The Strangeness of Socrates

T.H. Irwin

  • Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher by Gregory Vlastos
    Cambridge, 334 pp, £35.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 521 30733 3

Socrates both demands and manifests uncompromising moral integrity. He wants his fellow citizens to take morality more seriously, and he lives by his own moral convictions. When he is on trial for his life, he insists that the claims of morality and justice override all other considerations, and that they require him to disobey any order that the state might give him to abandon his philosophical inquiries. This defiant claim is not reassuring to the jury, and Socrates pointedly refuses to reassure them; he repudiates the Athenian custom of making a conciliatory speech to avoid a sentence of death. When he has been sentenced to death, he no longer claims any right to disobey the law; this time he refuses to follow the customary and perfectly respectable practice of escaping into exile to avoid execution.

Some readers rightly admire Socrates’s moral convictions; others may find them pointlessly rigid; everyone ought to find them puzzling. It is even more puzzling that he claims to have found a rational defence of his convictions through the sorts of cross-examination that we find in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates conducts strenuous, maddening and one-sided discussions of moral questions with interlocutors who lack his argumentative skill. Such discussions can show that the interlocutor’s answers are inconsistent; but how can they provide a rational defence of Socrates’s own views? Socrates needs to assume that his discussions with interlocutors involve a genuine and honest exercise of the interlocutors’ capacity for moral judgment, and that their capacity for moral judgment is both reliable and corrigible. Hence he must assume that his interlocutors begin from fairly reasonable initial beliefs, that they answer his questions honestly, and that when they change their mind as a result of his questions, the views they reach are more reasonable than their initial views were. If Socrates accepts these assumptions, then it is understandable that he regards cross-examination of other people as a method of constructive moral argument. It is far more difficult to decide whether the assumptions are plausible, and whether Socrates applies his method correctly in arguing for his particular moral views.

Gregory Vlastos’s book is the best available discussion of these central issues about Socrates. He explores them by examining both Socratic argument and Socratic morality. He shows that the dialogues are not just verbal games or logical exercises, and he decisively refutes the view that Socrates deliberately deceives or confuses his interlocutors. His examination of Socrates’s ‘irony’ shows that it does not involve deceit or disingenuousness, Having explained some of the general assumptions underlying Socratic arguments, Vlastos explores the specific arguments that Socrates offers for some of his most controversial moral claims: that appeals to religious authority can never override the conclusions of rational moral argument; that it is always both morally wrong and harmful for the agent to inflict harm in retaliation for harm; and that morally right action is always in the agent’s interest. Socrates’s claims seem to contradict the common sense of his own time; but he thinks they are rationally inescapable for the very people who initially reject them. As Vlastos shows, Socrates’s argumentative support for his views is often imperfect, but always instructive.

Vlastos’s emphasis on the close connection between Socratic argument and Socratic moral theory is the product of a long development in Vlastos’s own views. He mentions that his earlier work did not recognise the constructive role of Socratic cross-examination. The conception of moral argument which he now attributes to Socrates is close to the conception that now (after a long period of scepticism about constructive moral argument) enjoys renewed favour among moral philosophers. John Rawls has remarked that the ideal method of moral philosophy is Socratic; and Vlastos’s account shows why a Socratic method deserves to be taken seriously and examined critically.

Much of the best work on Socratic and Platonic ethics that has been done in the last 35 years has been done by Vlastos; and his writing, teaching, and encouragement of others have largely determined the direction of current research in this area. Vlastos is neither a detached observer nor an uncritical partisan; in arguing with Socrates and about Socrates he is both appropriately sympathetic and appropriately critical. His style is often eloquent, never inflated, often informal, never inappropriately chatty. Anyone who takes even a casual interest in the history of philosophy, in ethics, or in Greek history and literature ought to read his book.

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