Transcript: 17 - Raphael Woolf on Socrates

Peter's colleague Raphael Woolf joins him to discuss Socrates as he is portrayed by Plato: the gadfly of Athens. But was he an ascetic? And could it really be true that virtue is knowledge?
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Our topic today is Socrates and I thought that we could probably concentrate on Socrates as he's presented in Plato since that'll give us plenty to talk about. So I was wondering whether you could start by sort of describing how Socrates appears in Plato's dialogues.

Raphael Woolf: Sure. He's a complicated figure but I think the way that he's probably best characterized is the way he characterizes himself in the Apology. He's a gadfly. There's a famous image in the Apology where he compares himself to a gadfly who's coming and sitting on the large but lazy horse of Athens and buzzing and biting and stinging to provoke it into living a better life. And I think a lot of that imagery can be seen in the way that Plato portrays Socrates in many of the dialogues. Probably the main but not the only way he's presented is going around buttonholing people, asking them if they can tell him what various virtues are because Socrates, who doesn't, wants to know how to be virtuous and he thinks that there are various people who might just with a bit of luck be able to tell him. He asks them what virtue is and they are unable to tell him by and large. And the reason they're unable to tell him is that when they attempt to tell Socrates what virtue is, he asks them a whole series of questions which seek to demonstrate that they don't know what they're talking about. So Socrates is by and large portrayed by Plato as a very annoying figure who is constantly showing people up for an ignorance which they didn't think they possessed, or at least don't like having revealed. Because these are by and large public contexts, there are often people around. So he's an annoying, provocative figure who really is trying, I think, pretty much to carry out the mission he describes in The Apology. And I think it's important that he's shown as this annoying figure. I think maybe this is something we can talk about but he's not at all sanitized by Plato. I think most fair-minded readers get the impression that this would be a pretty difficult person to deal with.

Peter Adamson: The kind of person you'd cross the street to avoid.

Raphael Woolf: Absolutely, yes. And I think a few of his interlocutors might have wished they'd done that.

Peter Adamson: And is it your impression that Plato's portrayal of Socrates is closely based on the historical Socrates? I mean this is one of the big questions.

Raphael Woolf: This is one of the big questions. I suppose to the extent that if you compare it with Aristophanes, we've got the three sort of main bits of evidence for Socrates. Unfortunately, as is well known, Socrates himself did not write anything and that's why you get this so-called problem of Socrates. Who was this guy? He doesn't tell us because he didn't leave any writings behind. So we have Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes. Aristophanes is a comic poet. So you've got, although he was the closest contemporary, so in principle his is the sort of best evidence we have. But it's a satire, it's a parody and it's very difficult for us at this distance of time to unwind from that and get to the real Socrates. And then you have Plato and Xenophon who were both followers of Socrates to some extent. And Plato's Socrates is, as I say, a very provocative, annoying figure. Xenophon's Socrates is much duller. I'm a little biased in this, but I am going to give Plato the sort of plaudits for perhaps coming closest to representing the real Socrates for the following reason, that I think again any fair-minded person who reads Plato's portrayal can see why this guy might have been executed for causing trouble. Those weren't the official charges, but that's what it amounts to. If you read Xenophon, it's much harder to see why anybody would have worried about this figure being dangerous enough to put on trial for corrupting the young.

Peter Adamson: Because he sometimes seems more like a slightly sarcastic agony aunt or something like that.

Raphael Woolf: Yes, exactly, exactly. And nobody's going to make a big deal about that. I think one thing I'd like to add though that's important here, in a way it sort of opens up the question again. You've awarded Plato the gold medal for sort of accurate portrayal, but I think there's an important qualification because I don't want to sort of leave Xenophon too far behind. Because it seems to me that one thing that's as clear as anything could be about Socrates, is that he was a very good teacher. Particularly, I think he adopted a rather different attitude to people who weren't sort of in his circle, and to people who had pretensions to knowledge. But for people who followed him, I think like any good teacher he was different depending on who he had in front of him. And Plato was obviously a very brilliant guy. And Xenophon obviously wasn't. I love Xenophon by the way.

