Vlastos on Socrates

Gregory Vlastos’s last major book; Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher; was the culmination of a truly great career in scholarship. The book builds upon over 50 years of scholarly work in ancient Greek philosophy. Vlastos is revered in this field as a scholar and teacher of many prominent students, including Terence Irwin and Alexander Nehamas. He is perhaps best known for his early article on Plato’s “Third Man Argument” in the Parmenides dialog, the argument by Parmenides to a young Socrates that seems to disprove Plato’s own Doctrine of Ideas. This article spawned dozens of critiques and responses by such noted philosophers of the mid-twentieth century as Wilfrid Sellars and Peter Geach. Vlastos finds in the Parmenides dialog a case of true puzzlement and in subsequent articles written in response to the flood of scholarly critique that followed the original 1954 article, argues that attempts to improve Plato’s argument don’t find support in a close reading of the text. His book on Socrates was published in 1991, shortly before Vlastos’s death at 84, and after his receipt of a MacArthur “genius” grant, the oldest person to receive one.


The subtitle of Vlastos’s last book names Socrates as an ironist. Vlastos explains that the words for “irony” in Classical Greek, ειρϖνεια, and its cognate forms typically meant “deception” or something like it. By the time of Quintilian in the first century AD, it had become what we now know it, that figure of speech “in which something contrary to what is said is to be understood.” In this modern form it does not carry the derogatory sense that it did for Aristophanes, for example.  Vlastos’s claim is that this transformation was due to the subject of his book. He quotes Cicero’ s Latin “ . . . Socratem opinor in hac ironia dissimulantiaque longe lepore et humanitate omnibus praestitisse. Genus est perelegans et cum gravitate salsum.” (In this irony and dissimulation Socrates, in my opinion, far excelled all others in charm and humanity. Most elegant is this form and seasoned in seriousness.) Vlastos considers Cicero the first to emphasize this change of meaning of the word from “deception” to what we now understand the word to mean.  As is characteristic of Vlastos, he doesn’t insist on the finality of his conclusion but gives his reasons with detailed quotes from his sources in Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato.

The argument from Xenophon comes from the Memorabilia  in the chapter about the beautiful  woman, Theodote, who “was ready to keep company with anyone who pleased her”. When Socrates is told by a bystander that artists painted her and that she “showed them as much as decency allowed” Socrates and his agora friends resolve to visit. They ask how she can afford her expensive home in Athens and she replies that “I live on the generosity of any friend that I pick up.” Socrates responds that he too has “girlfriends.”

Here is Xenophon’s Greek (Mem., III, xi, 16):

και ο σωκρατης στις κοπτων την αυτού απραγμοσυνην, Αλλ ω  θεοδότε έφη, ου πάνυ μοι ράδιόν εστι σχολάσαι και γαρ ίδια πράγμαυα πολλα και δημόσια παρέχει μοι ασχολίαν· εισι δε και φίλαι μοι, αϊ οϋτε νυκτοσ αφ· αυτων εάσουσί με απιέναι φίλτρα τε μανθάνουσαι παρ εμου και επωδάς.

Vlastos’s translation of the key phrase in this is:

. . .  and I have my own girlfriends (philai) who won’t leave me day or night, learning from me philters (potions) and enchantments (spells).

Vlastos says of this, “Since she is meant to see, and does see, that these ‘girlfriends’ are philosophers, depressingly male and middle aged, there is no question of his being misled into thinking that her visitor has a stable of pretty girls to whom he teaches love potions. So here at last do we see something that Cicero or Quintilian would recognize as ironic, though hardly a gem of the genre . . .”

The next example from Xenophon is a clincher. In Xenophon’s ΣΥΜΠΟΣΙΟΝ (Banquet) a large collection of friends of Socrates are invited to a banquet. In the course of the evening Socrates poses the question to each as to “what he considers the most valuable knowledge in his possession.” The question gets immediately garbled by Callus, who transforms it into the question of “what I take the most pride in.” When Critobolus is asked in what he takes the greatest pride, he replies, “In beauty.” After a bit of wrangling he gives a long-winded discourse as to his “grounds for taking pride in my handsomeness.”  Socrates’s truly ironical reply is “How now? You boast as if you actually thought yourself a handsomer man than me.” Socrates being well known for his ugliness, few would have been deceived into thinking this other than a humorous and self-deprecating reply. Vlastos calls this “complex irony,” where what is said both is and isn’t what is meant. This gets to the heart of Vlastos’s conception of irony and, he proposes, the key to understanding the philosophy of Socrates.

