Socrates is the first Western philosopher to have left to posterity any sense of his individual personality, and he is a central figure in the subsequent development of philosophy. Both of these aspects are due primarily to Plato. It is via his portrayal by Plato’s literary genius that Socrates is a living figure for subsequent generations, and thereby an exemplar of the ideals of philosophy, above all dedication to truth and intellectual integrity.
It was under the influence of Socrates that Plato applied systematic techniques of argument pioneered by Socrates and his contemporaries, the Sophists, to the fundamental questions of human nature and conduct that primarily interested Socrates, thereby placing ethics and psychology at the center of the philosophical agenda.
But while Plato brings Socrates to center stage he also hides him; because Socrates wrote nothing himself we depend on others for our knowledge of him, and it is above all Plato’s representation of Socrates that constitutes the figure of perennial philosophical significance.
But that representation was itself the expression of Plato’s understanding of an actual historical individual and the events of his life. It is necessary, therefore, to begin with a brief account of the little that is known of that individual and those events.
Socrates was born in Athens around 470 BCE and lived in the city all his life, apart from military service abroad. Little is known of the circumstances of his life. His father, Sophroniscus, is said by some ancient sources to have been a stonemason, and in Plato’s Theaetetus (149a) Socrates says that his mother, Phainarete, was a midwife.
That may indeed be true, though the fact that the name literally means “revealing excellence” suggests the possibility that Plato has invented the story in allusion to Socrates’ role as midwife to the ideas of others (Theaetetus 149–151).
Because Socrates served in the infantry, who had to provide their own arms and equipment, his circumstances, at least initially, must have been reasonably prosperous, but Plato and other writers emphasize his poverty in later life, which they attribute to his spending all his time in philosophical discussion. The same sources stress that, unlike the Sophists, he never took payment for his philosophical activity, and he may have depended largely on support from wealthier friends.
During his lifetime Athens became the principal center of intellectual and cultural life in Greece, attracting from all over the Greek world intellectuals who developed and popularized the tradition of natural philosophy begun by the Ionian philosophers of the previous century, together with exciting new argumentative techniques and radical questioning of traditional beliefs about theology, morals, and society.
Socrates was actively interested in most of these areas. Plato and others attest to his interest at one stage in questions of cosmology and physiology, though the sources agree that his interests subsequently shifted to fundamental questions of conduct.
Socrates never engaged in formal philosophical instruction, or set up any school; his philosophical activity consisted in informal conversation, partly with a circle of mainly younger associates whom he attracted by the force of his intellect and personality, but also with others, including Sophists and prominent citizens. Some of his associates, including Plato and some of his relations, were opposed to the Athenian democratic system, and it may be that Socrates shared that attitude to some extent.
Socrates married relatively late in life; at the time of his death at about the age of seventy his eldest son was an adolescent, and he had two more small sons, the younger probably a baby. His wife (who must have been at least thirty years younger than he) was Xanthippe.
Her bad temper (attested by Xenophon and others, but not by Plato) became legendary; stories of her abuse of Socrates, and his equanimity in putting up with it, were a stock comic theme from antiquity to modern times.
Thus Chaucer’s Wife of Bath describes in the Prologue to her tale (727–732) how Socrates sat quietly while Xanthippe “caste pisse upon his heed,” merely remarking mildly, “Before the thunder stops it comes on to rain.” (The story goes back to Diogenes Laertius’s life of Socrates, Lives of the Philosophers 2.36.)
One element in this comic tradition is the story that Socrates had another wife, or possibly a concubine, while married to Xanthippe; stories of how the two women switched from quarrelling with one another to concerted assaults on Socrates afforded rich material. Ancient sources attribute the origin of this tale to Aristotle, but the supposed original source is lost, and the historical basis extremely dubious.
Nothing is known of specific events in Socrates’ life till after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta in 432. He served with distinction in various campaigns, most notably the Battle of Delium in 424, where it was said (Plato, Laches 181b) that if everyone had behaved like Socrates the battle would not have been lost. By the 420s he had become sufficiently well known to be caricatured in several comic dramas.
In the single example to survive complete, the Clouds of Aristophanes, first produced in 423, he appears as a representative of subversive contemporary tendencies, the head of a disreputable academy whose curriculum combines training in argumentative trickery with atheistic natural philosophy.
