Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 1, a brief introduction to Socrates

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’
  • Repeat
  • 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)

85 thoughts on “Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 1, a brief introduction to Socrates

  1. Massimo Post author


    “He never said, “Dear Protagoras, my idea of virtue is …. A, B, and C.””

    No, but as we will see, his answer was often strongly implied by the structure of the dialogue.


  2. Robin Herbert


    No, but as we will see, his answer was often strongly implied by the structure of the dialogue.

    But, as such, that represents something of a double standard.

    Socrates is badgering people to provide an explicit definition which gives the essence of the concept in a form that can’t be gainsaid.

    And yet Socrates himself is allowed to have a meaning that is strongly implied by the structure of his argument. In other words he does not provide the well defined target that he demands of others.

    If Socrates, rather than the elencher, had been the elenchee then he would struggle as much as his interlocutors.


  3. Massimo Post author


    “Socrates is badgering people to provide an explicit definition which gives the essence of the concept in a form that can’t be gainsaid. And yet Socrates himself is allowed to have a meaning that is strongly implied by the structure of his argument”

    Are we forgetting that these dialogues were actually literary devices used by Plato to teach his own students? Let’s not expect an actual live feed from the Agora…

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  4. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, I know that in many cases, Socratic answers are implied from Socratic questioning. But, I think Plato doesn’t spell this out so that Socratic reasoning doesn’t get subjected to its own elenchus.

    It’s like a trial, per the parallels, where you don’t have one attorney do a formal closing statement — so that the other one can’t make his or her own closing statement! And, yes, I mean that, too. Because, if Plato as the author gave the ancient equivalent of a semi-formal, stipulative closing argument to Socrates, in some cases, his straw men would look too obvious. While, among the Sophists, we only have writings from Gorgias today, except for scraps, circa 2400 BCE, all the major Sophists had their own books and pamphlets out, of course. In other words, holding a thumb on the scale might work, but three whole fingers would be overkill. Doing it this way? “Made the stronger argument the better,” at least for Plato’s students.

    In light of that, you kind of get down to brass tacks:

    Are we forgetting that these dialogues were actually literary devices used by Plato to teach his own students?

    In that sense, if not “gospels,” the early and middle dialogues are … catechisms.

    Catechisms. Like the idea of Tory country gentlemen battling Whig merchants … my focus has been sharpened.

    (And, per things like the Didache, catechism-like materials existed at least 1900 years ago and probably 2400.)


  5. SocraticGadfly

    The “catechism” analogy with the the actual dialogues is probably stretched a bit. But surely Plato, and Aristotle, and Zeno, and most others who formed schools and trains of thought (Diogenes the exception as the whole idea would be antithetical to Cynicism, by and large) had actual catechetical type materials. Per Paul, this was the “milk” before the “solid food” of studying the master directly.


  6. SocraticGadfly

    A few sidebar notes for the study of the dialogues should be entered into evidence, too.

    Even in what are generally postulated as his early and middle dialogues, Socrates can change his position on subjects — including fairly major ones. For example, his stance on hedonism can differ strongly.

    Plato had a lot less direct connection, or rather, direct ongoing historic knowledge of Socrates than Aristophanes (who skewers Socrates in “The Birds” just as much as in “The Clouds,” and on similar grounds). As for Xenophon, besides the original criticism of his take on Socrates, he comes off as painting a proto-Stoic Socrates that just doesn’t sound right.

    To the degree that already in the middle dialogues, if not the early ones, Socrates is as much or more a foil for Platonic thinking than his own person, the answer likely is simple. Plato has changed his own mind that much, and not having a modern printed book with an index, let alone a computer, can’t look up what Socrates said on hedonism, or the nature of beauty, or whatever. Indeed, this is similar to ideas of Gregory Vlastos.

    This, then, connects back to the ordering of the dialogues. I don’t think that’s a big thing for the dialogues in the book, but it is something to remember — even in the theoretically early dialogues, the questions about what is “Socrates” and what is “Plato” are still out there.

    Per the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one big issue is whether we should consider most of the middle dialogues to still be more authentically “Socratic” or whether the Socrates of that set is more really the voice of Plato. I lean more toward the latter point of view.


    Sidebar: The whole theory of Forms or Ideas seems subject (beyond not being correct empirically) to self-referential logical difficulties similar to that of sets, as in “The Form of the concept of all sets that are …” (Per that, re Parmenides, even without inconsistencies in portrayal of Socrates’ stances on various issues, Plato can come off with other internal inconsistencies of his own.)


    Second sidebar, re what I’ve said about putting a socio-political background to Socrates vis-a-vis the Sophists. He fought during the Peloponnesian War and in one of those events that spurs counterfactual history, was nearly captured, and also nearly killed, IIRC, at Delium. In turn, though, Socrates claimed friends among democrats as well as oligarchs.

