. 2
( 9)


disavows knowledge of the Form of the Good.
32 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
answers to “What is F?” questions about the virtues, which would enable
him to determine which token actions are virtuous.

1.3.2 Socrates™ avowals of moral knowledge
Socrates™ most explicit and stark avowals of moral knowledge appear in the
Apology, during his statement of SV and his subsequent discussion of its
effects on his life in the past, and its consequences for his current behavior
at the trial.27 The ¬rst passage we have seen already:
To do wrong [ˆdike±n] and to disobey one™s better, whether man or god, this I
know [o²da] is bad and disgraceful.28 (29b6“7)
This is the famous avowal on which Vlastos focuses so much attention.
What is being avowed is not knowledge about what virtue or a virtue is
(either in general or in some concrete instance), but knowledge of SV.
Immediately afterwards Socrates avows knowledge again:
I will never fear or ¬‚ee from things about which I do not know whether they
might be good, rather than from bad things which I know [o²da] are bad [kak†].
The “bad things,” which Socrates knows are bad, are doing unjust actions.
There is an implied connection here: it is bad to do wrong, and by SV
acting contrary to virtue is wrong.29 One might not concede this without
argument. What is good or bad for someone to do is associated with what
harms or bene¬ts a person. Someone might easily admit that doing injustice
is wrong, without thereby believing that it is bad.30 It will be clear in what
follows that Socrates believes that one harms oneself by doing unjust actions.

27 There are many passages in which Socrates explicitly says he “knows” things; see passages and
references cited by Benson (2000), 223“6. As noted above, unless one believes that Socrates disavows
knowledge quite generally, these “ordinary” avowals should come as no surprise (for example, at
Pr. 339b5 Socrates says that Protagoras does not need to recite Simonides™ poem, because he knows
[–p©stamai] it). What primarily leads scholars to attribute to Socrates the disavowal of all knowledge
is a very broad interpretation of the priority of de¬nition such that one cannot know anything about
F or that any token is F without knowing what F is, that is, without being able to answer the Socratic
“What is F?” question. Benson (2000), 226“7, shows that even if one takes this stand, Socrates could
still know many ordinary things. For our purposes, however, what is signi¬cant is the nature of the
moral knowledge that Socrates avows.
See also 28b5“9, where he calls SV a just account (d©kaiov l»gov), and especially 28d6“10, where
he says that never putting any aim above avoiding disgrace is “in truth [t¦ € ˆlhqe©aƒ]” how matters
29 Wolfsdorf (2004), 132 concedes that these avowals strictly speaking con¬‚ict with Socrates™ disavowals
of ethical knowledge and with the priority of de¬nition (see below, 1.4), but he claims that these
inconsistencies “would not have bothered Plato and so are hermeneutically innocuous.”
30 Polus in the Gorgias maintains just this view; see 3.4.
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 33
This is why Meletus and Anytus cannot harm him in the most important
way, even if they kill or disfranchise him, and why they do themselves much
greater harm insofar as they are engaged in the unjust action of prosecuting
Socrates (Ap. 30d). It is in this sense as well that Socrates is “defending” the
jury, who are, once again, at risk of doing themselves great harm by doing
an injustice in convicting Socrates. Of course this will strike the ordinary
hearer as absurd and outlandish, and Socrates does not defend his claim in
the Apology.31 But we shall see that in the Crito (in chapter two), Gorgias (in
chapter three), and Republic (in chapters six, seven, and eight), the claim
that a person is a combination of body and soul, each of which may be
harmed or bene¬ted independently of the other, is made with increasing
detail and sophistication. The soul is of vastly superior value to the body
and excellent actions make the soul excellent, while vicious actions make
the soul vicious. Thus the former bene¬t (i.e. are good for) the soul, while
the latter harm (i.e. are bad for) it.
To ¬‚ee death (whose nature Socrates does not know), then, by pursuing
unjust actions (which he knows are wrong) is clearly prohibited. I shall
reiterate that what Socrates knows is wrong is to do unjust actions. In
this passage he is taking that description for granted. By contrast he never
claims to know that certain types of actions (described in non-evaluative
terms) or certain token actions are or are not unjust (barring, as always, the
intervention of his divine sign).
Socrates displays similar reasoning during the penalty phase of the trial,
while he is deliberating about what penalty he should assess for himself.
Given that he has been found guilty and that his accusers have proposed
death, an ordinary person in such a situation would propose a penalty severe
enough that the jury might accept it in lieu of death. Socrates, by contrast,
takes the opportunity to show then and there that he always adheres to SV
and so would never choose to do something he considers to be unjust, for
that he knows is wrong. I have argued that a central claim of the Apology
is that Socrates has always adhered to SV throughout his life. His speech in
the “penalty phase” takes this a step further by presenting a graphic example
of Socrates living by SV in the present moment. He describes himself as
having led an active private life, reiterating that public of¬ce would have
led to a premature death,32 in which he approached people and, in effect,
attempted to persuade them to adopt SV and to be sure that they put no
aim ahead of how they might be as good and wise as possible (36b“c). Then
31 See Vasiliou (2002a) for discussion of the phenomenon of Socrates speaking the truth, but expecting
to be heard by his audience as speaking eirˆnikˆs. I call this “reverse irony.”
32 I shall discuss this in chapter two.
34 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
he considers what penalty he deserves for having led such a life and offers
the infamous suggestion that it should be free meals at the Prytaneum. It is
important to notice that both times he assesses his penalty he is careful to
remind the audience that he is being forced to make an assessment of what
he deserves (note the occurrences of de± at 36d2 and e2). If he must make
a concrete decision, he must make it in accordance with SV. It would be
unjust to assess a penalty for himself, if as far as he can tell he deserves a
reward. Therefore if he must assess his penalty “justly” (kat‡ t¼ d©kaion),
he assesses it at free meals.33 Socrates explains his reasoning in what follows:
I am convinced that I have never willingly done wrong to anyone [p”peismai –gÜ
—kÜn e²nai mhd”na ˆdike±n ˆnqrÛpwn], but I am not persuading you of this34 . . .
Since, then, I am convinced that I have not done anyone wrong, I am far from
doing wrong to myself, by speaking against myself as deserving of a bad thing,
or assessing any such treatment for myself. Why should I do that? For fear of the
penalty Meletus demands for me, when I say that I don™t know if that is a good
thing or a bad one? In preference to that, am I then to choose one of the things I
know very well [e” o²da] to be bad, and demand that instead? (37a5“6 . . . 37b2“8)
What follows is a list of possible punishments: imprisonment, ¬nes, and
banishment. One might read this passage as saying that Socrates knows that
these things are themselves bad.35 But what is bearing the brunt of Socrates™
argument here is again his knowledge of SV. When he repeats his claim
that he doesn™t know whether the penalty Meletus demands for him “
i.e. death “ is good or bad, he recalls the avowal of SV, which supplied
the contrast with his ignorance about the nature of death earlier (29b). In
the earlier passage he follows his avowal of knowledge of SV with: “I will
never fear or ¬‚ee from things about which I do not know whether they
might be good, rather than from bad things which I know (o²da) are bad
(kak†) (29b7“9).” The present passage recalls this principle, along with the
contrast between Socrates™ knowledge of it and his ignorance about death,
and presents Socrates as applying it to himself. What Socrates knows is bad
is to do himself an injustice. What is bad in this context then is not, for
example, exile per se, but his proposing exile as punishment when he does
not deserve it; that is an example of doing himself an injustice and so a
violation of SV.36
33 I think Socrates is entirely serious when he says this, although he knows that it will not work as a
real penalty. It is another example of “reverse irony.” See Vasiliou (2002a), 225.
34 I shall discuss the idea of Socrates™ never “willingly” doing wrong below, 1.6.
35 See Reeve (1989), 172“3, and Brickhouse and Smith (1994), 35“6.
36 The two avowal passages in Euthyd. 283c4“5 and 296e8“297a1 ¬t the same pattern as well. In the
former, Socrates avows that he knows he “should never ever deny that” he wants Cleinias to become
wise and virtuous, and in the latter Socrates knows that the good are not unjust.
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 35
Whenever Socrates claims to have moral knowledge, then, the object
of his knowledge is SV. Further, whenever Socrates disavows knowledge,
it is invariably knowledge of an answer to a “What is F?” question, most
often about the virtues or virtue itself. In the dialogues, then, Socrates™
avowals and disavowals of knowledge follow the distinction, highlighted in
the Apology, between SV and a substantive account of what virtue is. We
recall too that this distinction is central to the Cleitophon: Socrates™ avowals
and disavowals follow what we would expect given Cleitophon™s criticism
that Socrates persuaded him to adopt SV, but utterly failed to teach him
what virtue is.
Let us turn now to the disavowal passage from the Gorgias:
These things which appeared to us to be the case in the earlier arguments, I™d say,
are held ¬rm and bound down, even if it is rather crude to say so, by iron and
adamantine arguments “ at any rate it seems this way so far. And unless you or
someone more vigorous than you undoes them, no one who says something other
than what I™ve been saying now will be able to speak well [kal¤v]. For my account
[l»gov] at any rate is always the same: that I do not know how these things are
[–gÜ ta“ta oÉk o²da ‚pwv ›cei]; yet still no one that I happen to meet, just like
now, is ever able to speak otherwise without being ridiculous. (508e6“509a7)
Scholars have been divided over how to understand the passage.37 It can
appear at ¬rst like a startling contradiction, with Socrates on one hand
claiming to have proven a particular conclusion and have bound it down
with unbreakable arguments, and yet nevertheless disavowing knowledge
of that conclusion.38 Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith suggest that
the key lies in reading carefully the language of the disavowal itself.39 They
emphasize that Socrates uses particular language here and in two other
passages “ Euthyphro 4e4“8 and Charmides 166c7“d6 “ which concern,
respectively, the nature of piety and the nature of temperance: he denies
knowing “how these things are.” While acknowledging that this expression
does not occur in many other passages where Socrates disavows knowledge,
they nevertheless believe it points to a distinction between Socrates™ know-
ing that something is the case, and knowing why it is the case; the latter is
what Socrates considers true wisdom and it is this that he disavows.
Although I disagree with Brickhouse and Smith™s conclusion, I would
like to exploit their point about the particularity of the language. I do
not believe that “how things are” means anything different from “what
37 See, e.g., Vlastos (1985/1994), 58 ff.
38 Dodds (1959), 341 remarks that it is as though Plato belatedly remembers to have Socrates speak in
39 Brickhouse and Smith (1994), 38“45 and 127.
36 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
F is”, and that is why we have both expressions used interchangeably in
Socratic disavowals. As con¬rmed by the passages in the Euthyphro and
Charmides, knowing “how things are” refers to the substantive knowledge
of what a particular virtue is that would be possessed by someone who
could successfully answer the “What is F?” question. All of the claims to
knowledge and truth in the Gorgias, however, are claims about SV.40 What
this passage says is that Socrates has total, absolute con¬dence in SV, and,
as he says in the Apology, he knows it, but he has this knowledge and its
attendant con¬dence in the face of not knowing how these things are “
that is, while at the same time not having knowledge of what virtue is. Plato
has Socrates being deliberately provocative insofar as he is explicitly high-
lighting the strangeness of someone who knows that virtue is the supreme
aim of life, but then simultaneously disavows knowledge of what virtue is.
Although exploring this odd position is the central concern of this book, we
should realize at this early stage that there is no contradiction in Socrates™
position once we recognize that, as in all of the other relevant passages,
what is avowed is SV and what is disavowed is virtue-knowledge.
We have seen that distinguishing between SV and determining what
virtue is enables us to read the disavowal in the Gorgias consistently with
every other passage where Socrates avows or disavows moral knowledge. I
have shown so far that the Apology treats aiming and determining questions
as critically distinct, and that understanding this distinction makes Socrates™
disavowals and avowals of knowledge clear and consistent throughout the

