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Teaching Philosophy

The Educational Value of Plato's Early Socratic Dialogues

Heather L. Reid
Morningside College

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ABSTRACT: When contemplating the origins of philosophical paideia one is tempted to think of Socrates, perhaps because we feel that Socrates has been a philosophical educator to us all. But it is Plato and his literary genius that we have to thank as his dialogues preserve not just Socratic philosophy, but also the Socratic educational experience. Educators would do well to better understand Plato's pedagogical objectives in the Socratic dialogues so that we may appreciate and utilize them in our own educational endeavors, and so that we may adapt the Socratic experience to new interactive educational technologies. Plato designed his Socratic dialogues to arm students for real world challenges and temptations. First, in both form and function the dialogues attempt to replicate the Socratic experience for their audience. They demand from their readers what Socrates demanded from his students: active learning, self-examination, and an appreciation for the complexity and importance of wisdom. Second, the dialogues challenge the conflation of professional and personal excellence, best exemplified by sophists such as Hippias, and exhort their reader to pursue personal aretê separately from and alongside practical and professional skills or technai. Third, they aim not to transmit some prepackaged formula for success, but to teach students to learn for themselves; that is to love and pursue wisdom. The Socratic dialogues, and philosophic dialogue itself, are educationally important in that they teach us to be philosophers in the literal sense.

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It is instructively ironic that scholars look immediately to the Republic when considering Plato's theory of education, yet most often employ his early, short Socratic dialogues (1) in their own efforts as educators. Indeed it is likely, given the prohibition of such questions as "What is the fine (to kalon)" at Republic 538dff. and the proclivity for censorship expressed in Book II, that definitional Socratic dialogues such as Euthyphro, Ion, and Laches would have been banned from schools in his own ideal state. But what can we learn from these enigmatic riddles? We know from the Laws (811cd) that Plato considered his own collected works to be a model for educational literature. Aristotle's familiarity with the dialogues further suggests their use in Plato's own Academy. Finally, Socrates' conversations with youths ranging from Meno's slave boy, to Lysis, Menexenus, Charmides, and later, Theaetetus, suggest clearly that Plato thought philosophical dialogue was an important part of education. Plato's earliest dialogues may have been excluded from paideia in his ideal Republic, but they had definite educational value in the real world of ancient Athens, and perhaps in our own world today.

Plato designed his early Socratic dialogues to arm students for real challenges and temptations. First, the dialogues, in both form and function, attempt to replicate the Socratic experience for their readers. They demand from their readers what Socrates demanded from his interlocutors: active learning, self-examination, and an appreciation for the complexity and importance of wisdom. Second, the dialogues challenge the conflation of professional and personal excellence, best exemplified by sophists such as Hippias, and exhort their readers to pursue personal aretê separately from and along side practical and professional skills or technai. (2) Third, they aim not to transmit some prepackaged formula for success, but to teach students to learn for themselves; that is to love and pursue wisdom. The early Socratic dialogues are educational in that they teach us to be philosophers in the literal sense.

When a drunken Alcibiades bursts into the Symposium and contrasts Socrates' love for his soul with his own tormented neglect of it [212c ff.], we might be tempted to conclude that the Socratic experience has failed to rescue this treasure of a young man from ruin. But the fact that Alcibiades is so tormented, the very frustration he feels at being torn between the lavish praise of his fellow men and the nagging awareness, awakened in him by Socrates, that true aretê is so much more that what he has, should be evidence enough for us of the power of the Socratic experience. We, who will probably never be loved by our peers to the degree that Alcibiades was, can learn from his mistakes. We can follow the advice and example of Socrates and continue the painstaking cultivation of our souls. From the experience of the early Socratic dialogues, we can learn to admit our ignorance, to love wisdom, and to pursue it with passion; we learn to be philosophers.

I. Active Learning

A central characteristic of the Socratic experience was the fact that it was oral and dialogical -- a face to face confrontation with oneself, ones friends, and the polis who are regularly represented by the small audiences that surround Socratic conversations. Plato adopted and perfected the philosophical dialogue in an heroic effort to keep the essentially oral Socratic experience afloat in the rising tide of literacy. We, as readers, are meant to experience the Socratic dialogue existentially. We identify with the characters (who are often caricatures of social types), we compare our own answers with theirs, and we resolve to pursue more valiantly than they the questions that blossom in the text. It is testament to Plato's dramatic genius that even modern students are able to identify with Plato's ancient characters, and to compare them to people they know.

