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The True Story of Socrates

(1400 words, 5 minutes to read)

Almost every introductory philosophy class reads a few of the Socratic Dialogues, written by Plato. These stories usually explore some deep philosophical concept like Love, Honor, or Morality, through a discussion between Socrates (the philosopher protagonist of the stories, and usually the winner of the argument) and some other famous Greek thinker or nobleman.

Take for example the dialogue Meno. Meno is a man from the Greek region of Thessaly, and is well-versed in the Sophist tradition and the teachings of Gorgias (another well-known philosopher). Socrates argues with Meno on the nature of virtue, which Socrates asks Meno to define for him. Meno first says that virtues are not one but legion, that virtue for a man, for a woman, for a child, for a slave, are all different. Socrates explains that if they’re all still “virtue”, they share something in common; what is it? Meno tries again, but ends up naming a different multitude:

Courage and temperance and wisdom and magnanimity are virtues; and there are many others.

Socrates is predictably unsatisfied.

This goes on for a while. After several of Meno’s attempts are shown to be faulty, Socrates himself tries to extract some properties of virtue; he gets pretty far before eventually proclaiming his ignorance and leaving (that’s what he does in many dialogues). He concludes:

Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God. But we shall never know the certain truth until, before asking how virtue is given, we enquire into the actual nature of virtue.

So, we can know someone to be virtuous but we don’t (possibly can’t) know what virtue is; even virtuous people don’t know.

It’s one of my favorite Socratic Dialogues, and I think we can learn a lot from it. Socrates and Meno dance around the topic of virtue, but along the way they discuss the nature of learning, and formulate a primitive definition of knowledge (an important step towards a fully fleshed-out epistemology that won’t exist for hundreds of years):

Soc. Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as knowledge; and that was the point which we omitted in our speculation about the nature of virtue, when we said that knowledge only is the guide of right action; whereas there is also right opinion.

Men. True.

Soc. Then right opinion is not less useful than knowledge?

Men. The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and sometimes not.

Socrates even seems to stumble upon some basic economic principles:

A mender of old shoes, or patcher up of clothes, who made the shoes or clothes worse than he received them, could not have remained thirty days undetected, and would very soon have starved…

One of my favorite passages illustrates a very interesting line of argument, in a Socratic style that is widely emulated today (long passage coming):

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

To this day I take this argument very seriously, that no person really truly desires evil (though many are confused about what is good).

//

Here are some things that matter about the dialogue between Meno and Socrates:

  • What can we modern people learn about virtue from their discussion? Can we derive any tips or tools for arguing well? Or for living well?
  • In what way is knowledge better than true belief?
  • Is the argument that no man truly desires evil sound? And are the premises true? If no man truly desires evil, how do we explain the evil in the world?

Any of these is perfect fodder for an interesting philosophical discussion. What’s more, the answers to these questions matter for how to best live our lives. People complain that philosophy isn’t useful, but what could be more useful than to know what virtue is?

Here’s an additional fact: nobody really knows whether the character Socrates in the story really existed (see the Socratic Problem). Or, to be more precise, there very likely was an Athenian man named Socrates, who lived during 5th century BCE and was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. But did this person really talk with a man called Meno about the nature of virtue? We don’t know! It’s possible that Plato just made it up!

If Plato really did make the whole conversation up, Meno is a great piece of philosophical prose that inspires the reader in exploration of interesting and important themes; if he didn’t, and instead the conversation really did take place and Plato wrote it down word-for-word, then it’s a great piece of philosophical history that accomplishes the same ends. For me, a modern person reading it for insights, the difference between these scenarios approaches zero. In the end, the fact about whether the conversation Really Happened is the least interesting thing about the whole story.

Further, suppose I started out believing that the Meno constituted the most important philosophical work in history, and also that the dialogue described there literally happened. And then some historian comes along and tells me that, no sorry, the dialogue was made up. I still get to believe the Meno is as important and insightful as before; it’s literal veracity is orthogonal to its importance and to the insights it brings. This is because none of the interesting discussion points or life lessons above depend in any way on the answer to the Socratic Problem.

More controversially: replace the Meno example above with many stories in the Bible, and my argument will remains pretty much the same. Whether Noah was, Really Literally, a man who built a boat to weather a global flood with two animals of each kind is the least interesting thing about that story. The part that has lasting impact is the part that teaches me useful lessons and provides valuable insights; the literal veracity bears zero weight on how best to live a life.

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