The Elenchus and Socrates’ Idea of the Philosophical Life

Originally published on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

Pa’ntes A’nthropoi Tou^ Eide’nai Ore’gontai Phy’sei.
All men by nature desire to know. —Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1:1

When one begins to take a closer look at Socrates of Athens, (469-399 B.C. ) it immediately becomes clear that he is a man in a unique and enviable position. A citizen of an established polis, he was neither obscure nor highly celebrated. His service to his country as a soldier was established, yet he did not distinguish himself to the extent that it required him to bear the burden of celebrity nor assume the mantle of hero (Vlastos, Pg. 50). He was born of a good family but not of a noble or patrician one. His father was an artist; a sculptor, he himself was an artisan; a stonemason. Apparently a man of limited independent means, he was far from what would be considered wealthy. This fortuitous combination of circumstances worked to place Socrates, not in the center of urban life and culture, but rather in the middle of it. He found himself in an ideal position to observe his fellow Athenians, and to interact and converse with them.

By his own admission, Socrates did not consider himself a teacher (Cohen and Curd, Pg.117, 19e). Rather than impart knowledge, Socrates sought knowledge, and did this by the most direct and logical way. He asked questions as any one of us might do. He asked questions of a variety of people on a range of topics; questions upon questions. At some point it appears that he decided to adopt this process as his primary strategy of interlocution. As he began to practice it over time, he must have become quite skillful at it, and at the form of reasoning necessary to pose progressively effective questions. This process, attributed to Socrates, is known to us as the elenchus, a word “which means to examine, refute, or put to shame” (Seeskin, Pg. 1). By this process Socrates first learned the limitations of his knowledge while realizing that others did not realize the limitations of their knowledge, thus rendering him wiser than they were (Vlastos, Pg. 85). After having had this epiphany, he continued using the elenchus at the behest of the gods to teach men (Vlastos, Pg. 86).

It is common knowledge that Socrates left no written works of his own. Most of what we know about him comes from the writings of his student, Plato. Plato presents several examples of Socrates’ use of the elenchus. For the purposes of this paper we will use a section from Gorgias demonstrating this. Polus, a student of Gorgias, is having a discussion with Socrates about which situation would be worse for a man, to be put in the position of having to suffer injustice or to cause another to suffer injustice. The contemplation of justice and injustice is the central theme of Socrates’ life. In the Apology he encapsulates his theory of the good life in a single question and answer:

“But perhaps someone will say ‘Do you feel no compunction, Socrates, at having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death-penalty?’ I might fairly reply to him ‘You are mistaken my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action; that is whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.”

This is obviously not a new subject for Socrates and we should not assume that these questions are being asked of Polus extemporaneously. Rather they represent a crafted argument, or a variation of one; a philosophical project that Socrates has been working on for some time that may be compared to a series of opening chess moves. Socrates must have a definite idea of where he wants to go with the conversation and a reasonable expectation of getting there, especially with such a young and inexperienced antagonist. One may object and say that this is a setup; that Socrates is really not interested in increasing his own knowledge but only in advancing his own theories. But the elenchus leaves him vulnerable by its very structure. By engaging in dialogue rather than simply espousing his own philosophical conclusions, Socrates leaves himself open to the possibility that he may receive an unexpected answer, a refutation for which he has no subsequent question and that may in turn force him to reevaluate his original premise (Vlastos Pg. 11), which in Socrates’ case would be the foundations upon which he has based his whole life (Seeskin, Pg. 3).

Throughout the Gorgias excerpt, it becomes obvious that Polus’ perspective is selfish and focused on the physical realm while Socrates’ is both spiritual and altruistic. Polus answers Socrates that it is worse to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it, thereby demonstrating his primary concern to preserve himself and his property. Upon being asked if doing what is unjust is more shameful than suffering it, he readily agrees and therefore shows that he seems to know the difference between right and wrong. However, in the next line Polus appears to make the case that it is appropriate to do that which is shameful in the cause of self-preservation. Socrates seizes upon this and restates Polus’ premise as ‘Admirable ≠ Good or BadShameful. Polus agrees.

