Philosophy

M M McCabe recommends the best books on

Socrates

The classical Greek philosopher is credited with laying the foundation of Western philosophy – without ever having written a word. Here, the eminent scholar M M McCabe enters into dialogue with Five Books to recommend the best texts through which we might understand Socrates, and engage with the eternal question: How best to live?

Platonic Conversations McCabe
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    Apology
    by Plato

  • The Clouds aristophanes

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    The Clouds
    by Aristophanes

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    Theaetetus
    by Plato

  • vlastos socrates

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    Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher
    by Gregory Vlastos

  • art of living nehamas

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    The Art of Living
    by Alexander Nehamas

M M McCabe

M.M. McCabe is the Keeling Scholar in Residence at UCL, emeritus professor of ancient philosophy at Kings College, London, and a bye-fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She has authored a number of books on Plato and published work on other ancient philosophers including the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Aristotle.

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M M McCabe

M.M. McCabe is the Keeling Scholar in Residence at UCL, emeritus professor of ancient philosophy at Kings College, London, and a bye-fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She has authored a number of books on Plato and published work on other ancient philosophers including the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Aristotle.

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Who was Socrates?

Socrates was an Athenian citizen, executed by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC, at the age of 70. He was the son of a stonemason, Sophroniscus, and a midwife, Phainarete, who lived all his life in Athens, only leaving the city on rare occasions on military campaign. His life was lived in the extraordinary golden – and black – years of Athens in the second half of the 5th century BC when, while the Athenian Empire succeeded and spectacularly failed, there was an explosion of culture: poetry, drama, historiography and philosophy, as well as art and architecture (this is the era of the Parthenon).

All that was going on at the same time as great political ferment – a 30-year war between Athens and Sparta which was the background for a great deal of the discussion about politics that happened then. Against this background, the figure of Socrates, at least in one incarnation, says both that he’s not going to be involved in politics, and that he’s the best thing that ever happened to Athens. Socrates wrote nothing, but he talked. And in doing so, to the Athenians he represented somehow or other a deep and abiding threat. Of all the subversive characters of the end of the Fifth Century – and there were many of them, politicians, thinkers, tragedians, comic writers – what Socrates did in Athens terrified them. It is the puzzle of that threat that those who wrote, and still write, of him, try to solve.

“Some treat him as a martyr; some treat him as a philosophical enigma, some as a hero”

Socrates was an ordinary citizen. He served in the army, as all citizens did; he went to the assembly and voted, as all citizens did; and he talked. On some accounts, he talked to anyone who would talk back, on others that he was engaged in philosophical conversation with the young men of the Athenian elite. He didn’t earn any money this way, from asking philosophical questions, and he insists on that – unlike the sophists, the travelling teachers of rhetoric or philosophy or getting away with it in court – he did not make a living this way, but it was central to his life. And this was clearly part of the threat: the Athenians brought him to court, and put him to death. The consequence of that was to polarise what people thought about Socrates ever afterwards. So far from merely dealing with their local troublemaker in response to their political difficulties, the Athenians created a figure who – as he has been presented and re-presented in the millennia since – has been an icon for everybody. It’s remarkable how so many people of completely different persuasions say ‘I’m a Socratic’ – both in antiquity and today. Some treat him as a martyr; some treat him as a philosophical enigma, some as a hero. In trying to understand about Socrates we find ourselves dealing with as many Socrateses as there are people who describe him. 

For, as I said, he wrote nothing. All we have of Socrates are the writings of other people who variously used him as a character or a model: Aristophanes, the comic playwright, Xenophon, a rather stodgy chronicler, all the other composers of the Socratic dialogues which were in vogue in the fourth century – and of course Plato, whose protagonist he usually is. If we think about what these writers tell us, we may be misled if we treat that as ‘evidence’ for some determinate historical figure. Instead of telling us about Socrates, we may think of Aristophanes or Xenophon or Plato representing Socrates to us. And that may seem slightly bizarre. How odd to do philosophy under the aegis of some special figure, repeatedly represented over and over with different configurations. Why, we might ask, do later philosophers insist on their Socratic provenance? Why does this enigmatic figure exercise so much influence on the business of philosophy after his death? Is it sentiment? Or something running deeper through the history of philosophy itself?

