The Gadfly – PhilFri #4

This will make sense later

Do you ever want to sit around listening to people argue? I do. I remember watching First Take on ESPN in the mornings, then PTI in the afternoons. What would they do? Argue about sports. It was very rare that I would turn it off. I’d only turn it off if they started talking about baseball or if the arguments became shouting matches.

Who wins in an argument when there’s shouting or there’s physical force employed? When we discussed the Sophists, I used Thrasymachus having a conversation with Socrates as an example of some sophistry. They were arguing about what justice is. Is it what the majority say it is? Is it what the strong say it is? Is it what the gods command? Thrasymachus was aggressive in life as he was in arguments and his answer about justice shouldn’t surprise you: it’s what the strong want.

Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, wouldn’t use aggression to win, he’d use a shovel. Through questioning, he’d not only attempt to find the truth, but he would also annoy the hell out of his opponents who would find themselves tricked by their own statements. I think we can all relate to the feeling of saying something to someone who responds with a perfect counterexample that shows just how ridiculous our claims are. It’s maddening and so was Socrates.

Thrasymachus likely wanted to strike him after their exchange in Plato’s most famous dialogue. As you learn about Socrates today, I want you to think of someone who challenges you to evaluate your positions using your own mind to do so. Do you think you would appreciate that person? Or hate them?

There is a problem when it comes to understanding who Socrates was. Some people aren’t sure what positions he actually took and what were taken only by Plato and Xenophon, the two students who would later write about him. When you read his words in these authors’ works, you may not be getting the facts and just the facts. Instead, like you’re getting right now with me, you’re getting the version of Socrates that writer wanted to share. I lack the skills and knowledge to give you a proper historical account of Socrates, but I can tell you that, to me, Socrates seems like a huge pain in the ass.

I asked the students to tell me what love was. Regardless of how they answered, I would come back with another question. Students hate answering questions and Socrates had them in droves. This technique is named after Socrates and is about reaching the truth by offering a statement, then investigating it further to see if it holds water. If it can’t, it must be dismissed.

The thing about Socrates, and keep in mind this was more than two thousand years ago, is that his arguments would often end without a certain answer being discovered. He was okay with that. In fact, Socrates was okay with acknowledging his ignorance, but that didn’t mean he had to give up the attempt to find truth. If, for example, justice was good, then it needed to be hashed out.

Justice would be defined by Athenians when they condemned Socrates to die. Like Jesus after him, Socrates would make waves. He was charged with corrupting the youth and with not believing in the gods of the state. His defense and death, reported in Plato’s Crito , Phaedo, and Apology, are examples of someone sacrificing their own life to remain loyal to their beliefs. Socrates believed in truth and challenged the authorities who spread lies — while still honoring the laws of the state.

In this depiction of Socrates, he is seen as heroic, but if you take the dialogues as reliable, it would have been torturous to speak to him about anything meaningful to you. What is love?

Socrates, don’t hurt me.

Have comments about Socrates? Think I should have focused on something different in a three-minute read? Let me know in the comments and thank you for checking out this week’s Philosophy Friday.

Previous philosophy posts: PF 1, PF 2, PF 3


9 thoughts on “The Gadfly – PhilFri #4 Leave a comment

  1. It is the tragedy and the triumph of philosophy that Socrates was so annoying that the Athenian jury voted to put him to death, and by a greater majority than had found him guilty.

    The injustice of this so outraged the young dramatist Plato that he spent the rest of his life laying down a logical framework of Socrates’ own words to demonstrate that executing him had been far more of a crime than anything Socrates had been accused of.

    I love being part of a class reading one of the dialogues. Plato can make philosophy entertaining. Meno is an excellent example. It is thrilling to find the words and thoughts of this gadfly upon the Athenian mount nagging at my mind twenty-five centuries later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is an excellent text I was introduced to in grad school called The Great Conversation by Norman Melchert. He unravels philosophy as an ongoing conversation and shows how thinker B reacts to thinker A and A’s reality.

      There are things I don’t mention now because the rest of the story and you’re definitely seeing the reply Plato had in mind for the Sophists and the Athenians. There is a rage in Plato I love. I think I can relate to how he felt about injustice due to ignorance, the tyranny of the mob, and the tactics used to manipulate people. I’m discussing video advertisements on Facebook right now!

      I’ll stop because next Friday’s Plato’s day.


      1. I *have* heard of this. My grandfather had a copy. He had a set of books called Great Books of the Western World. And I remember that title.

        Never read it. Never looked inside any of them. Nor did anyone else, ever.

        I came to Plato via a different path, and yes, one can see Plato bubbling with rage and grief for the innocent old grandfather who had been murdered by the rich and powerful. He must have been angered at the time and determined that the memory and the wisdom would never die.

        Much like the disciples of Jesus, I suppose.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That makes me a little sad. I want to buy a collection like that and read from start to finish. I tried to do a book club based on something similar ( ) but we never really got off the ground.

        The links between Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and later Christianity is something I am becoming more interested in exploring. What led you to Plato?


      3. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are societies – some call them cults – where young people are taught Plato and Sanskrit and various Eastern philosophies.

        It is all deep discussion, tea and cakes, meditation twice a day, and really a lot of fun in a middle-class kind of way.

        But those at the top all seem to be older men, and those on the bottom all too often innocent young women.

        You may have noticed a certain rage in my own writing…

        Liked by 1 person

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