23 March 2005

Differential Diagnosis of the Phaedo

I won't scruple over the point. Socrates does argue in the Phaedo that true philosophers and only true philosophers have virtue and are happy. That's not at issue, in my view. What is at issue is whether this is the language of an ideal, allowing degrees of participation and approximation, or the language of all-or-nothing. Bobonich says the latter, and it is crucial to his thesis that he maintain the latter. What are his grounds?

This is the crux. If the Phaedo countenances degrees of virtue and happiness, then it's easy, and most plausible, to say that the Laws presupposes this as well, and that there is no fundamental change in outlook, in this respect. (If there were development in the Laws, we'd have to look elsewhere for it.)

The point can be made more strongly. Proper method in interpreting philosopher, it seems, requires a working presumption of continuity. The burden of proof would therefore be on someone who maintained an incompatibility.

Yet how can Bobonich show that the language of the Phaedo is not the language of an ideal? How can we rule out that when Plato says 'A true philosopher is F' he means 'Insofar as someone is a philosopher, he is F'?

Here's an instance of the difficulty. On p. 15 Bobonich quotes Phaedo 68b8-c3:

Then you have sufficient indication that anyone whom you see resenting death was not a philosopher after all, but a lover of the body and also a lover of wealth or a lover of honor, either one of these or both.
Bobonich then glosses this: "The differences between philosophers' and non-philosophers' attitudes toward death are thus explained by more basic differences in their goals or ultimate ends. All non-philosophers are afraid of death because the goods that they value are conditions of the body or at least require embodiment" (15).

Good enough. But why shouldn't we gloss what Plato says as: "Everyone, to the extent that he is a non-philosopher, is afraid of death, that is, insofar as he values goods that are conditions of the body or require embodiment"? (Moreover, even if we accept Bobonich's explanation of why Socrates holds this, that explanation itself admits of being stated with reduplication, viz. insofar as one is a philosopher, one has a basic difference in goals or ultimate ends.)

I don't yet see how this is to be ruled out. I already mentioned that the language of variation in degree ('as much as possible') runs throughout the Phaedo, and that the scheme of reincarnation itself seems to presuppose degrees of closeness to the ideal of virtue. These make it 'antecedently probable' that the above passage should be understood with implicit reduplication, as I have suggested.

But here are three more considerations. If there were a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers, then:
  • becoming a philosopher ought to involve a kind of conversion, an abrupt and radical change;
  • there would be nothing in a non-philosopher that could be responsive to Socrates' example or exhortations;
  • (it seems) there would be no degrees of virtue within the class of philosophers.
I don't see that there is evidence in the Phaedo that Plato believes any of these things, and it strikes me that there is much evidence to the contrary.


Anonymous said...

Should we think about the (embodied) philosopher in the context of the Phaedo as someone earnestly pursuing virtue--a "philologist", not a misologist as in 89d seq -- but someone who really isn't virtous? The Stoics fought over this same issue : according to some of them, we are none of Sages and virtuous men, only proficients. Some proficients to be sure are much closer to wisdom and virtue, but the life of the Sage remains an ideal.