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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

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.

Dear ‘Socrates’,

I put ‘Socrates’ in quotation marks because I don’t believe that it is really Socrates whom I am addressing. Aside from the intrinsic implausibility of somebody returning from a far distant time, what reason have you provided, or could you provide, to convince me otherwise? Much of what you have written doesn’t sound like Socrates at all. The rest you could have picked up from consulting various reference sources. This is why you are in ‘hiding’: You dare not reveal your true identity as an impostor!

Skeptically yours, ‘Pyrrho’

Dear ‘Pyrrho’,

I see that it was a mistake to agree to put my name to this column; I should instead have signed on under some nondescript assumed name as a philosopher who was willing to entertain suggestions from readers. That way both the reader and I could indulge our desire for dialogue and enlightenment without this continual distraction about whether I am who I say I am (or if I am, did I really stand all night by my tent, etc.). But I shall try to wrest some philosophical nugget from your skepticism – that is, something that has the potential to nourish the soul and not just pose puzzles.

Of course you cannot know that I am Socrates – not even if I were to stand directly in front of you and poke my pug nose in your face! Why, as that acute Sextus Empiricus pointed out a long time after I was roaming the agora (and some Frank fellow reiterated a millennium after him), you might even be dreaming. You might not be who you think you are!

How, then, could you go about ‘exposing’ me? Well, I have read about an interesting experiment proposed by a mathematician named Turing, who asked whether a mechanical computer could be programmed to ‘answer’ any questions put to it in such a way that, based only on those responses, bystanders would be unable to distinguish it from a human being. You find yourself in an analogous position with respect to me: Is there a Turing Test for Socrates?

You are faced with formidable obstacles because not only, as you say, could somebody impersonate me by use of reference sources, but also, as I have explained before, I am not at all a static relic, but more like Heraclitus’s river – in fact, a very rapids since returning to this world of novelties. (Indeed, I am like Cratylus’s river, for, as Plato correctly depicted, I can even be at odds with myself.) Furthermore, I am more convinced than ever of my theory of recollection, because I find myself far more familiar with so-called recent developments in the sublunary world than if I had been completely numb during my time away.

And then there are the characterizations of me by others: What are you to make of them? Plato’s is quite accurate in parts, I must admit; in other places, sheer fantasy. Which is which? And Xenophon paints a different picture altogether. I understand from your scholars that there were yet other accounts by many of my circle – Aeschines, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Cebes, Crito, Euclides, Phaedo, and Simmias – now lost. (I pass over Aristophanes.) Evidently I gave rise to a cottage industry of biographers! When I consider what Alcibiades might have written, had he been the scribbling type, my eyes roll.

So you see, I use your own skepticism against you. I am not to be pinned down (or ‘penned down’ by writers), so your complaint is pointless. It does, however, display curious parallels to an important matter I once raised with one of our priests, Euthyphro. We were discussing the nature of piety, since as you know I was being accused of being impious (and would be killed for it). Euthyphro was basing his notions of right and wrong on the official stories about what the gods love, whereas I found it difficult to believe many of those stories. Why was I doubtful? I can now put it this way, that I must have been employing a sort of Turing Test for the gods.

You see, the religious stories were, in effect, answers to questions we humans had put – in my case, what kind of life should one live? But in order to accept those answers as authoritative, it was necessary to have confidence in their source. So in effect a prior question needed to be put: Are these stories credible? How are we to tell, since we only have the stories (the ‘answers’) to go by?

To me it was obvious that the stories could be judged by their content, and in at least two ways. First of all, they sometimes contradict themselves or one another; so that ruled them out as all possibly true (although some could be). But more to the point, some of them contradicted my own sense of the divine as being wholly good, and hence, my own sense of the good. Thus, I was turning the tables on Euthyphro; for he was judging right and wrong on the basis of the stories, whereas I was judging the stories on the basis of right and wrong. As a result, even my piety was superior to his, by Zeus!

Now, what made those stories liable to this criticism is that they were stories, that is, they were presented as authoritative without argument. What makes our case different, my dear ‘Philo’, is precisely that the authoritative source of these words which I write hardly matters, since it is always up to the reader to judge their cogency.

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: socrates@philosophynow.demon.co.uk 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.

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