BMCR 2013.11.36

The Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates. Bloomsbury companions

, , The Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates. Bloomsbury companions. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. ix, 421. ISBN 9781441112842. $190.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Although it enters a crowded field, this new companion to Socrates will be very welcome to scholars. The book aims “to assemble a comprehensive guide to the main issues engaged in the philosophy of Socrates” (vi). These essays fulfill that aim admirably. I will first consider how this volume compares to the two other Socratic companions already in print and then discuss individual chapters. (I’ll post a list of errata on the BMCR blog.)

Despite much overlap, each of the three companions to Socrates has a particular strength. Blackwell’s A Companion to Socrates 1 has the broadest range of viewpoints and topics. Its authors are not all philosophers or Classicists, and it includes essays on subjects such as Socrates in art, in Arabic philosophy, in the Renaissance and in relation to psychoanalysis and modern education. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates 2 and the companion under review are similar in topics and approach. In fact, eight topics and two authors appear in both volumes. However, they still differ greatly in audience. The Cambridge companion is well-suited to undergraduates or any reader seeking a clear, brief introduction to central topics in the philosophy of Socrates. The volume under review, on the other hand, covers the same topics but provides a far more detailed look at the last 30 years of scholarship. These reviews of the literature are quite detailed. Scholars and graduate students will be glad to have such comprehensive overviews of central Socratic questions all in one place, but the Bloomsbury companion would overwhelm less experienced readers. (Greek, however, is never required. The scattered references to specific words are all transliterated.)

Robin Waterfield opens the book by reviewing the evidence for the historical figure of Socrates. He makes a forceful case for extreme scepticism: none of the witnesses can be trusted whether alone or in combinations. Surprisingly, Waterfield himself still attempts to reconstruct a picture of the historical Socrates after that. I find his positive conclusions less convincing than his sceptical arguments, but they do testify to the persistent desire for a true Socrates.

Iakovos Vasiliou begins his chapter on Socratic irony with what he calls “play”. “Play” is that feature of Plato’s Socrates that forces readers to wonder if Socrates is serious. Vasiliou contrasts this playfulness with most philosophical writing. As he says, no one asks whether Aristotle or Kant is serious. The question barely makes sense for such authors. This suggests to me, though Vasiliou doesn’t put it quite this way, that philosophical readers of Plato who ignore the “play” face a serious problem. They cannot say that they care only about truth and arguments, since if they ignore the “play”, they are likely not even to understand what Socrates actually claims.

David Wolfsdorf’s essay considers Socratic methodology, broadly speaking, with a particular focus on the elenchus. Unlike all the other contributions, this chapter is completely devoted to reviewing other scholarship and it proceeds temporally, article by article, through 21 articles. Although at the very end, Wolfsdorf suggests possible paths for future research, he offers effectively no views of his own. He summarizes only. I appreciate Wolfsdorf’s intention to preserve “the integrity” (35) of other views, but I wish that he had done more to give the ideas a narrative arc.

William Prior convincingly argues that Socrates has a metaphysics and that he is not only a moral thinker. Using evidence from Euthyphro and Hippias Major, Prior demonstrates that the Socratic pursuit of definitions relies on a theory of forms that resembles the more famous Platonic theory in numerous respects. As such, Prior also argues for continuity between the early and middle dialogues in this regard rather than a radical break.

Keith McPartland carefully charts the diverse interpretations of Socratic ignorance. He also takes seriously Socrates’ occasional knowledge claims3 and the surprising confidence (even arrogance) that Socrates frequently displays. According to McPartland, Socrates distinguishes between an extraordinarily strong cognitive state4 that he lacks and more everyday knowledge that he possesses. Although I agree that this can be a logically consistent position, I’m less convinced that it can be psychologically stable. Socrates insists that the superhuman cognitive state is essential for happiness ( eudaimonia) and that he (and everyone he has ever met) does not possess such knowledge. Why does that not eat away at his arrogance? Why does that not open up sceptical doubts about even the true beliefs that he holds “based on a warrant sufficient for unhedged assertion and full confidence” (135)? (I take this to be a reminder that there remains something very paradoxical about Socrates’ attitudes rather than an argument against McPartland’s interpretation.)

Hugh H. Benson makes a strong case that Socrates is committed to a principle of priority of definition. Roughly: If someone fails to know what F is, then that person fails to know anything about F. Even more interestingly, however, Benson argues that many recent denials of this are based on contemporary philosophical concerns more than what Socrates says. Benson responds to the philosophical concerns by arguing in favor of the principle of priority of definition itself. In response to Peter Geach’s famous claim that “We know heaps of things without being able to define” terms (quoted on 155), Benson relies on something like McPartland’s strong view of knowledge. He argues that we may have justified true beliefs about such things, but we don’t, in a Socratic sense, possess knowledge about them.

Naomi Reshotko reviews the Socratic understanding of eudaimonia, the “central value and supreme goal of a human life” (156). According to Reshotko, Socrates pursues eudaimonia in a practical rather than a theoretical manner. This leads her to argue that most commentators are misguided when they seek necessary and sufficient conditions for eudaimonia in Socratic arguments. Even more radically, Reshotko argues that Socrates identifies our ultimate goal as omniscience.5 In an effort to be happy, we should strive to know literally everything. Reshotko grants that this goal is impossible, but maintains that “Socrates thought there was a great deal to be gained by trying” (158). I’m honestly unsure of what to make of this, but the chapter is challenging and well-worth reading for more traditional interpreters of Socratic ethics.

