Alcibiades, Apollodorus, and the Failure of Socratic Rationalism
Alcibiades, Apollodorus, and the Failure of Socratic Rationalism
Daniel Luban, '06
Does Aristophanes treat Socrates unfairly by portraying him as a sophist in The Clouds? No assessment of the Socratic project can avoid answering this question; it is difficult to view Socrates in a positive light unless we believe that his method is qualitatively different from the mere "sophistry" of a Protagoras or a Gorgias. Plato takes great pains to distinguish the two models of thought and education, and most subsequent analyses have tended to accept his sharp distinction and therefore to dismiss the Aristophanic portrayal as inaccurate and unfair. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has challenged this conventional view, arguing that The Clouds points to genuine flaws in the Socratic method that Plato recognizes and addresses in the Republic. Chief among these, she argues, are that Socrates does not understand the need for moral habituation, fails to articulate a positive conception of the good, and pays insufficient attention to the consequences of the method on his interlocutors.1Aristophanes is thus justified in conflating Socrates with the sophists.
In response, Socrates' defenders can attempt to demonstrate a number of important differences between the two. In this paper I would like to focus on two such differences apparent in the earlier dialogues, particularly the Protagoras. The first is the nature of Socratic versus sophistic appeals; the Protagoras seems to show that the Socratic method of persuasion relies on rationality and logic while the sophists' power comes from an irrational and quasi-mystical charisma. The second, less obvious difference rests on the extent to which each model spurs changes in human values and behavior. While the sophists espouse an instrumental view of knowledge that challenges the status quo indirectly if at all, Socrates urges a search for and adherence to absolute truth that has the potential to uproot existing values, customs, and desires by itself. But if these two claims help to differentiate Socrates from the sophists in the early dialogues, I argue that the Symposium, and specifically the portrayals of Apollodorus and Alcibiades, throws both into doubt. In doing so, the Symposium marks a turn away from the egalitarian rationalism of the Socratic dialogues towards the hierarchical social differentiation of the Republic.
It is true, as Nussbaum claims, that Socrates and the sophists share a view of moral education as the domain of the wise expert, supplanting traditional moral authorities such as parent, priest, and ruler. This basic similarity, however, is not particularly bold or damning; it in fact reflects the basic view of Socrates among admirers and critics alike. Socrates' defenders would likely say that of course Socrates contributed to the breakdown of traditional authority, and this was in fact largely the point (despite some of his protestations to the contrary). If this aspect of the Socratic project alone causes Aristophanes to lump him in with the sophists, it only indicates Aristophanes' own reactionary hostility to any sort of social change. Any valid conflation of Socrates with the sophists must focus not only on the mere fact that both challenged the existing social order in some way, but also on how and why each did so.2
The defenders could then point to two major aspects of the Socratic method apparent in earlier dialogues like the Protagoras that differentiate it from that of the sophists. The first is that Socratic dialectic convinces interlocutors of some truth with reason and logic, whereas sophistic oratory does so with a hypnotic and irrational eloquence. This aesthetic quality of oratory is evident in the scene where Socrates and Hippocrates enter Callias' house. There, amid a crowd of sophists, lovers, and dancers, Protagoras holds forth to a crowd of followers: "He enchants them with his voice like Orpheus, and they follow the sound of his voice in a trance."3 Protagoras' listeners cannot rigorously evaluate the claims he makes in their entranced state, and their eventual persuasion will not be due to having logically grasped his argument. What they come to believe will therefore have at best an accidental relation to the truth. Socratic dialectic, by contrast, ostensibly appeals only to the rationality of his interlocutors, and uses logic to follow the truth wherever it may lead. The difference between the two models of persuasion is emphasized throughout the Protagoras and later in the Phaedrus; oratory and written discourse—however beautiful—rely on static words and rote indoctrination while dialectic is a more organic process that permits true understanding.4Indeed, the Protagoras contains many arguments over the format of debate to be used, and while Socrates shows himself to be a skillful orator in his discussion of Simonides' poem, Protagoras is not up to the task of defending his own ideas dialectically. After discussing Simonides in the manner of the sophists, Socrates recommends that he and Protagoras "put the poets aside and converse directly with each other [i.e. dialectically], testing the truth and our own ideas."5This statement concisely illustrates the view of Socratic dialectic in the early dialogues: it is a way of reaching the truth with reason and logic as sole arbiters, as opposed to the mere aesthetic pleasure and persuasion by "enchantment" of sophistic oratory.6