How did Socrates manage to aggravate the Athenians to that degree?

I can’t say what the Athenians actually thought or felt. Perhaps they could nail down the other people who were teaching the young and who were causing all kinds of political uproar, because they were doing it for money – and anyway many of them were foreigners, and could just go back where they came from. Maybe it was because Socrates was doing this for nothing, and that just seemed utterly suspect. Or maybe they really thought he corrupted the young or didn’t obey state religion. Maybe at this time of crisis the Athenians looked for a scapegoat – maybe indeed the nature of the charges against him, both formal and otherwise, are characteristic of regimes in crisis. Or maybe it was more particular to Socrates himself.

“In a state of political turmoil, someone who encourages the young to question the establishment may be an intolerable risk”

If you think about the nature of the philosophising he was engaged in, more than the sophists, or the dramatists, or the historians, his primary interest was in argument and explanation, especially in the matter of value. As Plato represents him, at least, he checks and rechecks the basis for argument, assertion and principle – and he follows the argument where it leads. It’s often not obvious whether he espouses a determinate view, apart from a few general principles, such as ‘I’d rather die than do injustice’; instead, most of the time he was engaged in examining the views of others. But this kind of thoroughgoing challenge, learned by the young and careless, could be dangerous – and that was certainly how it was presented by his critics and accusers. One of the charges laid against him was that he was seen as making the weaker argument stronger. In a state of political turmoil, someone who encourages the young to question the establishment may be an intolerable risk.

Your first choice is one of the most famous of Plato’s writings, the Apology.

This is Plato’s version of Socrates’ court speech. It’s very short, yet it gives us all sorts of extraordinary things. On first reading it is a brilliant piece of forensic oratory.

Socrates starts out by saying ‘Oh well, my opponents are incredibly polished, and they’ve got wonderful things to say, but, of course, everything they have to say is false; whereas poor me, I’ve never done this kind of thing before, but everything I’m going to tell you is true.’ And yet it overturns all that, because it is actually an incredibly polished piece of rhetoric. That can distract the reader from the philosophical content. But when you look at it harder, it turns, I think, on two separate thoughts that Socrates puts to his accusers and to the jury that’s about to convict him. The first thought is this. Socrates says he faces two sorts of accusation, one old, one new. The old one is the pervasive feeling against him in the city, that he studies metaphysics [!] and that he ‘makes the worse argument the stronger, and teaches others how to do the same’. The actual (new) charge against him is that he corrupts the young, and fails to believe in the city’s gods. He deals with both charges at once by complaining that people assume he knows what he’s doing. But, he says, he does not know.

People resent him because they think that he’s got wisdom and somehow dissembles; but he concedes only that he has the wisdom of knowing that he’s not wise. The brilliant thing about the philosophical content of the Apology is that he explains what he means by this. For, he says, he has spent his life going round talking to people who might know more than he does, and he shows the various conditions for knowledge or wisdom that each of them fails. Some of them don’t know the truth; some of them do know the truth, but only get it by inspiration; some of them know the truth because they know a craft, but think that because they know a craft they are experts about everything else. His argument is that all of these people are mere pretenders to knowledge, because they fail these conditions on knowledge, while he alone is the person who understands what knowledge is. The hair-raisingly exciting thing about this text is that on the back of the forensic oratory there is this examination of what we might think the value of knowledge is, how we might understand its dimensions, and what we might think about its scope. The philosophical content creeps up on you when you think all this is merely a rhetorical flourish: it’s completely extraordinary.

“You must explain what it is for a life to have value: until you can do that, your ethical theories are void ”

The second thought is ethical. Socrates recalls where in the Iliad Achilles, who had the great advantage of being the son of a goddess – which gives you some extra perks – was allowed to choose his future. He could either choose a really dull long life, go home from Troy, get married, have lots of children, be really bored but live to be very old; or he could have great glory in front of Troy, and die in the clamour of battle. Socrates imagines himself with this kind of choice, confronted by the possibility that he might be put to death by the jury. Socrates says, ‘Look, supposing you offered me the choice to survive but give up philosophy, or to carry on philosophising and be put to death. I choose the second: death is preferable to giving up philosophy.’ Again it looks as if this is a rhetorical trope. But it isn’t – instead it is a wonderful treatment of how we account for the values of the whole lives we live. Is it that life has its value when it just goes on for a very long time, without the things in it that make it valuable; or does it consist in the things that make it valuable? That’s an agenda that Socrates proposes not only for Plato, but for every ethical theorist afterwards. You must explain what it is for a life to have value: until you can do that your ethical theories are empty and void. 

