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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 read your comment to P. Difford on objectivism and relativism (Issue 45). A possible view, which Niels Bohr might have liked, is that the two currents are not opposite but complementary. For example, before he finds the answer to the question whether his uncle Claudius is a murderer, Hamlet is a relativist. That is, the proposition “Claudius is guilty” and the proposition “Claudius is innocent” are both ‘true' before the true truth is found. If you wish, you could say that both are false, or that both are true and false at the same time.

If I am not wrong, under an objectivist position Hamlet should take a rigid position and either marry Ophelia or kill Claudius in the first act. Had he gone either way, Shakespeare would have remained unknown.

At the end of the tragedy, Hamlet becomes an objectivist, takes a definite position, and kills Claudius. Unfortunately, he and all the other actors, except Horatio, die. Thus, Shakespeare tells us that the ultimate truth brings death, or that we live as long as we have a mystery before us.

You seek the truth about God, the universe, and how we ‘should' live. That is fine! If there were a road that led to achieving your aims in a few minutes, would you take it?

Kind regards,
Antonio Cassella ED.D.

Dear Antonio,

I applaud your philosophical interpretation of Hamlet. It has thrown me into a pleasant turmoil of thought. What first draws my attention is my own reaction, or reactions, to your comments. On the one hand I want to refute some of your contentions. For example, you seem to be confusing relativism with skepticism. It is one thing to say that there is uncertainty about the truth, as the skeptic claims, but quite another to assert that the truth is the same as whatever one believes, which the relativist claims.

However, it is almost tedious for me to point that out to you. It might be important to do so on another occasion, but right now it seems to me little more than a debater's riposte. Perhaps if I could rephrase my response as poetically as you, it would at least have intrinsic merit. But I am diverted by my other reaction to your letter, for what you say intrigues me. Therefore I want to understand your idea better. I wish I had you here to discuss it, for it would be far easier for me to discern your meaning by drawing it out from you with expressions of my own puzzlement (or criticism). Instead I am left to think it through myself, all the while checking back with what you have written (in a kind of ersatz dialogue with you) to see if my developing hypothesis about your intent is correct.

So my reactions to your letter have taught me two things. First, there are two ways to respond to someone's remarks – critically and sympathetically. The first seeks truth and accuracy, the second, understanding. The first employs analysis, the second, interpretation, recollection, and imaginative feeling. The logical ordering of the two methods might seem to be the reverse: Know what somebody is talking about before attempting to appraise it! Otherwise you run the risk of attacking (or praising) a straw man. But sometimes analysis will reveal the need to clarify meaning in the first place, as when a position's articulation doesn't make sense or is ambiguous or leads to undesirable or unintended conclusions. The two methods should therefore be appreciated as the give-and-take of dialogue.

The second thing my reactions have taught me is that dialogue is not only a form of debate but also of communication, for it is an excellent method of discovering what someone is saying, that is, what they mean. There are endless pitfalls to understanding, you know, which often lead to needless strife (as noted in the preceding paragraph). In dialogue one can simply ask for clarification, or test one's interpretive hypotheses as they develop, until agreement is reached. Indeed, even one's own meaning can become better revealed to oneself, as one's interlocutor draws out implications of one's ideas that had not occurred to oneself (for any idea has countless implications).

Now to proceed to my solitary task of appreciating your meaning. I take you to be offering a novel argument for relativism based only on its desirability. (This neatly avoids the paradox of asserting the truth of relativism, by the way.) You say: Let us revel in the fact of our uncertainty. It gives rise to all that we truly value. It is the condition to which we are suited: the toilers in the field, not the reapers at the table. Life is activity; the end of both is death. I know this implicitly, you imply. If the vision of Truth were offered to me at a symposium in a goblet ... if the exit from the cave were shown to me ... if I could skip over an eternity of dialectic in Hades for instant access to the Forms ... would I take it?

I may surprise you, my friend, but I have a definite answer for you: Yes! You are quite right that I have grown attached to my method of dialectic, but even so it seems a poor substitute for what I most deeply desire. To cling to it when given the chance to leave it behind is a child's response. Did I clasp at life when offered the opportunity to escape from my prison? The means are for the purpose of the end. To lose sight of that, no matter how much one has adapted to the means, is the real death.

But let me concede this much: The reapers would not enjoy the bounty at the table nearly so much if they had not sweated in the fields. So the means were not meant to be bypassed straightaway. One must forever resist gullibility fired by desire. The ‘true truth', as you put it, does, therefore, seem to involve a correlativity (between means and ends). Our dialogue itself is a manifestation of this eternal Truth.

Yours as ever,


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