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Review of Louis-Andr Dorion, Socrate (Que sais-je?

), Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004 Jan Szaif (University of California at Davis) Louis-Andr Dorion has contributed a brief but instructive volume on Socrates to the series Que sais-je?, and I cannot resist mentioning that a series with this title can hardly include a more fitting contribution than a book on Socrates, for whom the question What do I know? was so central a concern. Thanks to Dorions clear and unpretentious style, this book will, I believe, serve the needs of the intended larger audience very well. Yet it also provides interesting reading for scholars. As is well known, Socrates did not write himself but inspired a whole generation of followers to recreate Socratic dialogues which represent Socrates in philosophical conversation with others. The Socratic dialogues by Plato and Xenophon, together with their two Apologies (defense speeches) of Socrates, provide the main basis for attempts at reconstructing the philosophy of Socrates, since the works of other Socratics have been lost except for some scant fragments and testimonies. The respective value of Platos and Xenophons Socratic writings as a historical source for the philosophy of Socrates has been much disputed over the last two centuries. Other potential sources too, especially Aristophanes representation of Socrates in the Clouds and Aristotles doxographical remarks, have been critically examined. This task of quellenkritik is known as the Socratic question, its aim being the reconstruction of the philosophy of the historical Socrates from our sources. There is a trend in current scholarship that rejects this whole enterprise, claiming that we do not have any reliable sources for the philosophy of the historical Socrates. This radically skeptical approach, which seems to be gaining more and more ground, originated from the discovery that the Socratic dialogues (Sokratikoi logoi) are a genre of philosophical literature and that the literary conventions of this genre do not include a commitment to historical veracity, apart from some degree of faithfulness to the character or thos of Socrates. It turns out that these artificially recreated conversations are in reality a vehicle of the authors own philosophical thinking, personally inspired by, but not doctrinally committed to Socrates. This explains not only why Plato could use Socrates as his mouth-piece for the exposition of philosophical ideas that were certainly not Socrates own (as in the Phaedo or in the Republic). It also explains the blatant differences of philosophical doctrine between the Socratic dialogues of different Socratic authors. Moreover, there are also strong arguments that cast reasonable doubt on the value of the two Apologies as historical documents. Since the other potential sources, especially Aristophanes and Aristotle, can also be shown, for different reasons, not to be reliable or not

to be first-hand, the case of the skeptics who dismiss the Socratic question altogether seems to be quite strong.1 In recent scholarship, the most important alternatives to this skepticism are, on the one hand, Gregory Vlastos reconstruction of the philosophy of Socrates based upon the group of so-called early Platonic dialogues, which Vlastos took to be faithful to the historical Socrates in spirit and philosophical content, and, on the other hand, a minimalist approach that acknowledges the fictional character of the dialogues but grants greater historical value to the portrayal in Platos Apology and also includes, to some extent, the results of comparative studies between the different Socratic authors (Klaus Dring, Charles Kahn).2 Dorion, however, is a champion of radical skepticism regarding the Socratic question. (Chapter II of this book contains a succinct justification of his position.) Now, this skepticism should make it, in a way, difficult for him to write a book on Socrates: If the Socratic question is to be dismissed, then the subject of a book on Socrates seems to evade the author. Of course, one could choose to write on some closely related topic, e.g. on the Socratic dialogues as a genre of philosophical literature, or on the history of the attempts to reconstruct Socrates thinking. But this book is meant to be about a philosopher, Socrates, not about a literary genre or a piece of history of scholarship. To be sure, there is a common strategy for circumventing this problem: If we cannot retrieve the historical Socrates behind the veil of philosophical portraits created by his followers, the most reasonable procedure may be to select the philosophically most important among these portraits, which undoubtedly is the one given by Plato. Accordingly, we encounter books on the philosophy of Socrates whose authors invest their resources of erudition not in reconstructing the philosophy of the historical Socrates but in describing and analyzing the philosophy of what they call Platos Socrates. And Platos Socrates turns out to be the philosophy suggested by the whole body of dialogues that are commonly called Platos early dialogues (e.g. C.C.W. Taylor, Th. C. Brickhouse/ N. D. Smith). Now, it is not Dorions strategy to limit the scope of his Socrates-book to Platos Socratesand we would not expect that from him anyway since he is one of the leading experts on Xenophons Socratic writings. Instead, he juxtaposes four chapters on the

