"[...] It looks like it, Socrates, from what you say."
"Can we say then, Hippocrates, that a Sophist is really a merchant or peddlar of the goods by which a soul is nourished?"
"But what is it that nourishes a soul?"
"What it learns, presumably."
One of my most memorable A-Level Classics lessons centred around the explication of Plato's Theory of Forms through the medium of daisies. It was a beautiful summer's day and our teacher, Dr Beagon, had very sensibly decided that we should take the discussion al fresco. So we sat on a rug on the lawn of Thornycroft (an annexe building largely given over to arty subjects), and watched, perhaps a tad bemused, as Dr Beagon plucked a daisy and held it up to the sky. This, it turned out, was by way of illustrating how we know daisies to be daisies: because they have a resemblence to (in Plato's terms, they partake of the essence of) the ideal image of Daisy. This ideal - the Form - is our idea of Daisy, the qualities that we know a flower must possess (or have once possessed, or have the potential to possess) in order for us to see it as a daisy: the shape and colour of its petals, the size, the yellow centre. All earthly manifestations are but pale reflections, of course; we carry within us the image of the perfect Daisy, even though we have never seen it.
Or have we? Plato (who lived c. 429-347 BCE) contended that we had: that before birth, we have knowledge the Forms, and this is how, in life, we recognise things - whether objects or qualities or concepts - as belonging to their particular categories, even though (as with chairs, say, or music) the individual examples might diverge a great deal from the baseline ideal. Thus we can envision the perfect circle, even though it is impossible for human instruments to reproduce it with absolutely perfect accuracy: we know what a circle can and should be, and so can recognise its reflections. Plato came to consider the Forms to be the basis of all human knowledge - and this knowledge, therefore, to be innate.
All this was most famously explored in The Republic, but there are glimpses of it in many of his other works: a series of fictional philosophical dialogues, in which his teacher, Socrates (d. 399), interrogates a range of Athenian notables and men-in-the-street on the fixed ideas they take as truth, in the guise of wishing to learn from them. Of course, what generally happens is that Socrates exposes his interlocutor's ignorance and punctures his pomposity via rapid-fire dialectic - that is, through a series of questions and comparisons, which gradually strip the fixed ideas down to their hollow cores. Often this comes across as reductio ad absurdum to a, well, absurd degree; often you want to slap the silly opponents for letting themselves be trapped into contradictory statements. But the end result is always the same: "It must be as you say, Socrates", his opponents splutter, while the smug idiot savant goes off whistling.
It is difficult to tell how far the dialogue Plato has Socrates deliver reflects the latter's own ideas, since Socrates left no writings of his own; virtually all we know of him comes from Plato's renderings. Some of the dialogues deal with episodes from Socrates' life, like the Apology (set at Socrates' trial; more below). In others, like The Republic, he appears to be more the mouthpiece for Plato's ideas. The two I recently read, Protagoras and Meno (in the 1956 Penguin ed., tr. W.K.C. Guthrie), seem to be one of each type, although any dating of their composition is conjectural (and Guthrie's introduction may well reflect scholarship that is outdated by now).
The Protagoras may be an early dialogue, composed in the 390s BCE. Certainly it lacks some of the sparseness of the classic dialogues, being framed more as a story, one recounted by Socrates in retrospect - with quite a degree of descriptive detail - to a third party. The opponent here is Protagoras (d. 420), a Thracian philosopher perhaps best known today for the relativistic (probably) aphorism "Man is the measure of all things". One day, while Protagoras is visiting Athens, a young associate of Socrates, one Hippocrates (not the famous one), conceives a desire to become a pupil of Protagoras. He has heard, we're told, that Protagoras is a Sophist, one of the itinerant teachers of rhetoric that Plato so despised - and which Socrates was often accused of being (Plato spilt much ink denying the charge). Plato disliked what he considered to be the Sophists' easy relativism, as well as the lofty claims and hefty fees attached to their services:
Then Protagoras replied: "Young man, if you come to me, your gain will be this: the very day you join me, you will go home a better man, and the same the next day. Each day you will make progress towards a better state."
Plato was far from the only one to harbour suspicions of the elasticity of morals and beliefs that Sophistic training to argue a case, any case, seemed to produce in its subjects; nevertheless, it was much in demand in fifth-century Athens, with its system of direct democracy in which the most persuasive speaker could accumulate great power. There is an early burst of dialectic, in which Socrates - through the familiar 'skills' motif, comparing different types of teaching (from a doctor, from whom one learns medicine in order to become a doctor; from a sculptor, from whom one learns sculpting to become a sculptor; from a Sophist, from whom ones learns... sophistry?) - exposes the fact that Hippocrates has no clue what exactly Protagoras can teach him, and sets up the idea that virtue is not something that can be taught. Then Socrates goes with Hippocrates to see Protagoras, and sets out to prove that Protagoras cannot in fact teach virtue, as he claims.
What I found splendid about the dialogue, however, is that this seems to be a much more human Socrates than we generally see in Plato's writings. For a start, Protagoras is rather less of a self-important idiot than most of Socrates' opponents. Socrates does not always have the upper hand; when, as is his wont, he blithely begins extrapolating from Protagoras' statements about the nature of courage to construct deliberately contradictory stances (which he would normally then blame on his opponent's faulty ideas), Protagoras (very unusually), actually calls Socrates on it:
"On this argument it is their knowledge that must be courage."
