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What did Socrates teach and to whom did he teach it?


A LARGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE, ancient and modern alike, have always found in Socrates what seemed to them a suspicious, if not actually repugnant, aspect. This aspect, to put the point first in crude terms, is his devotion to philosophy, which presupposes an apparently unshakable faith in reason, in the power of understanding to secure goodness, and in the power of goodness to provide us with happiness.

But philosophy, Plato has Callicles say in the Gorgias, emasculates even those who may possess great talents: it makes them avoid public life, where serious matters are decided and real reputations are established; instead, philosophers "live out their lives skulking in some corner whispering with three or four boys, never saying anything grand, great or important."(1) Seen from the outside, this is not a totally inaccurate description of the picture which Socrates' life, as Plato depicts it in his dialogues, may have presented to many of his contemporaries.

For Nietzsche, whose repugnance for Socrates was indissolubly mixed with admiration, Socrates' trust in reason was one of his most despicable features. Socrates, Nietzsche sneered early on in his writings, "is the prototype of the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea, while understanding error as the evil par excellence."(2) The sneer only becomes more pronounced in the later works:

One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means. One knows that one arouses mistrust with it, that it is not very persuasive. Nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect: the experience of every meeting at which there are speeches proves this. It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons.(3)

Nietzsche's remark about dialectic's inability to convince is worth thinking about further, and we shall return to it. For the moment, I am concerned to specify exactly what in Socrates has provoked such criticism, both traditional and contemporary.(4) As a first approximation, we may say that this is the element in his philosophy and in his personality that has come to be known as his intellectualism.

Intellectualism involves a number of features. First, it seems to identify virtue with knowledge and therefore appears to consider the affective side of our nature irrelevant to our virtue, to what counts as a good human life. Just for this reason, intellectualists pay no heed to the necessity of socialization and habituation, to the importance of the careful, long-term attention to our noncognitive side which, it seems plausible to claim, is at least as necessary for becoming good as is the knowledge of the nature of goodness.(5)

Second, intellectualism as we find it in Socrates seems to be a view that considers virtue not only necessary but also sufficient for the good life and for happiness: being good, in some way, is the essence of being happy--nothing else matters. To quote one of the most recent criticisms of Socrates on this issue, it may seem that, unconcerned with anything but virtue, especially with the things that luck or chance might give us or take away without any responsibility on our part, Socrates "can't lose" in the game of life,

because he does not care so deeply for the things that are subject to risk that their loss would be a serious loss to him. There is his strangeness, awe-inspiring and alarming. And it leaves the question: Is this a good way for a human being to live?(6)

The third feature of intellectualism is the following. Since Socrates believed that only knowledge and argument,(7) not the whole nature of one's personality, can lead us to virtue, and since reason seems to be the most universal human capacity, he made it his business to address his questions to everyone indiscriminately. Not caring whether those he engaged in discussion, particularly the young among them, had the character appropriate for philosophy, he encouraged the wrong people--like Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades--to engage in philosophy to the detriment both of the youths and of philosophy. Gregory Vlastos, who does not find fault with Socrates on this issue, promotes this conception of Socrates' indiscriminate approach to his audience when he describes him as a "street-philosopher," a "missionary to the unwashed"(8): "not only does he allow question-breeding argument about good and evil to all and sundry, he positively thrusts it upon them."(9)

Socrates, then, wrongly equates knowledge with virtue, inhumanly identifies virtue with happiness, and imprudently encourages everyone, whatever their moral fiber, to become well versed in the sort of argument that can easily destroy as establish moral value.(10) These are serious charges, not obviously compatiable with his canonical status as moral exemplar.

It is deeply ironic that one of the earliest versions of these charges was made by none other than Plato himself.(11) The criticism appears at Republic 539b-d. The charge is that argument (logos) should not be taught to very young men, who are likely to indulge in it only for the pleasure of contradicting others. Their constant refutation of other people's views, whatever they happen to be, results in their "believing nothing of what they earlier believed," thus being bereft of new ideals with which to replace their former values. It produces an agnosticism or even cynicism which may, under some circumstances, be correctly described as "corruption."(12) This gives them a bad name, and harms the very cause of philosophy. Older men, by contrast, who deal with dialectic conversation (dialegesthai) seriously, for the sake of finding the truth and not just for contradiction, will become themselves more measured (metrioteroi [539c8], in contrast to the impetuous, puppy-like young at 539b4-6), and will bring honor to philosophy. Plato finally sums up all these points concerning age and connects them with one's character:

Indeed, all that we said before this was said for the sake of caution, that those whom one allows to partake in reasoned discourse [hoi logoi] should by nature be orderly and steady [tas phuseis kosmioi kai stasimoi] not as now when anyone engages in it, even if he is quite unfit. (539d3-6)(13)

With the exception of the charge that Socrates discoursed about natural phenomena and the gods, and with the addition of the view that philosophy, when properly practiced, does lead to the greatest goods, Plato's criticism is not so distant, after all, from the picture of Socrates Aristophanes presented in the Clouds some forty to fifty years before the composition of the Republic.

To this charge that Socrates was a serious failure as a teacher, we can add another, more personal accusation. If virtue is knowledge, if it is necessary to know the good in order to do it, then is not it after all the case that Socrates, who consistently admits that he does not know what virtue is, also failed as an individual? How can he claim, or how can anyone else claim on his behalf, that he had led a virtuous and happy life? His shorcomings seem to keep proliferating.


In order to defuse the seriousness of the first set of charges against Socrates, I tried on a number of earlier occasions to construct an interpretation of his character as we find it in Plato's early works according to which Socrates, no matter how intellectualist, is totally unconcerned with the moral improvement of others. I argued that Plato's Socrates believes sincerely, not at all ironically, that he had nothing of his own, no positive ethical views, to impart to the world. If Socrates was not a teacher; if he did not have, even in its most rudimentary form, the sort of program for moral education that Plato and Aristotle developed after him; if all he was concerned about was the salvation of his own and not of any other soul, then, I thought, the charge of intellectualism, as amplified in the passage from the Republic, would lose much of its point.(14)

I still believe that this hypothesis is true. I am, however, less confident about the truth of its antecedent, the point about Socrates' teaching and positive views. I now believe that I ran together a number of different ideas, and that separating them from one another will be a good thing both for me personally (one can always safely be that much of an intellectualist) and for the discussion of the problem generally, since the differences between these ideas are not always clearly marked when they are discussed in the secondary literature.

