. 3
( 9)


Those topics [sk”yeiv] which you are talking about “ about [perª] the expenditure
of money, reputation, and the nurturing of children “ take care, Crito, lest these
subjects [sk”mmata] belong to those who would kill and then resurrect easily, if
they were able, without any understanding, namely, to the many. (48c2“6)

Interpretation of this passage is critical for those who claim that the Laws™
position cannot be identical to Socrates™. They argue that since the Laws
do indeed end up discussing money, reputation, and the care of Socrates™
children, they must not share Socrates™ “value system” since Socrates here
dismisses these considerations as irrelevant.39 Socrates is not thinking of
these, however, as “considerations.” Given the immediate context, the issue
is about what (perª t©) we must act, to put it very awkwardly in English
but to re¬‚ect the Greek. Perª t© questions are about ends. For example, in
the Gorgias Socrates asks repeatedly what Gorgias™ craft is about (perª t©):
that is, what its distinct product and end is (e.g., 449d“e).40 What is wrong
with the many is not that they consider factors like money, reputation, and

39 See Harte (1999), 129; Miller (1996), 123. I noted earlier in the chapter that we have precisely the
same tension at work in the Apology, for Socrates mentions the very same subjects in a context where
he repeatedly emphasizes that the jury ought to make a just decision. In the case of the Apology,
however, such points are typically dismissed as rhetoric. Until the work of Harte, Miller, and Weiss
the same had been said about the inclusion of such topics in the speech of the Laws.
40 This construction occurs throughout the dialogues of de¬nition as well, when Socrates seeks the
perª t© of the different virtues on analogy with the perª t© of the different crafts.
Determining virtue in the here and now 69
children in their deliberations about what to do.41 Rather, it is that they
take these topics to be what their actions are about, that is, what the aim
of their actions is. Instead of focusing on whether or not they are acting
justly, the many take the subject and goal of their action to be, say, saving
money, or saving a person™s life. These are worth nothing as aims, according
to Socrates, when compared with virtue. Nevertheless, these things are
precisely the things one must argue about in order to determine what the
just action in fact is.
Consider the following quotation from a paper by Verity Harte
([1999], 133), which I shall use as representative of an opposing interpre-
Socrates cashes out justice solely in terms of its effect on an individual™s soul:
justice is what bene¬ts the soul. Of course, just acts may involve others, but here
at least Socrates has nothing to say on this front. A fortiori, there is no suggestion
that others “ and their relation to the agent in question “ have a role to play in
determining the justice of an action. For Crito, by contrast, the justice of an agent™s
action is differently assessed according as it relates to other speci¬c groups: friends,
enemies and family.

On my reading the problem is not that Crito assesses justice in a different
way than Socrates. Rather Crito, like most people, mistakenly elevates other
aims above acting justly (or not acting unjustly), particularly at times of
stress. As we have seen, after Crito™s argument for escape, Socrates says
that he wants to consider whether the things they held previously remain
well said (46b ff.). He then teases Crito by saying that since Crito is not
likely to die tomorrow, the current disaster will not lead him astray in the
argument (46e3“47a2). Of course, the opposite is the case: Socrates is the
one who remains committed to SV, even in the face of his own death, while
Crito™s love for Socrates causes him to want to save Socrates™ life more than
anything else; that is, he “attaches the highest value to” saving Socrates
rather than to acting virtuously.
Harte is of course correct that the value of just action is to be explained
by its effect on one™s soul. For Socrates and Plato the condition of one™s soul
is of supreme importance, and the soul is made excellent by doing excellent
actions, and correspondingly ruined by doing bad actions. Socrates is clear
that his sole aim will be to do the just action, and this is indeed, as Harte
says and as Socrates has just established with Crito (47c8“48a5), because
harm to the soul is harm that is far worse than any harm to one™s body or

