Saturday 21 May 2022

Socratic wisdom

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

To read Plato's Socratic dialogues is a thrilling intellectual experience.  They are vivid: it is easy to believe that you are there, sitting in some Athenian agora, or walking through the surrounding countryside, listening to the constant probings of this eccentric old man.  They are hauntingly familiar, shot through as they are with ideas which have since become central to Western culture.  But above all they offer a pristine sense of discovery: here, you feel, true philosophy, true knowledge, began.

Much of this sense arises from a return to absolute basics in the form of a newly-discovered fascination with words.  At the centre of Socrates' investigations of life's greatest issues - what is virtue? how should we live? - is a concentration on the key ideas: truth, the good, justice.  From the words themselves Socrates attempts to extract the vital core of those concepts, using a keen intelligence like a knife to strip away the inessentials to reveal their heart.  In comparison with this rigour, the earlier philosophers' attempts to build up a theory of the world look like fairy tales, fanciful collections of facts on which some arbitrary structure - the primacy of one of the four elements, say - has been imposed to lend a specious order.  In contrast, Socrates' method seems inarguably right - and totally contemporary.

Indeed, most modern philosophy proceeds in this way; the best of it offers us the same sense of Socratic exhilaration.  For example, the deepest German thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -  above all Immanuel Kant - squeeze out drop after rarefied drop from those same key words: God, being, perfection, and the rest.  What is particularly exciting for the lay reader is the common starting point: these are our words, our concepts too; it is simply the genius of the great philosopher that takes them so far from their origins, just as a great pianist can turn even our domestic piano into a mighty instrument for soaring symphonies of sound.

We are so amazed by this intellectual funambulism - as the masters walk out over the metaphysical abyss into which the rest of us stare, edging their way across to the haven of knowledge and certitude - that we tend to overlook how unsatisfactory the end-result proves to be.  Witness the innumerable exegeses of the greatest philosophers' ideas, all of which contain hesitations, doubts, demurrals, or plain incomprehension.

We find this Socratic approach credible partly because of the inspiring example of mathematics.  There, a few simple axioms give rise to the most complex and elegant results - all of which are, in some sense, contained in the original assumptions, and which can be teased out by human ingenuity.  We somehow expect metaphysics to do the same with the corresponding raw stuff of ideas, as embodied in words.  But metaphysics seems to lack the precise tools of mathematical enquiry which allow each step of a proof to be inarguably verified.  As a result, different philosophers can with equal plausibility draw different - even opposing - conclusions from the same initial concept.  In our enthusiasm for this aspect of the Socratic method, we would do well to bear in mind Socrates' own assessment of why he was dubbed by the Delphic oracle the wisest man in Athens: because he knew how little he knew.


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