Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.12.11

Mark L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 353. $35.00. ISBN 0-271-01581-0.

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Department of Philosophy, Clark University,

Word Count: 4,499.

The ancient schools of philosophy, each very different from the other, nonetheless all claimed Socrates as their inspiration; and something similar has happened even through to today, since historically both religious thinkers, and philosophers who view themselves as carrying out the Enlightenment project of autonomous reason, have held up Socrates as their ideal. But who is correct? Was the historical Socrates an early monotheist, who was prompted by some kind of divine influence to adopt that view, and who therefore did not hesitate to "follow God rather than men" (Apol. 29d)? Or was he, rather, a restless inquirer who reckoned no authority higher than reason itself, and who consequently would acquiesce in established religious custom, to the extent that he did, only as a kind of appeasement and accommodation?

Mark McPherran's study of the religion of Socrates is undoubtedly now the best book to consult, to begin answering questions of this sort. McPherran accepts Gregory Vlastos' view of the ordering of the Platonic dialogues and of the broad historical reliability of the earlier dialogues,1 and he draws also from Xenophon especially, to argue that Socrates in fact believed that gods exist who are entirely good, that all good things enjoyed by human beings were derived from them, and that the favor of the gods cannot be bought by sacrifices, but rather we should serve the gods, by carrying out their will for us. McPherran also maintains that the Argument from Design of Memorabilia 1.4.8 represents the historical Socrates' view, and, more controversially, that Socrates was agnostic on the question of the immortality of the soul. His arguments are based on responsible scholarship throughout and display a balance devoid of any partisanship.

But that is not to say that the book has no definite aim. McPherran takes himself to be arguing against a picture of Socrates to which "[he] and many others in philosophy were introduced in graduate school: a consummate intellectualist, wholly taken up in agonistic argument, whose 'paradoxical' view that 'virtue is knowledge' (e.g. Pr. 349e-350d; Mem. 3.9.5) grounds a moral theory that takes discursive rationality as life's only trustworthy guide" (5). He would replace this with an image of a Socrates who regards revelation and reason as harmonious and heeds them equally: "... it is my intent to preserve the Socratic insistence on the value of rational elenctic philosophy while also fully acknowledging how this commitment is crucially shaped by -- and, reciprocally, also shapes -- Socrates' conception of himself as a divinely guided servant of the gods" (10).

It should be said, however, that McPherran's principal target throughout the book is not the view he inherited from graduate school so much as Vlastos' account of Socratic religion, especially as found in his well-known essay, "Socratic Piety".2 Yet this leads to an interesting difficulty: McPherran was himself an admiring student of Vlastos, so the book, at the same time, shows its debt and defends important claims derived from that essay. The result is that there are various deep tensions in McPherran's book, which, to my mind, McPherran should perhaps have resolved by rejecting Vlastos' view more thoroughly and more explicitly. The momentum of his arguments and conclusions certainly leads in that direction.

It is useful to have Vlastos' view before us. It may be summarized as follows:

(1) Socrates was like the pre-Socratic phusiologoi in regarding the polytheistic supernaturalism of the society in which he lived as 'problem' to be handled with 'discretion'; but, whereas the phusiologoi did so by regarding the basic causal principles they postulated as divine, Socrates accomplished this by insisting that our conception of the gods had to be fully consistent with rationally defensible moral principles.3

(2) To argue, as Socrates famously does in the Euthyphro (10a-11b), that the gods love an action because it is pious, and not that an action is pious because the gods love it, is effectively to replace theology with moral philosophy: no appeal to the nature of the gods or their intentions is then needed for establishing what is right to do; rather, mere rational reflection on morality will suffice.4

(3) But since moral philosophy is appropriately carried out by means of the elenchos, a person should always act on that principle which seems best when subjected to the unfettered and unrestricted use of his critical reasoning: "[R]easoned argument [is] the final arbiter of claims to truth in the moral realm".5

(4) Thus, in particular, any talk of Socrates' attending to dreams, oracles, and divinations should be understood as: these things provide a kind of inchoate stimulus, which serve merely as the occasion for the use of his critical reasoning.6 Socrates gets no distinct or additional direction in how to act from them, which cannot be traced to the operation of his critical reason.

