Tag Archives: Early Socratic Dialogues

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 5, the Charmides and the nature of self-knowledge

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Charmides, the next entry in our exploration of the early Socratic dialogues from the homonymous Penguin collection, is a big one. Its primary objective is an exploration of the concept of the cardinal virtue known as sōphrosunē. It is one of the four Socratic virtues found also in the Stoics, the other three being practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence, from the Latin prudentia), courage and justice. But the dialogue is also about the “paradoxical” Socratic doctrine of the unity of the virtues, the idea that all individual virtues are really different aspects of one fundamental thing, wisdom.

The word sōphrosunē, etymologically, meant something like soundness of mind, but the popular usage in Plato’s time was akin to self-control, the same way in which the Stoics use it. In the Charmides, however, Socrates / Plato is giving it a far wider sense, closer to self-knowledge (from which self-control stems as a consequence). Needless to say, “know thyself” was the primary Socratic dictum, which Socrates inherited from the Oracle at Delphi, and the concept of self knowledge is central to Socratic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the title character, Charmides, was a relative of Plato (his uncle on his mother’s side, as well as the son of Glaucon, who will play a major role in the Republic). Another major character, Critias, was a cousin of Plato’s mother. Both Critias and Charmides eventually became members of the Thirty Tyrants (indeed, Critias was their leader), who imposed terror in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. They both died in battle, while fighting against the democratic forces. Both Plato, in this dialogue, and Xenophon in his Memorabilia, try to show that Socrates attempted to educate Charmides and Critias in the matter of self-knowledge, but obviously failed.

Another interesting preliminary note is that at the beginning of the dialogue there is a brief appearance of a friend of Socrates, Chaerophon. He is the guy that was told at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens.

We have seen while studying other dialogues that this sort of search is based on Socrates’ assumption that there is a ousia, an essence, to the definitions of the terms he is interested in. But they all end in a state of aporia, i.e., inconclusiveness, presumably because there is, in fact, no essence to any of these concepts — as Wittgenstein will remark more than two millennia later. That said, Plato was clearly aware of some of the limitations of Socrates’ approach, since even in this dialogue he has Critias articulate a general criticism of analogical arguments in dialectics.

In order to understand one of the main points of the dialogue, the one about the unity of virtue, we need to keep in mind that for Socrates the virtues were types of technē, i.e., skills or crafts, analogous to other technai like shoemaking and weaving. These were a body of precisely attainable knowledge (epistēmē), but there is a difference between knowledge of oneself and other technai: unlike the others, it does not seem to have a product (like shoes for shoemaking, baskets for weaving, and so forth).

The dialogue begins with Socrates saying that he just came back from the battle of Potidaea, which was fought in 432 BCE and was one of the catalysts of the Peloponnesian War. After exchanging some news related to the events, there is a shift to philosophy, and Socrates characterizes sōphrosunē — even before arriving at a definition of it — as “health of the soul.”

Critias tells Socrates that Charmides (who has not appeared yet on the scene) is exceptionally handsome and amazingly tall. To which Socrates responds:

“Goodness, how irresistible you make him sound, provided that he happens to have just one other little thing.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked Critias. ‘Provided that he happens to be endowed with a fine soul.’” (154)

When Charmides finally makes his entry, Socrates is duly impressed, and not by the youth’s fine soul:

“Everyone in the wrestling-school swarmed all round us. That was the moment, my noble friend, when I saw what was inside his cloak. I was on fire, I lost my head, and I considered Cydias to be the wisest man in matters of love.” (155)

Eventually, Socrates pulls himself together and gets around to inquire whether Charmides is equipped with self-control, and he is assured by Critias that he is indeed. But Socrates wants to make sure for himself:

“‘Well then, so that we can guess whether it is in you or not, tell me,’ I said, ‘what you say self-control is in your opinion.’” (159)

Charmides’ first attempt at defining sōphrosunē is pretty weak: he says that it is quiet conduct in society, an obvious result of his aristocratic upbringing. But Socrates dispatches of this pretty quickly, by pointing out that self-control is kalon (i.e., beautiful, admirable), while quieteness is not always kalon, therefore sōphrosunē can’t be quietness.

“But, my friend, if at the most there are in fact as many quiet actions which are more admirable as there are vigorous and quick ones, it still wouldn’t mean that doing things quietly would be self-control any more than doing them vigorously and quickly would.” (160)

Charmides then moves to a second definition, shifting to the description of an inner condition that manifests itself outwardly as modesty. But Socrates will have none of that either, since self-control is not just admirable, but also good. Modesty, by contrast, is not always good, from which it follows that self-control is not modesty.