Gigons Socrates-book was arguably the first contribution by a major scholar to defend the complete rejection of the Socratic question (O. Gigon, Sokrates: Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte, Bern 1947). 2 G. Vlastos, Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cambridge UP, 1991; K. Dring, Sokrates, die Sokratiker und die von ihnen begrndeten Traditionen, in Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie der Antike, vol. 2.1, ed. by H. Flashar, Basel 1998, pp. 139-364; Ch. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, Cambridge UP, 1996. Against the historical value of Platos Apology, see D. Morrison, On the alleged historical reliability of Plato's Apology, Archiv fr Geschichte der Philosophie, 82 (2000), 23565.

philosophical portrayals or assessments that we find in Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle respectively. Yet in his chapter on Platos portrayal (which is by far the longest chapter of this book) he commits himself to some of the problematic claims that underlie the interpreters artifact of Platos Socrates, since he follows the conventional pattern of identifying the philosophy of Platos Socrates with the corpus of Platos early dialogues. There are problems with this approach: 1. Socrates is the leading interlocutor also in Platos middle-period and later transitional dialogues, and in the very late dialogue Philebus. So what justifies the exclusion of the Socratic dialogues that come after the early phase? If one is a radical skeptic regarding the Socratic question as Dorion is, one cannot consistently argue for the exclusion of the later Socratic dialogues from a premise about the assumed greater proximity of the philosophical content of the early dialogues to the historical Socrates. 2. The assumption that the early dialogues of Plato (including works like the Lysis, the Meno and the Euthydemus) yield a consistent picture of a Socratic philosophy, though widely shared, can be questioned for some good reasons.3 This is, however, a complicated and controversial issue, and Dorion seems to have, in that respect, the majority of Plato-scholars on his side. I want to comment instead on Dorions arguments that answer to the first problem just mentioned. Dorion maintains (p. 38) that [c]e recours privilgi aux dialogues de jeunesse ne se justifie pas par lhypothse quils exposeraient fidlement la pense du Socrate historique, mais plutt par le constat que Socrate y joue un rle plus actif et plus dterminant que dans la plupart des dialogues subsquents. This is a very questionable argument. If we compare the group of dialogues that Dorion classifies as the dialogues de maturit (Cratylus, Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Theaetetus), it is hard to see what he means by saying that the Socrates of the earlier dialogues plays a more active and determining role. With the only exception of the Parmenides, the Socrates-persona plays a most active and determining role in this whole later group of dialogues. So what justifies the exclusion of these dialogues and of their metaphysics, epistemology, moral psychology etc.

One can make a case for a developmental thesis that approximates the aporetic dialogues to the mature works of Platos middle period and thus dissociates them to some extent from Platos undoubtedly very early dialogues like the Ion or the Crito (cf. Kahn loc. cit.). Dorion follows rather common practice in grouping the Lysis, the Meno and the Euthydemus together with the dialogues de jeunesse, the Symposium and the Phaedo with the dialogues de maturit (cf. p. 38, fn. 1). It needs to be emphasized that this way of drawing the border-line between the early and the middle-period dialogues cannot be based on the results of stylometry but is a decision inspired by certain views about the philosophical contents and the style of argumentation in these dialogues. Yet the Euthydemus, for instance, contains some unmistakable reference to the Republics conception of how mathematics relates to dialectic (Euthd. 290BC).

