Socrates the citizen-philosopher in Plato and in Xenophon
Socrates, in many ways the paradigmatic philosopher, was distinguished in his own time for not travelling broadly but preferring to remain in Athens, devoted somehow to his fellow citizens even when his life was at stake. In Plato’s Apology Socrates says it was his business to cross-examine others and make speeches every day about virtue, which he identifies as the greatest good and a benefit to the citizens and the city. But he is not very clear as to the nature of this benefaction. Socrates clearly had some concern with political education, but what exactly was the relation between his political education and his philosophizing? In Plato’s Lovers Socrates seems to suggest that philosophizing would be most useful and ennobled by making men virtuous and superlatively efficacious in political matters (but in fact he holds out a much more modest promise of the goodness of philosophy). In Plato’s Cleitophon, by contrast, Socrates is accused precisely of being unable to make someone (Cleitophon) virtuous and politically efficacious—though this apparent failing turns out to have at least as much to do with Cleitophon’s own shortcomings and preconceptions as with the actual limits of Socratic political philosophy. Xenophon, finally, offers a more frank account of how Socrates benefited those who yearned for political honors. Xenophon represents Socrates’ benefaction as a matter of moderating political ambitions, but not without also showing why it was best for Socrates to restrict his involvement to the private sphere. Both philosophers present a Socrates who benefited his fellow citizens by instructing them about political prudence, but who also aimed to avoid doing harm, which apparently precluded both his own public involvement and his ability to benefit all comers in accordance with their expectations.