Socrates begins his rebuttal of this premise by focusing on the idea of admirableness. Polus agrees with Socrates that it must mean the relative usefulness or aesthetic beauty of one object over another. Usefulness would seem to be a concept that has its application in the physical world while aesthetics might be said to have its primary effect upon the spirit. Conversely, Polus must then also agree that shamefulness must mean the relative pain or evil ascribed to one object over another [475 b]. Again pain is for the most part a physical manifestation, while evil is a spiritual one. In this manner, Socrates has constructed an intellectual hedge around Polus that has only one exit and he will next compel Polus to pass through it.

As the discussion progresses Socrates reminds Polus that the young man has already stated that to do what is unjust is more shameful than suffering it. Since Polus has also already agreed that shamefulness must mean the relative pain or evil ascribed to one object over another, and since Polus already thinks that suffering injustice is more painful (to himself) than causing it, he must concede that causing injustice is more evil than suffering it. Once again Socrates reminds Polus that he has said that doing what is unjust is more shameful than suffering it [475d], and now Polus has also admitted that it more evil.

Polus is standing at the door and as he takes the final steps through it Socrates wants to make sure that his young friend knows what he is doing. Socrates says to him “nobly resign yourself into the healing hand of the argument.” By doing this Socrates is recognizing that the previous argument that Polus was making was a genuine one, a truly held belief which apparently he has been unable to defend. So when he asks Polus the final questions, if he would prefer a greater evil or a greater dishonor to a lesser one, or if anyone else would for that matter, Polus is compelled to say “no.” The old cliché, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still” is perhaps appropriate here. But using the elenchus, Socrates has done what he could to help Polus reach the conclusion by himself (Vlastos, Pg. 12), and having done so to give him the opportunity to change his own mind, thereby receiving healing for his soul. For this reason we may say that the elenchus is a genuine tool for knowledge and improving the lives of others.

There are objections to the use of elenchus as a genuine tool for knowledge. The fact that the elenchus more often than not results in aporia or confusion with Socrates seemingly bent on refuting all possible answers without leaving an indication of what might be the correct one (Vlastos, Pg. 7) discounts its usefulness. The complaint that Socrates’ elenchus does not result in any new or definite philosophical positions is known as the ‘nonconstructivist’ argument (Brickhouse & Smith, Pg. 75). Claims were made that Socrates and his methods so corrupted Critias that he became one of the ‘Thirty Tyrants” and so corrupted Alcibiades that he became a traitor to his native Athens (Brickhouse & Smith, Pg. 196) and were therefore counter-productive, even though this argument amounts to little more than guilt by association. His use of “Socratic Irony” or “pretended ignorance in discussion” (Random House) in the course of the elenchus has been viewed as a hindrance to the quest for knowledge because of the anger it caused in those subjected to it (Vlastos, Pg. 91). Yet another objection is P.T. Geache’s “Socratic Fallacy” which argues that Socrates was incorrect in his premise that it was impossible to truly know the definition of a concept, such as justice, simply by giving examples of that concept in action (Beversluis, Pg. 107), in the manner that Euthyphro does when he says that piety is prosecuting those that commit an injustice (Cohen & Curd, Pg. 102, 5d-e). If entire procedure of elenchus is based on a fallacy it casts doubt on it validity as a teaching tool.

Objections aside, the fact remains that the writings of Plato and others about the philosophy of Socrates is still a matter of concentrated study by philosophers and adherents of other academic disciplines. The Socratic method of elenchus has continued to be used as a teaching tool since its inception. Socrates was beloved by his friends and supported by them while he was living because they felt that his project had merit. Socrates is heralded as the father of Western philosophy unto this day. His manner of death and his exhortations to live the good life, the virtuous life, are still an inspiration to those who learn of them. Theological caveats aside, no one can deny that the life of Socrates was anything less than a grand success; one of the greatest of successes. Socrates’ life is to be admired, and recommended as a life that brought him a personal peace that transcended even the fear of death. It also brought great fame and honor to his name, and a legacy that will exist as long as there remains the capability to record and retain the history of humanity.