[Charmides] “Well, I think that self-control makes a man feel shame and be bashful, and that self-control is the same thing as modesty.” (160)

[Socrates] “Self-control can’t be modesty, if it really is a good thing, and if modesty is no more a good thing than a bad one.” (161)

The third definition proposed by Charmides is that self-control is akin to doing one’s job well. Which Socrates rejects along similar lines as before: self-control is good, but sometimes doing one’s job properly is not good, so self-control is different from doing one’s job well. Socrates then turns to Critias, who proposes the fourth definition: self-control is the doing of good things.

Socrates then investigates whether it is possible to be self-controlled without knowing it, by presenting the following argument: (i) self-control is doing what one should; (ii) doing what one should is doing good; therefore: (iii) self-control is doing good; but (iv) one may do good without knowing it; therefore: (v) one may be self-controlled without knowing it.

[Socrates] “‘So sometimes,’ I said, ‘the doctor does something beneficial or harmful without knowing which he has done. And yet, according to what you say, in doing what is beneficial, he has done what is self-controlled. Wasn’t that your point?’”

[Critias] “Yes, it was.” (164)

Socrates aint’ happy with this:

“If you think that that must follow as a result of what I admitted earlier, I’d rather retract part of that admission – and I’d not be ashamed to say that I was wrong – than ever allow that a man who does not know himself is self-controlled.” (164)

The fifth definition proposed is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of oneself. But Socrates attempts to deny this too, by pointing out that sōphrosunē does not seem to have a product, unlike, say, knowledge of medicine, which produces health (and so it is not a type of knowledge). Critias rightly responds that other kinds of knowledge also lack a product: arithmetics, for instance. Socrates says that while this is true, it is also the case that arithmetic is knowledge of numbers, but numbers are not arithmetic itself. At this point, the definition of sōphrosunē is modified to knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self, that is, knowledge of knowledge.

[Critias] “Indeed, I’d almost say that is what self-control really is, knowing oneself. I agree with the man who dedicated the inscription to that effect at Delphi.” (164)

[Socrates] “If indeed self-control is knowing something, it will obviously be a knowledge and a knowledge of something, won’t it?”

[Critias] “‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of oneself.’” (165)

[Critias] “‘But Socrates,’ he said, ‘your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges, and they aren’t like one another either; but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were. For tell me,’ he went on, ‘what is the product of the art of arithmetic or geometry.” (165)

[Critias] “‘That’s just it, Socrates,’ he said. ‘You’ve come in your investigation to the question of what the difference is between self-control and all the other knowledges. You’re trying to find some similarity between it and the others. There isn’t any. All the others are knowledges of something else, not of themselves. Self-control alone is the knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self.” (166)

Socrates attempts again an argument from analogy, in this case with vision. Vision sees color, but it does not see itself. Similarly, desire desires pleasure, it does not desire itself. And so on.

[Socrates] “It would appear we’re saying that there is some such knowledge, which is the knowledge of no branch of learning, but is the knowledge of itself and the other knowledges?” (169)

Interestingly, at this point Socrates grants the possibility that sōphrosunē is knowledge of knowledge, but points out that then it follows that in order to know other things, for instance that an alleged doctor is actually a quack, one needs a different kind of knowledge, namely knowledge of medicine. It would seem, then, that one must possess both sōphrosunē (knowledge that one knows) and technē (professional skill).

[Socrates] “Supposing there is a knowledge of knowledge, will it be able to determine anything more than that one thing is knowledge and another is not?”

[Critias] “No, just that.”

[Socrates] “Is it the same thing as knowledge and ignorance of what is healthy? Is it the same as knowledge and ignorance of what is just?”

[Critias] “Not at all.’’ (170)

[Socrates] “How will he know by that knowledge what he knows? For example, he knows what is healthy by medicine, not by self-control; what is harmonious, by music, not by self-control; what makes a building, by the art of building, not by self-control; and so on. Doesn’t he?”

[Critias] “So it seems.” (170)

[Socrates] “So the man who is ignorant of that won’t know what he knows, but only that he knows.”

