On Guardians in Phaedo

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    abeckwith
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    During the course of Socrates’ many musings close to his death in Phaedo, one such discussion comes on the topic of suicide and how it should not be allowed. His argument insists that men’s bodies are not their own, but are owned by the gods: 62d “god is our guardian and we are his possessions.”. The language that Socrates uses in this argument, only a matter of hours before his death, is of particular interest in its comparison to the language that happens within the Republic and other Platonic dialogues.

    To grasp the full of Plato’s intent within this passage, we must look at both the original Greek and the English translation for the section.

    When examining the English translation of the text, the gods are shown to be describes as “guardians” through Socrates’ argument here in the opening of Phaedo. This is immediately reminiscent of the guardians described through all of the Republic as the class of citizen which will be the hyper-educated, protectors of law in the city that Socrates and his friends are designing. On initial analysis, then, it seems almost that Socrates is wanting to track back on his words from the previous Republic. This language has a separate emphasis being displayed here, where the guardians are not just guarding over those below and acting with virtue, but ruling them and owning them as if they are slaves. Comparison with this to the Republic, they are described as: 421a-b “true guardians and keepers of our liberties, men least likely to harm the commonwealth” It seems that the language has changed here, in context of the description of these guardians if not in exact word choice.

    The Greek word choice reveals more of the exact description of these “guardians”, either the gods or the keepers of justice in the city, that are described by Socrates. In Republic, the guardians are called φύλακες, which has the emphasis of being a watchman, or custodian. In Phaedo, the gods are described as ἐπιμελήσομαι “take care of, have charge or management of” men. This emphasizes the different usage of the translated “guardian” here, more of the guarding for the good of the people, as opposed to the later description, which contains more of a managing or controlling connotation.

    Is this word choice intentional in Phaedo to retract Socrates’ thoughts on the guardians, and to give them new meaning? Does this word choice simply reflect a translating decision that confuses English speakers, and no one else? The meaning and significance of the guardians for Plato hinges on this.

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