Salvo 01.04.2021 17 minutes

Plato’s Wokeon (or Orthodoxon): A New Translation of a Disputed Dialogue


Image: Plato's Allegory of the Cave, by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem (1604, Albertina, Vienna).

Translator’s prefatory note:

The authorship of this dialogue is disputed, although no less a scholar than Benjamin Jowett was rumored to have asked scornfully, “If this be not the genius of Plato, then whose? That of the Earl of Oxford, exercised in Attic leisure from his occulted creation of Shakespeare?”[1]

Unlike the “great tutor” Jowett, the modern scholar cannot ignore the dialogue’s numerous anachronisms and other flaws. Whether they are evidence merely of an unreliable text or, worse, of extracanonical status is beyond the scope of this prefatory note.[2] Briefly, however, let it be acknowledged that the difficulties begin with the name of Socrates’ interlocutor: Some manuscripts use Orthodoxōn,[3] meaning “Right-Thinker,” a fitting, although derisive, description of the interlocutor. Other manuscripts use Wōkeon, which has no clear meaning, although it is an evident barbarism.[4] Because the latter appears in more of the manuscripts, the present translation, written for our present age of barbarism, uses “Wokeon.”

WOKEON: Socrates, do you know the cause and the reason for your appearance before the Tribunal today?

SOCRATES: I know the cause, young Wokeon, which was the force of guards each bearing the crest of the Tribunal, who summoned me at dawn from my house and directed me to sit on a likewise crested litter, to be paraded hither on the streets and up the steps of the Tribunal’s palace into this chamber, all to the loud jeers of the masked crowds with which the Tribunal hemmed my path.

WOKEON: They were not the Tribunal’s crowds; they were good people who gathered themselves and each other to sound their support for the Tribunal’s works.

SOCRATES: Then say, good Wokeon: How did it happen that those good people all bore masks of uniform shape, color, and iconography? And many among them looked as if they would ordinarily work for their bread since long before the daily unhiding of Helios; how, I ask, were those good workers permitted to spend hours overpaving the streets with their sandals and their insults, without, it seems, fearing retribution from their masters?

WOKEON: It is for me, Socrates, not you, to ask questions here; and my question was whether you knew the cause and the reason for your appearance before the Tribunal today. Yet, with more turns and twistings than wily Odysseus, you spoke the cause and hid the reason. I therefore ask again: Do you know the reason for your appearance before the Tribunal today?

SOCRATES: In truth, gentle Wokeon, I do not.

WOKEON: Then I will tell you, Socrates: As the bill of complaint states, you have been credibly accused of unconscious bias in your treatment of students. That is the reason for your appearance before the lords of the Tribunal. Do you now understand?

SOCRATES: In truth, still-gentle Wokeon, I still do not.

WOKEON: What, did you not receive the bill of complaint?

SOCRATES: I acknowledge that I received it.

WOKEON: Did you read the bill?

SOCRATES: I acknowledge that I read it.

WOKEON: Did you understand the words set forth therein?

SOCRATES: I acknowledge that I understood the words, as I understand the words of any educated Athenian, although the education of the authors of the bill appears to have been little more than memorizing the slogans of the Tribunal.

WOKEON: Then, with all your acknowledgments—and despite your disparagement of the authors, which is unworthy even of apophasis[5]—how can you deny that you understand the reason for your appearance before the Tribunal?

SOCRATES: Because the words do not set forth the reason with the clarity that I thought was still required by our ancient traditions of law. Logic does not compel me to acknowledge that I understand the reason merely because I understand the words.

WOKEON: The Tribunal has no time for your trivial points of logic.

SOCRATES: If logic is trivial, what is truth? O good lords of the Tribunal, I cannot say of our Wokeon that I find in him no fault at all.[6]

But is it in fact necessary that I understand my crime before I receive my punishment? For I understand the certainty of punishment more than the reason for it, inasmuch as it is well known that the Tribunal has never rendered a verdict of innocence.

