Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.14

Robert Gorman, The Socratic Method in the Dialogues of Cicero. Palingenesia 86.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2005.  Pp. 205.  ISBN 3-515-08749-4.  €46.00.  

Reviewed by J. G. F. Powell, Royal Holloway, University of London (
Word count: 2565 words

The subject of this monograph (a revised thesis) is a good one. G. asks all the right questions: what did the Socratic method mean for Cicero? When and why did he make use of it, did he find it ultimately unsatisfactory and if so, why? Given that the Socratic method had value for Cicero as a means of conveying his philosophical standpoint, how did he solve the cultural problem of how to Romanise it for the benefit of those readers for whom it might have represented a typical manifestation of the argumentative frivolity of the Graeculi?

It needed the Ciceronian revival of the last twenty years to make it possible to ask these questions seriously. Before that, generally speaking, either the questions were not asked or the answers would have been given in entirely literary terms: Cicero was imitating Plato as a gesture of literary allegiance, but it was a fairly token allegiance, since the passages of Socratic dialectic in Cicero's works are few, and he apparently shows himself only too glad to abandon the elenchus and get back to oratio perpetua when he can (De Finibus 2.17; Tusc. 1.16-17). In G.'s account there is a great deal more to it than that. The use of certain examples of the Socratic elenchus as the 'public face' (his phrase, in a different context, p. 189) of Cicero's philosophising signals a commitment to a certain view of what philosophy is about, and although ultimately Cicero plumps for continuous argumentative discourse as his favoured mode of exposition, the Socratic method is both an effective tool for making particular philosophical points, and a symbol of the process of sceptical and critical philosophic enquiry, whose significance extends far beyond those passages which explicitly employ it. Such a self-positioning might, though G. does not stress this side of the matter, fit well with Cicero's adherence to Philo of Larissa's version of the New Academy, which, as far as the evidence permits us to judge, combined a version of the sceptical method (in which the Academics considered themselves the heirs of Socrates) with an interest in processes of rhetorical persuasion.

The introductory chapter, after an acknowledgement of the work of Glucker on Cicero's view of Socrates (which G. treats rather sceptically) and Görler on his Romanising of Platonic dialogue technique, is largely taken up with an examination of the elenchus in Plato, in which a number of modern interpretations are pitted against one another: Robinson's view that it is entirely negative and destructive, Vlastos's view that it is a means of discovering truth and requires sincerity in the participants, and Beversluis's recent (2000) reexamination which questions that view. The requirement of sincerity -- what he calls the 'say-what-you-believe rule' -- is central to G.'s view of Cicero, and for that reason he feels it necessary to rebut Beversluis, claiming that there is sufficient textual evidence to establish that it was always a rule of Socratic dialectic (as opposed to eristic) that the interlocutors were expected to voice their real beliefs. There is, it seems to me, an ambiguity here in the notion of 'sincerity' or 'real belief'; in a weaker sense it could simply mean that one is not pretending, while in a stronger sense it implies that the interlocutor is expected to have a commitment to the belief he states and a readiness to defend it rationally. Some of the passages invoked by G. to support his 'sincerity principle' seem only to support the former, especially those which employ Greek and Latin words and phrases like ta dokounta or opiniones which do not necessarily imply a strong commitment.

The importance attached by G. to the 'sincerity principle' derives partly from Fin. 2.1-3, the passage he quotes in extensor at the beginning of his third chapter. Here, Cicero sets three similar philosophical methods in parallel: (a) that of Socrates, who elicited the opiniones of his interlocutors by asking questions and then showed them to be inadequately founded; (b) that of Arcesilaus, who in a didactic context revived the Socratic question-and-answer method and insisted that his pupils not only stated but also defended their views; (c) that of the contemporary Academy, in which the pupil's role was confined to stating a position which the teacher would then refute (thus the sincerity principle no longer obtained, as the pupil would simply state the opposite case to the one he wished to hear argued). G. takes Cicero's excursions into the Socratic method as a rejection of this last method and a reinstatement of the sincerity principle: readiness to defend one's view is taken as a test of the sincerity with which one holds it.