A second major difference between the Socratic and sophistic models lies in their implications for existing beliefs and institutions, and thus their capacities to instigate change on a personal and societal level. Aristophanes and Nussbaum locate a way in which Socrates and the sophists both subvert the existing order: they call into question traditional loci of authority by promoting a view of morality as a kind of expert knowledge.7Protagoras himself acknowledges the subversive nature of his project and the hostility he faces as a result:
Caution is in order for a foreigner who goes into the great cities and tries to persuade the best of the young men in them to abandon their associations with others, relatives and acquaintances, young and old alike, and to associate with him instead on the grounds that they will be improved by this association.8
But there is an important sense in which Socrates is far more radical than the sophists. Although the latter upset existing hierarchies by claiming to be expert teachers of wisdom, they have an instrumental view of such wisdom—they intend their teachings as tools to help clients achieve success in conventional terms. Protagoras describes the subject of his teaching as "sound deliberation, both in domestic matters—how best to manage one's household, and in public affairs—how to realize one's maximum potential for success in political debate and action."9 He is not after any transcendent truth or new way of viewing the world; he simply aims to help his clients attain the success they have always wanted. Gorgias, pressed to identify the greatest good for humankind, asserts that it is "the ability to persuade" in a political context.10But such an ability to persuade, as Gorgias seems to recognize but ultimately refuses to admit, has nothing to do with understanding what is actually true or just. Protagoras and Gorgias never question conventional notions of the good life; they merely claim to provide this life better than the traditional education. Thus, however radical the sophists might seem, they end up reinforcing the dominant values of their society.
Socrates, on the other hand, seeks the truth regardless of its utility. He does not categorically oppose custom and convention, and in the early dialogues he is not so transcendental and contemptuous of mundane affairs as in full-blown Platonism; we therefore should not view him as an unqualified opponent of the social order. But even if the answers he reaches rarely suggest an overthrow of existing practices and institutions, the very questions he asks at least raise the possibility of such an overthrow. Socrates is after the truth, whatever it may be, and the truth could very well turn out to contradict the dicta of tradition and authority. For him, the good life is not the life of honor and material success but of ceaseless inquiry and self-examination.11He never stops questioning beliefs and measuring them against the standard of logic and objective truth, and implicit in his project is the idea that we must live our lives according to the truth even if it does not conform with what we had previously wished for ourselves.
Also implicit in the Socratic project is the belief that conclusions reached through rational discourse can spur real changes in how we behave. It is not always apparent what sort of change this will be; we cannot tell, for instance, what Euthyphro will do after his conversation with Socrates. But we get the sense that Socrates' interlocutors will not simply ignore the results of the dialogues for the sake of convenience—after reaching aporia, one cannot go back to a state of happy and unthinking acceptance. The hedonistic argument that closes the Protagoras, although generally problematic, provides support for this claim in its denial of akrasia (weakness of will). There, Socrates explicitly lays out the question under discussion:
Now, does the matter seem like that to you [that desire, pleasure, pain, etc. can overrule knowledge], or does it seem to you that knowledge is a fine thing capable of ruling a person, and if someone were to know what is good and bad, then he would not be forced by anything to act otherwise than knowledge dictates, and intelligence would be sufficient to save a person?12
He then devotes the rest of the dialogue to proving the latter claim; the consequence for our purposes is that rationally convincing someone of a truth would invariably get them to live in accordance with that truth. And even if we choose to discount this section of the Protagoras, Socrates' basic mission and the hostile response to it presume that dialectic can be a powerful force for change on its own. Socrates sees himself as a "gadfly," sent to stir up the city; he does not seek the truth solely for its own sake, but so as to "rouse" his fellow citizens and make them change the way they live.13Similarly, his enemies condemn him not merely because they dislike his beliefs, but because of the impact his method has on others—they charge him with corrupting the young. The idea that rational inquiry by itself can motivate changes in behavior is central to both positive and negative conceptions of the Socratic project.
