16 - Method Man: Plato's Socrates

In this episode, the second of three devoted to Socrates, Peter Adamson of King’s College London discusses the way he is portrayed in the early dialogues of Plato, especially the “Apology.” Topics include Socratic ignorance and Socrates' claim that no one does wrong willingly.

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Further Reading: 

H.H. Benson (ed.),Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

G. Vlastos (ed.), The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor, 1971)


History of Philosophy's Greatest Hits: Peter discusses Socrates on video

Luke Cash's picture

Your comment at 5:56

When you postulated that Socrates was anything but apologetic, one can't help but assume you were being anachronistic. I mean no offense with that claim, and would like to see what you meant by that statement if you had meant to express something different, but Socrates was very much so being apologetic. That is, he was being apologetic in the sense of the Greek word apologia, which means to defend one's views in a formal setting, and which is the reason that Plato titled that work The Apology.

This word, apologia, is very popular amongst Christians who practice what is coined Apologetics, and these famous names happen to practice, or happen to have practiced, that academic pursuit: William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, James Patrick Holding, Dee Dee Warren, Walter Ralston Martin (deceased founder of CRI, Christian Research Institute in Mesa, Arizona, that has a notable focus on refuting doctrinal claims made by alleged cults), and Hank Hanegraaf (current chairman of the board at CRI).


Here you can find a site devoted to Christian Apologetics, to peruse at your leisure some of the work done in this field: http://tektonics.org/ Navigate your way through the apologetics encyclopedia for their work.

Peter Adamson's picture

Socrates the apologist

Right, I certainly didn't mean "apologetic" in the sense used for church debates, I meant it only in the more everyday sense (in modern English) of apologizing for what you've done. But you're right about the original Greek word: apologeomai means to speak in defense of oneself, and is in fact used often in legal contexts. In that sense Socrates is a paradigmatic case of someone who is being "apologetic" and of course that's the reason that this is the title of the dialogue.

Adrien's picture

What is Virtue?

Listening to Socrates quest to define virtue prompted me to try to come up with a definition (that he couldn't have brushed aside): Virtue is coupling power with responsibility.

Do you think he would've liked this definition?


Peter Adamson's picture

Defining virtue

That's certainly a better try than most of the interlocutors come up with! I think he'd probably test the definition in one of three ways: (a) he might say that the definition fails to be unified or general enough, but I think yours passes this test. Or, (a) he might give a counterexample, like a virtue that isn't satisfied by this definition; here I think you might be in trouble, because at least in Plato's dialogues things like "temperance" count as virtues; your definition looks more appropriate for "justice," say. Or (c) he might argue that the definition is too broad, so that there are some cases of "power with responsibility" that are not virtues (e.g. cases where someone has power and responsibility but not knowledge, and just gets the right result by luck).

If you could respond successfully to these points his next step, I guess, would be to ask for definitions of "power" and "responsibility"!

It's an interesting try though, do you think it would withstand these potential replies? (The ones in my first paragraph I mean.)


Adrien's picture

Take Two

Power, in a broad sense, is a necessary condition for one's actions to be of any practical or academic significance; temperance can only be considered a virtue if practiced by the powerful. The [completely] powerless can be unvirtuous, but not virtuous. I guess what I'm coming back to is that virtue is the powerful being responsible. But probably "being responsible" is too generic.

Maybe a simpler (and in my mind more elegant) definition could exclude the notion of "Responsibility": Virtue is the powerful selflessly limiting their power. I think the 'selfless' qualification implies knowledge and intent.

But what is 'power'? How about this: Power is any ability to alter one's environment, which includes other agents. For example, an infant has power over her mother, since she can alter her behavior.

I think this definition passes test (c). For tests (a) and (b), I searched for examples of virtues on the Web and got the following: hard work, perseverance, honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity, courage.

I think 'honesty' and 'integrity' fit well under this definition. But the other examples are more interesting,

--Hard Work: I have the power to slack off or procrastinate, hard work is limiting that power
--Perseverance: I have the power to give up, perseverance is limiting that power
--Generosity: I have the power to hold on to my assets, generosity is limiting that power
--Courage: I have the power to be a coward, courage is limiting that power

I noticed two problems though: 1) In defining these 4 examples, I'm using 'power' in a way that doesn't quite fit the above definition. 2) Limiting my power to slack off or be a coward are not necessarily selfless.

So I'm rethinking my new definition. I'd appreciate your input.


