Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.06.40

Naomi Reshotko, Socratic Virtue: Making the Best of the Neither-Good-Nor-Bad.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. xiv, 204.  ISBN 978-0-521-84618-9.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Randall M. Jensen, Philosophy, Northwestern College (
Word count: 1950 words

Table of Contents

The Socrates of Plato's earlier dialogues famously and paradoxically claims that all desire is for the good, that virtue is knowledge, that virtue is sufficient for happiness, and that weakness of will (akrasia) is impossible. Exactly what is meant by such claims is a matter of great controversy. In Socratic Virtue, Naomi Reshotko gives a careful and systematic account of these Socratic claims that is intended "both as an interpretation of Socrates' views and as a viable philosophy of motivation and goodness in human action" (p. xi). As the title indicates, Reshotko's interpretive focal point is the notion of the neither-good-nor-bad found in key passages of the Gorgias, Euthydemus, Meno, and Lysis.

Anyone writing about the philosophy of Socrates must reckon with the Socratic problem. In the introduction Reshotko briefly appeals to stylometric considerations and to the testimony of Aristotle to support her suspicion that the views she presents "did originate with the historical Socrates" (p. 11). The introduction also makes it clear that Reshotko will be trying to extract or reconstruct a positive philosophy from a particular group of dialogues that can in some useful sense be regarded as "Socratic." Since there are many longstanding disputes about how to interpret Plato's dialogues, it is to be expected that some scholars will have serious disagreements with some of Reshotko's assumptions and methods. Other scholars will undoubtedly find them congenial. For the most part, in this review I will simply approach Reshotko's work on her own terms.

The book falls into three parts, the first part entitled "The Socratic Theory of Motivation." In Chapter 2 Reshotko attributes to Socrates a distinctive theory of human desire, motivation, and action that is heavily indebted to the work of her mentor, Terry Penner. What does Socrates mean when he says that all desire is for the good? Such a claim seems more than paradoxical. In fact, it may appear wildly implausible, for most people can recall wanting something bad, or so it seems, anyway. Thus, in an effort to rescue Socrates from saying something so obviously mistaken, some interpreters have read him as saying that everyone desires what they think is good rather than what is actually good. Reshotko argues that this interpretive move is motivated by a commitment to the idea that desire is an intentional verb, such that the object of an agent's desire must be what she (rightly or wrongly) sees as the object of her desire. And this interpretation gains ground if we are committed to thinking that we must always have a clear picture of what we do and do not desire. Reshotko then argues that Socrates does not share such commitments (the first often associated with Frege and the second with Descartes), and that accordingly we should approach the text without them. Unsurprisingly, given her hermeneutical strategy, she also finds such commitments undesirable on philosophical grounds. When freed from them, she thinks we will discover an interpretation that is both more faithful to Socrates and more philosophically plausible.

On Reshotko's preferred interpretation, Socrates attaches desire to the actual good as opposed to the merely apparent good. What an agent desires need not be what she thinks she desires at all. Suppose Critias takes a drink from the cup in front of him and discovers to his disappointment that it contains somewhat brackish water rather than wine. What does he want to drink? He sees the stuff in the cup as wine and so he picks up the cup and takes a swallow. Must we conclude that he wants to drink the stuff in the cup and therefore wants something bad that he sees as good? Not according to Reshotko's Socrates. What Critias wants is a drink of wine, a good thing, even though no wine is anywhere in view. It may seem best to him to drink what is in the cup, but what is in the cup is precisely not what he wants to drink. Reshotko finds this distinction between what an agent desires and what seems best to her in what Socrates says at Gorgias 478a-b.

The good that an agent desires is the good for her. Thus in Chapter 3 Reshotko takes up the topic of Socratic egoism. She begins with the claim that Socrates is a psychological egoist: "every time we act, we do that which we determine through reason to be the act that will lead to our own greatest possible benefit, in our current situation" (pp. 58-9). Thus, what an agent always wants is her good, and she always does whatever she believes is the best means of achieving that good. Such an account rules out the possibility of irrational desires, since every desire aims at the good, and weakness of will is ruled out as well, since no one fails to do what seems best. Our failure to achieve what is good for us must therefore be the result of a mistaken belief. This Socratic "intellectualism" is the subject of Chapter 4. Reshotko argues that Socrates can successfully diagnose any apparent cases of weakness of will as a case of either ignorance or what (following Penner) she calls "diachronic belief-akrasia," where an agent may do what she thinks best at the moment of her action--as the Socratic view would have it--but this judgment may be only momentary (pp. 79 ff.).

The second and shortest part of Reshotko's book is "Socratic Value," in which she explicitly turns her attention to the good, the bad, and the neither-good-nor-bad (Chapter 5) and discusses some distinctions in goodness and their application to virtue and happiness (Chapter 6). According to Socrates, only happiness is unconditionally good and only misery is unconditionally bad. Everything else, such as health and wealth, falls into the "middle" category of the neither-good-nor-bad. However, Reshotko makes an important further claim here. It is not that health, for example, is never good. Rather, its goodness depends on its context: it is a conditional good (p. 98). Those who read the Socratic dialogues as making the stronger proto-Stoic claim that health and other so-called goods are not goods at all will part company with her at this point.

