The Gifford Lectures delivered by Gregory Vlastos in 1981 at the University of St Andrews under the title ‘The Philosophy of Socrates’ have never been published in their original form. Many of the chapters in Vlastos’s landmark Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (1991) and the posthumous collection Socratic Studies (1993) began their life as Gifford lectures, but were subsequently revised. But while we do not have the Vlastos’s Giffords in their original form, we can reasonably claim to have their argument. The Giffords were the occasion for ‘all the intellectual effort I have mustered since 1978’ (Vlastos 1991, p. 11); the fruit of that effort is largely contained in the two volumes under review. If anything is lost, it is likely an explicit connection between Vlastos’s work and the terms of the Gifford Trust, as there is little mention of natural theology in these pages.
Vlastos has a single object of scrutiny in these studies: the person of Socrates. This Socrates is the Platonic Socrates, without a doubt. But it is foundational to Vlastos’s argument that we can identify a more genuine Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues, one who behaves quite distinctly from the Platonic mouthpiece of the later dialogues. It is the distinguishing feature of this Socrates that, unlike in the later dialogues, his interests are purely moral and he exhibits no interest in epistemology or metaphysics. It is this Socrates, theoretically innocent, relentless in moral inquiry and immensely happy, that holds such fascination for Vlastos.
There are two aspects of Vlastos’s portrait of this Socrates: first, Socrates’s method of argument and second, Socrates’s account of virtue and happiness. In the first case Vlastos defends Socrates from the charge of dissembling in argument in order to draw out his opponent. Rather, Socrates uses a ‘complex irony’ that never deceives, even if Socrates may both mean and not mean what he says. While this solves the paradox of Socrates’s disavowal of knowledge, most importantly, it rescues Socrates from searching for moral truths with immoral tactics. Were this to be the case, Socrates’s method of ‘elenchus’ would be incoherent. Vlastos provides a complex account of this style of argument, which can be best summarized as a search for moral truths that demands the existential commitment of the interlocutors and the utmost confidence that the truth of virtue is coherent. So while the early dialogues rarely end in a satisfactory answer, Socrates is not discouraged because eventually the truth will out. But why should Socrates be so committed to discovering moral truth? This is the concluding high point of Vlastos’s argument: what is singularly characteristic about Socrates is his unshakable belief in the ‘sovereignty of virtue’, which brings happiness. It is this that is the arresting, open secret of Socrates life, and the reason he went to his death with such reported ‘good humor’: if one believes that moral virtue is a human sort of knowledge, discovered just by careful, unwearied search, then one has the capacity to be happy in ones possession. Knowing this, and testing it again and again, even in the face of death, Socrates never found this principle disproved. How could he be anything but happy?
Vlastos is a generous and immensely learned scholar. While the learning could be intimidating to the non-Plato scholar, Vlastos’s argument is so rigorously focused on the text it can always be judged on its own terms. The greatest strength of these volumes is Vlastos’s fascination with the sheer oddity of Socrates. He is too wise to pretend to solve this puzzle, but rather presents it in a clearer light.