Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.22

Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato's Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 240. ISBN 0-19-508175-7. $35.00.

Reviewed by Elinor J.M. West, Long Island University.

Too much agreement among scholars on a philosophical issue may be as disconcerting as too little. Recognizing this, Brickhouse and Smith, who were first introduced to the philosophy of Socrates by Vlastos, now defend their own approach for two reasons: first because it evolves out of a critical examination of the opinions of those who are also good friends and second because it will fuel the fire of friendly controversy by offering unorthodox solutions to six already controversial questions. In the first place, does Socrates have a method? If so, is he aware of using the rules scholars spell out for him and how can he expect to do something positive by refuting others? Second, why does Socrates assert that he knows nothing great or small and yet behave as though he has knowledge? Why didn't the Athenians call his attention to this paradox, first provoking the ancient skeptics and still provoking most contemporaries? Third, does Socrates attribute psychological states to his respondents? If he does, how might such ascriptions resolve his notorious denial of akrasia? Fourth, is knowledge a sufficient or even a necessary condition for happiness? If neither, how can he claim to be happy? Fifth, what are Socrates' political attitudes and his position on civil disobedience? Indeed, how might his religious views explain the charges brought against him? Finally, when Socrates decides not to do something is he guided by his daimonion's voice or by reason?

Chapter one moves us away from a Socrates who is wholly concerned with the consistency of propositions toward a Socrates who is equally concerned with the value of the lives of his fellow Athenians. For after acknowledging that Socrates is aware of asking questions but not of using a technical method, the authors point out that he did not say that it is the untested proposition which is not worth holding but the unexamined life which is not worth living. Here is why Socratic dialogue might well be characterized as getting a respondent to express the values by which he lives in propositions so that both his life and propositions can be tested. If a respondent can oblige, the importance of his method is then found in a man telling Socrates what he sincerely believes. So important is this rule that the process of inquiry is said to be left open in order that a respondent may amend or even withdraw the belief first stated or so that someone, initially ignorant of what he actually believes will later discover how mistaken he is. Indeed, it is this sort of self deception which not only will take the reader to chapter three and Socrates' psychology but especially to Gorgias 472b6 where Socrates shows Polus how he fails to grasp what he, Polus, actually believes about the value of justice.

If what has been sketched rightly depicts the aim of Socrates' refutations, the benefit claimed for the aporia to which almost every respondent falls victim is clear. Contrary to what has been argued by Teloh for one, Socrates does not fail to help a respondent by reducing him to confusion. For what has indeed been demonstrated is not the inconsistency of just any set of moral beliefs but that set held by this respondent. Hence, even if someone does not learn which belief to discard in order to relieve his conflict, the aporia which results from Socrates' questions at least gives him good reason to continue an examination of those beliefs which are in fact disrupting his life. But how then can such conversations be construed as a victory for Socrates rather than a benefit for his respondent? Nor is there any difficulty in then adopting that metaphor Socrates himself may have used when humorously characterizing himself as a "midwife," who in this case is found delivering Polus' "unexpected offspring."1 For if Polus had first said what he sincerely believed and now asserts the opposite, how can he lie? That is why the confusion brought to light in Polus shows Polus as a poor witness for his own beliefs and a good witness for this belief initially ascribed to him by Socrates: i.e., it is better to suffer than to do an injustice. Opposing Irwin's claim that it is Socrates who induces his own belief in Polus, the authors would rather speak of Socrates as rightly attributing psychological states (both cognitive and affective) to his respondent. Here then is what is freshly made of the Delphic injunction, "know thyself," as well as a new way of evaluating Socrates' denial of akrasia. What the authors then take up in chapters five and six is a restatement of Vlastos' formulation of Socrates' political paradox.

When Socrates speaks of "the true political craft" at Gorgias 521d, he appears both to disavow and avow doing politics. Treating this paradox as willfully idiosyncratic, Vlastos insists that no one who heard Socrates would remain in doubt that he alludes to his own elenchus when speaking of an art whose exercise improves the moral fiber of his fellow citizens. Thus the man whose rule in life consists in staying away from politics turns out to be the only man in Athens who actually contributes to the city's business -- an assertion clearly at odds with Pericles' insistence in his funeral oration that a man who takes no part in politics has no business in Athens. Far from contesting this Periclean context, Brickhouse and Smith instead base their resolution of this paradox on a more radical challenge.