1 .4 sv a nd th e priorit y o f def i ni ti on
Since I take Socrates™ avowals of moral knowledge at their word and main-
tain that Socrates avows knowledge of SV, I need to address the question
of the priority of de¬nition. Some scholars take the thesis of the priority
of de¬nition to imply that without knowing what F is one cannot know
anything about F. If this is a thesis that Socrates holds quite generally, how
could he claim to know SV, while disavowing knowledge of what virtue is?
Terence Irwin maintains that Socrates™ acceptance of the priority of de¬ni-
tion together with his avowal at Apology 29b6“7 leaves three options: “either
40 See the many passages cited in Vlastos (1985/1994). Benson (2000), ch. 10, tries to downplay the
avowals in the Apology and to avoid those in the Gorgias by suggesting that they are somehow
anomalous. On my interpretation the reason that we ¬nd avowals in the Apology and Gorgias, but
consistent disavowals in the “dialogues of de¬nition,” is that the latter dialogues are concerned
with the determination of what virtue is, while the Apology and Gorgias centrally deal with SV. See
chapters three and four.
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 37
[Socrates] does not accept the priority of de¬nition, or he is inconsistent, or
this remark does not really state a claim to knowledge.”41 Irwin defends the
third, claiming that all Socrates maintains is that he has a “moral convic-
tion,” which does not amount to knowledge, despite the fact that he says,
“I know [o²da] that it is bad and shameful to do wrong . . .” The problem
with this solution is that Socrates is in the midst of warning the jurors
against rash and unwarranted epistemic claims in the most explicit terms:
fear of death is unfounded because it involves thinking that one knows that
death is the greatest evil, when no person knows this. He continues:
And yet how could this not be the most blameworthy ignorance: thinking that one
knows what one does not know? But I, men [of Athens], am different from most
people to this extent in this case too, and indeed if I would say that I am wiser in
anything than anyone, it would be this: that not knowing adequately about death,
so too I think that I do not know. But, doing wrong and disobeying a superior,
either god or human being, that I know is bad and shameful. (29b1“7)
In this context, where Socrates is manifestly applying the lessons he
learned from his investigation into the meaning of the oracle (summed
up at 21d4“6), heaping scorn on people who would falsely claim to know
what they don™t, and bragging that he differs from the majority of people
precisely by avoiding this, it is dif¬cult not to believe that Socrates is setting
the listener up for the stark contrast with something he does claim to know:
that it is bad and shameful to do wrong. Fortunately we can take Socrates at
his word. There is no textual evidence that we ought to apply the “priority
of de¬nition” to SV.
Hugh Benson usefully divides the view known as “priority of de¬nition”
into two claims:42
(1) If A fails to know what F-ness is, then A fails to know, for any x, that x
is F; and
(2) If A fails to know what F-ness is, then A fails to know, for any G, that
F-ness is G.
(1) concerns what I have called “determining questions” in the here and
now. Without knowing what F is, one cannot know, for any token x,
whether x is F. It should be clear from my reading of the Apology and my
interpretation of SV that I believe that Socrates agrees with (1). Because
Socrates does not know what virtue in general is, he has no way of knowing
whether any token action is or is not virtuous.43 (1) is supported directly in

41 42 Benson (2000), 113. He calls (1) “(P)” and (2) “(D).”
Irwin (1995), 28“9.
43 With the exception of his divine sign, which simply tells him the answer to the determining
question without providing him with knowledge. In chapter two we will see how he proceeds to
38 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
several passages (HiMa 286c5“d7, 304d5“e3), as well as by my reading of
the Apology.44
The outstanding issue is whether my claim that Socrates avows knowl-
edge of SV con¬‚icts with any textual evidence for his adherence to some
version of (2). It can certainly seem so. If Socrates knows that virtue is
supreme in the sense I have discussed, but disavows knowing what virtue
is, and also believes that in order to know anything at all about F, including
that F is G, one must ¬rst know what F is, then it would seem that there
is a contradiction here. First, however, let us note that there is nothing
inconsistent with maintaining that one ought to aim at virtue above all and
that one ought never to act contrary to virtue (SV as an explicit aim and
limiting condition), and yet denying that one knows what virtue is. This
is all the more so once we have seen what constitutes knowing what virtue
is for Socrates: successfully answering the “What is F?” question about
virtue and thus being a moral expert who can knowledgeably and correctly
identify token actions as virtuous as well as pass this ability on to others.
Cleitophon™s complaint is not that Socrates says anything contradictory;
it is simply frustrating for the purpose of serving as a guide to action. If
I know that I ought never to act contrary to virtue, but I do not know
what virtue is, how can I knowingly identify any token action as virtuous
or not? And thus how can I adhere to SV, even if I want to? There is clearly
something provocative and perplexing about Socrates™ position. Insofar as
he seems unable or unwilling to supply answers to determining questions,
it seems that one cannot live by SV.
The formulation of the problem of the priority of de¬nition with respect
to SV dictates its solution. Given that Socrates explicitly avows knowledge
of SV as we have seen, whatever the scope of the priority of de¬nition, and
various scholars have tried to minimize and constrain its scope, it must not
apply to SV. Putting the solution this way can make it seem ad hoc, but I
do not think it is for the following reasons.
First, there is no text where Socrates explicitly says that he cannot know
that one ought to be virtuous above all until he knows what virtue is. So
there is no application of the principle of the priority of de¬nition to SV
in the text. At Meno 71a“b, he says that he cannot know whether virtue is
teachable or how it is acquired (cf. La. 190b7“c2) until he knows what it is.

make particular decisions in accordance with SV, without the aid of his divine sign and while
nevertheless disavowing knowledge of virtue. It is clear, however, that Socrates forms beliefs about
whether certain actions are virtuous or not. In chapter four, I will consider the relationship between
SV and the “What is F?” question in further detail.
44 For further evidence for (1) and considerations of those who dispute it, see Benson (2000), ch. 6.
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 39
Whatever other predicates this may extend to, barring text to the contrary,
I deny that it applies to virtue™s supremacy.
Secondly, the form of SV makes it sound like an instance of knowing that
F is G in that I claim that Socrates knows that virtue is supreme. But when
we consider what it means to be supreme, we see that virtue™s supremacy is
a function of an agent™s relationship to virtue and not an intrinsic property
of virtue itself. We ought to strive above all to do virtuous actions and so
to be virtuous people (and to avoid vicious actions and becoming vicious
people). It is clear, however, that this is not saying something about what
virtue itself is or is like, in the sense of saying that all virtuous actions have
feature G or that being virtuous is simply a matter of having knowledge
of some sort. So those who believe that Socrates adheres to the priority of
de¬nition quite broadly might still exempt SV from falling under it since
it is about people™s relationship to virtue rather than about virtue itself.
Finally, Socrates does deny knowing whether rhetoric is ¬ne without
knowing what rhetoric is (Gor. 463c3“6, 462c10“d2), and the same about
sophistry (Pr. 312c1“4). But this is never said about virtue. As we shall
see in chapter ¬ve, when Socrates is pushed by a radical interlocutor such
as Thrasymachus he goes so far as to say that, since he does not know
what justice is, he does not even know whether justice is a virtue or not
(Rep. 1, 354b6, c2). But Socrates does not disavow knowledge of SV even
there. Given his ignorance of what justice is, he disavows knowing whether
justice, as ordinarily conceived, is an excellence or not. Thrasymachus™
challenge is not to virtue as such, but to justice conceived of in the ordinary
way (cf. Rep. 1, 348e). Thrasymachus still attaches (what would ordinarily
be conceived of as) injustice to virtue and wisdom.
Thus in keeping with his disavowal of knowledge and his adherence to a
version of the priority of de¬nition Socrates denies knowing (but does not
deny having beliefs, or even true beliefs about) which token acts or people
are virtuous, which types of acts are virtuous, whether virtue is teachable,
how it is acquired, and even, when pressed, whether justice, ordinarily
conceived, is a virtue or not. But he never denies that he knows SV, and his
knowledge of SV does not depend, as those other claims do, on knowing
what virtue is.

1 .5 soc r ates ™ critic is m of h i s fe llow ath en i a ns
Socrates™ unwavering commitment to SV guarantees that he always does
what he takes to be best, that is, what he takes to be virtuous. We have also
seen that he disavows knowledge of what virtue in general is (that is, he
40 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
cannot answer the “What is F?” question about virtue). The disavowal
implies that he cannot know that any individual action in some circum-
stance is in fact the virtuous one, unless he has some way of knowing what
the virtuous action is other than by applying a Socratic de¬nition.45 But
Socrates must at times make particular decisions about what to do, and so
must make an attempt to deliberate with the aim of realizing a virtuous
action (or of avoiding acting contrary to virtue), although he cannot know
whether he has succeeded. He can nevertheless still know that he has fol-
lowed SV, even if his substantive decision, on account of his ignorance of
what virtue is, turns out to be incorrect. Adherence to SV makes Socrates™
actions superior to those of many other Athenians, who frequently, in
Socrates™ opinion, ignore a concern with excellence and instead focus on
their bodies, wealth, or reputations. They have, as I put it in the Introduc-
tion, “one thought too few.” Appreciating SV and how it is distinct from
a determination about what virtue is enables us to see that there are two
ways a person can go wrong and commit a disgraceful action according to
Socrates. One is by violating SV, either by ignoring it or by consciously
elevating some other end, for example one™s personal survival, above doing
the virtuous thing. The other is to share Socrates™ commitment to SV, but
then to err about what the virtuous action is, and so do the wrong thing.
Socrates™ criticisms of the Athenians ought to follow suit, for, if the account
I am defending is correct, he cannot be criticizing them for failing to know
what virtue is, since he himself does not know what virtue is and suggests
in the Apology that this wisdom may not be possible for human beings.46

