Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reasoning: Vlastos' Socratic Studies #4

In a combination continuation of the chain of blogposts on Gregory Vlastos' Socratic Studies as well as a follow-up to yesterday's note on Gregory Vlastos and the historical Socrates. The fourth essay in the collection is "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy." 
Socratic Studies
Vlastos begins the essay with his two principle theses:
  1. "In his own time and place Socrates was widely percieved as μισόδημος, i.e. as antipopulist (literally as a people-hater)" (Vlastos 87).
  2. "This public perception of him was a misperception: he had not been the crypto-oligarch many had thought he was" (Vlastos 87).
Vlastos spends only a little over three pages using quotations from a few authors to back this up. There are essentially two prongs to the evidence that he levels for the claims. Prong (a) was that Socrates was the educator of Critias, Charmides, and other members of the Thirty Tyrants [1]. He quotes a smattering of people (Aeschines, Plutarch and Xenephon) to back up this claim. Prong (b) is that Socrates was a condemner of democracy. He provides a Xenephon quotation (Memorabilia of Socrates 1.2.9) to back up this assertion, which asserts that choosing a person for any profession by lot is a problematic idea.

This thesis makes a lot of sense. Plato spent much of his career defending his Socrates from the charge that he educated Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants and taught them their unscrupulous and cruel ways [2]. Xenephon, according to the introduction of Penguin edition of Xenephon's Socratic dialogues, was exiled from Athens because of his elitist tendencies (Waterfield 7) both because of his own political proclivities, but also because he was one of Socrates' students, all of whom were under suspicion (Waterfield 6-7) [3]. Using only Xenephon as a source to corroborate the second prong of this first thesis seems problematic as Xenephon (at least in my view) sticks a lot of his own elitist political viewpoints in Socrates' mouth. This is not to say that Socrates was pro-democracy-- I have no basis on which to assert his political views-- but it seems that using Xenephon and Xenephon alone for this provides a warped view.

Vlastos spends the rest of the essay trying to prove his second thesis--that Socretes was pro-democratic government. He starts by looking at the evidence in Crito, where Socrates and him speaking as a personified form of the Laws of Athens attest his love of Athens, even above "well-ordered" oligarchies such as Thebes, Megara, Crete, and Sparta. The rest of the essay is essentially a proof by contradiction. He explains that the only way to establish the premise in the Crito is false would be to establish one of two other premises:

  1. "That this preference is contradicted by the other sentiments expressed by Socrates elsewhere in Plato's Socratic dialogues" [4] (Vlastos 93).
  2. "This it is contradicted by opinions voiced by Socrates in Xenophon, our other major source, and that we have evidence independent of both Xenophon and Plato for rating Xenophon's credibility more highly than Plato's" (Vlastos 93).

Vlastos argues that if there he cannot dig up evidence for either of these premises, than the pro-Athenian testimony from the Crito stands.

I think this is a perfectly irrational way to attempt to prove something for two reasons. First, this procedure for proving a claim is untenable, especially for ancient ideas. Proving by lack is difficult enough to do in the first place, because it requires the assumption that what one believes is true, until someone else finds a piece of evidence that challenges the work. To use this method in an ancient text is ridiculous, because there is always the possibility that the evidence necessary is now lost or will not be found until some later time. The fact that such evidence does not exist may be simply due to scribal error or disintegrating documents rather than truth.

Second, even if one is to buy the premise, for which Vlastos argues extensively elsewhere [5], that the "Socratic Dialogues" form a unit and endeavor to recreate the philosophy of historical Socrates, the Crito does not mean that Socrates was a particular proponent of Athenian democracy. On it's most basic level, the argument in the Crito is on of a social contract: Socrates has lived in the city all these years and has benefited from it's people and it's protection and raised his children there, so in return he must obey the laws that govern the city just like any other citizen. If we take into account Vlastos' argument that the historical Socrates and the Socrates from the "Socratic Dialogues" is only a moral philosopher (Vlastos 101), then this makes sense; Socrates is not endorsing a political political system, but instead a moral contract with the state, irrespective of the form of rule that governs it.

