Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.20


Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp. 334. $16.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8014-9787-6.


Reviewed by GailAnn Rickert, Dickinson College.

This book actually delivers what the glowing reports on its covers claim. It is thoroughly a scholar's book for scholars, full of arguments firmly grounded in texts. But it is also direct and clear, and teaches its reader more and better than Plato has led us to think a book ever could. No reader should miss the "Introduction," an autobiographical account of Gregory Vlastos' long engagement with the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and certain of their interpreters, replete with summaries of his own views, self-criticism, and the crucial disagreements with scholars that helped move forward his own reflections. Right from the start the reader is cordially drawn into a partnership with Vlastos in his quest to understand the "strangeness" (atopia) of Socrates. An unintentional effect of this partnership is the discovery that Vlastos must also have been atopos, though so unlike his Socrates. Where Socrates' strange methods, his irony, the elenchos, his personal aloofness, indeed his views, disturbed his interlocutors and offered no gentle solace, the openness and goodwill of Gregory Vlastos will stand as an exemplum for all teachers and lovers of wisdom for generations to come.

While many of the essays in this book have had several ancestors, in their current form, Chapters 1 through 7 are the most recent revision of the views Vlastos expressed in his 1986 Townsend Lectures at Cornell, and Chapter 8 is a revision of a paper delivered at the Cambridge Philosophical Society and first published in their proceedings in 1984. Each of the chapters has a series of "Additional Notes" on more esoteric issues. There is an ample bibliography and several indexes: passages cited, names in Plato and Xenophon, modern scholars cited, and Greek words discussed. Alas, there is no general subject index.

In Chapter 1 Vlastos argues that we should look to Socrates for the impetus which changed eironeia, speech or conduct intended to deceive, into what we know as irony, urbane dissimulation, saying the opposite of what we mean but without any intent to deceive. But rather than being a matter of simple falsehood infused with mockery, Socrates' disavowal of knowledge, teaching, and politics, and his eroticism are what Vlastos calls "complex ironies," statements true in one sense though false in another. Distinguishing Socratic irony from its ancestor, eironeia, allows Vlastos to reject both the view that Socrates was in fact deceitful, and the view that one can rescue falsehoods in Socratic elenctic from a charge of employing deceitful debating tactics by understanding them as simple irony. Socrates is up to more than mere irony. But understanding this about Socrates led Vlastos to see something really strange in him: however unintentionally, he surely did deceive, and did not feel responsible for making clear what his interlocutors got wrong or more importantly, for saying plainly what was right. Vlastos' (revised) view of this Socratic attitude and behavior is not that it is a "failure of love," but rather that moral autonomy, finding the truth on your own, matters more than having the truth.

Any teacher, I suspect, must find this a compelling point of view, but also a strange one indeed. While Vlastos seems to admire Socrates for his stance, I find it equally frightening. One might, nowadays, compare this refusal to intervene with the "tough love" social workers and psychologists recommend for handling troubled youths. But there is a big difference. To love in this tough way is emotionally draining for the lover. It is tough for the beloved to deal with the apparent rejection and constraint on his or her desires, but it is tougher for the lover to stand firm and watch this suffering in the name of therapy with no guarantee of success. But we see no such pain in Socrates as he walks away from many a benighted soul, even those he claims to love. Can the principle that moral autonomy is essential above all else really account for, let alone excuse, the aloofness of Socrates? And after all, is it not the aloofness of Socrates, his serenity in the midst of the ignorance he himself counts as the greatest evil, that really makes him so strange? At this point colleagues should remind me that teachers calmly and serenely exit classrooms full of students who persist in holding on to their views no matter what one says or does. True enough. But what teacher does not complain about this openly, with humor but no less with passion, after leaving the classroom? Even this is missing from our portrait of Socrates, and this is strange.

As the book proceeds, the ambiguity of Socrates' atopia becomes apparent. This "strangeness" is constituted (a) by views Vlastos argues are unique to Socrates and serve to distinguish his thought from Plato's, (b) by the peculiarity of these views within his culture, and (c) by the overall strangeness of the person who instantiated these views. It is this last sense of strangeness that leaves us wondering how it would feel to be Socrates, or whether we can imagine a real person (no mere literary character) who thinks these things and acts in these ways. In Chapter 2 Vlastos reminds us that it is the thought of Socrates which primarily concerns him, rather than the person Socrates who instantiates these views. But is it? Although Vlastos clearly aims to show the uniqueness of Socratic thought, throughout the book one cannot help but feel that the strangeness of the person Socrates is also at stake.

