Theories in the Middle Dialogues

Socrates Does More Than Ask Questions

Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-1511,
fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

Plato, the School of Athens

Plato points to the heavens and holds a copy of the Timaeus, a late dialogue influential in the development of science.

In the Timaeus, Socrates and his interlocutors have been in an extended discussion. The previous day Socrates described "the best state and the character of its citizens" (Timaeus 17c). Today it is time for Timaeus to speak. The parties to the discussion agree that he will begin with "the origin of the cosmos and end with the nature of man" (Timaeus 27a).
Plato's middle dialogues mark a new phase in his attempt to understand the love of wisdom to which Socrates was devoted and for which he gave up his life in 399 BCE.

The character Socrates still leads the conversations in these dialogues, but no longer does he primarily engage in dialectic, as is his practice in the Euthyphro and other early dialogues.

In the middle dialogues, Socrates introduces four Platonic theories:

• Theory of Recollection
• Theory of Forms
• Tripartite Theory of the Soul
• Theory of Justice

These theories, as they are traditionally called, are theories in the sense of the Greek noun θεωρία. This noun transliterates as theoria and means "a viewing or beholding." It describes the experience someone has as a spectator at the theatre or games. In these theories, Plato is working through possible solutions to problems he uncovered in the early dialogues as tried to set out and understand what Socrates said and the unusual way he lived.

In this and the next lectures, we think about these theories in the order I have listed them.

The Theory of Recollection

In the Meno and the Phaedo, Socrates introduces the Theory of Recollection. This is the term historians use to refer to the theory. The character Socrates does not use it.

Meno opens the dialogue by asking Socrates a question about virtue.

"Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue (ἀρετή) can be taught? Or is it acquired by practice, not teaching? Or if it is acquired neither by practice nor by learning, can you tell me whether it comes to men by nature or in some other way" (Meno 70a).

In his reply, Socrates tells Meno that he must be from a place where wisdom abounds because in Athens no one knows what virtue is, let alone how it is acquired. He says too that he shares this lack of wisdom and that he has never come across anyone who knows what virtue is.

Meno does not take Socrates' reply seriously. He thinks that Socrates must be exaggerating and that surely he would have learned what virtue is from Gorgias when he visited Athens.

(Gorgias tells his audiences that there is no question he can not answer (Gorgias 447c).)

Socrates replies that he does not have a good memory, and he asks Meno to remind him what Gorgias said or to say himself what virtue is. Meno jumps at the chance to instruct Socrates, but he immediately runs into trouble. Instead of giving an answer in the form Socrates wants, Meno says what virtue is for different people (Meno 71e). Once he manages to offer an answer in the right form, he is unable to defend it against Socrates' subsequent questions.

Eventually, in frustration, Meno goes on the attack. He argues that Socrates' inquiry into virtue is impossible to carry out. Meno argues that either the inquirer knows or does not know what virtue is and that in both cases he cannot inquirer into it. If he does not know what virtue is, he will not recognize it even if he comes across it. If, alternatively, he knows what virtue is, he cannot inquire into what it is because this is something he already knows.

Socrates introduces the Theory of Recollection to show that Meno's argument is unsound.

  "So that he who does not know about any matters, whatever they be, may have true opinions on such matters, about which he knows nothing?
  Apparently.
  And at this moment those opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream; but if he were repeatedly asked these same questions in a variety of forms, you know he will have in the end as exact an understanding of them as anyone.
  So it seems.
  Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions put to him, he will understand, recovering the knowledge out of himself?
  Yes.
  And is not this recovery of knowledge, in himself and by himself, recollection?
  Certainly, Socrates" (Meno 85c).

"When people are questioned, if you put the questions well, they answer correctly of themselves about everything; and yet if they had not within them some knowledge and right reason, they could not do this (Phaedo 73a).

  "We say there is such a thing as to be equal. I do not mean one piece of wood equal to another, or one stone to another, or anything of that sort, but something beyond that--the equal itself (αὐτὸ τὸ ἴσον). Shall we say there is such a thing, or not?
  We shall say that there is most decidedly, Socrates.
  And do we know it, the thing that is?
  Certainly.
  Whence did we come upon the knowledge of it? Was it not from the things we were just speaking of, by seeing equal pieces of wood or stones or other things, on the occasion of them that equal was in thought, it being different from them? ... It is on the occasion of those equals, different as they are from that equal, that you have thought and come upon knowledge of it?
  That is perfectly true" (Phaedo 74a).