(5) One conclusion that Socrates reached through the use of critical reasoning is that the principle of reciprocity, viz. help your friends and harm you enemies, is misguided; thus, he believed in particular that this principle should be rejected, too, in our relationship with the gods. Yet this implies the abolition of traditional cult observances.7

(6) Thus, the only role left to be played by the gods, for Socrates, is that they provide a point of view from which one can come to regard the good of all other human beings as equivalent to one's own: theology becomes an antidote to eudaimonism and no more than this. Since gods are all good and wish good for all human beings (for that is the only conception of them that is consistent with moral philosophy), to serve the gods is simply to aim at what is good for all human beings generally.8

In a word, Vlastos rationalizes Socratic religion, in arguing that Socrates' sole intent was to rationalize the gods. He effectively turns Socrates into an Enlightenment deist of ancient Athens.

The tension to which I referred in McPherran's view may then be explained in this way: he accepts (1), (2), and (5), which are the more fundamental elements of Vlastos' account, but he would reject (4), and (6), which Vlastos presents, with some warrant, as implied by the others.

For example, McPherran argues in great detail that, for Socrates, "extrarational signs make a significant contribution to his knowledge and belief states" (p. 191), contra (4). McPherran insists that Socrates is indeed presented by Plato as learning how he should act from the Delphic oracle, from indications of his daimonion, and from dreams. That seems correct: Socrates does not look upon divine messages as Rorschach blots, open to any interpretation whatsoever; Vlastos' (4) is hardly sustainable, given the textual evidence. Yet it is not clear how McPherran can consistently reject (4) while holding onto (1) and (2), as he wishes to do (pp. 46, 98-108).

McPherran's handling of (6) is another instance of the problem. Plato's Euthyphro is taken up with the question of "What is piety?", but the dialogue appears to be aporematic only, so it is an interesting question whether Plato in fact intends to embed some account of piety into the dialogue nonetheless, which could then be ascribed to Socrates.9 McPherran seems to provide three different answers to that question, telling us, variously that, according to Socrates, piety consists in: (a) prayers, sacrifices, and honoring one's elders (pp. 72, 77); (b) obedience to the universal dictates of virtue, as uncovered by the elenchus (pp. 38, 80); and (c) assisting the gods in their work, whatever that might be (pp. 65-68). This is an odd mix: one might wonder what explains these alternatives. In fact, (b) comes from Vlastos, not from McPherran's study of the text, and is the odd man out; the other alternatives have textual support and are mutually consistent.

Again, McPherran accepts (5) (pp. 108-109), but the better course, perhaps, would have been for him to reject it outright. He does effectively reject it, by so finessing its meaning that it loses the content that it had for Vlastos10; but McPherran would have had a cleaner argument had that rejection been more thorough. In fact, when Vlastos presented his claim that the single greatest moral innovation of Socrates was the rejection of the principle of repayment in kind,11 even he had to qualify it immediately: this did not imply, Vlastos quickly added (but why not?), that Socrates rejected retributive punishment, only personal vengeance.12 And Vlastos was silent about whether Socrates rejected the positive side of the principle, viz. reciprocating good services to one's friends. McPherran helpfully points out that Socrates, it appears, never rejected friendly reciprocation; or reverence and gratitude shown to superiors; or obedience and sacrifices rendered to gods. In fact, McPherran so narrows Vlastos' thesis, that Socrates turns out to be opposed only to attempts to purchase the assistance of the gods, to promote one's selfish or unjust ends (pp. 149-150). But then why not simply scrap Vlastos' claim about 'Socrates' rejection of retaliation' from the start? Clearly, Socrates had no difficulty with reciprocity per se; and his view that one should never inflict injury on others can be explained well enough on a variety of other hypotheses.

Again, McPherran seems to adopt (1) and (2) uncritically, where he might just as well have rejected them. On McPherran's considered view, the realm of the supernatural13 presents no 'problem' for Socrates, and thus we hardly need to regard it as something 'rationalized' or handled by him in any other way, simply on the grounds that it is supernatural -- but that is the motivation for (1). And, in any case, McPherran's various statements of (1) are implausible. For instance, he says that "... Socrates put the gods under the reign of reason by bringing them completely into line with the universal demands of morality, demands that constrain them within norms applicable to both humans and gods" (p. 108); "[f]or him, all things, even those we must call divine, are encompassed by the necessities of one moral law" (p. 107). This Kantian language is clearly anachronistic: there is little warrant for attributing a belief in universal 'laws' or 'norms' of morality to Socrates or Plato; and it is difficult to see how action controlled by virtues such as wisdom and justice is appropriately regarded as under some constraint or necessity. Moreover, even under the best interpretation we can give it, the claim seems false. Was there one 'universal demand' of piety that governed both human beings and gods? Rather, we have no reason to think that 'morality', for gods, would include piety.14

