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Roslyn Weiss: The Socratic Paradox and its Enemies.

Roslyn Weiss

The Socratic Paradox and its Enemies.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2006.

Pp. 240.

US$35.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-226-89172-9);

US$25.00 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-226-89173-6).

One of the features of Plato's Socratic dialogues that lend them such a high degree of verisimilitude is the vivid way that fifth-century intellectual currents enliven the disputes that Socrates is made to pursue with his interlocutors, a variety of Sophists, politicians, professionals, and ordinary citizens. Sophistic attacks on nomos and hence, on justice, are evidenced both within and (if we are to take seriously the evidence of Antiphon's On Truth or Aristophanes' Clouds) outside the Platonic corpus. One man, however, roamed the streets of Athens in search of Sophistic theses to hunt down and destroy. Socrates' mission? To defend justice and to defeat her enemies, one Sophist at a time. Socrates was armed and dangerous: he came prepared to use whatever means were at his disposal to oppose the enemies of justice. The most powerful weapons he used came from the arsenal of the enemy: Socrates most effectively combats Sophists and Sophistic theses in their own terms.

With this appealing insight into the origin of the language that Socrates employs in the well-known paradoxes, Weiss offers an original interpretation of their purpose, and arrives at conclusions that challenge what might be thought of as a growing orthodoxy. Focusing especially on the purportedly Socratic denial of akrasia and its variants in the dialogues, Weiss attempts to show that what have now come to be theses or even tenets attributed to Socrates, eudaimonism (the view that an agent primarily or even exclusively pursues her own well being) and its attendant psychological egoism (the view that an agent acts in her own self-interest), are not in fact endorsed by Socrates or even recognized by Socrates as legitimate ways of characterizing rational behavior.

Weiss' book begins in the world of philology, tracing the formulations that supposedly underwrite Socratic egoism to their Sophistic counterparts: since, e.g., Thrasymachus argues that no one is willingly just (Republic I), Socrates will argue that no one is willingly unjust, i.e., that all wrongdoing is involuntary. Therefore, Socrates does not actually endorse what Weiss calls 'a host of odd ideas' associated with the denial of akrasia, i.e., ethical or psychological egoism. On the contrary, 'Socrates presumes no inability of the part of people to act against their own judgment of where their interests lie.' Nevertheless, according to Weiss, Socrates does have a distinctive 'moral position'. He holds that out of desire and fear people fail to do what is best for themselves and deliberately commit injustice, thereby voluntarily bringing upon themselves a condition of ill being or wretchedness (22).

Here as everywhere the devil is in the details, so Weiss goes on to analyze key passages in the Socratic dialogues that are often taken to demonstrate the Socratic denial of akrasia (Protagoras 358c6-d4: ch.2), the Socratic claim that no one commits injustice willingly (Gorgias 509: ch. 3), the Socratic claim that the good man is an intentional wrongdoer (Hippias Minor 372: ch. 3), the Socratic claim that no one wants bad things (Meno 78-79: ch.4), the 'Socratic' objection that no desires are independent of the good (Republic IV: ch. 5), and the claim that just punishment is fine or noble in Laws 9 (ch. 6). In this space, we can do no more than give the essential grounds of Weiss' alternative reading, beginning with the Protagoras.

Weiss stakes out her ground by disclosing the character defects of Socrates' interlocutor, emphasizing his calculating, self-protective precautions in the face of the Athenian democracy, in other words, the extent to which fear governs his self-presentation. The heart of the exchange involves Socrates' securing the agreement that 'for the many' there is no substantive difference between pleasure and the good; correct calculation of pleasure and pain will secure well being. Weiss insists that the hedonism Socrates postulates merely targets the values of the many; his reduction of good and bad to quantities of pleasure and pain effectively does away with the possibility of akrasia; yet, in reality, Socrates is acutely aware of how often people choose pleasure over the good.

