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Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, & Culture - The Character of Socrates and His Bad Arguments: The anti-democratic dialectic

About The Character of Socrates and His Bad Arguments: The anti-democratic dialectic

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I tend to agree with Roslyn Weiss' characterization of Socrates as presented in her book The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, or at least with how her books is epitomized by the reviewer Sung-Hoon Kang. The reviewer himself disagrees with Weiss. I have not read Weiss' book so I can only comment on the review itself.

I will state my controversial theses (and apparently Weiss"s also) about Plato's Socrates at the beginning. Plato's Socrates, is not a pretty fellow as presented in the dialogues. An open minded and "unphilosophical" reader should notice the following three aspects of Socrates way of arguing: (1) Socrates used "bad arguments," instrumentally, in order to win; (2) Socrates was extremely confident in his beliefs and controlled and manipulated his interlocutors; (3) Socrates cheated in his arguments in the name of what he called justice. (Note: I think, One reason why first time readers often find Plato's dialogues difficult to read is that they see the obvious manipulation by Socrates of his interlocutors and yet the first time reader is directed to ignore these obvious aspects of Socrates way of arguing by most professional philosophers.)

I think any common sense reading of the dialogues should bring an open minded person to these conclusions. The fact that most philosophers, with a few exceptions, avoid these conclusions is what needs to be interpreted and criticized. As I will make clear below, I believe that the main reason for this avoidance of the obvious by professional philosophers is the refusal to set the dialogues, as well as Socrates himself, in their historical and political context. Socrates believed that virtue and justice must have (did have) a foundation or ground and that the political form of democracy was, not only without foundation, but, was anti-foundational in all aspects. Thus Thrasymachus in the first book of The Republic and Callicles in The Gorgias both present a parody of democracy; i.e. democracy cannot provide a "grounding" for justice but only a relativistic definition of justice which varies according to who has power.

So (if the reviewer of Weiss is correct in his characterization of Weiss's interpretation of Socrates) I agree with the general characterization of Socrates as presented below while disagreeing with how to interpret this characterization. Practically all professional philosophers, even those whose politics are democratic, are invested in the "anti-demos" foundation of Plato's Socrates, without necessarily being able to make Socrates's anti-democratic views explicit, because the political context of Plato and Socrates in democratic Athens is left out of the interpretive vision. This prevents them from recognizing the absurd, the bad, the instrumental, manipulative, and the cheating aspects of Socrates's arguments, or when recognizing those aspects they are prevented from interpreting them vigorously and "benevolently," because they don't understand Socrates's prejudice, hatred even, of "the people". From what I can gather Weiss is clear-eyed about Socrates's arguments, but she is unable to see the political hatred of all aspects of Athenian democracy that makes those ways of arguing necessary.

Here is the reviewer's evaluation of Weiss, and followed by my critique.
First of all, Weiss’s Socrates unabashedly uses bad arguments. Admittedly, Plato does have Socrates use bad arguments, if by "bad arguments" we mean invalid ones. But bad arguments in themselves may not be so bad ad hominem. Contexts may help us fill in some hidden premises in the arguments, often ones that only the interlocutors are committed to. I believe one important job of commentators is to reveal such hidden premises. (And, as I understand it, this is the principle of charity combined with taking contexts into account.) Weiss takes a slightly but significantly different approach. On her account, too, Socrates' bad arguments are not "bad" ad hominem; they are good for winning against the opponent.[3] Weiss's Socrates is not so much concerned about whether or not his argument is a non-sequitur. His main concern is whether or not it is effective for his purpose.

This brings us to the second feature of Weiss's Socrates: he is not a genuine seeker of truth. With regard to moral questions, he thinks he knows pretty much everything he needs to know and has it all figured out. So finding out the truth is not among his motivations for discussing with his interlocutors. This Socrates is a dogmatist who is so confident in his beliefs that he controls, manipulates, and cheats his interlocutors. It is worth noting that, if Socrates is assumed to be a genuine seeker of truth, he can be presented to hold different (tentative) views in different dialogues. In that case, we can say that Socrates holds some core moral beliefs, such as that justice is an essential element of a good life, but tries hard to justify those beliefs by figuring things out through discussion with various people including, of course, sophists. This would be a nice alternative to Weiss's Socrates, who is not interested in justification and cheats in order to win.