Ideally, the dialogues give us the courage to ask Socratic questions of ourselves, and to ask them of friends who remind us of Euthyphro, or Laches, or Hippias. Courage in inquiry is one of the greatest benefits of the Socratic experience. (3) Indeed courage is demanded because the "say what you believe" rule explicitly prohibits the justification of beliefs on the authority of popular success, political power, poetic inspiration, or even the words of Socrates himself. Just as it is not acceptable to defend one's own beliefs by appeal the authority of experts, so one must challenge the experts themselves in order to learn more about the wisdom we mutually desire. Socrates seeks to learn about piety from Euthyphro, but in the dialogical process he teaches Euthyphro something as well. On Plato's scheme we are all students, ideally engaged in a cooperative pursuit of truth and wisdom. It is the admission of ignorance in ourselves, and the recognition of ignorance in others that gives us the courage, freedom, and duty to inquire after truth.

The awareness of ignorance inspired by the Socratic experience is not simply mimetic of Socrates' own avowal. It is a sincere outcome of the real enigmas, paradoxes, and aporiae brought out in the text. The experience of aporia produced so frequently by the dialogues is not meant to be the kind of temporary numbing described in Meno. Nor is it a playful mind-bender like Zeno's paradox of the arrow. Aporia in the Socratic dialogues is a true confrontation with an open question (4) which contains an awareness both of the complexity of the issue and of the fundamental importance of pursuing a solution. Again, the model is Socrates' own mission of questioning inspired by the oracle's declaration of his wisdom which he took as nothing other than a supremely important mystery demanding a life-consuming investigation. The ainigma ignites a desire in the student, a recognition of the wisdom that he lacks and the erotic drive to gain it. (5) The Socratic experience encourages active intellectual movement by stripping us from the anchors of authoritative justification for personal beliefs and by instilling an appreciation for the importance and complexity of questions about human excellence (aretê).

II. Development of Moral Character

Education in antiquity, as in our contemporary world, focused on professional skills that promised practical success in the real world. Euthyphro, Laches, Ion, and Hippias are all real-world success stories. Socrates' examination of these men in the dialogues, however, reveals their failures -- not as professionals, but as whole human beings. Their key mistake, reflected in the pragmatic focus of traditional education, is to conflate excellence in a particular technê with excellence of the soul or aretê. Euthyphro's success in the courtroom has left him without the time or desire to explore the nature of that principle, piety, on which he prosecutes his own father. Laches' courage in battle is contrasted with a marked lack of fortitude and endurance in inquiry [193e]. Ion's unparalleled knowledge of Homer leads him to believe himself eminently qualified to lead Athens into battle [541bc]. Hippias' failure to distinguish between technical and moral excellence leads him to the conclusion that a good (i.e. skillful) criminal is also a good man [376a].

The rewards of these men's professions may be more tangible than the rewards of Socrates' mission, but by pursuing their professions to the exclusion of developing their souls, these men find themselves with skills, money, and popular esteem but no sense of moral direction by which to guide the use of their practical expertise. Plato illustrates this conflict repeatedly with the example of a doctor whose skills make him equally qualified to help or harm his patients. (6) The goal or telos towards which professionals apply their skills is a product not of technical training, but of the personal cultivation of moral aretê.

The problem is rooted in a failure to acknowledge ignorance. The experts have a technical knowledge that allows them to judge good and bad instances of their craft, but they don't have the kind of moral expertise that would allow them to distinguish particular actions as good or evil. Unfortunately, the success and esteem they have gained from their crafts, along with the assumption that technical excellence equals moral excellence, squelches their motivation to pursue wisdom. As Plato reminds us in Symposium and Lysis, we do not love and desire what we think we already have. By exposing this confusion between moral and technical excellence in the Socratic dialogues, Plato impresses on his readers the importance of pursuing moral excellence in addition to technical skill, in both our personal lives and our educational systems. Unfortunately, the modern pressure on schools to provide a quick return on educational investment in the form of higher starting salaries has not abated and the ideal of a rounded liberal arts education struggles against this tide.

III. Teaching Students to Learn for Themselves

Given that our lives and world is constantly changing, the most valuable thing an education can give us is the motivation and ability to learn for ourselves. The Socratic dialogues achieve this by helping us to identify a goal or telos and awakening in us the desire to pursue that goal. That there be a definite telos is essential to the Platonic education project because without it we are reduced to sophistical relativism. The identification and pursuit of the telos remains an individual project, without it being the case that each person's telos is whatever he or she makes it out to be.

Socrates knows that love of wisdom rather than wisdom itself is the most a "teacher" can give a student. Appreciation for the importance and complexity of truth arises through the personal pursuit and discovery of it; Socrates' more leading questions are designed to develop that appreciation and to inspire the joy of the hunt. A philosophical educator can no sooner specify a student's telos, than a coach can tell a sprinter to run a particular time. There are parameters for and characteristics of excellence, but it must be sought by individuals individually. The sophists were known for hawking prepackaged arguments, surefire eristic techniques, and answers to every question in the Athenian marketplace. Plato no doubt blamed such wholesale distribution of "truth" and "wisdom" for the disgraceful image of philosophy caricatured by Aristophanes in The Clouds and lamented in Republic VII.