45 His “divine sign” is one way he is able to identify that the action he is about to embark on would
be wrong; see 2.2.
46 He does not explicitly say that human beings cannot achieve expert knowledge of what virtue is,
but he makes remarks that show that he is skeptical about such a possibility. At 20d5“e2, Socrates
distinguishes between a sort of wisdom he has and the wisdom that is attributed to Evenus, and
the other sophists, whom he has just discussed. It is explicitly claimed that Evenus holds techne-
knowledge of virtue (see 20c1), and, as we have seen, this is the knowledge that Socrates disavows.
In the last three lines of this passage (29d9“e2), Socrates says that such wisdom (techne-knowledge
of virtue) would be a wisdom greater than human. Socrates, with his typical conditional irony,
does not rule out that Evenus might have such knowledge, but he does use the optative at 20e1,
suggesting a contrary-to-fact construction: such knowledge would be greater than human, if he had
it. Again, at 23a5“6, Socrates says that the lesson of his investigations into the meaning of the oracle
is that in reality the god alone is wise. In the context, the wisdom in question is clearly not ordinary
techne-knowledge, which the craftsmen have, nor is it the awareness of one™s own ignorance, which
is the “sort of wisdom” that Socrates possesses, but the knowledge that Evenus claims: knowledge
of what virtue is. I shall argue in chapter eight that Socrates™ disavowal of knowledge of the Form
of the Good in the Republic, knowledge of which would enable one to determine what virtue is, is
entirely consistent with the disavowals we have seen here. There he holds out the possibility that
such knowledge could be achieved by the right sort of person in the right sort of city who has
received the right sort of education.
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 41
Therefore Socrates attacks the Athenians for two culpable failings: not
adhering to SV (which is something Socrates plainly takes to be up to them,
and something which he knows they should do) and thinking that they
know things that they don™t (e.g., about virtue and the nature of death).47
The latter is established in the story of Socrates™ testing of the oracle, and
in his ¬rst discussion of death (29a4“b6; note especially –pone©distov at
29b2). The former is manifested in Socrates™ role as gad¬‚y. He declares
that he will never give up philosophy or exhorting (parakeleu»menov)
whomever he may meet with his usual words:
Most excellent friend, you are an Athenian, a member of a city that is the most
important and has the greatest reputation for wisdom and power, are you not
ashamed [oÉk a«sc…nh] to care about how you will acquire as much wealth as
possible, and reputation and honor, while you do not care about or give any
thought to wisdom and truth, and how your soul may be as good as possible? And
if some one of you disputes [what I am saying] and says that he is concerned about
[wisdom, truth, and the state of his soul], I will not let him go straightaway or
leave him, but I will question and examine and test him, and if he does not seem
to me to have acquired virtue, although he claims to [f†nai d”], I will reproach him
[by saying] that he attaches the least value to the most worthy things, and attaches
more value to baser things [t‡ ple©stou Šxia perª –lac©stou poie±tai, t‡ d•
faul»tera perª ple©onov].48 (29d7“30a2)
Here we see both elements at work: a commitment to virtue as supreme
and an examination to see whether a person truly knows what virtue is, or
merely falls into the trap of thinking he knows what he does not. Socrates
does not criticize the Athenians in this passage simply for failing to acquire
virtue, for, if I am right, he himself might fail to be virtuous. The criticism
is to have elevated some other aim above virtue or to have failed to acquire
virtue, while smugly and falsely believing and claiming that one has. This latter
¬‚aw, unlike the ¬‚aw of failing to be virtuous simpliciter, is remediable and
up to the agent to achieve through self-examination and testing. Failing to
be virtuous, that is, failing to have knowledge of what virtue is, may well
be, at least according to the Socrates of the Apology, an inescapable aspect
of the human condition.49
47 Undermining a false conceit of knowledge and replacing it with aporia is a well-known aim of the
Socratic elenchus. The critical importance of this activity will be shown in chapter four.
48 I will discuss the importance of the idea of what one “attaches more value to” in chapter two.
49 This marks a signi¬cant contrast between my position and Brickhouse and Smith™s (1994). According
to them, Socrates knows that things are virtuous, but not why. This is how Socrates can claim (or
at least strongly imply) that he is a “good man” in the Apology (29c“d, 41c“d). By contrast, I believe
that Socrates knows he is a good man in the sense that he has always adhered to SV. Apart from
divine help from his daimonion, Socrates does not know whether what he has done is in fact virtuous
or not, for he does not know what virtue is.
42 Aiming at Virtue in Plato

1 .6 soc ratic i ncont in ence
Supported by anecdotal evidence from his life, Socrates argues that he has
always acted in accordance with SV. What does this say about his relation-
ship to incontinence? On the typical understanding of incontinence, it is
the phenomenon of knowing what the right action is, but failing to do it
because one is overcome by a desire to act in a contrary way. The distinction
between having virtue as a supreme aim and the determination of what the
virtuous act is allows us to recognize that Socrates concedes that he may
have actually done wrong in his life, although he has always aimed at doing
the right thing and at avoiding wrongdoing. In a sense, then, Socrates has
never been incontinent. If what he says about himself is true, he has never
been swayed from doing what he took to be the virtuous action by a desire
for something else instead. Whatever wrongdoing he may have done he has
done in ignorance, in the false belief that it was in fact not wrongdoing.
This affects how we ought to understand one of the most famous features
of Socrates: his intellectualism. It can seem mysterious how simply knowing
that an action is virtuous can by itself lead one to do it. But, cognizant
of the aiming/determining distinction, this is not quite what Socrates is
claiming, at least about his own case. Given that he denies that he knows
that a particular action is virtuous, it is not the knowledge that an action
is virtuous that is suf¬cient to lead one to do it. Rather it is the knowledge
that the virtuous action must always be done (or, the vicious action always
avoided). Noticing this does not entirely dispel the strangeness of Socrates™
position. Why should knowledge of SV be suf¬cient to get someone to
act in accordance with it? This question does not seem prima facie more
easily answerable than a general question about how knowledge could be
suf¬cient for virtue. But we should notice one thing. Typically it seems
to people that Socrates™ intellectualism is wildly implausible. But Socrates
claims to be an example of it. Given his unwavering adherence to SV,
any wrongdoing he has committed can only be the result of ignorance.
So Socrates™ life does not show (on his account of it) that knowledge of
what the virtuous action is is suf¬cient to do it (as the objectionable aspect
of Socrates™ view is frequently put), but that wrongdoing is a matter of
ignorance for anyone who remains, as he has, committed to SV.
The question, unanswered in the Apology, is why should anyone commit
to SV? And, further, why does Socrates in particular? This gets at some of the
complexity of SV. Adhering to SV says something about the psychological
state of the agent: virtue will be the supreme aim of her actions. Given an
active commitment to SV the agent will perform required virtuous actions,
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 43
and always avoid acting contrary to virtue. So we know something about
the agent™s motivation: we know that the agent is motivated to determine
what the virtuous or vicious action is, and base her acting (or not acting) on
that ground. Thus when the agent committed to SV acts, she will refrain
from acting viciously because the action is contrary to virtue and will act
virtuously because the action is virtuous. What we don™t know, however, is
why the agent is so committed. If the commitment arises simply from the
knowledge that SV is true, then the puzzle about Socratic intellectualism
arises again, but on a different level. A question about Socrates™ view and
about SV as a principle of action remains: is the agent™s motivation for
adhering to SV important, and if so, how?
That question aside, however, if an agent is absolutely committed to SV
(as Socrates claims he is and always has been), then, whatever the source of
that commitment is, any wrongdoing by the agent can only be the result of
ignorance. Thus, in response to the claim that Socrates is unintentionally
corrupting the youth because of his ignorance, he says he ought to be taken
aside and instructed: “for it is clear that if I am instructed, I will stop
doing what I am doing unwillingly” (Ap. 26a4). This ought not to be read,
as it sometimes is, as saying that incontinence in general is impossible or
that knowledge is simply suf¬cient for virtue. Rather, in the context it says
that, given Socrates™ unwavering commitment to SV, knowledge of what the
virtuous action is will indeed be suf¬cient for acting virtuously. This is the
way, I think, Socrates himself typically presents matters.50 It is clear that it is
not the same as the traditional puzzle about Socratic intellectualism. For the
commitment to SV plays the role of a standing motivation for performing
virtuous actions (and avoiding vicious ones), so that all it awaits is the
correct identi¬cation of actions as virtuous or vicious.
So, we now need to ask what effects the commitment to SV; if it is
knowledge alone, then it would seem that some version of intellectualism
is back on the table. This is a reasonable question and one that an exami-
nation of Socratic intellectualism requires asking; I do not claim to be able
to answer it satisfactorily. But if we proceed to it immediately, we shall
miss something essential. What is important, indeed supremely important,
for action, how one lives one™s life, and one™s character, is that one is so
committed. Why one is so committed is also important, but in a different
way. For example, perhaps one is committed to SV out of a sense of shame.
When faced with a ¬nancially pro¬table action that has already somehow
50 If this interpretation is correct, then we cannot ¬nd textual evidence for Socrates™ denial of inconti-
nence in the Apology at any rate. I shall discuss the denial of incontinence a bit further in connection
with the Protagoras (see 4.4).
44 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
been determined to be vicious, perhaps one is simply too ashamed to act
contrary to virtue. Or imagine that one is committed to SV out of love for
Socrates (as I think some interlocutors appear to be). What brings about
the commitment to SV is signi¬cant insofar as we want agents to have a
long-standing and stable commitment to it. The appeal to shame or to love
of Socrates to effect the commitment to SV may be suspect because of the
strength of that motivation; if the agent™s shame or love wanes (perhaps as
a result of temptation), he will no longer be committed. But this is a stand-
ing worry about any motivation whatsoever “ whether one is motivated
to cling to SV by appeal to rational argument alone, the hope of heav-
enly rewards, love of Socrates, or cash prizes. The only relevant difference
between these is how well they continue to motivate a given agent. The
answer to what motivates different people best lies in human psychology.
Socrates and Plato are concerned with this, and, as we shall see, they will
offer arguments about why an agent ought to be committed to SV in the
Gorgias and Republic (beyond “Aren™t you ashamed not to be?”).
What the aiming/determining distinction brings out is that we should
not confuse the issue of the motivation for the commitment to SV with the
more common issue of whether an agent has an “ulterior motive” when
acting. The latter concerns whether an action is done “for its own sake”
and affects the moral assessment of the agent™s behavior.51 Commitment to
SV (however it was brought about) ensures that the agent™s motive is pure
in the relevant sense, because it ensures that the agent will act with the aim
of virtue above all. SV ensures this because it sets a particular problem for
the agent to solve: to determine what virtue requires or forbids. As long as
this remains what regulates the agent™s action, then, barring ignorance, she
will non-coincidentally act virtuously.52 When someone has an “ulterior
motive”, what that means is that he is really trying to solve a different
problem. For example, if I act kindly toward someone because I hope to be
allowed to use their swimming pool in the summer, then the problem I am
solving, and so the goal I am aiming at, is how to gain access to a pool in
the summer.
By contrast the commitment to SV may itself be effected by some
“impure” (or even unknown) motive, but that does not taint the moral
51 Indeed typically including whether what the agent has done is even to count as virtuous action. See
Whiting (2002).
52 Herman (1993), 2“6 makes the same point with respect to acting from the motive of duty in Kant.
Acting from the motive of duty secures that an agent™s interest will be in the rightness or morality
of the action. In the language I am using, commitment to SV ¬xes the nature of the problem that
the agent must solve in acting: to determine what the virtuous action is (or what is not contrary to
Socrates and the supremacy of virtue 45
worth of the action. An agent committed to SV does an action because it is
virtuous or avoids it because it is contrary to virtue. That is what it means for
virtue to be supreme “ they are not acting for a further end. But this does
not say anything about why that agent is motivated to act in that way “
why does she put virtue above all? And this, I think, does not matter with
respect to the assessment of the moral worth of her actions; it matters only
insofar as we want whatever it is that motivates her to be a strong and
permanent motivating force.
c ha p t e r 2

