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Catherine H. Zuckert-Plato’s Presentation Of Socrates

Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Catherine H. Zuckert’ impressive and seminal ‘Plato’s Philosophers’, University of Chicago Press-2012 paperback edition. Book Part III, Conclusion, part III.


About the book, from the back cover: Faced with the difficult task of discerning Plato’s true ideas from the contradictory voices he used to express them, scholars have never fully made sense of the many incompatibilities within and between the dialogues. In the magisterial Plato’s Philosophers, Catherine Zuckert explains for the first time how these prose dramas cohere to reveal a comprehensive Platonic understanding of philosophy.

To expose this coherence, Zuckert examines the dialogues not in their supposed order of composition but according to the dramatic order in which Plato indicates they took place. This unconventional arrangement lays bare a narrative of the rise, development, and limitations of Socratic philosophy. In the drama’s earliest dialogues, for example, non-Socratic philosophers introduce the political and philosophical problems to which Socrates tries to respond. A second dramatic group shows how Socrates develops his distinctive philosophical style. And, finally, the later dialogues feature interlocutors who reveal his philosophy’s limitations. Despite these limitations, Zuckert concludes, Plato made Socrates the dialogues’ central figure because Socrates raises the fundamental human question: what is the best way to live?

Plato’s dramatization of Socratic imperfections suggests, moreover, that he recognized the apparently unbridgeable gap between our understandings of human life and the nonhuman world. At a time when this gap continues to raise questions about the division between sciences and the humanities and the potentially dehumanizing effects of scientific progress Zuckert’s brilliant interpretation of the entire Platonic corpus offers genuinely new insights into worlds past and present.


The excerpt: Conclusion-III. Plato’s Presentation of Socrates

‘By showing the way in which Socrates examined the opinions of other individuals, especially about the noble and the good, in private in Athens, Plato self-conscious and intentionally presented a new form of education-political as well as philosophical. Socrates did not attend to reform his associates by means of legislation. On the contrary, he showed why such attempts would never truly work. Plato admitted that Socrates did not convince, much less reform, most of the individuals to whom he spoke. Socrates nevertheless demonstrated, both in deed and in speech, how a human being could become truly virtuous.

As he emphasizes in the ‘Apology’, Socrates devoted his life first and foremost to his philosophical investigations. But unlike the philosophers by the same name in Aristophanes’ comedy, Plato’s Socrates did not forget that he was a human being or mortal. On the contrary, he recognized that he was a man as well as a citizen by having a family (and generating future citizens). He also served in the military and participated in public debates when required by the law to do so. He clearly subordinated these more general obligations to his higher calling, but he did not deny their importance or refuse to fulfill these lesser duties. As he explains in both ‘Republic’ and the ‘Apology’, he did not go into the assembly and try to change the laws or government of Athens, because he did not think he could do so and survive. Recognizing that he would soon die in any case, he did attempt at the end of his life to affect two and only two changes in the laws of Athens (as well as those of other cities). The first and narrowest change he proposed was that his city not make decisions in capital cases in a single day. Serious decisions should be made as dispassionately as possible. The laws should thus seek to give judges time to deliberate, to reconsider their first impressions, and to allow their passions to cool. Second, and much more broadly, Socrates sought to convince Athens (as Plato sought to convince other cities, more generally by means of his writing) not to outlaw philosophy.

As presented by Plato, Socratic philosophy did not challenge or undermine the rule of law. On the contrary, Plato shows that Socratic examinations were designed to lead political ambitious young men to see why they needed to take account of the necessities and desires of others, that is to be just. Socratic examination demonstrably did not always have the beneficent effects desired. The conversations Socrates held about virtue were not a substitute for legal regulation. Most people would need to have their passions regulated by law most of the time. In order for just laws to be established and maintained, however, some people would need to understand the reasons for them. Insofar as Socrates’ conversation led his interlocutors to understand why their own passions needed to be restrained or redirected, these conversations represented a necessary support for and supplement to the rule of law. Socrates himself emphasized that examinations of the opinions of his interlocutors, which he conducted, would have to be repeated many times in order to work. Because individuals must be willing to cooperate in their own ‘correction’ and education, Socratic conversation could not be forced or enforced. Unlike the Nocturnal Council, the Athenian (Hygeia note: A character in ‘Laws’ and ‘Epinomis’) suggests, the ongoing conversations that Plato shows Socrates conducting, and that Plato himself later institutionalized in his Academy, did not have public support or sponsorship. They would not have worked as desired, if they did. People can be forced to say what they do not believe or act as they do not desire by fear of death, shame, or hope for reward, but they cannot be forced to think or desire what they do not. They can be swayed by effective public speakers, at least for a time, but they cannot be convinced to change their minds or the objects of their desire unless they are led to reflect on their opinions and desires. They have to brought to see that they will be working against themselves so long as they hold contradictory opinions and that some of the goals they now seek are impossible to attain. Both the controversial character and the urgency of making some decision make it almost impossible to engage in such reflections in public. Individuals have to be freed from pressures to conform to the opinions of others, if they are to determine what they truly think. As Socrates recognizes, such reflections can take place only in private in the company of another person, who will ask the questions his interlocutor might be tempted to avoid if he were entirely alone.

