Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Christos A. Zafiropoulos, Socrates and Aesop. A Comparative Study of the Introduction of Plato's Phaedo. International Plato studies, 34. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2015. Pp. 290. ISBN 9783896656575. €58.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Andrea Capra, Università degli Studi di Milano (

Version at BMCR home site

The first thing to note about Zafiropoulos's book is the wide scope of its subject: while taking his cue from the introductory pages of the Phaedo, the author ends up providing a detailed discussion of Aesop's bios as well as a fresh examination of Socrates as hero against the backdrop of several traditions, ranging from the expulsion of pharmakoi to poetic heroism. Zafiropoulos addresses these vast areas with competence and with an ear to the history of any given problem, so that his book can also be described as a safe guide to the diachronic development of a set of controversial questions such as the cultic status of Plato's Academy, the alleged existence of a book of Aesopic fables in the classical age. From this point of view, the title is inadequate to the multifaceted approach adopted by the author, who aptly describes his work as "an anthology of underlying concepts in the Phaedo, and secondarily in other dialogues, concepts that could point to the ideological, ritual, institutional and generic cross-references and connotations and their related discursive fields that Plato aimed to appropriate for his philosophos and his philosophia" (p. 22).

Zafiropoulos's anthology unfolds as follows: after a concise introduction (ch. 1), he begins with a close examination of the Phaedo's opening scene, with an emphasis on the crucial role played by Aesop (ch. 2), and a thorough survey of Socrates' Apollonian features in the Platonic corpus and more particularly in the trilogy formed by Apology, Crito and Phaedo (ch. 3). Next, he addresses "The Dominion of the Ugly", i.e. the Aesopic tradition and its relevance for Plato's contemporaries (ch. 4), and the pharmakos tradition and its relevance for the literary portraits of both Aesop and Socrates (ch. 5). Finally, Zafiropoulos integrates into his discussion various notions of heroism and advances the suggestion that Plato's Socrates appropriates them all (ch. 6). The book closes with a few pages of "Conclusions" (ch. 7), followed by Bibliography, Index Locorum and General Index.

The brief introduction sets the scope of the book and situates it against the backdrop of current work on Aesop's bios, especially with regards to the recent emergence of a "very productive debate of Aesopic cross-references in Plato's dialogues" (p. 22). This is shown by the work of L. Kurke and G. Nagy, which the author summarizes and discusses at some length.1 Both scholars emphasize the mixture of the high and the low in the bios of Aesop, but while Kurke construes his unjust death at Delphi as a parody "of the official Delphic narrative on the aition for the local pharmakos ritual" (p. 23), Nagy "challenges the restriction of Aesop to 'low-minded' views" (p. 24) and emphasizes the Delphic cult of Aesop, which was founded upon what may be described as a ritual antagonism with Apollo. The Apollonian element, in particular, proves very useful when it comes to comparing Socrates as portrayed in the Phaedo and Aesop, whose 'life' was surely well known in the 4th century BCE. 2

Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to Plato's Socrates and his Apollonian connections, whereas chapters 4 and 5 discuss Aesop's life and its relevance for the ritual of the pharmakos. Much of this is well-covered ground, touching on the oracle to Chaerephon, the Apollonian nature of Socrates' dreams as reported in the Crito and the Phaedo, the multifaceted traditions revolving around the life of Aesop and the well-known story elements that suggest that a pharmakos motif is in the background for both Socrates and Aesop. Zafiropoulos's discussion is sound, if at times lengthy, and provides a useful "anthology" of the themes relevant to the intersections between Aesop's life and Plato's Socrates in the Phaedo.

The juicy part, however, emerges only towards the end of chapter 5, when the comparison between Socrates and Aesop takes center stage. The author takes his cue from a remarkable, if neglected, fact: Plato does not have Cebes ask Socrates about the content of the poems he has been working on in prison; rather, Cebes is interested in the motivation behind their composition (60c-d). By playing down the contents of Socrates' poems, Plato seems to invite comparison between Socrates' reworking of Aesop's logoi and his own reworking of Socrates' logoi. As a consequence "his Socrates can be assimilated to Aesop who also left no work with his own signature, but only logoi attributed to him … In the cases of both Socrates and Aesop, then, we have a euretes with no voice of his own, an icon from the past that was strong and impressive enough to be inscribed in collective consciousness and memory as a pioneering intellectual force, the first to utter and demarcate his particular kind of logos" (p. 197). All of this results in an implicit emphasis on Plato's own role in reworking the Socratic tradition.

