Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What's in it for Socrates?

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It can stand
alone, but is
 intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
What kind of conversation are Cephalus and Socrates sharing at the beginning of Plato's Republic? Are they intently pursuing an abstract point of intellectual interest to both? Or just shooting the shit on a very high level?

The conversation features an oath (329a1), two references to poets (329b-c, 331a), and several fine distinctions (329b, 329e, 330b, and of course 331b-c) — all signs that something fairly serious is happening. On the other hand, the conversation strays rapidly from one theme to another: old age; wealth; inheritance and money-making; the afterlife; and finally justice. People who are taking a theme seriously do not usually so easily abandon it.

Also, Socrates and Cephalus clearly do not play equal parts in the conversation. Socrates poses questions and Cephalus answers. The questions leading up to the refutation are basically of a personal nature: they ask about Cephalus's experience of old age, the basis of his ease, the source of his wealth, and his experience of the usefulness of that wealth. This pattern more nearly resembles an interview than either a casual conversation or a joint investigation of a theme.

The common presumption about Socratic interviews is that they are aimed at a demonstration of the interlocutor's ignorance on a theme he thinks he knows about, and that he poses as a learner only out of irony. However, Cephalus never presents himself as an authority on justice, and the interview with him centers at first around themes with which we can presume Cephalus is intimately familiar: wealth and extreme old age, two things of which Socrates has no experience.

So it is best to assume that, at least in the present case, Socrates genuinely thinks he can learn something from his interlocutor, especially as he reports his own motivations as though this were the case, not only in his speeches to Cephalus but also in the narration accompanying it. ("I admired him for saying that," Socrates says in the narration, "and I wanted him to tell me more, so I urged him on" (329d-e).) Later, he indicates that he thinks Cephalus among all the wealthy is especially likely to see the truth about money because he does not love it too much (330b-c).

The final question before the refutation, then, seems to indicate precisely what Socrates thinks he might be able to learn from Cephalus: what money is good for. Whatever else we may say about him, we must admit that he occupies a unique position for seeing the answer to this question, because he neither lacks experience of wealth nor suffers the distortion which besets most of those who do have such experience. Even if he does not have knowledge (in the sense of being able to give an account) of the answer, at the very least his report will be useful, even indispensable, for those who wish to give thought to this question, and whatever he says will have to be remembered even if it is somehow refuted.

Now if what is to be gained from Cephalus's speech at 330d-331b is a reliable perspective on the usefulness of wealth, then anything which might skew this perspective or throw it out of frame has to be dealt with before Socrates can learn from it. It may be Socrates's greatest virtue is that he can see clearly when someone who would gladly teach is unable to do so without the assistance of his student. If the way in which the youths in the Republic treat Socrates is due to his example, we may say that he has even taught this art to the younger generation.

The question, then, is what obstructions does Socrates see in Cephalus's presentation, and how does this warrant the sudden shift of emphasis from wealth to justice?