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  • The Solonian Legacy in Socrates
  • Lucas Fain (bio)

But before he is dead, wait,and do not yet call him happy, but fortunate.



What does the history of philosophy look like from the perspective of psychoanalysis? In the present essay, I propose to consider a specific moment in the history of philosophy, namely, the intervention of erôs in the historical transition from Herodotean inquiry to Platonic philosophy. If psychoanalysis makes a difference as to how we understand the history of philosophy, what can it tell us about the significance of erôs for the tradition of philosophy initiated by Socrates?

In asking this question, my aim is twofold. First, I want to demonstrate that a psychoanalytic approach to the history of philosophy not only is plausible, but that by virtue of its insight into the wishes and fantasies that motivate human behavior, it can help us to understand how erôs intervenes to motivate the Platonic account of the Socratic unity of happiness and philosophy. Where the historical significance of this account is at stake, we shall have to investigate both the prehistory of the Socratic tradition and its major connection to a Platonic account of the erôs for philosophy. Hence my second aim: to demonstrate the central importance of Plato’s Symposium in this psycho-historical drama. My argument is not simply that the Symposium is amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation, as readers like Jacques Lacan (1991 [1957]) and Jonathan Lear (1999) have already demonstrated.2 Rather, my argument is that psychoanalysis offers a powerful vocabulary for understanding the genesis of philosophical erôs, and that the Symposium is likewise a key resource for illuminating the prehistory of Socratic philosophy precisely because its account of the erôs for philosophy is traceable to the Herodotean inquiry concerning Solon’s role in an ancient quarrel about the [End Page 209] meaning of happiness. My argument, in short, is that the erôs for philosophy has its source in an all too human dynamic of seduction, and that the psychoanalytic theory of seduction is uniquely capable of elaborating the account of philosophical seduction in the Symposium—precisely because the psychoanalytic and Platonic accounts share the same fundamental structure.

To be clear: I am not arguing that either Solon or Herodotus is the sole antecedent to the Socratic tradition, nor that one cannot find older or more diverse sources for the constellation of themes that link Herodotus to Plato through what I shall call the Solonian legacy in Socrates. Rather, my argument is concerned to show that a certain collection of themes converge in the figure of Solon, and that by virtue of their transformation in the Symposium, it is possible to consider both Plato’s indebtedness to the Solonian teaching, as well as the specific terms of his divergence. For introductory purposes, I cite four fundamental themes that define the appearance of Solon’s legacy.3

  1. 1. A tension between olbos and eudaimonia in the text of Herodotus, and a related connection between happiness and seeing the whole, which anticipates the valorization of eudaimonia as the highest expression of philosophy in Plato.

  2. 2. A transformation in the relation between happiness and death from Solon to Socrates. Whereas Solon commands us to call no one happy until dead, the practice of dying or being dead is itself the expression of happiness for Plato’s Socrates.

  3. 3. A consideration of jealousy as an impediment to happiness. Whereas the jealousy of the gods points, for Solon, to the fluctuations of fortune that ruin human happiness, in the Socratic teaching human happiness requires a special kind of endurance with respect to those same dire elements. Coupled with the teaching of Diotima, this endurance will define human happiness in terms of friendship with the gods.

  4. 4. A reference to Solon’s famous injunction to continue learning even while growing older. While this statement does not appear directly in the Symposium, the exact inverse of this teaching is spoken by Alcibiades in reference to the symptom of his resistance, both to Socrates and to the erôs for philosophy.

Provided these four themes, the present study is divided into six step-wise sections...


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