In the ensuing pages Zafiropoulos develops a fully-fledged comparison between Aesop and Socrates, one that stresses both similarities and differences. He discusses story elements such as ugliness, association with animals, low social status, literary heritage, engagement with riddles, unjust conviction. In all of these areas, the two figures present remarkable similarities, yet the most interesting points have to do with differences. Thus, for example, "it is their different attitudes to approaching death that most characteristically set them apart", for "the bland, dispassionate, noble-minded Socrates" stands out in comparison with "the agonizing, crying, begging and self-abased Aesop of the Life" (p. 202). In other words, Aesop works as a foil against which to understand the superiority of Socrates and, by implication, of philosophy over other forms of discourse. From this point of view, Socrates' paradigm is especially effective in that, unlike Aesop, he is a free citizen, and – in his own peculiar ways – a very good one, as is shown by his emphatic respect of Athenian laws.

Socrates' role as a paradigm points to the next chapter (6), in which Zafiropoulos addresses the theme of hero cult. True to his "anthological" method, the author reviews a number of theories concerning the development of hero cults, before addressing in more detail the evidence pertaining to the hero cult of Aesop, which amounts to a few references found in all versions of Aesop's life as well as to the erection of statues and a resurrection story mentioned by Plato the comic playwright. Against this backdrop, Zafiropoulos examines Socrates' extraordinary requests for public honors as found in the Apology and construes them as hints of his prospective heroization, something that squares well with the existence of a statue in the Academy, which is attested by Philochorus. Moreover, he suggests a number of analogies between Plato's Socrates and several heroic traditions, only to conclude that Plato's purpose was to provide an archetype for a new, all-encompassing kind of hero. In opposition to D. White, 3 whose careful reading of the Phaedo and of the relevant sources suggests that Socrates was the object of an actual hero cult, Zafiropoulos eventually opts for the weaker solution, that the heroization of Socrates is rather a figurative, literary phenomenon.

A possible objection to 'Zafiropoulos's solution lies in the papyrological evidence relevant to the portrait of Socrates in the Academy. As A. Speyer has shown in unprecedented depth and clarity, it now seems very probable, first, that the portrait was placed in the mouseion of the Academy, and, secondly, that the placing of the statue more or less coincides with the foundation of the Academy.4 This reinforces the "strong" reading of Socrates' cultic status, although the question remains open and ultimately dependent on what we think of the cult of the Muses practiced in the Academy. However that may be, Zafiropoulos's case is a well-argued one, and his method based on a careful juxtaposition between similarities and differences proves productive throughout the book.5 Sometimes his argument may be prone to over-subtle and unnecessary speculation, as is often the case with literary studies devoted to Plato: "We may assume" – he says on discussing the delay of the execution of Socrates – "that the personified Laws, to which Socrates abode in the Crito, now reciprocated his loyalty" (p. 40).6 Yet, once again, this does not detract from the merits of the book, which is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on Plato's Phaedo as well as on many other intriguing subjects.


1.   L. Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Traditions, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Princeton 2012; G. Nagy, "Diachrony and the Case of Aesop." Classics@: 9, 2012, Defense Mechanisms in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Studies and Beyond, Center for Hellenic Studies: Harvard University.
2.   The problem with the life of Aesop is that the sources for most of the relevant material are late, although there are good reasons to believe that such material was by and large well known in the classical age. To be on the safe side, Zafiropoulos has "reduced the material under comparison to information on Aesop that could have been accessible or known to Plato" (p. 127), that is, to information attested in early sources. Late sources are not ruled out altogether, but Zafiropoulos is explicit in emphasizing the risks they involve.
3.   S.A. White, "Socrates at Colonus." In Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy, ed. N. D. Smith, and P. Woodruff, Oxford 2000, 140–164.
4.   A. Speyer, "The Earliest Bust of Socrates? New Observations to Philochoros in PHerc. 1021 Col.2." Cronache Ercolanesi 31, 2001, 81–95 (not included in Zafiropoulos's bibliography).
5.   For example, in ch. 2, Zafiropoulos argues persuasively that "Plato intended first to associate his Socrates with a famous purificatory Apollonian festival and then to differentiate it from it" (p. 41).
6.   Zafiropoulos's English is at times prone to infelicities. Here he is apparently saying that Socrates abided by the Laws in the Crito.

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