The Socratic Method in Plato’s “The Sophist”

Socrates (470-399 BC)
Socrates (470-399 BC)

As we continue to work to understand the true “Socratic Method”, we have this excellent passage in Plato’s dialogue “The Sophist”. We learn here what the goal of the Socratic Method is, and how it works.

STRANGER: Of education, one method appears to be rougher, and another smoother.

Note here that the “Socratic Method” is identified as a method of education. Below, we will see the aim of this method.

THEAETETUS: How are we to distinguish the two?

STRANGER: There is the time-honoured mode which our fathers commonly practised towards their sons, and which is still adopted by many—either of roughly reproving their errors, or of gently advising them; which varieties may be correctly included under the general term of admonition.


STRANGER: But whereas some appear to have arrived at the conclusion that all ignorance is involuntary, and that no one who thinks himself wise is willing to learn any of those things in which he is conscious of his own cleverness, and that the admonitory sort of instruction gives much trouble and does little good—

THEAETETUS: There they are quite right.

STRANGER: Accordingly, they set to work to eradicate the spirit of conceit in another way.

Here, Plato explains the purpose of the Socratic Method: “to eradicate the spirit of conceit”. Note that the Socratic Method is not a method of conducting classes or a system of liberal studies. It is a means of character development, aiming not at leading men to wisdom, but to freeing them from conceit so that they can begin the study of philosophy. It is a preparation for liberal studies.

THEAETETUS: In what way?

STRANGER: They cross-examine a man’s words, when he thinks that he is saying something and is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectical process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect. He, seeing this, is angry with himself, and grows gentle towards others, and thus is entirely delivered from great prejudices and harsh notions, in a way which is most amusing to the hearer, and produces the most lasting good effect on the person who is the subject of the operation. For as the physician considers that the body will receive no benefit from taking food until the internal obstacles have been removed, so the purifier of the soul is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty; he must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows, and no more.

The “dialectical process” is the Socratic Method. The goal is to destroy conceit by proving that a man’s thoughts on a subject cannot possibly be true because they are self-contradicting. The error is not outside of the man, in any evidence, but inside the soul of the man himself. This Plato refers to as “impurity”.

THEAETETUS: That is certainly the best and wisest state of mind.

William C. Michael
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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