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43 American Gadfly Plato and the Problem of Metaphor Michael Naas It is surely the best known of all of Plato’s animals, even if it is by far the smallest and no doubt the strangest for a noble discipline like philosophy. It is the one that almost every philosophy student encounters at the beginning of his or her studies and the one by which many will remain smitten for a lifetime. Indeed it is the one that has come to characterize for many the very vocation of philosophy and the face of the philosopher. I am speaking, of course, of the famous image of Socrates as a gadfly in the Apology, an image that Socrates not only accepts but himself first advances, an odd image, to be sure, for the “father” of Western philosophy to have chosen to characterize himself and an even odder one, it would seem, for those of us who follow and imitate him to wish to endorse. This image of Socrates as gadfly has, it appears, taken hold of the philosophical imagination like no other in Plato’s dialogues and perhaps like no other in the history of philosophy. The name Socrates almost immediately calls up the image if not the name of the gadfly, and the gadfly is almost a synecdoche for Socrates. But in what follows I would like to argue that this image and this name have become particularly tenacious and have come to exercise a particular fascination for those of us who read Plato today not in the original Greek or some other language but, strangely, in English, and, perhaps especially, in American English. At the risk of outrageous provocation, I would like to suggest, at least in a first moment, that Plato’s Apology might best be read today in English translation, as if Plato had introduced this curious little beast called the gadfly into his bestiary some two and a half millennia ago in the hopes that it would be understood and translated in precisely the way a contemporary American reader understands and translates it. In what follows, then, I would like to demonstrate how this seemingly simple image of Socrates as gadfly works in Plato’s text, how it works in Greek but then 3 44 | Michael Naas also how it works—and works perhaps uniquely—in English, making it an ideal image or metaphor for understanding how images and metaphors work in general in Plato. As we will see, the metaphor of Socrates as gadfly will be in some sense the ideal of all metaphor in Plato insofar as it transforms a common Greek name into a word with, on the one hand, a unique meaning in contemporary American culture and, on the other—and perhaps in opposition to this first meaning— a very special philosophical meaning in the register and lexicon that Plato was trying to develop. Though Plato may have written in the hope that other terms, other metaphors, “Socrates the swan,” for example, or “Socrates the torpedo fish,” might function in a similar fashion, none of these has been as successful as the gadfly, though this is at once most evident and, as I will suggest to conclude, most obscured, in the American English translation of Plato. Let me begin, then, by recalling the famous passage from the Apology in which this odd image of Socrates as gadfly occurs. Socrates has been arguing that he has spent much of his life obeying the Delphic injunction “Know Thyself!” and trying to get others to do the same, if only by getting them to recognize that they do not know what they think they do. Socrates says he has spent his entire life questioning citizens and foreigners to this end, and he tells the jury that if he is acquitted of the charges he is facing he has absolutely has no intention of stopping this practice: “This I shall do to whomever I meet, young and old, foreigner and citizen, but most to the citizens, inasmuch as you are more nearly related to me. For know that the god commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the god. For I go about doing nothing else than urging you, young and old, not to care for your persons or your property more than for the perfection of your souls” (Apology 30a). Hence Socrates underscores that he has questioned people throughout his...


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