In Conversation With Socrates

PHOTOLISTE_20120621171223_mort_socrate2_500_It is a mistake to think of Socrates as an armchair philosopher[i] intent on reasoning through complex questions for the sake of knowledge. Indeed, not only was Socrates clearly not closed away from public view, he also does not possess many of the distinguishing character traits often associated with a philosopher of this variety. Absentminded, socially aloof, impersonal, emotional detachment, cool, are all epithets commonly used to characterize such a man[ii]. Socrates was perversely public and personable and his conversational encounters were dramatized by his passionate parade of alluring questions, often interrupted or followed up by ironic incantations.[iii] However, Socrates was assuredly after knowledge for the sake of living well or the good life and he did appeal to the Authority of Reason frequently. The virtue of the aforementioned Millian Socrates was shown to rest on a certain understanding of mankind as rational and hence autonomous. Socrates is depicted as morally superior by comparison to his fellowman because he was able to pull himself out from under the perils of “received opinion” and “animal desire” via his appeal to reason. Yet, unlike the abstractness from which a Kantian might claim his autonomy, Socrates did not remove himself from social living amongst the masses, nor did he defend or adopt an ascetic life style. Wealth, honor, pleasures of the body, none of these are in themselves base, though a life merely of material gain would be lacking because such a life would ultimately define you, would ultimately be behind all decisions, life plans, and would corrupt and make claims over you. Socrates claimed that “virtue makes money and everything else good for you” but that the converse was not true (Apology 30b2-3). Indeed, the art of living well cannot be subtracted from living amongst others in the pursuit of life plans and choices. Moral autonomy is therefore situated and involves not the practice of liberating oneself from all extraneous controls by factoring them out of the equation.

The questions put forth by Socrates were, therefore, not theoretically placed within the context of scholarly endeavor. Rather, the questions were strategically and personally relevant to the life and circumstances of the respondents, and Socrates would pose the queries poignantly and defiantly so as to rile sentiments of disingenuousness amongst the listeners in the audience. Examples in Platonic text are abundant. Particularly within the text that has by now become familiar, the reader of the Apology finds Socrates addressing the charge of corruption evading the very sticky issue regarding whether in fact he corrupts the youth[iv], and instead, throws the ball in the juror’s court by showing them that he could not have seriously done so voluntarily and that surely others more wise then he—in this case Meletus who here accuses him—should have shown him the wrongfulness of his ways. Socrates uses both the judicial setting—citizens entrusted to uphold justice—and the force behind any worthy accusation—that the accuser knows the aggressor to be in the wrong—to his advantage to thereby show Meletus up for being disingenuous and untrustworthy. Counting on the impact of social accountability Socrates solicits particular beliefs relevant to the direction he desires the discourse to follow. For instance, Socrates asks Meletus, “who is a good influence on the young?” because he is sure that Meletus would not want to name anyone in the audience which amounts to naming no one since all citizens of Athens were present. This is how Socrates cashes in on the premise that he forces Meletus into which finds Socrates alone labeled “a bad influence on the youth”. This is too obvious a mistake for anyone to miss, but it makes Meletus look foolish and discredits him, but also provides Socrates with the opportunity he needs to make the argument from expertise (using the horse analogy) personally relevant. Once Socrates accumulates all the ammunition he needs, he begins to ignite the interlocutor’s premises one by one until the interlocutor pretty much turns the mouth of the firearm onto himself, pulling the trigger in a fatal and violent act of moral suicide. In the first book of the Republic[v] Socrates’ behavior is person specific. He is cordial with Cephalus the elderly, unassuming, moderate man who enjoys the comfort of tranquility brought on by old age; yet with Thrasymachus the thrashing, ill-mannered, insolent sophist Socrates is caustic and provocative.