from the scope of Platos Socrates? The traditional, non-skeptical answer would of course be to say that these later dialogues contain philosophical theories that were certainly not Socrates own, while the earlier dialogues are close to Socrates own way of thinking. But this move is not open to the radical skeptic as Dorion himself acknowledges in the very same sentence. He adds a second argument though: En outre, les dialogues de jeunesse comprennent un plus grand nombre de thmes socratiques, cest--dire de thmes qui taient galement exposs et discuts par les autres auteurs de logoi sokratikoi, notamment Xnophon. This seems to be an argument about Socratic themes as they can be defined by a rough consensus among the Socratic authors (and, contra Dorion, no priority should be granted to Xenophon in this respect.) Then Dorion goes on to say: Par example, sil est vrai que Socrate se proccupait essentiellement de questions thiques et politiques, plutt que dontologie, de mtaphysique, dpistmologie et de mathmatiques, ... ce sont les dialogues de jeunesse qui illustrent le mieux cet intrt exclusif pour les affaires humaines. Here he does seem to refer to the historical Socrates and to characterize the general tendency of his philosophical activity. In view of other Socratic authors like Eucleides of Megara and Antisthenes it is wrong to attribute an exclusive ethical interest to the Socratics as a group. Therefore the restriction of the notion of Socratic themes can hardly be justified otherwise than by recourse to the presumed character of the philosophical activity of the historical Socrateswhich is an illegitimate move for someone who thinks that the Socratic question should be relgue aux oubliettes (p.26). In view of Dorions pluralist approach, one would expect this book to include discussion of some of the interesting bits of information we have about the Socratic dialogues by authors other than Plato and Xenophon. I take it that Dorion had to comply with a very strict limitation of space. Yet there should have been room for at least a brief comparison with some of the other Socratics, and also some more detailed comments on mutual influence and competition among them. Dorions chapter on Platos Socrates contains a quite representative survey of major themes in Platos early work. He does not limit himself to merely outlining these themes but also provides some interesting critical discussion of the various interpretative suggestions and comes up with his own well-argued suggestions. I mention his fine discussion of the Socratic eros and his thoughtful comments on lpineux problme of the autonomous character of morality as conceived by Platos Socrates. Yet as a reviewer, I want to focus on two themes where I think he didnt get it right. 1. The famous Socratic disavowal of knowledge and the meaning of Socratic eirneia: Dorion suggests that Socrates disavowal is ironic by way of being insincere and serving a strategic purpose: Socrates wants to force his interlocutors into the role of the

person who has to provide an answer to a question posed by Socrates, respond to further questionsand will eventually prove unable to maintain a consistent position and thus suffer refutation. The justification for this insincere strategy (or ruse pdagogique, p. 53) would be Socrates aim of instigating self-examination in his interlocutors, based on his conviction that only the self-examined life is worth living. Now, if his disavowal of knowledge is insincere, Socrates does believe that he knows. And that is indeed a conclusion Dorion wants to defend. (He connects this with the claim that the aporetic dialogues are only faussement aportiques, p. 54). He lists major ethical principles which Socrates in the Apology and the early dialogues claims to know or to be assured of. Dorion also points out that we understand Socrates claim to virtue only if we assume that he believes to have the relevant kind of knowledge since he identifies virtue with knowledge. But Dorion also concedes that Socrates is sincere when he dissociates his own state of mind from perfect divine knowledge. If I understand Dorion correctly, he wants to explain this by Socrates less than perfect grasp of the good (p. 55). Now, it should be uncontroversial that if Socrates does in fact identify virtue with some kind of knowledge, this is the knowledge of what is good and what is bad. If, on the other hand, true virtue is that kind of knowledge, and Socrates does not yet have it, or possesses only an imperfect approximation to it, then, on the basis of these assumptions, he cannot be unqualifiedly virtuous. I dont think that Dorions reading can overcome this difficulty. He is right in claiming that Socrates exhibits ethical convictions, and that he is certain of being on the right track with his convictions. So the relevant point cannot be the lack of subjective certainty. But if the imperfection of his cognitive state has some other reason (perhaps because he cannot yet give a full and systematic account of the good), the difficulty still remains how to reconcile this with Socrates claim to virtue. 2. The denial of akrasia famously attributed to Socrates by Aristotle (on the basis of Platos early dialogues, esp. the Protagoras): Dorions discussion of this topic suffers from his failure to distinguish clearly two very different ways of understanding this denial. The first and quite extreme position would hold that actions and inclinations are always fully determined by ones beliefs about what is good and what is bad such that there is no room for acting against these beliefs. The second, more moderate, position would only maintain that genuine knowledge or understanding regarding what is good and what is bad cannot be defeated by irrational desires. The first position would typically be founded on a theory that reduces all desires and emotional impulses to beliefs about what is good or bad (as did the Stoics). The latter one, on the contrary, does not have to deny the phenomenon of genuine sub-rational drives and inclinations in the human soul that can defeat beliefs about what is

