What Socrates Knew:
Socratic Ignorance, Eros, & the Daimonion, Part 1 of 2
On August 31st, 1999 I gave the second lecture course called “What Socrates Knew.” What follows is a transcription of the first half of the lecture by V.S. The readings referred to are passages from Plato’s dialogues Euthydemus, Apology, Theages, and Symposium. The thirty Socrates theses referred to are listed below, as are links to the audio of the lecture.
The “Thirty Socratic Theses” are:
- The primary philosophical question is: How should I live? What is the good life?
- All human action aims at happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).
- Well-being is not necessarily well-feeling, for well-being may require ill-feeling from time to time.
- Wisdom and luck are the two causes of well-being.
- Wisdom = the ability to make right use of all things.
- Wisdom is unconditionally and intrinsically good — all other things that contribute to the good life are merely conditionally and extrinsically good.
- Folly is the opposite of wisdom. It may not be unconditionally bad.
- Wisdom is not an art or technique. No technique is sufficient for the pursuit of happiness.
- Wisdom enlarges the realm of human power and efficacy, pushing back the frontiers of luck.
- All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.
- Good action follows directly upon knowledge of the good.
- Evil action happens only out of ignorance of the good.
- Virtue is knowledge of the good; vice is ignorance of the good.
- The soul is susceptible of structural and dynamic analysis.
- The soul has parts (reason, spirit, desire) and these parts can function together in
harmony (spiritual health) and in disharmony (spiritual disease).
- The soul also has a dynamic power: eros. Eros is the soul’s longing for growth toward the good: for completion, self-actualization, and immortality. Eros is the desire for the good of the soul aroused by the beauty of the body.
- Each part of the soul has its appropriate erotic object–knowledge, ideals, the necessities of life.
- Wisdom produces the inner harmony of the parts of the soul and guides them to their completion.
- Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom = the care of the soul.
- Happiness = the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the soul’s powers over time, just as physical health is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the body’s powers over time.
- Wisdom is itself a kind of inner harmony and completion of the soul.
- Wisdom both leads to happiness and is part of happiness itself.
- Happiness is unconditionally good as well.
- Once achieved, happiness as health of the soul, can never be corrupted by external actors; external forces can kill us, but only we can corrupt our souls.
- It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.
- True politics and true friendship aid the soul in its striving for happiness.
- False politics and false friendship (flattery) retard the soul’s striving for happiness.
- Freedom is doing what one really wants to do (pursuing happiness).
- Doing what one really wants to do is not necessarily the same as doing what one thinks one wants. (We can be ignorant of the good, mistaken about our interests.)
- One can be forced to be free.
* * *
I’d like to welcome you all to the second session of the class on “What Socrates Knew.” What I want to do first is just do a little bit of reviewing of what we covered last time, and then we’ll go forward into the materials that I handed out.
The ancient skeptics, amongst others, were very fond of claiming that Socrates went around saying he didn’t know anything. Of course, the skeptics loved this, because they could cite Socrates as an authority for their own view that knowledge was not possible. However, as we’re going to see, Socrates’ denials of knowledge are very specific. He doesn’t make any global denials of knowledge, and he also makes a number of fairly strong knowledge claims.
Since Socrates is such an important historical figure, and he might have something to offer us who are pursuing wisdom, it is useful to try to find out what he indeed knew. And so, this course is about Socratic knowledge claims, the central principles of Socratic philosophy.
I should make a comment here. I’m not going to be too concerned to differentiate between Socrates’ thought and Plato’s, because it’s a very difficult task to do, but Socrates and Plato were too different men, and they obviously didn’t have identical thoughts on all issues. Yet Plato’s dialogues are our primary access to the thought of Socrates, and separating the two of them is a highly speculative activity, and it’s just something that I don’t want to try to get into. So, I’m just going to be using the words Plato and Socrates pretty much interchangeably, although I do recognize that there are differences between the two.
However, I don’t think that any of the major differences between Plato and Socrates are to be found in the main topics of this class in these basic principles of Socratic moral philosophy. I think the distinctions lie in other areas.
Now, the sequel to this class is going to be called “The Myths of Plato,” and there’s a reason for that. What I’d like to do in this course is talk about what Socrates knew, and in the next class, “The Myths of Plato,” I want to talk about the things that Socrates didn’t really know but thought that he had to make some sort of speech about anyway and therefore crafted some likely stories or narratives or myths.
But before we can understand the nature of the Platonic myths, we have to understand what Socrates knew, because I want to argue ultimately that the mythology of Plato is all based upon certain principles of Socratic moral philosophy and Socratic psychology, if you will, and that the Platonic myths are crafted to carry out the task of Platonic moral philosophy. And this is really the core of the course, the moral philosophy and, to some extent, the political philosophy of Socrates.
