BMCR 2002.04.10

Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy

Nicholas D. Smith, Paul Woodruff, Reason and religion in Socratic philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xiv, 226 pages). ISBN 1423760530 $45.00.

The bulk of this volume comprises nine essays, six of which appear in print for the first time. Among the new essays are three (by Reeve, McPherran, and White) originally presented at a 1996 workshop at the University of Texas at Austin entitled: “Reason and Religion in Fifth-Century Greece”, and three (by Kraut, Gocer and Woodruff) invited later by the workshop conveners, who are also the editors of this volume. Previously published articles by Vlastos, Parker, and Brickhouse & Smith represent recent scholarship on reason and religion in Socrates. The volume concludes with “an edited version of a four-way correspondence”, which took place over the summer of 1989 among Vlastos, McPherran, Brickhouse and Smith, concerning the Socratic daimonion.

In general, the focus of the volume is found in the various responses offered to two questions: i) Was Socrates tried as a participant in the rationalist criticism of religion which characterized much of fifth century thought? and ii) How could Socrates reconcile his well known commitment to reason with obedience to an “inner voice” ( daimonion ti)? The various answers proposed in the essays of this collection will be of real value not only to advanced students and researchers interested in Socrates and Plato, but also to those studying the interaction between religion and philosophy in the classical period.

R. Kraut (“Socrates, Politics and Religion”, 13-23) argues that a popular perception of Socrates as “someone who undermined the basis for traditional religious practices” (18) resulted in his execution on charges of impiety. In place of the explanation offered in the Apology (i.e., a popular inability to distinguish him from radical scientists and sophists), Kraut holds that popular opinion was moved instead by a perception that the daimonion was Socrates’ means of circumventing traditional religious institutions, and, when coupled with his doctrine that “virtue is knowledge” reduced traditional religious rituals (“a matter of mere external behaviour” 17) to a waste of time. It is not obvious to this reader, however, that the average Athenian juror would have cast his vote on the basis of the kind of complex argument which Kraut uses to describe the place of Socrates’ daimonion.

C. D. C. Reeve (“Socrates the Apollonian?” 24-39) allows that Socrates is an Apollonian (serving the Delphic Apollo in his philosophical mission, and guided by a daimonion which has a Delphic provenance), but he denies (rightly, I think) that Socrates’ ascription of a rigorously moral character to Apollo would have been taken by Athenian jurors as the proof of Meletus’ case. The question remains, however, how the rational Socrates could give heed to something genuinely oracular. Reeve then proposes a more profound sense of Socratic Apollonianism, by means of which he tries to save both the prophetic nature of the daimonion and Socrates’ commitment to reason. He posits that Plato’s various descriptions of prophecy suggest that “what is non-rational from the human point of view, what exceeds human reason, does not fall outside the realm of reason altogether” (35). In this way, Socrates’ deference to the daimonion need not be seen as an abandonment of reason for the non-rational, but as deference “to greater reason” (35), which supplies a wisdom unattainable through the elenchus.

R. Parker (“The Trial of Socrates: And a Religious Crisis?” 40-54) offers a general discussion of the social, political, and intellectual setting of Socrates’ trial. For Parker, two facts seem clear: i) it was not Socrates’ “actual religious position” (42), but its misrepresentation in Aristophanes’ Clouds which resulted in Socrates’ execution, and ii) in describing the charges against him any attempt to separate the religious from the political is “pointless” (45). (Such a position would seem contrary to Kraut’s suggestion that the jurors would have voted against Socrates because they accurately saw that his philosophy was undermining traditional religion.) Moreover, the importance of Aristophanes’ misrepresentation takes on added significance with Parker’s suggestion that any repression of intellectuals (rare as it was in Socrates’ time, 45-46) seems to have been the result of science combining with the “moral relativism” and “antinomianism” of the sophists (47). In sum, whether the charge against Socrates is subverting religious tradition, or installing religious novelties (and in each case, reference would probably be made to his daimonion), Parker sees, on the one hand, little reflection of a religious crisis, and, on the other, a variety of issues beyond the theological.

