The shell game of Socratic elenchus

Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods? (Euthyphro 10.a)

This is the question Socrates puts to Euthyphro after his now infamous definition of piety being what the gods love.(9.e) It is a question of logical priority; which is cause and which is the effect? To answer this question, Socrates then puts out a series of examples in which the reader (and Euthyphro) examine. All of these follow along the same line and can be summed up as an analysis of relationship between act and object of action, in which Socrates concludes that within that relationship, the object is defined by the act which delineates it. Euthyphro, and I assume the reader, will find this to be an uncontroversial conclusion. What follows is Socrates attempt at applying this line of reasoning to the question of piety as outlined above. He asks:

it is not being loved by those who love it because it is something loved, but it is something loved because it is being loved by them? (10.c)

This too quite easily follows from the argument that has preceded it, but what comes next is the controversial step Socrates takes to direct the flow of reasoning towards the goal he (or Plato through him) desires:

Is it being loved because it is pious, or for some other reason? (10.d)

But why is this controversial? Isn’t it simply a restatement of the initial question? One might think so if one were to judge based on the initial clause of each question, but it is the second element that demonstrates that a change has occurred. For in the initial question, the alternative was a real reversal of logical order, from L(oved) because P(ious) to P because L. In the second question, we have the first element represented, L because P, but the alternative presented is not a reversal of this, but rather L because U(ndefined). By doing so, he has transformed the discussion from being an analysis of what is pious to an analysis of what is (divinely) loved, and having already lead Euthyphro (and the reader) along the lines of considering the object in terms of the act, the way is already prepared for the listener to judge that the answer to the question must be L because P since L because L (which would have been the predicate in the initial structure of the second clause) has already been rejected as fallacious.

Another reason for this being a questionable move is that it clearly contradicts the natural force of the stated definition as provided by Euthyphro, which the obvious meaning would have been that the pious is in fact considered so because it is loved by the gods. Socrates clouds the issue by seemingly feigning a lack of comprehension and then subtly moves the dialogue into a position where the less observant will contradict this meaning without fully being aware of how it was they had reached that point.

How should Euthyphro have responded, if he had wanted to adequately defend his definition of piety? By rejecting Socrates second restatement of the question as representing a change of subject, namely a change from attempts at defining piety (which Euthyphro does in terms of love) to defining love (in terms of piety, as Socrates seemingly wishes). It is a legitimate question to ask, “what makes it god loved?”, but it is only an issue once it has been accepted that the original question, of what is the pious, can be answered in terms of divine love.

Thus Socrates (or Plato through him) demonstrates the elenctic dialogue in Euthyphro to be nothing more than a sham, a game of shells in which Socrates continues to move his interlocutor in directions he clearly desires him to go through a series of logical sleights of hand. Euthyphro’s frustration that it is Socrates that continues to move what he thought to be established(11.d) is entirely justified, for this is exactly what is happening when one assertion is substituted for another without any indication that the switch has occurred.

Varieties of Impartiality with Plato

Compare and contrast Euthyphro’s view of the moral importance of impartiality to that of Socrates in the Crito.

…it is necessary to watch only for this, whether the killer killed legally or not (Euthyphro)

One must neither repay an injustice nor cause harm to any man, no matter what one suffers because of him. (Socrates in Crito)

Both the Socrates of the Crito and Euthyphro demonstrate an impartiality towards persons in the application of their moral principles. For Euthyphro, it does not matter whether the victim “is a stranger or a relative” nor if the wrongdoer “shares one’s hearth and eats at the same table”. (4.b) And likewise, Socrates states in the Crito “that it is never right to act unjustly or to return an injustice”. Also, both men are taking what is clearly an unpopular stance, one that is not shared by the majority around them. Socrates states, “I know that few people believe it” when speaking of his moral beliefs, and Euthyphro too says that his actions appear crazy to those around him and that this is because the majority do not really know “how the religious law stands with respect to holiness”. (4.e)

And yet there are significant differences as well. For while both are clearly impartial in their moral application, it is the objects of their moralizing that differ remarkably. Euthyphro’s moral concerns are primarily directed externally, so that he will prosecute any wrong doing, regardless of who it is who commits the wrong. But for Socrates, the force of his moral principles make contact with internally, with the one making ethical judgments, and its impartiality is expressed in the moral actors application of his ethical duty, to the point where it disregards even the harm another may have caused him.

