Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.22

John Beversluis, Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato's Early Dialogues.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. xii, 416.  ISBN 0-521-55058-0.  $69.95.  

Reviewed by Carol Poster, English Department, Montana State University/Tanner Humanities Center, University of Utah (
Word count: 3043 words

Cross-Examining Socrates (hereafter CES) presents close readings of nine of Plato's early and early middle dialogues (Crito, Ion, Hippias Minor, Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Republic I, Protagoras, Gorgias), focusing on explicating and defending the arguments of Socrates' interlocutors. While the interpretive choices Beversluis (hereafter B.) has made and the conclusions he has reached will not gain assent from all scholars, this book is highly original, well-written, and worth reading not only for specialists in Platonic studies but also for anyone interested in the relationships among argumentation, education, conviction, and character. B.'s account of how and why the Socratic conversations fail not only to persuade but also to improve the souls of their hearers can illuminate not only ancient but also modern failures of communication in both classroom and broader social contexts.

Like all Platonic commentators, B. enters into a complex and fragmented scholarly discussion, marked in recent years by extreme Balkanization. The various schools of Platonic interpretation do not so much argue from shared premises about diverse readings of Plato as make assumptions so diverse that they either find themselves arguing about grounds for interpretation or going about the process of interpretation by simply granting as unquestioned premises the assumptions underlying their approaches. B. is no exception to this practice. B. mounts a sustained challenge to the assumption that Socrates always has better arguments than his interlocutors but takes as given the chronology of the Platonic dialogues, the historicity of the early dialogues, and the notion that correctness of argument can be judged ahistorically. Although none of these assumptions, individually or together, vitiates his nuanced and perceptive readings of individual dialogues, how readers will respond to his work will depend, to some extent, on the degree to which they share his assumptions. Thus, before discussing individual chapters, I will give a brief summary of the presuppositions underlying B.'s specific interpretations.

In his preface, B. acknowledges a debt to Vlastos which is apparent throughout the volume. He accepts, following Vlastos, that there is a distinct, agreed upon, and interpretively significant standard chronology of composition for Platonic dialogues, beginning with early "Socratic" dialogues containing portraits of an historical Socrates (oddly in discussion with quasi-fictional interlocutors).1 Plato's Gorgias, for B., marks a transition between the historical and the Platonic Socrates, one which B. emphasizes by use of scare quotes for the Platonic, but not the early, "Socrates". B. does not practice dramatic interpretation (7). He normally explicates arguments and intentions in Platonic dialogues as discussions among characters who, although removed from historical context (B. only superficially discusses non-Platonic evidence concerning them), act as people rather than literary devices. He also assumes that despite having equally written the lines for both Socrates and interlocutors Plato "greatly overestimates the arguments he puts in the mouth of Socrates" (13), without showing how, in the absence of Plato speaking in propria persona, it is possible to determine whether faulty arguments, in the mouths of Socrates or his interlocutors, are Platonic mistakes or Platonic intentions, something which proponents of strong dramatic reading (e.g. Arieti)2 would find problematic. While I do not think B. should be faulted for using these assumptions as starting point--to address every controversy in Platonic interpretation, B. would have needed to write a substantial multi-volume work and perhaps never gotten to the quite valuable exegetical points he does make in the volume he did write--there are places where these assumptions, bracketed by B. as preinterpretive, can prove obstacles, albeit not necessarily fatal ones, to his argument.

B.'s Introduction describes the "standard view" of "Socrates," whom he defines as the "Socrates of Plato's early dialogues" (1), as one who "relentlessly examines his interlocutors, only to discover that they are bankrupt about moral matters" (1), and who, even after being reduced to aporia, are notable for "their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the cogency of Socrates' criticism and by their tendency to return to the workaday world unchanged" (2). This model, B. claims (correctly, in my opinion), is overly simplistic, and relies too heavily on uncritical acceptance of Socrates' own Apology. The task of CES is to disprove the standard view of the relationship between Socrates and his interlocutors by performing close readings and analyses of the arguments actually made by the dramatis personae, showing which are valid and which are easily refuted, with B. tripping up Socrates with much of the same intelligence, mercilessness, and humor that Socrates himself uses on his hapless interlocutors. The sheer cleverness of the refutations and liveliness of the prose make for pleasant as well as informative reading.

