On Traces of Hero-Cults for Socrates and Plato

2015.04.02 | By Gregory Nagy

Statue of Asklepios, in the Epidaurus museum

§1. I start by citing a most important article by Stephen White:

White, S. A. 2000. “Socrates at Colonus: A Hero for the Academy.” Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy (ed. N. D. Smith and P. Woodruff) 151–75. Oxford.

§2. Despite my admiration for White’s article, I cited it only once in H24H, at the end of this paragraph:

23§46. This is where the continuation of the argument comes into the picture. [When I say “this is where” in this context, I am referring to Plato Phaedo 88c–89c, where Phaedo’s inset narrative quoting Socrates’ argument for the immortality of the psūkhē is interrupted by Echecrates, who has been listening to Phaedo’s narrative from the start—but then the argument of Socrates is allowed to continue after Phaedo’s inset narrative is restarted—or, better, recontinued.] After the interruption of the argument, the argument will begin again, as Phaedo recontinues the inset narrative, and, in this recontinued narrative, the dialogue of Socrates gets a new life. The dialogue is brought back to life again. The dialogue, as Socrates himself implies, is resurrected. His use of the expression ana-biōnai, ‘bring back to life again’, in the text quoted [Phaedo 88c–89c] conveys the idea of resurrecting the logos, ‘argument’, the literal meaning of which can also be translated, more simply, as ‘word’. The followers of Socrates should lament not for the death of Socrates but for the death of the word. And if the living word stays alive, then there is no need to mourn for Socrates—even if his psūkhē or ‘soul’ were to die along with him. Plato’s Socrates refers in this context to a celebrated story about the men of Argos who refused to wear their hair long until they got a rematch with the long-haired men of Sparta who had defeated them (Herodotus 1.82.7). So also, says Socrates, the followers of Socrates should cut their hair in mourning for his death only if they are ready to fight once again for the argument that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. So, maybe Socrates himself has been immortalized after all. It is in such a context that I can understand the argument of those who see traces of a hero cult of Socrates as instituted by Plato and his followers within the space of Plato’s Academy.

And here, at the end of the sentence that I have just highlighted, is where I refer to the 2000 article of Stephen A. White.

§3. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy, published both online and in print, I try to make up for this all-too-brief reference in H24H to White’s argumentation. In MoM 1§130, I highlight his perceptive and far-reaching study of initiatives taken by Plato for instituting a hero cult for Socrates; in that study, White also examines further initiatives taken by Plato’s successors in maintaining a hero cult not only for Socrates but even for Plato.

§4. In my posting on 2015.03.27, I had already mentioned a relevant fact that I studied in Part One of MoM: it had to do with a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. In that same posting on 2015.03.27, I quoted my further argumentation in MoM 1§§146–147, and I quote it again here:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos—if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ (ana-biōsasthai)—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

With reference to this argumentation of mine as presented in my posting on 2015.03.27, where I focused on the last words of Socrates as quoted in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, Patrick Lee Miller wrote me on 2015.03.31:

“That’s a good insight that Asclepius [a.k.a. Asklepios] conferred new life after incubation; this should put to rest the Nietzschean interpretation that Socrates is thanking the god for curing him of the illness life. But isn’t a more straightforward meaning of “new life” not the logos, for which you argue ingeniously, but the reincarnation for which he argues in Phaedo itself? In other words, he will go to sleep (die) but be reborn in another body?”

I was very engaged with this incisive question by PLM, and here is my response. But before I can start, I need to offer a friendly amendment to the wording that I have just quoted from PLM: where he describes Asklepios as a ‘god’, I prefer to say ‘cult hero’ instead. As I note in H24H 0§13, 8§44, 11§14, cult heroes (including Asklepios, at least in the earlier phases of his cult) were not considered to be gods, though they were traditionally worshipped as sacred superhuman forces in their own right.

§5. That said, I am ready to delve into my response to PLM. I go back to what I published in H24H, almost two years ago, about the last words of Socrates. As I already mentioned in the posting on 2015.03.27, I had quoted and analyzed in H24H 24§45 the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies—and where his last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. He tells them: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios.

§6. PLM has accurately understood my interpretation of these words as meaning that Socrates values the immortality of the logos even more than any possible immortality for the psūkhē. In favoring this interpretation, I was and still am very much influenced by the work of a dear friend, the late Nicole Loraux. I have in mind this most important article of hers:

Loraux, N. 1982. “Donc Socrate est immortel.” Le Temps de la Réflexion 3:19–46. Recast as “Therefore Socrates is Immortal” in Loraux 1995:145–167. The book is . . . Loraux, N. 1995. The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man. Trans. P. Wissing. Princeton.

Despite my admiration for this article by Loraux, I cited her work only once in H24H, at the end of this paragraph:

23§40. A question remains: what kind of immortalization after death can we hope for if we do in fact ‘practice philosophy correctly’? As we will now see, what is at stake here for Plato’s Socrates is not the resurrection of the sōma, the ‘body’, or even the preservation of the psūkhē, the ‘soul’, but simply the idea that the living word of philosophical dialogue must stay alive.

My footnote at the end of this paragraph reads: “These Socratic priorities are examined with uncanny acuity by Loraux 1982.”

§7. But I must confess that, in offering the formulation that I just quoted, I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. Here is what I mean: although I was and I am persuaded by the argument, as advanced by Loraux, that Plato’s Socrates values the immortality of the logos even more than the immortality of the psūkhē, I think that Plato does leave the door open for accepting the argument of Socrates, as brought to life in the Phaedo, that the psūkhē is indeed immortal. So I agree with PLM when he says that Plato’s Phaedo does indeed make a good case for the immortality of the psūkhē, though I would disagree about the visualization of such immortalization. In terms of the Phaedo, I think that the immortalization is not being visualized in terms of reincarnation, as we see that concept played out in the Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic, where the psūkhē comes back to life in some different body. Rather, in terms of the Phaedo, I think that the psūkhē comes back in the logos, that is, in the wording of the argument.



Image by M. F. Mehnert via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.