Is this implicit, or something that is spelt out in the Apology?

In one sense Socrates’ choice is entirely specific to his own case: it is the choice he is going to make in that situation faced with possible execution. But he keeps saying that if they kill him, there will be nobody left to ask the questions he asks – and that this will be a great loss to the Athenians. So Socrates’ questions are generalizable. The way that this is set up gives us this philosophical content, although it appears to be a standard piece of rhetoric. That’s the genius of Plato, of course; that’s Plato’s doing.

This is so much more sophisticated as writing than most philosophy written today. It’s amazing that 2,500 years ago there were writers around who were better at writing about ideas than just about anyone alive today, even though there are many more philosophers in our era.

“The question is not ‘What should I do now?’, it’s Socrates’ deeper question: ‘How best to live?’”

This is the question of how to read Plato. Some people think that in a dialogue like the Apology you get only a tiny bit of philosophy – something about what value is, something about what knowledge is – but that actually it is a rhetorical tour de force, and not much else. That seems to me to miss something utterly fundamental about the way that Plato writes. He writes so that the philosophy goes all the way through. For philosophical thinking, he supposes, you can’t demarcate and say ‘Today I’m going to do philosophy in my study; and tomorrow I’m going to be in court, and that’s just something different.’ Yet Plato is very often read as if the dialogues are little wagons in which you get bits of Platonic doctrine carried along, and you’ve just got to pick those bits up and let the wagon run away down the track. That, I think, is an impoverished reading of Plato that he himself gives us the material to reject. But it also ignores the view that’s put in the Apology itself, that when you talk about ethical or political matters, you talk about whole lives, not about philosophical moments whose surrounding can be ignored, and whose importance to their exponent is indifferent. So Bernard Williams, in the first chapter of his book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, insists that when you’re starting to think about the nature of ethics the question is not ‘What should I do now?’, it’s Socrates’ deeper question: ‘How best to live?’ The change in scope is really important in understanding what these ancient texts can give to contemporary thought.

You’ve chosen Aristophanes’ play The Clouds as your second book. Aristophanes gives quite a different take on Socrates from Plato’s sympathetic portrayal.

Yes. This is a famous play by a great comic writer. It is funny in its own right; but it probably features in the Apology as one of the sources of the ‘old’ accusation against Socrates. In The Clouds Socrates is lampooned: he’s the comic figure who arrives in a basket, and is clearly a grubby old man, a chiseller and a cheat. The play is the story of Strepsiades, who is in debt because his son keeps spending his money on horses, and he hopes that Socrates can educate him so he can win his cases in court and get out of debt. It’s a domestic drama. But the Clouds is also a philosophical play. If you read it in some kind of relation to the things that Plato says in The Republic or the Phaedo, or the Apology, there are all sorts of philosophical moves in The Clouds that are familiar from other more serious passages in Plato. For example, the chorus (there were choruses in classical comedies, just as in tragedies) is a chorus of clouds. One of the lines that is pushed several times in the play by them is ‘We’re the clouds, we can explain anything that needs explaining: we explain thunder, lightning, the crops growing, and so on. Why do you need any other gods?’ And that kind of argument, which is a classic philosophical argument about ontological economy, is one that Plato himself uses in some places (in relation to his so-called theory of forms in the dialogue Parmenides), and Aristotle, subsequently, too – but it’s also, astonishingly, the argument that Aristophanes is making in the play, and not in the mouth of Socrates.

