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Lysias and Polemarchus in Plato: Distancing Socrates from the Thirty

Richard Fernando Buxton

Colorado College

A major crux in the biography of Lysias is establishing when he and his brother Polemarchus returned to Athens from Thurii. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the two’s close connections to Athens made them personae non gratae after the Sicilian Expedition, leading to a return post-413 (D.H. Lys. 1). This, however, clearly contradicts the appearance of the two in Plato’s Republic and the references to Lysias’ presence in the city in the contemporary Phaedrus, both set around 420 (Brandwood 1990). Scholars have been right to stress the unreliability of the data involved, noting Plato’s penchant for anachronism in his dialogs and the unreliability of Lysias’ self-presentation in his speeches, from which Dionysius doubtless drew (Todd 2008; Dover 1968). This paper is less concerned to validate the claims of one author against the other than to argue for an under appreciated political-apologetic motive for Lysias’ inclusions in the Republic that could explain Plato’s purpose in employing a potentially glaring anachronism.

In Republic 1, which has been understood as an independent early dialog that was later repurposed as the introduction to the middle-period books that follow (Brandwood 1990; Nails 1997), Socrates while in Piraeus is invited by Lysias’ brother Polemarchus to the home of their father, the wealthy Cephalus. Although Lysias is noted as present, Socrates converses only with Cephalus and Polemarchus, both of whom treat Socrates as a friend chided for his infrequent visits (327c, 328c). Also present are Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, and the noted Sophist Thrasymachus of Chalcedon. There is a poignancy to the scene, which I argues Plato would not want lost on his fourth-century Athenian audience: Socrates, executed by a democratic jury in part angry at his associations with the Thirty headed by Plato’s own relative Critias, is here shown on intimate terms with the family that would prove both an emblematic victim of the regime and a champion of its overthrow. Cephalus was Athens’ richest metic (P. Oxy 1606 l.153-4), and after his death his fortune was a prime target for the cash-strapped Thirty (Lys. 12.6; Xen. HG 2.3.21). This led to the execution of Polemarchus and Lysias’ escape into exile, from where he helped bankroll Thrasybulus’ resistance ([Plut.] Lys. 835f). Certainly there was a political dimension to Socrates’ prosecution (Brickhouse and Smith 1988; cf. Stokes 2012), against which Xenophon, free from the problematic family ties to the regime that saddled Plato, mounts an explicit defense (Xen. Mem. 1.12-16): Critias and the philosopher were friends, but the former’s crimes represented a repudiation of Socrates’ teachings. Republic 1, a dialog culminating in Socrates dismantling the claims of Thrasymachus that might makes right (338c), therefore dramatizes Socrates in the home of the Thirty’s famous victims rejecting the political approach of “doing whatever they wanted” (Xen. HG 2.3.23) that had justified the execution of Polemarchus (cf. Howland 2004).

Plato is engaged in a subtle vindication of Socrates—and his own family, vis-à-vis the presence of Glaucon and Adeimantus as guests—along the lines of Xenophon’s more straightforward defense. This very symbolic approach, which helps explain the absence of any references to Lysias’ family in Xenophon’s Socratic works, finds an elegant parallel in Plato’s depiction of the personal attraction but philosophical divorce between Socrates and his other politically inconvenient pupil: Alcibiades in the Symposium (Dominick 2013; Blanckenhagen 1992), a figure whom Xenophon pairs with Critias in his apologetic arguments. The presence of Lysias and his family in Republic 1 therefore eschews documentary verisimilitude, instead suggesting to the audience a corrective understanding of Socrates’ influence on late fifth-century Athenian politics. So too, just as the Symposium uses representatives of the major cultural forces in Athens to stage a symbolic contest with philosophy, the Phaedrus’ examination of rhetoric and writing benefits from the anachronistic opposition of Socrates and a speech of Lysias years before the latter become a logographer.

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