The Chill of Virtue
GREGORY VLASTOS (1991), Socrates, Ironist, and Moral Philosopher
He summons to virtue with a composed and lofty countenance, as in David’s famous portrait, ready to drink the hemlock, finger pointing upward. But he arouses anger too, with his ugly snub nose and his irritating questions, jesting, mocking, riddling, with his incessant logical interrogations and his uncanny lack of affect. He is a maddening gadfly on the back of the Athenian democracy, and yet he is also “of all the people of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most just.” He is like the satyr Marsyas, outrageous, erotic, a seductive charmer, and yet when you open him up you discover treasures of virtue and moderation.
Socrates, in short, is strange. Alcibiades, charmed and humiliated, concludes that his most remarkable trait is to be “similar to no human being, past or present.… This man is so strange, he and his speeches too, that you could search and search and find nobody near him.” Socrates’ strangeness has been avoided in various ways. Sometimes he is portrayed as a saintly moral hero who could be found irritating only by hypocrites and fools. Such reverential portraits tend to treat his knotty and precise logical arguments as peripheral, rather than as the core of what he was. And sometimes, by contrast, irritation altogether displaces reverence, as in I. F. Stone’s recent assault, which displayed such exasperation with the methods and the content of Socrates’ philosophical inquiries that it could offer little illumination about the achievements that make Socrates a pivotal figure in the history of Western ethics. Once again the arguments were shortchanged, as Stone treated Socrates’ interest in logical precision and the clear definition of terms as an abstruse metaphysical predilection, without relevance for the conduct of life. And even when the arguments do take center stage, as they do in much contemporary philosophical scholarship, something is too often missing still: the man himself, the point and the motivation of his inquiries, the oddness of his mission to humanity.