Peter Adamson's picture

Power and responsibility

Thanks, this is interesting.

I'm a bit worried that whether you add "with responsibility" or "selflessly," you might be in danger of giving a circular definition. (How is what you are saying different from: "virtue is the use of power, but only when used virtuously"? Meno falls prey to this problem too.) But leaving that aside, I am surprised that you define the various virtues in terms of the "power" to do something _wrong_, e.g. procrastinate, be a coward, etc. When I first read your definition I thought you meant that courage would be e.g. the ability (power) to fight in battle plus the sense of responsibility that makes the use of that power turn out as a virtue rather than as a vice. Maybe this is what you have in mind with your first worry at the end of the email. I agree with the second worry too, which is that it isn't clear that all virtues involve selflessness. In fact, Aristotle would probably want to say that _no_ virtue involves selflessness, since his account of virtue is that one seeks virtue in order to secure happiness and flourishing for oneself. That doesn't exclude the welfare of others, as is clear from his discussion of friendship, but I think for him virtue is never entirely selfless, and certainly it doesn't _need_ to be selfless.


clem's picture


I'm currently reading "The Art of Living, Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault" by Alexander Nehamas. I'm only at chapter 3 but the whole thing appears to be about Platonic Irony. A subject I never heard of and never knew there were so many people who wrote about it! ;-)

Nehamas writes, "I cannot, for example, accept Norman Gulley's view that Socrates already knows what piety, courage, or temperance is but pretends he does not so that his interlocutors will endeavor to discover it for themselves." p72. Until I started reading this book, I hadn't thought about questioning Socrates' sincerity regarding his ignorance of these things. I then read one of the dialogues again and saw how you could read it this way. Earlier in his book, Nehamas makes the point that (not sure if this was his point or someone he quoted) how could Socrates not know these things when he himself lived a virtuous, courageous, and temperate life? Is the point of all this to show that you can't explain any of these things but only live them? Then it made me wonder if we should consider Socrates to be the first Zen monk! -- trying to show the futility of words when it comes to living a life as a philosopher. ;-)

Peter Adamson's picture

Socratic irony

Hi there -- Indeed this is one of the big issues discussed in secondary literature on Socrates. (With Nehemas you are reading one of the most significant contributions but the debate goes back at least as far as Gregory Vlastos.) My colleague at King's College, MM McCabe, was always very careful about throwing around the word "irony" when discussing him. It's too often a way of dismissing what he says as a joke, rather than thinking about it. Rarely or never is what he says "ironic" in the sense of "so sarcastic that even his interlocutor knows he is not being serious. So you often or always have to think about why the surface meaning of what he says would perhaps be plausible. I agree with you that the issue about how he can be virtuous relates to irony, I think, especially in that we need to decide whether he's being in some sense ironic when he says he is ignorant. This again seems to be to some degree serious: he lacks the "divine wisdom" he talks about in the Apology. But does it mean he has no knowledge of any kind? No reliable beliefs?

Thanks for posting!

Manolo's picture

Plato's esoteric writings?

Hi, Peter,

I'm just catching up with your podcast -- hope it's fine to comment on an entry almost one year after the fact!

I remember reading in Guthrie's history that Plato's dialogues might have been aimed at the lay person with an interest in philosophy, and that he might have had more systematic writings, for the exclusive use of academic philosophers. Is this idea discredited nowadays?

I'm enjoying your podcast a lot. Thanks for it.


Peter Adamson's picture

Plato's secret doctrines

Hi Manolo,

Of course comments are always welcome, no matter how long ago the episodes went up!

I don't think anyone thinks that Plato wrote a bunch of esoteric texts which are lost. However there is considerable dispute over whether in conversation he may have shared positive theories -- sometimes called the "unwritten doctrines" -- with his students, which are not found in his dialogues. Some evidence for this is that Aristotle sometimes talks about Platonist doctrines that don't seem to appear in the dialogues, though some claim to be able to find them there (like Ken Sayre with whom I studied at Notre Dame, actually). The unwritten doctrine theory is especially associated with the "Tübingen school" of interpreters.

Anyway I think probably the mainstream of Plato scholars is nowadays happy to focus on the dialogues and not worry too much about the unwritten doctrines, if there were any. (After all the dialogues offer so much to think about on their own.) The idea of unwritten doctrines becomes more important in assessing Aristotle's critique of Plato and Plato's relationship with his immediate students, for which see episode 51.