So, I made a list of thirty Socratic theses. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it pretty much covers the ideas and the basic principles that we’re going to cover in this class. These are the main things that Socrates knew. I’m not 100% happy with the formulations. Some of them are repetitive. But so what? We’re groping our way towards an understanding here, and I’m learning right along with you, just a little bit ahead of you, I hope. You hope, I’m sure, too!
So, I just want to review a few of these theses just in broad general terms. Again, the primary philosophical question, meaning the most important philosophical question, the most necessary philosophical question for Socrates, is the moral question of “how do we live?” What’s the good life? All of the other kinds of questions that philosophers deal with, like the nature of time and the origin of the cosmos and things like that, these are questions that do to some remote extent impact upon the practical activities of living, believe it or not, but they are quite remote, and the chain of reasoning is very long, and, therefore, these are not necessary questions, or at least they are less necessary questions, than the primary moral question, which is the question “how do we lead a good life?” “What’s the good life for a human beings?” And so, that’s where Socrates starts out.
Again, he claims that human beings are all pursuing the good. Now, what does the good boil down to? It boils down to a state of well-being, which is understood as the health of the soul, and the health of the soul has two dimensions. There’s a kind of static dimension of the health of the soul, which refers to the proper harmonious ordering of its parts. Plato argues that the soul has three parts. There’s the rational soul, the spirited soul, and the desiring soul. The claim that’s made in the Republic and is presupposed elsewhere is that these parts of the soul can be related to one another in terms of ruler and ruled. And what does that mean? It means that some people can be understood as desire-driven or desire-ruled; other people are reason-ruled or reason-driven; other people are spirited primarily, and you can discover what kind of person you’re dealing with by finding circumstances where they have a clear choice between following different parts of the soul.
So, a clear example would be something along the lines of an example from the Republic. Say you’re an alcoholic, and it’s a hot day, and you come in from working in the yard, and somebody plunks down a frosty mug of beer in front of you. Now, on the one hand, your desires are saying, “Drink! Drink!” But, on the other hand, your reason might be saying to you, “No, you can’t drink. You’ve been through this 12-step program. We know what’s going to happen.” And depending on what kind of person one is, a desire-ruled person or a reason-ruled person, there will be different outcomes. If the person is ultimately ruled by his desires he’s going to drink; if he’s ruled by his reason he won’t.
A similar example could be done in terms of spiritedness or pride. A person might, on the one hand, desire to drink the beer, but, on the other hand, he might think, “No, I’m better than this! If I drink the beer, I’ll have another beer and another beer and another beer, and I’ll fall down in the gutter drunk, and I’ll become a worthless unhappy individual, whereas if I don’t drink it I can be proud of myself as someone who has resisted this.” And depending on whether he’s ruled by his desires or ruled by his sense of pride there will be different results. Again, the pride-ruled person will choose not to drink. The desire-ruled person will choose to drink.
Plato says, since it is possible that different parts of the soul rule over others the question immediately suggests itself, “What’s the right ordering of the soul? What part of the soul should be the ruler and what parts should be the followers?” And this is a central issue in the Republic.
Now, the other dimension of the soul is dynamic. It’s the — if you will — erotic dimension. Plato uses the word eros or love to refer to something more than just the power of love. It ultimately refers to the energy of the life of the soul, the libido in the sense that Freud talks about, the well of psychic energy. One expression of this, of course, is love, but there are other objects to this energy other than just beautiful bodies or sexual gratification. Plato argues that the true object of the erotic striving of the soul is not the beauty of the body but the goodness of the soul, both one’s own soul and the souls of others, and that this goodness of the soul is something that we wish to possess for all eternity. We want always to have goodness, and therefore eros is ultimately a desire for immortality as well as goodness, the lasting or eternal perfection of the self.
Health for Socrates and for Plato, psychological health or well-being, if you will, is the harmonious unfolding of the soul’s powers over time. There’s a developmental understanding of the nature of the soul. It goes through different stages, and at each stage there are certain appropriate values that are perhaps passed over or superseded at further stages of development. A happy life or a life characterized by well-being is a life characterized by moving through the stages of life at appropriate junctures, the process of growth and maturation, if you will.
Now, we have to make a distinction between well-being and well-feeling. This is something we dealt with before too, but it’s worth repeating. The Greeks were very objective in their orientation when they talked about moral philosophy. Happiness for us, however, has a subjective tinge. It tends to connote feeling good or well-feeling. But for the Greeks happiness was less a matter of feeling well than a matter of being well. Real, objective existence.
