Socrates: the Ironic Midwife

I hear about the Socratic method quite often. Doncha know? You have a discussion based on asking questions to explore a topic more deeply than you could if you were to presume that you already know about it.

Oh, really? Well, I’ve read more than a dozen Platonic dialogues and I know that is merely a bunch of quasi-accurate BS.

That popular conception of the Socratic method was actually formulated by Plato’s Socrates in his Theaetetus.1 There, Socrates claimed that his role is merely the philosophical equivalent of a midwife: a midwife assists in the delivery of children but is too old to bear any of her own, and Socrates assists in the delivery of ideas, but is condemned by the Gods not to have any of his own. He tells his young interlocutor Theaetetus that he (Theaetetus) is essentially pregnant with an idea and that he (Socrates) is going to deliver it through conversation.

There is quite a lot wrong with accepting this account at this point. In that same dialogue, the Theaetetus, Plato has all of its participants other than Socrates shrink from participating in one of its climaxes. After failing to convince Theodorus to take up the case of Theodorus’ late old friend Protagoras, Socrates accepts his own fate that he will have to make Protagoras’ case. Socrates considers this to be a significant responsibility, and proceeds to make the best case for Protagoras’ views—not necessarily the case that the historical Protagoras would have made. Then, Socrates refutes his Protagoras in short order. All of this seems to contradict the midwife that he had portrayed himself as earlier in the dialogue.

Socrates did ask a lot of questions, but often his questions were so esoteric that he had to reveal that his ignorance was merely feigned and answer them for himself. A fitting example that I like is in Republic II, where Socrates, discussing how the gods will be regarded in the ideal city, asks his interlocutor Adeimantus, “[d]o you suppose the god is a wizard, able treacherously to reveal himself at different times in different ideas, at one time actually himself changing and passing from his own form into many shapes, at another time deceiving us and making us think such things about him? Or is he simple and does he least of all things depart from his own idea?”2 Adeimantus replied, “[o]n the spur of the moment, I can’t say.”

Of course, Socrates had already thought the question through to its conclusion, which he reveals when he proceeds to answer his own question with no difficulty. After some more discussion about transformation, Socrates asks about lying in speeches and immediately answers his own question, although he provides his answers in the form of more questions. He says, “[n]ow what about the [lie] in speeches? When and for whom is it also useful, so as not to deserve hatred? Isn’t it useful against enemies, and, as a preventive, like a drug, for so-called friends when from madness or some folly they attempt to do something bad? And, in the telling of the tales we were just now speaking about—those told because we don’t know where the truth about ancient things lies—likening the lie to truth as best we can, don’t we also make it useful?” Adeimantus responds, “[i]t is very useful in such cases.”

So, given that Plato’s Socrates explains why someone would lie in speech in his greatest work, the Republic, isn’t it not so surprising that Socrates account of himself as the midwife is not really accurate? After all, Socrates follows his account of the midwife in the Theaetetus with a distinction: when delivering ideas, he has to distinguish between true and false ideas whereas the literal midwife does not have such a task. But we have to go further than this, since we have seen that Socrates is not really barren and does have his own ideas—such as about Protagoras and when people should lie. We have to consider that Socrates has already thought through every question he asks to some sort of conclusion.

This aspect of Socrates that he habitually misrepresents himself is known as Socratic irony. Plato explicitly tells us of it when Thrasymachus calls Socrates’ feigned ignorance his habitual irony.3 Leo Strauss says about Plato’s writings that “[v]ery much, not to say everything, seems to depend on what Socratic irony is. Irony is a kind of dissimulation, or of untruthfulness. Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice. Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues… Properly used, it is not a vice at all: the magnanimous man—the man who regards himself as worthy of great things while in fact being worthy of them—is truthful and frank because he is in the habit of looking down and yet he is ironical in his intercourse with the many. Irony is then the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, of one’s superiority. We may say, it is the humanity peculiar to the superior man: he spares the feelings of his inferiors by not displaying his superiority… If irony is essentially related to the fact that there is a natural order of rank among men, it follows that irony consists in speaking differently to different kinds of people.”4

At this point, we may want to throw up our hands in frustration and resign ourselves to the fact that Plato’s writings are inaccessible. But, Plato’s Socrates does offer an account of his method in the Republic, where, unlike in the ‘Theaetetus’ he is not directly talking about himself, and it turns out that this method can actually be applied broadly to Plato’s writings. That method, of course, is dialectic.

