Review: Protagoras & Meno

Review: Protagoras & Meno

ProtagorasProtagoras by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited

In style the Protagoras is intermediate between the questioning Socrates of the early dialogues and the doctrinizing Socrates of the Gorgias. Here, Socrates is not only concerned in revealing the confusion of common notions, but also in advancing his own theories; yet the dialogue ends on an inconclusive note and, what is more, the ideas that Socrates advances are not the ones we recognize as Plato’s own mature philosophy.

As in the Gorgias, Socrates enters a gathering of sophists and their admirers, with the intent of questioning the practice of Sophism. Unlike Gorgias the rhetorician, however, Protagoras the sophist proves himself to be a formidable opponent. Indeed, in the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras has the upper hand, effectively resolving Socrates’ doubts regarding the teachability of virtue.

Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, because, if virtue is teachable, then why do good men have bad sons? And why are their no specialists in virtue, as there are specialists in medicine and carpentry? Protagoras counters, first, with a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that it was a gift of Zeus to all humans. Thus everyone is capable of virtue, and everyone is a teacher of virtue according to her ability; indeed you might say that virtue is taught all the time every day, just like Greek is. To illustrate the point, Protagoras uses a thought experiment involving a society where everyone played the flute. In such a society, some good men would likely have sons who were subpar flute players; but even the worst player in that society would likely be adept relative to a non flute-based society.

To drive home the point, Protagoras observes that punishment would be unreasonable if virtue were not teachable. For to punish as pure retribution is irrational and beastly—naked vengeance, which may satisfy anger but which will not undo any past wrongs. Punishment can only be rational if it is directed towards the future: to correct the wrongdoer and to discourage any others from following her example. The fact that the Athenians punish therefore proves that they believe that virtue can be taught.

Socrates uncharacteristically declares himself wholly satisfied and convinced by this answer. But one doubt remains: Are the parts of virtue, such as wisdom, courage, or piety, all independent, or are they all different names for the same basic thing? Protagoras at first asserts them to be different; a person may be courageous but impious, for example. However, Socrates trips him up with a question about opposites. Does everything have only one opposite? Yes, says Protagoras. So everything that is not wise is foolish? Of course. Then it is possible for piety to be foolish? At this Protagoras hesitates, and attempts to stop the conversation. Meanwhile, Socrates puts forth his doctrine that virtue is knowledge, specifically knowledge of pleasure and pain; and that this knowledge allows us to accurately estimate the pleasant and painful consequences of actions, and to make the best choice. (Plato would not persist with this position.)

In the course of this argument, Socrates and Protagoras have a dispute about the length of their responses. After Protagoras gives a little speech in answer to a question, Socrates professes himself too forgetful to follow long utterances, and requests that Protagoras stick with short answers. (This request is made to Gorgias, too.) Protagoras bristles at this and wants to quit; it takes the surrounding party to convince him to carry on. This seems to have been one of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) main complaints against the sophists, namely that they conceal poor reasoning in extended eloquent speeches. Plato also takes the opportunity to poke fun at those who argue by quoting and interpreting poems, putting a long and wholly implausible interpretation of a poem in Socrates’ mouth, thus illustrating that with sufficient ingenuity any meaning can be extracted from any poem.

The combatants disperse as friends and Socrates lives to argue another day.

MenoMeno by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Reading this dialogue immediately after reading the Protagoras confronts the reader with the mystery of Plato. For here are two dialogues, both about the same questions—What is virtue? Can it be taught?—and coming to opposite conclusions. And this leads to still more questions: Was Plato’s own opinion changing? Or was he representing Socrates’ opinions in one dialogue and his own opinions in another? Or did Socrates’ own opinion change? Or is it some other mixture of reported and original thought? It is impossible to know the answer—but that has never stopped philosophers.

The Meno is a fine example of Plato’s economy. Not a word is wasted in this dialogue. We begin with the inquiry and jump straight into difficulties. Can virtue be taught? Well, what is virtue? Meno says that each type of person has their own virtue—women, men, slaves, citizens, children, adults, and so on. To which Socrates responds that these virtues, qua being virtues, must all have at least one quality in common. (Here Wittgenstein would interject.) Then Meno throws up his hands, declares himself stunned, and offers his famous paradox (quoted above).

