Pederasty and Power in Plato's Mythological Dialogues

By Paul Regan
2017, Vol. 9 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

Power Over Others

The theme of power over others is prevalent in Gorgias and expanded in the Republic (Waterfield, 1998, xvi). As Socrates and Callicles talk candidly about power, pleasure and pain at others expense, the attitude of “might is right” allows discussion to turn to the issue of a man taking whatever takes his fancy, so long as his pleasure is satiated (xiii-xiv). Gorgias theme is again about self-control and the virtue of moral goodness (arête) appears to be a message about a life of morality making for a happier person, rather than performed out of a sense of duty (xiv). Gorgias suggests Socrates by aiming to hit the short term pleasures of its intended human target to use rhetoric, and persuading and convincing the audience is a form of flattery (Tenkku, 1956) to finally reveal the interlocutor’s real intentions through the deceitful folly of rhetoric (Waterfield, 1998).

Socrates speaks in Gorgias against hedonism, and the short term pleasure seekers satisfaction of desire as a kind of pain and discomfort (p. xviii), seemingly unaware of the longer-term benefits of arête (Gorgias, 492dff). Socrates is therefore not against small pleasures and even agrees with them in moderation (in Symposium, Republic, Philebus and Gorgias, 499d ff) so long as they promote a genuinely empowered morality, good health, good looks, fitness, adequate wealth, social standing (Gorgias, 467e-468b, 477a-ff, 499c-500a), happiness, virtue and philosophical activity (Waterfield, 1998). Desire and power are further developed in Plato’s Republic and in this sense Socrates moves from a small audience to a societal one, and from pederasty where the lover seeks to advance and promote the life chances of his beloved, to a social system of advancement for the common good.

Power and the Republic

In the Republic Plato focuses not only on desire for sensory pleasure but also the moral consequences of abusing power and lacking self-control, and its affect on the individual’s soul (Plochmann, 1973). In this sense Republic goes beyond the physical desire of pederasty to the power that corrupts when there is no social consensus for action. In Republic the dimensions of the individual soul and the state in relation to justice and the constitution are considered one and the same (368d, Plochmann, 1973).

Plato’s reference to self-control and moral intentions are the parts of the soul needing guidance such as “…reason, high spiritedness and appetite…” (65). Republic perhaps is an example of Socrates doing all three; where reason and logic are a defence against human’s instinctive behaviours such as sex, kinship, eating, love and a constitutional ideal of the appetites power and social justice over others, such as equity and the equal distribution of social goods such as benefitting from education, the law, security, commodities (e.g. accommodation, water, food) and healthcare. Republic aims to ensure that social justice is maintained through the careful training of the wise philosopher ruler, agreeing principles of education and sharing of tasks between men and women which he re-defined in many of his dialogues, notably Symposium (Lee, 1987; Plochmann, 1973).

The dialogical lessons therefore are about insightful human intention between desire and power which are elevated on a grander scale in politics. For example, the well intentioned lover who uses his position morally to promote life chances for his beloved is paralleled in Republic societally. Plato starts from the premise that all existing states are badly governed, their constitutions badly composed and incapable of reform unless drastic changes occur, and the philosopher ruler being allowed to justly their rule in place of the unprepared non-philosopher (Plochmann, 1973). Social justice for the individual lies in balancing the impulses and appetites of life and justice for the soul state is enabled when teaching citizens to mind their own business and fulfil their pre-arranged duties to society (Lee, 1987). However, the notion of social justice in the Republic means that the highest and the lowest talents are at the disposal of the community over the needs of the individual (Lee, 1987). This ensures the sharing of social goods such as justice, security, education, fairness, and equality rather than the allocation of property and power (Ricoeur, 2000).

The fundamental myth within Republic is to teach society about values and moral duties (Lee, 1987) and so Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the need to start an educational system to develop children’s mind and character through stories, poetry and mythology (376e-412a), which were the moral equivalent to religious text at the time (Lee, 1987). Bettelheim (in Naugle, 1999) suggests therefore Plato understood better than most how humans learn through the telling of myths, rather than rational teaching to shape social values and culture. This is evident in a quote from Republic:

We must first of all…supervise the storytellers. We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine and beautiful and reject them when they aren’t. And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will shape their children’s souls with stories much more than they will shape their bodies by handling them...” (Republic, 377c).

The second part of the quote, shaping knowledge through stories is an interesting point to consider. Citizens of Plato’s republic commenced their literary education of an idealised democracy through mythology and storytelling (Bettelheim in Naugle, 1999). Folklore, myths, music and poetry were carefully selected to impart the right messages to the community at an early and impressionable age (Lee, 1987; 377c). Therefore, Homer’s Iliad comes in for some specific treatment in the Republic, censored line by line because parts of it apparently misrepresenting god’s and heroes’ actions (377e) to encourage moral weakness (383b). Some of the tales are rightly unsuitable for the minds of the young but Homer’s stories of war, plot, myth, battles amongst the god’s (378c), deceipt, disguise and false promises (383a-b) were considered unacceptable (Lee, 1987).

