CHAPTER 3: THE SOPHISTS AND SOCRATES

THE PECULIAR cultural relativism of the sophists is an attempt to meet the simultaneous demands of two tasks: that of assigning a coherent set of meanings to the evaluative vocabulary, and that of explaining how to live well-that is, effectively-in a city-state. They begin from a situation in which the prerequisite of a successful social career is success in the public forums of the city, the assembly, and the law courts. To succeed in that milieu it was necessary to convince and to please. But what would convince and please in one place might fail to convince and please in another. Individual sophists, men such as Protagoras and Gorgias and their disciples, all had their own doctrines and theories in the face of this problem. But we can pick out a general amalgam of sophistic theory, which is what Plato objected to and Socrates earlier criticized and rivaled. This amalgam would run as follows:

The ἀρετή of a man is his functioning well as a man. To function well as a man in the city-state is to be a successful citizen. To be a successful citizen is to impress in the assembly and the law courts. To succeed there it is necessary to conform to the prevailing conventions as to what is just, right, and fitting. Each state has its conventions on these matters. What one must do therefore is to study prevailing usages and learn to adapt oneself to them, so as to mold one’s hearers successfully. This is the τέχνη, the craft, the skill, which it is at once the business and the virtue of a sophist to teach. It is a presupposition of this teaching that there is no criterion of virtue as such, apart from success, and no criterion of justice as such, apart from the dominant practice of each particular city. In the Theatetus Plato outlines a doctrine which he puts into the mouth of the sophist Protagoras. This links moral relativism with a general relativism in the theory of knowledge. Protagoras’ most famous saying was that “Man is the measure of all things; of the things which are, that they are, and of the things which are not, that they are not.” Plato interprets this as referring to sense perception, and as meaning that as things seem to be to an individual percipient, so they are (to him). There is no “being hot” or “being cold” as such; there is simply “seeming hot to this man” or “seeming cold to that man.” So it makes no sense to ask of a wind which feels warm to one man but chilly to another, Is it really hot or cold? The wind is nothing really; it is to each whatever it appears to each.

Is it the same with moral values? Protagoras is in difficulty here over his own standing as a teacher. For if Protagoras concedes that everything is as it seems to be to the individual subject, then he seems to allow that no one can ever judge falsely, and Plato does in fact put this admission into the mouth of Protagoras. But if no one judges falsely, then all are equal in respect of the truth, and nobody can be in the superior position of a teacher or in the inferior position of a pupil. So it seems to follow that if Protagoras’ doctrine is true, then he has no right to teach it. For nobody’s doctrine is or can be truer than anyone else’s. Protagoras attempts to avoid this difficulty by arguing that although nobody’s judgment can be false, some men by their judgments produce better effects than others do. This of course only involves him in the same paradox in a different way; for the assertion that Protagoras’ judgments produce better effects than those of others is now treated as a truth such that, if a man denied it, he would judge falsely. But on the original premises nobody ever judges falsely. So the paradox would be unresolved. Protagoras however is allowed by Plato to ignore this and consequently to argue that “the wise and good orators make good things seem just to their cities instead of pernicious ones. Whatever in any city is regarded as just and admirable is just and admirable in that city for so long as it is thought to be so.”10 Thus the criteria of justice are held to differ from state to state. It does not of course follow that the criteria either must or can be entirely different in different states, and in another dialogue, the Protagoras, Plato appears to credit Protagoras with the view that there are some qualities necessary for the continuing social life of any city. But this is quite consistent with maintaining that there are no sufficient criteria for determining what is just or unjust, independent of the particular conventions of each particular city.

So what the sophist has to teach is what is held to be just in each different state. You cannot ask or answer the question, What is justice? but only the questions, What is justice-at-Athens? and, What is justice-at-Corinth? From this there seems to follow an important consequence, which both reinforces and is reinforced by a new twist that was lent to the distinction between nature and convention. For an individual is offered no criteria by which to guide his own actions if he is merely asked to note that the prevailing criteria vary from state to state. From this he can draw nothing to answer the questions, What am I do to? How am I to live? For he has to choose for himself between the differing criteria of different states (Where and how shall I choose to live?) and also whether to regard with any serious respect the standards which prevail where he does happen to live. But since the whole moral vocabulary is defined by the sophists in terms of the prevailing usage in different states, and since this usage ex hypothesi cannot provide an answer to these crucial questions, both the questions and the possible answers to the questions, What am I to do? How shall I live? have to be treated as nonmoral and premoral. It is at this point that a new use is found for the distinction between nature (ϕύσις) and convention (νόμος).