Socrates weasels his way out of this with the Platonic doctrine of remembrance. What if we are born (rather, reborn) already filled with true knowledge, and must merely remember what our souls learned during their sojourns in heaven. He demonstrates by leading one of Meno’s young slaves through a mathematical demonstration of square roots. By making the correct deductions, the boy is able to find the right conclusions, from which Socrates concludes that the boy “knew” the information all along. (Though this conclusion will likely strike most of us as absurd, one must keep in mind that, for Plato, all empirical knowledge—knowledge gained through the senses—was not truly knowledge at all, since the observed world changes, but the Truth remains forever eternal.)

The slave boy retreats, enlightened but not emancipated (depressingly, not even great thinkers had scruples about slavery back then), and Socrates and Meno return to the original question. Anytus the politician then appears, whom Socrates uses to prove that the sons of great men are often rather ordinary as far as virtue is concerned, which prompts Anytus to warn Socrates not to slander citizens (he would later be an accuser of Socrates during his trial). There are two possible explanations for this: Either virtue cannot be taught, in which case it is not knowledge; or these great men did not themselves possess the knowledge of virtue.

This second option is pursued by Socrates, who makes a delicate division between “knowledge” and “true opinion.” These may sound identical, but for Socrates the latter is distinguished by not being properly justified. If, for example, I guess that a book of poetry is under the table, and it is under the table, I have true opinion, since I was correct, but not knowledge, since my being correct was fortuitous. Socrates concludes that these great men acted virtuously from true opinion—vouchsafed by the gods—and not real knowledge, since they could not transmit their virtue.

As a teacher myself, I cannot help being interested in the questions of this dialogue. For me, the fundamental paradox was aptly summed up by Gibbon: “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” That is, teaching will most benefit those who least need teachers, since they are motivated to learn on their own, and vice versa. This seems to apply as much to mathematics as it does to virtue. Can a virtuous Hadrian whip a vicious Commodus into shape? I am skeptical. And yet, it is this quixotic task I have set before me.

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Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the most iconic of Plato’s works, the closest thing that philosophy has to a Sermon on the Mount. And just as with our Biblical narratives, the dialogue presents a historical difficulty. To what extent is this speech fact, and to what extent invention? The only other record we have of the trial is from Xenophon, who wasn’t even there. Plato was there—or at least he asserts that he was—and yet it beggars belief that the young, would-be amanuensis could retain the entire speech in his mind after one hearing, or that he could write it down with tolerable accuracy as the events unfolded. It seems far more likely (to me at least) that this speech is more or less a fabrication made well after the fact, attempting to preserve the flavor and impression of Socrates’ final speech but not the exact words themselves.

All speculation notwithstanding, the essential facts are preserved: Socrates was accused of denying the gods and of corrupting the youth, made a bold and waggish defense of himself, was convicted, refused to mitigate the consequences, and triumphantly accepted the death penalty. Yet what really emerges from this speech is not a record of events but the portrait of a man.

Here Plato reveals himself to be a writer of the highest order. Fact or fiction, Plato’s Socrates is one of the great characters of literature. Though Socrates’ life is at stake, he does not falter for a moment. He treats the accusations with amusement, dismissing them with playful arguments that reveal his absolute indifference to the outcome. Far from bowing and scraping to preserve his life, Socrates flaunts his superiority to his accusers, couching his boasts in an ironical humility. He is a man in perfect control of himself and in perfect peace with the world.

Even if the real Socrates was truly this remarkable, it would have taken a writer of exquisite talent to effectively render him in prose. And if this is largely Plato’s invention, we must rank him along with Shakespeare, for Socrates utters now-famous phrases nearly as quickly as Hamlet. Western philosophy could not have asked for a more rousing beginning.

