Socrates and the Ethics of Conversation

Frisbee Sheffield

Socrates engaged in relentless questioning of his fellow Athenian citizens, until they put him to death in 399 BC on charges of corrupting the young and introducing new gods. Central to Plato’s portrayal of his defence were the twin claims that (1) Socrates had never been anyone’s teacher (Apology 19e, 33a–b), and (2) that he had no knowledge to impart (20e). Instead, he engaged in a distinctive pursuit called philosophy (φιλοσοφία, philosophia, “love of wisdom”), which constituted an “examined life”. Without this, he claimed, life was not worth living (38a).

How so? Since Socrates was notorious for his profession of ignorance, and is frequently presented in Plato’s so-called ‘Socratic’ dialogues as failing to find the truth about the questions he posed in his examinations, this leads one to wonder: what is so good about examination, if it is so often result-less? How can it improve anyone?

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia, Nicolas-André Monsiau, c. 1800 (Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia)

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is frequently presented searching for the definition of a contested ethical term, such as justice, courage, or piety. Plato embeds those discussions within dramatic contexts which gives us a sense of what is at stake. The Euthyphro, for example, is set at the steps of the courthouse where Socrates is about to face charges of impiety, when he bumps into Euthyphro, who is about to prosecute his own father for impiety. Both of these are controversial cases and both require, one might reasonably suppose, an understanding of the nature of piety. Have the Athenians examined themselves sufficiently to know whether they are doing the right thing charging Socrates? Has Euthyphro examined himself sufficiently to know whether he is doing the right thing in prosecuting his father?

Euthyphro is subjected to questioning by Socrates about the nature of piety, and each of his answers is shown to lead to inconsistencies. The discussion continues until Euthyphro is exasperated, realising that he has no clear account of piety to offer. This same format is repeated in many other Socratic dialogues.

Now, beyond a realisation that the characters in the dialogue do not know what they thought they knew, how does this kind of inquiry improve its participants? Perhaps it leads to humility and greater hesitation in unjust action (such as prosecuting Socrates, or one’s own father). One might also reasonably expect such an inquiry to provide answers to ethical dilemmas. But this view falls foul of the fact that even if Socrates thought that philosophy could deliver the truth about ethical matters (as he surely hoped it would), we do not see him reaching the definitional goal he aimed at. Plato leaves many of his dialogues open – often generating a sense of confusion in the discussants, who have been presented with a series of puzzling questions. This is what leads many readers – both ancient[1] and modern – to wonder about the point of it all.

Notice that the key claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living”[2] does not suggest that a life without a clear set of definitional truths is not worth living, but that a life without examination is not worth living. The question then becomes: how did Socrates think that examination, of the kind he practised, could make us better? 

The Death of Socrates, Jean-François Pierre Peyron, 1787 (National Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark)

For Socrates this examination had a distinctive form – a certain kind of conversation. Socrates engaged in dialogue (διάλογος from διαλέγεσθαι, “to converse”). Reading the Platonic dialogues, one notices time and again how attention is drawn to the distinctive form of this conversational practice, particularly in Plato’s dialogue about practices of speech, the Gorgias. This text provides a clue to the transformative potential of conversation.[3]

Dialogue, for Plato, is conceived as “asking and answering questions” (Gorgias 449b–c), and sometimes glossed as “refuting and being refuted” (462a, 447d), because it typically proceeds by exploring the consequences of premises asserted, or conceded, by an interlocutor.

Characterised as such, dialogue is a joint endeavour, constituted by two or more parties, who share or exchange views, to determine whether these are consistent. Socrates is emphatic throughout the dialogue that it is a communal endeavour with participants who search “in common” (495a, 498e), towards a common good (502e, 505e): truth (453b, 457e).

Engaging together in pursuit of a common goal provides a mutually accepted direction which shapes the exchange, so that questions are not purely rhetorical, as if one party is beginning a speech, nor are they employed to secure a private good, such as argumentative victory. They are employed for the business of holding each other to account if what is stated “isn’t true” (487e, 506a).

This way of engaging in examination as a communal enterprise requires sharing, as each takes turns “asking and answering questions”. This requires equality in the distribution of “discursive shares”: no-one should take more than their share in discussion, hence the fondness for “brief speech” (βραχυλογία, brachulogia), attention to which is drawn repeatedly.[4]

Ellen Francis Mason’s selective translations from Plato’s Gorgias and Republic (New York, 1886)

The division of equal shares is not governed by strict arithmetical equality; sometimes it is not just permitted, but required, to extend oneself into a long speech or argument (μακρὸς λόγος, makros logos: 449b9–c3, 465e1–6). If one of the parties does not understand and cannot make “use” of the answer (465e5), a further share of the logos may be taken to explain. This helps to deal with the objection that Socrates himself employs makros logos at various points. Answers must be “given their discursive due”, which is determined by the degree of use that can be made of them; this is a manifestation of proportionate equality (508a).

