BMCR 2007.09.26

The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies

, The socratic paradox and its enemies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. xii, 235 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226891720 $35.00.

2 Responses

In this provocative book, Roslyn Weiss argues for a new interpretation of the Socratic paradoxes: no one does wrong willingly, virtue is knowledge, and all the virtues are one. According to the traditional interpretation, Socrates’ claim that no one does wrong willingly implies that no one who does wrong recognizes that he does wrong, and thus that akrasia is impossible. His claim that virtue is knowledge is typically thought to mean that being virtuous is solely a matter of having a perfected intellect and not a matter of emotional cultivation, habituation or nature. Finally, his claim that all the virtues are one is normally taken to mean that the virtues are either identical to one another or inter-entailing.

According to Weiss, Socrates is not committed to the host of “bizarre” and “regrettable” psychological views associated with the traditional interpretation. On her view, Socrates is not interested in defending radical theories of human choice and decision-making. Instead he is devoted to defeating the enemies of justice: those who hold that injustice is preferable to justice. According to Weiss, this ethical outlook is expressed most clearly and succinctly by Glaucon’s claim in Republic II that no one is willingly just. She argues that the paradoxes ought to be read as reversals of the various ideas behind this claim, including the claims that the unjust life is the most desirable life, that the intelligent person will therefore aim for injustice, and that those who are intelligent and courageous will use these virtues in the service of injustice and intemperance.

This approach yields a minimalist interpretation of the paradoxes. Socrates’ claim that no one does wrong willingly simply states that since it is justice that satisfies the deep human desire to live well, someone who acts unjustly should not be described as acting willingly, even if they knowingly choose injustice. (Weiss admits that such a use of ‘willingly’ strains the limits of ordinary usage) The claim that virtue is knowledge should be understood to mean that it is wise people who aim for justice. Finally, the claim that all the virtues are one should be taken to mean that those who are truly wise and courageous are also just and temperate. On Weiss’s reading, the claim that no one does wrong willingly illuminates the other paradoxes: “since no one who does wrong lives the truly good life he wishes to live, it follows that no one who chooses to do wrong is wise, and that those who are wise put their courage to use to foster in themselves temperance and justice” (p. 15).

On Weiss’s interpretation, then, Socrates does not hold the interesting positions in moral psychology and virtue ethics that scholars and students typically associate with him. Indeed, as Weiss herself states, his views on moral psychology are quite “ordinary” (p. 22). For example, he does not deny akrasia; instead, he thinks that people deliberately do wrong even while believing or knowing that what they are doing is wrong. Accordingly, he is not an intellectualist about virtue. Moreover, he is not an egoist or eudaimonist: people do not and indeed ought not aim at their own self-interest or happiness. Instead, people ought to do other than what seems best for themselves when what seems best does not coincide with what is right. The only thing radical about Socrates, on Weiss’s view, is his insistence that the just life, and not the unjust life, is the best life for a human being.

All of this is covered in the introductory and concluding chapters of Weiss’s book. The remaining chapters (two through seven) are devoted to providing novel interpretations of those dialogues that feature, or at least implicate, the paradoxes ( Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Meno, Republic 4, and Laws 9, respectively). Weiss’s approach is to use character analyses to generate her interpretations; more specifically, she examines Socrates’ arguments through the lens of how they target his interlocutors’ moral and intellectual flaws. In most cases, she argues that the minimalist interpretation is all that Socrates intends by his apparently paradoxical claims, since this is all that he needs to refute his enemies. When it is impossible to argue for the minimalist reading (as in the Protagoras, where Socrates states that no one willingly chooses the bad in the context of an explicit denial of the phenomenon of akrasia), she argues that Socrates does not really believe the paradox, but again, uses it in order to refute his interlocutor.

I doubt that Weiss’s book will convince anyone who endorses the traditional interpretation of the paradoxes. This is largely due to her interpretive approach, which often involves a fair bit of reading between the lines. Nonetheless, scholars interested in the individual dialogues she discusses will find it rewarding to consult the relevant chapters of her book. Weiss is a confident and engaging writer. She highlights distinctions that deserve consideration, draws attention to problematic areas in Socrates’ arguments, and provides interesting character analyses of Socrates’ interlocutors. For the remainder of this review, however, I focus on what I perceive as a pervasive problem with Weiss’s arguments, and I illustrate it by discussing her readings of just two of the dialogues: Protagoras and Meno. Briefly, I argue that Weiss’s own moral-psychological intuitions play too large a role in the justification for her interpretations.