What’s the distinction? Well, the best way of understanding the distinction is this: well-being means, again, the health of the soul, and one way of understanding the health of the soul is not just in terms of its internal harmony and its unfolding over time in the proper sequence of development. It also has to do with harmony with external things. Its harmony with the things around it. A healthy soul responds appropriately to objective circumstances. So, for instance, if one is in a situation that calls for sadness, say the death of a loved one or the misfortune of one’s nation or something like that, then a healthy soul feels bad, and that bad feeling, that ill-feeling is a sign of a more fundamental well-being. Whereas if a person is always happy no matter what the circumstances, that is not well-being. That is a sign of mental illness or spiritual disease. It’s a sign of lack of seriousness, and Plato believed, ultimately, that life was a very serious thing, and, therefore, it was appropriate at times to feel bad. In fact, appropriate a lot of times to feel bad. So, we have to take that into account.
If we are all pursuing happiness, the good, one has to explain why so few of us are happy. If we’re all pursuing happiness, and Plato ultimately believed that there was an objective standard for happiness and that it was possible for human beings to attain well-being, why are we not happier, in general? Well, because we could be mistaken about what constitutes happiness.
Plato believes that we all mean well, to put it in a very sort of smarmy, mushy way. We all mean well — meaning we all intend to achieve the good; we’re all pursuing the good as we see it. The fact that we don’t do well, even though we mean well, is explained not by the fact that we choose evil or we choose being bad off as such but because we are ignorant of what makes us well off, and, therefore, we’re mistaken.
Plato does not believe that human beings choose evil as such. He believes that we only choose evil under the guise of the good. We only choose evil by mistake. The benefit of this view is that it does allow you to try to make rational sense out of bad behavior, whereas the view that we simply choose evil as such, that there’s some diabolical evil in the world — that the devil is in those kids who went and shot up Columbine High or something — makes evil ultimately inexplicable and irrational. It might be the case that that’s the way evil is, and it might be the case that Socrates and Plato are just engaged in wishful thinking. But clearly one of the benefits of their approach is that it’s easy to understand pursuing the good, and it’s easy to understand evil behavior if we understand it as the mistaken pursuit of the good. Evil becomes inexplicable if we just say that some people choose to do evil because they think it’s evil or some people hate the good because they think it’s good. That is very hard to fathom and ultimately makes evil a mysterious thing that we can’t really grapple with.
Now, someone like Flannery O’Connor, of course, wants us to think evil is precisely that way. That the devil is at work in the world, and, therefore, she tries to confront us with acts of evil that defy this kind of Platonic analysis.
Where does philosophy come into this? Well, philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. And what is wisdom? Well, for Plato ultimately wisdom is an ability to make right use of things, which is a very complex notion.
So, let me say a little bit about this too by way of review. Plato believes that it’s ultimately the case that there’s only one intrinsically good thing in the world and that’s wisdom. To say that wisdom is intrinsically good is to mean it’s good in and of itself and that it’s always good. It’s good under all conditions. It’s unconditionally good. Everything else in the world is only extrinsically or conditionally good.
What does that mean? Well, it means, first of all, common opinion about the good is mistaken. Most people believe that certain things are intrinsically good. The little passages that I gave out, the two little pages from the Euthydemus. This is a marvelous little piece of Platonic dialogue. The context is this: two sophists, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, have challenged Socrates to defend philosophy to Clinias, who is sort of a dumb jock. The idea is that if Socrates can defend philosophy to Clinias and persuade Clinias to pursue philosophy, well, he can persuade just about anyone to do the same.
It starts out by working through common opinions. He asks Clinias, “Clinias, we all pursue the good, right?” Yes, he believes that. “Well, how do we do that? By getting good things, right? Like money and health and good looks and a good family and prestige and honor. These are the things that make one happy. These are good things.” Clinias believes this like everybody else.
What Socrates does though is that eventually he moves things around to revealing that none of these things are intrinsically good. Why? Because to possess all of these things is not sufficient to be happy. First of all, they have to be of advantage to us. But to possess them and to have them as advantages, we have to use them. We can’t just own them. We have to use them. Having all the money in the world isn’t going to make you better off unless you actually use it.
But there’s another condition, which is that the use made of it has to be right use. If you use it wrongly it’s not of any benefit to you. It’s a harm to you. And the Platonic definition of wisdom is the ability to make right use of all things.
Then Socrates reveals there is more harm done if someone uses a thing wrongly then if he lets it alone. In the first instance, there is evil, but in the second neither evil nor good.
So, for instance, a person is worse off if he uses money wrongly than if he doesn’t use money at all. If he doesn’t make any use of it, then it can’t harm him. But if he makes bad use of it, then it can harm him.
And Clinias agrees: “Then what comes next?” And he uses examples from carpentry and making utensils. Then, at the center of the page, he says, “‘And also,’ I said, ‘in regard to using the goods we mentioned first, wealth and health and beauty, was it knowledge that ruled and directed our conduct in relation to the right use of all such things as these or some other thing?’”
“‘It was knowledge,’ he said.”
“‘But knowledge seems to provide men not only with good fortune, but also with well-doing in every case of possession or action.’” And specifically that’s knowledge of the good, knowledge of right use.
