BMCR 1994.10.12

1994.10.12, Brickhouse and Smith, Plato’s Socrates

, , Plato's Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 1 online resource (xiv, 240 pages). ISBN 0199762104. $35.00.

This fine book follows upon the authors’ well-regarded Socrates on Trial (Princeton, 1989), but the present study is broader in scope and meant to provide a comprehensive introduction to Socratic philosophy, understood as the framework of thought he articulates and defends in the earlier Platonic dialogues. The authors examine six basic topics in consecutive, related chapters: Socratic method, epistemology, psychology, ethics, politics, and religion. There is an index of passages, as well as a thorough general index, and a bibliography. The work is addressed to scholars in the field, but can be read profitably by anyone interested in ancient Greek philosophy.

The book is timely. It appears shortly following the death of Gregory Vlastos, who stimulated much of the philosophical interest in this area, and thus at a moment when the future of that interest might be in some doubt. But by offering consistently challenging and novel interpretations, and by arguing clearly and vigorously for their positions with reference both to the texts and to the work of other scholars, the authors guarantee a continuing debate on the topics. It is certainly one of the best introductions there is to Socratic thought, together with Vlastos’Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher and posthumous companion volume Socratic Studies, Terence Irwin’s Plato’s Moral Theory, and (for a very different approach) Leo Strauss’s long essay “The Problem of Socrates” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism.

Some of the authors’ more controversial positions are: (1) Socrates does not really have a method at all, though his manner of examining others can produce important negative and positive results; (2) Socrates’ profession of ignorance is limited to knowledge which gives real wisdom, and even here he claims to possess knowledge that certain things are true (e.g. suffering is better than injustice), but not to know why or how it is they are true; (3) Socrates’ extraordinary claims in the Gorgias concerning what everyone believes and desires (justice and the true good) are consistent with his treatment of akrasia, and present an entirely unified psychological theory; (4) Socrates regards virtue as neither necessary nor sufficient to happiness (this view is unique to the authors); (5) Socrates opposed all disobedience to law, even to law which commanded injustice, and his trial and execution were not motivated by political concerns; (6) the accusations against Socrates at his trial reflect religious prejudices which he represents quite accurately in Plato’s Apology.

It is possible to take issue with the authors’ approach. They give little attention to the literary aspect of the dialogues, which might shed a different light on some of the topics they consider, e.g. his epistemology and religion. Thus if Socrates makes knowledge-claims regarding moral wisdom in a context which calls for rhetorical discourse, such as in parts of the Apology, these claims may be intended very differently than claims he would make in the course of dialectical argument. Similarly, one might interpret Socrates’ account at his trial and elsewhere of his religious beliefs, particularly those regarding his daimonion and divination, in a very different manner. Socrates’ famous irony all but disappears in this study, and over two-thirds of its citations derive from the Apology, Crito and Gorgias, with very few from aporetic dialogues such as the Laches, Charmides and Lysis. And while the authors’ generally adhered-to determination to limit their attention to the earlier dialogues is understandable, some passages in later dialogues might be usefully applied, e.g. that on the pedagogy of “noble sophists” at Sophist 230bd to the question of whether there is a method to the elenchus, the distinction between Socratic and Platonic wisdom suggested at Symposium 210a to the puzzling questions concerning philosophy vs. wisdom as the form in which the virtues are or are not unified in the person of Socrates, and the mode in which Socrates does or does not enjoy eudaimonia.

One may also question specific positions and arguments the authors make. I do not see, for example, that the distinction between knowing that certain things are true and knowing why or how it is they are true is all that significant, when applied to moral wisdom, understood as knowledge of the true or ideal virtues: is not knowledge of “how each of the beings is” ( Charmides 166d) equivalent to knowledge of what the definition of each is? I also cannot agree that Socrates would be willing to obey a manifestly unjust law, e.g. to harm an innocent person, and think his action justified on the grounds that not he, but the state was the responsible agent in such a situation, an implication of their interpretation the authors fully acknowledge.

But such criticisms belong more properly to the scholarly debate this work will generate in the coming years, and are not meant to detract in the least from Brickhouse and Smith’s achievement: a superb analysis of Socratic philosophy, which can be recommended without hesitation to students and specialists alike.