In summary, the image of Socrates and his work throughout the early dialogues centers on rational discourse and its potential. We are led to believe that Socrates, unlike the sophists, wins over his interlocutors on a purely intellectual level, using only reason and logic, and that their exchanges bring them closer to some objective truth independent of their individual characters and desires. We are further led to believe that the intellectual convictions resulting from the dialogues are themselves sufficient to motivate changes in behavior—once we have seen the truth, we will not simply ignore it, even if it conflicts with other desires we might have. A final aspect of this conception is its egalitarianism. Socrates does not discriminate on the basis of intelligence or background when choosing his interlocutors, suggesting that anyone can understand and live by the findings of dialectic. On the whole, the early dialogues give us an optimistic vision of the educational and normative potential of reason.
This optimistic vision is challenged in the middle and late dialogues. The attack, I will argue, is laid out in the Symposium, specifically in its portrayals of Alcibiades and Apollodorus.14 Both men are associates and pupils of Socrates, and are therefore good test cases for the success or failure of Socratic education. Taken together, they show the failure of the rationalist model sketched above—Alcibiades by his refusal to live like Socrates, and Apollodorus by his attempt to do so.
Alcibiades' speech repeatedly attacks the claim that Socratic dialectic is purely intellectual and detached from irrational affects, thus conflating it with the hypnotic charisma of someone like Protagoras. Alcibiades begins by comparing Socrates to the satyr Marsyas in his ability to "cast his spells on people": "The only difference between you and Marsyas is that you need no instruments; you do exactly what he does, but with words alone."15Describing Socrates' effect on his listeners, he says that "we are all transported, completely possessed....even the frenzied Corybantes seem sane compared to me,"16and speaks of "the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy."17 These images evoke the title character's hypnotic oratory in the entrance scene of the Protagoras; in that dialogue the scene had expressed a contrast between Socrates and the sophists, but now we find that the two are not so different. Alcibiades implies that Socrates does not persuade his interlocutors with calm rational discourse, as had been claimed; he, like Protagoras, renders them into a trancelike state. Alcibiades then states that philosophy "has bitten me in my most sensitive part—I mean my heart, or my soul, or whatever you want to call it."18This seemingly innocuous comment in fact implies a deep criticism of the Socratic method: Socrates would like to claim that his dialectic touches the intellect and only the intellect, not the heart or soul or anything else. Throughout Alcibiades' speech, it is difficult to separate his desire for philosophy from his desire for Socrates, which suggests that for him philosophy is a product of baser desires as much as an ascetic quest for truth. As a whole, the speech gives a very different picture of Socratic discourse and persuasion from the early dialogues: Socrates does not reach his pupils on a purely rational level, and he manages to convince people of his positions through a personal charisma that appeals to desire and emotion more than logic and reason.
Nor does Alcibiades live his life according to Socrates' prescriptions even after he has been convinced of their truth and value. Instead, he feels a sense of overwhelming shame because of his failure to do so:
I know perfectly well that I can't prove he's wrong when he tells me what I should do; yet, the moment I leave his side, I go back to my old ways: I cave in to my desire to please the crowd. My whole life has become one constant effort to escape from him and keep away, but when I see him, I feel deeply ashamed, because I'm doing nothing about my way of life, though I have already agreed with him that I should.19
It is unclear to what extent Alcibiades truly believes the conclusions reached in his conversations with Socrates; his statement gives the impression that he has only agreed to them reluctantly. Regardless, this passage challenges the idea that rational dialectic alone can motivate people to change their behavior, and seems to refute the denial of akrasia in the Protagoras. Although Alcibiades in some sense knows how he should live, this purely intellectual knowledge is not enough to overcome his desires. And although Socrates has shown his current way of life to be frivolous and empty, Alcibiades is usually able to ignore this unpleasant information; only when he sees Socrates is he reminded of and shamed by his behavior.
