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18 Socrates as an Educator (1931)

I. Socrates and Plato

The manner of his life, and still more the manner of his death, have made Socrates an outstanding figure in the history of European thought and morals. That his doctrine has not till recently been adequately understood is due to the fact that he wrote nothing and that his views, fully and clearly as they are expounded in Plato's dialogues, have been taken to be Plato's own. Owing especially to the work of the late Professor John Burnet during his occupancy (1892 to 1926) of the chair of Greek in the University of St. Andrews, it is now possible for us not only to recognise the Greek philosophers as the founders of modern science, but to distinguish and appreciate the contributions of Socrates and Plato to science and general culture.

The supreme importance of Plato is not diminished by the recognition, which his own dialogues enable us to make, of the extent of his indebtedness to Socrates. The marking off of the earlier dialogues as thoroughly Socratic permits of a more careful scrutiny of the later dialogues in which the doctrines of Socrates are either criticised or not referred to at all. It is from these, and most of all from the Laws, that, according to Burnet, Plato's position and influence are to be truly estimated. In his posthumously published work, Platonism (originally delivered as lectures in the University of California in 1926), Burnet actually claims for Plato a decisive influence on Roman law. “It is not, in my opinion, too much to say that what we call Roman Law is not so much Roman as Hellenistic, and that it has its origin in the Laws of Plato.”

The explanation of this apparently extravagant claim is simple. The Academy, which Plato founded, was not only an institute for scientific research but a school for training rulers and legislators, and it sent out such legislators to a considerable number of Greek states, both during and after Plato's time. Their influence would naturally be in accordance with Plato's ideas of sound politics, and the fact that he spent his last years in drawing up the legislative scheme which is set forth in the Laws, shows that he wished the work to be carried on on the same lines. When, at a later date, these Hellenic states came under Roman domination, it was found that the original civic law of Rome was inapplicable to them, and the adaptable Romans solved the difficulty by developing a new system which embodied much of the Academic legislation of the conquered states. It was this system which spread throughout the Empire,


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while the older Roman law was confined to Rome itself and “became of less and less importance as time went on”. This, Burnet contends, is the explanation of the extraordinary similarities between Plato's dialogue and what we now call Roman Law.

The educational proposals of the Laws are particularly important, as Burnet had previously pointed out in his Greek Philosophy from Thales to Plato, for the estimation of Plato's originality and influence. Burnet lays special emphasis on the scheme of higher education elaborated in the dialogue. “We may easily miss the significance of Plato's proposals as to the education of boys and girls from the age of ten onwards. We must remember that in his day there were no regular schools for young people of that age. They were taken to one teacher for music-lessons and to another to be taught Homer, and there was no idea of coordinating all these things in a single building under a single direction with a regular staff of teachers. By founding the Academy Plato had invented the university, and now he has invented the secondary school. In consequence we find such schools everywhere in the Hellenistic period, and the Romans adopted it with other things. That is the origin of the medieval grammar school and of all that has come out of it since.”

This recognition of the practical genius of Plato was not possible to those who regarded the Republic as the fine flower of Platonism, and neglected the later dialogues. It may indeed be said that it was at no time a reasonable view that Plato, in order to defend the memory of his master, Socrates, should have written dialogues attributing to him views that he never held. There would have been no reverence or even decent feeling about that. But it was only after the dialogues had been fairly definitely dated that Burnet could satisfactorily show, first, that all the dialogues up to the Republic expound a common philosophy, secondly, that, if this is not the philosophy of Socrates, we know next to nothing about his views, since all the alternative versions depend upon material arbitrarily selected from Plato's account, and, finally, that the later dialogues in which, with one explicable exception, Socrates plays no prominent part, expound a different philosophy, which is led up to by criticism of the Socratic.

The difference is equally marked in the sphere of education and politics, and in the Timaeus we have a definite reference to the shortcomings of Socrates in this regard. The point is, as Burnet puts it, that Socrates “could paint the picture of an ideal state but could not make the figures move. He is made to confess that he could not, for instance, represent his state as engaged in the struggle for existence with other states; to do that men are required who by nature and training have a gift for practical politics as well as for philosophy.” In a word, Socrates was deficient in the historical sense. He imagined, as the earlier dialogues show, that all social and political problems can be solved on purely ethical grounds, by direct reference to what is good. Plato, on the other hand, saw the impossibility of making progress by the application of an unreal standard of perfection, and the necessity


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of working with existing political forces. The life and teaching of Socrates showed him, as nothing else could, the opportunism of both the leading Athenian parties and the consequent political bankruptcy of Athens. But he did not despair of the political development of other Greek states, and though his efforts were unsuccessful at the time, they were not, as we have seen, without a considerable later influence.

