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.

Press 'play' to hear the podcast: 

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

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.


W Lindsay Wheeler's picture

Virtue is Arete, Excellence

I can not believe what I read. "Virtue is coupling power with responsibility" is not at all what Virtue is. Not even coming close.

Before one does philosophy, one has to have some training in Classical Studies of Greek and Rome. You can not, and I emphasize again, you can NOT do or understand Greek philosophy unless one has a grounding in Greek classical studies. One has to read especially the books by Edith Hamilton.

What answers Adrien's question is Werner Jaeger's Paideia. Whole chapters are devoted to it and its historical connection.

Philosophy is tied to Virtue and without a clear understanding of Virtue, there is NO philosophy. No one, and I mean NO one should jump into philosophy without at least a good grounding in Greek culture first, and especially Doric Culture.

Virtue is the excellencies of a man's character.

I mean just a philological dissection of the word virtue tells you what it means! What are the first three letters of the word virtue? V-I-R. That is Latin for Man. Virtue literally means "To be a Man". Virtus in Latin. The Greek is Arete. It means "Excellence".
Virtues are excellencies of the character of anything.

Peter Adamson's picture

Classical training

I have to respectfully disagree. I guess it's obvious, in a way, that I would disagree since I am putting a podcast on ancient philosophy out, without requiring people to go learn Greek and Latin before listening to it! Clearly one can never understand these texts at the highest, most detailed level without reading them in their original languages, but in my view anyone can get a lot out of Plato (and even Aristotle, though he is harder) just by picking up a translation and reading these wonderful texts. In fact this is how a lot of people, including me, got into classics or philosophy in the first place.

Peter Lührs's picture

Jaeger & Hamilton's works

First, I have to agree with Peter here: Of course knowledge of Greek (and Latin) helps immensely with studying the texts, but it is not a necessity that can't be helped. In fact, I'd say that reading a translation (or two) is quite sufficent for starters and oftentimes an indispensible tool for those able to read greek as well.

That said: Werner Jaeger's Paideia, though it is a great work in it's own right in my opinion, is highly idealizing the ancient greek education and downplaying non-greek influences on our culture, both in their scope and importance as well as their value. The same is true for Edith Hamiltons works. Their ideas of how the ancient greeks lived and how their education worked were not objective at all, but biased.

Also, there's logical reasons why one can't study Jaeger and Hamilton before studying (greek) philosophy: Both Jaeger and Hamilton's work are greatly influenced and one might say soaked by their own reflections on greek philosophy that studying them amounts to studying interpretations of and thus - at least indirectly - greek philosophy (intermingled with a good dose of German idealism and romanticism, I guess). Thus one would have to study Jaeger and Hamilton's books, before one were to study their books.

It seems impossible to me, though, to do x before doing x.


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.

KP's picture

the Socratic method

Hi Peter,

I am really enjoying your series of podcasts, and I have a couple of questions about the Socratic method.

I see that it could be a necessary step before the search for wisdom, but I'm wondering what exactly is achieved with the Socratic method. It seems to me that when the interlocutor finds himself in a state of confusion, his belief set has been shown to be inconsistent in some way. But it doesn't necessarily show which particular belief is the 'faulty' one, so it is not clear that Socrates gets rid of his interlocutor's false beliefs, which I take to be a necessary step to starting the real 'search for wisdom'?). I take it the false beliefs are the target, because surely to start the search for the meaning of 'piety' etc. would require some beliefs/intuitions, such that the Socratic method cannot aim to destroy all commitments to any particular beliefs?

Also, it seems that some of the dialogues, the interlocutors accept certain assertions (of Socrates) fairly uncritically - the Socratic method seems then to test the consistency of a particular interlocutor's belief set (for Socrates appeals to what the particular interlocutor accepts or does not accept), rather than the truth or falsity of their beliefs. For if an interlocutor came out of a Socratic dialogue unscathed, i.e. her beliefs were consistent, she wouldn't then necessarily know the truth about piety. Conversely, just because one interlocutor is unable to defend some thesis, it may not mean that thesis is false. Or is that precisely the point, and we need some better method for getting to the truth of things (once we realise we can't really defend the bits of knowledge we think we have) - but then, what of the positive search?


Not Peter's picture

So-crates' Method

you might consider skipping (or waiting until you get to) to around episode 70. The point you highlight is an important one and one which provoked real ancient debate. For instance the early followers of Plato embraced the skepticism they saw in the Socratic Method and which you are picking up on (and indeed the early Academy would say you are on the right track with this thinking). If Peter doesn't respond know that this subject will get a lot of airtime later on in the series.

TD's picture

Socratic questioning

I used the Socratic method on my brother at the beach this holiday weekend and it frustrated him immensely. But he at least learned that what he thought he knew he actually didn't . He didn't like this much; however, he now has an appreciation for making sure he knows the subject very well before he makes comments on it. All should use this method especially since the world is a rational place and the answers are there if one is willing to push hard to find them, always remembering to put any answer through the Socratic mill grind.

Peter Adamson's picture

Socratic inquiry

Thanks for this insightful question and the replies that have already been made. I think your analysis is dead on and in fact this problem has been pointed out by some secondary literature on Socrates: if he shows you that your previously held beliefs A, B and C are inconsistent, why should you then abandon A rather than B or C, as he wants you to do? Actually it would be open to the interlocutor to pick any of the beliefs to abandon, and in practice in the dialogues it usually seems dramatically and dialectically unproblematic that the characters settle on the culprit belief that should be rejected. But nothing actually requires this apart from the preferences/intuitions of the characters involved (essentially they discover that their commitment to A, while previously strong, was not as strong as their commitment to B and C).

