Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno and Phaedo Metaphors and Similes

Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno and Phaedo Metaphors and Similes

God's Gadfly

In the Apology, nowhere does not Socrates boil down to essentials his justification for any crimes he may be accused of more succinctly than in an extended metaphor that puts his place within the state of Athens into perfectly pitched context:

“…the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state.”

For the sake of clarity, a gadfly is that fly you see hovering around livestock which they swat at with their tails. Socrates is saying that every state needs little annoyances like himself buzzing around keeping the animal alert lest they fall prey to an actual threat too dangerous to be taken care with a simple swat.

Death with Dignity

In the dialogue titled Phaedo, a bit of foreshadowing occurs when Socrates is discussing the philosophical aspects of suicide. That he uses a poetic metaphor to describe the act is not surprising at all. What is much more surprising is his admission of a failure to fully understand the literal perspective framed within the metaphor:

There is a doctrine uttered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand.”

It's a Great Big World and We're all Really Puny

Also in Phaedo is a very long and dense section—much more an example of monologue than any actual sort of dialogue—in which Socrates outlines his concept of the vastness of the world and how it relates to the existence of the soul. This section commences with simile setting the stage for man’s place in the universe:

Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell in the region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about a marsh, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell in many like places.

Modern Reinterpretation

When reading the Dialogues of Plato it is always wise to remember they were composed centuries before the birth of Christ who was born centuries before Elvis; in other words, a long time ago when the world was quite different. At the same time, the occasional concept pops up that can be fairly reinterpreted to take on a modern meaning without losing the original intent. In this case, if the simile is removed entirely, what is left is a statement on creative inspiration which can be interpreted from a modern psychological point of view in which Socrates is expounding on the idea of creative writing as an expression of the subconscious. “

"not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.”

Perchance to Dream

While on the subject of consciousness or the lack thereof, in the Apology Socrates considers death within the context of a comparison to sleep. In doing so, he actually takes the common metaphorical implication of death as sleep to the next level with the suggestion that there are two types of sleep: those in which we are made restless by dreams and those in which we are not:

Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain.”

Sounds great, right? Except that the metaphor for death being like a sleep made restless with dreams, the comparison Socrates makes is that death would be a place where anyone who dies can converse and interact with anyone else who has died, a situation he posits with the query what “can be greater than this?”

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