The real reasons for myth’s being suitable for children to hear concern what men may learn as children, even though when men they were unlikely to be frightened by Homer’s original works. So Socrates turns to what will be taught and encouraged to children (389e-392c) in poetry; stories about valour, silent obedience to officers and the ruler (Iliad, 389e), self restraint, food production, fighting spirit and bravery (386c) and laughter and lies punished as they could harm the state (389c-d). Therefore, the ideology within Republic has a timely warning especially when there is ambiguity about how to assess the ability of inferior guardians to parent children, the ability of politicians to govern us and about morality, abortion, infanticide (460c), and reproductive programmes (Levinson, 1953). However, this leads me to some criticisms and I am unsure whether they were meant to be realised in Plato’s Republic. The power of dialectic being the “…only procedure which proceeds by the destruction of assumptions to the very first principle…” and Socrates “…penetrating thoroughness…” (Lee, 1987, xv, 462a-466d) is lacking in some parts of Republic, perhaps purposefully aiming to evoke a reaction in the reader and a passive Glaucon when Socrates stated;

“…our job is to compel the best minds…to ascend to the vision of good we have described…when they achieve this and see well enough, prevent them from what they are now allowed to do…” (519e).

In a position of power, as the creator of a republic and systematic governance through politics, Socrates appears to offer little sympathy to the ordinary man, and his views and decisions appear to be suspiciously flawed (Lee, 1987). Similar perhaps to Socrates lesson to the assembled men in Symposium when referring to the ill-intentioned lover who uses his position of power to lust over a vulnerable boy for his own satisfaction. Yet Republic is generally considered a book about justice, and a kind of justice where weak or defective newborn babies are suggested to be purposefully left to die.

The notion of justice is also postulated, perhaps ironically, with the family being abolished due to the newfound equality of women otherwise distracted by the family and lessening her commitment to the state. Rather than teaching men to be better father’s, or women capable of more than one commitment, Socrates suggests substituting the family for a system of state nurseries where even breeding could be carefully controlled. Socrates language is unambiguous “…no parent shall know his child or child his parent…” (457d). This kind of statement is striking because Plato’s other dialogues leads to a warm and positive impression of his work, intellect, spirit and humanity to ask difficult philosophical questions. The reader’s engagement in Republic is no exception but it seems somewhat contradictory to the humanistic tone and process of cognitive activation which are found in his other dialogues (Annas, 1982). Therefore, some of the myths developed in Republic suggest Plato as Socrates was playful devil’s advocate.

Plato’s dialogues (Symposium, Phaedrus and Republic) suggests his use of fiction and myth, with the reader suspending disbelief, are a prerequisite to philosophical debate which allows for hypothetical situations to be considered (Annas, 1982). Laird (2001) suggests fiction in Republic; such as Glaucon (359d-60b) are not incidental but intentionally planned to stimulate debate that can be applied to the whole of the dialogue (Laird, 2001, 24). There is the possibility that Plato’s real intention in Republic was to challenge the reader to think how they would act if they had the power to act, even if they did not ever expect to be in that situation and to “…virtually experience for themselves the temptations…” of power and life in general (Laird, 2001, p. 27).


The myth of the soul and the afterlife is dependant on how life is lived and how desires, appetites, ambitions drive action, choice and reason are used towards a moral purpose (Plochmann, 1973). In Symposium and Phaedrus Socrates use of myth and story-telling promoted the acquisition of knowledge and most importantly knowledge informing a moral and balanced life. The issues discussed in this paper are about power and pederasty through Plato’s dialogues.

Both Symposium and Phaedrus make a distinction between love and desire through the Athenian social issue of pederasty, the love between a grown man and a youth. However, as we have seen, Socrates was not against the practice but instead extolled the virtues of balance, self-control, mutual gratification and intellectual development (Gill, 1999). Socrates dialectical re-telling of a story involved imagery, semiotics, symbolism and use of rhetoric (plot, temporality, imitation, mimesis) to be re-born in the telling for a new audience (Ricoeur, 2003; 2013). The challenge to Athenian social norms, of love and power were further challenged with Socrates reference to Diotima because women at the time were not considered equal to men. This equality was also developed in Socrates activation of the various male interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues with regards to older men as a lover fixated on the attentions of their beloved.

Hence, the social issue of power, love and self-control focused on the moral consequences of abusing power. In Republic Socrates develops the notion of power more with regards to social justice and the sharing of social goods such as education, the law with fairness and equity. So instead of the advancement of the lover’s beloved, systems of governance were developed for the greater good of society. Hence, in all of the dialogues Socrates is teaching the interlocutor about social values, and moral duties through a dialectical style which aimed to cajole and entice the interlocutor to think they had an ally, when all the time Socrates was positioning himself to use their own logic against them to think differently.


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