Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.10.11

Mark L. McPherran (ed.), Wisdom, Ignorance, and Virtue: New essays in Socratic Studies. Apeiron vol. XXX, no.4.   Edmonton:  Academic Printing and Publishing, 1997.  ISBN 0003-6390.  $24.95.  

Contributors: Hugh H. Benson, Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Lloyd P. Gerson, Daniel W. Graham, Scott LaBarge, Hope E. May, Mark L. McPherran, William J. Prior, Voula Tsouna, and Charles M. Young

Reviewed by Jacques A. Bailly, The University of Vermont
Word count: 2664 words

Philosophy, not philology, informs this volume, which is in the vein of Gregory Vlastos' works, and requires little to no Greek knowledge of the reader. The Socrates is Plato's, mostly ignoring questions of historical accuracy (Prior's essay is an exception). Arising from the Arizona Colloquium on Socrates (1996), several of the articles are works in progress or parts of larger projects. Clarity and brevity are its strengths, not scholarly completeness (although McPherran, Brickhouse and Smith, and Tsouna are good): the bibliographies are simply works cited and relevant work is frequently ignored (with exceptions already noted).1

"Socrates' Absolutist Prohibition of Wrongdoing," by Lloyd P. Gerson (G.), explores the principle that "one ought never to do wrong" (Crito 49b7). Many would claim that the harm to her soul will not dissuade the atheist about to die tomorrow from a wrong tremendously gratifying to her body, if she now thinks her desires more important than her soul's health. G. believes, however, that Socrates would say she not only harms her soul, but her self, for soul is self.2 She might, however, still think gratifying immediate bodily desire more important than caring for her self when faced with death or other extremes, but G. does not address that possibility. Borrowing from the Republic's tripartite soul, which G. thinks applicable mutatis mutandis to early dialogues, G. identifies the self with the soul's ruling part. It is not clear why speaking of "self" improves on "soul" or "rational part," or why G.'s "self" is better than Vlastos' (1991, 198) "you": "If an act of yours will wrong another, then it is bad for you, the agent, so bad that no other good it offers could compensate you for its evil for you" (my italics)? G. needs more argument here.

Identifying soul with self, G. holds, also supports Socrates' paradoxically simultaneously asserting the impossibility of and forbidding voluntary wrongdoing.3 Akrasia is impossible (I cannot act against my own good as I see it), but if I have not determined my true, objective good, I can act voluntarily and wrongly not realizing all wrong is bad for me (not akrasia). G. explains that I really can do a voluntary wrong (akrasia) if I make reason (my self?) abdicate its ruling role, which inevitably involves self-deconstruction. If a self deconstructs, whatever enjoys the wrongdoing's benefits will not be the prior self. To justify absolute prohibition of wrongdoing, however, Socrates needs irreversible self-deconstruction, otherwise a wrongdoer could reconstruct her self and enjoy the wrong's benefit later. G. does not explain why such reconstruction cannot occur.4

"First Principles of Socratic Ethics," by Charles M. Young (Y.), argues that an implausible version of a "Self-Interest Theory" underlies Socrates' absolute probition of wrongdoing. In the essay's best part, Y. capably analyzes the claims, based on text citations, which logically lead to the absolutist prohibition. That Socrates claims that one should choose bodily harm over injustice and that this leads to apparent implausibilities is uncontroversial and obvious; witness the Crito, which explores just these issues. Y. nonetheless concludes with a hypothetical case leading to supposedly greater implausibility: A young Socrates faces either lifelong physical agony or escape from prison and the harm escaping will do his soul. Y. rightly says even that situation wouldn't change Socrates' decision, and concludes that Socrates' ethics are implausible. That the position is implausible to us ought to spur investigation rather than vitiate the position.5 Although Y. says (n. 7) that it would be interesting to compare his analysis to those of Vlastos and Gómez-Lobo, he does not say why, nor does he do any of that interesting work himself, or even give the barest sketch of what would result.