One point that needs to be stated clearly and distinguished from others concerns the question whether Socrates was or was not a teacher. I still believe that he was not--that he was not, that is, a teacher of arete; I will argue for the claim in what follows. But I do not want to claim that Socrates was not perceived as a teacher--he certainly was, by Plato as well as by Xenophon (for their different reasons), and also by a number of other Athenians, both friends and enemies. I believe, however, that Socrates, at least as he is depicted in Plato's early dialogues, did not see himself as such a teacher, and that--whatever Plato's actual intentions may have been--his moral stature derives directly from his refusal to accept that role. In other words, we must not distinguish only between what Socrates took himself to be and what others thought of him, but also between the way he is represented in Plato's dialogues and whatever we believe Plato's own attitude toward his representation to have been.

What is it, then, to be a teacher of arete, an ethical teacher who can show others how to live a good and successful life? One can try to do this in at least two ways. One may in fact know (or claim to know) what the good and successful life is, and one may be able (or claim to be able) to transmit that knowledge to others. Or one can set oneself up as an example, perhaps as the only example, of what it is to lead a good and successful life. I am quite sure that Socrates was not a teacher in the first sense. With the exception of some passages in Plato's Apology, which I will discuss a little later, I also believe we have no evidence for thinking that Plato's Socrates set his life up as a model of what the good life is, even if Plato may have seen and presented him as the best human being of his time.

In contrast to Plato's version, Xenophon definitely portrays Socrates as someone constantly involved in giving explicit advice to his companions. The trouble with this representation of Socrates, however, is that Xenophon's refrain, "So saying and doing such things himself, he made his companions more pious and prudent,"(15) consistently closes conversations which it is hard to imagine as having had any effect, especially one that was serious and lasting, on anyone. In any case, Xenophon's most general statement about Socrates' teaching (at Memorabilia 1.2.3.) is profoundly equivocal: at best, it attributes to him the status of moral exemplar and not that of systematic teacher.(16)

In trying to avoid portraying Socrates as any sort of teacher, I argued at one point that unless Socrates renounced all claims to any positive views whatever regarding virtue, he would have had to present himself as having the knowledge professed by the teachers of arete with whom he did not want to be identified--precisely those people from whom Plato took such pains to distinguish him, the people we call sophists today. Accordingly, I tried to interpret what seemed to be one of his most substantive claims in a way which would make it turn out to be a very weak, almost trivial, claim indeed.(17) This is the famous passage of the Apology: "To do injustice and to disobey a superior, whether divine or human: that I know to be bad and shameful" (29b6-7).

My argument was that the Greek word for "disobey," apeithein, should be translated, as it certainly can be, as "to fail to be persuaded by"; and the Greek word for "superior," beltion, translated as "a better person." And since, because of Socrates' very intellectualism, one cannot recognize a better person independently of being persuaded of that person's moral views, I argued that all that the statement comes down to is the commonplace that injustice is wrong. I now think that this was an overstatement, especially since a few lines before making the statement quoted above Socrates refers to his military commanders at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium as his superiors, though he does not use the word beltion to describe them; and there is no reason to think that he would have thought of them as better human beings than he.(18)

The word beltion, then, should be interpreted as "superior" in a broad sense. In the Apology, Plato has Socrates make the sensible point that in some particular cases there are people who are superior to oneself. For example, in time of war, generals are the relevant experts who know what is good and bad in military affairs, and one should perform the tasks which they assign. In other cases, we assign ourselves tasks which we consider the best in the circumstances (hegesamenos beltiston einai) (28d6). In both types of cases--including of course the most important type, the case of the god's command to Socrates to practice philosophy, which is what is really at issue here--someone, either oneself or an acknowledged expert, has set one a task. Socrates claims that he knows that it is bad and shameful to refuse to perform this task, especially if one is motivated by a fear of death (28d9, 28e6) or of anything else (29e1) greater than the fear of what is shameful (28d9-10; cf. Crito 48d3-5).

Socrates' claim is not trivial. The idea that injustice is shameful, however, is not in fact terribly controversial: Polus readily concedes it,(19) and it takes a person of views as extreme as those Callicles holds to defend it. Moreover, though the thesis that it is wrong to consider death worse than disgrace can be debated at length, it is still a proposition which, in general, is not especially easy to reject. Accordingly, I would like to suggest that Socrates relies on substantive though not particularly controversial premises in his argument that he will not abandon philosophy.

It seems to me that we can attribute such ideas to him, because having some moral views about the world is not sufficient to qualify one as a teacher of arete, as I earlier thought. What Socrates considers necessary for being able to claim that role is a very specific kind of knowledge, not simply the conviction that some moral positions, which may in fact be very important to him, have so far survived all dialectical attacks. To be a teacher, you need not only this conviction, which is compatible with the possibility of your ideas turning out to be false upon their next examination,(20) but also a certainty that the views you are claiming to teach are true. So, at least, Socrates seems to have believed: in Gorgias (506a) he claims for himself the role of seeker and nothing more precisely because he lacks that certainty (cf. 509a). In addition, you must be in a position to explain the truth of these ideas: if not to all and sundry, at least to those who, like apprentices to a master craftsman, gradually become habituated into a craft.(21) This is just the sort of knowledge which, all scholars agree, Socrates lacks, and, moreover, believes he lacks.

Socrates does, however, sometimes depend on more controversial ideas in his discussions. Most famous among these ideas is his claim in the Crito that "one should never return an injustice nor harm another human being, no matter what one suffers at their hands" (49c10-11). Still, we must ask how substantive a commitment on his part this view constitutes; and is it a proposition which he can be said to teach to others? In order to answer these questions, we must first note that Socrates introduces his principle in terms that show that he himself considers it terribly controversial and subject to irresoluble disagreement:

For I know that this seems and will seem so to few people. Now, between those who think so and those who don't, there is no common counsel--necessarily they have nothing but contempt for one another when they observe what those of the other group decide. (49d2-5)

We do not know how Socrates reaches his conclusion about returning injustice, a view "which still now seems to him as it has always seemed" (49c1). There is a strong implication, however, that it is an idea the maintaining of which has never caused him to lose a dialectical bout, an elenchus (49b3-c6). Now, in view of how controversial Socrates takes the view to be, of the fallibility of the method by which he has been brought to believe it, and of his constant pressure on Crito to consider for himself whether he does or does not accept it (49d5-e2), it is difficult to believe that this is the sort of idea of which Socrates can claim (or be claimed, by Plato) to be a teacher. Though everything here is morally robust, it is dialectically light and tentative. Socrates makes it perfectly clear to Crito that he is willing to take up the argument for this position from the beginning, if that is what Crito wants. He seems to lack just the sort of confidence that would allow him to present himself as a teacher of this view to anyone else.

