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Plato’s Dialectical Method Essay

Plato’s method is presumably taken from that of Socrates, who wrote nothing down. Socrates believes, in the early dialogues, that he “knows nothing. ” This is an irony, meant to be juxtaposed to the elite of Athenian society who are convinced of their own wisdom and knowledge on specialized subjects such as rhetoric, argument, literature, generalship, etc.

In the early dialogues, Plato initially has Socrates speaking from a position of “ignorance. ” That is, from a position where he claims to know nothing, permitting himself just a series of questions that are designed to lead his opponent into absurdities, proving, so to speak, that his opponent knows only conventional wisdom–images of knowledge–rather than knowledge itself.

The Platonic project is to reveal the Truth, the forms of being that exist behind the ever-changing panoply of sense impressions, accepted “truths” and the opinion of either the masses or the powerful, and often both. Hence, it makes perfect sense that Plato’s project will begin with dialogues such as the Apology and the Euthyphro, both showing Socrates not providing any positive doctrine, but stripping bare the accepted wisdom on the relevant topics of crime and punishment, or piety and faith.

Before Plato can provide his positive doctrine, he must first show that the accepted wisdom–images given by mass society or the elite, or both–are false, and exist solely in the realm of opinion, that of the natural or conventional worlds, rather than the truth, the world of the forms, beyond space and time, beyond sense impression, apprehensible only though the mind. Khan (1996) gives us a hint as to the importance of the dialectical method. The dialogue form used because Plato has an “acute sense of the psychological distance that separates his world view from that of his audience. ” (66).

And further, “philosophy is essentially the practice of spiritual liberation by which the rational psyche prepares itself for a successful voyage back to its transcendental homeland” (66). The world of late Athens, just prior to the conquests of Philip and Alexander, is one of petty crime, worldly glory and political manipulation, hardly the arena for the development of a powerfully transcendent form of philosophy. Hence, the early dialogues are a preparation, the first movement forward away from the changing fortunes of Athens, and the changing natural world that keeps most men in intellectual chains.

The point is not to lose one’s audience. For, early on in Socrates’ career, for him to have unloaded the full content of the Republic or even the Laws onto a highly corrupt Athenian society would have been disastrous. Socrates might not have been executed, but considered a madman and banished. Hence, early on, and even, to some extent in the middle dialogues, Socrates is struggling with worldly-wise men to get them to see the nature and ground of their craft, rather than its service to the state, to social advancement or even the advancement of their ego.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is presented to the literary world as a martyr, a martyr against mass appearances and a fighter for the existence of Truth, which he claims (39) is really not possible to reach, and belongs only to the divinities of Olympus. What passes for truth is not truth, but is a reaction to mere appearances, the world of opinion, of doxa. A philodoxer is one who exists solely in the realm of sense impressions, those impressions that can be manipulated by those in power and ingrained into the psyche by mass opinion.

Of course, in modern times, mass media would be the very source of the philodoxer’s alleged knowledge. In attacking the worldly-wise of Athens, Socrates admission of ignorance also derives from the idea that he has no specific area of expertise (Khan, 89). In other words, while it is true that his opponents are experts in their various fields, and hence should be approached concerning any question about those fields, Socrates seems to have none at all. His “field” simply is the tripping up of his opponents who do not think systematically, but think according to the present utility of their areas of expertise.

Furthermore, while Socrates feigns ignorance, he, as Khan has written “never denies that he has practical good sense and moral excellence” (Khan, 90) He sees around him a once glorious Athenian society, set on solid ground by Solon centuries earlier, no longer on solid ground. The tyranny of the 30 created a situation–or reflected a situation–where power, and hence opinion, became the only true goods. One’s skill, ones arete, exist solely to bring the user worldly gains, both for himself and the city.

But this situation leads to moral degradation, since the only reason to have virtue is to prove one’s usefulness in glory, to gain praise and promotion. This is the backdrop to the rise of the sophists, a group of pseudo-philosophers who claim to have knowledge, but this just amounts to the manipulation of socially crated images to appear to have knowledge. The sophist can make any argument they are paid to, because truth either does not exist, or is not useful in all circumstances.

The sophist is valuable because self-promotion is their specialty, and hence, they receive the venom of Socrates. Hence, when Socrates is speaking of a certain craft, a certain form of practical excellence, he insists that he must be speaking of the same object as his opponent. Hence, in the Euthyphro, Socrates and his opponent are not speaking of piety in the same way. The are not speaking of the same thing. Socrates is speaking about piety in a way that includes all specific incarnations of the phenomenon. While Euthyphro, as a good Greek at the time, speaks of it in terms of its utility.

