Some central elements of Socratic Political Theory, D. Morrison. A Review

Literature Review, 2016

5 Pages, Grade: 81

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Literature Review: Morrison, D. ‘Some Central Elements of Socratic Political Theory’, Polis 18 (2001), 27-40.

Word Count: 1639

‘Some Central Elements of Socratic Political Theory’ is an article which explores a controversial and sometimes neglected topic, Socratic political theory, in ‘the narrow and the wider sense’, which means as it started with Socrates and as Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics developed it. Published in Polis in 2001, the article was written by Donald Morrison, Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Rice University, whose research interests include Socrates, ancient political philosophy and ancient philosophical method. Morrison takes part in the ongoing scholarly discussion about the topic (see Penner 2000, Vlastos 1991, Rowe 2007, Shaw 2011) by presenting a peculiar interpretation of the key concepts of Socratic political theory, statesmanship and the good of the city.

Overall, Morrison is quite optimistic about the possibilities that Socratic political theory opens up. His main theses are that (i) the human good does not consist entirely in virtue; (ii) dialectic is needed to make people happy, yet it is not the only way of making people better (iii) political means such as punishment and nomoi can actually improve the citizens (iv) Socratic political theory implies some sort of Rational Beneficence.

In the first and longest section, Morrison first reconciles Socratic Intellectualism with a political theory which acknowledges the utility of political instruments. Second, he analyses and solves the illusory clash between Socrates’ claims regarding his ‘political’ activity in Gorgias 521d and in Apology 31e: Socrates does promote the good of the polis, but in a non-political way. In the second section, Morrison considers some aspects in which Socratic political theories differ, such as whether there is a single art of ruling and what is the appropriate field for beneficent action. In the third section, Morrison addresses the question of political motivation: why should anyone want to be a statesman? Morrison rejects Rational Egoism and argues in favour of Rational Beneficence on the grounds of the ‘semantics of pure properties’. The last section resembles a continuation of the previous one. Morrison re-interprets Rational Beneficence in the light of Aristotle’s patriotic reading of human action: the good of the polis is the most important criterion of choice.

Morrison sees Socratic political theory as grounded in Socratic ethics. If the latter urges to care for our souls by seeking virtue, then the aim of politics must be to care for the quality of the citizens’ souls, i.e. to promote and preserve the good of the city. Yet there is a complication: Socratic Intellectualism, the doctrine that that no one errs knowingly or willingly, implies that any error must be caused by an error in judgment. If every action descends from intellectual judgement, it is sensible to believe that people can be made better only by Socratic philosophical conversation, and the methods of politics seem inappropriate. Rowe and Penner have argued that operating on the character of a person through dialectic is the only way of improving that person. Morrison challenges this view: the main assumptions underlying his argument are that the human good does not consist solely in virtue (‘giving food to the starving makes them better off’), and that dialectic is not the only way of improving the intellect (e.g. in the case of two-years old boys or of criminals). Morrison makes use of Gorgias 472e-473b, 476a-480d, and 505b to support his theory: in these passages, Socrates claims not only that punishment serves to balance against the wrong which has been committed, but also that it is always better for criminals to suffer punishment than to escape it, as they can actually be improved by it. In Gorgias 477a, we read that ‘he who pays the penalty suffers what is good’, ‘is benefited’ and ‘relieved from badness of soul’: punishment can indeed make people better and improve –Plato often uses terms which come from ὠφελία/benefit- the souls of the sufferers, even if it is certainly not dialectic.

Morrison recognises two different methods of moral improvement: the first one is dialectic, and it is preferable because it has the power to make people really good/ eudaimon; the second one makes use of the instruments of political control, and can make people better, but in an uncertain and instable way. In order to claim that punishment is never appropriated, Penner mentions Apology 24e-26a (in which Socrates maintains that he deserves not punishment but instruction/μαθήσεως) and Memorabilia I.2.50.[1] Morrison, instead, makes use of the same passages to distinguish the situations in which dialectic and instruction are actually useful –as they would be in Socrates’ case- from the ones in which they are inappropriate or useless, forcing us to resort to more pragmatic methods of improvement such as punishment and laws. Morrison recalls in fact another aspect of Socratic thought, namely that what matters is not only what one’s character is, but also what one does, and that it is always better for a person to act justly than unjustly. Dialectic is certainly a way of deterring unjust actions: yet it is not a method which is suitable for everyone. For people such as madmen, other methods are required: punishment, for instance, can both improve their character and prevent them from wrongdoing. Last but not least, the nomoi are another way of contributing to people’s well-being. They can lead citizens to behave rightly rather than wrongly even without knowledge or for the wrong reason: yet as long as it is (in itself) better to act rightly rather than wrongly, good laws make people better off. Morrison, Penner and Rowe interpret the ‘clash’ between Socratic Intellectualism and the utility of political instruments in very different ways. Penner and Rowe trace a dividing line between ‘Socratic/Intellectualist’ (dialogues such as the Gorgias) and ‘Platonic/non-Intellectualist’ (e.g. the Republic) philosophy. The Platonic view recognises the existence of an irrational part of the soul which can be controlled through political means: obviously, this view challenges the solidity of Intellectualism itself. Penner separates the two ‘philosophies’; Morrison reconciles them. Rowe reconciles them too, but on the grounds of Socrates’ personal conception of punishment.[2]

