Plato in Wonderland
or 'Beautiful Soup' and Other More Philosophical Ideas

by August A. Imholtz Jr.


Can the already long catalogue of literary influences on Lewis Carroll's Alice books be traced back as far as Plato? At first the question may seem ridiculous, but there are some specific passages in Carroll's most famous work that sound very much like direct echoes of Plato and contextual details, both in the Alice books and Carroll's Oxford life, that further support this unlikely source of inspiration.

I. Beautiful Soup

At the urging of the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle sings the song entitled 'Turtle Soup' in Chapter X of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:[1]

'Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!
Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!
Soo--oop of the e--e--evening.
Beautiful soup!
'Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game. or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two p
ennyworth only of Beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of Beautiful Soup? Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!
Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!
Soo--oop of the e--e--evening.
Beautiful, beauti--FUL SOUP!'

It might, one would think, have more appropriately been called 'Beautiful Soup.' Like many of the other songs in the Alice books, however, this one too is a parody of a familiar work. Martin Gardner explained the background details in this way: 'On August 1, 1862, Carroll records in his diary that the Liddell sisters sang for him the popular song 'Star of the Evening.' The words and music were by James M. Sayles.[2]

Beautiful star in heav'n so bright,
Softly falls they silv'ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

Beautiful star,
Beautiful star,
Star of the evening, beautiful star

In Fancy's eye thou seem'st to day,
Follow me, come from earth away.
Upward they spirit's pinions try,
To realms of love beyond the sky.
Shine on, oh star of love divine,
And may our soul's affection twine
Around thee as thou movest afar
Star of the twilight, beautiful star.
Is there a Platonic lilt to the strains of Sayles' 'Beautiful star,' the star of divine love calling the soul upward away from earth? If there is some Platonic or even Neoplatonic echo in Sayles, then Carroll swiftly brings it down to earth in his parody. What is more ordinary and less ethereal than soup? And since the Mock Turtle is, ironically, singing about his fate -- Mock Turtle Soup -- we furthermore have only an imitation of the finest soup, served on the grandest occasions, Turtle Soup. Carroll in any event obviously transforms the common menu phrase 'Soup of the day' into 'Soup of the evening' and parodies the meter, if not really the sense, of Sayles' song. 'Beautiful,' however, seems to us to be a rather peculiar adjective to characterise 'soup,' and Lewis Carroll is not the first author to use it in precisely that way.

In Plato's Hippias Major dialogue, Socrates encounters the renowned sophist Hippias, recently returned to Athens.[3] Hippias offers to help Socrates answer a troublesome house guest's question about the meaning of 'the beautiful.' The following exchange takes place well into the dialogue (290d):

Hippias. We shall at any rate admit that whatever is appropriate to a particular thing makes that thing beautiful.

Socrates. He [the troublesome guest] will continue, Then when a man boils the pot of which we spoke, the beautiful pot, full of beautiful soup, which is more appropriate to it -- a ladle of gold or a ladle of fig wood?'[4]

It is true that the Greek word 'kalon' ('beautiful') can be used to describe ordinary things, e.g. wine, armour, buildings. And yet Plato may be making fun of Hippias here as he does throughout the dialogue. The conjunction of 'beautiful' with 'soup' is far from Hippias' original though vague ideas of the beautiful. In addition, the word Plato uses for soup -- etnos -- is a vulgar word from Greek comedy. Aristophanes uses it together with the other soup accoutrement words in his play The Birds at line 78: 'Does he want soup? Then where's the pot and ladle?'

When Socrates, again pretending to quote his troublesome guest [another instance of Socratic irony for clearly there is no 'guest' and it is Socrates himself who is being a trouble to Hippias] asks 'What about a beautiful pot? Is it, then, not beautiful?', Hippias objects to so uncultured a person who would mention such things [i.e., 'beautiful pot' in this passage but his objection is equally applicable to 'beautiful soup'] in a dignified discussion. Soup and pots have no role in an analysis of the beautiful. Only much later in Western literature, in Wonderland actually, does one come upon 'beautiful soup' again.

