Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.08.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.08.53

Don Adams, Socrates Mystagogos: Initiation into Inquiry.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2016.  Pp. x, 189.  ISBN 9781472484833.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Andreas Avgousti, Columbia University (


How should we think about what Socrates is doing when he engages this or that youth in conversation? Don Adams’ book offers an answer to this question, inspired by an ancient Greek religious ritual: Socrates is on a mystagogic mission to sting his interlocutor into an epistemological state of inquiry. Socrates, or more precisely, Plato’s Socrates, does not dissemble when he says he knows nothing, for he is not the hierophant who reveals the knowledge of the mysteries to the initiated. For Adams, Socrates’ mystagogic mission is sufficient: the initiated agent can now confront the world and uncover knowledge for himself, without needing the hierophant. Socrates Mystagogos: Initiation into Inquiry is a thought-provoking defense of Socratic practice that will be of interest to a mixed, if not quite well-defined, scholarly audience.

Following a short Preface, which I sketch for illustrative purposes below, Socrates Mystagogos is divided into four chapters, bookended by an Introduction that outlines the argument and a Conclusion that serves as an extension of the preceding chapter. Chapter 1, while titled ‘Socratic skepticism’, is mostly about Aristophanes and comedy; Socrates mystagogos in Plato’s Apology appears in the chapter’s last section and is intended as a response to Aristophanes’ culturally conservative critique of Socratic practice. Chapter 2 delves deep into ‘Socratic epistemology’, as its title faithfully signals. Adams deals with some problems contemporary epistemologists attribute to Socrates and answers them both on their own ground and through the metaphor of Socrates mystagogos. Chapter 3, ‘Socratic Method’, is continuous with this effort. Adams defends ‘a “constructivist” view of Socrates mystagogos’ (4), which is to say that Socrates is both an elegant refuter of the moral beliefs of his interlocutor and someone who ‘has made a good-faith effort to discover the truth’ (4). Chapter 4, ‘Socratic piety’, argues that Socrates disobeys the state because he is pious and humble before the law (nomos). In this last chapter and in the Conclusion, Adams pulls Socrates close to Martin Luther King Jr., in order to, first, draw a contrast between their kind of civil disobedience with that of Thoreau and Gandhi, and, second, to offer Socrates’ view as one that ‘we not only can but should take seriously today’ (5).

A worry for any author who, like Adams, puts forth Socrates as a figure worthy of imitation is that Socrates is inimitable. How are we supposed to imitate his example of, say, having injustice being done to us rather than doing it ourselves? How plausible is it that we would opt to stay in prison, rebuffing the offer of a way out by an influential and capable friend? By dressing Socrates in a role that makes sense only in the framework of an attested if under-described cult ritual, Adams’ mystagogos metaphor guides the reader away from these worries, while also preserving Socrates’ aura as a pious man on a mission from the Delphic oracle. Also successful is Adams’ claim in Chapter 1 that subversion does not necessarily follow from transgression (8-9). Here he coins the term ‘unversive’ as an antonym of ‘subversive’ to describe Aristophanic comedy. Take, for example, the portrayal of Socrates and Chaerephon as being obsessed with fleas in the Clouds. ‘They violate cultural norms of hygiene, but not in such a way as to undermine our own commitment to obeying those norms… in fact the effect is quite unversive since they make themselves look unhygienic and ridiculous’ (21). This is especially salutary for contemporary readers of ancient texts who infer subversion from transgression.

Adams’ breadth of knowledge is on show in Socrates Mystagogos. Adams ranges from modern psychology in his discussion of laughter and grief in Greek ritual (11, 25-6) to engagement with scholars in the analytic tradition working on Socrates, such as Vlastos, Irwin, and Benson in chapter 3, and from close philological attention to what he regards as Lamb’s mistranslation of hupetethê as ‘we assumed’ at Charmides 160d (62) to his discussion of experimental reasoning in the philosophy of science to argue for the reasonableness of Socrates’ refutations (90-94). Adams also treats his reader to several and frequent excursions to the poetry of archaic Greece and to texts from the Hebrew Bible (which, oddly, and unlike every other text from the archaic and classical world, are not mentioned in the book’s Index locorum).