In the next chapter, Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith provide an exemplary contrast with Reshotko. While Reshotko tries to argue primarily from what Socrates (and other characters) say without consideration of contemporary philosophy, Brickhouse and Smith use philosophical plausibility to drive their interpretation of Socrates’ words.6 In this examination of Socratic moral psychology, for example, they struggle to make more room than Reshotko for the psychological force of desire. They do so explicitly because they believe that their interpretation better handles “the actual phenomena” (196). The result may seem to some readers like a very weak or attenuated version of motivational intellectualism. However, Brickhouse and Smith might reasonably reply that when interpreting a philosopher, charity demands that we consider truth. In any case, the contrast between this chapter and Reshotko’s is instructive and interesting beyond the specific disagreements.

Suzanne Obdrzalek reviews the Socratic theory of love, as found primarily in Plato’s Lysis. She begins with an objection by Vlastos that has been central for later work: Vlastos objects that the Socratic theory is unduly egoistic and that Socrates does not recognize truly other-regarding love. Obdrzalek rejects arguments that escape this objection by finding other-regarding love in the Lysis. Instead, she argues that theories of other-regarding love are themselves problematic. Although this may seem like burning down the village in order to save it, Obdrzalek makes serious criticisms of two modern theories of other-regarding love. In this regard, her contribution recalls Benson’s.

Curtis Johnson suggests that we can solve the inconsistency of an (apparently) liberal or disobedient Apology and an (apparently) authoritarian Crito by interpreting Apology as more authoritarian than it initially seems. (This is a minority view. Most readers try to make Crito more liberal instead.) However, Johnson also argues that, in addition to following the commands of human or divine superiors, Socrates will follow the argument ( logos) that seems best to him on each occasion. I worry, however, that this opens up a huge potential for conflict between what the state commands and what an agent believes is the best argument. Johnson does not discuss how Socrates might have balanced these demands in the face of such a conflict.

In his chapter on Socratic theology and piety, Mark McPherran offers an attractive explanation of the religious views of Socrates. However, McPherran’s description has little in common with what Socrates says in Plato’s Apology. McPherran seems to be aware of this since he says that Socrates is “obliged” by Meletus to focus on atheism (274 and see also 272). But it is Socrates who leads Meletus to atheism rather than the other way around. As Myles Burnyeat and others have argued, Socrates seems to avoid answering Meletus’ actual charge of not believing in the city’s gods.

Using a four-part taxonomy of mania from Plato’s Phaedrus, John Bussanich categorizes and examines the various religious experiences of Socrates. The chapter is necessarily highly speculative, and it wasn’t clear to me whether Bussanich intended his remarks to apply to Socrates the person or the character of the same name in the writings of Plato and Xenophon. This chapter, like McPartland’s, Reshotko’s and Obdrzalek’s, reminds us how unfamiliar or paradoxical Socrates can look to us now.

Rather than a purely political or purely religious motivation, Mark Ralkowski argues that the trial and conviction of Socrates had mixed motives. Socrates’ anti-democratic statements might easily lead the city and the jury to find him threatening, especially given the political climate of 399 BCE. In addition, the religious was political to the ancient Athenians. Socrates’ private daimonion would have set him apart from the rest of the city in a threatening manner. Thus, we don’t need to choose between political or religious interpretations of Socrates’ trial.

In sum, this is an excellent volume on Socratic philosophy for advanced readers.

Table of Contents

John Bussanich and Nicholas D. Smith, Preface, vi
1. Robin Waterfield, The Quest for the Historical Socrates
2. Iakovos Vasiliou, Socratic Irony
3. David Wolfsdorf, Socratic Philosophizing
4. William J. Prior, Socratic Metaphysics
5. Keith McPartland, Socratic Ignorance
6. Hugh H. Benson, The Priority of Definition
7. Naomi Reshotko, Socratic Reshotko
8. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socratic Moral Psychology
9. Suzanne Obdrzalek, Socrates on Love
10. Curtis N. Johnson, Socrates’ Political Philosophy
11. Mark L. McPherran, Socratic Theology and Piety
12. John Bussanich, Socrates’ Religious Experiences
13. Mark Ralkowski, The Politics of Impiety: Why Was Socrates Prosecuted by the Athenian Democracy?


1. Ahbel-Rappe, S. and Kamtekar, R., eds. A Companion to Socrates Malden, MA, 2006. See the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews for a review by C.C.W. Taylor on A Companion to Socrates.

2. Morrison, Donald, R., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates Cambridge, 2011. See 2011.07.13 for a BMCR review.

3. An especially difficult example appears at Apology 29b6-7, where Socrates says, “I know (οἶδα) that it is wrong and shameful to do injustice and disobey one’s better, whether god or human.”

4. This super-knowledge (my phrase not McPartland’s) demands expertise, command of definitions and an explanatory account of one’s understanding. A person with such knowledge cannot make mistakes and must be able to teach others (135).

5. This is my word rather than Reshotko’s, but I think that it’s fair. Reshotko says more than once that Socrates views the knowledge essential to eudaimonia to cover everything. As she puts it, “Socrates thought all knowledge equally important and an equal factor in virtue so that the completely and truly virtuous person is the one who has all of every kind of knowledge” (158).

6. Sophisticated readers may want to deny that it’s possible to do one without a healthy dose of the other, but I don’t accept that it’s impossible for one to predominate. I would argue that the contrast between Reshotko and Brickhouse and Smith demonstrates just such a difference.