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Category Archives: Socrates-Plato

Plato’s Symposium: Always Change For Love
By Van Bryan So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right? Plato’s Symposium After all, the popular opinion today
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The Theory of Recollection: Immortal Soul Required
By Ben Potter The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life.
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Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates
“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of
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Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder
by Anya Leonard Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what
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Socrates the Prophet?
By Van Bryan I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of
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Introducing Plato and the Theaetetus
By Samuel Gren Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly partner A.N. Whitehead once characterized Western philosophy as “a series
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The Pitiable Tyrant
Do you remember a few weeks ago when we had a bit of a discussion on the Platonic dialogue, Gorgias?
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It’s Not How You Say It…
  I once had a philosophy professor who told my class, with all the authority and reverence he could muster,
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The Pursuit Of Virtue: Plato’s “The Meno”
While Plato and Aristotle are often considered to be contrary thinkers, or at the very least they were certainly distinct
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In Pursuit Of The Good
If Plato’s ideas on ethics seems a bit hazy to you, then rest assured you’re not alone. There are several
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Plato’s Symposium: Always Change For Love

by May 1, 2018

By Van Bryan
So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?
SymposiumPlato’s Symposium
After all, the popular opinion today is that you shouldn’t change for love and that your spouse shouldn’t make you change. I am who I am and that’s all that I am!
That certainly seems to be the mindset these days; at least that’s what my single friends tell me. They spend their evenings swiping left on their smart phones and making connections with total strangers on Tinder or J-swipe or…whatever.
“Never change for love.” That’s the battle cry.
Besides, if you just be yourself, surely you will find somebody just like you and you will inevitably fall in love.
Right?
“Wrong!” says Plato.
The problem with never changing who you are for love, or never letting your spouse change who you are, is that who you are might very well be a terrible person. What if who you are is an inconsiderate sociopath? Or worse, what if you are a sophist?
What I’m trying to say is that maybe a bit of change wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps we really should let our lovers change us. Who knows? Maybe they will make us better.
That seems to be Plato’s line of thought at least. Our particular topic of interest comes from Plato’s Symposium, that unique piece of philosophical literature that asks the question: “What’s love?”
Plato is a giant in the field of philosophy. He was easily one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher in the Western tradition. His Symposium, for those of you who don’t already know, sounds more like the setup for a particularly funny joke than an actual piece of philosophical literature.
“Okay, okay, so a philosopher, a comic playwright, and a politician walk into a bar…”
See what I mean?
A symposium was like a dinner party in the days of ancient Greece. Except, instead of casually drinking beer and playing charades, the participants of a symposium would get rip-roaringly drunk off of wine and then commence to discuss some central topic of philosophical interest; although, that does sound pretty fun too.
symposium
Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the man dubbed “the Father of Western Philosophy”, is joined by a handful of important Athenian figures of the age, the most notable of which are the general Alcibiades and the comic playwright Aristophanes. They all gather to discuss the topic of love.
For the more initiated of you, you will recall that there are no shortage of interesting ideas to discuss in Symposium. However, today we are looking at the speech of Pausanias and the assertion that we ought to let our lover change us.
Pausanias first notes that love is the only thing that can justify some questionable behavior. Under normal circumstances, we might look strangely at a man who lies all night on a front porch. However, when we learn that this man is doing this in pursuit of his lover, then his behavior not only becomes somewhat acceptable, but even admirable.
“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, an supplicate, and swear, and lie on a mat at the door, and endure a slavery worse than that of any slave…” –Plato (Symposium)
Heck, Pausanias tells us that even the gods will forgive you if you commit some transgression whilst in pursuit of your love, and we all know how unforgiving those gods can be.
So love seems to be something of great power and importance. However, Pausanias tells us that, just like anything, there can be good and bad love.
It all comes down to your motivations. Why do you love somebody? It may very well be that you love somebody because they are beautiful or wealthy. This, however, is not true love, and is actually quite dishonorable.
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account. To love either of the latter is truly a base thing, because both of these things are temporary. The beauty of youth invariable recedes, and misfortune may befall any rich man and reduce him to a peasant. Where will your love be then? It will take wings and fly!
“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable…” –Plato (Symposium)
So don’t love your spouse’s beauty and don’t love their account balance. What do you love? Their virtue!
“There remains only one way of honorable attachment which custom allows in the beloved, and this is the way of virtue.” –Plato (Symposium)
Okay, so Plato isn’t telling us that, come next Valentine’s Day, we write on the card, “Dear Honey, I love your virtue.”
Instead, he is telling us that we ought to be drawn to a person for their inner qualities. We should fall in love with the beauty of their soul and its capacity for virtue and goodness.
symposium
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account
Moreover, we should, ideally, find somebody who has different virtues than us. This is where the whole “let your lover change you” thing comes into play.
Find somebody who has different qualities than you. Perhaps they are brave when you are timid. Maybe they are organized while you are messy. Whatever the situation, you should find somebody who possesses qualities that you yourself lack, and then let that person seduce you into becoming a better version of yourself.
True love does not mean loving your spouse for who they are right now. True love means that two people are committed to educating each other in the ways of virtue and enduring the stormy seas that result of such a union.
“This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to the individual and the cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement.” –Plato (Symposium)
Make sense?
So the next time you think your spouse is trying to change you, just remember that they probably are, and you really ought to let them.