Ironically, today we often refer to "Socratic teaching" as a method which is tentative in that it depends essentially on questions, though we always presume that teachers--usually law professors but sometimes Socrates himself--secretly know the truth and are not at all tentative in their conviction regarding it. In fact, no mode of teaching is more dogmatic that what goes by the name of "the Socratic method" today. In this we are completely untrue to the Socrates who appears in Plato's early dialogues, for reasons I will mention later on. Socrates is light and tentative all the way down. Though he insists on following his own dialectical method, he is constantly expressing the willingness to reexamine his views and to review his arguments. He does not believe that such tentativeness is compatible with teaching.

There is a remarkable difference between the way Socrates presents his "rejection of retaliation" in the Crito and his attitude toward the same principle in the Gorgias. In the latter we find him saying to Polus, "I and you and [all] other people think that committing injustice is worse than being treated unjustly and that avoiding punishment is worse than being punished" (474b3-5; cf. 475e2-6). Though he still presents the idea as controversial, Socrates now claims that everybody in fact already believes it: the sharp line he draws in the Crito between those who do and those who do not accept the rejection of retaliation is gone. It is true that in strictly logical terms his views in the two dialogues are mutually compatible. It is possible, after all, for people who share the same beliefs but are not in fact aware of this fact to have only contempt for one another on the basis of what they think the others believe, and not to be able to "deliberate" (bouleuesthai) together. But the idea that underneath our apparent disagreements there exists a fundamentally similar approach to the world, and that dialectical discussion may actually be capable of revealing it, seems to me totally absent from the Crito. I believe that this constitutes a very significant difference between the two dialogues.

The difference is significant because it suggests that it was only between the time when he wrote the Crito and the date when he composed the Gorgias, and not throughout his early period, as Gregory Vlastos has so forcefully argued, that Plato came to the view that everyone possesses a stock of true moral beliefs which entail the negation of any false moral belief they may also hold.(22) Furthermore, it is of course not only perfectly consistent with this idea, but evidence in its support, that only in the Gorgias does Plato have Socrates, for the first time, commit himself to the truth of the results of elenctic investigation (486e5-6; cf. 478e8, 487e6-7). If everyone does indeed possess a sufficient stock of true beliefs "within," then the results of the elenchus are not simply dialectically but also epistemically secure. The very idea of our having beliefs "within," however, which is introduced without explanation in the Gorgias, is a later Platonic innovation and not a Socratic thesis. It receives its first explanation through the theory of recollection presented in the Gorgias's companion piece, the Meno, which Vlastos acknowledges as a work belonging to the beginnings of Plato's post-Socratic middle period.(23)

If the results of the elenchus, which are reached on the basis of views asserted by an interlocutor, are to be true, then they must be reached on the basis of beliefs which are not only sincerely held but which are also themselves true. But how do we acquire such beliefs? The answer to this question is one of the great intellectual contributions of the Meno, in which, from some true mathematical beliefs of a slave, Socrates derives a further, much less obvious, view. Moreover, the theory of recollection is introduced right here precisely in order to explain how those true beliefs can be in the slave's (or in anyone else's) soul in the first place. The question the Gorgias raises implicitly, then, is answered explicitly in the Meno. The two dialogues go hand in hand. Both begin as traditional Socratic dialogues. At the point where Socratic dialogues reach an impasse, however, both these works literally explode into the presentation of extremely radical substantive theses: the Gorgias produces new ideas in ethics and politics; and the Meno inaugurates a new attitude toward dialectical method, metaphysics, and epistemology. Both works constitute Plato's first attempts to explain what underwrites Socrates' practice of the elenchus and his ethical views. Both, of course, need serious expansion and revision. This is exactly what they receive in what we now call Plato's middle dialogues, to which they provide a tight and intelligible transition.

It is important to note that despite his positive claims for the truth of the results of the elenchus in the Gorgias (cf. 508e6-509a3), Socrates, as Vlastos has also shown, adds an explicit disclaimer regarding his knowledge of these matters: "But as for me, my position [logos] is always the same: I do not know how these things are" (509a4-6). In other words, the elenchus, as practiced by Socrates, even if it reaches a conclusion that Socrates regards as true, does not constitute teaching, and Socrates can still claim that he does not have knowledge concerning the conclusion in question. Truth, as we have seen, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for knowledge which can be taught; the ability to explain the views in question is also needed.(24) This distinction is captured by the contrast between knowledge, which is accompanied by the ability to offer an explanation, and true belief, which is not. This contrast, in turn, which is centrally important to the Meno (85b-86a, 97a-98b) and to all of Plato's subsequent works, is first introduced in the Gorgias (454d-e)--a further indication that these two dialogues are to be read as companion pieces, summing up and extending Socratic ethics and dialectic.

The question we now need to ask, then, is what the knowledge is which Socrates lacks and which therefore prevents him from being a teacher of the good life. Vlastos has argued that though Socrates possesses a sort of dialectical, fallible knowledge reached by means of the elenchus, and is willing to avow possessing it, he is also aware that he lacks a kind of knowledge which is philosophical, deductive, and certain.(25) It is just the possession of this second sort of knowledge which Socrates disavows, and which might have made him a teacher if he only had it.

A problem with this interpretation, however, is that such a notion of "philosophical" knowledge is systematically articulated only in the middle and later writings of Plato and in the texts of Aristotle.(26) There is very little evidence for thinking that this notion constituted an idea disseminated widely enough--or, for that matter, articulated sufficiently--by Socrates' time (or even by the time of Plato's early works) to provide a sensible term of contrast with Socrates' elenctic method of dialectic. Unless such a concept was current at the time, Socrates could not reasonably deny possessing it; and the evidence that it was current is very weak indeed. Vlastos provides only two passages from Democritus, and appeals to Parmenides' strong claims for his view of the world.(27) But the passages of Democritus do not seem to me to be enough to show that a systematic conception of philosophical knowledge which entailed certainty was available, and the Eleatics' reliance on deductive proof was used almost exclusively for the refutation of commonsense views rather than for the establishment of positive conclusions.

General considerations of this sort, however, are unlikely to resolve the problem. Let us, instead, look at our texts. In Apology 20d6-e2 Socrates claims to possess only what he calls "human wisdom," in contrast to what some other people to whom he claims to have just referred may profess. Who are these people, and what knowledge do they believe they have? According to Vlastos, they are the natural philosophers (referred to at 19a-20d) and the sophists (19d-20c). On his view, therefore, Socrates disavows the "philosophical" knowledge he must be attributing to the natural philosophers, and uses a single term "to refer to two radically different cognitive achievements, one of which [he] dares claim to have while disclaiming the other."(28)

The situation, however, is considerably more complicated than this suggests. First, Socrates, in repeating the "ancient" accusation which he claims is behind Meletus's writ, considers that it describes him both as a natural philosopher and as a teacher of rhetoric, since it is supposed to refer both to his investigations of natural phenomena and to his teaching how to "make the weaker argument stronger" (19b4-c1). Accordingly, when he denies having an interest in these topics, he cannot be thinking simply of natural philosophy: he must be thinking of rhetoric as well. But it is quite unlikely that Socrates would have attributed "philosophical" or certain knowledge to the rhetoricians if his notion of this knowledge was supposed to be derived from natural philosophy.

