Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Everyone Desires the Good: Socrates' Protreptic Theory of Desire

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Everyone Desires the Good: Socrates' Protreptic Theory of Desire

Article excerpt

What IS the FIRST PRINCIPLE of Socratic ethics? Socrates' oft-repeated contention that everyone desires the good is a reasonable candidate. For consider what its competitors might be. Socrates also believes that one ought to devote one's life to care for the soul, (1) that no one willingly does wrong, (2) that wisdom is the only thing that is (really) good, ignorance the only thing that is (really) evil, (3) that being wronged is better than wronging, (4) that justice is piety and temperance is wisdom, (5) that only good men have the power to do evil, (6) and that a good man cannot be harmed. (7) Assuming that some of these Socratisms are grounded on others, the desire thesis is likely to stand in a relatively foundational position. As Rachana Kamtekar observes: "it does seem more likely that the doctrine that wrongdoing is unwilling should be a consequence of some deeper philosophical commitment about our orientation towards the good [that is, the desire thesis], rather than the other way round." (8) The desire thesis may, then, be conceptually prior to Socrates' other views; it is also, I think, prior in another way.

Socratic theory-building happens via conversation, and these conversations have practical as well as theoretical aims. Socrates is speaking not only with a view to discovering the truth, but also for the sake of redirecting both himself and his interlocutor onto a pursuit of virtue and wisdom. Paraphrasing Plato, we can say that he aims to turn misdirected souls, his own included, toward the light. (9) Consider a few examples of Socrates' characteristically protreptic conversational style.

He concludes the discussion of the Laches with the striking injunction: "What I don't advise is that we allow ourselves to stay as we are." (10) He has managed to divert a conversation about educating children to the topic of the adults' need for moral improvement. Plato indicates that this was a habitual Socratic practice by having Nicias predict early on that the conversation would turn inward. (11) Likewise, Socrates ends his discussion about akrasia with "the many" in the Protagoras by chiding them for not directing themselves to acquiring the art of measurement that would be their salvation. He tames the vaulting ambition of Alcibiades ("you want your reputation and your influence to saturate all mankind" (12)) into an avowed commitment on the part of Alcibiades to "start to cultivate justice in myself right now." (13) In the Euthydemus he both asks for and himself offers "an exhibition of persuading the young man that he ought to devote himself to wisdom and virtue." (14) His own "exhibition" concludes with the claim that "it seems to be necessary that every man should prepare himself by every means to become as wise as possible." (15)

For all his humility, Socrates seems to arrogate to himself a limitless power to transform any desire anyone approaches him with into an impetus to inquire after virtue. It is as though Socrates takes himself to be able to say something like this to anyone he meets: "If you like power (or pleasure or money or honor or health or beauty or fame or not fearing death or educating your children or ...) you'll love virtue and wisdom." Readers are often struck by Socrates' many pedagogic failures (Meno, Alcibiades, Anytus, and so on), but the other side of that same coin is Socrates' remarkable willingness to take on the hardest cases. One thing Plato may be trying to show us by filling his dialogues with "bad" interlocutors is that no one is too avaricious (Meno), cynical (Callicles), self-satisfied (Hippias), belligerent (Thrasymachus), scatterbrained (Hippocrates), sophistical (Euthydemus and Dionysiodorus), fixed in his ways (Protagoras, Gorgias, Cephalus), naive (Charmides, Lysis), power-hungry (Polus), conventional (Anytus), spoiled by flattery (Alcibiades), narcissistic (Agathon), or pompous (Euthyphro) for Socrates to deem him worthy of his pedagogic efforts. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.