Plato’s “Clitophon”: frustration with Socrates
Clitophon is the shortest Platonic dialogue but one that is very intriguing. In the dialogue, Clitophon, a student of Socrates, accuses his teacher of never leading him to happiness by failing to offer any positive knowledge. The dialogue ends with Clitophon exclaiming, “For I will say this, Socrates, that while you’re worth the world to someone who hasn’t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.” Indeed, this feeling of wanting more is a familiar one to any serious reader of Plato. In Laches, Socrates refutes all proposed definitions of courage without offering any himself (cf. my post on Laches). Socrates ends the dialogue by saying to his friends that they should seek knowledgeable teachers of that virtue and that he will meet with them on the following day. The dialogue ends there, but the reader is left yearning to join Socrates and his friends the day after, where presumably Socrates, the ‘knowledgeable teacher’ he had coyly hinted at, would spill the beans about courage.
If nothing else, Clitophon is a testament to the meekness of Plato as an author. The work is a harsh denunciation of Socrates – Plato’s protagonist in almost all of his works – and a sober admission of the limitations of Plato’s method of philosophy. It reminds us that Socrates’ gift, as he described in the Apology, is to reveal the ignorance of others, not put forth positive knowledge himself. What Socrates offers us is first and foremost humility, not knowledge (at least not the kind that describes the definite nature of the good). It is easy to see how Aristotle, a student in Plato’s Academy for almost two decades, could grow frustrated with Plato’s approach and react against it. In his works, Aristotle offers the reader something Plato never directly does: a positive formulation of happiness, the virtues, and the good (rather, goods, which demystifies the problem) to give us practical advice on how to lead a better life.
Plato still stands as a giant among philosophers the more so because of his humility. But, at the risk of misunderstanding his deep meaning, I think Plato voluntarily left much of the work of learning how to live a better life to the hands of more able thinkers. We should remember Socrates lest our own theories fail his examination for ignorance, but we must not grow skeptical of personal improvement altogether (the leaders of the Academy took such a turn after Plato’s death). For Socrates never liked the timid of mind nor for that matter those lacking in courage, though he could never quite tell them exactly what that is.