    Behind all this, Socrates ultimate appeal to his daimon (in a way that goes beyond what a traditional Hellenic Greek would normally claim), comes closely parallel to then Senator William Seward talking about a “higher law” in 1858. If one thinks of Athens as having something kind of like an unwritten constitution, that is where the “impiety” lies. I suspect a fair amount of supporters of the oligarchy as well as democrats probably saw Socrates as a bit smug at times, despite the literary veneer of humility Plato gives him, and even a bit sanctimonious. (See “Comey, James,” and “books, new.”)


  7. Massimo Post author


    Setting aside that I really don’t see how you managed the get Comey into a comment on Socrates:

    “Plato had a lot less direct connection, or rather, direct ongoing historic knowledge of Socrates than Aristophanes”

    How did you figure that? Plato was Socrates’ student and several of his relatives were familiar with Socrates. I never heard of Aristophanes having that sort of familiarity.

    Besides, the intro chapter of the book makes clear that Aristophanes’ Socrates was an obvious composite of a number of philosophers active in Athens, and thus the least likely portrait to be accurate.


  8. Robin Herbert



    blockquote Are we forgetting that these dialogues were actually literary devices used by Plato to teach his own students? Let’s not expect an actual live feed from the Agora…
    You always look for the least charitable interpretation of what I say.


  9. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, not saying there’s anything wrong with milk first, not at all. I just meant that Plato probably had some brief “Intro to Socrates 101” notes before turning the students loose on reading Socrates himself, via Plato’s own dialogues.

    On ‘who knew better,’ simple matter of age. Plato was 3 years old or so when Socrates was nearly captured at Delium. Socrates had been speaking in public for some time before that, even if Aristophanes created a somewhat composite character (which I don’t deny).

    And, my next post shall explain how Comey, and “A Higher Loyalty” in specific, come into play.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    With a nod to “A Higher Loyalty,” here’s the Existential Comics type plot of the typical early Platonic dialogue, and a fair amount of the middle ones:

    Socrates: Hey, Gorgias, do you know what the oracle at Delphi said about me?
    Gorgias: No, what?
    Socrates: That I’m the wisest man in Athens.
    Gorgias: Really?
    Soc: Of course, I’m far to humble to believe that, at least not without testing it.
    Gor; Of course not.
    Soc: So, I figured I would ask others, people whom I and society deem wise, what they know about things like virtue and goodness.
    Gor: I see.
    Soc: So, that’s why I’m talking to you now.
    Gor: OK, so what would you like to talk about.
    Soc: Can you tell me what you understand virtue to be?
    Gor: Virtue is A.
    Soc: Nope.
    Gor: Virtue is B.
    Soc: Nope.
    Gor: Virtue is C.
    Soc: Nope.
    Gor: Virtue is D.
    Soc: Nope.
    Gor: I give up.
    Soc: You know, I’ve talked to 14 other philosophers, Sophists and non-Sophists alike. You know what else, Gorgias?
    Gor: NO, I don’t know what else, Socrates.
    Soc: Glad you asked back. Every conversation has ended this same way.
    Soc; You know what that means, Gorgias?
    Gor: NO, I DON”T know what that means, Socrates.
    Soc: I guess I am the wisest man in Athens. I at least admit what I don’t know.
    Soc; And you know why?
    Gor: NO, I DON”T know why, Socrates.
    Soc; Because, from childhood, I’ve been guided by this wonderous inner daimon, to whom I owe my ultimate authority.

    Smary at the least? Sanctimonious? Insufferable even? At least somewhat, and at times?

    If the Platonic caricature is halfway close to reality, I don’t understand why Socrates wasn’t hauled up on charges earlier. Perhaps he was tolerated ‘on sufferance,’ to be mocked by an Aristophanes and others, until the loss of the Peloponnesian War and the two coups made people finally admit they were that tired of him.

    Don’t blame me. That’s the way Plato wrote him up.


  11. Massimo Post author


    Socrates lived quite a bit after Delium, I still maintain that Plato kbew him far better than Aristophanes.


  12. Robin Herbert


    I don’t know why you would think that.

    Did you genuinely think that I was under the impression that these were transcripts of actual conversations?

    Usually in the past I have been careful to be explicit and refer to “Plato’s depiction of Socrates”, or “The Socrates character in Plato’s dialogues” just in case someone thought that I believed otherwise.

    Yes, of course we are dealing with literary works which are mostly, if not entirely, fictional and the characters in it are mostly, if not entirely, fictional. (a somewhat ironic fact, as Saunders himself points out).

    I might say “Salviati is not being entirely fair to Simplicio”, but it does not mean that I think that “Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems” is the minutes of a meeting.


  13. Don Johnston

    I was looking forward to Ion. Massimo, am I in the right place, or is there another book club place. And as I recall, the oracle told S that no one was wiser, leading to the conclusion that he was the wisest, or among the wisest, or that everyone in Athens was equally wise, implying that wisdom was missing in Athens, since it must be discriminated from something. That was Republic, no? Am I reading too much into it?


