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.

The dialogues of Plato are our main source for Socrates’s philosophical outlook. But how do we know that Plato does not use ‘Socrates’ as a mere mouthpiece for his own views? Vlastos’s answer to this question is the best that has been offered so far. He claims that in a group of early dialogues the character ‘Socrates’ presents the views of the historical Socrates. His claim rests mainly on two arguments. First, scrutiny of the dialogues reveals sharp differences of subject-matter, style and doctrine between (roughly speaking) the shorter, dramatic, conversational, ethical dialogues and the wide-ranging and relatively systematic expositions in, say, the Republic, Timaeus, and Sophist. Secondly, Aristotle often contrasts the metaphysical and moral views of the historical Socrates with Plato’s views; and the contrasts he draws match the contrasts which emerge from scrutiny of the dialogues. The second argument takes us significantly beyond the conclusions of the first. For even without Aristotle’s testimony we would have good reason to believe that Plato’s philosophical views changed; but only Aristotle’s testimony assures us that Plato’s earlier views are also Socrates’s views.

If we accept Vlastos’s solution, we will try to understand the moral philosophy of the early Platonic dialogues in its own right. The central Socratic claims and arguments are bold and challenging; but we blur and distort them if we try to reconcile them with the views of Plato’s later dialogues. The moral philosophy of the Republic is best understood as a development and (in Plato’s view) a correction of Socrates’s views; and we miss some of its point if we fail to see the difference between the Socratic position and the position that Plato reaches as a result of reflection on Socrates. Vlastos presents an approach to the dialogues that is both historically plausible and philosophically illuminating.

In the course of distinguishing the historical Socrates of Plato’s earlier dialogues from the Platonic Socrates of the later dialogues, Vlastos sketches the development of Plato’s thought in his post-Socratic period. He believes that Plato’s mathematical studies underlie the metaphysical and epistemological outlook of the post-Socratic dialogues, and cause Plato to abandon the Socratic method of cross-examination in favour of a mathematical model of demonstrative argument. This mathematical model requires an argument to begin from certain self-evident principles and assumptions and to proceed by deductive arguments which transmit the certainty of the premises to the conclusions; Socratic cross-examination evidently cannot meet these standards. If Vlastos is right, Plato’s mathematical model for philosophical and moral argument anticipates Aristotle’s conception of demonstrative science and Descartes’s ideal of scientific knowledge.

Contrary to Vlastos, however, Plato never suggests that mathematical proof provides the right conception of philosophical argument. In the Republic he sharply contrasts mathematical and philosophical thinking. He calls philosophy ‘dialectic’, and clearly intends both its name and its interrogative method to recall Socratic cross-examination. Dialectic rejects any appeal to self-evident principles, and thereby differs essentially from mathematical thinking. Since Plato continues to believe that Socratic dialogue, not mathematical proof, is the appropriate model for philosophical argument, he remains to this extent a convinced Socratic.

For closely connected reasons, we ought to challenge Vlastos’s view of the development of Plato’s metaphysics. Vlastos suggests that Plato’s Theory of Forms results from the sharply un-Socratic outlook that is displayed in Plato’s absorption in mathematics. He does not emphasise the features of the Theory of Forms which Plato (as Aristotle remarks) develops from reflection on Socrates’s search for definitions of the moral virtues. But these features deserve emphasis. In articulating his Theory of Forms Plato raises questions that Socrates never raised; but he raises them in order to show why Socrates’s aims are reasonable. This view of Plato’s relation to Socrates simply develops one of Vlastos’s insights further than he develops it himself. He argues convincingly that Plato’s interest in the historical Socrates is philosophical, not purely biographical, and that in his Socratic period Plato sets out what he takes to be the most defensible version of Socratic doctrine. But Vlastos does not apply the same account to the post-Socratic dialogues. He argues that the presence of ‘Socrates’ in the post-Socratic dialogues simply reflects Plato’s personal attachment to the historical Socrates, but now no longer expresses philosophical sympathy with Socrates. This explanation does not, however, do justice to the vital doctrinal continuity which Plato sees between his own views and those of Socrates.