The Theory of Recollection: Immortal Soul Required

by March 1, 2018

By Ben Potter
The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life. The dialogue is primarily an argument for the immortality of the soul that Socrates is trying to convince his grief-ridden colleagues, and maybe indeed himself, of in order to prove that his execution is merely the separation of his soul from his body… and not his actual ‘death’.
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

But how does Plato/Socrates prove that there is an immortal soul? It’s not an easy task, no doubt, and so he employs the idea of recollection (or anamnesis). However, like with most of Plato’s concepts when fully investigated, it reveals far more than what is immediately obvious.
The theory of anamnesis was, in fact, first introduced in one of Plato’s earlier works, the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates informs Meno that nothing can be either taught or learnt as we already possess all the knowledge in the world. Socrates explains that, through the lifetime of our soul, we have already learnt all there is to learn and that we can answer every question, provided we are asked in the correct manner.
He goes on to prove this by getting an uneducated slave to figure out a math problem by asking him a series of extremely leading questions. ie. “Is your personal opinion that the square on the diagonal of the original square is double its area?” Socrates seems convinced that he has done nothing to ‘educate’ the slave, but merely asked him the appropriate questions that allowed him to recollect.
This argument for recollection is taken a step further in the Phaedo, as Plato claims there are two aspects of recollection. The first involves no lapse of time and is less a recollection of something, but more a reminder of it: “you know what happens to lovers, whenever they see a lyre or cloak or anything else their loves are accustomed to use: they recognize the lyre, and they get in their mind, don’t they, the form of the boy whose lyre it is?”
The second aspect of recollection is one that does involve the lapse of time and is more familiar to the theory of recollection in the Meno. Additionally, it relates to Socrates’ goal of establishing the immortality of the soul. The argument that he lays out is that we are neither capable of learning anything new, nor were we born with the knowledge of things, but that we knew these things before our birth.
Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

But before we proceed with the Theory of Recollection, we must first examine Plato’s Theory of Forms. As many will no doubt recall, Plato believed that the Forms were ethereal entities of extremely general terms, ie. sameness, difference, justice, purity, vice, beauty, etc. The reason these things were entities, rather than concepts, was due to the fact that Plato perceived them as something very real indeed, even though it seems they were invisible… at least to our eyes.
Returning to our foremost theory, Plato uses the Form of ‘equality’ to try and transmit his views on recollection. He states that in viewing two sticks of equal length, we recognize that they posses ‘equality’. However, he also makes clear that two sticks of unequal length can also cause us to recognize ‘equality’ by its absence. He also conveys that even what appears to be perfectly equal, can, in fact, fall short of ‘equality’, for the simple reason that only the Form of ‘equality’ can be truly, purely equal.
So how do these ideas bring us to the primary aim of the dialogue, the immortality of the soul?
Essentially, in order for the theory of recollection to work, our souls would have had to exist before our earthly incarnation, as well as go on existing after it. Additionally, if the soul is immortal then it must also be eternal, because if something can never come to an end, then it must never have had a beginning in the first place.
The fact that we can identify ‘equality’ (or any Form) is due to the fact that we have experienced the true Form ‘equality’ during a time when our souls were apart from our bodies and at one with (or at least closer to) the Forms.
Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

