Socrates’ atopía (his “strangeness,” his “absurdity,” even his “outrageousness”) has struck many readers of Plato’s dialogues. When pleading his case before the Athenian criminal court, Socrates asserts that he has no knowledge, no wisdom, neither great nor small (Apology 21B-D). His all-too-willing-to-be-seduced student Alcibiades claims that Socrates’ atopía is such that one could search among his contemporaries and predecessors yet never come close to what Socrates is himself or what the things he says really mean (Symposium 221D). Even so, Gregory Vlastos has set himself the goal of distinguishing between the Socrates of history and the Socrates of Plato in his book Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.
Others have struggled with this difficult question. The Victorian Platonist George Grote, in his Plato and Other Companions of Socrates (1865), held essentially that Socrates does not adopt a position of his own in any of his investigations but rather allows his subjects to decide for themselves. This position is difficult to reconcile with the Socrates of, for example, the Republic or the Laws, who clearly does have philosophic positions and does not hesitate to expatiate on them. In fact, Socrates is not at all agnostic in several of the best-known dialogues, such as the Phaedo, the Symposium, the Phaedrus, the Parmenides, or the Theaetetus. It complicates the question further when one compares the portrait of Socrates offered by his contemporary Aristophanes in The Clouds (423 b.c.e.) or the insightful references to Socrates scattered throughout the works of his near-contemporary Aristotle, who had been a student of Plato. In addition, the Memorabilia (c. 385 b.c.e.) of Xenophon, which purportedly is a historical portrait, presents a Socrates whose open-ended elenctic method more closely conforms with that of the Apology, Euthyphro, or Gorgias than with that of the self-assured scholar with theories-in-hand such as one finds in the Phaedo, the Symposium, or the Republic 2-10.
Vlastos explores the entire corpus of Plato’s writings and suggests several solutions to these problems, which have, in truth, tantalized historians of philosophy more than those who consider themselves simply philosophers. Having suggested a general chronology for the dialogues merely by grouping them into the early, middle, and late periods of Plato’s composition (399-389 b.c.e., early; 389-0369 b.c.e., middle; 369-347 b.c.e., late), Vlastos concludes that the Socrates who argues elenctically (refuting the propositions of opponents through logical argumentation), the one who is alternately playful, strange, absurd, or even outrageous in his open-ended pursuit of inquiry, predominates in the earlier dialogues (Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Protagoras, and Republic 1). This is the Socrates whom Aristophanes spoofs in The Clouds and the Socrates closest to that of Aristotle and Xenophon. Vlastos thus guards against the logical objection that the peirastic Socrates of the middle and late dialogues (the Socrates who refutes opponents through his own beliefs) is merely a development of the dialectical Socrates (who refutes a thesis from obviously true, generally acknowledged reputable beliefs). None of Plato’s contemporaries had difficulty distinguishing between Socrates and Socrates as Plato’s mouthpiece; using his chronology in conjunction with writers outside the Plantonist tradition, neither does Vlastos.
One of the ways in which Vlastos attempts to frame an authentic portrait of the historical Socrates appears in his analysis of Socratic irony. To do so, he draws an important etymological distinction between the evolving implications of the Greek word eir neia, which implies “shamming” or “mocking” in Attic texts but “saying something while pretending not to say it” or “calling things by contrary names” in Alexandrian. This later, Alexandrian sense becomes the exclusive meaning of the Latin ironia, a word transliterated by Cicero for his philosophical works and employed by Quintilian two generations later in the mid-first century a.d. exclusively in this more refined sense.
The classical Greek eir neia carries the connotation of trickiness, of intention to deceive. Aristophanes uses the word...
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