A man who lives in a given state and conforms to its required standards is a creature of convention; a man who is equally at home in any state or none, depending upon his own personal and private purposes, is a creature of nature. Within every conventional man there hides a natural man. This doctrine rests squarely on a separation of the standpoint of the individual agent from that of the socially established conventions which it is up to him to accept or reject. When to that is added an identification of the moral with the conventional, the identification of the premoral and nonmoral agent with the natural man is complete. The natural man has no moral standards of his own. He is therefore free from all constraints upon him by others. All men are by nature either wolves or sheep; they prey or are preyed upon.

The natural man, conceived thus by the sophist, has a long history in European ethics in front of him. The details of his psychology will vary from writer to writer, but he is almost always-though not always-going to be aggressive and lustful. Morality is then explicable as a necessary compromise between the desire of natural men to aggress upon others and the fear of natural men that others will aggress upon them with fatal consequences. Mutual self-interest leads men to combine in setting up constraining rules to forbid aggression and lust, and powerful agencies to inflict sanctions on those who break the rules. Some of these rules constitute morality; others law. A good deal of variation is possible in the way that this intellectual fairy tale is told, but its central themes, like those of all good fairy tales, are remarkably constant. And above all, at the heart of the account there remains the idea that social life is perhaps chronologically and certainly logically secondary to a form of unconstrained non-social human life in which what men do is a matter of their individual natural psychology. Can we make sense of this notion of the natural, presocial man?

At this early stage in the argument it is worth making one factual and one conceptual point about this particular Greek version of the doctrine of natural man. The factual point is that the character who appears in the guise of man devoid of social conventions (in, for example, the account which Plato puts into the mouth of Thrasymachus) is not a child of nature at all. Nor is he in fact devoid of social conventions. What he is devoid of is any genuine adherence to the conventions of the fifth-century city-state. What he expresses is not nature, but the social attitudes of the Homeric hero. He is a man transposed from a social order where his attitudes and actions are accepted forms of move in the social game, and have accepted forms of response, into a quite different social order where he can appear only as an aggressive outsider. But this does not mean that he is a social impossibility. “Scratch Thrasymachus,” writes Adkins, “and you find Agamemnon.” Give him more of a veneer, we may add, and you find Alcibiades.

The factual point is, then, that the so-called natural man is merely a man from another and earlier culture. The conceptual point is that this is no accident. For the character of the natural presocial man is described in terms of certain traits which he possesses: selfishness, aggressiveness, and the like. But these traits, or rather the words which name and characterize them and enabled them to be socially recognized traits, belong to a vocabulary which presupposes an established web of social and moral relationships. Words like selfish, unselfish, aggressive, mild, and the like are defined in terms of established norms of behavior and established expectations about behavior. Where there are no normal standards there is no possibility of failing to come up to them, of doing more or less than is expected of one, or of elaborating and using names and descriptions of the traits and dispositions of those who so behave. Thus the description of the so-called natural man is formed in a vocabulary drawn from social life; what was alleged to be presocial turns out to presuppose the existence of some social order. Thus the concept of the natural man suffers from a fatal internal incoherence.

What the sophists, and the long tradition which was later to follow them, failed to distinguish was the difference between the concept of a man who stands outside and is able to question the conventions of some one given social order and the concept of a man who stands outside social life as such. And this error sprang from their attempt to bring the distinction between the natural and the conventional into play at points at which it necessarily lacked application. What follows from this error? Natural man portrayed in Thrasymachean guise has two main characteristics. His psychological make-up is simple: he is out to get what he wants, and what he wants is narrowly circumscribed. Power and pleasure are his exclusive interests. But to get what he wants this wolf has to wear the sheep’s clothing of the conventional moral values. His masquerade can only be carried through by putting the conventional moral vocabulary to the service of his private purposes. He must say in the law courts and the assembly what people want to hear, so that they will put power into his hands. Thus the ἀρετή of such a man is to learn the craft, the τέχνη, of molding people by rhetoric. He must take them by the ear before he takes them by the throat. It is to this doctrine that Socrates seeks to present an alternative.

