ABSTRACT: One vigorous line of thought in contemporary moral philosophy, which I shall call ‘Neo-Aristotelianism,’ centers on three things: (1) a rejection of traditional enlightenment moral theories like Kantianism and utilitarianism; (2) a claim that another look at the ethical concerns and projects of ancient Greek thought might help us past the impasse into which enlightenment moral theories have left us; (3) more particularly, an attempt to reinterpret Aristotle’s ethical work for the late twentieth-century so as to transcend this impasse.

Introduction: The "Neo-Aristotelian" Rejection of Plato

Neo-Aristotelians like Martha Nussbaum(1) and Alasdair MacIntyre,(2) in spite of their many differences,(3) are therefore united not only in their positive turn to Aristotle but also in their rejection of Plato and Plato’s Socrates.(4) And yet some features of these rejections invite further reflection. Nussbaum, for example, consistently recognizes that the Socratic-Platonic project requires us to remake ourselves: "In short, I claim that [in the Protagoras] Socrates offers us, in the guise of empirical description, a radical proposal for the transformation of our lives." (FG 117, LK 112) But to what extent has she done justice to the particular kind of remaking Plato has Socrates offer us? More pointedly, does she acknowledge the extent to which Socrates aims at focussing his interlocutors on a process of questioning, rather than simply handing doctrine over to them?(5) Or has her Socrates been flattened out, his dialogical style rendered monological, so as to support her overall thesis more easily?(6) As for MacIntyre, does he see clearly enough the parallel between his own work and Plato’s when he says that in his earlier dialogues "Plato is pointing to a general state of incoherence in the use of evaluative language in Athenian culture" (AV 131)? Mutatis mutandis, isn’t this precisely what the opening chapters of After Virtue attempt to show? And to what extent must MacIntyre’s "quest for the good" in his crucial chapter "The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition" be committed to a Platonic, rather than Aristotelian, notion of the good? When he says "now it is important to emphasize that it is the systematic asking of these two questions ["What is the good for me?" and "What is the good for man?"] and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity" (AV 219, emphasis added), isn’t it Plato’s Socrates who serves as the ultimate source of inspiration here?

While a full treatment of these questions is beyond the scope of this paper, they can still serve to provoke us into considering whether there are more resources available in the Socratic-Platonic alternative than such Neo-Aristotelian thought allows. In particular, in this paper I want to suggest that the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno(7) offer a unified moral conception, as worthy an alternative to enlightenment theories as the Neo-Aristotelian views of MacIntyre and Nussbaum. These dialogues taken together form a dramatic trilogy, telling one continuous story(8): it is the story of Socrates’ confrontation with the major sophistic figures and their students, beginning with young Hippocrates’ desire to study with Protagoras and Socrates’ attempt, on Hippocrates’ behalf, to put Protagoras put to the test; working through a display of the relations between a "second-generation" sophistic teacher like Gorgias and his pupils Polus and Callicles, which ends paradoxically with a philosophical transformation of the teacher and a failure of his students to follow him(9); to a direct confrontation between a "real life" political follower of Gorgias like Meno, who comes to Socrates with a crucial question but fails to learn much of anything from him. The core of the unified moral conception here is the dialectical activity of Socrates, "the patron saint of moral philosophy,"(10) and its implications: the development of a moral practice that contrasts with sophistic education, usually thought of as "Socratic elenchus"; the crucial notions of the unity of arete and that arete is knowledge; and the psychological and political consequences of Socrates’ moral practice. All of these implications have as their guiding notion "self-education": the idea that we must each take the responsibility upon ourselves for our own paideia.

Some Central Themes Developed in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno

The theme enframing these three dialogues is the teachability of arete: the motivating occasion for Socrates’ discussion with Protagoras is young Hippocrates’ desire to study with Protagoras, in order to become "a man of respect in the city" (P 316c), and the Meno begins with the direct question: "Can you tell me, Socrates, can arete be taught?" (M 70a) and ends with the glimmer of possibility that there might be "someone among our statesmen who can make another into a statesman" (M 100a).(11) Whereas the sophists claim to make people better (P 318a-b, 348e-349a, G 460a; cf. M 95c (12)), Socrates wonders whether this is possible, and whether it would really be possible as a techne (P 319a-320b). The bulk of the Protagoras therefore focusses on the question of the unity of arete in order to determine whether Protagoras really practices a techne. Socrates’ conversation with Gorgias, too, focusses on what Gorgias’ techne, rhetoric, is (G 448eff.), and whether it is in fact a techne (see G 462e-466a and 502d, but also the less frequently cited 480c-481b and 503a-b).