Second, Socrates remains explicitly agnostic about what it is, if anything, that natural philosophers and rhetoricians know: "I do not speak of this sort of knowledge in order to put it down--if indeed someone is wise concerning such matters...., but, really, Athenians, I take no part whatsoever in such affairs" (19c5-8). Since he considers that natural philosophy and rhetoric are totally beyond his concerns, and since he expresses serious reservations about what is known in their regard, it is very difficult to believe that Socrates contrasts his own knowledge with the knowledge those people may have claimed for themselves. Moreover, it is equally implausible to believe that he considers the knowledge of the natural philosophers and the rhetoricians--if indeed they have any knowledge in the first place--to be superior to his own.

Of course, Socrates may well be being ironical in attributing wisdom and knowledge to the philosophers and to the rhetoricians. His real view may be that knowledge is god's prerogative (23a). In that case, however, we cannot appeal to the deductive features of the knowledge the philosophers allegedly possess in order to establish a notion of knowledge with which Socrates can be contrasting his own: either Socrates seriously accepts the philosophical concept of knowledge which he claims to lack, or he doubts it exists, in which case he cannot be contrasting his kind of knowledge with it.

For these reasons, it seems to me much more likely to suppose that the people of whom Socrates says he was just speaking (20d9-e1) and with whom he contrasts himself are just the sophists who are concerned with rhetoric, grammar, or virtue: Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, and Evenus. Two reasons make this supposition plausible. First, these are in fact the people about whom Socrates has been speaking for the past whole Stephanus page (19d-20d); the natural philosophers have been left far behind. Second, since Socrates does discuss virtue incessantly and uses dialectical approaches not dissimilar from theirs,(29) it might seem obvious to the people of Athens that he is part of their group. It is therefore important to him to distinguish his position from theirs as clearly as possible. He claims that if, like them and like Evenus in particular, he himself possesses the knowledge (episteme) of arete and the craft (techne) of teaching it, then he would indeed be "puffed up with vanity and pride" (20c1-2).

If so, then the domain with which Socrates is concerned is exclusively ethical, and the knowledge he claims to lack is the knowledge which the sophists--not the natural philosophers--claim to posses. More accurately put, he says he lacks the knowledge he believes these people must lay claim to if they can be teachers of anything. His concern, as David Reeve writes, is to try "to explain how his wisdom differs from that of Gorgias and the other sophists and how, despite the fact that he knows nothing of the things they claim to know (20c1-3), his wisdom got confused with theirs (20c4-24b2).(30) But the sophists' wisdom cannot have been the philosophical, deductive knowledge which may have been in the process of being articulated by Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and Democritus. If anything, the sophists represented, to a great extent, a repudiation of traditional natural philosophy.

The knowledge the sophists claim for themselves does not have anything to do with certainty and deduction. Rather, what they claim to have is what we might call technical or expert knowledge of arete, knowledge which they can articulate and transmit to others with a reasonable assurance of success.(31) Perhaps it is not even the case that all of them make that strong a claim. Protagoras, for example, may be unwilling to identify his teaching too closely with what occurs in other technia.(32) Socrates is convinced, however, that if some people can teach virtue (or any other subject), then they must possess what he would consider technical knowledge, and he interprets their claim in this manner. This is a knowledge he disavows, while he is willing to claim for himself what we might call common, nontechnical, or nonexpert knowledge of arete: he was convinced about some of its features, perhaps features that were quite controversial, by means of the fallible method provided by the elenchus. In addition, he was able to do with the greatest consistency the right thing on all occasions; this, I believe, must have been the greatest problem Plato faced regarding his "teacher": How could Socrates always do what is right without the knowledge he himself seemed to consider necessary for doing it? But Socrates' knowledge can neither explain why the truths it captures are true ("I do not know how it is [hopos echei] that these things are so," he says at Gorgias 509a5), nor can it be transmitted from one person to another, as the artisans can transmit their knowledge in virtue of being able to explain the reasons for proceeding as they do in their work. The contrast is not between dialectical and apodeictic knowledge; it is, rather, between dialectic and craft--between pure persuasion by means of argument on the one hand, and an authority which can justify itself by its tried and true accomplishments on the other.


The most common approach to Socrates' disclaiming of the role of teacher is to consider it ironical. The most recent and most sophisticated expression of this approach is found in Gregory Vlastos's concept of "complex irony." In complex irony, a word is used in two senses, denied in one while it is being asserted in the other. Many of Socrates' most paradoxical positions, including his attitude toward his teaching, turn out to be instances of this trope:

In the conventional sense, where to "teach" is simply to transfer knowledge from a teacher's to a learner's mind, Socrates means what he says. But in the sense which he would give to "teaching"--engaging would-be learners in elenctic argument to make them aware of their own ignorance and enable them to discover for themselves the truth the teacher had held back--in that sense of "teaching" Socrates would want to say that he is a teacher, the only true teacher: his dialogue with his fellows is meant to have, and does have, the effect of evoking and assisting their efforts at moral self-improvement.(33)

This Socrates is, in the ancient sense of the term, a dogmatist: he knows the truth as certainly as anyone ever did. His ironic insistence that he neither knows nor teaches it, once interpreted in this manner, disappears into a protreptic device. This is the heart of Vlastos's controversial new interpretation of Socrates. But should we allow Socratic irony to transform itself so readily into an educational ploy? Is this irony at all?

I believe that it is not and that we should, instead, leave Socrates' irony intact, for a number of reasons. One is that this interpretation of Socratic irony seems tailor-made for the Gorgias (521d, 515a), a dialogue in which Plato's Socrates does reveal a newly found dogmatic streak. As I have already argued, however, the Gorgias should be seen as a text in which Plato goes beyond his previous understanding of Socrates. In fact, the Gorgias is the earliest in a long series of efforts to come to terms with Socrates' irony, to disarm it, and to claim Socrates as the first in a venerable tradition of moral teachers. In other words, I believe that the evidence of the Gorgias, like that of the Meno, is evidence for Plato's own controversial interpretation of what he had up to that point presented as Socratic philosophy.

