Time to start a new book, folks! This time I’ve chosen Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J. Saunders for Penguin. This blog is called “Footnotes to Plato,” and yet we rarely talk about the guy, so. The book is nicely done because not only each of the dialogues comes with a good introductory note, but there is a running commentary that helps the reader to break down the dialogues by scene or topic, and to pay particular attention where it is due. If you have never read Plato, I highly recommend this edition.
The dialogues included in the volume, referred to as “early” because most scholars agree that they were among the first ones written by Plato (though there is no exact chronology, and the order of the dialogues is disputed) are: Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Major, Hippians Minor, and Euthydemus. I will devote a post to each dialogue, but we begin here with the introductory chapter, by Saunders, on the figure of Socrates and the so-called Socratic method.
The philosopher is like a child who never grew up: she keeps asking simple, direct questions, because her job:
“([and] it is a surprisingly arduous one) is to analyse and clarify the assumptions, methods and criteria employed by those who are working ‘in the field’ on a practical level – scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, priests and so forth.” (p. 12)
As readers may recall, I published here an entire book, in serialized form, on the nature of philosophy, and yes, I tend to agree with the above definition. Which means that philosophy does make progress, but in a conceptual, not empirical landscape (like science, by contrast, does).
As is well known, philosophy had been going on in Greece for at least a century and a half before Socrates, but the Athenian sage is so pivotal that still today we refer to all those who came before him collectively as “pre-Socratics.” Cicero wrote that:
“Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and put her in cities, and bring her even into homes and compel her to inquire about life and ethics, and good and evil.” (p. 14)
This is not quite true, but it’s close enough. Socrates shows little interest for what was later referred to as natural philosophy (i.e., modern science), or even metaphysics (unlike his pupil, Plato). He was all about ethics, the way we live our lives. His approach was informed, remarks Saunders, by two assumptions: (i) that moral philosophy can be as precise as practical skills like pottery or ship-building; and (ii) that knowledge in moral philosophy can be arrived at by an analysis of moral language. Both assumptions can be debated, of course, but Socrates surely got a lot out of deploying them.
How do we know about Socrates and what he thought? To begin with, there is Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Xenophon was a military man who admired Socrates, and presents him as a genial and edifying fellow, who would have never become as famous as he did if he really had been like Xenophon describes him. Another source of Socratic information is the playwright Aristophanes, who makes fun of the sage in the Clouds, where Socrates is portrayed as running a “thinking shop.”
“Fun,” however, needs to be qualified, as Aristophanes actually attributes some interesting and controversial views to his fictional Socrates. For instance:
SOCRATES: Zeus, indeed! There’s no Zeus: don’t you be so obtuse.
STREPSIADES: No Zeus up aloft in the sky! Then, you first must explain, who it is sends the rain; or I really must think you are wrong.
SOCRATES: Well then, be it known, these send it alone: I can prove it by arguments strong. Was there ever a shower seen to fall in an hour when the sky was all cloudless and blue? Yet on a fine day, when the Clouds are away, he might send one, according to you.
STREPSIADES: Well, it must be confessed, that chimes in with the rest: your words I am forced to believe. Yet before, I had dreamed that the rain-water streamed from Zeus and his chamber-pot sieve. But whence then, my friend, does the thunder descend? that does make me quake with affright!
SOCRATES: Why ‘tis they, I declare, as they roll through the air.
STREPSIADES: What, the Clouds? did I hear you aright?
SOCRATES: Ay: for when to the brim filled with water they swim, by Necessity carried along, They are hung up on high on the vault of the sky, and so by Necessity strong In the midst of their course, they clash with great force, and thunder away without end.
STREPSIADES: But is it not He who compels this to be? does not Zeus this Necessity send?
SOCRATES: No Zeus have we there, but a Vortex of air.
STREPSIADES: what! Vortex? that’s something, I own, I knew not before, that Zeus was no more, but Vortex was placed on his throne!
Strepsiades can make fun of Socrates all he wants, but the latter is giving the atomist account of natural phenomena, which was taken seriously in Athens at the time (and which turned out to be far closer to the truth, of course). Saunders rightly says that, contra popular opinion, Aristophanes portrays Socrates somewhat sympathetically, making him into a composite of various philosophers, uttering a number of theories that were then fashionable. Moreover, Socrates is also presented as a subversive influence, the very thing that later got him into trouble and eventually executed.
