Why Socrates Refused to Write

Examining the role of discussion in philosophy
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Let’s imagine you invented a time machine.

After all the conferences, speeches, and meetings with the president, you decide you need a break, a holiday of sorts.

So, you hop into the machine.

Now let’s say you decide to visit Athens, around 400 BC.

You are met by a peculiar spectacle:

An unkempt old man, with a rough sort of beauty, is drifting through the streets, tailed by a group of aristocratic young gentlemen.

He stops passers-by and asks them a question, followed by another.  

Some ignore him. Others, after a while, express their vexation and storm off. A select few look interested.

The man he is currently interrogating (a decorated general by the looks of it), is austere and proud. In other words, not someone you’d like to anger.

As the discussion continues a frown creeps over his face, until it dominates his expression. Suddenly, he alights in anger, shakes his fist threateningly, and marches off in a fit of rage.

What you have observed is Socrates, famously known as “the Gadfly”, and widely hailed as the father of philosophy. He believed it his divine calling to spur the citizens of Athens into virtue, through, you guessed it, discussion; forcing them to re-examine their beliefs.

Also famously, and much to the frustration of historian’s, he didn’t write anything down. Why?

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A note, on the nature of philosophy

We must, when considering these arguments, bear in mind how Socrates viewed philosophy (and I tend to agree with him):

He saw it not as a corpus of ideas and theories, but a method of enquiry, that allows us to examine and adjust our beliefs, which should in turn guide our actions.

In other words, philosophy, rather than being obscure and academic, is integral to a good life. It’s primary purpose is improvement, by ridding us of complacency.  

Discussion as the primary medium of philosophy

Discussion and leisure lay at the heart of Athenian culture.

Aristocrats (usually older men) spent much of their time in the agora, flirting with attractive boys, and, more importantly (to posterity at least) engaging in intellectual conversation.  

Paradoxically, these ‘lazy’ old men made almost unrivalled strides in philosophy and science. Perhaps discussion is the way to go?

So, let us examine the arguments. Should discussion be the primary medium of philosophy?

Discussion encourages ‘true’ knowledge

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

Plato

Wisdom isn’t external, but rather must be internal, proceeding from memory and conviction. True knowledge then, is written on our souls, rather than the page.

But not only does writing actively detract from ‘true’ knowledge, discussion also contributes to it:

Because you cannot speak convincingly about something you do not believe and have not internalized. Discussion brings us closer to our ideas, to wisdom, while writing only detaches us from them.

And it is only if we possess true knowledge that philosophy may become a means to improvement, a guide of action, rather than dispassionate discourse.

Plato’s theory of knowledge

Plato believed the soul to be immortal.

Further, he posits that all the knowledge from our past lives accumulates in our soul, and therefore learning is simply a process of recollection.

And it is only by asking questions that we may draw out this innate truth.

While we may not agree with Plato’s theory, we must agree with this: Questions are negative in nature, and require positive matter to be presented, to be drawn forth.

And questions are the driving force of any conversation.

But writing, which presents primarily positive matter, does not provoke thought. Rather, it stifles it.  

Philosophy is a flame, not a structure

close-up of lighted candle

The essence of philosophy is questions, not ideas.

It is a shifting sandbank of doubt.

And we cannot erect an edifice of ideas atop a foundation of skepticism, and so hope to reach the heavens of truth.

Philosophy is not a structure of corpuses, but an owl, sailing on the warm winds of doubt, piercing the night by keen enquiry.

Ideas only become a burden, inviting analysis and criticism, encumbering her every movement.

Each individual, each generation, should seek to construct its own truth, rather than attempt to build upon the past, which is futile.

Philosophy, rather than a vessel of ideas, is a flame of doubt, igniting the souls of each successive generation with fervent questions.

And discussion is a medium infinitely more suited to passing the flame, rather than ideas, in the great relay of human history.

So, what about writing?

Admittedly writing still has a role, in bringing the spirit of enquiry to a much wider audience.  

Ideas should be assessed not in terms of intellectual value persay, but in their ability to spark doubt and independent thought. Leave history to the historians, and doubt to the philosophers.

As it usually is in life, we must find a balance, and compromise, as Plato did, so that we may pass the flame to posterity, reinstating philosophy in its most ancient role: the gadfly of society. 

‘Discussion as the primary medium of philosophy’ is therefore not just an intra-disciplinary concern, but an inter-disciplinary one, that will irrevocably shift the way philosophers interact with academics and the public alike.

After much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself

Plato (The Seventh Letter)


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Brian Scoles
3 months ago

Louis, I always look forward to reading your posts. Plato’s dialogues are far and away my favorite philosophical reads. Here’s to all the good, old-fashioned gadflies out there helping us to think things through more carefully and clearly. And here’s to the younger wisdom-seekers such as yourself!

Louis Kruger
3 months ago
Reply to  Brian Scoles

I must say I really enjoy Plato as well. At first I thought I would read the Republic and get it over with, but I found myself immersed in his literature, and I ended up reading maybe 20 or so dialogues.

I think he really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the purpose and importance of philosophy.