Plato, “Lovers”

for Nathaniel Cochran & Christopher Kirk


Or Rivals, or On Philosophy. This short dialogue probably found disrepute because of its unabashed frankness about Socrates’ life. Two boys debate the theories of Anaxagoras and Oinopides while at school; their young adult lovers attend them. Socrates finds this scene attractive, to say the least, immediately sowing discord. He expresses awe to one of the lovers, a wrestling jock, ostensibly because of the seriousness of the discussion. The jock responds the way most defenders of Division I athletics, i.e. the city, would:

“What do you mean [they are speaking of things] ‘great and noble’! They are babbling about the heavenly things, and they are talking nonsense, philosophizing.” (132b)

His abuse prompts the other lover, a musician, to try to impress the boys. The musician says that such a response should be expected from the wrestler: he can only answer that philosophy is shameful.

This opening is mere name-calling. Is it possible for a serious discussion to emerge? Given Socrates’ own purposes, probably not. He does make it look like one can start, though. The musician is asked “whether it seems… noble or not to philosophize.” The nobility or ignobility of philosophy may be a philosophic query. It certainly appears serious enough. However, Socrates proves too cunning for our higher, theoretical, desires. He asks that question of the musician with such emphasis so as to get exactly what he wants, the attention of the boys:

[Socrates:] Now, just as we were saying these things, the two boys, who had overheard us, became silent, and they themselves ceased from their dispute and became our listeners. I don’t know what the lovers felt, but as for myself, I was stricken wild. For I’m always stricken wild by the young and beautiful. Anyway it seemed to me that the other as well was no less in agony than I. (133a)

Socrates gets the attention of the boys and, um, something else (“stricken wild,” “agony;” cf. Charmides, 155d). It is gross; our sensibilities are rightly offended; for Plato, it is comic. Socrates himself narrates the dialogue. He is exaggerating the account to a sympathizer, one comfortable with his enormous eros and the directions it leads. That sympathizer must be familiar with both Anaxagoras and Oinopides (Bruell 92, fn. 1). This story is told for his sake, but it does not serve as a straightforward defense of the sciences (aka natural philosophy), as we shall see.

The complicating factors have been set forth at the outset. They have less to do with Socrates’ eros and more to do with the boys. Asking whether it was noble or not to philosophize drew their attention. They don’t just want knowledge, they want to be loved, and thus they most certainly desire a high reputation. They want philosophy to be noble.

At the very opening of the dialogue, however, Socrates noted two things which provoke me to wonder. First, the boys were “those of the young who are reputed to be most remarkable for their looks” (132a). “Looks” is the same word Plato uses elsewhere for “forms” (Leake 80, fn. 2). Further, while debating, “they appeared to be describing circles and were imitating certain ecliptics with their hands” (133b). One might say the boys are simply debating the heavenly things, cautioning against over-reading. I believe that in some sense, Socrates sees the boys as the forms themselves.


Though in “agony,” the musician, according to Socrates, “answered in a manner that showed his great love of honor” (133a-b):

“Now Socrates,” he said, “if ever I should consider it shameful to philosophize, I would not even hold myself to be a human being, nor would I anyone else so disposed.” (133b)

Continuing his attack on the wrestler, his attempt to seduce the boys, the musician makes, however accidentally, a serious claim about philosophy. Without philosophy, one could not even consider oneself a human being. Socrates, the very person who claims that the unexamined life is not worth living, characterizes this position as honorable. In the Gorgias, Callicles vehemently dismisses philosophy’s significance: still, for him, some philosophy, some speculation, constitutes a grace in one’s younger days (Gorgias 484c-d). I wonder if Plato’s world more or less had two minds about philosophy. As a kind of New Agey self-reflection that could not threaten law and order, it had something to do with learning in general and could be accepted. As an attempt to clarify or replace heavenly objects, it was evil and dangerous.

Socrates pushes the musician to tell what philosophy is so it can be found noble or shameful. This results in the musician saying that philosophy is much learning, but having to take it back since learning without moderation may not be good (133-134e). Another attempt follows where he tries to define philosophy as noble, befitting a free man and conferring a reputation for wisdom. A philosopher knows the arts and can practice them, but remains more concerned with his reputation of being free. This fails because a philosopher who is like a pentathlete, a second-best expert at a number of things, is strictly speaking useless compared to other artisans and specialists. As he is useless, he is good for nothing (135a-136e).

In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).

The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.

Socrates agrees with the musician that philosophy is both noble and good (137a). I think this is to further a specific defense of philosophy. What remains would be to prove it useful, consistent with nobility. If one admits philosophy is simply much learning, or that a philosopher could easily be a busybody preoccupied with too many fields of inquiry, one concedes the nobility of philosophy, even if it shows itself to be the most necessary thing, the attempt to know what must be known first.


Somehow, the precise circumstances of the dialogue have receded. A dirty old man competes with two younger lovers for the attention of some boys. What happened to eros?

To be sure, love of wisdom, a desire for much learning, was dismissed as an adequate definition of philosophy (Gk. “love of wisdom”). Only the moderate amount would be good; the musician wants philosophy to be noble and good; eros has been verbally replaced by the noble and good.

Still, the competition for the boys continues. Socrates must show philosophy useful, allowing in some way nobility’s self-evidence to speak to his audience. He must counter the athlete’s denunciation of the boys’ debate.