WOKEON: It is our custom to impart that understanding of the reason, and not only to assure the fairness of the punishment that will be imposed—if, that is, guilt is in fact ascribed to you after a speedy and fair trial—but also to correct and improve your understanding for your betterment and that of the community. I will therefore explain it to you, the better to impart the wisdom that you famously say you seek.

SOCRATES: Please proceed, wisdom-imparting Wokeon.

WOKEON: As the bill states, and as I have previously said, you have been credibly accused of unconscious bias in your treatment of your students.

SOCRATES: By whom have I been accused? Your accusation, like this sentence, is stated in the passive voice.

WOKEON: We respect the anonymity of those brave souls who come before the Tribunal to make accusations.

SOCRATES: And if one of those brave souls were found to have made a false accusation—

WOKEON: As has never happened—

SOCRATES: What, never a false accusation, or never an accusation found to be false?

WOKEON: The latter, which implies the former.

SOCRATES: One may doubt that. But if someone were, let us suppose, to come before the Tribunal with a wrongful accusation of an innocent person, surely that would be a serious crime. In such an instance, would there be a trial and, after a finding of guilt, a just punishment of the wrongful accuser?

WOKEON: No, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And why not?

WOKEON: Because that would discourage others from making accusations.

SOCRATES: Even rightful accusations?

WOKEON: Yes, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Even wrongful accusations?

WOKEON: It is not for you—

SOCRATES: But if accusers may make even wrongful accusations without fear of being named or punished, then why did you call them brave souls?

WOKEON: I state again that it is not for you to ask questions of the Tribunal. We will not disclose the identity of your accuser or accusers. Moving on.

SOCRATES: But what if an individual were accused by the Tribunal, as I am, yet did not obey and answer the Tribunal, as I did? What if that individual sought instead to evade the Tribunal’s jurisdiction by self-banishment or other means? Could not such an act of civil disobedience (as we may call it) be the exercise of conscience, because of an individual’s sincerely held belief that defying the Tribunal is nevertheless best for justice? And would that act not be bravery?

WOKEON: No, Socrates. Such “civil disobedience,” as you call it, would not be bravery, for it would not be best for justice; for any action prohibited by the Tribunal, and therefore by law, cannot, by its nature, further the cause of justice. It is well known that the Tribunal commits to do justice unerringly and that it fulfills that commitment. Indeed, that commitment is proclaimed in the Tribunal’s Mission Statement.

SOCRATES: But what if—

WOKEON: Moving on.

SOCRATES: Very well. According to the accusation, in what way have I engaged in unconscious bias in my treatment of my students?

WOKEON: You are not accused of having engaged in unconscious bias.

SOCRATES: What? I am not so accused?

WOKEON: That is not the accusation.

SOCRATES: Then it must be some other man named Socrates who should be here, not I. It is true logic that if all men have two legs and Socrates is a man, then Socrates has two legs. But if all men have two legs and a man has two legs, then it is a fallacy, not true logic, that that man must be Socrates, even if, we may now add, his name is in fact Socrates. It is also, according to you now, a fallacy that the Socrates who stands on his feeble two legs before you is accused of having engaged in unconscious bias in the treatment of my students.

Accepting, as I do, this odd exoneration from you, may I therefore withdraw from this chamber at liberty, and without the assistance of the heavy-set Persian-looking fellow who escorted me in?

WOKEON: Stay your gait, impertinent Socrates, and also your tongue! You have received no exoneration from me: I said, and now say again, that you have been credibly accused of unconscious bias in your treatment of your students.

SOCRATES: Was that not, Socrates-confounding Wokeon, the subject of my logic, and of your fallacy?

WOKEON: No, Socrates, you said—perhaps to receive an unjust acquittal by false art of words—that you stood accused of having engaged in unconscious bias. And that is not what the bill of accuses you of; for the bill says nothing about that which you have engaged in.

SOCRATES: O now-careful Wokeon, who did not long ago object to what you called my trivial points of logic, you have become surpassingly concerned about fine points of rhetoric—not to say trivial ones.

WOKEON: No, Socrates, it is a fundamental point: The bias need not be the exercise of your conscious mind; you did not engage in it, but it was there.

