Reading Socrates in Plato's Dialogues (Stephen MacKenna Lecture, Dublin, January 2009)


If we love Plato, as I do, or even if we merely read him, we inevitably come up against a version of what has become known as 'the Socratic problem'.1 As the main speaker in most of the Platonic dialogues, there appears a certain 'Socrates'. But who is this 'Socrates'? Plato portrays him, much of the time, as someone able to introduce, and talk about, a whole range of ideas for us to think about and, as Plato evidently hopes, either to adopt or to use as the basis for our own solutions. (True, Plato's Socrates typically disclaims ownership of the ideas in question, but if they are not his, he rarely tells us enough about their real ownership to pin them on anyone else.) In our times, by contrast - to put several different modern ideas of 'Socrates' together - he is the image of an admirably — and/or irritatingly - sharp-minded, and sharp-tongued, person who spent his life trying to get people to think, but had little of his own to offer apart from a few paradoxes and a sense of (his own?) moral uprightness, and who finally managed to get himself executed by the mindless masses. Even the late Gregory Vlastos, one of the great figures of twentieth-century scholarship on Socrates and Plato, evidently had a greater regard for Socrates as a model person of conscience than as a philosopher of substance. And the odd thing is that we claim to get this picture of ours from the very same source that makes of Socrates the representative and mouthpiece of that great edifice that is Platonism (whatever 'Platonism' may be): Plato's dialogues. So which is this 'Socrates' - the paradigm of a Platonist, or the well-meaning, and/or irritating, pedlar of paradox? That, essentially, is the question I want to address in this lecture. Or, to put the question in another, more combative way, why should Plato give Socrates the place of honour in the dialogues, as he does, if 'Socrates' is the person most moderns seem to think he was? And why indeed do we give Socrates the respect we do? Shouldn't it be Plato, not Socrates, who appears in the place of honour across from Homer in the middle of the main quad of Trinity College? Without Plato, after all, what would Socrates be, apart from the putative founding figure of what used quaintly to be called some 'minor Socratic schools' of philosophy?


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