It is difficult, furthermore, to see why McPherran's support for (2), like Vlastos', is not based on an a bad argument.15 From the claim that it is not the case that an action is pious (or just, or prudent, etc.) because the gods love it, it does not follow that, to determine what is pious (or just, or prudent, etc.), it suffices to engage in moral reflection on its own, with no thought of the gods. Compare: from the claim that it is not the case that a child's action is right simply because it pleases his parents, it does not follow that he can succeed in determining what it is for him to act well, without taking into account his blood relation to them, the good things they have conferred, their specific requests, and so on.16

Where does McPherran stand as regards (3)? His position is unclear, and yet it ought to be clear. At first glance he seems to reject it, since, as we saw, he maintains that Socrates would sometimes determine what was right to do by following what he regarded as divine indications given through oracles, dreams, and so on. It would seem, then, that Socrates rejected the view that his own reasoning ability had "exclusive authority... to determine questions of truth and falsehood", and that he would deny that his ideal was the "unconditional readiness to follow critical reason wherever it may lead".17 But in fact McPherran seems to accept (3): he seems to think that Socrates would rely on some kind of divine indication only to the extent that he could regard his doing as justified by critical, rational reflection. Thus, McPherran argues at some length that Socrates regarded his daimonion as trustworthy, because he had reasoned inductively that it would remain in the future as reliable as it had proved in the past (pp. 188-190); similarly dreams and oracles might reasonably be trusted only after their credentials had been established by experience and rational reflection (p. 177 n. 6).

A minor problem here is that the image of a Socrates advocating, so to speak, the experimental study of the reliability of divination and prophecy seems absurd. Also, it is not clear, generally, that judgments of the trustworthiness of persons are appropriately construed as mere assessments of relative frequency. But putting those problems aside, the more serious difficulty is that (3), as McPherran's discussion shows, is either implausible or trivial, depending upon how it is interpreted. If, in saying that Socrates followed only his own critical reason, we mean that he never acted in response to any authority or trusted in the report or opinion of another, then the claim is ridiculous and implausible.18 If, however, we mean that he never acted in response to an authority or trusted in another unless he regarded doing so as in some way reasonable, then the claim is perhaps true but entirely trivial.19

As was said, the central chapters of The Religion of Socrates amounts to an extended debate with Vlastos -- filled with tensions, as I have maintained, because McPherran's dissent from Vlastos' position does not reach to the more fundamental matters. The debate continues, in a sense, even into the last chapter of the book, where McPherran maintains, controversially, that there is no determining evidence that the historical Socrates believed in the soul's immortality, and, if anything, it is likely he was agnostic about it (p. 271); and that we may reasonably attribute the cosmological speculations of Memorabilia 1.4.8 to the historical Socrates (pp. 273-291). The former contributes to Vlastos' differentiation between the historical Socrates and Plato, in a matter that seems to have caused Vlastos some difficulty20; the latter is set against Vlastos' view, shared of course by others, that "Cosmological argument for the existence of god is cosmologists' business. Why should Socrates produce such arguments when cosmology is none of his?".21

As regards the former, it must be conceded that there is little evidence that Socrates affirmed the soul's survival of death. Nonetheless there is some evidence that he did: Crito 54b, especially, but also the myth in the Gorgias, a dialogue which McPherran counts as early and Socratic. It must also be said that both of the alternatives that Socrates presents in the Apology apparently presuppose some sort of survival: of course this is true for the possibility that the soul 'changes its residence' (41a); but it holds also for the other alternative, which Socrates presents, not as annihilation, but rather as a perpetual insensible condition, one in which 'all of time seems to pass as quickly as one night' (40e) -- and, obviously, the soul would not exist for all of time, if it did not survive at all. Then, too, it is not correct to say, as McPherran does (p. 264) that Xenophon's Socrates is completely silent on the question: if 1.4.8 is generally reliable, as McPherran holds, then it would seem that we can conclude from it that Socrates believed that the soul is an invisible being, distinct from the body and having power over it; moreover, that it is similar in its nature and action, though more restricted in scope, to the omnipresent mind that governs the whole universe. Given these views, if Socrates had then denied the soul's survival, he would have held to an odd combination of ideas that would amount almost to a singularity in the history of thought, hardly to be admitted without special explanation.

