Socrates (Woodruff, PJS)
Socrates' defenders took pains to clear their hero on both of Aristophanes' charges, but, at the same time, they revealed a number of features that Socrates shares with sophists. Although Socrates is in a class by himself, he is more like a sophist such as Protagoras than he is like any other kind of intellectual figure of the period. Readers of this volume should be well prepared to support their own verdicts on the similarity of Socrates' positions to those of sophists. I will state my verdicts firmly, but I must admit at the start that most of them are controversial.
2.1. Teaching for fees. Socrates did not teach for fees. He denied doing so in his defense speech, and his enemies evidently did not contest the denial. Socrates was content to be poor; his threadbare style of living has been a kind of model for intellectuals ever since, from his immediate followers through Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford to today's dressed-down professors.
2.2. Traveling. Socrates stayed at home, rarely venturing even beyond the city walls. except when he was on military service (Phaedrus 230d). Unlike some sophists, he had no interest in the variety of cultures, and, because he did not teach for fees, he had no need to travel. Moreover, the mission he took himself to have been given by the gods kept him in Athens (Apology 23b, 29d).
2.3. Employing the art of words. Socrates declines to take part in several aspects of public speaking as taught by sophists, but he engages actively in others.
Socrates will not accept long speeches from his partners in discussion (Protagoras 334cd, Gorgias 449b, 461e-462a). It follows that he will not take part in the balanced opposition of speeches taught by many sophists, and illustrated by poets and historians of the period (see 1.3 above). A playwright of the period who took on the subject of the Crito would have written it through a series of paired speeches, balanced as to length and strength of argument. Plato never writes such a scene. Crito is not capable of a full-dress argument, and Socrates does not need to give one in his own person; instead. he draws on a powerful tirade from the laws, which, he says with some irony, leaves him dumbstruck.
Even the Symposium, which opposes Socrates' speech to Agathon's, does not wear at that point the colors of adversary debate. Socrates first questions Agathon, leading him toward a change of position, and then delivers his speech, which is of a wholly different sort from Agathon's. And although the two speeches are opposed on the main points, the two speakers are not. Socrates speaks only, he says, for Diotima. whose teaching he remembers. This device shifts the authority of the speech away from Socrates and indeed outside of the debate altogether. The audience is not directed to hear both sides and decide for itself, as in a democratic debate, but to listen to an authority who is beyond the reach of debate.
Even in the short question-and-answer format that he prefers, Socrates does not look for the approval of an audience. Sometimes, as in the Euthyphro, he is alone with his partner; at other times, such as in the Gorgias and Protagoras, he has a substantial educated audience. But in no case does he look for agreement from anyone other than the partner he is questioning. He prefers an audience of one, and here too he differs from the sophists, who typically address large groups and teach their students to do the same.
Socrates' style of question and answer, however, does employ an art of words. His refutations are far too consistent to be the result of luck; Socrates knows how to take on any partner in debate and bring him down to defeat. Success in a wide range of cases is a sign of expert knowledge (techne) at work, and so many readers (like many of his partners) have believed that Socrates had an expert grasp of this use of words. He denies that he does so in a spirit of competition, however, and in this he differs from some sophists as Plato represents them (Gorgias 457c—58a).
2.4. Speaking without knowledge. Some sophists, eschewing appeals to expert knowledge, cultivate the art of speaking without knowledge (above, 1.4). Socrates disclaims expert knowledge (Apology 23b), and so, if he is to speak at all, he too must find a way to do so without expert knowledge. Socrates does speak without expert knowledge, and he appears to have developed a method for doing so without being mistaken too easily for an expert. So he is like the sophists in what he does (speaking without knowledge) but unlike them in trying to avoid the false appearance of authority.
Part of Socrates' criticism of the art of words, as taught by Gorgias, is that the art of words does not depend on knowing the truth about its subject matter (Gorgias 456b, 459b—e, 464b—65d). We have seen that some sophists taught the skillful use of arguments based on what is reasonable (eikos) when knowledge is not available. Now, Socrates understand eikos)to mean what is plausible to a crowd (Phaedrus 273b), so that he likens the use of eikos to a system for pleasing a human audience (274a). In fact, the word refers to what is reasonable, and that is not always the same as what pleases a given audience. And although public speakers of the period do believe that adversary debate helps an audience to a conclusion about what is most reasonable, they do not seem to hold that what is reasonable can be determined by a vote. Otherwise, the concept of eikos would have been no use in supporting anthropological theories, in contexts where no vote is to be taken, such as those in Thucydides' Archaeology (1.2—20). So Socrates' criticism fails to strike the target of actual practice at the time.
