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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
So glad to finally be able to send you off a letter. There’s a question I’ve had for years that only YOU can answer.
In the June/July 2000 issue you mentioned reading some of the material your “dear Plato” had written about you. You said you read this stuff “bemusedly.” My question is: just how closely did Plato come to expressing your genuine thought?
David Lattin (from the New World)
I can appreciate your curiosity, but I hesitate to become the focus of our discussions, even though I readily admit that my soul is the chief object of my concern. I am eager to converse about various issues, especially to hear what others have to say about them, so that I will have the opportunity to scrutinize the merits of their proposals. And that for the purpose of preparing myself for some future existence in a better state of being.
To dwell too much on the person of Socrates, furthermore, would subject me to the risk of celebrity status, which seems to be a fetish of this ‘New World’ (which I do not really find to be all that new). Frankly, I suspect that prospect is as likely to be fatal today as was political prominence in my own day, which I similarly shunned. Worse, it could be hurtful to my soul.
I have, in fact, (apart from this column) assumed a secret identity in my daily conduct. Disguised as a mild-mannered classicist in a quaint metropolitan university, I hobnob with my confidant/sponsor and other colleagues, who take me for a visiting scholar. Fortunately they have assigned me a research position, since I abjure teaching, especially for money, although I am happy to participate in informal seminars with students; and because I hardly need to read the most ancient texts, my position provides me with an opportunity to study more recent thinking (but how I wish I could question the thinkers directly!).
Would it not be the height of ingratitude on my part to suddenly reveal the whole truth about my old ideas to the world? Why, it could destroy the careers of half of my colleagues, who have been so kind to me! I will gladly be the gadfly of my contemporaries, but for the purpose of their betterment, not their destruction.
Which does bring me to a topic that relates to your question. It is the matter of my method. Supposedly there is such a thing as the Socratic Method, but it is clear that in his Dialogues, Plato portrays my philosophizing in different ways. Sometimes I am on the assault, ripping into my interlocutor’s reasoning. Sometimes the interlocutor returns the compliment. At other times, I simply hold forth, albeit at the urging of a questioner; and others do likewise. In this I would say Plato was being true to the variety of life, and no doubt this is also the way Plato saw me and remembered me.
But over the years I had grown somewhat weary of these extremes of attack and defense, although there was little I could do by that time to alter such ingrained habits. Nor by any means did I resolve to repudiate the use of logic to reveal the weaknesses of another person’s opinions. The point is, the tail should not be wagging the dog. One should employ this powerful technique for a noble end.
I had picked up the practice from Protagoras, that lawyerly fellow, and he believed it did serve a noble purpose, namely, filling his pocketbook with drachmas by teaching aspiring politicians how to fill up theirs! I was not interested in material enrichment, which could only fasten me more securely to this world; and debate for debate’s sake is a puerile pastime. Instead I dedicated myself to refining the method for the enrichment of my soul.
My only fear, then, is that sometimes Plato’s Dialogues diverge from this objective (often due, I must admit, to their accuracy of depicting my demeanor!). For by the time of my death my ideal had become, not so much an elenchus as a conversation, wherein empathetic understanding plays as much of a role as exposing contradictions, and collaboration takes the place of a contest. Perhaps it has even been my fate to be brought back expressly for this purpose: to realize this ideal in practice!
Let me be frank: most of what Plato wrote about me was a fiction. I do not begrudge him his liberties. First of all, if I were to substitute my own account, who can say how much of fiction might it not also contain? Even more to the point: Plato was using me for his own purposes. And why not? Wasn’t I doing the same with all of my interlocutors? What matters most to me is that his and my main purpose was indeed a shared one: the pursuit of wisdom.
So if you too would wish to use me is in this fashion (allowing me the complementary freedom, of course), I would only be gratified. Don’t have me be a hardened fossil; I am already a different man, you know, from all the reading I have done since my return. Bring me fully back into the world by bringing me into your world.
What shall we discuss, then?
Yours as ever,
Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: email@example.com Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.