CritoCrito by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saga of Socrates’ trial and death continues. This time his friend, Crito, visits him in his cell to try to persuade him to escape into exile. Socrates is true to form, insisting that nothing—not the reputation of himself or his friend, nor concern for his own life—ought to be considered except reason. Crito must attempt to persuade Socrates to escape. The dialogue ends with the famous personification of the Laws of Athens, in the course of which Plato hits upon one of the earliest formulations of the social contract: by living in Athens, Socrates implicitly agrees to be bound by her laws. Since Socrates’ enjoyed the benefits of the laws, he must accept their penalties.

More so than in the Apology, one feels here that this is Plato’s invention and not something that actually occurred. The dialogue seems especially crafted to rehabilitate Socrates’ reputation, portraying the old philosopher as a dutiful citizen with a patriotic love of Athens. As a piece of drama the dialogue is one of Plato’s finest. It has considerable philosophic importance, too, for its aforementioned prefiguring of the social contract. Nevertheless I confess that I find Socrates’ reasoning extremely thin. Surely laws may be unjust; and a law may be just in itself and yet unjust or mistaken in its execution. If that is so, should the citizen passively accept it simply because it is the law? One senses the fine Socratic irony here, too, arguing playfully rather than sincerely. Socrates surely had compelling reasons to accept his death—but one doubts that pure patriotic regard of law was the whole of it.

CharmidesCharmides by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the early inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Socrates, just come back from fighting in the Peloponnesian War, meets two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides. The latter of these is portrayed as a handsome youth, graceful of form and pure of mind. (Ironically enough, after the disastrous defeat of Athens in the war, both Critias and Charmides went on to become members of the Thirty Tyrants.) Socrates takes the opportunity to question Charmides about a Greek term that is rather unsatisfactorily translated into English as “temperance.”

The conversation takes many twists and turns, following the normal Socratic procedure: a definition is proposed (in this case, living quietly), an exception to the definition is found, a new one is proposed, and the process continues. As often happens in these early dialogues, the conversants seem to only get further from the point the longer they speak, getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of dialectic. Here we also see a quality that commonly irks readers of Plato, the tendency of Socrates’ interlocutors to give their unwavering assent to whatever rhetorical question, thought experiment, or logical distinction that Socrates poses, even when obviously fallacious. We also see Plato’s early tendency to get wrapped up in merely verbal confusions that hardly make sense when translated.

In any case, the dialogue takes an interesting turn when Critias proposes that temperance is a kind of meta-knowledge, the knowledge of knowledge. But how could we know for sure whether we knew something or not? And besides, how would that knowledge be useful? Merely knowing that we knew the art of medicine, for example, would be inconsequential compared to the knowledge of medicine itself. But how could temperance be inconsequential knowledge, if it is an important and noble attribute? The dialogue proceeds thus, seeming to intentionally confuse the issue through its series of involutions. But Plato will return to these questions with a vengeance.

LachesLaches by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is another of the inconclusive dialogues. Socrates is asked by a couple of older men, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether to educate their sons in the art of fighting in armor. Socrates characteristically shifts the theme to a more abstract inquiry: What is courage? Commonsense definitions—such as “to stand and fight” or “to endure”—are quickly eliminated as admitting of exceptions. Nicias, a well-educated general, then proposes that courage is a certain kind of knowledge: that of future good and evil. After further dialectical maneuvering, the conversants find that they have gotten too general and have defined all of virtue and goodness, while leaving the specific nature of courage undefined. Socrates shrugs his shoulders and they break for lunch.

Though the question of courage is of somewhat limited philosophical interest, I do think that Plato hits upon the oft-overlooked role of knowledge (or lack of knowledge) in this seemingly physical or emotional virtue. This is characteristic of Plato, of course, for whom knowledge and goodness are tightly linked. Argument aside, the well-drawn characters of this dialogue are yet another example of Plato’s talent as a dramatist.

LysisLysis by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This dialogue is normally grouped along with Laches and Charmides as an early, inconclusive dialogue. They are also alike in providing amusing portraits of life in Athens. This dialogue, for example, has a humorous beginning. Ctesippus complains to Socrates that Hippothales is always going on about his great love for the beautiful youth, Lysis, and composing horrid love poems in honor of his beloved. Socrates chides Hippothales and professes to demonstrate the correct way to speak to a beloved. What commences from this, however, is a rather ordinary Socratic interrogation—this time about the relationship of privilege to knowledge—which I doubt was very useful to the would-be wooer.

