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I have trouble fully understanding the following quote (Franklin on using the Socratic...

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lolaleon | Student, Undergraduate | Valedictorian

Posted June 2, 2013 at 10:26 PM via web

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I have trouble fully understanding the following quote (Franklin on using the Socratic method for communication).  Can someone please elaborate?:

"I continu'd this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or ,I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.  This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure"

Thank you very much. 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted June 2, 2013 at 11:17 PM (Answer #1)

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Like so many of Franklin's quotes, this one is really unique.  I think that the quote reflects some of Franklin's pragmatism and keen sense of working with others in order to achieve a common notion of the good.

It seems to me that Franklin's starting point is that there is a change in the settings of the world that he inhabits and one that Socrates inhabited.  In the Socratic dialogue, there is one notion of the good. There is Socrates' understanding of "truth" and the dialogue is a way to "adroitly question them [people who held different beliefs], leading them to an awareness of the inadequacy or falsity of their ideas."  In the Socratic dialogue, there is a singular notion of truth and what is right.  The dialogue is a way in which Socrates guides the individual to recognize this and to understand their own failures, and, in turn, his greatness.  For Franklin, this pursuit can lead people to "disgust" and resentment.  It does not bring community together when one is "adroitly questioned" to understand that their own beliefs are "false" based on the standard that Socrates has established.

The setting in which Franklin lives is one in which individuals have different beliefs and multiple pursuits of the good that are varied.  Unlike the homogeneity of Socrates' Athens, the Colonial notion of America was one in which individuals came from varied backgrounds in order to pursue more varied interests.  The life dedicated to being a shopkeeper was as valid as one driven to be a journalist, both being equal to the one that embraced the vocation of a blacksmith.  In the end, the Socratic dialogue does not work as well when there is a diversity of beliefs and a plurality of paths towards the good.  It is for this reason that Franklin "moves away" from the Socratic dialogue.  

The language in the quote reflects this sense of political liberalism, over the conservative edge present in Socrates' notion of thought.  Consider how Franklin views the opinions of others as an example of his divergence from Socrates:

 I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or ,I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.  

The idea of "I should think it so or so" and "for such and such reasons" is a direct repudiation to the singular and driving notion of the good in Socratic thought.  Franklin stresses the ability to work with others and develop a democratically understood ideal as being far more relevant that Socratic pursuit of perfection, which he sees as isolating and creating resentment more than anything else.  The resentment and "disgust" that is evident from Franklin's perceptions as the result of the Socratic dialogue is evidence of this belief.

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