Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.31

Alexander Nehamas, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999.  Pp. xxxvi, 372.  ISBN 0-691-00178-2.  $21.95.  

Reviewed by Lee Perlman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (
Word count: 2981 words

Alexander Nehamas is a sufficiently important Platonic scholar to warrant gathering his work in one place, but this collection of pieces published between 1975 and 1995 is further justified by the development it allows us to glimpse in N.'s thought. That development is the focus of this review. N.'s evolution is precisely the reverse of that he attributes to Plato, a reclaiming of the ironic and mysterious Platonic Socrates from Plato's later metaphysical attempts to create a less ironic Socrates with a positive and universal message.

This movement is adumbrated in the subtitle, which lets us know that N. treats Plato and Socrates as significantly separable personages. The title tells us something of the end of N.'s journey (1). Putting virtue in the plural signals N.'s reversal of the Platonic tendency towards unity of virtues. The Socrates of the early aporetic dialogues presents a picture of operative virtueS that are more compelling and authentic for not having to answer to a falsely universalizing form (2). In attaching virtue to a thoroughly non-platonic term, the title suggests that our modern conception of authenticity, with its roots in existentialist thought, provides a window into Plato. We explore this implication at the end of the review.

The book is divided into four sections: I. "Socrates: Questions of Goodness and Method" in aggregate yields a theory of Socratic character which, while argued precisely and with careful attention to texts, is accessible for a broad range of educated readers; II. "Plato: Questions of Metaphysics and Epistemology" gives the elements of a theory of the forms which is impenetrable to anyone but dedicated Plato scholars; III. "Plato: Questions of Beauty and the Arts" develops the theme that Plato was attacking not art per se, but rather popular entertainment and will interest Plato scholars, aestheticians, and students of popular culture; IV. "Plato: Individual Works," consisting of introductions to particular dialogues, is aimed more at serious beginners in the study of Plato. This review is devoted to a comparison between parts I and II, which will show the development of N.'s thought and highlight the tension between his early and later positions. Since the essays in Part II are earliest, we begin there.

II. Plato: Questions of Metaphysics and Epistemology

Collectively the essays in this section present a cohesive approach to Plato's theory of forms. This is a project in the wake of Vlastos, and most of N.'s points respond to difficulties in self-predication, and then to the difficulties raised in his own attempts to make sense of Platonic self-predication. The elements are the following:

1) Plato's Forms account for the problem of relational or attributive predicates, which N. calls incomplete (primary among these are the moral virtues), rather than complete predicates. The latter, like 'Simmias is a man' do not admit of degree, nor are they true only in relation to something else. As long as Simmias is Simmias, he will be a man, and equally so independent of context or internal changes. But attributive predicates are conditional and relative. 'Simmias is tall' does not imply that as long as he is Simmias he will be tall, nor that in the land of the Brobdingnagians he will remain tall. Complete predicates seem to be instantiated in particular objects, but the relational attributes seem to exist nowhere. Plato of course speaks in numerous places of substantives as having forms (e.g. bed, Rep 597a,d; man and ox, Philebus 15a; fire, Timaeus 56, and perhaps Phaedo 104e), but N. treats these as detours from the real work of the theory of forms.

2) A Form is not a paradigm or exemplar of the quality that the particulars only approximate (147). Particulars are not deficient in the very respect in which they resemble the relevant form. Rather than being imperfect in being approximately what the forms are exactly, N. argues that particulars are perfect copies of the forms, imperfect in being accidentally what the forms are essentially (144,135). They do not participate in a way or to a degree but do so tout court (198).

3) The theory of forms is not a theory of universals, but an "... attempt to explain how predication ... is possible" (xxvii), that is, how one name can properly apply to many things. In this regard 'Socrates participates in Tallness' is not meant as an analysis of the statement Socrates is tall but rather a replacement that allows us to see the relationship between the terms without falling into the error of calling two things of essentially different nature by the same name.

4) Self-predication, that a form F is F (e.g. Beauty is beautiful) does not mean that the form is an F-thing or that it exhibits the quality it defines. Rather, it means that the form is what it is to be F.

5) The self-predication of forms is not a consequence of the theory of forms but rather the definitional prerequisite of such a theory; a condition of adequacy for any definition (179). If the definition of F is not itself F, in the sense of what it is to be F, then it is an inadequate definition. For instance, if it can be shown that standing one's ground is sometimes not courageous, then standing one's ground is not what it is to be courageous. Every form precisely is what it is to be that which the form defines. Every form self-predicates.

6) Self-predication is a fuller version of Parmenides' principle that what is cannot not be. The form of beauty cannot not be beauty; it must be what it is to be beautiful for every occasion in which beauty is present (181). Fully a parmenidean in early and middle periods (188), in his last dialogues Plato commits parricide (Sph 241d3), claiming that being and the other forms, in a sense, are not (199). Accepting the logic of the parmenidean dictum that what is cannot be modified by its opposite, he denies that the sensibles are (also that they are not).