SOCRATES: Very well, but if the unconscious bias was there; and if, by your implicit supposition, it was a consequence thereof that I did something wrongful to my students, or some of them, and if, as we may further suppose you to posit, the consequence was not at the direction of Zeus or some lesser god but rather flowed from my unconscious bias—then, say I, in preduplication of your positing to come, that it is now your proposition that the unconscious bias caused me to do those things, is it not?

WOKEON: Socrates, your last sentence, if it was truly a sentence, was not the clearest or straightest stream in the landscape of your thought and speech; if, however, I captained my ship of mind down it without shipwreck, I believe that the proposition that you finally stated is a proper statement of the accusation. It is now my proposition that unconscious bias caused you to do those things.

SOCRATES: Then why, O Captain, my Captain Wokeon,[7] wielder of cavils, is it I who am summoned before the Tribunal?

WOKEON: But now my ship of understanding is dashed: There is no doubt that is you who have been so summoned; if not you, then who should be summoned according to your crafty argument? Yet a third Socrates by whose fabulation you seek to delay and beguile?

SOCRATES: No man, eye-rubbing Wokeon, nor woman should, as a matter of justice, be summoned who is not the potentially guilty party who acted in violation of law. But I, like the aggrieved students, am merely an object upon which, it seems, unconscious bias has operated—they being secondary objects, and I being the primary object. It is, it seems, not I who have done wrong, but my unconscious bias.

WOKEON: My ship is in finest splinters: I do not understand you.

SOCRATES: I will attempt, metaphor-overusing Wokeon, an analogy: If we two, being dear friends, sit close by each other at the edge of a chasm in friendly philosophical conversation and contemplation of the beautiful scenery before us, and my aged body suddenly twitches in an unconscious spasm, and it jostles you, and you fall to your death on the cruel rocks below—then, dear friend Wokeon, am I your murderer? No; and, though it would be you who suffered the violent jostle and still more violent fall, it would be I, for so long thereafter as I lived, who would suffer and bemoan the loss of my dear friend Wokeon and who would curse the unconscious spasm that robbed me of the selfsame friend. For would not the true murderer be not I but the unconscious spasm at the chasm?

WOKEON: My ship reconstitutes itself from myriad splinters, to the frothy surface rises, and self-inscribes on its outraged sails this message for you to read from the nearby shore: “Socrates is a Sophist in the worst sense of the word.”

SOCRATES: Let us take leave of this debate about causation—and please, let us also take leave of your nautical metaphor—and let us move to inquire as to the wrongful things that you say I did to my students, supposing, only arguendo, that I, and not unconscious bias, did them.

WOKEON: Arguendo? What tongue is that?

SOCRATES: My bad. Even Homer nods, it may be said one day, in some tongue.[8]

WOKEON: To address the substance, it is said that you gave preferment in academic ranking to some students above others.

SOCRATES: I admit that I did that, but how was that contrary to law?

WOKEON: Because it resulted in unequal treatment of the students; and, unless this happened because of your conscious bias, of which the Tribunal does not accuse you—at least not yet—it must have happened because of your unconscious bias.

SOCRATES: Is there not a simpler explanation, if we would but use Athens’ Beard-Puller?[9]

WOKEON: And what would that be?

SOCRATES: That the students were unequal in their abilities.

WOKEON: And how would you know that?

SOCRATES: I have been a teacher for many years, and I know good students from bad students, as well as many gradations of mediocrity. Humankind is rich in its diversity of, among other things, ability.

WOKEON: How do you know that?

SOCRATES: By experience, and by the application of careful thought to that experience, all in the pursuit of wisdom.

WOKEON: But how, secondarily, do you know that you know that?

SOCRATES: By the like secondary application of thought to the like secondary experience. Is your next question about tertiary knowledge? I can go as many rounds like this with you as you wish.

WOKEON: But how do you know that you ranked the students unequally because of ability and not unconsciously for other reasons?

SOCRATES: What reasons do you refer to?

WOKEON: For example, one student that you ranked near the top of the class was in 23 degrees of consanguinity to you—

SOCRATES: What? How do you know that?

