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Arrogant Humility: Socrates takes on Gorgias

I’ve long been irritated by Socrates. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am irritated by the “Socrates” that Plato creates in his various dialogues. What I find in the dialogues is that it is fairly easy to win an argument when you get to dictate the positions on both sides. Pretty much any time I read a Socratic dialogue, I find Socrates’ companions to be a bunch of short-sighted dolts.

“Certainly,” they quickly agree to Socrates’ assertions. “That’s true.”

I hardly think myself to be smarter than every worthy citizen of 5th century Athens, but I frequently find myself saying, “No! That’s not the case at all.” Did Socrates’ contemporaries never see the flaws in the great man’s arguments? If we trust Plato, then they didn’t.

Recently, I read Gorgias, a dialogue in which Socrates dismisses oratory as “pandering.” While Socrates’ own brand of communication, dialectical argument, is held up as the purest of all things, oratory, the art that Gorgias pursues and teaches, is dismisses as telling people what they want to hear. Socrates goes so far as to suggest that oratory is to truth as beauty culture is to medicine. Yes, it’s all frippery and polish.

The problem with this sort of dismissal is that it assumes that absolute truth is always within reach using dialectic, a position that Socrates’ own home of Athens has made obviously unbelievable. In the wake of an earthquake in roughly 464 B.C., Sparta, fearing a slave revolt, asked for help from many Greek neighbors. The people of Athens hotly debated the wisdom of sending an army to Sparta. In the end, they sent a large contingent, but was this the right move? Who can say? Do we help our neighbors when they ask? Do we keep our army at home? This isn’t the easiest question to answer.

Recently, the United States participated in military operations that resulted in ousting the regime in Libya. Was this action justified? I could make an argument in either direction. Can anyone really prove that one course or the other is clearly the better one? Socrates could–but only if he had Plato to write all the dialogue for him.

In the Apology, Socrates talks about his own lack of wisdom and compares himself with another reputedly wise man:

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

This is rubbish. Here Socrates is using the very tools of oratory to make a claim for himself. Read the dialogues and ask yourself if this is a man who really believes that he does not know things.

In a similar manner, we have some extreme advocates of science pretending that everything in science is provisional and open to revision while behaving as if matters are absolutely settled. In neither case do we witness the humility that is claimed.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with literature. I would suggest that if Socrates can dismiss oratory as pandering, then he can do the same thing with literature. In fact, Plato famously has little use for poets.

Literature, like oratory, works in the areas of life that do not lend themselves neatly to logical analysis. Some people, from Socrates and Plato in the 5th century B.C. to Richard Dawkins and others today, find those areas uncomfortable. They wish to marginalize or invalidate such areas. And when a person–an orator or a poet–understands a method for operating in that grey area, their ability makes the arrogantly humble uncomfortable.

Posted in Classical Literature, Commentary.

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