In Chapters 2 and 3 Vlastos distinguishes the "Socrates" of Plato's earlier dialogues from the "Socrates" of the middle dialogues. To achieve this he relies on ten theses, each having an "A" version and a "B" version; the former characterizes the thought or views of the "Socrates" of the earlier dialogues, and Vlastos equates these with the thought of the historical Socrates; the latter characterizes the thought or views of the "Socrates" of the middle dialogues, and Vlastos holds these views to be those of Plato, not the historical Socrates. In essence, with his ten theses Vlastos presents a familiar Socrates: he has an exclusive interest in moral philosophy, which he treats as a populist and not an elitist pursuit; his method is adversative and elenctic, while he himself professes no knowledge; and he has distinctive views of eros and piety. Although what Vlastos argues to be the thought of the historical Socrates is not unfamiliar, what is remarkable about his presentation is the clarity with which he handles the details of the textual evidence and incorporates his understanding of Socratic irony -- the key, as he sees it, to understanding Socratic thought -- into his explication. While Vlastos invites his readers to judge for themselves, one cannot miss his conviction that he has answered the Socratic question once and for all, or at least to his own satisfaction. At the very least, the rigorous discussion of the evidence Vlastos has left us will endure, however quickly the Socratic question is taken up yet again.

This certainty that the Socratic question has been answered could not, of course, rest on isolating the historical Socrates only in the texts of Plato. After all, Plato may simply have changed his own mind rather than rejected the views of his teacher. Thus, the remainder of Chapter 3 is a discussion of the evidence of Aristotle and Xenophon. Aristotle's evidence supports the first four theses as presented by Vlastos, and, Vlastos argues, the evidence of Xenophon supports three of the theses and is self-contradictory on the issue of Socrates' disavowal of knowledge. But Chapter 4 is really the capstone of the argument. For here Vlastos identifies the experience which led Plato to abandon the views of his teacher and strike out on his own. He argues that it was Plato's study of the mathematical sciences, esoteric rather than popular subjects, that led him to abandon the elenctic method and take up the metaphysical and epistemological views which distinguish his philosophy, and which were not and could not have been held by the historical Socrates.

The rest of the book weaves together the three sorts of strangeness I have discerned. In Chapter 5, "Does Socrates cheat?", Vlastos returns to complex irony to defend Socrates from a recurring, if no longer commonly made, charge that Socrates (that is , the "Socrates" of Plato's earlier dialogues) wilfully deceives or misleads his interlocutors in order to win arguments. To do this, Vlastos concentrates on two notorious passages from the Gorgias (474b-475c and 466b-468e), in which Socrates is arguing "seriously," that is, "philosophizing, examining himself and others" (p. 135). Vlastos claims that these passages are unlike the unserious Socrates who competes with Protagoras to interpret the poem of Simonides (Prot. 338e-348a). Vlastos' claim is a strong one: "when Socrates is searching for the right way to live, in circumstances in which it is reasonable for him to think of the search as obedience to divine command, his argument cannot involve wilful untruth" (p. 134, his italics). Vlastos insists that Plato could not portray Socrates as cheating, knowing himself that the arguments are misleading, and claim that Socrates was "the most just" of all men he had ever known. The integrity of Socrates, the integrity of the Platonic portrait of Socrates, and the strangeness of Socrates are all at stake here. But while Vlastos is surely right that those who find "Socrates" wilfully misleading his interlocutors must explain how this fits with Plato's portrait of the superlatively virtuous "Socrates," still one wonders whether there can be no fault in Socrates, and whether it is Plato or Vlastos who can tolerate no stain.

"Socratic piety," thesis IX and the focus of Chapter 6, illustrates the strangeness of Socrates on all three levels: these views on piety further distinguish Socrates from the "Socrates" of the middle dialogues; they are peculiar, indeed, revolutionary, in their insistence on gods who must meet the strict ethical standards set for mortals; and they reflect the paradox of the man completely committed to rational inquiry but subservient to the commands he perceives from the gods.

