Jacques Louis David’s *The Death of Socrates. [Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_of_Socrates]
An Interrogation of Socrates
Part One of Two
Outline for Part One:
Reading Plato as Light Literature
Note on Gender Pronouns
Socrates the Character
Are the Dialogues Really Dialogues?
Socrates’s Dialectic Style: Characteristics, and Pros&Cons
Reasoning from the Ideal
This week I finished reading Plato’s best-known dialogue, The Republic. It’s the eighth Platonic Dialogue I’ve read. This one took me a while to read. Not in actual reading time, but because other things came in the way. And I let them. Because, though the Dialogue is ultimately unified from beginning to end by one theme, it departs from this often, and for long tracts – making it seem, while you read it, disjointed. Having finished it, I see the relevance of these tangents to the central theme. I heartily recommend The Republic to any lay readers interested in philosophy, virtue and the good life, classical Greek thought, or political psychology.
Socrates vs. Plato
Socrates didn’t write down his own philosophy, so most of what we know of his thinking comes to us from three writers: Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato. Aristophanes lampoons Socrates, and really all philosophers, in his comic masterpiece Clouds (debut 423 BCE). Aristophanes is unsparing in flagellating Socrates as a strident atheist, a sapping and corrupting influence on youth, and a voluble conman.
Aside: Clouds may have played a role in Socrates being condemned to death two decades later – but Aristophanes is a brilliant playwright, still pertinent and fresh today. He’s my favourite comic playwright. His effects are simple and lusty; and his engagement with the politics of his day so intense and spirited as to render him paradoxically timeless. Besides Clouds, I recommend Frogs (Hercules visits the underworld), Birds (the Olympian gods prove to be birds), and Lysistrata (women unite and enforce a protofeminst stratagem to get men to stop going to war).
Our two other sources on Socrates’s thought are Xenophon, who wasn’t a philosopher; and Plato, who was.
There’s a whole body of literature investigating the life and views of Socrates, trying to separate Socrates’s views from, especially, those of Plato, our main source. That’s not my concern. When I refer to “Socrates,” I mean “Socrates as depicted in the Platonic Dialogues.”
Reading Plato as Light Literature
Bar Aristotle’s Politics, Plato is the only philosophy I’ve ever read. I picked up Plato three years ago from my lifelong fascination with all things Greek, and hoping for some practical life advice. I kept reading Plato because it’s excellent light literature.
At 293 double-columned pages, The Republic is long – but eminently readable. Here’s why the Platonic Dialogues work as light literature:
1. There’s no jargon. When Socrates does use jargon, he invents his own, and explains it as he goes. In Book VIII of The Republic, Socrates develops a hierarchy of the types of state. He finds he has to make up a name for one of the five, and calls it ‘timocracy’ – a simple derivation from τιμή (honour) and κράτος (state) to indicate: ‘government by the meritorious.’ Reading Plato requires no prior knowledge of philosophy or politics.
2. The dialogue format breaks up long passages. This format has a problem, as we’ll discuss at the end of this post. But the dialogic chunking of text definitely facilitates processing and critiquing the ideas. At its best, the Dialogues represent impassioned debates between characters whose personalities we begin to delineate just from their words – what they argue for, what rhetorical tactics they deploy, and what claims of others’ they question. Some tracts of the Dialogues read like plays – to their credit.
3. The topics discussed are of universal practical interest. What is justice? How do we live the good life? What is the ideal state, and is it possible? Who is fittest to govern? Should men and women share duties in private and public life? Other Dialogues address equally fascinating questions: What is love? (Symposium; Phaedrus) How did the world start, and how did it reach its present state? (Critias; Timaeus.) Do the names of things reflect their essence? (Cratylus, the Dialogue that inspired me to pursue one of my childhood dreams. Learn Greek.)
4. The language is often beautiful. Plato has passages of rhetorical eloquence or lyrical beauty. In The Republic, Socrates’s argument with Thrasymachus about the rewards of the just life is eloquent, and as impassioned as the even-tempered and moderate Socrates ever gets.
5. The metaphors are striking, often revealing profound insight into human behaviour. It’s The Republic that contains the famous extended metaphor, or conceit, of humans trapped in a cave: seeing, by lamplight, only shadows of objects moving outside. A metaphor for the fact that we only ever perceive the world indirectly: via the images on our retinas, or the pattern of neural stimulation on our cochleas then translated by our brains. The humans-in-a-cave conceit is famous not just for its beauty, but also because it anticipates modern knowledge of perception at the interface between our senses and external reality.