“Read The Clouds and the Apology to get a snapshot of Athens at the end of the Fifth Century ”

But The Clouds’ claim for ontological parsimony, as one might say, is a ground for the formal accusation against Socrates, namely that he was encouraging the youth not to believe in the city’s gods. In the Apology Socrates complains that the Athenians’ minds have been contaminated by this very play, and he may have been right; but it is ironical that the damaging argument is not represented by Socrates at all, but by the playwright’s own chorus. The old slander is not too careful in its attribution.

It’s extraordinary that we’ve got both works from two thousand five hundred years ago: both The Clouds, and the Apology which alludes to it. In the Apology Socrates suggests that this play has damaged his chances of getting a fair hearing in court, and there is the play – and you can see not only why it would have done so much harm, but also how deeply into the fabric of Greek thinking philosophical ideas had permeated. There’s even a bit at the end where the just argument and the unjust argument have a discussion with each other. It’s familiar to us, the sort of discussion you might get in a Platonic dialogue, in a philosophical text. 

It’s revealing, then, of the cultural reach of philosophy at the time, that this philosophy is included in a play that was clearly funny, with jokes about measuring the jump of a flea, plenty of scatological material, and some allusions to Persian slippers that I’ve never fully understood (clearly something rude, but I’ve no idea why). If you read The Clouds and the Apology side by side you get a snapshot of Athens at the end of the Fifth Century in the combination of something that was written at the time (Aristophanes’ text), and something that was written later looking backwards (Plato’s Apology). There you can see a great deal about what it would have been like to live in the terrifying ferment of Athens at that time with the Spartans at the gates any moment.

How do we decide between the two? The received Socrates is Plato’s Socrates, possibly because Plato is such a great writer. But couldn’t Aristophanes’ Socrates be more accurate?

Do we need to decide? There was a man who did some kind of talking to people in the street and was killed with hemlock in 399BC, that’s well attested. But the representations of Socrates are all representations: even Xenophon’s version, who is a rather dull, worthy bloke, doing worthy things. So I reject the question, I think. What you might think is that the explicit reference in the Apology to the representation of Socrates in The Clouds makes us see as we read (especially if we read the two texts side by side) that the Socrates of the Apology is a representation too, just as much as the Socrates of The Clouds. That makes us rethink how we treat representations of particular thinkers: whether the representation is supposed to give us a lens on some historical reality, or is doing something quite different. In both the Apology and The Clouds it’s doing something very different. That helps us understand what’s going on in the other books I’ve chosen too. They all represent a historical figure in ways that are not meant to be transparent to the historical figure, whatever that might be, but in ways that make us think about the representation itself, and its role in our understanding of Socrates’ question, ‘how best to live?’

You’ve chosen another book by Plato, the Theaetetus. Does that represent the same Socrates that we saw in Plato’s Apology?

The Socrates of the Theaetetus looks more like the Socrates of the Apology than the Socrates of the Republic, which many think was written between the Apology and the Theaetetus. The Socrates of the Republic is in control, and takes the main role in the elaboration of what is said; and although what is said there is often marked as tentative or provisional, the dialogue is not one that ends in impasse, or aporia. The Theaetetus, by contrast, provides what seems to be a thoroughgoing impasse, and descriptively reminds us of the represented figure of Socrates as we saw him in The Apology and some of the earlier works. But that makes us think rather harder about the Theaetetus itself — how it is constructed and whether the Socratic representation is here integrated with the heavy-duty arguments about knowledge.

The great contemporary translation of the Theaetetus is by M J Levitt, with a magisterial introduction by Myles Burnyeat, which makes clear the deep philosophical significance of this dialogue – and its utterly puzzling nature. The Theaetetus begins with a long account of who Socrates is, how his mother was a midwife, and how he himself doesn’t propose theories: he deals with people who are ‘pregnant’ in mind, and figures out whether they have real ideas or ‘wind eggs’. So this opening offers a theme and variations on the figure of Socrates offered by the Apology, or the Euthyphro, or the Laches, focussing on how we go about philosophical discussion, how we tackle philosophical enquiry, and how we engage with each other. That is succeeded by some very dense argument about whether knowledge is perception, interrupted by a six-page digression on the nature of the philosopher, presented as a hopeless dunderhead who falls into wells because he isn’t looking where he’s going because he is too busy trying to liken himself to god. Then some even more dense argumentation on knowledge and belief ends the dialogue in a final impasse.