As Plato suggests in the ‘Menexenus’, a philosopher might also try to affect the opinions of his fellow citizens by offering a reinterpretation of their common history. He could retell the story of the founding and progressive development of the polity (Hygeia note: The form of government of a nation, state, church, or organization) in terms of the requirements of justice, rather than merely as the way they attained peace, prosperity and power. As the humorous cast of the dialog indicates, however, Plato did not think that philosophers should expect much success by adopting this mode of public education. Socratic examination of the opinions individuals hold about the noble and good are admittedly limited in power, both in their scope and their effect. In the dialogues, Plato nevertheless shows, they are the truly effective means of education-public or private.

As Hannah Arendt emphasizes, Socratic examinations always remained within the realm of opinion. Attempting to draw a hard and fast line between Socrates and Plato, however, Arendt does not acknowledge that Socrates saw the realm of opinion as between and thus bounded by knowledge of the purely intelligible beings, of which we have at least a glimmer, and that which is not known at all. It is important, in other words, to see Plato’s Socrates as a philosopher who had a particular, defined way of understanding and thus approaching things as well as people. In the ‘Apology’ Socrates presents himself as an exemplary citizen, but he never presents himself simply as such. It is a mistake, therefore, to see him or to regard his interrogations of others as serving a primarily negative or critical function. Socrates interrogated individuals about their opinions concerning the noble and good in order to convince them, as well as those sometimes listening, that they ought to join him in an ongoing investigation of what is truly noble and good. He did not expect to persuade all or even most other people of his own opinions. He did not even hope to persuade most of those he refuted or the young people who listened to him to join him in further inquiry. He did claim that the conversations in which he engaged were not unpleasant, and that those individuals with the requisite intellectual ability who joined him in seeking the truth above all else would acquire all the virtues, if they engaged wholeheartedly in the search. Socrates recognized that there was an irreducible element of chance in human affairs (see ‘Eutydemus’, 279-c-d), but, ‘the gods willing’, he promised that those who joined him in a life of philosophy would be happy.

By making Socrates his chief philosophical protagonist, Plato not merely dramatized the best form of human existence as he understood it. By contrasting Socrates with other philosophers, Plato also indicated why philosophy will always remain a search for wisdom rather than the possession of knowledge. Human beings cannot claim knowledge, properly speaking, unless they can give an account of the whole. To explain the order of the whole, they would have to give an account of the relation between the purely intelligible kinds of being and their sensible manifestations that does not negate the distinctions. They would have to explain the difference and the relation between human intentional action and repetitive, if not random, motions to be found in the cosmos. And as part of that explanation, they would have to show how the distinctively human faculty of ‘logos’ enables us to perceive and describe the relation between purely intelligible and sensible forms of being. Plato did not think that mortals could give such a comprehensive account of the intelligibility of the universe, although he was convinced that they should not cease trying. Beginning with Plato’s own student Aristotle, later philosophers thought that they could. Their comprehensive accounts have not proved satisfactory to their successors, however. As a result, thoughtful individuals in the twenty-first century face many of the same, if not the very same problems Socrates did.

In his presentation of Socrates in contrast to the other philosophers, Plato not only brings out these fundamental problems. He also indicates the direction in which human beings need to move. We may never be able to obtain knowledge, properly speaking, but we can learn something about the limitations of our power and, consequently, how we should restrict our ambitions to command others-much less to conquer the world, or to remake it entirely-by seeking knowledge. We may never be able to understand, much less give order to the universe, but we can learn what we mortals most want and seek knowledge of that. The Socratic demand that the human being seek self-knowledge, first and foremost, remain, ironically, as radical in the twenty-first century as it was when he made it.’

Catherine H. Zuckert
Catherine H. Zuckert-Plato’s Presentation Of Socrates

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