“‘Then heaven’s name,’ I said, ‘is there any advantage in other possessions without good sense and wisdom? Would a man with no sense profit more if he possessed and did much or if he possessed and did little?’”
Look at it this way. If he did less, would he not make fewer mistakes, and if he made fewer mistakes would he not do less badly? And if he did less badly, would he not be less miserable? And the point is this: all these things that are allegedly, by common opinion, intrinsically good, like wealth, for instance, are actually not intrinsically good at all. Such that if a person is a fool, he’d be better off not having these things, because if you’re a fool and have no money, you have fewer means for messing up your life than if you’re a rich fool. If you’re a handsome fool, you’re more liable to mess up your life than if you’re kind of ugly. Why? Because good-looking people get away with murder, right? Literally. Sometimes double murder. It’s just the way the world is. It’s an advantage. The fewer advantages fools have, the better off they are, because the less things they have to screw up their lives with.
So, the assumption here is that nothing is intrinsically good. It’s only as good as the use made of it, such that conventional goods are actually things you’d rather do without if you don’t have the wisdom to use them properly. Socrates draws the conclusion here, which is a really momentous conclusion that if you think it through does sort of change the way you view the world.
He says, “‘So, to sum up, Clinias,’ I said, it seems likely that with respect to all the things we called good in the beginning. The correct account is not that in themselves they are good by nature, but rather as follows: if ignorance controls them, they are greater evils than their opposites to the extent that they are more capable of complying with the bad master, but if good sense and wisdom are in control they are greater goods. In themselves, however, neither sort is of any value.’”
“‘It seems,’ he says, ‘to be just as you say.’”
“‘Then what is the result of our conversation? Isn’t it that of the other things no one of them is either good or bad, but of these two wisdom is good and ignorance bad?’”
Nothing is intrinsically good or bad except for wisdom and ignorance. And, specifically, ignorance of the good. Or folly, would be the more proper antonym. Folly is the only intrinsically bad thing here, and wisdom is the only intrinsically good thing. As it turns out, there is some reason to think from other Platonic dialogues that Socrates didn’t even think that folly was intrinsically bad. His view is something like what William Blake once said, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” And the idea is that even folly can be transmuted into wisdom, because how does one become wise except by learning through one’s mistakes?
In the Euthyphro, Socrates says, “I don’t know how this trial is going to turn out. If the men who are putting me on trial are the kinds that can laugh,” and specifically he means laugh at themselves, “then I think I’ll do okay.” Why? Because Socrates’ modus operandi was to go around finding people who thought they were wise and show them to be fools. The point is that, by being shown to be a fool or making a fool of oneself, if one has the proper attitude, you can actually learn from that. The kinds of people who can make gains from being shown to be fools are people who can laugh at their own follies. If you can laugh at your own folly, that means you can step back from it and become objective about it to some extent, and if you can become objective about it and laugh at it, then you can learn from it and become wiser. So, even folly is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s used wisely, if you’re the kind of person who can laugh at yourself and learn. And Socrates is expert at making people who are fools look as laughably foolish as they really are. This is why so many people hated him, because they couldn’t laugh at their follies. Those who could became wiser.
So, ultimately, nothing is intrinsically bad, and only wisdom is intrinsically good.
But then the question is that if wisdom is intrinsically good, what about happiness? Isn’t that intrinsically good, and isn’t wisdom there to pursue happiness? Isn’t wisdom just a tool of pursuing happiness?
This brings us to something that’s strange and paradoxical about Plato, because Socrates sometimes speaks about wisdom as something you use in order to pursue happiness. You have to make right use of all things in order to be a happy person. Wisdom gives you that ability. Therefore, we should become wise. That’s the argument he makes with Clinias.
But the deeper Socratic teaching is this. Once you recognize that all external things are merely conditionally good, nothing is intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, then it seems, I think, to Socrates that one should stop pursuing external things very much. One should only pursue them to the extent that they’re necessary for mere survival. And happiness depends entirely upon the internal condition of the soul. But wisdom turns out to be pretty much identical with happiness on that account, because wisdom also seems to be a kind of actualization and harmony of the soul and capacity of the soul to respond appropriately to its circumstances. That seems to be what wisdom is, but that also seems to be what happiness is, if you understand happiness as primarily an internal state.
And external things? Well, you know, as the Tao Te Ching says, “To the sage, all things are straw dogs.” All people are straw dogs. What does that mean? Well, it means they have no intrinsic value. They’re worth nothing, ultimately. They can be used, if necessary, for good ends, but if you can get away without using them you’re so much the better off because why depend on external things. To depend on external things is to give hostage to fortune and fortune is the opposite of wisdom, in a sense.
