BMCR 2000.01.08

Socrates, Pleasure, and Value

, Socrates, Pleasure, and Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xvii, 169. $35.00.

Anyone who has worked on Socratic ethics and eudaemonism in recent years is aware of Rudebusch’s work in the area. In a number of articles, he has helped to clarify Platonic arguments and our own thinking. This book is substantially based on these articles, but this does not devalue the enterprise at all. It is useful to have the work gathered together, and it is useful to have the links between the various articles expressed, so that they turn into a coherent book. In addition, of course, the book contains some new work.

The central issue of the book is the old chestnut of the relation between the apparent hedonism of Protagoras and the apparent anti-hedonism of Gorgias. There have been a number of attempts to argue that the two dialogues are compatible, and Rudebusch’s is one of the best. He argues against the Gosling/Taylor distinction (which also serves to reconcile the two dialogues) between long-term and short-term pleasure, in favour of a distinction between Calliclean hedonism as privileging apparent pleasantness, and Socratic hedonism as a hedonism of measure that allows one to distinguish real from apparent pleasantness. In Rudebusch’s terms, Callicles’ hedonism is a satisfaction hedonism of felt desire, whereas Socrates’ hedonism is a satisfaction hedonism of true desire.

The argument with Callicles is set in context by chapter 3, a discussion of Polus’s position. I am entirely in agreement with Rudebusch’s discussion here. He demonstrates that Polus is what he calls an ‘ethical Protagorean’, such that he holds two theses: ‘(1) For any action or object, insofar as it appears to be desirable for me, it really is desirable for me; (2) For any psychological state of mind, insofar as it appears to be a state of desiring, it really is that state of desiring.’ In order to refute Polus, Rudebusch argues, Socrates gets him to accept two distinctions: first, that some things, like health, are intrinsically desirable, while other things, like drinking foul-tasting medicine, are only extrinsically desirable; and, second (as also stressed by Penner in Apeiron 24 (1991)), that since some extrinsically desirable things may also on occasion be extrinsically undesirable, we do not want them unconditionally, but only if they are really beneficial (i.e. extrinsically desirable); if, on the other hand, they turn out to be harmful (i.e. extrinsically undesirable), we want not to do them. This is a distinction between conditional and unconditional desiring, such that if the apparent good is in fact for the good, then we desire it; if it is not for the good, then we do not desire it. This sets the context for the later discussion with Callicles, in the sense that there is a loophole in Socrates’ refutation of Polus, which is plugged by Callicles. Anything that immediately satisfies desire can be seen as both intrinsically and unconditionally desirable to a Calliclean hedonist.

In chapter 4 Rudebusch turns to define Callicles’ position. It is clear that Callicles is far from being what he calls a ‘prudential hedonist’. It is also clear ( pace Gosling and Taylor) that he is not a ‘sybaritic hedonist’ either. That is, he is not concerned only with bodily pleasures, which serve only as a model for pleasure in general: pleasure is the result of replenishing a perceived depletion. That he is not concerned merely with bodily pleasures is shown by the fact that he accepts Socrates’ statement at 501b-c that the pleasures they are talking about are those of both the body and the mind. Rudebusch, with considerable sophistication and use of modern categories, defines Callicles’ hedonism as ‘a satisfaction hedonism of felt desire with respect to the intrinsically desirable’ (p. 34). Since ‘the good’ is synonymous with ‘the intrinsically desirable’, and since Callicles identifies the intrinsically desirable with the satisfaction of felt desire, then, as Socrates says (495a, d), for Callicles ‘good’ and ‘pleasant’ are identical. This is the hedonistic theory that Socrates should tackle in the ensuing sections of the dialogue.

Rudebusch also criticizes the attribution to Callicles by Irwin and Kahn of indiscriminate hedonism. It is not clear to me that Plato would have recognized any distinction between indiscriminate hedonism and the kind of hedonism Rudebusch does ascribe to Callicles — nor, indeed, is it clear to me that indiscriminate hedonism is incompatible with the kind of hedonism Rudebusch ascribes to Callicles. Callicles’ recommendation of the immediate satisfaction of felt desire is not significantly altered if we say that he recommends the immediate satisfaction of any and every felt desire. In fact, this is what Callicles seems to recommend at 491e-492a. Nor do I find Rudebusch’s criticism of this position cogent. He claims (p. 35) that it makes Callicles into a ‘straw man’, since to refute indiscriminate hedonism leaves untouched the substantial aspect of Callicles’ position, namely his recommendation of the life of the tyrant. Rudebusch is surely right that it must be part of Plato’s project to cast doubt on the validity of this way of life, but since for Callicles the whole point of the life of the tyrant is to be able to satisfy all one’s desires (492b-c), then for Plato to refute indiscriminate hedonism is simultaneously for him to puncture the tyrannical ideal. I suggest, therefore, that the best interpretation of Calliclean hedonism is one which amalgamates these two categories developed by Rudebusch: Calliclean hedonism is a satisfaction hedonism of any and every felt desire with regard to the intrinsically desirable.