Thus Socrates attacks the sophists’ claim to practice a techne. In the Gorgias, though, Socrates himself claims to practice the politike techne:

I believe that I’m one of a few Athenians—so as not to say I’m the only one, but the only one among our contemporaries—to take up the political craft and practice the true politics. This is because the speeches I make on each occasion do not aim at gratification but at what’s best. They don’t aim at what’s most pleasant. (G 521d)(13)

Socrates therefore lays claim to the techne Protagoras and Gorgias (the former explictly [P 319a], the latter implicitly [G 452e, 460a]) believed themselves to practice. But what could this mean? And how could such a claim be aligned with the frequent avowal of Socratic ignorance (e.g. P 361c-d, G 509a, M 71a-c)?

In my view, the techne Socrates is pointing to here just is his practice of conversing with interlocutors. More precisely, this is the techne of focussing his interlocutor on a particular kind of question, the what-is question (see P 360e-361d, G 448d-449a, M 71a-b, 86c-e). Note that this interpretation allows Socrates’ claim to practice(14) a techne not to contradict his claim of ignorance: practicing a "craft" of questioning does not imply that one "knows the answers"(15) to the questions one asks. Furthermore, as befits a political "art," Socrates’ ability to practice this techne is going to be directly proportional to his interlocutors’ engagement in the questioning: a distinctive feature of the political art is that it "works on" citizens, who, themselves having logos, are capable of engaging in politics, too. (More on this below.)

In what may seem to be a frustratingly formal sense, Socrates himself actually answers the "what-is-arete?" question his conversations in these dialogues focus on: in response to Meno’s first attempted definition of arete, Socrates claims that it is an eidos, a "form" (72c). Thus the kind of unity Socrates holds that arete has is not fully grasped by either the biconditional interpretation of Vlastos(16) or the unity-of-a-psychic-state interpretation of Penner.(17) The former leaves open the question why the biconditional should hold, and the latter—although it is surely right in holding that "when Socrates said ‘Virtue is one,’ he meant it quite literally!"(18)—fails to account sufficiently for the fact that a "psychic state" in which one knew all goods and evils, past and future included, is surely not one any living human being will ever fully instantiate. It must therefore be a form.(19)

Rather than thinking the unity of the form in terms of the unity of a thing, thereby inviting the objection that this is merely reduplicating some part of "this world," these dialogues invite us to think the unity of the form in terms of the unity of a path of questioning or of a single subject matter. Consider, for example, Socrates’ emphasis on the "about what" question in his discussions with Protagoras and Gorgias (see e.g. P 318c-d, G 449d, 451a-e): he wonders whether there is some "one thing" at which their teaching aims, toward which their speeches are focussed. His own dialectical practice (his "political craft") is always focussed in this way on the form of arete: hence he always tries to draw his interlocutors toward the what-is-arete? question.

At this point we must attempt to face squarely what it means for Socrates to hold that arete is knowledge—what kind of knowledge is at stake here? If we pay attention to both its drama and its dialectic, to use Kahn’s terms,(20) the middle part of the Meno is helpful here. Socrates uses the discussion with the slave to point Meno, who has lost his way toward arete, in the direction of a certain kind of knowledge. A crucial moment comes when Socrates’ attempt to put Meno on stage for himself is made explicit, when the slave, like Meno before him, reaches a moment of aporia (84a). Socrates then asks Meno—mimicking Meno’s own language about torpedo fish and speeches before large audiences—whether the slave is better off now, knowing that he does not know, than when he thought wrongly that he knew, and whether the slave has been harmed by being made perplexed and numb. Meno appears to agree that the slave is better off and that he has not been harmed. The kind of knowledge Socrates holds out for Meno here is knowledge about himself—knowledge of the mistake Meno made when he threw his little tantrum after being reduced to perplexity (80a-b, 80d). That is, Meno needs to see that an active recognition of his own shortcomings would help him, not harm him.

