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I.F. Stone’s Socrates

In response to:

Cracking the Socrates Case from the March 31, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

Professor M.F. Burnyeat’s excellent review of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates [NYR, March 31] contains a small but not insignificant error which has often been made before. In Plato’s Apology 21 A, to which Professor Burnyeat appears to refer (as distinct from Xenophon’s Apology, 14) the oracle was asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The reply was: “there is no one wiser” (mædena sophoteron einai). This of course does not assert that Socrates is the wisest, or even that he is wise. It is nicely ambiguous, as the Delphic oracle often enjoyed being, and it could apply over a range of various possibilities from: everyone is ignorant but Socrates no more so than anyone else, to: everyone is wise but none more so than Socrates.

It is interesting that Socrates immediately proceeds to offer a fallacious version of the oracle (21 B): What could the god mean by saying I am the wisest? It is also of interest that he proposes to investigate the saying—that is, his version of it—and even to prove it wrong; although (as he also says) it is “ordained” (themis, an established right) that the gods do not lie. Hence, Socrates does not test what the god at Delphi actually said—a point indirectly supporting I.F. Stone’s view of Socrates’ belief in the gods of the city (although I think Stone is wrong for reasons that cannot be argued here). Nor does Socrates succeed in refuting his own version of the oracle.

Socrates’ fallacious interpretation is vital to how he (or Plato) constructs the dramatic character and logical force of his explanation and defense of his mission in Athens. Using the fallacy Socrates is also toying with and perhaps testing the acumen of his accusers and his judges. And perhaps Plato is doing the same with his readers.

H.S. Thayer

The City College of the

City University of New York

New York City

M.F Burnyeat replies:

I agree with Professor Thayer that “There is no one wiser than Socrates” does not entail ‘Socrates is wise.” But I would add that “Socrates is the wisest of men” does not entail “Socrates is wise” either. In a poor class the best pupil need not be any good at all. On this point the oracle’s pronouncement and Socrates’ interpretation of it do not differ.

That granted, the only difference between “Socrates is the wisest of men” and “There is no one wiser than Socrates” would seem to be the one noticed at the end of Professor Thayer’s first paragraph: “There is no one wiser than Socrates” is compatible with a state of affairs in which everyone is equally wise, whereas “Socrates is the wisest of men” asserts that everyone is less wise than Socrates. (In a class where every pupil gets the same marks, there is no one better than Paul and no one who is the best.) So the most that can be charged against Socrates’ interpretation of the oracle is that he has overlooked the possibility of everyone being equally wise.

But even this is unfair. Just as there are no experts in matters we all know equally well, so if everyone is equally wise, no one is wise and wisdom does not exist (for Plato’s awareness of the point, cf. Theaetetus 162c and 166d). The reason is that wisdom is by definition a minority attribute; to be wise is to have achieved an unusual or outstanding level of knowledge and discernment. The oracle said that no one had achieved a higher level of outstanding discernment than Socrates. Socrates took this to mean that his level of outstanding discernment was the highest. There was no fallacy here, only the surprise of discovering through his interrogation of various reputed experts that it was indeed a highly unusual and outstanding discernment on his part to be aware of his own ignorance.

Professor Hook leaves me no alternative but to conclude that he has not read Stone’s book with care and understanding. Here is Stone explaining why he objects to “stratospheric nonsense”:

This type of deceptive analogy and of semantic confusion was used by Socrates and his disciples to cover democracy with derision. Such analogies had antipolitical implications. If occupations as humble as shoemaking or horse-trading could not be carried on successfully without unattainable definitions, how could ordinary men be trusted to practice the far more complex art of governing their cities?

Nothing could be clearer than that Stone’s jibes at Plato’s philosophical arguments and doctrines are part and parcel of his attack on Socrates in defense of Athenian democracy. In Stone’s book Plato’s demand for rigorous definition is attributed to Socrates and pressed to an oligarchic conclusion. For Stone, as for Aristophanes, the figure of fun and the dangerous subversive are one and the same.

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