The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies

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Overview

In The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, Roslyn Weiss argues that the Socratic paradoxes—no one does wrong willingly, virtue is knowledge, and all the virtues are one—are best understood as Socrates’ way of combating sophistic views: that no one is willingly just, those who are just and temperate are ignorant fools, and only some virtues (courage and wisdom) but not others (justice, temperance, and piety) are marks of true excellence.  
         
In Weiss’s view, the paradoxes express Socrates’ belief that wrongdoing fails to yield the happiness that all people want; it is therefore the unjust and immoderate who are the fools. The paradoxes thus emerge as Socrates’ means of championing the cause of justice in the face of those who would impugn it. Her fresh approach—ranging over six of Plato’s dialogues—is sure to spark debate in philosophy, classics, and political theory.
           
 “Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Weiss, it would be hard not to admire her extraordinarily penetrating analysis of the many overlapping and interweaving arguments running through the dialogues.”—Daniel B. Gallagher, Classical Outlook
 

“Many scholars of Socratic philosophy . . . will wish they had written Weiss's book, or at least will wish that they had long ago read it.”—Douglas V. Henry, Review of Politics

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Editorial Reviews

G. R. F. Ferrari

“I expect this book to stir controversy of the best sort: the kind that acknowledges a challenge worth responding to. This is an eye-opening, indeed quite startling reinterpretation of Socratic claims that have for some decades been the prize exhibits for the standard view of Socrates. Reading along, I often felt like cheering.”
Polis - Joel A. Martinez

"Weiss' careful consideration of many key texts is interesting and surely advances a particular interpretive approach to Socratic philosophy. . . . Weiss' handling of the individual arguments is careful and informative. Her discussions offer the reader a number of nuanced interpretations that engage with contemporary scholarship."
Classical Outlook - Daniel B. Gallagher

“Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Weiss, it would be hard not to admire her extraordinarily penetrating analysis of the many overlapping and interweaving arguments running through the dialogues.”

Review of Politics - Douglas V. Henry

“Many scholars of Socratic philosophy . . . will wish they had written Weiss's book, or at least will wish that they had long ago read it.”

Journal of the History of Philosophy - Maureen Eckert

"This is an important book. . . . A saner Platonic Socrates emerges along with improved coherence across Plato's dialogues. Weiss builds her case in careful detail . . . and [is] a pleasure to read as well."
Scripta Classica Israelica - Jacob Howland

"[Weiss's] Socrates is . . . a philosopher for all seasons, a powerful champion of humble decency and honest intellectual effort. . . . This is a Socrates well worth cheering for, and Weiss deserves our heartfelt thanks for presenting him in such a lively and convincing way."
Phoenix - James Warren

"The strength of the book lies in its series of close readings of important stretches of Platonic texts and in provoking critical reflection on what might indeed have become simply received wisdom. . . . A provocative book which deserves serious study."
Polis

"Weiss' careful consideration of many key texts is interesting and surely advances a particular interpretive approach to Socratic philosophy. . . . Weiss' handling of the individual arguments is careful and informative. Her discussions offer the reader a number of nuanced interpretations that engage with contemporary scholarship."—Joel A. Martinez, Polis

— Joel A. Martinez

Classical Outlook

“Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Weiss, it would be hard not to admire her extraordinarily penetrating analysis of the many overlapping and interweaving arguments running through the dialogues.”—Daniel B. Gallagher, Classical Outlook

— Daniel B. Gallagher

Review of Politics

“Many scholars of Socratic philosophy . . . will wish they had written Weiss's book, or at least will wish that they had long ago read it.”—Douglas V. Henry, Review of Politics

— Douglas V. Henry

Journal of the History of Philosophy

"This is an important book. . . . A saner Platonic Socrates emerges along with improved coherence across Plato's dialogues. Weiss builds her case in careful detail . . . and [is] a pleasure to read as well."—Maureen Eckert, Journal of the History of Philosophy

— Maureen Eckert

Scripta Classica Israelica

"[Weiss's] Socrates is . . . a philosopher for all seasons, a powerful champion of humble decency and honest intellectual effort. . . . This is a Socrates well worth cheering for, and Weiss deserves our heartfelt thanks for presenting him in such a lively and convincing way."

— Jacob Howland

Phoenix

"The strength of the book lies in its series of close readings of important stretches of Platonic texts and in provoking critical reflection on what might indeed have become simply received wisdom. . . . A provocative book which deserves serious study."

— James Warren

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226891729
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Roslyn Weiss is the Clara H. Stewardson Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University. She is the author of Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s ‘Crito’ and Virtue in the Cave: Moral Inquiry in Plato’s ‘Meno’.

