Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.06.25

Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 187.  ISBN 0-195-11684-4.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Department of Philosophy, Clark University (
Word count: 2504 words

Roslyn Weiss' project in Socrates Dissatisfied may be understood as the attempt to carry out as regards Socratic political philosophy what Gregory Vlastos, in his influential essay, "Socratic Piety",1 had attempted to carry out, as regards Socratic religion. At Crito 46b4-6 Plato has Socrates assert, "I, not only now but always, am such as to obey nothing else of what is my own than that logos which appears best to me upon reasoning." Vlastos argued, famously, that the passage affirms a radical principle of autonomy, which might be expressed as follows:

(PA): Each person should obey only his own best opinion as to what he ought to do.
No one who accepted PA could countenance any real authority of another person over himself: to act as another person says you should act, only when doing so coincides with what you would have decided to do on your own, is not to obey him, sc. to act because he says so. If Socrates accepted PA, then, he could not have countenanced any real authority of another person, or of a divinity, over himself. Thus it becomes Vlastos' project to explain away those passages in which it seems that Socrates treats an oracle, dream, or divine sign as authoritative. For instance, when Socrates says that his life is spent at the service of the god of Delphi (Apol. 34-8), what he really means is that he has devoted his life to being as reasonable as possible. Vlastos' arguments are strained, and his position is ultimately unconvincing.2

Weiss similarly takes Crito 46b4-6 to assert what might be called a Modified Principle of Autonomy:

(MPA): Each person should obey only his own best opinion as to what he should do, except in those matters in which the opinion of an expert is available, in which case he should defer to the expert.
The modification is necessary because, in the passage immediately following 46b4-6, Socrates urges precisely that one ought to follow the opinion of an expert, whenever that is available. But if we ascribe MPA to Socrates, then he cannot consistently be taken to accept what the Laws are arguing for in their speeches in the Crito. The Laws argue that a child should obey his parents (and ancestors generally, and the laws of his city), even when he disagrees with them, and this on account of the benefits he has received from them, not on account of any particular expertise they may have. They also argue that a man should follow through on something he had previously agreed upon, even if that action is not something that he would otherwise have concluded was correct to do, apart from that agreement. Both of these positions are inconsistent with MPA. Thus Weiss argues that the speeches of the Laws do not represent Socrates' views.

Moreover, if they do not, and if Socrates is indeed convinced that he should not escape from prison, then his grounds must be other than those articulated by the Laws. Thus it is another project of Weiss to show that Socrates presents his reasons for remaining in prison by line 50a4 in the dialogue, before the Laws begin their speeches.

Finally, if the Laws neither represent Socrates nor give his reasons for staying in prison, then some function must be found for their lengthy interventions in the dialogue. Thus Weiss argues that they are meant to express fundamentally unphilosophical considerations, aimed at convincing Crito, himself an unphilosophical character: not everyone can understand or accept the bracing autonomy of reason defended by Socrates; those who cannot, such as Crito, must be persuaded by appeals to what they do accept, viz. authority, tradition, family, loyalty, and piety in the fullest sense.

The book is admirable and praiseworthy for its intensely argumentative character. Weiss has got a bold thesis, and she argues for it skillfully and with extreme tenacity. Nonetheless, her interpretation would appear to be unsound. I shall state some more general criticisms before looking at particular arguments.

There is little reason, first of all, to attribute MPA to Socrates. The principle is on its face unattractive and perplexing: Why should deference to an expert be consistent with radical autonomy, but not deference to other authorities? Moreover, if Socrates holds to MPA, then he does so, it seems, without ever arguing for it, and thus his holding MPA would itself be a violation of MPA. Furthermore, although Weiss regards MPA as the position adopted by Socrates in the Apology so that she conceives of her interpretation as showing that the Socrates of the Crito is really the same as the Socrates of the Apology, in fact the Apology seems to point in the opposite direction: there Socrates represents himself to the jury as a man entirely subject to the command of a god, revealed to him through an oracle. Weiss' discussion of the Apology in her first chapter effectively concedes this point, since she in no way shows that Socrates in that dialogue holds MPA; she merely argues, not plausibly, that various passages that might seem to count against it (and there are several) admit of being interpreted in another sense: for instance, she asserts that Socrates' talk of his daimonion can be seen as only a colorful way of referring to his own better judgment (19).3