Listening to Socrates talk of his life long commitment to the moral improvement of the Athenians, the authors hear him explain that he has made it his business not to act as a public man (DHMOSIEU/EIN: Ap.32a3) and that his reason for not doing so is the repeated opposition of his daimonion. Hence not only does Socrates carry out his refutations as a private man, but he finds his daimonion's opposition a good thing, otherwise long ago he would have perished without benefiting himself or the Athenians. Whether such divine intervention is reason enough for Socrates simply to stop what he is doing or whether Socrates stops to investigate what has been signaled before then acting for his own reason is open to debate. Vlastos, for one, does not believe that Socrates would allow an "irrational" voice to go unquestioned. Be that as it may, Brickhouse and Smith argue that Socrates can fight for what is right only as a private man and their reformulation is termed radical because Socrates can not do so as a public man.

Then setting out to dissolve what is so often treated as a contradiction between Socrates' position on civil disobedience in Crito and Apology the authors submit that what Socrates says at Ap. 29c-d does not permit him to reply to this question scholars put to him: namely, what he would do if a law were passed banning philosophy. To answer at all, the authors must take "great leaps" from the text to reply as have others by speculating: if in the past Socrates had gone quietly home when discovering the Athenians acting unjustly, he is not likely to have acted differently on this occasion.

Yet even though this reply is consistent with the distinction between private and public worked out above, how might a slightly different perspective freshly illuminate this controversy? Perhaps one might have asked why Plato represents Socrates at his defense imagining himself after his trial not living on quietly in Athens in exchange for a promise not to philosophize? Then rather than speculate about the events Socrates projects, one might instead recall how those listening to him have already been prejudiced against his talking by Aristophanes' comic parodies. Or more precisely, how many Athenians knew or cared how Socrates' talking in fact differed from that of the sophists or other fifth century intellectuals? Yet it is not merely this confusion on the part of the Athenians which kept Socrates in Athens but also his knowledge of how many of them had expected him to go into exile prior to his trial and since he had not, to name exile as his penalty.2 Could this explain why Socrates creates this opportunity to imagine those with whom he talks putting a ban on his philosophizing so he can assure them that it is his service to the god which will prevent him from living on silently in Athens? Thus even before Socrates refuses to name that penalty he knew they would accept, he sets out to frustrate what they expect, not only by discussing his own attitude toward philosophizing but especially toward death. Yet what Socrates says can hardly be construed as civil disobedience, because there is nothing illegal in not preferring exile to death.

Which questions get asked of a Platonic dialogue will often depend upon a prior interpretative decision, in this case whether the speech Socrates makes in defense is to be treated as a monologue and hence read without reference to the prejudice of those listening who also interrupt him with laughter and cat calls. Here is one assumption then on which I am at odds with the authors. That I am not alone in believing that one cannot reduce what Socrates asserts to a series of sincere and serious statements which are intended to establish Socrates' innocence does not imply that the unorthodox solutions outlined above are not extremely provocative. It is only that the authors would do well to reexamine an orthodoxy which treats Plato's Socrates as either sincere or ironic (when he may be both). By further supposing that Socrates could fight prejudices being recycled for political purposes with clear and straight forward statements is to mistake the power already exercised by a far from apolitical comic poet.

When Socrates professes his ignorance, perhaps he is not using the word "knowledge" in two consistently different senses, as Vlastos suggests. He may acknowledge, as the authors submit, that he has knowledge but disclaim the value of human knowledge to recognize the god only as wise. Yet it was Socrates whom the Athenians had heard on the stage of Aristophanes not only cleverly reasoning in the manner of other so-called "wise men" but acting for all the world as if his wisdom were like that of a god. Hence even though the authors do not dismiss Aristophanes, they do not perceive why Anytus could have counted on the damage already done to Socrates' reputation or why Plato later may have deliberately introduced those paradoxes first clearly discerned by Vlastos into his recreations of Socrates' talking in order to teach us how to philosophize. They therefore may not appreciate how Plato would remove that misperception of Socrates which we may not have properly assessed, living as we do long after Plato so successfully established Socrates as a philosopher instead of a sophist.


  • [1] Contra Vlastos, who argues that this metaphor is created by Plato, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, 1991), and that it is to be confined to the Theaetetus, 85 & n.11. But see D. Sider, "Did Socrates Call himself a Midwife? The Evidence of Clouds", The Philosophy of Socrates, ed. Boudouris (Athens, 1991) 333 ff.
  • [2] Compare Brickhouse and Smith, Socrates On Trial (Princeton, 1989) 59 ff & 222 ff with Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge, 1971), 63.