Who Is The Modern Socrates?

Last week Unbound’s Critical Theory Reading Group discussed three works by Plato, in order to develop an understanding of Socrates as a model for critique. In previous weeks we had explored the idea of critique as an attitude and a way of living. Socrates, particularly as Plato depicts him describing himself in his trial defense speech in the Apology, stands as a kind of eternal exemplar of a life lived as critique.

The group discussed many fascinating aspects of that speech, and of the depiction of Socrates in Plato’s Crito and Gorgias. Highlights included Socrates’ delineation of the different forms of knowledge and his identification of his own type as closer to that of artisans than of poets or politicians.

However, we were concerned by an apparent contradiction between Socrates’ insistence on his own lack of knowledge and the form of many of his arguments, which run from general, or abstract, propositions to specific claims. Many of these arguments are extremely persuasive, but the argumentative form seems problematic for someone claiming to have no knowledge.

In the Gorgias, for example, Socrates argues from the nature of the pleasant and the good, and the relationship between the two, to arrive at the true nature of statesmanship. In doing so, he is constructing a complex argument, and not merely undermining the argument of another – many of Socrates’ interlocutors seem incapable of constructing arguments coherent enough for him to focus purely on dismantling.

Given Socrates’ apparent reliance on knowledge in his construction of philosophical arguments, it is interesting to consider what role his insistence on his lack of knowledge (apart from the knowledge that he knows nothing) plays in his critical strategy. There are surely many answers, but one role is as a kind of shield against criticism of his own positions. Socrates can press sophists and politicians on the basis of their views, revealing them as unable to defend their own positions, but when he is pressed he can always fall back on the defense that he himself knows nothing and claims to know nothing.

Thinking of this move as a crucial part of Socrates’ technique raises a perhaps unexpected parallel with a key figure in our time and culture: Jon Stewart. Socrates spent his days interviewing and critiquing politicians, celebrities and authors. Stewart spends his nights in the same activity. Like Socrates, he reserves his greatest ire for the politicians and the sophist rhetoricians of Fox News, and he never seems happier than when engaging in debate about the purposes of politics. And just like Socrates, he always has a fallback position when challenged. Socrates professes that he knows nothing and claims to know nothing; Stewart avers that he is just a know-nothing comedian. Stewart is often criticized for this move, and it rings somewhat false in moments when he is as engaged in political argument as any other political journalist. The next time a guest complains, perhaps he can reply that he is engaging in a longstanding Socratic tradition of critique.