II. Education and Politics

The uncompromising attitude of Socrates rendered it inevitable that he should come into conflict with the Athenian state, though it was not until Athens was definitely on the decline that his teaching was regarded as a serious danger. Even if the democrats had not suspected that there was an actual connection between Socrates and the aristocratic party, his criticism of the existing form of government, threatened as it was both from within and from without, might well have been regarded as profitable only to their enemies.

This is the natural objection to any unhistorical political doctrine, anarchistic or theocratic, which appeals to an ideal “rule of right”. The theory of rigid guardianship expounded in the Republic and the practical deification of Law in the Crito might be taken as decisive indications of the opposition of Socrates to anarchism. But, though there may be a difference in ethical conceptions, there is remarkably little practical or logical difference between the anarchistic and the theocratic positions. All our social and political difficulties will be solved, for the one, if we are governed by the spirit of equality and refrain entirely from oppression, for the other, if we are governed by the representatives of God and refrain entirely from disobedience. Neither view can give us any idea of how such conditions can be satisfied or even approached, how we can promote equality or recognise God's representatives. But each implies that the existing temporal power does not exemplify the rule of right, that it holds its position by oppression or usurpation. And thus both tend to support, and especially to be regarded by the ruling body as supporting, those political forces which are “in opposition” but are striving to secure domination.note

We can see, therefore, that it was natural for the democratic rulers to desire to suppress Socrates. But this is not to say that that desire was to their credit, or that severe criticism of their regime was not called for. Certainly “Be guided by what is good” is inadequate as a solution of political problems, but a scientific consideration of what sort of life is a good one (and, for that matter, of what constitutes oppression) is not politically and socially valueless. What gave particular force to the Socratic criticism was that the political ideas of the democrats were themselves quite unhistorical. The worshipful Athenian people, the sacred tradition of the city, were just as ideally conceived and reverenced as


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any metaphysical “Good” could be. The demonstration of the hollowness of these pretensions may have been historically inadequate and politically negative, but, as far as it went, it was logically sound. And the disinterestedness of Socrates's criticism of the democracy and its leaders, as well as of those professional educators who were called Sophists, made it doubly strong. To teach the youth to accept the customs of the city in which they lived may have been an essential part of the theory and practice of “getting on”, but it implied the existence of interested motives which such teachers were unwilling to reveal.

This fact alone gave Socrates an enormous dialectical advantage, and it was further increased, at his trial, by the existence of a political amnesty. In consequence the real charge of fostering aristocratic sentiments could not be brought, and the teaching of Socrates had to be attacked on religious grounds. Socrates pointed out in his defence that his accusers could give only the vaguest account of what his teaching really was, and he strongly denied that he was a teacher at all, in the sense in which they used the term. “If you have heard”, he says to the judges, “that I undertake to educate men, and exact money from them for so doing, that is not true; though I think it would be a fine thing to be able to educate men, as Gorgias of Leontini, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis do.” In fact, if what these Sophists give is education, then Socrates is no educator, and he cannot be rightly accused of corrupting the youth by the inculcation of false doctrines, for he has never given doctrinal instruction to anyone.

But Socrates did not deny, but rather gloried in the fact, that he had striven by example and precept to inculcate the spirit of criticism, to encourage the questioning of received opinions and traditions; and nothing that the Athenians could do, he declared, would prevent his pursuing this task while he lived. “The unexamined life is not worth living”; to lead such a life is to be in the lowest state of ignorance, ignorant even of one's own ignorance. And therefore he would not cease to call upon the Athenians to give an account of their lives, as the facts of life would compel them to do even if they got rid of him.