Another reason for not reading Socrates' disavowal of teaching as a complex irony is the perhaps unfortunate fact that it is far from clear that Socrates' dialogue with his fellows, as depicted in Plato's early works, "does have" the beneficial effect Vlastos so confidently attributes to it. Protagoras, Gorgias, Polus, Callicles, Hippias, Euthydemus, and Dionysiodorus remain unmoved. So do Euthyphro, Ion, and Meno. "Moral improvement" simply misdescribes the direction toward which Critias's and Charmides' lives tend. The Laches and the Lysis end with a promise to continue the efforts begun in these works, but they still leave the question of Socrates' long-term effects completely unresolved. As to his influence on Alcibiades, we have, apart from his the testimony of history, the confession Plato himself attributes to Alcibiades in the Symposium: "I know perfectly well that I can't prove him wrong when he tells me what I should do; yet, the moment I leave his side, I go back to my old ways: I cave in to my desire to please the crowd" (216b).

As a description of Socrates' efforts and effects as they are depicted in Plato's early dialogues, Nietzsche's point that dialectic "arouses mistrust," "that it is not very persuasive," "that nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect,"(34) seems to me to be exactly right. Though we know, through the existence of the various Socratic logoi, that some people at least were converted by him and tried to continue what they each took his mission to be, the fact remains that Socrates' direct, immediate effect on his contemporaries' morality was minimal.

It is true that both his enemies and his friends considered Socrates a teacher, but that is no reason to refuse to take his own disavowal of that role at face value. There is little ground for supposing that Socrates' contemporaries and near contemporaries--the authors of the Socratic logoi which contained such incredibly different pictures of him--must have understood him better than we do. Kierkegaard was right: "Even if I were to imagine myself his contemporary," he writes, "he would still always be difficult to comprehend."(35)

Taking Socrates' attitude toward his teaching as ironical robs him of his much of his strangeness. Taking it as sincere supplies him, paradoxically, with a much more profound ironical mask--a mask that is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to remove. For here we have someone who, precisely in disavowing ethical knowledge and the ability to supply it to others, succeeded in living as moral (if not necessarily as perfectly human) a life as anyone ever did who belonged in a tradition he himself initiated. And he does not let us know how.

This--we must be very clear--is a profound instance of irony. For irony cannot simply be defined (as Vlastos, following the tradition begun by Quintilian, defines it) as saying one thing and meaning the opposite. The idea that ironists are always in clear possession of a truth they are holding back is itself part of the trope, part of what irony represents itself as, but not necessarily a part it communicates. To believe this idea is in many cases to miss the irony, to fail to notice that ironists can be ironical toward themselves as well. Often, irony consists simply in letting your audience know that something is taking place inside you that they are not allowed to see--but it also leaves open the question whether you are seeing it yourself. Irony often communicates that we are not seeing the whole picture, but it does not imply that the speaker is; in fact, it does not always imply that there is a whole picture to be seen in the first place.(36)

Irony, as I have been saying, provides a mask. It does not show what, if anything, is masked. It suggests depth, but it does not guarantee it. Furthermore, I believe, the Socrates of Plato's early dialogues has no depth, no underlying story distinct from what we are given in the texts. Intimations that his practice is underwritten by a set of views and theories different from those he expresses appear only in the Gorgias and in the Meno; and the first effort to display his depth explicitly is made when Plato composes Alcibiades' speech in the Symposium. These works are the beginning of Plato's attempt to endow Socrates with a depth which can explain his paradoxical life.

In our many discussions of Socratic irony we often forget that Socrates is after all Plato's literary creature and that the issue of Platonic irony, of the irony of the author, is at least as important as the irony of his character. Plato's irony, I believe, is more disturbing than Socrates': it is deep, dark, and disdainful. It expresses deep contempt, especially since Plato never engages in it directly in his own person, but only through the effect of his works.

Consider, for example, the way the Euthyphro manipulates its readers. By and large, even if we do not agree with all of Socrates' arguments, we finish the dialogue convinced that whether Euthyphro knows it or not, he has lost the day. We are put in position of taking Socrates' side, of believing that he is absolutely right in thinking that Euthyphro does not know what piety is while yet he is determined to proceed with his astounding suit against his own father. Euthyphro's last words--"Some other time, Socrates; for, right now, I am in a hurry to get somewhere, and it's time for me to leave" (15e3-4)--with which he avoids a discussion which he had taken such pains to initiate, show that he has missed Socrates' point completely: the argument must go on if he is to go on with his suit. Having taken Socrates' side, however, we ourselves close the book. Just like Euthyphro himself, we turn to our previous engagements instead of doing what agreement with Socrates entails: devoting ourselves, just like him, to the search for the good life--and this not simply in a metaphorical sense. What Socrates and Plato ask their respective audiences to do is neither uncontroversial nor easy. But agreeing that it is the right thing to do and not doing it, knowing the better but choosing the worse, places us, as Plato's readers and Socrates' admirers, in a very peculiar situation indeed.(37) To believe that Socrates' effect, either on his own interlocutors or on the readers of the dialogues, is generally beneficial is to be taken in by Platonic irony and to show ourselves to be missing the point in our very claim to see it. It is nothing other that displaying our ignorance of our ignorance.

Another reason for taking Socrates at face value when he denies being a teacher is the contrast between Apology 33a-b and Gorgias 456c-461b.(38) In the latter passage, Gorgias, having claimed to be a teacher of rhetoric, disclaims any responsibility for the use to which his students might put the knowledge he gives them. Socrates then argues that since Gorgias has claimed that the nature of justice is part of what his course on rhetoric reveals, his students should never be unjust. Gorgias accepts this conclusion, but the contradiction is left unresolved. The implication is that either rhetoric does not concern justice (for then the orator would never be unjust), or that Gorgias does not after all teach his students what he professes. In the Apology, however, Socrates claims for himself just the position he refuses to allow Gorgias to occupy. In very strong terms he says that since he never was the teacher of anyone, he cannot be held in any way responsible for the character and behavior of those who made it their business to listen to his discussions. I think that if there ever was a sense, any sense, in which Socrates did think of himself as a teacher of arete, he would never have disavowed this central responsibility.

Who were the people who wanted to listen while he was discussing and minding his own business (ta emautou prattontos)? To whom did Socrates turn in order both to interpret and, once interpreted, to obey, the Delphic oracle? What did he tell them?

In Plato's Socratic dialogues, Socrates addresses a very small class of people (Crito, his closest friend, constitutes a very special case). This class includes acknowledged experts (Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias and his companions, Euthydemus and Dionysiodorus, Ion, Laches, and Nicias), self-professed experts (Euthyphro, perhaps Critias [Charmides 162b-c], Meno, and Anytus), or handsome young men (Charmides, Lysis, Menexenus, and Alcibiades). Very often it is not Socrates who initiates the conversation, but it is his interlocutors who invite him into their discussion; consider for example, how long it takes him to engage in the discussion of the Laches, or the pressure Hippocrates exerts on him, in the opening pages of the Protagoras, to introduce him to the sophist.