After a rather perfunctory discussion of the dialogue form, B. introduces the interlocutors of the early dialogues (Chapter 1). He points out that despite Socrates' constant references to craftspeople and the later Platonic notion of philosophy as a specialized pursuit of the wise, the interlocutors themselves are the wealthy male elite of Athens and fall into three categories: "young men, established professionals (Nicias and Laches are generals, Polus is a rhetorician, Euthyphro is a theologian, Ion a rhapsode, and Gorgias, Protagoras and Hippias are sophists), or prosperous employers of manual laborers" (29). This categorization is typical of the virtues and faults of the succeeding arguments. On the one hand, it is clear, memorable, and useful for furthering B's point; on the other hand, it is perilously close to being anachronistic. The evidence for a distinct concept of professionalism in Socratic Athens is uncertain.3 Euthyphro was not a theologian, but a gentleman mantic. The "professions" of sophists and rhetorician were nascent rather than fully formed--Gorgias could as well have been described as a diplomat and physiologos and Hippias as an astronomer.

The interlocutors, B. says, are "lured into discussion--often on false pretenses" (31) and far from being called upon to participate in open and balanced intellectual inquiry, actually are programmatically manipulated into affirming positions they do not hold, confronted with fallacious arguments to which they are not allowed to respond, and systematically humiliated. The principles of sincere assent (Socrates' stipulation that interlocutors must only say what they actually believe), following the argument where it itself leads in disinterested pursuit of truth, and insistence on dialogue and dialectic rather than long speeches, are routinely violated by Socrates. Interlocutors are not refuted from their own beliefs, but instead led into positions which Socrates can refute. Often the positions refuted by Socrates in one dialogue are espoused by him in others. Interlocutors are not allowed long speeches to explain and explain and clarify their positions, but Socrates is free to give extended epideictic displays. The clear and valuable picture that emerges in CES is not of a Socrates who lives up to his claims in the Apology to care for the souls of his fellow citizens, but rather one who seems interested in winning arguments at all costs, and who normally makes his interlocutors substantially worse rather than better. Unlike proponents of dramatic reading, however, B. does not ask why Plato might have written philosophical dramas in this manner.

The first interlocutor discussed and ably defended by B. is Crito (Chapter 3). Rather than a "well-meaning simpleton" (59) or a man more concerned with reputation than virtue, Crito emerges from CES as an intelligent, practical, and morally decent person, who does considerably more in the way of improving his city and fellow-citizens than does Socrates. While Socrates' arguments are abstract and selfish, concerned more with his own soul than with his friends and family, Crito's sense of justice is grounded in community. B. traces, in specific and accurate detail, how Socrates' refutation of Crito depends on several key misinterpretations of Crito's arguments, especially on falsely accusing Crito of being too concerned with the opinions of the many. The famous speech in which Socrates, violating his own anti-rhetorical strictures, speaks in the voice of the laws of Athens, is not a dispassionate examination of an abstract problem, but rather (also in violation of the prohibition against appeals to pathos in Apology) a psychological tour de force which attempts to shame Crito into assent to a position with which he disagrees (71-72). While "Socrates makes little allowance for normal human weakness or even for normal human response", Crito has arranged special privileges for Socrates in prison, takes care of Socrates' family and estate, arranges the practical details of Socrates' last bath and the administration of hemlock, promises to sacrifice the cock to Asclepius, and closes the eyes and mouth of Socrates' corpse, with "loyalty, selflessness, and remarkable capacity for unconditional friendship" (74). If "Plato's ultimate sympathies lay with Socrates" (74), B. argues that Plato still appreciates and portrays a Crito, who may be the better citizen of the pair.

The next interlocutor to be defended is Ion (Chapter 4). B. distinguishes a Socratic condemnation of the poets in Ion (based on objections to their lack of certain epistemological foundations for their claims) from the Platonic objections in the Republic to their moral teachings. This is a distinction not altogether tenable in light of the critique of poetic mimesis as an imitation of an imitation, at three removes from reality, in the Republic. B. does, however, mount an able defense of Ion, showing that where Ion is arguing for Homer as the best of poets in quasi-aesthetic terms, Socrates refutes him by shifting grounds to reinterpret 'best' as 'most knowledgeable'. As B. himself admits, though, this refutation does involve importing what may be an anachronistically modern concept of aesthetics to antiquity. More importantly, while B. discusses the role of Homer as the teacher and encyclopedia of Greece, he neglects the religious dimension of rhapsodic performance and the possible theological positions of Socrates and Plato. If Socrates misrepresented Ion to refute him, B. (just as cleverly and far more sympathetically), seems equally to distort Ion for the purposes of defense.

Chapter 5 also defends a generally unpopular interlocutor, the sophist Hippias. B. begins by conceding that Hippias' boastfulness is a major weakness which makes him difficult to defend. I think this concession is not entirely necessary; Hippias is no more boastful than his own favorite Homeric hero, Achilles, and there is no evidence that an Athenian audience would consider self-deprecation appropriate for a famous sophist. B. does show that Hippias to be one of the more astute interlocutors at noticing and protesting bad Socratic arguments and ably defends his intellect, if not his character.