The rejection of retaliation, the subject of Chapter 7, is the quintessential revolutionary ethical view which Vlastos attributes to Socrates. He begins by emphasising Socrates' conformity to conventional cultural views about the treatment of women, aliens, and slaves. Nonetheless, Socrates moved well beyond even the Protagorean rejection of punishment as vengeance. For he realized that there is never any moral justification for harming anyone. The Crito rejects the reciprocation of evil or injustice, on the more general principles that one should never do injustice or evil to anyone, and that doing evil to someone is no different from doing injustice. This last principle, Vlastos explains, although it has no "satisfactory" argumentation in the Socratic dialogues, rests on Socrates' "intuition" about goodness: "true moral goodness is incapable of doing intentional injury to others, for it is inherently beneficent, radiant in its operation, spontaneously communicating goodness to those who come in contact with it, always producing benefit instead of injury, so that the idea of a just man injuring anyone, friend or foe, is unthinkable" (p. 196-97). The fundamental principle of the argument, that one ought never to do injustice to anyone, is justified by Socrates' version of eudaemonism (the subject of the final chapter). To set off the revolutionary nature of Socrates' views, Vlastos discusses the talio as the fundamental moral code of the Greeks, expressed in their ubiquitous cry to harm one's enemies and help one's friends. He also examines precursors of the Socratic view, which he believes fall short of Socrates' moral intuitions. I find this part of the discussion much less satisfying than Vlastos' treatment of the Socratic argument itself. For example, apart from the infamous examples from Thucydides, one misses a discussion of what Greeks actually did and what their laws imply about their attitudes toward injury, however frequently one finds "glorifying" references to harming one's enemies. Vlastos begins by saying, "Harming one's enemy to the full extent permitted by public law is not only tolerated, but glorified, in Greek moralizing" (p. 180; italics are mine). The italicized phrase is not insignificant, yet it is not derived from any of the many references to harming one's enemy that fill Greek literature. What evidence is there for extreme and widespread vengeance, especially among individuals (as opposed to the vengeance of state against state)? Vlastos himself provides much evidence that the Greeks saw the talio as such to be limited in its usefulness as a principle. Surely prudential considerations were regularly taken into account in any application of the talio. Indeed, the restrictions on the talio and the very existence of the legal system should discourage us from summarizing the fundamental moral code of the Greeks in the talio. Moreover, once Socrates' blindness to the treatment of women and slaves is acknowledged, I find it difficult to trust the depth of his intuitions. I would certainly have deep qualms about accepting an unreformed Socrates as an arbiter of what will count as harm and injustice; and after all, this is no less important than promulgating abstract principles. While Vlastos does not want his readers to ignore Socrates' blemishes, and his chief concern is Socrates' thought, the final chapters nonetheless slide into a hagiographical evaluation of Socrates the person.