[Critias] “It would appear so.” (170)

[Socrates] “So he won’t be able to distinguish the man who pretends to be a doctor, but isn’t, from the man who really and truly is one, or indeed to distinguish any other of those who know from any other of those who don’t.” (170)

If sōphrosunē doesn’t help us with deciding things like whether an alleged doctor is a quack, what is it good for? Well, it is a kind of super-knowledge, which presides over the performance of the other kinds of knowledge, insuring their correct functioning. While a good practitioner of any skill (like medicine) will require the pertinent technical knowledge, technical knowledge by itself is not a guarantee of a good and happy life.

[Socrates] “Does knowing knowledge and ignorance, which is what we are now discovering self-control to be, bring the following advantage, that the man who possesses this knowledge will more easily learn whatever else he learns, and everything will appear clearer to him inasmuch as he will see, in addition to each thing he learns, its knowledge?” (172)

Critias now suggests that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. Socrates is skeptical, however, that this sort of knowledge can be beneficial, again because unlike other forms of knowledge, it doesn’t produce a product. Here, however, it seems like Socrates is getting a bit stubborn and even sophistic, while Critias’ position, though not necessarily logically airtight, is more sensible. Consider this exchange:

[Critias] “‘Why wouldn’t self-control benefit us?’ he asked. ‘If self-control is in the fullest sense the knowledge of knowledges and presides over the other knowledges too, it would certainly govern the knowledge of good too and consequently benefit us.’”

[Socrates] “‘Would it make us healthy too,’ I asked, ‘not medicine? Would it make the products of the other arts, instead of each of them making its own? Weren’t we solemnly declaring all this time that it was knowledge only of knowledge and ignorance and of nothing else? Isn’t that so?’”

[Critias] “Apparently.”

[Socrates] “So it won’t be the producer of health?”

[Critias] “Certainly not.” (174)

But Socrates/Plato is going somewhere with this. While the dialogue ends in the usual aporia (inconclusiveness), with no clear winning definition, Socrates does say that sōphrosunē is beneficial, he just can’t prove it, blaming his own shortcomings as a philosopher for that. The translator of the dialogue takes this, rightly I think, to be a strong hint that the preferred definition is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. This, however, would be a definition not of a specific virtue, but of virtue itself, which means that — as in the Laches — Socrates is arguing for the unity of virtue. It also follows that virtue is a type of knowledge, a famous Socratic paradox (meaning “uncommon opinion,” not a logical contradiction).

(next: the Hippias Major on what it means when something is “fine”)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 4, the Lysis and the nature of friendship

Achilles and Patroclus: philia, eros, or both?

The ancient Greeks had a number of words that translate to the modern English “love,” and rightly so, since there are different manifestations and nuances of the concept. The Lysis deals with one particular kind, rendered in the original as “philia,” which refers to fond affection, as distinct, for instance, from the kind of passionate love that goes under the term “eros” (the latter is the subject of one of the best Platonic dialogues, the Symposium, which I will not cover in this series).

Interestingly, the main characters in the dialogue are related by a complex web of philia and eros: the young Hippothales is in love with the title character, Lysis, and that love is definitely (homo) erotic (if, at the moment of the action, unreciprocated by Lysis). Indeed, Hippothales is explicitly referred to as the (would be) eron, or sexually active partner, because he is older, while Lysis would be the eromenos, or sexually passive one, since he is younger. Lysis, meanwhile feels philia toward another boy, Menexenus, and Socrates is also in a relationship of philia, toward all three boys.

Moreover, the dialogue connects philia and paideia, or education, because philia means you want to make someone happy, and education makes people happy — in the Socratic scheme of things — because it allows people to choose and then pursue what they want. This may sound strange, but remember that knowledge, for Socrates, is always knowledge of the good, even outside the strictly moral context. So a condition for happiness is to know what is good for you (as well as what is bed, and therefore to be avoided). As a generalization of this, then, everyone will feel philia for the wise person, and vice versa, a conclusion that later led the Stoics to imagine that in their ideal Republic (inhabited by wise people) everyone would naturally love everyone else, the perfection of the notion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is rather confusing, because of “Plato’s failure to distinguish between philia as a loving human relationship and philia as the pursuit of a loved object [in the abstract]. These are essentially separate questions, but Plato treats them as if they were the same [for a reason, as we shall see]. He starts off by investigating the former, moves without warning to considering the second, and then abruptly embraces the first again.” (p. 115)

It’s also noteworthy, in this dialogue, that although Menexenus is supposed to represent the sophists (and he is characterized as a “formidable opponent in debate”) we actually see Socrates himself engage in a bit of sophistry, as when he argues for one answer to the question at hand (what is friendship?), and then for its opposite. Despite its limitations, the scene setting and characters are captivating, and the eristics throughout the dialogue are dazzling, so the Lysis is certainly worth reading in its entirety.