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Read an Excerpt

THE SOCRATIC PARADOX AND ITS ENEMIES
By ROSLYN WEISS THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89172-9



Chapter One

INTRODUCTION: THE FIGHT FOR JUSTICE

The notorious Socratic paradox "no one does wrong willingly" is not a regrettable curiosity of Socratic moral psychology. It is, rather, Socrates' weapon of choice for taking on the enemies of justice, men who believe that might makes right, that virtue is power, that for one person to succeed others must fail, that pleasure, wealth, and dominance are the genuine human goods and that moderation, justice, and piety are marks of the weak and stupid. As depicted in Plato's dialogues, these men come in all varieties: some are rude and offensive, others genteel and respectful, some are boastful, others diffident. But insofar as they are enemies of justice Socrates' aim with respect to all of them is the same: to expose the moral bankruptcy of their views in any way he can. His intent is not to harm but to benefit, to root out the decay before it rots not only the souls of these men but the very fabric of Athenian society.

Who Is Socrates?

Plato's Socrates is a fighter. His interest lies not in propagating novel views on human choice and decisionmaking, but in arousing, provoking, confronting, and combatingthose who are either complacent or overconfident in their moral beliefs. Most of all, however, Socrates takes it as his task to challenge the beliefs of those who would stand in the way of justice. The images of himself that Socrates regards as particularly apt-the Apology's gadfly (30a) and the Meno's stingray (80a, c)-are adversative ones. Socrates often uses military metaphors to characterize his activities: he remains at the post where the god had stationed him, risking his life in the examination of himself and others (Ap. 28d-29a); he "fights for the just" (Ap. 32a1); he "will fight all-out, in word and deed," for the worth of searching for what is not yet known (Meno 86b-c); he "rallies the retreating and defeated [troops]" to combat misology (Phaedo 89a), and "fights back" to defeat the argument of Simmias and Cebes (89c). He believes that "we all must be lovers of victory in regard to knowing what is true and what is false concerning the things we are talking about" (Gorg. 505e). Indeed, the term Socrates favors for his philosophical practice-exetazein, examination-is a military one signifying the review and mustering of troops. Moreover, the elenchus, Socrates' unrelenting rapid-fire question-and-answer means of exchange, is polemical to its core. The more sober characterizations of Socrates (such as Aristotle's, for example) include among the things for which he is noteworthy the introduction into philosophy of the search for definition and the use of inductive argument. But such sober characterizations miss their mark. For although Aristotle is right to note that Socrates searches for definitions and uses inductive arguments, their strategic value is lost on him. If Socrates searches for definitions he does so less because he is enamored of them than because his deceptively innocuous definitional questions loosen the tongues of his interlocutors who realize only too late in the process of venturingandthenrefiningtheirdefinitionsthattheyhavedisplayedtheirineptitude as thinkers and their shallowness as men. And if Socrates employs inductive arguments he does so less because he believes them to be sound than because they work: his interlocutors are for the most part easily seduced by their superficial plausibility. Moreover, arguments of this kind have, on occasion, the added benefit of exposing the interlocutors' pomposity: it is often over their objections and to their dismay that Socrates drags them into discourse about the likes of cobblers, weavers, cooks, and cleaners.

Socrates is a man on a mission. It is a mission that is divine in the sense that matters most, namely, that it serves the sacred purposes of seeking truth, promoting justice, and improving the lives of people. But he is not in the first instance a purveyor or teacher of innovative and idiosyncratic psychological notions. Professing to be no one's teacher (Ap. 19d, 33b), disavowing wisdom (Ap. 21b), claiming for himself only the "human" wisdom that is the recognition that one lacks wisdom (Ap. 23b), Socrates practices a philosophy that is primarily therapeutic in intent: his overarching aim is to eradicate the false beliefs and puncture the bloated self-image of others.

The Paradoxes

If Socrates operates in what is essentially combat mode, his more startling views will be misconstrued unless they are interpreted as attacks on the views of others. But surely, it will be said, Socrates believes that virtue is knowledge, that all the virtues are one, that no one does wrong willingly. Is he not an intellectualist about virtue, an egoist, a eudaimonist? Does he not advocate remedial rather than retributive punishment? Does he not, at the very least, deny akrasia?

To pose such questions, to ask what are the peculiar and idiosyncratic beliefs to which Socrates subscribes, is already to set off on the wrong foot. If there is to be any hope of discerning Socrates' intent, the question with which to begin is: what is it in the beliefs of others that provokes Socrates to take and often vigorously to defend in Plato's dialogues the extreme and jarring positions for which he has become known? If Socrates is agonistic to the core, then what he says and how outrageously he says it cannot be properly appreciated apart from his targets and the dangers he thinks they pose. Socrates does not, after all, deliver lectures before large audiences in an attempt to convert as many people as possible to his distinctive platform; what he does is confront a series of interlocutors. It is what the individual interlocutor says or what he stands for that prompts the Socratic responses that have come frequently to be regarded as Socratic doctrine, that is, as a set of beliefs that originate, unprovoked, with him.

