Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index


Style and Methods

Style and Approach
Individualized Instruction
Questions and Answers
Poetry and Metaphor

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Now that we have looked at the life and character of Socrates, we can turn to an examination of his particular approach in educating. What techniques did he use to facilitate learning?

Style and Approach

Socrates' attitude toward the divine carried over into his discussions as he often would pray for assistance in the argument or rely on his spiritual inspiration for guidance. In the Timaeus he suggested to Timaeus before he began his long speech that he should duly invoke the gods. Timaeus agreed that it is the intelligent way to begin any undertaking.1 In the Republic Socrates suggested to Glaucon that they pray for success in their search for justice.2 At the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates offered up a prayer to the gods of this enchanted place where he had been inspired. His prayer is characteristic of his values, but Phaedrus did agree to share it with his friend.

O beloved Pan (All) and the other gods of this place,
grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within,
and may the outward be in harmony with the inner person.
May I consider the wise person wealthy;
and may I have as much money
as a self-controlled person can bear and carry.3

Although Socrates saw himself as a catalyst or midwife, he felt it was actually the power of God which enabled the person he was talking with to improve. In the Alcibiades I In the Alcibiades I Socrates suggested to Alcibiades that he answer the questions put to him and "by God's will-if we are to put any trust in my divination-you and I shall both improve."4 As Socrates led Alcibiades on to the recognition of his need of education, he asked Alcibiades how he would proceed. Alcibiades responded that he depended on what Socrates wished, but Socrates corrected him by saying that it depended on God's will.5 In the Theages there is a lengthy description of several incidents where Socrates counseled his friends when he received an indication from his divine sign. Socrates twice warned another Timarchus not to leave a drinking party, but the third time Timarchus slipped out unnoticed and went to commit a crime for which he was later executed. He warned the commander, Sannio, not to set out on an expedition, and later the man was condemned to death after the battle of Arginusae.6 Then Socrates explained how the spiritual power assisted some in the educational process with him.

This spiritual power that attends me
also exerts itself to the full in my intercourse
with those who spend their time with me.
To many, indeed, it is adverse,
and it is not possible for these
to get any good by conversing with me,
and I am therefore unable to spend any time
in conversing with them.
And there are many with whom
it does not prohibit my intercourse,
yet the intercourse does them no good.
But those who are assisted
in their intercourse by that spiritual power
are the persons whom you have noticed;
for they make rapid progress there and then.
And of these, again, who make progress
some find the benefit both solid and enduring;
while there are many who,
for as long a time as they are with me,
make wonderful progress,
but when they are parted from me relapse,
and are no different from anybody else.7

Socrates cited Aristides as an example of one who improved and then after leaving Socrates, gradually felt his new abilities slipping away. Aristides related that although he did not learn anything from Socrates, he made progress whenever he was with Socrates-even if he was just in the same house, but more when in the same room, even more when he looked at Socrates as he spoke, and most of all when he sat beside him and touched him. In conclusion, Socrates told Theages that he would make rapid progress with him only if God willed it.8

When in the Phaedo Cebes praised Socrates for how well he handled the argument about the soul being a harmony, and expressed confidence for the next problem, Socrates warned him not to be boastful and allow negativity in; the argument was "in the hands of God."9

In the Cratylus, a tongue-in-cheek, half-humorous discussion of the origin of words and names, Socrates felt inspired, but he was not sure about the source of the inspiration.10 Later on Socrates recognized an intuition that came to him concerning the mutability and movement of all things.11 Further on again Socrates marveled at the wisdom of what he was saying, but at this point he felt the need to examine them more closely to avoid the worst of all deceptions-self-deception.12 Thus Socrates did not rely solely on inspiration, as we find him predominantly concerned with reasoning. Yet it is fair to say that he recognized and utilized divine sources of inspiration.

An important piece of evidence which supports that Socrates relied on divine inspiration to help others is found in a fragment from Aeschines, another Socratic whose writings were almost all lost. As a student of Socrates, Aeschines can be placed on a comparable level with Plato and Xenophon as to his opportunity to observe Socrates directly. Socrates here drew his conclusions as to how he had been able to help Alcibiades.

If I thought I knew some art
by which I could do good to people,
I should have charged myself with great folly:
but, as it is, I thought that these things came to me
as a divine gift for the sake of Alcibiades.
And there is nothing that calls for surprise in that....
Through the love which I felt for Alcibiades
I had had the same experience as the Bacchae.
For the Bacchae, when they are inspired,
draw up milk and honey from the wells
from which other people cannot even get water.
And so I too, though I have no science
with which I could help a person by instructing one in it,
nevertheless felt that by being with him
I could make him better through my love for him.13

Here we see also the love as the most important thing that Socrates was able to contribute.

For Socrates love and friendship were the proper contexts for the pursuit of wisdom and goodness. In Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates he explained to Antiphon that to take money for his conversation would be like prostitution of wisdom instead of beauty. The duty of a gentleman is to help one's friends become as good as they can.14 In the Theaetetus Socrates was eager to discuss, but only in an atmosphere of friendship; he was very polite to Theodorus and did not try to force him into the argument against his will.15

In the Phaedo Socrates demonstrated how he was sensitive to the mood of the group and how he could understand the problem and allay their fears. After Simmias and Cebes had presented strong arguments against the immortality of the soul, several of his listeners began to have serious doubts. Phaedo described how Socrates handled the situation:

So his having an argument was perhaps not unexpected;
but I was especially amazed
first at how pleasantly and gently and respectfully
he accepted the argument of the youths,
then how he perceived how sharply
we were convinced by the arguments,
then how well he healed us
and as though he called us up from flight and defeat
and turned us forward toward it
he persuaded us also to consider together the argument.16

Phaedo went on to tell how Socrates stroked his beautiful hair and playfully suggested that they both should cut off their hair if they were not able to revive the wounded argument. Socrates knew how to relieve the tension when necessary.

In the Laches Socrates politely allowed the older gentlemen to speak first,17 and later he advised Laches to instruct Nicias if he was wrong, rather than abuse him.18 At the beginning of Xenophon's Symposium Callias invited Socrates and his companions to a banquet. Socrates admitted that he was only an amateur compared to the sophists whom Callias had paid much money such as Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, and others. He was about to refuse the invitation, but seeing that this would really upset Callias, he agreed to go with him.19 Socrates was quite sensitive to the feelings of others and took them into consideration.