The dialogue begins by setting the scene and then introducing the distinction between unreciprocated eros (between Hipothales and Lysis) and reciprocated philia (between Lysis and Menexenus). Just to give you a flavor, here is how Hippothales answers Socrates when the latter asks him what he and his friends are doing:

‘We spend our time there,’ he went on, ‘and we’re not the only ones. Lots and lots of other young men do too, handsome young men.’ ‘What is this place? What do you do here?’ ‘It’s a wrestling-school,’ he said, ‘built not long ago. We spend most of our time there having discussions. We’d be glad to have you join us in them.’

That’s no gym I’ve ever gone too… A little later, Socrates says to Hippothales:

‘I may not know much else, I may be useless at other things, but somehow God’s given me the power to recognize in an instant a man in love and the boy he’s in love with.’

So much for the notion of the philosopher lost in the clouds! Socrates goes on giving a veritable lesson on love to Hippothales, putting forth philia as a superior kind of love (and friendship), because one is concerned with the happiness of the other person, and wish to educate him in order to help him (remember that Hippothales is older than Lysis, and of course Socrates is older than both). Indeed, we even get some idea of how to conduct good parenting, also based on philia: we want to educate our children (in the broad sense of making them wise, not just giving them formal schooling) so that they will have the opportunity to pursue what they want, thus achieving happiness (eudaimonia). Moreover, knowledge in this broad sense makes one both useful and good, and therefore universally sought after as a philos, a friend.

Socrates is pretty pleased with his demonstration to Hyppothales of how to talk to the young Lysis, but he refrains from embarrassing his interlocutor:

“I looked at Hippothales and almost put my foot in it. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘There, Hippothales, that’s how one ought to talk to one’s boy, making him humble and unaffected, not, as you do, making him conceited and spoiled.’ Well, I noticed he was squirming with embarrassment at what we’d been saying and I remembered that, though he was standing near by, he wanted to avoid being seen by Lysis, so I checked myself and said nothing.”

The next section in the Lysis is where the confusion begins, because Plato alternates between the masculine (philos) and the neutral (philon) versions of the central term. Moreover, Socrates begins by asking “how does a person become a friend of another?” but then immediately switches to “when someone loves someone else, which is the friend of which?” After a complex series of steps, some leading to paradoxical answers that are rightly rejected (e.g., (i) I love wine; (ii) wine cannot love me in return; (iii) therefore, wine is not dear to me), Socrates gets to the important point: philia does not need to be reciprocated, which means that one can love one’s enemy, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Notice that this cannot be the case for eros, which cannot be fulfilled if not reciprocated.

‘Then, Menexenus, it would appear that what is loved is dear to what loves it whether it loves what loves it or whether it actually hates it. For example, some newly born children do not yet love, while others actually hate their mother or father when they are punished by them. None the less they are most dear to their parents at the time they actually hate them.’

Socrates then engages in a convoluted discussion aimed at determining whether friendship is something that happens between people that are “like” or “unlike” (meaning similar or opposites), and concludes by rejecting both possibilities (though not exactly in an airtight fashion). Where is he going? We get the answer when he concludes what a friend is by way of an analogy with philosophy (of course), i.e., with love of wisdom:

“The example of philosophy, the love of wisdom, is used to illustrate and summarize the results: (i) those who are already wise no longer love wisdom: like (good) is not friend to like (good); there is no presence of bad. (ii) those who are so ignorant that they are bad do not love wisdom: opposite (bad) is not friend to opposite (good); (iii) those who possess ignorance (a bad thing), but have not yet been rendered stupid (bad) by it (i.e. those who are neither good nor bad), do love wisdom: what is neither good nor bad is the friend of the good because of the presence of bad. Socrates concludes that (iii) gives the answer to the question of what a friend is.” (p. 142)

If you find yourself perplexed and unconvinced by this, you are not alone. I mean, I can sort of see the reasoning as far as love of wisdom is concerned (though even there, why wouldn’t the wise person keep loving wisdom even after she has achieved it?), but I doubt anything of substance follows about the nature of friendship. Again, this is because Plato confuses different questions and distinct possible objects of philia.

