I’m currently deep in the Theaetetus, but still owe blog posts on the two shorter dialogues that precede it: Theages and The Rival Lovers.  Both these are assumed (at least as of 1927, when the Loeb I’m reading was published) to be the works of a later imitator, that crept into the works of Plato when the first collection was made in the 1st century CE.  If anyone out there knows of revisions to this assumption I’d be interested in hearing them, but they certainly don’t feel much like the Plato I’m familiar with.

The Theages is about Socrates’ encounter with a father, Demodocus, and his son Theages.  The son (mentioned in the Republic as a friend, and in the Apology as having died before Socrates’ trial) is eager to enroll with a sophist or someone else who will “make him wise.”  Demodocus is reluctantly in the city to find a suitable teacher, as he feels it best to do this himself rather than risk having his son fall into corrupting company without his father’s guidance.  The two happen on Socrates and ask for his advice.

Thus far the dialogue is actually quite typical.  Socrates questions father and then, more closely, the son, about what sort of an education is desired.  The son, when pressed, admits that the sort of knowledge he is seeking is that of a tyrant: he wants to rule all men, if possible, but failing that as many as he can.  He even allows as how what he’d really like is to be a god, but he realizes this is unreasonable and won’t say he actually desires it (126a).

Socrates turns immediately to the father and scolds him: “are you not ashamed of having known all the time what he is desiring, and though you could have sent him where you would have made him an expert in the wisdom which he desires, actually grudging it to him and refusing to send him?” (125a).  What??  This is where I would hope that a commentary could explain what the heck Socrates meant by that, but I don’t have a commentary.  Is he simply being ironic?

Theages, clearly a little uncomfortable about his naked desire for despotism, revises his wish to be able to govern men with their consent, as statesmen do in the democracy.  At this Socrates suggests that he go to the men currently influential in politics, and ask them to educate him.  Here Theages produces one of Socrates’ own arguments (I think this is in the Laches, but I’m not sure) pointing out that these men’s sons do not have this knowledge, and therefore the men must not be able to communicate it (126d).  What’s odd here is that Socrates simply ignores this argument, and replies asking if Theages wouldn’t be irritated at his own son if he refused to learn a craft from practitioners of that craft.

This is a surprising response, but what comes next is even more so: Theages replies pointing out that Socrates himself is one of the “well-bred gentlemen”  he is recommending, so why can’t Socrates be his teacher?  Socrates seems blindsided by this, and responds first by saying that Demodocus himself would be a better teacher for his son (something already rejected at the very beginning of the dialogue) and then that one of the sophists (Prodicus, Gorgias or Polus) would be better (something Demodocus was pretty clearly trying to avoid, as potentially corrupting).  That’s weird enough to hear out of Socrates’ mouth, but the rest of the dialogue consists of him explaining what an excellent thing association with him and his divine sign is for those who can take advantage of it!

Thus the dialogue implies that the advantage of hanging out with Socrates is that his daimon will let him know when you aren’t supposed to do something (e.g. go kill someone, as Timarchus did, ignoring the advice of the daimon).  None of the latter part of the dialgue sounds at all like the Socrates we hear elsewhere, although I suppose the underlying reluctance to teach is a common element, as is the generally negative results of conversing with him (finding out what you don’t know; learning what you shouldn’t do).  I do find it useful to think about education this way – not filling students’ empty heads with stuff, but getting them to question and hesitate.  But overall, I have to say it was an odd read.

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