Christopher Bruell on Plato’s “Cleitophon”

The trap in commenting on the specific work of a specific scholar is that the audience can become hopelessly lost. So I know it’s important to make a few remarks about Plato’s Cleitophon to a general scholarly audience, one that may be familiar with Platonic themes, whether they’ve engaged them in political science, philosophy, classics, or literature. Why should we talk about this short dialogue where Socrates barely says anything?

First and foremost, there’s this remarkable passage where Cleitophon describes what he thinks what he learned from Socrates:

“This speech of yours [Socrates] ends finely, too—that, for anyone who 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 and act on his own. If, however, there should be some compulsion to live, better for such a one to pass his life as a slave than as a free man and to hand over the rudder of his thought, as of a ship, to another, who has learned the art of piloting human beings—which, Socrates, is the name that you often give to statesmanship, saying that this very same art is that of judging and justice.” (Cleitophon 408a-b)

Cleitophon claims that what he learned from Socrates is that it’s better to die than not know how to use one’s own soul. If one wants to live, better to be a “slave” and give over one’s life to one who does know how to pilot human beings. This is the political art—this is justice—according to Cleitophon.

One can say Cleitophon exaggerates here. That Plato writes ridiculously, in bold strokes, to get our attention. I’m not so sure. I know plenty of people who think they are best equipped to run the lives of others. And there are definitely political movements which think that if a nation simply screams their sense of value, all will fall into line and there will be no problems. Anyone who voices a problem, for those movements, is of those who don’t know how to live. Their souls don’t allow them to govern themselves. So they ought to be ruled by those with the right souls, who happen to know how to rule, who know what justice is.

Cleitophon’s flirtation with dehumanization makes the dialogue worth reading and examining.

However, another reason to look at this dialogue is to ask whether Socrates has anything to teach. Cleitophon claims Socrates is great at exhorting people to be just but fails at providing an adequate definition of what justice is. Socrates’ followers, according to Cleitophon, can’t tell what good justice produces. So the question of whether Socrates can teach—really, the question of whether philosophic discussions about justice are nothing but college dormitory debates—is at stake.

Finally, the Cleitophon raises the question of the possibility of philosophy. The good philosophy creates is unclear, sure. But Cleitophon seems to have been exposed to quite a bit that might be considered philosophy. His political views seem to have hardened. If he was never a fit for philosophical discussion, then when does philosophy occur? Are there clues in what Cleitophon misunderstands?


I believe you are convinced of the relevance of the text at this point. Now comes the tricky part. I want to talk about the views of one commentator on the Cleitophon, Christopher Bruell, a teacher of my teachers. Bruell builds from the views of Leo Strauss and writes in a clipped, cryptic style. The way I just argued for the relevance of the Cleitophon—yeah, you’re not going to find anything that straightforward in Bruell’s On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. A lot of Straussians read this book to try and find an esoteric message.

There’s plenty of value, though, in taking passages from his essay on the Cleitophon and trying to do justice to his general argument there. Bruell’s thought can help us get a better grip on the third problem mentioned above, when philosophy occurs.


Bruell’s way into the text challenges us in several ways. First, we need to obtain clarity on what philosophy could be. Second, we need to think about the value of Socrates asking, for example, whether a general is an expert on military matters in order to show someone they’re wrong. How does that “vindicate” philosophizing? Does it attend to “the most serious challenge to its possibility?” Finally, how is anyone served by Socrates’ argumentative rhetoric? Bruell’s approach, in its original statement:

“…if philosophizing is fundamentally inquiry into nature, the examinations or refutations, which were intended to vindicate the possibility of such inquiry over against the most serious challenge to its possibility, serve also to prepare the suitable natures among the youths who are exposed to them to carry it out.” (Bruell 196)

“If philosophizing is fundamentally inquiry into nature” needs clarification. I imagine most people believe that Socrates had lots of questions about ethics and not many ideas about science. The topics the dialogues concern lend themselves to this impression. Everyone knows the Republic is about justice. People with more familiarity know the Lysis is about friendship, etc. And even here, with the Cleitophon, there’s nothing resembling science as we know it, and I’ve pointed to Cleitophon’s harsh political rhetoric as a justification for reading.