Note that while many of Plato’s conceits retain their beauty, this one is an exception in terms of scientific accuracy. Many of Socrates’s conceits and claims are unsupported by contemporary cognitive science. We’ll address that in part #2 of this post, next week.
6. Myths, anecdotes, and quotations from the epic and tragic poets ground the Dialogues in Greek culture, and enliven the reading for lay readers. Book X of The Republic narrates an anecdote about a dead man’s soul descending into Hades and making the choice of his next life. He watches heroes, just dead, choose similarly lofty lots for their next life. He himself chooses a humble man’s lot, and is praised for making a good choice. Socrates’s point is that the good, just life is possible no matter what one’s station in life. The anecdote illustrates its moral aptly, if somewhat verbosely. Throughout the Dialogues, Socrates and others quote shorter excerpts from Homer and Hesiod, the tragic poets, and other philosophers to argue a point.
7. My translations of the Dialogues, by Benjamin Jowett, are fluent and attentive to linguistic nuance. They open with excellent Introductions by the translator that combine summary with brief (and admiring) contextual critique. (All the Project Gutenberg files linked to above are Benjamin Jowett translations.)
Note on gender pronouns
Benjamin Jowett lived 1817-1893. Like much of western literature before the late 20th century, these translations only speak of “man,” not “woman.” In this Dialogue at least, that linguistic habit conflicts with the content. When speaking of justice, and of the ideal state, Socrates is speaking of all citizens, male and female – of all free adult Greeks. He establishes this at length when setting up the mechanics of his ideal state (see part #2). When you read “man” or “he,” this is often a Victorian’s sexist translation for a Dialogue whose feminism was centuries ahead of its time.
Is Plato himself sexist in some of his Dialogues? I’ll visit the originals to see whether he uses άντροι rather than άνθρωποι. Are all the characters in the Dialogues male? Yes. But in The Republic, at least, regardless of Plato’s linguistic forms, or Jowett’s, Plato’s meaning is clear: in discussing the human, he refers to men and women.
Socrates the Character
I’m reading the Dialogues primarily for entertainment: any philosophical or practical insights are, I’ve concluded, incidental. I’ve often read the claim that “All of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.” I hope this isn’t true: as a layperson, I’ve not found much that’s striking, or even empirically valid, in Plato as philosophy. Some useful advice for how to live my life, which I’ll discuss in part #2. Perhaps I’m biased – Socrates/Plato originated many key concepts that’ve become so banal in western thought as to become invisible: it’s hard for a layperson to evaluate the true value of the Dialogues. Nonetheless, as a layperson, reading Plato for entertainment – one important element of my enjoyment is the character of Socrates.
Plato was about 45 years Socrates’s junior, so he knew him only as an old man (though several of the Dialogues are clearly anachronistic, throwing together a cast of characters who could never have met each other). Plato’s Socrates is a lovable old man. He seems driven by a love of conversation, and ultimately by the quest for truth. He discusses serious topics tirelessly but accessibly – without snobbishness or obscurantist jargon. Except in the odd Dialogue where no conclusion is reached, it’s Socrates’s perspective that carries the day. But in every Dialogue Socrates is, modestly, an equal participant.
Is Socrates really driven just by a quest for the truth? We’ll discuss that at the end of this post.
In Book VII of The Republic, as Socrates is prescribing a course of education for the philosopher-king class of his ideal state, he warns against the dangers of introducing dialectics to young students. “For… youngsters introduced to argumentation delight in pulling to pieces anything they hear, for sheer joy of demolishing – as puppy-dogs pull to pieces anything they can get their teeth on.” It’s hard to accuse Socrates of the same vice.
When I began reading the Dialogues, I was annoyed by Socrates’s rhetorical style. For structural reasons, each Dialogue commences with a series of tracts featuring Socrates demolishing first one interlocutor’s view, then another’s. “It’s easy to demolish another person’s view,” I thought, reminded of certain individuals I know, in real life, who make a part-time job of the puppy-dog pulling to pieces of other people’s views that Socrates himself cautions against. But here’s his redemption, and here’s where Socrates differs from my real-life argumentative friends: in every Dialogue, having cleared the ground by razing other people’s houses, Socrates proceeds to construct and fortify his own house: his own view of the subject at hand. And – though I have profound problems with his reasoning – he builds a house sound and well-proportioned: his view has practical sense on its side.
Socrates addresses his interlocutors unironically as his friends, and seems really interested in understanding their views – further traits that endear him to the reader. Early in The Republic appears Thrasymachus: a Sophist, vituperative and contemptuous, clearly meant to be disliked. Thrasymachus begins by assuming he’s right, is reluctant to hear any viewpoint but his own, demands payment for his forthcoming wisdom, argues for beliefs that he probably doesn’t hold, and indulges in ad hominem attacks. Thrasymachus’s win-the-argument-at-all-costs attitude highlights, in contrast, Socrates’s own stance. Socrates is interested not in winning, but in finding the truth.
