So how do you read this stuff? Let me read you a quote from the 20th century Austrian philosopher, Ludvig Wittgenstein. Reading the Socratic dialogues, one has the feeling, what a frightful waste of time. What's the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing? If you've done your Euthyphro reading, I'll bet you know what that guy is talking about. What is holiness? We don't get an answer. But worse than that, the question just doesn't feel right. Maybe I'm just not getting it because it's so old, you think? It's all ancient Greek to me. If that's your worry, good news. The ancient Greeks hated this stuff, too. They killed Socrates, after all. Yeah, but they apparently thought he was dangerous, you say. I just think he's annoying, like that Austrian guy with the funny hair set. Okay, bear with me here. Let me tell you a bit about a Plato dialogue called Symposium. It isn't about some guy named Symposium, a Symposium was a Greek drinking party. Let me tell you what life was like in olden days. Today, if you're at a dinner party or out to a restaurant, everyone is easily entertained because everyone just texts and reads the Internet on their phones like this. We can all be alone together because we're socially networked. Sitting with our friends and families around us, we ignore them and stare into the little circle of the light. Oh, brave new world that has such peoples in it. Alright, enough contemporary media criticism. In olden days, when people got drunk at a dinner party, they were forced to talk to each other if they didn't want to be bored. So, among other things, they would give speeches. That's a big part of what Symposium, the dialogue, is about. I want to tell you about one of those speeches, a character, Alcibiades, who was a real guy. You can look him up on Wikipedia, wow, crazy story. Anyway, Alcibiades, drunk as a lord, gives a speech saying what a great guy Socrates is. I'm going to paraphrase and I am not going to act drunk. Socrates is a great man, but it's hard to say what makes him great for two reasons. First, you can't compare him to anyone. Usually, if someone is a great warrior, great politician, or whatever, you can compare him to someone from Homer, or mythology. Strong as Hercules, shrewd as Odysseus, wise as Old Nester, as great a warrior as Achilles. But Socrates breaks every mold. Homer never imagined him, and there isn't any myth about Zeus getting into an argument with a mortal who won't shut up with the why questions already. So, we're stuck for comparisons so says Alcibiades, but wait, it gets worse. Socrates is annoying in a way that seems incompatible with him being great. His arguments seem so crude and coarse. He uses these little toy examples, he's repetitive. And do we ever get anywhere? And yet, and yet, Alcibiades says that there comes a point when you realize that no other kind of argument makes any sense. It's this or nothing. So he comes up with a mythological comparison. After all, it's kind of a double comparison. Alcibiades says Socrates is like Silenus, who is a satyr, or a half divine being who hangs around with satyrs. You know what a satyr is, right? A goat from the waist down, man from the waist up. Usually a few goat touches even up top. Alcibiades also compares Socrates to a particular satyr, a guy named Marsyas, who, if the myth is true, challenged the God Apollo to a music contest. Lost, and was flayed for his impudence. Wow, sort of Greece Has Got Talent meets The Hunger Games. So, the Marsyas comp, comparison seems like a bit of a warning. You could lose your skin if you try to make the powers that be look bad. The Silenus comparison is more favorable. What we gather from Alcibiades' speech is that there must have been figures for sale in the market in Athens that were, on the outside, ugly heads of Silenus. Goat, crude, but on the inside was some golden figure of the God Dionysus, God of Intoxication and Ecstasy. In Greek religion, handsome Dionysus and ugly satyrs went together. We have drinking cups with Dionysus on one side and a leering satyr face on the other. Maybe there was also something like, oh, I don't know, a piñata. If you smashed a cheap Silenus open, you got a Dionysus prize. That's a guess, backed by zero evidence in the form of any such thing having survived and ended up in some museum. But if the guess is right, it would mean another threat to Socrates from Alcibiades. No one is going to appreciate your wisdom, Socrates, until someone smashes you. Threat or not, this much is clear, and this is the important bit. The idea is that Socratic arguments are superficially ugly and crude. Somehow, by design, this is a feature, not a bug. So let's run with this. These dialogues are probably supposed to seem frustrating. I don't mean difficult, although they are that. I mean, seemingly crude or ugly somehow. The question is, do you or do you not then have an aha Eureka moment when you realize that, in a weird way despite the ugliness, nothing else makes sense. That is, like Alcibiades says, it's somehow this or nothing. Me personally, I had a come to Socrates moment. The first philosophy course I took, I was all excited. Then I read Plato and I thought, how very annoying. I thought