BMCR 1994.05.09

1994.05.09, Gower and Stokes (eds.), Socratic Questions

, , Socratic questions : new essays on the philosophy of Socrates and its significance. New York: Routledge, 1992. viii, 228 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780415069311. $69.95.

The editors might have described what they have compiled from lectures, delivered at the University of Durham in the autumn of 1989, as a book of loosely related essays on Socrates. It has instead been described as a book on Plato’s Socrates. The philosophical themes are well known issues from the early dialogues, but the doctrines are not those of the historical Socrates. What is usually implicit then and surely invites contrast is how this Socrates differs from the historical Socrates of Gregory Vlastos and his students.

Why, for example, should Michael Stokes begin the first chapter, entitled “Socrates’ Mission” with the words of a hero from a nineteenth century British novel who cries out from within a fiction for facts? How auspicious is Stokes’ curious anachronism ? If one will go from argument to argument with Dickens in mind, it may be Stokes who turns out to be the dickens in this chapter. Or to make plain from the start his provocative intent: How can scholars any longer claim to know what they do not (the fact that Plato’s Apology is the speech of the historical Socrates) if the Socrates in Plato’s Apology participates in a fiction? But it is not the whole text of Socrates’ defense which Stokes would debunk but especially the oracle Plato invents to justify Socrates’ mission.

Firstly, was Socrates wise before the oracle of Apollo told Chaerephon that no man is wiser than Socrates? Doubting that, Socrates set out to refute the oracle. Then how can Apollo be said to initiate a “mission”? Secondly, if an oracle cannot lie why would Socrates set out to refute an irrefutable oracle, an intention Stokes suspects not on analytical grounds but because of grammatical incongruity. Thirdly, why would any one accept an oracle as sound evidence for Socrates’ so-called wisdom when what Apollo said could only be justified in court through the hearsay testimony of a dead man’s brother? Besides, how objective can Chaerephon’s judgement be, if he was, as Socrates testifies, of impetuous character? Indeed, why would Socrates who heard about Apollo’s oracle only from Chaerephon, trust what an impetuous friend said? Perhaps Plato hopes we will not ask such questions, or perhaps he underscores Chaerephon’s character so that his Socrates can plausibly excuse what is clearly an absurd question to have put before Apollo in the first place.

How Stokes then manages to preserve the ethical integrity of Socrates’ mission so that Socrates can truthfully participate in Plato’s fiction is remarkable. In the first place, he questions Vlastos’ characterization of Socrates’ epistemological paradox: It is not that Socrates is singular in knowing that he knows nothing but that Socrates, unlike other men, does not get his values wrong. 1 Secondly, pointing out how the distinction of value from fact belongs to our century and why Socrates would dispute our belief that moral knowledge is subjective, Stokes then ascribes the strangeness of Socrates’ ethical paradox to our acceptance of this contrast. Surprisingly enough he then agrees with Vlastos. It is Socrates’ practice of refutation which bestows benefits on his respondents. It is only that Stokes rejects the dubious legend on which others depend before locating Socrates’ life-long sense of having a mission in his ethical refutations. Indeed, Stokes believes that here is what can still prove of immeasurable benefit to those of us who study Plato’s Socrates in this godless century.

Ian Kidd begins a second chapter entitled “Socratic Questions,” under the influence of the positive role Stokes has carved out for the beliefs of Socrates’ respondents in his recent book, Plato’s Socratic Conversations. Through substituting the oral notion of conversation for the literate concept of dialogue, Stokes may highlight numerous details, lost to us heretofore but he unfortunately takes the sting out of Socrates’ questions. Are we to think of what Socrates asks as only formulated to elicit the views of his respondent? Are Socrates’ questions never loaded? Are they colorless or haphazard?

Aware of Plato as at once poet and philosopher, Kidd would formulate a fresh way of relating the author Plato to the overall pattern of question and answer found in a dialogue like Laches. Above all, he insists that it is Plato who is to be held responsible for the direction given to the pattern of Socrates’ questions. Firmly convinced that Socrates is more than another man’s mirror, Kidd resists negative interpretation of the aporia at the close of Plato’s shorter dialogues. That is to say, he would regard the refutation of Nicias and Laches as more than a display of the bankruptcy of current fifth century beliefs about courage by reading the arguments of Socrates’ respondents as directed to us. Hence the important question to be asked is how are we related to Plato: Is he, like a playwright, outside of his text? Kidd thinks not. It is only through writing, that Plato himself can philosophize and stimulate us to ask those sorts of ultimate questions to which we are led through the way he structures a text.

How writing can be used to inspire us to examine again what was discussed so many centuries ago in a fifth century oral society is something that may be lost on us if we rewrite what is said by Plato’s Crito or Socrates as though what they did, when talking, was to pile up arguments for or against some theory of crucial value in a literate tradition such as our own.

