Beyond the Boundaries of Fantasia: An ancient imagining of the future of leadership

Socrates' Last Stand


In "You Can Go Your Own Way," the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles, as depicted in the Iliad, provided the context for embarking on an examination of leadership and those who have come to embody in some measure, at least, the characteristics we associate with leaders. In the case of Agamemnon, the ability to command others from an elevated position in the hierarchy of military or social authority is one such characteristic. As we read in 2.569-580:

But the men who held Mykenai, the strong-founded citadel,
Korinth the luxurious, and strong-founded Kleonai;
they who dwelt in Orneai and lovely Araithyrea,
and Sikyon, where of old Adrestos had held the kingship;
they who held Hyperesia and steep Gonoëssa,
they who held Pellene and they who dwelt about Aigion,
all about the seashore and about the wide headland of Helikē,
of their hundred ships the leader was powerful Agamemnon,
Atreus’ son, with whom followed far the best and bravest
people; and among them he himself stood armored in shining
bronze, glorying, conspicuous among the great fighters,
since he was greatest among them all, and led the most people (translation by Richmond Lattimore)

In challenging Agamemnon's authority, Achilles brought three "assets." First, he had better intelligence and knew, through Kalchas, what was causing the debilitating plague among the Achaeans; furthermore, the poem also suggests that he had a better sense of the overall conflict and his role in it by virtue of the relationship with his divine mother. Second, he was a far better warrior. As he claims and events in the poem confirm, Achilles is the most powerful of the Achaeans and could have physically overpowered Agamemnon, had the older chieftan not benefitted from divine protection. Finally, Achilles had the advantage of a divine mother who actively promoted her son's agenda among the gods. Nestor sums up the relative strengths of the two in 1.277-284:

Nor, son of Peleus, think to match your strength with
the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honor
of the sceptered king to whom Zeus gives magnificence. Even
though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was immortal,
yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule.
Son of Atreus, give up your anger; even I entreat you
to give over your bitterness against Achilleus, he who
stands as a great bulwark of battle over all the Achaians (Lattimore translation).

Two events altered the trajectory and outcome of this conflict. The first was Achilles' withdrawl from the fighting, which led the near defeat and destruction of the Achaeans, which prompted Agamemnon's attempts to reconcile with his most effective fighter. The second was the loss of Patroklos, which caused Achilles to reenter the battle, not in response to Agamemnon's entreaties and offers but out of an intense drive to avenge his companion's death by killing Hector and, consequently, precipitating the end of his own life.

The title of this module, "Socrates' Last Stand," comes from the title of a song, "Achilles' Last Stand," composed by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, recorded by Led Zeppelin in the fall of 1975, and released on the album Presence. Socrates and Achilles are comparable in a number of ways. First, both challenge the prevailing political force. In Athens at the beginning of the fourth century BCE, it was the democratic system. One of the chief defenders and proponents of that system was Anytus, who had distinguished himself as a leader of the faction that defeated the Thirty and restored democracy to Athens. He was one of Socrates' three accusers, the first to whom Socrates refers in Plato's Apology. Second, as Gregory Nagy discusses, both choose a course of action that leads to their deaths and both consider their actions to be just, that is "the right thing to do." (See The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, "Hour 22. The Living Word I: Socrates in Plato's Apology of Socrates," §§19-26.) Finally, just as the hybristic action of Patroklos, who sought to surmount the walls of Troy and sack the city, brought Achilles back into the fighting and nearer to his own death, so, too, the actions of Alcibiades and Critias, two of Socrates' protégés, prompted the Athenian citizens, who survived the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent civil war between the faction aligned with the Thirty and the Men from the Piraeus, to impute some of the blame for the losses the polis suffered to Alcibiades' and Critias' ideological mentor.

In this module, you will consider a form of leadership that is more closely associated with your identity as a student as you interact with your advisors, professors, and other intellectual leaders (both living and dead).

We begin with a couple of questions:

Those who succeed in one way or another, such as victorious athletes, influential intellectuals, celebrated artists, and elected officials, often credit the influence of a parent, coach, teacher, friend, or other mentor for their successes. Who would you credit for your successes? Think of those whom you admire. Who do they recognize as influences in their lives?

What about those who fail? Do we tend to view those relationships similarly and assign blame? Under what circumstances, that is, in response to what kind of failure or catastrophe, would you find cause to blame and punish the mentors and advisors of those who fail?

