Plato's Gymnastic Dialogues

In Mark Ralkowski Heather Reid (ed.), Athletics, Gymnastics, and Agon in Plato. Sioux City, IA, USA: pp. 15-30 (2020)
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It is not mere coincidence that several of Plato’s dialogues are set in gymnasia and palaistrai (wrestling schools), employ the gymnastic language of stripping, wrestling, tripping, even helping opponents to their feet, and imitate in argumentative form the athletic contests (agōnes) commonly associated with that place. The main explanation for this is, of course, historical. Sophists, orators, and intellectuals of all stripes, including the historical Socrates, really did frequent Athens’ gymnasia and palaistrai in search of ready audiences and potential students. Perhaps they were following the example of Pythagoras, who may have been a boxing coach (gymnastēs) and was, in any case, associated with the extraordinary Olympic success of athletes from his adopted Croton—success so great it generated the saying that the last of the Crotonites was the first among all other Greeks. After his visit to Western Greece, Plato famously established his school in or adjacent to the Academy gymnasium in Athens, and he may have held the public office of Gymnasiarch there. In this essay, I would like to argue that there are also symbolic reasons for Plato setting some of his dialogues in gymnasia. These dialogues function as virtual gymnasia in which readers are coached by the character of Socrates toward an innovative ideal of aretē (virtue, excellence).

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Heather Reid
Exedra Mediterranean Center, Siracusa, Sicily


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