Peter Adamson: He had other gifts.

Raphael Woolf: He had other gifts as they say. And I think it's very natural that Socrates should be at his most provocative when dealing with a sort of budding genius like Plato because that's what a good teacher does. The more brilliant the student, the more you're going to challenge them. And just be a little quieter perhaps when it's someone like Xenophon who's in front of you. So I think the problem of Socrates might just be he was a good teacher and maybe that's not such a problem.

Peter Adamson: So I guess one of the other questions that arises both in Xenophon and in Plato is that, I mean as annoying as he might be presented as being, he's also being held up as admirable. And for me, one of the questions about the way Plato uses Socrates is whether he in some sense is being held up to us as someone to imitate. So is he a moral exemplar or is he almost some sui generis kind of person who you could never be like? And so he was a kind of supernatural phenomenon even. He has this divine sign for example. And then we wouldn't be supposed to imitate him. And it seems to me that there's maybe a tension in Plato. Would you agree with that?

Raphael Woolf: Yeah, I think, I mean, in fact, I think I'd probably move towards the latter that he's sui generis. He's often described, I mean, he sometimes describes himself this way, and certainly he's described by others as, to use the Greek word, atopos, which means in English something like strange or peculiar. Literally it means somebody who doesn't have a place. And I think he is being portrayed as somebody who's more than merely human, who doesn't really belong on this earth, but isn't quite divine either. I mean, he has too many flaws to be a god. And I think we're supposed to think there's a famous, I mean, the ending of the Phaedo, which is Plato's dialogue describing the death of Socrates right at the end of the Phaedo. He's praised by those present as the best man of his time. And I'm sure Plato thought that, but I also think he was a sort of a deeply flawed character as well. And strange enough that we're not really supposed to imitate him.

Peter Adamson: So why would you say he's flawed? Is it partially because of what you mentioned before that when he actually confronts people, they don't ever get anywhere, so they don't find out what they're supposed to be looking for?

Raphael Woolf: I think partly that. I think again, it's hard, and I'm sure this is deliberate on Plato's part. I think it's a mistake that interpreters still often make, which is to say, oh, those stupid interlocutors, how could they have been so stupid as to get into such a muddle? And it's almost sort of poor old Socrates having to deal with these guys. Well, not really. These guys are okay, I want to say. They're not stupid. They're being confronted by the sharpest intellect of their day, usually without warning. And I think that their annoyance is supposed to be transmitted to us as something that one would almost be bound to feel.

Peter Adamson: We should feel annoyed on their behalf.

Raphael Woolf: I mean, we have the great benefit, exactly, we have the great benefit of being at several times removed from their encounters. Firstly, we're reading a written encounter. Secondly, we're two and a half thousand years on, and we sort of know who Socrates is. And I think we're being invited to consider this, what's an old portrayal.

Peter Adamson: And if you were a Greek reader, maybe part of the effect that the dialogue should have on you the first time you read it is that when the interlocutor says, well, here's what I think piety is or whatever, you think, yeah, that sounds right. And then Socrates crushes the definition.

Raphael Woolf: Exactly. Now, I think the genius of I mean, just to talk about Plato in a way rather than Socrates, but the genius of Plato is to get us engaged, but precisely because of that critical distance. So in other words, it's an amazing thing he does. I think he both makes us feel sympathy for the interlocutor as we should, I think. And at the same time, that little bit of distance means that we can properly engage, we can be sort of outraged by Socrates, but not in such a way that we want to sort of run away, which a lot of the interlocutors do as soon as they can, but to respond and to engage. And I think that's what Plato wants us to do. And I think that's what Socrates wanted to do, but actually is portrayed as not being that successful at doing it. I don't think, again, the famous fair minded reader, I don't think honestly thinks that when one of these typical interlocutors goes away, they're going to start examining themselves and being self-critical. And I think in that regard, there's some serious failure that Plato shows us as well.