In his defense of Laches and Nicias (Chapter 6), B. reads closely and dramatically, showing how Socrates manipulates emotions of jealousy and pride to force the interlocutors into positions which can then be readily refuted. He concludes that "Laches reveals that although Socratic elenchus can expose ignorance, defined in Socratic terms, it can neither provide knowledge nor motivate the search for it," a conclusion he hammers home in subsequent chapters as well. Chapter 7, on Charmides and Critias, shows how Socrates' arguments against Charmides rely on setting up false parallels and questionable oppositions, in a sophistical manner rightly criticized by Critias. B. traces the obvious non-sequiturs in Socrates' subsequent refutations of Critias, showing how Socrates often neglects the actual definitions Critias proffers and instead reformulates Critias' points into nonsense or unrecognizability in order to make them readily disprovable.

In defending Euthyphro (Chapter 8), B. takes on what he describes as "an extraordinary torrent of invective" (163) in modern scholarship. B. points out that while Euthyphro is not among the more astute intellects we encounter in Plato, he actually shares in common with Socrates a staunch belief in absolute truth and morality in opposition to the fickle opinions of the Many. Rather than admit this point of commonality, Socrates begins his refutation of Euthyphro by invoking popular opinion against Euthyphro's belief in the absolute nature of divine justice, a Socratic ploy which derives more from a desire to win an argument at all costs than any consistent intellectual stand (167). B. goes on to show that the Socratic refutation of Euthyphro's theological voluntarism involves numerous misunderstandings of Euthyphro's points and several fallacious arguments. The chapter concludes by pointing out that there is nothing in the dialogue that indicates Socrates is caring for Euthyphro's soul, contrary to the claims in Apology, and a great deal to indicate that Socrates takes an almost malicious pleasure in making fools of those less verbally agile than himself.

Cephalus, with whom B. opens his discussion of Republic I (Chapter 9), is somewhat similar to Crito, a man of solid character and intelligence, if not theoretically inclined. B. points out, contrary to other commentators, that "Dialectically silenced, Cephalus stands by his life...[H]is fundamental decency and resultant contentment and tranquillity of mind are the hard-earned fruits of a lifetime, and Plato does not allow Socrates to deprive him of them...[H]is practical ability to be just outstrips his theoretical ability to explain justice."(201) In leaving to attend to sacrifices, Cephalus practices what Socrates and the subsequent interlocutors merely discuss. The dramatically nuanced reading in CES gives a more complex, and, I think, more just picture, than more purely argumentative ones. B.'s discussion of Polemarchus and Thrasymachus (Chapters 10 and 11) also pays attention to the emotional and human aspects of philosophic conversation but defends the interlocutors by refuting Socratic fallacies rather than by contrasting practical with theoretical morality.

Chapters 12-16 of CES (245-376), discuss two dialogues (Protagoras and Gorgias) and five interlocutors (Hippocrates, Protagoras, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles). B. begins with Hippocrates, the enthusiastic youth who opens Protagoras by awakening Socrates with news of the famous sophist's presence. Although many scholars less sensitive to dramatic nuance tend to skim over this and similar introductory sections in other dialogues as philosophically unimportant, B.'s account of this interlocutor leads to an interesting defense of sophistic education, or at least refutation of the Socratic arguments against sophistic teaching, one which has been discussed at great length in a quite substantial volume of rhetorical scholarship of which B. seems almost entirely oblivious.4 B.'s approach to the problem, nonetheless, is interesting and cogent. He argues that Hippocrates' desire to consult Protagoras in order to become a better speaker is quite reasonable. He highlights the oddity of Socrates' assumption that one only studies with a sophist in order to become one and consequent attempt to shame Hippocrates out of studying with Protagoras. B. also dismisses as absurd, perhaps too readily, Socrates' notion that the sophist is not qualified to teach speaking unless he is also an expert on the subject matter about which the student is to speak. B. concludes his chapter on Hippocrates with the point that Socrates seems far more interested in engaging in a public contest of wits with the famous Protagoras than with the care of Hippocrates' soul.

B. characterizes the main body of Protagoras as "a stunning example of Plato's dramatic art...depict[ing] an exhausting, knock-down dialectical encounter in which the great sophist suffers a humiliating public defeat at the hands of a superficially deferential but uncommonly predatory Socrates" (258). Socrates' humor, although artistically portrayed and entertaining, "is always at someone else's expense, usually demeaning, often unkind, and occasionally cruel" (259). B.'s portrait of Protagoras is sympathetic, showing that the sophist's opening remarks concerning education resemble the position advanced by Socrates in Republic (262 n. 9). B. then refutes the refuter, as it were, by showing that Socrates' arguments assume that qualities have unique binary opposites, i.e. that if X is not just, it must be unjust. The fallaciousness of such reasoning is explicated in analogies to such terms as "damp" or "sandy" (267).