The topic of the dialogue then abruptly shifts to the nature of friendship. My general impression from reading Ancient Greek writings it that friendship was a far more important institution for the Greeks than it is for us. In any case Socrates and his interlocutors make little headway with this seemingly obvious problem. Is friendship the attraction of like to like? of like to unlike? of good to good? of neutral to good?—and so on, until they call it quits. I do think that the nature of friendship, which we are wont to take for granted, is an interesting topic to explore. But this dialogue contains, at best, only suggestions for future investigation.

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This work hardly merits the term “dialogue,” being mainly taken up by a lengthy speech. Socrates professes to have learned a funeral oration from a woman named Apia, who was Pericles’ consort. Plato seems to have been simultaneously parodying the practice of giving these speeches, but also proving his superiority to other writers of the genre, particularly Thucydides. If it was Plato’s goal to best the historian, he fell far short; and nowadays the speech reads like a silly rhetorical exercise, albeit of some historic importance.

IonIon by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lovely little dialogue, one of Plato’s shortest works, involves Socrates and the rhapsode, Ion. Ion is a rhapsode, which means that he recites, embellishes, and interprets poetry. In Ion’s case he is specialized in Homer, and admits that he knows nothing about any other poet. Socrates pounces upon this. How is it possible to master the best and most difficult of something, and leave the rest untouched? Also, how can Ion give sensible interpretations of the events of Homer’s poetry, when he does not have any of the skills—fishing, sailing, leading armies, and so on—mentioned in the poems?
Ion is not the brightest fellow, and is not able to give any sensible answer to these questions.

Socrates presses his point that Ion has no real knowledge and instead practices his art through inspiration. This, of course, is a famous Platonic assertion, which reappears many times throughout his works. However, I find his reasoning supremely unconvincing here. There is no absurdity in only understanding Homer and no other poet; poetry is not mathematics, with the more complex manifestations derived from the simpler. Further, there is no absurdity in being able to interpret a poetic passage about fishing while knowing fairly little about fishing itself. These ideas apparently did not occur to Ion (or Plato). But the simplicity of Ion, who is oblivious to Socrates’ irony, is winsome enough to make this a delightful read.

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Euthyphro begins the story of the trial and death of Socrates. It is one of Plato’s best known and, I think, best executed pieces. Here we see the Socratic dialogue form stripped to its bare essentials, with only two speakers, one problem, and minimal framing. Socrates is on his way to his trial; he has been accused, among other things, of impiety. He meets Euthyphro, a soothsayer, who is on his way to his own trial; he is prosecuting his father for murder, after his father’s negligence led to the death of a worker who had, himself, killed a slave. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he can be sure that this prosecution is the right thing to do, which leads to a discussion of piety.

The argument takes many turns, of course, but boils down to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: Is an action pious because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is pious? While this may seem like mere sophistry, the implications of this question are immensely destructive to theistic ethical codes. For if morality exists independently of God (or, in other words, if we can know what is right or wrong without consulting the divine will) why consider God the fountain of good? And if morality is defined by the will of a God, how can we know what that will is? Perhaps via revelation: but then how distinguish legitimate and fake revelation? For if morality had no existence except the will of God, then no revelation, however apparently abominable, could be discounted. And since eyewitness testimony is nefariously unreliable, virtually no test would be able to unequivocally determine which “revelation” was to be followed. The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that good and bad can be distinguished without any supernatural considerations.

Euthyphro is, thus, of immense philosophical interest. It is also a dramatic masterpiece. Socrates’ ironic demeanor in dealing with the dense Euthyphro is delicious. Perhaps in no other work has Plato so convincingly shown the contrast between the reflective and the non-reflective mind. I continually found myself chuckling as I read. Yet again I am amazed that Plato, who started the Western philosophic tradition, remains its most able writer.

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Review: Gorgias

Review: Gorgias

GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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