So, when we see double yellow lines, we can recognize the equality that they posses by recollecting the Form ‘equality’ and concluding they are the same length, width and distance apart. The conclusion then is that because we can recognize/remember the Form of ‘equality’, our soul existed before our bodies, and consequently it will exist afterwards. Hence, the soul is immortal.
Interestingly, despite the willingness of Plato to change his opinions throughout his works, the Theory of Recollection seems to be the one he particularly cares to develop, rather than disregard. What is more of a passing thought in the Meno becomes an intrinsic part of his dialogues in the Phaedo. The elaboration of the concept almost appears to be a consequence of Plato himself re-reading the Meno in search of inspiration.
That said and despite Plato’s inclinations to put words into Socrates’ mouth, the concept of recollection might actually be one we can assign to the older thinker. Cebes, in fact, comments to Socrates in the Phaedo, ‘there’s also that theory you’re always putting forward, that our learning is actually nothing but recollection.”
Although the idea of recollection is vital for the Phaedo, the Phaedo itself is not purely a dialogue about recollection, but about the soul’s immortality. As it was obviously written after the death of Socrates, it could be Plato’s attempt to not only convince the philosophic community that Socrates, and his great mind, lives on, but also his endeavor to make one of the great theories of his friend and mentor persevere throughout time. And maybe that’s how Socrates really achieved his immortality…

You can read Plato’s Phaedo for yourself for free here:
https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/phaedo-by-plato/

Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates

by September 4, 2017

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of Socrates, according to Plato.
Reading Socrates’ final utterance, one could be forgiven of thinking he was a practical, material man. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, was a gentleman who shunned the physical world and all thing corporeal. An individual who dedicated his life, and eventually lost it, in pursuit of wisdom and abstract ideals such as Beauty and Justice. In a word: Spiritual… even in the modern sense of the term.
But before we proceed, we must first dispense with the essential caveats that collocate with all Platonic/Socratic texts. As always, the distinction between teacher and student is a hard line to draw, as is the influence the former had on the latter. With time though, the mentor’s exact words started to fade and were replaced by the young philosopher’s own theories. This can be seen in Plato’s Phaedo, which was conceived much later than the Apology or Crito, though it still follows the tragic story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment and eventual death.
Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

Therefore, when Socrates speaks, we should see him more and more as a puppet for Plato’s words… a sacred protagonist.
So what does Plato’s frontman do in the final hours of his life? Bewail his fate? Seek the comforts of his wife and children? Or question and prove to his companions the existence of the immortal soul? Of course we can’t know what Socrates actually did while waiting in the shadows of his imminent execution… we only know how Plato wanted to envision it.
Of course, it isn’t a large stretch to imagine a thoughtful man pondering the future of his soul considering his situation. Surely the inmates in Huntsville, Texas’ death row are contemplating the same thing with their quickly diminishing lives. Will their spirit exist once their body has deceased? And, if that life force within us escapes its prison of flesh and blood, where does it go?
To these questions Socrates posits a few of his own suggestions. To begin with, he endeavors to prove the immortality of the soul with four theories.
Socrates’ first thesis is the Argument of Opposites. Everything comes to be from its opposite, in the way that ‘Tallness’ comes to be only from ‘Shortness’. With this logic, life can only come from death and vice versa. This would imply that life and death do not have a definitive end, but exist in a perpetual cycle.
The second, more famous concept, is the Theory of Recollection, which is dealt with much more thoroughly in Plato’s Meno. This argument is that we do not learn, only remember knowledge we’ve had before we were born. It can be hard for modern readers to swallow this thought, but it is important to distinguish fact from form. Socrates is not advocating that we ‘remember’ things like: when did the Peloponnesian war begin? Especially if it did not happen until after we were conceived. Instead, it is the idea that within us is an innate, built in ability to distinguish the essential concepts of Beauty, Equality and the like.
death of socrates