Cicero's interest in Socratic dialectic, as G. shows, stems mainly from its capacity to detach one from the views one originally held: not an unexpected preoccupation in an orator and rhetorician whose profession is persuasive speech. Chapter 2 studies Cicero's dialectic at work in a number of passages. First, the debate on monarchy between Scipio and Laelius in De Republica I. Here G. points out quite rightly that we have here some instances of failure of persuasion: Scipio presents some (in all conscience) rather bad arguments for one-man rule, by which Laelius courteously refuses to be persuaded. However, G. assumes that Laelius must have been converted in the end (and that this must have happened in the lacuna between sections 63 and 64). This does not seem to me a necessary assumption: rather it is a speculation which makes Cicero's methods appear more conveniently Socratic. But why should we assume before we start that this particular section of dialogue must be an instance of a successful elenchus? It may in fact be that Laelius said nothing much in the lacuna, since Scipio's arguments are by now much less controversial; and indeed his explicit refusal, by way of a praeteritio (1.62), to make use of the characteristically Platonic analogies for the statesman suggests that the argument has already moved into other channels. The end of the overtly 'Socratic' section, in other words, may be when Laelius stops short of full agreement at the end of section 61.

G. then discusses the argument between Cicero and Torquatus about pleasure in De Finibus II. Here he is on firmer ground: this section of dialogue is of course complete in our texts and it is easy to see how Cicero takes the part of a Romanised Socrates-figure, while Torquatus' refusal to allow the questioning to proceed is seen as parallel to the behaviour of some of Socrates' victims. 'By balking at Cicero's second question, Torquatus gives the impression that he sees that his own understanding of human nature and feel for the proper use of Latin is at odds with the teachings of his master' (p. 56). I wonder: this is a speculation about the state of mind of a character in a fictitious dialogue, and one which is not unambiguously borne out by what he is actually made to say. Overtly, Torquatus at Fin. 2.17 has refused to budge: he merely restates the Epicurean position and shows no evidence that he has taken Cicero's criticisms on board at all, or even that he is at all seriously perturbed by them: rather, he takes refuge in the distrust of dialectic characteristic of Epicureans. But G.'s discussion illustrates the important point that the anti-dialectical attitude of Torquatus must not be identified with that of Cicero as author; it is facile and probably wrong to interpret this piece of dialogue-writing as an expression of Cicero's own relief at getting back to continuous rhetorical exposition after a perfunctory passage of dialectic. Further, the reactions which G. attributes to Torquatus, though they may go far beyond the words of Torquatus in the dialogue, could very well be those of Cicero's readers. As was pointed out long ago by Richard Bentley (though too strongly: see W. Görler in my collection of essays Cicero the Philosopher [Oxford 1995] 98-9), actual conversion is a rare event in Cicero's dialogues. As G. elsewhere demonstrates (pp. 126-7) Torquatus functions as an example of obstinacy (pertinacia) in his adherence to a set of dogmas because they are the authoritative tenets of his school, even in the face of rational criticism or rebuttal. Pertinacia could, indeed, be an admirable thing in a Roman soldier or advocate; while the danger for an Academic such as Cicero was the ever-present accusation of inconstantia. The passages which G. sees as evidence for the 'sincerity principle' often seem to be attempts to negotiate the middle path between the two extremes of uncertainty and pertinacity that is required by adherence to Neo-Academic method: what the Academic has to be sincere about, in the end, is not any particular belief or set of beliefs but the philosophical method itself as a continuing search for reasoned, plausible answers (any of which must nevertheless give way to reasoned refutation).

Thirdly G. discusses Tusculans I, which is rather different from the other two examples: here the relationship is that of master and pupil, or therapist and patient, and the anonymous young interlocutor clearly wants to be persuaded. He is also himself a student of dialectic and ready to learn from a more accomplished practitioner. The goal is not aporia or conversion, but conviction; yet I have the impression that this is really an example of the Academic method of disputation in contrariam partem as described by Cicero, in which the initial thesis is proposed largely for the sake of argument, though it doubtless reflects a common belief.

