BMCR 1995.06.16

1995.06.16, Vander Waerdt, The Socratic Movement

, The Socratic movement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. x, 406 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780801425851 $19.95.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the Socrates of Plato in the same way there is a tendency to focus on the brightest star in a constellation. Though other portrayals of Socrates exist, none details so compelling and enigmatic a figure, nor combines philosophical and literary brilliance, in quite the manner of a Platonic dialogue.

But it is always important to keep in mind that not one but three substantial depictions of Socrates have come down to us from antiquity. If preference is routinely given to one, surely the other two at least merit a hearing before being dismissed. However, as Paul Vander Waerdt reminds us in his introduction to this collection of essays, the alternate portrayals of Socrates do not often get their day in court: “it is often assumed, though the assumption is rarely supported by detailed argument, that the ‘historical Socrates’ is identical to the Socrates of Plato’s early, ‘Socratic’ dialogues” (9). Clearly, Vander Waerdt has a point. When two prominent collections of essays on this subject can title themselves the philosophy of Socrates and concern themselves almost exclusively with the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues [ The Philosophy of Socrates ed. by Gregory Vlastos (Anchor: 1971); Essays of the Philosophy of Socrates ed. by Hugh Benson (Oxford: 1992)], the time has come to expand the perspectives from which we perceive Socrates. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, Vander Waerdt offers this collection of essays, which concerns itself not with Plato’s Socrates but with what Vander Waerdt dubs “The Socratic Movement.” By this term he means, “in the first place … those of Socrates’ associates who attempted to commemorate his life by recording his conversations for posterity.” However, Vander Waerdt also understands the Socratic movement in a broader sense to refer to “the numerous fourth- and third- century philosophers … who recognized Socrates as their chief authority and who viewed their own philosophical activity as a continuation of his” (4). The first eight essays in this volume are devoted to a consideration of nonPlatonic depictions of Socrates, while the second group of six essays are concerned with the influence Socrates continued to wield in the Hellenistic world.

Of the two alternate portraits of Socrates, that of Aristophanes seems the more difficult to resuscitate for several reasons. First, Aristophanes’The Clouds is a comedy, and comedies are not the first place the serious scholar would turn to derive an accurate depiction of an historical figure. Second, the depiction of Socrates in this work seems so at odds with what we know of Socrates from other sources that we seem compelled to dismiss it as caricature. Finally, the Socrates of both Xenophon and Plato explicitly denies the type of activity that The Clouds demonstrates him as engaged in.

In his introduction to this volume and again in the essay “Socrates in the Clouds,” Professor Vander Waerdt confronts “the widespread consensus among modern scholars that the figure of Socrates in The Clouds is that of a typical sophist” (56). Instead Vander Waerdt argues that the interest in natural philosophy Socrates demonstrates in the play represents a serious interest of Socrates at one point in his life: “the Aristophanic Socrates, who attempts to explain all natural phenomena in terms of their material constituents, displays the same philosophical orientation as the young Socrates of the Phaedo” (66).

But there are several problems with taking the remarks at Phaedo 96-100 as expressing a serious interest in natural philosophy of Socrates at any point in his life. First is the fact that the Phaedo is a definite middle-period dialogue, one of a group in which Plato espouses a set of doctrines found nowhere in the early works. Gregory Vlastos has detailed ten major doctrinal distinctions between the character Socrates in the early-period and the character Socrates in the middle-period dialogues, and has argued for the claim that we have good reason to identify the character of the early period dialogues with that of the historical Socrates and to ascribe claims of the middle period dialogues as a Platonic innovation. 1 So when Socrates questions the immortality of the soul in the Apology, but argues for it in the Phaedo, on this line of interpretation we assume that the latter is a Platonic invention. In the same way, the discourse on causality in the Phaedo that Vander Waerdt appeals to in order to justify the Socratic attraction to natural philosophy seems more likely to represent Platonic teleology than it does any particularly Socratic doctrine.