One of the interesting things about this little Euthydemus passage is that Socrates takes Clinias from the conventional view that good fortune is the highest good and then identifies good fortune with wisdom but then slowly turns wisdom into the highest good, because wisdom is the capacity to, in a sense, take control of one’s life from fortune.
There really are two factors in the world that actualize putative goods and make them work towards our happiness: wisdom and luck. And you can’t eliminate luck. You’d have to be a god to be immune from fortune. And even the Greek gods weren’t for that matter. You’d have to be God with a capital G. Every other finite being is somewhat dependent upon external circumstances, and, therefore, we’re somewhat dependent upon luck.
To put it as I did last time, being wise and being together and a good person doesn’t make you bullet-proof. If you’re struck down by a bullet, well, that’s just your bad luck. If you dodge the bullet that’s good luck. And happiness does require a certain amount of external circumstance, but the hallmark of a fool is a person who depends entirely upon luck and doesn’t realize that the wise man, so to speak, makes his own luck by taking more and more control over circumstance. You’ll never wrest complete control over your life from luck, but to the extent that you depend less upon it and more upon your own self you’re more likely to achieve happiness.
So, for Socrates, external things are really not that important, ultimately. You have to have them conspiring on your side, but to the extent that you invest yourself in them, you’re giving more and more control over your life to fortune. So, if you’re a person who is invested in lots of things, like I am unfortunately, books and CDs and things like that, then when you go away from home you always worry, “Did I turn off the stove? Will I return to a blackened shell?” and you know that if that happens you’ll be less happy. It’s true. If a hurricane or tornado rips through Dunwoody and all of your prized possessions go over the rainbow, you’re screwed if you’re deeply invested in these things.
Socrates, however, went around dressed in a ragged cloak and didn’t wear shoes and lived in a little hovel, and he was relatively immune to hurricanes and things like that. He had very little to lose externally.
This emphasis on happiness as a state of the inner man really gave a great deal of impetus to the Stoics as it turns out. Interestingly enough, Zeno, who was the founder of the Stoic school — and this isn’t Zeno of Zeno’s Paradoxes but Zeno of Citium, a different Zeno — traveled to Athens and settled there in search of wisdom. The primary texts that he fastened upon were the Socratic writings not of Plato but of Xenophon, interestingly enough. But all of these teachings are in Xenophon’s Socratic writings as well. The Stoics took up all of these views and emphasized the idea that happiness is entirely a matter of one’s internal states and that fortune controls the external world, but we have the capacity either to embrace it and incorporate it and take up the right attitude towards it or to fight against it. If we embrace our fortune we attain well-being, if we fight against it we attain unhappiness, but we can’t really change it in some sense.
One of the things that the Stoics were especially impressed about by Socrates is the claim that’s on this list here near the bottom. Number 24: “Once achieved, happiness, as health of the soul, can never be corrupted by external factors. External forces can kill us, but only we can corrupt our souls.” There’s a kind of invulnerability of happiness to external circumstances if you understand happiness as the internal health of the soul. This is a marvelous kind of security.
Number 25 follows from that: “It is better to suffer injustice than do it.” Socrates also claims that it’s better not to have to do either one, but forced to choose it’s better to choose to suffer than to do injustice. Why? Because suffering injustice cannot affect one’s happiness. If one understands happiness as one’s internal health. That sounds very, very strange, but the fact of the matter is that people can do lots of terrible things to you, including kill you, but they can’t make you into a bad person unless you cooperate in your own corruption, because you have the final control over your internal states. To do injustice, however, is to actively conspire in your own internal corruption and therefore given the choice it’s better to suffer injustice than to do it, because doing injustice leads to a lack of well-being. It leads to wretchedness. Whereas suffering can make you uncomfortable, it can make you dead, but it can’t make you a bad person.
So, these are the main theses of the course in broad terms and we’re going to find virtually all of these discussed and argued for and exemplified in good detail in the two dialogues that we’re going to read now, the First Alcibiades and then after that the Gorgias.
What I want to do now is look at some knowledge denials and knowledge claims in Plato and try to weave some of these things together. Then we’ll look at some more unified presentations of some of these topics when we read Alcibiades I for next week and the Gorgias for the five weeks after that.
In the beginning of the first excerpt, Socrates is talking about the sophists. The sophists claim to have reduced well-being and the pursuit of well-being to a kind of science or a technology or technique. They had an art of happiness. Now, one of the things that is a constant feature of Platonic dialogues, and also the Xenophonic writings too, is what’s called the craft or techne analogy, the art analogy. Socrates is always explaining wisdom on the analogy of art or technique. But an analogy is a likeness between two things that are different in some respects just as they’re similar, and so the question is how is wisdom like art?