good or bad. It only needs to maintain the supreme power of fully developed understanding (epistm).4 The whole issue is connected with two different ways of understanding the charactertrait of self-control, enkrateia. The latter of the two positions just mentioned views enkrateia as an aspect of perfect virtue, since perfect virtue, according to this view, does not eliminate irrational pleasures and desires (Rep. 430E7f.), but is able to control them. This is how enkrateia is described as an aspect of perfect sophrosun in Rep. IV, 430E (a passage also quoted by Dorion). Akrasia (or akrateia), on the other hand, would be seen as an aspect of vice. The Aristotelian notion of enkrateia and akrasia, which is the one scholars usually have in mind when they refer to the topic of akrasia, understands these character traits as imperfect states of the soul intermediate between virtue and vice. The enkratic person acts correctly but lacks the virtuous inner harmony between rational preferences and emotional or appetitive desires, while in case of the akratic person the irrational desires not only oppose but also defeat the rational preferences. Platos Laws, to be sure, appears to acknowledge a similar distinction between akrasia and vice, but the moral psychology of the Republic seems not yet committed to it. And more importantly, it seems that the moral psychology of the Gorgias accords with the Republic in this respect, since it treats enkrateia as an aspect of genuine virtue. First, Dorion is wrong in claiming that the notion of enkrateia does not occur in Platos early work (p. 87). In a key-passage in the Gorgias (491DE), Socrates suggests that the virtuous person has to be enkrats, and he explains that as control over the pleasures and desires. In the same context, he suggests something like a bi-partite psychology that opposes reason and irrational desire for pleasure (493A-D). Now, the psychology of the Republic differs of course from a bi-partite conception in that it introduces a medium level of emotions which are incited by beliefs about what is noble, honorable and the like, and render the person willing to overcome the fear of pain. But apart from that, the function of enkrateia seems to be conceived of in a similar manner in both dialogues, viz. as a necessary element of virtue which relates to virtues control over irrational, pleasuredirected desires.5 This conception is fully compatible with the famous Socratic claim that one never chooses what is bad when one knows that it is bad, if this latter principle is

Compare D. T. Devereux, Socrates Kantian Conception of Virtue, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 (1995), pp. 381-408, and Kahn, op. cit., 247-257, for an interpretation that would show how this more moderate version of the denial of akrasia is compatible with the Socratic claim that no-one ever desires what is bad (harmful). 5 Socrates himself is, indeed, the star-example in Plato of a person who does experience passionate impulses (Charm. 157A-B) but is able to control them, as he has control in his soul over other bodily influences as well, e.g. remains unaffected by alcohol and by a night without sleep (Symp. 223D).

interpreted as meaning that our knowledge of the good, when fully developed, is a necessary and sufficient condition for virtue and for successful control over ones irrational inclinations. Nothing in the Gorgias commits Platos Socrates to a stronger version of the denial of akrasia. Nothing in the Republic suggests that Plato has given up the idea that fully unfolded knowledge of the good cannot be defeated by irrational desires. (Indeed, the philosophers prerogative of absolute rule presupposes the truth of this idea.)6 Regarding the Protagoras, which does seem to introduce a stronger version of the denial of akrasia, at least in the formulations used in 358B-D, it needs to be emphasized that the argumentation there is just hypothetical and that the crucial hypothesis of the identity of pleasure and the good (cf. 358B6f.) was not accepted by Plato or Platos Socrates. If Platos conception in the Gorgias is as I have described it, then there is also no substantial opposition between Platos Socrates and Xenophons Socrates in that respect, contrary to what Dorion claims (pp. 102-4). To be sure, Xenophon lays much greater stress on the significance of enkrateia, while Platos Socrates seems to be more interested in the constitutive role of knowledge for virtue. But there is no incompatibility, as far as that goes.7 Dorion is a leading expert on Xenophons Socratic writings. His 250-page introduction to Xenophon's Socratic Memorabilia8 is an impressive piece of scholarship. However, in the book under review here, he has limited himself to a rather brief exposition of the main characteristics of the Xenophontic Socrates. Perhaps his exposition here is too much dominated by his concern with showing that Xenophons Socratic writings do not depend on Plato. This question is not of primary interest for the intended audience. The appreciation of Xenophon by modern scholars has varied a lot. One has two distinguish two questions here: Does his representation of Socratic conversations have any real philosophical worth? Does it have value as a historical source regarding Socrates? A negative answer to the first question does not have to imply a negative answer to the second one, and vice versa. Thus the strategy pursued by Schleiermacher, Zeller and others was to use Xenophons writings as a sort of uninspired portrayal by a man with very limited