These are, however, all special people. How can their exclusive presence in their dialogues fit with Socrates' repeated claims in the Apology that he addresses absolutely everyone he meets? (29d6, 31b3-4; cf. 36c4-5). One possible answer to this question would be that these dialogues depict Socrates at the early stage of his elenctic career, before the incidents described in the Apology occur. They represent the set of disputations that provoked Chairephon to send to Delphi for the oracle, the time before Socrates took it upon himself to do the god's work in Athens and approach every ordinary person there. But the response fails. In the Apology Socrates says explicitly that he approached the experts after he received the oracle; and the examination of Euthyphro occurs just before his trial, well after the oracle was received.(39)

Let us now look at the passages of the Apology a little more closely. How strongly do they testify to Socrates' "universalism," to his being the popular figure of the "street philosopher" he is regularly taken to be? I am not sure we can answer this question unequivocally; but I do believe that the Apology presents a more complex picture of Socrates' activities than we often suppose.

Consider, first, Socrates' response to the oracle. Puzzled by its declaration, he approaches the three classes of people who had a reputation for wisdom: politicians, poets, and craftsmen. Moreover, Socrates describes his examination of the "wise," which was part of his effort at the elenchus of the oracle, as an activity "in accordance with the god's wish" (kata ton theon; 22a4)--an expression that suggests that his very attempt to interpret, perhaps even to refute, the oracle, was also part of his divine mission. That is, Socrates' mission does not begin only after he has determined the meaning of the oracle and has established the worth of his "human wisdom."

He comes to this interpretation after he has examined these people.(40) That is, he finally understands that the message of the oracle was that human wisdom is of little value and that he was chosen as an example of someone, perhaps the only person, aware of this. He then describes what he did next, characterizing it three times as divinely ordained: kata ton theon (23b5), toi theoi boethon (23b7), dia ten tou theou latreian (23c1). What is crucial here is the fact that Socrates consistently identifies his divine mission as a search for someone wise and a demonstration that no one with that reputation really deserves it. He does not depict his task as an effort to teach anyone the truth about virtue. In addition, he claims that the rich young men who have the leisure to "follow him around" do so purely on their own initiative (automatoi; 23c2-3). He does not offer himself as their teacher.

Plato is writing carefully here, and we should read him in the same way. He is equally careful later, when, beginning again with Socrates' effect on the young, he makes him expand on the content of the divine command:

They enjoy listening to the examination of those who think they are wise but actually are not, for this is not without its pleasure. Just this, I claim, has been set to me as my task by the god both through oracles and dreams and in every way in which any other divine arrangement ever set a human being to doing something. (33c2-7)

This famous passage, which asserts in the strongest terms that Socrates is obeying a divine command, tells us that he was ordered not to approach "all and sundry," but to examine those who believe they are wise, but in fact are not, and to expose their arrogance. The scope of Socrates' mission onece again appears considerably more narrow than we often take it to be.

What of his long speech to the jury in the hypothetical case they might allow him to live if he did not do philosophy? (29d2-30c1). Does not Socrates clearly say here that he will still say to anyone he happens upon that what really matters is not wealth, fame, or honor, but the care of the soul? To answer this question correctly we must recall that this speech is addressed directly to the jury, which, on hypothesis, might allow Socrates to live if he were to abandon philosophy and--what comes to the same for him--the pursuit of virtue. What he tells these members of the jury is that he will not stop philosophizing. On the contrary, he will miss no opportunity of addressing them--that is, the very people who think, after all, that a life not lived in search of virtue is still worth living--on that very subject. For their hypothetical decision to let him live without philosophy would amount precisely to such an evaluation of life. So, even in this case, Socrates' audience is not unlimited. He begins his hypothetical speech by addressing it to an unnamed Athenian citizen (29d7-8), but he is speaking to the jurors, to whom he has been referring consistently as "Athenians," and who have expressed an explicit and controversial view on the value of life.(41) If any one of them (ean tis humon), he continues, replies that he does care for what is worth caring for, Socrates will attach himself to him and will examine him in detail, showing him up as a hypocrite, if that is what he is.

What Socrates promises he will do to the members of the jury is in fact the point of the elenchus, as practiced on those who claim to be wise. Socrates now focuses on this point and says that he will engage in discussion of it "whomever I happen upon, young or old, citizen or foreigner, though preferably a citizen" (30a2-4). Given the context, however, which concerns the practice of the elenchus on those who think they are wise, "whomever I happen upon" need not refer to everyone indiscriminately, but only to those for whom Socrates considers the elenchus appropriate, wherever they are from. That is, Socrates need not be saying, "I will walk about town and I will practice the elenchus on everyone I meet." Instead he may be saying, "Having determined that someone needs to be subjected to the elenchus, I will do so, whoever he is, young or old, citizen or foreigner."

A final point needs to be addressed now. When Socrates announces what he will say to the people he approaches, he does not rest content with the specifications of the elenchus he has given so far. He offers a much more general statement about the fundamentally greater importance of the care of the soul over concern with other goods (30a-b). This is true. But we are not obligated to take his words to specify the surface content of his interaction with these people. His statement, rather, describes the convert point of the elenchus, which is in fact to show that the care of the soul is the most important activity in life, and which is established by the demonstration that people who believe they are wise actually are not.(42)

This speculation, about which I am far from certain, contains two parts. The first is that Socrates does not say that he addresses everyone he meets--though those he addresses are often to be found in public, in the streets. The second is that his "protreptic" description of what he will tell those he encounters is not an exact description of his words, but an explanation of the elenchus's point. Nothing prevents him, however, from thinking that by addressing elenctically the particular people who invite his intervention he is also improving not only their own personal fortune but the lot of the city as a whole.

If this is right, then Socrates can in all seriousness disclaim the role of teacher, though not on the grounds that he holds absolutely no positive views of his own. If he can disclaim that role, then the charge of intellectualism cannot show that his project is fundamentally flawed. Why shouldn't he concentrate on the intellectual aspects of his interlocutors if those interlocutors claim on their own accord to know the nature of virtue and of the good life and, knowing it, to live it?


