Gregory Vlastos led a revival of interest in ancient philosophy and was the first American scholar to deploy the methods of analytic philosophy in this area. Best known for his work on the philosophy of Socrates, he also published widely on Plato and on topics in pre-Socratic philosophy. Before turning to ancient philosophy, he published works in social and political theory, and his writings on justice continue to be influential.
He was born in the Greek community of Istanbul, raised as a Protestant, and educated at Roberts College (an American-sponsored institution of secondary and higher education in Istanbul). He took a bachelor of divinity degree in 1929 from the Chicago Theological Seminary and proceeded to Harvard University, where, after studying philosophy under Raphael Demos and Alfred North Whitehead, he was awarded his PhD in 1931.
In that year he took a position at the Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He served in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. In 1948, he joined the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell.
In 1954–1955, he was a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and, in 1955, joined the Department of Philosophy at Princeton University, which he served for many years as Stuart Professor and then chairman.He was president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1965–1966. In 1976, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained until his death.
Vlastos had a huge influence on the next generation of scholars of ancient philosophy, which has been led in the United States largely by his students, proteges, and members of the seminars he conducted for young college teachers. Many of these became highly distinguished: Richard Kraut, Terence Irwin, A. P. D. Mourelatos, Alexander Nehamas, Gerasimos Santas, and Nicholas Smith, to name a few.
Vlastos began the revolution in Platonic studies with his article, “The Third Man Argument in the Parmenides” (1954), which rendered the argument in formal terms and ignited a debate (joined by such notable philosophers as Peter Geach and Wilfrid Sellars) over both the soundness of the argument and its purpose. Vlastos concluded that the argument revealed Plato’s “honest perplexity” about the theory of forms.
Vlastos held a developmental view of Plato: Early dialogues (those with affinities to the Apology) were mainly innocent of metaphysics, middle dialogues (such as the Republic) were committed to a theory of the degrees of reality, and later dialogues showed Plato to be critical toward his former metaphysical theories.
On the theory of forms in Plato, Vlastos wrote a number of important papers, of which “Degrees of Reality in Plato” (1965) is the most famous. He explained, in a way that has been the basis for most subsequent work in this area, what Plato could mean by saying that a form was more real than its sensible instances: The form is cognitively more dependable.
Vlastos brought attention to Plato’s writings about love and friendship, raising the question whether an individual person could be an object of love on the Platonic theory, which seems to place the Form of Beauty itself at the apex of love. Vlastos saw that Plato represented Socrates as a teacher who failed more often than he succeeded, and, in a famous essay, he attributed Socrates’ failure to an inability to respond to his students with love.
Drawn early to Socrates’ single-minded devotion to the care of the soul, Vlastos brought out the problem in Socrates’ doctrine of the unity of virtue: Why, if they are one, do they have different definitions? His solution was that the virtues are not strictly identical, but biconditionally related in such a way that having any virtue implies having the others.
During his Berkeley period he generated his most influential work—a set of articles and a book about the Platonic Socrates that defined the subject for the next generation of scholars. He established a method for identifying the philosophy of Socrates, taking Plato’s works to reflect the philosophy of Socrates insofar as they are compatible with Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which he supposed to be an adequate historical guide on philosophical points.
In one of his most influential pieces, “The Socratic Elenchus” (1983), Vlastos identified the method Socrates uses in certain early dialogues as elenchus (a kind of cross-examination), about which Vlastos asked the question that has been fundamental to subsequent research.
Socrates, he pointed out, depends on the elenchus for both negative conclusions, refuting the bogus knowledgeclaims of others, and, for positive results, supporting his own ethical views. Yet the method seems to have no foundation aside from the assent of Socrates’ interlocutors.
Vlastos suggested that the method winnows out the interlocutors’ false views, leaving ones that are likely to be true, thus providing credibility for those views that fall short of certainty, but nevertheless provide practical grounds for Socrates’ moral teaching.
Socrates’ disclaimer of knowledge was not a lie, as many believed in antiquity, but a case of what Vlastos called “complex irony”: the complex truth behind it is that Socrates lacks certainty, while maintaining what Vlastos called “elenctic knowledge,” knowledge supported by the elenchus. In this way Vlastos introduced a new understanding of Socratic irony, which was to give a title to his last book.
Just before his death, in Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Vlastos brought together his conclusions about Socrates, of which the most important was that Socrates was a trend-setting innovator in moral theory, as “the first to establish the eudaimonist foundation of ethical theory,” and, moreover, “the founder of the non-instrumentalist form of eudaimonism held in common by ... all Greek moral philosophers except the Epicureans”. Even more revolutionary, according to Vlastos, Socrates rejected the traditional morality of retaliation, the idea that justice requires people to harm their enemies.
Vlastos had a gift for identifying questions of interpretation that drew other philosophers into discussion, both of his proposed answers and of the questions themselves. He never ceased to express a love for his subject that was infectious and has been passed down to subsequent generations of scholars. Whether or not the answers he gave will survive the test of scholarly debate, his questions will continue to define that debate.