Examples of this are plentiful in Plato. The chief example that Vlastos emphasizes is Socrates’s frequent avowal of his lack of knowledge, ironically (complex irony) contradicted by his equally frequent avowals of knowing the right. Vlastos will take this up in subsequent chapters of his book. Here Vlastos concentrates on a detailed analysis of a single sequence in Plato’s Symposium; the one in which Alcibiades unsuccessfully attempts to make a foul exchange with Socrates, sex for wisdom. Socrates refuses because he wants Alcibiades to come upon this wisdom by his own effort. Here Vlastos argues is Socrates’s complex irony at work. “Socrates doesn’t say that the knowledge by which he and we must live is utterly different from what anyone has ever understood or even imagined what moral knowledge could be. He just says that he has no knowledge, though without it he is damned, and lets us puzzle out for ourselves what that could mean.”

SocratesE and SocratesM

Here Vlastos’s primary thesis is that the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogs (the Charmides, Georgias, Crito, Apology, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, and Protagoras dialogs and the first book of the Republic) differs markedly from the Socrates represented in the dialogs of Plato’s mature (or middle) period (the Cratylus, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic II-X, Phaedrus, Parmenides, and Theaetetus dialogs) and that this marked difference can be taken as an indicator that the Socrates of the early dialogs (SocratesE) is closer to the historical Socrates and that the Socrates of the middle dialogs (SocratesM) is a stand-in for Plato’s own philosophical positions at the time of his early maturity. Vlastos sets out 10 positions upon which these two Socrates markedly differ:

I)                    SocratesM took positions on a wide variety of philosophical topics from metaphysics to epistemology to philosophy of science and religion, where SocratesE is exclusively a moral philosopher.

II)                  SocatesM holds a strong metaphysical theory of “separately existing” forms, while SocratesE holds no such theory.

III)                SocratesE seeks knowledge by elenctic investigation and avows that he has none, while SocratesM seeks conclusive knowledge.

IV)               SocratesM holds a complex, tri-partite theory of the soul, while SocratesE mentions no such theory.

V)                 SocratesM has mastered the mathematical theory of his time, while SocratesE has no such knowledge.

VI)               SocratesE has a populist conception of philosophy, while SocratesM is elitist.

VII)             SocratesM has an elaborate theory of politics, while SocratesE has none.

VIII)           Homoerotic attachments have a metaphysical grounding in love for transcendent beauty for SocratesM, for SocratesE not so much.

IX)                For SocratesE religion is practical, for SocratesM it is mystical.

X)                  The method of philosophical investigation for SocratesE is adversative, for SocratesM didactic.

His presentation of these ten theses in Chapter 2 serves as a summary of his book. These theses come up at various times in the rest of the narrative.

The Paradoxes of Socrates

A key paradox of Socrates occurs with his disavowal of knowledge. He says in the Apology:

[a] For I am not aware of being wise in anything, great or small. . . . .[b]  It looks as though, while neither of us know anything worthwhile, he thinks he does; but as or me, while, as in point of fact, I have no knowledge, neither do I think I have any. (Ap. 21B and D)

Vlastos calls this complex irony and calls it a “misreading” to say that Socrates is saying here that he has no knowledge. “All he says at [a] is that he is not aware of having any knowledge, and at [b] is that he has none.” He relegates to a footnote the argument of another scholar who commits the “misreading” that this reaction to the oracle is a self-contradiction.  But what else can the statement “I have no knowledge” be but a profound contradiction, a self-referential contradiction along the lines of the Liar paradox? The Liar sentence (“This sentence is false”) is false if it is true and true if it is false. It seems that Socrates poses a similarly paradoxical condition: he disavows knowledge, but this very disavowal is a claim to knowledge.

Graham Priest calls this an Inclosure Schema. This is a characteristic condition at the limits of experience: at the limits of knowledge, the limits of language, or the limits of iteration. An Inclosure Schema includes three characteristic conditions: 1) Existence, 2) Transcendence, and 3) Closure.  In this case Socrates admits that knowledge exists, 2) says he has none, but 3) by so doing he declares this as something that he knows.

Conflicts between SocratesE and SocratesM are not necessarily paradoxes. Vlastos makes a strong case that SocratesE is a closer approximation to the historical Socrates while SocratesM is the mouthpiece of a mature Plato after his exposure in his thirties to mathematics.  But Socrates’s avowal / disavowal of knowledge to me, at least, qualifies him as a true father of Eubulides, the riddler, and a true appreciator of the skeptical possibility that both horns of a dilemma may be true.


Vlastos’s book contains a series of other well documented arguments on a number of topics:

1)      Does Socrates cheat?

2)      What was the nature of Socrates’s piety?

3)      Socrates’s rejection of retaliation

4)      Socrates’s principle of the sovereignty of virtue

5)      Socrates’s secret to happiness

All of these topics are worthy of discussion, but time is short and I will stick to what I think is the most important topic that Vlastos’s book raises:  Socrates as the inventor of irony and the depth of his appreciation for contradiction. Although I can’t fully agree with Vlastos’s conclusions on this, I am in awe of the scholarly devotion that this open-minded and good-natured man brings to the task.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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