Later, in his Apology (Defense of Socrates), Plato represents this portrayal as the origin of prejudice against Socrates that culminated in his condemnation on charges of impiety and corruption of the young (19a–19d); there is no reason to discount that evidence.
The only occasion on which Socrates is known to have intervened in public life took place in 406. After a naval engagement the Athenian commanders had failed to pick up survivors, and the popular assembly voted to try them collectively, instead of individually as required by law.
At that period most civic offices were assigned by lot, and Socrates happened to be a member of the executive committee whose function was to prepare business for the assembly. In that capacity he was the only one to oppose the illegal proposal.
A few years later when, after final defeat in the war, the democracy was temporarily overthrown by a junta known as the Thirty Tyrants, he showed the same adherence to legality and morality by refusing, at the risk of his own life, to obey an order from the tyrants to take part in the arrest of an innocent man.
It is likely that he remained neutral during the civil war in which the tyranny was overthrown, because he had friends in both camps; in particular, two of the most prominent among the tyrants, Critias and Charmides, both relatives of Plato, were among his close associates.
It is probable that this was at least a contributory factor in the accusation brought against him under the restored democracy. The explicit charges were failure to recognize (or perhaps “to believe in”) the gods of the state religion and the introduction of new divinities, coupled with corruption of the young. The case was tried early in 399, and the prosecution demanded the death penalty. There is no evidence of the detail of the prosecution’s case.
On the religious aspect the prosecutors may have sought to represent Socrates as the leader of an illegal private cult, and may have used his claim, amply attested by Plato, to be guided by a private divine sign or voice in support of that charge.
It is highly likely that the charge of corruption centered on his associations with notorious enemies of the state, particularly the tyrants mentioned above, as well as Alcibiades, an intimate of Socrates who had instigated a disastrous invasion of Sicily in 415 and had later defected to Sparta. Knowledge of the trial is based on two versions of Socrates’ defense, by Plato and Xenophon, each of whom, while preserving a core of fact, presents the defense in the light of his own agenda;
Xenophon relies wholly on Socrates’ adherence to conventional piety and morality, whereas Plato gives a radically unconventional picture of Socrates’ philosophical activity as the fulfillment of a divine mission to perfect the souls of his fellow citizens by subjecting their basic beliefs and values to philosophical criticism.
Socrates was condemned to death. Plato’s Phaedo gives a moving picture of his last hours, spent among his followers in discussion of the immortality of the soul and the task of philosophy to free it from the trammels of the body, followed by his tranquil death from self-administration of hemlock.
While there is dispute about the relative degrees of realism and idealization in the description of the effects of the poison, there is little doubt that the primary aim of the whole work is less historical accuracy than depiction of the ideal philosophical death.
Besides Plato and Xenophon no fewer than nine associates of Socrates are reported by various ancient sources as having written imaginative accounts of Socrates’ conversations, creating a body of literature collectively known as “Socratic conversations” (or “discourses”) (Sokratikoi logoi).
For the most part only the titles of these works survive, indicating that Socrates’ relations with certain individuals, especially Alcibiades, who figures prominently in some Platonic dialogues—notably Alcibiades and Symposium—were a theme common to Plato and the other Socratic writers.
Apart from Plato and Xenophon, the only Socratic writer of whose works any significant fragments survive is Aeschines of Sphettus; the fragments of his Alcibiades show Socrates using his characteristic critical method (see below) to convince Alcibiades of the vanity of his political ambitions.
They thus provide evidence that the program of defending Socrates against the slanders occasioned by his associations with political undesirables was not confined to Plato and Xenophon, but they provide no evidence for Socrates’ thought to complement those sources.
For information specifically about the thought of Socrates scholars are in fact almost wholly dependent on Plato, because the other principal source, Xenophon, focuses on the practical and moral import of Socrates’ conversations, with comparatively little theoretical content, in keeping with his overall purpose (see above) of portraying Socrates as a good man and sound citizen.
There is a systematic difficulty in determining which of the views attributed to Socrates in Plato’s dialogues were actually held by the historical person, and scholarly opinion has embraced all possible positions. In the nineteenth century the dominant consensus (primarily on the part of German scholars) divided the Platonic writings into three broad groups, distinguished both chronologically and doctrinally.