The Socratic education begins, then, with the awakening of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided. This was utterly opposed to the doctrines of the democrats. What education meant for them is seen in the Apology, where Meletus, the leading accuser, describes Socrates as the sole perverter of the youth, while everyone else improves them; and again in the Meno, where Anytus, the democratic leader (who was really responsible for the prosecution, but kept in the background because the issue was nominally not political but religious), warns Socrates not to be so free with his criticisms of Athenians and their ways. According to these good patriots, to be educated meant simply to become a good Athenian, and that was brought about by enjoying the society of the respectable citizens of Athens.

Now the position of Socrates is simply that this uncritical acceptance


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of tradition, this acquiring of Athenian virtue, is no education at all. There is no virtue in being an Athenian, no peculiar and superior Athenian brand of goodness, but goodness is the same wherever it occurs, and what passes as good at Athens may not be really good at all. It requires the most careful scrutiny, and until this process of examination has begun, education has not begun. To see the full force of this criticism, we may substitute Australia for Athens, and imagine Socrates saying, “You think there is some virtue in being Australian, and that a good Australian is better than a good Greek or Italian, but what you call goodness is just your own ignorance.” Clearly such talk would be infuriating, clearly also it would be very hard to answer; for it would only be by way of afterthought, as a mere “rationalisation”, that any suggestion as to what the local virtue consisted in, could be made.

III. Knowledge and Opinion

For Socrates, then, what is fundamental to true education is not tradition but criticism. Tradition itself invites criticism, because it represents certain things as worth while but is unable to give any account of their value. Thus the aim of education is to give an account of things, to find out the reason why, and thus put knowledge in the place of opinion. Opinion is all that we get from tradition, all that we get from politicians and Sophists, all that the public, “the great Sophist”, is concerned with. For all these what is current is correct. But what is current is a shifting and uncertain thing, it is not “tied down by the chain of the cause” (the reason why), and so may leave us in the lurch just when we are surest of it. Opinion may be right but only by accident, and without criticism, without the discovery of reasons, we cannot say whether it is right or wrong. We cannot even say whether we understand a received opinion in the same sense as does its promulgator, or whether, when we apply a tradition to a new case, we are not misinterpreting it. The only test is popular clamour, and that is the least steadfast thing of all.

Thus opinions and traditions change, and change without reason, and yet we continue to follow them. If we want to know what we are doing and thus have real guidance in our lives, we must get a grasp of sound principles; and such principles will be upheld for their own sake, and not because they have been handed on to us. Indeed, for the reasons given, they cannot be handed on but must be arrived at by a man's own thinking. Such thinking may, however, be stimulated by opinions and particularly by questions. Thus we find Socrates, in the Theaetetus, claiming the power of bringing men's thoughts to birth by means of this process of questioning, and this is the process of education as far as the educator is concerned. But the really important process is that which goes on in the mind of the pupil, and that is thinking or learning. If the aim of education is to be fulfilled, the Sophistic method of instruction must be avoided, and the dialectic method, in which the pupil is led to form his own hypotheses and test them, adopted. Instruction, by discouraging the critical exercise


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of the pupil's intelligence, prevents the real acquisition of knowledge.

This theory is worked out in connection with the doctrine of reminiscence as expounded in the Meno and the Phaedo. Under the stimulus of objects of opinion we recall those criteria or standards which alone give the former their meaning, and with which we were directly acquainted in a previous state. Divesting this view of its mythical character, we may say that the question is of finding certain self-explanatory principles, in the light of which we can estimate the transient objects of ordinary life, and thus have settled and organised knowledge. The systematic character of a man's thinking is the test of his progress from opinion to knowledge, as the orderly character of his actions is the test of his progress towards goodness.

Now this implies the ascription, in the Socratic theory, of a certain relative value to opinions and traditions. They may stimulate our search for what is of settled value and thus for an organised way of life. But in themselves they are inadequate, they cannot in the proper sense of the word be learned, because they have not been taken up into a self-explanatory system. The first point that Socrates always makes in his criticism of opinions and traditions is their mutually contradictory character. They imply a diversity of principle which is necessarily bad, weak and miserable; the only strong and happy life is the single-minded pursuit of the good. Here we have one of the weak points of the Socratic position, since it implies that all men should function alike. But this does not invalidate the characterisation of education as the finding of a way of life, as contrasted with the mere acquisition of a number of arts or accomplishments. As tradition may have a relative value, so may the development of a particular aptitude, but it must be made a part of an organised way of life.

