Interview with Professor Debra Nails of Michigan State University

1.  When and how did Socrates meet Plato?

No one knows with certainty because it was long after Plato’s lifetime when people began to speculate about when and how they met, and, by then, there were rigid (rather superstitious) views that important events occur in the lives of significant people in their twentieth, fortieth, sixtieth, and eightieth years, so it’s hard to take those later speculations seriously.  What we do know, partly from Plato’s own dialogues, e.g., Laches, is that fathers and older brothers were expected to take responsibility for the social education of sons and younger brothers, taking them out into the city with them and including them in evening meals with other male friends.  Plato had two older brothers and one older step-brother, all of whom are mentioned in the dialogues.  His brothers associated with Socrates at gymnasia and other public places in Athens, so it is very likely that Plato heard Socratic conversations from very early in his life, probably from the time he was ten or so. 

2.  Why did Socrates leave military life for a life of philosophy?

He didn’t.  Athens had a citizen militia, so every male from 17-50 mustered with his tribe and was subject to a call-up if the city needed him.  Socrates served in battles before and after he gained a reputation for questioning young men about serious matters. Philosophy is a way of life, thus compatible with whatever occupation a person might have.  We now tend to use the term ‘philosopher’ of those employed to teach the subject in universities, but that is a perversion of the term as it was used in ancient times.

3.  Who influenced Socrates?

The most significant influences were probably Parmenides and Zeno (both from Elea), though it’s uncertain whether they actually met in person, as Plato’s dialogues Parmenides and Sophist say they did.  Socrates says in the Phaedo that he was, as a young man, briefly influenced by Anaxagoras of Clazomenae too.  It is likely that Socrates was also influenced, perhaps in more subtle ways, by the people who were his Athenian friends from childhood to age seventy, Crito and Chaerephon. 

4.  Do you think Socrates philosophy of teaching is still important today?

That depends on what one means by “philosophy of teaching” but, yes, I do.  Socrates emphasized one-on-one education, i.e., education tailored to each individual, and he treated education (the examined life) as our single most important task..  He went so far as to say, as I’m sure you know, that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Apology 38a).  Socrates also emphasized questioning instead of lecturing because, when someone is asked a question and must figure out the answer, s/he is more likely to gain knowledge than someone who memorizes an answer provided by someone else.  Modern states have decided that Socratic education is too expensive to support, and that (I think) is shameful.

5.  How do you think America would be different today without the work of Socrates?

One could hardly overestimate the effect of Plato’s dialogues about Socrates on our country’s founding fathers.  I’ll attach a few quotations that you may have seen elsewhere.  Whether the founding fathers supported or opposed what Socrates said is irrelevant (because neither Socrates nor Plato wanted their associates to parrot their views); the important thing is that the founding fathers considered the subjects Socrates raised and addressed them thoughtfully and in depth in light of their own experiences.  Further, every generation of college-going Americans has been reading Plato and meeting Socrates there for the entire history of our nation.  Often, some scholars interpret Socrates’ words in ways that seem dead wrong to other scholars; that happened, for example, when so-called neoconservatives thought they found sanction for “regime change” in Plato.  That, I would argue, was a mistake.  It is not doctrines that we should take from Socrates, but a joyful attitude toward learning, and an intellectual honesty that precludes the willingness to do wrong to anyone. 

6.  What is the most reliable source on Socrates’ life?

Plato’s dialogues are our best source, partly because Plato is likely to have had so many years of exposure to Socrates, and because the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is so consistently presented.  It is very well established that the character Socrates in Aristophanes’ play, Clouds, is a pastiche of several intellectuals of the day, so it is misleading as an account of the life of Socrates.  The historian and mercenary, Xenophon, wrote tales about Socrates too, but Xenophon lived far from Socrates and left Athens years before Socrates’ trial and execution, so he probably did not know Socrates well.  Also, Xenophon had the unphilosophical habit of moralizing, causing scholars to worry that he stretched his facts to fit the morals of his stories about Socrates.  There were many others who wrote about Socrates in the time of Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon, but their works survive only in later quotations, a few paragraphs at most.

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