Xenophon's description of this banquet offers some of the best examples of Socrates' sense of humor. As they are playing the game of saying what they each pride themselves in most, Charmides claimed his was his poverty. Socrates commented, "It seldom causes envy or a quarrel; and it is kept safe without necessity of a guard, and grows stronger by neglect!"20 Then when asked by Callias, Socrates declared he was most proud of being a procurer. After they laughed, he claimed he could make much money in that trade.21 Xenophon recalled that Socrates often used to talk in a manner that was half joking and half serious.22

In the Euthyphro Socrates joked with the pious man about his arguments being like the statues of Daedalus, which were said to be so alive that they would run away and could not be held in a fixed place.23 In the Euthydemus when Dionysodorus and Ctesippus were getting into a bitter argument, Socrates noticed it and began to joke with his friend Ctesippus and gradually turned the discussion toward a desire for goodness.24

Socrates also had exceptional perseverance in carrying out an investigation of any subject. After Euthyphro's attempts to define holiness were found wanting, Socrates was ready to begin the inquiry again so that he might learn what holiness really is from this man who appeared to be so pious. However, Euthyphro begged off, and hurried away.25In the Philebus Protarchus asked Socrates three times to explain a point more clearly so that he could understand it. Even then he was still confused, but Socrates did not lose patience with him, as he went on to give another example.26

Socrates also demonstrated things by his own personal example. According to Diogenes Laertius, he once got up and left the theater during Euripides' Auge when the following statement was made about virtue: "'Tis best to let her roam at will." He said it was ridiculous to make a fuss about a slave who could not be found while virtue was allowed to be lost.27 When he had invited some rich men over and Xanthippe was ashamed of the dinner, he told her not to worry. If they were temperate, they would put up with it; and if they were not, they need not care about them. Socrates always demonstrated his own moderation and self-control of appetites. He used to say that while other people lived to eat, he himself ate to live.28

Xenophon also commented on Socrates' behavior and lessons at banquets. Socrates used to tell the waiter of the dining-club that the meat each person contributed should be put in the common stock. This discouraged some from spending much on meat. When one man ate meat without bread, Socrates mentioned this practice as an apt description of greed. When the man began to take some bread with his meat, Socrates suggested they watch to "see whether he treats the bread as his meat or the meat as his bread." He also cautioned that mixing the dishes destroyed the chef's art and dulled the appreciation of less variety.29 In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates recommended wine in moderation to induce a more sportive mood. However, plants when they are drenched with too much water become weak and fall over; so too should people avoid the excesses of wine which cause the bodies and minds to reel, making speech much less sensible.30

After describing Socrates' control of his own passions and appetites, Xenophon summarized the example that Socrates set.

Such was his own character:
how then can he have led others into
impiety, crime, gluttony, lust, or laziness?
On the contrary, he cured these vices in many,
by putting into them a desire for goodness,
and by giving them confidence
that self-discipline would make them gentlemen.
To be sure he never professed to teach this;
but, by letting his own light shine,
he led his disciples to hope that
they through imitation of him
would attain to such excellence.
Furthermore, he himself never neglected the body,
and criticized such neglect in others.
Thus over-eating followed by over-exertion he disapproved.
But he approved of taking as much hard exercise
as is agreeable to the soul;
for the habit not only insured good health,
but did not hinder the care of the soul.31

Xenophon continued on and explained that Socrates kept himself free by not accepting money for his conversation. He never promised anything, but he was confident that as gentlemen they could benefit from each others' friendship.32

This continual movement toward a better life was the energy which motivated Socrates. One of his major techniques was to encourage and exhort his listeners toward a virtuous life. In Xenophon's Defense of Socrates he said he had "served those who conversed with me by teaching them, without reward, every good thing that was in my power."33 In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates turned a discussion on perfume to the more lasting scent of the beauty and goodness of the soul. When Lycon asked where this ointment can be found, Socrates quoted Theognis:

Good people teach good; society with bad
Will but corrupt the good mind that you had.34

Later at the same banquet, Socrates praised and encouraged Callias in his spiritual rather than carnal love for Autolycus. Love of friendship and beautiful goodness (kalokagathia derives from "beauty and goodness" and is used to refer to noble conduct of a true gentleman) are related to the Heavenly Aphrodite as opposed to the Common Aphrodite. Hermogenes commented that by praising Callias in this way he was educating him in the ideal.35 Socrates used Callias' love to encourage him toward virtue.

The greatest blessing that befalls the one
who yearns to render his favorite a good friend
is the necessity of oneself
making virtue one's habitual practice.
For one cannot produce goodness in one's companion
while one's own conduct is evil,
nor can one exhibit shamelessness and incontinence
and at the same time render one's beloved
self-controlled and reverent.36

Finally Socrates urged Callias to learn and develop the abilities of such men as Themistocles, Pericles, and Solon so that he might become of great benefit to the city.37

In Plato's Charmides Socrates and his friends were attempting to discover the meaning of temperance or self-control. Socrates had an intuition that it is of some benefit, and therefore he was concerned not only to find out what it is, but what is its benefit as well.38 Even after being condemned to death, in Plato's Defense of Socrates we find Socrates giving a sermon to those who voted against him, suggesting that they make themselves as good as possible.39 To those who voted to acquit him, he made the request that they discipline his children and make sure they care more for virtue than anything else, as he, Socrates, had done for them.40

Socrates was particularly concerned with the proper education of the young. In the Laches Socrates was called upon to aid Lysimachus and Melesias in finding the best teachers for their sons. Socrates requested the assistance of Nicias and Laches, two famous generals, and he emphasized the value of a teacher who is so good that he can make the souls of young men good also.41 At the conclusion of the dialog Laches and Nicias agree that neither of them was as competent as Socrates, and Lysimachus asked Socrates to take on the task of improving the youths. However, Socrates admitted that he did not know the answers either, and therefore suggested that they all, even the elderly gentlemen, do everything they could to pursue their own education and that of the boys.42

Socrates was continually exhorting people not only to learn but to act virtuously. At the end of the Gorgias Socrates stressed the value and importance of justice, and he exhorted Callicles and all people to search to know the truth and to live as well as they can, practicing every virtue.43 In the Euthydemus Socrates gave the new sophists an example of how to exhort a youth to devote oneself to wisdom and virtue. By argument Socrates showed that everyone desires good things to be happy-not only the possession of good things, but the use of them-and wisdom is what enables us to use all things well, while ignorance leads to bad consequences. Therefore it is actually wisdom which makes all things good, and it is wisdom we should seek in order to be happy and be able to use things well.44

Additional exhortations are found in the Republic. Socrates differentiated the divine and reasoning aspect of the soul from the brutish appetites of the body, and then he encouraged the listeners to use wisdom and justice to govern oneself and harmonize the various levels of the person. The wise will use intelligence and self-control to rule over the lower instincts and attune the harmonies of the body for the sake of the concord in the soul as a true musician does.45 At the conclusion of this work Socrates encouraged everyone to "hold ever to the upward way and pursue righteousness with wisdom always."46

Socrates also urged people to be truthful and to search for the truth in discussion. In Plato's Symposium when Alcibiades was about to give his speech in praise of Socrates, he asked Socrates' permission to speak truthfully. Socrates not only permitted him to be candid, but exhorted him to be truthful.47 In the Phaedo Socrates gave an elaborate explanation of the danger in giving up the search for truth because of much experience with bad arguments. He warned them not to become haters of argument because of having been led astray many times. This could deprive us of the truth and knowledge of reality. Rather we should examine ourselves and make ourselves ready to receive the truth. Although on the day of his death Socrates was searching for the truth for selfish reasons, they should not allow themselves to care more for the opinions of Socrates than for the truth itself so that they all could avoid self-deception.48

Xenophon answered the criticisms that although Socrates was skilled in exhorting men to virtue, he was an incompetent guide to it, by recommending consideration of his searching cross-examinations of those who thought they knew everything and of his daily talks with his friends.49 Therefore let us now turn to an investigation of his various methods of instruction.