Once Socratic views come to be seen as Socrates' reactions against his opponents' views-in other words, as negations of those views-it will become possible to revisit the prevailing interpretations that make his paradoxes appear naïve and implausible. It will become possible to see Socrates' paradoxes-"no one does wrong willingly," "virtue is knowledge," and "all the virtues are one"-not as representing his own bizarre account of the inner workings of the human soul but instead as offering in each instance an alternative to, that is, a view that runs para (counter to), a particular contemporary doxa (belief or opinion). What will make Socrates' paradoxes paradoxical, then, will not be that they are counterintuitive but rather that they oppose doxai that Socrates regards as moral hazards.

Are the Paradoxes Socratic?

Apart from the consideration that the views of an agonistic thinker are best interpreted as reactions against the views he combats, there are in addition several other reasons to doubt that Socrates subscribes to his paradoxes on their common interpretation.

First, Socrates' relentless and unwavering demand of people that they always do what is right, that they refrain from injustice no matter what (see Crito 49b; Rep. 1.335e), argues against his presumed belief that people cannot do other than what they regard as in their own best interest. Indeed, what Socrates says is that "in no way do we say that injustice ought to be done willingly (hekontas)" (Crito 49a4), suggesting that intentional injustice is precisely what most people regularly do, can certainly help doing, and ought not to do.

Second, Socrates' selflessness as manifest not only in his neglect of his own affairs and the affairs of his family to the extent that he lives in dire poverty (Ap. 23b-c; 31b-c) but also in his spending his days "being a busybody in private," caring for others like a father or older brother all the while making himself hated, seems incompatible with any ordinary sense of egoism or eudaimonism. No typical egoist or eudaimonist would be willing, as Socrates is, to live a just life while being thought to be unjust and suffering greatly as a consequence (Gorg. 508c-e; Rep. 2.361b-d). Whereas there can be little doubt that Socrates is about as "happy" as a human being can be, and that he chooses the path that alone, in his estimation, guarantees happiness, what strains credulity, in light of how Socrates lives, is that what motivates him is self-interest, that what drives him is a determination to achieve his own happiness. It seems more appropriate to characterize Socrates as a dikaiosunist, if I may coin a term. His first and perhaps only consideration when acting is justice (Ap. 32a6-7; Ap. 33a1-3; Crito 48d1-5; Gorg. 522b9-c1). If Socrates is happy it is only because happiness is not in his view some separate (and higher) goodthatisachievedbylivingjustly;forSocrateslivingjustlyisnot,asitwere, the price one pays for attaining happiness. Rather, to live justly, he thinks, simply is to live well, and to live unjustly to be wretched (Crito 47b; Gorg. 470e; Meno 73a-b; Rep. I.353e10-354a4). In Socrates' lexicon "happiness" is an adverb; it is the "well" in how one lives.

Third, when Socrates speaks approvingly of himself, what he fairly boasts of is that he never does injustice intentionally (see Ap. 37a5-6; Gorg. 488a2-3). Never doing wrong intentionally is for him a mark of distinction-not a universal human trait. It is the just man, not every man, who scrupulously avoids injustice and wishes to harm no one (Ap. 28b5-9; Gorg. 460c3; Rep. 1.335d11; cf. Aristotle, EN IV.ix.1128b28-29: "but the decent man [epieikes] never willingly does bad things").

No One Does Wrong Willingly

Of course, Socrates does say that no one does wrong willingly (Gorg. 509e5-6). And he says many other things that are rather close to it (including the notorious "denial of akrasia" at Prot. 358b-d). But before we can determine if these are views to which Socrates subscribes, and in what sense he does or does not subscribe to them, we need to ask both what they mean and what purpose they serve in context. Not every Socratic utterance is a Socratic view, and not every Socratic utterance that is a Socratic view means what it seems to mean.

An adequate answer to the question of what Socrates means by his paradoxical utterances requires, then, nothing less than a full investigation of all the places within the Platonic corpus where these views are found. Such an investigation-especially with respect to the most puzzling of the paradoxes, "no one does wrong willingly"-occupies almost the whole of this book. Nevertheless, a partial answer may be suggested at the outset.