The first “early” group, including Laches, Charmides, Protagoras, and those dialogues dealing directly with the trial of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito), was generally held to give a veridical account of the personality, views, and philosophical activity of the historical Socrates.
Thereafter Plato’s philosophy developed in directions independent of Socrates, and the importance of the dramatic figure of Socrates in the dialogues correspondingly declined, until its virtual disappearance in works such as the Sophist and the Statesman (which were taken to be late), and its total disappearance from the Laws (unfinished on Plato’s death and generally regarded as his last work).
This “developmental”model was supported by the stylometric studies of the later nineteenth century, in which a number of scholars, working largely independently of one another, converged on the identification of six dialogues—Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, and Laws—as a group distinct in various features of style and vocabulary from the rest of the Platonic corpus; these dialogues were fixed as late by the presence of the Laws.
Parmenides, Phaedrus, Republic, and Theaetetus, which are by the same criteria closer in style to the late group than the rest of the dialogues, were identified as “middle” dialogues, and the remainder as “early.”
While this developmental model, with its assumption that the early dialogues accurately represent the historical Socrates, is still highly significant in the twenty-first century, notably in the influential work of Gregory Vlastos and others, it has undergone challenge from two opposite extremes, on the one side the thesis maintained by John Burnet and A. E. Taylor in the early twentieth century that all the doctrines attributed by Plato to Socrates in the dialogues were actually maintained by the historical Socrates, and on the other side the views of those who, stressing that all information about Socrates derives from sources with their own literary and philosophical agenda, urge that the historical Socrates is inaccessible and should therefore disappear from the history of philosophy.
The Burnet/Taylor thesis has few if any adherents in the twenty-first century; not only does it present an implausible picture of a Plato who devoted the great part of his literary career to recounting the views of someone else, but it rests on an assumption about the nature of Plato’s attitude to Socrates, namely that it would have been disrespectful to Socrates for Plato to do other than represent his views with historical accuracy, which seems totally foreign to the character of the dialogues themselves.
It is clear from the dialogues that Plato’s attitude to Socrates was that the latter’s life and activity represented the paradigm of philosophy, and it is totally in keeping with that attitude that Plato should ascribe to Socrates what he (Plato) regards as the philosophical truth, whether or not Socrates himself had maintained it.
What we may call the skeptical view of Socrates, however, is widely accepted today, and while its extreme versions are exaggerated and oversimplified, it is based on an important insight into the nature of our sources.
The insight is simply that all knowledge of Socrates is based on sources in which historical veridicality is at best one among the author’s concerns, and generally not the principal concern. Oversimplification consists in the characterization of these sources as fiction, as opposed to factual biography, and exaggeration in the conclusion that the historical Socrates is inaccessible.
|A. E. Taylor|
The dichotomy between biography and fiction seems inapplicable to the Socratic literature, including Plato’s Socratic dialogues (and indeed this author doubts its appropriateness to most ancient biographical writing); Socratic conversation is a form of biography, but biography whose factual constraints are looser than is standardly the case in the modern world.
That is not to say that there are no factual constraints; Plato’s dialogues do present an actual historical individual, some of the events in whose life are known, and they are no doubt faithful to the spirit and nature of the philosophical conversation that was that individual’s principal activity.
But when it comes to specific doctrines, while there are some doctrines found maintained by Plato’s Socrates that it is virtually certain the historical Socrates did not maintain, there are none that is certain that he did.
In the first class the paradigm case is the theory of separate Forms, (i.e., intelligible universal natures existing separately from their sensible instances) which we find maintained by Socrates in several dialogues, but which Aristotle (whose evidence this author regards as independent of the dialogues on this point) explicitly says Socrates did not hold.
However, theses characteristically regarded as “Socratic”—for example, that Virtue is Knowledge (see below)—are not ascribed to Socrates by sources that are clearly independent of their appearance in the Platonic dialogues. They may in fact have been maintained by Socrates, or they may have been suggested to Plato, in the form in which they appear in the dialogues, by things that Socrates said.
