26 November 2016
The Horse and the Gadfly
Socrates, in Plato’s accounts, often recurs to the image of the horse to represent many things. In The Apology, the horse is used firstly in comparison to the younger generations of Athens, and secondly in a metaphor to represent the state at large.
This paper analyses the argumentative power of Socrates’ speech in Plato’s Apology, focusing on the figure of the horse and its relation to the gadfly. The rhetorical power of these two figures is due to the recurrent appearance of horses and their relation to the state, and how something so massive and strong can be disturbed by something as small as a gadfly.
Socrates relies on a series of comparisons to allocate similar importance to the upbringing of both the youth and horses of Athens. He explains that it is not true that the youth can be corrupted by one person and improved by the rest, but rather that the opposite is more likely: “Would you say that this also holds true in the case of horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good?” (Plato, Apology). This erotesis is one of the many that Socrates employs to justify his actions; coupled with the ethos of his oraculum, these also increase the magnitude of the central metaphor: that of the great steed and the gadfly.
The argumentative heart of this speech manifests itself when Socrates explains that his acquittal would be beneficial both to himself and the state. The now charged figure of the horse, which has come to represent youth and its need for a teacher, no represents the state; which according to Socrates: ‘like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, requires to be stirred into life’ (Plato, Apology). Socrates impersonates the gadfly and assumes its proactive pestering nature, minuscule relative size and consequent fragility, to underline his status: an active insignificance that could not possibly pose a threat, but rather cause small disturbances to encourage a positive reaction.
The accusations of atheism and corruption of the youth are turned against the accusers, who would be committing a sin in killing the only godly gadfly they have, and would force the state to remain passive for the rest of their lives. A civic accusation turns therefore into a Homeric one in this antistrephon, where the exaggerated size of the state has caused passivity and vanity to take over justice and honor.
Socrates amplifies the role of the gadfly by the use of parallel structure and repetition: “all day long and in all places (I) am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you” (Plato’s Apology). The emphasis on the perpetual nature of this disturbance feeds the argumentative power of Socrates’ defense by suggesting that without a nuisance, due to the immense size of the state, there would be nothing to stir it from sleep and keep the inquisitive nature of philosophy alive.
The juxtaposition of the two figures serves another purpose as well: it attributes the relative irrelevance of a gadfly to a horse, to Socrates; while suggesting the opposite is true. In other words, while a horse’s life is seemingly independent to that of the gadfly, the gadfly needs the horse to survive: however the ideal Homeric state of the horse - and all other things - is to be active, so despite the opinion of the state that Socrates is unnecessary, the opposite becomes true: the gadfly needs the horse to survive and the horse needs the gadfly to stay in the world of action, no matter how annoying the gadfly gets. Although the horse can survive in a state of slumber, this state is dishonorable.
Socrates explicitly attributes the passivity of the state to its size, while also describing it as noble and great. This combination produces a sense of loss of potential, as it encourages the audience to consider the important things a massive, great, and noble steed can do if Socrates stays alive.
This depiction shows not only how the state has become incompatible with the Homeric values and the pursuit of truth, but it also suggests that a “steed tardy in its motion” will not be able to keep up with other horses. Due to the competitive and military prevalence in Greek culture, this image represents deficiency, sluggishness, and dishonorable loss. Now that people are content thinking they know, rather than really knowing, the noble and great steed is vain and passive, and it is up to the pestering godly gadfly to stir it from slumber.