Peter Adamson: And what about other dimensions of Socrates' character? So it's not just that he questions people, there are other salient features of this guy. So for example, he's poor, he goes around barefoot and so on and so forth. He's a very distinctive guy, both in Aristophanes and Xenophon, and some of these features are picked up in Plato. Do you think that Plato is encouraging us to imitate Socrates at that level, the way maybe philosophers like the Cynics did later on?

Raphael Woolf: I suspect, I think maybe two separate things here. I think probably not, actually. I think there's a sort of separate question about what these very distinctive traits are supposed to mean. I think just to add a couple of others, he seemed to be remarkably resilient. He's portrayed in the symposium as being able to withstand extremes of heat and cold, and to outdrink everybody else at the party without getting drunk.

Peter Adamson: Always a useful skill.

Raphael Woolf: Always a useful skill to have in these situations. I think one thing, this is a little sort of hobby horse of mine, so I'll get it in while I can. I think this is part of scholars' attempts to sort of sanitize and indeed sanctify Socrates. I think that aspect of him, the poverty, the sort of resilience, people end up often portraying him as a kind of ascetic figure, as somebody who's turned away from the physical world, who has a sort of commitment to not engaging with it. And I think that's a mistake. I mean, I think Socrates is a much more earthy character than that. To give but a couple of examples, he's married, he has children, he's 70 when he's on trial, he has a young son. So this is a man who's not, unlike I suspect Plato, an ascetic; I think Plato's probably the ascetic, but we can't really tell. But unlike Plato, Socrates, as portrayed, is certainly not somebody who withdraws from the physical world. I think he's somebody who couldn't care less about it one way or the other. He goes to the symposium, he has dinner, he drinks and you can't say about him until he's drunk, that he drinks until anybody else would be drunk. This is somebody who's perfectly happy to indulge in physical pleasures. I think the crucial thing about Socrates and where he was genuinely different from a lot of his contemporaries is he didn't place any particular value on these activities. He's a human being, so he does what human beings do. He eats and drinks, he doesn't have any sort of ideological fetish about abstention. He's not an abstainer, but he's somebody who manages perfectly well or would manage perfectly well without any of this stuff. So again, I think he's an earthy figure and he's both earthy and ironically all the more unworldly because he lives with all this stuff, but at the same time he's indifferent to it.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, if he thinks that what's really valuable in life is virtue and knowledge, which may or not be the same thing, we'll come on to that in a second, then he might think that it was just as much a mistake to value, for example, hunger or avoiding food as to value food. The same thing with drinking, sex and whatever.

Raphael Woolf: Exactly. That would be somebody who by that very attitude was putting far too much emphasis on the physical, whereas Socrates thinks, no, it doesn't matter one way or the other. You might say it's a dangerous attitude. I mean, perhaps again, one of the, and I'm not sure about this to be honest, but I think, you know, it's, there's a, I must recount, there's a famous wonderful story in the symposium where Alcibiades, one of both, I think one of Socrates' great loves and also Socrates' one of Alcibiades' great loves. There's a real sort of mutual love affair there of particularly peculiar kind, it being Socrates. But Alcibiades in the symposium tells the story of how he attempted to seduce Socrates. He got Socrates into bed and Socrates just lay there all night and didn't, Alcibiades being the most handsome, charming man of his age and nothing happened. Now, it seems to me that an ascetic doesn't get into bed literally with Alcibiades. Somebody like Socrates who is indifferent gets into bed, doesn't feel like sex, doesn't have sex, but he's not living in a cave avoiding all such temptation. He's putting himself right in harm's way and his uniqueness is that he can, you know, he can resist it without really any effort. It's not a sort of quasi-Christian effortful resisting a temptation. He doesn't put much value on it in the end and so it's easy for him to lie next to Alcibiades and nothing happens. Alcibiades hates it, but that's another story.