The importance of sharing, equality, and reciprocity, both in the back and forth of question and answer and in taking turns as questioner and answerer, explains why friendship is so important to Socratic dialogue – for these are its characteristic hallmarks.

Socrates professes friendship with all three interlocutors in the Gorgias, frequently addressing them as friends.[5] Dialogical relations are relations without domination, and friendship is the recognition each gives to the other as an equal, such that one will engage in reciprocal sharing. The dialogical relationship manifests the equality characteristic of friendship, insofar as each takes their turn “asking and answering questions”; each is heard equally; and – no less important – the worth and value of each participant, along with their proposals, is acknowledged.

Acknowledging the other as an equal is required to see them as worthy of reciprocation in the discourse. Such reciprocity is how one shows the care and assistance characteristic of friendship, which Socrates associates with telling each other the truth; doing a favour to a friend is also associated with proving the other wrong and ridding them of some piece of nonsense. The goodwill of the discussants is what disposes them to receive it as such.

Plato’s Symposium, Anselm Feuerbach, c. 1869 (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany)

Now, these are ideal dialogical conditions, no doubt, which the interlocutors – including Socrates himself – may fall short of at various points, but they regulate the discursive practice nonetheless, as do the following features:

    • Dialogue must proceed in an orderly way (463c, 494e, 504c), without irrelevance and with a clarification of key terms before anyone makes assertions about what the topic under discussion is like, or what its properties are.
    • Participants must also respond to one another justly (451a, 504e), which consists in observing the distinction between a debate and a conversation. This means that one should not trip up an opponent for the sake of it, but help the other party and make them aware of slips and fallacies for which they are responsible.[6] If this rule is followed, then discussants will lay the blame for their confusions on themselves and not on the other party.
    • Discussion must also be conducted moderately (505c), which means not losing one’s temper, and making concessions when required to do so (457c).

Attention to the form of Socratic discussion shows that how the discussants talk to each other is often as important as what they say to each other. One must acknowledge the discussant as an equal, share the discussion, take no more than one’s share, reciprocate in the spirit of question and answer, and proceed moderately and fairly.

These dialogical norms foster virtues. Negotiating with hostile others so that difference can be appreciated fosters courage; giving each their due in dialogical exchange fosters a sense of justice; keeping within bounds and not taking more than one’s share in discussion fosters moderation; and collaborating in the business of examination fosters a sense of community and friendship. These virtues are not desired ‘results’, or gained from a definitional ‘product’, but cultivated in the very activity of conversation, as Socrates practised it. There is an ethics of conversation built into Socrates’ practice.

Seen as such, the content of the discussion (i.e. definitions of the virtues) is intimated and internalised by discussants in the performance of its form. And this suggests an answer to our question: how can the examined life make us better, even when it doesn’t always lead to results? If we make conversation an art, as well as our constant practice, as Socrates did, then this may be enough to habituate one to the virtues involved in its very operation. So, we should keep the art of conversation going; it may just make us better.

Frisbee Sheffield is a University Lecturer in Classics, and a Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge. Her research in ancient philosophy covers ethics, moral psychology, aesthetics and politics. She also works on Hannah Arendt and her reception of Ancient Greek Philosophy. She is the author of Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire (Oxford UP, 2006), and co-editor of Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception (Harvard UP, 2007), of a new edition of Plato’s Symposium (Cambridge UP, 2008), and of the Routledge Companion to Ancient Philosophy (Abingdon/New York, 2013). She is currently writing a book on Plato’s Phaedrus for Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading

For an introduction to Socrates, see C.C.W. Taylor’s Socrates: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2000). For a translation with a helpful introduction to the Gorgias, see Malcom Schofield (ed.) and Tom Griffith (trans.), Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Cambridge UP, 2009).

For articles on Socrates and dialogue, see: Alexander Nehamas, ‘What Did Socrates Teach and to Whom Did He Teach It?,’ The Review of Metaphysics 46 (1992) 279–306, accessible here; Christopher Moore and Alessandro Stavru, ‘Socrates and the Socratic Dialogue: An Overview from the First Generation Socratics to Neoplatonism,’ in their Socrates and the Socratic Dialogue (Brill, Leiden, 2017); Richard Kraut, ‘The Examined Life,’ in Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar (eds.), A Companion to Socrates (Blackwell, Oxford, 2005) 228–42; and Hugh Benson, ‘Socratic Method,’ in Donald Morrison (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Socrates (Cambridge UP, 2010) 179–200.


1 See, for instance, the famous complaint at Meno 80a–b.
2 ὁ… ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ, Apology 38a5.
3 To explore this text, in Greek and English, visit here.
4 See Gorgias 449a1, b8, c1, c5, c7, 461d6, 462a4–5, 505e4–6.
5 Polus: 465d, 466c7, 466d, 471a3, 473a3, 479d7; Gorgias: 487b1; Callicles: 500b6, 507a3, 519e3.
6 See further Plato’s Theaetetus 167e–168b.