"No, Socrates," he said. "You have not remembered rightly what I said in my reply. When you asked me whether the courageous are confident, I agreed; but I was not asked whether the confident are also courageous - if you had asked me at the time, I should have said "not all of them" - and you have nowhere disproved my admission. [...] Further, when you argue that those who have knowledge are more confident than they were before, and also than others who are ignorant, and thereupon conclude that courage and wisdom are the same thing, you might as well go on and conclude that physical strength is knowledge. First of all you would proceed to ask me whether the strong are powerful, and I should agree; next, whether those who know how to wrestle are more powerful after they have learned than before. Again I should agree, and it would then be open to you to say, adducing the same proofs, that on my admission wisdom is physical strength. But here again I nowhere admit that the powerful are strong, only that the strong are powerful. Power and strength are not the same. Power can result from knowledge, and also from madness or passion, whereas strength is a matter of natural constitution and bodily nurture."
Furthermore, Socrates is occasionally wrong-footed. When Protagoras exposes a weakness in the former's method of argument - namely, the way that Socrates' quest for dialectical absolutes ignores contingency and contradiction - Socrates disingenuously plays the 'querulous old man' card in an attempt to get things back on track:
The audience vigorously applauded this speech. Then said I: "I'm a forgetful sort of man, Protagoras, and if someone speaks at length, I lose the thread of the argument. [...] Cut down your answers and make them shorter if I am to follow you."
But when Protagoras refuses to let Socrates dictate the terms of engagement like this, the latter even throws a bit of a hissy fit:
"Well," I said, "I have no wish myself to insist on continuing our conversation in a way that you don't approve. I will talk with you another time, when you are willing to converse so that I can follow."
Eventually things become more amiable again, but it is notable that Protagoras is gradually dropped from the argument, leaving Socrates contentedly sermonising - about how bad actions arise from ignorance - to a faceless, mumbles-of-agreement crowd. This is thread that is picked up in the second dialogue, the Meno, which is set in the year 402, although it was probably written significantlylater (certainly long after Socrates' death), since it represents a more systematic exploration of Plato's ideas.
We begin with a proposition advanced in the Protagoras, namely that good acts are beneficial - and that the beneficial is, in turn, good - and people only do bad because they fail to recognise what is genuinely good (that is, they act out of the mistaken belief that short-term bad can = long-term good/benefit):
SOCRATES. And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?
MENO. No, that I can't really believe.
S. Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil; those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good.
Of course, one might argue in response that some people do bad simply because they want to, rather than for any assumed-beneficial goal; that one person's good might be another's bad; and so forth. Plato/Socrates' point, however, is that possession of knowledge will inevitably lead a person to actions that are good/beneficial. Possession, that is, of true knowledge: an access to that awareness of the Forms that we have before birth, but have forgotten once we are in the world. The centrepiece of the dialogue is an illustration of this point, via a demonstration, using Meno's uneducated slave and a geometry puzzle, of how someone can be brought to an awareness of their innate knowledge through simple logical urging, rather than guided tuition. (It is unfortunately too long to quote here in any worthwhile chunks, but there is a full text here - the relevant section begins between a third and a half of the way down the page - and longer discussion here).
Nothing, says Plato/Socrates, can be taught; a teacher can only coax forth knowledge that already lurks in the mind (or in the soul, as Plato would say). Better still, each person should strive to come to awareness on his (or her)* own, using constant questioning and challenging (of themselves and others) to chip away at false beliefs, and reach the core, the Form.
[ * Plato, famously, maintains in the Republic that any society which does not allow its women to learn is wasting half its populace. ]
The dialogue ends on a darker note, however, when a certain Anytus briefly joins the discussion. Anytus, it seems, has a bee in his bonnet about Sophists - and he thinks something must be done about them:
ANYTUS. It isn't [the Sophists] who are mad, but rather the young men who hand over their money, and those responsible for them, who let them get into the Sophists' hands, are even worse. Worst of all are the cities who let them in, or don't expel them, whether it be a foreigner or one of themselves who tries that sort of game.
The period in which this dialogue is set was a dark time for Athens, which had lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta in the year 404, and been stripped of both its empire and its democratic mode of government. While the democracy was soon restored, the atmosphere upon its return was a cowed and bitter one, leaning towards greater conservatism - and out for scapegoats, particularly among those perceived to have compromised Athens' traditional virtues and its will to fight. Anytus was one of those who brought Socrates to trial shortly afterwards, on charges of fostering atheism and corrupting the young - of being, essentially, a Sophist who profited from undermining moral certainties and challenging the authority of the leading figures in the polis. He was executed in 399. In light of this, Anytus' closing threat carries a heavy element of sinister foreshadowing - demonstrating nicely the literary-dramatic dimension within even Plato's most programmatically philosophical dialogues:
You seem to me, Socrates, to be too ready to run people down. My advice to you, if you will listen to it, is to be careful. I dare say that in all cities it is easier to do a man harm than good.