The next two chapters discuss Gorgias, which is, for B., the transition from an elenchic Socratic approach Plato found ultimately unsatisfactory to a more genuinely Platonic method. After a brief analysis of Socrates' conversation with Polus, B. examines the more substantial discussion between Socrates and Gorgias. B. summarizes Gorgias' description of his own art as "rhe=torike=" and his definition of that art, unfortunately neglecting to note the important contextual point, widely discussed in modern rhetorical scholarship, that the art, and perhaps even the word, "rhe=torike=" were a striking novelty in Socrates' lifetime; the definition being sought is of something unknown. B. considers Socrates' refutation of Gorgias unsound because Socrates confuses knowledge of how to speak with knowledge of subject matter; B. also suggests that Gorgias should have spotted this confusion and refuted it. Again, B. seems to be anachronistic. Neither the historical Gorgias nor his contemporaries (in "Helen" or "On What Is Not") seem to have made such a clear form/content discussions. In the rest of the chapter, B. examines the debate concerning the relationship of rhetoric to justice, and defends both Gorgias' moral character and his arguments. After an intricately argued chapter (15) defending Polus, B. turns, in Chapter 16 to Callicles, whom he considers "One of Plato's greatest achievements" (339) and "the only interlocutor that Socrates does not claim to have refuted" (339). For B., in Gorgias Plato "anachronistically ascribes" (372) a middle Platonic understanding that knowledge is not sufficient for virtue to Socrates, and places in his mouth a doctrine of psychological habituation as necessary for virtue that we see worked out more completely in Republic. Socrates' elenctic method fails with Callicles and similar interlocutors precisely because it ignores psychology.

Chapter 17 concludes the book on a note of developmentalism, with the transition from the historical Socrates to the Platonic one being explained as a result of Plato's realizing that the narrowly elenchic method of the historical Socrates was unsatisfactory in inculcating virtue. The interlocutor after Gorgias is no longer "a resistant and protesting opponent" but a "congenial and accommodating Yes-man" (378) and the Plato of Republic realizes that Socratic elenchus, when applied to the improperly trained, does in fact harm rather than help them (380). B.'s final assessment is: "The Socrates portrayed in the early dialogues is a Socrates with whom Plato came to have deep philosophical, methodological, and educational disagreements. In arriving at his final estimate, he took Socrates' interlocutors very seriously. So should we." (383) It is a conclusion well supported by previous chapters, although one might have wished it to be introduced at the beginning, and B. to have considered in earlier chapters the possibility that Plato may have deliberately given weak arguments to Socrates to show the difficulties with the methods of and motivations behind elenchus.

Overall, this is a sub


1.   I should note here that I disagree with B.'s assumptions concerning the chronology of the Platonic dialogues and the relationship of chronology to interpretation (Carol Poster, "The Idea(s) of Order of Platonic Dialogues and Their Hermeneutic Consequences." Phoenix: The Journal of the Classical Association of Canada. 52:3-4 (1998): 282-298) and that some of my comments in this review will reflect this concern.
2.   James A. Arieti, Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991. Despite B.'s overt theoretical disagreements with Arieti, in actual interpretive practice and, in some cases, in their conclusions, the two agree on many points, especially in their skepticism concerning the uniform validity of Socrates' points and their awareness of Socrates' persuasive failures as not being due entirely to the obtuseness of the interlocutors but also to the problems with his own argumentative strategies.
3.   Although perhaps appearing too recently to be cited by B., David Roochnik's Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), provides an important discussion of this issue.
4.   In an display of disciplinary insularity unfortunately all too common among classicists and classical philosophers, B. seems almost (the singular exception being a brief citation of Poulakos) completely ignorant of the last thirty years of rhetorical scholarship concerning these dialogues. At a minimum, he would have benefited by consulting works by Thomas Cole (The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), Keith Erickson (ed, Plato: True and Sophistic Rhetoric Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1979), Susan Jarratt (Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), Christopher Lyle Johnstone (ed. Theory, Text, Context: Issues in Greek Rhetoric and Oratory Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), George Kennedy (The Art Of Persuasion In Greece Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), Jasper Neel (Plato, Derrida, and Writing Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), Edward Schiappa (Protagoras and Logos Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press 1991; The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), and Jan Swearingen (Rhetoric and Irony: Western Literacy and Western Lies New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), as well as the dozens of essays published on Plato's Protagoras and Gorgias in rhetoric journals (Philosophy and Rhetoric, Pre/Text, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetorica, Southern Speech Communication Journal, Western Speech) in the past decade, which eight journals combined account for only one citation

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