To be sure, the Republic emphasizes the importance of character-formation at the subrational level. But since this dialogue also seems to suggest that the understanding of what is good can become complete only if assisted by the right kind of character-formation, this claim about the importance of character-formation is compatible with the view that the understanding of what is good is a necessary and sufficient condition of virtue. 7 The aspect of autarkeia, achieved through moderation of ones desires and needs, is also present in Platos Socrates (cf. Gorg. 493C7 contra Dorion, p. 112). 8 L.-A. Dorion, Introduction, in Xnophon: Mmorables, vol. 1, dition Bud, 2000, pp. viicclii.

philosophical understanding, a portrayal which can nevertheless provide a solid startingpoint for the reconstruction of Socrates own thinking, roughly because this very lack of originality prevents Xenophon from adding too much of his own thought. The subsequent interpretative step was then to ask what else Socrates must have been in order to be more than the mediocre philosopher that appears in Xenophon, and in order to have been able to inspire a Plato.9 On the other hand, scholars like Dorion or Don Morrison try to rehabilitate Xenophons philosophical originality while at the same time dismissing the value of his Socratic writings as a historical source. One thing, at least, is certain: It wont do to dismiss Xenophon simply as a stupid man (as did Russell, disapprovingly quoted by Vlastos10). Yet, although the recent attempts at rehabilitating Xenophon as a philosopher may be deservedat least to some degree and as an instance of ancient popularphilosophiethe supporters of Xenophon may overdo their case a bit, for instance when they emphasize the great influence he supposedly had on the Stoics (p. 97). The two main pieces of evidence Dorion refers to are, first, the anecdote, reported by Diogenes Laertius, that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, took to philosophy after he had read Xenophons Memorabilia. Such anecdotes, of which Diogenes Laertius biographies are full, are in general totally unreliable. The other, more trustworthy, piece of evidence relates to two theological chapters in the Memorabilia which contain a version of the famous teleological argument for the existence of God or gods (Mem. I.4, IV.3). I think its a fair guess that Xenophon gleaned this argument from some other source. (Such borrowings were of course quite common among ancient authors who did not have our concept of intellectual property.) These two chapters alone cannot establish the claim that Xenophon (or Xenophons Socrates) was a major original thinker. Moreover, when one looks at Dorions list of 17 points of difference between Platos and Xenophons Socrates, one cant help noticing how far removed Xenophons value-theory is from Stoicism, farther indeed than the Platonic version of Socratism (witness for instance points 5 and 7: the importance of material wealth and social reputation). There are a number of points that make it seem that Xenophons Socrates is not simply an alternative version of Socrates, but a less challenging, less inspiring, more conventional and superficial one. I mention the fact that Xenophon subscribes to the conventional idea that excellence of character shows in the readiness and capability of

Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, ber den Werth des Sokrates als Philosophen, 1818 (in Der historische Sokrates, ed. by A. Patzer, Darmstadt 1987, pp. 41-58), pp. 49-50. 10 Vlastos op. cit., p. 101.