  "Then before we began to see or hear or use the other senses we must somewhere have gained a knowledge of the equal itself, if we were to compare with it the equals which we perceive by the senses, and see that all such things yearn to be like the equal itself but fall short of it.
  That follows necessarily from what we have said before, Socrates.
  And we saw and heard and had the other senses as soon as we were born?
  Certainly.
  But, we say, we must have acquired a knowledge of equality before we had these senses?
  Yes.
  Then it appears that we must have acquired it before we were born.
  It does.
  Now if we had acquired that knowledge before we were born, and were born with it, we knew before we were born and at the moment of birth not only the equal and the greater and the less, but all things such as these? For our present argument is no more concerned with the equal than with the beautiful itself and the good and the just and the holy, and, in short, with all those things which we stamp with the thing itself that is in our dialectic process of questions and answers; so that we must necessarily have acquired knowledge of all these before our birth.
  That is true, Socrates" (Phaedo 75b).
Socrates uses a proof in geometry to demonstrate an instance of recollection. He asks one of Meno's slaves how to double the area of a square (ABCD). The slave has not been taught geometry (and so has not been taught the construction that shows that the square BEHD is double the area of the square ABCD), but he finds his way to the answer in dialectic with Socrates. Socrates thinks this shows that Meno can answer the what is virtue question. He needs to engage in dialectic to rid himself of the false beliefs that make it hard for him to bring to mind the correct answer he has possessed all along.

The Two Theses in the Theory

We can think of what Socrates has in mind as consisting in two theses.

The first thesis is the epistemological thesis.

The epistemological thesis is about "reason" in the soul. According to this thesis, this reason includes true beliefs about consequence and incompatibility. These beliefs underlie the ability to make deductive inferences in reasoning. Meno's slave makes such inferences in his answers to Socrates' questions about how to double the square ABCD.

Reason in the soul, in this way, includes true beliefs on which reasoning depends.

The second thesis is the ontological thesis.

The ontological thesis is about the existence of the soul. According to this thesis, the soul exists before entering the body and will continue to exist after death when it leaves the body.

The Epistemological Thesis

The epistemological thesis suggests the beginning of a solution to one of the puzzles about Socrates and his love of wisdom that emerges in the portrait in the early dialogues.

Socrates, in these dialogues, thinks his interlocutors are confused about what the virtues of character are. He seems to think that false beliefs about the definitions prevent them from giving the answer and that the way to eliminate these beliefs is to eliminate the inconsistency in their beliefs. This assumes their problem is the false beliefs, not the absence of true beliefs. The true beliefs are in the soul and cannot be lost in the elimination of inconsistency.

The Theory of Recollection suggests a way to begin to make sense of this assumption. Some true beliefs belong essentially to reason. They cannot be lost, but false beliefs can make these true beliefs hard to bring to mind and to use in our decisions about what to do.

What are these false beliefs that make the true beliefs hard to bring to mind?

They in part are beliefs we get when we are young from those who raise us and from the society in which we live. Euthyphro, for example, seems to rely on such beliefs when he says to Socrates that piety is "is doing what I am doing now, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits murder or steals from the temples or does any such thing" (Euthyphro 5d). Prosecuting someone who kills may be pious in some circumstances, but it is not what piety is.

What are the beliefs that belong to reason we are supposed to recollect?

They are the beliefs that constitute our concepts we possess as part of having reason.

Plato is working with the idea that Socrates's love of wisdom is a way for us to cleanse our minds as a first step toward living the life it benefits us most to live. When Socrates asks his interlocutors what the virtues of character are, he is asking them to "recollect" the beliefs that constitute these concepts. The assumption is that these beliefs are true and that we cannot abandon them because they are an essential part of the power of reason with which we as humans are endowed. If we are going to live the life that benefits us most, we need to rebuild our life so that we start from the knowledge that belongs to reason.

Virtues of Character

This answers some but not all the questions we had about the search for definitions.

The suggestion in the early dialogues is that definitions of the virtues of character differ only in their reference class. For piety, the reference class is the gods. For justice, it is human beings. Piety is what is appropriate with respect to the gods, justice is what is appropriate with respect to human beings, courage is what is appropriate in fearful situations, and so on.

