Critical Essays Plato's Flyting


In the opening of his introduction to The Portable Plato, Scott Buchanan writes the following sentence:

"In the year 1948 the reading of Plato's dialogues by a large number of people could make the difference between a century of folly and a century of wisdom."

I have been teaching Plato's dialogues to first-year American university students since 1960, and I have watched and listened, like Er between heaven and hell, as generations of students have read Mr. Buchanan's sentence and responded with cynical silence or rueful laughter. I have met young men and women in the text of the Republic and the other dialogues for 40 years, autumn and spring, year upon year upon year; it has been my experience to witness the cynical silence and riotous amathia of the 1960s, the rueful laughter of the whining 1990s, the what-shall-we-call-it of the new century. Like Er, I have told my tale to living men — and women. And I still have hope.

Buchanan reminds us that there is a legend that Plato was a comic poet before he met Socrates, but that the story is probably false; Buchanan maintains, however, that "Plato was certainly a comic poet in the dialogues," and that the dialogues are peopled by "characters [who] are stylized to the point of becoming . . . the stock characters of comedy." And in his discussion of the theatrical machinery of the dialogues, Buchanan provides us a dramatis personae for each of the dialogues he includes in his text. The upshot of Buchanan's argument seems to be that, like Socrates himself, we begin the dialogues in perplexity and end in perplexity and laughter, a comedic point of view. Perhaps this is so; perhaps this is not so. Perhaps we are to exit, like Socrates, laughing.

Buchanan argues brightly that many young readers are irritated and repelled by Socrates' conduct of the argument, and they never get over it; Buchanan then recommends a traditional system for making the dialogues accessible to "stalled beginners," but he confesses that it is a flawed system. Buchanan's spirited essay should be read entire; perhaps he is correct in concluding that there is not and can never be a "system" for reading the dialogues.

Yet, there can be no disputing the fact that the participants in the Republic do adopt the rhetorical ploy of flyting at one another (that is, they engage — in a friendly fashion — in the sort of exchange of smiling insults that often precedes physical combat), and that "seeing" and "hearing" this use of language may aid any "stalled beginner" or even a seasoned Guardian of whatever academic state.

It is a commonplace of any American street scene that a minor character, generally a toady to some other major person, will appear and make some sort of humble request, ask a fawning favor. In American street argot, the response to that sort of behavior is verbalized: "Don't be pulling on my coat." The literal act of pulling on one's coat is the first "deed" (ergos, action) of the Republic; the logos (what is said) will follow as the dialogue is joined. The dramatic movement of the dialogue may be said to begin in the middle of things; the occasion is that of a parade celebrating a party in honor of a fertility goddess. When Socrates, whose coat is pulled, and Glaucon are overtaken by Polemarchus and his cronies, the flyting begins. Polemarchus tells Socrates that he and Glaucon had better come to Polemarchus' house for dinner; the invitation is couched in physically threatening language: "You see how outnumbered you are." Thus the flyting which permeates the dialogue begins.

Once Cephalus perceives that Socrates intends some sort of serious philosophical inquiry, he excuses himself from the conversation, at which point Socrates says that, since Polemarchus stands to inherit Cephalus' money, it follows that Polemarchus will have to inherit the responsibility for the dialogue. Cephalus, responding to the flyting, laughingly agrees and leaves Polemarchus to his fate.

The medieval rhetoric of flyting is known as "wise-cracking" or "playing the dozens" in the United States. Socrates employs it in his allusion to Homer's praise of Autolyclus; Socrates ironically says that Polemarchus is defending justice by arguing the case of a man who "was excellent above all men in theft and perjury."

Once Thrasymachus engages the debate, Socrates flytes at him by arguing the example of Polydamus the pancratiast (Socrates again implying physical violence) in order to show the absurdity of Thrasymachus' argument, at which point Thrasymachus is so flabbergasted by the flyting that he calls Socrates "abominable." But Thrasymachus gets in his own digs at Socrates, saying that Socrates argues "like an informer" who talks out of both sides of his mouth. When Thrasymachus says that Socrates is cheating in the argument, Socrates pretends to be stupid (he "dummies up") and says that he would rather try to shave a lion than to cheat Thrasymachus out of money. The flyting is successful because the sophist does argue for money. Thrasymachus subverts the logic of the debate by calling Socrates a cheater, again; Socrates flytes ironically by calling for an end of "these civilities" — the smiling insults the two have been exchanging.

The flyting becomes more bitter as Thrasymachus senses defeat in the dialogue. He suddenly engages an argumentum ad hominem (personal attack):

"Tell me, Socrates, have you got a nurse?"

"Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be answering?"

"Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose . . . ."

And Thrasymachus concludes by calling Socrates a fool.

Midway in his attempt to define the nature of justice, Socrates flytes at his brothers in verse:

"Sons of Ariston . . . divine offspring of an illustrious hero."

That epithet is funnily true also of Ariston's third son, the man who is writing the dialogue in hand.

In thus discussing the rhetorical ploy of flyting as adopted by the speakers in the dialogues, I am not attempting any "system" of accessing the dialogues, nor am I attempting any sort of "cataloguing" Platonisms. But if any "stalled" student of Plato is curious enough to pursue the witty habit of classical insult, at least that is a kind of curiosity, perhaps the beginnings of philosophy.