BMCR 2007.09.61

Response: Weiss on Singpurwalla on Roslyn Weiss, The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies

Response to 2007.09.26

Response by

In her review of my book, The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, Rachel Singpurwalla appeals to Xenophon to support the alleged Socratic denial of akrasia. It is to this aspect of her review that I wish to respond, since I have noticed that other scholars as well look to Xenophon for confirmation that the historical Socrates rejected the possibility of acting against one’s belief (or knowledge) of what is right.

Singpurwalla refers the reader to Memorabilia 3.9.4 and 4.6.6. It is far from evident, however, that either passage provides support for the alleged Socratic denial of akrasia.

At 4.6.6. Socrates’ responses to Euthydemus on piety and justice rely on a foolish intellectualism worthy not of Socrates but of Euthydemus. This is a clear instance of Socrates’ tailoring an argument to suit the interlocutor, the sort of tactic that I argue Socrates regularly deploys in Plato’s dialogues. The “reasoning” here is as follows: unless one knows the rules one cannot be pious or just; but if one know the rules (what ought to be done) one will think they are what ought to be done; and, since people do what they think ought to be done, those who know what ought to be done do it and hence are pious and just. There is in this argument the bizarre implication that everyone who simply knows the rules will obey them and will, as a result, be just and pious.

The first passage, 3.9.4, is perhaps of greater philosophical interest. Yet in it, far from denying akrasia, Xenophon’s Socrates states rather bluntly that the man who knows what he ought to do but does the opposite is unwise and akratês. Such a man is not wise because he mistakes his true advantage, and he is akratês because, although he knows what is right, he does otherwise. Socrates does not ridicule the question he is asked, namely, whether those who know what they ought to do but do the opposite are at once both wise and akrateis (following those who read akrateis rather than enkrateis), but responds to it quite civilly—which suggests that he does not at all regard akrasia as absurd. What Xenophon apparently takes Socrates to be saying is that merely knowing “what one ought to do” is not sufficient to make one wise; one needs to know “the beautiful things and the good” ( ta men kala te kagatha) and thus recognize the coincidence of what one ought to do with one’s genuine advantage. It is the man who knows and practices the beautiful and good things who is both wise (because he knows) and sôphrôn (because he acts in accordance with what he knows). Although the Xenophon passage acknowledges Socrates’ awareness that most people do what they think most conduces to their own advantage, it nevertheless in no way suggests that Socrates thinks that people cannot help but do what they think most conduces to their own advantage and so are excused when they do wrong believing it to be advantageous. Indeed, by calling the person who puts his perceived advantage before what he knows to be right an akratês, Xenophon’s Socrates clearly means to berate him. For Xenophon’s Socrates, then, it is quite possible, on the one hand, for one to know what ought to be done yet not do it. Such a person is akratic. What is not possible, however, is for one to be truly wise—that is, to know the beautiful and good —yet not choose it. It is for this reason that Xenophon says of Socrates that he “draws no distinction between wisdom and sôphrosunê.”

Xenophon, no less than Plato, recognized that Socrates tailored his educational approach to suit the student: “he did not employ the same manner for all” (4.1.3). It is the purpose of my book to shed light on why Plato’s Socrates uses a particular argument on a particular topic with (or, in the cases I discuss, against) a particular interlocutor.