03 February 2013

On unmasking Socrates

I was delighted today to come across this post from Mary Beard which--as an aside--takes on the reality behind the much-vaunted "Socratic method" of teaching:
"The Crito is, as you probably know, set in 399 BC in the prison in Athens where Socrates is to die, and the question that sparks off the discussion is whether Socrates should try to escape (as his friend Crito advocates, and would clearly be possible) or whether he should sit and face death as sentenced; but this leads on to wider considerations of a citizen's obligation to obey the law.
"We see Socrates bulldozing the unfortunate Crito with his usual assassination style of dialogue, and his usual off-puelititting sm, which Crito never punctures. "If we are an athlete," Socrates says at one point, "we don't listen to the views of the many about our training, but the views of a specialist trainer; so equally when it comes to morals/ethics and the soul, we should not listen to the views of the many but those of the expert." "Hang on," we want Crito to say, "may be morals are not comparable to athletic training . . . " But the poor man never does.
I tried to make a similar point a couple of years ago, but with great trepidation. After all, I had just a passing acquaintance with Plato* in translation, and there's a vast body of commentary on his work out there, dating back centuries. Who was I to contest the "Socratic method"?

An (informed) outsider, that's who. Outside the groupthink of received wisdom. I didn't need the vindication, but I shall enjoy it.

* Socrates wrote nothing. He disapproved of writing. So although there is independent testimony of his life and teaching, most of what we think we know about him comes from his "disciple", Plato, who had his own ideas and may therefore not be a reliable witness.

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