Here, Plato’s Socrates explains dialectic in terms of his allegory of the cave so that it will be understandable to the non-philosophers, or potential philosophers, to whom he is speaking. Allan Bloom says that “[i]n the account of the cave given… a man is liberated from his bonds not by his own efforts but by a teacher who compels him to turn to the light.”5 But, Bloom notes that Socrates had said earlier that two of man’s most noble arts, poetry and mathematics, are threats to the philosophic life.6 He says, “[i]n order to resist these temptations, a man must be daring in his quest for the first causes of all things and in his refusal to accept the sacred opinions of the cave. But he must be moderate and not look directly at the sun for fear of being blinded and losing the distinctions among the various kinds of things.7 He must look at the reflection of the sun and the things it illuminates; that is, he must not try to apprehend being directly but must try to discern it in the opinions about the various kinds of beings.” It is helpful to note that Plato’s Socrates says that the light in the cave, “when judged in comparison with the sun, also has the quality of the shadow of a phantom.”8 Therefore, the philosopher and the cave-dweller view the same objects but in their own kinds of light. It is in this way that philosophy uses opinions about questions and is far from limited to questions themselves. This should remind us of the qualification that Plato’s Socrates made to his midwife’s art in the Theaetetus—that unlike the midwife, he has to distinguish between true and false ideas (which he calls phantoms in both the Republic and the Theaetetus).

After all, as Bloom notes, the lengthy conversation of the Republic begins with the old Cephalus’ opinions about justice that he expresses incidentally while responding to Socrates’ questions about old age. After Socrates quickly refutes them, Cephalus’ son, Polemarchus insists that his father can’t be wrong, “at least if [the poet] Simonides is to be believed at all”.9 Socrates first considered Cephalus’ opinion, but he considers opinions abstractly—i.e. he doesn’t apply them to a personality. He is happy to shift the opinion from Cephalus to Simonides—Socrates merely wants the best case to be made for the opinion—the opinion is what has his attention. This is very similar to how the Theaetetus begins, where Socrates identifies Theaetetus’ view of knowledge with that of Protagoras.10

Leo Strauss notes of the differences between the philosopher and his interlocutors that “in no Platonic dialogue do the men who converse with the main speaker possess the perfection of the best nature. This is one reason why Plato employs a variety of spokesmen: by failing to present a conversation between Socrates and the Eleatic stranger or Timaeus, he indicates that there is no Platonic dialogue among men who are, or could be thought to be, equals.”11 We must conclude, then, that the role non-philosophers can play in the Socratic method is limited to providing opinions for philosophers to study. It is interesting though, that philosophers (or at least people familiar with Plato) and non-philosophers have different opinions about what the Socratic method is.


1. Plato, Theaetetus 149a

2. Plato, Republic II.380d; all quotes will be taken from the Allan Bloom translation; Note that idea is one of the Greek words Plato used to refer what we call his theory of forms

3. Plato, Republic I.337a

4. Leo Strauss, The City and Man p51

5. Allan Bloom, The Republic Of Plato, “Interpretive Essay” (503b—540c); All of Bloom’s quote are taken from this section.

6. Plato, Republic V.480a

7. This is a reference to what Plato calls—in Bloom’s translation—the mathematicians. Plato says that the mathematicians sees homogeneity in the application of numbers—i.e. quantities—to reality. Bloom says about Plato’s view of them, “[t]hey tend to forget the questionableness of their own beginnings or principles and the natural heterogeneity of the different kinds of things; they are forgetful of qualitative differences and, hence, of the ideas.” We should consider that this is not unlike that modern philosophy which insists that the only things that exist are what is material.

8. Plato, Republic VII.532c

9. Plato, Republic I.331d

10. Plato, Theaetetus 151e

11. Leo Strauss, The City and Man p54-55

Categories: commentary

Leave a Reply