We can see from this that Plato's scheme of secondary education owed something to the fundamental conceptions of Socrates. It is also of interest to notice that Socrates, in his criticism of the Sophistic training in accomplishments, was cutting at the root of the modern psychological theory of abilities. Abilities, taken by themselves instead of as part of the general activity of the individual, are falsified and misdirected. The determination of a “vocation” on the basis of a classification of aptitudes may rightly be called an external method of procedure, since the classification can be arrived at only by reference to the occupations that are offered. Thus our modern Sophists, as G. K. Chesterton points out, try to discover what job a man is fit for, instead of asking what way of life is fitting for the man; they “temper the shorn lamb to the wind”. Similarly, the eugenists desire to breed men for special characteristics, which they consider would be an improvement on existing characteristics, without giving any critical consideration to the notion of improvement or of goodness. “What's Wrong with the World”, as Chesterton puts it in his book with that title, “is that we do not ask what is right”. We proceed on the basis of notions of improvement, efficiency and fitness, we advocate special tasks, without inquiring what work is really worth doing.

What Socrates stood for, then, against the advocates of “up-to-date”


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methods of efficiency and specialisation, was coordination or integration of activities. Guidance, he admitted, is possible and desirable, but it must take place in a common and continuous life, and not by any isolated “test” of capacities, and it must aim at the greatest possible coordination of activities, and not at the isolation and development of some special activity. It is for this reason that the teacher, who has lived and worked with the pupil, is the best judge of what he can do. But to be a judge he requires above all to inquire into what is best, to ask the reason why, and not take it for granted that existing demands (opinions) must be satisfied; and in pursuance of this policy he will also encourage the pupil to ask the reason why. In this way real guidance and a really coordinated life are possible. And, if we discount the Socratic over-emphasis on ethics, we can still derive from his theories a recognition of the necessity of considering every way of life in its full social and political context. The Socratic view thus finds an interesting modern parallel in the slogan of Lenin, “Every cook a politician!”

It is true that in the ideal state portrayed in the Republic real political understanding is supposed to be confined to the ruling caste. This is due to the way in which Socrates divided knowledge from opinion, to his contention that the former is concerned with special objects, the forms or standards, instead of simply involving a more critical treatment of the same objects. But this can largely be corrected by means of his own theory of logical coordination. The method Socrates adopts, however, is to allow a certain relative value to opinion and consequently to a life which, though not itself inspired by understanding, obeys the dictates of understanding. In fact, preliminary education precisely takes the form of learning to go about things in the right way, and only after that can we enter on a course of higher education and get to know what makes such actions right.

IV. The Place of Dialectic in Education

The final working out of the educational theory of Socrates is thus to be found in the first and second schemes of education elaborated in the Republic. The early training of the guardians (which is all the training given to those who are not fitted for higher study) produces right opinion, or ability and willingness to follow the dictates of those who have knowledge, but does not produce knowledge. Or, to employ the distinction drawn in the Phaedo, it cannot give true or “philosophic” goodness, but only “popular” (or civic) goodness. “The former”, as Burnet puts it, “depends on intellect, the latter on habit. It is the former alone that is teachable; for it alone is knowledge, and nothing can be taught but knowledge. The latter is only good at all in so far as it participates in the former. Apart from that it is a shifting and uncertain thing.” That is to say, the early education must be directed by those who have had the later education, and not by those who can themselves lay claim to no more than opinion. There is a logical difficulty in that, if the goodness acquired


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in the early training really “participates in” (i.e., partakes of the nature of) true goodness, it cannot be a mere matter of habituation but must partake of critical activity as well. The concessions which Socrates makes to “opinion” are really due to his anti-historical bias, and weaken, instead of strengthening, his critical case. What should be recognised (as Socrates himself has enabled us more clearly to do) are the different factors of guidance and originality, but these should both be present at any stage in the process of education.

The unhistorical character of the theory of early training in right habits appears in the complementary assumptions of a purely imitative faculty in the pupils, their original tendencies being neglected, and of the existence of “wise and good” educators, whose simple business it is to set up proper models of behaviour, and who are not themselves learning in the educative process. The Ethics of Aristotle is based on the same assumptions (being largely derived from the Republic), and thus passes over the critical problems of ethics and education. “Conditions of soul”, Aristotle says, “arise from activities of like character to the conditions.” We become good by doing the right thing, i.e., the thing the good man would do under the same circumstances; and therefore he must be there in the first place to tell us what to do, so that we may acquire the habit.

