The Socratic C-section: How to dissect a fraud

‘I can’t run fast, but he can run slowly.’

Socrates’ method of argumentation is commonly called ‘maieutic’ (midwifery). This designation focuses almost solely on the logical (in the sense of formal logic) component of the method, i.e. on how the interlocutor is led into contradictions by Socrates through a carefully constructed series of questions — a cross-examination.

However, viewed in its entirety, Socrates’ method has an equally (if not more) significant psychological component, which always precedes the logical one. And it’s not as benign as the term ‘maieutic’ suggests. There’s both anesthetic and lancet involved. It’s not natural birth; it’s a C-section — an indispensable weapon against all kinds of frauds.

Plato’s Protagoras is perhaps the most powerful exposition of the C-section in practice by the master himself. In this dialogue, it is the very first — and very famous — sophist (or itinerant tutor of “higher education”) Protagoras who finds himself lying unwittingly on Socrates’ operation table. The argument between the two men is on whether arete (excellence or virtue), which Protagoras claims to be teaching can actually be taught. The relevant cross-examination though takes place on the last fifth of the dialogue. What does Socrates do until reaching that point? And why would Plato spend four fifths of the dialogue on a lengthy “introduction”?

Protagoras is as much a dialogue about how Socrates refutes the core tenets of the sophists’ agenda through formal logic (the last fifth of the dialogue) as a dialogue about how Socrates managed to convince or, better, lure Protagoras into having the conversation that he wanted with him and in his own terms (the initial four fifths). This is why the topic of the argument remains somewhat elusive for most of the dialogue with seemingly unrelated and long-winded passages preceding what could be considered the core of the argument.

Socrates has a specific goal: he wants to expose Protagoras’ (a celebrity “guru” by modern measures) ignorance. His strategy is also very specific: he wants to have a conversation with Protagoras in front of others, on a topic that serves the purpose of exposing Protagoras’ ignorance, with a rigorous question and answer structure.

But Protagoras, and, in general, the kinds of people that Socrates was taking on were of high social status, power and influence. This is, for example, how Socrates describes the ‘procession’ of Protagoras’ entourage:

‘I was absolutely delighted by this procession, to see how careful they were that nobody ever got in Protagoras’ way, but whenever he and his companions turned round, those followers of his turned smartly outwards in formation to left and right, wheeled round and so every time formed up in perfect order behind him.’

Socrates was a master of cross-examination. No fraud stood a chance against him in rigorous logical argument — his interlocutors were tied up in (their own) knots before they realized it. But, why would anyone like Protagoras bother having a conversation in public with an obtrusive and irritating character like Socrates (who, incidentally, was twenty years younger than him), let alone on a topic specifically designed to expose his ignorance?

Well, there’s no doubt that Socrates was a major manipulator. He not only was an expert in tying up his interlocutor (or shall I say opponent?) in knots, but also an expert in luring people into becoming his interlocutors. And he not only managed to engage anyone in a discussion, but he always succeeded in having the discussion that he wanted to have with them, always leaving them stupefied and embarrassed in the end.

So, this is the problem that Socrates solved with his C-section: How can you attack a fraud who is widely considered to be an expert, and has more authority than you, a host of loyal followers and no interest in speaking to you?

The C-section precedes formal logic. It opens up the stage (of the operating theater, as it were) for formal logic to operate on the fraud.

The benign bait

If Socrates couldn’t engage Protagoras in some kind of conversation he certainly wouldn’t have been able to have the conversation he wanted to have. That’s why there’s no sign of direct confrontation as he approaches Protagoras.

Protagoras is visiting Athens and staying at Callias’, a rich Athenian’s, house in the company of two other famous sophists, Hippias and Prodicus, along with a host of rich young Athenians being groomed for political success. Socrates’ visit to Callias’ house is disguised as an inquiry into Protagoras’ educational curriculum on behalf of a younger friend of his who wants to become Protagoras’ student.

This benign topic is the perfect bait for Protagoras. He not only agrees to have a discussion about this, but tells Socrates that ‘I much prefer, if you please, to talk about these things in the presence of others’. For Socrates, of course, everything goes according to plan:

‘I suspected that he wanted to put on a performance in front of Prodicus and Hippias and show off because we had turned up to admire him.’

Protagoras bites the bait — he is already on the operating table.

Flattery with a tinge of doubt

‘The very day you become my pupil you will go home a better man, and the same the next day; and every day you will continue to make progress’ is Protagoras’ obscure response to the bait. Socrates is certainly not satisfied with that. But instead of reproving Protagoras for his vagueness he continues flattering him while carefully instilling some doubt into his flattery:

‘I don’t think that excellence can be taught. But then when I hear you say that you teach it, I am swayed once again, and think that there must be something in what you say, as I regard you as someone of great experience and learning, who has made discoveries himself. So If you can show us more clearly that excellence can be taught, please don’t grudge us your proof, but proceed.’