“He deals with people who are ‘pregnant’ in mind, and figures out whether they have real ideas or ‘wind eggs’ ”

Ultimately, the dialogue provokes many more questions than it solves (about knowledge, about the structure of reality, about the nature of perception); but it also offers a challenge in its representations of Socrates: why is all this sharp argumentation bracketed by these twin passages on the nature of the philosopher, or the representation of this philosopher in particular? And why does Plato – interested as he clearly is in the representation of a philosopher, whether an historical figure or a stereotype – juxtapose that rich material here to the highly abstract discussions of knowledge and reality. Why, here, do we need to think about Socrates’ barrenness of ideas, or his engagement with other people, or the solitary enterprise of the philosopher who seeks to become like god? We seem to have a series of different paradigms here, some of them identified with Socrates and some identified with other figures Socrates produces for us – but all of them are somehow inconclusive. 

The inconclusiveness of these models of philosophy mirrors the inconclusiveness of the dialogue, and invites the reader to think not only about knowledge and ignorance, and how we are disposed towards them, but returns us, in the figures of the philosophers, to the question of how that sort of inquiry is, or should be a part of a life. The representations of Socrates, even in this austere discussion of knowledge and belief, still invite us to ask ‘how best to live?’. This happens in Plato’s writing over and over again: he uses the context of the formal arguments to kick the discussion upstairs, making you think about principle rather than the particular argument in question. The Theaetetus is the most extraordinary version of that. It’s also quite funny.

Are you suggesting that when Plato came to write the Theaetetus he has returned to representing the real Socrates, after a phase when writing the Republic where the character ‘Socrates’ was simply a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas?

Many people suppose that we should think about Plato’s development psychologically. The idea might be that the young Plato tremendously admired Socrates, so in his early works he represents Socrates doing philosophy (as it were, the ‘historical’ Socrates), then suddenly when Plato wanted to say something on his own behalf, the character ‘Socrates’ became a kind of coat peg to hang those ideas on, so that in those dialogues ‘Socrates’ really means Plato. That is indeed a sustainable view, if somewhat naïve, psychologically speaking. I think it may be undermined, though, by the features of the Theaetetus I was mentioning, as well as by the connections between the Theaetetus and other dialogues – Apology, Phaedo, Republic, for example.

“Representations of Socrates invite us to ask: How best to live? ”

For the Theaetetus is much more reflective than it is dogmatic – in thinking about the figure of the philosopher, it makes us think about the two paradigms at once, and ask whether either is the right way of going about things. The whole dialogue, on that account, is reflective, both on accounts of what knowledge is, and on accounts of what it would be to live one’s life with one’s values orientated towards knowledge – to live as a lover of wisdom, a philosophos. But reflectiveness like this is not the same as scepticism – the running puzzles and impasses and uncertainties of the dialogues, and of the figures represented in the dialogues, are not, I think, just an enormously sophisticated system of scepticism. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Rather Plato repeatedly puts the paradigm (of knowledge, of philosophy) up and makes us see how the paradigm might fail. The purpose of that, in my view, is to make us think about the paradigm, rather than make us think that knowledge is impossible and that we should just go and sit in a barrel. 

Are you saying that although Plato through Socrates leads us to question the basis of any knowledge, he’s not suggesting that the end point is that we give up the search, and just wring our hands?

I don’t think the arguments in the Theaetetus conclusively undermine what is said in the Republic, but they do allow us to take a critical view of it. It’s like the difference between a treatise that gives us a philosophy and something that does philosophising with us. There is a lot more of the second in Plato than we might think (or the tradition would have us believe). Indeed, he often sets up a critical relation between one dialogue and another, again perhaps to make us reflect on the arguments and claims they offer, rather than to demand commitment to some particular thesis or another. So it may be well worth thinking about a triangular relation between the figure of the philosopher in The Apology, the Socrates figure of the Republic, and the two philosopher figures given in the Theaetetus, in the context of the Theaetetus question about whether we understand what knowing is, the conditions we put on knowledge: is it true belief, true belief with an account, or perception?