The third major source about Socrates, and by far the most extensive one, is of course Plato. Scholars agree that the early dialogues are more likely to represent something close to Socrates’ actual philosophy, while in the middle dialogues (e.g., Republic, Symposium) Socrates is more of a mouthpiece for clearly Platonic notions, such as the theory of Forms. In the later dialogues (e.g., Timaeus, Laws) Socrates is a secondary character and in a few cases does not appear at all.
The fourth source is Aristotle, Plato’s student, who writes in his Metaphysics:
“There are two things which you may fairly attribute to Socrates: inductive arguments and general definition.” (p. 17)
Those are two crucial components of the Socratic approach. I assume people are familiar with induction, so I will briefly discuss what Aristotle means by Socratic definition. Saunders describes it as a logos, an account of something:
“For instance, a table may or may not be large, or black, or three-legged; but these qualities are not essential to it qua table; they are not part of its ousia, its essence. The bundle of essential properties Socrates often calls an eidos or an idea.” (p. 20)
As we shall see throughout our discussions, this is both important and, ultimately, a limitation on the entire corpus of Socratic philosophy. Modern philosophers, after Wittgenstein, have largely given up the search for essences, or for precise definitions bound by a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. This does not mean, however — as we shall also see — that we can’t still learn a lot from the Socratic approach and from his investigations into the nature of piety, friendship, and so forth.
Socrates also differed from the prevalent opinion of the time in terms of his belief that there are moral truths, which is why he is often pitted against the sophists, who represent the more common view at the time, a sort of ante diem relativist deconstructionism. As I’ve written several times in the past, my own modern perspective is that there are objective moral statements one can make, but that they are not “absolute” (whatever that means), but rather constrained by the specific nature of humans as social beings capable of rationality. Still, there is quite a bit of enjoyment and food for thought to be derived from the dialogues we are about to discuss together.
There is much else of interest in Saunders’ introductory chapter, but I’m going to finish here with a few words on the famous elenchus (i.e., testing, or refutation), known as the Socratic method. Socrates enters his conversations on the basis of three conditions: (a) the other guy has to believe what he is saying (no sophistry allowed!); (b) the objective is to arrive at a general definition of a given concept (such as piety); and (c) mere descriptions, or lists of properties, are not a sufficient substitute for an actual definition of the concept. For instance:
“‘Justice is the returning of what we have borrowed.’ ‘But not, surely, if the borrowed object is a weapon, and the lender has now gone mad?’” (Republic, 331c)
The typical sequence is:
- The interlocutor begins with a proposition, A
- Socrates put forth a second, reasonable, proposition, B
- Step by step, Socrates gets his interlocutor to agree with an apparently inevitable conclusion derived from B
- B, it turns out, is at odds with A
- The bewildered interlocutor then either modifies A or puts forth a new proposition, A’
- The discussion ends in a state of aporia (i.e., impasse, puzzlement), where we have learned something negative, but have not arrived at a positive conclusion.
The point of the elenchus is not to tell the interlocutor what the truth is, but rather to stimulate him to question his own assumptions, which he has so far taken for granted, and to embark in his own quest for new and better answers. As Saunders puts it:
“Interlocutors, however, so far from feeling gratitude for being relieved of their misconceptions, would often become decidedly irritated, not only at being refuted, but by the frequent protestations of ignorance from Socrates himself; for they suspected him of knowing but concealing the right answer.” (p. 30)
In general, the elenchus was one of a number of educational methods used in ancient Greece, and it is worthwhile keeping the others in mind as well, and perhaps comparing them all to our modern approaches:
Epideixis: a lecture or exposition that aimed at persuading an audience discursively, rather than by presentation of a tight argument.
Eristic: a type of aggressive conversation that uses any available rhetorical trick with the aim of winning an argument, rather than ascertaining the truth (this is what the Sophists were teaching, and modern lawyers still practice).
Antilogic: a disputation by contradiction, attempting to refute the interlocutor’s position by showing that it leads to a contradiction. This could be done eristically (i.e., without regard to the truth), or not.
Given this classification, then, the elenchus is a type of antilogic, which however Socrates never uses eristically, again differentiating him from the Sophists.
(next: the Ion, in which Socrates inquires into the nature of poetry)