Socratic Paideia: How It Works and Why It So Often Fails
W. T. Schmid
To appreciate the nature of Socratic education, we need to take a close look at its exemplary form, the definitional elenchus. (1) The logical pattern of this elenchus is familiar:
1. The interlocutor asserts a definition of a virtue, d.
2. Socrates secures agreement to further premisses, q and r.
3. Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that q and r entail not-d.
4. Socrates claims that not-d has been proven true, d false. (2)
This description of the elenchus makes it appear to operate in a manner essentially similar to any other refutative argument, directed toward a single object, the truth of the propositions under consideration, the conception of the world represented in the logoi. In this respect, the Socratic dialectic is an essentially impersonal process, and the focus of inquiry is strictly on the logical consistency of the interlocutor's statements.
But the Socratic elenchus is also a highly personal experience, as a result of four additional factors: (1) The virtue under consideration is central to the value system of the interlocutor. (3) (2) Dialectic requires the interlocutor say what he believes. (4) (3) The examination and refutation take place in public, where the interlocutor's self-image and reputation, as well as self-understanding, are at stake. (4) Finally, the interlocutor typically believes he knows the truth about the ideal under discussion and about the good, i.e., that he possesses practical wisdom. Because of these factors, the interlocutor's words become vehicles for his self-discovery and self-determination, no less than his conception of the world--they become vehicles of self-knowledge. (5)
It is the self-expressive, self-revealing, and potentially self-reformative nature of participation in the elenchus, the fact that it involves the interlocutor's desires and emotions as well as his beliefs, which makes it a powerful tool for moral education. The elenchus, in calling forth the speaker's most profound moral beliefs, also calls forth his life and values in a way he may never have experienced before. As Nicias puts it in a well-known passage:
Such speech has the potential to engage the whole person--to put the interlocutor's very identity at risk.
Among the Platonic dialogues, the Charmides turns out to be one of the more important guides to understanding this process, though the scholarly literature has largely focused on the presentation of the elenchus in the Gorgias. (6) In the Gorgias, where the concern is to distinguish philosophy and sophistic rhetoric, the focus is on the formal structure of the elenchus, its function in revealing inconsistent beliefs. In the Charmides, by contrast, the dramatic setting and content of the dialogue focus attention on the psychotherapeutic rather than the logical structure of the elenchus, and on the question of the "diseases" for which it might be the cure. The Charmides answers this important question in the persons of Socrates' two main interlocutors: (1) Charmides represents the psychic illness of moral thoughtlessness and heteronomy, of "weakness of thought" and its attendant sense of inferiority. The dialogue shows us how this disease might be cured by personal involvement in the process of Socratic inquiry and reflection; how personal identity might be transformed through the practice of critical reason; how autonomy is related to cognitive and moral life. (2) The other chief interlocutor of the dialogue, Critias, represents the opposite moral and cognitive disease, self-assertion and sophistry, with its twin incapacity to recognize the limits of one's own wisdom, together with the arrogance of superiority (hubris) following on that inability/unwillingness. (7) Together, Charmides and Critias represent the two chief and opposite types of deficient or vicious relationship to one's own rationality and self-knowledge. The Socratic dialectic is meant to address and "cure" this deficiency in an intellectual therapy with moral significance for the patient. (8) This essay will focus on the Charmides, in order to make some general observations about the character of Socratic paideia.
There is both a positive and negative aspect to elenctic inquiry. Of the two, the negative aspect is more obvious: the interlocutor claims wisdom, but is refuted, and thereby should be cured of his self-deception of wisdom and self-conceit of virtue. The process is described in the Sophist:
This latter condition is the "best and most moderate (sophronesteron) state of the soul," according to the young Theaetetus.
The problem with the description in the Sophist, which sets out the claim of the elenchus to constitute a form of moral therapy, is that it practically never works that way in the Socratic dialogues. The interlocutors are refuted, again and again--but they hardly ever admit and learn from it! What is the meaning of this contradiction between the theory and practice of Socratic paideia?