This means it is not enough to know that courage, for example, is what is appropriate in situations that can inspire fear. Even if this knowledge belongs to reason, we still need to know what is appropriate in these situations if we are going to act courageously.

How do we get this knowledge?

The suggestion in the early dialogues is that we get this knowledge by knowing what is good and what is bad. What is appropriate to do is what it benefits us to do.

Eventually, then, if Plato continues to work through this line of thought, we can expect him to make how knowledge of what is good and thus appropriate belongs to reason.

The Ontological Thesis

The send thesis in the Theory of Recollection is the ontological thesis. This thesis explains why we live as if pleasure were the good and why it is hard to abandon this way of life.

Socrates thought that no one is born with the competency for living the most beneficial life. We have to acquire it, and the love of wisdom is the way we are to acquire it.

The Athenians, however, before Socrates came along, thought they were doing just fine. They did not think they needed to abandon they way they were living. Further, they found it difficult to think they should live like Socrates because they found his life so unappealing.

The ontological thesis helps explains why the Athenians think this way.

We Imprison Ourselves

Socrates, in the Phaedo, says that lovers of wisdom realize that "some sort of track is leading us, together with our reason, astray in our inquiry [and attempt to possess wisdom], and that as long as we possess the body, and our soul is contaminated by such a bad, we will never adequately gain what we desire-and that, we say, is truth" (Phaedo 66b).

This "track" is paved by false beliefs we adquire.

"The love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment in the body is that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his imprisonment. ... The soul of the true lover of wisdom ... abstains from pleasures and desires and pains and fears, so far as it can, reckoning that when one feels intense pleasure or fear, pain or desire, one incurs harm from them not merely to the extent that might be supposed—by being ill, for example, or spending money to satisfy one’s desires—but one incurs the greatest and most extreme of all evils. ... The evil is that the soul of every man, when intensely pleased or pained at something, is forced to suppose that whatever affects it in this way is most clear and real, when it is not so; and such objects are especially things seen... that in this experience the soul is most thoroughly bound fast by the body... that each pleasure and pain fastens it to the body with a sort of rivet, pins it there, and makes it corporeal, so that the soul takes for real whatever the body declares to be so. For because it has the same beliefs and enjoys the same things, the body it is compelled to the same ways and the same sustenance, and can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore it has no part in the communion with the divine and pure and absolute. ... This, Cebes, is the reason why the true lovers of knowledge are temperate and brave .... For the soul of the lover of wisdom would not reason as others do, and would not think it right that the love of wisdom should set it free and that then when set free it should give itself again into bondage to pleasure and pain and engage in futile toil.... No, his soul believes that it must gain peace from these emotions, must follow reason and abide always in it, beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion, and making that its only food; and in this way it believes it must live, while life endures, and then at death pass on to that which is akin to itself and of like nature, and be free from human ills" (Phaedo 82e). When the soul enters the body, it goes on to live a life appropriate to the body because it has forgotten its interest in "truth." Because we have forgotten, the body "fills us up with lusts and desires and fears and with all sorts of fancies and foolishness" (Phaedo 66b, 66c).

Socrates describes the lovers of wisdom as those who understand that "the body and its desires (τὸ σῶμα καὶ αἱ τούτου ἐπιθυμίαι)" (Phaedo 66c) are a problem we must overcome.

Because they understand their situation, the lovers of wisdom resolve not to "consort with or have dealings with the body other than what is absolutely necessary" and to "abstain from all bodily desires, and stand firm without surrendering to them" because they "believe that their actions must not oppose the love of wisdom" (Phaedo 67a, 82c, 82d).

Socrates describes life before the love of wisdom takes "possession of the soul" (Phaedo 82d) as a life in which the body has imprisoned the soul. He thinks further that the "ignorance" this imprisonment causes in the soul is reinforced through the satisfaction of "desire[s of the body], so that the captive himself" aids in the "imprisonment" of his soul (Phaedo 82e).

Socrates explains that "each pleasure and pain fastens the soul to the body with a sort of rivet, pins it there, and makes it corporeal, so that it takes for real whatever the body declares to be so." The soul does not see the world as it is. Instead, because it is imprisoned, it has "the same beliefs as the body and enjoys the same things" as the body (Phaedo 83d).

