‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (III): Kinds of Socratic openness

When Socrates speaks of virtue or about virtuous living, his immediate point of reference is the ancient Greek virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom. Thus, one would be naturally inclined to ask questions about the relationship between Socratic discussion and virtuous living, about the definitions of each virtue, and about the defensibility of the ‘unity of virtue’ thesis. Well outside of this frame of reference lies a non-Greek virtue that is, I believe, exemplified in the Socratic way of life. This is the virtue of openness.

In lieu of defining the concept openness, I would like to assume that we know what it is and ask, ‘What kinds of openness does the Socrates of the early Socratic dialogues exhibit?’ Notably, there is the kind of openness to the examination of new proposals or to the re-examination of old proposals. This openness is only possible because Socrates does not profess to being wise and, as he states in Apology, knows this to be the case. Not being wise yet believing that the best human life is that which is devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, he can thereby invite anyone who professes to be wise or else who upholds strong enough convictions about some subject matter to be an answerer whose proposals will then be subjected to philosophical scrutiny.

The implication of being open to new proposals (might piety be F or courage be G?) or to the re-examination of old ones (for perhaps he and his former conversation partner had made an error in reasoning) he is open to having new conversation partners, whether these be older men claiming to be in possession of what it is he seeks or else relatively well-educated younger men willing to defend an account that they find compelling.

Thirdly, he is open to wherever it is that the inquiry goes and to whatever conclusion he and his interlocutor come to. In Crito, he tells his friend that they will examine what is the right thing to do (to follow the law or to head into exile) and will abide by whatever it is that reason discovers.

One can imagine Socrates, then, being open to various proposals, to a variety of individuals with whom he can inquire, and to following the inquiry wherever it leads and ends. There are, however, limits to his openness to starting points, individuals, and undertakings. He will not, for instance, speak with someone who does not say things in good faith. Nor with someone who speechifies, since giving a long speech prevents the careful examination of any statement and enables the speaker to make logical leaps in the argument. Nor with someone seeking only to score points, be clever, or flatter those in attendance. Nor with someone who simply loves elaborate puzzles or who engages in speculative questions that–to put it in Hume’s terms–go beyond the limits of human understanding. All these strategies pervert the pursuit of wisdom, not only by feigning to have wisdom without being ready to examine whether this is so but also by wasting Socrates’s time with mere verbal displays.

When, in Apology, Socrates seeks to examine his accuser Meletus, the man who has charged him with impiety and corruption, he is decidedly not at home for Meletus will not answer some of his questions, panders to the jury in some cases, and forestalls his search for truth. Here we are in the law court. The Apology, revealing the limits of philosophical inquiry, is meant to be a tragic work.