I would like to suggest that it is only after we appreciate the apparent failure of the elenchus to do the educational work Plato would appear to expect of it--why it so often fails--that we are led to see its real method of operation--how it is meant to work. I believe four points should be emphasized:
1. Dialectic and Autonomy. Socrates' interlocutors are personally attached to certain moral values and under the right guidance these values can be rationally articulated and thereby brought out "into the common world of reason" (Robinson) and subjected to critical examination. (10) This is why the key definition for Charmides himself is the second, where he has to struggle to formulate the definition, "the sense of shame," a definition in which he does not merely express what his society expects him to say, but is led to articulate his own self-understanding in the virtue and his own implicit claim to possess it (160d-e). Only after his self-understanding has been exposed and Socrates has refuted it, is Charmides put in the position where he has to decide whether he will continue down the path of critical thought--even if it means overthrowing the ideal at the center of his own self-understanding--or retreat from that path. The Socratic dialectic challenges the interlocutor not only to acquire the correct moral opinions, but to question himself and think for himself and develop his own moral rationality. (11) If he chooses to think for himself, he begins to adopt a new relation to his beliefs and to his life insofar as it is guided by those beliefs. In this relation, he is no longer simply guided by conventional norms or authorities; instead, he begins to take responsibility for them, begins to hold his received beliefs and values up to a norm of "common reason." Thus when Charmides elects to retreat from self-expression and puts forward Critias' definition for criticism, rather than developing another of his own, it represents not merely an intellectual, but also a moral failure: the failure to develop himself as a morally thoughtful and questioning person (which is why Socrates calls him a "foul wretch," 161b). Charmides chose not to identify with his rational self, but with a lesser self-identity, one taking its guidance from his uncle, the future tyrant.
2. Dialectic, Objectivity, and Virtue. This way of understanding the elenchus brings out the fact that it is not only a cognitive, but also an emotional and potentially value-inducing process. Socrates' inquiry with Critias is particularly revealing of this second aspect of the elenchus, the relation of dialectic to the ideal of rationality and to the formation--or refusal of the formation--of the normative attitude of objectivity. In fact, as Kenneth Seeskin has shown, (12) the structure of elenctic inquiry ideally involves a process of reciprocal interplay between anticipatory acts of several types of moral virtue and the genuine personal engagement in cognitive inquiry:
(i) Because of the necessity of self-exposure, the elenchus can test the willingness of the interlocutor to endure the fear of embarrassment and ignorance, i.e. it can test his moral courage and constancy in the dialectical quest for the good. Charmides exhibited such courage, when, after his first definition had been rejected and Socrates challenged him to offer another based on his own experience, the boy "paused and quite courageously (andrikos) investigated it with regard to himself" (160e6), and then articulated his second definition, that moderation was a sense of shame.
(ii) Because of the possibility of self-contradiction, the elenchus requires intellectual moderation, in the sense of humility before the truth, the willingness to admit that one was mistaken or that one's reasons fall short. Critias is the chief example in the dialogue of an interlocutor's failure to manifest such virtue, when, in examining the definition of moderation as the knowledge of what you know and do not know, Socrates challenges him to explain how it would be possible for something to have its own power with regard to itself, but then, Socrates narrates, "[Critias] was ashamed before those present, and he was neither willing to concede to me that he was unable to draw the distinctions I was calling upon him to make, nor did he say anything plain, concealing his perplexity" (169d).
(iii) Finally, because Socratic inquiry is interpersonal, one may relate to the other in an attitude of competition and jealousy, as a rival for victory, or in an attitude of fairness and cooperation, as partners in the quest for truth, and it is possible in this process to care for, or to be indifferent to, the other's well-being, not only one's own. The best example of this virtue in the dialogue is provided by Socrates himself, when, after being accused by Critias of eristic, he denies the charge, explaining that it is mistaken to think that, "even if I do refute you, that I am refuting for the sake of anything other than that for the sake of which I would also search through myself as to what I say, fearing that unawares I might ever suppose that I know something when I don't know. . . . Or don't you suppose that it is a common good (koinon agathon) for almost all human beings that each of the beings (hekaston ton onton) should become clearly apparent just as it is?" (166d.)