If this is well-oriented, there is a way to connect up Socratic self-knowledge and the kind of knowledge or understanding of the form arete that Socrates seeks here. Knowledge of our own falling short of the form has as its necessary complement a positive grasp of what the form itself is: truly to see, for example, that you are like a spoiled tyrant, "forever giving orders in a discussion" (M 76b), is to see beyond this to the kind of self-ruling that belongs to arete itself.(21) An interlocutor who saw the point of Socrates’ elenchus, and who thoroughly participated in that elenchus—say, a Meno who acknowledged his own tyrannical self-conception—would ipso facto see beyond such tyranny to a more positive conception of arete, to "the life that is adequate to and satisfied with its circumstances at any given time," as the Gorgias puts it (493c).

The psychological and political implications of this view are drawn out clearly enough. As Socrates goes on to point out, Meno fails even to attempt to rule himself, because he is attempting to rule Socrates (86d). (Notice that by contrast, Socrates does not force his interlocutors: he tries to get them to face the what-is-arete? question squarely; if, as happens here, they refuse to do so, and so fail to engage themselves fully in Socratic questioning, he lets them have their way, as he does with Meno here.) Imagine, though, a Meno who understands what Socrates is trying to show him. The soul of such a Meno would "rule itself" in the Socratic sense (see G 491d-e): satisfied with whatever it has at the moment, it would be beyond the pleonexia that drives Meno’s definitions (M 71e, 73d, esp. 77b) just as it drives Callicles (see e.g. G 483c-d). Such a soul would therefore be beyond the psychological condition that fuels the "power politics" to which such interlocutors are committed. No longer wanting more and more, it would want instead to continue to inquire into what the human good—arete—itself is.

Self-Education in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno

The central themes developed in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno can be gathered together in the notion of self-education, a notion explictly referred to—though not without irony—at Meno 96d-e:

We are probably poor specimens, you and I, Meno. Gorgias has not adequately educated you [see M 70b-c, 71b-c], nor Prodicus me [see P 339eff.]. We must then at all costs turn our attention to ourselves and seek someone who will in some way make us better.

It is worth playing out the contrast between the sophistic/rhetorical notion of education, referred to here through the figures of Gorgias and Prodicus, and the Socratic notion of self-education. For Protagoras, education takes place by compelling the student to follow a prescribed path (see esp. P 325c-326e)(22); Gorgias shows how such education is independent of any content (G 459c). For Socrates, on the other hand, the psychic activity of the student is crucial; as one interpreter puts it, "insight is nothing if it remains external, another’s opinion and not one’s own act."(23) Thus the need to seek someone else as one’s teacher (dramatically represented by Hippocrates, Polus, and Meno) is replaced by the desire to be one’s own teacher, even when one is conversing with others.(24) The crucial notion here is self-compulsion, holding oneself accountable; given such concern, one feels no need to force the conversation to go one’s own way (contrast Protagoras at P 335a and Socrates at P 338d and 348a). As Socrates puts it in the Gorgias, he "wouldn’t be any less pleased to be refuted than to refute" (458a).

Socratic paideia, then, is:

the commitment to a line of inquiry focussing on the what-is-arete question, which culminates in the moment in which one realizes one’s own falling short of the form of arete, thereby revealing to one a more positive sense of what arete itself is—the revelation of which itself commits one to overcoming one’s present lack of self-rule.

Notice that Socratic irony has a special place here: by leaving the interlocutor to himself, pointedly not trying to explain what arete is to his interlocutor (in fact, not even saying when he is being ironic!), Socrates brings his interlocutor to choose for himself whether to engage in this kind of inquiry.(25) It is precisely this kind of self-activity that constitues Socratic self-education.(26)

Towards a Socratic-Platonic Critique of Neo-Aristotelian Moral Theory?

It has been noted how close to the Aristotelian perspective several features of Protagoras’ "great speech" (P 320c-328d) are.(27) But we are now in a position to cast a different sort of light on this: to the extent that Socrates offers a critique of Protagoras’ educational views in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno, we can now see how a Socratic-Platonic critique of Neo-Aristotelian moral theory would go, even if this is not the occasion to work out such a critique in full detail or come to a final decision about its cogency.

The crucial idea would be that the kind of insight discussed above must in a certain sense precede the commitment to ethical habit which is the lynchpin of Aristotle’s ethical theory. Thus I would argue, for example, that Nussbaum’s recognition of the fragility of one’s own goodness is not denied by Plato’s Socrates, but instead that a truly Socratic acknowledgement of such fragility leads one to an insight into the good itself that transforms one’s character radically. (Why would it follow from the fragility of our goodness that the good itself must be fragile? In fact, just the opposite must be the case—in order for us to recognize how our goodness has shattered, we see it as falling short of a goodness that remains whole.) It is not that Plato’s Socrates overlooks or denies the need to become "finely aware and richly responsible,"(28) so much as he sees the need for a distinct kind of knowledge to precede the development of the kinds of habits such perceivers have.

