BMCR 1994.10.04

1994.10.04, Vlastos, Socratic Studies

, , Socratic studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiii, 152 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780521442138. $54.95.

In 1991 Gregory Vlastos published an extraordinarily learned and provocative book, Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher, the fruit of a lifetime of study. In the Preface to that book he promised a sequel containing mainly revisions made of previously published works in the light of criticism and subsequent research. That promised work has now appeared, alas, posthumously. It contains revisions of four previously published essays along with one entirely new work. The editor, Myles Burnyeat, notes that the new essay is not in a completely polished form. Missing is a planned sixth essay which was not sufficiently far along at the time of Vlastos’s death to be included here. Burnyeat adds as an epilogue a moving commencement address delivered by Vlastos at Berkeley in 1987 titled “Socrates and Vietnam”. The four essays previously published are: (1) “The Socratic Elenchus” ( Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1 [1983] 27-58); (2) “Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge” ( Philosophical Quarterly 35 [1985] 1-31); (3) “Is the ‘Socratic Fallacy’ Socratic” ( Ancient Philosophy 10 [1990] 1-16); (4) “The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy” ( Political Theory 11 [1983] 495-515). The new essay is “The Protagoras and the Laches“, a piece arguing for the chronological priority of the former to the latter based on doctrinal development.

Each of these essays is like a polished diamond, hard-edged, multi-faceted, and brilliant, manifesting the refined rhetorical style of Vlastos familiar to everyone working in ancient Greek philosophy. All of the essays were obviously intended to stand on their own, but read together and along with the previous volume the interpretative theory underlying them becomes powerfully evident. It is that in the early dialogues of Plato we can discover a philosopher, Socrates, with a distinctive method and doctrine. This philosopher, obviously the main inspiration for Plato, begins to recede into the background beginning roughly with the Meno. As Vlastos proclaims, “Socrates has been and always will be my philosophical hero (133).” Not surprisingly therefore, the attempted recovery of Socrates’ philosophy is also a defense of it and perforce a criticism, rather muted in these two volumes, of Plato’s innovations.

Vlastos’ interpretation is set squarely against at least two longstanding alternatives. First, one can argue that the real Socrates is practically unrecoverable and that the Socrates of the dialogues is only a mask for Plato at one stage of his development. Second, it can be argued that the historical Socrates had no distinctive philosophy or that if he did, it was insubstantial, inchoate, or insignificant. On this view it was Socrates’ character or personality that engaged his disciples. Over the last twenty-five years or so no one has done more than Vlastos to rehabilitate Socrates as a philosopher in his own right and to invigorate the search for his unique legacy. Each of the essays here is an effort to locate one piece of the puzzle of Socrates in its true place. Interested readers should consult two recent extensive and critical assessments of Vlastos’s interpretation, both in Ancient Philosophy 13 (1993): Debra Nails, “Problems with Vlastos’s Platonic Developmentalism,” 273-91 and John Beversluis, “Vlastos’s Quest for the Historical Socrates,” 293-312.

Clearly, the vexed issue of the relative dating of the dialogues is crucial for Vlastos’s attempt to separate Socrates from Plato. Ever since Aristotle it has been generally accepted that in metaphysical, epistemological, and psychological matters Plato, to put it cautiously, diverges from his master. Even without Aristotle’s testimony, the dialogues alone, independently distinguishable on stylistic and external criteria into two groups, roughly early and middle (I leave aside the late dialogues), contain contradictory or contrary assertions that are reasonably explained if they represent the thought of two different philosophers. This is Vlastos’s core hypothesis: “Plato makes Socrates say in any given dialogue ‘whatever he—Plato—thinks at the time of writing would be the most reasonable thing for Socrates to be saying just then in expounding and defending his own philosophy (125).” On this hypothesis, the historical Socrates means the historical Socrates as interpreted by Plato. One might well wonder, however, if “the most reasonable thing for Socrates to be saying” covers “expounding” as well as “defending” what is left of the historical Socrates apart from the “expounding” of his philosophy by Plato.