On the other hand, Vlastos’s account of Plato’s early attitude to Socrates allows us to see far more continuity than he himself sees in Plato’s treatment of Socrates. In the early dialogues Plato uses ‘Socrates’ as his protagonist for the philosophical reason that Vlastos notices; he believes he is defending Socrates’s central doctrines. In the post-Socratic dialogues Plato uses ‘Socrates’ for exactly the same reason. He now believes that a defence of Socrates’s central doctrines requires answers to questions that Socrates did not ask, and that these answers conflict with some of Socrates’s other doctrines. Still, his attitude to the character ‘Socrates’ reflects the same sort of philosophical sympathy that Vlastos sees in the early dialogues.

Vlastos is right to emphasise the ‘strangeness’ of Socrates and of his views. But if we follow Vlastos’s lead and try to understand, rather than to deny or explain away, the paradoxical and puzzling character of Socrates’s claims and doctrines, we sometimes find that Socrates’s views are actually stranger than Vlastos makes them appear. Socrates claims that, despite what his interlocutors say about him, he does not know the answers to the questions he asks. According to Vlastos, he is speaking ironically, by using ‘know’ in two different senses. He disavows knowledge (according to Vlastos) in a strong sense (according to which A knows that p if and only if p is true and certain and A is infallible about the truth of p), but claims knowledge of important moral truths, in a weak sense of ‘knowledge’ (according to which A knows that p if p is true and A is justified by Socratic cross-examination in believing p). Vlastos’s solution makes it seem less strange that Socrates disavows knowledge; for it seems reasonable for him to disavow knowledge in the strong sense, and to avow it in the weak sense.

Does this attempt to eliminate the strangeness in Socrates fit what he actually says? Socrates regularly tells his interlocutor that their conversation is a co-operative search for knowledge about the nature of some moral virtue. If Socrates is justified in claiming this, what conception of knowledge must he pre-suppose? He must assume 1. that they can achieve knowledge through their joint inquiry involving Socratic cross-examination, and 2. that both of them lack knowledge. If we rely on Vlastos’s two senses of ‘knowledge’, can we regard both of these assumptions as reasonable?

The implications of Vlastos’s solution are disturbing. In Vlastos’s strong sense of ‘knowledge’, Socrates’s second claim is true, but the first is false. In the weak sense of ‘knowledge’, the first claim is true, but the second seems to be false (for Socrates surely does not believe that every question on which he has reached knowledge in the weak sense is thereby exempt from further inquiry). If Socrates shifts from the weak to the strong sense of ‘know’ between the first and the second claim, then it is difficult, despite Vlastos’s arguments, to avoid concluding that either he is seriously confused or he wants to mislead the interlocutor. Since neither of these options is welcome, Vlastos’s solution is open to reasonable doubt.

Socrates believes that the good person cannot be harmed. He applies this claim to justice, the moral virtue that seems most obviously connected with the rights and interests of other people, and most likely to conflict with the interests of the just person. Socrates denies that justice conflicts with self-interest: indeed, he claims that the just life is the same as the happy life. This view seems to imply that nothing besides being morally virtuous is good for a virtuous person: if we are virtuous, then apparently it does not matter whether we are healthy or sick, and we are no better off when we are healthy and no worse off when we are sick. If this is really what Socrates means, his view is evidently paradoxical.

Socrates’s view of justice and happiness underlies some of his most distinctive moral claims. He refuses to inflict harm in retaliation for harm, because he is convinced it is never in his own interest to harm another person. His conviction is easier to understand in the light of his view that his justice by itself guarantees his happiness; for it that view is correct, he has nothing to gain from harming another person. The sympathetic interpreter, then, might reasonably look for an account of Socrates’s view that supports his opposition to returning evil for evil, but avoids the apparent absurdity of claiming that there is nothing to choose between being healthy and being sick. Vlastos, being a sympathetic interpreter, argues that such an account of Socrates’s view can be found, and that therefore the view is less strange than it initially appears.

Socrates’s claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness rests on his conception of happiness or welfare (eudaimonia). He believes, according to Vlastos, that a person’s welfare includes a number of components – virtue, health, physical security and so on – and that each of these components is an intrinsic good to be chosen for its own sake and not simply for its effects. To explain this relation of component to compound Vlastos compares it to listening to a symphony: ‘when I listen to the Andante I do so both for its own sake and for the sake of the whole ordered sequence of movements to which it belongs.’ Happiness is a complex whole (corresponding to hearing the whole symphony) of which virtue is a part (corresponding to hearing one of the movements). Vlastos argues that this complex conception of happiness makes Socrates’s claims about virtue intelligible without committing him to the extreme view that nothing except virtue matters for happiness. Since virtue is the most important component of happiness, it must always be preferred to any other components, but when virtue is not at stake, we promote our welfare by choosing health over sickness, security over insecurity, and so on.