The alternative to this guidance is that we should be subject to the misguiding influence of pleasures and pains. “It is pleasure that makes us do what is bad, and pain that makes us abstain from what is right. That is why we require to be trained from our earliest youth, as Plato has it, to feel pleasure and pain at the right things. True education is just that.” In his “Aristotle on Education” Burnet goes so far as to say of this that it “is the best account of the training of character that has ever been given and should be engraved on the heart of every educator”. What it lacks, however, is any explanation of how the training takes place, how the affection comes to be transferred from one thing to another — unless the assumption of a general tendency to demand what we have become accustomed to (by having it constantly thrust upon us) is to pass for an explanation. Whereas Plato, in the Laws, goes on to take the child's spontaneous activities as of fundamental importance for any training he is to receive, the more rationalistic Socrates and Aristotle appear to regard him as a mere seeking and avoiding mechanism, whose development is determined by what he is allowed to get (or compelled to take).

The theory of habituation, then, is defective precisely in that it neglects the spontaneity of thought which had been emphasised by Socrates in his criticism of opinion or “what is accepted by all right-thinking men”. We may therefore expect to find a correlative defect in his account of that spontaneity or of higher education. We have seen that the fundamental weakness of his philosophy is its unhistorical character, and this finds its logical expression in the attribution of true reality to certain unchanging “forms”, or ideals, everything changeable being relatively unreal. It is in terms of these forms, Socrates holds, that it is possible to “give an account” of things. This raises the question of what account can


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be given of the forms themselves. They cannot each be self-explanatory, or they would be quite unrelated and would not form a system of reality. Accordingly the system itself, or, more precisely, its principle of organisation, has to be taken as the one self-explanatory entity; and this is what Socrates calls “the form of the Good”. It is the one self-sustaining or truly spontaneous thing; and what we call spontaneity in ourselves or in other things is dependent upon it, and exhibits the degree of our or their harmony with it.

But when Socrates is asked to give an account of this “Good” itself, he can do so only in vague metaphor. This must be so; for if it is explained only by itself, clearly we cannot explain it. But in that case all that we are saying, when we postulate its existence, is that there is “something, we know not what”, which is the ultimate explanation of reality. Obviously, in assuming that there is such a thing, we are not entitled to call it good, nor can we derive from what is unknown to us any assurance that some historical thing is good or is better than another. Hence in making his moral distinctions, in saying what should be studied and what should not, Socrates, just like the Sophists, is falling back on opinion. He, too, gives an “explanation” which is no explanation; he, too, has to depend upon “what is accepted by all right-thinking men” — only, his right-thinkers are not the same as those of Protagoras and other Sophists.

To show that Socrates was also infected by the Sophistry he criticised is not, however, to take away all value from his criticism or from his theory of higher education. It more especially explains the weakness of his scheme of early education, its moralistic character — particularly exemplified in the unaesthetic treatment of art, which is considered to be purely imitative and to have its value, positive or negative, solely according as it is or is not a good model for the pupils in turn to imitate. This view of art and education is typical of the mechanical, or “external”, conceptions which Socrates elsewhere condemned, and which are condemned in the working out of that Dialectic which he regarded as the culmination of higher education.

The theory of Dialectic itself implies that there can be no set of habits which are entirely in accordance with sound thinking and living, and therefore that habituation cannot be a sound method by itself; for Dialectic requires the unlearning of much that has been previously learned. It may be said, in fact, that there is an element of unlearning in all learning; we acquire new reactions to things by developing and altering old ones. The mind is never a tabula rasa, and therefore never merely imitative; but, as Plato recognised in the Laws, we have certain tendencies to begin with, and it is only by their exercise that we learn. We learn, that is, by trial and error, or, as in the Socratic theory of criticism expounded in the Phaedo, by the formation and testing of hypotheses.