Another divergent point to consider is the manner in which these two moral stances are formed. Euthyphro is clearly used by Socrates as a proxy for what McPherran calls the “story-focused” element of Greek religion. (pg 26). Euthyphro demonstrates this in his dialogue when he points to Greek mythology as the basis for his own lawsuit against his father. (6.a) Socrates, on the other hand, while clearly still religious, is permeated in his thinking not with myth, but with rationality, and states as much when he declares to Crito, “I am the sort of person who is persuaded in my soul by nothing other than the argument which seems best to me upon reflection.” There is no conflict between reason and religion for Socrates, for the religion of Socrates has been far removed from the mythologically based faith of Euthyphro, to the point where Socrates responds to Euthyphro’s myth based claim, “whenever someone says such things about the gods, for some reason I find them hard to accept”.

It might seem that these principles, even with their divergent focus, would still be morally compatible and so compose complementary beliefs. And yet, once an examination has been performed of the motivations behind Euthyphro’s ethical concerns, it becomes clear that there is a conflict of moral theory. For the driving concern in Euthyphro’s moral actions is precisely the harm he perceives coming to him from the wrongdoer (“the pollution is the same if you are aware that you share the guilt and do not both purify yourself and prosecute him in law” 4.c). But this is in direct contradiction to the principle expressed by Socrates, who would have us disregard the others negative impact upon us when regarding them in our ethical considerations.

It seems clear to me that the similarities we find in the two belief systems are largely superficial and accidental to their origins and application, thus masking some rather deeply held differences between the two perspectives that are bound to emerge in the dialogue that Plato writes for Euthyphro and Socrates.


McPherran reference to: McPherran, The Religion of Socrates

The Laws as the Voice of Socrates

I have come to believe that the Laws do in fact represent Socrates reasoning on the matter addressed in their dialogue through reading Metcalf’s analysis of the speech in the Crito. I confess that the reasoning he sets out is often difficult to follow, at times confused, and at others simply convoluted in the path it takes, but I find the overall argument and conclusion to be persuasive in making the case for his perspective on the Crito.

The key to making sense of the Laws speech is to understand that it is in fact an act of elenchus, as Socratic in nature as any of the other dialogues. However, the unique feature which it exhibits is that it is turned not upon another, but upon Socrates himself, and yet not upon Socrates himself, but rather the hypothetical Socrates who has accepted Crito’s arguments and is attempting to flee his punishment (this is amply demonstrated by reading 50.a). Thus, Socrates uses his own person as a proxy for the elenctic dialogue that Crito professes to be incapable of (again, Crito’s response in 50.a). Socrates takes up Crito’s concerns as his own in order to examine them in elenctic dialectic.

Metcalf seeks to demonstrate this through an analysis of the Corybantic passage and of the nature of the dialogue itself, that it clearly demonstrates a elenctic character. I profess to being largely unimpressed with his attempts to argue that the corybantic reference is indicative of a homeopathic connotation. Both Metcalf and Harte seem to try too hard to prove some significant meaning from this reference, when it seems to me to be best answered as a poetic way of expressing the convincing nature of the arguments put forward by the Laws, that at every turn Socrates cannot escape their argument, no matter how much he would wish otherwise (which is not to say that he in fact does wish otherwise, since the hypothetical Socrates is in fact a stand-in for Crito’s concerns).

The other half of Metcalf’s argument is also convoluted in its attempt at demonstrating the elenctic nature of the dialogue, although it is an incredibly important point he brings up about the central nature of shame in the dialogue. It is Crito’s concern for shame, his own as well as Socrates, that are seized upon by Socrates (first in his own voice, and then through the personification of the Laws) and ultimately turned back on themselves. It was the realization that the beliefs being examined by the Laws and then used to argue against the very conclusion they had initially supported was for me the strongest demonstration that what we are in fact witnessing in the Laws is Socrates elenchus of Crito’s position, since it never deviated in its examination from the material that Crito’s beliefs supplied it. That this material is presented in the guise of Socrates’s person is only done so that Crito can be brought into agreement by distancing the analysis from himself so that he can better gain a perspective on the consequences of his views.