If these challenges are met, the interlocutor is involved in a process that results in the formation not only of new opinions, but of new values--the values of critical reason, the principles of the rational self. But when the interlocutor withdraws from the results of the inquiry, by refusing to persist in self-examination--as Charmides does after his second definition is rejected--or by refusing to acknowledge his own refutation--in the manner of a Critias--or by failing to follow the Socratic model of concerning oneself with the "common good" of truth, the elenchus is powerless.
3. Dialectic and Community. As the relation to fairness indicates, Socratic dialectic involves, in addition to the values of autonomy and objectivity, the value of community. This social dimension of Socratic dialectic is often ignored, but it is an important aspect of Socratic inquiry. Will Charmides break loose from the domineering moral and intellectual influence of Critias, and enter into the influence of Socrates and his way of reflective concern? Or will he hold back from giving himself over to the community of moral thinkers, the community established in the dialectical practice? Socrates' willingness to engage in dialogue with Critias--the mockery at 161b seems intended to force his entry into the conversation--may well be a function of Socrates' recognition that whatever influence he may have on Charmides can only come about through the refutation and diminishment of the authority of Critias. Unfortunately, the ominous ending of the dialogue suggests that Charmides will remain firmly under his uncle's influence.
Notwithstanding the fact that Charmides, like so many others, finally rejects him, it is clear that what is at stake in conversation with Socrates is not only the topic of this particular exchange, but the opportunity for other conversations and indeed for the whole rich social relationship of his educational-dialogical circle. The call to commit oneself--one's thought and ultimately one's life, as Nicias suggests--to the test of the elenchus is also a call to involve oneself in the third aspect of the dialectic, membership in rational community with Socrates. What Socrates offers is not only thought, but friendship, not only discourse, but shared values and a shared life. One does not engage in the practice of Socratic dialectic as a solitary individual, but as one among others, equals in the epistemic/educational community. (13) The failure of so many of Socrates' partners to persist in the elenchus is a turning away not only from exercizing their own reason, but also from the opportunity to join in a community of people committed to reason. It must have been puzzling to the young Plato that anyone would choose against membership in that more beautiful city.
4. Dialectic, Akrasia, and Choice. This last point brings us back to the fact that it is possible to reject Socratic rationality, and that this possibility is dramatized so often in the dialogues as to constitute one of their most characteristic features. Charmides rejects the pursuit of self-knowledge at 161b4-6. Critias will reject it even more overtly at 169c3-d1. Laches and Nicias reject it at the end of their dialogue. Euthyphro runs away from it at the end of his. Meno and Anytus turn away from self-examination in the Meno. A wide assortment of sophist-types fail to acknowledge the elenchus they have suffered in many other dialogues. The most dramatic account of the rejection of elenctic self-insight is given by Alcibiades in the Symposium:
Contrary to the Socratic paradox that "no one willingly does wrong," the dialogues show people akratically rejecting moral knowledge again and again.
The fact that Socrates' interlocutors typically reject the opportunity for moral insight and personal growth he makes available to them explains why he cannot be said to possess a techne of moral education, and why he insists that virtue cannot be taught. Ideally Socrates should lead the student to a deeper understanding of his own moral beliefs, to the recognition that they are inconsistent and that he "doesn't really know what he is talking about." Ideally this process should prick his inflated self-evaluation and lead him to a deeper commitment to rationality, out of the state of inconsistency and/or heteronomous dependence on moral authorities, to the attitude of mind in which he examines his actions in the light of reason and in which the policy of testing what he believes himself to know becomes a guiding vehicle of his self-evaluation. But this call to self-investment cannot be compelled. Socrates can use logic, charm, even social pressure, but he cannot force his "patient" to prefer the good of truth to his desire for safety and comfort, or for superiority and honor. The decision depends upon the interlocutor himself, and this volitional aspect of self-knowledge is essential to the process of the elenctic inquiry. The process of education through the elenchus--a process of rational self-development, of appropriating the values and principles of critical reason--is not a matter of correct instruction, but of rational elicitation, which must be responded to by personal choice.