It doesn’t help that Plato, near the end of the dialogue, uses yet another analogy, this time with medicine: “what is neither good nor bad (the body) is the friend of the good (medicine) because of the bad (disease) for the sake of (another) good (health).” (p. 144) Sure, but the sort of “love” we may feel for abstract concepts (like philosophy, health) is not the same sort of love we feel for our friends, or our children. Yet, there is a reason why Plato is going about it this way: he is presumably beginning to explore notions that will be fully developed in the Republic, and particularly the notion of the Forms, where he explicitly does connect the ideal world outside the cave with its pale reflection that we perceive while stuck inside. In that sense, then, it is understandable why he is ambiguous about his objective throughout the Lysis. Remember, this is one of the early dialogues, in which Socratic philosophy is dominant, and yet in which Plato is beginning to articulate his own ideas, ideas that will become fully formed and better laid out in the middle and later dialogues.

What are we to make of all this? I think the best parts of the dialogue are the early ones, before Plato begins to equivocate in a more or less conscious pursuit of his own agendas. There is, indeed, more than one kind of love, and even the same kind (e.g., philia) can manifest itself in different ways (e.g., between parents and offspring, or friends of different ages, or mentor and student). Our modern vocabulary is poorer for not making those distinctions, which may even constrain people’s thoughts and limiting their imagination and understanding of that broad phenomenon we call “love.”

(next: the Charmides, on the nature of self-knowledge)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 3, the Laches and the question of expertise in teaching young people

The Laches is the next dialogue we will explore from the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders. It is a splendid example of just how good Plato was at dramatizing situations, though precisely because of that it also raises the issue of whether good dramatic writing is helpful to, or gets in the way of, good philosophizing. The scene includes two elderly Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias, who wish to know who is best qualified to teach their young sons, and how. They are watching a military display, so they end up asking two generals, Nicias and Laches, what their opinion is, and Laches, in turn, invites Socrates — who is nearby — to join the conversation.

Nicias happens to be in favor of professional instruction, while Laches is more skeptical. And Socrates turns the discussion into an exploration of the nature of bravery as an aspect of goodness, on the grounds that a good teacher ought to know what goodness is, before imposing his views on young boys. Nicias, incidentally, was the general that ended up in charge of the ill fated Athenian siege of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, a siege he almost completed successfully, until the arrival at the last minute of the Spartan general Gylippus, who killed Nicias despite the fact that the latter had spared Gylippus on several previous occasions. Also noteworthy is that fact that this is the first dialogue in which Socrates brings up the controversial notion of the unity of the virtues, the idea that one cannot coherently be, say, courageous but unjust, an idea that makes sense only if one sees all virtues (including courage) as inherently moral in nature.

The dialogue is probably best seen as an example of the combination of two approaches to advancing a philosophical argument: the logos, obviously, i.e. the presentation of a given argument by way of reason; and what the ancient Greeks called the muthos, which translates to a story, or a myth, but that for them had a broader and more positive connotation than it has for us today.

So, the Laches begins with Lysimachus and Melesias wondering how to best educate their sons, in order for them to grow up good as men capable of enjoying a good life. They think that some sort of higher education is needed, perhaps of a military type, which is why they approach the two generals, Nicias and Laches. Lysimachus assumes that virtue can be taught, and that generals are suitable to advise him on the value (notice: as distinct from the specifics) of military training, two assumptions that Socrates eventually questions.

Laches is the one who notices Socrates nearby, and suggests that the philosopher joins the conversation, introducing him as an expert on education, something that Nicias wholeheartedly endorses. Laches also praises Socrates for his bravery at the recent battle of Delium, suggesting that had more Athenians behaved that way the battle would have had a far more favorable outcome for the city.

LYSIMACHUS: Socrates, and Nicias and Laches, people of my age really can’t keep in touch with the younger generation any more, we just potter around at home most of the time feeling our age.

SOCRATES: Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advice I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them.

At this point, Nicias talks about the advantages of military training, listing a number of them. The most important one turns out to be that military training makes one brave, which implies that virtue can be taught, and that it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. Laches disagrees: for him bravery is not a type of knowledge, but a behavior that depends on one’s character.

It is at this point that the two generals ask for Socrates’ opinion, who says that military training here is just a means to an end, and since that end is the boys’ education, what is needed is an an expert in education, not military training. (And he immediately disavows being such an expert.)