WOKEON: We have sources and repositories of information that you know nothing of. The Tribunal is a friendly and well-informed big brother to all Athenians. As I was saying, one student that you ranked near the top of the class was in 23 degrees of consanguinity to you, and another student that you ranked near the bottom of the class was in 46 degrees of consanguinity to you. What do you say about this preferment by blood?

SOCRATES: If you are right that any of my students were distant kin of mine, I was ignorant of that, and still more ignorant of differences of distance between them, and still more unable and still more disinclined to rank them in class by reference to those differences.

WOKEON: I did not expect you to forbear saying something like that, still less with such labored parallelism.[10]

Now behold the map I place before you. Do you see the triangle at the top of the map?


WOKEON: And do you see the square at the bottom of the map?

SOCRATES: As clearly as the triangle.

WOKEON: And do you see the circle nearly one-third of the way between the triangle and the square, closer to the triangle?

SOCRATES: By the shade of Euclid, yes, but I do not understand what these figures represent.[11]

WOKEON: The circle represents your birthplace, and the triangle and the square represent the birthplaces of two of your students. And lo, these two students were ranked differently by you. Do you know how and why?

SOCRATES: Let me guess, line-drawing Wokeon: You think that I ranked the triangular student higher than the square student because the triangular birthplace is closer to my circular birthplace than the square birthplace, which shows again my unconscious bias.

WOKEON: Exactly. The student more like you in origin did better than the student less like you.

SOCRATES: If the triangular student did better work—

WOKEON: No, that is evidently not what mattered. Rather, like the student in closer degree of consanguinity to you, the triangular student, being in closer proximity to you by birthplace, achieved thereby a higher ranking.

SOCRATES: This is madness. I did not even know about these differences between the students; nor would I have cared if I had known about them. Had I known, I would have striven to avoid unjust preferment, because my classroom is a place of fairness and tolerance, unlike some other places I could mention.

WOKEON: So you deny that you had any conscious bias against the more distantly related—by blood or geometry—of the students?

SOCRATES: Yes, of course I deny it.

WOKEON: Therefore your unconscious bias is proven.

SOCRATES: It is not proven; all that is proven is that you imagine it in your madness.

WOKEON: No, it is proven because your bias was not conscious.

SOCRATES: If bias is not conscious, can it not, instead, be that it simply does not exist, rather than that it is unconscious? I do not deny that a bad teacher, not as dedicated to truth as a good teacher, could have conscious bias; nor do I deny that a good teacher must engage in sufficient self-examination to make sure that no bias affects the teacher’s conduct; the teacher must not be an ostrich with its head buried in the sand of the academy’s courtyard.

But if a good teacher has satisfied these standards, why must we conclude that the teacher’s bias exists but is unconscious; can we not conclude that it simply does not exist?

WOKEON: No, we know that it exists in your case.

SOCRATES: How do you know?—if, that is, I may, ask a question.

WOKEON: We know it because we know how a man in your position thinks.

SOCRATES: How do you know that?

WOKEON: Because the work of our scholars has established for us the ranges of human understanding, and we, in reliance thereon, make safe assumptions about each member of the group of humankind.

SOCRATES: Do you apply analysis and differentiation in making those assumptions, such as between good teachers and bad teachers?

WOKEON: There is no need for us to do that; we know the nature of the group, and we may safely proceed from that knowledge to reach our conclusions about each individual.[12]

SOCRATES: Therefore you make no conscious effort to understand how I thought about each of my students, but rather you reach your conclusion based solely on the groups that they and I belong to?

WOKEON: Yes, and we do so with full confidence in the merit and justice of our conclusion.

SOCRATES: Is that not an undifferentiated assumption about me?

WOKEON: Yes, but a reliable one.

SOCRATES: Is that not a bias?

WOKEON: I see no bias, only a desire to do justice. We are warriors for justice, as the “Song of the Tribunal” recites in ecstatic Phrygian mode.

SOCRATES: You see no bias?


SOCRATES: Really? You are conscious of no bias?