But even if one does not accept the distinction between early and middle-period dialogues, there is still reason to be suspicious of connecting the discourse in the Phaedo where Socrates speaks of an early interest in natural philosophy with the depiction of Socrates in the Clouds. For we need to keep in mind the explicit denials of Socratic interest in natural philosophy in both Plato and Xenophon. Xenophon says flat out that Socrates “did not enquire in the same way as most of the others concerning the nature of the universe, how the cosmos … was born, and by what causes each of the heavenly things comes into being” ( Memorabilia 1.1). In the Apology, Plato has Socrates explicitly confront the Aristophanic portrayal of him as a natural philosopher and reply unequivocally, “But I have nothing to do with such things gentlemen. I appeal to most of you to bear me out, and I ask you to inform and tell another … whether any of you have ever heard me conversing about such things, whether much or little” ( Apology 19d). Probably written shortly after Socrates’ death and read by those at the trial, it seems implausible that such a denial would have been fabricated whole cloth by Plato, or that if Socrates had issued such a challenge it would not have been met by someone at the trial had there been any truth to the charge.

Against this line of reasoning Vander Waerdt raises the specter that the very fact that Socrates and Xenophon felt compelled to combat such a portrayal argues in a way for its accuracy, since “it was open to them to dismiss it as a parody of the typical sophist with whom Socrates shared little or nothing” (57). But the argument that both Xenophon and Plato “protest too much” about Socrates’ involvement in natural philosophy is specious. For it is clearly possible for the charge to have been baseless but for it to have taken hold in the minds of the public. (That is, unless we are to believe the Athenian demos had a taste for accuracy that is at odds with the American public’s.) If such were the case, then there is nothing remarkable in Plato and Xenophon having to confront a charge which, though groundless, was taken seriously by their fellow Athenians.

A much more likely prospect for resurrection is Xenophon’s Socrates, and no one has done more to revive Xenophon’s reputation than Professor Donald Morrison. In a seminal essay published in Ancient Philosophy (“On Professor Vlastos’ Xenophon,”Ancient Philosophy 1987, 9-23) Professor Morrison effectively counters Gregory Vlastos’s arguments that Xenophon’s Socrates is inferior to Plato’s. In the essay in this volume “Xenophon’s Socrates as Teacher,” Professor Morrison continues the rehabilitation of Xenophon by focusing in particular on the portrait of Socrates as a teacher in both Xenophon and Plato. Not only is Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates as teacher consistent with Plato’s, but in at least one important area, Morrison argues, it is more intellectually honest.

1. Although Xenophon’s Socrates is often depicted as a philosophical lightweight who eschews philosophical argumentation in favor of simplistic moralizing, Morrison demonstrates, by focusing on the examination of Euthydemus, that “Xenophon considers subjecting people to the elenchus to be an essential part of Socratic method” (188).

2. The role of moral exhortation to others exists in both Plato’s and Xenophon’s portraits. Morrison argues that like his Xenophontic counterpart “Plato’s Socrates must also give moral advice” (191). As evidence “that Plato’s Socrates is the sort of person to give moral advice” (192), Morrison cites the Crito, which depicts Socrates as arguing for a positive moral position, namely, that he must remain in jail. One cannot imagine, Morrison claims, that if the situation were reversed Socrates would not attempt to lead Crito to the same solution.

3. Both Plato and Xenophon depict a Socrates concerned with providing practical advice to the young. In Plato this activity is not depicted but is referred to, especially in the early parts of the Laches, while “Xenophon’s Socrates also showed concern with ( Mem. 4.7) and claimed expertise in ( Apo. 20-21) these educational matters” (194).

4. Finally, although both Plato and Xenophon have Socrates deny being a teacher of virtue, “Xenophon stresses more than Plato the importance of Socrates’ moral character and its influence for our overall moral evaluation of the man” (208). On this point, Morrison concludes “Xenophon’s portrayal provides an important supplement, and corrective, to Plato’s account” (208).

Vander Waerdt’s collection of essays performs an admirable service in opening up pathways of interpretation which are too often closed and giving voices to viewpoints which are too often unheard, and for these reasons can be enthusiastically recommended.

  • [1] For a justification of the distinction between early and middle dialogues see Chapter 2 of Gregory Vlastos’s Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cornell University Press: 1991).