Christopher Moore

early greek philosophy


Socrates and self-knowledge

Ca. 410 BC (Ath. Arch. Mus. 765)

Ca. 410 BC (Ath. Arch. Mus. 765)

Socrates and Self-Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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Pre-print of review in Classical Philology.

In this book, I provide a radically new approach to Greek philosophy’s fundamental concern with the Delphic “Know yourself.” I focus on the open question of “selfhood” and on the nature of the activities that count as gignôskein (“recognizing,” “knowing,” “acknowledging”). The critical aspect of the book argues against the standard “theoretic” interpretation of ancient self-knowledge, that knowing oneself amounts to having (justified) true beliefs about some object, e.g. soul, human nature, or god. I also advance beyond two more plausible views, that knowing oneself is simply identifying one’s set of beliefs or accepting that one is ignorant.

The reconstructive aspect of the book vindicates a trio of claims.

(i) The Delphic injunction interpellates a self, and so knowing oneself takes determining what, for oneself, ought to count as this “self” that, in turn, one ought to know.

(ii) We are to model “knowing yourself” on knowing someone else; thus the practices, sympathies, and sensitivities—including affective and bodily comportment—appropriate to recognizing, knowing, and really understanding a friend, say, are just those appropriate to and regulative of understanding oneself.

(iii) But knowing oneself is, ultimately, a therapeutic goal, one of appraising and affixing oneself to one’s ideals. By succeeding in owning up to one’s commitments, one becomes, from the moral and epistemological perspectives, both a “self” and a “knower.” Plato identifies this accomplishment elsewhere as knowing the good, becoming sôphrôn (“sound-minded”) and dikaios (“just”), or having virtue and wisdom. We might identify it, with Korsgaard, Larmore, or Varga, as becoming an agent or a paragon of authenticity.

The book proceeds as a series of close readings of the Platonic dialogues and contemporaneous philosophy and literature. It gives its most consistent attention to Socrates’ conversations, both in the way he holds his interlocutors responsible for themselves by drawing out their deepest hopes and passions, and the way he shows that the practices and attitudes of philosophical investigation are constitutive of the moral and intellectual virtues. This book contributes to a retelling of the history of conceptions of selfhood, a broadening of our understanding of ancient epistemology, and a intervention into contemporary questions about wholeheartedness, frank speech, agency, and authenticity.

Chapter summaries

Chapter 1

Contrary to popular and scholarly belief, no documentation for a pre-philosophical meaning of the gnôthi sauton remains. The precept arises earliest in Heraclitus; then in the tragic meditation on the rise of the intellectual disciplines, Prometheus Bound; then in a fragment from a probable friend of Socrates’, the tragedian and belletrist Ion of Chios; and finally, before Plato, in Aristophanes’ Clouds, where it is treated as a Socratic refrain. These extant references to the gnôthi sauton show that by the fifth century, the precept was taken as at once familiar, mystifying, and profound. Socrates’ interpretation of the precept cannot, then, be treated as radical; and in fact it looks continuous with earlier reflections. Whereas some scholars have thought that ancient self-knowledge must be impossible, concerned solely with impersonal universals, reducible to more familiar concepts like knowledge of justice, or merely propaedeutic, a careful study shows that Socrates treats self-knowledge as self-constitution, the practice of making oneself able to be known and to know.

Chapter 2

The Charmides analyzes self-knowledge in three ways. Critias glosses the injunction “Know yourself” engraved at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi as a greeting; the dialogue opens with a series of successful and delayed greetings that illustrate his point. Socrates exhorts Charmides to investigate his views about sôphrosunê (“soundmindedness” or “discipline”) – and thereby to know himself – in a sequence of five increasingly normative routes; the final one is to test candidate ideas for acceptance. The dialogue’s latter half presents Socrates’ testing of Critias’ definition of sôphrosunê as knowing oneself; Critias’ image of this definition leads to him coming to allege the impossibility and uselessness of self-knowledge. Yet this is inconsistent with his views about its Delphic provenance. The problem with his idea is that it abstracts self-knowledge too far from the person who is to know himself. In fact, self-knowledge is possible and valuable only for a person who has some knowledge, some ignorance, and needs to figure out, in order to live well, which is which.