"What Socrates Knew," by Daniel W. Graham (G.), tries to crack an old nut -- 1) Socrates knows nothing; 2) virtue is knowledge; 3) Socrates is virtuous -- by explaining one way to resolve the incompatibility, viz., allowing Socrates one bit of knowledge (of his own ignorance). Complete neglect of other scholars' work should have been acknowledged and explained. This is, however, an admirably brief, clear introduction to a well-known problem and to the passages which provoke it.6

"Socratic Ignorance and the Therapeutic Aim of the Elenchos," by Hope E. May (M.), reassesses the definitional elenchos, in which, M. says "Socrates is showing that his interlocutor is unable to provide a definition that completely accords with the interlocutor's own beliefs about the definiendum. When used in this way, the elenchos proceeds by revealing a form of ignorance that is radically different from ignorance qua inconsistent beliefs." (38; M.'s italics, my underlining). M. justifies a radical difference between the received view of the elenchos, which involves "propositional inconsistency," and her proposed "scope inconsistency" by claiming that definitions involve properties having extensions, not sentential truth values. Definitions, however, usually come in propositions (even M.'s example (P41), "Tablehood is having four legs and a flat surface," is inconsistent both propositionally and extensionally).7 Socrates' actual elenchos of definitions supposedly does not reject the definition's entire content, and that, M. holds, differentiates it from the "received view." A counter-example to M. is Euthyphro's definition of piety as "What is dear to the gods is the holy, what is not dear, the unholy" at Euthyphro 7a.8 The definition is clearly formally correct, but wrong, and not because of its scope. According to M., interlocutors must jettison propositions wholly, because they are either true or false, but they are free to adjust scope or extension. And yet adjusting a property's extension also rejects the old and replaces it. Why ignorance exposed by inconsistency cannot be redressed by paths other than a total extirpation of beliefs, for example by modifying beliefs, is unclear, but M. clearly believes it cannot (44-45). Reducing scope ignorance via elenchos does not, according to M., involve rejecting beliefs, but rather sharpening the interlocutor's ability to express the beliefs already held. That seems wrong, for Socrates' elenchos is said to demonstrate interlocutors' ignorance in the Apology, not their inability to express viable knowledge or beliefs, and it appears to reveal ignorance in the other dialogues too, and only secondarily to reveal inability to express thought.9

"Socrates and the Recognition of Experts," by Scott Labarge (L.), addresses renowned questions in the Charmides, but does not sufficiently cite or discuss the central passages (Charmides 171-172). Woodruff's (1990)10 suggestion that Socrates' implicit "epistemology" recognizes "common knowledge" (what you and I have about, e.g., modern medicine), helps answer L.'s central questions: common knowledge helps non-experts know that experts know and what they know (common medicinal knowledge helps us judge whether our doctor is a real and a good doctor). Common knowledge, broadly speaking, solves the problems of recognition of experts and their expertise's object, but Plato or Socrates might disagree, and the resulting version of temperance would still be faulty even if they did not, as Voula Tsouna's following essay shows. Where Woodruff carefully acknowledged constructing an implicit Socratic epistemology, L. thinks such speculation identifies Plato's solution, since he concludes: "Given that we all live in a world where we have to depend every day on those who possess expertise which we lack, it is comforting to know that we have Plato's assurance that such ignorance need not be paralyzing." That L.'s solution might satisfy Plato's Socrates as a partial repair to Critias' position is the most we can claim.11