But a closer look shows why philosophy and natural philosophy were inseparable for classical thought. It’s Socrates himself, at the opening of Plato’s Apology, who brings up the accusation that he is “a wise man[,] a thinker on the things aloft, who has investigated all things under the earth.” Socrates will say this is untrue, but there was no need to even mention that he was accused of thinking about the things in the air or under the earth. Why does he mention it? Compare with Symposium 175d, where Socrates should be arriving at a dinner party, but finds himself standing still, lost in thought. When asked to sit down at the table and teased about being distracted, he responds:

“How fine it would be, Agathon,” he said, “if wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through wool from the fuller cup into the emptier. If such is indeed the case with wisdom, I set a great value on my sitting next to you…”

Why the talk about how water flows? Socrates was more than likely wondering about fluid dynamics. The usual question is why, if I have a container that’s full of water and connect it to one of equal size that’s empty, the fluid fills both in equal measure. This is not the simplest puzzle in physics (physics from the Greek “phusis,” meaning “nature”).

There’s so much more than this—it’s all over Plato. In Xenophon, the corresponding statement is in his Symposium, chapter 7 line 4:

“[Socrates:] For it is of course no rare event to meet with marvels, if that is what one’s mind is set on. He may marvel at what he finds immediately at hand,—for instance, why the lamp gives light owing to its having a bright flame, while a bronze mirror, likewise bright, does not produce light but instead reflects other things that appear in it; or how it comes about that olive oil, though wet, makes the flame higher, while water, because it is wet, puts the fire out.”

One may respond that Socrates denies doing science in Plato’s Apology, and there is no overt teaching about the inquiry into nature being science. This is true. What one has to do is extrapolate from the questions “What is virtue?” and “What is justice?” and the way they’re treated. Definitions are offered and those definitions are measured against examples and evidence. In like manner, one would ask about the properties of triangles or water or light this way. If one needs proof that this is how Plato was interpreted, it helps to know what the Platonic Academy and Aristotle and ancient scholars actually did. It is true they could find inspiration from the Presocratics directly, but Socrates is not failing to endorse such efforts, if he isn’t providing a framework for them.

Bruell speaks of Plato’s caution with regard to the teaching regarding nature in a later passage we will examine. For now, what we can conclude is that philosophy as inquiry into nature includes questions about the elements, the characteristics of animals, the properties of language, and whether or not there is a human nature and things associated with it (i.e. a definition of virtue, of human excellence).


Let us assume, then, that philosophy is “fundamentally inquiry into nature.” What do we make of “[Socrates’] examinations or refutations, which were intended to vindicate the possibility of such inquiry over against the most serious challenge to its possibility?”

What is the most serious challenge to philosophy? Revealed religion considers itself to be the most serious challenge, but while it has silenced, imprisoned, appropriated, and burned philosophers, it has never stopped philosophy. Certain political regimes also have managed to injure philosophers themselves but never challenged the legitimacy of the enterprise on its own grounds.

In Bruell’s estimation, what might stop philosophy can be found where Plato exercises the most caution:

“Plato’s insistence, in another such letter, that he has never written down and never will write down his understanding of nature (Seventh Letter 341b7—c5, d2—e1) is fully in accord with or even dictated by this caution. For he knew that the exposure of his understanding would fill those not prepared to receive it either with unwarranted contempt or, in the case of those who thought that they had learned from him some great or grand things, with a high but empty hope (341e3—342a1). As for the few who have at any time acquired the necessary preparation, they are able to discover what he understood on their own, with the help of slight hints or indications (341e2—3 as well as 341c5—d2).” (Bruell 189-190)

The most serious challenge to philosophy, we might surmise, is an opinion among the few inclined to pursue it that it is worthless. “Unwarranted contempt” and “a high but empty hope” among those exposed to it but eager for rewards more than discipline creates fear and shame among potential philosophers themselves. This won’t kill philosophy itself, but it poses the problem of a nature doubting itself, a nature which should be asking questions and seeking answers instead of panicking over one’s own commitment. 

Cleitophon himself has both contempt for philosophy and “a high but empty hope.” When he describes what moved him about Socrates, what moved him was not unlike watching a tragedy, seeing a larger than life figure come alive:

“When I was together with you, Socrates, I was often amazed at what I heard. You seemed to surpass all other human beings, so very finely did you speak, whenever, taking human beings to task like a god on the tragic stage…” (407b)

It is easy to overlook the significance of this statement. A quick look at our media consumption today helps. People are impressed not just by celebrities, but by celebrities who put others in their place. The news shows hosted by those who shout others down night after night are not Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. But people tune in regularly and repeat their talking points as if they were correct about everything. They see rightness and power as connected, not unlike “a god on the tragic stage.”