Well, wisdom is like art in this sense: wisdom is the ability to make right use of all things and arts give you the capacity to make use of some things. Wisdom involves, at its root, a specific kind of knowledge, namely knowledge of the good. Hence the ability to make right use of things. Whereas the other arts have a certain knowledge at their basis. So, for instance, horse trainers have an art, and the basis of that is knowledge of horse behavior. Surgeons have a certain art, and at the basis of that is knowledge of the body and how it works and how to change it and fix it and so forth.
But what’s the difference between wisdom and art? This is the hardest thing in some ways to grasp. It’s also quite subtle. It seems so easy in some ways, but it’s very hard especially in a society like ours, which is deeply ingrained with thinking in terms of technological or technical solutions to every problem. Americans think that if you’ve got a problem, get it fixed. How do you do that? Well, you look in the Yellow Pages. If you look in the Yellow Pages you find all kinds of practitioners of various arts.
Also, if you pick up, say, the Aquarius paper, the local New Age shopper, you’ll find people with various arts there, some of them suspicious, others ancient. And it’s very interesting, because many of these arts are sold as arts of pursuing well-being, attaining happiness. So, there’s this one lady who is an astrological consultant, and she uses her art to help you pursue well-being. There are other people who promise well-being through massage and colonic irrigations and all kind of amazing things. Rolfing. And they’re not just promising limited, positive effects like cleaning out your insides. They’re saying this will revitalize you and take you to a higher level of well-being, to have your colon occasionally flushed out.
This is interesting. Socrates would have looked at this and shaken his head, because there’s a delusion involved in the idea that art can be sufficient for the art of well-being. He’s not saying that it’s entirely useless. Surprisingly little use, ultimately, if you understand well-being as internal health. But every art is only a capacity to do things, to get things done, whereas happiness requires the ability to make right use of things, to do things rightly. There’s an intrinsically moral component to well-being and to wisdom, and without that moral component, all of the techniques in the world may not redound to your benefit, because you might be comprehensively adept in the use of various arts and techniques, but if you don’t know how to use them rightly it’s not necessarily going to be to your benefit. In fact, the more you know, the more harm you can do to yourself, if you don’t have the ability to use it rightly.
So, you know, Plato really believes that fools are better off ignorant and poor, because they can do less harm to themselves and others that way. I always found that deeply satisfying for some reason.
So, wisdom cannot be a technique, because it is that thing without which the arts and techniques that are available cannot be used to benefit you. Wisdom is a kind of supplement that you have to add on top of technique and art in order to make those things redound to your benefit, and if you don’t have wisdom, which has this intrinsically moral component, these things may not help you, and they may, in fact, do you a lot of harm.
So, Socrates is very much opposed to the sophists. This is going to be one of the main themes, especially when we get to the Gorgias, because the Gorgias is a conversation with three sophists, and the sophists are, again, claiming that they have a technique to lead to well-being. Their technique is the art of public speaking, the art of persuasion. That’s the main technique that they offer.
In the reading from the Apology, Socrates is referring to the sophists. Start reading where he says, “‘Evenus,’ he said, ‘from Paros, five mĕnē.’” Evenus is one of the sophists, he’s from Paros, and five mĕnē is the charge that he gives for his courses. “‘And I regarded Evenus,’ says Socrates, ‘as blessed if he should truly have this art and teach at such a modest rate. As for myself, I would be pluming and priding myself on it if I had knowledge of these things, but I do not have knowledge of them, men of Athens.’”
So, here’s a denial of knowledge, but it’s denial of a very specific kind of knowledge, namely the denial of an art of pursuing well-being. That doesn’t deny the possession of a non-art, if you will, of pursuing well-being. And that’s precisely what Socrates claimed to know, the non-art of pursuing well-being, namely the pursuit of well-being through a thing that isn’t an art, namely philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom, which is not a technical kind of knowledge.
There are two other dimensions along which well-being or wisdom differs from art. Art and wisdom are alike in this sense: they are practical skills. They give you the use of things.
But they differ along really three dimensions. First of all, there is a moral component. There is right use as part of the definition of wisdom, whereas there’s no right use component to any art. No art is sufficient to ensure that it is applied rightly. Every art requires an external supplement from wisdom in order to make itself used rightly. So, wisdom has to do with right use, whereas art just has to do with use. There’s no moral component to art as such, or technology or craft or whatever.
Another difference is this: wisdom is comprehensive. It’s right use of all things whereas art is always specialized. There’s a kind of moral neutrality about art, versus an intrinsically moral nature to wisdom. There’s a specialized quality to art, whereas there’s a comprehensive quality to wisdom.
A third difference between art and wisdom is this: art can be taught, it’s teachable, and wisdom is not teachable. Now, we’re going to have to ask ourselves what teachable means here, because if wisdom isn’t teachable then we’re screwed. To put it colloquially.
