Blog

Socrates: A Sophist?

October 26, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

With his head in the clouds, Socrates, as portrayed by Aristophanes, is a figure of mockery. Not only that—he is a sophist. One who comes to The Clouds only after reading the Platonic dialogues may be startled at this discovery. He may ask, Are we even talking about the same person? That Aristophanes considers Socrates to be a sophist is most shocking. Certainly, public figures are often subjected to mockery, and though Socrates has been a celebrated thinker after his death, he was not so celebrated in life. But that he should be considered a sophist? Unthinkable. It is almost inconceivable that Plato, who in The Sophist considers the sophist to be something of an anti-philosopher, should have studied with and revered a sophist. Moreover, the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is pitted against the sophists, particularly in Protagoras, Euthydemus, and Gorgias. How is it, then, that Aristophanes could think that Socrates was himself just another sophist? Yet, Aristophanes’ perception may not be inexplicable when one notes the similarities between Socrates and the sophists as they appear in Plato’s dialogues.

The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is most renowned for his method of inquiry, Socratic questioning. In order to test the wisdom of certain figures and in order to clarify his own ideas, Socrates asked his interlocutors a series of questions, a particular form of dialectic. Despite its name, however, it is quite likely that this was not his invention. Plato gives no indication that this form of questioning was unique to Socrates even though other characters express exasperation at his questioning. Indeed, characters other than Socrates use the same method or one quite similar. In Euthydemus, the sophist brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus also employ questions as part of the dialectic process, a practice that appears natural to them. And, in one of the later dialogues, a young Socrates does not ask the questions but receives those given by Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named. This suggests that what is called Socratic questioning actually precedes him and was a tool of sophists. To an outsider, contemporaneous with Socrates, it might then appear that Socrates’ disputes with the sophists was not a repudiation of sophistry but an inter-sophistical dispute.

Nor might his method be the only perceived similarity between Socrates and the sophists. In Plato’s portrayal of the sophists, the sophists crave acclaim. Applause punctuates their arguments and speeches in Euthydemus and Protagoras. They love an audience and they love playing to an audience. Socrates can be contrasted to them in that he does not seek the approval of an audience, not in Plato’s version of him anyway. Nevertheless, he does gather an audience. Various characters do root him on in the dialogues. And in The Apology, Socrates mentions that young men like to follow him around for the sake of being amused. As he roams through Athens challenging various authorities to prove that they actually do possess the wisdom they profess, he proves them to be lacking. This act of revealing authorities to be fools—or, if not fools, pretenders to expertise that they do not in actuality possess—is unsurprisingly found to be entertaining by some. To an outsider, it might look like Socrates was trying to make a name for himself, just like a sophist might.

The source of this amusement was different, but even that might look the same to an outsider, especially one who only knew Socrates by reputation. Euthydemus and his brother also make fools of others, but that is because they build absurd arguments that make their interlocutor appear to have said something foolish. It is as if they tricked him. They treat argument as a sport, playing word games to prove such absurdities as that a man’s dog is his father. They are facetious and mocking, and they leave their interlocutors frustrated and sputtering, fearing to answer lest that answer be twisted and used against them. Socrates may have shared a similar reputation, as he also left his interlocutors speechless. In Meno he describes himself as a torpedo fish that leaves others stunned. But an important difference separates him from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He is not playing word games; he is looking for clarity. He asks people to define terms that they take for granted, and to their great consternation, they often discover that they cannot. A well-known example of this appears in Euthyphro where Socrates leads the eponymous priest to the realization that he cannot properly define piety. After discussing the question for some time with Socrates, the priest hurries away, uncomfortable with the conversation. But never did Socrates play a linguistic trick upon Euthyphro. Never did he seize on an ambiguity in language to make a fool of the priest, turning the conversation to mere jokes.

Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues end unresolved, which speaks to another difference between Socrates and the sophists. As represented by Plato, the sophist teaches others how to win arguments, unconcerned with whether the argument is correct or not. (See, for example, Gorgias.) Whatever the point is to be argued, the sophist will be able to prove its truth. But Socrates’ goal is not to win an argument. He desires to find the truth. The sophist asks leading questions in order to get an admission from his interlocutor. Socrates uses questions to better understand the arguments of others, to challenge them—yes—but not necessarily to overthrow them. It is the truth he is after, not victory. Argument is not a contest to him, but a means for inquiry. So, at the end of a dialogue, Plato does not show Socrates on the field of verbal battle having won the day and turned back all comers. Socrates is much more likely at the end of a dialogue to announce that, though no answer has been discovered to the question being discussed, still he and the interlocutor must not stop seeking after the truth.

To an outsider, perhaps it would appear that Socrates was just another sophist, asking endless questions to make fools of others, seeking fame, and winning an argument at all costs. Perhaps, he even started out that way, first learning with sophists and only later going his own way. But the similarities between Socrates and the sophists is ultimately superficial. Socrates, at least as portrayed by Plato, was not concerned with winning arguments at all costs. He would have seen that as a truly pyrrhic victory. He used the same methods as the sophists to achieve a different end: truth. In this way, Socratic questioning is properly named after him, because he used it for shared inquiry, not to lead others into verbal traps. If Plato’s portrayal of Socrates was closer to the truth, it is a tragedy that the comedian Aristophanes did not see it.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.