Friday, October 26, 2012

Cephalus Confuted

As I tried to show in my previous two posts introducing the problem of dialectic in Plato:
  1. The correct understanding of what Plato means by "dialectic" hinges on a correct interpretation of Socratic refutation.
  2. The structure of refutation itself naturally encourages an interpretation of it in terms of conflicting propositions and personalities, and no alternative to this interpretation immediately presents itself.
Thus the interpretation of Socratic refutation must begin with a refutation of its own. The true nature of his elenchus will not be able to show itself as long as a more obvious form of refutation loudly declares itself, any more than, say, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" can be appreciated in all its deep wit while we continue to mishear the title as though it said "The Road Less Traveled."

In order to achieve this necessary refutation as completely as possible, we should follow the pattern of refutation of Socrates himself. That is, instead of throwing ourselves directly into disputations, we should first let the very thing which is to be refuted show itself in its entirety. Socrates called this practice of attentive drawing out of a hypothesis the "maieutic art." The son of a midwife, Socrates claimed to have a kind of art of midwifery himself, by virtue of which he could positively contribute to conversations despite his own ignorance of anything worth knowing. He knew how to ask questions in just such a way that a thought could come out entire, in all its dimensions, without anything held back. Only after this complete publication or externalization of the thought would he inspect it to determine whether it was a real understanding or only "a phantom" (a problem his mother never had to deal with, unless maybe she did some work in L.A., circa 2000, via time machine1). A thought has to be delivered in its most comprehensive form before it can be decisively affirmed or dismissed. In the same way, we should try to see as fully as possible why Socrates might seem to be playing the sophist or setting up counter-positions and paradoxes when he proves Cephalus wrong. 

The refutation is as follows:
A fine sentiment, Cephalus, but, speaking of this very thing itself, namely, justice, are we to say unconditionally that it is speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred? Or is doing these things sometimes just, sometimes unjust? I mean this sort of thing, for example: Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks for them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn't return them, and wouldn't be acting justly if he did. Nor should anyone be willing to tell the whole truth to someone who is out of his mind. 
That's true. 
Then the definition of justice isn't speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed. (331b-c)
But Cephalus never claims that "speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed" is the definition of justice. In fact, he never makes any claims about the definition of justice at all. He hardly even mentions it. He refers to "injustices" (330e) and being "unjust" (330d) and once to a "just and pious life" (331a), only in order to explain what he thinks money is useful for. Socrates seems to be pouncing on the opportunity to prove someone wrong, even if he has to put words in Cephalus's mouth to do it.

Furthermore, on a literary level, Socrates seems to have some motivation for showing Cephalus up. He has just been told that his way of life is a sure path to misery, since "a good person wouldn't easily bear old age if he were poor, but a bad one wouldn't be at peace with himself even if he were wealthy" (330a).

So is Socrates just jamming some dialectic sauce down an old man's throat for thrills? We'll see next week.


1HOLY CRAP everyone let's write a fanfic where Dr. Who takes Socrates's mom to… um, you know what let's finish this post first)