Determining virtue in the here and now:
Socrates in the Apology and Crito

What we have discovered in chapter one about SV and Socrates™ relationship
to it should lead us to expect that Socrates would be in a particularly dif¬cult
situation when it comes to action. Given his commitment to SV, he must
do the virtuous action or at least avoid doing the vicious action, and yet,
given his disavowal of knowledge of what virtue is, he seems to have no
way of knowing which action is or is not virtuous. How does he decide,
then, whether to get Leon as he was ordered or whether to go to battle,
how to conduct his trial, and, in the Crito, whether or not to escape from
prison? We shall see that he has two ways of dealing with this predicament:
sometimes his daimonion comes to the rescue and simply tells him that a
certain token action he is contemplating is contrary to virtue; that is, the
daimonion resolves the outstanding determining question for him. At other
times, such as in the Crito where there is no mention of the divine sign,
Socrates says that he follows the argument that seems best to him upon
re¬‚ection (Cr. 46b4“6).1
Aside from particular decisions to engage in certain conversations, it is
only in the Apology and Crito that we witness Socrates attempt to determine
what the virtuous thing to do is in the hic et nunc. Especially in the argument
of the personi¬ed Laws (Cr. 50a“54c), Socrates deliberates between two
speci¬c “actions”: remaining in prison, or escaping.2 In the Apology he cites
various individual decisions in his life (¬ghting in battles, not turning in
Leon, and so on) as examples of making decisions based on SV, but we were
not privy to how those decisions were made, and their correctness was never
at issue. Socrates™ point in the Apology was not that he indisputably acted
rightly, for example, by not bringing Leon in (though of course he believes

1 I shall discuss this passage below. Note, though, that Socrates says here that he follows the logos that
seems best to him “not just now for the ¬rst time [that is, with Crito in prison] but always.”
2 I put “action” in quotations because we shall see that Socrates and Crito importantly consider
remaining in prison (and so literally actively doing nothing) a kind of doing or acting in a broader

Determining virtue in the here and now 47
he did), but that he chose not to follow the order of the Thirty because
he aimed solely at acting virtuously (and at not acting contrary to virtue),
not allowing risk of death or bad reputation to count as competing goals in
his (as we shall see, aiming) deliberation. Certain passages in the Apology,
however, do shed light on how Socrates believes speci¬c decisions about the
virtuous course of action should be made in the here and now. In the Crito
we are apparently3 privy to full-blown Socratic deliberation, which leads to
one of his most signi¬cant decisions and actions: to remain in prison rather
than to escape. I want to look closely at these arguments in the Apology
and Crito in order to understand how Socrates answers the question “What
is the virtuous action here and now?” We should keep in mind that one
easy way of answering this question “ a way that famously arises in the
dialogues of de¬nition “ is not open to Socrates. If he had knowledge of
what virtue in general is, that is, if he had a Socratic de¬nition of virtue
which told him what all virtuous actions have in common, then he would
have a way of determining what action is virtuous in any situation.4 But,
as we saw in chapter one, Socrates disavows having this knowledge. So
when he must make particular decisions in his life, he cannot, despite his
commitment to SV, simply rely on his knowledge of what virtue is to solve
the determining question for him. He needs some other way; SV itself says
only that one must always do the virtuous action and never act contrary
to virtue. While I believe this is far from a trivial claim, it goes no distance
towards determining what the virtuous course of action is in any particular
circumstance, and yet that is the situation Socrates faces, particularly in the
Beyond simply illuminating the important and rather neglected topic
of how Socrates makes decisions in the here and now, I shall also argue
that a proper understanding of Socratic deliberation solves puzzles about
the consistency of the Apology and Crito. Socrates makes speci¬c decisions
in the same way and by appeal to the same types of considerations in
both dialogues. Further we shall see that the argument of the Laws, under-
stood properly, is neither wildly authoritarian, nor presented, even by the
Laws themselves, as an argument that is de¬nitively correct. Finally, some
recent scholars, motivated in part by the unattractiveness of an authoritar-
ian understanding of the Laws™ argument, have attempted to dissociate the
reasons of the Laws from Socrates™ own. A focus on how Socrates makes
3 I say “apparently” because some scholars, especially recently, dispute the claim that the argument of
the Laws does, or even could, represent Socrates™ own reasons for deciding to remain in prison. See
4 As he says in the Euthyphro (6d“e); see discussion in chapter four.
48 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
concrete decisions will show that such a move is not only implausible, but
also, fortunately, unnecessary. By asking a rather unorthodox question of
the Apology and Crito “ how exactly does Socrates make speci¬c decisions
about what the virtuous action is? “ I hope to answer some quite orthodox
ones along the way.

2 .1 ill-fit ting rem a rks i n t h e a p o l o g y
The classical scholar Kenneth Dover points out something important about
Athenian trials: “the question before a jury, as representing the people, was
not exactly, ˜Has this man, or has he not, committed the act with which he
is charged?™ but rather, ˜what should be done about this man, who has been
charged with this offense?™”5 This would be particularly true in Socrates™
case, where the charge is, broadly speaking, “impiety.” The jury™s job is
not just a question of determining fact “ has Socrates killed this person
or not? “ but a question of what should be done with him, given how he
has acted towards the youth, the religion of the city, and so forth. The
jury is in the position, then, of having to make a concrete decision about
what should be done with Socrates.6 Further, since SV is a principle that
Socrates believes that everyone ought to follow, he is explicit from the very
beginning of his speech (18a4“5) that the jurors should have only one aim
in their deliberations about him: to make the right decision.
Given the signi¬cance of SV in his own life, and the emphasis he
places on it as what ought to govern the decision of the jury, Socrates
says some surprising things. Near the end of the ¬rst section of the speech
(34c ff.) he claims that one should not beg from the jury, as many defendants
typically do. If, as I think we should, we understand “begging” as asking
for some treatment despite the fact that it is not right or just for one to
receive that treatment, then the prohibition against it simply follows from
SV.7 But as many readers (frequently, clever undergraduates) have noted,

5 Dover (1974), 292. For an interesting and provocative discussion of Attic law and the nature of its
indeterminacy see Harris (2000).
6 This is something that Socrates emphasizes in his claims that he is in reality defending them, the jury,
as well as himself, since, by Socratic lights, the jury is the one at risk of making an unjust decision
(see Ap. 19a, 30c“e). This is a paradigm of what I call “reverse irony,” where Socrates is speaking what
he believes to be the truth, but what his listeners will understand as a case of eironeia. See Vasiliou
7 Socrates refuses to bring his family before the jury and plead for an acquittal on grounds that it is
neither noble (kal»n), just (d©kaion), nor pious (‚sion) to beg from the jury (34d8“35d2). According
to Socrates the accused often beseeches the jury “with many tears,” leading up children, family, and
friends, in an attempt to be pitied as much as possible (34c3“4). Socrates says he will not do this,
despite the fact that he will be thought to run “the ultimate risk” by not doing so. If begging from
Determining virtue in the here and now 49
when Socrates takes this stand about begging he nevertheless mentions his
own family, claiming that he too is not “born of oak or rock” (34d4“5),
and makes it known that he has three young sons, one adolescent, and
two small children. Rhetorically minded readers have taken this as a classic
example of paraleipsis. Someone critical of Socrates might point out that
while on one hand he criticizes appeals to pity as the acts of an inferior
person who values his survival more than virtue, on the other hand he
is sure to let the jury and everyone else know that he himself has a fam-
ily. If Socrates were to act more consistently with the values he espouses,
this line of thought continues, he would not have mentioned whether he
had a family at all. Perhaps he might even have taken the opportunity to
make the point explicitly that his having a family or not is irrelevant to
the deliberations of the jury, irrelevant to the determination of whether
he is justly deserving of punishment and of what punishment he justly
deserves. Is Socrates then being rhetorically wily, but morally inconsistent?
Scholars who want to emphasize that Socrates is a consistent honest type
must somehow explain away this passage.8 Those who wish to understand
Socrates as a sophist of sorts, by contrast, revel in it.
In this passage Socrates also mentions his age (34e4) as a factor that
would add to the wrongness of his begging before the jury. What is more
striking still is that he refers to his age at least ten times in the Apology and
three times in the Crito, and at critical moments “ thirteen times in about
thirty pages of text.9 In each of the three stages of the speech, he mentions
his age prominently: in the main body of the speech he mentions his age
twice at the very beginning, where he contrasts himself with a young man
and states his actual age, and again near the end in explaining why he will
not beg from the jury. He also mentions his age during the penalty phase,

the jury is neither noble, just, nor pious “ that is, it is a base and ignoble action “ then it must not
be done simply on the basis of SV, even if the risk is death. “Begging,” then, would be a normatively
loaded term, which would not include, for example, pleading for something that one might deserve
on grounds of justice. It would be limited to asking for something it would not be right or just to
8 See, e.g., Brickhouse and Smith (1989), 202, for an opposing interpretation of this passage: “And like
any other man with a family, he is mindful of what conviction will do to those who are dependent
on him. He tells the jury that he has a family that includes three sons, two of whom are still small
children (34d2“7). Although he cannot allow these considerations to shape his defense, they weigh upon
him nonetheless . . .” (my emphasis). But if Socrates cannot have these considerations be part of his
defense, then he cannot think it right that they weigh on the deliberations of the jurors either. So
what is he doing mentioning it? Is the man whose whole life is committed to SV simply “begging”
in the very passage where he declares begging neither noble, just, nor pious? This passage cannot be
explained away on pain of Socrates contradicting himself on what he claims to be most important:
9 Ap.: 17c4, 17d3, 18b2“5, 25d10, 32e2, 34e4, 37d4, 38c1, 38c6“7, 39b2; Cr.: 43b10“11, 52e3, 53d8“e1.
50 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
when he considers the possibility of proposing exile:10 “it would be a ¬ne
life (kal»v . . . ¾ b©ov) for me, being a person of such an age” (37d4“5)
to wander from one city to another. Why mention his age? Would exile
perhaps be more reasonable if he were thirty-¬ve? Is his age, as I suggested
above, supposed to be a factor for the jury to consider, and if not, why
mention it so often?
Finally, he gives mention of his age pride of place less than one Stephanus
page later, at the very beginning of the third section of the speech:11
It is not for the sake of a long time [oÉ pollo“ g¬ ™neka cr»nou], men of Athens,
that you will have the reputation and responsibility with those who wish to deni-
grate the city for having killed Socrates, a wise man “ for those wishing to malign you
will say that I am wise, even if I am not. At any rate if you waited a short time,
you would have had this [result] all by itself [ˆp¼ to“ aÉtom†tou]: for indeed
you see my age, that I am already far along in life, and that death is near.12 (38c1“7)
Why does he say this? Would Socrates have conducted his defense differ-
ently if he were younger? Any answer will inevitably be speculative, but we
do not require a de¬nitive answer to appreciate something important about
Socratic deliberation. One might reason that if Socrates believes that his
conduct at trial and remaining in prison are virtuous acts, then his age, like
the fact that he has three young children, would be entirely irrelevant. These
remarks cannot, however, be dismissed as biographical data Plato happened
to decide to include. For the fact that Socrates supplies this information to
the jury, when he himself presents SV as the prominent theme of his speech,
including speci¬c and repeated references to the jury™s duty to decide justly,
shows, on pain of a central inconsistency over the very topics he claims to
be most earnest about, that he takes such facts to be relevant in a determi-
nation of what the just action is here and now. Socrates believes that the
fact that he has a family is relevant to the jury™s deliberation about what
would be a just decision about his fate. Having this be a known factor in
deliberation is different from the spectacle Socrates describes of dragging
one™s children in front of the court, weeping and pleading for undeserved
leniency. Socrates™ apparent duplicity can be seen as merely apparent once
we appreciate the signi¬cance of the concept of an aiming principle: the
aim of the jury ought to be to arrive at a just decision. When Socrates
mentions his children and his age he is not in any way undermining the