The Death of Socrates

In regards to the immortality of the soul, this theory proves to Socrates and his friends that the soul existed before the body.
The third idea is the Argument of Affinity. It is the categorization of things that are invisible, indivisible and immortal versus those that are material, dissolvable and mortal. The body is of the latter, the spirit of the former. Therefore, the soul can not cease.
At this moment, the two other Pythagorean philosophers in the dialogue put Socrates on his back foot with strong rebuttals. Think about a musical instrument, says Simmias, the beauty of ‘Harmony’ only exists with the tangible structure of the lyre, same as the soul and the body. While Cebes agrees that the soul is long living and can exist after the physical form has died, he is not yet convinced that it is immortal.
Socrates concedes that these are excellent points, and so brings out his final and most formidable notion. The cornerstone of his winning argument is the Theory of the Forms. It is one of Plato’s most important contributions and it proposes that greater abstract concepts exist as immaterial and unchanging ideas, such as courage or Justice or Beauty or Goodness, and that all worldly items take in these forms.
The soul, therefore, partakes of the form of “Life” and is in fact an essential property of the soul. Consequently it can never die.
Socrates concludes his arguments with a myth that describes the concept of an afterlife. Throughout his whole conversation, however, he has sprinkled references to where he feels his spirit will go next.
Relaying: “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”
This is the reason why Socrates does not fear death. Like more contemporary believers, he is convinced that his future spiritual life will be better than his current physical existence. In fact, as a lover of wisdom and truth, his body only distracts him from finding reality.
“And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her-neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure-when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling, but is aspiring after being?”
Socrates spirituality was unlike the traditions of the Hellenic era, where the multitude of gods and the destination of Hades ruled over life and Death. Socrates never evokes the plethora of olympian dwellers. He does refer to the underworld though… he paints a hell-like finale for those who spent their life impurely and committed to the physical.
And so, knowing his life has been dedicated to finding the truth, and that his soul will live forever in a heaven like residence, Socrates bathes, bids his farewells, takes his hemlock and dies.
“Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates” was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder

by August 24, 2017

Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what is ‘Just’. Is it defined by laws and men or is it something separate, something ideal? When one is wrongfully imprisoned, for example, is it okay to escape, to break the “law” as it is written? This was the quandary in which Socrates found himself when facing an unfair death sentence.
Crito by PlatoOf course, we can’t be sure which ideas actually belong to Socrates or to Plato. We only know that Crito, the second defense of Socrates, was written after the events took place. Even if Socrates did utter the words contained therein, it was a secondhand account at best. Chronologically though, it follows Socrates’ trial as seen in the Apology and slots in before his final death in Phaedo.
Crito is actually the shortest of these three dialogues, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to understand.
In it, Plato attempts to find justice in an unjust action. He wants to reconcile the injustice of his beloved friend’s execution with the respect that he has for the city and its laws. Certainly that is no simple feat, and one that some might say Plato did not entirely accomplish.
To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words – laws vs. Laws, respectively. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize mere laws to kill him.
We begin the dialogue with Socrates in his cell, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend, Crito, has found him asleep and, impressed by his quiet slumber, does not want to wake him up to face his unfortunate reality. When finally Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic to make his case.
He begins, perhaps, with a selfish point. Should Socrates allow himself to be killed, others will think his friends were not loose enough with their purses to rescue him. Crito makes clear that Socrates need not worry about his friends’ welfare or wallets. The provocative philosopher has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.
Crito’s second argument addresses the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. By fulfilling their decision, Socrates is acting unjustly. By refusing to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This, says Crito, is morally wrong.
Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.
Statue of SocratesHe beseeches: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.
As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he deny his own progeny his lessons?
Socrates, in turn, counters these arguments with his own. He attacks Crito’s concern for public approval, responding that the only opinions that matter, are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”
The matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be unrighteous.
Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.
The Laws take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would collapse as well. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. He argues allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…
Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time, but chose not to.
Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

