16 Oct


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By William J. Prior

Socrates is one of the most important individuals in Western civilization, but who was he? We know some facts about him: he was born about 469 BCE, he was a citizen of Athens who lived during her “Golden Age” and her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, he served in the Athenian army, he was put on trial in 399 on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, he was convicted and put to death.  He is regarded by many people as a martyr to free speech and unfettered intellectual inquiry. His ancient followers, especially Plato and Xenophon, saw him as a man of exceptional virtue. Alcibiades says in Plato’s Symposium that there has never been anyone like him.  

When it comes to Socrates’ philosophy, however, we face a problem. Socrates wrote nothing. What we know about Socrates comes from the writings of three people who knew him: Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes, and a fourth person, Aristotle, who was born some fifteen years after Socrates’ death. In this book I focus on Plato’s portrait of Socrates, not as necessarily the most historically accurate one but as the most philosophically intriguing. I concentrate on several dialogues that interpreters have regarded as “early” or as “Socratic.” What unites these dialogues, I claim, is not necessarily an early date but the use of a distinctive method, which is called the Socratic elenchus. “Elenchus” means “examination,” but it has come to mean “refutation,” because Socrates refutes nearly everyone he talks to. As one of Socrates’ interlocutors, the general Nicias, says in Plato’s Laches, when you get into a conversation with Socrates, however innocent it may seem to be, you end up defending the principles by which you live.

The elenchus is mainly a negative method. Socrates uses it to show that the people he talks to, most of whom think of themselves as wise, are in fact ignorant of the most important questions, those concerning the first principles of ethics. Socrates frequently says that he is ignorant of these also. In the Theaetetus he describes himself as “barren of wisdom.” In the Apology he says that only the god is wise, that human wisdom is worthless. In the Meno he says that he perplexes others because he is perplexed himself. One might conclude from this that Socrates had no constructive thoughts about the first principles of morality, or at least none that he is willing to share. 

That is not quite right. Alongside this barren Socrates, we find a Socrates who is “fertile,” who has views of his own that he is willing to share with others. He doesn’t claim to know that these views are true, but he is willing to present and defend them. In the Meno he claims that people can “recollect” true beliefs, including those about ethics. He has a moral theory, which has been called “intellectualism,”   which defines virtue as knowledge, vice as ignorance, and declares that moral weakness is impossible. He also holds that virtue is the proper organization of parts of the soul, which leads to happiness, understood as psychological health. These two theories appear to be somewhat at odds with each other.

These two portraits of Socrates: that of a “barren,” ignorant inquirer and that of a “fertile” philosopher with views of his own, exist together in Plato’s elenctic dialogues. Can they be reconciled? Can Socrates be both barren and fertile? I see only one way to reconcile them: two of Socrates’ interlocutors, Thrasymachus and Alcibiades, suggest that Socrates’ professions of ignorance are ironic.    

In this book I cover many aspects of Socrates’ life and thought. I talk about his trial, his method, his professions of ignorance, his accounts of virtue and happiness, his views on politics, and his relation to Plato. The book has a concluding chapter that traces the influence of Socrates on the subsequent history of philosophy, down to the twentieth century.

William J. Prior is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Santa Clara University. His new book Socrates is now available from Polity.

Also available from Amazon, Wordery and Waterstones. Order online or check availablility with your local bookstore.

(Publishing in the US in mid-November)