“Plato repeatedly puts the paradigm (of knowledge, of philosophy) up and makes us see how the paradigm might fail”

There’s a trope, repeated throughout the Platonic corpus, in which Socrates admits that he doesn’t know about a particular topic, but at the same time does say that he recognises some conditions that must be put on any adequate answer. You get stuck trying to give a general account of what, for example, beauty is, but Socrates suggests conditions that must be put on the answer. One of the things that Plato makes clear in the process is that that is largely what philosophy does: it doesn’t just come up with first order answers, it thinks about what the constraints are on the those answers. Philosophical enterprise is at that level: at the level of thinking about thinking. But we can miss that in Plato, if we miss what’s going on with the figure of Socrates in his dialogues.

Your last two book choices were written two and a half thousand years after the ones you’ve chosen so far…

Yes. My fourth choice is Gregory Vlastos’ Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Vlastos was a great figure in ancient philosophy in the US, in the second half of the twentieth century. This book and the work that went with it created a school of interpretations of Socrates and of Plato vis-à-vis Socrates, thoughts about how we should understand Socratic method and so on, which dominated a large part of Anglo-American (less so European) ancient philosophy for a very long time. It’s a wonderfully lucid book, a series of chapters that are well-demarcated, a lot of which had their antecedents in separate essays. There is something about the chronology of the Platonic dialogues, and something about the direct evidence for the nature of Socrates’ theorising, and on how we might distinguish between what counts as Socratic and what counts as Platonic. For Vlastos, Socrates is transparently present in the dialogues, and has philosophical theories which are exclusively ethical. Then Plato comes along and he does the metaphysics and the epistemology and talks about knowledge and what there is. So in some sense the book offers the distinction I have been drawing – between the figure of the philosopher, and the more austere features of theorising about what it is to know, or what there is. Vlastos saw the figure of Socrates as someone to aspire to be — not merely to think about what he said, but to be that person. That comes across in his writing. It’s enormously passionate and committed, and has at times an air of certitude which sometimes obscures the ways in which what he says is not only very controversial, but highly contestable, too.

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One of the central theses of Vlastos’ book is an account of what we should say about Socratic irony. When we see the figure of Socrates and he says things which we take to be ironical, what do we think that means? When he says to a stuffed-shirt like Euthyphro – ‘teach me, because I don’t know anything about this subject in hand, but I am sure you know, so you can put me right….’, what do we take Plato’s Socrates to mean? Vlastos has a description of how we should understand this sort of irony – as ‘complex irony’, where Socrates both says what he means and doesn’t say what he means and we, the auditors and readers, can negotiate the difference between those two positions. So Socrates isn’t lying; nor is he being nasty. Irony is not sarcasm.  

Instead, Socrates offers a puzzle with the gap between where Socrates means what he says, and where he does not; and that gap is itself susceptible of explanation and account. As a consequence we can understand what Socrates says in terms of truth and falsity; but in terms of truth and falsity at different levels of implication and explicitness. The philosophical work is done by the negotiation between these two levels; but the figure of Socrates himself remains throughout innocent of deception. Instead, Socrates’ commitments are mostly concealed, but they are – on further work and exposition, scrutable and morally sound. The figure of Socrates, thus, can remain a moral paradigm even while he forces argumentative clarity from his interlocutor by not saying what he means. Socrates is concealed, on Vlastos’ view, he’s not saying what he thinks; but he is not deceitful nor morally base. There’s a wonderful figure at the end of the Symposium where Alcibiades describes Socrates as having these amazing gold figurines on the inside that you don’t see: Vlastos, like Alcibiades, is captivated by this figure of the philosopher all golden inside. And he sees – what surely in part Plato’s representations are designed to make us see – that for Plato the figure of the philosopher, or the figure of Socrates himself, cannot be separated from Socrates’ question ‘how best to live?’. The discussion of knowledge and what there is always inextricably bound to the questions of value and goodness.

How do these ideas relate to your final book choice, Alexander Nehamas’s The Art of Living?