The picture I have drawn also suggests why Socratic dialectic may be held to have not only negative, but positive results. Focusing primarily on the Apology and the Gorgias, many scholars have argued that Socrates arrived, through his lifetime of inquiry, at a core of fundamental moral beliefs he is now convinced are both consistent and irrefutable. (15) These are no mere beliefs, but reasoned, "proven" beliefs--beliefs that have stood the test of many examinations, beliefs the contradiction of which he believes he can show is ridiculous. The analysis offered here adds a different component to the understanding of Socratic rationality, by enabling us to appreciate how Socrates might have come to his principles through participation in the practice of dialectic; how that practice may have led him from within to the values he lives by; and why, despite the conviction that his moral beliefs are irrefutable, he must still disavow any claim to certainty regarding them. For on this view, Socrates' ethics would emerge out of and reflect the practice of rational inquiry itself, the values of moral-philosophical discourse. (16) Socrates' ethics may then be understood as the substantive embodiment of the formal principles of such discourse and mutual involvement: the primacy of the good of truth over superiority or honor or safety or physical desire; the commitment of the rational inquirer to values of moral courage, intellectual humility, and dialectical fairness; the willingness to suffer "punishment" (refutation), if such punishment/refutation is warranted, rather than do it to another, if it is not; the realization of personal interest and the common good; and the imperative of applying one's findings to the conduct of life. (17) Socratic ethics, on this view, would be the idealized extension of the norms required by and created in the very practice of dialectic.
The value-creative dimension of dialectic makes it something other than mere mental gymnastics. There is an external isomorphism between dialectic and eristic, in the sense that the process of Socratic elenchus aims at criticizing and overthrowing the logos put to the test. (18) This partly explains why Critias, not appreciating the moral principles that guide dialectic, thinks Socrates is just trying to refute him. Dialectic, no less than eristic, has the logical form of refutative argument aimed at the interlocutor's statements. But the inner nature of dialectic is very different than that of eristic. Its goal, its orienting principle, is not the good of victory for oneself; it is the community-creating good of truth, of the "revelation of each of the beings" (166d5-6). (19) But what does this revelation involve?
As we may now appreciate, the phrase has a double meaning. (20) For the "revelation of the beings" in a Socratic dialogue refers not only to the goal of revealing things as they are in the world (truth in propositional terms, in words); it also refers to the uncovering of selves and their values, and bringing them to the life of reason (truth in souls). Charmides is not prepared for such truth, and will fearfully withdraw from it; Critias will angrily reject it. But the interlocutor who would persist in the process of Socratic education and dialectic comes to a revelation of himself, his beliefs and values, and thus it takes him to a point of moral decision: Will he persist in and submit to the process of rational inquiry, a process which requires and indeed takes the form of a new kind of self-determination? Or will he withdraw from and refuse such self-formation and self-knowledge, in anger or fear?
In other words, the elenchus potentially involves the interlocutor in a rite of passage, confrontation with a self whose irrational attachments of appetite and ego are exposed and must be overcome for the interlocutor to progress in and through the cathartic element of the inquiry. The Socratic elenchus is no mere intellectual conversation, but a "going down" of the whole self--which is why so many reject it, but also why it can lead to a genuine "leading out" of the psyche into self-knowledge at the other end of the zetetic tunnel. It is the potential rebirth of the interlocutor's selfhood in the values of reason that makes it not merely an investigative, but a therapeutic and even a kind of religious practice. If the interlocutor is virtuous and persists in the dialectic process, he will find himself taken out of his "accidental and irrational arbitrariness" and revealed in the light of reason, and he will also begin to find and remake his self-identity in the values of that rational process. He will discover that the pursuit of knowledge has involved him in the values and virtues of cognitive life and in the participant community of that life.