Socrates found himself confronted both by moral conservatives using an incoherent moral vocabulary as if they were sure of its meaning and by sophists whose innovations he found equally suspect. It is therefore scarcely surprising that he appears different from different points of view. It has been said that in Xenophon’s writings he appears as merely a fifth-century Dr. Johnson; in Aristophanes’ he can appear as a particularly distressing sophist; in Plato he is many things, and above all, Plato’s mouthpiece. It is clear, then, that the task of delineating the historical Socrates is inherently controversial. But one may perhaps not solve, but avoid the problem by trying to paint a composite portrait from two palettes. The first is Aristotle’s account of Socrates in the Metaphysics,11 where Aristotle, unlike Plato, Xenophon, or Aristophanes, seems to have no ax of personal interest to grind. The second is the set of dialogues by Plato which are accepted as chronologically early and in which Plato’s own metaphysical doctrines of the soul and of the forms are not yet elaborated. For we learn from Aristotle that Socrates “did not make the universals or the definitions exist apart” as Plato does in the dialogues of the middle period. Aristotle ascribes to Socrates what he calls universal definitions and what he calls inductive arguments, and he makes two statements about Socrates’ intentions which are of peculiar interest in the light of Plato’s portrait. He says that “Socrates was occupying himself with the excellences of character, and in connection with them became the first to raise the problem of universal definition”; a few lines farther on Aristotle remarks that it was natural that Socrates should be seeking the essence, for he was seeking to syllogize, and “‘what a thing is’ is the starting point of syllogisms.” What I wish to fasten upon here is Aristotle’s remark that Socrates was preoccupied with the search for definitions because he wished to syllogize when we might have expected him to say that he syllogized in the interest of discovering definitions. What Aristotle is pointing to can be clearly seen in the early Platonic dialogues.

Socrates repeatedly puts such questions as, What is piety? what is courage? what is justice? We see him use what Aristotle calls inductive arguments (arguments which invoke examples and generalize from them), and we see him syllogizing (that is, drawing conclusions deductively from various premises). But he does this with the apparent intention of convicting his interlocutors of inability to answer the question rather than with the intention of supplying an answer. In scarcely one of the dialogues up to and including Book I of the Republic (if, as some scholars assert, this was originally composed separately) does Socrates answer his own original question; he always leaves the interlocutor in a fury. How are we to understand this procedure? When the Delphic oracle described Socrates as the wisest of the Athenians he concluded that he deserved this title because only he, among them all, knew that he knew nothing. So it would not be surprising if Socrates envisaged his duty as a teacher as that of making his pupils wiser by making them discover their own ignorance. To this it may be objected that Socrates is too often pictured by Plato as driving his interlocutors into an exasperated fury, and that this is scarcely a convincing method of moral education. But infuriating someone may indeed be the only method of disturbing him sufficiently to force him into philosophical reflection upon moral matters. Of course, for the majority of those so assaulted there will be no admirable consequences of this kind. But there is no evidence that Socrates expected the activity of an intellectual gadfly to benefit more than a tiny minority. Moreover Socrates’ method is both more intelligible and more justifiable if it is understood as aimed at securing a particular sort of change in the hearers rather than arriving at a particular conclusion. It is not just that he does not arrive at conclusions; it is rather that his arguments are ad hominem in this sense, that they derive contradictory or otherwise absurd consequences from admissions secured from his interlocutor, and induce the interlocutor to retract. This desire to secure conviction in the interlocutor is underlined in the Gorgias, where Plato makes Socrates say to Polus that he will have achieved nothing unless he can convince him. It is therefore a mistake to complain12 of the particularity of the Socratic method. The whole point lies in its particularity. But why does Socrates have the aims which he has?