Nehamas takes Vlastos’s account of complex irony as his point of departure. Nehamas’s view is that Vlastos misses something fundamental about the figure of Socrates: that the figure of Socrates is ironical through and through, that is, it is all concealed. The difference between Vlastos and Nehamas is a fundamental one, and goes to the heart, I think, of the ways in which they think differently about how philosophy is done. For Vlastos, we can understand the role of Socrates’ remarks by thinking about their truth and falsity, one by one, and by figuring out how they can be rendered consistent – against the background of some kind of moral certitude, embodied in the figure of Socrates. For Nehamas, by contrast, the ironical figure of Socrates is, as it were, cut from whole cloth: Socrates is always concealed, always resistant to this kind of piecemeal interpretation. In that case, the only way that we can think about the figure of Socrates is as the representation it is (not of some actual figure, but a representation, through and through). Nehamas’s point is that as we look at this figure, we’re always in a vertiginous position of uncertainty – and that for this reason the figure of Socrates can be some kind of model even for those who resist imitating him. Nehamas’s book is a tour de force, a book which uses the figure of Socrates as a way of thinking about ‘the art of living’, through the eyes of other writers, themselves transfixed by this ironical stance.

“The sense of vertigo or incompleteness may indeed go all the way down ”

There are two main chapters on Socratic irony, but there’s also an introductory chapter on irony in the work of Thomas Mann, then there’s a chapter on Montaigne, one on Nietzsche, and another on Foucault. Nehamas insists that the enigmatic, questioning features of the represented Socrates are central to understanding the way to think about ‘how best to live’. Vlastos, by contrast, seeks some kind of certainty beneath the puzzles about Socratic knowledge and ignorance. The radical contrast between the two does not merely illustrate the diverging ways in which Plato’s Socrates can be interpreted, they also bring out the tension that we find in the dialogues themselves, between the representations of the philosopher and the arguments embedded in those representations. 

The two books, taken together, gives you a snapshot of how it is that thinking about the difference between represented figures and itemised arguments might make a difference as to how we read these texts, a philosophical difference. The sense of vertigo or incompleteness may indeed go all the way down.

Would it be fair to summarise your angle here as this: reading Platonic texts in which Socrates is represented involves a sensitivity not just to the arguments in the mouths of characters, but to how the different ideas are expressed – and that this is a philosophical issue not simply a literary one? The individual arguments don’t exhaust the philosophy.

I’m not saying that the arguments don’t count, but I think the arguments are repeatedly finessed by the questions about how the arguments are underpinned, and questions about how those arguments figure in a life, or from the perspective of a life, or from the perspective of reading about the life of a figure such as Socrates. This means, among other things, that questions about knowledge or what there is cannot in fact be separated from questions about how to live; the ways in which Socrates lives his philosophical life is not detachable from the content of the arguments, once the context as a whole is fully taken into account. So the arguments stand, but they are always finessed by their context; conversely the context is itself reflected upon by the arguments. The figure of Socrates stands in the middle.

You talked about Vlastos trying to emulate Socrates. Do you think that there are elements of the various Socrates we’ve discussed that are worth emulating now in philosophy?

Should we think that there is really a Socrates at all? In all of these versions of him, he is a construct or a fiction. When we read a dialogue like the Theaetetus, is the point of the figure of Socrates that he is a character to emulate? Isn’t that a bit like asking ‘Should we emulate Harry Potter?’ The answer in the case of Socrates is probably not: we should think about things with this figure, but only by recognising that this figure is a representation, not a real person. Thinking about Socrates as a real man misleads us, because we don’t get Socrates the man, we always get Socrates represented to us by other people who have other purposes of their own.

The interesting thing about Plato is that his agenda themselves are interesting: he wants us to think about argument, about how you live with arguments, or, indeed, how you could live without them. There was a tendency in the philosophy with which I grew up to believe that argument is all there is, and that arguments can be demarcated and separated, particularly that arguments about knowledge could be separated from arguments about the good. What you see with these texts, with these representative figures discussing how best to live, is that for thinkers like Plato questions about knowledge aren’t separable from questions about how best to live – in fact they’re integral to each other. If one takes that view then the figure of Socrates and the arguments he uses in both these areas are intimately connected, and can’t be teased apart. In my view that is exactly right.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

April 22, 2016

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