Hence, they are not talking about the same thing, which permits Socrates to continually thwart his opponents. They are speaking on two different planes, one Truth, the other, use, or truth (small “t”). While Truth is utile, utility does not exhaust it, and even if it did, they are speaking of “use” in two very different ways. For Socrates, as in the Apology, one should never do evil, even if it is immediately utile. While the “timocrat,” one who lives for earthly glory, might do evil (something cowardly, or mercenary, etc) for the sake of gaining immediate glory and fame.

Socrates holds that all evil is inutile, though not in any worldly way, but because, slowly but surely, it turns the soul bad, hence the soul begins not to know truth from falsehood. All is power, all is crass utility. In response to the utilitarian idea, Socrates says to his accusers: “a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance for living or dying; he ought to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong–acting the part of a good man or bad” (40). Socrates is claiming that goodness is beyond utility, that he is morally good, and finally, that the common opinion that goodness is utility is false.

In the Apology, Socrates affirms; “young men of the richer cases, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord. They like to hear the pretenders examined. . . .they are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think they know something, but really know little or nothing. . . (33). This is behind the charges against Socrates. Socrates, speaking of himself and his mission, says to the judges “I am that gadfly that god has attached to the state; and all the day long and in all places I am fastening upon you, arousing, persuading and reproaching you. (43).

Many things are said here about his method. A. Socrates says nothing about any positive philosophy. This is not the point. He is not unaware of the utility of the crafts that he takes apart in debate, but, for the good of the city, he is forced to make his opponents realize the true ground of the goodness of their craft. B. Socrates sees Athens in trouble. The tyranny, the mass democracy and the predictable rise of sophistry means that power and only power (whether military, financial or persuasive) is operative.

If this is true, than moral goodness will be prostituted to the state. In the long run, this will lead to the destruction of the state and its famed liberties, since moral goodness will be defined as loyalty to one political faction or other, each faction seeing Athens as a means to financial or political advancement. Not real city can function with those sorts of divisions. Hence, Socrates, unbeknownst to his opponents, is a true patriot, seeking the moral betterment of his people. C. By “god” it is likely that Socrates means “world of forms.

As Khan said earlier, the usage of common terminology is a strategy where he may gain acceptance. By the use of “god” he is talking about ultimate Truth (which he alone serves) in language that the common folk of Athens could understand. It is possible that Socrates viewed the Olympian pantheon as a popularization and “folkloric” method of understanding the forms. *** When Socrates is grilling the unfortunate but well intentioned Euthyphro, there is a passage from Socrates that strongly hints that his negative approach is leading, at some future time, to the positive ideas of the forms.

Socrates says to his opponent, speaking of pious acts “The point I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved by the gods” (12) Outside of the Crito, this is the most suggestive passage in the early dialogues concerning a foreshadowing of later, positive doctrine. Here, Plato is giving, in sharp relief, the distinction between the Platonic idea of Truth and the common, utilitarian Athenian view. The sophist would claim that the former is the case.

That something is holy because it is loved by the gods. The power of the gods is accepted as arbitrary and unquestioned. Hence, the only thing to do is to is to figure ways to place them, and hence acquire various profits in so doing. That is the opposite of what we call Platonism. What is more important is the critical part. Instead of merely accepting that what his holy is holy because the gods love it, one must find out the nature of the holy, to which then the gods then must conform. Nothing is more Platonic than this distinction.

The first is reflective of the power hungry Athenian state. The famed politicians, bankers and priests want power, thus, if you are a citizen, you do what you can to please the powerful, and hence become famed yourself, and promoted through the system. This is the world of power and prostitution. Power and profit are taken as good in themselves, and hence the powerful are off the intellectual hook. Platonism is reflected in the idea that there is a concept of power, and, beyond that, the Good by which power is thus justified that would force a ruling class to conform their behavior to.

Once the philosopher can provide an outline of this Goodness in relation to power (the Republic and Statesman), or the mode of being that a ruling class must conform to, then one’s life can be called rational (politically speaking). This passage in the Euthyphro then, points to a much later development in Plato’s ontology: There is a Good that the Gods love. The only reason the Gods love it is that it is Good, hence the gods (assuming Plato believed in them) are to be emulated only because of the Good, not because they are gods.

The political ramifications of this are staggering, and it is easy to make an argument that the political ramifications of the question of piety (especially given the nature of the charges against Socrates) are designed to reorient the mind of Athenian youth to the Good, rather than to power. The powerful seek to define the good for themselves, invariably, of course, defined as what is in their own interest. Hence, if this terrible state of affairs is to be avoided, the nature of the Good must be outlined. But in these early dialogues, only hits are being dropped.


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