Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

SIR William Macpherson's at times hysterical report on racism apparently threatens to unleash a further terrifying volley of reports on ageism, sexism, and so on. Socrates would have been appalled.

For Socrates, abstract 'goods' such as justice, piety, knowledge, etc. were the keys to successful living. So he was keen to define them - because if we do not know what they are, how can we act in accordance with them? He invented dialectic - the question-and-answer technique - to solve the problem. His method was to invite one of those present to offer a definition of some great abstraction and then subject it to a crossexamination to see if it fulfilled the necessary criteria. In the dialogue Laches, for example, the topic is 'courage'. The first definition is `resisting the enemy and not running away'. Socrates shows that flight can be courageous. The second definition is 'a certain endurance of the soul'. Socrates shows that this endurance must be wise, not foolish, though even so he agrees that a foolish endurance could be more courageous. The third definition is `knowledge of what is fearful and encouraging'. But how then can animals be courageous, asks Socrates? Perhaps, comes the reply, we must distinguish between courage and fearlessness. …

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