Soc. Tell me, then, and you will know, and let us suppose that I am beginning at the beginning: which of the two, Polus, in your opinion, is the worst?-to do injustice or to suffer?
Pol. I should say that suffering was worst.
Soc. And which is the greater disgrace?-Answer.
Pol. To do.
Soc. And the greater disgrace is the greater evil?
Pol. Certainly not.
Soc. [474d] I understand you to say, if I am not mistaken, that the honourable is not the same as the good, or the disgraceful as the evil?
Pol. Certainly not.
Soc. Let me ask a question of you: When you speak of beautiful things, such as bodies, colours, figures, sounds, institutions, do you not call them beautiful in reference to some standard: bodies, for example, are beautiful in proportion as they are useful, or as the sight of them gives pleasure to the spectators; can you give any other account of personal beauty?
Pol. [e] I cannot.
Soc. And you would say of figures or colours generally that they were beautiful, either by reason of the pleasure which they give, or of their use, or both?
Pol. Yes, I should.
Soc. And you would call sounds and music beautiful for the same reason?
Pol. I should.
Soc. Laws and institutions also have no beauty in them except in so far as they are useful or pleasant or both?
Pol. [475] I think not.
Soc. And may not the same be said of the beauty of knowledge?
Pol. To be sure, Socrates; and I very much approve of your measuring beauty by the standard of pleasure and utility.
Soc. And deformity or disgrace may be equally measured by the opposite standard of pain and evil?
Pol. Certainly.
Soc. [b] Then when of two beautiful things one exceeds in beauty, the measure of the excess is to be taken in one or both of these; that is to say, in pleasure or utility or both?
Pol. Very true.
Soc. And of two deformed things, that which exceeds in deformity or disgrace, exceeds either in pain or evil-must it not be so?
Pol. Yes.
Soc. But then again, what was the observation which you just now made, about doing and suffering wrong? Did you not say, that suffering wrong was more evil, and doing wrong more disgraceful?
Pol. I did.
Soc. [c] Then, if doing wrong is more disgraceful than suffering, the more disgraceful must be more painful and must exceed in pain or in evil or both: does not that also follow?
Pol. Of course.
Soc. First, then, let us consider whether the doing of injustice exceeds the suffering in the consequent pain: Do the injurers suffer more than the injured?
Pol. No, Socrates; certainly not.
Soc. Then they do not exceed in pain?
Pol. No.
Soc. But if not in pain, then not in both?
Pol. Certainly not.
Soc. Then they can only exceed in the other?
Pol. Yes.
Soc. That is to say, in evil?
Pol. True.
Soc. Then doing injustice will have an excess of evil, and will therefore be a greater evil than suffering injustice?
Pol. Clearly.
Soc. [d] But have not you and the world already agreed that to do injustice is more disgraceful than to suffer?
Pol. Yes.
Soc. And that is now discovered to be more evil?
Pol. True.
Soc. And would you prefer a greater evil or a greater dishonour to a less one? Answer, Polus, and fear not; for you will come to no harm if you nobly resign yourself into the healing hand of the argument as to a physician without shrinking, and either say “Yes” or “No” to me.
Pol. [e] I should say “No.”
Soc. Would any other man prefer a greater to a less evil?
Pol. No, not according to this way of putting the case, Socrates.
Soc. Then I said truly, Polus that neither you, nor I, nor any man, would rather, do than suffer injustice; for to do injustice is the greater evil of the two.
Pol. That is the conclusion.


Beversluis, John. “Does Socrates Commit the Socratic Fallacy?” Essays on the philosophy of Socrates. Benson, Hugh H., ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Smith, Nicholas D. The philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.

Cohen, S. Marc and Curd, Patricia, C.D.C., eds. Readings in ancient Greek philosophy : from Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.

Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. “Socratic Irony” Random House Reference: New York, N.Y., 1997.

Seeskin, Kenneth. Dialogue and discovery: a study in Socratic method. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, c1986.

Vlastos, Gregory,ed. The philosophy of Socrates : a collection of critical essays. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980, c1971.

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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