What is most disturbing about Weiss's Socrates is that he does wrong (cheating) in the name of justice. As I understand it, a just person is not a person for whom winning is everything: how to win is more important for him/her. Perhaps Weiss is right that Socrates as a just person cannot afford to lose against the enemy of justice. Still, that doesn't mean that he would use any means to achieve his goal. On the contrary, he would be all the more concerned about the means because resorting to unjust means is already a way of losing to the enemy of justice. On the familiar traditional picture of Socrates, of course, he would think that he doesn't have to resort to unjust means because he firmly believes that justice (and truth) does have power in itself and that injustice never pays. Indeed, resorting to unjust means would be a stupidity according to what he preaches through the Socratic paradoxes. On the new Weissian picture of Socrates, he would think that he ought not to resort to unjust means because he is a Kantian who believes that one ought not to do wrong even if it pays. So either way, resorting to unjust means cannot be endorsed by Socrates.(from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2008-03-01 : View this Review Online : View Other NDPR Reviews: Roslyn Weiss, The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, University of Chicago Press, 2006, 235pp., $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 0226891720. Reviewed by Sung-Hoon Kang, Seoul National University)

This view of Socrates may be disturbing but I believe it contains much truth.

First, we have to understand that this is Plato's portrait of Socrates and to some extent it coincides with other views of Socrates.

Second, we have to understand that Socrates is fighting a battle, a battle against what he believes is the abomination of democracy. It is not necessary to dismiss everything that Socrates or Plato says with the realization of the anti-democratic thrust of philosophy, it is only necessary to keep the political context in mind when interpreting what Plato writes about Socrates.

Third, it is through the aristos vs. demos context of Socrates's statements that we can understand why he fights his enemies the way he does. Socrates has to be a bit sly and obtuse in order to avoid being accused of betraying the Athenian city-state itself. (The reader should only be reminded of Socrates' enthusiastic admiration of the Spartan political system in Plato's presentation of Socrates and that the Spartans attempted to destroy Athenian democracy during the same period.) Thus Socrates doesn't attack the demos, the people, directly but rather attacks those "philosophers" among the people who divert the aristos from their calling as rulers of the city-state. He attacks those who train the upper classes in making arguments, i.e. in manipulating the people. He attacks those who wish to help accommodate the aristos in making compromises with Athenian democracy. Thus Socrates attacks his main philosophical enemy the Sophists. If he uses the methods of the Sophists to attack the Sophists, it is because those weapons are the only ones that the Sophists themselves will listen to, and only then will Socrates be able to win over a small coterie of aristos to his philosophical virtue.

Fourth, it is necessary to understand how Socrates uses his dialectic and the nature of the Socratic method of examination (the elenchos or elenchus); but more importantly, how the dialectic relates to the anti-democratic thrust of the Platonic dialogues. Most professional philosophers understand the dialectic but they don't account for the anti-democratic nature of the dialectic. Socrates is not merely lying or cheating in his arguments, he is also trying to trap his interlocutors in their own confusions. Here's his problem from the anti-democratic point of view. He needs to provide a foundation for "justice" and yet he himself does not necessarily know what that foundation should be. The people he is arguing with are suffering from several illusions; that justice needs no foundation; that justice has a foundation in "the natural world" of the city-state; that whether justice has a foundation or not has nothing to do with the political form of democracy; that the democracy that bore and bred them has had no influence on their illusions. Note, what Socrates wants to do is find the ground of justice. In order to find the ground he must have people who are willing to search for it with him. In his view these people, the aristos, don't even realize that justice has no ground and that democracy is by nature anti-foundational. The very idea of democracy either means that there is no truth or that truth is relative to the power of the majority. Thus Socrates must reveal the anti-foundational nature of mob rule in order to even begin the process of searching for the foundations that he desires to find. And he has to do this every time he begins a dialogue. This puts Socrates in the postion of imitating the "anti-truth" seekers of democracy in order to reveal to them that what they are seeking is no truth at all. Once he is able to "turn around the souls" (think of the parable of the cave) of his interlocutors, then and only then, can he reverse the process of his manipulation and cheating and begin the search anew. In this view the elenchos is not only a method of examination and argument, but a kind of therapy, a way to bring the interlocutor who is willing to "turn-around" to a recognition of a need for self-punishment, guilt and shame. For those who are not willing to listen, the unreconstructed Sophists and/or "democrats", the elenchos is simply punishment and nothing else. To them the method can seem like lying and cheating and manipulation but it is really only their just deserts. Either way, from the anti-democratic point of view the seeming "injustice" of lying for the sake of the truth turns out to be a form of justice.

Jerry Monaco
4 March 2008
New York City

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Date:March 8th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)

the cave

A couple of questions: 1)When Plato uses the term democracy does he refer to the practice of Athenian government (which I take it was something like the government envisaged by the American founders, a government of the "right people" who own property)? Where could he have gotten a more radical concept of democracy from?
2)Though the allegory of the cave is supposed to be a metaphor about knowledge (the difference between opinion and true knowledge), it does present a suggestive picture of an actual political state. If so, what state is it meant to depict? Seems unlikely that Plato would depict an ideal aristocratic form of government in this way, though that is what it seems to be.

This discussion is further confused by current opinion that Strauss and the neoconservatives were inspired by Plato's idea of a ruling class of philosopher kings.
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Date:March 11th, 2008 06:57 pm (UTC)

Re: the cave

I answered your question here!

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