Individualized Instruction

Because Socrates was not a formal teacher with regular classes or an organized curriculum, his way of assisting people was spontaneous and specifically suited to the particular needs of the individual as he saw them. According to Xenophon, Socrates expended great effort to make people independent in doing the work for which they were most fit. To enable him to do this he sought

very carefully to discover
what each of his companions knew.
Whatever was appropriate for a gentleman to know
he taught most eagerly,
so far as his own knowledge extended;
if he was not entirely familiar with a subject,
he took them to those who knew.
He also taught them how far a well-educated person
should make oneself familiar with any given subject.50

In Xenophon's Defense of Socrates when Meletus accused Socrates of persuading the young men to obey him instead of their parents, Socrates admitted that it was true as far as education is concerned.51 In the same work Socrates mentioned that the reason Anytus became perturbed and charged Socrates with these crimes was because Socrates advised him not to limit his son's education to the tanning trade.52

Plato also gave examples of how Socrates used to recommend teachers to inquiring learners.In the Laches Socrates had a reputation for spending his time wherever there was excellent study or the pursuit of education. Nicias said Socrates introduced him to a superb music teacher, Damon, for his son.53 In the Protagoras a young Hippocrates asked Socrates to introduce him to the most eminent of the sophists. Socrates questioned Hippocrates to see what it was he hoped to learn from Protagoras. Education is a serious business because one is committing one's soul to another person, hoping to be improved in the process. After Socrates had questioned Hippocrates on these points, they agreed to go together to see.54 When they met with Protagoras, Socrates asked him on behalf of Hippocrates what he would learn and become better in if he associated with the sophist.55

Socrates made it his business to study which young men in Athens showed outstanding potential and what was their educational background. In the Theaetetus he inquired of the geometrician Theodorus whether there are any excellent prospects.56

Once Socrates had engaged in conversation with anyone, young or old, he usually turned the discussion toward the person oneself and how one led one's life. In the Laches Nicias gave Lysimachus a description of what he expected Socrates would do.

You seem to me not to be aware
that whoever comes nearest to Socrates
and enters into conversation with him
is liable to be drawn round and round by him
in the course of the argument-
no matter on what subject it began-not stopping
until one is led into giving an account of oneself,
of how one spends one's days,
and of the kind of life one has lived in the past;
and once one has been entangled in that,
Socrates will not let one go until
he has thoroughly and properly put all one's ways to the test.57

In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates recommended that although the musical entertainment was pleasurable, perhaps they ought to help and please each other. They agreed, and so he suggested they share what each of them considered to be his most valuable knowledge.58 In other words, Socrates tended to direct the activity to some sort of self-knowledge or self-examination.

Socrates often gave individuals advice in regard to certain problems in their lives. Diogenes Laertius gave us several anecdotes. When he observed that Aeschines was suffering from poverty, Socrates suggested he borrow from himself by reducing his meals.59 When his son Lamprocles became violently angry with his mother, Socrates made him feel ashamed of himself. He advised Glaucon, Plato's brother, who was eager to go into politics, not to, because of his lack of experience; but he encouraged Charmides to take it up because he had a talent for politics. He warned Euclides, who was fascinated with eristic arguments, that it would enable him to get along with sophists, but not with people.60

Xenophon gave many examples of how Socrates advised individuals in specific ways. Often his advice was just common sense, which sometimes escaped people somehow. Xenophon also showed us the practical side of Socrates. When Socrates observed that a man became angry because his greeting was not returned, he said, "Ridiculous! You would not have been angry if you had met a man in worse health; and yet you are annoyed because you have come across someone with ruder manners!"61 To a man who grew tired of eating, he suggested, "Stop eating; and you will then find life pleasanter, cheaper, and healthier."62 Obviously, people do not need to be counseled to eat. Another man complained that his water was too warm for drinking and too cold for bathing, even though his servants did not mind it. Socrates reminded him that Epidaurus water was warmer to drink and Oropus water colder for washing, and that apparently this man was harder to please than servants and invalids.63

When a man beat his footman for being gluttonous, foolish, rapacious, and lazy, Socrates asked him to consider whether the slave or the master should bear the responsibility and the punishment.64 When someone was dreading the long walk to Olympia, Socrates reminded him that it is like taking a walk before lunch and another before dinner. Rather than trying to hurry, it could be much more pleasant by planning to leave a day early and then taking it easy.65 Another man was exhausted after a long journey. Socrates inquired who carried the baggage. It was the slave and not the man; he said he never could have done it. Then Socrates wondered whether a trained man should be less capable than his slave.66

Socrates advised an old friend, Eutherus, who had lost everything in the war, to hire himself out in some business to a considerate employer so that he would have something to live on in his old age.67 Socrates' good friend Crito complained to him that unscrupulous men were always taking him to court to get money from him, knowing that he would pay rather than be bothered. Socrates suggested he get a dog to keep the wolves away from his sheep. So they sought out Archedemus, an honest man and good speaker, but poor. Crito made him his friend, giving him a percentage of his corn, oil, wine, wool, and other produce. Archedemus then discovered that Crito's false accusers had committed many crimes. He charged them in court and would not let them off until they dropped their actions against Crito and compensated him. Soon Archedemus became the protector for many of Crito's friends as well.68

Socrates was not afraid to criticize his friends or those in power if he felt they needed it. At one time Critias was among the circle of Socrates and had fallen in love with Euthydemus. He could not keep his hands off of him, and Socrates felt he was leading him astray. Therefore he said in the presence of Euthydemus and others, "Critias seems to have the feelings of a pig: he can no more keep away from Euthydemus than pigs can help rubbing themselves against stones."69 Consequently Critias bore a grudge against Socrates; and when he was in the government of the Thirty, he and Charicles made it illegal "to teach the art of words."70 However, this did not stop Socrates, who seeing that the Thirty were putting to death many respectable citizens, remarked,

It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman
who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad
should not admit that he is a poor cowherd;
but stranger still that a statesman
when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad,
should feel no shame nor think himself a poor statesman.71

Xenophon showed that this comment got to Critias' ears by recording the conversation between Critias and Charicles and Socrates when Socrates was called before them on the law forbidding conversation with the young. Socrates asked if he must abstain from sound or unsound reasoning. They replied that he must not speak at all to anyone under the age of thirty. Socrates then asked if he might inquire from a young person the price of an item or simple directions. These were permissible, but he must keep off his favorite topics of cobblers, builders, workers, and subjects such as justice and holiness. Then Critias added, "And cowherds too: or else you may find the cattle decrease."72

One day Socrates noticed that Aristarchus looked sad, and so he offered to share the burden with him. Aristarchus explained that since the revolution his household was filled with his female relatives-fourteen in the house altogether. They were in danger of starving because nobody was buying property. and he could not get a loan. Socrates pointed out a man who had a large household and was becoming rich. Aristarchus said it was because his family was made up of free citizens with a liberal education, while the other man had slaves with crafts. Socrates asked if this was not disgraceful that the free should be worse off than slaves. Certainly his relatives had learned to make bread, cloaks, shirts, and other items. Socrates pointed out several families that were supported in these ways. He showed how much happier they would be to be doing useful work to support themselves rather than sitting in gloomy idleness, suspicious of each other. Surely this work is honorable. Aristarchus then was able to get a loan with this purpose in mind, and soon the women in his house were busy all day and smiling. Aristarchus returned to Socrates with the good news, but he felt guilty that now he was the only one in the household who ate the bread of idleness. So Socrates told him the story of the dog who was given food by the master even though he provided no wool or lambs or cheese as the sheep did. However, he was their watchdog and keeper who protected them all.73

In his Anabasis Xenophon recorded how he asked for Socrates' advice on what was probably one of the most important decisions of his life-whether he should join the expedition with Cyrus. Socrates suspected that his siding with Cyrus might make him an enemy to Athenians since Cyrus had supported the Lacedaemonians in their war against Athens. Therefore he advised Xenophon to consult the Delphic oracle concerning the journey. However, Xenophon only asked to what gods he should sacrifice and pray in order to have a successful journey. When Xenophon reported back to Socrates, he criticized the young man for deciding himself to go rather than first asking the oracle whether or not he should go at all. Under the circumstances Socrates accepted the result and advised, "However, since you did put the question in that way, you must do all that the god directed."74