What makes guidance necessary is our tendency to stick to established modes of reaction, in spite of confusions and errors. As education advances, the process of removing confusions becomes more of a deliberate


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act on the part of the learner. But, whatever be the degree of assistance rendered, the process of clarification involves the breaking up of fixed ideas, the rejection of hypotheses which have hardened into prejudices. Thus “clearing the mind of cant” is a characteristic of the educative process in general; and Dialectic is simply the theory of the kind of hypotheses it is necessary to reject — those, namely, which would make the prosecution of inquiry impossible, being set above our scrutiny. The most prevalent form of this cant is the “disabling” of criticism, the treatment of the critic as an ill-disposed person, one who is not worth attending to, because he criticises. Such evasion of the issue is described by the educated as “illogical”, but the pointing out of fallacies of this kind is a very small part of what is involved in Logic or Dialectic. Its full import can be grasped only when we consider it in relation to the most advanced studies, i.e., to the sciences.

The special scientist, Socrates contends, uses hypotheses which he does not criticise and of which, in fact, he cannot “give an account”. They are taken as defining his field of study, and within that field, or using those assumptions, he prosecutes his inquiries and arrives at his conclusions. Thus the mathematician arrives at “mathematical truths”. But actually there is no mathematical truth, any more than there is an Athenian truth. Fields of study are not cut off from one another but mingle just as peoples do. And to treat each as a separate “world” is to fall into contradictions. It is the business of Dialectic to show that the supposed “indemonstrables” and “indefinables” of the sciences are not indemonstrable or indefinable, but are subject to investigation. Thus all hypotheses implying a division in reality require to be “destroyed” (or removed).

What this involves is that there is a single logic which applies to all the sciences, a single way of being which all their objects have; we cannot divide reality into higher and lower orders, for the difference and the relation between them would alike be indefinable and indemonstrable. Thus any “science” which affects to discover powers or faculties which “make things what they are”, or to apply “laws” to “phenomena”, is guilty of logical error. The Socratic theory of forms itself calls for dialectic criticism. And though Socrates maintains the possibility of finding the “reason” of these forms in a single ultimate principle, the very assumption of this principle involves a separation (between the ultimate and the relative) which requires to be removed. The application of logic to “reasons” leads to the conclusion, already obscurely apprehended by the first Ionian philosophers, that any explanation must be on the same level as the thing explained, so that the former in turn can be explained in a similar way.

But the discovery of the illogicalities in the theory of Socrates does not affect the fact that he has given a valuable account of the conditions of scientific inquiry. And on this basis we get an important development of his criticism of specialisation. Every scientist should be a dialectician, critical of hypotheses and recognising the continuity of things, since otherwise he will make mistakes in his science and be unable to correct


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them. In the same way, such activities as teaching and politics should not be regarded as trades or specialities. Every teacher should be an investigator, every politician a thinker. And, since the distinction between the different types of goodness falls to the ground along with the supposition of an unchanging reality behind history, the logical extension of the argument is, as already indicated, that every citizen should be a politician. No one else can do his thinking for him; and the least thinking will lead him to reject the political and social guidance of “experts” who have no social or political theory. It will readily be seen, for example, that such Sophistic cures for social ills as the encouragement of the “efficient” and the elimination of the “unfit” are based on no coordinated or logical view of society, and thus are merely prejudices to be removed.

But this is because society is viewed unhistorically, as a mere field for personal agreements and disagreements, and not as a developing thing. Socrates is wrong in assuming that social issues can be decided on the basis of a general principle of consistency or coordination, and his democratic opponents could rightly say that his proposals must really have had a more special source, must have arisen, that is, from a definite attitude on particular social questions. In general, we can criticise only by reference to beliefs which we definitely hold; otherwise there would be nothing to say for or against any disputed view. And unless this feature of logical criticism is recognised, the Socratic insistence on logic, the setting of criticism against instruction, is misleading. So long as we do not set anything above criticism, we can make progress; but we do so not by having any kind of higher knowledge, but by having opinions and acting on them, that is, by reacting on things which are as historical as ourselves. To have an opinion or belief is to hold something to be true, to be an actual fact, and we cannot make more of it than that; so that there is no place for the Socratic “knowledge”. When this necessary correction is borne in mind, the position of Socrates can still be seen to be of real value in pointing the way to the discovery of educational and political truths — namely, by critical activity in science and politics.

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