  14. Robin Herbert

    The point I was making was not affected by these being fictional works.

    Let’s say we have a definition of a word, call it definition A, which is stated explicitly at the outset. We find that this definition can be made, through the process of elenchus, to lead to contradictions and ambiguity.

    But a new definition is implicit in the argument, lets call it definition B.

    The claim is that definition B is better than definition A, but by what comparison?

    Maybe if definition B was stated explicitly and subjected to the same elenching then it would also lead to contradictions and ambiguity. Maybe definition B would emerge, implicit in those arguments and we would think it the better definition.

    For example, if someone asked me to define a virtuous action then I would say something like “A virtuous action is one which is motivated by me caring about others at least as much as I care about myself, as long as there is a reasonable expectation of this action being effective in that regard”.

    I am sure that a clever wordsmith could lead me into all sorts of contradictions and ambiguities with that, but I still think that it more or less captures what I mean by a virtuous action and what I understand others to mean by the term. And I think one of the things that make it a good definition is that it can be stated explicitly.


  15. Robin Herbert

    For context, try defining “triangle” so that it covers what most people mean when talking about the shape, and is immune from being undermined by elenchus.

    Most people think that a triangle can be defined rigorously, but it is not so. For example when we say that the Give Way sign is a triangle, someone might point out that the corners are somewhat rounded.

    People can draw all sorts of shapes with non-straight lines, even quite wavy lines and would understand perfectly well that it was a triangle.

    And the rigorous mathematical definition crumbles if someone asks for definitions of the terms used to define it.

    But we use and understand the word “triangle” in every day language and don’t think that there is a philosophical problem if it can’t be defined rigorously or if there is no sharp dividing line between what is a triangle and what isn’t.


  16. Robin Herbert


    Sidebar: The whole theory of Forms or Ideas seems subject (beyond not being correct empirically) to self-referential logical difficulties similar to that of sets, as in “The Form of the concept of all sets that are …” (Per that, re Parmenides, even without inconsistencies in portrayal of Socrates’ stances on various issues, Plato can come off with other internal inconsistencies of his own.)

    But, as I said earlier, I can’t see that Plato has ever presented a theory of Forms as such. What we call the theory of Forms is something people have pieced together from a number of things Plato has said, scattered through various dialogues.

    Ernst Mayr was under the impression that Plato had presented a “formal philosophical codification” of typological thinking, but there is no such codification.

    So there might be inconsistencies in the formal theories some have derived by a process of extrapolation from Plato’s words, but it is anyone’s guess whether those versions of Platonism were what Plato had in mind.


  17. Massimo Post author


    obviously I don’t think you believe these dialogues are transcripts. But as you often do, you treat some material so uncharitably that that would be one of the few explanations left. hence my admittedly mildly sarcastic comment.


  18. Massimo Post author


    we’ll get to the Ion in the next installment of this book club series, hopefully early next week. As for the oracle thing, the standard interpretation is that Socrates is considered the wisest man in Athens because he is the only one that recognizies the limits of his knowledge. Something usually borne out by the various dialogues, where people typically begin by thinking that of course they know what they are talking about, but Socrates quickly show that they don’t.

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  19. Massimo Post author


    as we’ll see in the course of our discussion of the dialogues, Socrates does exactly what you want him to do. He subjects all definitions to the elenchus, including the one that he implicitly seems to prefer. The dialogues always end in aporia, a sort of informed confusion, where people know what not to accept, but are uncertain about what to accept. This is a powerful pedagogical technique, and I believe Plato did this on purpose, to teach his students.


  20. Massimo Post author


    I completely disagree with your comments on triangles. The definition is one of the standard examples of tight definitions based on necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. The fact that people draw imperfect triangles has absolutely nothing to do with the definition. Of course triangles can only be defined strictly given certain background assumptions, for instance that one is operating within Euclidean geometry. Change those assumptions and you need a different definition.

    As we will see, Socrates is attempting to arrive at something similar with moral terms, because he and Plato were strongly influenced by the Pythagoreans and their use of geometry as a paragon of knowledge. They failed, for reasons that were made clear by Wittgenstein more than two millennia later: complex concepts are inherently fuzzy, so they are better described by family resemblance than in terms of necessary & sufficient conditions. Nonetheless, my hope is to show that we still have much to learn both from Socrates’ own discussions and by thinking about the same concepts from a modern vantage point.

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  21. Massimo Post author

    “I can’t see that Plato has ever presented a theory of Forms as such. What we call the theory of Forms is something people have pieced together from a number of things Plato has said, scattered through various dialogues.”

    That was the style of philosophizing of the time. Not just Plato, but lots of others did not present format theories of anything, and scholars have to piece together their thoughts by connecting the dots. (There were plenty of others that did: Aristotle, the Stoics, etc.)

    Nevertheless, I don’t know any modern scholar who doubt at all that Plato advanced a theory of forms.

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