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On The Catherine Project, and Reading Plato in an Age of AI

Image by ChatGPT 4o based on the text of this post

One of this past year’s great joys was participating in a reading group on Socratic Dialogues with The Catherine Project.  Every Tuesday night for 3-4 months I joined a zoom call with more than a dozen strangers from around the world to talk about Plato’s writing for 90 minutes.  It was free and it was excellent.  As an educator, I had found references to Socrates unavoidable — the Socratic method, the maxim “Know thyself,” the pursuit of a “good life” — but I had never encountered Socrates on my own, and I felt I should do something about it. I had encountered the Catherine Project through a reader of the newsletter and I thought to try it out.

Reading groups with the Catherine Project are free (donations are welcome; it’s a nonprofit), and they are led by volunteer facilitators. They pursue largely but not exclusively classical, philosophical, and other “Great” texts: not just Plato and Aristotle, but also Jane Austen and The Tale of Genji, Wagner and Whitman, Laozi and the Gospel of Luke.

What a joy. In my group were 18-20 individuals from all walks of life. They spanned from retirees to recent college graduates. They came from across the Americas, Australia, and Europe. They were women and men. They were like our classes: full of diverse personalities, skeptical and enthusiastic, quiet and verbose, full of questions and full of answers. 

I learned so much. I hadn’t known until some time before the course, for example, that no writing exists from Socrates himself, because he thought writing would be detrimental to one’s memory. Instead, all that we know about Socrates comes from the writings of his students, like Plato, who dramatized Socrates’ teaching in his dialogues. I learned philosophical perspectives on whether excellence can be taught, on love, on whether humans have a soul, on the practice of writing, and more. I learned from Symposium (a word that refers to a drinking party) that many ancient Greeks would likely consider many contemporary views on sexuality prudish and chaste.

But what struck me most of all from these readings was Socrates’ insistence on never relying on assumptions. The good life, he repeats again and again, is one in which we interrogate the world around us. We ask questions of the world. We insist on exploring, on taking nothing as a given. The subjects of his dialogues, it seemed to me, mattered much less than the fact of the dialogues themselves. His medium is questions, and the medium, as McLuhan said, is the message. What I learned is that Socrates asked why, what, and how over and over again.

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787

On the specific matter of writing, it’s worth diving in for a moment. Socrates’ view on writing resonates in surprising ways in today’s time of AI. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates famously criticizes the effect of writing:

"It will atrophy people’s memories. Trust in writing will make them remember things by relying on marks made by others, from outside themselves, not on their own inner resources, and so writing will make the things they have learnt disappear from their minds. Your invention is a potion for jogging the memory, not for remembering. You provide your students with the appearance of intelligence, not real intelligence. Because your students will be widely read, though without any contact with a teacher, they will seem to be men with knowledge, when they will usually be ignorant. And this spurious appearance of intelligence will make them difficult company."

Recent research plays out Socrates’ statement. Reviewing notes does not strengthen memory; it only reminds it. To test knowledge and understanding, quizzing oneself through recall — without having a prompt — works better. Socrates’ belief plays out in other ways, too. How many times do students quote a passage from a text or textbook in class without really knowing what it means?  Mastery, we know, requires engaging with texts, reflecting, constructing understanding, and making meaning from it. 

The irony, of course, is that we would not know what Socrates said had Plato not captured or dramatized Socrates’ words in writing. Writing allows understanding to span time. It allows us to listen to, if not speak with, the past. It has capabilities that humans do not, most importantly: consistency and longevity. It stays the same, and it can last thousands of years.  But Socrates might argue that this none of this matters if we do not take the time to discourse with teachers around its meaning.

And now, we hear similar arguments about AI: Students using generative AI, we hear expressed in fearful blog posts, show a semblance of mastery, but it is not real mastery.  What would Socrates think? Later in Phaedrus, Socrates draws a comparison to painting, arguing that both painting and writing are incapable of speaking: 

“There’s something off about writing, Phaedrus, which makes it exactly like painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if alive, but if you ask them a question they maintain an aloof silence. It’s the same with written words: you might think they were speaking as if they had some intelligence, but if you want an explanation of any of the things they’re saying and you ask them about it, they just go on and on for ever giving the same single piece of information.”

We cannot speak with a painting, and we cannot speak with writing. These forms are not dialogues. But what about conversational AI?  I suspect Socrates, as is often his manner, would begin by defining intelligence, then show ways in which AI is indeed impressive — only before then demonstrating abject failures of the technology and its utter soullessness. (See both Plato’s Phaedo and Phaedrus for more on whether humans have a soul, and how we might therefore test AI…)

Image by ChatGPT 4o. I read his expression as bored.  

Something else I learned in the reading group was that Socrates is almost ruthlessly pure in his philosophical beliefs. He does not suffer fools. He occasionally cruelly mocks those he finds philosophically benighted. He is quick to find flaws and expose them in search of pure philosophical answers. Incomplete answers aren’t so much of interest to him, except as a means towards more complete answers.

This purity, this search for the complete and absolute reflects Socrates’ concern only for the few. He sees philosophers as a class unto themselves. He doesn’t believe that deep philosophical writings should be in the hands of ordinary people, and speaks of “defending” writing from the “abuse” of “inappropriate people.” While this strength of character may draw disciples to him, it also shuns those with other (he might say inferior) beliefs.

Socrates would call AI a simulacrum of reason, even if by some interpretations it is closer to the disembodied state of pure philosophical rationality that he often aspires to.  I wonder if future changes to the technology would have changed his perspective.

The Catherine Project (

In the meantime, I’m grateful to the Catherine Project for its rich offerings, and I’m grateful to my colleagues and the two conveners in my reading group for putting up with my questions and provocations. We were strangers at the beginning, but not at the end. If you’re looking for thoughtful investigations with peers into great texts, check out the Catherine Project here.  The cost is free, and donations are recommended.


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