"Socrates' Attack on Intellectualism in the Charmides," by Voula Tsouna (T.) reassesses the Charmides. The first section shows that Critias is complex -- smart, but with failings: neither altogether bad nor good, despite scholarly tendencies to classify him simply. Secondly, T. briefly discusses Charmides' intellectualism. Finally, she distinguishes Critias' beliefs from Socrates', claiming that Critias' notion of virtue is inconsistent and exhibits misguided intellectualism. The first is the most successful section, the third the most interesting. T. twice (64 and 72) claims in the third section that she will limit her discussion to four issues where Critias apparently holds Socratic positions, but she does not clearly or explicitly discuss them in the subsequent discussion. She does, however, explain that Critias' definition of temperance slips from self-knowledge to "science of sciences" and that its flaw lies in making temperance ethically neutral: Critias thinks knowledge of good and evil merely a science subordinate to temperance. (Socrates holds the science of good and evil most important, not subordinate.) Interestingly, she claims that Critias never defined temperance as knowledge of good and evil. He only said that knowledge of good and evil is the kind that would bring happiness. T. also claims that Socrates has self-knowledge, which enables him to identify moral knowledge in himself and other people (73-4). T. does not, however, consider the fact that Socratic self-knowledge is severely limited: he only knows that he does not have moral knowledge. The elenchos identifies moral knowledge in others. His knowledge of his ignorance does not do that, and it is unclear why elenchos-wielders must be temperate.12

"Socratic Dynamic Theory: a Sketch," by Hugh H. Benson (B.), is an ongoing project on the term dunamis in Platonic Socratic philosophy. B.'s project outlines what a thorough investigation of the term would look like. B. is particularly helpful in analyzing precisely what we can safely say about the term and where the borders and grey areas of Plato's Socrates' thought lie. The article is for philosophers and philologists working on this area, but not others, as B. spends little time explaining why there should be interest in the subject and what larger problems and developments it relates to or resolves.13

"The Problem of Punishment in Socratic Philosophy," by Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith (B), asks why Socrates approves of corporal punishments given his belief that no one does wrong willingly, his belief that harm should never be returned for harm, and his intellectualism. B show that such punishments can be educational in a way compatible with Socratic intellectualism, and that even when they are not educational, they may still be required.

B begin by explaining Socratic intellectualism, in line with their 1994 book, 85-102, then they explore what harm is. Punishments preventing further wrongdoing, such as imprisonment, are fine. Those which do not do so have traditionally been justified by a theory of motivation put forward in Socrates' discussion with Callicles in the Gorgias, where in addition to the desire for benefit, the desire for pleasure is held to motivate. B reject the claim that pleasure as an independent motivator can explain such punishments, and they reject the claim itself that the Gorgias includes pleasure as an independent motivator. They point out that many punishments often explained by a pleasure motive occur earlier than the Gorgias. Thus they must explain, e.g., whipping, without any motivation other than desire for benefit. They claim that certain wrongdoers act thinking that worldly goods can trump moral goodness. Such wrongdoers can justifiably be, e.g., whipped, to disconnect wrongdoing from its perceived benefit. Whipping severs the connection by giving the wrongdoer the opposite of what was sought, and so wrongdoing becomes less attractive. That depends on the wrongdoer thinking that the wrongdoing itself, not "getting caught," caused his punishment. Thus it assumes not only an intellectualist wrongdoer, as B admit, but also one who thinks the police perfect. The punishment, as B go on to claim, severs the bad connection without creating the right one: it is incomplete, but beneficial. B then speculate that Socrates holds that the experience of some vices' pleasures causes one to think that the pleasures are good and hinders rational thought about one's good, which explains Socrates' comparison of vice to disease and why some vice is incurable. Such vice is false belief that is not open to reason, but is vulnerable to corporal punishment. The punishment of vice which is egregious and highly ingrained, however, only benefiting by deterring others. Thus corporal punishments are justified in Plato as "a necessary feature of the human condition."14

"Why did Plato Write Socratic Dialogues?" by William J. Prior (P.), sketches out an alternative to the view that Plato's writings exhibit his development from Socrates' disciple to independent philosopher. P. briefly rehearses Kahn's destructive argument against the standard view. Here is not the place to quarrel with it since P. does not add to it. P. discusses dialogues in which Socrates figures as a character.