According to Xenophon, Socrates gave Aristippus lengthy counseling on his pleasurable way of life. After showing that rulers must be trained in self-control more than those who are ruled, Socrates asked Aristippus in which group he placed himself. Aristippus admitted that he had no desire to be a ruler. Then Socrates asked him if he preferred the life of the ruled nations of the world. Aristippus had no taste for slavery, but chose a middle path through liberty, which leads to happiness. However, Socrates was not certain that he could avoid the world and the strong who oppress the weak. Aristippus declared that he owed no allegiance to any state, but he was a stranger in every land. Yet again, this was no proof against injury because he did not have the protection or rank of citizenship. Socrates asked him how masters treat servants who do no work yet want luxuries. Aristippus answered that he himself made their lives a burden until they obeyed. Nonetheless he felt compulsory punishment was no better and less foolish than voluntary suffering.

Socrates, however, pointed out the rewards of using one's will to work hard and accomplish certain prizes, such as winning friends, subduing enemies, making oneself capable in body and soul of managing one's household well, of helping friends, and serving one's country. These could bring joy, contentment, praise, and honor. He quoted Hesiod about how evil is easily found, but it takes hard work to become virtuous; though once the long and steep path is climbed, on top the way becomes easy. Then Socrates narrated the long allegory by Prodicus of Heracles meeting two women on the road-Virtue and Vice. Vice offered immediate pleasures, but Virtue warned of their shallowness and urged Heracles toward a life of heroism which offered more lasting happiness. Finally Socrates advised, "Aristippus, it would be worthwhile for you to think about these things and try to consider well the life that is ahead of you."75 Aristippus turned out to be the pre-Epicurean of the Socratics.

In his Symposium Xenophon told us that Critobulus was given by his father into the care of Socrates so that he might be improved.76 In the Oikonomikos Socrates helped Critobulus to get an education in household management. Socrates admitted that he himself did not have experience in this field, but he could direct Critobulus to someone who was especially skilled in this art. In fact Socrates declared that he had made it a study of his to discover "who are the greatest masters of various sciences to be found in Athens."77 In this way he had directed many young men to teachers who had been successful in their pursuits. Socrates suggested that Critobulus study exactly how successful men conduct their business, just as someone might study tragedies and comedies to learn to be a playwright. Critobulus had eagerly enjoyed many plays and seen successful businessmen, but he had not made a careful study to see precisely how they handle things. Socrates said that the management of a household depended a great deal on the wife, and the skill of the wife depended on how the husband treated her. Socrates offered to take Critobulus to see Aspasia who had more knowledge in this matter than Socrates. Usually the income was a result of the man's efforts, but expenditures were often controlled by the wife. If they both cooperated and did well, the estate increased. Socrates added, "If you think you want to know about other branches of knowledge, I suppose I can show you people who handle themselves creditably in any one of them."78

In his recollections of Socrates, Xenophon gave us a detailed case study of how Socrates began an educational process with Euthydemus. Xenophon presented it as a typical example of Socrates' "methods of dealing with those who thought they had received the best education, and prided themselves on wisdom."79 Euthydemus had collected many books which contained the wisdom of the ages, and he was confident in the abilities of speech and action. Socrates observed that he did not enter the market-place because of his youth, but he sat in the saddler's shop. Therefore Socrates went to this shop with some of his companions. Someone asked whether Themistocles became great by natural ability or by studying with a wise man. To get Euthydemus thinking, Socrates said, "If in the minor arts great achievement is impossible without competent masters, surely it is absurd to imagine that the art of statesmanship, the greatest of all accomplishments, comes to a person of its own accord."80

On another occasion, Euthydemus was reluctant to join the circle of Socrates or to show any admiration for his wisdom. Socrates told the group that when Euthydemus was of an age he would not hesitate to offer the Athenian Assembly advice on some policy. Then Socrates satirized Euthydemus' attitude of not wanting to be indebted to anyone for his knowledge by reciting the speech Euthydemus would give. He explained how he had never learned anything from anyone, but he would recommend whatever pops into his head. Socrates made it even more humorous by adapting it to the office of public physician. He had never studied medicine, but he would like to be appointed physician so that he could try to learn by experimenting on them. This gave them all a good laugh. Having gotten his attention, Euthydemus still remained quiet; so Socrates commented how strange it is that although musicians require teachers and practice, those who would be good public speakers and politicians assume they need no training or study even though their task is more difficult.81

When Euthydemus became more tolerant of his conversation and attentive, Socrates decided to go see him alone. Finding him in the saddler's shop one day, Socrates asked him about his collection of books. Socrates was pleased that he was pursuing wisdom, and asked him what type of goodness he was looking for in these books. Was it the skill of a physician, architect, mathematician, astronomer, or rhapsodist? Euthydemus sought none of these. What he wanted was the excellence which makes a politician, manager, ruler, and benefactor of humanity. Socrates called this the royal art, and asked if it required justice. Euthydemus agreed that it does, and he claimed that he was a just man. Socrates proposed to test his knowledge of justice by making two lists with the just things in one column and the unjust in another column. They began by placing lying, deceit, mischief, and selling into slavery under the heading of injustice. Then Socrates asked him about the case of a general who did each of these things to an unjust and hostile state. Euthydemus admitted that then they would be just.
So Socrates proposed they revise their classification: that it is just to do such things to enemies, but unjust to friends towards whom one should be scrupulously honest. When Euthydemus agreed, Socrates gave examples of a general encouraging his men with a lie, a father deceiving his son by pretending the medicine he refused to take was food, and the friend who stole the sword from a man who was depressed and suicidal. Euthydemus again had to admit that straightforwardness with friends is not always right. Euthydemus was losing confidence in his answers, but he still held that intentional deception is more unjust than unintentional deception. By the analogy of knowing letters, Socrates showed that intentional deception is more knowledgeable, and because ignorance of what is good and just is slavish, Euthydemus was wrong again. Through this process of refutation, Euthydemus was brought to realize his own ignorance.

By the gods, Socrates, I did certainly believe that
I was a student of a philosophy that would provide me
with the best education in all things needed
by one who would be a gentleman.
But you can imagine my dismay when I realize
that in spite of all my trouble I am not even able
to answer a question about things I really ought to know,
and still have no other way
that will lead to my improvement.82

Now Socrates could bring up the importance of self-knowledge by mentioning the Delphic inscription: "Know yourself." Socrates asked Euthydemus if he paid attention to this and tried to consider who he is, but Euthydemus assumed he already knew or else he could hardly know anything else. Socrates suggested it might be helpful to know his own abilities and uses just as one who buys a horse wants to know whether it is docile or stubborn, strong or weak, fast or slow, and how useful it is as a horse. Euthydemus realized that because he did not know his own abilities, he must be ignorant of himself. Then Socrates explained the value of self-knowledge.