The fact that the Laws are personified in Crito is important for our understanding of the “social compact” as viewed by Socrates. This is not Rousseau’s famous social contract, though it does at first appear that way. In the 18th century concept, the state or sovereign is a direct consequence of the people’s general will. Therefore, the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live together under the same laws. For Plato, however, this agreement is not made between citizens. It’s made between the individual citizen and the Laws – an entity in and of itself.
For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is also an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, “Yes, that is chair,” having in our minds a form of what a chair is.
In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, according to Socrates, but a law can be unjustly used.
This is how Plato tries to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. By acquiescing to the injustice, Socrates upheld the Laws and Justice and therefore, the State built upon them. Failure to do so would have destroyed all the ideals, truths and forms he held dear. This is why Socrates had to die.
 
Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder – Classical Wisdom Weekly was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates the Prophet?

by June 17, 2015

By Van Bryan
I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of Strands bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf at random in the history/ philosophy section. It was an introduction to Socratic thought and the life of Socrates.
Sounds good to me.
I remember that in the Foreword the author had,
SocratesWas Socrates a Prophet?
somewhat capriciously I thought, referred to Socrates as “the Christ of Greece.” The author didn’t bother to add any real clarification to this statement and I was rather taken aback by the absence of any substantiating evidence. It was as if I was just supposed to accept that statement in the same way I might accept the statement “Dublin is the capital of Ireland.” In other words, I got the impression that the author believed such a statement to be demonstrable, unimpeachable; and here I was, some senseless boob who just hadn’t gotten the memo.
But you can’t just compare Socrates to Christ and then expect everybody to move on from there! At the very least give me a few paragraphs to go off of so I can write a decent article.
The author did not, unfortunately, bring up the topic again, so far as I could tell. And I never bought that book so I don’t have the luxury of a second look.
I know that this might turn out to be a rather controversial column. Still, this is a newsletter dedicated to all you classical lovers, and budding classical lovers, so I figure that question is as good as any to discuss in a weekend newsletter. Was Socrates, after all, a prophet?
The word “prophet” comes from the ancient Greek word “profétés” (προφήτης), which is a derivative of pró (before) and phēmí (I tell). In the context of ancient Greece, a prophet would have been someone who, among other things, interpreted the words of the oracles, the holy priestesses who were said to commune with the gods and speak on their behalf.
If this were our sole understanding of a prophet, then there certainly is evidence that Socrates was indeed one. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts how the Oracle of Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Greece. Hoping to make sense of such a claim, Socrates embarks on a quest to find others who are wiser than he.
Oracle at DelphiThe Oracle of Delphi, by
John Collier
What follows is Socrates retelling how he had met with various artists, poets and politicians who, while appearing to be wise, knew very little. Moreover, these people did not even know how much they did not know, instead associating their false beliefs with absolute knowledge.
From this, Socrates draws the conclusion that true knowledge is recognition of ignorance. Socrates, like the artists and poets, does not know anything truly and definitively. However, unlike the artists and poets, Socrates recognizes this and is better for it. We see now that Socrates is truly wise because he does not believe he is wise.
While slightly paradoxical, this idea has been championed through the centuries among philosophers. By coming to such a conclusion, Socrates interpreted the words of the oracle and is, at least according to the ancient Greek meaning, a prophet.
However, this is not what we truly mean when we ask if Socrates is a prophet. Instead, our understanding of a “prophet” is probably closer in line with the ancient Hebrew word “navi” (נָבִיא) which traditionally translates to mean a teacher or mentor who is divinely inspired and labors amongst his people to bring them a better understanding of morality, virtue, or to instill in them some divine truth that was otherwise unknown.

