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Socrates' Therapeutic Use of Inconsistency in the Axiochus

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image of Phronesis

The pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus seems irremediably confused. Its author tosses together Platonic, Epicurean and Cynic arguments against the fear of death, apparently with no regard for their consistency. Whereas in the Apology Socrates argues that death is either annihilation or a relocation of the soul, and is a blessing either way, in the Axiochus Socrates seems to assert that death is both annihilation and a release of the soul from the body into a better realm.

I argue that we can acquit the Axiochus from the charge of confusion if we pay attention to its genre, a consolation letter cast in dialogue form. The dialogue dramatizes a distinctive type of consolatory argumentative practice. Socrates' use of arguments with inconsistent premises, presented in propria persona, is only one of many ways in which he is willing to sacrifice argumentative hygiene for the sake of therapeutic effectiveness. These include appealing to emotion, tailoring arguments to the audience, and presenting invalid arguments so as to induce unjustified but comforting beliefs. In these respects, I think that Socrates' argumentative practice is best compared to PH III 280-1, where Sextus Empiricus says that the skeptic will deliberately use logically weak arguments as long as they work.


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