just what Alcebiades said, this stuff is kind of crude. It was literally years before the light went on upstairs. Socrates is great. Ironically, my conversion came while I was reading Wittgenstein, the guy who says he thinks Socrates is frustrating and useless, but we're not reading Wittgenstein. I'm going to try to talk you through in a different way. I don't have years, how to do it eight weeks. First thing to say is maybe you're one of those people to whom this stuff immediately makes sense. If so, great. Don't let me talk you out of it. You're right to be excited, I hope. The second thing to say is, the fact that I had to say that first thing, has the whole marketing department holding their heads. Any marketing guy, or gal, is going to tell you I'm going about this the worst way possible. Selling door to door, ding dong, ma'am, would you like to buy my new wonder product? Platonic dialogues? I say wonder, because it's a wonder anyone puts up with this frustrating stuff. Slam. No, no, no, no, that's not how you sell things. Marketing 101 says, don't lead with your products defects. On the other hands, would Plato want me to listen to that guy from marketing? Or gal. No. The persuasion professionals, no. He would not want me to listen to those people. The annoying bits are in there for a reason. We can argue about what it is, and you can feel free to conclude that the reason is a bad one. I don't tell you how to take a good whack at Socrates. Do so in frustration, if you have to, or so that you can get to the golden prize, if you believe in it. But do your best to take a solid whack. This much is true for sure, Socrates really did look like Silenus. Alcibiades was totally right about that. When you see busts of Socrates' wide nose, bulging eyes, he looks just like a Greek satyr. Okay, we're planning to fight through the frustration to some kind of positive realization. So let's get frustrated. Euthyphro thinks Dad is guilty of murder, not to put too fine a point on it. So the question is, obviously, what is holiness? Wait, wait. What? Picture this. A friend of yours comes to your door, upset. I think my dad killed a guy. What should I do? And you, because you are so wise in the ways of Socrates, say, well, I guess we should just take down the dictionary and look in the H's. Let's see, hokeyness, holiday, here we go. Holiness. Surely, the dictionary will tell you what holiness means. And then you've got your answer. If holiness means prosecute dad, go report him to the cops. Of course, this is crazy. I'm going to tell you a version of this joke again next week. It's bad form repeating my jokes but I say it's educational. Here's how you could write the world's worst advice column. Dear dictionary, should I break up with my boyfriend? And the answer would just consist of a dictionary definition of boyfriend. Dear diary, should I quit my job? And the answer would consist of a definition of job. Is this really what Socrates is doing in these dialogues? Trying and, may I say, failing to write a dictionary? Let me just say it. No, he does not want to know what words mean. He wants to know what things truly are. What's the difference? It's not totally clear. So this is one way to get it while you feel frustrated. What Socrates is up to, whatever it is, looks close enough to that thing that's obviously a waste of time that we can't help suspecting he's wasting our time. Here's a question, pencils out, mouses anyway. When is it useful to to ask for a definition, or a rule for using a word? Check all that apply. A, you're a lawyer, so you want to know exactly how to interpret the terms of a law, or a contract. B, you're a scientist, mathematician, programmer, engineer, technical sort, and you need to be sure about the meaning of a technical term. C, you meet some word, in English or a foreign language, that you don't know. I hope you checked all of A through C, so here's another question. If it sometimes makes sense to demand complete conceptual precision, why doesn't it always make sense? Well, because you're not going to get it, that's why. Why didn't Socrates think of that? Fair enough, but surely we want to give at least Plato some credit here. I mean, he wrote these dialogues. Warning, plotspoilers. At the end of the Euthyphro, the title character Euthyphro, having been made to look like a fool, runs away. Sorry Socrates, I'd love to stay and look like a fool, but I think I hear the Gods calling me. Something like that. Presumably, Plato noticed his own dialogues ending in this unhelpful way. Euthyphro, so it seems, hasn't learned a darn thing. Doesn't this seem like a case of Plato implicitly commenting on his teacher's methods? Maybe in a positive, but also in a negative sense. A cross between what Alcibiades said and what Wittgenstein said. Maybe there's all sorts of wisdom here, but if there is, people aren't getting it. So what good is this head of Socrates if it's too hard for regular folks like Euthyphro to crack it, to get the gold prize of not being so dumb anymore. Let me now give you two tools that might help you take a crack at Socrates's head. Two words that are, in a sense, dual purpose head cracking tools. The two words are contradiction and argument.