Peter Adamson: That's what you get when you're dating Socrates.

Raphael Woolf: Yes, you have been warned.

Peter Adamson: And the thing that he does value, of course, is virtue. He's always trying to find out what virtue is, both in general, as for example in the Meno, and the particular virtues, so justice, piety, courage, and so on. And he seems to think that virtue is or has a lot to do with knowledge. Do you think he's making the stronger version of the claim that virtue is just the same thing as knowledge? Do you think he's, as it were, consistent across Plato's dialogues in holding that?

Raphael Woolf: I suspect that he does think that. I think he certainly, I mean, to deal with the first thing first, I think he certainly thinks that knowledge is necessary for virtue, that if you don't know what virtue is, you can't be virtuous. Or at least, which I think comes to the same thing, you can't be reliably virtuous.

Peter Adamson: So is that the knowledge that's relevant? Because you said knowing what the virtue is.

Raphael Woolf: Yeah.

Peter Adamson: Because you might think, well, okay, courage is knowing what to do in a battle.

Raphael Woolf: Yes.

Peter Adamson: But that's different from knowing what courage is.

Raphael Woolf: Right. And he seems to have a, I would say that he does seem to have a fairly, one might say, intellectualized view of what knowledge is. And he says, I mean, there's a good example in the Euthyphro. I mean, sometimes Socrates sort of tells us why he thinks what he does more than we give him credit for. And there's a bit in the Euthyphro where he says, look, Euthyphro, tell me what piety is. Because Euthyphro is a bit of a self-appointed expert on the gods. So Socrates thinks, aha, here's somebody who'll tell me what piety is. Tell me what piety is. And here's how he, and he explains why he wants to know. He says to Euthyphro, so that I can tell which things are pious and which aren't. So the idea is that without a proper definition of piety, you can't reliably tell what is pious from what is not pious, whether in his own words and deeds or in somebody else's. And I think actually that's a pretty tenable view. It's a controversial view by all means, but it's not a crazy view. I think he's very keen on the idea of getting things reliably right. And that means being reliably able to tell one thing from another.

Peter Adamson: So almost like the scientist might have a test for whether a certain substance is present.

Raphael Woolf: That's right.

Peter Adamson: To say, put it through this spectrometer and if you get this result.

Raphael Woolf: Absolutely. I mean, it is, there's no question. It is a very intellectualized version of virtue. And I think, I mean, courage is always going to be a good one because he, you know, courage, we tend to think is sort of all about, really all about doing whatever needs to be done at the time. But I think, I mean, this is a little bit speculative. I think Socrates would reject the idea that somebody who just happens to end up doing the right thing by, let's say, a kind of instinct, I mean, knowledge in that sense, you've got a good instinct for what counts as the courageous thing to do. I think he'd say that's not really truly courageous because it's kind of luck. Yeah.

Peter Adamson: But even if I believe Socrates that knowledge is necessary for virtue, it's pretty hard to believe that it's sufficient for virtue, right? So if I had this test, so I know what courage is and I apply the test, I say, well, this act action is courageous. It passes the test. That's not going to be enough to get me to do the right action, is it?