10 We will see that he expands on his argument as to why he ought not to go into exile in the Crito.
11 This is an especially climactic moment in the speech, being the ¬rst thing Socrates says after he has
been sentenced to death.
12 I preserve the litotes and the word order of the ¬rst sentence, despite the awkwardness in English.
Determining virtue in the here and now 51
jury™s ability to do this, as a critic might suppose, but providing them with
a factor that may be relevant in a “determining deliberation” about what
will constitute a just decision in Socrates™ case. We shall see the signi¬cance
of the difference between aiming and determining deliberations in further
detail below.
When we turn to the Crito we should recall that Socrates presents such
considerations about family and his age to a jury that is under the legal
obligation to make a concrete decision and under the moral obligation by
Socrates himself to make that decision justly (i.e. to follow SV). We cannot
dismiss such considerations as irrelevant to a Socratic system of values when
Socrates himself raises them prominently in his own defense speech. We
should recognize that the Apology involves a concrete decision just as much
as the Crito: only in the Apology the jury must make it, while in the Crito,
Socrates must.13

2.2 t he ro le of soc rates ™ di v i ne si g n a n d h i s decisi on
to avoid pub li c li fe
Socrates™ discussion of his refusal to enter public life in the Apology is
important to the argument for two reasons. First, it is an example of the role
of Socrates™ divine sign in his life. The divine sign solves the outstanding
determining question about action in the here and now, which Socrates
faces because of his commitment to SV. Second, Socrates™ ex post facto
understanding of why the daimonion™s prohibition against his entering
politics was correct is an important example of the sort of considerations
Socrates will take into account in the course of answering a determining
At 31c ff. Socrates addresses the question of why he has never engaged in
public life, if he is indeed the god™s gift to Athens and if his whole concern is
to lead his fellow citizens towards an excellent way of life. His ¬rst answer is
that his daimonion opposed him. He explains that the divine sign only turns
him away from (ˆpotr”pei) doing something which he is about to do, but
never actively encourages (protr”pei) him to do anything (31d3“4). This
story makes clear, then, that at some point in his life Socrates intended to
13 This argument does not prevent someone from insisting on interpreting Socrates as a wily sophist,
who would be undeterred by the fact that, while he demands that the jury make the just decision, he
at the same time undermines this effort by supplying irrelevant and distracting personal information.
I assume, however, that interpreting Socrates as arguing “sophistically” is a less attractive option than
understanding his remarks consistently, as I argue we can. There is nothing inconsistent in taking
the facts that Socrates has young children and is seventy years old into consideration in determining
what a just decision about his fate would be.
52 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
enter public life. For the divine sign intervenes, if it does, when Socrates
is starting to carry out some intention, not when he is just entertaining a
passing thought (see 40b, Euthydemus 272e). Furthermore, the divine sign
interferes if Socrates is about to do something not right (mŸ ½rq¤v) (40a5“
6), and in the past interfered frequently “even about trivial matters.” The
divine sign™s frequent occurrence in Socrates™ life con¬rms what we would
expect from the argument in chapter one: Socrates, lacking the knowledge
of what excellence is, is often about to do things that are in fact not virtuous.
As we have seen, this is entirely compatible with Socrates throughout his
life adhering to SV, and it is easy to imagine how it transpired in the
case of political life. While pursuing excellence, young, or at least younger,
Socrates makes the substantive and reasonable decision that engaging in
politics would be the right thing to do. But then, as he is about to proceed,
his divine sign stops him.
The divine sign is Socrates™ sole method for discovering answers to deter-
mining questions about virtuous actions in the here and now that are guar-
anteed to be correct. When the divine sign forbids him from acting he
has (he believes) infallible evidence that what he is about to do would be
(somehow) contrary to virtue. This does not amount to knowledge for
Socrates. For by itself the divine sign does not leave him with any under-
standing of why the action is contrary to virtue (having some sort of logos or
account) (see Gorgias 465a, Meno 98a“b), nor does he have the capacity of
passing the ability to identify virtuous actions correctly on to others, both
of which he associates with having knowledge (see Laches 186a“b, 187a“
b, Meno 99a“b).14 Nevertheless, in ordinary language, we might say that,
once the divine sign has spoken to him, Socrates “knows” that the token
action he was about to embark upon ought not to be done. The divine
sign provides him with a belief (that a certain token action ought not to be
done) that is guaranteed to be true, since it is an example of revelation: the
god, who by de¬nition has the truth, communicates it to Socrates. So let
us grant Socrates™ premises: (1) the divine sign exists and is actually com-
municating with him; (2) the divine sign, as a divinity, knows the objective
truth; and (3) the divine sign does not lie to or deceive him. Granted these,
it follows that Socrates can “know” that the token action that the divine
sign prohibits is contrary to virtue. What sort of knowledge is this? As we
have seen, Socrates does not count it as knowledge, for it is not a capacity
14 Indeed Plato™s view that knowledge requires the knower to have an account or explanation has
seemed to some scholars more like our concept of understanding; see, e.g., Benson (2000), 216“21,
with additional references. Fine (2004) shows how dependent such an idea is on our own conception
of what knowledge and understanding consist in.
Determining virtue in the here and now 53
that he can pass on to others and the daimonion provides him with no
account or justi¬cation for the belief that the action is contrary to virtue.
On some externalist theories of justi¬cation, however, S knows that p so
long as it is not at all accidental that S is right about its being the case that
p.15 Socrates meets this criterion, given his premises. Thus on more exter-
nalist views of justi¬cation (such as reliabilism and other types of causal
theories) the way Socrates has formed the belief that his action is contrary
to virtue would be via a causal process that is reliable. So, on some versions
of reliabilist theories of justi¬cation, Socrates™ belief would be justi¬ed and
he would indeed know that his contemplated action would be contrary
to virtue.16 Now of course this is the sort of example that most reliabilists
would treat as a potential counterexample. Clairvoyantly formed beliefs
(via mental telepathy or communication from one™s divine sign) would
appear to count as justi¬ed on reliabilist accounts, but most contemporary
defenders of reliabilism want to resist this conclusion.17 But if we were to
accept the truth of Socrates™ premises (which presumably a contemporary
thinker would not), then Socrates knows that he is in possession of true
I have dwelt on this point because it will reappear later in the book.
Since Plato is an internalist about justi¬cation, for a person to be a knower,
he must have cognitive possession of the account or justi¬cation for the
truth of his belief for himself. This is why the divine sign does not provide
Socrates with knowledge. Nevertheless the communication of the divine
sign guarantees to Socrates that his belief is true. Thus, even without having
knowledge in Plato™s sense of which actions are virtuous, Socrates can be sure
that he is not acting contrary to virtue insofar as he follows the commands
of the divine sign. Socrates™ argument in the Meno (97a“98d) that true
belief is just as good a guide to action as knowledge speaks to this point.
To anticipate argument from chapters seven and eight, in the Republic the
philosopher-kings will play the role for the mass of citizens in the Kallipolis
that the divine sign plays for Socrates. Only the philosopher-kings will
have knowledge, in Plato™s sense, of what the nature of virtue is and so
only they will be able to answer determining questions in a knowledgeable
way. But the other citizens will be persuaded to take the philosopher-kings™

15 See, e.g., Goldman (1986), (1992), Nozick (1981), and Unger (1968).
16 Indeed Socrates would not necessarily even have to know or be justi¬ed in believing his premises
about the divine sign. That would be necessary if he were to be justi¬ed in believing that he is
justi¬ed. But according to at least some versions of reliabilism, so long as the premises were true,
Socrates would in fact be justi¬ed (and would know) that p.
17 See, e.g., Sosa (1991).
54 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
determinations as correct (which, in fact, the determinations are). The
citizens then will have true beliefs about what they ought to do and not do;
and, on an externalist account of justi¬cation, they will know what they
ought to do or not do since their beliefs are in fact justi¬ed, although they
themselves have no cognitive access to the justi¬cation “ an account of the
The divine sign, then, functions as a moral expert or moral superior
who passes on to Socrates infallible information as to whether some token
action is contrary to virtue. The divine sign simply tells him that some
token action is contrary to virtue and it is simply his good fortune to be
blessed by possession of the daimonion. So when it appears,18 the divine
sign resolves the outstanding problem of how to answer the determining
question in the hic et nunc, but it does not do this by providing Socrates
with knowledge of what virtue is but by infallibly telling Socrates “no” with
regard to some contemplated action.
Now I shall turn to the signi¬cance of the divine sign™s prohibition
against Socrates™ entering public life for understanding Socratic delibera-
tion. Although the divine sign itself offers no account of why something
should not be done, Socrates says that he now appreciates that the divine
sign™s opposition to his entering public life was in fact an entirely excellent
thing (pagk†lwv, Ap. 31d6). Moreover, what is of particular interest here,
he offers an explanation of why staying out of politics was, in hindsight,
the correct thing to do:
For know well, men of Athens, that if I had attempted to engage in political affairs
long ago, I would have long ago perished and I would have been of no bene¬t
either to you or to myself. And do not get angry with me for speaking the truth:
for it is not possible that any person who genuinely opposes and hinders the many
injustices and illegalities that arise in the city will be spared death either by you or
by any other majority. But it is necessary that one who really ¬ghts on behalf of
justice live as a private citizen and not as public servant, if he intends to survive
for even a short time. (31d6“32a2)
There are a number of striking features in this passage. First, consider the
nature of the justi¬cation of the correctness of the daimonion™s prohibition.
If Socrates had entered politics, he would have been killed long ago, and
therefore been of no bene¬t to himself or to his fellow citizens. His appeal
is to the supposed consequences that would have arisen had he entered

18 Does the divine sign appear every time Socrates is about to do something contrary to virtue?
Ap. 40c2“3 suggests that Socrates believes it does. If so, then, since Socrates™ commitment to
SV never wavers, he never does wrong; see 1.6.
Determining virtue in the here and now 55
politics. What is crucial is that the fact that he would have been killed
long ago and been of no bene¬t to himself or his fellow citizens is the very
reason why entering politics would not have been the right thing to do. We
have seen how important it has been to Socrates to argue throughout the
Apology that virtue is supreme as an end, particularly compared with one™s
personal survival. But we can now see that the fact that Socrates would be
killed by some action is indeed relevant to the assessment of whether the
action is the virtuous one or not in the ¬rst place. Socrates must never aim
simply to save his life. But his argument here, which depends crucially on
the consequences of the proposed action, is that his greatly premature death,
and the subsequent lack of his ability to help himself or his fellow citizens,
is the explanation of why entering political life was not at the time the right
thing to do.19
Socrates follows this passage with examples of the times in which he was
compelled to engage in political activities. As I argued in chapter one, he
shows that his actions always consisted of doing what he took to be just and
right, even when he thereby risked his own life. But these examples should
be all the more striking since they are followed by an argument from the
fact that he would be prematurely killed to the conclusion that he should
not engage in politics. After discussing his handling of the trial of generals
from Arginusae and his refusal to bring Leon in for execution under the
Thirty, he again returns to the points in the above passage:
Do you think I would have survived all these years if I were engaged in public affairs
and if I, acting worthily as a good man, assisted what is right [to±v dika©oiv] and,
as is necessary, I attached the highest value to this [perª ple©stou –poio…mhn]?20
Far from it, men of Athens, nor would any other man. (32e2“33a1)
The couple of times Socrates was drawn into public affairs not of his
own volition “ that is, public issues were forced upon him “ it ended
up that he was compelled, by SV, to engage in actions that risked his