And must not MacIntyre’s quest for the good be understood, finally, in terms of the Socratic "self-education" discussed above? His insistence that a quest is "always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge" (AV 219) embodies precisely that tension between knowing the form and knowing one’s self(29) to which Socratic inquiry is committed. Such a quest can be "self-fulfilling" in a positive sense.(30) By acknowledging explicitly our own aporia, our own falling short of the goal, then—in a paradoxical fashion, like the puzzling figure of Socrates himself, who seems somehow to instantiate the virtue he seeks, even as he claims both that such virtue is knowledge and that he himself is ignorant of what it is—we thereby achieve, in a human rather than divine fashion, that very goal.

This kind of response to Neo-Aristotelianism might provoke us to further questions: (1) To what extent is the understanding presented in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno transformed in the Republic and other "middle-period" Platonic works? Does Plato himself criticize this Socratic notion of self-education in, say, the Republic?(31) Or is that notion instead preserved there?(32) (2) To what extent could this Socratic-Platonic view be appropriated today? Have Nussbaum, by making a case for the fragility of our goodness side-by-side with a recognition of the Socratic-Platonic remaking of the self, and MacIntyre, by arguing for a lifelong quest for the good already gestured in this direction?

But these are no doubt best understood as questions to be pursued on another occasion.


(1) See especially The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), hereinafter "FG" and "LK," respectively; also The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) and Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

(2) See especially After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), hereinafter "AV"; also Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

(3) For an example of such differences, see Nussbaum’s review of MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?: "Recoiling from Reason," The New York Review of Books, 7 December 1989: 36-41.

(4) The scope of this paper prevents detailed discussion of the task of distinguishing "early" and "middle" Plato. For views of that distinction, see Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), esp. 45-80, and Terry Penner, "Socrates and the early dialogues," The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 121-169. For a recent view closer to a "unitarian" picture, see Charles Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). As will be seen in the course of this paper, my view is that there is, contra Vlastos and Penner, a consistent philosophical position in the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno. In some ways Nussbaum herself invites such a view, since her reading of the Protagoras (FG 89-121, LK 106-124) leads directly to what she takes to be the "middle" period concerns of the Symposium and Republic.

(5) A glance at the "cave parable" of Republic VII shows that in his so-called "middle" period Plato did not give up on the importance of dialectic in the "Socratic" sense: see 515d. Nussbaum might well answer that Plato has Socrates himself criticize this approach at 537dff. (See the opening pages of her "Aristophanes and Socrates on learning practical wisdom," Yale Classical Studies 26 (1980): 43-97.) But does such a reading do justice to the dialogical context of this passage? To whom is Socrates speaking here, after all?

(6) Her quite flat reading of the dramatic aspects of Protagoras 352e-358b, for example (for references see note 4 above), is oddly out of tune with her own emphasis on the importance of literature for philosophy. Consider at least the following: (1) Socrates’ ingenious casting here, in which he and Protagoras together will teach the many the nature of being overcome by pleasure, with Socrates playing "Socrates and Protagoras" and Protagoras playing "the many." Soon, Protagoras forgets the role he’s playing and simply agrees with the many—in spite of his earlier rejection of the many’s views (317a, 333c, 351c-d, 352d-e)! (2) Socrates, on behalf of "Socrates and Protagoras," asks "the many"/Protagoras four times whether they have in mind some telos other than pleasure when they call things good (354b, 354d, 354e, 355a). Why the repetition? (3) What does Socrates’ hubristic questioner have in mind in the startling moment when he turns a conversation about somebody else who is being overcome with pleasure in the direction of the person he’s talking to being overcome with pleasure (355d4)? When linked with (1) above, this invites us to see this discussion of being overcome by pleasure as embodying the very phenomenon it is discussing.

(7) All citations from these texts in what follows are from Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997); I have sometimes altered the translations slightly.

(8) Thus Nussbaum’s emphasis on the philosophical value of literature, as well as MacIntyre’s emphasis on the importance of narrative, are of course already here in Plato, as is a rebuttal of the claim, common to both, that Plato rejects tragedy (FG 122-135, AV 141-144): for each dialogue ends with an ironic misunderstanding between Socrates and his interlocutor(s), and the trilogy as a whole ends not with a student of Socrates who shows that the philosopher can make another into a statesman, but a pupil of a sophist whose failure to understand Socrates is dramatically projected as the root of his own "future" as a traitor to Athens.