P. starts by observing that Socrates is the type of the philosopher wherever he is the main character, and concludes that "Plato intended to portray Socrates as the exemplification of the philosophical life.... we need not even ask the historical question whether a particular doctrine or argument represents the view of the historical Socrates." But portraying Socrates as the type of the philosopher may not exhaust Plato's reasons for casting Socrates. Philosophers philosophize about some content in a certain manner. It is a slippery slope from minimally admitting that Plato used Socrates as the philosopher to maximally claiming that Plato portrayed Socrates faithfully, methods and material included. P. puts no blocks on that slope.

Next P. claims that the dialogues present unhappy encounters between the philosopher and others, and concludes that philosophers' and non-philosophers' lives are incompatible. Consider, however, the Protagoras, the Gorgias, and the Charmides, whose characters hold interesting philosophical positions with which Socrates differs.

Finally, P. suggests that Plato wanted to show either the philosophical life's superiority (the Republic) or that it is the only life worth living (the Apology). But Plato shows the superiority of Socrates' philosophical life. If Plato chose to use Socrates as his type of the philosopher, and put a philosophy superior to other philosophies, including Socrates' own, into his mouth, then the historical Socrates may not be the type of the philosopher after all.

"Recognizing the Gods of Socrates," by Mark L. McPherran (M.), explores "whether Socrates was guilty in some form of the nonrecognition charge." It is also section 3.4.4ff. of his The Religion of Socrates. M. rightly explores the issue despite Meletus' interpretation of the charges as atheism. The jury considered Socrates' religious beliefs relevant, perhaps decisive. We might add that the issue of whether and what sort of gods Socrates recognized is important in itself.

M. thinks Socrates' various oaths and functions amply demonstrate that he thought the gods of Athens existed and paid attention to humans. In asking whether Socrates fulfilled the basic requirements of the concept of "recognizing the gods of the city," the key point for M. is whether Socrates accepted gods with a do ut des cult. Socrates rejected such gods, for he held the gods to be perfectly wise and moral and so immune to sacrifice (not necessarily performed by the virtuous for virtuous reasons). M. rightly rejects those who, like Vlastos, think that Socrates' rejecting most myths about the gods offended Athenian religious sensibilities enough to justify the charges. By rejecting the lex talionis and the motivations underlying do ut des and by insisting on self-exploring as service to the gods, however, he transformed the purpose of, the motivation for, and the rewards of traditional cult, and that justifies the nonrecognition charge in some form. Socrates can, nonetheless, claim to believe in Athens' gods as he does at Apology 35c7-d7, since he can claim that Athenians would themselves agree with him if enough time were given to discuss it. Since Socrates believes in thoroughly moral gods, he can justifiably claim that he believes in the gods in a way superior to his accusers. In concluding this excellent essay, M. wisely both refrains from claiming that many jurors will have seen all this and so voted against Socrates, and emphasizes that western thought did take Socrates' nonrecognition of the gods and its theological ramifications seriously.

Overall, there is much of interest in the volume, and some excellent material, but one may question the usefulness of publishing a separate volume with essays in varying stages of completion, one of which is already published, and several of which will go through further revision prior to attempts to publish them elsewhere.


