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  • Cross-Examining Socrates. A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues
  • Mark L. McPherran
John Beversluis . Cross-Examining Socrates. A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 416. Cloth, $69.95.

This book is a valuable and thoroughly-researched contribution to the study of Plato's Socratic dialogues. Its fine qualities stem in part from its cathartic motivations: for years Beversluis suppressed his ever-growing reservations concerning the "standard picture" of Socrates's interaction with his various interlocutors (16). On Beversluis's account, this position naively takes Socrates's own apologia at face-value, portraying him as a self-sacrificing soul-therapist who treats his corrupt, one-dimensional interlocutors fairly, despite their many carefully drawn faults (e.g., stupidity, vanity, and violence, followed by face-saving exits). Beversluis aims to rectify this picture by retrying Socrates in a class-action suit on behalf of Socrates's interlocutors—who, he thinks, the standard account has quite unfairly maligned (while it has simultaneously ignored Socrates's "dark side"; e.g., his unscrupulous, hypocritical, and harmful tactics [esp. his conscious use of fallacy]).

Beversluis's book contains a Preface, Introduction, and seventeen chapters, finishing with a very good bibliography, general index, and indexes of passages cited, names, and modern authors. Chapter 1, "The Socratic Interlocutor," examines the structure of Plato's Socratic dialogues and the role of their interlocutors. Beversluis contrasts Plato's dialogues with those produced by Augustine, Anselm, Hume, and Berkeley, arguing that a key difference between them lies in the fact that Socrates is presented as having no system to expound, championing instead the intrinsic value of philosophizing. Also, Socrates's interlocutors are drawn from a "narrow sociological group," (29) and are unprepared for their (unpleasant) encounters with Socrates (31).

Chapter 2, "Elenchus and sincere assent," cogently argues that the "say what you believe" constraint on Socrates's use of the elenchus represents a consensus in need of critical reappraisal. In particular, Beversluis contends that Socrates often relies on qualified or uncomprehending assent, and that our texts do not support the idea that Socrates never argues with the soul-ignoring intention to win an argument using faulty argumentation and willful misrepresentation of the interlocutor's statements.

The next fourteen chapters closely assess Socrates's encounters with Crito, Ion, Hippias, Laches and Nicias, Charmides and Critias, Euthyphro, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Hippocrates, Protagoras, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. The book ends with a chapter on "The last days of the Socratic interlocutor," outlining the view that Plato's later work features non-elenctic spokesmen who are sensitive to the moral dangers of careless (i.e., Socrates's) elenchus-wielding.

In his central chapters, Beversluis argues that "Saint Socrates" is in fact a philosophical [End Page 583] Jekyl and Hyde. Although scholars have celebrated the former philanthropic figure as a model philosopher, that has obscured his Hyde-like, predatory behavior towards innocents such as Euthyphro and Crito. However, here readers are themselves given a mixed bag: while Beversluis offers, for example, a detailed and smart defense of Cephalus against those who portray him as a petty-minded, superstitious, moral fraud (Chapter 9)—as well as sensitive, careful analyses of Socrates's less-than-clear arguments throughout—other chapters occasionally go overboard in their apologetic efforts. One example will have to suffice here.

According to Beversluis, Euthyphro's typical characterization as a pretentious, dense, father-bashing, religious zealot who "would have done well in the Nazi Youth Movement," (R. F. Holland; 163), has drawn attention away from the fact that Socrates's treatment of Euthyphro is abusive and ineffectual. But although Beversluis rightly sees that the figure of Euthyphro is being used in a complex fashion by Plato, his account is marred in several ways. For example, although it is likely that Socrates does not himself possess complete definitions of virtue-concepts such as justice (164-169), unlike Euthyphro, Socrates can presumably provide elenchus-proof defenses of his own non-traditionalist claims. Again, while Socrates may overwhelm Euthyphro with his principles of proper definition (Eu. 5c-d, 6d-e), proceeding on uncomprehending, merely verbal agreement (169-177), Plato surely did not intend...


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