SOCRATES: I see, although you do not. And do you see, as I do, how you have reached your conclusion about me, as well-intentioned as you say you are?

WOKEON: What do you see, Socrates? I see only time dragging on and justice delayed.

SOCRATES: Justice? I see no justice. Rather, I see the crime of unconscious bias operating in your conclusions about me, a poor old teacher! It is I who am the victim and you who are the criminal!

Lords of the Tribunal, your own laws require you to release me and to direct your inquiry to young Wokeon himself, that you may determine the extent and operation of his own invidious unconscious bias, which corrupts justice instead of serving it! Let the bailiff seize him and not me!

THE BAILIFF: Coming, my lord! Which one of you gents is Wokeon?

WOKEON: What?—no—I didn’t intend—my intention was—this is a trick—he—that is not what I mean—I have always been a—that is not what we do—that is not who we are—we—I—this is madness—

SOCRATES: Fear not, young Wokeon; retreat, sturdy bailiff; let us permit Wokeon to regain his composure. O moist-browed Wokeon, do you not now see how the tables can turn and how the Tribunal and its methods can be used against anyone, as the zeal and breadth of accusation increase, and as the remaining unpunished objects of the Tribunal’s attention grow scarcer? Scylla must have her food, Polyphemus the bones of men to crunch between his teeth. Because the monster must be fed, you yourself, tender Wokeon, may be sacrificed as a young lamb or a fatted calf, and even the lords of the Tribunal may one day be selected as fine aged mutton after the younger and more fervid faction—trained, then tolerated, then placated and ultimately feared by you—accedes to power.

Wokeon? My lords? The silence in this chamber has been long; in paradox, it is also loud. May I fill it awhile?

Very well.

Do you know, sweat-drenched Wokeon, my story of the cave?

WOKEON: I have heard it from people who have heard it from people who have heard it from you.

SOCRATES: The children’s game of tēléphōnē, meaning the voice from afar, shows how easily many retellings can change a story. What have you heard?

WOKEON: As I have heard the story, dwellers in a cave have been chained and constrained so that they face without cease a wall on which they see the flickerings of figures. They see the flickerings as the totality of the world, and they do not know that the flickerings are merely inaccurate images of the true world, shadows projected on the wall by the fire behind them. And so we, in your story, are those cave-dwellers, incapable of seeing the true world of forms beyond the cave, and even uninterested in leaving the cave, such explorations being reserved for philosophers who seek more direct observation of the world of forms. Is that not the story?

SOCRATES: Something like that is what people retell. But it is not the true version. At least it is not the true version I am now telling.

WOKEON: And what is the true version, Socrates? Why do you look and smile at me that way, one might almost say with menace?

SOCRATES: Heed my words, almost-saying Wokeon: As I now tell the story, for this audience, the cave-dwellers are vexed by the vicissitudes of the flickerings, which dance in unequal shapes, sizes, and rhythms. Thus triggered, the cave-dwellers start to turn on each other out of a superstitious fear of differences, even the differences that enrich our collective humanity. They have just enough wind in their lungs and play in their chains to fight among themselves, with many deaths among them and much injury to the remainder. When the battle is over, those few of them who are still alive are reduced to an equal station of crawling on the floor of the cave, like snakes or insects. And, when they have done so, they perceive that there are no more flickerings on the wall, which is now uniform and vexes them no more.

Then they break the chains with their last reserves of effort and ingenuity and crawl together toward the opening of the cave, hoping to see that they have created a great new world outside the cave, as perfect and uniform as the world that they see projected on the uniform wall. Their crawling is slow and painful.

And when they emerge from the cave to look at that great new world, which is projected as uniformity on the wall of the cave, they see—what do you think they see, Wokeon?

WOKEON: I do not know, and I fear to guess.

SOCRATES: They see—nothingness. Nothingness.

WOKEON: I have had enough! Summon the bailiff again! Enough of this misery of talk! Enough of Socrates and his logic and visions and nothingnesses! Enough of his turning the tables on us! Enough! Where is the bailiff?

THE BAILIFF: I am here right behind you, my lord.

