30 March 2007

The Relation of Virtue to Happiness for Socrates

It wasn't until I read the introduction to Naomi Reshotko's article on the Euthydemus (in Ancient Philosophy, 2001) that I grasped what Senn was getting at with his language of 'intrinsic' versus 'instrumental'.

His concern may be more accurately stated, I think, as: What is the relationship between virtue and happiness for Socrates?

As regards this question, Reshotko begins her article by helpfully distinguishing four views, which she characterizes as having roughly equal representation in the secondary literature (so that none could rightly be called 'The Traditional Interpretation'):

1. Virtue is happiness.
(That is, to have acquired virtue just is to have achieved happiness.)

2. Virtue is distinct from happiness but is alone sufficient for the greater and more ultimate good of happiness.
(That is, to acquire virtue implies acquiring happiness as well.)

3. Virtue is distinct from happiness but necessary as a means to happiness.
(This is the point, I gather, where some commentators have wanted to say that virtue is merely an 'instrumental' good.)

4. Virtue is distinct from happiness, but happiness is not a good, and virtue is indeed the sole good.
I think Senn lumps 2. and 3. together; he counts them both as views according to which virtue is an 'instrumental good'.

Senn seems not to distinguish between 1. and 4. In some passages he seems to argue for 4., as in his conclusion:
...as I have shown, there is according to Socrates a certain condition of one's soul that is the only thing intrinsically valuable for one.
And yet in another, curious passage, Senn seems to favor 1., since he seems to think that this 'sole intrinsic good' should be referred to also as 'happiness'. After Senn discusses the two key passages in the Apology where Socrates suggests that others cannot harm him (30c-d, 41d), he remarks:
It seems reasonable to conclude that, according to Socrates, some have a happiness that cannot be taken away even if all they possess is virtue.
And then in a footnote to this sentence he attempts to justify his introduction of the term 'happiness':
To the typical ancient Greek speaker, good and bad, benefit and harm, are thought of in terms of the 'happiness' (eudaimonia) of the agent in question ... Though Socrates does not in the Apology passages cited use the term 'happiness', there is good reason to understand him as having this in mind.
But this is just to drift without argument from 4. to 1.


Anonymous said...

Reshotko's books on 'the neither good nor bad' is quite good on this score. In fact, I recommended making it part of the discussion back in January when we were talking about this issue with respect to Weiss' work. We also might want to look at Heinemann's article on the threefold division of 'goods' in the Republic, those wanted for something else, those for themselves, and those for both. It is a difficult, but nuanced article worth bringing into the blogging mix . . .

senn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
senn said...

[made a couple minor fixes in the above 11:57 post, now deleted]

Michael, I never thanked you for devoting so many thoughtful and thought-provoking posts to the subject of my OSAP 2005 paper. I hereby do so.

I would like here to respond to a couple things you say in this particular post. Though not very timely, my hope is that the following comments will clarify for you and for readers of this blog some of the issues that you raise in connection with my paper. I take up two issues: the first (A) concerns your (1) and (4) and your claim that I run them together; the second (B) is your belief that what I call the "Traditional Interpretation" is not accurately so called.


You claim that my conclusion – "there is according to Socrates a certain condition of one's soul that is the only thing intrinsically valuable for one" – suggests that I attribute your (4) to Socrates. But if one is careful (and charity certainly calls at least for care), my conclusion will not indeed suggest that. Consider: If I hold that Socrates accepts your (1) – or at any rate something sufficiently similar to it – then my conclusion in fact suggests that I would not attribute your (4) to Socrates; for if according to Socrates virtue is happiness and according to Socrates virtue is the sole intrinsic good, then happiness is the sole intrinsic good. As far as I can tell, I say nothing in my paper that suggests that for Socrates happiness is not a good. Therefore, I never "drift" from your (4) to your (1).

In fact, you would, I think, be hard-pressed to find anyone prominent in the literature who would claim that Socrates did not regard happiness as a good (i.e., that he accepted your (4)), even among those who say that for Socrates virtue is "the only good". Reshotko says that Irwin 1992 and Kraut 1984 consider virtue the only good; but if you look at what they actually say, it cannot be said that either accepts your (4) in its entirety, and Kraut clearly accepts your (1): Irwin says, "Socrates argues for the conclusion that wisdom is the only good and makes a person happy. […H]e identifies virtue with wisdom, and […] takes virtue to be sufficient for happiness" (1992, "Socrates the Epicurean", in H. Benson, Essays in the Philosophy of Socrates, p. 202). Kraut says, "[…W]isdom is the only thing that is good in itself […]. […] So, wisdom, virtue, good fortune, good action, and happiness are identical" (1984, Socrates and the State, pp. 211-212 n. 41). To be fair to Reshotko here, she does not attribute your (4) to these writers.