19 Julia Annas (1999), 33 comments on Socrates™ commitment to virtue as follows, referring to Apology
28b: “In reply to an imagined critic who faults him [Socrates] for behaving so as to be risking death,
he says that we should not consider the consequences of our actions at all, even death, but only
the issue of whether the action is just or not.” I think this represents an ordinary and common
understanding of Socrates™ view. I do not believe that Annas understands herself as saying anything
controversial here, but intends simply to paraphrase Socrates™ own words. But Socrates never says
that we should not consider the consequences of our actions “at all.” He does say that if an action
is not virtuous then it must not be done, no matter what other bene¬ts one might get by doing it.
But, in the process of determining what the virtuous action is, he leaves open, perfectly reasonably,
that we will want to consider the consequences of different courses of action.
20 We noted this phrase in chapter one. We shall see below that it is used as well in the Crito to indicate
a question about aim: what one takes to be most important in action.
56 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
life. By illustrating this he is doing two things: ¬rst, as mentioned, he is
illustrating his unyielding commitment to SV even when faced with death.
But second, we can see that these examples, in context, try to show that the
counterfactual claim that an active public life would surely have led to his
early death is in fact correct. There is something deliberately playful going
on here: Socrates is citing the times in which he ran the risk of death for the
sake of justice, all as evidence for the claim that, if he had entered politics,
he would indeed have been killed. This is a funny conclusion from a man
who has been arguing passionately for the last four Stephanus pages that
he, and all potentially excellent people, should give no thought to death
when compared with virtue. He now shows that probable premature death,
and its effect of making him unable to pursue, and urge others to pursue,
virtue turns out to explain why entering politics was not the right action.
Socrates™ death certainly counts as a factor in his determining deliberation
about what the right thing to do is; in fact, in the example at hand it is the
decisive factor. What SV rules out is to aim at avoiding death, premature
or not, at the expense of doing what is right. But while scholars have taken
Socrates™ ethics to imply that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to
be determined independently of such purportedly mundane considerations
as life, death, injury, loss of property, and so on, his own understanding
of the correctness of the divine sign shows that this is wrong. Virtue is
supreme, but what the virtuous action is is determined by looking at all of
the particular factors relevant on the occasion. If we fail to appreciate that
SV is an aiming principle, we fail to understand Socratic deliberation.
The most important text for understanding how Socrates makes deci-
sions in the here and now, however, is the Crito.

2.3 crito™s a ppea l
At Crito 44e1, Crito begins his appeal to Socrates to let him and others help
Socrates to escape from prison. Few scholars analyze Crito™s argument in
detail.21 Evaluating Crito™s argument is important for our assessment of the
rest of the dialogue. Some recent commentators have argued that Socrates™
“Laws” speech at the end of the dialogue is ironic, and does not represent
his real reasons for not leaving prison; they are reasons provided merely

21 Crito™s argument receives almost no discussion in Kraut™s 1984 book-length study; Allen (1980),
67“70 focuses on the conventional Greek morality in Crito™s argument for escape; Weiss (1998),
ch. 3 devotes a whole chapter to discussing the character of Crito throughout Plato™s dialogues, but
neglects Crito™s argument; Santas (1979), 11 devotes a paragraph. Brown (1992), 71“3, Stokes (2005),
chs. 4“5, and White (1996), 103“6 are exceptions.
Determining virtue in the here and now 57
for the bene¬t of Crito, who would be unable to understand Socrates™ real
philosophical reasons.22 Another argues further that the ¬nal argument is
in fact super¬‚uous: Socrates has already completed his argument that it
is unjust to escape from prison before the Laws portion of the dialogue
even begins, only Crito is too dull to understand it.23 I think that careful
consideration of Crito™s argument, and Socrates™ response, will reveal that
many of the same reasons that Socrates appealed to in the Apology he appeals
to again with Crito under the persona of the Laws. If this is so, then it would
be unreasonable to dismiss these reasons as simply ad hominem, unless one
wants to argue that Socrates is not providing real reasons for his actions
during the defense speech either.24
Crito begins his appeal by anticipating a worry he imagines that Socrates
might have about the expense and trouble that he and others will suffer
for helping Socrates to escape. Crito uses the verb kl”ptein (“to steal”) to
describe what they will do: they will “steal” Socrates out of prison (44e4).
This verb clearly has a morally negative connotation. Crito, however, is not
reluctant to use it to describe the action he proposes. Indeed he justi¬es
his request for Socrates to forget about what cost his friends will incur,
¬nancial or otherwise, by claiming that he and the others “are surely right”
(¡me±v g‡r pou d©kaio© –smen, 45a1“2) in running such risks to save him,
and even greater ones if need be. So the simple fact that Crito is proposing
to “steal” Socrates certainly does not by itself determine, at least as far as
Crito is concerned, that it is wrong or unjust for Socrates to escape. Crito
envisages the present circumstances as ones in which a person could “steal”
(kl”ptein) and nevertheless be right (dika©ov) in doing so.

22 Miller (1996); Harte (1999). I agree with Lane™s (1998) comparison between the structure of Socrates™
argument in the Crito and Aristotle™s practical syllogism; I argued independently for the same parallel
in Vasiliou (1999b). But although it is structurally analogous, I believe that the major premise SV has
a particular status, which causes the minor premise to be special as well. In the example from Aristotle
(NE 7.3, 1147a29“31) the major premise “all sweets must be tasted” is a premise that contains no
controversial ethical terms, so that the particular premise, to be grasped by perception, is something
anyone with ordinary perception can apprehend. Lane claims (315) that Crito is similarly supposed
to “perceive” the minor premise that to escape is to do wrong. But Socrates™ major premise, SV,
simply tells us that we must do the virtuous action “ that leaves the central issue as yet undetermined:
what is the virtuous action in the here and now? This is not simply a matter of “perception.” Even
if this is the way that the minor premise of an Aristotelian practical syllogism is apprehended, I ¬nd
no evidence that Socrates believes that Crito ought simply to “see” the truth that escape is unjust.
Indeed, on the interpretation I am defending Crito supplies an argument aimed precisely at disputing
that minor premise. The Laws™ argument, then, is not simply the result of “Crito™s obduracy” (315),
but forms a necessary reply to his argument.
23 Weiss (1998). See Stokes (2005), ch. 2, for a different assessment of Crito.
24 I do not know of anyone who attempts to read the Apology this way, and such a reading is not easily
available to Harte, Miller, or Weiss, since, to varying degrees, they claim that the Laws™ argument is
aimed speci¬cally at Crito.
58 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Nothing in the text indicates that Socrates does not believe this as well.
Certainly we might imagine a different Socrates making quick work of
Crito™s argument by interrupting just at this point: “Crito, you yourself
have already admitted that you are proposing ˜stealing™ me away. Stealing is
unjust and wrong. So I cannot be ˜stolen away™ from prison.” The absence
of such a response suggests that Socrates does not take stealing and justice
to be necessarily incompatible. We should remember later that Crito uses
this word, when Socrates uses ˆpodidr†skein (“to run away”) at 50a7 to
describe his escape. This too is a pejorative word, often used for runaway
slaves. Socrates talks there of his “running away” (ˆpodidr†skein), “or
whatever one should call it.” We should not take this phrase as shorthand
for a complete moral argument: “running away is immoral, by whatever
name you call it, so don™t try to de¬‚ect notice from the immorality of your
action by trying to call it something else.” This is not Socrates™ argument; the
fact that ¬ve Stephanus pages earlier Crito has already called the proposed
action a case of “stealing” supports such a conclusion. As we shall see,
Socrates argues at 50a7 that no matter what we call the proposed escape,
the question is whether it is just or not. The quick and facile determination
that Socrates™ escape is unjust, based on a simple moral rule that either
stealing or running away is wrong tout court, is not one entertained either
by Socrates or Crito.25
This is closely connected to a common objection to Socratic ethics.
Would Socrates never do an “unjust action,” no matter how trivial, even
if it led to, say, his saving hundreds of lives? In the Introduction I called
such questions “moralizing” and we shall see that failing to appreciate
the distinction between aiming and determining questions encourages it.
A moralizing position preemptively takes a determining question to be
settled. It presumes that we already know, for example, that purposefully
telling a falsehood or escaping from prison is wrong. The harm of doing
such a wrong is then compared with what we would allegedly gain by acting
contrary to virtue. But as we shall see Socrates does not understand such
actions as violating virtue in exchange for some other, “non-moral,” goods.
For Socrates (and Plato), there are not moral and non-moral goods: there
are goods of the body, goods of the soul, and material goods. He and Crito
must determine what constitutes the just action in their particular situation.
As we shall see, a “moralizing” misreading has signi¬cant philosophical
rami¬cations for understanding not only the structure and purpose of the
argument in the Crito, but also the nature of Socratic deliberation.