For example, Plato’s Socrates holds that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Is this what Socrates thought or is it what Plato thought it was reasonable for Socrates to think given the kind of life he lived and his manifest dedication to that life? This is a hard question to answer, but similar questions regarding the so-called “Socratic paradoxes” are if anything even harder. It is not implausible that Socrates believed that it is better to suffer than to do evil and that a better man is never harmed by a worse, but it is harder to know whether the case that could be made for these claims from the dialogues is Plato’s contribution or one that accurately represents something Socrates actually held. Vlastos’s novel idea is that the historical Socrates’ method of elenchus is by itself a tool for arriving at such claims. For by means of the elenchus Socrates can show that the contradictories of his “paradoxes” cannot be consistently maintained along with other true beliefs held by his interlocutors. But as Vlastos admits (36-7, Postscript to “The Socratic Elenchus”), the assumption that people hold true beliefs which can be shown to be inconsistent with the contradictories of the paradoxes is “Plato’s gift to Socrates in the Gorgias“. This then would leave us again in the dark as to why Socrates would believe the strange things he is held to believe if he did not share the assumption.

Vlastos’s problem is that a commitment to mere consistency in a belief set is not by itself going to produce any interesting claims in moral philosophy. And yet if Socrates disavows knowledge of important moral matters, including presumably, moral principles, it is very difficult to assess his claims. Metaphysical principles, suspiciously Platonic in character, such as the identity of the person with the soul, keep rushing in to fill the vacuum. And if the only reason for holding the paradoxes is that one believes such things as this, then the historical philosopher Socrates begins to evanesce before our eyes.

Vlastos’s attempt to face this problem is most clearly evident in the second essay where he argues that Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge is only a disavowal of certain knowledge, not a disavowal of what Vlastos calls “elenctic” or fallible knowledge. This is the knowledge Vlastos claims that Socrates believes he has acquired by means of the refutation of the claims of his interlocutors. As Vlastos readily admits, the only text in which Socrates unambiguously states that he possesses moral knowledge is Apology 29b6-7: “… but that to do injustice and disobey my superior, god or man, this I know to be evil and base.” Apart from the historically and philosophically dubious notion of “fallible” knowledge, this is a slender reed on which to rest a claim to non-platonic knowledge derived from the elenchus. One can certainly argue that Socrates’ refusal to obey the orders of the Thirty was not a refusal to obey a true “superior”. But then this sounds like the prelude to a claim that it is analytically true that disobeying superiors and doing injustice is evil and base. It is surely not the case that elenchus is necessary to deduce analytic truths. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt the firmness of Socrates’ moral convictions, whatever their origins.

More impressive is Vlastos’s account of Plato’s gradual disenchantment with Socrates’ method of doing philosophy and his embrace of a method modeled on mathematical hypothesis. With consummate skill, Vlastos shows the waning of elenchus even in the admittedly early dialogues, Euthydemus, Lysis, and Hippias Major. It should be noted, however, that the most recent chronology of the dialogues based purely on stylistic analysis by G. R. Ledger in Re-Counting Plato (Oxford: 1989) contradicts the ordering of the dialogues according to fidelity to the elenchus.

Vlastos’s argument that the Laches shows an advance in Plato’s thinking over the Protagoras and so should be dated later is interesting. As Vlastos puts it, “… when Plato has come to write the Laches he has seen clearly what he had not yet seen when he wrote the Protagoras—that the wisdom which accounts for the brave man’s courage has everything to do with moral insight, and nothing to do with technical skill (117).” The problem here is that the association of courage with moral insight is only deniable in the Protagoras if Vlastos’ controversial interpretation of the unity of virtues argument there is accepted. If, however, Plato is there arguing that all the virtues are just knowledge, as many interpreters believe, then that knowledge is not plausibly identified with technical skill.

The parts of Vlastos’s interpretation of the philosophy of Socrates are, reasonably enough, closely interdependent. The tightly woven fabric of that interpretation cannot easily bear the removal of any of its threads. There is no doubt that the two articles mentioned above are only the beginning of the critical scrutiny of the arguments contained in this book and its more substantial predecessor. Even for those who are unconvinced by the interpretation, the books will stand as a remarkable achievement. Reading them is exhilarating and challenging. They are a splendid example of how philology and analytic philosophy can together be used to recover ancient wisdom.