Being refuted is better than refuting: Gorgias

Because I think it better, Socrates tells Polus, to be refuted than to refute. Being refuted releases one from false belief, and that is a better thing than freeing someone from false belief. And I count having false beliefs as a very bad thing indeed.

You do another a favor by refuting him. He had beliefs that he hadn’t examined before or not adequately anyway, beliefs that made him, doubtless unbeknownst to himself, quite confused or else exceptionally arrogant. Possibly both. By refuting him, you show him how incompatible his beliefs are, how the one belief in question will need to be gotten rid of or revised, how he would be better off living without that belief (which is false) than were he to continue living with it (knowing now that it is false).

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Socrates contra violence

The great sophist Hippias is losing his patience. Hippias had given what was proclaimed to be a fine (kalon) speech, and Socrates had remained silent. Afterward, Hippias agreed to entertain questions from those in attendance. Socrates sees his opening.

During the speech, he couldn’t understand how Hippias could insist, if only in passing, that in Homer’s eyes Achilles was a better man than Odysseus, Achilles being brave and truthful, Odysseus wily. Now, asks Socrates, do you hold the liar to be one kind of person and the truthful person another, distinct kind? Oh, yes, Hippias agrees.

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The tension between Zen and Socrates

I am becoming more aware each day of the tension between the Socratic way of life and Zen practice. For Socrates, there is in the beginning the logos, or speech saying what is the case. For Zen, there is silence before the existence of the spoken word. The tension can be plainly stated: is knowledge primordially discursive or non-discursive? I do not know.

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Boasting in Laches: Homer vs. Socrates

Nicias has just been refuted by Socrates, and Laches, who had earlier fallen prey to Socratic questioning, is gloating. Laches:

But I, my dear Nicias, felt sure you would make the discovery after you were so scornful of me while I was answering Socrates. In fact, I had great hopes that with the help of Damon’s wisdom you would solve the whole problem.

Nicias answers him:

That’s a fine attitude of yours, Laches, to think it no longer to be of any importance that you yourself were just now shown to be a person who knows nothing about courage. What interests you is whether I will turn out to be a person of the same kind. Apparently it will make no difference to you to be ignorant of those things which a man of any pretensions ought to know, so long as you include me in your ignorance. (200a)

A first reading may miss the historical ramifications of this fascinating exchange. We may agree with Nicias that Laches shouldn’t be boastful just because his friend has been put in his place, both discussants having been shown not to know what courage is. Believing this may cause us to pass too quickly over a conceptual-historical transition from the Homeric to the Socratic moral world.

Recall that Nicias and Laches are both military men. Recall also that they are children of Homer, having been raised in a culture that is steeped in the Iliad and its conceits. In the heroic Homeric world, the hero displays his courage by performing great deeds as well as, and just a surely, by boasting, taunting, bragging, and getting good and properly angry with one’s friends (stoking their courage to fight, rallying their spirits to hold fast) and with one’s enemies (poking fun at their cowardice). One’s ethical conduct is, in a broad sense, governed by loyalty to one’s comrades and vengefulness toward with one’s enemies.

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Socratic mental discipline: Laches and the question of courage

Courage is a kind of knowledge, Nicias says. It’s the kind that’s concerned with the fearful and the hopeful. But that’s nonsense, Laches replies. Because I take wisdom to be different from courage. Well, let him answer, says Socrates. And indeed let’s not just belittle our friend, Nicias. If he turns out, upon examination, to be wrong, then let’s instruct him.

And with this passage in Plato’s Laches, there is much already to be said and learned about Socratic mental discipline. Laches, having heard something strange, weird, jumps to the conclusion, based on his own assumptions, that his friend’s proposal must be nonsensical as well as incorrect. Essentially, he begs the question, and this begging the question could be said to be not simply a momentary lapse for Laches but, more damagingly, a character defect. In a discussion whose subject is courage, begging the question as a disposition (if I can be allowed to call it that) is not just foolhardy but also cowardly: cowardly because it involves running ahead of others or retreating from the examination when the thing to do is to slowly examine something odd, peculiar, vexing and to do so with an open mind.

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