41 As we have seen, Socrates himself does this in the Apology (and will do so again later in the Crito in
the persona of “the Laws”).
70 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
possessions.42 But this is by no means suf¬cient to resolve Socrates™ present
predicament. He must make a concrete decision here and now: should
he escape from prison this very night, or not? SV by itself, even together
with the understanding that it alone holds the key to true bene¬t (that
is, bene¬t to the soul), will not be enough to settle the case even for the
most committed Socratic. SV tells one not to aim to save his life, help his
children, bene¬t the state, aid his friends, or anything else above doing
what is virtuous. But how will the virtuous course of action be determined?
Socrates might “cash out” the value of just action in terms of its effects on
the soul,43 but what would it mean to determine what the just action is
by its effects on the soul? And this is precisely the situation that Socrates
faces in the Crito. How can he determine what the just action is, and
thereby safeguard his soul from the harm that would be caused by doing
an injustice?
Rather than rushing headlong into a decision as Crito is pushing him
to do, he ¬rst pauses and clari¬es to himself and to Crito that the supreme
aim of their action must be to act virtuously (that is, he con¬rms their joint
commitment to SV). But then he must turn to the question of whether
escaping from prison is indeed virtuous or not. And he cannot do this by
looking at what bene¬ts his soul. Harte says Socrates has “nothing to say on
this front”: if we believe that the Laws™ arguments are also Socrates™, then,
on the contrary, Socrates has lots to say on this front. And if we deny this,
as Harte does, on what basis does Socrates believe that escape is unjust?
His belief that justice bene¬ts the soul, and that the state of one™s soul
is of paramount importance, is of no help whatsoever. Harte claims that
there is no suggestion that relationships between the agent and others have
anything to do with determining the justice of an action. How then is the
justice of an action determined? The only way Socrates has of determining
whether an action is just or not, in the absence of a moral expert (which he
explicitly is not) or of any help from his daimonion (who does not appear
in the Crito), is as he says by following the argument that seems best to
him. But what will an argument about what the just act is be about, if it is
not about the relationship between the agent and others?
Although I have focused on Harte™s argument here, she is not alone in
her reasoning. In fact, as I have been arguing, it is the typical understanding
42 I think that the “worse” here is meant not simply quantitatively, but also that harm to the soul is sui
generis. Recall 48a3“4: the soul is polÆ timiÛteron than the body.
43 That is, it goes some distance towards answering the question: why ought I to be just? But this is
not the question at issue. Crito and Socrates agree that a person should be just, and Socrates has just
gotten Crito to agree to SV. The question they face is: what is the just (or unjust) action here and
Determining virtue in the here and now 71
of Socrates™ claim that virtue is most important. Commentators interpret
Socrates™ claim this way because they see justice or virtue as one consideration
among many in deliberation about what to do. I have said that this may
be so in an “aiming deliberation,” but that is not what is going on in the
Crito. The question is not whether justice or money or life ought to be one™s
supreme aim: Socrates and Crito both agree to SV. The question is rather
what is the just action here and now. And in a deliberation of this sort “ a
determining deliberation that seeks to determine what the just action is “
money, life, and the relations to others will be relevant as considerations.
Indeed, I do not know what it would be to consider the justice of an action
without considering things like the effects of the action on others, whether
it causes them pleasure or pain, deprives them of property, causes people™s
death, and so on.
48c2“6, then, simply rules out taking anything other than virtue to be
what acting is “about” understood as what the aim of our acting should
be. It does not, however, rule out taking things like our relationships to
ourselves and to others as considerations in our deliberations about what
the virtuous action actually is. What does it mean to say, as everyone would
say, that Socrates does not value his children more than justice? It means
that Socrates aims to act justly above aiming to act in such a way as to save
his children™s lives. But it cannot plausibly mean that Socrates does not
take the welfare of his children into consideration at all when determining
what the just action is. How could Socrates be a just person and never
consider the effects of his actions on himself or others? To say that he takes
into account only the best condition of his soul and the souls of others is
simply to forestall the question I am interested in and which I think has
been generally overlooked. His soul and the soul of every person will be
bene¬ted by just action and harmed by unjust action. But in order to act
justly, and see that others act justly, he must ¬gure out what the just action
is, and he cannot do this by reminding himself yet again that justice is the
most important thing for his soul.
I have emphasized, and perhaps belabored, this issue because it is a central
part of the book. A proper understanding of Socratic deliberation, and its
attempt to settle a determining question, will in¬‚uence our readings of the
dialogues to follow.