Escaping from the Prison

To change the way we live, Socrates thinks that we need to live ascetically.

Suppose, for example, that from experiences of eating sweets, someone gets the belief that eating them is good. Later he becomes aware of the arguments from medicine that this behavior is not healthy. Because he believes that his health is good, he resolves to stop eating sweets. This, though, does make him stop believing that eating them is good.

To abandon his belief, he needs to live ascetically to "unbind" himself from the way of living he had become accustomed. He needs to practice not believing that eating sweets is good by resisting his urge to eat them. Over time, by engaging in this practice, he can reduce his liking for eating sweets and thus cause himself to stop believing that eating them is good.

The New Life We Want

This account of unbinding the soul from the body helps explain how we get rid of our false beliefs about what is good and what is bad, but it does not tell us what the true beliefs are.

Socrates talks about our interest in "truth."

Socrates explains that "the soul of every man, when intensely pleased or pained at something is forced to suppose that whatever affects it in this way is most clear and real, when it is not so; and such objects [that please or pain] are especially things seen" (Phaedo 83c).

We need to liberate ouselves so that we know the world as it is. They means correctly identifying what is "most clear and real." We do not see these things with our eyes.

We will think more in the next chapter about what this life is.





Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Meno, Phaedo

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:

ἀνάμνησις, anamnēsis, noun, "calling to mind"
ἐννοέω, ennoeō, verb, "reflect upon, consider"
ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, noun, "knowledge"
ἐριστικός, eristikos, adjective, "involving a contest"

ὄντος (ontos) is a present participle of the verb εἰμί, "I am." The infinitive is εἶναι, "to be"




"Socrates' method of elenctic dialectic turns on consistency as the crucial feature to be preserved. Not only is inconsistency treated as a criterion for lack of knowledge or wisdom, it also seems to be assumed that the progressive elimination of inconsistency will lead to knowledge or wisdom. This presupposes that deep down we do have a basic knowledge at least of what matters, that we are just very confused, because we have also acquired lots of false beliefs incompatible with this basic knowledge. I take it that in Plato this assumption at times takes the form of the doctrine of recollection... . Unable to get rid of these notions and the knowledge of the world they embody, the only way to become consistent is to eliminate the false beliefs which stand in the way of wisdom" (Michael Frede, "On the Stoic Conception of the Good," 83. Topics in Stoic Philosophy, ??-??. Oxford University Press, 1999).

"[Plato thinks] that a state of knowledge is the natural state of reason, that what needs to be explained is not how it manages to acquire this knowledge, but rather how and why it lost this natural state, [that is to say,] how and why the knowledge it somehow has is latent, inoperative [in guiding the way we live our lives]" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 14. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28. Oxford University Press, 1996).

"Plato, for instance in the Phaedo [(75b)] or in the Timaeus [(43a, 44a)], suggests a view which would explain the state Socrates seems to presuppose [in his questioning], namely a state in which in some sense we confusedly already know the right answers to the important questions. On this view, when reason or the soul, which pre-exists, enters the body upon birth, it does so already disposing of the knowledge of the Forms, though it gets confused by its union with the body, a confusion it only recovers from to some degree mainly through sustained philosophical effort, recollecting the truths it had known before entering the body. But it is only when it is released from the body, freed from the disturbances involved in its union with the body, and free to pursue its own concerns, rather than having to concern itself with the needs of the body, or other concerns it only has made its own, that it again has unhindered access to the truth" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 10. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28. Oxford University Press, 1996).

"[R]eason, in the first instance, is not conceived of as an ability to reason, to argue, to make inferences from what we perceive; it rather, in the first instance, is conceived of as being a matter of having a certain basic knowledge about the world, which then can serve as the starting point for inferences. ... Thus, to be rational is not solely, and not even primarily, a matter of being able to reason, to make inferences; it, to begin with, is a matter of having the appropriate knowledge about the world. Correspondingly, the perfection of reason does not consist primarily in one's becoming better and better in one's ability to reason correctly; to be perfectly rational rather is to be wise..., and this involves, first of all, an articulate understanding of, or knowledge about, the world" (Michael Frede, "The Stoic Conception of Reason," 54. Hellenistic Philosophy: Volume II, 50-63. Athens: International Center for Greek Philosophy, 1994).



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