SOCRATES: To follow on from what I was just saying, then, if we were wanting to consider which of us had the most expertise in athletics, how would we go about it? Wouldn’t we choose the man who’d learnt about athletics, who’d practised, and who’d been trained in the sport by top coaches?

MELESIAS: I think so.

SOCRATES: So, even before we consider that, we should ask in what subject we’re looking for teachers, shouldn’t we? … So what we have to consider is this: is any of us an expert in caring for the character, and able to care for it properly, and which of us has had good teachers?

Nicias candidly explains to Lysimachus how Socrates works:

NICIAS: You seem not to know that whenever anyone comes face to face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although they may have started on a completely different subject at first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they’re talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present life-style, and of the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him on every angle.

Socrates then explains that whenever one claims that he can improve X by adding Y, he ought to know what Y is. Here Nicias and Laches think they can educate the boys by adding goodness to them, so they should know what goodness is.

SOCRATES: So the qualification we need is this: we need to know what goodness is, don’t we? Because if we hadn’t a clue what goodness actually is, there’d be no way in which we could possibly give anyone any advice on the best way of acquiring it, would there?

LACHES: No, I don’t think there would, Socrates.

Socrates then zooms into the obvious aspect of goodness that is pertinent to the discussion, since two of his interlocutors are generals: bravery. What is that? Laches attempts a definition by describing the behavior of a good infantryman, saying that to be brave is to stand and fight. But it doesn’t take long for Socrates to dispatch of this by counterexamples: sometimes the brave thing is to retreat in order to be able to fight another day, and at any rate, soldiers are not the only ones who can be brave.

SOCRATES: [bravery is standing to fight] with the possible exception, Laches, of the Spartan infantry. At the battle of Plataea, so the story goes, the Spartans came up against the troops with wicker shields, but weren’t willing to stand and fight, and fell back. The Persians broke ranks in pursuit; but then the Spartans wheeled round fighting like cavalry and so won that part of the battle.

LACHES: That’s true.

All right, says Laches, then let’s modify our definition: bravery is endurance. Well, responds Socrates, only if endurance is accompanied by wisdom, since endurance for its own sake is hardly a virtue. Here it is Nicias who offers help, fine tuning the definition of bravery by distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge: doctors and farmers, for instance, have technical knowledge that is different from the sort of knowledge that they are interested in at present, i.e., knowledge of good and evil. If they changed the definition of bravery as “endurance with knowledge of good and evil” the counterexamples put forth earlier by Socrates would lose force.

Socrates pushes back against Nicias’ revised definition, even though scholars seem to agree that what Nicias is saying actually reflects Socrates’ own preferred answer. If courage is endurance with knowledge of good and evil, then what about animals and children? Is Nicias denying that they can be brave too? That’s right, answers Nicias. Contra popular belief, animals are not brave, and children aren’t either, at least until they mature a certain understanding of things. Animals and children sometimes behave as if they were brave, but they cannot properly be described as such because they do not actually appreciate the dangers of what they are doing.

NICIAS: ‘Brave’ is not a word I use to describe animals, or anything else that’s not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding; I prefer ‘fearless’ and ‘foolish.’ … So you see, what you and most people call brave, I call reckless: brave actions are those coupled with wisdom, as I said.

I find this point to be analogous to contemporary discussions about morality: are primates who, say, show an inclination toward sharing resources fairly with other members of their group acting morally? No, they are acting in a moral-like fashion, but unless they are capable of understanding what they are doing and why (and there is no evidence that they do) applying the moral label to their actions is a category mistake.

Socrates isn’t done, though. He points out to Nicias that now he can no longer distinguish between bravery and goodness, and yet he had previously agreed that bravery is but a part of goodness. They now appear inextricably linked to each other.

That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, with Socrates admitting that they don’t really know the answer, and that they would all well served by looking for someone who can teach them this sort of things. But in reality Nicias’ final proposal is pretty good, and the issue raised by Socrates is answered by the (Socratic!) notion of the unity of the virtues. While nowadays we think that someone can be, for instance, courageous and yet unjust, for Socrates (and the Stoics who followed him on this) that’s an oxymoron. All virtues are unified by wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, so that only a just person can be courageous, in the moral sense of the term.