Third, in my opinion, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the "Socratic Dialogues" are a group, nor that Plato tried to recreate the historical Socrates at all. A dialogue in which a character called Socrates, who somewhat resembles an historical figure, was a genre in itself. Plato, although only one of two authors of extant dialogues, was only one of at least thirteen authors who actually wrote Socratic Dialogues. Just because the main speaker is named Socrates does not hold any bearing over whether the Socratic dialogues portray Socratic philosophy as the historical Socrates might have practiced it. Vlastos rests much of his argument on the assumption that there are three distinct stages of dialogue in the Platonic corpus. I argue in the soon-to-be-complete series of blogposts on "Dates in the Platonic Corpus" that this is not the case.

Over the next few pages, Vlastos argues that in the moments where Socrates criticizes Athens in the Apology and the Gorgias that he is merely criticizing the people not following the laws rather than the democratic procedures themselves. He argues that this means that the preference expressed in Crito is not  "contradicted by the other sentiments expressed by Socrates elsewhere in Plato's Socratic dialogues" (Vlastos 93) and so he has fulfilled his first obligation in proving the second thesis.

Next, Vlastos tackles Xenephon's Socrates. Unlike Plato's, Xenephon's Socrates cannot be called a crypto-oligarch, but is easily in the oligarchic camp. Most importantly in this, statecraft is a "royal art" that can only be exercised by an elite group, and hence cannot operate in a system chosen by lot. So, as Vlastos sees is, Plato and Xenephon's Socrates are diametrically opposed. So now, if there is a reason to prefer Xenephon's view over Plato's than Vlastos' second thesis is proven false. Oddly enough, Vlastos does not tackle the argument of whose Socrates is more accurate (which he does in other texts). Instead, he faces the question as to whether governing is a "royal art" in Plato as well.

In Plato, Vlastos contends, Socrates may think that virtue is a "royal art," but he believes it is one that is necessary for all persons, regardless of their station or disposition, to practice and lead an examined life governed by moral knowledge (Vlastos 105). He claims that this Socrates considers the necessary wisdom with which people act to be a moral rather than a political statement. Vlastos then says that although he believes the Socrates of Plato is more accurate, a declaration of his faith is not convincing and he leaves the essay with two historical tidbits.

The problems I have with this argument are numerous. For the present moment I will stick with the procedural ones: Vlastos simply does not fulfill the things he lays out as necessary to prove his point. He says at the beginning that if Xenephon provides evidence of Socrates' oligarchic tendencies and if Xenephon can be proven to be more historically important/accurate than Plato, than Vlastos' second thesis is false. Instead, Vlastos sidesteps the essential last argument as to which of the two authors the audience should consider as more important because he claims it would be a "declaration of faith." As such, he cannot fulfill his second premise, and he cannot prove his second thesis.

He ends the essay with two historical "crumbs": first that Socrates taught and consorted closely with Chaerephon, an ardent democrat, and second that Lysias, who was also pro-democratic, is thought to have written an Apology of Socrates (now lost) in the few years following Socrates' execution (Vlastos 108).

The problem with these last two "crumbs" is that Socrates also consorted with anti-democratic proponants including Critias, Charmides, and Xenephon. d

  1. The Thirty Tyrants were a group of Sparta-sympathetic oligarchs installed by Sparta to rule Athens following the Peloponnesian Wars and they were kicked out of Athens a few years before Socrates' death. For more information, see Perseus or Wikipedia.
  2. See Symposium, Charmides, and Republic (Book 6 I think).
  3. I discussed this briefly in a blogpost musing on Xenephon.
  4. By the "Socratic Dialogues," Vlastos refers to the "early" elenchic dialogues: "Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Menexenus, Protagoras, and Republic [Book] I [only]" (Vlastos 135), in which he believes Plato reconstructed the philosophy (although not actual historical circumstances) of the historical Socrates.
  5. This argument is the focus of "Socrates contra Socrates" from Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.

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