After Protagoras lengthy rhetorical response to that, Socrates is still not satisfied, but his doubt is dressed up as admiration towards the sophist:

‘Previously I used to think that there was no technique available to men for making people good; but now I am persuaded that there is. I’ve just one small difficulty, and it’s obvious that Protagoras will explain it too without any trouble, since he has explained so much already.’

Here ‘I am persuaded’ clearly means ‘I’d like to see you try persuading me’. Socrates gradually makes Protagoras from eager to show off, anxious to prove himself.

This strategy also has an additional benefit for Socrates: it helps him stimulate the audience. Everyone in the scene is there to listen to Protagoras teach. So, flattery towards Protagoras is also flattery towards his audience, who chose to be there. And doubt is a little smell of blood. ‘Could it be that Protagoras is wrong?’, everybody in the scene must have thought. The vicarious crowd always loves witnessing the fall of a celebrity.

Arousing the audience’s curiosity served Socrates well. At a later point Callias urges Socrates to stay, on behalf of the audience, when Socrates, dissatisfied with how the argument is being conducted, makes pretends to be leaving.

‘I can’t run fast, but he can run slowly’: Cross-examination (is) for dummies

So far, Socrates not only has managed to have a public conversation with Protagoras, but has also made him want to prove himself in front of an audience of rivals and admirers who have their gaze fixed at him. Naturally for a sophist, he goes into narrative mode, trying to escape clear-cut answers to Socrates’ questions as much as possible.

So, what does Socrates do? He goes into ‘playing dumb’ mode. He insists that it is his bad memory that makes it difficult for him to follow Protagoras’ long-winded rhetorical acrobatics:

‘Since you are dealing with someone with a bad memory, cut your answers short and make them briefer, if I am to follow you.’

He likens discussing with Protagoras as an unfair race between a professional athlete and a hopeless amateur:

‘It’s just as if you were asking me to keep pace with Crison, the runner, from Himera, at his peak, or keep up in a race with some middle-distance runner or long-distance courier. … If you want to watch Crison and me running together, ask him to come down to my level; for I can’t run fast, but he can run slowly.’

It’s a devious plea for respect. Socrates then asks the audience to help him by impelling Protagoras to follow the simpler method of question and answer, which is suitable for ‘slow’ people like him:

‘If you want to listen to Protagoras and me, ask him to answer … briefly, and sticking to the question. … I thought that a discussion was something quite different from a public speech.’

The audience agrees. So does Protagoras (grudgingly, of course). Socrates then “generously” lets Protagoras lead the questioning first, on a topic of his own choice.

This is the point of no return for Protagoras. The anesthetic has been administered.

Parody and sarcasm

Protagoras chooses to analyze a poem about goodness, because ‘a most important part of a man’s education is being knowledgeable about poetry’. This is Protagoras’ last — and soon to be proven desperate — effort to steer the argument into narrative mode. The poet is treated as an authority and Protagoras has complete freedom over the poem’s interpretation. Nothing could be more suitable to his purposes.

But Socrates doesn’t object to that. On the contrary, he even adopts Protagoras’ style of interpretation and gives his own perplexing interpretation of the poem. Not only that, but he also recruits the sophist Prodicus, a master of lexical ambiguities, on his side to Protagoras’ great confusion. ‘Prodicus is having a joke and testing you to see whether you can defend your position’ Socrates playfully admits. This serves as a parody of Protagoras’ chosen topic and argumentative structure.

After his own analysis of the poem Socrates eventually concludes:

‘You can’t question [poets] about what they say, but in most cases when people quote them, one says the poet means one thing and one another, and they argue over points which can’t be established with any certainty.’

Socrates then asks Protagoras to return to their initial subject of whether excellence can be taught: ‘If you’re willing, oblige me by completing the discussion which we broke off in the middle’.

Protagoras is not eager to continue, but is pressed by the audience, which can now see the blood, to do so. And Socrates wants to make sure his opponent will enter his questioning completely off balance. He now repeats the words of flattery that he told Protagoras in the beginning but with such exaggeration that the sarcasm is obvious:

‘I had rather have a discussion with you than anyone else. … For who other than yourself? … You are both good yourself and capable of making others good, and have such self-confidence that, whereas others make a secret of this profession, you give yourself the name of sophist and proclaim yourself openly to the whole of Greece as a teacher of culture and excellence. … So should I not have called on you to explore these matters and consulted and questioned you? Of course I should.’

Protagoras can’t object. First flattered, then anxious, and now irritated from the sarcastic provocation, he can’t deny that he has publicly committed to having this conversation. Socrates finally has him dissected and ready for the operation. Cross-examination begins.


(All quotes are from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Plato’s Protagoras, translated by C. C. W. Taylor.)


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