2.5. Promoting relativism. Socrates is not a relativist. Neither are most of the sophists. Still, Socrates marks a great difference between them. Sophists generally hold that when a virtue is beneficial, there may be something it benefits, and something it harms. Socrates reserves "beneficial" for an absolute use: if it is beneficial, really, it is beneficial without qualification.
As we have seen (1.5 above) the evidence is not convincing that any sophist was a relativist with regard to truth; that is, they did not in general assert that the same sentence could be true for one person and false for another. Many sophists, however. seem to have made both the good and the beneficial relative to the beneficiary, as we saw above, where I cited Protagoras' relativism regarding the good, and Thrasymachus' relativism regarding the beneficial. Both views seem reasonable; olive oil is good for some creatures and bad for others, and many policies do benefit one class of people while harming another.
Socrates does not seem to go along with either view. He pretends not to understand what Protagoras has said (Protagoras 334d); and he implies that he cannot see how to say what justice is without violating Thrasymachus' prohibition (Republic 1.337b). That prohibition, apparently, was against any definition of the form "justice is the beneficial" that does not specify precisely who it is to be beneficial for. So it appears that Socrates wishes to use words like "good" and "beneficial" without qualification. If a virtue such as justice is beneficial, Socrates believes, then it is beneficial for anyone who is affected by it, and no one — not even a criminal undergoing punishment — is harmed by justice (Republic 1.335b—d). Punishment is supposed to impart or strengthen virtue and thereby benefit the person punished, and, in general, the effect of any virtue on those it touches is to make them more virtuous, and that is a benefit. If this is Socrates' view, it goes beyond a rejection of relativism as usually understood. and ends with an affirmation of the use of value-words as complete or absolute predicates. In this, Socrates is markedly different from any sophist of whom we have knowledge.
2.6. Appealing to nature vs. convention. Socrates never appeals to convention in support of his views. Some of his partners do (Crito at 46c, if., Polus at Gorgias 471e), but the view prevailing among sophists seems to have been that convention is a false tyrant, and that if there is a standard for judgment, it is natural (Callicles at Gorgias 483a, ff.). Socrates does not appeal to nature, however. His only appeal is to the opinion of an individual partner, one at a time, and in this he differs widely from the sophists we know about.
2.7. Supporting democracy. Some sophists did support democracy, and some did not, as we have seen. Socrates certainly did not, and he may have actively opposed it. How deeply he was engaged in the opposition to the democracy in Athens is matter for speculation. Antiphon (probably the sophist) was executed for his role in an oligarchic plot soon after the coup of 411, but Socrates was probably not so deeply engaged. He denies in the Apology that he took part in politics (31d, ff.), and he insists in the Gorgias (521d) that his practices in Athens take the true form of politics: by this, in context, he probably means that he alone undertakes the moral improvement of his fellow citizens.
2.8. Teaching virtue. We have seen that some sophists offered to teach virtue, and that what they meant by that is rather different from what Socrates would have meant, had he made the claim. The difference is owing to Socrates' theory of the soul as depending for its health on virtue. Nothing like that theory is found in any of the sophists.
Socrates never claims to know enough to teach virtue, and he would never charge a fee for what he says he does not know how to do. Still, he is a teacher of virtue in the most important way. He does not teach classes on the nature of virtue, nor does he promulgate definitions of the virtues. Nor does he offer training sessions for those who wish to become more virtuous. What Socrates does do is to exhort his fellow-citizens to take thought about acquiring virtue, and he shames those who do not respond (Apology 29d, ff.). This is a unique kind of teaching, unlike anything we know of the sophists.
2.9. Seeking natural explanations. Plato shows Socrates expressing an early interest in the explanation of natural events, which he soon abandoned (Phaedo 96a-99c), while never joining the rationalist project of providing natural explanations for events recorded in myth (Phaedrus 229d-30a). Xenophon attributes to Socrates what is probably the earliest known natural theology, an argument for the existence of the gods from observations of design in the physical world. But on the whole the evidence is unanimous: Socrates' passion is to work in the human world, and not to understand what human beings do, but to change it.