7) While it is the nature of a form to self-predicate, every form does not self-participate. Beauty may be a beautiful thing, but manyness is certainly not a many thing. Participation accounts for properties that something has not on account of its own nature (Sph. 255e5), and therefore, if beauty participates in the beautiful, it does so not by virtue of being what it is to be beautiful (203). Self-participation is a project of the later dialogues. The task of the middle dialogues is to answer Parmenides by showing the full separation of the forms and the particulars. In service of this task, the middle dialogues hold that forms cannot participate in anything, much less themselves. In the later parricide against Parmenides, forms participate in other forms, and in consequence every form is not in some way. But this also provides more senses of being, in consequence of which forms can be the quality they lend to particulars.

Comments: The above elements have a coherence that N. does not elaborate. Certain of his claims suggest or require others in two ways: (1) Some claims entail others. N.'s rejection of the position that each form is an f-thing depends on his argument that particulars are not approximate versions of what Forms are exactly. If particulars approximate the forms, then the forms must be the perfect version of what is approximated. But if particulars are not imperfect versions of precisely what the form is, then the form need no longer take on the role of paradigm thing, and we are free to see the forms in the way that N. proposes, dissolving the third man problem entailed in the paradigm view of self-predication. (2) Some claims solve problems raised by other claims: e.g., while N.'s reformulation of self-predication may save us from, in R.E. Allen's phrase, having to scratch doghood behind the ears, it runs headlong into Platonic statements that certain forms have the very quality that they lend to particulars. This leads N. to claim that some (not all) forms, ARE F-things by virtue of self-participation.

These views are meticulously argued and complex; they invite endless technical questions at the same pace as they provide solutions to specific problems. Below these problematics, though, one wonders, WHAT we are talking about here and therefore what is at stake in accepting or rejecting these assertions. Are we considering real beings, or is this an investigation of the mind or the use of language? Where we place ourselves along the continuum from nominalism to naive metaphysical realism may well determine what is the appropriate way to think about the forms, as well as the meaning of any conclusions we draw about them. If, for instance, N.'s understanding of Plato is entirely nominalist, then his claim that F is F means that F is what it is to be F seems trivial. A proper definition is obviously what it is to be the kind of thing defined. But if there are independently existing Forms, with multiple functions of universal, exemplar, cause of being and knowing, etc., it is much less clear what kind of claim N. is making.

I. Socrates: Questions of Goodness and Method

The following points stand out in the five essays in this section:

1) Socrates is not a teacher (12). He is never shown to have a beneficial effect on anyone. He neither set himself up as someone who knows arete nor as an example of how to live (62). In contrast, Plato became convinced that ... he [Plato] did know what virtue was and undertook to teach it to others (117).

2) Socrates' primary goal is not the benefit of others but rather self-care. At best, Socrates "... fashioned a life of his own, changing the world as he changed himself without trying to impose his views on others..." He is concerned with political community only "...insofar as [his] relationship [to the state] is relevant to his living well." Plato had general and prescriptive interest in moral education and the nature of political community.

3) Only one good human being can recognize another (43), and one cannot recognize a better person independently of being persuaded of that person's moral views... To this end, Socrates is testing himself in public to see if he is good. In contrast, Plato ... radically separates the ability to lead a good life from the ability to recognize one who does (77), making philosophy less fully a way of life.

4) The charge of Socratic Intellectualism has three parts: (a) virtue is identified with knowledge, and therefore the affective side of humans can be ignored; (b) virtue is necessary and sufficient for the good life; and (c) since character does not count in moral improvement, Socrates converses indiscriminately with anyone. N. argues that, since Socrates is not a teacher of arete, this charge has little sting (76). He further argues that the charge is overwrought, since:

5) Both Meno's zetetic circle and Geach's Socratic Fallacy rely on a false claim that Socrates knows nothing at all about important subjects. In calling for definitions, Socrates is not making a general logical or epistemological point... that knowledge of any feature of something requires a definition of that thing (31). Definitions are only required for those features which are essential (32, 52 n22). Specifically, the teachability of virtue is not knowable without knowing what virtue is, but other features might be known without knowing what virtue is. Definition is, however, essential, and a means to answering the most important question, the nature of the good life (35).

6) Sophistry is not distinguished from philosophy by difference of method but by difference of purpose: Socrates seeks the truth (14). But, not having envisaged the existence of the forms,1 the only test of the truth of Socrates' statements is their argumentative success, leaving dialectic indistinguishable from sophistry. N. rejects the suggestion that without the distinction between appearance and reality made available by the theory of forms philosophy is indistinguishable from sophistry but gives no clear distinction between the two.

