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“Telling Old Wives’ Tales” with Thrasymachus: Proverbs and the Attempt to “Go Viral” with Definitions of Justice in Plato’s Republic

John Roger Tennant

Stanford University

Plato’s use of proverbs has largely been ignored, even though proverbs appear more frequently in the dialogues than other prose of the time. This paper demonstrates how Socrates’ reference to the folk proverb “If a wolf sees you first, you go dumb” as first-person narrator in Republic 1 frames the exchange with the arch-sophist Thrasymachus as a competition to coin the most memorable and quotable proverb to define justice. Socrates flags to the reader how he must outpace his sophist rivals in coining a lasting proverb/gnome about justice to attain the fourth-century equivalent of “going viral”: getting quoted in gnomic anthologies.

Socrates must counter Thrasymachus’ notorious offering, “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger”, which is what paroemiologists call a literal, non-oppositional proverb (also known as a “maxim” or “gnome”), such as “Honesty is the best policy” or “Business is business” (Dundes 1981, Russo 1997). Thrasymachus’ coinage is but one of a number of maxims with which Socrates must contend, e.g., Polemarchus’ definition of justice, “To render to each what is owed,” attributed to Simonides.

I show that Republic 1 depicts a veritable contest between competing proverbs and gnomai, all vying for lasting influence as easy-to-recall “sayings” (legomena) on justice for students to memorize from gnomic anthologies, the formation of which was central to fourth century education (Hunter 2014, Barns 1950/1951). Socrates’ definition of justice (in Book 4), “Justice is the doing of one’s own”, is itself a maxim that appears in at least one later gnomic anthology (Bouquiaux-Simon 1989, Morgan 2007).

Socrates’ use of folk proverbs like the wolf adage and “shaving a lion” (341c1-2) opposes the higher-register maxims of the sages/poets and is emblematic of the demotic, even coarse, character of Socrates’ speech that Worman (2008) and Blondell (2002) have noted. The wolf saying might even seem an “old wives’ tale,” given Thrasymachus’ accusation that Socrates speaks “drivel” (ὕθλους, 336d4). When used with “old women” (γραῶν), huthlos means just that, and Thrasymachus complains toward the close of Republic 1 that he will answer Socrates just as one does to “old wives spinning their tales” (ὥσπερ ταῖς γραυσὶν ταῖς τοὺς μύθους λεγούσαις, 350e2-3).

After providing a brief history of the wolf saying – from rural folklore, through the works of Plato, Theocritus, and Virgil, down to the tenth-century Geoponica – I prove (using the paroemiology of Permyakov 1979) how it is in fact a rural proverb with modern counterparts in Dutch, English, and German. Its essential meaning of “Act promptly or you’ll have an empty mouth” extends metaphorically to language in Republic 1. Socrates leaves Thrasymachus empty-mouthed with the artful use of several proverbs, revealing that the sophists are the ones telling old wives’ tales with their misguided maxims. Plato’s use of folk proverbs reveals a generic hybridity that helps create the new genre of philosophy (Nightingale 1995, Bakhtin 1986).

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