The textual evidence, then, however slight, seems nonetheless to create a presumption that Socrates did believe in survival; and McPherran, I think, does not succeed in defeating this presumption. For instance, he claims that the myth of the Gorgias is an interpolation by Plato of the middle dialogues, and that the Crito passage does not express Socrates' own view (p. 265), since the personified Laws are the speakers, not Socrates -- but these points seem ad hoc and weak. Again, he points out that Socrates tells us that his whole care is to avoid injustice (Apol. 28b, 32d) -- which would be inexplicable, McPherran thinks, if Socrates believed in judgment after death, as in the Gorgias myth (p. 269); but there is no puzzle, if Socrates believed also, or suspected, that someone who made his whole care the avoidance of justice in this life would receive blessings rather than punishments in the next life. Or, again, McPherran claims that "if one takes the end of the Gorgias to represent Socrates' own commitments on immortality, then one is saddled with an improbably deceptive and irrational Socrates in the Apology" (p. 266). But it is unclear why Socrates would have been bound to speak his whole mind at his trial; and, in any case, he might justifiably have regarded what he did say in the Apology as sufficient, in the following sense. Suppose he believed that it would be sensible to avoid death, if one had good grounds for thinking it to be evil. Then it would become a problem why it is the case that each human being, and not simply a philosopher with the conviction of the soul's survival, should be expected to act morally, in the sense of being prepared to give up one's life, if necessary, rather than do something disgraceful (such as abandoning one's post: Apol. 28d-29d). It would have to be the case, then, that some account of why death is not evil, is available to anyone who acts morally; and 40c-41d could be understood, then, as Socrates' attempt to make this explicit. That is, these lines would be Socrates' remarks about the reasons that are available to people in general not to fear death (to know that they do not know that death is evil, cf. 29b), not an explanation of his full view of the soul and its nature.

McPherran's discussion of Memorabilia 1.4.8 summarizes impressively the reasons for regarding that passage as at least broadly representative of Socrates' views. But it could be wished that his treatment made more explicit use of Xenophon's own explanation of 1.1.10-15 of why Socrates did not engage in natural science, since it seems that none of the four or five reasons given there would rule out Socrates' constructing an Argument from Design.22

Some small difficulties should be mentioned, not having to do with content. Although the book is very handsomely printed and bound, it is inconsistently edited. For instance: p. 107, "he had been lead"; p. 108, the change in tense from "assumed" to "is assumed"; pp. 190-192, the footnotes to Vlastos citing the wrong essay; p. 245, "aslsiduously"; p. 276, the mention of L. Betty in the footnote, but we do not know which of the two articles listed in the bibliography is intended; the Index giving two listings for nous, which do not in any obvious way overlap; etc. Moreover, there are not a few errors in diacritical marks (e.g., pp. 101, 119, 178), and no clear rule seems to determine the introduction of Greek term: whether it is given in Greek only, or as transliterated only, or in both forms; and whether either or both are to be placed in parentheses; and whether the nominative or the case as used in a cited text is to be provided (cp. e.g., pp. 21, 24, 90).23

But these minor flaws certainly cannot detract from the scholarly importance of the work. McPherran's The Religion of Socrates, besides playing an important corrective role, is a virtual encyclopaedia of the arguments and secondary literature pertaining to any question that could be raised about Socrates' religion; as such, it is likely to be a helpful and indeed indispensable work for scholars for years to come.  


1. Vlastos, Gregory, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, The Townsend Lectures, volume L. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp. 45-106.  

2. Vlastos, pp. 157-178. The essay was originally presented as a lecture in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy: cf. its Proceedings, volume V, 1989.  

3. Vlastos, p. 159-162.  

4. Vlastos, p. 164-167.  

5. Vlastos, p. 157, 170.  

6. Vlastos, p. 170.  

7. Vlastos, pp. 176-178, 179-198.  

8. Vlastos, pp. 177-178.  

9. That is: on the assumption, again, that that dialogue is a member of a group of earlier dialogues which may together be taken to be broadly representative of the historical Socrates.  