His dissatisfaction with someone such as Euthyphro, who wrongly believes that he has a clear concept of piety, is complex; he thinks and shows that Euthyphro does not know what piety is, although Euthyphro invokes established usage. But he does this not because he has a more radical moral judgment to make than Euthyphro, but indeed to produce scepticism in Euthyphro about his own dissent from an older and more conservative order of things. Euthyphro is engaged in prosecuting his own father for the murder of a family dependent, a slave. Both Euthyphro’s relatives and Socrates are more shocked at a man’s prosecuting his father than they are at allowing a slave to be murdered. Likewise, Socrates is very gentle with Cephalus at the beginning of Republic I. He honors moral conservatism, and mocks moral innovation. (This is one of the points at which Xenophon’s Boswellian portrait fits well with what Plato says.) And this is in part because he cannot get clear from the sophists and the innovators any more than he can from established usage what sense moral expressions can have. So the discovery of one’s own ignorance survives as the one well-founded moral aim.

Socrates’ positive doctrines are at first sight perhaps not easy to square with this. His great point of agreement with sophists is his acceptance of the thesis that ἀρετή is teachable. But paradoxically he denies that there are teachers. The resolution of the paradox is found only later in Plato, in the thesis that the knowledge is already present in us and has only to be brought to birth by a philosophical midwife. Its statement depends on the Socratic thesis that virtue is knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). The examples with which Socrates elucidates this thesis leave it obscurer rather than clearer. Socrates breaks with the sophists in not allowing that rhetoric can have the status of a τέχνη, but his closely allied use of ἐπιστημη and τεχνη make it clear that to acquire virtue is to acquire some τεχνη, even if not rhetoric. Rhetoric is nonrational- a matter of knacks, hints, and dodges. The knowledge that constitutes virtue involves not only beliefs that such and such is the case but also a capacity for recognizing relevant distinctions and an ability to act. These are all bound together by the Socratic uses of ἐπιστήμη and τέχνη, and any attempt to separate them out inevitably leads at once to a simplification and to a falsification of the Socratic view.

Aristotle says of Socrates that “he believed that all the moral virtues were forms of knowledge; in such a way that when we knew what justice was, it followed that we would be just,” and Aristotle’s own comment on this clarifies its meaning: “Yet where moral virtue is concerned,” he says, “the most important thing is not to know what it is, but how it arises; we do not wish to know what courage is, we wish to be courageous.”13 That Socrates is all of the intellectualist that Aristotle makes him out to be is clear from the parallel Socratic saying to “Virtue is knowledge”; namely, “No one errs willingly.” No one willingly goes wrong, for no one voluntarily chooses other than what would be good for himself. There are two assumptions behind this doctrine. One is that what is good for a man and what is good simpliciter cannot be divorced. The sophists see no good that is not the simple getting by some man of what he wants. In the Lysis, however, Socrates points out that giving a child what is good for him is quite different from giving him what he wants. So that “what is good for X” and “what X wants” do not mean the same. At the same time how could a man want what would be bad for himself? Very simply, we are tempted to reply, in the way that a drug addict wants drugs, or an alcoholic wants alcohol, or a sadist wants victims. But the Socratic answer would surely be that for these men the object of desire apparently falls under the concept of some genuine good-pleasure, the diminution of a craving, or whatever it is. Their mistake is the intellectual one of misidentifying an object, supposing it to be of some kind other than it is, or of not noticing some of its properties, not remembering perhaps. On the Socratic view an alcoholic does not say, “The whisky will rot my liver, and I don’t care”; he says, “One more drink will steady my hand enough to call up Alcoholics Anonymous.” To this we are strongly disposed to reply that sometimes the alcoholic does just say, “The whisky will rot my liver, but I want a drink, and I don’t care.” How does Socrates come to ignore this kind of rejoinder? The answer is perhaps to be understood by looking back to Aristotle’s accusation against Socrates.

