Socratic Dialectic Paper
A friend of Socrates, Chaerephon, asked the Oracle of Delphi if there is anyone wiser than Socrates. The goddess answered that there is not. (Plato, p. 50). Aware that he cannot claim wisdom, but intrigued by the Oracle’s answer, Socrates embarks on a journey to find someone who is truly wise. The method he used to establish someone’s wisdom or lack of it has been known as the Socratic dialectic. Socrates’ dialectic technique, its aim and its method will be examined in this paper. The Apology of Socrates’ by Plato, will be used as a case study to illustrate key points.
Upon hearing the Oracle’s answer that no one is wiser than him, Socrates found the literal interpretation difficult to comprehend. He decided to seek out people who have a reputation for wisdom in various regards and test their claims to knowledge through questioning. He discovers a good deal of vain ignorance and false claims to knowledge, but no one with genuine wisdom. As he always believed that he knew very little, he came to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as that he knew nothing. Socratic method is a dialectic method of inquiry, in which elenchos (Greek: ??????? a cross-examination) is the central technique (http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Socrates). Dialectic is a form of a dialogue which consists of two methods, analysis and synthesis. (Macquarie University, Lecture 4). Through analysis, Socrates would ask the person to state a claim they believed to be true. To investigate the validity of the claim, he would use a series of questions and answers. It was intended to reveal person’s beliefs and underlying assumptions about a particular topic and demonstrate their consistency or lack of it.
Once the person’s contradictions have been exposed, the conclusion (synthesis) is that the original claim cannot be made since it does not correspond to evidence presented through the process of analysis. The good example of Socrates’ technique is illustrated in The Apology, Socrates’ defence to charges brought against him by the court of Athens. Meletus, one of his main accusers, believes that Socrates has corrupted the young by teaching them to believe in new deities instead of the gods recognized by the State.
Socrates begins his analysis by asking Meletus if he is accusing him of believing in some gods or in no gods at all. Meletus answers that: ‘Yes, I say that you disbelieve in gods altogether. ’ Socrates proceeds by asking Meletus if he also suggests that Socrates believes that the sun and the moon are not gods. Meletus answers that Socrates does not believe that the sun and the moon are gods, because he claims that the sun is a stone and the moon a mass of earth. Socrates demolishes this as a valid point, because these theories do not belong to him, but to Anaxagoras.
He concludes that Meletus is contradicting himself stating that ‘Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods, but believing in the gods’. He continues by asking if it is possible to believe in human activities, but not in human beings, or supernatural activities and not in supernatural beings? Meletus answers ‘no’. Socrates proceeds by saying that since he is accused of believing and teaching others in supernatural activities, he must also believe in supernatural beings, which are either gods or their children.
This is where Socrates demolishes Meletus’ claim for the second time by concluding that Meletus was simply testing his intelligence by stating first that he does not believe in gods, then that he does, since he believes in supernatural beings. (Plato, p56-58) So what can be said of Socrates’ technique? Although the method itself seems simple, it is almost impossible to escape its intense rigor as well as the destructiveness of its rich irony. By using leading questions that require short and logical answers, Socrates cross-examines and refutes the opponent usually ending the conversation in puzzlement and embracement.
He professes to be a plain man who speaks only simple truths, yet his proficiency in employing some very clever rhetoric enables him to keep an upper hand in every conversation. And while his method might appear ruthless and hostile, it was essentially ethical in character. Belief in a purely objective understanding of such concepts as justice, love, and virtue, and the self-knowledge that he encouraged, were the basis of his teachings. He believed that all vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly.
Socrates was not a believer in any specific metaphysical point of view, but he believed that he was appointed by God to examine himself and others in order to discover who they really are. Thus, he claimed that the highest goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding. ‘Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state’. (Plato, p 62). As previously stated, Socrates dialectic aims to etermine whether an individual makes justifiable claims to knowledge by using the method of cross-examination in order to draw out a contradiction or inconsistency in their claims. However, this is not the only aim of dialectic. The Socratic method is also a means of conversing, developing a dialogue that aims to bring awareness to person’s ignorance of a subject. It aims to free other from ignorance, encourage them on their path to self-knowledge, assist then in leading good, virtuous life and ultimately improve the welfare of their souls.
In my opinion, this is certainly a cause worth admiration; however I have found myself questioning the real outcome of his ironic, ruthless method of inquiry. He aimed to awaken his fellow citizen’s attachment to authoritative moral and religious opinions, by criticizing the popular ideas, but in the process managed to ridicule and embrace them. Does a man who feels like a fool, after being subjected to public scrutiny have a desire and commitment to turn the mirror inwards and start living ‘life worth living’?
Or would he, more likely, regard Socrates and his method as arrogant and rebellious, and therefore inevitably respond by disregarding its true meaning. And it is that in its true meaning, Socrates’ dialectic reminds us that the way to wisdom lies in the philosophy, in our willingness to question what we (and others) know and in the ability to justify and give reasonable account for our claim. Socrates once said that “I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others”