Weiss describes the psychological views typically ascribed to Socrates as “regrettable” (p. 1), “bizarre” (p. 5), “naïve” (p. 5), “implausible” (pp. 5, 21), and “perverse” (p. 67). Indeed, this seems to be the primary motivation for her revisionary project. But philosophers ranging from Aristotle and the Stoics to contemporary thinkers such as Donald Davidson have found the traditional reading of Socrates’ picture of our psychology, and in particular the denial of akrasia, highly compelling. In addition, numerous Plato scholars have done considerable work arguing that Socrates’ psychological theses are plausible, often by illuminating the ways in which these theses are compatible with the claim that appetites and emotions play a central role in the aetiology of action. Weiss does not engage with any of this philosophical and interpretive work. Her own intuitions about moral psychology, however, play a central role in her interpretations of passages that feature the paradoxes.

I begin with the Protagoras. Weiss’s interpretation of the Protagoras is crucial to the success of her project, for, if she cannot show that Socrates is not sincerely committed to the denial of akrasia, then there is less reason to deny the traditional reading of the paradoxes as they appear in the other dialogues. According to Weiss, the Protagoras is a “protracted reductio ad absurdum of one man’s [Protagoras’s] pretensions to be the premier teacher of virtue” (p. 28). The paradox ‘no one does wrong willingly’ appears twice in the dialogue, once in Socrates’ analysis of Simonides’ poem at 354d-e and again at the conclusion of his argument against the possibility of akrasia at 358b-d. According to Weiss, Protagoras is the target of the paradox in both cases, for he does not value virtue and instead is the paradigmatic self-interested calculator of pleasure and pain. With respect to the first appearance of the paradox, Weiss argues for the minimalist reading. That is, she argues that when Socrates says that no wise man thinks that anyone willingly does bad things, he simply means that wrongdoing “invariably brings people the bad and harmful things they do not want and fails to bring them the good and beneficial things they want. The truly wise therefore avoid injustice; it is the unjust who are not wise” (p. 43). With respect to the second appearance of the paradox, which follows Socrates’ denial of akrasia, Weiss argues that Socrates does not really endorse the claim. She argues that the point of Socrates’ discussion of akrasia is to discredit Protagoras’ claim to teach virtue. Socrates argues that, if people are hedonists, then they always pursue the course of action that they think will bring about the most pleasure; accordingly, if they pursue a course of action that brings about less pleasure, then it must be due to their own ignorance. If all of this is true, then virtue can be taught and people ought to seek out sophists like Protagoras to teach it. But, according to Weiss, this picture is so clearly false that it constitutes a reductio of Protagoras’ claim to teach virtue: “By setting forth the improbable conditions for successful sophistic education, Socrates exposes the uselessness of such education for real people who are to be genuinely made virtuous. Real people are not pleasure-calculating automatons but are vulnerable to the tug of passion, pleasure, pain, love, and fear — that is, they are subject to akrasia. . .As long as people are real people, sophists cannot teach arete” (pp. 67-68).

Weiss’s approach to this central passage is ingenious, but her interpretation faces serious difficulties. First, the interpretation is strained: Weiss argues that Socrates means radically different things in the same dialogue each time he argues that no one willingly does bad things , and moreover, that he endorses one of the utterances of the phrase, but not the other. This would not be problematic if there were good textual reasons for reading the two passages so differently. But Weiss’s argument rests in large part on her own intuitions about the possibility of akrasia. Moreover, her statement of her own intuitions is the extent of her argument; she does not engage the vast philosophical and interpretive literature on the topic. The second and perhaps more obvious problem is that Plato’s contemporaries attribute the denial of akrasia to Socrates, which gives us very strong reason to take this passage, or at the very least its conclusion, quite seriously. Xenophon states that Socrates denies akrasia at Memorabilia 3.9.4 (where he also says that Socrates thinks that virtue is knowledge and that the virtues are one), and again at 4.6.6. And Aristotle also claims that Socrates denies akrasia at Nicomachean Ethics VII.ii.1145b. The fact that both of these ancient sources attribute the denial of akrasia to Socrates strongly suggests that Plato would portray him accordingly.

Still, though, Weiss is correct to note that the fact that Socrates’ arguments rests on hedonism casts doubt on his commitment to the view since he rejects hedonism elsewhere. Perhaps, then, Weiss could argue that the plausibility of her interpretation of the Protagoras depends on the success of her revisionary interpretations of the other dialogues that suggest the traditional view of the paradoxes. I turn next, then, to her interpretation of the Meno, where Socrates argues that no one desires bad things, since this also suggests that akrasia is impossible.

