BMCR 2011.07.13

The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy

, The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xviii, 413. ISBN 9780521541039. $29.99 (pb).


Donald Morrison’s Companion to Socrates provides a fine introduction to English language scholarship on Socrates. Despite the predictable back cover blurbs to the contrary, the essays are not particularly varied in approach: most fit squarely within the dominant Anglo-American analytical approach to Socrates. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, as that approach is vibrant and hardly monolithic, and a compact volume that aimed to sample the full range of contemporary approaches (say by including more in the way of continental, literary, or Straussian analyses) might well produce more heat than light. And the essays that do appear here are of a uniformly high quality, though the book as a whole would be still more successful were there more dialogue between the contributors.

Like all good things, the volume can be divided into three parts. It includes six essays on the context and sources (including late “sources”) for Socrates, four essays on Socratic method (broadly conceived), and five essays on the substance of Socratic philosophy.

Louis-André Dorion begins the volume with an attempt to put the Socratic Question to rest. He argues that, given the fictional nature of the logos Sokratikos and the wide divergences between our two most important sources, Plato and Xenophon, the search for the historical Socrates is futile. As an alternative, Dorion suggests that we should rather analyze each Socratic work independently, and then do comparative work to contrast rival portraits of Socrates. Dorion’s essay is clearly presented and argued, and certainly the alternative course he outlines for Socratic studies—collapsing the study of Socrates with the study of the Nachleben of Socrates—is a prudent and fertile approach. But he himself allows that each of the Socratics “laid claim to, and quarreled over, the heritage of their bygone master, as well as faithfulness to his memory and his teachings” (9); if the Socratics were debating about the historical Socrates, why shouldn’t we? At any rate, the essays in the rest of the volume, for the most part, do not attempt the sort of comparative work Dorion suggests, but rather focus on the figure from early Plato; and while the authors often report that they are agnostic about whether Plato’s account is historical or not, they do not suggest an alternative understanding of who or what they are talking about if it is not the historical Socrates.

David Konstan thus devotes his essay on Socrates in Aristophanes to the old (and pressing) question of whether or not Aristophanes’ version has anything to teach us about the real Socrates (i.e., early Platonic Socrates). Konstan backs the view that Aristophanes’ Socrates is more a composite intellectual than a parody directly inspired by the historical Socrates. Paul Woodruff shows well how Plato’s Socrates did not so much reject as transform and redirect the New Learning of the Presocratics and sophists into his own more specialized ethical concerns. And Klaus Döring very ably sums up what we can know about the so-called minor Socratics. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, A. A. Long provides a superlative introduction to how Hellenistic and later Greek philosophers made use of Socrates. Long clearly demonstrates that by this time, if not before, philosophers vigorously adapted their presentation of Socrates in order to forward their own views and undermine their rivals. All these essays provide fine introductions to their topics.

David O’Connor’s essay on Xenophon’s Socrates is a bit surprising, as he discusses Xenophon’s Socrates not so much in comparison to Plato’s Socrates as in comparison to Xenophon’s Cyrus. O’Connor shows how Cyrus and Socrates attempted to avoid the dangers of envy while leading decidedly enviable lives. O’Connor’s paper has the great virtue of inducing readers to consider Xenophon’s Socrates in his Xenophontic context, but those more interested in the relationship between the two versions of Socrates will find less of interest here. O’Connor’s essay also does not help remedy the absence of Xenophon from most subsequent essays in the volume, as he does not discuss much of what Xenophon has to say about Socratic method and philosophy. This absence is particularly striking given Morrison’s own superlative work on Xenophon’s Socrates, (not to mention the presence here of Louis-André Dorion, the world’s leading scholar on Xenophon’s Socrates).

From essays on context and sources I turn to the four essays concerning what we may broadly call Socratic method in early Plato. Each, albeit in a different way, endeavors to deconstruct elements in the standard understanding of Socrates’ approach to philosophy (an understanding that owes much to the work of Gregory Vlastos1). One of the main tensions within the analytical approach to Socrates is that between interpreting texts in a relatively natural way, on the one hand, and crediting Socrates with the most interesting or coherent philosophical positions on the other. Here Hugh Benson, Christopher Rowe, and Melissa Lane present a more naturalistic but arguably less philosophically interesting Socrates.

Benson rejects Vlastos’s influential account of the Socratic elenchus, in which inconsistencies between an interlocutor’s initial view (say, a definition of piety) and the subsequent premises he agrees to are taken to somehow demonstrate the falsity of the interlocutor’s original position, and thus provide confirmation for Socrates’ own, different understanding of the matter at hand. For Benson all the elenchus shows is that the interlocutor’s beliefs are inconsistent. Benson similarly understands the priority of definitional knowledge in a way that diffuses the “Socratic fallacy” (that one cannot know anything at all about, justice, say, unless one can define justice with Socratic rigor). Instead Socrates speaks sometimes in a commonsensical way of ordinary knowledge, other times in a robust sense requiring firm definitions.