Thus, I believe that the perspective put forward by the Laws is in fact the same as the one Socrates put’s forward in his own name earlier on in the dialogue. The question, then, is to reconcile these to so that their apparent differences are clarified. It is here that Metcalf does his reader the greatest disservice, but failing to realize the significance of this objection. As demonstrated on page 56, he recognizes the problem, but is seemingly oblivious to its importance:

A number of commentators have noted that the moral understanding of the laws is different – certainly in tone, if not in content – from that expressed by Socrates earlier in the dialogue. But need we go so far as to conclude that it is inconsistent with Socrates’ moral understanding? – and even so, must we grant it that much interpretive significance? After all, there are dramatic reasons for assuming a persona that is noticeably different from Socrates’ own, not least of all for the sake of evoking the shame that is the focal pathos of the dialogue.

I can think of no reason for not noticing that these philosophical differences, if they indeed exist, most certainly would have interpretive significance. Fortunately, we are not left without a solution, though Metcalf sees no need for one, provided by none less that the example of Socrates in the Apology and the Crito. For the principles enunciated by the Laws, that of persuade or obey, are precisely demonstrated in the Apology and Crito, the former being an attempt at persuasion, and the latter a demonstration of obedience.

Even the hypothetical that Socrates’ uses in the Apology regarding his possible absolution if he should cease philosophizing is illuminating in this regard. For we see in its structure the very nature of the agreement that Socrates sees himself as having entered with the Laws. And that is this, that there are always two options in the demand for obedience of any law, and that is to either conform to the requirements of the law, or else suffer the consequences of disobedience to this requirement. Socrates, in his hypothetical, states most clearly that he is in fact not only willing, but compelled by his sense of justice, to accept the latter option to the former, which he sees as being an injustice.

Thus, Socrates, found guilty by the law, and unwilling to renounce his behavior, still demonstrates obedience to the Law by accepting its verdict and punishment upon failing to persuade it otherwise. This understanding of the standing agreement between Socrates on the one hand, and the society that permitted him to be who he is (as the Laws amply state) on the other, still allows for his moral dissent from acts he sees as unjust, so long as he upholds their authority to punish such dissent. This resolves both the authoritarian arguments of the Laws while maintaining the Socratic principle of never doing what one knows is a wrong.

Further support for this view can be found in the throw away paragraph of Brickhouse and Smith, in which they mention that if anything is troubling about the view illustrated in the Laws speech, it is the pacifism it demonstrates. This is exactly what is being demonstrated, both in Socrates rejection of retaliation, and in is unwillingness to undermine the authority of the Laws, which he would have understood to undermine not just an unjust act by the Laws, but the very social fabric that formed, nurtured, and made possible all that Socrates was and did. As Metcalf points out in his conclusion, to have done so would have constituted a rejection of Socrates own values, and have represented the height of hypocrisy on his part, thus bringing the ultimate shame upon him. Only by remaining consistent to who he was, which included all that made him who he was, could Socrates have upheld the moral values that he had committed his entire life to.

Justice in the Crito

Harte sets out to demonstrate that the Crito is not a historical document, but is rather a complex treatment of the question of justice. This is accomplished not through any definitional analysis, but rather through the interplay of contrasting perspectives on the question and their resulting consequences. Harte takes it as his first task to demonstrate that the view point demonstrated through the personification of the laws is not that elucidated by Socrates in either the Crito or the Apology. Once it is shown that the laws are not a proxy for the views of Plato’s Socrates, Harte then seeks to establish the real purpose of the Crito.

Harte’s first attack on the view that the Laws represents a continuity with the thoughts of Socrates is to highlight the language Socrates uses to describe the effect the Law’s arguments had upon him. He argues that both the language about Corybantic rites and “buzzing” portray the arguments in a negative light. First, Corybantic rituals were characterized by a lack of thought, and were something akin to being possessed, a state of mind that would not, he believes, have met with the approval of Socrates (consider his opinion of mediums and poets). Next, Harte states that buzzing would not have been viewed in a positive light, but rather have been understood as either as a nuisance, or worse, as something that represented a hazard to the listener. I have to admit, that many of the arguments Harte makes in this section are weak and unconvincing. A few do seem to make a good case, but more often than not, he seems to miss the mark. What is more, they seem superfluous if indeed he succeeds in demonstrating a break in philosophical perspective, as I believe he does.

