Monday, January 09, 2006

Is Socrates Lying? (Part I)

Let’s take the advice of Proclus and the subsequent recommendation of Myles Burnyeat[1] and consider the first words of the Apology of Socrates in order to meditate on their significance for the whole dialogue. I wager that this exercise will dispel many of the uncharitable interpretations of Socrates’ speech by those who find reason from the prooimion to cast aspersions upon him. In the first sentence, we find the words ouk oida (“I do not know”), and this mild disclaimer at the outset will turn out to be the linchpin of Socrates’ whole argument, indeed of his whole life’s work.

Critics frequently charge Socrates with irony, by which they mean eironeia, i.e., dissimulation, false pretence, or plain lying. This charge seems obvious to James Redfield presumably because of the apparent flagrancy of Socrates’ lies. Thus, Redfield writes, “When [Socrates] says he is not ‘powerful’ (deinos), he is, of course, lying; this is one of the most powerful and skillfully organized and orchestrated speeches ever composed."[2] R. E. Allen makes the same point by calling attention to the vast disparity between Socrates’ professed inability to speak eloquently and his actual display of rhetorical mastery.

Now there is no doubt about Socrates’ skill in speaking. His brilliance depends on his deft ability to respond to unforeseen positions held by his interlocutors and to transform those opinions gradually through his elenchtic method. Arguing by elenchus requires scrupulous attention to the statements of the other and precise rejoinders in crisp language. Naturally, Socrates is a skillful speaker. But is he a clever (deinos) speaker? In this prooimion, Socrates is at pains to distinguish himself and his philosophical identity from the sophists and their reputation for rhetorical cleverness. As C. Reeve[3] rightly points out, Socrates frequently denounces “clever speakers” and attempts to differentiate himself from this group, but he never denies being a good, skillful, and even masterful speaker. He can do so without contradiction or dissimulation because, as Brickhouse and Smith[4] note, he is invoking a special sense of “clever” which refers specifically to the sophists who were well known for “making the weaker argument seem stronger.” Socrates is not that sort of clever speaker for the simple reason that he tells the truth—or, at least, he reports his mental states truthfully.

One must distinguish truth from truthfulness. Socrates may possess true belief through divine dispensation, but he denies having any knowledge of the truth. That is, he denies having any moral knowledge which he has derived solely from human reason. Presumably, he possesses knowledge of ordinary facts, but this is not his concern when speaking of truth. It is moral knowledge that matters, and he denies any possession of it. Thus, he can only speak in good faith or bad. Like the “clever” sophists, he can feign to know when he does not and speak cleverly when he should not, or he can openly admit that he does not know. The task of the jury, and ours as well, is to decide whether Socrates speaks truthfully.

Thus, the key to the defense is to prove that Socrates speaks truthfully, so that his honesty will differentiate his words from the clever speech of the sophists who feign to know. How then can we be certain that Socrates speaks truthfully? What evidence can we rely on to guarantee that he is sincerely reporting his mental contents? The first words give us the clue. The rest of the Apology explains the point. Socrates begins his entire defense by confessing, “I do not know.” This confession becomes not only the centerpiece of his case in court but in fact, as we learn from his devotion to Apollo, the guiding principle of his entire life. If we can judge truthfulness only by the correspondence of one’s words with one’s actions, then we must decide whether Socrates did in fact live the life of one who neither knows nor bears the pretence of knowing. The entire defense rests on its ability to convince the jury (and us, the reading jury) that Socrates did live such a life. If he succeeds in this endeavor, then we cannot judge him to be lying when he distinguishes himself from all those “clever” charlatans who feign knowledge.

[1]. Myles Burnyeat, “First Words,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 1997, v. 43: 1-20.

[2]. See the Note on the Translation in James Redfield’s Plato’s Apology of Socrates, p. 35.

[3]. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Plato’s Apology of Socrates (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 5-6.

[4]. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 54.


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