G. Vlastos (“Socratic Piety” 55-73, reprinted from Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, V) argues in this 1989 essay that Socrates saw a “perfect harmony” (55) between his commitment to reasoned argument and his obedience to divine commands because principles discoverable through elenchus are binding on the gods (contrary to Reeve’s suggestion above that there is a divine wisdom above human wisdom and beyond determination by means of the elenchus), and any dream, omen or daimonic urging requires the application of human reason to understand its true meaning. In terms of his trial, Socrates’ rationalization, and consequent moralizing of the gods is no less an attack on traditional religion than the natural theology of the Ionian physiologoi. Such a transformation of the gods, Vlastos maintains, would actually make Socrates guilty of Meletus’ charges, and pious contemporaries would have recognized such gods as (to use Vlastos’ phrasing) “rationalistic fabrications, ersatz -gods worshipped in the godless Thinkery of the Aristophanic caricature” (60). Vlastos concludes his essay with a portrayal of Socratic religion in which piety amounts to an altruistic subversion of the egocentric eudaimonism of traditional Greek belief.

Thomas C. Brickhouse & Nicholas D. Smith (“Socrates’ Gods and the Daimon” 74-88, reprinted from Plato’s Socrates, 6.2.2-6.3.4), in this 1994 essay, explicitly reject Vlastos’ suggestion (above) that the charges against Socrates were well founded and resulted from his moralizing conception of the gods. Arguing (rightly, I think) that there a lack of evidence in the ancient sources, and that such a view would make Socrates a shyster who covers up his crime, and his prosecutors stupid beyond belief (“inexplicably incompetent” 78), they come back to what Plato’s Socrates says in the Apology as the most probable explanation for the charges against him. They then focus on the contemporary debate over the “conflict between Socrates’ daimonion and Socrates’ own powers of reasoning” (82). Rejecting the second of Vlastos’ views (the daimonion never overrules Socrates’ reasoned deliberation) they go on to argue that the daimonion is not necessarily seen by Socrates as something irrational. Their attempt to explain Socrates’ meaning in Crito 46b (where Socrates claims to follow only reason) by positing a reasonable daimonion seems the weakest part of the essay. They would have fared better, in this reviewer’s opinion, to stay with the suggestion that Crito 46b simply contrasts the wisdom of the expert with the notions of the ignorant, and the daimonion “is not what Socrates has in mind as the alternative here” (84). Noteworthy are repeated cautions (81, 85) against treating Socrates as a modern thinker (i.e. not allowing him to adopt a non-critical attitude toward religion).

Mark McPherran (“Does Piety Pay?” 89-114) attempts to refine the modern analysis of the Socratic critique of Athenian cult tradition and so to define more clearly its significance for his trial. Allowing Socrates a recognizable orthopraxy, even in light of his rejection of a traditional do ut des mercantile reciprocity between gods and humans, McPherran finds for him a place in a minority religious tradition which emphasizes “the petitioner’s intentionality and piety over his or her particular material gift-offerings and requests” (97-98), and which assumes a harmoniously ordered universe governed justly by perfectly wise deities. In this light, Socrates is a threat not to the practice of cult per se, but only to cult practitioners with an unethical motivation, and some jurors fitting this description might well have seen him as such. Unfortunately, there is a glaring lack of connection between McPherran’s analysis and Socrates’ explanation of the charges in the Apology, a problem which is helped little by the suggestion that when Socrates refers to his ‘investigation of things aloft’ he means, at least in part, his criticism of inappropriate cult practice. It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify in the wholesale, slanderous charges of irreligious, pre-Socratic science the nuanced complexity of the criticism of traditional cultic practice which McPherran attributes to Socrates. And McPherran himself allows that maybe no one (from the jurors to Socrates himself) actually understood the threat posed by Socrates’ views on cult practice. (The final pages of McPherran’s essay outline the psychological basis for the Platonic version of the Socratic cult practices.)