2.5 sv in t h e c r i t o
In 48b“50a, Socrates presents Crito with SV, formulated in a variety of
ways. The explicit parallels with the Apology are striking:
72 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
For us, however, since the principle [¾ l»gov] demands it, nothing else must be
looked at [skept”on] except that which we were now speaking about: whether we “
both the ones who are rescued and the rescuers themselves “ shall be doing just
things by paying money to and doing favors for those who would get me out of
here; or whether in truth we shall be acting unjustly by doing all these things. And
if it is manifest that we are acting unjustly, we must not take into consideration at
all [mŸ oÉ . . .] either whether we must die by waiting here and keeping quiet, or
whether we must suffer44 anything else before acting unjustly. (Cr. 48c6“d5)
First we should note again that Socrates here follows the logos that appears
best to him; there is no appeal to a moral expert. Second, the passage recalls
the language and content of Ap. 28d8“10.45 Socrates is clearly talking about
an “aiming deliberation”: given a (correct) judgement that a certain action
is not virtuous, nothing else should be “looked at” as competing with this.
Of course, as I have been arguing, whether escaping is unjust has yet to
be determined. After Socrates gets Crito™s agreement on SV, he then goes
on to formulate this principle variously as “it is never right to do injustice
[ˆdike±n]” (49a4“6, 49b8), “it is never right to do wrong [kakourge±n]”
(49c2) and also “it is never right to act badly [kak¤v poie±n]” (49a7“8).
Richard Kraut has argued that these three expressions, ˆdike±n, kakourge±n,
and kak¤v poie±n, are meant to be understood as equivalent.46 All of
the different formulations are simply alternative expressions of the aiming
principle, SV. As Kraut realizes, “it is never right to do wrong” cannot be
regarded either as a simple tautology nor can it be understood to rule out
causing, for example, physical harm to someone.47 Socrates was a brave
soldier, and he cites his actions in battle as examples of his doing the right
thing (Ap. 28d“e). He surely caused physical harm to people in the process.
Socrates™ point here is to isolate the “ethical” dimension of words like
“harm” and “do wrong.” As we have seen, the principle “it is never right to
do wrong” is an expression of SV when it functions as a limiting condition
on our actions.48
We are now in position to understand better the common remark that
the ¬nal argument in the Crito, undertaken with “the Laws,” is “based on”
the principle that it is never right to do wrong. This is true, but only of a
practical syllogism which has the aiming principle SV as its major premise.
The argument proceeds as follows:

44 Socrates is already setting up one important aspect of the Laws™ argument to follow: that, contrary to
what Crito has argued, the Laws are insisting that his remaining in prison is not doing an injustice,
but only suffering one. See below.
45 46 Kraut (1984), ch. 1.
Discussed in chapter one.
47 48 See Introduction.
Kraut (1984), 27, n. 4.
Determining virtue in the here and now 73
(1) One must never act unjustly (SV).
(2) Escaping from prison here and now would be to act unjustly (the
eventual conclusion of the argument with the Laws).
(3) Therefore, Socrates must not escape from prison.
What (1) has done in this argument is only to rule out all values other
than right and wrong as counting as aims for acting one way or the other.
When Crito assents to SV, he has con¬ned himself to assessing Socrates™
actions on one supreme dimension of value: virtue. Before the substantive
discussion begins, then, wealth, reputation, and even pursuing life and
avoiding death are ruled out as competing goals, but not, I have been arguing,
as considerations in a deliberation about what the just action is here and
now. Further, we should note that Socrates calls SV here the “¬rst principle”
(ˆrcž) of their inquiry (48e5; 49d9; see also 49d6 ˆrcÛmeqa). SV is the ¬rst
principle that will govern the investigation to follow. All of the substantive,
determining deliberation, however, takes place in the argument of the Laws.
Crito™s agreement to (1) goes no distance at all towards determining whether
Socrates should escape or not; it only tells us what the overall aim of the
deliberation must be.49 We can call (1) a “principle” and translate l»gov in
this way (as almost all translators and commentators do), but we should be
clear that it is an aiming principle.
Once Crito has agreed with SV, he has agreed to assess the correctness of
Socrates™ escape solely in terms of whether it is indeed the just action or not.
If the action is not just then, no matter what Socrates and his friends will
suffer by not escaping, they must not escape. The next principle Socrates
establishes is that one must abide by an agreement one makes “when the
things [agreed upon] are just” (49e6). As others have noted, Socrates does
not mean here that one should do an act, even if that act is unjust, simply
because one has agreed to it.50 Socrates then poses the crucial question: will
they be acting badly (kak¤v) by escaping and indeed breaking agreements
to do things which are just? Crito replies that he does not have an answer
to this question, “for I don™t know” (oÉ g‡r –nno¤, 50a4“5). Crito is not
simply being thick. He surely suspects that Socrates is against escaping,
which prompted his initial long and urgent speech. But he has argued
49 Contra Weiss (1998), esp. ch. 4, who argues that Socrates is able to make the substantive judgement
that escaping from prison would be unjust before any of the reasons adduced by “the Laws.” This
is part of Weiss™ overall argument that what “the Laws” say is not what Socrates himself believes.
Obviously my account interprets the Crito very differently. I will here emphasize only that the issues
are distinct. One could hold that the argument of “the Laws” is not Socrates™ own but still believe
that he needs some further argument to come to his ¬nal conclusion not to escape. See Pakaluk
(2000) for further discussion.
50 See, e.g., Harte (1999), 125. She goes on to argue, however, that this is the Laws™ position.
74 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
that not escaping is in fact unjust and he has no reason to think that the
argument has, thus far, ruled out his conclusion. Crito can concede that
they will follow the logos that seems best to them, and that the opinion
of the majority, simply qua majority, ought to carry no weight. He can
also concede SV, with its supporting claims that the soul is “much more
honorable” than the body and that just action bene¬ts the soul and unjust
action corrupts it. At this point in the argument Crito can still hold that
escape is indeed the just action, and that it would be wrong to remain and
be executed; for they do not yet know whether Socrates has entered into an
agreement at all, on what terms he has entered an agreement, or whether
the agreement is to do just things. And as Socrates himself has said, if it
is just for him to escape, then he will attempt escape. Determining this
question is the indispensable role that the argument of the Laws will play.51

2.6 th e l aws ™ sta rt i ng as sum pti ons
The Laws52 begin their discussion with the following claim: Socrates™ escape
is an action that contributes to the destruction of the Laws and of the “whole
city” to the extent that one individual can (50a9“b2).53 Socrates™ proposed