We cannot be sure, and in any case it is not of the first importance, because the philosophical significance of these doctrines consists in the role that they play, and the arguments by which they are supported, in the dialogues in which they appear. The brief account of Socrates’ thought that follows is to be understood as based on that assumption.
|Virtue is Knowledge|
It identifies some central themes in the portrayal of Socrates in those dialogues, generally considered comparatively early compositions, in which the personality and argumentative style of Socrates are more prominent than in dialogues devoted to the more systematic exposition of Plato’s own thought (see above). The attribution of any specific doctrine to the historical Socrates must be correspondingly tentative.
DISAVOWAL OF WISDOM. In these dialogues Socrates is presented for the most part not as a systematic or authoritative teacher, but as a questioner and enquirer. His enquiries are all focused on questions of conduct, broadly understood, and frequently consist of attempts to reach an agreed definition of some fundamental value, such as courage, or goodness in general. Typically Socrates is depicted as engaged with one or more people in conversation on some specific, often practical topic, which leads on to the more general issues just mentioned.
Socrates elicits the views of his interlocutors on these issues and subjects them to critical examination, conducted with a minimum of philosophical technicality, and utilizing other assumptions, usually of a commonsense kind, which the parties to the discussion agree on.
Usually this procedure reveals inconsistency among the set of beliefs (including the general thesis or proposed definition) that the person examined holds, which is taken as requiring the abandonment of the thesis or definition.
Frequently the dialogue ends with the acknowledgement by Socrates and the others that, having failed to settle the general issue raised, they are unable to proceed further; they thus end up in a state of aporia—that is, a state with no way out.
This procedure of enquiry, rather than instruction, and its frequent aporetic outcome are in keeping with Socrates’ denial that he possesses any wisdom (i.e., expertise). It is the mark of an expert to be able to define the concepts in the area of his expertise and to expound that area systematically, neither of which Socrates can do.
In later antiquity Socrates was regularly reported as having said that he knew nothing, or, paradoxically, that he knew nothing except that he knew nothing. Either formulation goes beyond anything found in Plato.
Though Socrates frequently says in the dialogues that he does not know the answer to this or that particular question, he never says that he knows nothing, and occasionally makes emphatic claims to knowledge, most notably in the Apology, where he twice claims to know that abandoning his divine mission to philosophize would be bad and disgraceful.
What he does disavow is having any wisdom. He seems to apply the notion of wisdom firstly to divine wisdom, a complete and perspicuous understanding of everything, that belongs to the gods alone, and is consequently unavailable to humans, and then to human expertise of the sort possessed by craftsmen such a builders and shoemakers, a systematic mastery of a technique that enables its possessor to apply it successfully and to expound and pass it on to others.
The Sophists claimed to possess, and to teach to others, a practical expertise applying not to any specialized area of human activity but to human life as such,mastery of which guaranteed overall success in personal and political life; this was “the political craft”.
Socrates rejects that claim, not on the ground that such expertise is not available to humans; but because the Sophists’ activity fails to meet the ordinary criteria for human expertise, particularly that of being systematically learned and taught. He denies that he possesses this expertise himself, but does not say that it is impossible that he, or any human being, should possess it.
This disavowal of expertise is not incompatible with the claim to know particular things. The nonexpert can know some particular things, but not in the way the expert knows them; specifically the nonexpert is not able, as the expert is, to relate his or her particular items of knowledge to a comprehensive system that provides explanations of their truth by relating them to other items of knowledge and to the system as a whole.
But that raises the problem of the source of Socrates’ nonexpert knowledge of moral truths. Usually, nonexperts know some particular things because they have been told by an expert, or because they have picked them up from some intermediate source whose authority is ultimately derived from that of the expert. But Socrates does not recognize any moral experts, among human beings at any rate.
So what is the source of his nonexpert knowledge? The dialogues provide no clear or uniform answer to this question. Sometimes he suggests that the application of his critical method is sufficient, not merely to reveal inconsistency in his interlocutor’s beliefs, but to prove that some are false, and hence that their negations are true.
Thus at the end of the argument with Callicles in the Gorgias he claims (508e–509a) that the conclusion that it is always better to suffer wrong than to do it has been established by “arguments of iron and adamant” (i.e., of irresistible force), while conjoining that claim with a disavowal of knowledge: “I do not know how these things are, but no-one I have ever met, as in the present case, has been able to deny them without making himself ridiculous.”