As counterintuitive as the notion of the unity of virtues is, I have come to really appreciate its power, which i really prescriptive more than descriptive. It does not negate that someone can act in what looks like a courageous way even though that person is also acting unjustly, and perhaps we should simply use two different words to distinguish such cases. Common sense courage, call it courage-c, may be displayed by a daring criminal, for instance. But virtuous courage, call it courage-v, is precluded to such individual. More difficult is to account for the reverse situation, say someone who understands what is and is not just, and yet fails to act on it for lack of courage. Socrates would say, I am guessing, that such a person is not really just, he only understands justice at an abstract level, but he has not internalized the concept as a matter of practice.

Which brings me to the crucial issue mentioned above, yet only indirectly tackled in the Laches: can virtue be taught? The answer appears to depend on what one means by “taught.” Virtue is certainly not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, as the case of someone who understands justice and yet fails to act on it demonstrates. But it isn’t a matter of practice only either, since Nicias has made clear that one’s acts should be informed by one’s understanding, if they are to count as moral. So virtue can be taught, but such teaching is a combination of sophia and phronesis, i.e., theoretical and practical wisdom.

(next: the Lysis, in which Socrates investigates the nature of friendship)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 2, the Ion and whether poetry can teach moral skills


Do poets know what they are talking about? That’s the question at the center of the dialogue known as Ion, from the name of the main character (other than Socrates) to appear in it. This — after last week’s introduction — is the first actual installment of our discussion of the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders, so let me give you a preview of how it’s going to work.

Each post from now on will summarize one of the seven dialogues in the book, beginning with a very short introduction, followed by a section-by-section analysis with selected quotes. Obviously, for a more in-depth treatment of individual dialogues readers are invited to read Saunders’ book. We will conclude each installment with a brief discussion of the main topic, above and beyond what Socrates says. I advise readers to look at the Socratic character with sympathy, in order to appreciate what Plato wrote and learn something, quite regardless of the fact that, obviously, philosophy has made progress in the intervening 24 centuries, so that a modern philosophical take on the specific subject matter would be different.

In the Ion, Socrates’ position is that poets have no idea what they are talking about, and do their thing in a state of madness. Peculiarly, though, Ion is not actually a poet, but rather a rhapsode, that is someone who went around gorgeously attired, chanting the works of Homer or other poets. What makes Ion (the character) interesting, however, is that he was one of those rhapsodes who also lectured on the subject matters covered by Homer, presenting himself as a teacher of human relationships and conduct, as well as a repository of technical information, on topics ranging from sailing to military command. That is why Ion is Socrates’ target here, because he makes claims to knowledge. So what we are about to witness is a demolition job, aimed at showing that rhapsodes — and by implication poets — are not, in fact, teachers of moral skills.

This discussion, in a sense, is still with us today, as one does often hear that literature in general, and (some) poetry in particular, are capable of providing insights into the human condition that are beyond the reach of empirical investigation or dialectical approaches (such as the sort of philosophy practiced by Socrates). Notice also, while following along, that when Socrates says that Ion is “possessed” by the Muses, there is an interesting sense in which he is talking about what we today refer to as intuition, as distinct from explicit knowledge. See this book review of mine on the allied topic of divination in the ancient world, and how it was considered both a type of skill and an inner sense tapping into hidden (i.e., subconscious) knowledge.

The dialogue begins with Socrates pointing out a peculiar flow in Ion’s alleged skills: apparently, the fellow is able to expound only on technical matters as presented by Homer, but by no other poet. If Ion possesses an actual skill, it certainly appears to be a rather strange one.

SOCRATES: It’s obvious to everyone that you are unable to speak about Homer with skill and knowledge – because if you were able to do it by virtue of a skill, you would be able to speak about all the other poets too. … So have you yet seen anyone who is an expert at demonstrating which paintings of Polygnotus, son of Aglaophon, are good and which are bad, but can’t do the same for the other painters? (532c-e)

Socrates then goes on to suggest that Ion does not possess a skill, but rather taps in some sort of strand of inspiration (from a Muse), and since there are several such strands, that explains why he can speak about Homer but not about other poets.

SOCRATES: This fine speaking of yours about Homer, as I was saying a moment ago, is not a skill at all. What moves you is a divine power, like the power in the stone which Euripides dubbed the ‘Magnesian,’ but which most people call the ‘Heraclean.’

(533d, the reference is to the phenomenon of magnetism, which was known to the Greeks.)

SOCRATES: Or don’t you think I’ve got it right, Ion?

ION: By Zeus, I think you have. Somehow or other your words touch my soul, Socrates, and I do believe good poets interpret these messages from the gods for us by divine dispensation.

SOCRATES: So you rhapsodes in turn interpret the words of the poets, don’t you?

