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Dialogues of Plato | Symbols

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Gadfly

In the Apology, Socrates refers to himself as the "gadfly of Athens." By this he means that his commitment to caring for souls compels him to rouse those who are made sluggish by superficial concerns. A gadfly "stings" one into action, which is what Socrates's method of examination does. In return for Socrates's service, he is put to death.

Self-examination—exploring the depths of one's conscience with the exacting demands of potentially giving up beliefs one has long held dear—is no easy task. Socrates's trial is evidence that most people with whom he interacts are not willing to admit they are incorrect, but instead place the blame squarely on Socrates's shoulders. Both Euthyphro and Meno, for example, complain that Socrates has boxed them into a corner, not that they are actually bereft of the knowledge they claimed to possess. The intellectual humility resulting from such relentless soul-searching may be good for the searcher, but it surely does not seem that way to him.

Getting stung hurts. The process through which Socrates's interlocutors go is deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. The method of question and answer leads one to a state of confusion and frustration. Anyone who has become frustrated by confusion knows how difficult it is to remain focused on the task at hand, particularly when that task brings about the discomfiting state of mind.

Rooster Sacrifice to Asclepius

Socrates's last words (in the Phaedo) are instructions to Crito to offer a rooster in sacrifice to Asclepius, the God of medicine. Those who engage in this ritual have been cured of an illness, which suggests that Socrates sees death as a cure for life.

Socrates spends the first part of the Phaedo discussing philosophy as a preparation for death. To philosophize is to practice dying, in that the philosopher focuses all his or her efforts on rational investigations into the fundamental nature of things. Mathematics provides a good example of how this works. Mathematics is abstract, requiring the analytical skills typical of rational inquiry. Spending time on abstractions means not spending time on particulars—on the realm of sensation.

If death is a cure for life, if one recovers from life by death, it may be said that the sacrifice Socrates asks Crito to make is a way of looking at the afterlife as described in the Apology and the immortal soul described in the Meno. In the former dialogue, Socrates proposes that death may be a wonderful opportunity to converse with great minds. In the latter dialogue, he refers to the soul's engagement with the forms prior to birth. In both cases, Socrates views death as an opportunity for something much better than life.

Stingray

Meno, in the dialogue of the same name, accuses Socrates of being a stingray, paralyzing his interlocutors with his questions. His example is a colorful way of describing aporia, that phase in the process of the Socratic method when an interlocutor becomes confused to the point where he does not know how to proceed.

The paradox of inquiry is fundamental not only to Plato's epistemology—his theory of knowledge—but also to any approach to the nature and extent of knowledge. A frustrated Meno, after comparing Socrates to a stingray, asks how inquiry is possible: If you don't know what you seek, how can you rightly pick out the object of inquiry? If you do come across it, how will you identify it as that which you seek?

It's telling that the so-called Meno Paradox comes on the heels of the stingray comparison. Despite the fact that it is borne out of the frustration felt at not being able to define virtue, it is a profoundly important question. The paralysis felt is intellectual, which is why inquiry seems futile.

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