“For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world.”
— Plato, Phaedo
For those of us who spend too much time online or on social media, it can sometimes feel like we are bombarded by an almost endless stream of contradictory arguments. In this passage, Socrates urges us to recognize that many arguments which initially seem persuasive often fall apart under closer analysis. Once we realize how easily and how often we can be persuaded by flawed arguments, it is easy to become jaded or cynical and to conclude that all arguments and all attempts at rational discourse are totally worthless. Rather than blaming ourselves for being too credulous towards flawed arguments, many people find it easier to blame arguments in general.
Socrates argues that we must resist this temptation if we want to form true beliefs about the world. We need to recognize that although most arguments are flawed in some way, this does not mean that all arguments are flawed, and when we realize that we have been persuaded by a flawed argument, we must blame ourselves rather than arguments in general. According to Socrates, it is only by taking responsibility for our own beliefs and working to develop our mental and analytical capacities that we have a chance of forming reliable beliefs about the things that matter most in life.
The following passage is from section 89c -91a of Plato’s Phaedo, translation by Benjamin Jowett. You can listen to an audio version of this reading on Youtube.
[Socrates:]… let us take care that we avoid a danger. [Phaedo:]Of what nature? I said.
Lest we become misologists, he replied, no worse thing can happen to a man than this. For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world. Misanthropy arises out of the too great confidence of inexperience;—you trust a man and think him altogether true and sound and faithful, and then in a little while he turns out to be false and knavish; and then another and another, and when this has happened several times to a man, especially when it happens among those whom he deems to be his own most trusted and familiar friends, and he has often quarreled with them, he at last hates all men, and believes that no one has any good in him at all. You must have observed this trait of character?
And is not the feeling discreditable? Is it not obvious that such an one having to deal with other men, was clearly without any experience of human nature; for experience would have taught him the true state of the case, that few are the good and few the evil, and that the great majority are in the interval between them.
What do you mean? I said.
I mean, he replied, as you might say of the very large and very small, that nothing is more uncommon than a very large or very small man; and this applies generally to all extremes, whether of great and small, or swift and slow, or fair and foul, or black and white: and whether the instances you select be men or dogs or anything else, few are the extremes, but many are in the mean between them. Did you never observe this?
Yes, I said, I have.
And do you not imagine, he said, that if there were a competition in evil, the worst would be found to be very few?
Yes, that is very likely, I said.
Yes, that is very likely, he replied; although in this respect arguments are unlike men—there I was led on by you to say more than I had intended; but the point of comparison was, that when a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments, or indeed, of all things, which, like the currents in the Euripus, are going up and down in never-ceasing ebb and flow.
That is quite true, I said.
Yes, Phaedo, he replied, and how melancholy, if there be such a thing as truth or certainty or possibility of knowledge—that a man should have lighted upon some argument or other which at first seemed true and then turned out to be false, and instead of blaming himself and his own want of wit, because he is annoyed, should at last be too glad to transfer the blame from himself to arguments in general: and for ever afterwards should hate and revile them, and lose truth and the knowledge of realities.
Yes, indeed, I said; that is very melancholy.
Let us then, in the first place, he said, be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all. Rather say that we have not yet attained to soundness in ourselves, and that we must struggle manfully and do our best to gain health of mind—you and all other men having regard to the whole of your future life, and I myself in the prospect of death.
To learn more about the ideas of Plato, please see the following links:
- Full e-text of the Phaedo from Project Gutenberg
- Modern translation of the Phaedo from Amazon
- Free audiobook from Librivox
The Daily Idea aims to make learning about philosophy as easy as possible by bringing together the best philosophy resources from across the internet. To get started, check out this organized collection of 400+ articles, podcasts, and videos on a wide range of philosophical topics.
A Collection of the Greatest Philosophical Quotations
A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.