Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli
Suppose Meletus overheard the discussion in the Crito and went to Plato's Socrates saying "In your discussion with Crito you indicated you were able to propose and defend substantive theses--you claimed to know whether escape would be just, that it is never right to return a wrong for a wrong, and you claimed to know what sort of life is worth living. In making such claims you show you do not really believe that human wisdom amounts to little. That is, you lied during the trial when you professed ignorance. It seems to me your sentence is just!"
How would you respond to this charge? Is Plato's Socrates inconsistent? Can Plato's Socrates both claim to be ignorant and to know?
An alternative way of raising the same question would be to address the notion of "Socratic Ignorance"--to write a paper which answers the question "Is it really true that Plato, Socrates, and other people are on the "same level" in terms of their knowledge?" Here you would refer to (at least) the Apology and the Crito and would explain what Plato's Socrates does, and does not, know. You would also clarify and explain any (apparent) contradictions between his claims in these works.
In his Apology Plato's Socrates clearly indicates he would continue to philosophize even if the court ordered him not to--clearly he does not believe one must obey the laws of the state. In his Crito, however, he accepts a death sentence and refuses to escape from an unjust conviction--he chooses to obey the state's laws. It seems there is an inconsistency or contradiction here--either one has to obey the laws or one doesn't! Which is Plato's real view? If Plato's Socrates is willing to disobey a bad law which says "Don't philosophize," why won't he disobey the state when it comes to life and death?
In the Apology, Plato's Socrates says:
to do this [pursue his dialectical activities] has, as I say, been enjoined upon me by the god, by means of oracles and dreams, and in every other way that a divine manifestation has ever ordered a man to do anything. This is true, gentleman, and can easily be established.1 [33c]
In the Crito, on the other hand, he says:
we must therefore examine whether we should act in this way or not [that is escape], as not only now but at all times I am the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to me.2 [46b]
There seems to be a fundamental inconsistency here however. Either he follows the dictates of the god(s), or he follows the dictates of reason. Which view truly represents Plato's "true view," and how is the other contention to be explained?
Suppose you encountered someone who maintained:
much of what Socrates went through at the end of his life could have been easily avoided if he had only taken his own advice and lived a private life (Apology, 32a). He would not have offended the rich and powerful, he would not have been put on trial, and he would not have had to reason with Crito about the appropriateness of escaping.
How would you reply? Would "being private" in this sense mean giving up anything that he holds to be important? If so, clarify what would have to be forsaken, and why you think he would not be willing to do so.
In their “Socratic Method,” Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith ask: “if the god’s own gift, Socrates himself, a man who has lead an exemplary life of examination, continues to be ignorant of (for example) the nature of justice, it seems most unlikely that anyone could become wise in the way Socrates claims not to be."3 So, one wonders, what is, really, the point of his inquiry with Euthyphro—if neither of them has full knowledge, in what sense is Socrates better off, and what does his “examined life” offer to someone like Euthyphro (since “knowledge” doesn’t seem to really be promised)?
Write a critical analytical paper on one of the above topics. Such a critical examination and analysis should: (1) clarify the position being examined; (2) elaborate the argument(s) for or against the position in question; (3) carefully assess the adequacy and strength of the argument(s) by considering possible responses, counter-arguments, or counter-examples; and (4) offer your own overall assessment of where the arguments for and against the position being considered leave us--should we accept, reject, or remain neutral regarding this orientation, view, or position?
One of my purposes in having you write these papers is to offer you the opportunity to perfect your ability to describe carefully a complex position and argument to others. Toward that end, I require that you consider your intended audience for these papers to be other philosophy students who have not read exactly the material you have read or heard exactly the lectures which you have heard. They can not be expected to immediately know the intricacies of the positions you are discussing, and must first have the central aspects of the position which are relevant to your paper clarified to them. They must also be presented with carefully elaborated arguments for and against the position if they are to be able to follow your critical assessment of it.
Another of my purposes here is to provide you with the opportunity to push beyond the level of reading and mastering the required material for the course. Here my goal is to provide you with an opportunity to engage in critical reflection upon the readings (or upon related readings and issues), and to provide you with feed-back on your critical scrutinies. This goal can not be met if you confine yourself to a neutral exposition of the views under consideration. In my supplement Writing Philosophy Papers (available on this web-site), I describe a number of different sorts of papers which might be submitted to fulfill this requirement (as well as a number of other points regarding composition and grader's marks. The detailed characterization of such papers in that supplement should help you understand my expectations (those desiring high grades will endeavor to approach the highest ideal, while those who are not so motivated may choose to set their sights somewhat lower).
Your papers should
address an assigned topic in a manner that clearly displays its purpose, thesis, or controlling idea,
clarify the relevant elements of the philosopher’s theory so that they can be understood by other students taking such philosophy courses,
support the thesis with adequate reasons and evidence,
show sustained analysis and critical thought,
be organized clearly and logically, and
show knowledge of conventions of standard written English.
They should be approximately 2000 words long (equivalent to eight double-spaced typewritten pages of 250 words per page). This indication of length is meant as a guide to the student--papers much shorter than the indicated length are unlikely to have adequately addressed one of the assigned topics (see syllabus, however, for explanation of the need for students to fulfill the Gordon Rule requirement in their papers). Papers may, of course, be longer than the indicated length. I will be happy to read rough drafts and to discuss your ideas for your papers with you (of course I can not be much help to you in this manner if you don’t allow sufficient time, and so I will not read any rough drafts submitted after 4:00 on Friday, February 6. The papers should be typed and are due in my office by 4:15 P.M. on Monday, February 9. If you plan to wait till the last moment to write your paper, I recommend you review the Course Syllabus regarding penalties for late papers. Please review my policy on extensions, late papers, and plagiarism (contained in the course syllabus). Please also review my Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers.
Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)
1 The citation is from G.M.A. Grube’s translation of Plato’s Apology, from his The Trial and Death of Socrates , as reprinted in Classics of Western Philosophy (sixth edition), ed. Steven Cahn (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), pp. 29-41, p. 37.
2 The citation is from G.M.A. Grube’s translation of Plato’s Crito, from his The Trial and Death of Socrates , as reprinted in Classics of Western Philosophy (sixth edition), ed. Steven Cahn, op. cit. , pp. 42-48, p. 43. This work is available from the Library’s collection of electronic books.
3 Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Socratic Method,” in their Plato’s Socrates (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 19940, pp. 3-29, p. 23.
Return to PHH 2063 Home-page
File revised on 01/23/2015.