Chapter 3

Three times in his pedagogical seduction of Alcibiades Socrates brings up the gnôthi sauton. Each time, he reveals an important aspect of self-knowledge. The first time, Socrates describes to Alcibiades his real competitors for the regional influence he desires, namely the Spartan and Persian kings, and says that he can satisfy his desire only by developing himself to overmatch their preparations. This means that self-knowledge involves proper an acknowledgment of and responsiveness to the extent of, obstacles to, and means toward one’s goals. The second time, Socrates says that for them to know what “knowing yourself” and thereby “caring for yourself” means, they will have to understand what “the self itself” means. He is saying that the notions of unity, selfhood, and even agency cannot be avoided in talk of self-knowledge. The third time, Socrates says that knowing yourself is usefully understood on the model of reflexive perception, eyes looking at themselves – responding to an exhortation to do so – in the mirror of another’s eyes. This most famous imagery shows that self-knowledge is evaluative, dialogical, and aspirational. After this third reference to the gnôthi sauton, Socrates links self-knowledge to sôphrosunê and political success; self-knowledge has an eminently personal and practical effect.

Chapter 4

The Phaedrus, ostensibly concerned with rhetoric, erôs, and the career of the soul in philosophy, twice takes up self-knowledge in a serious way: in Socrates’ introductory remarks about myth-rectification, and in his later “Palinode” speech. In the Palinode, Socrates uses an analogy of a mirror to describe maturation and self-constitution through engagement with another person; its differences from the Alcibiades model illuminate the obscurer aspects of that model. In his remarks at the dialogue’s opening, about Boreas and plausible explanations for mythic tales, Socrates claims not yet to have been able to follow the Delphic command to know himself, and therefore to have too little time for providing new explanations of myths. His inability to know himself follows not from some mercurial nature, knotted soul, or conceptual impossibility, but from the fact that testing one’s beliefs and desires must go stepwise, one at a time, and this task will take a lifetime. This fact is suggested by his careful comparison of self-knowledge with myth-rectification, which also tests individual historical claims stepwise, one at a time. This is its difficulty, not, as usually assumed, its reliance on plausibility (eikos) reasoning.

Chapter 5

In his argument against the hedonist Philebus, Socrates raises several points whose connection to self-knowledge has been little appreciated by scholars but which vivify the themes pursued in these chapters. In distinguishing types of pleasures, Socrates observes that people with sôphrosunê and thoughtfulness get pleasure from their very sôphrosunê and thoughtfulness, that is, from their normative unity, by contrast with undisciplined and thoughtless people, who get their pleasure in other ways. Socrates later addresses normative unity head on, observing that thinking about the unity of the self generates paradoxes, some of which debaters exploit for dialectical ends, but others of which actually have depth and importance. One serious paradox is the presence of pleasure, given that pleasure as such appears independent of reason, but its realization into a unified life appears dependent on reason. In an extremely compressed passage, Socrates argues for four ways that pleasure contributes to the choiceworthy life only if recognized by reason. The precept gnôthi sauton itself arises in Socrates’ argument about mixed pleasures, where he claims that we laugh at those who lack self-knowledge. This means that we all expect people to have self-knowledge; it must be normative of personhood, and thus of the unified self.

Chapter 6

Euthydemus collects books of wisdom to effect his maturity into a great statesman; but Xenophon’s Socrates shows him to have failed to leverage his reading into the knowledge of justice. Not only that; he has failed to know himself, which includes knowing his powers (dunameis). Most scholars think that “knowing your powers” is all this Socrates means by self-knowledge, and thereby judge this view to be impoverished or uninteresting relative to Plato’s. Yet this is not all Socrates means. He relates self-knowledge to the knowledge of justice and the good; discerning one’s ideal and actual conditions as a human; achieving self-ownership and avoiding self-slavery; knowing the possibilities of other people; and having improving conversations.

Chapter 7

As Socrates debates the meaning of “philosophy” in the Platonic Rival Lovers (Erastai), he sets self-knowledge at the foundation of any beneficial practice. Unlike in the dialogues studied earlier in this book, here he acknowledges no special obstacles to knowing oneself. By contrast, in the Platonic Hipparchus, Socrates observes with purported admiration that the tyrant Hipparchus dismissed the Delphic gnôthi sauton in favor of his own moral injunctions. Hipparchus’ view must be that commanding a person to know himself has less value than telling him, for example, to “walk with justice in mind” or “not to deceive a friend.” The view of the Hipparchus might seem to have more contemporary adherents than that of the Rival Lovers; talk of self-knowledge can appear expansive, vague, indirect, and even metaphysically or epistemologically presumptuous. Yet Socrates’ commitment to the injunction, and therefore to understanding what it means, tells against assuming that we can so readily dismiss its claim on us. His reflections on the Delphic injunction depicted in the texts studied in this book support a renewed confidence in the value of thinking about self-knowledge.

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