This presents a contrast between expert knowledge, which Socrates disclaims, and a favorable epistemic position produced by repeated application of Socrates’ critical method of argument. There are some propositions that repeated experiment shows no one capable of denying without self-contradiction.
While it is always theoretically possible that someone might come up with a way of escape from this position, realistically the arguments establishing those propositions are so firmly entrenched as to be irresistible.
While it is an attractive suggestion that Socrates considers the moral truths that he nonexpertly knows to be of this kind, it receives no clear confirmation from the dialogues. There is, for instance, no indication in the Crito that Socrates’ unshakable commitment to the fundamental principle that one must never act unjustly (49a) is based on critical examination of his and Crito’s moral beliefs.
It has to be acknowledged that while Socrates indicates that critical examination is sometimes capable of establishing truth beyond at least the practical possibility of rebuttal, and sometimes suggests that he knows some moral truths on the strength of good arguments for them, he gives no general account of the grounds of his nonexpert moral knowledge.
RELIGION. One might perhaps speculate that the source of Socrates’ nonexpert moral knowledge is supposed to be divine revelation, but though Socrates’ attitudes to the divine are an important element in his portrayal by both Plato and Xenophon, neither in fact suggests that Socrates believed that his moral beliefs were divinely inspired.
What he did believe, according to both writers, is that throughout his life he was guided by a private sign or voice that he accepted, apparently without question, as being of divine origin, but the content of that guidance appears to have been, not moral principles, but day-today practical affairs, and it had the peculiar feature that its guidance was always negative, warning Socrates against some course of action that he might otherwise have undertaken.
|course of action|
Thus Xenophon reports him as explaining his failure to prepare his defense because the divine sign had told him not to, while in Plato’s Apology he says that he is confident that his conduct at his trial has been correct because the divine sign has not opposed it.
Such a claim to continuous private divine guidance (as opposed to occasional private revelations, e.g., in dreams) was certainly unusual, and, as suggested above, it is likely that it at least contributed to the charge of religious unorthodoxy that was one of the grounds of his condemnation. The actual stance of the historical Socrates toward conventional religion is not altogether easy to reconstruct from the sources.
Xenophon, as pointed out above, stresses his conventional piety, as measured by public observance and private conversation; for example, his demonstration to an irreligious acquaintance of the providential ordering of the world, down to such details as the design of the eyelashes to shield the eyes from the wind (Memorabilia 1.4). On that account it is difficult to see how the charge of impiety could have been brought at all.
Plato’s presentation is more complex.He does indeed represent Socrates as concerned on occasion with prophetic dreams (Crito 44a–44b; Phaedo 60e–61b) and with ritual, most famously in his report of Socrates’ last words: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget” (Phaedo 118a). But it is notable that all of these instances arise in the context of Socrates’ imminent death.
When Plato represents Socrates as praying on various occasions throughout his life he almost always makes him pray for nothing but wisdom and virtue, while in his most extensive discussion of piety, in Euthyphro, he suggests that Socrates thinks that what the gods require from humans is nothing other than moral virtue.
That fits well with his Apology, where Socrates’ rebuttal of the charge of impiety has nothing at all to say about ritual, consisting wholly in the claim that Socrates’ life has been the fulfillment of a divine mission to promote the welfare, identified with the moral virtue, of his fellow citizens.
Plato’s view of Socratic religion seems then to be that the essence of service to the gods is moral virtue, and that ritual fills its proper role, as in Socrates’ life and death, as a complement to the fulfillment of that primary task.
If that reflects Socrates’ own view, then it is possible that it was seen by conservatively minded contemporaries as presenting a radical challenge to traditional ideas of the relations between gods and humans, which were founded on the belief that divine favor and protection for individuals and the community were secured by performance of the appropriate prayers and rituals, and thereby as justifying his condemnation for neglecting the state religion in favor of a new religion of his own.
DEFINITIONS. In the procedure of enquiry sketched in (i) above, the search for general definitions is central. This arises naturally from Socrates’ search for expertise; the expert knows about his or her subject, and according to Socrates the primary knowledge concerning any subject is precisely knowledge of what that subject is.
The general pattern of argument in the dialogues is that some specific question about a subject—for example, how is one to acquire goodness—is problematic in the absence of an agreed conception of what that subject is. Hence before the problematic question can be pursued, the definition of the subject must first be sought.
