In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates and his interlocutors wrestle with the idea that virtue is knowledge. The claim is deeply compelling. If virtue is knowledge, virtue is teachable and vice is a form of ignorance. Moreover, if virtue is knowledge, then the court-sanctioned death of the thoughtful, knowledge-seeking Socrates condemns the Athenians as ignorant and immoral. The martyrdom of Socrates presents in a convenient and vivid way the idea that a man who knows that he is about to commit a wrong act would not commit that act. Socrates died because of his vision of a world in which knowledge compels a good man to act in good ways and where wrong is a corruption of an otherwise healthy soul. At the same time, however, the dialogues also suggest that virtue cannot be taught and that, in fact, vice results as much from out-of-control passions as from a lack of knowledge. The concept of virtue as knowledge is wrapped up in a series of paradoxes which continue to tantalize Plato scholars.
In Virtue is Knowledge: The Moral Foundations of Socratic Political Philosophy, Lorraine Smith Pangle explores Plato’s various formulations of the claim that virtue is knowledge. In the process, she offers close readings of the primary dialogues in which Plato presents the claim: Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, and Laws. Pangle does not attempt to reconcile the tensions that her close readings reveal. Instead, her goal is to show how a careful examination of concepts of virtue and moral responsibility in the dialogues provides a vital starting point for understanding the Socratic method and Plato’s ideas, and that only by accepting the ambiguities involved in the text can the dialogues be properly understood. “Somehow,” she explains, “virtue is indeed all about grasping clearly what is good and why it is good, and somehow this grasp, when truly solid, is efficacious. Somehow the unjust soul truly is unhealthy in a way that no one could wish to be and that calls for more compassion than for vengeance. Grappling with the claim that virtue is knowledge, then, is a first step towards clarity, inasmuch as it reveals the diverse and contradictory opinions that we thoughtlessly hold” (2).
Pangle explains that Plato scholarship generally varies between accepting the ambiguities and paradoxes in Socrates’ words without trying to resolve them, and attempting to find coherence and thus trying to explain away ambiguity. The former approach presents a Socrates who is simply incoherent or naïve. The latter tends to oversimplify Plato’s arguments or explains away contradictions by dismissing certain arguments as representative of the “early” or “late” Plato. Pangle rightly seeks to avoid both extremes and instead relishes paradox. Instead of trying to dismiss contradiction, Pangle attempts to understand how contradiction helps reveal the difficulty inherent in Socratic thinking and drives forward the drama of the dialogues. Statements of moral philosophy in the dialogues, for Pangle, are not mere propositions. They instead gradually reveal distinct political personalities who explore complicated questions in the vivid settings of the dialogues. According to Pangle, Plato’s moral theory can only be discerned by understanding that “in writing each dialogue Plato was admirably attuned to the complex causes of human action and the power of irrational passions and that he brings these factors to life in the dramas before us” (4). Pangle’s goal is just as much to explore the process of Socratic thought as its content.
Although Pangle walks through a different dialogue in each chapter, she uses her introduction to summarize Plato’s various arguments for the claim that virtue is knowledge. Broadly speaking, she categorizes these arguments under two headings: arguments for the supreme goodness of virtue, and arguments for the power of knowledge. Under the first heading, Pangle suggests that virtue and knowledge are connected because both are fundamentally good. She then presents three variations on this theme: a utilitarian view under which virtue is productive of an individual’s happiness, a eudaemonist view under which virtue is choiceworthy because it is the fundamental basis of happiness, and a heroic view under which virtue may not always provide happiness but is inherently noble and choiceworthy. On all of these variations, a rational man would always choose virtuous action over vice. The second heading presents knowledge as a component part of virtue such that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient, sufficient but not necessary, or both necessary and sufficient to virtue. Ultimately, Pangle reads Plato as suggesting that virtue is equivalent to wisdom itself and forms a fundamental part of a person’s character. Pangle explores these variations throughout the book.
