Socrates’ Three Epsilons, or The Three Traits Necessary to Be a Good Philosophical Interlocutor

In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates speaks with three interlocutors in turn. First, he has a talk with Gorgias, the famous rhetorician. Next, he has a talk with one of Gorgias’ students, Pollus. And finally, he speaks to Callicles, the Athenian admirer of Gorgias in whose home the dialogue takes place. After Socrates has reduced Pollus to silence, catching him in contradiction and inconsistency as he usually does, Callicles leaps in to attack Socrates. Socrates replies to Callicles’ attack with his usual and famous irony: he states that he is very fortunate to have met someone like Callicles, since it is possible to have a fruitful philosophical dialogue only with a person who possesses three traits, and it is clear, says Socrates, that Callicles possesses all three. The irony, of course, is that none of Socrates’ conversations in the Gorgias are fruitful ones, since each of his interlocutors are defective in respect to the three traits named: Gorgias appears to possess two of the three necessary traits, Pollus one, and Callicles none. It is Socrates alone who possesses all three of the necessary traits.

What are the necessary traits for a fruitful and worthwhile philosophical dialogue, according to Socrates?

They are “the three epsilons”:           ἐπιστήμη           ἐλευθερία            εὔνοια

ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē) means “knowledge.” Socrates uses this term more loosely than Aristotle, and seems to mean here some degree of relevant knowledge about the subject at hand. It is fruitless to converse with persons who are very ignorant about the subject at hand or who are ignorant of things necessary and relevant to the discussion. For example, one who has very poor training in logic often cannot follow valid logical inferences or cannot understand why invalid inferences are invalid, since they seem reasonable to him.

ἐλευθερία (eleutheria) means “freedom,” and in context “free-spoken-ness” or “free in one’s speech.” It is the characteristic of a free human person to have the honesty and courage to say whatever seems to him to be true or to be the case, regardless of what he supposed to believe. Someone who will not openly and honestly say what he actually thinks or believes cannot be conversed with fruitfully. He will not offer his honest take on reality, but rather turn his mind to his appearance as a speaker, a give opinions which he does not truly hold on the basis of his own thinking (for example, to please onlookers). Those who lack ἐλευθερία are not “free”; they do not say what they really think, but what they think other people want to hear. This is the intellectual virtue, by the way, that Political Correctness utterly destroys, and why Political Correctness has no place in any education which calls itself liberal. To accommodate one’s speech to a social standard rather than to what seems to oneself to be true is to act not like a free man or woman, but a slave.

εὔνοια (eunoia) means “well-minded-ness,” and in context “good will towards one’s interlocutor.” Someone who engages in a discussion with εὔνοια is discussing in a friendly manner, joining another person with the mutual aim of finding out something the truth, if at all possible. Someone who lacks εὔνοια is not engaging in a dialogue, but in a contest or an attack, and his goal is not mutually finding the truth, but to defeat the person whom he regards not as a partner but an opponent.

While it is certainly possible to debate with someone lacking one or more of these traits, it is impossible to have a philosophical dialogue with them, in the fullest sense.

N.B. For those who are interested:

Gorgias seems to possess ἐλευθερία and εὔνοια. He seems to have very little philosophical desire to know.  He is quite content with his own power of rhetoric and is not the least troubled that Socrates shows him that some of his basic beliefs are contradictory.  He is not upset with Socrates (as many of Socrates’ interlocutors are)—probably because he has in a very real way given up on the possibility of knowing anything, probably as a consequence of his many, many years of using clever language to “prove” any point and its opposite.

Pollus possesses only ἐλευθερία.  He means Socrates ill, not well, and intends to demolish Socrates in argument, for having embarrassed his teacher Gorgias in public.  It is interesting that Pollus feels this affront much more than Gorgias himself, who seems unconcerned.  Nevertheless, Pollus is still willing to say what he really thinks, and so Socrates able to trap him in self-contradiction.

Callicles possesses none of the necessary virtues that Socrates names.  Socrates is technically unable to refute Callicles, for the simple reason that Callicles, as soon as he is in danger of being refuted, simply changes his original position for another; and then another; and then another. At one point, Callicles appeals to the audience, saying “All of these men do not agree with you Socrates!” Socrates replies, “I do not know whether all or any of these men disagree with me, o Callicles, but I do know that one man agrees with me: Socrates agrees with Socrates. And I know this too, that at least one man does not agree with you: Callicles does not agree with Callicles.”


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