The problematic question may be of various kinds; it may be, as in the example above (from the Meno) how goodness as such is to be acquired, or how a specific virtue is to be acquired (courage in the Laches), or whether a virtue is advantageous to its possessor (justice in the Republic).
The Euthyphro exemplifies another pattern; it is disputed whether a particular action, Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father for homicide, is an instance of piety or holiness, and Socrates maintains that the question will be settled when, and only when, the definition of piety is arrived at.
This pattern has given rise to the accusation that Socrates is guilty of the “Socratic fallacy” of maintaining that in general it is impossible to tell whether anything is an instance of a property unless one already possesses a general definition of that property.
That general position would be methodologically disastrous for Socrates, because his approved strategy for reaching a definition is to consider what instances of the kind or property in question have in common, and it is impossible to do that if a person has to know the definition before he or she can even identify the instances from which the definition is to be derived.
In fact the argument of the Euthyphro does not involve that fallacy; even if it is granted that there are some disputed cases where the question “Is this an instance of F?” cannot be settled without answering the prior question “What is F?” it does not follow that there are no undisputed cases where instances of F can be recognized without a definition.
In the Hippias Major, however, Socrates does argue that people cannot tell whether anything is fine or beautiful (kalon) unless they know—that is, can give a definition of—what fineness or beauty is; so though the Socratic fallacy is not a pervasive defect of Socrates’ argumentative method, there does seem to be one instance of it in the dialogues.
The question “What is F?” can itself be understood in various ways; it may be a request for an elucidation of the linguistic meaning of the term “F,” or a request for a substantive account of what the property of F-ness consists in, including, where appropriate, the decomposition of a complex property into its components (e.g., goodness consists of justice, self-control, etc.) and explanatory accounts of properties (e.g., self-control consists of the control of the bodily appetites by reason).
The practical nature of the questions that often give rise to the search for definitions suggests that the latter kind of definition is what is sought. Someone who wants to know how virtue is to be acquired will not be helped by a specification of the meaning of “virtue” as “a property contributing to overall success in life”; what they are looking for is precisely an account of what it is that constitutes or guarantees success in life.
That is confirmed by the fact that Laches, Meno, and Protagoras, all of which start from the practical question of how either a specific virtue or goodness in general is to be acquired, converge on the suggestion that courage (in Laches) and goodness (in Meno and Protagoras) are identical with knowledge, which is itself part of a substantive theory of the nature of goodness (see next section).
It must, however, be acknowledged that Plato shows no awareness of the theoretical distinction between a purely conceptual definition and the kind of substantive account that is favored by the structure of the dialogues just mentioned.
Even in the Meno, the dialogue in which definition is treated in the greatest detail, he gives model definitions of either kind without any explicit differentiation. Substantive accounts are favored over conceptual definitions by his practice, not in the light of any theoretical discrimination between the two.
|life of injustice|
Plato supplies some arguments in the Gorgias,but they are weak. Socrates first agues that successful tyrants, who manifest the extreme of injustice, do not get what they really want—that is, the best life for themselves— because their injustice is bad for them.
The crucial argument for that conclusion starts from the premise, conceded by Socrates’ opponent Polus, that acting unjustly, while good (i.e., advantageous) for the agent, is disgraceful.
It is next agreed that whatever is disgraceful is so either because it is unpleasant or because it is harmful. Because acting unjustly is clearly not unpleasant, it must therefore be harmful. Hence the life of injustice is harmful to the unjust agent.
This argument fails because it ignores the relativity of the concepts of unpleasantness and harmfulness. To be acceptable the first premise must be read as “Whatever is disgraceful to anyone is so either because it is unpleasant to someone or because it is harmful to someone.”
From that premise it clearly does not follow that because injustice is not unpleasant to the unjust person it must be harmful to that person. It could be harmful to someone else, and its being so could be the ground of its being disgraceful to the unjust person (as indeed people ordinarily think).
Later in the dialogue (503e–504d) Socrates argues against Callicles that because the goodness of anything, such as a boat or a house, depends on the proper proportion and order of its components, the goodness of body and soul alike depend on the proper proportion and order of their components, respectively health in the case of the body and justice and self-control in the case of the soul.
