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The Socratic Method

This paper is an expository work, not a commentary or critique, based on three chapters from the book, Plato’s Socrates, edited by Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith. The chapters selected for this exposition are chapters one, five, and six which are respectively titled Socratic Method, Socratic Politics, and Socratic Religion. The objective of this paper is to simply present the claim of Brickhouse and Smith that all of Socrates’s philosophy concerning knowledge, humanity, morality, ethics and politics, and religion is about the Socratic Method (p.

4). In the chapter on Socratic Method, Brickhouse and Smith set out to show that Socrates accomplishes his philosophical objectives through the process of refutations, or elenchos. Socrates does not teach in the sense of providing information, but he exposes ignorance. In the chapter on Socratic Politics, Socrates explains true politics as having a positive impact on others, an objective that can be achieved both publicly and privately. In Socratic Religion, the philosopher considers religion more in terms of living an examined life than in rituals.

This paper will examine these three chapters beginning with the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method It is believed that Socrates did not teach by lecturing. This Greek philosopher asked what are characterized as “leading” questions, questions that cause respondents to think and eventually arrive at the answers. This manner of teaching is referred to as the Socratic Method (p. 3). Unless the questioner already knows the answer, he cannot lead the respondents to the answer.

For three reasons, Socrates would reject the idea that he taught by the method that is attributed to him: (1) Socrates claimed not to know the answers to the questions he asked; (2) He denied the claim that he was a teacher; and (3) Socrates claimed that his objective was not to lead people to knowledge but to expose the ignorance of those who claimed to be wise (pp. 3-4). The philosopher never claimed to have had a method other than engaging in what be called inquiry; but his inquiry always leads to refuting his interlocutors.

This process of refutation through inquiry is called the elenctic method. If Socrates did not consciously employ a method, then his style of philosophizing which produced the same results of refutation was, at least, elenctic. If Socrates is to be considered a craftsman of knowledge, the designation would not stick because one of the criteria of craftsmanship is knowledge/wisdom; and Socrates claimed not to have knowledge but to be in search of it. Yet, in this search, Socrates does not lead others to knowledge but actually destroys their self-proclaimed wisdom through the elenchos.

Socrates’s goal is directed at answering one question: What is the best way for one to live? Socrates is a moral philosopher who believed his god-sent mission is free humanity from the pretense of real wisdom. Although he claimed to be willing to engage in a dialogue with anyone, he usually engages those who claim to have expertise in some aspect of morality (pp. 10-11). In his missionary efforts, Socrates does not merely focus on the claims that people make. Hid elenctic method always leads to an examination of lives more than an examination of words.

Socratic dialogues, the domain of the elenchos, begin with premises by his interlocutors. He either agrees with the starting premises (and then ultimately negates them) or he rejects the premises by getting his interlocutors to contradict themselves. Although the elenchos destroys people’s confidence in their own wisdom, people benefit from the elenctic investigation because they ultimately move from lives of complacency to active lives in pursuit of change. They may not know what aspects of their lives need to change, but at least they know that their lives cannot remain the same.

By examining the contradictions in their lives, they might come to know which of their beliefs to abandon and which to maintain. The elenctic examination is, therefore both destructive and constructive. It destroys confidence in one’s wisdom and it forces one to pursue the answer to the Socratic question about the best way to live. Socrates does not provide one way of living as the “best way” to live. For Socrates, it is not the lifestyle that is the source of the problem, but the foundation on which the lifestyle is based. The important thing is that one first develops virtue and then establishes a lifestyle based on virtue (p.

19). Virtue, which is also the source of all human happiness according to Socrates, comes from living an examined life. In his elenctic examination, Socrates is not only interested in exposing contradictions in people’s lives and exhorting them to better living, he also rebukes those who want to follow a path that is not well considered or does not lead to moral truth (pp. 23-26). If the best way to live is to live an examined life, then the important question becomes, How is one’s life examined? Socrates is very clear about the answer to this question.

An examined life is not a life of self-examination or introspection. An individual can live the examined life only if others have applied elenctic examination to his life (pp. 27-28). When others subject your life to the elenchos, then your life has been examined. If contradictions have been found, they you can move towards a direction of eliminating those contractions. You can be on your way to discovering moral truths or virtue, the source of all human happiness. The Socratic Method is both leading and elenctic. Socrates leads people to discover their ignorance.

