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Socrates' Kantian Conception of Virtue DANIEL T. DEVEREUX Is it not necessaryfor all men to consider self-mastery [~fxOdxeta] thefoundation of virtue, and to train their souls first and foremost in this? (Xenophon, Memorabilia I 5,4) Virtue [Tugend] is fortitude in relation to the forces opposing a moral attitude of will in us. (Kant, Tugendlehre, Akademie edition, 38o) SOCRATES'DENIALOF incontinence is well known. Not so well known, though firmly entrenched in the current orthodoxy, is his denial of continence or selfmastery (~yxQti~eta). Continence is displayed in overcoming desires in conflict with our rational decisions as to how we ought to act. According to most contemporary interpreters, Socrates denies the existence of nonrational or 'irrational' desires, and argues that all desires are focussed on what we take to be good. It would seem to follow that agents never experience an internal struggle between their desire for the good and other desires or appetites seen as incompatible with the good; i.e., agents never display continence or self-mastery. This understanding of Socrates' position might seem quite surprising in view of the fact that self-mastery figures so prominently in Xenophon's Memorab /l/a.' While it seems clear that Xenophon's portrait of his revered mentor lacks the subtlety and depth of Plato's, it is difficult to see how he could have placed self-mastery at the center of Socratic ethics if in fact Socrates believed there was no such thing. But it is not just Xenophon who is out of step with the current orthodoxy. There are solid grounds for thinking that Aristotle shared Xenophon 's understanding of the Socratic doctrine. In his Eudemian Ethics (EE), he takes certain thinkers to task for failing to distinguish between virtue and continence, and it is generally agreed that he has Socrates in mind. As he sees it, ' SeeespeciallyIV.5; also1.3.7;1.5.6;II.1.1-7; II.6.l and 5. [~8q 382 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 33:3 JULY t995 Socrates not only held that some agents are continent, but also that such people exemplify virtue in the strict sense. Aristotle, of course, rejects this view. Both he and Plato maintain that those who are fully virtuous have the different parts of their soul integrated in such a way that their motives and desires always agree with, and support, the decisions of the rational part of the soul. I believe that Aristotle's understanding of the Socratic position is well founded. In the following essay, I will try to show that there are clear indications in Plato's early dialogues that Socrates held that even those who have knowledge of the good must sometimes overcome nonrational or irrational desires. There are, however, a couple of passages that have been taken to deny the existence of such desires. In the Meno, for instance, Socrates seems to argue for the thesis 'that no one desires evil': the object of all desire is the good, or at least what appears good to the subject. This thesis seems to entail that there are no irrational desires--no desires in conflict with our conception of the good.' I will try to show that this passage in the Meno has been misunderstood , and that neither it nor other similar passages in the early dialogues deny the existence of nonrational desires. Towards the end of the essay, I will offer some general comparisons between Socratic virtue, as I understand it, and the concepts of good moral character that we find in the theories of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. I will suggest that Socrates, in making no sharp distinction between continence and virtue, is closer to Kant than he is to his ancient successors, and that his view is arguably more defensible than the PlatonicAristotelian view. 1. Let us begin with a discussion of Aristotle's testimony.a Towards the end of Book II of the Eudemian Ethics, he contrasts his concept of virtue with that of certain other thinkers. Now that we have determined these things, we must say whether virtue makes choice [~Qoct6Qeotg]free from error and the end right, so that one chooses with a view to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 381-408
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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