7) Vlastos' interpretation of Socrates' irony as complex irony is wrong. It is not that Socrates masks what he knows and who he really is with words that both hide and reveal. Rather, Socrates in the early dialogues has no hidden depths (72) -- no hidden views and convictions. Socrates' real story is his ability to give rise to so many diametrically opposed interpretations (98, 102). Plato, starting with Gorgias, tries to disarm Socrates' irony and turn him into a moral teacher (102, 70). N. takes Socrates disavowals of knowledge of the good at face value, acknowledging the consequent mystery of how the ignorant Socrates can be the best man of his time (49).

Comments: Finding Plato's metaphysics unpersuasive (xxxv), N. accounts for the power of Plato through the authenticity of Socrates. Without caring about the deep content of his teaching, we can simply admire the way Socrates' life and his teaching coincide. But it is impossible (as N. sometimes acknowledges) to understand, much less appreciate, even the elenctic Socrates from this subjectivist standpoint. For instance, N. writes that Socrates is admirable only if he acts out of a belief that his principles are true; he can have no other motives (99). But what distinguishes Socrates, in this regard, from Euthyphro? If anything, we should say the opposite, that those who act out of belief as if it were knowledge are precisely not admirable while Socrates is noteworthy precisely in continually questioning the beliefs that happen to belong to others or to himself. We admire Socrates not because he is more authentic than Euthyphro or Callicles; not because he is truer to self than they, but because he is truer to logos. One could argue that we admire Socrates more than Euthyphro precisely because he seems to have less self obstructing the work of logos.2


N. links the various sections by their mutual concern for authenticity: "...the problem of establishing -- in ethics, in metaphysics, and in the philosophy of art -- the difference between what is authentic and what is fake ..." (xxxii). Plato's concern with the distinction between forms and copies is the central instance of his concern for authenticity. In using the word authenticity where a more obviously Platonic word like truth would normally be found, N. is equivocating, playing on the proximity between truth and our common sense notion of, say, an authentic painting, to insinuate a Nietzschean conception of authenticity as playing out what we happen to be (see Phaedrus 262a1-4). Such authenticity is deeply at odds with a claim that there are objective forms which serve as standards for human action. Nietzschean authenticity is only an independent value if objective standards of truth cannot be accessed. If they can, then truth trumps and subsumes authenticity. To declare for authenticity, then, N. must give up the Forms and the interests of Part II. By choosing the theme of authenticity to unite these essays, he in fact divides them and implicitly repudiates the earlier, metaphysical essays.

Our dilemma as readers: we are left wondering why we should read his metaphysical essays -- nearly 40% of the book -- at all. If Plato's theory of the forms is, as N. sometimes suggests, a failed attempt to give a foundation to ethics, working out the fine points of Plato's theory is like trying to give a consistent rendition of the discredited theory of phlogiston. Some discussion of how the early essays are still of value would have been useful.

Perhaps, in a move that is a microcosm of larger movements in 20th century philosophy, the analytic approach of N.'s earlier metaphysical essays leads naturally to a disappointment that resolves in his later subjectivist appreciation of Plato's Socrates. Can we avoid the first, and thereby not be tempted by the second? One might argue that taking seriously the Seventh Letter 341 ff., Phaedrus 275c ff., and correlate passages should lead us to a more complex view of the purpose and limits of decontextualized argument. Reading Plato we cannot help but find ourselves in tension concerning the way humans access truth. Even in the most aporetic dialogues, the refutation of positions based on their lack of comprehensiveness points to the truth as unified, universal, and objective. But the dialogue form, even in the most didactic works, pulls us towards seeing truth as personal, local, elusive, and contextualized. Perhaps the trick is not to choose between these two movements, as N. does oppositely in Sections I and II, but to continually straddle them, seeing each as a corrective of the other. Not entertaining this possibility, N. is reasonably disappointed with Plato as a purveyor of simple objective Truth, and must then explain the power of Plato in terms of Socrates' authenticity, moving from an unjustified assurance in abstracted Platonic argument to inflated focus on Socratic doubt. From neither perspective can we see Plato's challenge to both modernist analyticity and post-modern subjectivism.

This said, these essays are wonderfully and complexly wrought, solid and challenging in insight and scholarship. His arguments are all sharp and show a remarkable meld of breadth of concern and attention to detail. N.'s essays have the Socratic quality of resisting the obvious in Plato scholarship, making them works to contend with, especially for those inclined to so contend. But N. does not much contemplate why the obvious seems obvious, and why Plato would have it so; why for instance, if the third man problem is so cleanly dismissed through proper understanding of F is F claims, Plato does not do so for us. The above comments suggest that N.'s inattention here might result from two opposing forms of under-appreciation of the dialogues, as philosophical literary works and as provocatives meant to place us very precisely in dilemmas which demand solution but which cannot be neatly solved on our behalf.


1.   Rep 537e-540a suggests that without the forms all disputation is sophistic (118).
2.   Cf. Tht. 168a5 for philosophy as a flight from oneself.

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