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The Road to Dialectic is Long and Steep: Xenophon and Plato on the Hesiodic ‘Path to Aretê’ Image

Collin Hilton

Bryn Mawr College

        This paper examines the extensiveness and intricacy of the reception of a Hesiodic image in Xenophon and Plato, and particularly its elaborate repurposing in the latter’s presentation of philosophical methodologies. The Works and Days famously contrasts a choice of paths: one leads towards base laziness, a smooth and easy path to choose (ἑλέσθαι / ῥῃδίως· λείη μὲν ὁδός, 287-288); and another towards excellence, sweat-laden (ἱδρῶτα, 289), long, and rough at first (μακρὸς δὲ καὶ…/ τρηχὺς τὸ πρῶτον, 290-291). This image, at face another exhortation to diligent labor to secure a good life, was apparently very versatile, as its treatments in even classical Greek prose attest. Xenophon’s Socrates quotes it as part of his ethical appeal to Aristippus to pursue a noble life (Mem. II.1.20), while in Plato it is cited for a range of purposes, from an example of easily manipulated poetry (Rep. II.364c-d), a generally useful ethical exhortation (Laws IV.718b), and a pointed appeal to Prodicus (Prot. 340d). But both authors also artfully rework and recast the Hesiodic verses. Xenophon weaves the image into a more abstract ethical exhortation in the story, qualifiedly attributed to Prodicus (Mem. II.1.21, 34), about the young Hercules at a crossroad, which recalls Hesiod’s language (ῥᾴστην ὁδὸν, §23; σὺν πόνοις καὶ ἱδρῶτι, §28; χαλεπὴν καὶ μακρὰν ὁδὸν... ῤᾳδίαν καὶ βραχεῖαν [ὁδὸν], §29; cf. §11-12). Plato adapts the same language and image in the Phaedrus, but as a methodological choice between the path of rhetorical tricks (ῥᾴων καὶ βραχυτέρα... ὁδός... ὀλίγην τε καὶ λείαν) and dialectical knowledge (μάτην πολλὴν... καὶ τραχεῖαν, 272b-c).

        But while these latter Hesiodic echoes were noted as early as Ast (1830:160), they have a greater significance in the broader dialogue, where there are other comparisons of long and short paths. Particularly, Socrates presents two sorts of discourse: the greater, divine one of explaining what the soul really is; and the lesser, human discourse of mythically describing what the soul is like (246a), such as palinode's soul-chariots. Both sophistic rhetoric and of mythical image-making are thus contrasted with the long path of dialectic (cf. Miller [2003:23-32]), and so, transitively, with one another. Yet one short path is apparently preferable to the other: the myth is later called a plausible account that perhaps touches on the truth (265b), while no such possibility is attributed to sophistic rhetoric. So, while there is little doubt that Hercules chose Aretê rightly in Xenophon’s account, Plato’s choice of paths allows for a second-best option in the form of a likely myth, which reflects a more substantial reworking of the crossroads motif.

        Yet the scholarly attention to each author’s engagement with this Hesiodic passage has been limited, and there has been no comparison of their approaches. Solmsen (1962) notes the “remarkable variety of attitudes” these verses elicit, but dismisses them as alien to Plato’s worldview (176). Koning (2010a) similarly emphasizes the plentitude of possible interpretations, but is focused on broader reception (144ff.). In the Xenophontic scholarship, although Dorion (2008) focuses on “les nombreuses convergences doctrinales” between the Hercules narrative and the broader Memorabilia (95ff.), more scholarly attention is paid to its relation to Prodicus (e.g. Kurke [2011: 271-279] and Mayhew [2011:201ff.]). While Wolfsdorf (2008) compares the specific motivations of Xenophon (8-9) to other Socratics, he does not venture to include Plato. Among the burgeoning scholarship of Plato’s interpretation of Hesiod, attention is focused on the quotations in the Republic and Protagoras (e.g. Koning [2010b:97-98, 102-103], Ford [2010:150-151], and Hunter [2014:119, cf. 95]). Little attention, however, reaches the Phaedrus’ network of road images, which also includes the gardens of Adonis image (276a-277a). The issue of myth in Plato is complex and contentious (e.g. on the Phaedrus specifically, Werner [2012]; generally, Collobert et al. [2010]), but I argue that through this adaptations of the Hesiodic motif, the dialogues elevates myth over sophistic rhetoric as a better sort of ‘short path,’ which is nevertheless still inferior to divine dialectic.

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Argumentation in Plato

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