D'Andre's picture

Socratic Ignorance

Would it be plausible to conclude that Plato indeed perceived Socrates in the way Xenophon did regarding his modesty and humility? Plato's perception seems to come off as criticism that the apologeomai of Socrates himself that he "knows nothing" suggests that although living a virtuous life it sets apart from being divinely wise. The end of his quest of virtue came by the experience of divine guidance. Isn't divine wisdom, discernment; knowledge of what is true/right coupled with guided judgment as to cause action -from a divine entity?

Therefore; divine wisdom and virtue can be found and attained only by divine guidance through experience.

Peter Adamson's picture

Plato vs Xenophon

I think Plato, especially as his career goes on, becomes more dissatisfied with the Socratic stance than Xenophon ever is. Hence we see Plato going his own way and trying to develop methodologies that could bring us to philosophical insight (the method of hypothesis, collection and division). So I would see a difference between them on that score.

TD's picture


Are there "professional" philosophers currently writing dialogues?

It seems this writing method is more courageous than the usual euristuc but perhaps I'm wrong.

Peter Adamson's picture


I don't think it is a commonly used form, no, though I can think of at least one article on analytic metaphysics that was written as a dialogue (by Dean Zimmermann). Perhaps the things that drew Plato to the form are exactly the things that make philosophers nowadays shun it - the unclarity of the author's own position, the desire to explore various views without declaring one's allegiance to any one of them, the link to "literary" production? But then of course we are only guessing when we talk about Plato's reasons for writing dialogues.

Michael Gebauer's picture


Among contemporary Analytic Philosophers, especially John Perry comes to mind: he published several dialogues (check bookfinder or amazon), two of which were translated into German (cf. Reclam). -- In Germany too, Ernst Tugendhat published a dialogue on ethics (cf. Suhrkamp).

TD's picture

I'm currently reading a

I'm currently reading a dialogue by Cicero on friendship and old age -it's quite good- but it has revealed some strengths and weaknesses of this technique I missed when reading Plato's corpus. I guess the weakness of dialogue is the implied certainty on the issues by the main interlocutor. In the hands of a philosopher like Plato, who utilizes reason and established -directly or indirectly- first principles, the technique seems quite effective; whereas, in a sophist's hands it tends to beguile and "lead the witness" down irrational paths under a guise of rationality.

Peter Adamson's picture


Yes, that's a nice point. Perhaps this is what Plato had in mind when (in the Sophist) he described what seems to be Socrates' method as a kind of "noble sophistry"?

TD's picture

Plato's disdain for the court and demos in general at 290?

"Though -speech making- after all there is nothing remarkable in this, since it is part of the enchanters' art and but slightly inferior to it. For the enchanters's art consists in charming vipers and spiders and scorpions and other wild things, and in curing disease, while the other art -speech writing- consists in charming and persuading the members of juries and assemblies and other sorts of crowds"

It's harder to charm snakes, spiders and scorpions than the demos, who may be human versions of snakes, spiders and scorpions?

Is this an alusion to how Socrates was biten with the poison of hemlock and laid low, perhaps proving even he lacked the power to enchant those minds of brutish disposition all because he wanted to cure them of their worse illness; ignorance.

James Conder's picture

Socrates and other are puzzled

Hello Peter,

I've been enjoying the podcast immensely. I was wondering about the typical trajectory of Socrates and his conversant ending their dialogues in a state of puzzlement. Could this be an effort on Plato's part to show that Socrates is NOT a sophist? After all, if the sophists are all about convincing others about any topic and Socrates can't convince anyone of anything, he must be a very different animal than those sophists.

What do those that spend time with the sophists, Socrates, and Plato think about the ending state?


Peter Adamson's picture

Puzzlement and the sophists

That's a nice idea, and it could well be that the Socratic approach is meant to distinguish him from sophists like Gorgias - to some extent this is even explicit, as when Socrates meets Gorgias (in the Gorgias) and insists on brief question and answer rather than long speeches. (Gorgias brags he can answer briefly and manages to respond to the first several questions with one word, "yes", at which point Socrates praises him for his concision!)

However it is more complicated than that because there were other sophists, like the brothers in the Euthydemus, whose arguments produced befuddlement. So if anything I think it is more likely that the aporia/puzzlement produced by Socrates would have been a reason to think he was indeed a sophist, but of the "eristic" rather than rhetorical variety.