An Example

In The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone, Scott Samuelson writes:

Though there are a few exceptions (there always are), Cicero’s claim has a lot of truth in it: 'All philosophers think of themselves, and want others to think of them, as followers of Socrates'— despite the diversity of their systems and beliefs, we might add. I put myself in that long line of philosophers who believe Socrates the wisest, most happy, most just man who ever lived. What Mozart is to music, Socrates is to being human.

Samuelson goes on to say about his encounter with Socrates: "In my freshman year at Grinnell College, I read the Apology in Humanities 101, and my class got into a discussion of Socrates’s claim that 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' The expression, to me, formed my inchoate sense of philosophy’s value into a lightning bolt of meaning." A closer look at what Cicero actually said casts a different light on Samuelson's claim and offers a perspective on the aim of this module, that is, to examine critically what people in positions of authority—whether based on the recognition of others or self-proclaimed—say about what we should do with a particular emphasis on the contexts and implications for the broader society. Here is what Cicero said about Socrates in the third book of De Oratore:

[59] But as there have been certain persons and those a considerable number who either held a high position on account of their twofold wisdom, as men of action and as orators—two careers that are inseparable—, for instance Themistocles and Pericles and Theramenes, or other persons who were not themselves so much engaged in public life but were professional teachers of this same wisdom, for instance Gorgias, Thrasymachus, Isocrates, persons have been found who being themselves copiously furnished with learning and with talent, but yet shrinking on deliberate principle from politics and affairs, scouted and scorned [60] this practice of oratory. The chief of these was Socrates, the person who on the evidence of all men of learning and the verdict of the whole of Greece, owing not only to his wisdom and penetration and charm and subtlety but also to his eloquence and variety and fertility easily came out top whatever side in a debate he took up; and whereas the persons engaged in handling and pursuing and teaching the subjects that we are now investigating were designated by a single title, the whole study and practice of the liberal sciences being entitled philosophy, Socrates robbed them of this general designation, and in his discussions separated the science of wise thinking from that of elegant speaking, though in reality they are closely linked together; and the genius and varied discourses of Socrates have been immortally enshrined in the compositions of Plato, Socrates himself not having left a single scrap of writing. [61] This is the source from which has sprung the undoubtedly absurd and unprofitable and reprehensible severance between the tongue and the brain, leading to our having one set of professors to teach us to think and another to teach us to speak. For because of the plurality of schools that virtually sprang from Socrates, owing to the fact that out of his various and diverse discussions, ranging in every direction, one pupil had picked up one doctrine and another another, there were engendered families at discord with one another and widely separated and unlike, although all philosophers claimed and sincerely claimed the title of followers of Socrates (translation by J. S. Watson).

Before we engage with Plato's Apology, we will first spend some time with the Symposium for three reasons:

1. It offers some observations about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which will, in turn, supplement our reading of references to Achilles in the Apology

2. Socrates tells us about one of his mentors, Diotima

3. Alcibiades offers an encomium of his teacher, Socrates, and includes some biographical information that will provide additional context for our reading of the Apology

The dramatic setting of Plato's Symposium was a celebration of Agathon's first victory as a tragic poet in the Athenian Lenaia, a festival of Dionysus that took place on the 12th day of Gamelion (sometime in January or February). The year was 416 BCE. Present that evening were Agathon, the host, Aristodemus, from whom Apollodorus received the first hand account he reconstructs in the dialogue, Socrates, Pausanias, Phaedrus, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Alcibiades, who comes late. Symposia were drinking parties for men and their companions, male or female, but not wives. This symposium actually takes place the day after Agathon's victory, and some of the symposiasts still feel the effects of heavy drinking from the night before. After dinner and the rituals associated with such gatherings, libations and songs for example, they were about to focus on drinking when they decided, at the suggestion of Pausanias, to forego getting drunk and to spend the evening in conversation. Having sent the flute girl away, Eryximachus suggests that they take turns giving speeches in praise of Love or Eros and that Phaedrus, after whom Plato's dialogue takes its title, should begin. Of particular importance for this exploration of Socrates and the influence he exerted in the lives of others, especially Alcibiades, getting a sense of how the symposiasts viewed love and physical attraction. So, let's listen in to the first two speeches by Phaedrus and Pausanias, which will provide the framework for the interactions between Agathon, Socrates, and Alcibiades.

Speeches from Plato's Symposium

The Speech of Phaedrus in Praise of Love (178a-180b)

The Speech of Pausanias in praise of Love (180c-185b)

The Speech of Agathon in Praise of Love (194e-197e)

The "Speech" of Socrates in Praise of Love (198a-212c)

The Speech of Alcibiades in Praise of Socrates (212c-223a)

Plato's Apology

This page has paths: