Even if it was the case that for many hundreds of years Aristotle was referred to as “The Philosopher” and the “Master of those that know”, his teacher was Plato and his alma mater was the Academy. We do not know enough to be certain but a fair conjecture would be that Socrates did not have a navigational star or mentor in his philosophically formative years as a young thinker. We do witness in the Symposium Socrates being given a lesson in methodical argumentation(philosophy?) by Diotima and in these early moments of Philosophy it may have occurred to Socrates that a reliable method of questioning and argumentation are necessary prerequisites to leading the examined life. It is of course a tribute to the love of demonstrating excellence in the public realm of the ancient Greeks that we are able to today to bear witness (via preserved texts that have survived millennia) to the importance of discussion and debate in the life of the polis. Gilbert Ryle in his work “Plato’s Progress” suggests that Plato might have composed his elenctic and dialectical dialogues for competitions attached to the Olympic games. If so there must have been relatively large audiences which is another tribute to the Greek mind and culture that was the womb of such activity.
We have been made aware via the works of Plato and Aristotle that there is a body of knowledge which it is important to communicate and learn as part of being a citizen in a polis. For Plato this was a body which can be written down as well as performed in arenas reserved for such purposes. Plato, more than Socrates, perhaps was concerned with the search for a theory which could explain the mysteries and puzzles brought to the attention of the public via such forums. Philosophy seemed to Plato to be the natural home or theatre for the kind of investigation we are presented with. Out of this womb of Greek Culture and the theatre of theoretical investigation the Aristotelian quintuplets of metaphysics, ethics epistemology, aesthetics and political Philosophy would eventually be born. As we know Socrates thought of himself as some kind of midwife in the process of bringing philosophical offspring into the world. His method of elenchus was probably modeled on a public method of competitive argument called dialectic, which was a form of a verbal duel between two people. A questioner asks an answerer what Ryle terms “conceptual” “ what” questions and the answer is only allowed to respond in the affirmative or the negative in the name of defending a thesis which is the theme of the interrogation. The questioners task is to entice from his opponent an answer that is not compatible with the thesis the answerer is defending. An audience judges the competition. It is not to difficult to see how such an action could be the source of many of the aporetic philosophical problems both Plato and Aristotle attempt in their various ways to provide solutions for. If this is true there might have been two sources of the dynamics of Greek Philosophy: dialectic(eristic and elenchus) and the recorded thoughts of the great thinkers.
Ryle’s “Plato’s Progress” has this to say on the relation of this rhetorical activity to such issues as they are taken up in Aristotle’s work “The Topics”:
“The Topics is a training manual for a special pattern of disputation governed by strict rules which takes the following shape. Two persons agree to have a battle. One is to be the questioner, the other answerer. The questioner can, with certain qualifications only ask questions:and the answerer can, with certain qualifications only answer “Yes” or “no”. So the questioner’s questions have to be properly constructed for “yes” or “no” answers. This automatically rules out a lot of types of questions, like factual questions, arithmetical questions, and technical questions. Roughly, it only leaves conceptual questions whatever these may be. The answerer begins by undertaking to uphold a certain “thesis”, for example, that justice is in the interests of the stronger, or that knowledge is sense perception. The questioner has to try to extract from the answerer by a series of questions an answer or conjunction of answers inconsistent with the original thesis and so drive him into an “elenchus”. The questioner has won the duel if he succeeds in getting the answerer to contradict his original thesis, or else in forcing him to resign, or in reducing him to silence, to an infinite regress, to mere abusiveness, to pointless yammering or to outrageous paradox. The answerer has won if he succeeds in keeping his wicket up until the close of play. The answerer is allowed to object to the question on the score that it is two or more questions in one or that it is metaphorical or ambiguous. The duel is fought out before an audience…The exercise is to have a time limit.”
The above form of dueling is one form upon which the Socratic method of elenchus may have been modeled. During per-Socratic times and during the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the above form of elenctic interaction went under the name of “eristic”. Now it is important to note that the above form of elenchus differed from the Socratic method in one very important respect. The aim of the Socratic method was primarily pedagogical, i.e primarily aimed at getting his interlocutors to acknowledge some truth about justice or themselves or both. Whereas the dueling parties engaged in eristic are primarily seeking victory and prestige, via the winning of a competition. In spite of this fundamental difference, we should recognize that eristic presupposed considerable powers of reasoning. Yet it should also be remembered that the Sophists used this form of dialectic for financial gain, thus turning something essentially pedagogical into a solipsistic narcissistic secondary art form. Socratic elenchus whilst not aiming at victory over one’s interlocutor did, unfortunately, have the secondary effect of humiliating ones opponent, largely owing to the fact that Socratic refrained from exposing his own assumptions and knowledge in the light of the discussion. He has some idea of what justice is but is reluctant to expose it to his interlocutors. Plato may be registering his concern over this fact in the Republic when he allows Socrates the lecturer(was this a part of Socrates’ repertoire or was this a literary creation by Plato?) to expound on the theory of forms, the allegory of the cave and the waves of change that need to sweep over a polis if it to avoid ruin and destruction. This after 4 displays of elenchus in relation to Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus and Glaucon. In the lecture that follows everything is laid open to the eyes including hidden assumptions noble lies and even justifications for infanticide. Ryle points out as so many other commentators have, that the conception of Philosophy Plato has changes in significance between the early and the late dialogues. In the work of the Republic, we may be witnessing the dialogue in which the shift actually occurred.
Indeed it may also be necessary to point out that the shift from eristic to the Socratic method in itself may also signify a shift in the conception of the nature of Philosophy.
A dialectic of the Socratic kind, i.e. the Socratic method, was aiming at the truth and knowledge and taking a position in the battle of pro and contra reasons in relation to a thesis. This was clearly a development of eristic. We should also note, however, that Socrates himself was accused of trickery(a common complaint in dialectical “duels” and even in modern debating) in his argumentation by at least two interlocutors(Euthyphro and Thrasymachus) and we find him characterising what he is doing as “barren of offspring”, as “maieutic”, in spite of the fact that his method distinguished itself from that of eristic, and that it was in search of a quarry best characterised in terms of a definition. Socrates’ elenctic method was in that sense both teleologically and formally rigorous. It was probably the case that behind the formulation of Socrates’ questions there was an awareness of structured assumptions and their logical consequences. The dialogue of Plato’s Republic clearly adds a dimension to this Socratic rigor and underlying structure(The theory of Forms). The method, assumptions, explorations and subsequent definitions were now in the lecture of Socrates forming themselves into a theory of a world of things, artifacts, souls, cities, and Gods. Socrates in the later books of the Republic is exploring the world in a different manner which commentators identify with the Philosophy of Plato. The world was now being subjected to a questioning that demanded answers that would fit into some kind of system. Dialectic becomes logic and demands systematic reflection of a Parmenidean rather than Heraclitean kind: reflection upon that which endures through change, reflection upon that which is the principle that determines what a thing is in its nature and also ultimately a principle that determines what the soul is in its nature. These changes also signify an increased concern with the general ideas of Truth and The Good.
The major theme of Ryle’s book “Plato’s Progress” suggests that Plato’s progressive path led from eristic and dialectic where the emphasis is upon negatively defending a thesis by not abandoning it in the face of counterargument if you are an answerer, or aiming to destroy a thesis or force a defender to resign, to the formulation of an aporetic question which demanded systematic resolution via theoretical justifications. In this phase, we also see in the later dialogues of Plato a concern with the history of a problem, something we have not encountered before.
Also in this work, Ryle fascinatingly suggests a hypothesis that Plato was sued for defamation of character by a group of the leading figures criticized in his dialogues. The suit, Ryle claims, cost Plato his fortune and resulted in some kind of ban on Plato teaching eristic dueling and dialectic to students under 30 years of age. We can note that in the Republic Plato still believed dialectic to be important as a prelude to understanding the ideas of justice and the good and the true and this becomes part of the training of potential rulers when they are over the age of 30. Plato may well have abandoned the theory of forms in his late thought but retained the view that the true and the good were timeless standards by which to evaluate thought, action, and forms of life. From some points of view, it is a credit to Plato that he positions the Good as the highest standard of evaluation in Philosophy thus indicating the important role of practical reasoning.
Socrates’ progress moved in a line leading from investigating the physical world in a “What is this in its nature” frame of mind, sifting through physical phenomenon as numerous as the grains of sand in a desert. He went in search of answers that would fall into the category of Causality and in the spirit of Heraclitus and Anaxagoras. The latter influence led to a change in the direction of his investigations. “All is mind” was the new assumption and Socratic investigations began to search for parts of the mind (soul) and meaningful forms of life. This journey required developing the method of elenchus. This method led to the form of life Socrates characterized as “the examined life” which in the mind of Socrates was infinitely superior in terms of the criterion of self-sufficiency to the wealthy or powerful forms of life so attractive to everyone. For Socrates, these latter forms of life were so filled with Heraclitean flux, change and reversals of fortune because of an unhealthy dependence on ever-changing elements of life which we all know is going to end. The examination of forms of life and the question of the meaning of life raises the question of death. In the dialogues of Crito and Phaedrus, we find Socrates sitting in his cell awaiting death by execution. He reasons that however one regards death it must be a good and therefore nothing to be afraid of. This in itself suffices to praise Plato’s emphasis upon the standard of the good which ought to be used to evaluate all forms of life and even death. The event of Socrates’ execution thus might have provided Plato with the inspiration to formulate a theory of forms in which the form of the good is the supreme form. Another key Philosophical relationship, that with Aristotle, perhaps beginning from a joint sojourn in Syracuse may have subsequently led Plato to abandon the theoretical forms in favor of practical laws. Plato’s work “The Laws” is not an elenctic dialogue but rather a lecture and constitutes Plato’s second attempt to create a Callipolis. Plato speculates about a small hypothetical city called Magnesia run by a Nocturnal Council that has responsibility for the cities laws. This council of wise men, paradoxically, contains no philosophers but only officials trained in maths astronomy, theology and law. Many of the Republic’s “constructions” and “social restrictions” are present. Families and marriage are encouraged but procreation of children is determined in accordance with some mysterious eugenic standard and excommunication is the penalty for adultery.The recommended relation of citizens to God is also set out in the Laws which is a school text licensed by a powerful Minister of Education who sits on the Nocturnal Council. This text has the purpose of reinforcing the belief in God and his goodness. Heresy and impiety are illegal. The interesting question here is whether Socrates would have been permitted to live in Magnesia and live his examined life subjecting other citizens to bouts of elenchus. Socrates is no longer the prime mover in Plato’s later dialogues/lectures. At approximately the same time as he was composing the Laws which he was rewriting until his death, Plato was engaged in a project of religious and scientific significance—the composition of a work called “Timaeus”. This dialogue sees Socrates as the witness to a lecture on the history of the universe. Here the Demiurge of Anaxagoras organizes the initial indescribable chaos into an order containing the good and the beautiful. There are recognizable Aristotelian aspects in the 4 elements and prime matter, with life emerging at a certain stage of the creative process from prime matter. There are also non-Aristotelian elements such as an atomism in which differently shaped atoms explain the different elements. Space is somehow involved in the transformation of the elements into more complex forms. This narrative includes an account of our bodily organs and bodily functions such as perception, in a manner very reminiscent of Aristotle. We also encounter in this dialogue/lecture a listing of diseases of body and mind evoking the spectre of Freud especially given the fact that we know it was the work of Plato which was the inspiration for the final phase of Freudian theorizing about a stoical mind located on the terrain of the battle between Eros and Thanatos. The impression we are given is that Plato is moving away from his earlier Socratic commitments,and the later theory of forms, in an entirely new direction which reminds us of Aristotle. There appears to be a form of hylomorphism emerging to reconcile the world of ideas with the physical world and the soul with the body. Anthony Kenny in his work “Ancient Philosophy (Vol 1 of his New History of Western Philosophy) points out that Plato’s work the “Timaeus” became Plato’s most influential work up to the period of the Renaissance:
“Plato’s teleological account of the forming of the world by a divinity was not too difficult for medieval thinkers to assimilate to the creation story of Genesis. This dialogue was a set text in the early days of the University of Paris and 300 years later Raphael in his “School of Athens” gave Plato in the centre of the fresco only the Timaeus to hold”
In this Fresco we find Plato pointing upward to the heavens and Aristotle pointing ahead of him. Was Aristotle pointing to the natural and social world or was he pointing to the viewers of the future? One can wonder. There have been many interpretations of this constellation of Philosophers from the school of Athens. The predictions of things to come is also found in Plato’s dialogue /lecture “Parmenides” in which the central character Parmenides produces a very Aristotelian criticism of the theory of the forms in the course of a dialogue with Socrates. In this dialogue it very much looks as if the master of elenchus is being given a dose of his own medicine. At the close of the dialogue, Parmenides, probably seeing in the position of Socrates more than just a trace of Heraclitean thought compliments Socrates upon his powers of argumentation, at the same time suggesting a more thorough training whilst Socrates is still young. Parmenides suggests that Socrates should not attempt to rest with premature conceptions of justice beauty and goodness in case the truth about these standards is lost because this will have the consequence that the multitude will cease to believe in the existence of these ideas.
Perhaps, Plato might argue, Parmenides should have been at the centre of Raphaels fresco pointing forward to the future.