Title: "The Dramatic Significance of Cephalus in Plato's Republic", Teaching Philosophy, 20/3, 1997, 239-249.
Author: Brian Donohue
Date: March 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 Students often become confused by the nature of the relationship between Socrates and Plato. After being told that some of Plato's dialogues are 'Socratic' they are then faced with works such as the Republic in which the character Socrates presents Platonic ideas. In order to overcome such confusion, the author draws his students' attention to the persona of Cephalus.
 Plato's dialogues are often divided into three chronological groups, the first group being said to report Socrates' philosophy, the second and third groups presenting Plato's more mature and increasingly independent thought. Any alert student will be aware of the problems revolving around the relations between the historical Socrates and the Platonic character 'Socrates', and may well expect some sort of response from the teacher. In order to do this author draws upon parts of the Meno and Republic. [...]
 Cephalus appears only very briefly at the beginning of the Republic.  He is the old man whom Socrates visits at the opening of the dialogue. Socrates suggests that Cephalus is happy in his old age due to his wealth. Cephalus responds by saying that money enables one to lead a respectable life ('speaking the truth, paying one's debts'). Socrates treats these remarks as a description of justice. Then the dialogue begins in earnest, in search for a definition of justice.
Cephalus does not stay and join in the discussion, perhaps because he thinks that virtue and justice are simply gifts from the gods. This is implied by his departure to make a religious sacrifice.  Instead, the argument is taken up by Cephalus' son; Polemarchus. This dramatic shift from father to son represents the shift from Socrates to Plato, for Cephalus' opinion that virtue cannot be known reflects the Socratic opinion outlined in the Meno. [...]
 The character Cephalus also illustrates the limits of a purely religious attitude towards justice and so opens the way for Plato's alternative social account.  Although he may have lived a respectable life, Cephalus is unable to give an adequate definition of justice. This acts as a justification for the remainder of the dialogue. [...]
The author's claim that Cephalus and Polemarchus in some way represent Socrates and Plato, and that the relationship between the former is supposed to mirror the relationship between the latter, is not one that I find especially convincing. Indeed, the author himself outlines a number of objections to his own thesis [on 244]. To these I would add that the argument assumes that the Meno may be read straightforwardly as a 'Socratic' dialogue, despite its account of the theory of recollection.
Despite this, the author's general comments make two important points that deserve underlining. The first is his insistence that when teaching Plato one should attempt to tackle the problem of distinguishing the historical Socrates from the Platonic character. The second is that one should pay close attention to the dramatic form of Platonic dialogues and to the way in which seemingly 'literary' devices may shed light on their 'philosophical' content. Both of these concerns are intimately related to the fact that Plato chose to write dialogues and so did not argue in his own voice. How significant is the fact that Plato chose to adopt this literary form? To what extent can one attribute any of the philosophical ideas in these dialogues to Plato himself? Is it possible to disentangle 'philosophical' arguments from the literary context in which they are presented? Why use Socrates as a character, and why put into his mouth ideas that the historical Socrates may well have rejected? All of these are important questions to address when studying Plato. They may not be 'philosophical' questions in a narrow sense of the word but nevertheless they are all relevant to a proper understanding of the philosophy contained in Plato's dialogues.
The author's attention to these sorts of questions enables him to draw a considerable amount out of those opening pages of the Republic that are perhaps often skipped by philosophy students as they search for the first substantial arguments. Although one might not agree fully with the author's own interpretation of these opening pages, his close reading of them offers a good example of the way in which one can read the dialogue as both literature and philosophy at the same time.
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