The practice of dialectic should form, in the life of the Socratically sophron individual, an intellectual conscience, and this quality of thoughtfulness about her life should make it significantly different from that of a person who does not engage in critical thought. (21) There is an amusing characterization of this difference in the (possibly spurious) Hippias Major, where Socrates, having failed utterly to lead Hippias to recognize his own self-contradiction and conceit of wisdom, proclaims ironically that he, unlike Hippias, cannot rest easy with eloquent and beautiful speeches about beauty and virtue, because he, unlike Hippias, is held to account for his beliefs by a man who is always cross-examining him:
In other words, Socrates has come to live in the dimension of rational self-examination, but Hippias' "inner house" is empty--there is nobody home. The dialogue displays not only Hippias's inability to define the beautiful; it also displays his deeply engrained unwillingness to reflect upon the meaning of that failure for his moral self-assessment and epistemic self-confidence. (22) But the Hippias Major, like the Charmides, displays the contrary, very beautiful quality in Socrates--whatever his critical friend may say. (23)
(1) Hugh Benson has drawn attention to the role the quest for definition plays in the Socratic elenchus, cf. especially "The Priority of Definition and the Socratic Elenchos," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 8 (1990): 19-65
(2) For the "standard form," see Gregory Vlastos, "The Socratic Elenchus," Oxford Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy 1 (1983): 23-58, 11-17.
(3) See W. T. Schmid, "Socrates' Practice of Elenchus in Plato's Charmides," Ancient Philosophy 1 (1981), 141-47, 143.
(4) Vlastos, "The Socratic Elenchus," 7-11; Kenneth Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery (Albany,: State University, 1987) 1-4, 32-35; Hans-Georg Gadamer, Plato's Dialectical Ethics, trans. R. M. Wallace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 35-44; and Richard Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 15-17. Truthfulness in dialectical inquiry functions in a similar manner to truthfulness in everyday life: the practice of communicative reason breaks down without it. It is not that the interlocutor's speech cannot be examined, but the integrity of the speaker and his speech is violated--so he runs the risk of self-deception--and the epistemic and moral community is disrupted--so the principle of a common commitment to the truth discovered is given up.
(5) Socratic dialectic is directed both to the concept under discussion and to the speaker, and these two aspects of the inquiry are not neatly separable: the subject matter of Socrates' questions reflects the central value in the interlocutor's self-understanding, and his self-understanding shapes his understanding of the inquiry. This would seem to be why the interlocutor typically agrees that his definition of the virtue in question, d, rather than the premises underlying Socrates' argument, q and r, is refuted: somehow this central item in his self-understanding has been overturned; not comprehending how this could be possible, he infers that he has been refuted; since his understanding of this virtue is central to his self-knowledge, he accepts that it has been refuted. This is not to say that the premises are not also accepted by the interlocutor, e.g. Euthyphro's agreement at 10d that the gods love an act or person because it is pious, Laches' agreement at 193b that raw courage unfortified by technical advantage is more noble than with it, Charmides' assumption at 161a of the authority of Homer. These premises are important parts of the cultural belief system the interlocutor conveys, but at the center of their particular convictions are the specific virtue ideals with which they identify.
(6) This is true both of Vlastos' discussion, and most recently of Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, Plato's Socrates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), in which almost two-thirds of all citations are to the Apology, the Crito, or the Gorgias, and but few to the Charmides.
(7) Critias proves no less lacking the habit of critical reason than his ward, despite the fact that he, unlike Charmides, seems to be a morally autonomous agent. In this context, it is relevant to distinguish personal and moral autonomy. Personal autonomy is associated with moral personality, with deciding for oneself as regards beliefs and values. Some of the political types sketched in Republic VIII-IX seem to possess such "personal autonomy," e.g., the democratic man, the tyrant. It involves moral independence from others (Charmides lacks such independence), though it may not involve independence from the dominant values of one's own society. Moral autonomy is a quality of moral character involving the incorporation of rational principle in one's belief and value system.