25 See Kraut (1984), 120“1.
Determining virtue in the here and now 59
Crito next points out that the money required is not a signi¬cant amount;
the people who need to be paid off are cheap, and plenty of money is
available (45a6“b5). Crito™s money, which is entirely at Socrates™ disposal,
is suf¬cient. Further, if Socrates is worried about spending too much of
Crito™s money, others are ready to spend theirs: Simmias, who has brought
money from Thebes for just this purpose, as well as Cebes. These are small
details, but signi¬cant. They show, ¬rst, that Crito is not acting alone. If we
are to criticize Crito for urging Socrates to commit an obviously immoral
and un-Socratic act by paying his way out of prison, then we must include
Simmias, Cebes, “and very many others” (45b5) in our condemnation.
Indeed, in the Apology Plato depicts himself as the ¬rst of four, including
Crito and his son Critoboulos, to offer money for a ¬ne in a last-ditch
attempt to avoid the death penalty (38b6“9). Plato too wished to prevent
his friend™s execution, and the Apology reference shows that he was willing
to spend money to persuade the Athenians to spare Socrates™ life. Of course
offering a ¬ne for the jury to accept is quite different from proposing a
bribe to escape from prison illegally, and Plato does not explicitly include
himself as part of this latter group.26 The point here is simply that Crito
is not a lone morally confused individual who is overcome by his love for
Socrates. Crito is (assuming he is not lying) acting as an emissary for a group
of people who desire and are willing to ¬nance Socrates™ escape, including
such philosophically capable ¬gures (judging by the Phaedo anyway) as
Simmias and Cebes.27
What about Crito™s mention of money and expense in the ¬rst place?
Doesn™t this by itself show that he, and perhaps Simmias and Cebes as
well, are ignorant of what Socrates™ real concerns would be? In this section
of the text (45a6“b7) Crito is explaining that the ¬nancial burden of the
escape will not be overwhelming, and that there are many people among
whom the expense can be shared. I do not see why Socrates would treat
this as irrelevant in itself. If Socrates believed that by escaping he would
otherwise be doing no wrong, the effect it might have on the ¬nances of
his friends would be relevant in his deliberation about whether he should
escape. If, for example, the ¬nancial cost of escaping involved ruining the
livelihood of friends, that might indeed count against it. What Socrates will
of course have no part of, as we shall see, is consideration of the ¬nancial
cost independently of aiming at doing the just action or avoiding the unjust
Although he does not rule it out: “and very many others” (Šlloi polloª p†nu, 45b5).
27 Weiss (1998) and others characterize Crito as particularly dull, causing Socrates to have to change
his argument for Crito™s bene¬t.
60 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
In 45b7“c4, Crito responds to a worry about exile that Socrates had
himself raised in the Apology (37c“d). Crito assures Socrates that he can go
to many places, in particular to Thessaly, where he will be welcomed and
suffer no trouble. In the Apology (37c“38a), Socrates contemplates exile as
a punishment, but rejects it on the grounds that wherever he goes he will
talk to people as he always does and the youth will listen to him. Thus he
would suffer the same fate as he has in Athens and end up being driven
out of town after town. As we have seen, Socrates™ rejection of exile as a
proposed punishment in the Apology depends in part on consideration of
his age, and in part on what would happen to him if he accepted exile. We
will see in the argument of the Laws that Socrates considers exile in even
more detail in response to Crito™s remarks here. But the fact that Crito is
clearly responding to a concern raised by Socrates himself in the Apology as
a reason for rejecting exile “ namely that he will be stuck wandering from
town to town at seventy years old (since he is unable to keep quiet) “ shows
that Crito is not appealing to considerations that are foreign to Socrates™
values. Indeed, these were some of Socrates™ own points.
Crito™s argument continues:
Further, Socrates, you seem to me to be undertaking a thing that is not even just,
but you are betraying yourself, when it is possible to save yourself, and you hasten
the occurrence to you of such things which your enemies both would hasten and
have hastened in their wish to destroy you. (45c5“8)
The strength of Crito™s claim, and the argumentative burden it places on
Socrates™ response, is rarely adequately appreciated. Not only would it not
be unjust to escape from prison, it would be positively unjust to remain
there.28 By remaining in prison Socrates is doing something unjust: it would
be an unjust betrayal of oneself not to save yourself when you can. The idea
that Socrates betrays himself, and thereby acts unjustly and does himself
wrong, is a form of argument again familiar from Socrates in the Apology.
There he expresses an unwillingness “to do himself an injustice” during the
penalty phase of speech by saying he deserves some punishment when he

28 Brown (1992), 71“3, unlike most, does look at Crito™s argument in some detail, and correctly sees
that a concern with injustice is central to his account. He presents Crito™s view, however, as saying
that Socrates would be justi¬ed in escaping. I argue that Crito makes an even stronger claim: it
would be acting unjustly for Socrates not to escape. If we fail to understand that Crito is making this
claim, we shall fail to understand why the Laws bring up all of the points they do. Irwin (1995), 45
refers to Crito™s claim as saying that remaining would be “unjust.” White (1996), 97, 105, 109 clearly
sees that Crito argues that justice itself requires Socrates to escape, and not only that he thinks escape
is justi¬able. But White draws conclusions from this about the nature and purpose of the Laws™
argument and about the Crito as a whole that are far from mine. See too Stokes (2005), 47.
Determining virtue in the here and now 61
does not (37b3“5). Crito should be understood, then, as again raising an
argument that has a precedent with Socrates.
Crito follows the charge that Socrates is betraying himself with the accu-
sation that by remaining in prison Socrates also betrays his sons, whom he
has an obligation to care for, and who will now suffer the fate of orphans.
Crito™s conclusion is that Socrates is choosing the “easiest path” (45d6), and
that he ought instead to make the choice of a man who is “good and brave”
(ˆgaq¼v kaª ˆndre±ov), especially “when he has claimed that he cares for
virtue his whole life” (45d6“7).29 Viewed in context, then, Socrates™ betrayal
of himself and his sons are, by Crito™s lights, the reasons that his remaining
in prison is indeed unjust, and not the action of a good and brave man.
Of course, this charge runs smack against Socrates™ central moral principle,
SV, and his argument in the Apology that he has always acted in accordance
with it.
Crito has been heavily criticized for the ¬nal part of his speech. After
making an explicitly Socratic point “ that what Socrates is doing is contrary
to virtue “ he ruins it by raising questions about reputation and about how
he and his friends will seem to others if they do nothing. Crito says that he
will be ashamed (45e1) on behalf of Socrates and all of his friends if Socrates
is put to death, for they will be thought to have let this happen through a
“lack of courage” (45e2, e6). Many commentators have noted that Crito is
worried about how he and his friends will look if Socrates is killed. Their
reputations will suffer because they have not been able to show traditional
Athenian excellence by having the power to save their friend™s life, when
it is reasonably easy to do so; Crito and his clique will be disgraced. As
with the earlier mention of money and safe places to stay, it might seem
that Crito has once again lost track of considerations that would be of any
importance to Socrates.
These points are certainly partly accurate about Crito, but I do not
think that he has lost his way entirely. As we shall see, Socrates will need to
adjust and focus Crito™s concerns, but his problem is not that he brings in
intrinsically irrelevant or un-Socratic considerations, but that he does not
keep the aim of acting virtuously (and not acting viciously) supreme in his
deliberation. By themselves Crito™s references to shame and reputation are
more reasonable and Socratic than they are typically taken to be. First, we
need to pay attention to the fact that they occur in the context of an overall
29 It is striking that Crito sees virtue here as one aim among many, and so describes Socrates as someone
who has cared about virtue his whole life, but there is no “above all” in his description. It is as though
virtue were one goal among many that Socrates has had. This will be important when we look at
Socrates™ response.
62 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
argument about what Socrates should do, albeit an emotional one. They
immediately follow his claim that Socrates is not doing the right thing,
not doing what a good and courageous man would do, and what a man
who has cared for virtue his whole life would do. If Crito is right that it is
unjust for Socrates to remain in prison, then he is right to worry that he
will act shamefully and cowardly if he does not save Socrates. Concern with
how one appears is not entirely irrelevant to the Socratic way of thinking,
provided, as Socrates will make explicit, that one is concerned with how
one justly appears, that is, how one would appear to a truly just and brave
person. So if Crito is right that the truly brave, just, and good action is
for Socrates to escape, then he is right to fear the disgrace at failing to
do what is right. Crito™s argument may be too quick, then, insofar as he
has not adequately determined that Socrates™ remaining in prison is in fact
unjust, cowardly, and bad, but he is not simply appealing to considerations
that are irrelevant or worse. Secondly, Crito sums up his speech by urging
Socrates to consider whether his failure to escape would turn out to be both
bad and shameful for himself and his friends (46a3“4). The idea that the
wrong action is both bad and shameful is familiar to Socrates, who uses
these terms in the Apology (e.g., 28b ff.) and Gorgias, where he argues that
acting unjustly is always both bad and shameful (e.g., 474c ff.).
Further evidence that the considerations that Crito raises are not simply
off the mark is that, as we have seen, Socrates raises many of the same ones
in the Apology, including the question of reputation. He thinks he would
destroy his own reputation as someone who is distinguished in virtue by
begging from the jury, and he urges the other citizens of Athens not to “wrap
the city in shame” (a«sc…nhn t¦€ p»lei peri†ptein, 35a8) by behaving in
such a way. He himself appeals to shame several times, asking the Athenians
whether they are not ashamed to care about their bodies and wealth more
than their souls (29d9). We should see Crito™s appeal to reputation and
disgrace as similar, and indeed as purposefully throwing back at Socrates
his own reasons and arguments from the Apology.
Crito, then, despite his obvious eagerness and his anxiety about the lack
of time left to them to act (46a4“7), nevertheless frames his speech around
the claim that he and the rest of his companions are urging the right course
of action (45a1) and that Socrates will act in the wrong way by remaining in
prison. In the argument that follows we shall see that all of Crito™s points,
even the ones that are typically dismissed as being irrelevant to Socratic
deliberation, are addressed. Socrates must focus Crito™s considerations and
make sure that they are being looked at according to SV. But we shall see
that, while Socrates thinks that one should never simply aim at saving one™s
Determining virtue in the here and now 63
children or one™s life, neither should one simply aim at not running away
or keeping an agreement or acting legally. If he thought this, the simple fact
that he was escaping against the law would be suf¬cient to show that such
an action would be wrong. The key concept will once again be the idea of
an aim. All of these factors “ one™s children™s fate, one™s own, the keeping
of agreements, the fact of escaping, even Socrates™ age “ will be relevant
considerations in a deliberation the aim of which is to do the virtuous
action (or to avoid wrongdoing). Crito™s argument is ¬‚awed, but its ¬‚aw is
that in his eagerness he has not been careful to commit to SV as the explicit
aim of their action. Rather, when push comes to shove, Crito appears to be
aiming simply to save Socrates™ life, whether or not it is truly the virtuous
action. While Crito™s love for Socrates may be moving, it clearly violates
In the end, of course, Socrates will show that he thinks that Crito is
wrong: escaping from prison is in fact the unjust action, and so he must
not do it. It will take a bit of argument “ and argument that one could
reasonably dispute “ to establish Socrates™ conclusions. I shall argue that
by the end of the Crito we can still plausibly wonder whether escaping
from prison was in fact wrong. Crito, like most people, allows aims other
than virtue to govern his actions, especially at times of crisis. Socrates does
not have substantive knowledge of what virtue is: as he will say, he can
only follow the argument that seems best to him upon re¬‚ection (46b4“6).
What is in his power, and what he makes sure to do and to make Crito do
as well, is to adhere unwaveringly to SV, and not to aim instead at saving
his life or at anything else. Whether his ¬nal decision is indeed correct he
cannot know for sure, since he does not know what virtue is.30 But he can
know that he acted according to SV and thus that he acted like a good
man. If he ends up in fact doing wrong, he has not done it intentionally
but through ignorance.