In this sense, the Socratic Method is leading. It is not leading in the sense of leading to knowledge. It only leads one to discover what one does not know. This leading is done via elenctic examination, the mainstay of the Socratic Method. The ultimate goal of Socrates is to get people to base their lives on virtue and nothing else. Socratic Politics Socrates was not active in the political life of his community. Yet, he considered himself to be the consummate politician, perhaps the only one engaged in what he described as “truly political craft,” (p. 138).

To understand how this non-politician can be the consummate politician requires an understanding of the Socratic concept of genuine politics as distinguished from “flattery” or political mimicry. For Athenians, all politics was public. The politician engaged in rhetoric in the assembly, the courts, and other public arenas. For Socrates, rhetorical politics is demagoguery. Authentic politics is acting to make the citizens the best that they can be (p. 139). According to Socrates, this genuine politics can be practice in private. How does one privately better the lives of the public?

The answer to this question is the essence of Socratic Politics. If one accepts the position of Socrates that genuine politics is about improving the lives of people, then one is led to accept his conclusion that as long as you improve the lives of those you come in contact with, you are a politician. That being the case, an individual can privately interact with people and improve their lives. It is also possible that who can interact with the public and cause great harm to the pubic. It is therefore quite possible to be a private but genuine politician.

Socrates did not only believe in private politics, but he insisted that, with rare exceptions, the private politician is the only real politician. How can this be? It is the position of Socrates that those who engage in public rhetoric only do so to flatter their audience. According to Socrates, if politicians who make public speeches were to tell their listeners the truth, the politicians would be rejected. So politicians tell their audience what the audience wants to hear and not what the audience needs to hear. In a sense, rhetorical politicians are not being truthful to themselves and to the public.

This is harmful to the good of the public. Their exercise in flattery does not work to the benefit of the public. Contrary to the Athenian view, Socrates believed that public politics was destructive and not a genuine form of political activity. In other words, Socrates did not only maintain that private politics is possible; he also maintained that it is the only genuine form of politics. This is not to say that Socrates did not believe that someone can affect the public good in a public arena. According to Socrates, a genuine public politician is one who is, first of all, a person whose life is based on virtue.

Of course, virtuous life is a life that has undergone elenctic examination. In other words, real politics cannot be practiced by someone who has not had an examined life. Someone with an examined life would truthful, something that public rhetoric dispenses with. To practice politics or improve the lives of others in private does not mean acting in privacy. This certainly could not have been the case for Socrates because he conducted his elenctic examination in public. So then, how could he be private when he acted in public? This is another of the seeming Socratic contractions that can easily be resolved when one understands Socrates.

For Socrates, to act publicly is to act in public arenas such as the assembly and the courts. If you argue you case in the assembly or the courts, then you are acting publicly; but if you make those same arguments outside of the assembly and the courts, then you are acting privately. The political doctrine of Socrates can be simplified as ‘persuade or obey’ ((p. 141). When the state makes a law, a citizen has two options: (1) If a citizen believes that the law is unjust, then the citizen should persuade the state to rescind the law.

(2) If the state refuses to rescind the law, then the citizen’s only other option is to obey. In other words, Socrates is no friend of civil disobedience. This, however, cannot mean that Socrates is a friend of authoritarianism, at least in the view of Brickhouse and Smith. The editors describe an authoritarian government as one that does not allow political dissent. Socrates believed that people should be free to disagree with the government; therefore, he would not have been in favor of any government that did not allow dissent.

You may disagree with the government and freely express that disagreement, but you must obey. The consequences of this view of government, as Brickhouse and Smith explained, are that they provide excuses for those who commit evil, such as war crimes, in the name of taking orders from the government. Brickhouse and Smith believe that his moral equivalence does not apply because Socrates limited his application to Athens and its laws with which he was familiar. Any extrapolation from Athens to another society as an application of Socratic politics would not be valid according to Brickhouse and Smith (p.

153). Socrates may not have been a friend of authoritarian regimes, but in the view of Brickhouse and Smith, he was no friend of democracy either (p. 157). In his political life, that is his effort to improve the lives of others, Socrates is said to associate with “traitors and criminals” and interlocutors of “notorious failures” (p. 170). Why did he associate with such people and not those who were virtuous? Brickhouse and Smith offer two reasons. First, philosophy required people who had the spare time to think. Only the wealthy could offer the luxury of leisure.

Secondly, it would have been of no benefit to Socrates and his interlocutors if they were all already living the examined lives freed of contradictions. Calling the righteous to repent would not be a logical activity of genuine politics. Brickhouse and Smith include the trial of Socrates in the section on Socratic Politics, but then they go on to argue that Socrates was not tried for political reasons but for religious reasons (pp. 173-175). In their examination of the writings of Plato and Xenophon, two of Socrates’s students, Brickhouse and Smith find no evidence of political charges against Socrates.