Socrates can believe in absolute truth and be tolerant, even inviting, of rival views precisely because his denial of wisdom is sincere. Socrates can apprehend but not comprehend (7) this telos -- he is sure of its existence, and even of its characteristics (beautiful, eternal), but he does not have knowledge of it in the sense that he could articulate a definitive logos for it; he just knows enough to direct his pursuit. Indeed the telos itself is dynamic and never static, its pursuit requires constant effort, even at the highest levels. After all, the total acquisition of truth would extinguish the desire for it which is essential to philosophical existence. (8)

IV. Lessons for Us

The educational lessons of Plato's early Socratic dialogues remain valuable to us even today. First, we must take up his example and continue to encourage active learning through intelligent dialogue and interactive communication. We stand at the foot of another wave of technological change with the advent of electronic communication. Plato would consider us fortunate because this mode of communication is inherently interactive, while he was forced to adapt the Socratic experience to the technology of the written word which by nature asks for passive acceptance. Already students bring a TV mentality to the classroom, expecting to be performed for and to passively imbibe from the vessel of wisdom at the front of the classroom. We teachers should admit our own ignorance and refuse students the convenience of justifying their beliefs by appeal to accepted authority, even to scientific authority. We should aim to provide a Socratic experience in our classrooms just as Plato did with his dialogues.

Second, we must recognize the importance of encouraging the development of moral character in addition to professional skill in our schools. Neither our students nor we ourselves should ever confuse financial success, athletic prowess, political power, or public esteem with true human excellence. The study of philosophy, including but not limited to Plato's Socratic dialogues, may be a natural means to that end -- but the pursuit of aretê should not be simply one endeavor among many; it should be infused as part of the paideia specific to any discipline pursued by human beings. Chemistry should ask not only what makes a person a good chemist, but also what makes a chemist a good human being. Educational programs should be balanced between personal and professional objectives, with only one of these oars in the water the boat is bound to go in circles.

Third, we should follow Plato's lead in motivating and teaching our students to learn for themselves; that is we must awaken in them a love and desire for wisdom along with the tools for pursuing it. A good start in this direction is to express through words and actions our own passion for wisdom -- an expression which requires an admission of not already having wisdom. Even if we could transmit all the knowledge we have to our students, they will face a new and different world with new and different problems that transcend the limits of any knowledge we could transmit. It is the love and appreciation for learning that will be the most beneficial of our gifts to students.

Plato recognized the educational value of his Socratic dialogues in a world where technology, social ambition, and political demands threaten the basic human pursuit of wisdom. These conditions obtain as much in our world as they did in his. Thanks to that troublesome technology of the written word, the Socratic experience has survived to our times and our educational systems can still profit from it. We must use Plato's early Socratic dialogues as models for our own educational endeavors and as texts within them. Further, we must take advantage of the technological opportunity to adapt Socratic dialogue to the medium of electronic communication. The educational value of Plato's early Socratic dialogues is, in the end, precisely what we're willing to make of it.

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(1) In using the term "early Socratic dialogues," I make no specific claim as to their chronology, rather I am adopting what I consider a conventional scholarly term that identifies a group containing Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Ion, Hippias Minor, Euthyphro, and Lysis as Plato's . In addition to their stylometric classification as early, these dialogues are distinguished by their length, subject matter (aretê), and Socratic style.

(2) This concern is clearly expressed at Apology 22cd where the failings of the craftsmen is identified as a belief that their technical expertise gave them wisdom in other things of great importance. Likewise, Hippis' downfall in Hippias Minor is tied to his inability to distinguish being good in a moral sense from being good at a particular skill .

(3) I am here reminded of one of my own student's reaction to Socrates. A meek Vietnamese woman who said barely anything in class wrote, "Socrates gives me the courage to stand up for my belief and not to be afraid of others who tell me I'm wrong."

(4) For this description I am indebted to Prof. Kostas Michaelides of the University of Cyprus.

(5) This image is expressed eloquently in Socrates' elenchos of Agathon in Symposium [199c-201c] and of Menexenus in Lysis [216c-221d]

(6) See, for example, Laches 192e ff. and Charmides 164bc.

(7) I am indebted for this eloquent distinction to Prof. Gerhard A. Rauche, Professor Emeritus of the University of Durban-Westivile, South Africa.

(8) These characteristics of the Platonic telos are advocated by Prof. Apostolos Pierris of the University of Patras, Greece

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