When Aristotle says in criticism of Socrates that “where moral virtue is concerned, the most important thing is not to know what it is, but how it arises” he makes a distinction which Socrates, on his own premises, cannot be expected to make. Precisely why Socrates was prepared to equate virtue and knowledge so roundly is not entirely clear. For he is quite explicit about the consequences: “No one errs willingly”; that is, if men do what is wrong, it is intellectual error not moral weakness that is the cause. And this, as Aristotle points out, is contrary to what ordinary men take to be an obvious fact of moral experience. We can put the best possible face upon the Socratic view by considering the plausibility of the thesis that a man’s moral beliefs are evidenced in his actions. If a man says that he believes that he ought to do something, and when occasion arises neither performs the action in question nor exhibits regret or remorse, we shall certinly conclude that he did not really believe what he said. He was only talking. (Or he may of course have changed his mind.) But there is still a striking difference between the case where a man never does what he says he believes he ought to do (when we should need the strongest reasons for not supposing that his behavior gives the lie to his avowals) and the case where a man occasionally does not do what he says he believes he ought to do (which is what constitutes a moral lapse, in most circles a commonplace occurrence). And this difference Socrates just does not recognize: if a man really knows what he ought to do, what power could be greater than knowledge and so prevent him from doing what he ought? So Socrates is represented as arguing in the Protagoras.

One might try to argue again that since Socrates almost never answers his own question, What is X? where X is the name of some moral quality-piety, justice, or the like-the whole and only point of the Socratic inquiry is to engender self-knowledge in the form of a knowledge of one’s own ignorance. So that virtue is an aim rather than an achievement. But the spirit of the Apology of Socrates at his trial is inconsistent with this, in the light of his claim that he was inspired by a daemon. Moreover, in the Laches the inquiry into the nature of courage yields a partial answer in terms of knowledge of a certain kind, and although the inquiry runs into difficulties which lead to its suspension, the impression is not at all of an inquiry which is necessarily bound to fail.

What remains unambiguously clear is that the Socratic position combined the assertion of several bold and apparently paradoxical theses with a good deal of ambiguity and uncertainty in his presentation of them. In Plato’s Gorgias, for example, it is not at all clear whether Socrates is advancing the view that pleasure is the good in order to discuss but finally dismiss it or in order to defend it as at least a possible view, and scholars have notoriously differed in their interpretations on this point. But what is plainer than the contentions of either party is that rival interpretations are in a way beside the point; what Socrates is presented as saying simply is ambiguous. And it is in no way out of character that Socrates should be concerned to puzzle his interlocutors rather than to present them with a clear position of his own.

This ambiguity is perhaps more than a personal quirk of Socrates. Socrates had raised the key philosophical questions in ethics. How do we understand the concepts which we use in decision and appraisal? What is the criterion for their correct application? Is established usage consistent? and if not, how do we escape inconsistency? But to have asked the philosophical questions about how we are to understand concepts will only take Socrates part of the way. Clearly, if our moral concepts are concepts at all, if our moral words are words, then there must be criteria for their use. They could not be part of our language unless there were rules for their use, rules which could be taught and learned, rules which are socially established and socially shared. It follows from this that the kind of sophist who thought that moral words could simply be given a meaning, either by the philosopher or the ruler, at will, is talking nonsense. For in order for the meaning to be a meaning it would have to be teachable in terms of the existing criteria which govern the use of the relevant expressions. So that Socrates is right to present conceptual inquiry as a task which can yield correct and incorrect results, as an activity in which there are objective standards of success and failure. But it does not follow that the investigation of how a concept is in fact employed will yield one clear and consistent answer. Socrates’ questioning of his pupils relies upon the examples of contemporary Greek moral usage which they produce. If I am right, the problematic moral character of Greek life at the time of Socrates arises from and partially consists in the fact that moral usage has ceased to be clear and consistent. And so to discover unambiguous and practically useful moral concepts, one will have to undertake a different sort of inquiry.

Just this is what Socrates’ successors undertake, and they move in two main directions. Plato accepts the fact that moral concepts are only intelligible against the background of a certain sort of social order; he then tries to delineate it, providing or attempting to provide at the same time a justification in terms of the order of the universe. The Cynics and Cyrenaics by contrast seek to provide a moral code independent of society, tied only to the individual’s choices and decisions, and attempting to make the individual moral life self-sufficient. To them I shall return briefly later on, but the next stage of the argument belongs to Plato. Yet it is worth remarking that those philosophers, like Socrates, whose analyses of moral concepts suggest defects in contemporary morality are not unlikely to be unwelcome to authority, even if the lack of prestige of philosophers usually makes it a waste of time to inflict the death penalty. It is a mark of Socrates’ greatness that he was not surprised at his own fate.