You say (29 March 2007) that you "could hardly believe" that what I call the "Traditional Interpretation" was in fact traditional. And in the post I am presently commenting on, you claim that Reshotko's paper supports your belief.

It may be helpful first to explain briefly here what is the view I call the "Traditional Interpretation". I think I made it sufficiently clear in the paper, but for those who have not read it: The Traditional Interpretation of Socratic virtue is the view that for Socrates virtue is practical wisdom (or some other condition of soul that allows one to act correctly) and is valuable only or chiefly as a means to happiness.

Reshotko does outline a number of different interpretations about what Socrates held to be the relationship between virtue and happiness (I do not agree that your (4) is among the ones she outlines). But she does not characterize these interpretations as (in your words) "having roughly equal representation in the secondary literature". As far as I can tell, she never calls into question – either explicitly or by implication in the literature she cites – the notion that what I have called the "Traditional Interpretation" of virtue has in recent decades been the dominant one (and, in that sense, fairly termed "traditional").

Those who attribute to Socrates your (2) or (3), I would say, hold the "Traditional Interpretation". I suppose it is true that, given such a classification, I "lump" your (2) and (3) together (though "lump" rather suggests that I do so unfairly, carelessly, or obliviously. And for that at least, there is no evidence.).

Reshotko does cite Kraut, Rudebusch, and Annas as attributing to Socrates your (1), which would appear to disagree with what I have called the "Traditional Interpretation". (I have not read the piece by Annas which Reshotko cites in this connection; but Annas at least elsewhere seems to me to treat Socratic virtue as primarily an instrumental good; see below.) But these do not represent the position that has dominated the literature in recent decades.

There are of course differences – sometimes significant – among those who accept the "Traditional Interpretation"; they have different views about what is virtue for Socrates and whether it is instrumentally sufficient or only necessary for happiness, etc. They do however agree on the features I outlined above, and they would all (presumably) reject the interpretation I defend in the paper.

Perhaps there remains a question about just how widespread is the view I have called the "Traditional Interpretation". A look at the relevant literature in recent decades will reveal that it is quite widespread and has been accepted by some of the most prominent Plato scholars.

Below is a pretty representative sampling. I referred to most of these in the paper.

"…[T]he first condition of enjoying real good and making a real success of life is that a man's soul should be in a good or healthy state. And the good or healthy state of the soul is just the wisdom or knowledge…which ensures that a man shall make the right use of his body and of everything else which is his. Hence the first duty of every man who means to enjoy good or happiness is to 'tend to his soul,' 'to see to it that his soul is as good as it possibly can be,' that is, to get the knowledge or insight which ensures his using everything rightly" (A.E. Taylor 1949, Plato: The Man and his Work, chap. 3)

"Socrates' constant representation of areté, the art of good living, as the supreme art or craft, does…detract somewhat from Aristotle's criticism of him for treating it as if it were a theoretical science in which knowledge is the sole and final objective" (Guthrie 1971, Socrates, p. 137)
"Socrates was famous for this utilitarian approach to goodness and virtue" (ibid., p. 142).

"…Socrates' principles about virtue and happiness restrict virtue to instrumental status" (Irwin 1977, Plato's Moral Theory, p. 92).

"The first [of the two celebrated paradoxes Plato attributes to Socrates] is, 'Virtue is knowledge.' … The point of the aphorism is that if we are to act morally and thus to live happily, … there is a certain body of *knowledge* that must be acquired – knowledge, presumably, of the meaning of moral terms such as justice, piety, etc." (Saunders 1987, Early Socrates Dialogues, pp. 24-5).
"Moral knowledge is … knowledge of what will bring good and what will bring evil. If that knowledge is virtue, then ignorance will be vice; the ignorant man does not know how to fulfill his function, which is the means to his own happiness. Hence the word aretē, commonly translated 'virtue', is better thought of as 'excellence': since 'virtue' is knowledge, the man who has aretē is the man who has knowledge, and who is therefore *excellently equipped* to fulfill his function and to be happy. In this respect Socrates stands firmly within ordinary Greek usage: aretē is excellence in or for something; but according to him that something was … the achievement of eudaimonia, happiness, by the fulfillment of function" (ibid. 25-26).