helping ones friends and harming ones enemies.11 Platos Socrates in the Crito (49A-E) sharply opposes this principle, and Vlastos and others have rightly emphasized how central this move is for the ethical challenge of Socratism as conceived by Plato. Xenophons uncritical compliance with the conventional attitude (likewise his wholly conventional understanding of the virtues of piety and justice/law-abidingness) do not lend support to a reading that views him as a major contributor to the development of ancient philosophical ethics. But what, then, explains the appreciation that Xenophons philosophical writings seem to have enjoyed in antiquity? Werent his writings mere instances of popularphilosophie? Characterizing someones writings this way is usually understood as a reproach, not just as a classification. But why should it be objectionable to write popularphilosophie, i.e. to write philosophical texts that are accessible to a larger audience of educated but non-specialist readers and address issues likely to appear relevant for such readers? The assessment of the merits or demerits of popularphilosophie depends on what one takes to be the over-arching purpose of philosophy. The appreciation of a man like Cicero for Xenophon12 may have resulted from the different cultural significance of philosophy in antiquity. After all, if philosophy is to form the attitudes of the educated at large, it has to achieve, apart from its substantial technical research, some kind of less technical, more accessible representation as well. And this was certainly a concern of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy from the Socratics down to late Stoicism. Also authors like Plato or Aristotle committed themselves to writing protreptic texts that could reach out. So far, so good. Yet, it also needs to be mentioned that the problem many of us have with Xenophons philosophical writings does not relate primarily to their non-technical character, but to the rather dull and conventional content of his ethics. Dorion shows how central the concepts of enkrateia (self-control) and karteria (endurance, toughness) are in Xenophons conception of virtue and how he connects these character traits with the idea of autarkeia (self-sufficiency). These terms are familiar from other, more elaborate and more provocative ancient ethical theories. Yet the way Xenophon spells out the life of the virtuous person, with his great emphasis on social and economic success, seems to amount to a quite conventional bourgeois existence (or rather the ancient equivalent to it).But I grant that a defender of Xenophon could reply that this is actually a good feature of Xenophons Socrates, since his ethics and moral psychology are more realistic, more easily applicable, if perhaps intellectually less interesting, for that very reason.

Dorion quotes (p. 101) Mem. II.1, 28; 2, 2; 3, 14; 6, 35; IV.2, 15-17. The last two passages are particularly telling. 12 Cf. Dring op. cit., p. 199.

Lets turn to Dorions chapter on Aristophanes representation of Socrates. Aristophanes Clouds shows a Socrates who is both a natural philosopher and a sophist teaching techniques of manipulative argumentation and getting paid for it, while the Socratics unanimously dissociate Socrates from natural philosophy and emphasize that he never taught for money. Dorion discusses two alternative explanations. The one takes Aristophanes to have used the persona of Socrates for a representation of all the characteristics that the common Athenian associated with intellectuals. The other suggests that the historical Socrates underwent a development and that he began with an interest in natural philosophy but later turned away from it. Dorion favors the first interpretation, pointing out that the developmental approach (which he discusses in the version proposed by Vander Waerdt13) cannot explain why he is also represented as a professional teacher of debating techniques. A consequence from this observation is that the Clouds does not provide reliable historical evidence for the philosophy of Socrates, even though they were published during Socrates life-time. How does Aristotles assessment of Socrates fare in Dorions book? Dorion dismisses Aristotles value as a historical source regarding Socrates on the basis of the following familiar observations (pp. 24-25): Aristotles doxographical remarks on Socrates, apart from having many gaps, also seem to depend entirely on Platos early dialogues. Moreover, Aristotle is not interested in history of philosophy for its own sake but pursues his own philosophical agenda in his reconstruction of the history of philosophical ideas. But Dorion also emphasizes that Aristotle is the first to try an objective, critical assessment of what he takes to be the basic philosophical achievements of Socrates, while the earlier Socratics used the figure of Socrates as a vehicle of their own philosophizing.Well, I am not so sure that Plato uses the persona of Socrates simply as a vehicle. It seems to me that he also tried to assess the philosophical merits of what he took to be the upshot of Socrates philosophizing and that his Socratic dialogues reflect to some extent the way he grappled with the problems which he took to be inherent in the Socratic approach. (Witness for instance how several of his dialogues point out difficulties with the specification of the object of virtue-knowledge.) But that is an issue I cannot expand on here. My review has highlighted points on which I disagree with Dorion. But there should be no doubt: This little book is a good piece of scholarship, and it is stimulating to read.


P. A. Vander Waerdt, Socrates in the Clouds, in The Socratic Movement, ed. by P. A. Vander Waerdt, Ithaca 1994, pp. 48-86.