This Socratic dance presupposes, therefore, the presence of others; it is not a matter of mere contingency irrelevant to the practice of the method that it takes place publicly. Socrates can neither “force” his respondents into bleakly adopting certain premises as their own, nor can he have them assume the burden of their own moral shortcomings where one is not found socially accountable for practices that he would have been expected to have put into effect given his reputation amongst his peers. Still less does Socrates aim to have just anyone in whatever state of mind and in a manner abstracted from their moral situatedness engage in moral inquiry alongside of him. This is to say as Kierkegaard would have Socrates say that the good is not separate from the act of subjective deliberation, it is not merely the propositional claim that necessarily follows at the end of a series of (valid) inferences in the same way that the course of a ball in a pin ball machine is subjected to the laws of physics that determine thereby the exact path that might be taken. The path that a ball might take certainly does not matter to the ball itself; not only is the ball not a determining feature that in any manner controls the outcome of its path, but even in the case that “it”—say in the case of a nonrational nonhuman animal—could acquire knowledge of the said path, it would not impact on the manner with which “it” relates itself to the world in a meaningful way. In Kierkegaard’s case, even if we were to suppose that the world adheres to a divine order (I do not believe he does) and that all planetary creatures are subject to predetermined laws thus reducing “free will” to a mythical “man made” aphorism used to appease man’s sense of futility, it would still matter to the subject that she were in a position to discover and embrace the very order that defines her. Though the Nietzschean descriptor “high priest” shares many qualities with the more somber Socrates reminiscent of he who sits in judgment of those ill-disposed to acknowledge and practice the good, Socrates certainly believes, unlike his existential successors, that rationality is the seat from which personal moral commitment springs. Socrates has his interlocutors dispel those moral beliefs that they truly believe (the doxastic constraint) and which they are publicly herald for and are presently being held accountable for so that when from the most rudimentary expectation of reasonableness (availability constraint) the beliefs of the interlocutor are shown to be incoherent, he is personally destroyed in a manner that can not be extracted from the being or character of the person himself. Making sure to question people on matters relevant to who they have come to be as a result of their moral and professional standing, Socrates can then interrogate the respondent in a manner that forces them to embrace a standard of rudimentary reasonableness and make the outcome of the process personal to him. In the Crito, for instance, Crito is made to agree that in their effort to decide on the correct course of action that only good opinions should be considered so that automatically he is called upon to put his personal nuances aside prior to evaluation. So according to Crito himself it would be unreasonable to allow personal prejudice and/or peer-pressure to stand in the way of divulging the truth. This is not to be taken lightly since “who one is”, to the extent that it justly commands respect and social pride, must be the result of decisive choice. So when one agrees to put personal prejudice aside one is inadvertently agreeing to bracket (mere) “action short of intention” out of the picture when measuring moral worth or integrity. So when the interlocutor is exposed for possessing inconsistent beliefs, his moral confoundment betrays his moral unworthiness. Publicly one’s moral ineptness is scandalous and is morally destructive epistemologically, psychologically and socially. As a rational being one recognizes oneself as a social being that is morally accountable to others which at the very least presupposes consciousness of choice and socio-moral accountability. One deserves the title and praise of “doctor”, “teacher” and so on to the extent that one is an expert doctor. Expertise in turn presupposes relevant knowledge and experience. So once exposed for lacking moral integrity—either because one lacks knowledge or because one lacks the will to put the requisite knowledge into practice—the interlocutor is socio-professionally destroyed. Eliciting beliefs from the interlocutor’ belief-set, he is forced to assume the weight of epistemic responsibility for his shortcomings. Consequently, established incoherency destroys the epistemic status of at least one of the interlocutor’s beliefs. Psychologically this is an especially grueling experience since he is made to perceive or ack-knowledge himself as the butt of ridicule, so that conscious of himself as the object of mockery he is made to see himself “truly” through the “eyes of others” in the audience. Once of high self-esteem and social and moral standing, he falls into ill-repute. Thus humiliated, the interlocutor typically replaced his feelings of ineptitude with feelings of anger and bitterness for Socrates. Destroyed thus what moral or pedagogic gain can come from Socratic discourse?

[i]. Though the practise of the Socratic method is notably placed in the dramatic context of engagement by McPherran, Bruell, Scott and others, and hence extrarational devices are explored, emphasis on the elenctic aspect of the method where Kantian associations are contrived, have also impacted debates, points of emphasis and lingering views of the method which still must be addressed.

[ii]. Indeed, the variety known as the “absent minded philosopher” finds its initial footing with a story of Thales by Plato’s Socrates who recounts: “While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.” (Theaetetus 174a)

[iii]. Indeed, Socrates is immortalized through Platonic penmanship where character development and setting are essential features of his dialogues that are all in some way or other pedagogic venues aimed at advancing or enriching the Readers’ understanding.

[iv]. Scott develops the sympathetic poisiton that Socrates employs extraargumentative devices in order to challenge select interlocutors to question dominant conventions. The argument could be made that this is a case in point: the aim is not to acquit Socrates of the charges but rather to conisder whether under a more philosophically informed understanding of the charges and hence of “corruption” whether his actions are immoral. Scott, Plato’s Socrates as Educator, 8. He also argues that Socrates is not a “didaskalos” in the conventional sense since he does not have a school, does not charge a fee, and does not claim expertise in any subject. In this way, Socrates quite literally could not be found guilty of “corrupting the youth”. See esp.,16.

[v]. Kahn has argued that Book I of the Republic is Socratic in style and purpose and was likely written by Plato at some earlier time prior to the writing of the Republic and was added on as a suitable introduction.

Except from The Pedagogic Mission: An Engagement with Ancient Greek Philosophical Practices, Elly Pirocacos, Lexington Books, 2015.

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2 thoughts on “In Conversation With Socrates

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  1. Impressive, evocative, and as Socrates might have said, “I am but a gadfly, a nasty insect that toments horses by stinging their ass.” Socrates apparently did everything he could to tear apart the foolish and the ridiculous by merely questioning their ideas.

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