I also think you are right that Plato himself was dissatisfied with the Socratic inquiry method, for the reasons you mention (and maybe others too). Most interpreters, I think, would say that the methods of hypothesis in the Meno and Republic and collection and division in the Sophist etc., are attempts to move past the method Socrates was suggesting. And I do get into these in the future episodes, as well as returning to the topic in the Skepticism episodes as has helpfully been pointed out!

TD's picture

Socratic method continued......

The Socratic method has taught me to pick A as a starting point and follow it until it is proven true or until it is proven irrational, if irrational I move to B and do the same, if B is irrational than I move to C, if C is irrational I moe on to another option - this clearly exemplified in the Theatetus. The time limits within a dialogue force Plato to force Socrates to make some specious moves but this isn't the case in real life, we have far more time to investigate each situation, to me the dialogues and their short comings are only templates Plato outlines for our benefit and use in an expanded sense in the real world. Good scientists do this everyday, perhaps the reason why Plato said no one gets to rule as a philosopher king until they are experts in math, geometry, music and astronomy where you see the rational Itself. So I, myself still think the Socratic method trumps all other kinds of inquiry.

Peter Adamson's picture


But the problem is, what does it mean to say that a single belief is "rational"? Presumably that it is internally coherent (e.g. you shouldn't believe that cats are not cats). But beyond that you are presumably testing it for consistency with other things you believe, or (on a stronger, foundationalist epistemology) testing it to see if it can be inferred from some first principle. Plato seems to explore both options: the Socratic method is apparently an attempt to test for consistency, but as has been pointed out, discovering an inconsistency doesn't tell you what belief to discard; and also, even if your beliefs are consistent does that guarantee that they are true, or even rational? The method of hypothesis, especially in the Republic, then looks like an attempt to explore the foundationalist option.

The Theaetetus is, I agree, closer to the Socratic model, although it focuses perhaps more than the earlier Socratic dialogues on seeing what other beliefs are implied by or hang together with a given belief (e.g. that knowledge is perception). It seems to be an exercise in showing you what you might be committed to, if you adopt a certain belief. I quite like that actually, since I think that is what philosophy does best - discover how beliefs and commitments hang together in often surprising ways.

TD's picture

Irrationality and the Absolute

Indeed. Often the irrational is perceived and is disguised as rational. But perhaps the first thing one must do is ask themselves if they believe in a rational world based on absolutes and an absolute first principle. Until they come to terms with this I can't see how anyone might progress in seeing "Knowledge Itself". Surely there must be one single first principle undergirding all we think and perceive and perhaps had the Theatetus continued they might have come across this first principle -it seemed it was alluded to earlier in that dialogue and in other dialogues if I recall. But I could be all wet here -I have been in the past and will be in the future due to my predilection for the irrational in the guise of the rational.

KP's picture


Thanks for all the responses - I'll check out the above-mentioned dialogues and wait until I get further into the podcasts!

TD - I think my issue is even if we come to terms with, or admit as a possibility, a rational world based on absolutes and an absolute first principle, it is still not clear that the Socratic inquiry method we've been discussing would lead us there. Let's say the method could lead us to a first principle or a set of foundational beliefs or something, such that seeing what the consequences of our beliefs are, and discarding those that contradict perhaps our more firmly held beliefs leaves us with a set of absolute first principles/foundational beliefs. It seems then that we must have already always known the truth, and getting to it is just a matter of clarifying our beliefs, which is I guess what prompts the stuff about recollection in the Meno, to fill that explanatory gap about how we kind of 'know' the truth already in the first place, or how we can access it through clarification of our beliefs. So if we're talking about absolutes, then I'm not sure the method really works without an explanation of how we are already 'endowed with the truth' (although we may need a Socrates to help us work it out). The theory of recollection is one explanation but it seems a little ad hoc and implausible to me. But if we're not talking about absolutes, and knowledge/truth is reducible to a coherent/consistent set of beliefs, then I can see how the Socratic method might be useful for the pursuit of knowledge/truth. Though I'm not sure if this is a satisfying notion of knowledge/truth to have, because of the reasons outlined above.

I hope that makes sense...

Peter Adamson's picture

The possibility of knowledge

I agree that the recollection theory looks like it is indeed intended to make us more optimistic about the prospects of Socratic (or any) inquiry succeeding. One thing to bear in mind here is that the kind of general skepticism lurking behind the question about whether there is any such thing as a rationally comprehensible "absolute" is really not on the radar for Plato and Aristotle. They seem to assume that knowledge is possible and happens, and be interested in explaining HOW it happens. In fact even the ancient skeptics aren't getting into the issue of whether the mind can represent some kind of mind-independent reality (an "absolute"). That whole problem seems rather to be something that emerges from later medieval and early modern philosophy. In one of the episodes just coming up I describe how it also emerged independently in Islamic India in the 17th century!

TD's picture

I have digressed

Sorry about the digression. At this point things can get off track and not pertain to the dialogue especially when the absolute comes in. Perhaps we leave it here and stick with comments related to the Socratic method.