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  • Plato’s Anti-Hedonism and the Protagoras by J. Clerk Shaw
  • Naomi Reshotko
J. Clerk Shaw. Plato’s Anti-Hedonism and the Protagoras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. viii + 222. Cloth, $99.00.

Shaw introduces an important and compelling line of argumentation concerning the relationship between pleasure and the good into the literature on Plato’s dialogues with ramifications beyond any commitment that Plato has Socrates make to hedonism at Protagoras 351b–357e. To appreciate Shaw’s argument, the term ‘hedonism’ must be understood to indicate that the good is identical to bodily pleasure—not to both sensate and modal pleasure understood as a dichotomy (see George Rudebusch, Socrates, Pleasure, and Value), and not to all pleasures of the soul and body understood as a blended (non-dichotomous), commensurable, spectrum (see Naomi Reshotko, Socratic Virtue). Chapter 1 characterizes hedonism in a narrower way than do others who have written on the same passage and allows anti-hedonism to absorb the rest of the conceptual space. Shaw challenges any broadening of anti-hedonism as textually unwarranted (16–21). Chapters 2–5 focus on the relationship between knowledge and each of the virtues that are unified in the Protagoras. The evidence for shame, which results in dissemblance rather than saying what one thinks, plays a critical role in Shaw’s analysis.

Shaw’s prose is elegant, but perhaps to a fault in chapters 1–5: his tight, yet often cursory, arguments will be frustrating to anyone who is not intimately familiar with the Protagoras [End Page 334] and other key Platonic dialogues, as well as to anyone who already has a dog in the fight regarding hedonism in the Protagoras. The book is short enough that I often wished for a few more paragraphs expanding on Shaw’s sub-arguments. All too often he runs through a presumably exhaustive dilemma that dismisses a complex reading in only one sentence. On the other hand, it is a shame that Shaw does not get to the arguments in chapter 6 more quickly than he does; there is so much to appreciate about them that is independent of where one separates hedonism from anti-hedonism, and whether everyone in the dialogue says what he believes. Shaw’s insights will enhance many competing interpretations of the dialogues especially for those who are committed to developmentalism, which Shaw finds orthogonal to his project (9). I would encourage both those who are not intimate with the dialogues and those who have a strong investment in either hedonism or anti-hedonism to begin with chapter 6. Readers who do so will be impressed with Shaw’s central theses and will not be too distracted by any disagreements they have with the details of the arguments in chapters 2–5 to make it to Shaw’s major claims. In fact, chapters 7–8 provide the other half of the story laid out in chapters 2–5 and allow us to marvel at the architecture of Shaw’s well-constructed and holistic interpretation. Shaw has given us a wide-reaching, unique, and provocative interpretation of central topics in Plato’s ethics, politics, and psychology while he gives us important insights into hedonism that will enhance the interpretations even of those who disagree with the details of his view.

Shaw concludes that the good, while not identical to bodily pleasure or to pleasure of the soul, is what is pleasant. It is constituted by becoming a harmonious unity (145–46). His anti-hedonism rejects the use of pleasure as an indicator or a measure of what is pleasant (148–54). Protagoras is embarrassed to admit his hedonism while Socrates demonstrates the correction that the measuring art makes to an ignorant hedonism. But Socrates is not endorsing even this more sophisticated hedonism as Socrates, elsewhere (167–70), finds another difficulty with hedonism: it suffers from our inability to compare all kinds of pains and pleasures due to the distortion created by contrasts when we try to evaluate pain relief (which might appear to be pleasure or to be more pleasurable than it is) and cessation of pleasure (which might appear to be painful, or to be more painful than it...


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pp. 334-335
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