The Socratic method of investigation, the elenchus, is explained by example in Plato’s Five Dialogues. In Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, Plato’s character of Socrates employs the elenchus as a way to challenge interlocutors. If an Athenian claims to be knowledgeable about a subject, Socrates sets out to prove that this knowledge is unfounded. With the elenchus, Socrates analyzes the incongruities of widespread beliefs. By doing so, he achieves his goal of rendering his interlocutors incapable of making unyielding conclusions about their wisdom, which frustrates and embarrasses them. However, Socrates does not aim only to publicly shame the interlocutor, but more importantly to scrutinize unexamined beliefs and to prove that these beliefs are often platitudinous. What ultimately comes of the elenchus is not a revised definition of unexamined beliefs, but rather an understanding that humans are ignorant beings, and cannot provide concrete knowledge on every subject. Through his depiction of Socrates, Plato bestows upon us an erudite ignorance. Once we understand that we lack knowledge, we no longer must live according to hollow, contradictory beliefs. Instead, we can start questioning beliefs for ourselves; we can live more meaningful, valuable, and happy lives.
We first encounter an exposition of the elenchus when Socrates meets Euthyphro at the courthouse in the dialogue Euthyphro. While discussing his indictment with Socrates, Euthyphro claims to “have accurate knowledge” of the divine (5a). This is an example of an empty knowledge claim that Socrates will not let go unquestioned. In order to engage Euthyphro in the elenchus, Socrates asks him to explain “what is the pious, and what the impious” (5d). It is found within the following discussion, during which Socrates questions the contradictions within each of Euthyphro’s definitions, that part of the nature of the elenchus is to attempt to identify ambiguous concepts using “one form” (5d).
Socrates wants Euthyphro to encompass the nature of piety into one form that can be applied to all situations to determine whether or not something is pious. The result is that Euthyphro becomes frustrated, as he says to Socrates, “whatever proposition we put forward goes around and around, and refuses to stay put where we establish it” (11b). This is an aim of the Socratic method of investigation; it brings the interlocutor to a realization that his or her knowledge claim is in fact flawed and unsound, so as to expose the interlocutor to aporia, or divine confusion.
In Apology, Socrates stands before the court and defends his method of imparting his wisdom on Athenians by illuminating its origins and intentions. He first refers to “the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of [his] wisdom,” who apparently said that no man was wiser than Socrates (21a). Socrates is thought to be wise because “he understands that his wisdom is worthless” (23b). This means that Socrates knows that humans are not capable of fully understanding the world; wisdom of morals, values, and the divine is beyond our reach. Since humans only have concrete knowledge of what is fleeting, human knowledge is not of great use. Socrates grasps this concept, and he attempts to pass it along to other Athenians by engaging them in the elenchus.
Even though his intent is to help bring this realization to the citizens of Athens, Socrates’ method of questioning their beliefs ultimately turns the citizens against him. They are humiliated when Socrates uses the elenchus to make them look unintelligent in public and they are not willing to accept that their beliefs are so easily questioned. As a result, Socrates is brought to trial and sentenced to death.
Crito attempts to persuade Socrates to escape this death sentence in the dialogue Crito. Here, Socrates uses the elenchus again, this time with a good friend. Socrates has already made up his mind about how a person should behave when sentenced by the state, and he is determined to adhere to these convictions, not letting vanity persuade him to change his mind because he finds himself in a compromised position. This is an application of the “form” idea that he first mentioned in Euthyphro. Socrates believes that all people, including him, should carry out their sentences, because all citizens are subject to the laws of the state to which they belong. Since Socrates believes that a tacit social agreement between citizen and state always exists, and that just agreements should be fulfilled, he must fulfill his sentence for the sake of his character and posterity. He uses the elenchus, again involving very complicated and multilayered rationalization, to prove to Crito that he must honor this principle, even when his own life is at stake.
By synthesizing these examples, we can identify the mechanics of the elenchus. In an ideal investigation, Socrates begins by having the interlocutor assert his “knowledge” on some sort of moral conundrum. Then, using reason and a series of irrefutable questions, Socrates has the interlocutor assert a contradictory statement. When both statements are juxtaposed, the inconsistencies of the belief are uncovered, causing the interlocutor to be led to aporia.
It is traditionally problematic to be confused, but to reach aporia or to possess Socratic wisdom is a different kind of confusion; it can be of great benefit to the soul. In Apology, Socrates is said to have thought that “it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day… for the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (38a). To examine life is to be completely truthful with yourself and to fortify your integrity, which provides you with a better, more fulfilling life. By questioning supposedly intractable beliefs using the elenchus, Socrates enlightens people, and does them a great service; he teaches people that, because they are ignorant, they should question and examine their beliefs more often so that they do not continue to believe fallacies. Even though it does not always provide a distinctive definition to concepts, the elenchus at least proves that the conventional definitions of these concepts are erroneously crafted and should no longer be considered truths.
Furthermore, learning the depths of your own ignorance by spending time examining your beliefs is not only important because it exposes the fallacies behind them, but it also gives you insight as to why you actually believe them. For example, why do so many people believe that some higher being decides which action is right and which is wrong? Instead, could actions be inherently right or wrong, independent of a higher being? If yes, then why do we hold this being’s opinion on the matter in such high regard? It is examination questions like these that lead people to have a truer understanding of their beliefs, and a truer understanding of themselves. Seeking this identity will lead to happiness and success, and therefore, the Socratic method is not a waste of time, but an invaluable, fruitful use of it.
In order to reap the benefits of examining life, a person must allow him- or herself to be vulnerable to embarrassment and confusion. If a person is willing to appear unwise at first to later understand and appreciate the good life, then he or she should apply the Socratic method to his or her beliefs whenever possible. In doing so, even if it takes time and stirs up confusion, the person will take a step towards becoming happy and fulfilled, which is worth the challenge in all respects.
In his Five Dialogues, Plato helps us understand how Socrates used his method of investigation by providing examples of the elenchus in application. From them, we can extract that the elenchus confronts interlocutors’ knowledge claims to prove that they are inconsistent and fallacious. The nature of the elenchus in name is that it seeks to redefine ambiguous, abstract concepts in terms of a form that can be applied to any situation. However, in practice, the elenchus does not aim to actually offer an intractable definition. Instead, it offers a new perspective on what we thought was certain.
The fact that the interlocutors’ beliefs are proven incongruent and that they are publicly embarrassed makes them react with hostility toward Socrates. However, they should instead be grateful that the elenchus delivers them to the valuable realization that they cannot possess wisdom regarding vague, intangible, conceptual things. Using the Socratic method to examine life is worth the time and effort, because it helps us appreciate our ignorance. Once we have examined our beliefs, we can then approach the world in a new way, which ultimately leads to a better understanding of ourselves and a more meaningful life.
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