Once verified that politics is not only possible, but also useful, Morrison discusses why Socrates did not involve himself in it. He considers another illusory discrepancy, the one between Gorgias 521d (in which Socrates claims to practice ‘the true (ἀληθῶς) art of politics’) and Apology 31e (in which he shows a clear pessimism about political action), and reduces it to a mere matter of terminology, even calling Socrates’ claim ‘misleading’. In Morrison’s definition, in fact, ‘statesmanship’ is the ‘art of ruling the polis, of acting on it as a whole to make it better’. Socrates’ claim in the Gorgias would therefore obscure the difference between the ‘true’ (because public) political activity and another, more private way of benefiting society. Socrates denies that he ‘is able to benefit the polis in the public space’, either because of his own lack of ability, or because of Athens’ corruption, which makes public action ineffective: however, he can still act for the good of the polis, and benefit its members one by one through dialectic. Morrison maintains that this is ‘acting for the good of the city without acting politically’. Yet Socrates recognises that he is not a normal statesman (‘Polus, I am not one of your statesmen’, Gorgias 473), and also considers the difference between private discussion and public debate as essential (Memorabilia III.7.1.4-9). The true statesman should make people beltious (Gorgias 515d): certainly, this was also Socrates’ aim in helping his fellow-citizens to find out more about their condition, even if he did not use a political method to do that.

Some scholars –e.g. Vlastos, Rowe and Penner- have argued in favour of the so-called ‘Rational Egoism’: ‘it is rational for a person to do something only if it is in his interest’, and thus ‘the end of our actions is our own good’. Yet there are common sense views about ethics: being virtuous seems unlikely to be compatible with egoism. Socratic theories of friendship and love, and Plato’s emphasis on Socrates’ altruism, are other elements which may challenge the scholars’ view. ‘Many philosophers find egoism unattractive’: Morrison is certainly one of those, as he admits that ‘whether Socrates holds rational egoism or rational beneficence or something else is a complicated and difficult question […] although I do think that the evidence for egoism is weaker than is usually supposed’. He supports his assumptions through the ‘semantic of pure properties’: ‘something truly has a property only if it always and everywhere has that property’. If all rational desire is for what is truly good, then it is desire for what is never the cause of non-good things. Ultimately, what is truly good is what is ‘good for all concerned (what is not in any way bad)’: this theory decisively rejects both a utilitarian conception of the common good and the net balance of benefits over harms.

There are no major flaws in Morrison’s article. All the points are significant and coherent. Morrison’s arguments, consistent but not verbose, support them; the choice of evidence is not excessively wide, but very well-chosen. Moreover, Morrison explores the various directions in which Socratic political theory develops without imposing his own thought, leaving the reader free to choose between many interpretations. He analyses the concepts of statesmanship and good of the city in a thorough and convincing way, clarifying their importance for the wider construction that Socratic philosophy is. Yet, I find the second section a bit ‘aporetic’: Morrison raises many questions, but provides no definitive answer. Furthermore, the article would have been more complete if he had developed some hints, e.g. the one about the evidence for Rational Egoism (p.37). The writing style is clear and understandable: non-expert but interested readers will surely find an incentive for further research and independent thinking, while scholars will evaluate the article in the light of a broader knowledge of Socratic philosophy.


Primary Sources

Plato, Gorgias (Penguin 2004).

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates (Penguin 2003).

Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates (Penguin 1990).

Secondary Literature

T. Penner, ‘Socrates’, in Rowe, Schofield, Harrison and Lane The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (Cambridge 2000).

C. Rowe, ‘A problem in the Gorgias: how is punishment supposed to help with intellectual error?’, in Bobonich and Destrée Akrasia in Greek Philosophy: from Socrates to Plotinus (Leiden Brill 2007).

J. T. Shaw ‘Socrates and the True Political Craft’, Classical Philology 106, n. 3 (2011), 187-207.

G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge 1991).


[1] ‘That madmen should be kept in prison was expedient both for themselves and for their friends: but those who are ignorant of what they ought to know deserve to learn from those who know it.’

[2] Rowe 2007,34-36; Penner 2000.

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Some central elements of Socratic Political Theory, D. Morrison. A Review
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Teresa Barucci (Author), 2016, Some central elements of Socratic Political Theory, D. Morrison. A Review, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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