Even Crito 46b4-6 seems not to espouse MPA. The passage naturally takes a more mundane sense. Crito has been pleading with Socrates, trying to coax him into escaping from prison. He evidently believes that the mere fact that a friend is urging him to adopt a course of action should be reason enough for Socrates to capitulate: presumably this is why Crito punctuates his argument twice with "do what I say" (peÛyou moi , 45a3, 46a9). Furthermore, Crito might suspect that any man, even Socrates, would become frightened, and that his devotion to abstract principles would waver as his execution drew closer and seemed a concrete reality. Socrates, however, insists he will not change his mind on such grounds. He will not simply accede to Crito's wishes, although he is a friend (hence the qualification "I am such as to obey nothing else of what is my own"); he will not allow himself to make up his mind because of an emotion such as fear (hence he refers to "the logos that appears best to me upon reasoning"); and he will not alter his resolve on account of something so accidental and subjective as a change in his own circumstances (hence he says that he is this sort of man "not only now but always"). Hence, Crito will have to engage him in philosophical discussion, if he hopes to persuade him; and this is in fact what ensues. The passage contains exactly what it needs to contain, given the context. Without further argument, we have no reason to understand it as saying anything as grand and as controversial as MPA.

If Socrates held MPA and advocated it in the presence of the young men who followed him, then, if we furthermore assume, as seems right, that Socrates believed that the parents of those young men were not experts at childrearing, and that Athenian lawgivers and administrators were not experts in politics, it would follow that Socrates was effectively teaching those around him that they need not obey their elders or the law. That is, the indictment against Socrates, that he was corrupting youths and was himself impious, would be substantially correct. But my concern here is not with Socrates so much as with Plato and his intentions. On Weiss' interpretation of the Crito, Plato would be aware that his character was the sort of man who was in fact guilty as charged. Yet then how would it not be duplicitous for him to write dialogues which passionately portray Socrates as an unjustly convicted innocent? Indeed, why should he have written the apologetic dialogues at all? On the usual understanding, the Crito is at least part of a coherent picture: the dialogue continues the apologetic of the Apology by showing Socrates as respecting the claims of the city and the weight of his promises even unto death, when he might easily have done otherwise and with some semblance of justification.

Weiss' general strategy of argument is broadly Straussian, insofar as she makes a distinction between the surface and hidden meaning of the text and regards the hidden meaning as something indicated by slight details of language or action. On the surface, Plato presents Socrates as deferential to elders and political authorities; in reality, Socrates regarded these as in themselves incapable of making any claim to be obeyed. The surface meaning is intended for those readers of the dialogue who, like Crito, can be satisfied with it; it would not strictly deceive, since it contains indications enough, discernible to the intelligent, that Plato's real meaning is something different.

The chief problem with this mode of interpretation, of course, is that it risks inverting the usual standard for inductive reasoning and taking the lesser evidence to have more weight than the greater. But Weiss' particular applications of it are additionally unpersuasive. For example, she says that Plato's use of δούλος at 50e3, and of θωπεύειν at 51b3, are meant to indicate Socrates' distance from the viewpoint of the Laws: "When you were born and nourished and educated, would not you say, first of all, that you were both our offspring and slave (δούλος), you and your ancestors?" (50e2-3); "Are you so wise that you have lost sight of the fact that you ought to revere your fatherland, and to submit to it and placate (θωπεύειν) it, when it is angry with you, even more than you would your father?" (51a4-3). She takes the first to be an obvious overstatement, which by implication makes the Laws into tyrannical overseers who are not satisfied with anything less than the slavish obedience due to slave-holders. The second, she says, has the Laws requiring precisely the sort of fawning, flattering appeal to the emotions that Socrates explicitly rejected in his trial, when he refused to haul his children and relatives into court to gain the jurors' sympathy.