In her commentary on the Hippias Major, Dorothy Tarrant calls this passage 'a beautiful application of 'kalon' in anticipation of the Mock Turtle's song in Alice in Wonderland' but she does not realise that there is more here than just the echo or anticipation of 'beautiful soup.'[5] Socrates is trying in this dialogue to elicit a definition of 'beauty' from the great sophist Hippias. At first Hippias answers, as noted above, that 'a beautiful girl is beautiful.' Socrates quickly disposes of this statement by arguing that beauty is relative, i.e., compared with a beautiful maiden the most beautiful pot is ugly and likewise the most beautiful young girl, compared with the gods, is also ugly (288E-289A). The beauty of young girls was a subject of deep fascination to Lewis Carroll. In his letter of May 31, 1880 he writes to a Mrs. Henderson about his desire to photograph her young daughters sans habiliment and says:

'Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred.'[6]

Given Carroll's lifelong interest in young girls, does it not make sense that the central subject matter of the Hippias Major might have been of particular interest to him? And would not Plato's 'beautiful soup' have appealed to his sense of humour, even to the point of using the phrase to parody Sayles?[7]

On the other hand, there is, however, no direct evidence I am aware of that Carroll had actually read the Hippias Major in Greek, as he could have done given his background in Classics [he gained a second in Classical Moderations], or in the several English translations available to him e.g., Sydenham's 18th century translation of the Platonic dialogues reprinted in 1804, Cary's edition in the Bohn Library in 1804, and Whewell's collected edition in the 1850s. Perhaps more importantly, Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek, had been lecturing on Plato at Oxford since the late 1840 and in 1853 introduced Plato's Republic into the curriculum of set works in Greek. During the 1850s and 1860s Jowett worked on his translation of Plato which, upon its publication in 1868, became a monument of Victorian scholarship. Carroll knew Jowett, having opposed the increase of the Regius Professor's salary in his pamphlet 'The New Method of Evaluation as Applied to Pi' and scarcely could have been ignorant of the furor of Platonic activity emanating from Jowett's Balliol College. It is therefore very puzzling that the auction catalogues of the contents of Lewis Carroll's personal library do not list any Greek or English editions of Plato.[8] True, there are many references to 'lots' containing 'other books' as well as listings for authors with whom Carroll would have disagreed on any number of points, e.g., John Henry Cardinal Newman, as he certainly differed with Jowett. With Benjamin Jowett and George Grote, whose three volume Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates was published in 1865, and others at work on Plato, clearly Plato was very much a part of the Oxford intellectual climate of the 1860s, Carroll's most creative decade. Carroll's own Christ Church colleague, John Alexander Stewart, was working on Plato during that period. So it is an omission from the albeit incomplete listings of the contents of Carroll's library that I cannot explain away, rather like the little man who wasn't there in the nursery rhyme.

II. Minding your own business

Another attempt to find a specific echo of Plato in the Alice books concerns a statement first made by the Duchess in Chapter VI, Pig and Pepper, of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

'If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a deal faster than it does.'[9]

T.E. Crawford traces that assertion back to the famous conclusion reached in Plato's Republic, 433b, that justice consists in 'doing one's own business and not being a busybody.'[10] He may well be correct, I think; but there is more happening than Crawford sees in his brief note. The situation is important. The enraged cook in the Duchess' kitchen, having removed her cauldron of hot soup [note 'soup' again!] from the fire, begins throwing pans, plates and dishes at the oblivious Duchess and her soon-to-be-a-pig baby. Alice implores the cook: 'Oh, please mind what you're doing.' To which the Duchess replies, picking up on the verb 'mind', regardless of the chaos around her, 'If everybody minded...etc.' This is hardly a just situation by Platonic or any other standard. Indeed, Alice wonders whether the baby would have been murdered if she had not rescued it.

Later in Chapter IX, Alice and the Duchess have the following exchange:

'The game's going on rather better now,' [Alice] said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little.

'Tis so,' said the Duchess: and the moral of that is 'Oh, tis love, tis love that makes the world go round!''

'Somebody said, ' Alice whispered, 'that it's done by everybody minding their own business!'

'Ah well! It means the same thing,' said the Duchess.

Here 'love' is equated with 'minding one's own business,' an ironic paradox worthy of Plato himself. If Crawford is correct in seeing Plato's line from the Republic as a closer possible source than Isaac Walton's proverbial 'everybody's business is nobody's business' suggested by Roger Lancelyn Green, then Carroll is being just as ironic as Plato. Moreover, the Greek phrase is far more action-oriented than what is implied in the inward looking English injunction 'to mind one's own business.' The Greek means literally 'to do one's own [things],' to do the things appropriate to one's nature; a little farther on in the Republic, 443c, Plato applies this principle to the soul. One of the greatest problems Alice faces in Wonderland is not knowing what her own business is.