Alcibiades' speech does not fully conflate Socrates with the sophists. Socrates challenges Alcibiades' idea of the good life in a way that Protagoras and Gorgias do not; he disparages the value of conventional success rather than just aiding in its pursuit. But the portrayal of Alcibiades does question the rationalist vision that was so important to the Socratic project. It implies that there is no hard-and-fast line between Socrates' rational dialectic and the irrational charisma of the sophists, and that Socratic persuasion can sometimes have little to do with the merits of his arguments themselves. It also implies that this persuasion alone may not be sufficient to motivate changes in behavior, since knowing something as true or good in an abstract intellectual sense is not always enough to overcome contrary desires. We should not infer from this that dialectic has no value, or that there is no such thing as a rational pursuit of truth. What the speech does show us, however, is the inadequacy of an entirely rationalist approach for dealing with someone like Alcibiades. Even if Socrates' arguments are sound, Alcibiades cannot understand them, and responds only to "enchantment" and charisma; even if his prescriptions are correct, Alcibiades lacks the willpower to implement them. In other words, not everyone can live according to reason alone.
The portrayal of Apollodorus at the beginning of the dialogue also casts doubt on the effectiveness of the "gadfly" as an instigator of change. Unlike Alcibiades, Apollodorus is a dutiful Socratic and prides himself on following his teacher's example. For him, this means constantly berating his acquaintances for their absorption in meaningless affairs and failure to live philosophical lives. The first example of this comes when he relates his conversation with Glaucon:
"Before that, I simply drifted aimlessly. Of course, I used to think that what I was doing was important, but in fact I was the most worthless man on earth—as bad as you are at this very moment: I used to think philosophy was the last thing a man should do."
"Stop joking, Apollodorus," he [Glaucon] replied. "Just tell me when the party took place."20
The second comes in his conversation with the unnamed friend:
[Apollodorus:] All other [unphilosophical] talk, especially the talk of rich businessmen like you, bores me to tears, and I'm sorry for you and your friends because you think your affairs are important when really they're totally trivial. Perhaps, in your turn, you think I'm a failure, and believe me, I think that what you think is true. But as for all of you, I don't just think you are failures—I know it for a fact.
Friend: You'll never change, Apollodorus! Always nagging, even at yourself!21
In both instances, Apollodorus delivers roughly the same message that Socrates gave to Alcibiades urging him to abandon his current affairs for the life of philosophy. He can in fact be viewed as a lesser or even parodic version of Socrates, a gadfly attempting to rouse his contemporaries from their unphilosophical slumber. Yet the two arouse very different reactions. Socrates, however one views him, is in many ways a strange and radical figure who upsets the existing social order. His fellow Athenians respond to him in a variety of ways, but all of them recognize his importance and the seriousness of his project. Apollodorus, on the other hand, lacks Socrates' magnetism and comes off as a rather shrill and self-righteous person. He launches into self-congratulatory tirades with little or no prompting, and we get the sense from the friend's reaction that he repeats the same tropes again and again. Unlike the outsider Socrates, he is also normalized into the social world around him. His friends appear to dismiss him as a harmless curmudgeon and shrug their shoulders at his lectures; it seems unlikely that his "nagging" has ever changed anyone's mind.