Cleitophon’s own expectations are similar: “the art of piloting human beings… is the name that you [Socrates] often give to statesmanship, saying that this very same art is that of judging and justice.” Politics is the same as justice which is the same as knowing how to rule others. 

There is a further complication. Cleitophon has a political career; he does partake in rule. So what exactly does he want from Socrates? What drives him to tell Socrates to his face that he is only capable of exhorting people to virtue and nothing more?

The unstated expectation, I hold, is knowledge as commensurate with rule. Cleitophon wants exhortations about justice to produce a good. Bruell points out that this happens in quiet ways. In the dialogue, Cleitophon gets into an argument with followers of Socrates, using a most Socratic method to start the argument and demonstrate his point:

“…he fails to draw from his success the conclusion which another might feel compelled by it to draw about him: that he had already learned something from Socrates or was already on his way to learning something of some importance when he began to question members of his circle.) That Cleitophon would have approached Socrates and his circle in some doubt as to whether he would receive there the instruction that he was eager for might well have been inferred from the very distinction between the two groups or kinds of Socratic “turning” speeches that his report of those speeches permitted us to draw—and thus showed us that he himself felt, even if he did not see it clearly.” (Bruell 196)

Bruell draws a fine distinction between the speeches Cleitophon heard from Socrates to exhort him to virtue. Some of them, like one Cleitophon details at length, have powerful emotional appeal but aren’t perfect with regard to facts and logic (I feel like Ben Shapiro just saying that). Others are “very many and very finely spoken, to the effect that virtue is teachable and that one should bestow one’s cares upon oneself before all else—these I have hardly ever contradicted, nor do I suppose that I shall ever do so hereafter.” (408b)

What did Cleitophon learn about justice? He learned that it is closely connected to rhetoric. Rhetoric does not just entail treating different audiences differently. There’s a complication to which the rhetorician themselves can bear witness. What persuades emotionally may have nothing to do with the truth itself. Justice, one can say, is the problem of reconciling the truth to its advocates. This is task that bestows responsibility upon power. It ennobles power, but at the expense of an individual’s—or perhaps a party’s—gain.

Cleitophon shows no interest in this teaching or anything approximating it. He’s enamored with Thrasymachus and his infamous “justice is the interest of the stronger,” which can be a naked defense of tyranny. Knowledge of justice should produce that much more power and goods should be flowing to him. Cleitophon’s defense of Thrasymachus in the Republic, I believe, bolsters this argument.


In this last, concluding section I want to talk about how Cleitophon’s failure and what it means for more “suitable natures.” Bruell pays heed to Cleitophon’s “intelligence,” and I think I understand why. It isn’t just that he imitated Socrates and refuted his followers, or that he has the teachings he thinks important memorized. It’s that he’s trying to take what he considers a body of knowledge and go further. He wants to see more and do more with it.

In this, Cleitophon bears resemblance to those who think their insight into Shakespeare’s history plays or Aristotle’s conception of the regime makes their comments on contemporary politics profound. It doesn’t. Anything you want to pronounce authoritatively upon takes more than diligence or hard work. What’s at stake are weird, elusive goods, things which one might not consider good in other circumstances.

Note the portrait of Socrates we get in the Cleitophon. He seemed “like a god” to Cleitophon; exhorted all of Athens to avoid injustice and learn justice; was irrefutable with regard to pushing people to be better; modeled for Cleitophon himself how to engage those doing philosophy. Socrates gave Cleitophon a powerful rhetorical toolkit, one that Cleitophon could use to expand his political power. (For a contrasting but ironic picture of what I’m describing, consider Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7). But again, he’s not interested in that—he wants license, he wants the assurance that using his strength however he wishes is good.

For those of us interested in pursuing philosophic matters, we have to take some pride in small, almost trivial gains. This present essay came from making a bunch of notes on Bruell’s chapter on the Cleitophon and realizing I couldn’t explain to myself what I had learned. I had to start over; I pushed myself to explain a passage. While I don’t know if I’m a “suitable nature” for philosophy, I feel like something more has come from it.


Bruell, Christopher. “Cleitophon” in On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Orwin, Clifford. “Cleitophon” in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

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