(8) Compare the discussion in Gadamer, Plato's Dialectical Ethics, 44-51.
(9) Plato, Sophist, translated by H. N. Fowler, in the Loeb edition, 315.
(10) See Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 16; Schmid, "Socrates' Practice of Elenchus," 107-108; and Brickhouse and Smith, Plato's Socrates, 12-13, 17-18.
(11) On the relation of autonomy and thinking for oneself, see Hannah Arendt's insightful essay on Socrates in The Life of the Mind, vol. 1 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 166-93; William Frankena, Ethics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 1-9; Stephen Nathanson, The Ideal of Rationality (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 3-16; Vlastos, "The Paradox of Socrates," in his edition, The Philosophy of Socrates, 1-21; and Kant's classic essay, "What Is Enlightenment?" found in Carl Friedrich's edition, The Philosophy of Kant: Immanuel Kant's Moral and Political Writings (New York: Modern Library, 1949), 132-39. Compare also Stephen Darwell, Impartial Reason, 101-102 (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1995): "Rationality consists, at least partly, in our capacity to make our ends and preferences the object of our rational consideration, and to revise them in accordance with reasons we find compelling."
(12) Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery, especially 81-92; also Myles Burnyeat, "Socratic Midwifery, Platonic Inspiration," Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 24 (University of London): 7-16, 12.
(13) The fact that all are equal members in the epistemic community of the dialectic does not imply that one may be not called upon to play the role of teacher as well as inquirer. Socatic self-knowledge may include not only quietness in the subtle sense hinted at in the summary of the argument at 160b-d, and shame in the sense of fear of error and humility before the truth, but also knowledge of one's role in the interactive community of the dialectic--of leading or of openly, reflectively being led.
(14) On Alcibiades and akrasia in the early dialogues, see Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery, 145-48.
(15) Vlastos, "The Socratic Elenchus," 17-29; C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 45-62; Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery, 73-90, 144-45; also Alexander Nehamas, "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic,"History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1986): 3-16, and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, Foundations of Socratic Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994, especially 138-39.
(16) For the relation of dialectic to courage, see Charmides 167a, Apology 21a-23b, and Sophist 230a-e with regard to moderation; Laches 194a and Republic 534c with regard to courage; and Gorgias 505b-e, 508a, and 521d with regard to justice, fairness and the "common good" (also Charmides 166d).
(17) For the primacy of the good of truth, cf. Charmides 166d4-6; on the necessity of moral courage and intellectual humility, see Charmides 160e2-5 and 169c6-d1 (compare Laches 194d and Gorgias 487b-d, 492d, 505e); on dialectical fairness and concern for others, see 166c7-d6; on applying reason to conduct, see 155c5-156d3, and compare Crito 46b, Gorgias 488a. Socrates implies his willingness to be refuted at Charmides 166d8-e2; compare Gorgias 458a. For discussions of these values in the elenchus, see the works cited in notes 2-3, 10-11, 14 above, and compare the account of ethics in contemporary critical theory, e.g., Juergen Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhardt and S. W. Nicholson (Cambridge: M. I. T. Press, 1990), 42-115.
(18) See Nicholas Rescher, Dialectics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 46-60, also Nehamas, "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic," 7-9.
(19) See Gadamer, Plato's Dialectical Ethics, 51-65; also Nehamas, "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic," 10-11.
(20) See Seth Benardete, "On Interpreting Plato's Charmides." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 11 (1986): 9-36, 13.
(21) Compare Nietzsche: "The great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience. I mean: does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward. But what is goodheartedness, or refinement, or creativity to me, when the person who has these virtues does not account the desire for certainty as his inmost craving and deepest distress?" The Gay Science, para. 2, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 76.
(22) See the discussion in Arendt, Life of the Mind, vol. 1, 188-93.
(23) This paper was presented at the 20th World Congress of Philosophy in Boston, Massachusetts, in August, 1998. It was adapted from chapter 4 of my book, Plato's Charmides and the Socratic Ideal of Rationality (Albany: State University of New York, 1998).