And even here, there is some evidence to suggest that Socrates might fit this description.
“Virtue is knowledge”, is Socrates’ great maxim. He who comes to understand the knowledge that underlies his actions will be better for it. By understanding truly the ideas of “Justice”, “Wisdom”, “Virtue”, and so on, we will be better suited to live according to these axioms and improve ourselves and our souls.

Socrates may very well have been a teacher of righteousness to the Athenians, and we can see that he went about his mission with a burning zeal that could not be quenched even by the prospect of death.
Moreover, Socrates may also have been divinely inspired. Within Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a heavenly voice speaks to him from time to time and guides him away from wickedness and towards righteousness and philosophical study. This voice, which is commonly known as a “daemon”, is the reason Socrates began his philosophical career in the first place. The voice prompted him away from politics and public life and towards a life of contemplation and dialectic.
“This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am planning to do, but never commands me to do anything.”-Socrates (Plato’s Apology)
At this point, it is probably important that we recognize that the story of Socrates is a type of fiction. That isn’t to say, however, that it is untrue. The tale of a simple craftsman with a keen mind and an aversion to nonsense who goes about challenging the prevailing paradigm of knowledge and truth, and who is ultimately
Socrates
executed for his troublesome nature is all too familiar for us. It’s the same story that has been told time and time again in undergraduate philosophy classes and found in the pages of every meaningful piece of philosophical literature since about the fourth century BC.
However, because we become acquainted with Socrates through the works of his students, specifically Plato, there is no way of knowing how much of Socrates the man lines up with Socrates the icon. Within each of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, the superior argument invariably ends up in the mouth of Socrates, while the other philosophical combatants, who are thought to represent the prevailing ideas of 5th century Athens, appear shortsighted and flawed to a modern reader.
As a result of this, we tend to scoff at the Athenians who persecuted Socrates. How foolish those ancients must have been to execute such a fine and noble teacher like Socrates! His death takes on a feel of martyrdom and therefore the idea that he might have been a prophet gains credence.
However, what we often do not realize is that Socrates was, in many ways, attempting to undo the mortar of the classical Greek world and topple a cultural paradigm that had, up until this point, created one of the greatest societies the world had ever seen. It is possible then that he was not a prophet at all, but a bona fide threat to the Greek way of life.
What do I mean by this? Tune in next week to continue this discussion and find out for yourself.

Introducing Plato and the Theaetetus

by June 10, 2015

By Samuel Gren
Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly partner

A.N. Whitehead once characterized Western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and he did so with good reason. Plato established the framework for a host of philosophical
PlatoPlato, Author of Theaetetus
disciplines—from logic and mathematics to ethics and religion—and his thought continues to shape philosophical discussion today.
A philosopher of Classical Greece, Plato lived during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Key to understanding Plato’s thought is recognizing the place of his teacher, Socrates, in his dialogues. Plato was Socrates’ best student, and since Socrates never penned any of teachings, we only know of Socrates and his thought through his students such as Plato (or Xenophon, for example, also a student who wrote about Socrates).
Socrates often taught in the agora of Athens (the city square or marketplace), attracting youth like Plato through his use of the Socratic Method–a mode of instruction in which the teacher engages her student through series of questions and answers, or dialogical exchange.
Unlike traditional classroom teaching styles, the Socratic Method actively involves the student in the pedagogical process. The teacher draws the desired conclusion from her student by framing issues in a way that uncovers contradictions in the student’s thought, or leads her to new insights. Socrates plays this role in Plato’s dialogues, seeking to bring Greek youth to philosophical truth through the use of this method. Let’s see how this plays out in one of Plato’s most well-known dialogues: the Theaetetus.
 
