The Socratic Therapist
The greatest difficulty that we have in writing about Socrates is that he did not write anything. We only know of him by what others have said.17 Our main source on what Socrates was like is Plato. A first myth about Socrates is that Plato’s first writings give us a more faithful image of Socrates than his later writings. The Socraticâ dialogues were written while Socrates was alive, before Plato became an Idealist and before he began to speak of the soul and body. That platonic Socrates gradually became an emblematic figure in psychotherapy, a sort of precursor of and model for many psychotherapists.18 This Socrates is presented to us like a sort of hygienist of the mind, like a hunter of false truths, a demand to think as honestly as possible. This Socrates takes up the message of the wise men from the Orient and founds a philosophy based on the proposition that all theories contain a fragment of truth, and consequently, the pretense to have the truth is false. This type of skepticism is a foundation stone for philosophers such as Hume and Kant. It does not consist in teaching a thought but in acquiring the courage to not believe that we know when we do not know. Socrates claimed that he was more intelligent than most because he knew that he knows nothing.19
Francois Roustang, a French psychotherapist, isolates the following factors in Plato’s Socratic dialogues:20
1. There is a dialogue between individuals who must take responsibility for what they think.
2. Socrates requires that his counterpart use brief phrases and often that he only content himself with an assent. That puts the interlocutor in a position of dependence or submission. He is definitely manipulated by the first speaker. If there were the possibility to hold a longer dialogue with the first speaker, the counterpart would find his proper ground. Thus, the intent, before anything else, is to disconcert. ” (Roustang, 2009, Avant-propos, translated by Marcel Duclos)
In psychotherapy, reference is made mostly to that vision of Socrates. For many people, he is the icon of the honest philosopher who is persecuted because he annihilates all manipulation of knowledge, and because people are afraid of someone who brings their imposture to the light of day. As a young man and not yet an Idealist, Plato perhaps imagined that the search for truth was this aspect of Socrates that he describes in his first works. Later on, he develops an Idealism that was probably also part of Socrates’s teaching. People change. Certainly Plato greatly changed in the course of his life. It is probable that Socrates also evolved, and that he developed a varied set of approaches.
We know that Socrates was not only an individual who liked to ask questions of those he encountered on the street. He was also a master and the head of a school. For Plato, his teacher had as his mission to help his students better understand the messages of the soul, messages that appeared to consciousness in the form of vague intuitions, by trying to make them more explicit in a form the human spirit could more easily employ. Contemporary psychotherapists, like Roustang (2009), admire a Socrates who is mainly a hygienist of the mind; but it is probable that the real Socrates was more complex and more ambiguous than that.
The Socrates of the psychotherapists addresses himself uniquely to individuals without proposing socially constructed enterprises (political, theoretical, moral, etc.). The Socrates of psychotherapists, like Roustang, distinguishes a Socratic therapy from a Platonic therapy in the following manner. Plato wants to treat the being (or the subject or the soul), whereas Socrates is content to reach that in which a person excels, his quality, his particular virtue, where his activity attains it perfection, its fullnessâ (Roustang, 2009, 2, p. 50, translated by Marcel Duclos).