2.4 s oc rat e s ™ re s ponse
Socrates responds to Crito™s speech by ¬rst noting its emotional tone, and
the danger inherent in such enthusiasm: Crito™s zeal (–piqum©a) is worth
a lot, if it has some “right aim” (met‡ tinov ½rq»thtov; Gallop™s trans.),
but if it does not, the greater the zeal the more dif¬cult it will be to handle
(46b1“4). Socrates™ conclusion, however, is that they must consider whether

30 Unless he can understand non-interference from his divine sign as de¬nitive evidence that he is not
doing wrong. But, as I have noted, he does not mention the divine sign at all in the Crito.
64 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
they should do what Crito proposes or not. There is no sign that Socrates
does not recognize Crito as having put forward a serious argument. Crito™s
anxiousness to act “ and to act that very night (46a6) “ adds to the danger
that they may act too quickly and so do the wrong thing, but as we have
seen his appeal has been more than merely emotional. Socrates tells Crito
that he is the sort of person who always obeys the argument (l»gov) that
after consideration seems to him best, and that he values the same principles
(l»goi) as before (46b5“c1). He next divides his subsequent conversation
with Crito, until the point where the “Laws” enter (50a6), into two dis-
cussions aimed at determining whether two different principles (l»goi),
which have seemed best to Socrates in the past, remain “well said” (46b8,
46e2, 47a2: ¬kan¤v l”gesqai, 47a5) in the present circumstances.
The ¬rst principle (46c7 [pr¤ton] “ 48b4) “ that one should listen
to the opinions of some people (the ones who know) and not others “
speci¬cally addresses what Crito was saying about reputation (46c7“8).
Socrates does not dismiss concern with reputation as absolutely irrelevant.
Rather, he does what he said he would do at the beginning of his speech:
he determines whether it has a correct aim. Caring about your reputation
is ¬ne, as long as you care about your reputation from the perspective of
the few who know, not of the many. One needs to pay attention to good
opinions, not bad ones, and good ones are the opinions of those who know.
In Crito™s more extended discussion of reputation and feeling ashamed
(45d8“46a2) he does not explicitly say that he would feel ashamed before the
ignorant many, or would acquire a bad reputation among the many, in con-
trast to his earlier remarks (44c“d). In the earlier passage, Crito does refer to
the opinion of the many, but Socrates dismisses their opinion as itself (that
is, qua majority opinion) carrying little weight, because they do not have
the power to make a person good or bad “ presumably because they lack the
knowledge of what makes a person good or bad. Crito concedes this (44e1)
and throughout the later passage uses only impersonal constructions “
for example, “I would be ashamed lest it appear . . .” (45e1“2) “ that do not
specify before whom he would be ashamed. As we discussed above, Crito™s
appeal to shame and reputation is sandwiched between the claims that
Socrates is not acting virtuously, in one case, by remaining in prison and,
in the other, by allowing himself to be put to death (45d6“8 and 46a3“4).
If we interpret Crito™s argument sympathetically, as I think Socrates does,
he attaches consideration of reputation in his main speech to the claim that
Socrates is not acting rightly by remaining in prison. If it is indeed true (as
Crito maintains) that it is wrong for Socrates to stay in prison, then even by
Socrates™ lights it would be reasonable and appropriate for Crito to worry
Determining virtue in the here and now 65
about the reputation he and Socrates would rightly acquire from someone
who knew what the right thing to do is. Socrates is making sure that it is
not reputation per se that is important, but the reputation one acquires
from the right people “ people who know what is right and wrong.31
Moreover, when Socrates makes the choice explicit between paying atten-
tion to the opinion of the many who don™t know and the opinion of one
who does, Crito has no particular reason to balk or to worry about his
argument for escape because it still rests on the claim that escape is the
right thing to do. By the end of this ¬rst logos Crito should not think that
his substantive argument has been undermined to any extent. Given that
according to Crito the truth is that it is right for Socrates to escape, the
opinion of the one they should value “ the knower™s opinion “ should agree
with Crito™s.
Note too that Crito agrees that one should listen only to the person who
knows, “if there is one who knows” (47d1“2). The if-clause seems to refer
back to Socrates™ earlier claim that he always acts on the logos that seems
best to him (46b3“6). Socrates is not claiming to be a moral expert;32 he
does not have the techne-knowledge of virtue that the sophists profess,
so, in the absence of any moral expert with them, he and Crito will have
to decide based on the logos that seems best to them.33 This is important
because in the end we might want to disagree with Socrates and to claim
that his argument for staying in prison was not right after all. I think Plato
leaves this option open for the reader. Socrates must act that very night, so
he remains in prison having acted, as always, according to SV, but at the
same time, as always, having acted in a way that might be in fact wrong.34
Before this ¬rst logos ends, Socrates adds a crucial point. To illustrate the
truth of his claim that one should listen only to those who know, he draws
an analogy with physical training. In training one should heed the advice
only of an expert doctor or trainer regarding what “ought to be done in

31 Ap. 25b ff. makes the same point in less abstract terms: the many are ignorant about any particular
subject you might choose, while those who know are few.
32 Contrary to Grote (1875), 1, 308 and Vlastos (1985/1994), 47“8; in agreement with Kahn (1996),
103“4. See Beversluis (2000), 228, n. 21 for criticism of Vlastos.
We might note how frequent the uses of doke± and fa©netai are here. Socrates says he follows the
logos that seems best to him (46b6), and he asks Crito over and over throughout the dialogue how
the argument “seems to him”: e.g., 46e2, 47a2, 48b4, 48d6, 49e1, 49e4, 51c5. This lessens the force
of the claim (see Miller [1996]) that Socrates™ ¬nal remark, that he “seems” to hear the logos of the
Laws (54d2“7), is supposed to indicate some sort of irony or hesitancy. All along he and Crito have
agreed to go with the argument that seems best to them, without that carrying any force of illusion.
It stems, rather, from the acknowledgement that there is no moral expert present and so they will
have to rely, as a second best, on what appears to them (i.e. what they believe) to be just.
34 Again, the only safeguard against this is the divine sign. See discussion above, 2.2.
66 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
acting, exercising, eating, and drinking [prakt”on kaª gumnast”on kaª
–dest”on ge kaª pot”on]” (47b9“10). The person who doesn™t listen to the
expert, but follows the lead of the ignorant many, will be harmed. Socrates
then asks Crito about the part of such a person that would be harmed
(47c1“6). Crito of course answers, “the body.” In the example it is the
expert who makes the determination about which actions are correct; it is
the doing of truly healthy actions that produces a healthy good body, and
the doing of unhealthy actions that generates the contrary. Socrates then
moves on to cases concerning “just and unjust, shameful and ¬ne, and
good and bad matters.” Here too we should look for the one who knows (if
there is such a person), since if we do not follow the guidance of one who
knows we will corrupt and maltreat “that which becomes better by justice,
but is destroyed by injustice” (47d4“5). Without explicitly using the word
“soul,” Crito here agrees that the soul is an “independent locus of harm and
bene¬t.” That is, the soul is something that can be harmed or bene¬ted
entirely independently of any harm or bene¬t to one™s body or gain or loss
of one™s material possessions. This is an important and more controversial
claim than it ¬rst appears. I discussed it brie¬‚y in the Introduction, and we
shall see in chapter three that it is challenged by Polus in the Gorgias. What™s
more, it is clear that the claim here is that engaging in just actions makes the
soul “better,” that is, more virtuous. We have then, very brie¬‚y, a statement
of the “habituation principle,” the idea that it is the performance of actions
of a certain sort that generates a character or soul of a corresponding sort. As
I said in the Introduction, I am arguing that this is a central aspect of Plato™s
ethics. The habituation principle functions here as a crucial part of a quick
argument for SV, an argument that will be greatly elaborated and defended
in the Gorgias and Republic.35 For now, we need only note that Crito agrees
to three things: (1) the soul is an independent locus of harm and bene¬t
(like the body); (2) the welfare of the soul is much more worthwhile than
the welfare of the body (48a3); (3) a virtuous soul is generated by engaging
in virtuous actions (an instance of the habituation principle). Therefore
one must always avoid acting contrary to virtue above all so that one does
not harm the most important part of oneself. Thus we have the framework
of an argument for SV, which Crito simply accepts.36
Unlike other commentators™ accounts of this argument, I explain it with-
out reference to any concept of “happiness.” We should pursue virtue above
all because engaging in virtuous actions creates the best state of the most
valuable part of ourselves. Although this is certainly not an unassailable

35 36
See, esp., 3.8, 7.2“3, 8.1. See especially Irwin (1995), §30 and Vlastos (1991), ch. 8.
Determining virtue in the here and now 67
argument, it proceeds without using any substantive account of happiness.
Socrates surely agrees that living with the most important part of oneself
ruined is not a happy life. But it is not as though this claim is doing the
substantive work; it is not as though the argument is about whether living
one™s life with a corrupt soul is a happy life or not. I do not see how one
could concede (1)“(3) and not accept the conclusion. Each of these claims
individually, however, might be open to dispute.37 Further, there remains
the glaring question, raised at this point in the text, of how we determine
what the virtuous actions are, given the absence of any expert. Cleitophon™s
worry arises urgently here: if we accept (1)“(3), Socrates has just given us
an argument for SV, but, without an account of what virtue is, we run the
ultimate risk that we may be ruining our souls by engaging in the wrong
actions. Another objector might concede (1) and (3) and reject (2) “ why is
the state of soul so important? We can, if we like, conceive of these questions
as questions about the relationship between virtue and happiness, but in
fact the claims are much more speci¬c than a general dispute about whether
virtue is essential to living well.
The second logos is established quickly, in six brief lines. Socrates says that
what must be valued most of all (perª ple©stou poiht”on) is not simply
to live, but to live well, where living well (t¼ e” z¦n) is the same as living
nobly (kal¤v) and living justly (dika©wv) (48b5“6). The construction perª
ple©stou/perª ple©onov poie±sqai is important. It occurs at two other
places in the Crito: 44c2“3 and 54b3.38 I shall discuss the latter passage
below. In the former Crito is making the claim that he will acquire a bad
reputation for seeming to “value money more than friends” (cržmata
perª ple©onov poie±sqai £ f©louv). I submit that in all three passages this
construction is a way of expressing the concept of an aim. To say what you
“make more of” or “attach more value to” is to say which aim or end you
hold higher than another. To say what you “attach the most value to” is
37 I shall argue in 3.4 that Polus is unable to get to (2) because he does not even understand (1).
38 The expression occurs four times in the Apology. At 21e5 Socrates is relating his investigation of the
oracle and has just described his experience with questioning public ¬gures. Despite his growing
unpopularity, he says that he thought he should “attach the highest value” (perª ple©stou poie±sqai)
to the business of the god. At 24d1 he asks Meletus whether he attaches the highest value to the
young being as good as possible. At 30a2, as we saw in chapter one, he reprimands the citizens for
attaching the least value to the things of greatest importance “ virtue and wisdom “ and attaching
more value to baser things “ prodigious wealth, honor, and glory. At 32e4, considered earlier in this
chapter, Socrates says that anyone who attaches the highest value to justice will never survive in
public life. We can see that in these passages these phrases are best understood as associated with the
concept of an aim or goal. See also Theaetetus 150a6, which occurs in the midwifery passage. Socrates
complains there that people “attach more value” to lies than to truth. Cf. also Rep. 540e1 and 554a2,
where the oligarchic ¬gure is described as “attaching the greatest value to money” (precisely what
Crito is worried about being accused of at 44c2“3).
68 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
to state what end you take to be supreme. Here Socrates says that living
virtuously is supreme. As in the Apology, we should not interpret this as
saying that simply being alive is unimportant, or that life and death are
never to be taken into consideration in one™s deliberations. Rather, it says
that one must deliberate always with the aim of living well, that is, justly,
that is, virtuously; in other words, it is a formulation of SV. Crito agrees
to SV, then, as a logos that remains the same, and against which he has
nothing to say.
There may seem, however, to be a large obstacle to this reading immedi-
ately ahead in the text. Securing Crito™s agreement to these logoi, Socrates
then says that they must determine whether it is just for him to escape from
prison or not. If it seems to them to be just, they will attempt it, but if not,
they will let it go. Socrates™ commitment to SV, which he will proceed to
formulate in several versions over the next Stephanus page, ties the delib-
eration regarding escape to the aim of acting justly. It is in this context,
immediately after gaining assent to the claim that living well is what “must
be valued most of all,” that Socrates says the following (I translate very


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