Brickhouse and Smith thus conclude that the trial was a religious trial and not a political one. This leads to the final chapter, Socratic Religion. Socratic Religion Brickhouse and Smith begin this chapter with the affirmative claim that “Socrates was tried, convicted, and condemned to death on the charge that he was impious,” (p. 176). Like all other views of Socrates, there seems to be contradiction about his piety. Socrates believed that the wisdom was an attribute of piety. We may recall that Socrates did not believe that he had wisdom; therefore, on this front, he could not be pious.

It thus might seem that he was justly charged; but this is Socrates with whom nothing is as clear as it seems. Recall also that Socrates believed that elenctic examination was a sort of mission from the god, a sort of evangelism. So, although he could not claim piety due his lack of wisdom, yet he could be considered a very pious man because he spent his life in service to the god. Wisdom disqualified him from piety, but he gained it through evangelistic mission. In Socratic theology, according to Brickhouse and Smith, the gods have wisdom and do only that which is good (p. 179).

In the common Athenian theology, the gods were responsible for the good and the bad. This is where Socrates differed from dominant Athenian theology (p. 181). For his time, the theological position of Socrates was very revolutionary. When Athenians believed in gods who visited miseries upon mortals, Socrates did not. In a sense, if the gods of Athens were capable of evil, then Socrates did not believe in these Gods. The gods the brought evil upon people were immoral gods in the Socratic view. As much as Socrates employed reason in his missionary endeavors, he was less than rational in some aspects of his theology.

He believed in every kind of divination, including dreams and oracles (p. 189). These may constitute genuine aspects of his religious faith, but they are not rational activities. So even in the theology of this great moral philosopher, the tension between faith and reason is played out. Socrates persistently pursued reason in his elenctic examination as much as he listened to his daimon in his religious life. Whenever the two came into conflict, Socrates yielded surrendered his reason in favor of his daimon (p. 194). Yet, Socrates does not accept all divinations as producing useful knowledge.

He accepted divination as part or his religion but he did not believe that it was of any use to the practitioners because in their practice of divination, the diviners never learn what is “true, good, or beneficial” about what is revealed to them (p. 199). Socrates view of death is the kind that allowed him to die without fear. He very strongly believed that the fear of death was motivated by ignorance. Those who fear death, he claimed at his trial, are afraid of what they do not know (p. 201). It is a “disgrace sort of ignorance” to claim to be wise about death when one is completely ignorant.

No one really knows if death is not the greatest good that could happen to a person. It could just be. To then fear achieving the greatest good is not the sort of thing that one who lives an examined life would do. In fact, Socrates returned to his elenchos to inform his perspective on death. If one does not undergo an elenctic examination and discover that the life he or she is living is not worth living, then that individual is living an unexamined. It follows from the Socratic argument that an unexamined life is not a life worth living. This bring us to one of those Socratic contradictions which persist throughout his philosophy.

Socrates himself does not know if death is the greatest evil that could happen to a person. If death is worst than the unexamined life, this he does not know for certain, then how can he suggest that death is better than the unexamined life? Of course, you cannot take Socrates on his first word. His entire position has to be understood. He does believe that the afterlife is a glorious life for all. Although Socrates does not claim to be wise in all matters, it is the view of Brickhouse and Smith that Socrates believed that everyone is better of dead (p. 202). This has to do with Socrates’s understanding of the afterlife.

He believes that the afterlife is better for all people. There is, however, a sort of connection between this life and the afterlife. If the present life is not worth living, it is better to terminate it for the beautiful afterlife that awaits all. If, on the other hand, one is living a examined life that is worth living, the afterlife would be even more beautiful. This is the understanding that must be applied to the Socratic claim that some lives are not worth living. A better way to understand the Socratic view of death is to assume that there is only a glorious heaven that awaits all.

If life on earth is hell, then there is no need to delay getting to heaven. If life on this earth is great, then the delay is acceptable, but the ultimate end is to desire death. Of course, one can only judge the value of a life if the life has been examined. An unexamined life has no life at all, at least in the view of Socrates. So then, it is the elenctic examination that determines the value of life. Reference Plato’s Socrates. Contributors: Thomas C. Brickhouse – author, Nicholas D. Smith. Oxford University Press. New York. 1995.

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