Is it not clear too that on account of self-knowledge
people come to much good,
and on account of self-deception to much harm?
For those who know themselves,
know what things are suitable for themselves
and discern their own abilities and limitations.
And by doing what they understand,
they get what they want and prosper;
by refraining from attempting what they do not understand,
they make no mistakes and avoid failure.
And consequently through their ability to test other people too,
and through their relationships with others
they get what is good and watch out for what is bad.
Those who do not know and are deceived
in their estimate of their own abilities,
are in the same condition with regard to
other people and other human affairs.
They know neither what they want, nor what they do,
nor those with whom they have relationships;
but mistaken in all these respects,
they miss the good and fall into the bad.
Furthermore, those who know what they do
win fame and honor by attaining their goals.
Their equals are glad to have dealings with them;
and those who miss their objectives look to them for counsel,
look to them for protection,
rest on them their hopes of better things,
and for all these reasons love them above all others.
But those who do not know what they do,
choose badly, fail in what they attempt and,
besides incurring direct loss and punishment,
they earn contempt through their failures,
make themselves ridiculous,
and live in dishonor and humiliation.83

The same is true of communities if they are to solve effectively their problems and relate well to other communities.

Now Euthydemus recognized the importance of self-knowledge and asked Socrates how he might begin the process of self-examination. Socrates asked him if he knew the difference between what is good and what is bad. Euthydemus assumed that he did, and stated to Socrates that health is good and sickness is bad. However, Socrates cited cases of where the healthy have had to fight in fatal wars while the sick stayed home. Since the healthy had also had success in adventures, we could not say that health necessarily leads to good or bad fortune. Euthydemus suggested that wisdom is always a good thing, but Socrates mentioned how Daedalus, Palamedes, and others were enslaved, killed, and persecuted on account of their wisdom. Happiness would be good except that its elements of beauty, strength, wealth, glory, and other like qualities have been sources of trouble for mankind. Since Euthydemus is planning to go into democratic government, Socrates asked him if he knew the people, rich and poor. Euthydemus said the poor did not have enough to pay for what they want, while the rich had more than enough. However, Socrates pointed out that some who had little could still save while others no matter how much they had could not live within their means. Finally Euthydemus realized his stupidity and decided he had better not say anything more. Thus he went away dejected and disgusted with himself.84

Xenophon mentioned that many people who were brought to this state, never went back to Socrates, and they were regarded as stupid by him. However, Euthydemus realized that he would never amount to anything unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. From then on he never left him and began to emulate some of his practices. "Socrates, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent."85 This indicates that the negative cross-examination, though perhaps the most interesting, was not the limit of Socrates' educating, as he went on to give positive teachings as well.

A very similar case study is found in the Alcibiades I which has been attributed to Plato. In this dialog Socrates announced his love for Alcibiades now that he had grown to manhood and was ready to listen. Socrates correctly diagnosed Alcibiades' political ambitions and offered to help educate the young man so that he can attain his goals. He simply asked Alcibiades to answer the questions put to him. Socrates began by inquiring whether Alcibiades had the knowledge needed for him to give good advice to the Athenians. Alcibiades claimed to know what is better and what is just, but under Socrates' cross-examination it became apparent that he did not. Since Alcibiades was the one answering the questions, the admissions he was making were coming from himself of his own free will. Socrates even offered him the choice of asking or answering, but they agreed that by answering he was being persuaded by himself instead of another.86

Soon Alcibiades too was in complete confusion, and Socrates explained to him that it was not because he was simply ignorant, but because he thought he knew when he did not. Again, this is the dangerous self-deception which leads one to make mistakes. When Alcibiades discovered that there were no wise politicians who had been able to make others wise, he figured he might not need to be educated. This immediately aroused Socrates' concern for his friend and his desire to see him improve, so he motivated Alcibiades by appealing to his tremendous ambition and comparing the ideal education of the Persian prince to Alcibiades' predicament. Now Alcibiades was ready to learn and asked Socrates for assistance. Socrates recommended that they take counsel with each other so that they might become as good as they could.87

To improve himself, a person must first know what it is one wishes to improve. By asking him questions Socrates showed Alcibiades that it was not his possessions which he used, nor even his body which he, the self, also used, but the soul which is implied in the Delphic statement: "Know yourself." The crafts of physical objects and even the arts of the physician and trainer which care for the body are not the science of self-knowledge. The true lover of Alcibiades was not the one who loved the body, but the one who loved his soul and sought to help him become virtuous, and that was Socrates. How could one know oneself? Socrates suggested the analogy of the eye looking at the seeing part of the eye (its virtue). Therefore the soul should look at the virtuous and divine part of itself, namely wisdom and justice. By acting wisely and justly, he would be doing the will of God; or by looking in the mirror of the divine he would know himself and his own good, would act rightly and be happy. The conclusion was that Alcibiades should seek not power but virtue in order to accomplish his goals.88

Socrates demonstrated his sharp perception of other people in the Phaedrus when he asked the young man about the speech he had heard from Lysias. Phaedrus pretended that he was not able to remember or repeat the speech, but Socrates saw right through him. "O Phaedrus! If I don't know Phaedrus, I have forgotten myself."89 Socrates went on to describe how Phaedrus must have asked for the speech to be repeated several times, and then if he could, got hold of a written copy, making every attempt to memorize it. Then meeting another lover of discourse, he hoped to practice on him, but Socrates would have none of that and suggested to Phaedrus that he pull the speech out from under his cloak and read it aloud. Socrates was not fooled by words, but he was interested in discussing what was of particular interest to the other person.

In Plato's Symposium they all agreed to give a speech on love. However, after Agathon's speech and before his own, Socrates could hardly refrain from questioning Agathon on some particular points about love (Eros) being the love or desire of something one does not apparently have. Therefore love cannot simply be the good and beautiful as Agathon suggested. Agathon admitted that he could not refute Socrates, but Socrates corrected this by reminding him that Socrates could easily be refuted, but the truth could not be.90 Socrates did not like to miss an opportunity to help an individual clarify his ideas.

In the Theaetetus the young man by that name was described by Theodorus as having similar facial features to Socrates and being very quick to learn. When Socrates met Theaetetus, he immediately began questioning him on these points. However, since Theodorus was probably not an expert on faces, as he was not a painter, he passed quickly over this to examine Theaetetus on his learning ability and virtue.91

In the Meno there are several examples of how Socrates gave special attention to individuals and their interests and abilities. At the beginning Socrates declared that he did not know what virtue is; in fact he had not yet found anyone who did know. Meno suggested the sophist Gorgias whom Socrates heard also; but Socrates could not recall his knowing what virtue is. Since Meno admitted that he shared the views of Gorgias, Socrates suggested that they not deal with Gorgias, as he was not there.92 This way Socrates was able to relate directly with Meno and his awareness. Socrates further demonstrated his ability to work with various kinds of individuals by helping a slave boy to learn how to double the area of a square by making another square. This showed Meno that they ought to inquire into what they did not know. However, they still did not know the nature of virtue. Yet Meno was now more interested in whether virtue could be taught or not. Socrates would prefer to first discover what virtue is, but he decided not to try to control Meno and yielded to Meno's desire to pursue this other question.93 When Anytus arrived on the scene, Socrates included him in the discussion by asking for his advice in finding a teacher of virtue for Meno. The conversation got around to the sophists, whom Anytus despises. Socrates asked him what experience with them he had to support his strong opinions against them. Anytus said he had had no dealings at all with them. After Socrates had made this point clear, he returned to the question of finding a teacher of virtue.94

Even during the time of his trial, Socrates could still put aside his own personal difficulties in order to discuss a question of concern to another person.In the Euthyphro Socrates was on his way to court when he discovered that Euthyphro was bringing a charge against his own father for unholy murder. Socrates surmised that Euthyphro must be an expert on religion and asked to become his student so that he could learn what holiness is.95 Socrates also suggested that Euthyphro present his case to him so that he could prepare for his speech before the judges.96 One might think Socrates had nothing else on his mind even though he was about to be tried for a capital crime!