The analogy of health and virtue, simply asserted in the Crito, is here supported by the general principle that goodness depends on the organization of components, but that principle is insufficient to ground the analogy, because the proper organization of components is determined by the function, point, or aim of the thing that those components make up. So in order to know which organization of psychic components is the appropriate one for humans we need a prior conception of what our aims in life should be.
One conception of these aims may indeed identify the optimum organization as that defined by the conventional moral virtues, but another may identify as optimum a different organization, say one that affords the maximum scope to certain kinds of self-expression, as exemplified by a figure such as the Nietzschean Superman. Socrates provides no argument to exclude that possibility.
In addition to the failure to establish that virtue is always in the agent’s interest, the prototheory is more deeply flawed, in that it proves to be incoherent. This emerges when we consider Proposition 2, “Virtue Is Knowledge,” and ask what virtue is knowledge of.
The answer suggested by Meno and Protagoras is that virtue is knowledge of the best life for the agent; given the standing motivation to achieve that life, knowledge of what it consists in will be necessary if one is to pursue it reliably, and sufficient to guarantee success in that pursuit. But that requires that the best life for the agent is something distinct from the knowledge which guarantees that one will achieve that life.
“Virtue is knowledge of the best life for the agent” will be parallel to “Medicine is knowledge of health,” and the value of that knowledge will be purely instrumental and derivative from the intrinsic value of the success in life which it guarantees. But Socrates, as we have seen, treats virtue as analogous, not to medicine, but to health itself, and hence as intrinsically, not merely instrumentally valuable.
Virtue is not, then, a means to some independently specifiable condition of life which we can identify as the best life, well-being, or happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia); rather it is a constituent of such a life, and one of the most difficult questions about Socratic ethics is whether Socrates recognizes any other constituents. That is to say, for Socrates a life is worth living either solely or at least primarily in virtue of the fact that it is a life of virtue.
|body of knowledge|
The incoherence of the prototheory thus consists in the fact that Socrates maintains both that virtue is knowledge of what the agent’s good is and that it is that good itself, whereas these two theses are inconsistent with one another.
It could indeed be the case both that virtue is knowledge of what the agent’s good is and that the agent’s good is knowledge, but in that case the knowledge which is the agent’s good has to be a distinct item or body of knowledge from the knowledge of what the agent’s good is.
So if Socrates is to maintain that virtue is knowledge, he must either specify that knowledge as knowledge of something other than what the agent’s good is, or he must abandon the thesis that virtue is the agent’s good. There are indications in the dialogues that Plato was conscious of this difficulty.
In the Euthydemus he represents Socrates as grappling inconclusively with the problem, and in the Republic he offers a solution in a conception of human good as consisting in a state of the personality in which the nonrational impulses are directed by the intellect, informed indeed by knowledge, but by knowledge not of human good, but of goodness itself, a universal principle of rationality.
This conception retains from the prototheory the thesis that human good is virtue, but abandons the claim that knowledge is virtue, because virtue is not identical with knowledge but directed by it, the knowledge in question being knowledge of the universal good.
Protagoras may plausibly be seen as exploring another solution to this puzzle, because in that dialogue Socrates sets out an account of goodness whose central theses are (i) virtue is knowledge of human good, and (ii) human good is a life in which pleasure predominates over distress.
Whether Socrates is represented as adopting this solution in his own person, or merely as proposing it as a theory that ordinary people and Sophists such as Protagoras ought to accept (a question on which there has been much dispute), it represents a way out of the impasse that blocks the prototheory, though not a way that Plato was himself to adopt.
Having experimented with this solution, which retains the identity of virtue with knowledge while abandoning the identity of virtue with human good, he settled instead for the Republic’s solution, which maintains the latter identity while abandoning the former.
The prototheory is not strictly inconsistent with Socrates’ disavowal of wisdom or expertise, because it is presented in outline only, not established by conclusive argument as expertise requires. But the presentation of Socrates as even a prototheorist has at least a different emphasis from the depiction of him simply as a questioner and generator of aporiai.
|wisdom or expertise|
This author believes that it is impossible to tell how much of this theory is Plato’s own and how much was actually held by Socrates; that it was at least suggested to Plato by certain ideas that had emerged in Socrates’ conversations seems highly likely, but we are not justified in asserting more than that.