Socrates may well have believed that the unexamined life is not worth living, and that his life, to the extent that it was examined, was the best a human being could have. But he came to this belief because he realized that it was the god's command (37e-38a). How did he come to this realization? What enabled him to heed the god's desire to care for his own soul? What enabled the god to communicate that message to Socrates in the first place? The problem is one both for Socrates and for the god. As Vlastos writes,

How could the god make the Athenians care for their soul? He could send them signs to that effect, dreams and oracles galore. But unless they brought the right beliefs to the interpretation of those signs, they would not be able to read them correctly. And they could not have come by those right beliefs unless they had already engaged in the quest for moral truth. So the god is stuck....He must depend on someone who does have the right beliefs and can read signs correctly to assist the god.(43)

The god is in a quandary, indeed, in a quandary worse than this. As C.C. W. Taylor put the problem,

There is one good product which [the gods] can't produce without human assistance, namely, good human souls. For a good human soul is a self-directed soul."(44)

Unless one wants to be good, the gods are powerless to help. But how can one want to be good if one is ignorant of what goodness is and, worse, ignorant of that very ignorance? In the case of Socrates, the god, if we may put the point as a near oxymoron, was lucky. There was no reason why Socrates was correctly motivated to inquire into virtue so as to be able to interpret the god's command correctly.(45)

In addition, the problem for which Socrates provides a solution on behalf of the god is at least as much of a problem for Socrates himself: how is he to make himself understood to his fellows? The situation, for the god and for Socrates, is strictly parallel: only one good agent can recognize another. What Socrates does, during the whole of his life, is look for a good agent: he is convinced that if he recognizes one, he will thereby show himself to be good as well, and will be recognized as good by that other good human being. Far from having anything to teach, Socrates is engaged in a search in the most literal sense of the term.(46)

It could well be, however, that someone, having somehow recognized Socrates as a good man, wanted Socrates' motivation, character, and activity to be not simply a matter of luck, of a "divine accident,"(47) but rather to be the product of a techne. One may have wanted to make sure that there will always be people like him in society and that they will always be honored for what they are; that arete in the sense of having a good soul and arete in the sense of having a great reputation will never again diverge as they did so tragically in Socrates' case. One will then turn to education in a most profound and systematic way: education, if we know what we want, will produce good people and the ability, in those who are not so good, to recognize them. This turn, which did occur, was profound and systematic enough to convince most of us that philosophy necessarily involves showing others what the good life is. This is a view which, though inspired by Socrates, was not, I believe, his own. It is also a view which radically separates the ability to lead a good life from the ability to recognize one who does.

If one, in addition, has just learned, and has become rapt with, a method of learning which itself does not depend on luck and good will, but only on ability and persistence--a method which offers no choice, but imposes the obligation to accept its conclusions once you begin to follow it--then that one will devise a system for the direct education of the souls of one and all. That one's name, as it happens, is Plato. His method will be in its higher reaches mathematical, and his attention will focus on the affective side of his pupils. For it will now be necessary to start when they are young and to get them to want to have the right beliefs. It will also be necessary to ensure that those with talent will in fact develop the systematic ability to do the right thing which Socrates possessed without ever knowing how he had learned it.

It is deeply ironical that Socrates' paradoxical ignorance gave rise to Plato's systematic effort to articulate the notion that the life of knowledge and, in particular, of philosophy, is the best life for all human beings. It also gave rise to Plato's conviction that philosophers can tell the rest of the people how they can live best. These two ideas go together. As long as we identify the life of philosophy as the best life, it seems reasonable to expect philosophers also to know how others should live. It seems to me, however, that the first of these two ideas is now lost. Far from constituting the best mode of life, philosophy is often not even seen as such a thing at all: it no longer represents, in Aristotle's words, a prohairesis tou biou--a choice of life--but has itself become a techne. In that case, however, the second idea, that philosophers are particularly qualified to understand the nature of the good life and to show it to others, also must lose some of its hold on our imagination. Socrates' suspicions about a techne which can teach us how to live well--suspicions we share while reading Plato's early dialogues--must remain with us after we close our books.

Separated from Plato's own systematic educational interests, Socrates constitutes a peculiar figure, concerned primarily if not exclusively with the improvement of his own soul. He therefore prompts us to reexamine our assumption that philosophy must be essentially directed toward public affairs. Perhaps his own private goals are enough; perhaps one can change the world, as Nietzsche would have said, only through changing oneself. Those who find such narrower goals unacceptable and want to reclaim a public voice for philosophy must then try hard to find the proper modulation for that voice. In fact, they must go back to the Plato of the Republic: his grand claims for the value of philosophy can be made only on the basis of a conception of the discipline that is itself as grand as his own. Is Platonism, even understood in the broadest terms, a possible choice today? Or should we return to Socrates' superficially more modest approach, knowing, however, that once we engage in the care of the self we will never know when we can stop, that the limits of the self are also the limits of the world?(48)

(1) Gorgias 485d3-e2. Unless otherwise noted, translations from the Greek are my own.

(2) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Random House, 1966), sec. 15, p. 97.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Viking Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 476.

(4) For examples of the latter, see, among others, Myles F. Burnyeat, "Aristole on Learning to be Good," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethicts, ed. Amelie O. Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 60-92; and Martha C. Nussbaum, "Aristophanes and Socrates on Learning Practical Wisdom," Yale Classical Studies 26 (1980): 43-97.

(5)An e xtensive discussion of habituation in the formation of character and in the attainment of the good life, as Aristotle conceives them, can be found in Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1989), esp. chap. 5.

(6) Martha C. Nussbaum, "The Chill of Virtue," a review of Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, in The New Republic, September 16 and 23, 1991: 40.

(7) In what follows, I shall mainly use "argument" as a translation of the Greek logos when the latter refers to Socratic conversation and dialectic. This is sometimes too narrow, since Socrates' discussions often are informal and do not always involve logical demonstration. But I still think that "argument," broadly construed as dialectical give and take, is the best we can do. An alternative would be "discussion" (a suggestion made to me by Paul Woodruff), but I find this term too general; and it fails to suggest the sharpness which characterizes the edges of Socrates' particular method of conversation. Occasionally, however, context will demand the use of this broader term.

(8) Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philospher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 253.

(9) Ibid., 110.

(10)Cf. , however, Xenophon, Memorabilia, 4.4.11.

(11) That in his middle and late works Plato is willing to critize Socrates, often through the persona of Socrates himself, is one indication that in his earlier works he does try to represent Socrates as he genuinely sees him to be, whether or not we can trust his representation to be accurate.

(12) The irony is compounded by the fact that Gregory Vlastos, in his discussion of this passage of the Republic, writes that if young men were to come to philosophy unprepared, "they would be sure to be corrupted"; Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 110. Though he does not explicitly endorse Plato's criticism, Vlastos uses the very term Socrates' own accusers used in their indictment, despite the fact that Plato himself (very carefully, in my opinion) consistently avoids the word diaphtheirein ("to corrupt") throughout the criticism of Socrates' approach at hand.

(13) This translation is taken from G. M. A. Grube, Plato's Republic (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1974).

(14) These essays are my "Meno's Paradox and Socrates as a Teacher," Oxford Studies in Acient Philosophy 3 (1985): 1-30; "Socratic Intellectualism," in Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 2, ed. John J. Clearly (1987), 275-316; and "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic," History of Philosophy Quarterly 5 (1990): 3-16.