Having completed what he sees as the dissolution of the union between Socrates and the Laws, Harte then examines the three voices in the Crito, namely Crito, Socrates, and the Laws, and evaluates their positions on a series of philosophical positions.

First to be evaluated is non-retaliation. Clearly for Socrates, retaliation is unacceptable, without qualification, since it is never permissible to do a wrong, whether it is in response to another wrong or not. Crito just as clearly represents a view point that advocates retaliation as being a just corrective to wrongs received. The Laws, on the other hand, also forbid retaliation, not based on the principle of all wrongs, including retaliation, are unjust, but rather on the asymmetrical relationship that makes moral actions unidirectional, flowing down from those with authority to those under authority. Thus, while it is clear that those under authority can not retaliate, it is not at all clear if this is forbidden of equals, and would seems to endorse those in authority to respond as they see fit to any undesirable action committed by those under them.

Next is the principle of keeping agreements. Again, Socrates response is in keeping with his overarching ethical belief that it is never permissible to do a wrong. Thus all contracts are conditioned upon their obligation being morally acceptable, and no agreement can have the power to force the actor to commit immorality (he points to 49.e as illustrating this principle). Against this perspective is the principle enunciated by the Laws, for whom there is no exemption from the agreements made with it. For since the relationship is so one sided between them and the citizen, the individual has no authority to abrogate his responsibility to them. The choices presented by them are to either persuade or obey, neither of which represents an annulment of contractual obligations.

Drawing from these two points of distinction, Harte argues that what we are witnessing within the Crito is an examination perspectives that would have been quite familiar to contemporary Athenians. The first, represented by Crito, is the traditional ethic of Greek culture, which understands moral obligation to be centered around family and then branching out from their. The second, embodied in the Laws, is an attempt to subsume and assimilate these traditional values under civic duty, thus maintaining the structure and logic of the traditional ethics, but introducing a new locus of attention, the state.

It is in contrast with these two concepts, both well attested to in Athenian society, that the Socratic view is interposed. His is a radically new conception, one that takes only one object as its moral focus, the individual soul, and disregards all else in its ethical decision making. This is clearly opposed to the social focus of the first two perspectives, as is illustrated in Socrates dismissal of Crito’s concerns for public opinion and social obligations in determining what is just (and notice that these exact same arguments are again taken up by the Laws, and used in precisely the same fashion, if not for the opposite effect).

Harte sees within this dialectic of perspectives the laying of the groundwork for a philosophical perspective that will transcend these differences and bring about the socialization of the Socratic moral principle and a refocusing of the social ethic on the individuality of the immortal and transcendent soul. It is to the Republic that we must look if we are to if we would see Plato resolve these two ethical models into a new synthesis. The Crito, in effect, prepares the ground for Plato’s new moral paradigm bound in the metaphysical concepts elucidated there.

The Socratic Political Theory

You must either persuade [the state] or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure (Crito 51.b)

In these few words, Socrates in Crito summarizes his practical political theory, that to the state is owed complete obedience. Brickhouse and Smith examine this passage with an eye towards those who would wish to circumvent it by proposing exceptions to its seemingly authoritarian nature with examples culled from various passages in the early dialogues.

The first, and most prominent, is the hypothetical situation proposed by Socrates in the Apology, in which he proposes that even if the jury were to acquit him on the one condition that he cease from his philosophical practices, that he could not obey such an order. Their argument against this being in conflict with Socrates political views hinges upon the nature of the hypothetical, namely, that what is being proposed is not a law, but rather a condition of acquittal, and that what Socrates is demonstrating is that given the choice between death and the preservation of his life through unjust means, he would choose death. There seems little need to go much deeper into this example, although Brickhouse and Smith do work through a variety of permutations on this theme, finding fault with each one.