The Theaetetus: Outline and Concepts
The Theaetetus opens by introducing two individuals, Euclid and Terpsion, who meet after searching for each other in the agora. We learn that Euclid recently encountered another individual, Theaetetus (the dialogue’s namesake), who had been recently wounded in battle and was thus on the verge of death. This triggers for Euclid his memory of having witnessed a conversation between Socrates and Theaetetus earlier in life—a conversation that Euclid later recorded. Excited to learn of this, Terpsion suggests that Euclid’s servant read the dialogue to them as he recovers from his travels. And so the dialogue begins.
We first learn that the framing question of the Theaetetus has to do with the theory of
SocratesSocrates is a central character in the dialouge and provides the framing question “what is knowledge?”
knowledge, or with what philosophers today call epistemology—the philosophical investigation of how we come to know anything at all. Socrates asks Theaetetus the central question of epistemology: “What is knowledge?” In contrast to most of his dialogues, Plato doesn’t present Socrates as having an answer to this question in the Theaetetus. Instead, as the dialogue unfolds, Socrates simply demonstrates how three common answers to this question are false. While this might seem strange for us as readers (don’t philosophers try to answer “big questions” rather than complicate them?), it’s best to consider this dialogue as a ground-clearing exercise for Plato. He will provide a positive account of knowledge in a related dialogue called the Sophist.
Before leading Theaetetus through an exploration of the three possible answers to the question, Socrates characterizes his mode of instruction (the Socratic Method) as a kind of midwifery. Theatetus tells Socrates that the question, “What is knowledge?” is difficult and makes him feel anxious. Socrates replies: “These are the pangs of labor, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing to birth.” Socrates serves here as midwife to Theaetetus as he gives birth to philosophical insight. Like the midwife, Socrates is skilled in the “art” of facilitating this kind of birth; however, his task is more “important” than the midwife, for he deals not with the birth of children but with the birth of truth. Socrates thus guides Theaetetus through the pain of thinking through the question regarding the nature of knowledge.
As the dialogue continues, Theaetetus proposes three answers to the question regarding knowledge. As before, Socrates complicates each answer by demonstrating their falsity. Theaetetus first equates knowledge with sense perception in saying that “to know” is simply “to perceive.” Through a lengthy exchange, Socrates brings Theaetetus to the realization that sense perception cannot yield instances of knowledge beyond what we perceive about the world at any given moment. For one individual, a blowing wind may feel cold, while to another the same wind feels warm; to a healthy Socrates, a particular wine will taste sweet, whereas to a Socrates in ill health, the same wine tastes sour. Sense perception clearly leads to contradicting claims regarding reality and thus cannot serve as the basis for knowledge.
Theaetetus thus proposes that knowledge is not just perception but true judgment, or true belief. To this Socrates considers the case of a jury who has been convinced by a lawyer of a true position. He maintains that even if the lawyer has successfully persuaded them to assent to a true position, they do not have knowledge, as they’ve simply relied on the lawyer’s testimony. Who’s to say that the lawyer isn’t simply gifted in the arts of persuasion and has convinced the jury of a falsehood? The jury would never be in a position to distinguish true from false beliefs in this case.
PericlesSocrates argues that persuasion through rhetoric is not the same as true knowledge
Theaetetus replies by proposing that knowledge is true judgment and an explanation as to why one holds to such judgment. Through an analysis of what it might mean to provide an explanation for one’s beliefs, Socrates holds that even here knowledge cannot be found. Explanations generally seek to understand an object in terms of its parts, such that an understanding of these parts is held to constitute an explanation of the object as a whole.
Socrates maintains that this notion of explanation fails to get at the essence of an object. Perhaps then explanations require that we understand how a thing is different from other things. This position, however, requires that we understand what the thing in question is in the first place, so neither will this account of explanation work.

Considered together, these examples show that an account of judgment as knowledge cannot simply appeal to the additional presence of an explanation—there’s more to say.
Socrates and Theaetetus thus conclude that each of these proposals are insufficient. Yet, they maintain that they are wiser for at least having considered each proposal in turn. Socrates bids Theaetetus farewell, but not before asking him to meet the following day to talk further. As we will see later, the conversation is far from over.

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