(15) Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.3.8; cf. 4.3.25.

(16) Vlastos argues that I take Xenophon's statement as evidence "that Socrates not only did not promise to teach virtue, but did not teach it, and did not even try to teach it, which Xenophon does not say and certainly does not mean; cf. Mem. 4.7.1"; Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 241, n.26. This reply, however, conflates the two senses of teaching, by communication of doctrine on the one hand and by setting a moral example on the other, which I have argued we must keep distinct. My point in "Socratic Intellectualism" (see note 14 above) was that Xenophon, in the statement we are discussing here, does not attribute to Socrates any version of the former approach. It is true that at many other points in the Memorabilia Xenophon lavishly attributes to Socrates the desire (and, ineffectively, the ability) to teach. But Xenophon's not always consistent evidence does not affect the interpretation of this text, which appears so early and so prominently in his account. For another criticism of my view, see Donald Morrison, "Xenophon's Socrates as Teacher," forthcoming in The Socratic Movement, ed. Paul A. Vander Waerdt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).

(17) See Nehamas, "Socratic Intellectualism," 305-8.

(18) See Apology 28d10-29a1. The point is well argued in C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 109-11. See also Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 141-2.

(19) Gorgias 474c.

(20) The fact that a particular thesis "has always proved true [that is, has survived the elenchus] in the past offers absolutely no certainty that it always will in the future: it may have been vindicated in a thousand elenchi in the past and prove false in the very next one after that"; Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 114.

(21) On the idea that technical or "expert" knowledge involves the ability to explain that which one knows, see Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, 37-45.

(22) See Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 113-15. Vlastos presents and defends his view more extensively in "The Socratic Elenchus," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1 (1983): 27-58, esp. 52-3, and 74, with n. 8.

(23) See Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 47, with n. 8; 117-26.

(24) See Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, 52.

(25) Gregory Vlastos, "Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge," Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1981): 1-35.

(26) Vlastos' evidence from these authors is collected in "Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge," 13-16.

(27) Democritus Frag. DK B117 and B9 Diels-Kranz; cited in "Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge," 17.

(28) Vlastos, "Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge," 27, with n. 68; cf. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 238-9.

(29) The argument for the methodological similarities between Socrates and the "sophists" can be found in my "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic."

(30) Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, 10-11. I am particularly indebted to Reeve's clear analysis of the "ancient" accusation against Socrates and of his manner of responding to it.

(31) On "expert" knowledge, see Paul Woodruff, Plato: Hippias Major (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1982), 79-112; and Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, 37-53.

(32) On this hypothesis, see Paul Woodruff, "Socrates' Debt to Protagoras" (unpublished manuscript, 1992). He writes that in the Protagoras, "Protagoras uses the analogy of virtue to techne delicately, recognizing--and showing--that it does not hold in every respect; and he draws encouragement from it for the teaching of virtue (as flutists can teach music to their sons to varying degrees, depending on their natural talents). Socrates, on the other hand, drives the analogy hard in order to undermine it and so to cast suspicion on claims that Sophists teach virtue" (p. 12). The issue is complex, and needs further discussion in which, unfortunately, I cannot engage on this occasion. Woodruff's own position is well presented in "Plato's Early Theory of Knowledge," in Epistemology, ed. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 60-84.

(33) Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 32; the second set of italics is mine. Other Socratic statements which Vlastos interprets as complex ironies are Socrates' disavowal of knowledge and his disavowal of being engaged in politics; see chap. 1, and pp. 236-42.

(34) See note 3 above.

(35) Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony (With Continual Reference to Socrates), ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 12.

(36) This can be seen even through one of Vlastos's simplest examples of irony, the response of Mae West to an invitation to dinner at the Ford White House: "It's an awful long way to go for just one meal"; Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 21-2. Vlastos acknowledges that there is a "riddling" element in this statement. The case, however, is more complex--not perhaps as irony itself, but as an instance to be explained by the traditional interpretation of irony. What we learn from Mae West is that she is not going to dinner with the President. But I can think of no function that takes us from her uttered words to their "opposite," whatever that might be.

(37) Diogenes Laertius claims that Socrates actually diverted Euthyphro from his course of action as a result of their conversation on piety; Diogenes Laertius 2.5.29.

(38)Cf. , however, Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.2.19, 1.2.23, 1.2.27. For the distinction between the two stages of Socrates' elenctic enterprise, though not for this use of it, see Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, p. 45.

(39) David Blank, in "Socratics vs. Sophists on Payment for Teaching," California Studies in Classical Philology 48 (1985): 1-49, has argued that the evidence of the Apology should be discounted. It is a work, he writes, "with a strong apologetic tendency [and] the only Platonic work containing such a statement. Any elitism on Socrates' part might have lent support to the charge, unspoken at his trial, that he had been involved in the preparation of young men for the oligarchy of the Thirty....Plato's apology is ... concerned to bring out Socrates' civic-mindedness" (p.20). There is something to this idea, but taken by itself it does not remove a sense of deep uneasiness about Plato's practice.

(40) Note, incidentally, Socrates' subtle suggestion that there are some people in Athens who, without having that reputation, do know something about the good; Apology 22a4. It is an interesting question whom as to he had in mind.

(41) On the possible significance of Socrates' addressing the jury only as "Athenians" and not as "judges" (dikastai), see Brickhouse and Smith, Socrates on Trial, 210-11, with references.

(42) This, I believe, is also the point Socrates makes at Apology 36c.

(43) Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 173.

(44) C.C.W. Taylor, "The End of the Euthyphro," Phronesis 27 (1982):113.

(45) Vlastos's solution to this problem (see Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 173-4) is that Socrates had the "right beliefs" which enabled him to understand the god's good wish. This does not, however, answer the question, because we must now determine how Socrates came to have those true beliefs. Vlastos seems to suggest that Socrates may have come to them as a result of his "street-philosophizing," but this does not explain why Socrates engaged in such "street-philosophizing" in the first place.

(46) A more complete version of this case is made in my "Memo's Paradox and Socrates as a Teacher," 12-14.

(47) Cf. Republic 492a.

(48) The earliest version of this paper was written when Gregory Vlastos invited me to speak at one of his National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars for College Teachers in Berkeley, July 1989. I am grateful to the participants in that seminar for a lively and productive discussion. Vlastos and I disagreed about the essay, in a friendly though spirited manner, until his death. A later version was presented at the Leonard Conference held at the University of Nevada at Reno, October 1991, where it received a number of very valuable criticisms. Roslyn Weis corrected a number of my errors. I am also indebted to Paul Woodruff for his written comments on that version. The essay was extensively revised with the generous financial support, gratefully acknowledged here, of the Princeton University Center for Human Values.
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Author:Nehamas, Alexander
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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