Was Socrates actually a gadfly?

Today the Shimer faculty ended its spring faculty meetings with a discussion of pedagogy, centered on the idea of the Socratic method. One of our texts was the famous passage from the Apology where Socrates describes himself as a gadfly sent by the god to harrass the city (30e). The Loeb translation reads as follows: “For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I got about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long.” I compared the Greek text and could not initially find the word for “gadfly,” which indeed does not appear where the Loeb translation (which is broadly correct though lazily imprecise, as Loeb translations tend to be) places it.

Here is the Greek, with the appropriate word highlighted (to get the full quote you need to go to the next page on Perseus):

ἐὰν γάρ με ἀποκτείνητε, οὐ ῥᾳδίως ἄλλον τοιοῦτον εὑρήσετε, ἀτεχνῶς—εἰ καὶ γελοιότερον εἰπεῖν—προσκείμενον τῇ πόλει ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὥσπερ ἵππῳ μεγάλῳ μὲν καὶ γενναίῳ, ὑπὸ μεγέθους δὲ νωθεστέρῳ καὶ δεομένῳ ἐγείρεσθαι ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος, οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.

The Greek word translated as gadfly is μύωψ, myops, which is primarily an adjective meaning “with squinted eyes” or “nearsighted.” As a substantive, it could mean gadfly or it could mean simply spur (as befits a horse metaphor) — and if you poke around in the lexicon in Perseus, you’ll see that there’s a passage in Xenophon where the exact same phrasing indicates a spur.

What I wonder, though, is why it can’t be an adjective. Then “ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος” would mean “by someone squinting” — such as, for example, the person who returned to the cave would be, before his eyes adjusted properly. We know that Socrates and his interlocutors agree without any hesitation that such a squinting loser would be killed. Even if I’m pushing the grammar here, surely this double meaning isn’t accidental. The notion that the great and noble steed of Athens is weighed down by its great weight would then be a metaphor for its attachment to the merely material rather than the spiritual or intellectual realm. The idea of being weighed down also recalls the chains in the cave.

A second question: is Socrates actually claiming agency over the harrassment? Here’s the relevant sentence again, with highlights: “οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.” The first highlight is “god,” and the second highlight is basically the equivalent to “who.” In this sentence, Socrates is in the accusative, whereas both “god” and “who” are in the nominative. Hence the god, who harrasses you at all times and everywhere (Socrates has to sleep and can only be in one place at once), has sent Socrates for some such purpose. [UPDATE: Commenters have convinced me that I’m wrong about this part. I’ve updated the translation accordingly.]

And that brings us to Socrates’ attachment to the city. He is “προσκείμενον,” a way of speaking he expects his hearers to find ludicrous. And that may be because this word has religious overtones — it can mean “devoted to” in the religious sense, in addition to “attached” or “placed.” I don’t think Socrates’ listeners would find it at all ludicrous to compare Socrates to an annoying bug. They may laugh at the idea that he has a divine mission.

So here’s an attempted alternative translation:

For if you kill me, you will not easily find such another, [who is] simply–to say something risible–devoted to the city by the God just as if to a great and noble horse [that is] also sluggish and bound under [its] great weight, [were] to be awakened by someone squinting/some gadfly/some spur, so the god seems to have allied me to the city as such a one, who, waking and urging and reproaching each one of you, never stops landing everywhere the whole day.

It probably needs some work. In any case, am I on to something or making stuff up?

4 Responses to “Was Socrates actually a gadfly?”

  1. Snorey Says:

    The first point seems solid, but I’m skeptical of the second. “τοιοῦτόν τινα” seems like a more plausible antecedent for “ὃς” than ” ὁ θεὸς”, just based on proximity. I wouldn’t think that the nominative case would mean anything besides that the entity-in-question is the subject of that relative clause — it needn’t necessarily be the subject of the main clause as well. (Not sure I’m putting that entirely clearly, but I’m too bleary to figure out a better way of phrasing it.)

  2. Ken Says:

    How does the language compare to the Meno where Socrates rejects the idea that he’s like a stingray fish–making others numb with confusion on purpose (instead saying, if he is such a fish, that he is numbed, too)? Is there any connection to the gadfly and the stingray in the language?

    Very interesting post!

  3. Daphne Giofkou (@gu3rrilla_girL) Says:

    I think you should also check the etymology of the “μύωπός”: Where are these different meanings coming from? From the context or from the origin of the word itself?

    The “ὃς-sentence explains the “τοιοῦτόν τινα”, which otherwise would remain there…waiting there for explanation. Which of the words in your translation translates “τοιοῦτόν τινα”?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m now convinced that I’m simply wrong about the grammar of that subordinate clause. It’s been a long time since I broke out my Greek.


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