In chapter three, for example, Spiro Panagiotou compares inconsistencies between what Socrates says in Apology about virtuous civil disobedience with what Socrates seems to say in Crito about the impossibility of virtuous civil disobedience, and denies that what is said in Crito can be ascribed to Plato’s Socrates. To ensure that two inconsistent positions will not get mixed up, he files the set of arguments from Apology under Plato’s Socrates and the set of arguments Socrates rehearses (his verb) when speaking on behalf of the Personified Laws of Athens under PLA, just as if one might dispose of an inconsistency, perhaps of our making, by filing it away under another name or topic heading. Here one finds little or no feeling for what it would be like to analyze a conversation, initiated centuries ago between two men in a singular circumstance. Perhaps, after grasping how overwrought Crito is, Panagiotou might have asked how Socrates was to resist the pressure his old friend brought to bear on him to do an injustice. By speaking to Crito not as his friend but through the voice of lawful authority, perhaps Socrates hopes to secure Crito’s permission to do courageously what he must in any event do: i.e., the lesser of two evils. Is it because we are unwilling to recognize how time must put a stop to philosophizing that we insist upon finding a sound way of justifying civil disobedience through what is said in Crito?

If Plato is at once philosophic and poetic, one must not only listen to what Plato has Socrates say but what is being shown through how Socrates is saying it. By attending to the sounds of Socrates’ “gamesmanship,” Malcolm Schofield in chapter four, “Socrates Versus Protagoras,” would differentiate Socrates’ philosophical conversation with Hippocrates from his intellectual competition with Protagoras. Yet even though Schofield may label the latter unSocratic, he does not deny that it is Plato who articulates what Socrates says or orchestrates the polyphonic differences in his method.

Ought Hippocrates to do as he plans and study with Protagoras? Before going to this famous teacher, the young man converses with Socrates and is led to admit that he would eagerly put his own soul in the hands of a sophist, without really knowing what a sophist is. Although the series of admissions extracted from Hippocrates do not fit the pattern often projected for an elenchus, Schofield would nevertheless characterize the exchange as cooperative and hence philosophic, although he is no doubt aware that Vlastos has already belittled this little chat, as “an edifying curtain raiser” for the elenctic drama to follow. 2 Yet even though Schofield would not deny that Protagoras has been subjected to a successful elenchus by the end of Socrates’ cross-examination, he hints that Plato’s Protagoras may be a literary success but a philosophical failure. Perhaps. But as yet no one seems to have quite hit upon that insight which will open up this provocative philosophical drama.

Putting Socrates back into an earlier, more conservative mold, C.C.W. Taylor tackles the problem of moral weakness in relation to Socratic definition. After touching upon what is said by other ancient witnesses about Socratic definition, Taylor turns to what is said by Plato’s Socrates, especially in Meno. Well aware that modern choices among types of definition are far richer than anything available to Socrates and far better realized, Taylor often reminds us of this temporal gap when analyzing Socrates’ use of or request for a definition. He helpfully disabuses us from believing it would be possible to discover a univocal type of Socratic definition and provocatively points out what must be assumed about the state of mind of anyone uniformly motivated to do the good. Or put otherwise, why one must use a causal rather than a theoretical model of definition in order to exhibit the truth of Socrates’ theory that virtue is knowledge, even if Plato’s Socrates would not have been aware of the intellectual apparatus required.

In a final chapter, P.J. Fitzpatrick discusses the legacy of Plato’s Socrates. The impossibility of his task is determined not simply by its temporal scope but the fact that our forebears often lacked the requisite documents to talk, as we can, of Plato’s Socrates. About all many could do was crudely distinguish the two in light of what they believed. For example, Christians compared Socrates with Christ but the two could never be identified. Plato, on the contrary, could and was assimilated into Christianity. With the coming of Aristotle both were eclipsed. All Saint Thomas knew of Socrates came through Aristotle. After the complete dialogues of Plato were translated together with the writing of Xenophon, Socrates became more palpable. He was again compared with Christ by the humanist Erasmus, this time on grounds of temperament. The skeptic Montaigne professed to find in Socrates something resembling his own profession of ignorance, and by the eighteenth century the ‘Socratic problem’ had arrived. What Fitzpatrick then says about the Socrates of Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard is certainly interesting but especially instructive is what is constant in the temporal tapestry Fitzpatrick has woven for us: namely, Socrates’ ability to resist assimilation by any philosopher or philosophical tradition. To be unique or idiosyncratic then, is a part of what we mean by the legacy of Socrates.

At the outset of his chapter, Fitzpatrick had reproduced a copy of David’s “The Death of Socrates.” It remains barely mentioned until he comes back to this famous painting near the end. Then reechoing the theme running through each chapter, Fitzpatrick returns to Plato’s Socrates. Because the painting is based upon David’s knowledge of Plato’s Phaedo, it might be said to falsify what occurred for Plato, who had been absent from Socrates’ final conversation, is there in the painting. He sits apart at the foot of the couch with his back turned toward Socrates, who is being handed the hemlock. Unlike Socrates’ other friends, Plato neither cries nor mourns. He is an old man. His head is bowed in reflection. Writing materials are under his chair. According to Fitzpatrick, David does not follow the hagiographical principle that if certain events in the lives of the saints did not occur, they ought to have, but by representing Plato he instead embodies how we have come to our knowledge of the past. Yet rather than receive this emblem of Plato’s authorship in a spirit of benediction perhaps we ought to ask this question: How is one to grasp Plato’s recreation of Socrates’ philosophizing without at the same time understanding how Plato has also passed along the philosophical spirit of a man who did no writing? Put otherwise, how can fiction (which is not only a literate but a Latin category) help us to grasp how the Socrates who survives through Plato had lived in an oral tradition?

  • [1] Compare the analyses rejected and accepted by Stokes, 45-6 & 75 with Vlastos (1991) 82-3. [2] Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, 1991), 116-7, n. 46.