Gregory Vlastos
Socrates, Plato, and Their Tradition

It is not merely that Socrates says thingsā€”as in his disclaimer of moral knowledge-which contradict the role of a preacher and teacher of the care of the soul, but that he acts in ways which do not seem to fit this role. Socrates' characteristic activity is the elenchus, literally, 'the refutation.' You say A, and he shows you that A implies B, and B implies C, and then he asks, 'But didn't you say D before? And doesn't C contradict D?' And there he leaves you with your shipwrecked argument, without so much as telling you what part of it, if any, might yet be salvaged. His tactics seem unfriendly from the start. Instead of trying to pilot you around the rocks, he picks one under water a long way ahead where you would never suspect it and then makes sure you get all the wind you need to run full-sail into it and smash your keel upon it.

This sort of thing happens so often in Plato's Socratic dialogues and is so perplexing, that one can't help wondering whether the historical Socrates could have been really like that. I have had to ask myself more than once whether this pitiless critic, this heartless intellectual, this man who throws away his chances to preach a gospel so he may push an argument instead, is not, after all, only a Platonic projection, and tells us more about the youthful Plato than about the aged Socrates. As often as this doubt has reared its head in my mind, I have chopped it down by going back to the Apology. Here, where Socrates' evangelistic mission is stated so emphatically, it is most distinctly implied that his customary conduct did not fit the evangelist's role. I am thinking, of course, of that story about the supposed oracle of Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates; this supposedly started Socrates on his search for someone wiser than himself, trying everyone who had the reputation for wisdom, first the statesmen, then the poets, then, scraping the bottom of the barrel, even the artisans, only to find that the wisdom of all these people, from top to bottom, was worse than zero, a minus quantity. What to make of this whole story is itself a puzzle for the scholar, and I will not try to crack it here. But whatever the Pythian priestess may or may not have said in the first place, and whatever Socrates may or may not have thought about whatever she did say, the one thing which is certain is this: the story frames a portrait of Socrates whose day-in, day-out role was known to his fellow-citizens as that of a destructive critic, whose behavior looked from the outside like that of a man who saw nothing in his interlocutors but balloons of pretended knowledge and was bent on nothing else but to puncture them. So the Apology confirms the conduct which presents our paradox. It tells of a Socrates who says the care of the soul is the most important thing in the world, and that his mission in life is to get others to see this. And yet it also as good as says that if you were going down the Agora and saw a crowd around Socrates you could take three to one bets that Socrates would not be saying anything about the improvement of the soul, nor acting as though he cared a straw for the improvement of his interlocutor's soul, but would be simply arguing with him, forcing him into one comer after another, until it became plain to all the bystanders, if not the man himself, that his initial claim to
know this or that was ridiculously false.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.