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Not a Gadfly: When a Crucial Reading Goes Wrong

Laura Marshall

The Ohio State University

“For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God …” (Jowett translation, Apology 30e)

            This passage is one of the most famous in Classical literature and deserves an accurate interpretation. Just as Socrates asked his listeners to rethink common words such as “justice” and “piety,” this paper asks Classical scholars to reconsider how well they understand the image of the gadfly and Socratic pedagogy. The purpose of this paper is to prove that the word μύωψ in Plato’s Apology of Socrates has incorrectly been understood as an insect for over a century. The correct understanding of the word, and the one that was favored before Jowett’s translation, is “spur.” A re-examination of the word in Greek literature shows that the spur interpretation should be accepted for the following reasons:

  1. Context and synonyms: when μύωψ refers to an insect, it is always in the context of cows. Furthermore, it is generally accompanied by a synonym such as οἶστρος (horsefly), which unambiguously refers to an insect, indicating that the author sees a need to clarify the word. But when μύωψ is used in the context of a horse, it means “spur,” and synonyms are not generally employed (Theophrastus' Characters 21.8, Xenophon’s On Horsemanship 8.2-5). Socrates uses the word in the context of a horse and in a speech that contains many references to horses and horse training, so “spur” should be the default understanding. Diogenes Laertius also uses μύωψ to refer to a spur in the context of Socrates and teaching (4.6), indicating that ancient readers would have understood μύωψ as “spur” in this context. 
  2. Depictions of the gods and divine pedagogy: when the gadfly appears as an insect in Greek literature prior to the Apology, it is generally in the context of the story of Zeus’ lust for Io and Hera’s vindictive anger (Suppliant Women 306-8, Prometheus Bound 673-820. This does not fit well with Socrates’ depiction of the god in the Apology as benevolent and pedagogical. When Xenophon uses the word μύωψ, it is in the context of training a sluggish horse to jump; this fits better with the pedagogical goals Socrates’ sees for the god in the Apology: the god is using Socrates to teach the Athenians, not merely to annoy them.
  3. Visual evidence: μύωψ is singular in the Apology, and although modern spurs are worn in pairs, there is visual evidence suggesting that ancient riders wore only one spur. The word is also singular in Xenophon’s On Horsemanship 8.2-5.
  4. Translations prior to 1800: in Latin translations of the Apology, μύωψ is translated as calcar (spur) (Ficinus, 1484), and eighteenth-century translations generally follow this as well. The turning point comes with Jowett’s translation in 1871, based on Stallbaum’s edition of 1827. After Jowett's translation, the LSJ moved the Apology passage from the "spur" definition to "gadfly."
  5. The arguments for “gadfly” over “spur” in the nineteenth century literature depends on a misunderstanding of the analogy and Socratic humor. Stallbaum argues that the “spur” interpretation requires Socrates to be the rider, but the spur interpretation actually requires the god to be the rider, teaching the sluggish horse and using Socrates as a teaching aid. Stallbaum also argues that “gadfly” is a more humorous and witty image than a spur, but this argument depends on Socrates sharing Stallbaum’s sense of humor, and other passages in the Platonic corpus indicate this is an incorrect understanding of γελοιότερον (Symposium 215a).

The gadfly image is a difficult one to give up, partly because it is so vivid but also because it has been repeated over so many years. But just because an idea has been repeated often by many people is not a good reason to assume it is correct, and this passage deserves serious reconsideration.

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Translation and Reception

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