Even in defending himself in court, Socrates endeavored to instruct Meletus by asking him how one should properly care for the youth and who does it. Also, if he corrupted them willingly, what possible motive could he have to injure? And if he corrupted them unwillingly, then he was in need, not of punishment, but of instruction so that he could consciously change his ways. Here Socrates demonstrated that he believed that education was the solution to ethical problems. On the religious question Socrates again concentrated on exactly what Meletus' conceptions were. He discovered that Meletus believed that he was an atheist. This idea he easily refuted by showing that Meletus was formally charging him with believing in new spiritual beings, an obvious contradiction of atheism.97

When Crito visited him in prison, Socrates seemed to be less concerned about his own fate than his friend was. Crito had come to help Socrates escape, but Socrates immediately focused on the ethical question of whether it would be right for him to try to escape. He could have said yes or no, but instead he debated the issue of concern to Crito with him. The process of inquiry then became instructional as many points were laid out which apparently Crito had not considered.98

As in the case of Alcibiades, Socrates could help to motivate another person to learn if he thought that the person could especially benefit from education. Xenophon recalled how valuable the companionship of Socrates was, even in his light moods as well as when he was serious. Socrates often said that he was in love with someone; but Xenophon was quick to point out that it was not with the outwardly beautiful but with those whose souls excelled in goodness and who were quick and eager to learn. He used different approaches for different individuals. To those who felt they had all the natural ability they needed without learning, he explained that the greater the natural gifts are, the greater is the need and value of education, just as the spirited thoroughbred horse requires the most training and is worse off without it. To the wealthy who thought money could replace education, he said,

Only a fool can think it possible to distinguish
between beneficial things and harmful things without learning:
only a fool can think that without distinguishing these
he will get all he wants by means of his wealth
and be able to do what is useful:
only a nitwit can think that
without the ability to do what is useful
he is doing well and has made good
or sufficient provision for his life:
only a nitwit can think that
by his wealth alone without knowledge
he will appear to be good at something,
or will enjoy a good reputation
without appearing to be good at anything in particular.99

In Plato's Lysis Socrates showed that a free person is usually only allowed to act freely in areas where one has knowledge and wisdom. Although Lysis was a free man, his parents did not trust him to handle many of the household affairs and possessions which they did trust to their slaves. However, in the areas in which Lysis had been educated, such as reading, writing, and music, he was the one they called upon. Socrates explained that even the prince of Asia would not be trusted by the great king to meddle with the soup or his own injured eyes in preference to a knowledgeable cook or physician. Thus knowledge and wisdom are the real license for doing things, and are what enable a person to be useful and beneficial to one's friends. Consequently Lysis realized that he needed to learn.100
Socrates then got the young man to thinking by refuting all the different understandings they could think of concerning what friendship is.101 This process of getting people to doubt whether what they assumed they knew is really true is a noted characteristic of the Socratic method. In another dialog Meno declared that Socrates was like the sting-ray which paralyzed his consciousness so that he could no longer define a concept such as virtue about which he had made many good speeches. Socrates agreed he paralyzed only if he added that he himself was thrown into doubt through this process. However, Socrates was still willing to go on inquiring and examining to see if they could discover the nature of what they were studying.102 The cross-examination, therefore, could serve as a motivator for further study.
Sometimes Socrates playfully encouraged others to study with him or search for greater wisdom by saying that he had a charm which he applied to cure the soul by fair words. In the Charmides Socrates explained that he was told by the Thracian king Zalmoxis not to cure the body without first using the charm to cure the soul; for if the soul is self-controlled and balanced, then the body can easily be brought back to health. Thus, to cure Charmides' headache Socrates must first charm his soul. After a lengthy cross-examination on temperance, or self-control, Socrates admitted that they were not understanding it fully and regretted he was unable to use the charm. However, Charmides was stimulated by the discussion and requested that Socrates charm him every day of his life.103 In the Phaedo Socrates made good his claim mentioned in the Charmides that the charm could even bring the awareness of immortality. When Simmias and Cebes were fearful that the soul might be dissolved by the wind, Socrates suggested that they sing charms to each other every day until they charm away the fear. Cebes asked where they could find such a good singer of charms now that Socrates was leaving them. Socrates recommended that they search in various countries regardless of the expense and that they also should seek among themselves, for they might be more able to do this than others.104 Even when Socrates was about to die, he was still encouraging others to seek the good life.

Questions and Answers

Socrates is famous for his method of asking questions in especially effective ways. Apparently he began to learn from the process of inquiry at a very young age. Although it was written a long time after its historical setting, Plato's Parmenides shows us a young Socrates questioning Zeno to learn what he meant in his writings. After listening to Zeno read his treatise through, he asked him to repeat his first point. Socrates then inquired of Zeno to clarify exactly the implication of what he had written-that the many are really one. Socrates then brought up the idea of abstractions and that things participate in them. He wondered whether the abstract ideas or intellectual conceptions could be united and separated as are visible objects. The respected Parmenides complimented Socrates on his skill in argument.105 Parmenides supported the notion of abstract ideas as being useful and necessary for carrying on arguments. Parmenides recommended that Socrates get further training in argument through testing a hypothesis by looking at what the results would be if it was true, or if it was not true. Socrates asked Parmenides to give him a demonstration of how this works.106

For Socrates the starting point was the realization that he did not know, and from there he could search for knowledge. In the Cratylus Hermogenes expected Socrates to convince him of the natural correctness of names, but Socrates reminded him, "You forget what I said a while ago, that I did not know, but would join you in looking for the truth."107 Realizing the difficulty during their discussion of finding the origin of names, especially foreign words, Socrates still felt it was worthwhile to pursue the scientific knowledge of names. After he gave his views, he asked to learn from Cratylus.108

In the Charmides Socrates reminded Critias twice that he did not know the answers to the questions, and this was why he inquired-for his own sake as well as others'. He suggested to Critias that they not be concerned about whether Critias or Socrates was being refuted, but rather: "Give the argument itself your attention, and observe what will become of it under the test of refutation."109 Thus he endeavored not to let personalities get in the way.

In the Theaetetus Socrates encouraged the young man to attempt to define knowledge. He looked upon Theaetetus as being pregnant and himself as a midwife. Socrates described midwives as being older and past child-bearing but not barren; they know better than anyone who is pregnant, can arouse labor pains or calm them, can perform an abortion if desirable, and are skillful matchmakers. How did Socrates' art compare to this? Socrates' patients sometimes gave birth to real ideas and other times to mere images. He practiced upon people rather than bodies. The most important aspect of his art was testing whether the mind of the young man was bringing forth false images or real and true children. Socrates considered himself to be sterile in wisdom and agreed with the criticism of him that he questioned others but did not answer himself. He said that God required him to be a midwife but had never allowed him to bring forth. Although he himself was not wise or inventive, those who associated with him, even the ones that seemed ignorant, as God was gracious to them, made wonderful progress. He said,

And it is clear that they do this,
not because they have ever learned anything from me,
but because they have found in themselves
many beautiful things and have brought them forth.
But the delivery is due to God and me.110

Evidence of this is that many had left Socrates, fallen in with evil companions, and ended up raising their offspring so badly that they lost them. After having explained his art, Socrates offered his assistance to Theaetetus.