So of course the dialogue veers into a cryptic, obscure final movement. Out of nowhere, Socrates asks about the punishment and betterment of animals. One art, apparently, correctly punishes, making animals better, distinguishing good from evil (137b-d).

If something about this sounds ludicrous, it is. Is a disobedient, wild horse really evil? Only in light of human purposes for the horse. The art of rule exists relative to our purposes, but the art appears to be one, eternal, part of a rationality which we strive to attain. “Good” and “evil” imply that there are well-ordered souls who could rule well in any given situation. That some such souls for practical purposes exist – typically, they know their limits – reinforces the myth.

The musician, who does not seem stupid, sees betterment, punishment, and distinguishing good and evil fitting together perfectly. His assumption is natural. Rulers can know better and make us better. Thus, justice in the cities, “the science that correctly punishes the unrestrained and lawbreakers,” seems to work the same way as breaking animals (137d). Socrates adduces to this end that an art applicable to one also applies to many (and vice versa); further, that one who knows good and evil or whether oneself is good and evil must be able to punish correctly. If one finds oneself tempted even for a moment to take this proof seriously, consider fully this part of the premises:

[Socrates:] “And if one were an ox and were ignorant of the wicked and good ones [oxen], would one also be ignorant of himself, of what sort one is?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And so too if one were a dog?”

He agreed.

“What then? When one who is a human being is ignorant of the good and evil human beings, isn’t he ignorant of himself, as to whether he is good or evil, since he is himself also a human being?”

He conceded this. (137c-138a)

Yes, Socrates says that an animal is bad because it lacks self-knowledge. Specifically, horses, oxen, and dogs may fail to understand what constitutes good and evil in their species. Thus, they fail to understand themselves and fail in ruling themselves, becoming bad. Oh, and the same applies for humans.


Again, we seem to be a far distance from philosophy or eros. In a little more than a few lines of dialogue, Socrates pulls the musician to contemplate politics. In a way, this makes sense: nobility only makes sense when considered with politics, and both Socrates and the musician have declared philosophy noble. However, the feeling one has when reading the dialogue is of being lost in the most ridiculous place.

In rapid-fire succession, Socrates establishes that self-knowledge (above, the art of rule) is moderation (138a), that moderation and justice are the same thing, that a well-managed city is where the unjust are punished and this is the political art (138b). This political art is held by tyrants, kings, household managers, those who own slaves. It is, um, justice and moderation (138c). A philosopher should be ashamed if he is is neither able to follow nor contribute to such an important art (138d).

In fact, the philosopher must be the most knowledgeable practitioner of the political art. He cannot be “second best,” as the musician claimed was noble for him relative to other artisans. He must be able to manage his own household, judging and punishing correctly himself (138e). (Apparently Socrates’ never being home, not ever, counts as management.) The philosopher should be prepared to be the best ruler if so compelled (139a, cf. Republic 346e-347d).

We’ve gone a very roundabout way to tell the musician he was wrong about philosophy, since it has to rule: “Therefore, you best one [the musician], to philosophize is far from being much learning and preoccupation with the arts” (139a). I confess I am at a loss to properly understand the picture of politics presented, the one which allows for this statement. On the one hand, it is ridiculous. Men cannot be governed as animals; justice and moderation may be the same, but both are probably not as contingent on self-knowledge as Socrates says (138a). Moreover, the “political art” of being a good slaveowner is nothing but a cruel joke (138c).

On the other hand: if there is a political science, a science of rule, it must hold across species. If rule depends on certain virtues (i.e. justice and moderation), then some branch of knowledge (i.e. self-knowledge) must enable these virtues. Finally, if there is a political science, all regimes must share in it. What Socrates has been doing is showing philosophy as noble, as the creator of an art of rule. Suffice to say that real philosophers can see the inhumanity of the project and rightly be cynical of ideas that attempt to establish an essence of rule.


After declaring finally that philosophy as noble “is far from much learning and preoccupation with the arts,” Socrates ends his narration and the dialogue:

“On my saying these things, the wise one, who was ashamed at what he said earlier, was silent, but the ignorant one said that it was so, and the others praised what had been said.” (139a)

I do not think Socrates, despite besting the musician, is sarcastic in calling him “wise.” Philosophers must be willing to be wrong, and to speak the truth of how contemptible political life can be is anyway dangerous. Socrates certainly means the wrestler, the one proclaiming that the philosopher must rule if he is not to be shamed, is an ignoramus.

Which leaves us with the boys: they praise what was said. Did they realize how problematic the nobility of politics was? That the musician, in being shamed, was shamed by a far higher standard than what is conventional? I don’t know. One can know and debate the most complicated cosmological issues and not have the slightest sensitivity to one’s own assumptions. I tend to think they were seduced by Socrates making the claim that the philosopher must rule. What differentiates them from the athlete is that they may, at some point, recall a problematic point in the conversation and change their judgement.

All the same, the boys were implicitly introduced to us by Socrates as the forms themselves, the foundation of reality. On that level, there’s nothing perverted about love for them: it is strictly Platonic. As wisdom itself, they are brought to earth by the possibility that love of wisdom can rule. In their debate, in their visible inconclusiveness, they are the future which can only be made noble in one way through the society in which they reside. Socrates’ defense of philosophy keeps them free. In one sense, the dirty old man never thought of imposing on or seducing the boys. He gave them the space to be.


Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Lovers.” tr. James Leake. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 80-90.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.