III. Socratic Irony and etymologising

In Chapter V, Advice from a Caterpillar, the question 'Who are you?' brings to mind Socrates' maxim 'Know thyself.'[11] Alice is trying to discover who she is in Wonderland and who she will become in Looking-Glass. In the Hippias Major, the Euthrypho, the Republic, etc. Socrates is always seeking, with great irony, definitions of the 'Good,' the meaning of 'Justice,' etc. In Wonderland and Looking-Glass land the meaning, even the being of, Alice, the Kings, and the Queens, all come into question, usually with irony. Carrollian irony may not be as common as Socratic irony, but it often concerns equally serious subjects. Here are just a few examples:

1) The Magpie says: 'I really must be getting home: the night air doesn't suit my throat.'[12]
2) The Duchess says to Alice 'Right as usual, what a clear way you have of putting things.'[13]
3) The Gnat, responding to Alice's question 'Why do things have names at all?' replies 'I can't say.' [By the way, a very Cratylean question.][14]

Finally, it is also possible to identify a strain of etymological play in the Alice books that recalls Plato's own etymological efforts in the Cratylus. For example, a tree in the Garden of Live Flowers is said to bark because its says Bough-Wough and that is why its branches are called boughs. This may well be a reference to Friedrich Max Muller and his famous discussion of the 'bow-wow' theory of the origin of language and thus another example of Carroll's recondite humorous allusions to his fellow Oxford dons and their theories.[15] Furthermore, Humpty Dumpty's exegesis of the meanings of the words of the poem 'Jabberwocky' are Cratylean in their tortuousness: for example, 'It's called a wabe' you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it.'

It may be possible to say of Carroll's artistry in the Alice books what the romantic critic Friedrich Schlegel, now so much in disfavour, said of Socratic irony: 'In it is to be included all jest, all earnest, everything transparently open and everything deeply concealed.'[16] To which I would modestly add another touch of Plato, just as Socrates goes down to the Piraeus at the beginning of the Republic, so Alice goes down the rabbit hole. Are they not each a symbolic katabasis?

[1]The possible connection between Carroll's "beautiful soup" and Plato's "beautiful soup" (etnos kalos) was first suggested to me by Prof. Donald Rackin (personal correspondence June 15, 1994). Thanks are due to Dr. Christopher A. Stray for his comments on a first draft of this note.
[2]M. Gardner The Annotated Alice, New York 1963:141.
[3]The authenticity of the Hippias Major dialogue is not relevant to this discussion. In the ancient world it was accepted as a work of genuine Platonic authorship and was classified as such in the inventory of Thrasybulus. During the 19th century, its authorship was questioned and has been debated ever since with prominent scholars for and against its inclusion in the Platonic canon.
[4]H. N. Fowler, Plato. Vol. 6: Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: 1926, 371.
[5]D. Tarrant, The Hippias Major, Attributed to Plato, With Introductory Essay and Commentary. New York: 1976, 54.
[6]M. N. Cohen (ed.) The Letters of Lewis Carroll. New York, 1979, 381.
[7]Some critics consider the "pool of tears" in Chapter II of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to be a type of primordial evolutionary soup. Donald Rackin refers to it as "a primal salt sea filled with the life of all those Darwinian natural creatures." (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. New York: 1991, 102.) Indeed, if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland begin, or nearly begin, with the soup of the pool of tears, her adventures in Looking-Glass land almost end with the tureen of soup at the banquet for her crowing as Queen Alice in Chapter IX of Looking-Glass.
[8]J. Stern, Lewis Carroll's Library. Carroll Studies No. 5. New York: 1981.
[9]M. Gardner The Annotated Alice, New York 1963:84.
[10]T. D. Crawford,"Making the World Go Round in Alice in Wonderland" Notes and Queries June 1989 v. 36 (234) (2) p. 191-2.
[11]W. Shibles, Wittgenstein, Language, and Philosophy. (Dubuque: 1969:21.
[12]M. Gardner The Annotated Alice, New York 1963:53.
[13]M. Gardner The Annotated Alice, New York 1963:121.
[14]M. Gardner The Annotated Alice, New York 1963:222.
[15]August A. Imholtz Jr. "Max Muller in the Garden of Live Flowers" forthcoming.
[16]G. C. Sedgewick Of Irony, Especially in Drama. Toronto: 1967:14

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