(9) Note Gorgias’ apparently genuine interest in the conversation at 463d-464b, 497b, and 506b, and compare this with Polus’ response to Socrates at 480e and Callicles’ withdrawal from the conversation at 505c, 505d, 506c, 510a, 513e, and 522e.

(10) William Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973): 2, quoted in Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form: 126.

(11) Notice, too, how an opening frame of the Protagoras, the allusion to Book XI of the Odyssey in Socrates’ description of his first view of Protagoras and his students (P 315c, 315d), is only now closed (it had remained open throughout the remainder of the Protagoras and Gorgias) with the reference to Teiresias at M 100a.

(12) This latter passage ought to be read as a consequence of Gorgias’ transformation in the Gorgias (see note 9 above). For a different view, see Charles Kahn, "Drama and Dialectic in Plato’s Gorgias," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1 (1983): 80 and fn. 10.

(13) There is no consensus on the proper interpretation of this passage, which has perhaps not received the attention from commentators it deserves. For a view of it differing from mine, see David Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom: Plato’s Understanding of Techne (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996): 233-246, esp. 239 fn. 25. See also note 14 below.

(14) Or "attempt, endeavor": see Terence Irwin, Plato: Gorgias (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979): 240f. and Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato’s Socrates (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994): 8; contrast Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher: 240 fn. 21.

(15) In the ordinary, not the "recollective," sense: for the latter, see note 26 below.

(16) "The Unity of the Virtues in Plato's Protagoras," reprinted in Platonic Studies, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 221-269.

(17) "The Unity of Virtue," reprinted in Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, ed. Hugh H. Benson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 162-184.

(18) Penner, "The Unity of Virtue": 162.

(19) Further discussion of this is contained in Jeffrey S. Turner, "The Unity of Virtue Argument in Meno 71e-79e," paper presented at the December 1995 meetings of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

(20) See note 12 above.

(21) Thus the "negative" and "positive" sides of the elenchus are complements of one another, "flip-sides" of the same cognitive act; it is not that the elenchus itself is negative but positive results are built up by induction, as some would hold (see e.g. Brickhouse and Smith, Plato’s Socrates: 18f.). Arete is knowledge of good and bad: of the bad that one "is" and the good that, for the moment at least, transcends one.

(22) If Aristotle’s report is accurate that Gorgias (and others) "assigned rhetorical speeches and others question-and-answer discussions to be learned by heart" (On Sophistical Refutations 183b36ff., from The Older Sophists, ed. Rosamond Kent Sprague (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972): 63), this would be a particularly good example of the use of such compulsion in sophistic/rhetorical education.

(23) Mitchell Miller, Plato’s Parmenides: The Conversion of the Soul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986): 8.

(24) If one has such a desire, the move to replace knowledge with "true opinion," initiated after Socrates’ announcement of the theme of self-education at 96d-e, would be blocked: unlike Anytus, one would want more than second-hand true opinion, and would in fact be satisfied with nothing less than knowledge.

(25) Cf. Gregory Vlastos, "Socratic Irony," Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher: 21-44, esp. 41-44.

(26) It follows from this that the "recollection" of the Meno is of a piece with, rather than inconsistent with, the moral outlook of the Protagoras and the Gorgias. The recollection of the Meno is the precisely paired opposite to Callicles’ withdrawal from conversation in the Gorgias; "recollection" merely names the activity of the interlocutor which has, all along, been implied by the nature of Socratic conversation. Views opposed to this are presented in Gregory Vlastos, "Elenchus and Mathematics," Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher: 107-131, and Gail Fine, "Inquiry in the Meno," The Cambridge Companion to Plato: 200-226, esp. 213-215.

(27) Dirk Loenen, Protagoras and the Greek Community (Amsterdam: N. V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij: 1940); Nussbaum, FG: 100-106, 447 n. 33.

(28) LK: 37-40, 54-105, 148-167.

(29) Is this perhaps the core of the Neo-Aristotelian critique of traditional enlightenment theories—that such theories have lost sight of the ethical importance of self-knowledge?

(30) Cf. MacIntyre: "We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man . .." (AV 219).

(31) See for example note 5 above.

(32) See for example the account of education at Republic 518a-d.