There’s another point on which art and wisdom are alike, and that’s this: they’re based on knowledge. It’s a really peculiar thing. How do you learn something if it can’t be taught to you? Well, what is teaching? Teaching is putting information into you, whereas the Socratic pursuit of wisdom has nothing to do with sticking stuff into you, but has everything to do with drawing stuff already in you, out of you. The reason why it’s not a tragedy that wisdom isn’t teachable is that we’re already, in a sense, wise. We already know all that we need to know to be wise. The soul already knows, but it doesn’t know what it knows yet, and the process of philosophical conversation for Socrates is a process of guided recollection, of bringing to conscious awareness an unconscious knowledge that already exists in the soul and has existed in the soul from the time before it was even born. That’s the Socratic claim, the Platonic claim.
So, wisdom is not teachable, but that’s not so bad, because we don’t need to be taught it. We don’t need to have it stuck in us from the outside. It’s already in us, and it needs to be drawn out through a particular method.
One of Socrates’ students actually claimed that he was benefited simply from the presence of Socrates. Socrates said all kinds of things to him, and he never learned anything from what Socrates said. He said, “But I always benefited from being around you, Socrates, and I benefited more from being close to you than being far away, and I benefited most when I was right up close to you, touching you.”
Is this a joke? Is it silliness? No, Socrates had a kind of magnetic quality, a kind of charisma that he held over people that drew stuff out of them that they didn’t even know was in them.
There’s an analogy to this in Freud and Jung and other therapists who follow that kind of school. This is the whole phenomenon of transference. Freud discovered that no matter how hard he tried to be clinical and remote and not have any kind of personal relationship with his patients, his patients would form a personal relationship with him. How would they do that? Well, they would project a persona onto the blankness that he affected.
He found that this was extremely useful. Why? Because they would start acting out relationships that were deeply important to them. Usually relationships that had everything to do with their symptoms, because they were relationships that were botched in their development. Parental relationships, family dramas, things like that. They would start acting out these relationships with him by projecting the persona of certain significant others upon Freud and then acting as if Freud were this person.
So, if a person’s problem was with his mother, he’d start treating Freud like his mother, and Freud would find that he would learn a lot from this transference that was going on and found that the manipulation of the transference was enormously effective in the therapeutic process. It would bring things out of a person that he didn’t know were there.
Socrates had this effect on people. He had the most amazing charisma, so young and attractive people would fall in love with this gnarled old satyr. You’d think, “Well, this is highly unlikely.” Or people would hate him. And a lot of it had to do not with his intrinsic qualities or what he said, because he always affected not to know anything. Just like Freud affected not to know anything or affected blankness. Socrates’ irony, his famous irony, was just pretending to know less than he really knew. This is why I have to give a class on what he really knew, because he went around pretending not to know.
But by affecting this reticence and this refusal to teach, he actually made it possible for certain things that were already in people to come to the surface that otherwise never would have come to the surface if he hadn’t shut up.
This is why I’m really a terrible teacher of philosophy, because I just sit here and teach and talk. If I had the patience to be a good teacher, I’d just sit here quietly, and you’d all fall in love . . . No, this actually happened!
There was a teacher at Emory, who was a friend of mine, she’s about 60 now, but she has these seminars at Emory that are discussions, and she begins them by posing a question, and then people discuss the text. I just found it excruciatingly painful to sit in on these things unless I was talking.
In fact, a friend started bringing me. He said because, “I can’t stand the class. I want you there to say something, so I can stand it.” And I thought, “OK, well fine.” So, anyway, I would go, and I’d take part, and I’d enjoy it. But she would sit there very, very quietly just watching over this whole thing, and occasionally she would raise a question or say a word or make a distinction.
I did notice that I would learn a lot by being in there. Primarily by just sifting through total nonsense that people were saying, which was a painful kind of thing, but I would learn things I didn’t know that I knew. Things would start coming out.
But I also found, and this was strange to discover it, but now I know why, there were all these young male graduate students who were falling in love, and it was so comical when I found out about this. I finally realize that it’s this transference phenomenon.
This one guy got drunk at a party that I was at and started babbling on about how he wanted to go to her and say, “I know you’re married, but I want to be your slave!” and things like that. I was sitting there thinking, “My God!” You know, “What explains this?” I mean, she’s not beautiful or anything. She’s not ugly, but she’s getting to be an old lady. But she sits there quietly and conducts these seminars where people are rooting through deep thoughts about the soul and politics and ethics, and she just quietly presides over this whole thing and keeps her mouth shut, and it’s just amazing the kinds of things that happen.
Also, some people hate her I’m told. But again, what do they have to hate!? She just sits there. They obviously don’t hate her. She’s not doing anything or saying anything! Who do they hate? Well, they’re hating their mother or their sister or somebody else.
And who are they falling in love with? Well, some other person, but there’s some sort of projection going on.
And I really do think that it’s a way of teaching that’s enormously powerful. Yet it’s fraught with enormous danger, and poor Socrates ended up getting killed over it.