Asli Gocer (“A New Assessment of Socratic Philosophy of Religion” 115-129) provides a telling criticism of the Vlastos/McPherran claim that Socrates’ belief in morally good gods resulted in his conviction. She maintains (rightly, I think) that there is no argument in the “Socratic” dialogues for “the goodness of the gods” (118), and that there is no sound reason for reading back into the earlier dialogues elements found in Plato’s middle and later works. Moreover, only a seriously flawed over-simplification of Athenian religious practices, introducing some notion of heterodoxy, could, according to Gocer, provide reason to conclude that Socrates’ belief in good gods would be considered in any way “revolutionary”, or that it would mount any significant challenge to the traditional practice of Athenian religion. In her words, the case for or against Socrates’ impact on Athenian religion is “hopelessly indeterminate” (123). Rejecting both Vlastos’ characterization of the daimonion as an ancillary to a rigorously rationalist ethic, and Brickhouse and Smith’ claim that revelation from the daimonion would constitute in the popular mind a rejection of Athenian cult, Gocer concludes that there is simply not enough hard historical evidence to draw any “confident conclusion” regarding “the extent of the religious nonconformism of Socrates” (125).

Paul Woodruff (“Socrates and the Irrational”, 130-150) describes a Socrates (“a fourth-century concept, born of hindsight after the death of the historical figure” 135) who rejects both sophistic rationalism and traditional religion. By his own admission this Socrates (and every one else) fails to achieve the strict rationality demanded by his techne paradigm, and so, according to Woodruff, must rely on elenchus as “the only possible generator of rational belief”, an elenchus which by its very nature “is not consistent with Socrates’ expressed view of rational procedure” (138), for in a real sense it depends on that which is beyond the rational. Woodruff suggests that elenchus can become a useful and reasonable tool just because Socrates assumes that everyone possesses a sense of shame. This shame is not the shame criticized by the sophists in the fifth century, but an internalized shame, what Woodruff calls “Socratic” shame (“a full awareness that one has betrayed values that are entirely one’s own”, 144), which is very similar, he suggests, to what we refer to as conscience. In this way, Socrates’ philosophy can be seen to set aside the traditional Greek gods, without requiring that their place be filled by the radical science of the sophists.

Stephen A. White (“Socrates at Colonus”, 151-175) argues that the Late Platonists’ practice of commemorating Socrates’ death was a tradition originating with the Phaedo, in which Plato, according to White, reshapes Attic traditions concerning honours paid to heroes in such a way as aptly to remember Socrates as “a model of moral and intellectual endeavour” (153). The strength of this essay (indeed, what makes it interesting) lies, in some measure, in what it manages to avoid: i) the pitfalls of allegory (White states: “Symbolism and allegory have beguiled many”, 157, and “The spectre of allegory has seduced many”, 159) and ii) the banality of being a mere literary exercise (White brings the reader back repeatedly to Athenian religious tradition, in an effort to find a living connection between the Phaedo and the later tradition of the Academy). Thus, while White’s essay is different in character from others in the collection, it makes a valuable contribution to it.

“Socrates and His Daimonion”, 176-204. The final chapter consists of excerpts from twenty-four letters originally written in the period from May to September, 1989, and now collected as part of the Vlastos Archive at the Harry Ransom Centre for Research in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. All the letters were sent to, or received from Gregory Vlastos by Messrs’ Brickhouse, McPherran, or Smith, and their presentation here provides both “a fascinating illustration of the way Vlastos worked” and “a dialogue which displays thoughtful competing views of Socrates’ attitudes toward religion” (176). The issue at stake, “whether or not Socrates considers his daimonion…to be a source of knowledge” (177), finds (as we know) Vlastos vigorously rejecting any “dualist epistemology” which compromises the rationalism of Socrates’ elenctic project, and McPherran equally strongly affirming the daimonion as a source of certain knowledge for Socrates, while Brickhouse and Smith work to clarify the notion of “certain knowledge”. The chapter is a remarkable addition to this volume; its conversational quality and its friendly repetitiveness would lead this reviewer to make sure that his students read this portion of the text first; it makes a very useful introduction.

The book is handsomely produced (even preserving the Greek fonts in the reprinted essays, but, alas, transliterating in the others) and well edited (the appearance of a dozen typographical errors in the notes of Woodruff’s essay is a noteworthy anomaly, as is the dittography of “religion” on the top of page 123). Moreover, it is a pleasure to report that the collection includes a general index which provides a list of the proper names and major topics appearing across the essays, as well as a complete index of ancient authors and sources. In sum, this text is a very useful addition to the Socratic literature, and as a compendium of (sometimes) rival ideas about the daimonion and the charges made against Socrates at his trial, it will more than repay a careful reading.