True, the texts admit of being understood in that way. But why is it best to take them so? Free children and slaves were similarly restricted in what they were allowed to do in Greek households, to the extent that the children were not yet educated (cp. Lysis 207e-210d) -- and the text mentions even the earliest type of education.4 And although θωπεύειν typically means 'to wheedle, to flatter', as LSJ have it, the word can also have a more muted sense, as it must have here, since it is used in the context to refer also to the attitude that a son properly has toward erring parents. In any case, even if, as seems right, both passages are meant to indicate some distancing of the Laws' viewpoint from Socrates, still, this falls far short of what Weiss needs. We would expect Plato to portray the Laws and Socrates as not entirely in harmony; after all, Socrates does have a self-interest distinct from what is required of him by the laws. Moreover, if Plato's point is that Socrates needs to honor the Laws just as one would need to honor a misguided parent, why not have the Laws posture a bit and bully? We can say all this and not yet say that Socrates does not agree with the Laws' basic argument or their conclusion.

Again, Weiss interprets Crito's arguments as unphilosophical and merely 'conventional': "he cares about and believes one ought to care about what most people care about; Crito's attempt to persuade Socrates to escape from prison turns on three central considerations: money, reputation, and family" (43) and, therefore, not on virtue and the welfare of one's soul, which would be Socrates' main concerns. As we saw, Weiss then argues that such an unphilosophical interlocutor is helped best by an unphilosophical response, which the speeches of the Laws are designed to provide. Yet, as before, although Crito's position admits of being interpreted thus, it need not be, and it is not most naturally so interpreted. Crito's four reasons for escape all have to do with the welfare of persons other than Socrates: (i) Socrates' friends will suffer the great loss of a good friend; (ii) Socrates' friends will acquire a bad reputation, as not making the sacrifice required to get him out of prison; (iii) once they have a bad reputation, they are likely to be dealt with badly by the Athenians, as was Socrates, on account of his own bad reputation; and (iv) Socrates' children will suffer from the loss of their father and his care. Of course, Socrates' deliberations and pleadings in the Apology took into account principally his own welfare: he was the one on trial, after all. It would not be 'conventional' but rather clever and reasonable for Crito to hope that Socrates might be swayed if his attention could be directed to others, on the grounds that supererogatory heroism by its nature cannot be inflicted upon others.

Weiss typically thinks it enough to establish the weaker claim, that a text, or group of texts, is consistent with Socrates' holding MPA, when what she really needs to argue for is the stronger claim, that the text, or group of texts, can be explained only on her interpretation, or is explained better on her interpretation than on alternative interpretations. Presumably she thinks that an interpretation that ascribes MPA, and a viewpoint generally consistent with MPA, to Socrates is preferable to one that does not: thus, in showing that there is a sustained reading of the Crito consistent with MPA, she will have shown that that reading is most preferable.

As was mentioned, Weiss does not think that the Laws articulate Socrates' own reasons for not escaping from prison; she maintains that these are given by 50a4 in the dialogue. Briefly, her view is that Socrates thinks it wrong to do anything unjust; but he could not escape from prison without bribing the jailer and wearing deceptive disguises, and since these are inherently unjust nothing more need be said. Yet this is clearly inadequate: the justice or injustice of giving a jailor money in exchange for one's freedom and donning disguises depends completely upon the injustice or justice of the imprisonment, and Socrates says nothing as regards the latter before 50a4.

It is difficult to convey in a brief review the wide scope and great detail of Weiss' argumentative resourcefulness. Yet, as admirable as this is, in my view the book contains hardly a single reliable result. Weiss seems to exercise her ingenuity in defending what is not simply unconventional, unorthodox and non-traditional, but also false. Yet the book will likely lead to much good nonetheless, from the example it sets in aiming to satisfy rather high standards of argument and from the carefulness in reading the Crito that it must elicit from anyone who wishes reasonably to disagree.


1.   In G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, The Townsend Lectures, volume L. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991, 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.
2.   Cf. Mark L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) and the review of the same by Michael Pakaluk in BMCR 97.12.11.
3.   We get some ridiculous results by the application of Weiss' theory of the daimonion. For instance, Socrates reasons at his trial that death must not be such a bad thing, and thus he should not be disturbed by the prospect of death, because his daimonion did not try to prevent him from going to the trial. On Weiss' theory, since the daimonion is merely Socrates' own best judgment personified, what Socrates means is something like, "I am not really agitated in facing death; thus, death must not be such a bad thing", which reverses the proper order of justification.
4.   The argument implicit in the Laws' use of δούλος would be something like: "It is our care that at first liberated you from a condition akin to servitude, when through us you received instruction and acquired the character of a free man. Do not think, then, that your freedom can be used now to destroy us, or that it has no just limits."

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