Is this Plato’s sanitised, idealised Socrates? Perhaps. But that’s what we have, so that’s what we’ll evaluate.
Plato’s Socrates is not the atheist that Aristophanes savages. Perhaps this was a motivated decision: Plato began writing his Dialogues in 399, the year Socrates was condemned to die. Across the Dialogues, Socrates is attending festivals, participating in sacrifices, returning from the temple, invoking the blessings of the muses on the debate, and quoting poetry and hymns about the gods prolifically and unironically. He’s just another Athenian, whose vocation is to find the truth about big things.
Are the Dialogues Really Dialogues?
Each of Plato’s Dialogues features Socrates speaking with one or more men. But the dialogue in the Dialogues is often nominal. The main content is Socrates’s views. When other characters speak, they’re just setting the stage. They’re presenting common views of the subject for Socrates to demolish before he establishes his own. Once the ground is cleared, and Socrates has the stage – his interlocutors are reduced to yes-men.
The Republic opens with Socrates vigorously debating Thrasymachus, then Glaucon and Adeimantus. Each of these interlocutors is deal with quite quickly; and, thereafter, either relapses into sullen silence (Thrasymachus the ill-tempered Sophist) or yes-men (Adeimantus and Glaucon) who serve to break up chunks of text by assenting to Socrates’s periodical “…is it not so?” For most of The Republic and several other Dialogues, it’s really only Socrates’s views we are hearing. His interlocutors mainly serve to embody and clear away other views; and then of slowing Socrates down at difficult points in his speech and requesting clarification.
Note: this isn’t always the case. Symposium presents several speakers’ views on love, some of them as cogent as Socrates’s.
Socrates’s Dialectic Style: Characteristics, and Pros&Cons
Is Socrates really driven just by a quest for the truth? I’m not sure.
In The Republic and elsewhere, Socrates is fond of saying, earnestly, “I don’t know.” When interrogated on a topic, he sometimes says, “I don’t know, but perhaps you and I can discover the truth together.” At other times he says, “I don’t know, and I’m eager to learn from you.” In both instances, Socrates then proceeds to either demolish his interlocutor’s argument – or to build up his own argument, step by step, in so smooth and directed a logical sequence, that he had to have known his destination before he took the first step. So Socrates’s claim of “I don’t know” often comes across as false humility – or, worse, as a device to disarm his interlocutors into agreeing with the first few, harmless-looking links in his chain of reasoning – so that they’re forced to agree with the conclusions of that chain. And, in fact, occasionally an interlocutor – who’s been led down Socrates’s garden-path to a conclusion that he originally strongly objected to – does object. “You’ve led me wrong somewhere down the line,” he says, confused, “Though I can’t put my finger on exactly where.”
Socrates’s controversial style of reasoning raises questions about his sincerity in claiming ignorance – but also adds to the entertainment of reading the Dialogues. You can interrogate him, and break the spurious links in his chain of logic, as his interlocutors are often unable to do.
Research suggests that, when analysing arguments, we find it easy to question the premises and the conclusion of an argument – i.e. “Your axioms are flawed” or “That conclusion is clearly contradicted by the facts” – but harder to question the logic that links premise to conclusion. This weakness clearly characterises Socrates’s opponents, and Socrates seems to exploit this. Deliberately? I don’t know. I began by disliking what I thought was Socrates’s duplicitous pretence of ingenuousness. Now I like the character of Socrates. And, though his reasoning continues to perplex me, I broadly approve of his views. So, I’m unable to decide whether his claim of ignorance is a deliberate tactic to win the argument – or whether the factors that inform Socrates’s views of a valid argument (for instance, his ontology) legitimately differed from ours.
Socrates’s reasoning often strikes me as flawed: but there’s no question that it’s ingenious. In Book I of The Republic, Socrates ‘proves’ that justice is useless. (Only for this part of the argument. Later he’ll claim that justice is the cardinal human virtue.) Socrates’s interlocutor has claimed that, for any job, the just man is the best candidate. Who’s the best banker? The just man. The best business partner? Ditto. Socrates proves him wrong, as follows:
Socrates asks: “Who is the best man to pilot a ship?” A pilot, replies his interlocutor. “To raise crops?” A farmer. There’s a whole page of similar questions, and their expected answers; for variety, Socrates enlivens his questions by describing the tasks to be done. Socrates then concludes that the best man to get anything done is simply the man who is expert at that task. That the just man, therefore, is useful only when some property is to be held on to for safekeeping, not when some tool is to be used productively. Ergo: justice is useless whenever something useful is to be done.