1.   Platonic references were checked more thoroughly than those to other authors or scholarship. Mistakes are listed in footnotes at the end of each essay's review. Absence of a footnote indicates that nothing was found to remark about.
2.   Comprehensive treatments of Socratic ethics neglect the equation between self and soul, according to Gerson. Since it is not apparent what is gained by talking of "self" rather than using "agent," "character," "person," "one-," "him-," or "her-self," or "themselves" which are greatly used in discussions of early dialogues, or "the rational part" vel sim. which is used in discussions of the tripartite soul, it is not clear that the issues themselves are ignored. Furthermore, Julia Annas, in "Self-knowledge in Early Plato," (in Platonic Investigations, Dominic J. O'Meara, ed., 1985,) has noticed and analysed ethical aspects of the equation of self and soul in early Plato and ought to have been mentioned. A thorough-going philological look at the Platonic ways to speak of self and soul and person might be helpful. Of course, the equation of the self and the soul is familiar from the Alcibiades I, as Gerson points out, but also from the middle dialogues (Phaedo esp., which Gerson does not mention).
3.   Gerson says very little notice has been taken of the paradox: A.D. Woozley, (Law and Obedience: Plato's Crito, Duckworth, 1979, 21-22) explained the paradox along lines similar to Gerson's: "lacking the knowledge of justice he (the wrongdoer) might not believe that performing the act would be bad for himself..."
4.   I have two problems with evidence: on 7, Chrm 167a1-7 does not support the self-soul identification without further argument, and it is not apparently implicit in Ap 30c9-d1 either; in note 10, the citations only support the possibility of voluntary wrongdoing as a belief which Socrates does not necessarily endorse, not as his considered view. In note 3, 4, and 5, "1971" should be "1991."
5.   The translator of quoted passages is not identified. On 13, "c8-d3" should be "48d3-6"; on 14, "47d6-7" should be "47e7-8a2"; in note 3, it should be noted that Socrates not only conflates propositions B1 and B2, but also S1 and S2 as well.
6.   The translator of quoted passages is not identified. A minor item: the method of citing Plato is at times imprecise and erratic, varying from precise line numbers to mere Stephanus page numbers. On 31, "32c-3" should be "32c-d."
7.   At Gg 450d3-e2 Socrates does not admit that propositional inconsistency is not the point of definitional elenchoi: rather it shows him charitably giving Gorgias the benefit of the doubt about a clear inconsistency. Surely Gorgias would not consider arithmetic rhetoric, since that would result in inconsistency? Giving Gorgias the benefit of the doubt makes the point as well as rubbing his nose in it, and is more polite to a grand old man.
8.   The example is taken from Gerasimos X. Santas, Socrates (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), who says the definition is rejected on the basis of its contradiction with other views which the interlocutor holds but is unwilling to give up (98). He identifies another group of definitions which are rejected because they are too broad or too narrow.
9.  The translator of quoted passages is not identified. On 37, "Gorgias 521a2-5" should be "Gorgias 457c4-d1" as at the end of the essay correctly; on 40, "450d3-e2" should be "450d4-e9"; in note 14, Meno 86c6-d4 and Lysis 223a4-8 do not support the point that the elenchos reveals scope ignorance, and appear inaccurate; on 46, "488a2-9a7" should be "488e7-9a7"; on 46, the quotation is missing material between "mean." and "Once again...." The use of "paragnomic" without a definition is off-putting.
10.   Paul Woodruff, "Plato's Early Theory of Knowledge," in Stephen Everson, ed., "Epistemology," Cambridge, 1990.
11.   The translator of quoted passages is not identified. A minor note: passages are cited by Stephanus page and letter, except one lone precise line number citation on p. 58: it would be nice if they all were precise. On 58, Grg 506a does not show Socrates claiming to know something.
12.   The translator of quoted passages is not identified. Citations of Plato are by Stephanus page and letter, where more precision would be helpful. On 66, "154d" should be "154e" and "157a" should be "157c."
13.   On 86, "I look at like this" should be "I look at it like this" in the translated passage. I miss mention of Hi. Mi. 375d8f. Absent from the bibliography is J. Souilhé's monograph on the term dunamis in Plato.
14.   The translator on 105-6 is not identified. On 96, Ap 29b7-9, 37a5-6, and 37b2-5 do not self-evidently say that one ought not to return harm for harm (repeated on 97); on 100, Euthphr 9a1-3 and 9c2-4 do not mention punishments ill-suited to intellectualism; perhaps this would be better: on 103, B. claim that Gg. 480b2 mentions an "ingrained" (ἀνίατον) vice, but ἀνίατον (incurable) refers to the soul, not vice; the word which may be translated "ingrained" is ἐγχρονισθέν (480b1) (the argument is not affected by this correction).

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