10. McPherran affirms Vlastos' (5) at p. 108: "Regarding this venerable principle [sc. repayment in kind], it seems clear, Socrates must be ranked a self-conscious moral revolutionary." But the view is in effect rejected through numerous qualifications later, at pp. 146-159.  

11. Vlastos, pp. 179-198.  

12. Thus, Socrates' great innovation then becomes the distinction between punishment and revenge: "The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism", Vlastos, p. 187 -- which is about as good an example of what A. MacIntyre has labelled the "encyclopedist" approach to morality as one could wish to find.  

13. There is some difficulty in finding the right word for identifying what, it is claimed, Socrates found problematic: Vlastos (p. 159) observes that there was no Greek term then corresponding to our 'supernatural'. The best candidate is, perhaps, 'invisible', but then it is clear that Socrates had no difficulty in acknowledging the existence of invisible beings, such as the soul (cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia, 4.3.14).  

14. Indeed, it is Euthyphro's view, not Socrates', that differences in station or rank imply no differences in how one should act: Euthyphro, in prosecuting his own father, draws no distinction between his relation to his father and his relation to any other citizen (5e). Socrates is clearly concerned to reject this idea as wrongheaded, and that he is seems part of Plato intention, that the dialogue defend Socrates against the charge of impiety.  

15. McPherran, p. 46; Vlastos, p. 165.  

16. It would be ridiculous, though perhaps not without precedent, for a son to argue that, to act well, it would suffice for him to consult only those duties or norms that, in his view, applied to his parents as much as to himself.  

17. Vlastos, p. 171.  

18. Yet Vlastos, characteristically more consistent than most, seems to go this far. In his discussion of Socratic irony, he insists that "[t]he concept of moral autonomy" is the "deepest thing" in the Socrates depicted by Plato, even though, he concedes, it "never surfaces" there. And by "moral autonomy" Vlastos seems to mean that the significance of any other person's utterance having to do with morality, is entirely indeterminate, until operated upon by the one's own critical reason: see Vlastos, p. 44. Of course, on this view there could be no reliance on another's authority in moral matters, because there would be no meaning that another person could convey through a suggestion or command.  

19. In my opinion, both Vlastos (p. 157) and McPherran (p. 176) are mistaken in trying to get any strict or interesting form of (3) out of Crito 46b4-6. This passage, I think, cannot be an affirmation of the "exclusive authority" of one's own critical reason in the narrow sense, since Socrates immediately goes on to provide examples of how, typically, one needs to rely in various contexts on the right authorities (47a-c). Moreover, the main contrast drawn in the passage is not that between reason and authority, but between reason and other things in a person, such as fear or a desire for comfort, which, Socrates holds, should not be the basis for action, in contexts in which there are competing arguments that need to be evaluated. Surely, absent special reason, we should interpret Crito 46b4-6 as having just the force required to respond to Crito's initiative: we are not justified in yanking it out of context and using it as a kind of proof text for Kantian autonomy.  

20. Vlastos, p. 55.  

21. Vlastos, p. 162.  

22. It seems to me a flaw of many discussions of Socrates' rejection of cosmological speculation, (though not of McPherran's), that they do not attempt to determine the motives underlying that rejection -- as though 'science' and 'ethics' were neatly packaged back then, or as though his favoring of 'ethics' were a matter of taste, as a college sophomore might view his choice of English over Chemistry as a major.

23. The book also suffers at times from an exaggerated attempt at precision, not infrequently seen in analytic philosophy. For instance, McPherran cites a variety of texts that indicate, naturally enough, that Socrates regards philosophising as a good thing. But then this gets converted into a puffed-up principle, called 'IP': "Philosophy ought to be practiced to the extent to which that practice may be supposed to result in moral improvement for everyone concerned" (p. 238). This is subjected to a series of refinements and ends in the form: "The obligation to engage actively in elenchus-wielding would seem to be in direct proportion to the likelihood of moral development for interlocutor, audience, and elenchus-wielder, which must in turn be calculated on the basis of a number of interrelated factors, primarily the intellectual ability of the elenchus-wielder in question to employ the elenchus effectively (e.g. demonstrate the inconsistency of inconsistent moral beliefs), and the moral status of the elenchus-wielder" (pp. 243-4). If we had to take this seriously, it would be a proof, I suppose, that no consequentialist could be a disciple of Socrates.