Raphael Woolf: No, this is one of the most controversial areas of Socrates, what Socrates seems to advocate, which is that if you know that something is good or right, you will inevitably do it. I think that's something he does think. And I even think that, if he didn't think that, it would actually be much harder to explain the sheer emphasis on knowledge. I mean, if it's a mere necessary condition, there are other important conditions as well. You think he'd sort of bang on about them, but he doesn't. The fact is he's always talking about knowledge. And I think, I mean, there's a particularly famous text, which at the end of the Protagoras, where he argues explicitly, I'm going to qualify this in a minute if I'm going to start off by saying, because it's Socrates, everything has to be qualified eventually. He seems at least to be arguing explicitly for the thesis that what's known as akrasia or weakness of will is impossible. To put that more positively, he's arguing for the thesis that nothing can come between somebody's knowledge of what the right thing to do is, and they're doing it. For example, it's impossible to be waylaid by pleasure. So if you think the right thing to do is go and do some exercise, then the pleasure of sitting watching TV isn't going to distract you. If you genuinely know that exercise is the best thing to do, you're going to do it. He has a very ingenious argument at the end of the Protagoras in favor of that thesis. The complication is, I mean, there's several complications, but one is that he seems to base his argument on the idea that hedonism is true. In other words, the idea that what is good is nothing other than pleasure. So the pleasant and the good are one and the same thing. He argues that basically if that's true, then the idea that you could know what's best but do something else because you're, as he puts it, overcome by pleasure is absurd. If pleasure just is the good, you'd be doing the best thing anyway. Being overcome by pleasure is just being, quote, overcome by the good. In other words, being overcome by what is in fact the best action if you're a hedonist. The reason this is complicated is that Socrates is very rude about pleasure in other places. To cut a long story short, here's what I think is the gist of this. I think he does advocate the controversial thesis that knowledge is sufficient for right action. But I also think that the argument he uses, and this is classic Socrates, is not actually primarily, I think this is a really important point, is not primarily about him advocating his own point of view or even arguing for his own point of view using premises that he himself believes in. I think all the time he's doing what he says in the apology he does, which is he's testing people. Just to again briefly put that in a bit of context, in the Protagoras, he's arguing against Protagoras. The upshot of this argument is not simply the conclusion that you can't act against your knowledge of what's best, but it's to show Protagoras that his thesis, which is that courage at least, to take your example Peter, that courage at least is not something that's simply reducible to knowledge, is false. So actually what that argument to the Protagoras serves is to show that Protagoras' own beliefs are confused and that he needs to go away and try and sort out his beliefs and get them in better shape. So I think I'm still inclined to say that this is something Socrates believes, that he wouldn't be banging on about it so much if he didn't believe it, but that his primary task is not to advocate a particular point of view, but to get the people he's talking to to sort that out, to show them first that their beliefs are confused and therefore the need to sort them out and hopefully get a better grasp on these issues themselves. That's what he's about.

Peter Adamson: And so maybe that gives us a nice segue into Plato because if Socrates was always concerned with responding to the person in front of him, it would make sense that his great student Plato writes in dialogues is only showing us people confronting each other.

Raphael Woolf: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes. I mean, I think that there are, I mean, I think we should give a bit of time to perhaps the slightly less combative Socrates. I mean, in a dialogue like the Phaedo or the Republic, when he's talking to people who don't have the kind of absurdly misguided pretensions to knowledge that somebody like Euthyphro or maybe even Protagoras has, he seems to be firstly less sort of interested in humiliating them and showing them up, to put it bluntly. And secondly, again, on the surface, more interested in arguing for a particular point of view. Even then, though, I think it's complicated. I mean, the Phaedo, where he does seem to sort of give us a whole range of arguments about to prove that the soul is immortal, not clear whether he's really trying to persuade his interlocutors that that's the case as something that he himself believes. So again, it's not, I mean, I think he does believe it. But again, I think the extraordinary thing about Socrates is that he's probably, in that sense, more concerned with motivating the interlocutors to think that there's something worthwhile about the kind of life that he lives than to really sort of persuade somebody else of something that he himself believes. I think one of the really peculiar things about Socrates is that he's, and this is something that Alcibiades accuses him of, I think rightly, that you never quite know what Socrates himself believes. And I think he's not interested in ultimately, in particularly in telling us what he believes.

Peter Adamson: And if there's anything, there's one thing he's really passionately convinced of is simply that we should go on inquiring and never give up.

Raphael Woolf: Exactly. Exactly.

Peter Adamson: And in that spirit, I would like to invite our listeners to keep listening next week when I get to the first Plato episode, the first of many Plato episodes. But for now, I'd like to thank you, Raphael, for coming on the podcast and sharing your wisdom with us.

Raphael Woolf: Thank you very much indeed.


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