Me, I want to avoid that by just talking. I’m temporizing in the face of death. This is why I lecture. I don’t want you to love me or hate me. I just want you to leave me alone. I want you to pay me and leave me alone. For what it’s worth.
But anyway, poor Socrates was capable of drawing things out of people simply by being silent.
There’s this woman named Mother Meera. She’s a woman from India. She is a guru, and she has kind of a little cult around her, and I just had a fit when I found out what Mother Meera does. Mother Meera just sits there in a room and doesn’t say a thing. And people go and have an audience with Mother Meera and they pay. I wish I could get people to do this! They pay just for her to sit there.
Student: She’s quiet though!
I can! I can! I can shut up! I mean, if I could get a wax figure of myself and have it lit dimly enough, maybe I could do this, and people could just have an audience with a wax dummy.
But anyway, people go, and they sit with Mother Meera, and they leave after a while, and they feel better. What’s going on? She might just be sitting there thinking about laundry or nothing. This is a kind of charisma of non-energy.
There really is a lot of truth to this. The teachers that I have known, who have been the most charismatic, are the ones who say they least about themselves. The most mysterious. Everyone’s wondering, “What are they doing?” or “What are they thinking?” People spend a lot of time just thinking about these people.
OK, you know, if it comforts you to know that people are out there just wondering about you, that you’re an enigma, fine.
I try to break down all transferences by talking as much as I can.
But again it’s a very strange notion of what wisdom is and what “teaching” is. Teaching by not imparting information. Teaching by providing a kind of environment in which what’s already there comes to the surface, and sometimes that can be done simply through silence.
We don’t know how Socrates taught all the time, but if he taught most of the time by sitting around thinking or sitting around and not doing anything or saying anything, we wouldn’t know it, of course, because that kind of teaching doesn’t lend itself to dramatic presentation in a dialogue. What we have record of is primarily Socrates asking people questions, and then when he’s done with that he’ll spin a yarn or something, and then it’s daylight and they have to go home.
So, these are the differences and the similarities between art and wisdom, but the differences are absolutely crucial. Wisdom is always moral in its orientation. It is comprehensive. It deals with all things, not some, and it’s not teachable in the sense of impartable in little bits of information like an art is.
So, our culture is deluding itself by thinking that we can pursue well-being through techniques. There are no professions and no techniques and no artists who can bring you to well-being unless you already have the wisdom to use them properly. And then Socrates would say, “But look, if you’ve already got the wisdom don’t waste your money on foot massage.” If you’ve already got it in you, you don’t need to have your feet manipulated by some practitioner. You’re already happy. If you want your feet massaged that’s another thing, but it’s not going to make you happy. It’s not necessary.
In the Apology, Socrates says something interesting. He says, “In this it seems to me what the speaker says is just and I will try to demonstrate to you whatever it is that has brought me this name in slander. So listen! Now, perhaps I will seem to some of you to be joking. Know well, however, that I will tell you the whole truth. For I, men of Athens, have gotten this name, this reputation as a wise man, through nothing but a certain wisdom. Just what sort of wisdom is this? That which is perhaps human wisdom for probably I really am wise in this. But those of whom I just spoke might perhaps be wise in some wisdom greater than human [the sophists namely], or else I cannot say what it is for I, at least, do not have knowledge about it.”
Here “it” refers to what the Sophists claim to have, the art of pursuing well-being. But Socrates does claim to have a human wisdom, and it’s a mistake to identify this human wisdom simply with knowledge of ignorance, which is what people often do. They say Socrates’ human wisdom amounts to his claim not to know.
Socrates’ human wisdom doesn’t amount to the claim not to know, because he only claims not to know certain specific things, but he also claims to know certain specific things, and these things are precisely what his human wisdom consists in. And it consists in all of these theses that we’ve looked at, plus a few more. I’ll keep adding. I’ll give you some more handouts as I think up more Socratic knowledge claims.
And then the men in the jury get all upset.
A bit later Socrates says, “Now, consider why I say these things. I’m going to teach you where the slander against me has come from. When I heard these things I pondered them like this. Whatever is the god saying and what riddle is he posing?”
He tells a story of how his friend Chaerephon went to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi and said, “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?” And the god said, “No. No one is wiser than Socrates.” Socrates said, “Well, whatever could the god mean by this?” He has to come up with an interpretation of this claim that no one is wiser than he.
“For I am conscious that I am not at all wise either much or little.”
Now, the translation there is actually a little bad. I mean, I actually emailed the translator and disputed this. My translation is better in this sense. I would put it this way: “I am not wise about anything great or small.”
What does that refer to? Is this a global denial of wisdom to say that you’re not wise about anything great or small? Well, if it’s a global denial of wisdom then “great and small” exhausts all the possibilities. But let me ask you, is there anything besides the great and the small?
Student: The middle.
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