Yet the breadth of knowledge that Adams chooses to deploy gives the impression that the audience of the book is ad hoc; to put it differently, it is hard to see the inner logic of the varying demands Adams makes of his reader. Granted, a likely reader of Socrates Mystagogos will have some competence in ancient political thought and some interest in the figure of Socrates. To follow the heart of the book in chapters 2 and 3, however, the reader must also be familiar with contemporary debates in epistemology. For example, in Chapter 2 Adams frames his discussion of the Charmides using Geach, Wittgenstein, Pryor, and Audi (47, 53, 57-8). His concern is to show how what Geach dubs Socratic fallacy is only alleged. For someone who is unfamiliar with the stakes of contemporary debates, the book is hard to follow at such moments. There is an additional question about the purpose of Adams’ discussion. Does the reader need the detour through the jargon and the acronyms of contemporary epistemology to establish that ‘Socrates’ skepticism consists in urging us to seek greater epistemic maturity with respect to our important beliefs about virtue’ (80)? Presumably contemporary epistemologists are not concerned with the presentation of Socrates or even how Socrates argues, but with a fallacy that appears in the Socratic dialogues. These are not ‘misconceptions of Socrates’ philosophical activity’ (43), but rather concerns about what a sound epistemological claim looks like. At other moments in the book, Adams speaks to a broader audience. Socrates embodies ‘a critical and self-critical’ enterprise or examination or questioning (33; thrice on 35, 41, 145, 166, 170 et passim). This turns out to be a kind of slogan in the book and a pithy way of communicating to the general reader the standard by which she should judge her life (“general” only by comparison to the reader who is competent in contemporary epistemology). The later comparisons of Socrates to Thoreau, Gandhi, and King convey a similar impression, for they do not presume a familiarity with their biography and body of work. Indeed, Adams gives no context for any of these authors. While these comparisons fare well in Chapter 4, Adams overlooks how one major assumption that Thoreau, Gandhi, and King share is questionable today: the sovereignty of the state over its boundaries and its resources in the face of worldwide problems such as global warming. How, if at all, does Socrates’ mystagogic mission and the practice it suggests for us, change before such quandaries?

The apparent intention to make Socrates speak to a contemporary non-expert audience brings us to another drawback of Adams’ book: its ambivalence about the gap between the ancients and the moderns, an ambivalence that, whatever else it does, gets in the way of its organizing metaphor of Socrates mystagogos. This ambivalence is compactly displayed in the four-paragraph-long Preface. Adams begins by telling his reader about the ancient cult ritual of hidden mysteries in which the initiate passes from the mystagogos to the hierophant, providing an etymology of these two words. Adams uses understatement to introduce the reader to the thesis of the book: ‘The cult role of the mystagogos isn’t a bad analogy for Socrates’ philosophizing’ (ix). For Adams, Socrates does not convert his interlocutor, but only urges him ‘to take conventional wisdom about virtue and how we ought to live more, not less, seriously’ (ix). Seizing on the disanalogy between the religious ritual and Socratic practices, namely that the hierophant is present only in the former, Adams transitions from ancient to contemporary terms: ‘there is something “preservative” or “conservative” about the philosophizing of Socrates mystagogos…[but also] there is something “liberal” in his attempt to turn his initiates into their own hierophants. Each of us must make a good-faith effort to discover what is true, lawful, right and holy’ (ix). The concluding short paragraph of the Preface restates this point, pinpointing the difficulty in the case Adams wants to make: ‘Socrates mystagogos does not come easily into focus today because we tend to separate free-thinking liberals from dyed-in-the-wool conservatives’ (x).

It is true that these descriptions make the hero of the book more familiar to the reader; she might even come to recognize ‘Socrates’ distinctively liberal conservatism’ (43), itself a resolution of the puzzle of Socrates as ‘individualistic or libertarian [in the Apology, by contrast to Socrates] in the Crito [where] he seems beyond Tory’ (6). Socrates is a ‘conservative/liberal mystagogue’ (54). Yet, the meaning of the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is overly broad, often running together the political and cultural sense of the terms (see, for example, 5, 7, 13, 24, 26, et passim). In an endnote in the last chapter Adams writes, ‘So far, I have used the liberal/conservative dichotomy to indicate the contrast between open-mindedly questioning as opposed to deferentially obeying traditional nomoi’ (159n5). This caricatures both the liberal, who is not open-minded about the right to freedom of speech and thought, and the conservative, whose deference to the nomoi is at once owed and freely given. The endnote also serves as a warning that Adams will add a further distinction ‘between a liberal “Cartesian” theory of civil disobedience and a conservative “Burkian” theory [after Edmund Burke]. On the liberal theory, we are free to judge by standards or our own choosing…on the conservative theory there is no legitimate standard higher than our inherited rights and liberties’ (138). It is not clear what justifies this move. Adams writes: ‘Socrates’ focus [in the Crito] is relevantly similar to Burke’s politico-epistemic humility: who am I to question the law?’ (148) and describes Socrates as ‘a pre-modern pre-Burkian conservative’ (150). Here Adams comes perilously close to projecting modern ideologies onto Socrates’ hermeneutic, which he describes as ‘obedience to the law properly interpreted and applied’ (150, emphasis in the original). More importantly, what purchase does it have for a reader that something is branded with the same, historically-insensitive dichotomous labels across several fields of inquiry?

I conclude with a demonstration of the thought-provoking character of the book. Its subtitle, ‘Initiation into inquiry’, stimulates timely questions for anyone involved in education. Is there a role for sanction or the threat thereof in such an initiation? Is sanction or the threat thereof either necessary or legitimate for inquiry to get started? Alternatively, what excludes the use of literal falsehoods, such as the true lie at the founding of Kallipolis in Plato’s Republic? Or is a mystagogos permitted to use such stories? Adams successfully provokes these reflections in his reader. And rightly so, for it appears that he conceives of philosophy as a practical science or activity. As he didactically puts it in his conclusion to chapter 3: ‘So do your homework, think carefully about your options, by all means listen to others who seem to you to have some wisdom, and when you make a responsible choice, go forward with hope, for with hope we can face even death itself with some serenity’ (124). Upon reading this, I could not help but be reminded of the lesson of the myth of Er, the morality tale Socrates relates at the end of the Republic.

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