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Rethinking Socrates

June 14, 2004

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    Daniel Sanderman ’04 (left) and Nicholas Smith, Miller Professor of Humanities and philosophy chair.

To most scholars of ancient Greek philosophy, Socrates is the ultimate intellectualist, a rational thinker who shuns emotional appeals and pursues truth only through dispassionate reason. Might this popular characterization be wrong?


Nicholas D. Smith and Daniel Sanderman ’05 think so. Smith, the James F. Miller Professor of Humanities and philosophy chair, and his thesis advisee Sanderman are daring to challenge the prevailing wisdom that Socrates believed all moral action was a result of what people thought, not what they felt.


Smith and his longtime collaborator, Lynchburg College professor Thomas C. Brickhouse, recently coauthored a series of articles that put forth a more nuanced view of Socrates’ moral psychology, one in which Socrates acknowledges the role of emotions in determining why human beings act the way they do. Sanderman, using his professor’s novel framework, developed a related theory that explains why the otherwise dispassionate Socrates sometimes employs mocking irony to roil his adversaries.


This summer the two are teaming up to gather evidence to further their distinct but complementary projects. Smith and Sanderman will use a computerized database to scour the early dialogues of Plato for instances where Socrates touches on “passions” or “appetites”—hunger, lust, shame, and so forth—then sift through and analyze the resulting passages that are relevant to their topics.


Smith will use the findings to bolster the position he and Brickhouse take in a forthcoming book, tentatively titledSocrates’ Moral Psychology, that Socrates’ view of human motivation is more complex than other scholars have previously acknowledged. Sanderman hopes the word search itself aids his comprehension of ancient Greek, and that the results buttress his controversial honors thesis, “The Gadfly’s Sting,” in which he argues that Socrates does not just endorse punishment, he practices it.


The theories espoused by both Smith and Sanderman run contrary to established scholarship and are unsettling to longtime students of Socrates, the fifth-century B.C.E. philosopher who still holds enormous sway in academia.


For Smith, who has spent nearly 25 years in the mainstream of Socratic scholarship, challenging the orthodoxy is an unusual position. He is a respected authority on Socrates and the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of more than 15 books, including the award-winning Plato’s Socrates, published in 1994. In the last few years, however, he and Brickhouse began to rethink the dominant opinion on Socratic moral psychology. “We began noticing example after example of what Socrates said about what humans do and why they do it that just wasn’t compatible with the existing theoretical framework,” says Smith.


Most scholars subscribe to the theory that Socrates believed people always act in the way they think is best for them, and that the difference between good and bad people is not in what they desire but in their cognitive states. Put another way, Smith explains, good people judge correctly what is good for them; bad people judge incorrectly. All wrongdoing simply results from errors in cognitive judgment.


After scrutinizing several passages of Plato—notably one in which Socrates does not speak out against punishment—Smith and Brickhouse began formulating a new understanding of how Socrates viewed human motivation, which takes into account Socrates’ belief that appetites and passions influence what people think is best for them.


Sanderman was exposed to these pathbreaking arguments in Smith’s 400-level course, The Philosophy of Socrates, in spring 2003. He became particularly intrigued by Socrates’ habit of insisting that he responded only to appeals to reason, then heaping verbal abuse on his questioners. “I wanted to understand how he could pursue these two aims: the legitimate pursuit of knowledge and the use of mockery, irony, and shame on his adversaries,” says Sanderman.


Finding the scholarly literature devoid of an explanation, Sanderman used Brickhouse’s and Smith’s new theory of Socratic moral psychology to develop a fresh hypothesis: Socrates may be only interested in following reason, but he sometimes mocks his adversaries because he understands the influence of emotional appeals.


Sanderman eventually presented his research at an international symposium in Greece in July 2003 as well as at the Pacific Division of the American philosophical Association in California in March 2004. At both meetings, sanderman took verbal fire from Socratic scholars, many of whom fiercely defended Socrates’ vaunted reputation as the exemplar of rationality. “There’s been a kind of canonization of Socrates as the great Saint of Reason,” Smith explains. “It’s a very romantic view, in a way.”


Through their summer research, Smith hopes he and Sanderman can find enough evidence in Plato’s early dialogues to argue for a more sophisticated portrait of Socrates.


Considering their argument, playing to the emotions of Socratic scholars might not hurt, either. “We need to preserve for another generation the interest in these works,” says Smith, “and keep them from the dusty closet of the arcane.”


Undergrad Challenges Prevailing View of Socrates

Daniel Sanderman ’05 took a fresh pair of eyes to an overlooked topic in Greek philosophy—Socrates’ use of mocking irony—and has received remarkable notoriety ever since.


Sanderman, a Portland native who runs varsity cross country and plays lead guitar in a rock-funk band called Something Clever, arrived at Lewis & Clark intending to major in English. He got a brief taste of Plato and Socrates in his first-semester Inventing America class and liked it enough to enroll in an Introduction to Philosophy class that spring. He then signed up for Ancient Western Philosophy, a course taught by Nicholas D. Smith, James F. Miller Professor of Humanities and philosophy chair. After that, he knew he wanted to pursue a double major in English and philosophy.


As he delved deeper into the world of ancient Greek philosophers, Sanderman was struck by their modern relevance. ”It amazed me that this ancient culture was puzzled by the same things we are today,” he says. And the “swaggering giant” who seemed to be in the middle of it all was Socrates.


Sanderman was particularly interested in how Socrates sometimes badgered or mocked his peers, partly because it reminded him of how his own family members rely on irony and ribbing to advance an argument. “I definitely recognized his methods,” he says.


He also recognized an inconsistency between Socrates’ occasional appeals to emotion and the scholarly view that he listens only to reason. In his paper for Smith’s senior-level seminar on Socrates, “I argued that this behavior can be explained only by accepting that Socrates does appreciate the influence of appetites and passions,” says Sanderman. “I addressed a contradiction that previously had been swept under the rug.”


Sanderman dragged the argument back onto the floor at the annual regional meeting of the American Philosophical Association in March 2004, becoming the first undergraduate presenter that Smith or any of his colleagues across the country could recall. “This is not simply rare, it is astonishing,” says Smith. “My guess is that his achievements are well above and beyond those anyone in my field has ever heard of, from an undergraduate.”


Sanderman is grateful that Smith, who is leading the movement to reconsider Socrates’ use of emotion in his arguments, alerted him to a subject matter teeming with both subtlety and controversy. “It certainly has been an amazing experience,” says Sanderman, one he hopes will lead to a career in the halls of academe.


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