Pangle focuses her analysis on how and why Plato chooses to explore the claim that virtue is knowledge in a particular dialogue. It is difficult to summarize the content of her analysis, however, given that the book proceeds as a series of close readings. Indeed, each chapter of the book is best appreciated after rereading the relevant dialogue, with the characters and debates of that dialogue fresh in one’s mind. Approached this way, the book reads almost like a series of lectures filled with insights but without a central thesis that flows consistently from chapter to chapter.
In her analysis of Apology, she asks why Socrates chooses to explore the claim that virtue is knowledge as part of his defense against the charge of corrupting the youth. Plato uses the dialogue to introduce the argument that no rational individual would choose vice over virtue and to suggest that education, rather than punishment, is the appropriate response to wrong action. The dialogue is not coherent in terms of exploring these ideas but instead reveals a Socrates willing to offer a wide swath of arguments to tantalize (and potentially enrage) his audience. Pangle carefully presents Socrates’ claims in the context of the trial, focusing on Socrates’ seemingly deft, and occasionally inept, attempts at compelling rhetoric. The Socrates of Apology demonstrates a “radical if naïve high-mindedness” (31) which hints at the sort of questioning that Socrates expects of his interlocutors in other dialogues. Yet, while other dialogues reveal those interlocutors struggling with Socrates’ questions, for Pangle the Socrates of Apology fails to show any such struggle. Instead, he reveals without compunction “a fragmented view of himself” as a moral man who demonstrates the sort of moral contradictions found among the members of his audience (40). He provides a flawed example of introspection and merely suggests the relationship between virtue and knowledge without reconciling contradictions in his argument. Readers are left to other dialogues to see such contradictions worked out by Socrates’ interlocutors.
In her reading of Gorgias, Pangle focuses on the ways in which Socrates develops the central themes of Apology – the rationality of leading a virtuous life (specifically a just life) and the irrationality of retributive punishment. She navigates through Socrates’ discussions with Polus and Gorgias, suggesting that, while the text is useful for further exploring Socrates’ deft use of rhetoric, the dialogue ultimately lacks a strong enough interlocutor to fully engage with the search for virtue. Where Apology and Gorgias offer a series of contradictions, with little successful resolution, Meno and Protagoras “prove more interested in and thoughtful about the nature of true virtue” (80).
Pangle turns to the Meno and Protagoras to present a basic tension: while Meno indicates that virtue is not knowledge since virtue cannot be clearly taught, the dialogue also suggests that virtue must be knowledge in order for it to be coherent and not irrational. Pangle nicely reminds the readers that this dialogue does not merely focus on questions about the nature of knowledge, but also presents Socrates attacking the teachings of the city of Athens through his interrogation of Anytus, the son of a popular Athenian leader. Pangle presents Meno as having both political and philosophical implications. Virtue cannot simply be knowledge because it cannot simply be taught. Instead, virtue must overcome strong civic passions which “resist the truth when we begin to glimpse it, resist our following it when we think we have accepted it, and resist our sorting out the confusions and contradictions that keep us ambivalent and that our lapses ought to spur us to think through” (130). Socrates continues to reveal that tension in Protagoras, where, in the face of a stronger interlocutor than Meno, Socrates continues to explore the tensions between political virtue and ethical virtue and how to engage with both concepts. In the final chapter of her book, Pangle turns to a dialogue which lacks Socrates, the Laws, to continue to explore these concepts in a city made real in words. Her analysis reveals how the Athenian Stranger, who dominates the dialogue, demonstrates the necessity of virtue’s being both unified and coherent.
Pangle’s book has a number of attractive features. Read alongside the dialogues, it provides compelling analysis of the texts and a frank presentation of the paradoxes of Socratic questioning. She successfully demonstrates the joy of close reading, both through her careful study of rhetoric and through focusing on the political aspects of the dialogues. She is as concerned with the words of Socrates’ interlocutors and with the context in which the imagined dialogues take place as with the political motivations driving the denizens of Athens. Pangle never suggests an answer to the various paradoxes relating to virtue and knowledge, and because of that the book sometimes meanders. This is not to criticize her readings but only to suggest that readers looking for resolution will not find it here. Still, readers looking to revisit five key dialogues with careful reading will find Pangle’s book worth the effort.