"Virtue guarantees happiness. But it guarantees it in a unique way: it produces happiness by itself…, for the craft of politics to which virtue is identical produces happiness by itself. What this means is that we need nothing else besides virtue in order to be happy. Virtue is not a step on the way to happiness; it is the end of the journey. … If we characterize the lower steps on the ladder by saying that we want them for the sake of reaching the higher ones, it is natural to do so by saying that we want the highest step – virtue – for its own sake. Of course we also want virtue for the sake of happiness which by itself it produces. But that does not mean that there is a further step beyond the top. Rather it is simply an explication of what it is to be the final step: the final step is the one that produces happiness; the one that once and for all satisfies desire" (Reeve 1989, Socrates in the Apology, p. 139).

"[…T]he goodness of a good human being is goodness at something, namely, getting happiness" (Penner 1992, "Socrates and the Early Dialogues" in R. Kraut, The Cambridge Companion to Plato, p. 135).

"…[T]hough virtue is not sufficient for happiness, it does provide its possessor the ability to transform all potential (dependent) goods into actual goods. ... This is why…[Socrates] exhorts everyone to pursue virtue above everything else, for it is only through virtue that wealth and all other dependent goods become dependably good for human beings (Ap. 30b2-4). Socrates does not have this power…; accordingly, his life has not been – could not be – as happy as it would have been, all other things being equal, had he managed to become truly virtuous" (Brickhouse & Smith 1994, Plato's Socrates, p. 134).

"Many of the Socratic dialogues show Socrates trying to get people to rethink their priorities, and to live more virtuously…. He further identifies virtue with the wisdom or understanding that is at its basis, the unified grasp of principles which enables the virtuous to act rightly in a variety of situations, and to explain and justify their decisions and actions" (Annas 1996, "Plato" in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., p. 1191).

"…[F]or Socrates the object of the expertise that is virtue is the good. Thus, virtue is an expertise that enables its possessor infallibly to reach correct judgements regarding the good…." (Benson 1997, "Socrates & the Beginnings of Moral Philosophy", in C. Taylor, From the Beginning to Plato, p. 340).
"…[F]or Socrates the good is happiness or faring well" (ibid., p. 341).

"If we are to live well and happily, as [Socrates] assumed we all want to do more than we want anything else, we must place the highest priority on the care of our souls. That means we must above all want to acquire the virtues, since they perfect our souls and enable them to direct our lives for the better. … He thought each of the apparently separate virtues amounts to the same single body of knowledge: the comprehensive knowledge of what is and is not good for a human being" (Cooper 1998/2004, "Socrates" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Also, though Christopher Taylor is quite alive to the kind of issues I raise in the paper (see his 1998 Socrates pp. 68-69), he himself evidently favors a Traditionalist interpretation (see, e.g., ibid. p. 67 and his 1982 "The End of the Euthyphro").

It is interesting to note that even Vlastos (who was no Traditionalist) does not disagree with the Traditional Interpretation in characterizing Socratic virtue as essentially a knowledge/wisdom of how to use other goods – the most prominent feature (in my opinion) of the Traditional Interpretation. (See his 1991 Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher p. 229 and his 1994 Socratic Studies pp. 113, 115-116.)

Of course the vast literature on the subject is not uniform, but there are trends that are quite noticeably, and in fact difficult to resist because they may seem plausible, they have a formidable pedigree, and resisting them requires a thorough and detailed analysis of the relevant texts. (For example, Kraut's brief remarks in the footnote, part of which I quoted above, cannot have satisfied many readers on the point.) In confronting such a task, it is easier simply to accept the dominant position, which many - I would say "most" - have.

The main point of my paper was to show that in Plato's "early" dialogues Socrates does not consistently so characterize virtue and that in some of the most prominent passages of the Apology and Crito he characterizes it in such a way that it cannot be supposed that he has in mind simply practical wisdom or something that allows one to act correctly. This calls for an interpretation of Socratic virtue from which the Traditional one would block us.

Scott Senn