According to Weiss, Meno has two problems. First, like Protagoras, he does not value justice and temperance. Instead, he thinks that virtue is a matter of what you do and not whether you do it justly and temperately. Second, Meno is an elitist: he thinks that only aristocratic men can have real virtue. This is apparent, according to Weiss, in Meno’s definition of virtue: to desire fine things and have the power to acquire them. The paradox occurs when Socrates refutes this definition of virtue at 77b-78a. He attains Meno’s assent to the claim that when people desire fine things they desire good things, and he then argues that no one desires bad things, and thus that desire for good things cannot be a distinguishing characteristic of the virtuous. The argument implies that akrasia is impossible. Weiss argues, however, that Socrates actually argues that no one has a rational desire for bad things. She supports this claim by noting that Socrates switches from epithumein to boulesthai during the course of the argument. According to Weiss, Socrates intends ‘epithumein’ to signify brute, appetitive desire, while boulesthai signifies rational desire, or desire for things one takes to be good or beneficial. On this interpretation, Socrates never claims that it is impossible to desire ( epithumein) bad things; hence the possibility of akrasia is untouched by the argument, since appetitive desire for bad things can coexist with the recognition that those things are bad and still produce action.

Again, this interpretation faces serious difficulties. Clearly, a great deal turns on Weiss’s claim that epithumein and boulesthai signify different types of desire in the argument. Now as Weiss herself notes, Plato often uses epithumein and boulesthai interchangeably as generic words for desire. Indeed when he uses the terms to connote different kinds of desire, as in the Charmides, he explicitly draws the distinction. Since he does not draw the distinction in the Meno, why should we think he is using the terms in a distinct sense? Weiss appeals yet again to the apparent absurdity of the claim that it is impossible to desire ( epithumein) things one cognizes as harmful: “In our Meno passage, it is clear that Socrates recognizes a distinction between epithumein and boulesthai : he shifts quite deliberately from epithumein to boulesthai in order to make the claim that no people want [rationally desire] what they recognize as harmful, a claim that would hardly be plausible if it spoke instead of what people desire” (p. 160). But again, Weiss’s intuitions do not constitute an argument, particularly in light of the textual reasons for thinking that he is using the terms interchangeably. First, Meno states that virtue is to desire ( epithoumonta) good things and have the power to acquire them. But when Socrates concludes his argument for the claim that no one desires bad things, he says to Meno, “Were you not saying just now that virtue is to desire ( boulesthai) good things and have the power to secure them?” Meno readily agrees. This strongly implies that neither Socrates nor Meno is deploying distinct senses of the terms in the argument. Second, if Weiss is correct that epithumein and boulesthai are not being used interchangeably in the argument then Socrates has not really shown that Meno’s definition of virtue is false. If Socrates does think that it is possible to desire ( epithumein) bad things, then to desire ( epithumein) good things could be a distinguishing mark of the virtuous.

Weiss has a response to these objections. On her view, Socrates is essentially an agonistic thinker: his aim is to defeat those who defend injustice (whether implicitly or explicitly), by whatever means possible. As such, he is not opposed to winning arguments by verbal trickery and deception. Moreover, he is not truly interested in arriving at definitions of ethical terms: “If Socrates searches for definitions he does so less because he is enamored of them than because his deceptively innocuous definitional questions loosen the tongues of his interlocutors who realize only too late in the process of venturing and then refining their definitions that they have displayed their ineptitude as thinkers and their shallowness as men” (pp. 3-4). On her view, then, Socrates’ interest in the Meno is not in having a forthright discussion with Meno about virtue, nor in defining virtue, but rather in undermining Meno’s elitist contention that some individuals are superior to others with respect to what they desire. Thus, he purposefully slips the distinction between epithumein and boulesthai past Meno, who, she claims, fails to recognize the distinction, and he is indifferent to the fact that he has failed to define virtue. She says, “Since Socrates’ urgent concern here is to eliminate or at least greatly to reduce Meno’s groundless sense of his own superiority, what is important is that he prevent Meno from seeing in what men want the distinguishing mark of virtue: with respect to what they want, he argues, all men are the same” (p. 161).

To defend her interpretation of the paradoxes Weiss presents an equally heterodox conception of Socrates himself. On Weiss’s picture, Socrates, like the sophists he is trying to undermine, uses eristic arguments to defeat his opponents. Moreover, despite the fact that most of his conversations appear to be devoted to uncovering the definition of virtue terms, he is not really interested in making these discoveries. On this score as well, however, there is little explicit textual evidence for this interpretation and a fair bit against it (see, for example, Gorgias 457e-458a, Protagoras 348c, Charmides 166c-d). Thus it is hard to know what — other than Weiss’s own moral-psychological intuitions — drives this interpretation of Socrates.

[Roslyn Weiss replies to this review at BMCR 2007.09.61.]

[Vincent Renzi replies to this review at BMCR 2007.10.24.]