How does virtue fit into this picture? Virtue is certainly not a neither-good-nor-bad thing. And it is obvious that virtue stands in some intimate relationship to happiness. In fact, some have argued that for Socrates virtue is wholly constitutive of happiness, in which case virtue is ipso facto an unconditional good as well. Others have taken virtue to be a means to happiness, which leaves something of a puzzle about the goodness of virtue. In the third and final part of Socratic Virtue, "Virtue and its Relationship to Happiness," Reshotko explores the nature of virtue and happiness and the nature of their relationship as well. Her negative claim in Chapter 7 is that it is a mistake to think that the relationship of virtue to happiness is conceptual. Virtue is neither logically necessary nor sufficient for happiness. Rather, the relationship between virtue and happiness is contingent and nomological. To see what this means, we need to have a clearer picture of what virtue and happiness are for Reshotko's Socrates.

Often the question about virtue and happiness is framed in terms of the distinction between instrumental goodness and intrinsic (or, following Christine Korsgaard, final rather than intrinsic) goodness. Reshotko herself prefers to speak of self-generated goods and other-generated goods. However, since she says that the only kind of other-generated goods are those that get their goodness because they are means to a further good, her distinction seems to remain very close to the distinction between instrumental and final value (p. 120). This strikes me as unfortunate, since it might be useful to be able to distinguish different kinds of other-generated goodness. Be that as it may, the point of the revised terminology is that Reshotko wants to make it clear that other-generated goods are bona fide goods, whose goodness comes from the further good to which they are a means. She thinks the it is a mistake to assume that all the value in such a relation remains with the end.

Happiness is the only self-generated good, which is Reshotko's expression of the Socratic commitment to eudaimonism. Following George Rudebusch's Socrates, Pleasure, and Value (Oxford, 1999), Reshotko argues in Chapter 9 that Socrates is a hedonist, but not a sensate hedonist. Instead, Socrates conceives of happiness in terms of modal pleasures, where a modal pleasure is "an activity that fulfills a natural human capacity" (p. 180). However, she does not claim that Socrates simply identifies happiness with modal pleasure. More generally, Reshotko sees close causal relationships among virtue, happiness, and pleasure, where others have tended to see constitution or identity.

How is virtue connected to happiness? On Reshotko's interpretation in Chapter 8, Socratic virtue is "the science of human advantage," i.e. the knowledge of what makes us happy. Since each human being inevitably pursues her own happiness as the goal of life, our best bet for the achievement of this goal is to know everything there is to know about it so that our pursuit of happiness can be informed and controlled. The relationship between virtue and happiness turns out to be an instance of the more general relationship between any goal and the knowledge of the means of achieving it. And at this point we can see how, on Reshotko's account, the Socratic paradoxes fit together into an ethical theory.

One of Reshotko's higher level aims in this book is to naturalize and demystify ethics by, among other things, breaking free from the Christian and Kantian assumptions that (on her view) beset modern moral philosophy and that have contaminated our understanding of ancient Greek ethics in general and of Plato's Socrates in particular (pp. x-xi, 189-192). By arguing that we all seek happiness as a matter of fact and that virtue is the only way we can reasonably have any significant control over whether we succeed or fail, the purpose of ethics becomes obvious--anything but mysterious! This philosophical aim strikes me as worth taking seriously even for those who are unconvinced by Reshotko's interpretation of Plato's early dialogues. Of course, the many philosophers who do not regard Kantian ethics with suspicion will not be moved far by this consideration.

As I hope is clear, in Socratic Virtue Reshotko tackles some of the most difficult and disputed issues in Socratic studies. Unsurprisingly, then, her work can be criticized from any number of directions. Some will argue that she has misunderstood the relevant passages of the Meno or the Gorgias (or both) and that her interpretation of the Socratic theory of desire is therefore not faithful to the text, no matter how interesting or plausible it may be in its own right--although some will want to quarrel with that assessment, too. Others will argue that she has misconstrued the Socratic view of the relationship of virtue and happiness, although the ongoing disputes about this matter suggest to me that there is just not enough textual evidence to support any very precise theoretical understanding. In addition, as is well known, many have argued that we should not read the Protagoras as committing Socrates to hedonism, while others object to attributing an instrumentalist conception of virtue to Socrates, so Reshotko will have plenty of critics on these points, too. But all of this just goes to show that those who work on Socrates are engaged in an exciting and never-ending discussion about how best to articulate his ideas and arguments. In Socratic Virtue Naomi Reshotko clearly and forcefully presents a case for an intriguing and powerful interpretation and thus makes a valuable contribution to that ongoing conversation.

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