The second example is the case where Socrates recounts his disregard for what he clearly perceives as an unjust command by the the Thirty. Here, Brickhouse and Smith dismiss it as a possible contradiction on the grounds that it would have been clear to all that the Thirty did not carry legal legitimacy and so Socrates would have been free to ignore their commands where he perceives them to be immoral. This appears to be a more specious argument than the first, for it is apparently based on nothing more than the fact that since the Thirty were unpopular with the democratic forces of Athens, they would naturally not be perceived as legitimate. However, this is as much an argument from silence as is the one they seek to dismiss, and is not nearly as uncontroversial as it is portrayed. Consider this excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Socrates:

None of the contemporaneous sources, no matter how hostile to the rule of the Thirty—Isocrates, Lysias, Plato, and Xenophon—denies the legitimacy of their election.

The final possible argument against the obvious reading of Socrates political theory is based on Socrates moral principles, that it is never acceptable to commit an injustice, even in response to injustice. The question is how then could Socrates consistently follow his political principles when he as much as admits that there were unjust laws in Athens? (Crito 51.e) Brickhouse and Smith propose that, just as children and slaves were not considered accountable for unjust acts in obedience to their respective authorities, neither was the citizen held responsible for injustices commanded by the state.

Anticipating the objection that this would be the very argument used by those accused of war crimes, Brickhouse and Smith seek to mitigate the argument by pointing to the contextual nature of Socrates political theory, that it is Athen’s laws that are under consideration, and as such his theory cannot be “generalized to other people”. (Brickhouse 5.2.7) However, it would be an odd political theory that could not be generalized, at least to some extent, and one would be hard pressed to believe that Socrates did not, in fact, think his political theories were not in fact based on his moral theory, which clearly are general principles. Finally, their attempt to distance Socrates from justifying war criminals is thoroughly undermined in the very next section when they put the very same words (“only following orders”) into the mouth of Socrates and claim that it has validity as a moral argument.

If we do accept Brickhouse and Smith’s argument, that we have no legitimate exemptions to the Socratic political theory as stated in the Crito, then despite whatever protestations they might make, we in fact do have an authoritarian Socrates, one who is compelled to obey the state in all matters, whether just or unjust. That this is not “blind” obedience does not improve Socrates position in the least, for then we clearly have an individual performing actions which he has clearly reasoned out to be unjust, both to himself and to others. It is not at all clear that such a violation of conscience is superior to unthinking obedience.

It is unfortunate that Brickhouse and Smith felt compelled to spend so much more time on the first example, although perhaps understandable considering the attention the acquittal hypothesis has received, since upon reflection, this was clearly the easiest of the three objections to address. I fear that by being distracted by the acquittal hypothesis, they failed to adequately address the weightier objections which followed. The question of Socrates and the Thirty does not seem to be clearly answered to me, and yet I do feel that in the end, they have made a strong argument for understanding Socrates political theory precisely as it is stated in the Crito. Their attempts to ameliorate the impact of this theory on our moral sensibilities is far less successful, however, and more attention should surely have been paid towards rehabilitating Socrates from the uglier potential consequences of the theory.


Plato’s Socrates by Thomas C. Brickhouse, Nicholas D. Smith
Oxford University Press, USA (January 18, 1996)

Reason and Religion

Socrates, as he is portrayed in the Platonic dialogues, has always offered a conundrum of faith and reason. As Vlastos points out, he has given statements that point in one direction, only to follow them up a short while later with others that point in another. Sometimes, as with the Crito, these two forces can be juxtaposed very closely within the narrative (44a, 46b). What is the nature of the relationship between these two for Plato’s Socrates?

While Brickhouse and Smith find Socrates religious impulse driving the relationship between faith and reason, even going so far as to cite instances of his divination doing precisely that (Brickhouse 6.3.2), Vlastos argues that the balance actually lies in the other direction, that while Socrates does have these religious experiences, even they are defined by the rational element in his thought processes. (Vlastos 173) A prime demonstration of this is the interpretive aspect that lay behind the divine sign which called Socrates to his life’s work, the oracle of Delphi. The leap from the Oracle’s pronouncement to an all consuming mission of elenctic inquiry is not a readily apparent one, and from Socrates own testimony, involved no little amount of interpretation on his part.

