Socratic Irony

A dialogue:

JCW: Do you or do you not think Socrates knew the answers to the questions he posed?

SJ: You know, that’s a surprisingly good question.

JCW: (Says nothing, but puffs out his chest a bit, sticking his thumbs in both lapels, rocking back and forth slightly on the balls of his feet, and trying to look nonchalant and failing.)

SJ: In the little time I had in university that was dedicated to the classics (I focused more on English literature than classical philosophy), my professors seemed as best I can recall to operate on the assumption that Socrates did know what those he questioned were going to answer, and so I have always tended to assume the same.

But I don’t think we ever actually examined that assumption itself and I am now realizing that it was only an assumption. (Another hangover from too many legal dramas, perhaps; we assume that a philosopher, like a lawyer, is trying to prove a case, and thus never asks a question in public where he isn’t already certain of the answer.)

Are there scholars who argue the opposite, that Socrates was a genuinely innocent questioner thinking his way through things as he went? That would be very interesting to read.

JCW: I have no idea. I never read scholars who study Socrates; I read Socrates.

I will say this: Socrates takes on a very different character to any readers convinced that Socrates does not mean it when he says he is wise precisely because he knows nothing. If you do not believe he means what he says, his whole life becomes a put on, an act, a falsehood. Now, why he is willing to drink hemlock and die to maintain a put-on is something that is hard to explain, so I myself am willing to take the man more or less at his word.

You can see here on this thread one of two readers who seem to believe Socrates is rather sinister, and in nowise as innocent as Saint Francis talking to a wolf.

(There are, of course, in the dialogues, clearly points where he is leading to something, or driving at a point. But these points also nonetheless have the character of a man bushwacking through the underbrush, not leading the unwary down the primrose path.)

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