The major flaw in this argument is obvious: being a “just man” is not mutually exclusive with being a “good farmer” or a “good businessman.” If a skilled farmer is not also a just man, he may be using dubious methods to increase his yield. Given the choice between buying from a just or an unjust farmer, we’d choose the just. But Socrates’s interlocutor does not raise this objection, and reluctantly agrees with the questionable conclusion: that “justice is useless.” This flaw in dialectics seems to originate from ontology: a common ontology that Socrates and his interlocutors share. Allowing Socrates to make such arguments in good faith, and preventing his interlocutors from challenging them.
But the biggest problem with Socrates’s dialectical style through the Dialogues is what I call “reasoning from the ideal.”
Reasoning from the Ideal
Socrates worships The Ideal. He believes the Ideal has absolute, unvarying existence. There is one perfect Man. One perfect state. And the Ideal must necessarily be One: this he ‘proves’ in another Dialogue, the Critias. The Ideal has an existence as real as the material. More real, in fact: since the Ideal exists in the sphere of the Intelligible, and the material exists in the lower, less-privileged sphere of the Physical. Putting things into hierarchies is another favourite pursuit of Socrates’s: a pursuit that follows naturally from the ideal-real divide.
Let’s briefly visit the Critias for a sample of “reasoning from the ideal to the empirical.” Here, Socrates proves two things simultaneously: that there is one world, and that this one world is perfect. How does he prove this? Here are the links in Socrates’s chain of reasoning: (1) Who made the world? God. (2) Is the world perfect? God is perfect, so, yes, he must have made the world perfect. So he did. So it is. (3) This is the world we live in, and it is god’s perfect world. (4) Having made one perfect world, would god make another? No, of course not. For a perfect world has no need for a mate or a duplicate. For if there were a second or third world, they would be imperfect. Why? Because of the perfect there can be only one: and that one perfect world is this world. QED. We know that there’s only one world, because this world is a perfect world. And we know that this world must be perfect, since there’s only one world.
That’s reasoning from the ideal. Using your ideas about [what should be] to draw conclusions about [what must be true empirically].
A contemporary parallel for this kind of circular reasoning exists in the crosstalk between science and ethics. This crosstalk has enormous relevance for decisions ranging from abortion rights, to the persecution of religious/ethnic/sexual minorities, to how we treat our closest nonhuman relatives. If I’m a legislator deciding whether – and until what week – abortion should be legal – should I take into account research on foetal development that indicate when various systems, including nociception, develop? Absolutely. But will there ever be enough scientific facts to unambiguously solve the dilemma about the ethics of abortion? No. Science and ethics can and must inform one another – but they are discrete fields. Their first principles, their goals, their methods of reasoning are all distinct. Many of us would like to believe that all humans have identical ability – that “we’re all gifted.” Would the world be a better place if this were true? Perhaps. Does the ethical preferability of a hypothetical equal-ability world mean that an equal-ability world is what we live in? No. Is democracy a valuable ideal to strive after? Yes. But democracy means creating equal opportunity for everyone, and treating everyone with dignity equally before the law. Democracy does not mean believing that everyone is the same. It definitely does not mean using your ideas about the ideal world to suppress scientific research, and our confidence in facts.
Just as science and ethics cannot directly solve each other’s problems, so reasoning from the ideal cannot determine empirical facts. Establishing empirical facts – e.g. whether there’s one world or many – requires empirical research. But, if you read Plato (and I think you should, as entertaining literature) – be prepared for a lot of reasoning about the empirical from the ideal. Reasoning about what is based on what must be. We’ll discuss examples from The Republic next week.
Socrates’s reasoning is questionable at best, ridiculous at worst. But the Dialogues are entertaining, and an easy entrance into philosophy for lay readers.
END of Part One
Coming next week: Part Two. Examining The Republic via Cognitive Science
Outline for Part Two coming next week:
Summary of Main Ideas
The Structure of the Dialogue: What’s the Unifying Theme of this Sprawling Behemoth?
Interrogating The Republic: Critique of main ideas from cognitive science
For an analysis of David’s *The Death of Socrates,* watch the short and insightful Nerdwriter video (requires no prior knowledge).
Have you read Plato? Other philosophers? How do you approach reading philosophy? Do you read philosophy for entertainment, for life lessons, lessons in how to argue, as a history of thought, or for a deeper appreciation of life and literature?
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