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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 166-169
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Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato's Early Dialogues
Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato's Early Dialogues, by John Beversluis; xii & 416 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, $69.95.
This book is more than a cross-examination of Socrates: it is a carefully wrought indictment. Beversluis, unlike Socrates' historical adversaries Anytus and Meletus, brings philosophically serious charges against Socrates by offering a rigorous defense of the interlocutors in Plato's early dialogues, the so-called Socratic dialogues. In so doing, he charts new territory in the vast area of recent analytic scholarship on Plato.
According to traditional readings, Socrates deploys his elenchus to defeat his interlocutors, leaving them "either to retreat in anger or to submit to his power." Allegedly, Plato, guided by his Socratic intellectualism, draws them as distinctive, complex characters, though intellectually and thus ethically flawed. Beversluis argues against this standard view, providing sympathetic reassessment of Socrates' interlocutors. Although some previous scholars have defended some of the interlocutors, Beversluis widens the scope of the argument, leveling a scathing attack on Socratic intellectualism and its correlative method of moral education.
He deals not only with Socrates' interlocutors and their logical defeats, but also with the idea of an interlocutor, and in so doing casts light on the philosophical dialogue as a genre. This emerges in the first and perhaps most original chapter, entitled "The Socratic Interlocutor," which may be of value to readers interested in philosophical writing or the philosophy of literature more generally. Here he illuminates Plato's use of the interlocutor, in part, by contrasting it with that of other philosophers who wrote in dialogue form, such as Augustine, Anselm, Hume, and Berkeley. The Socratic interlocutors are not, he says, "embodiments of error." Socrates, unlike the protagonists drawn by these other authors, does not subject them to his scrutiny in order to make them accept his beliefs, but rather to reject theirs. Beversluis claims that Plato's portrayal expresses his Socratic belief in the good life as one of bewilderment and uncertainty, a view, Beversluis rightly says, Plato will come to repudiate in his middle dialogues. Beversluis is clearly aware of the disparity between the [End Page 166] discomfort Socrates visits on his interlocutors and that which he is willing to endure himself.
While many interpreters forgive Socrates' lapses of logic, Beversluis is unsparing. There is no reason, he thinks, to judge Socrates' arguments by any other criterion than their logical merits, and he therefore rejects the idea that Socrates' most fallacious arguments are valuable for psychological illumination. He also rejects Vlastos's view that only those of Socrates' arguments that are offered "seriously" should be criticized seriously. If they appear to be logical arguments, Beversluis contends, they must be assessed on their logical merits, not their rhetorical or therapeutic virtues. Some might find this approach rather arid until they see that Beversluis is warning the reader not to be dazzled by Socrates as the interlocutors are.
It is widely believed that the aim of Socratic elenchus is to uncover the structure of a person's beliefs and to show that it is either internally inconsistent or at best unreflectively constructed. Beversluis's account, however, portrays Socrates as a Svengali who makes people assent to claims they would not otherwise accept. If this is right, Socrates is not actually elucidating the interlocutor's real beliefs. Beversluis challenges the notion of sincere assent, both as an interpretative guide to the early dialogues and as an epistemic concept. He points out that sincere belief is not simply an occurrent interior state accompanying, and indicated by, a verbal act of assent; rather, it emerges from the totality of a person's lived character, from the relation between word and act.
Some readers will object to his axiom that a character in a literary work, and thus in a Platonic dialogue, has a life subject to scrutiny outside of the literary work. In his brief...