It is noteworthy that the Socratic paradox "no one does wrong willingly" is featured prominently in those dialogues in which the interlocutors are sophists, rhetoricians, or students of rhetoricians. We find it most starkly in the Gorgias. It is hinted at (or seems to be hinted at) in the Hippias Minor. The Protagoras takes it down the distinctive path of the denial of akrasia. And the Meno argues for some form of it. (The paradox also appears briefly in the Timaeus and more centrally in the Laws. In the Timaeus the paradox does not seem to be aimed at anyone in particular. In the Laws it is aimed at the many and not at a specific individual but, then again, its advocate is not Socrates but the Athenian stranger.) That the paradox makes its appearance for the most part just when Socrates confronts sophists and rhetoricians strongly suggests that it is not ab initio a Socratic view but that it arises as a pointed response to sophistic views. Notice also the conspicuous absence of Socratic paradoxes in the Apology and Crito, dialogues in which the character Socrates confronts is neither a sophist nor someone who has been influenced by sophists. Indeed, the passage in the Apology that is frequently cited as containing the "no one does wrong willingly" paradox (Ap. 25d-26a) actually contends not that no one does wrong willingly but that some do and others (Socrates among them) do not. For the former, says Socrates, punishment is appropriate, but for the latter, instruction is. It is because Socrates corrupts the young unintentionally (that is, meaning them no harm but intending their benefit alone)-if indeed he corrupts them at all-that he deserves, as he maintains, not public punishment but private instruction.

Furthermore, each occasion of the paradox's appearance is different from the others. This is hardly surprising so long as Socrates is seen to be wielding the paradox in the war he wages against a variety of opponents. Insofar as the belief he combats is different in each case, it is to be expected that he will use a different version of his paradox in each case.

In seeking to understand the Socratic paradox, scholars have tended to look to what is common to all the places where it appears rather than to what is distinctive in each. But such a procedure can only obfuscate the paradox's meaning if on each occasion the paradox reacts to a particular interlocutor within a unique context-to what he says, to his presumed expertise, to his hypocrisy, to his hubris. The views that history has irrevocably affixed to Socrates' name (perhaps taking its cue from the flat-footed interpretations of an Aristotle deliberately deaf to conversational nuance) need to be examined again, afresh, in context, and the truth about them exposed. The infamous denial of akrasia is a case in point. Socrates denies akrasia only once-in the Protagoras. Nowhere else-not in the Gorgias, not in the Hippias Minor, not in the Meno-does he insist that it is impossible for a person to act against his or her better judgment; nowhere else, in other words, does he pretend that people are perfectly rational agents or even that they invariably choose what at the moment of decision seems best. Moreover, the denial of akrasia in the Protagoras relies on the hedonist identification of goodness and even of nobility with pleasure, a context that surely renders suspect Socrates' putative allegiance to it. Socrates' assertion in the Meno that no one wants to be wretched, and his pronouncement in the Gorgias that people do bad and intermediate things for the sake of good ones, do not constitute denials of akrasia. Yet they are read as if they do.

What Socrates says to Polus is, in fact, not what he says to Protagoras; what he says to Hippias is not what he says to Gorgias; what he says to Meno is not what he says to Callicles-and with good reason: though afflicted with a common malady, each of these interlocutors exhibits unique symptoms and requires custom-tailored treatment. Each must be shown to be "ridiculous" (katagelastos [Gorg. 509a7]) in his own way. It is Protagoras who claims to teach arete, so it is he who must be shown what distortions of the human personality and of arete itself are required if he is to be its teacher. It is specifically in addressing Polus that Socrates promotes the idea that all bad and intermediate activities must aim at some benefit, because it is Polus who delights in the sheer power of being able to do as one pleases: for him, killing, confiscating, and banishing are in themselves most attractive ends. It is Callicles who must be reminded that no one does wrong willingly because it is Callicles who thinks that wrongdoing, when committed in service of increasing one's own pleasures, wins nature's approval. It is Meno who needs to consider that all people want the same thing: he is the snob who thinks arete is a matter of having refined tastes and the power to satisfy them. And it is Hippias whom Socrates confronts with the notion that the intentional wrongdoer is the good man because it is Hippias who invests the deceitful doer of injustice with power and wisdom, regarding the truthful man as "simple" (haplous).

The Socratic Paradoxes and Republic 2

Although the views that are the targets of Socrates' most vehement challenges appear in several dialogues-the Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Meno, and Rep. 1-they all seem to converge on a single stretch of text: Rep. 2.357a-367e. Points of view that are glimpsed only dimly and obliquely in other dialogues-their proponents for the most part hold them either only implicitly or, even when explicitly, without articulating them fully-emerge with great clarity and transparency in Rep. 2.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE SOCRATIC PARADOX AND ITS ENEMIES by ROSLYN WEISS Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
1. Introduction: The Fight for Justice
2. The Protagoras: "Our Salvation in Life"
3. The Gorgias: How Ought a Human Being to Live?
4. The Hippias Minor: "If There Be Such a Man"
5. The Meno: Desiring Bad Things and Getting Them
6. Republic 4: "Everyone Desires Good Things"
7. Laws 9: All Just Things Are Beautiful
8. Conclusion: Socrates Reconsidered
Notes
Works Cited
Index
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