51 At this point, Harte asks: “[D]o the Laws, like Socrates, think that agreements are binding only if
what they require of one is itself just? I shall argue that they do not” (126). This stands for Harte as
part of the argument that the Laws represent a distinct value system from Socrates™ since the Laws
disagree with this principle. But I shall show in what follows (1) that Harte does not discuss an
important distinction in the argument between doing and suffering injustice (Kraut [1984], 85“6
discusses the doing versus suffering distinction; DeFilippo [1991], 257“60 argues that the Laws™
remarks that one must “do whatever we command” focus exclusively on suffering injustices and is
silent about the idea of the Laws commanding someone to do injustice; see below) and (2) that the
Laws argue for the substantive conclusion that the things Socrates has agreed to are in fact just. If
Harte™s interpretation were correct there would be no reason for the Laws to do this; the simple fact
that Socrates had made an agreement would be suf¬cient. The Laws do indeed establish this, but
they also do what Socrates™ principle requires: they argue that the things Socrates has agreed to do
are just. And it is this part of their argument that carries the decisive weight for Socrates, given the
agreed commitment to SV.
52 We might ask why Plato has Socrates engage in this ¬nal speech using the device of “the Laws.” Why
doesn™t he make the argument in propria persona? Any answer is inevitably speculative. I suggest two
motivations. First, from the perspective of the inner frame, putting the argument in the mouth of
the Laws would help to make the argument more palatable to Crito, for whom Socrates obviously
cares. By speaking through the Laws Socrates is able to be on Crito™s side and consider together
with him what the Laws might say. If he presented the argument against Crito in his own voice, it
would be much more adversarial. Second, from the perspective of the outer frame, Plato is clearly
interested in the questions of political philosophy that are raised in the Laws™ arguments. What are
the duties and proper relationship of a citizen to the state? By presenting the argument in the persona
of the Laws, its nature as political philosophy is highlighted and it shows that there are larger issues
here beyond the immediately pressing one of whether Socrates should escape from prison or not.
Political philosophy is of course a dominant theme in Plato™s work throughout his lifetime: see Crito,
Republic, Statesman, and Laws.
53 There is repeated mention that Socrates™ destruction of the Laws by his escape would be limited to
the effects of one person: 54c8 and 51a5.
Determining virtue in the here and now 75
escape does this, the Laws reason, because no polis could exist and not
be turned upside down (ˆnatetr†fqai)54 if its judgements (d©kai) did
not have force and could be nulli¬ed and destroyed by individual, private,
citizens. I take this point to be presented by the Laws as a political fact about
the necessary conditions for the possibility of a civilized society. If people are
to live together under some system of government, the laws and judgements
of the government must have force and not simply be ignored at will by
individuals. Therefore, if Socrates knowingly and purposefully proposes to
violate the city™s laws, he to that extent participates in the destruction and
undermining of the city itself. There are a number of important points to
make here. First, I think this claim is taken as given and not disputed by
Socrates or Crito. They agree immediately to it, taking it as a fact about
the reality of political society. Since they do this, the Laws do not devote
any more argument to it in what follows. They have established it as true
in the one sentence discussed above (50b2“5). Second, when Socrates asks
Crito what they will say to this, and to the many more things that could
be said about it, “especially by an orator” (50b7), all he means is that the
case for the necessity of the existence of laws which have binding force for
a society could be, if necessary, elaborated on to a great extent. The reference
to “an orator” suggests that in court, which of course is one of the central
arenas for orators, an orator would be the one to develop in detail and
stress to a jury that a society cannot exist without binding laws, and so
a person cannot simply be allowed to violate them with impunity.55 If a
society permits its citizens to violate laws without punishment, then the
society itself will cease to exist. In addition, if these points are correct, then
the Laws are not speaking exclusively as the Laws of Athens. It is certainly
true that at several places in the remainder of the speech the Laws do speak
speci¬cally as the Laws of Athens, but I think that they begin with a general
claim about laws and their relationship to society. The view asserted here
(as I shall show in some of the substantive argument that follows) is one
about the necessary conditions for human beings to live, as Aristotle says,
as political animals. Without laws with binding force, there would be no

54 This word can mean “to be overthrown,” but I hesitate to translate it that way insofar as “to be
overthrown” can suggest that one form of government is toppled and replaced by another, which I
do not think that the Laws intend here. The idea is captured by the more literal sense of the verb as
“to turn upside down”; the city would be toppled, but not replaced by anything else that could be
called a city or government.
55 Weiss (1998), 86“7 claims, without warrant in my view, that “by linking what the Laws say with
what an orator would say, Socrates decisively dissociates himself from the speech of the Laws.” See
also White (1996), 114ff. Ober (1998), 180“1 considers the political importance of the remark.
76 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Finally, the Laws never use in this passage ˆdike±n, kakourge±n, or kak¤v
poie±n (the three, synonymous, expressions for actions that Socrates and
Crito have agreed previously [49a“d] must never be done) to describe
Socrates™ proposed escape. And so there is no complete argument here
against escape of the form: (1) One must never do wrong, not even in return
for wrong done; (2) escaping from prison (by Socrates in this situation) is
doing wrong, therefore (3) escape is forbidden. The crucial step is (2) “
that is what needs to be determined. All that the Laws secure by this
point is agreement to the idea that by escaping Socrates will be acting
in a way destructive of the state (see 50b1 ˆpol”sai, b3 ˆnatetr†fqai,
b5 diafqe©rwntai). One is not doing wrong (acting unjustly), however,
simply because one is acting destructively.
When Socrates asks Crito what they will say in response, he suggests,
“[Yes, we are guilty of this destructive act against the Laws], for the city acted
unjustly against us and did not judge our trial correctly,” and Crito enthu-
siastically agrees (50c1“3).56 This provides the second standing assumption
for the argument that follows: Socrates was unjustly convicted and there-
fore wrongly imprisoned and wrongly sentenced to death. Neither the Laws
nor Socrates nor, of course, Crito disputes this, just as no one disputed the
idea that willful breaking of the laws is destructive of society. The argument
which follows, then, is about whether, given these two assumptions, it is just
for Socrates to do something that would, to some extent, contribute to the
destruction of the city. I am trying to show that this is a live and legitimate
question, and not simply an academic exercise.57 Part of the point of these
two assumptions is to head off simple, quick answers by one of the parties:
either Crito claiming that escape does not do anything that is relevant to
deliberation about whether it is just, or the Laws claiming that Socrates
was justly convicted and so must be punished. The points so far have gone
no distance, however, towards addressing the question of whether Socrates™
proposed escape is wrong.58

