic. He has already watched Socrates take Thrasymachos apart rhetorically. There is a good beyond a powerful citizenry; justice produces something more than what obedience to laws produces. This good must exist because Socrates defeated Thrasymachos, no matter how much Cleitophon resents it.


Cleitophon’s earnestness must not be dismissed because of his association with Thrasymachos. All of us want a principle that dictates exactly what is just. We resent others for not sharing our opinions about justice; we admire those who fight and die for what we believe. Yet, we know Cleitophon belonged to a faction that was more shady than steadfast. Did Socrates’ exhortation to justice provoke a greater failure? In pushing Cleitophon to be more just, did he cause him to worship power only?

For Cleitophon, questions concerning knowledge and art, soul and body, justice and education all center on one thing: the relation between ruler and ruled. He twists Socrates’ words and ideas in unusual ways. Socrates himself professes knowledge of ignorance. Does that mean Socrates should kill himself or submit to rule of another, as he does not know how to use his own soul? Cleitophon basically argues that in the second section of his argument, outlined above. The reality of power is fundamental for Cleitophon, as whatever justice is, it concerns rule. Rulers employ justice and make the city better. Cleitophon is power-hungry, sure, but there’s something else in his character: like every teenager we know, he thinks himself wholly in the right. That he seeks knowledge of how he is right, whether from Thrasymachos or Socrates, is more proof for himself that he is right.

Ultimately, it is something closer to Thrasymachos’ teaching which corrupts Cleitophon. Thrasymachos, to be sure, cannot be blamed. Cleitophon insists that the just is the legal, and in the Republic, is adamant that if the rulers believe something to be their advantage, that is just simply. Thrasymachos will have none of that nonsense: real rulers know their advantage. Cleitophon’s moral earnestness turns into whining and resentment, as he does not care for knowledge. He wants to be thought someone who cares for knowledge. I am inadverently making him sound evil, but that is not really the case. Most of us are in school because we want the grades and the degree.

Again, I cannot recommend too highly Davis’ reflection on the Cleitophon. We know that “What is justice?” admits no practical answer. So let’s say Cleitophon really, truly cares for whatever knowledge comprises justice. He’s going to have to confront a very hard truth, one which few of us have the moral maturity for. Justice isn’t a virtue except in an unjust world; virtue depends on the existence of vice. To be a just person is continual, incomplete work. To have an understanding of justice means throwing away the idea that it can be reduced to a principle or a strict body of knowledge. It means grappling with all the opinions one considers unjust, and wondering what truth they reflect. It means trying to understand what each of us means by justice, knowing there is no answer that satisfies (Davis 172).


Davis, Michael. The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Orwin, Clifford. “On the Cleitophon.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 117-131.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Cleitophon,” translated by Clifford Orwin. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 111-116. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.