In a similar vein, Weiss shows that Polus' intoxication with power has blinded him not only to the ills associated with injustice, but even to the obvious revulsion that acts like murder, theft, and genocide ought to occasion. Socrates uses outright ambiguity to guide Polus into a verbal agreement, and so, to a defeat that will be necessary, for the law of force and power is the only authority that Polus, under Gorgias' tutelage, now recognizes.

Another example of Weiss' investigation into Socrates' eristic via philology may be found in Chapter 4, where her subject is the paradox as it is articulated in the Meno, that no one desires bad things. Again Weiss shows how Socrates' approach to his target is ad hominem: Meno is a young man, fascinated by the world of wealth and ambition that are associated with aristocracy. His considered definition of virtue, expensive taste and the power to gratify it, is little more than a reflection of greed and aspiration, dressed up as elite refinement. Socrates advances against Meno by insinuating justice and moderation into the conversation, virtues that naturally work against these acquisitive tendencies. He aims to destroy Meno's pretensions by reducing all agents to the status of everyman: everyone wants good things--here we are all on level ground. At this point Socrates introduces the distinction, easily overlooked in translation, between kinds of objects: fine and good (kola and agatha); bad and unrefined (kaka and aischra), and he manages to substitute Meno's vocabulary of refinement with his own vocabulary of harm and benefit. Again, Socrates distinguishes between wanting (boulesthai) and desiring (epithumein), verbs which refer, respectively, to objects of rational choice, or questions of value, and objects of appetitive wish, or impulsive desire, irrespective of other considerations. Hence, Socrates forces Meno to concede no one wants, ultimately, to fare poorly or to be in a state of misery. Nevertheless, Socrates still allows plenty of scope for people to desire all kinds of things, and in this sense, recognizes the extent to which untamed desires and unchecked resolve lead those who lack moderation and justice into profound but voluntary unhappiness.

Weiss' subtle reading of Republic I\j which denies the 'standard view' that Glaucon's objection to the good independent desires pursued by epithumia and thumos, represents the views of an earlier Socratic position that Plato now wishes to refute, is actually endorsed by a number of newer interpretations. For example, Lorenz writes, 'the idea of these three kinds of motive (appetitive, spirited and wisdom) already appears to be in Plato's Apology' (The Brute Within, 18). According to Weiss, at any rate, Socrates has all along recognized and even lamented that most desires proliferate at the cost of overall well being, of justice, and of rational choice. Weiss' point is that for Socrates, people invite this evaluation by virtue of how they act on desires that proliferate owing to a variety of causes. Although they are free to choose the good, most people lack courage, temperance, justice, and ultimately wisdom, without which their arete is rendered ineffectual. Socrates, far from being an intellectualist, one who thinks that knowledge alone determines virtue, sees a place for resisting those fears and desires; moreover, far from being a eudaimonist, Socrates regrettably witnesses most people choosing precisely to pursue desires that will never lead to any degree of secure well being; finally, far from being an egoist, Socrates thinks that, very often, people will have occasion to go against their own self interests, to choose what is right over what is advantageous, and in so doing, will be decidedly better off.

Weiss' Socrates, to my mind, is distinctively less anachronistic than other modern versions of Socrates and even the majority view of Socrates, which can be summarized as follows: Socrates was a theorist who discovered one fundamental fact about the structure of human motivation, namely, all human beings seek their own happiness, whether or not they are aware of it. For Socrates, according to this thesis, it is impossible for an agent to be motivated to do anything other than what is in the agent's interest.

Can it really be that Socrates is to be credited with the discovery of egoistic eudaimonism, the idea that I seek my own good before all else? Rather, for Weiss, this doctrine is part of the Sophistic world that the Socratic dialogues portray. Weiss is right to insist that it is the Sophists, not Socrates, who offer doctrinal pictures of human nature: Socrates uses their theses against them without thereby committing himself to any psychological theories, other than those entailed by common sense.

Sara Ahbel-Rappe

University of Michigan
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Author:Ahbel-Rappe, Sara
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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