ION: You’re right in that, too.

SOCRATES: So your role is to be interpreters of interpreters?

ION: Surely.


SOCRATES: One poet depends on one Muse, another on another. Our description of this is ‘he is possessed … Starting from these first rings, the poets, one man dangles from another and catches the inspiration – from Orpheus in one case, Musaeus in another; but most are possessed by Homer. You’re one of them, Ion: you are possessed by Homer … You say what you say about Homer not in virtue of skill or knowledge, but through a divine dispensation and possession. (536a-c)

Socrates then pushes the argument further, suggesting that the only people able to make a judgment about the sort of technical things Ion talks about when declaiming Homer (e.g., sailing, military operations, etc.) are those who are expert in the respective fields, because they possess actual skills. By implication, what Ion says about morality is also not to be trusted, but needs to be subjected to the expert opinion of those who have mustered that particular skill, i.e., philosophers.

As is often the case, however, the conclusion of the dialogue is aporetic, meaning that there is no firmly established positive account, only a negative one. We have not learned what poetry is, only that it is not a skill. But the implication is important, because the reader will have to conclude that if he wants to learn about sailing, military campaigning, or — most importantly as far as Socrates is concerned — ethics, he better not listen to poets.

(Referring to Homer describing chariots)

SOCRATES: Now, in these lines, Ion, which will know better whether Homer’s description is correct or not – a doctor or a charioteer?

ION: A charioteer, of course.

SOCRATES: Because he possesses this particular skill, or in virtue of something else?

ION: No, because he has the skill.


SOCRATES: So in the case of the lines you quoted, will it be you or a charioteer who knows better whether Homer puts the matter well or not?

ION: A charioteer.

SOCRATES: Presumably because you are a rhapsode, not a charioteer.

ION: Yes.


SOCRATES: Then again, will a rhapsode know better than a doctor what sort of thing is appropriately said by someone in charge of a sick person?

ION: No, not that, either.


Here Ion attempts to recover, stating that he does know what he is talking about, and as a consequence in the course of his performances, whenever he is talking about war he says what would be appropriate for a general to say.

SOCRATES: Well then, in the name of the gods, Ion, since you are the best among the Greeks at both activities, at being a general and at being a rhapsode, why do you traipse round them as a rhapsode, but not as a general? Or is it your view that the Greeks are in sore need of a rhapsode crowned with a golden crown, but have no need of a general at all? (541b-c)

(Please notice the Socratic sarcasm here, and at the end of the next bit.) In the end, Ion has to concede Socrates’ point, which leads him to suggest that having divine inspiration is actually better than having a skill:

ION: There’s a lot of difference [between skill and inspiration], Socrates: it’s a much finer thing to be thought divine.

SOCRATES: Well then, let’s grant you this finer status in our eyes, Ion: as a eulogist of Homer you are not skilled, but divine.


The modern take: So, what should we think of poets as purveyors of technical or ethical knowledge? Obviously, today we would separate the two issues entirely. I doubt any contemporary poet would seriously claim to have knowledge of sailing just because he wrote a poem that mentions boats, or of war strategy because he wrote about armed conflict.

Poetry is normally celebrated on aesthetic grounds, and so is literature more broadly. But there is also a sense in which (some) modern poets do claim a special insight, if not into ethics, at least into the human condition — which for the Greco-Romans amounted to the same thing. Clearly, that insight does not come from systematic empirical evidence (i.e., science) or dialectical-critical reflection (i.e., philosophy). It is, rather, intuitive, and intuition is not magic or divine (contra what Socrates might or might not have really believed), it is the result of unconscious processing of information about our experiences on the part of our brains. So, if a poet, or author, has had a significant amount of personal experience dealing with human beings under unusual or dramatic situations, then that person may, in fact, have developed intuitions that she is able to convey by way of prose or poetry.

My personal take is that literature is indeed a vehicle to improve our understanding of others at a personal, emotional level. Contra Plato, I wouldn’t ban it from Massimo’s Republic. But I do maintain a certain degree of skepticism about both literature and poetry as forms of knowledge (outside the aesthetic domain), because it is anecdotal knowledge, and it is conveyed in a way that immediately lends itself to emotional manipulation. And now it is time for me to leave you and go back to reading the two novels I’m currently going through: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica Geniale, I’m reading it in Italian) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

(next: the Laches, in which Socrates inquires into the best education we can give to our kids)

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)