The Book Club

Maybe Socrates Was the Bore.

Socrates spent his life reminding people of their ignorance on matters they supposed themselves knowlegeable about. Wandering around Athens in his one tunic, he would be accosted by assorted rhetoricians and pedagogues anxious to acquire his seal of approval. Invariably, he reduced them to quivering wrecks as they attempted to tell him what justice is, or courage, or honour, or some other virtue. They were not merely ignorant; they were ignorant that they were ignorant. The Socratic dialogue is a device for exposing false pretensions to knowledge. It is not that Socrates himself knows the answers to the questions he poses to his dialectical victims–he has no definition of virtue either. And yet Socrates was considered the most virtuous man in Athens, a model of right conduct–just, brave, honourable. He was able to be what he did not understand. This is made all the more paradoxical by the fact that, for Socrates, virtue is knowledge. If virtue is knowledge, and Socrates has no knowledge of what virtue is–any more than his deluded interlocutors–how come he is so virtuous? Isn’t he his own refutation?