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  • Uncovering Euthyphro's Treasure:Reading Plato's Euthyphro with Lacan
  • Matthew Sharpe (bio)

. . .

PLATO, Euthyphro 11B

"The beginning is the negation of that which it begins," the modern philosopher Friedrich Schelling once argued. Nowhere is this principle truer than with philosophy itself. As the classical philosopher Leo Strauss (1978, 7) once argued, "the proper form of presenting political philosophy is the treatise." Philosophy is fundamentally axiomatic, as Alain Badiou—another, very different recent Platonist—has recently agreed. Yet for all this, it remains true that Plato himself, the acknowledged founder of Western philosophy, wrote dialogues. Moreover, all but one of these dialogues figure the Athenian subject, Socrates—someone who both never wrote and by all accounts did not systematically codify any fundamental axiom(s) using 'reason alone.' Socrates' peculiar stance, given its fullest Platonic rendition in the Apology, is well known. The Delphic oracle pronounced him the wisest person in Athens. The only sense Socrates claimed to be able to give this is that he at least knew how little he knew: "I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small" (Plato, Ap. 20B).1 In line with this, the dialogues widely known for the last century as the 'early' dialogues are usually called aporetic, from the Greek aporia, usually translated as 'dead end,' but deriving more strictly from poros, meaning something closer to 'resource' (thus, aporia would mean 'without resources,' being related to penia or 'poverty': Plato, Symp. 203B-D). Far from yielding us didactic instruction about those 'human things' that the characters discuss—the virtues, wisdom, the good life—those dialogues usually seen as 'early' or 'Socratic' each conclude with different versions of the same acknowledgment of ignorance or amatheia, coupled with an injunction to all to continue in the process of self-examination. As Socrates responds to Lysimachus's request that he teach youths about courage at the end of the Laches: [End Page 23]

And if I had shown in this conversation that I had a knowledge of what Nicias and Laches have not, then I admit that you would be right in inviting me to [give assistance in the improvement of the youths], but as we are all in the same perplexity, why should one of us be preferred to another? . . . Let us then, regardless of what may be said of us, make the education of the youths our own education.

(Lach. 200E-1A; my emphasis)

The positive descriptions of what Socrates takes himself to be doing with his famous dialogic 'technique' (the elenchus: roughly, 'refutation') are as famously provocative as they are revealing. Meno asserts, in the dialogue that bears his name, that Socrates' questioning is like the sting of a "stingray" that paralyzes its subjects—a description to which Socrates assents, albeit with a qualification that we will make in a moment. In the Apology (31A), Socrates says that he is like a "gadfly" who rouses and reproves the Athenians lest they end their days in ethical and political complacency. One further Socratic self-description, from the Thaeatetus, is of the philosopher as a kind of metaphysical "midwife": he only allows others to give birth to ideas that they knew without knowing, or with which they were already "pregnant," before Socrates came along.

The possibility of a striking homology between Socrates, the enigmatic founding figure of Western philosophy, and psychoanalysis as a 'talking cure' has often been remarked (Lear 1998 and 2001). On the one hand, it does seem that psychoanalysis might have something particular to say to, and about, Socrates' elenchus, as a discourse that claims only to aid others to learn what they already knew (hence the Platonic anamnêsis), if indeed it does anything more than 'paralyze' them in their previous certainties. Is not Socrates' elenchus, like psychoanalysis, situated obliquely vis-à-vis inherited notions of public and private, the intimate and what is exposed—at once something that 'one cannot do by oneself,' and yet decidedly not 'political' either, as Socrates makes clear concerning philosophy in the Gorgias: "I know how to secure one man's vote, but with the many I will not even enter into discussion" (Plato, Grg. 474B)? Are there not...


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