Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plato's Rational Souls

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plato's Rational Souls

Article excerpt

The TERM "SOCRATIC INTELLECTUALISM" is often deployed to set the philosophy of Socrates apart from the philosophy of Plato. Typically, the "philosophy of Socrates" refers to the ideas and arguments found in a selected set of dialogues designated as "early"; by contrast, the philosophy of Plato is supposedly found only in the so-called middle and late dialogues. Whether the alleged philosophy of Socrates found in the early dialogues does or does not accurately reflect the philosophy of the historical Socrates is a vexed question, one in which I am not here interested. (1) What I do propose to focus on is the supposed decisive break between the intellectualism of the early dialogues and something else, usually unnamed, but at any rate amounting to a rejection of that intellectualism in the middle dialogues. Specifically, Socratic intellectualism is supposed to maintain, roughly, that virtue is knowledge; that if one knows what the good or the right requires, then one cannot but do it. But, so it is claimed, Plato rejects this position in Republic at least, insofar as he acknowledges the existence of nonrational desires in the soul. (2) As exemplified by the acratic, it is possible for one to know what the good or the right requires and still fail to act on it. Like the pathetic Leontius, one can be overcome by such nonrational desires, thereby rendering impotent the supposed knowledge of right and wrong or good and bad. Consequently, the Socratic claim that virtue is knowledge (and all this entails about the nature of philosophical inquiry and of philosophical living) is rejected.

For some scholars, this rejection represents a disastrous mistake on Plato's part; for others, especially those who think that Aristotle has more or less the right approach to these matters, it represents progress. I shall in this paper argue that the so-called Socratic intellectualism is thoroughly Platonic, that in fact there are no grounds for holding that Plato abandoned the Socratic position. In particular, Republic gives us no reason to believe that Plato came to deny that virtue is in some sense knowledge or that no one does wrong willingly.

On the side of those who hold that Plato abandons Socratic intellectualism is the apparent fact that in one dialogue--labeled "early" in the relevant sense--namely, Protagoras, Socrates argues against the possibility of incontinence, whereas in Republic, he argues for the possibility of incontinence on the basis of the tripartition of the embodied human soul. It is thought that the rejection and then acceptance of the possibility of incontinence is what distinguishes Socratic intellectualism from Plato's later view. Against this position is the fact that the claim that "no one does wrong willingly," often thought to encapsulate Socratic intellectualism, is found in dialogues where this intellectualism is supposedly abandoned. Thus, proponents of the so-called split between Socrates and Plato or, if you will, between the early Plato and the middle Plato, must maintain that Plato gives to the claim "no one does wrong willingly" a new meaning after he abandons Socratic intellectualism. I shall return at the end of this paper to the supposed new meaning for I think that understanding the issue requires some background. For now I want to concentrate on the central piece of evidence for the abandonment of Socratic intellectualism, namely, the apparent recognition by Plato of the existence of nonrational springs of action.

The principal passage that is supposed to support the idea of nonrational behavior is a part of the analysis of the tripartite soul in Republic.

   So, a particular type of thirst is for a particular type of drink.
   Thirst itself, however, is not for much drink or little, nor for
   good or bad drink, nor, in a word, for a particular type of drink;
   rather, it is, by nature, only for drink. (3)

The text goes on to distinguish the appetite for drink from the calculation that the drink is good or bad. …

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