In this class, we read the Socratic dialogues of Plato (Apology, Crito, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, Protagoras, Charmides, Gorgias, Meno, Euthydemus) with a view to understanding what is meant by the Socratic principle, that virtue is knowledge. Part of the class will be devoted to reading select passages of these dialogues in Greek (we may also add fragments of the minor Socratics such as Antisthenes and Aischenes). The other part of the class will be devoted to reexamining the question of whether or not we can speak of a philosophy of Socrates, and whether or not that philosophy can be understood as a species of eudaimonism.
To this end, we will explore the secondary literature that has emerged in the wake of Vlastos’ powerful work in the 1980s and 1990s (collected in his volumes, Socratic Irony and Socratic Studies). In particular, we will look at the more recent volumes, Socratic Virtue (Naomi Reshotko, 2006) and Plato’s Lysis (Penner and Rowe, 2004), that strongly advance a thesis of Socratic egoism. We will also study the contributions of Julia Annas (The Morality of Happiness) and Terry Irwin (Plato’s Ethics, 1996) to the debate. To offer a contrast I will present some of my own writing in the class. A précis of my current thoughts on the nature of Socratic ethics would run something like the following:
Most important for understanding the passage from aporia to theoria is the meaning and location of virtue in the life of the philosopher. Socrates’ mission, to convert the ordinary person to the life of philosophy, starts with each person as she is and not as she ought to be. The insight that his interlocutors, in contrast with Socrates himself, do not possess exemplary motivations, allows us to view the egoism (not infrequently touted as Socrates’ great psychological discovery) that Socrates apparently assumes in or assigns to his interlocutors in its proper perspective. Socrates does not endorse this egoism nor does he find it normative. Rather, as he finds human beings, their desires and their knowledge are woefully amiss; they mistake the search for the good as the pursuit of self-interest, and yet are at a complete loss as to the nature of the self. The disparity between people as they are and people as they could be is similar to the disparity between paradigm and particular that we find in Plato’s metaphysics. Socrates is also the exemplar or paradigm: he reveals that he does not share in the ubiquitous egoism that so engulfs the people he encounters. Instead, everything he does is directed as Plato tells us in so many words, toward “the common good,” (Charmides; Gorgias) as he strives to make his fellow citizens “actually be happy,” (Apology )and even defends himself again the capital sentence “for the sake” (Apology) of those same citizens. In the reading program of the dialogues, we are meant to notice the inversion of the Socratic desire, to benefit all, in the interlocutor’s desire, for his own good. The difference between Socrates and his interlocutors, that is, between Socratic altruism and ordinary egoism, has to do with the difference between being the cause of good, as the form is the cause of the good and benefits, and being the recipient or participant in that cause, as the particular participates and receives its good from the form, with which it is not identical.