Sense and Nonsense: Speak, So That I May See You

On my desk is a postcard I received several years ago from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The imprint on the card is a most curious one. It shows Socrates sitting on a throne-like chair with a kind of dunce cap on. He is behind a writing table, with a stylus in each hand. Perhaps he has a pen of some sort, as he seems to be dipping one pen in a kind of ink-pot while he is writing with his left hand on the slate or paper. Socrates has very wide, almost dubious eyes. He is bearded and wearing a robe.

Behind Socrates—we look at both figures from the side—is a shorter man with a kind of skull cap on. He is identified as Plato. His left arm is around behind Socrates’ left shoulder, stretched out half way between Socrates’ face and the desk on which he is writing. Plato’s index finger is in the air, though Socrates does not seem to see it, as if he is making a point to an uncomprehending Socrates. The right index finger of Plato is on Socrates’ lower right shoulder, almost tapping on it. Plato seems to be informing a hesitant Socrates about what to write. There is an inscription below the drawing. I cannot make it out, even with a magnifying glass.

The information on the front of the card tells us that this was a frontispiece drawn by “Matthew Paris of St. Albans (d. 1259) for a fortune-telling tract of the sortes genre, The Prognostics of Socrates the King. MS. Ashmole, 304, fol. 31.”

The friend who sent the card several years ago writes, “You should frame this print for your wall. A Great Picture!” I have never framed it, but I have it sitting on the ledge in front of me. It is a great, curious reproduction. The figures of Plato and Socrates are ever worthy ones to have before us, even in a version of the thirteenth century, about fortune-telling, from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, “the city of dreaming spires,” as my friend reminded me, from Matthew Arnold, I think, or is it Hopkins?

Several things are obviously striking about this print. The first is that Socrates was not a king, but a philosopher. Needless to say, the justification for calling him a king as well is quite understandable from the Fifth Book of The Republic, where we read of the city in speech in which the king and philosopher should be the same person. Socrates himself said that he had to remain a private citizen to stay alive in Athens as long as he did, albeit he lasted there for seventy years. Rulers of disordered regimes cannot tolerate philosophers who teach the truth.

Secondly, it seems like the scene should be turned around. Plato should be sitting at the desk writing to the promptings of Socrates. One might say, of course, that the Socrates we know is mainly a figment of Plato’s imagination. And we find it difficult to associate Socrates with fortune-telling as opposed to rational reflection and investigation. Just as science or white magic is said to have grown to some extent out of black magic, with the attempt to learn how things work and to be able to control nature, so philosophy arose out of efforts to know the future, to know the stars. Socrates said that all he knew was that he knew nothing. This could be an act of arrogance or of humility. St. Thomas said that we begin by knowing something.

And the reason Socrates was said to have written nothing was because he was the supreme teacher. Socrates and Christ wrote no books. Their followers, lesser men than they, wrote down what they said. This is how we still meet them, initially. The most important things are not first written. First is the dynamic of person and character, of contemplation. Then follows what someone speaks about how to live. And then, perhaps, follows what someone writes.

Glaucon and Adeimantos in The Republic  wanted to hear Socrates explain what justice is J because they recognized that it might be their last chance to have this question properly treated. Plato, the brother of Glaucon and Adeimantos, wrote the book, which we can still read. The testimony of Socrates is that the higher things are sufficient and all absorbing. The someone who tells this cannot be busy writing books, else that would suggest something is more absorbing than the higher things.

There is only one reference to Socrates in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It is a curious one in the context of Socrates the King. It was April 10, 1778. Boswell and Samuel Johnson were dining with Sir William Scott, later His Majesty’s Advocate General, “at his chambers in the Temple, nobody else was there.” As the company was small, conversation was slow.

Johnson suddenly began to speak of subordination, then of fame, of wealth, and finally of war. Johnson observed provocatively, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” Boswell pointed out that “Lord Mansfield did not.” But Johnson denied it by saying that if Lord Mansfield were present when generals and admirals were talking together, “he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.” Boswell denied this also.

Finally, in exasperation, Johnson replied to Boswell, “No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, `Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy’; and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar’; a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.”

On Boswell’s Grand Tour through Switzerland and Germany in 1764, it was July 31. Boswell was in “Richardsche Kaffeegarten” near the zoo in Berlin. He proceeded to write a letter in French to a certain Henri de Catt, who was a reader for the Prussian king. Boswell was trying to get a personal interview with the king. In explaining why he would not be put off, Boswell remarked that he was not like the famous English knight who made a trip to Potsdam to see the king but after he saw him on parade, “went quietly home.”

Boswell continued, “I am like the ancient philosopher who said, ‘Speak, so that I may see you.’ ” This “ancient philosopher,” of course, brings us back to our subject. Boswell told de Catt that he himself had already seen the king (Frederick the Great) two or three times on parade during his visit to Berlin. The king “electrified” him, so he wanted to see him in person. But we should not forget, remembering Johnson’s story about Socrates and Charles the Twelfth, that Boswell himself wrote a biography of Samuel Johnson, not Frederick the Great of Prussia, however the latter electrified him.

In the footnote to this passage in my edition (Boswell on the Grand Tour, edited by F.A. Pottle [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953], pp. 43-44), we are informed that Erasmus was probably the source of this passage about Socrates to which Boswell referred. The footnote continues, with some interest to our theme:

A rich man had sent his son so that Socrates might look him over and judge of his talents. “Well, then, my lad,” said Socrates, “speak, so that I can see you.” [Loquere igitur, inquit, adolescens, ut te videam]. Erasmus continues, “meaning thereby that a man’s character is reflected less fully in his face than in his speech” [Apophthegmata, iii, 70].

So we have Plato, behind King Socrates, informing him what to write. We have Socrates, who never wrote a book, writing a book. We have Socrates telling us “to speak” so that he can “see” us because, as Erasmus said, we are reflected less in our face than in our speech.

Socrates the philosopher spent his life speaking. He was said to have been quite ugly. Johnson said that if Socrates were to say “Follow me, I will give you a lecture on philosophy,” no one would follow him if he also heard Charles the Twelfth of Sweden announce, “Follow me, I am going to dethrone the Czar.” Johnson thought this latter preference was true to life, if strange. Adeimantos and Glaucon listened to the other philosophers, but wanted to hear Socrates as he did not write a book.

Loquere igitur, inquit, adolescens, ut te videam. Are we embarrassed to follow Socrates or Christ or Aquinas, even if the generals and admirals are not always wrong, even if it is often “electrifying” to follow Charles the Twelfth or even Frederick the Great? “Well, then, my lad,” said Socrates, “speak, so that I can see you.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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