What can be said then? As Brickhouse and Smith point out, these signs did stop Socrates from proceeding in directions he clearly must have thought were reasonable, and yet, Vlastos seems to also be correct, in that there would be little meaning one could attribute to them without intepretation. It seems to me that both have hit upon one of the fundamental aspects of Socratic thought. For it is inescapable that Socrates religious beliefs are indeed of a revolutionary nature, and depart radically from the traditional Greek beliefs, with rather obvious moral rationalizations reshaping the divinities, irrespective of how much hand waving Brickhouse and Smith engage on this matter. While at the same time, Vlastos fails to note that no matter how much Greek religious thought was transformed by the rationalizations of Socrates, it remains a fundamentally religious thought.

For Socrates, there can be no conflict between these two, between faith and reason. Nor would he have countenanced any speculation on which of the two governed the other. Socrates entire life was shaped by these two powerful elements, each playing its part in moving him along in the direction he took. Some, longing for a hero of reason, have sought to expunge the religious from Socrates. Others, seeing how utterly this conception misses such an important aspect of Socrates’ reasoning and life, have played up the religious aspects, to the point where the rational has been subsumed by it. But the truth is that for Socrates these were mutually reinforcing powers in his life. His life of reason was commissioned by the gods, and at every turn, we see him moved by divine signs towards the life of philosophy and reason that so defined his character. And again, his reasoning dictates not only the nature of the gods for Socrates, but the very meaning of the signs he receives.

Thus, it would have been impossible for Socrates to untangle these two threads, and, I argue, it would be equally impossible for us to unravel them as well without committing an injustice against the significance each of them had in his life. Faith guided his reasoning even as reason informed his faith, and neither could have existed in the way they did without the other. For Socrates, reason was religious, and religion was reasonable, and there would be no truth without one and the other.

Justice in the Crito

Should we follow the opinion of the many and fear it, or that of the one, if there is one who has knowledge of [virtue]. (Crito 47.d)

Thus Socrates seeks to draw us into agreement with his idea that it is not the many we should be concerned with, but only with those who are knowledgeable. The proper response, if I may quote the Spartans, being, “if”. For not only do we have to answer the question of whether such a person is available to us, but whether, as the question suggests, there is a body of knowledge called “virtue”, which exists independent of the “opinion of the many” (τῇ τῶν πολλῶν δόξῃ).

Who is this knowledgeable person to whom Socrates would have us appeal to? This question is all the more difficult to answer when we recollect that Socrates has already stated in the Apology that there is no one who possesses true knowledge of virtue. And since Socrates argument seems to hinge of the utility of one who has this knowledge, we are once again thrown back into confusion about how to proceed, since it very well may be better to follow the opinion of the many than to ignore this in favor of our own opinion, which would clearly be biased towards our solely our own benefit, whereas the opinion of the many would at least have the virtue of being clearly interested in the benefit of that same number which hold it.

How, then, can we explain our intuition that the many can act unjustly and the individual justly in resisting the many? Socrates seems to take recourse in the belief that there is something called “virtue” that exists independent of our opinions, and by which our beliefs and actions are measured. Does Socrates possibly points us in a direction other than the ontologizing of “virtue” when he introduces the voice of law personified? He states that justice is a matter of a mutually beneficial contract, between the individual and the collective, that the individual will do his part to contribute to the good of society, and in return, society will work towards the benefit of the individual.

But such a formulation introduces its own problem. For, as we see with Socrates, the contract can be violated. Socrates upheld his part, and strove for the good of those around him, and yet the society paid back his efforts by condemning him to death. What, then, is the proper response to the broken promise society made with the individual? Here Socrates does seem to lean towards a metaphysical notion of justice, since the agreement is formed, not between the individual and society, but rather between a mediator between the two. Thus, even if society fails to live up to its promise, the individual is not free to abandon his obligations, since he is still under contract with the laws. It becomes a more difficult question to answer if we eliminate this third party, both as to whether the individual is still obligated to benefit a society that does not reciprocate, and whether the individual actual is benefiting society by acquiescing to such a violation of mutual beneficence.