We might be tempted to dismiss Apollodorus as nothing more than a minor comic character, a lightweight Socrates imitator, and to say that his frivolity has nothing to do with philosophy as practiced by a master like Socrates. But I would suggest that we read his appearance, which comes at the very beginning of the dialogue, in light of what comes at the end—the speech of Alcibiades. In this context, it seems to substantiate some of the criticisms that I have been reading into the Alcibiades speech. To begin with, the negative portrayal of Apollodorus, a disciple of Socrates, casts doubt on Socrates' own ability as a teacher. More importantly, Apollodorus' failure to convert his friends to the philosophical life prefigures Socrates' failure to convert Alcibiades. In both cases, the philosopher is unable to woo his interlocutor away from the conventional life of honor, politics, and wealth. We must take seriously the fact that Plato chooses to begin and end the dialogue with these corresponding scenes. While Apollodorus' failure might seem trivial, viewing it as parallel to Socrates' adds an element of pathos, for we know that the consequence of this latter failure was Alcibiades' death. Even though Apollodorus is not much of a philosopher, I would argue that in the Symposium his failure comes to represent a broader failure of philosophy, or at least a specific mode of philosophy. He is an echo of the Socratic gadfly figure, wandering the city and arguing with anyone he meets, and taken together with Alcibiades he demonstrates the inadequacy of such a figure. The gadfly's project is an egalitarian one, based on the idea that the average Athenian on the street can engage in rational discourse and then change his life according to its conclusions. But the Symposium suggests that this view is naïve. It shows not that Socrates is the same as the sophists, but that few will be able to appreciate the difference; for someone like Alcibiades Socrates' intellectual pursuit of truth seems no different from Protagoras' trickery and shallow persuasion. The average person will be baffled and entranced by philosophical dialectic rather than engaged by it, and will not renounce worldly affairs and pleasures for the philosophical life—whether out of indifference, like Apollodorus' anonymous friend, or weakness of will, like Alcibiades.
This is not to suggest that Plato gives up on reason and philosophy. As other dialogues make clear, he continues to view them as the only path to truth and to the Good, and he suggests in the Republic that philosophy must be the organizing principle for the ideal society as a whole. Nor does he dismiss the utility of dialectic and philosophical education. Apollodorus and Alcibiades were both students of Socrates, but so was Plato himself; he must know from his own example that philosophical education can succeed. Furthermore, the Republic makes clear that the path to truth is a collaborative one that depends on education. What changes between the Protagoras and the Republic—the change apparent in the Symposium—is that philosophy is no longer for everyone. The masses lack the wisdom to understand philosophy and the willpower to obey it, so only the mediation of those who possess these qualities, the philosopher kings, can get them to live as they should. Alcibiades and Apollodorus mark this transition because they epitomize the failure of the Socratic vision of reason as a universal basis for education and ethics. They suggest that the philosopher cannot make most people live rationally with reason alone; the Republic reveals that for this purpose appeals based on authority, tradition, and emotion will be needed. The Symposium therefore signals Plato's disillusionment with the possibility of a democratic society based on shared rational understanding.
1 Nussbaum, "Aristophanes and Socrates on learning practical wisdom," Yale Classical Studies 26, (1980), p. 81. I will not spend much time on these specific criticisms except insofar as they are relevant to the general issue of Socratic rationalism, which I view as the central issue in separating Socrates from the sophists.
2 Nussbaum does in fact put forward several more specific claims, some of which I will defend. But throughout her article, the following question is worth keeping in mind: to what extent does Aristophanes' critique show the Socratic project to be flawed on its own terms—terms in which social upheaval need not be a bad thing—and to what extent does the critique rest on conservative disagreements with Socrates' basic goals? For those who believe that aspects of the existing order are flawed and need to be changed, many of Aristophanes' and Nussbaum's criticisms will hold little weight.
6 We must also distinguish Socratic aporia, a state of intellectual perplexity, from the stupefaction produced by Protagoras. The former is induced by contradictions resulting from intellectual inquiry, while the latter is an acquiescence resulting from a renunciation of all intellectual inquiry.
14 See also Nussbaum, "The speech of Alcibiades: a reading of the Symposium," for a suggestive reading of the dialogue that has influenced my own argument. In The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 165-99.