In any case, having defined Callicles’ position to his satisfaction, Rudebusch turns in chapter 5 to consider how Socrates refutes him. He mounts a defence of the two arguments involved, the ‘argument from opposites’ (495e-497d) and the ‘argument from pleased cowards’ (497d-499a). Rather than consider Rudebusch’s defence of these arguments, I want to say that he has rather missed the point, at least in the case of the first argument. For the primary weakness of this argument is just that there is absolutely no reason for Callicles to accept it rather than simply to turn it on its head. If Callicles accepts that pleasure and pain occur together, then, given that he thinks that the good life consists in a life devoted to pleasure, he could simply deny that living well and living badly cannot occur together. It is true that he has accepted, at 495e, that living well and living badly cannot occur together, but he could turn round at the end and say, ‘All you’ve done, Socrates, is demonstrated that I was wrong to accept this.’ (However, despite this logical weakness, Callicles would presumably still accept it, because he is uncomfortable with the fact that pleasure seems to involve simultaneous pain. So he would not want to admit that living well (pleasantly) and living badly (with distress) go together.)

Rudebusch’s treatment of the second argument, the argument from pleased cowards, is also unsatisfactory. The first premiss, that it is in virtue of their possession of good qualities that we call people good, is unexceptionable. Actually, the Greek just says ‘good things’, not ‘good qualities’, but it is clearly qualities such as courage that are meant, not (say) wealth and good looks. However, it then immediately follows that the substitution of ‘pleasure’ for ‘good’, which is absolutely critical to Socrates’ argument, is illegitimate. For on the most reasonable interpretation of the first premiss, it is only some good things, namely the virtues, whose presence makes people good; pleasure was not named as one of the good things that has this effect, nor is it reasonable to take it to be one of these good things. In any case, it is far from clear that Callicles is committed to the strong identification of ‘good’ and ‘pleasant’. The most natural way to take his thoughts on the subject is that something is good, or worth pursuing, just insofar as it is pleasant. In that case there is no inconsistency in Callicles’ calling intelligence and bravery good, and also calling pleasure good.

There are other difficulties with the argument from pleased cowards: see e.g. G. Santas, Socrates, pp. 276-7. Rudebusch’s defence of this argument is incomplete without refuting these and other objections. At any rate, by the end of his discussion of Gorgias, Rudebusch finds himself in a position to reconcile the dialogue with Protagoras along the lines outlined above. Thanks to this reconciliation between Protagoras and Gorgias, Rudebusch is able, in the following chapters, also to reconcile Socrates the hedonist with Socrates the ‘virtue supremacist’ (as in Apology and Crito). This is the second main issue of the book.

Chapter 6 approaches the issues from an unusual angle, a consideration of the claim in Apology 40c-41c that death is good. What is important about this passage for the central purposes of the book is that it allows Rudebusch to develop a distinction between ‘sensate pleasures’ and ‘modal pleasures’. Sensate pleasures are sensations; modal pleasures involve no sensation, but are activities that are performed effortlessly, and/or welcomed, and/or have a particular value to a person. Leaving aside the value of Rudebusch’s distinction to this passage of Apology, my chief worry is that I can find no awareness of this distinction in Plato. Rudebusch refers (p. 71) to Philebus 21a-b to support the idea that one might unconsciously be feeling pleasure; but Philebus 21a-b can equally (and more plausibly) be taken to suggest, by reductio ad absurdum, that there can be no such thing as pleasure unless one is recognizing it. Apology 40c-41c alone is insecure evidence for the distinction, given (a) the rhetorical context, and (b) the fact that at 29b and 42a Socrates disclaims knowledge of what happens after death.

One of the traditional obstacles in the way of understanding Socrates’ commitment to the position attributed to him in Protagoras is that there are no cases in the dialogues of Socrates weighing pleasures. Rudebusch argues in chapter 7 that there are simply no cases of Socrates weighing sensate pleasures, but plenty of him weighing activities. This is a very interesting and rewarding idea. In the context of this book, it allows Rudebusch to argue that activities are modal pleasures, that virtue is an activity, and so that virtue is modally pleasant. Hence the reconciliation between the anti-hedonist position of Gorgias and the pro-hedonist position of Protagoras is ultimately that in the former dialogue Plato argues against a hedonism of sensate pleasure, while in the latter he argues in favour of modal hedonism. And hence too the reconciliation between the apparent hedonism of Protagoras and the emphasis on virtue in other early dialogues.

This is a rapid summary of the remaining three chapters of the book. The issues raised are too broad to be sensibly dealt with in a review. I will say only that I am not convinced that Socrates believes that virtue is only and always activity. Virtue may be a psychological state that both depends on and leads to virtuous activity, but it is separable from activity (see especially M. Burnyeat, ‘Virtues in Action’, in G. Vlastos (ed.), The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1971), 209-34, an article oddly absent from Rudebusch’s bibliography). Secondly, Rudebusch’s position depends on the not unassailable assumption that for Socrates virtue is the only good, that it is on its own sufficient for happiness. However, Rudebusch is of course aware of passages such as Crito 47e and Gorgias 505a, 512a-b, which tell against this, and he attempts to argue them away in chapter 9.

The main arguments of the book are prefaced by a chapter on Plato’s aporetic style in the early dialogues, which is not an essential to the book, but is shoehorned in to justify the attempt (as if such justification were needed) to find positive theses in even aporetic dialogues. I think this chapter contains a petitio. It sets out to explain why we can find positive theses in the dialogues but assumes from the start that the relevant theses are ‘in likelihood’ held by Plato (p. 12). But since this chapter is not, as I say, essential to the main arguments of the book, I pass over it in relative silence.

This is a short book, with 128 pages of text, followed by notes, bibliography, and indexes. But rather than describing it as ‘short’, let us call it ‘compact’. There is plenty here of interest to scholars of the early Platonic dialogues, and Rudebusch’s views will be argued about for many years to come. I hope to have demonstrated, albeit in a cursory fashion, that although the book is interesting and rewarding, its foundations are on occasion somewhat shaky.