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13 Making Music with Aesop’s Fables in the Phaedo Heidi Northwood At the beginning of the Phaedo, Socrates contemplates the relationship between pain and pleasure after having been released from the shackles that had bound his legs: “‘What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite , pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head’” (Phaedo 60b).1 This makes him think of Aesop: “‘And I think,’ he said, ‘if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason , when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after’” (60c). Here Cebes interrupts Socrates, having remembered that Evenus had asked him to find out why Socrates had been composing poems—“metrical versions of Aesop’s fables [λόγους] and the hymn to Apollo”—while awaiting his execution in jail (60d). Socrates answers that it was to test the meaning of certain recurring dreams that said, “Socrates, make music and work at it [μουσικὴν ποίει καὶ ἐργάζου]” (60e). To this point, Socrates had thought these dreams were encouraging him to do what he was already doing , since “philosophy was the greatest kind of music and I was working at that” (61a). But just in case the dreams really meant that he should make music in the ordinary sense, he thought he should compose some verses (61a). So first he composed a hymn to Apollo whose festival was causing the delay in his execution, and after that, “considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, must compose myths [μύθους] and not speeches [λόγους], since I was not a maker of myths [μυθολογικός], I took the myths [μύθους] of Aesop, which I had at hand and 1 14 | Heidi Northwood knew [προχείρους εἶχον καὶ ἠπιστάμην], and turned into verse [τούτους ἐποίησα] the first I came upon [ἐνέτυχον]” (61b). Socrates downplays his choice of Aesop. He is quite serious about following the message of his dreams “to make music,” but the choice to “make music” out of Aesop seems to be one of convenience: a poet must compose myths; Socrates doesn’t do this; Aesop’s myths were “at hand”; off he went. But there is good reason not to take Socrates too seriously here. In addition to Plato’s artistry, which makes any seemingly offhand remark in his dialogues suspect, there is Socrates’s claim that he does not compose myths when he had himself just created one about the nature of pain and pleasure. This alone should make us pause and wonder why, really, Socrates chose Aesop’s fables to make into music. And it’s not at all obvious; on the surface Aesop was no particular favorite of Socrates or Plato; he is mentioned in only one other dialogue in the Platonic corpus, in Alcibiades I, where the fable “The Lion and the Fox” is used to point to the Spartan’s hidden love of wealth.2 Others have considered this question. Compton, for example, has argued that Socrates chose Aesop because Plato wanted to remind his readers of their parallel lives and deaths, that Plato was “assimilating Socrates to Aesop.”3 The similarities between them as they are portrayed in the works of Plato and the Life of Aesop are indeed striking. While the version of the Life of Aesop that survives was likely not written until the first century ce, there is evidence that it was based on a number of stories about Aesop’s life and death that were widely known in the time of Socrates.4 The portrayal of Aesop in Aristophanes and Herodotus is consistent with the later story, as is a representation of Aesop on a fifth-century bce Attic cup.5 The parallels are these: both are extremely ugly (indeed both are compared to satyrs); both are righteous critics of an unjust city; both are found to be intolerable by members of this unjust city and are consequently brought to trial on trumped-up charges; both...


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