Now I have said all this to you at such length, good sir,
because I suspect that you, as you yourself believe,
are in pain because you are pregnant with something within you.
Apply then to me, remembering that I am the son of a midwife
and have myself a midwife's gifts,
and do your best to answer the questions I ask as I ask them.
And if, when I have examined any of the things you say,
it should prove that I think it is a mere image and not real,
and therefore quietly take it from you and throw it away,
do not be angry as women are
when they are deprived of their first offspring.
For many before this have got into such a state of mind
towards me that they are actually ready to bite me,
if I take some foolish notion away from them;
and they do not believe that I do this in kindness,
since they are far from knowing that no god is unkind to mortals,
and that I do not do this from unkindness either,
and that it is quite out of the question
for me to allow an imposture or to destroy the true.
And so, Theaetetus, begin again
and try to tell us what knowledge is.
And never say that you are unable to do so;
for if God wills it and gives you courage, you will be able.111

After Socrates gave a long account of some of the theories of Protagoras, Theaetetus questioned his ability to understand whether Socrates was preaching these things because he believed them or whether he was testing Theaetetus. Socrates had to remind him that he knew nothing of these things, but that he was explaining these philosophical theories in order to help Theaetetus bring his own opinions to light. When this was accomplished, then they could test them to see if they were false or real.112 As Socrates questioned Theaetetus the idea was brought forth that perception is knowledge. Theodorus jumped in and asked Socrates if this was wrong. Again Socrates denied being able to make such a judgment, and he said that he was only able to extract an argument from the other person.113 Socrates would gladly question Theodorus, but he declined to answer. Not wishing to go against his will, Socrates resumed the questioning of Theaetetus on Protagoras' theories.

Then Socrates indicated that Theodorus was really the most capable of answering the questions at this point, and just as Critias had been drawn into the argument in the Charmides, Theodorus was no longer able to avoid giving an account of his ideas. Socrates got Theodorus to agree to propositions which contradicted the theory of Protagoras. They then looked at several other ideas and theories. Throughout, the responses of Theodorus were quite short, usually indicating assent to Socrates' statements and occasionally asking for a clarification, making a comment, or indicating his desire for which direction the argument should take. Almost all of the substance of the ideas was spoken by Socrates, but he continually checked at each step that the answerer was in agreement with propositions. The discussion became so stimulating that Theaetetus requested that Socrates go into the question that all things are at rest. However, Socrates surprised Theodorus by not eagerly attacking this question. He decided rather to return to questioning Theaetetus on knowledge since they have set this as their task, and the other subject was too large to discuss in passing.114

The first book of the Republic shows Socrates asking questions in his inimitable style. Early on we have an example of Socrates asking open-ended questions rather than his usual leading questions as in an argument or refutation. He wished to learn from those older, and he asked Cephalus about his experience. Here he was not looking for assent or a particular response, but he wanted to know if the gentleman found old age hard to bear. Pleased with the value of the response, Socrates decided to draw him out by asking if his happiness was due to his wealth. Then he asked him what he felt had been the greatest benefit he had gotten from his wealth-again a personal question not calling for only one universally right answer. Cephalus felt that wealth was best for a person who lives in justice and piety. At this point Socrates shifted the discussion from Cephalus' personal experience to a search for a definition of what justice is. The classical definition of Simonides that justice is "paying back what is due" was refuted by Socrates by means of a couple of exceptional cases. Cephalus easily agreed, apparently having no taste for argument. Polemarchus did not agree and took over the argument as Cephalus left.115 By asking Polemarchus short questions and gaining his assent Socrates was able to get him to concur in the refutation of Simonides' proposition.

At this point the sophist Thrasymachus had gotten very upset and blasted Socrates for his folly and demanded that he answer instead of ask questions and declare what his definition of justice is. When Socrates admitted that he could not, Thrasymachus accused him of getting out of it by using his typical irony. Now Thrasymachus had asked for an answer which did not mention duty or advantage or profit or gain or interest, and Socrates complained that this was an unfair request to prohibit what might be the true answers. Socrates asked how could he answer when he knew nothing; but since Thrasymachus professed to know, he should tell the others what he knew. Therefore Thrasymachus gave his definition of justice, and Socrates questioned him on it. After Socrates had refuted Thrasymachus' conception by means of the example of artists and rulers who do what is in the interest of those whom they serve, Thrasymachus took another tack by making a long speech. He then wanted to leave, but Socrates and the others urged him to stay so that these ideas he had just expressed could be tested. Socrates indicated that Thrasymachus must not care whether their lives were better or worse from not understanding his points; they requested that he stay and share his knowledge with them.116 In this way Socrates was able to keep the discussion going, and eventually through his cross-examination technique he refuted all of the points that Thrasymachus was able to offer. Again he used the analogy of the arts, and he also showed that complete injustice is chaotic and destructive by showing what would happen if justice and cooperation were completely absent. At the conclusion of the argument Socrates still felt that he knew nothing about what justice actually is, but at least Thrasymachus had become calm and was no longer angry.117

Xenophon also showed us Socrates asking questions. In his Symposium Socrates humorously demonstrated his value as a procurer by asking if the eyes, voice, and words could not create either friendliness or animosity. Also does not the procurer make people attractive, not only to one but to many? Each of Socrates' questions was answered quite simply by "Certainly."118 Here is another example of Socrates merely gaining assent by his questions. A little later in the beauty contest, Socrates and Critobulus exchange questions and answers as they compared their features. The questions of Critobulus were simply asking for information, while those of Socrates were asking for agreement on the point he was making about the different features being beautiful because they are functional. Socrates won the argument but lost the contest.119

In Plato's Alcibiades I Socrates declared that he did not have the gift of making long speeches; but if Alcibiades was willing to answer his questions, he would show him his need for education. Socrates then began the step-by-step questioning which was designed to demonstrate to Alcibiades that his ambitions and beliefs were not supported by knowledge.120 Socrates got Alcibiades to see that he probably did not know the difference between justice and injustice. Alcibiades once prefaced his reply with the words: "By what you say." Socrates therefore labored to show him that he, Alcibiades, was the one actually making the statements because he was answering and Socrates was only asking. Alcibiades agreed that he would more likely be persuaded by answering and saying "the case is so," than he would be if Socrates were making the statements.121 This is a simple but important key to the Socratic method. Socrates did not preach to the listener or attempt to impose his will on one. By asking questions, however leading they were, he left it open to the other person to exercise one's own will freely by choosing to agree or not. Thus it became difficult for the person to deny the conclusions since he has agreed to each step of the process. Of course Socrates had to have the ability to adapt to whatever response the person made.

In the Greater Hippias Socrates cross-examined the famous sophist on the idea of beauty. This is the subject upon which Hippias had been discoursing to many of the young men. Since he claimed to know what beauty is, Socrates was most eager to find out also by questioning him. Hippias gave examples of beautiful things, but Socrates was looking for the essence or definition of beauty itself. Each answer that Hippias gave, Socrates was able to show to be insufficient or unnecessary to cases of beauty. Finally Socrates suggested they consider a more universal concept such as "the appropriate." This was shown to give only the appearance of beauty. Under the examination Hippias felt confused but declared that if he could meditate alone on it he knew he could find it with perfect accuracy. However, Socrates wanted him to discover it in his presence, so he kept asking him questions. After the refutations had exhausted Hippias' ideas, Socrates began to offer suggestions; the questions became even more leading and the answers shorter. However, even Socrates' own ideas were not able to stand alone as definitions of beauty under his cross-examination. No matter how close each concept came to the beautiful, Socrates found some difference; and since it was somehow different, it could not be the same. Or again he brought up cases to show that X is not always in every way beautiful.122 The continually destructive character of these refutations had perhaps led some to question the authenticity of this dialog. The method of argument was very Socratic even though the intent seemed more sophistical than the ultimate positivity or quest for what is truly beneficial to the person which usually characterized Socrates' searching.