WOKEON: Ah, yes. Do you have at hand the draft of hemlock from the Tribunal’s storehouse?

THE BAILIFF: I do, my lord. It is right here, and I bring it before you now, my lord.

WOKEON: Is the infusion sufficient for the intended purpose?

THE BAILIFF: It’s the usual generous dose, my lord; in my department, we don’t like finishing the job ourselves, if your lordship knows what I mean.

WOKEON: Yes…yes…yes…I see…and now I feel weary…and vexed…but I do have another question.

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord?

WOKEON: The dose you have—

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord?

WOKEON: That dose there—

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord?

WOKEON: If divided in half, in two drafts—

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord?

WOKEON: Would one half be big enough for him?

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord.

WOKEON: And the other?

THE BAILIFF: Yes, my lord? Yes, my lord?

WOKEON: Would it be big enough . . . for me?


[1] The authenticity of this rumor, like so much involving this dialogue, is disputed, and it cannot be found in reliable aggregations of Jowettiana, nor in Wikipedia. Skeptics have pointed out that Jowett’s own translation of Plato does not include the Wokeon.

[2] The manuscripts said to have been recently discovered in the collections of Oberlin College and Yale University are already notorious for their corruption, including their deletions—called “prophylactic cancellations”—of numerous passages that give particular offence to some contemporary readers. The present translator has relied more on the textual tradition of older, unexpurgated manuscripts, including the one housed at Hillsdale College.

[3] This is evidently a compound of the adjective orthos and a participial form of the verb doxazō. The present translator acknowledges with gratitude her indebtedness to her editor, Mr. Spencer Klavan of The American Mind, for this suggestion and for the even more stupefying erudition displayed in note 4, infra.

[4] One manuscript, which, despite its late date (c. 1230), is among the most reliable in the stemma, has wōkistēs instead of wōkeon. Each of wōkistēs and wōkeon is hapax legomenon and consists of what appears to be a loan word (transliterated into Greek using the letter digamma, otherwise obsolescent by the likely date of composition, and roughly corresponding to our “w”) and a participial (-ōn) or nominal (-istēs) ending.

[5] Translator’s note: It goes without saying that this is itself an example of apophasis.

[6] Translator’s note: The resemblance here to John 18:38 is one of the most peculiar likely anachronisms of the text.

[7] Translator’s note: The ejaculation to the “Captain” is found only in the Whitman manuscript of this dialogue. Some scholars find in it a rude but pleasing poetry. The present translator has attempted to evoke the poetry with the chiastic alliteration of Captain-Wokeon-wielder-cavils.

[8] Translator’s note: This line and the pair of speeches above it are found only in the so-called Horatian manuscript of this dialogue.

[9] Translator’s note: This expression has baffled scholars. It is attested by a manuscript housed in a monastery in England, where the scribe may have been attempting to draw a distinction between cultural norms in the removal of facial hair, comparing the blade-wielding Englishman and the pluckier Athenian. For that reason, the present translator cautiously advances the suggestion that the expression may simply be a mangled back-formation of “Occam’s Razor.” Even more complicated explanations have been advanced, but entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

[10] Translator’s note: In some medieval manuscripts, this episode of “still more” and “still less” is captioned “The Joust of the Pedants.” It may be said that the caption could apply to more of the dialogue than just this episode.

[11] Translator’s note: To some scholars, Socrates’ failure here to understand the meaning of the three Euclidian forms is a foreshadowing of The Republic’s story of the cave, the shadows and the uncomprehending cave-dwellers, as told later in this dialogue. Jowett, again in rumor, eager to authenticate this dialogue, is said to have cited the foreshadowing as “narrative mastery of which only Plato himself is capable.” The present translator thinks this is a big stretch.

[12] Translator’s note: Some scholars find in this passage a proto-Aristotelianism of taxonomy and categories, and they use their finding either to attack the dialogue as a parody of Plato written by his student or to ascribe to Plato a remarkable predictive genius. To quote one of the present translator’s unconvinced students during a classroom discussion of this subject: “Whatever.”

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