In the final chapter, Vlastos elaborates a principle he labels the "Sovereignty of Virtue," the principle he believes underlies Socrates' rejection of retaliation: "Whenever we must choose between exclusive and exhaustive alternatives which we have come to perceive as, respectively, just and unjust or, more generally, as virtuous and vicious, this very perception of them should decide our choice. Further deliberation would be useless, for none of the non-moral goods we might hope to gain, taken singly or in combination, could compensate us for the loss of a moral good. Virtue being the sovereign good in our domain of value, its claim upon us is always final" (pp. 210-11). While Vlastos finds expression of a similar view in, for example, Sophocles' portrayal of Neoptolemus in the Philoctetes, and in Isocrates, he does not think the commitment to acting justly in these works comes close to what he calls "embracing" the principle of the Sovereignty of Virtue. Although Neoptolemus eventually acts justly out of his true character, his struggle, it seems, disqualifies him from "embracing" the principle, presumably in the manner that Socrates did so. Here too one senses Vlastos shifting from discussing the thought of Socrates to the person Socrates. For the critique of Neoptolemus is not simply about the strength with which moral principles are articulated, but about the consistency and ease with which one actually behaves in accordance with them. This makes Socrates, but not Neoptolemus, strange. The bulk of this chapter aims at pinpointing Socrates' version of eudaemonism, which underlies the principle of the Sovereignty of Virtue. Granting that the ultimate reason for being virtuous is happiness, Vlastos argues that Socrates' specific brand of eudaemonism, that is, his view of the relationship between virtue and happiness, is that virtue is the central constituent of happiness; it is both necessary and sufficient for happiness, yet non-moral goods within the virtuous life do add to happiness ("The Sufficiency Thesis"). Vlastos continues to argue against Irwin's view that for Socrates virtue is purely instrumental to happiness; and he distinguishes Socrates' view from the view we associate with the Stoics, that virtue is completely constitutive of happiness ("The Identity Thesis," a version of which he himself held previously). Vlastos offers an elaborate and subtle argument to show that the passages which seem to show quite clearly that Socrates held a view of eudaemonism consistent with the Identity Thesis are also consistent with the Sufficiency Thesis; and he offers other textual evidence to support the Sufficiency Thesis as Socrates'. Vlastos' support for the Sufficiency Thesis seems to stem from his concern to take into account Socrates' adherence to eudaemonism, the view that happiness is the ultimate reason for all rational action. The principle of the Sovereignty of Virtue accommodates what are perceived as choices between what is just and unjust, but does not help when alternatives are all consistent with virtue. Moreover, Vlastos offers examples -- choosing to sleep in a clean rather than a filthy bed, and the situation of Job before and after Satan tests him -- to show that choices about non-moral goods do, in fact, add to our happiness. I for one cannot help but sympathize with this point of view: we would be creatures of a different sort, angels or daemons perhaps, but not humans, if non-moral goods made no difference at all to our happiness. But how far away from the Identity Thesis are we really, if non-moral goods make only a "miniscule" (p. 231) difference to our happiness, and there is no point at which non-moral evils detract so much from our lives that we can no longer expect anyone to take us seriously when we claim to be happy? Job, no doubt, remained virtuous; but is there anyone who would claim he was nonetheless happy? Vlastos' Socrates? But then, after all, he was strange. Indeed, in his epilogue, "Felix Socrates," Vlastos concludes with a Socrates whose view certainly does seem to slide into the Identity Thesis, at least in hard times: "If you believe what Socrates does, you hold the secret of your happiness in your own hands. Nothing the world can do to you can make you unhappy" (p. 235).

Why was Vlastos so concerned to find the historical Socrates? In this age of caring little for even authorial intention it does strike me as somewhat old fashioned to believe that one can discover what Plato thought let alone what Socrates thought on the basis of a representation of that thought. But I expect many readers will judge that Vlastos has been quite successful at articulating what is unique and peculiar about Socrates' views, that is the views of the historical Socrates. This reader, however, is left unsatisfied that the overall strangeness of Socrates has been accounted for, at least in a way that allows one to share Vlastos' apparently unwavering admiration for the man, an admiration he seems to slip into unconsciously as he explicates Socrates' unique views. A serious question to be answered by readers is whether Vlastos' regard for the thought of Socrates has inappropriately slipped into veneration. Has Vlastos given us an old fashioned portrait of Saint Socrates? What is, ultimately, strange about Vlastos' Socrates is not so much that he articulated moral principles of which there were, perhaps, only hints to be found beforehand, but that he lived these principles without any sign of struggle, or indeed, any sign of pain or distress about the effect he had on others. Thus the revised discussion of Socratic political views which Vlastos promises in the "Introduction" is no small missing piece of his portrait. How is it that Socrates' daemon did not prevent him from going off to help fight a war for the Athenian Empire? Did Socrates himself truly "embrace" his principle of the Sovereignty of Virtue? Had he no lapses? Can a member of any political community even hope truly to avoid doing harm without actively engaging in doing good? Were Socrates' elenctic efforts to get the Athenians to examine themselves and care about their souls enough? Why did Socrates refuse to leave Athens? Did he die solely on the basis of the choice he had to make according to the principle of the Sovereignty of Virtue, or was the man, not a demigod, moved too by the reduced quality of life he anticipated? Socrates' peculiar views may well be admirable; but the man is still a mystery, still strange.