Plato in the Protagoras showed us Socrates meeting with the greatest of the sophists. He asked Protagoras the open-ended question of whether virtue could be taught, and allowed him to respond in the form of a fable.123 After the speech Socrates requested that he be allowed to ask some questions concerning the points of Protagoras. He had often noticed that some public speakers were like books in that they were not able to answer questions about what they said. However, Protagoras could do both; so he proceeded to question him.124 As Socrates began to pin down the great master, Protagoras went off into a lengthy answer to explain his point and was cheered by the listeners. Socrates, however, ironically claimed to have a bad memory, and requested that Protagoras keep his answers short. When Protagoras refused, Socrates indicated his reluctance to alter his method at this point and was going to leave. Before going, however, Socrates made it clear that he was not good at long speeches, and since Protagoras claimed to be able to do both, he ought to adapt to Socrates' style. Finally they agreed, and Socrates offered to answer or ask the questions. When Protagoras questioned him on a point from a poem, Socrates demonstrated his ability to answer as well as ask the questions. Socrates was not fooled by the apparent contradiction and was able to elucidate the difference. He also went on to explain his interpretation of the poem by Pittacus and its relation to the work of Simonides.125

We find Socrates again requesting short answers from another eminent sophist in the Gorgias. Gorgias was famous as a rhetorician, and it was on the subject of rhetoric that Socrates cross-examined him. Knowing his tendency to make speeches, Socrates asked him if he was willing to keep his answers short. As they proceeded, Socrates said he was pleased with the brevity of Gorgias' answers. He also indicated that he was very careful not to take for granted what the answers of the other person would be; but he always waited for the response and occasionally repeated a simple question, not to gain a contradiction, but so that the argument could move consecutively. He did not wish to get into a habit of anticipating the other's thoughts, but he preferred that the person develop one's own views in one's own way, whatever they may be.126 This openness in Socrates was also important and was sometimes overlooked, perhaps because the written texts do not change like live situations.

When Socrates observed that there were contradictions in what Gorgias was saying about rhetoric, he checked with the man to see if he, like Socrates, really was willing and happy to be refuted if he happened to be in error, because he did not want to arouse any personal hostility or jealousy. After Gorgias agreed, Socrates showed the inconsistency that rhetoric can be used rightly or wrongly and yet was also a science of right and wrong. Gorgias did not react to this, but Polus became quite upset. Therefore Socrates continued the discussion with him.127 Finally Socrates ran up against the challenge of Callicles and praised him for his knowledge, good-will, and outspokenness, since these would enable them to have an intelligent, good, and effective discussion. At the same time Socrates expressed his ironic modesty as he indicated that any error he made was due to ignorance. When Callicles said that Socrates was being ironic, he did not agree and referred to Callicles' description of him as taking philosophy too far.128 For Socrates his position of modesty was an honest one, though this view was not shared by others.

Also in the Gorgias Socrates showed his ability to answer questions and give substantive ideas. When Polus chose to ask rather than answer, he asked Socrates the same question he had been examining Gorgias on: what is rhetoric? Socrates categorized it as an experience of flattery rather than art, and went on to show its relationship to other flatteries and analogous arts. Socrates explained that it is a mere flattery rather than an art because it does not contain the knowledge of the good as justice does. Socrates apologized for making a lengthy explanation, but it was rather clear who was in control of the discussion because of greater knowledge and insight. Although Polus was the one asking the questions, he did not have the Socratic skill.129

Socrates was usually much more careful about the statements he made than were the people with whom he talked. He focused on the truth, as when Polus asked him what kind of an art rhetoric is, he replied, "To say the truth, Polus, it is not an art at all, in my opinion."130 An unwatchful person might have just answered what type before checking to see whether it is in fact an art. In the Euthyphro we find another small indication of this carefulness. In clarifying what Euthyphro's definition of holiness is, Euthyphro agreed, but he added the phrase, "If you like to call it so." Socrates replied, "I do not like to call it so, if it is not true."131 Socrates admitted that the questioner must follow the answerer, but he did not have to agree that what he said is true.

Sometimes Socrates distinguished the precise aspects of a certain case in order to clarify an ambiguity. When Alcibiades held that some noble things are bad such as when men rescue their friends in battle but are killed or wounded. He showed through questioning that the noble courage is good, but the resulting carnage is bad. The event is complex rather than simple and has good in it because of the courage and bad in it because of the result; but that does not make the noble itself bad.132

In the Euthydemus Socrates' method of questioning was contrasted to the sophistical tricks of two neophytes in argument. Euthydemus and Dionysodorus played with the young Cleinias by refuting him whether he took either side of a question. Concerned about his young friend, Socrates explained how they did this by equivocating on two different meanings of the same word. He counseled that these tricks are a sporting game but they do not lead to wisdom.133 After some more of the verbal juggling, Socrates entreated the two men to display some serious reasoning. To further encourage them he gave them another example. (He had already demonstrated an argument exhorting people toward wisdom.) In this argument Socrates continued to pursue the theme that knowledge should be useful.134 In this dialog Plato seemed to be endeavoring to show that the method of Socrates sought positive values and was not to be confused with the sophistry of his imitators. When Euthydemus and his brother tried to play their game on Socrates, he found himself attempting to clarify the meaning of their questions or the corresponding meaning of his answers in order to avoid getting into ambiguities. However, they complained when he did not fall into their traps. He finally agreed to submit to their game, but the value of the results was rather ridiculous.135
Although Socrates did not claim to be skilled at making speeches, he would occasionally give an extended discourse. In the Phaedrus he considered himself an amateur speaker, but he finally yielded to this friend's request for a rhetorical display. Socrates found the theme that the non-lover is better than the lover for the beloved to be a repugnant idea, and he was so embarrassed that he covered his head in shame.136 Later he redeemed himself by discoursing on the madness of love and its benefits. In the Protagoras after he claimed that he was not good at long speeches, Socrates gave a lengthy interpretation of the poems by Simonides and Pittacus.137 Socrates' humility about making speeches may have merely indicated a preference for the discussion method. There are many examples of different kinds of speeches that he gave. In the Theaetetus we see Socrates mocking up a speech for the late Protagoras in which he pretended to talk to Socrates and the others.138 In the Menexenus we even find him giving a patriotic oration which he said he learned from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles.139 However, since the speech surveyed the history of Athens down to 386 BC, thirteen years after Socrates' death, the authenticity of the dialog is obviously suspect. In the next section we will examine other speeches of Socrates which utilize particular styles such as myth, allegory, etc.

Socrates was also eager to hear the speeches of others as in the Phaedrus where he allowed the young man to manipulate him just so that he could hear the speech of Lysias. In the Timaeus, which is supposed to be on the day after the discussion in the Republic, Socrates welcomed a discourse from Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates.140 In this dialog Timaeus gave a very long lecture on cosmology, and in the Critias Socrates granted his friend by that name indulgence to trace the history of Atlantis.141 The text of his account broke off in the middle, and there is no record of a speech by Hermocrates.

How Socrates Taught (Continued)

Poetry and Metaphor

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato

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