If this is Socrates’s conception of happiness, and if he also believes (as Vlastos agrees he does) that virtue is sufficient for happiness, then he must believe both that if we are virtuous, we are happy, and that happiness is a whole of which virtue is only a proper part. These two claims, however, seem clearly inconsistent. Even if I think the Andante is by far the best part of the whole symphony, I can’t pretend that if I have listened to the Andante I have listened to the whole symphony. The conception of happiness that Vlastos attributes to Socrates in order to make him more sensible turns out to conflict with Socrates’s claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Either Socrates does not believe that virtue is sufficient for happiness, or he is deeply inconsistent, or he does not hold the complex conception of happiness that Vlastos attributes to him. Since the first two of these three options are (as Vlastos agrees) unattractive, we have good reasons for doubting Vlastos’s interpretation.

Vlastos advises us to take the strangeness of Socrates seriously. We can see how good this advice is when we see that Vlastos himself does not always take it, and that when he fails to take it he fails to explain some central Socratic doctrine. Vlastos’s clear and fair account of the issues allows us to focus more sharply on questions that are likely to lead us to a better understanding of Socrates’s position; and this sharper focus is not the least of the benefits to be gained from Vlastos’s account. As he says: ‘What I offer should not distract readers from their encounter with the Socrates who lives in Plato’s text. It should take them back for a closer look.’ Vlastos has done more than any other writer in this century to make Socrates’s philosophy come alive for the reader who is willing to examine those strange, annoying, endlessly fascinating claims that assure Socrates of his place as the founder of moral philosophy.

This review was in proof before I learned that Gregory Vlastos had died on 12 October 1991 at the age of 84. Among 20th-century philosophers studying the history of philosophy he is second to none. No one has done more to show us how to study Greek philosophical texts, and no one has thrown more light on their philosophical significance. He always insisted on close linguistic and philological analysis, and emphasised the importance of close examination of the logical structure of particular arguments. But he didn’t do this out of some partisan allegiance to (so-called) ‘analytic’ philosophy, or because he was uninterested in the broader ethical, philosophical and religious questions that arouse our interest in Plato in the first place. On the contrary, Vlastos’s work shows that the demand for rigour and clarity need not result in narrowness or pedantry; that historical and philosophical reflection can illuminate questions of immediate ethical interest, both personal and social; and that scholarly writing need not appear inaccessible or unattractive to the non-specialised reader.

Vlastos did all this not simply because he was a careful scholar, a clear-headed philosopher, a sympathetic interpreter, and a vivid and forceful writer. He holds his unique place in the philosophical community because of something more difficult to convey: the intense personal concern underlying his work. He pursued the questions he has written on because they mattered to him. Though much of his work deals with complex details of Plato’s metaphysics that have no immediate bearing on questions of broader interest, readers soon see that Vlastos cares about understanding Plato because he cares about the conception of reality that underlies Plato’s view of human life and its significance. Displays of personal commitment by philosophers may easily degenerate into mere self-advertisement concealing careless thinking. No such suspicion could ever be raised about Vlastos’s work. His sense of the importance and urgency of the questions he investigates emerges quite naturally and authentically, without intrusive sermons or exhortations. Readers who notice this combination of philosophical rigour and ethical concern in Vlastos will not be surprised that he devoted most (though by no means all) of his intellectual energy in the last fifteen years of his life to the study of Socrates.

Indeed, however imperfectly I have conveyed the importance of Vlastos’s work and outlook, a reading of his book on Socrates will show what I mean. He worked steadily and doggedly, overcoming ill health, to finish his book. Readers will find in it a portrait of two philosophers – of Socrates, but also of Vlastos. Though Vlastos never intrudes himself into the account of Socrates, readers who listen for the self-revealing voice of the author will find themselves in the presence of a memorable and admirable personality. Those of us who have been fortunate to be Vlastos’s students, colleagues or friends will feel the loss of an inspiring teacher, an endlessly supportive and encouraging mentor, a stern and sympathetic critic, and one of the best and most lovable people we have known. Those who have never known him, but who read this book, find themselves drawn into its arguments, and conclude that this man Socrates is more interesting than they had realised, will know something about why so many people have reason to be grateful for the life of Gregory Vlastos.