Chapter 3 then continues the argument with regard to the sincerity principle. G. sees Cicero as concerned in the first place to distance himself from what was presumably the common perception of dialectic as an empty intellectual sport, just as Plato distances his own practice of dialectic from the 'eristic' which others practised. According to G. the defining feature of proper philosophical dialectic is, for Cicero, the sincerity principle: philosophical enquiry must start from people's real beliefs. One important passage is Lucullus 65, where Cicero in his own person makes a profession of sincerity in the introduction to a long speech of sceptical refutation. Maybe this is an example of the 'sincerity principle' at work; but what of the beginning of De Natura Deorum III, where Cotta 'has claimed an unshakeable belief in traditional Roman religion, but this claim in no way justifies Cotta's arguments contra deos' (p. 112)? G.'s answer is that if we examine the passage more carefully, we find not just a profession of sincerity about Roman religion but also a profession of sincere doubt about Stoic theology: thus the sincerity principle is not after all violated.

Unless I have missed something, G. seems to have overlooked one clear exception to his principle: Philus in De Republica III, who explicitly argues for a position in which he does not believe, for the sake of examining the arguments on both sides. I suspect, in fact, that the expectations set up by this passage of straightforward in utramque partem disputation (as well as its precedents in Academic practice) may go a long way towards explaining why there is an issue about sincerity in the later, overtly Neo-Academic dialogues. In the Lucullus, Cicero is about to launch into a sceptical refutation of Antiochean epistemology. One who had read the De Republica might be tempted to expect that his sceptical position was simply assumed for the sake of argument. This expectation needed to be counteracted, since Cicero's aim was evidently to persuade the reader of the superiority of his own (or Philo's) brand of probabilistic scepticism. Hence the profession of sincerity: this particular sceptic is not, as sceptics usually do, arguing just for the sake of it but actually believes it all. However, Cotta in NDseems at first sight to revert more to the type of Philus in Rep.: his sceptical refutations of Balbus's views on the gods are not meant to undermine Roman religion, any more than Philus's arguments for cynical pragmatism were meant to undermine Roman justice and morality. At the same time Cotta's position is more nuanced than that of Philus. He is not said explicitly to be adopting a sceptical position just for the sake of argument. Rather, he seems to be pulled two ways: on the one hand towards a faith in tradition and in the efficacy of Roman ritual, on the other hand towards questioning the rational basis of belief in the gods. This is, of course, utterly convincing as a portrayal -- perhaps there is an element of Ciceronian self-portraiture in it -- and here we come across another feature of Cicero's dialogues, literary rather than strictly philosophical, which has often not been given its due: the sensitivity of his characterisation.

Finally, Chapters 4 and 5 explore two possible aspects of the inadequacy of the Socratic questioning method. On the one hand, piecemeal dialectical attack is an unfair weapon against a system like Stoicism, because it deprives the opponent of the opportunity to present his system as a complete unity and merely concentrates on one individual point or another: this unfairness is pointed out both by Cato in De Finibus and by Balbus in De Natura Deorum, and presumably reflects the reactions of Stoics in general to Academic criticism. On the other hand, dialectic can at most compel intellectual assent, but it cannot produce complete conviction in metaphysical matters, as shown by the reactions of the interlocutor in the Tusculans: in order to achieve conviction on a question such as life after death, Cicero must resort to rhetorical demonstration.

This book explores a number of very interesting issues. The concentration on Cicero as a philosophical thinker and writer in his own right, and the direct confrontation with Plato, is welcome. The debates within and among the Hellenistic schools tend to be relegated to the background. Yet, as I have indicated at some points above, a greater foregrounding of the influence of the Academy and the different currents within it could help to explain more about Cicero's attitudes. It was not a simple case of 'back to Socrates'; as a pupil of the Academics and especially of Philo of Larissa, Cicero would no doubt have thought of Socratic dialectic as a method on which those of his own school, as the heirs of Socrates and Plato, had a peculiar claim, but would have recognised that it was just one method among several possible ones, including also continuous, reasoned exposition on the one hand and in utramque partem disputation (with no requirement for the speaker's real beliefs to be involved) on the other. G. has done us a service in showing the precise place of Socratic dialectic, and its perceived advantages and limitations, in Cicero's writing; it should be added that this seems to reflect fairly precisely where Socratic dialectic fitted into Cicero's Academic inheritance.

The book could, I think, have benefited from longer maturing (a luxury which I know those in the contemporary job market can ill afford). It still has some of the marks of a PhD thesis, e.g. the scholarly doxography near the beginning, and some overuse of footnotes, especially in the opening sections. There are some slips in detail (e.g. the nominative of the Greek word for 'test' is not peiras as on p. 20). But G.'s work will certainly find its place in the growing bibliography on Cicero's philosophical writings.

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