Sorry for the lack of posts lately, I’ve devoted most of my reading/writing energy of late to a project on Socrates and the classroom, so I haven’t had the hunger for miscellaneous posts. But I have been thinking about Socrates a lot, so I’ve decided to use this space as a sort of vent for incomplete but comprehensible ideas. The past few days I worked my way through a collection of Plato’s early dialogues: Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias major and minor, and Euthydemus. I really enjoy the dialogue format, but Socrates is mostly a jackass.
A good way to see what’s really going on in the Socratic conversation, I’ve found, is to remove Socrates from the conversation in the manner of “Garfield Minus Garfield.” If you’ve never seen these comics, they’re definitely worth a look (or more probably 45 minutes once you get started). Without the cat, the comic strip is about an incredibly lonely guy at the brink of insanity. This is, of course, what the comic is about with the cat as well.
Here’s a section of “Euthydemus,” in which Socrates and Crito are discussing kingship as the supreme science. But as you see, “they” aren’t really talking about anything:
Crito: You can say that again, Socrates.
Crito: Necessarily, Socrates.
Crito: Yes, that was what you said.
Crito: Fair enough – at least, that was your conclusion in the earlier part of the discussion, as you reported it.
Crito: Why not, Socrates?
Crito: I wouldn’t say that, Socrates.
Crito: By all means.
Crito: Good heavens, Socrates! You apparently reached quite an impasse.”
This is a few pages in the dialogue, but without Socrates, all that’s left is a bobbing head. So much for the dialectics of the classroom, one side of this conversation is almost pure affirmation. There are no sections in which the roles are reversed completely, the closest the dialogue comes is when Euthydemus demands that Socrates give yes/no answers and he finds himself unable to win the argument and answer that way at the same time. So he doesn’t give yes/no answers. Socrates has conversations like this one in almost all his dialogues, in which he’s basically articulating a positive philosophy in the interrogative. If Socrates doesn’t know anything as he claims (except for the erotic in The Symposium), then how is there anything being discussed in this section, since Crito simply affirms the ignorant Socrates? By subtracting Socrates from the dialogue, we reveal the kind of teaching taking place and the Socratic method’s positive content.