Rowe critiques the idea, held by Vlastos and others, that to know oneself is to know what one really believes; instead, self-knowledge involves determining whether one really knows anything, particularly whether one knows what is really good. This is an attractive view, especially if one is emphasizing the Charmides. But Rowe seems wrong to me to conflate Vlastos’s view of what Socrates is about, the search for what one really believes, with the sort of modern self-knowledge sought on the therapist’s couch. For Socrates appears to believe that we all believe the same things, ultimately, including paradoxical claims such as that it is better to suffer than to do injustice. Thus the view Rowe rejects is no more personal or subjective than his own view. It is also rather more ambitious, as it would seem to lay the foundation for progress in ethical thinking—but of course being more ambitious does not mean that it more accurately reflects the thinking of Socrates, whoever he may be.

Lane provides a fine historical sketch of how Socratic irony in Plato has been interpreted from antiquity onwards, but argues that there is less there than meets the eye. Socrates’ apparently ironic praise of “the complacent smug” is, instead, a rhetorical tool to get interlocutors engaged, while his use of friendship terms of address is part of a wider Greek usage to patronizingly keep interlocutors in their place. If Lane is correct that Socratic irony is a post-Platonic development, the next step would be to connect her historical survey with her analysis to learn why so many readers, at least from Quintilian on, have found irony a far more central part of Plato’s Socrates than she would have it.

In his essay on Socratic ignorance, Richard Bett differs with the other authors in this volume in allowing Socrates to try out different lines of thought in different early Platonic dialogues. Bett argues that Socrates fails to find the definitions of the virtues which would provide him with the most important sort of knowledge, but he can nevertheless know some things about ethics despite lacking this sort of understanding—at least in those dialogues in which he does not insist on the Priority of Definition. Bett concludes by asking how Socrates can be so confident that his life spent in the failed pursuit of ethical definitions is the best human life. Bett suggests that in this sense, if not in most others, Socrates was a sceptic, a searcher, who recommended this form of life to others for reasons other than, or at least in addition to, the answers such seeking could provide.

We turn now to five essays on the substance of Socrates’ views (if Bett’s essay on ignorance did not already get us there). Mark McPherran argues that we can reconcile Socratic religion with Socratic rationality. For example, Socrates acknowledges the power of extrarational signs from the gods, including his own divine sign, but believes they should be subject to rational interpretation and confirmation, and that so interpreted they count as “reasons” justifying action. McPherran accepts Xenophon’s attribution of the argument from design to Socrates, and thus places a omniscient, omnipresent Deity atop Socrates’ divine order. While this rational theology did pose a genuine threat to traditional cult, McPherran argues that Socrates’ jurors were probably more swayed by the belief that Socrates was illegally introducing a new divinity in the guise of his divine sign.

Josiah Ober and Charles Griswold offer radically different takes on Socratic politics. Ober considers Socrates’ relationship to democratic Athens, and argues that Socrates’ views are critical of but not incompatible with Athenian democracy. Ober does so largely by arguing that Socrates’ discussion of civic duty in the Crito is in keeping, at least in general terms, with that of an Athenian democrat. For Griswold, on the other hand, Socratic philosophy, with its faith in knowledge and conviction that most people are incapable of genuinely pursuing knowledge, is fundamentally at odds with political life. Griswold’s account differs from Ober’s in part because he includes the Socrates of the Republic within his purview, but Griswold also doubts Socrates’ commitments to the arguments the laws put forward in the Crito. Here we have two fine essays which differ not only in their overall evaluation of Socratic politics but in their view about where we ought to go looking for Socratic politics. The absence of any substantive exchange between the two authors is thus disappointing.

Both Terry Penner and Christopher Bobonich credit Socrates with an eudaimonistic approach to ethics, in which people both ought to and do as a matter of fact always pursue what they take to be good for themselves. Both dispute accounts which find other ethical (i.e., moral) concerns for Socrates, as in a desire that we should do what is just independent of what is good for us individually. Penner provides Socrates with a more radical version of this theory, in which we have no other desire other than that for our own maximum available real happiness. Bobonich finds more holes in Socrates’ account—holes he believes Plato endeavored to fill. The two essays overlap considerably but don’t really interact with one another (though Bobonich does consider Penner’s views as published elsewhere).

This is a good book, and is more manageable in scope and half as expensive as the rival Blackwell Companion to Socrates.2 Donald Morrison deserves great credit for ably assembling an all-star team of contributors, and he includes a selective and well-organized bibliography and an index locorum. But Morrison provides only a slight (if incisive) preface, and most essays lack even rudimentary cross-references to others in the volume. Given the flood of companions and handbooks on the market these days, we need perhaps to think more about our expectations for such volumes. Handy collections of strong essays are valuable, but volumes in which those essays are in genuine dialogue would be still more valuable.


1. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, 1991. Socratic Studies Cambridge, 1994.

2. Ahbel-Rappe, S. and R. Kamtekar, eds. A Companion to Socrates Malden, MA, 2006.