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Socratic Ways

Whether participating at a symposium, strolling in the agora , or watching young men exercise in a gymnasium, Socrates spent his time1 in conversation and contemplation. In the first of these characteristics he resembled his fellow Athenians, who placed great value on the importance and pleasure of speaking with each other at length. He wrote nothing; our knowledge of his ideas comes from others' writings, especially those of his pupil Plato2. Plato's dialogues, so called because they present Socrates and others in extended conversation about philosophy, portray Socrates as a relentless questioner of his fellow citizens, foreign friends, and various sophists. Socrates's questions had the unsettling aim of making his interlocutors— his partners in the conversation— examine the basic assumptions of their way of life. Employing what has come to be called the Socratic method, Socrates never directly instructs his conversational partners; instead, he leads them to draw conclusions in response to his probing questions and refutations of their assumptions.

Socrates typically began one of his conversations by asking the interlocutor for a definition of an abstract quality such as happiness or a virtue such as courage. For instance, in the dialogue entitled Laches 3 after the Athenian general of that name who appears as one of the dialogue's interlocutors, Socrates asks Laches and another distinguished military commander what makes a citizen a brave soldier. Socrates then proceeds by further questioning to show that the definitions of courage and instances of courageous behavior stated by the interlocutors actually conflict with their other beliefs about the behavior that constituted courage.

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