56 The part of the speech in brackets is an agreement with the Laws™ point implied by Socrates™ response
beginning  d©kei g†r. See Adam (1891), ad loc.
57 Kraut (1984), 44“8 clearly recognizes that destroying the laws is not ipso facto an unjust action, since
Socrates is not a paci¬st. He correctly sees that the question at issue is whether such a destructive
act is unjust.
58 White (1996), 110 is thus not right in saying that the opening of the Laws™ argument sees all
disobedience to the laws as morally the same “ as instances of doing wrong. I am arguing in direct
opposition to such a view. Disobedience is “ it is true “ to some extent destructive of the laws; that is,
it obviously undermines their authority. But whether it is therefore necessarily an act of wrongdoing
is entirely undetermined thus far. The slide from “destructive” to “wrong” by White makes this
count as a short, but complete, argument that escape is unjust; White then easily claims that it is
Determining virtue in the here and now 77
In what follows the Laws mount a case for why it would indeed be
wrong for Socrates in particular to act destructively towards Athens at
this stage of his life. I shall show that the Laws leave it open that it may
be just to disobey laws in other cities or even in Athens under different
conditions. The idea that violation of law, and thus partial destruction of
a city, is always wrong and unjust is not part of anyone™s value system: not
Socrates™, Crito™s, or even the Laws™. Socrates cannot be simply against the
destruction of a city tout court; recall that “harm” and “injure” cannot mean
physical harm for Socrates. The question, as always, is whether the causing
of physical harm, the causing of destruction of people or cities, is just or not.
The fact that something is being destroyed does not by itself answer this
The remaining argument of the Laws, then, should be understood
as addressing the following problem: given that escaping from prison is
destructive of the city, and given that Socrates has been treated unjustly by
the city, is it right for Socrates to engage in this destructive act? Of course, if
the Laws had disputed Socrates™ innocence, they would have a quick proof,
given SV, for remaining in prison: since Socrates is guilty, he must suffer
the punishment.

2 .7 th e a rgum e nts of t h e l aw s
The arguments of the Laws have been extensively discussed. My goal here
is to put them in a particular light by showing how they contribute to
answering the determining question that genuinely needs answering: does
Socrates commit an injustice by escaping from prison? Or does he, as Crito
has argued, commit an injustice by remaining in prison “ choosing the
easy action instead of the action that a brave and good man would perform
(45d6“8)? The reading I defend maintains that the Laws aim at address-
ing both of these questions, and that they answer as follows: ¬rst, Socrates
does in fact commit an injustice by escaping from prison, and second,
Crito is not right to think that Socrates does an injustice by remaining
in prison, rather he only suffers one. The Laws do not ever argue that
Socrates must commit an injustice if they order him to; they only argue
that he must suffer an injustice. With respect to the ¬rst claim I argue
against the prevalent authoritarian reading. I maintain that the injustice of
Socrates™ proposed escape could not have been determined without the
detailed examination that the Laws undertake, and it involves quite par-
ticular aspects of Socrates™ situation. The authoritarian-sounding princi-
ples have seemed so absolute in part because they have been pulled out of
78 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
context,59 with the rest of the Laws™ speech being dismissively called “rhetor-
ical.”60 My focus on the Crito as a dialogue in which we witness Socrates
make a concrete decision will enable us to see that the Laws are not engaged
in establishing general principles. They are engaged in a concrete argument
to show that certain principles correctly apply to Socrates in the present
situation. If we do not recognize the particular nature of the argument
in this context we risk relegating most of what the Laws say to rhetorical
bluster. If the Laws really believe that the citizens of a state must simply
obey whatever they command the citizen to do, then there is nothing fur-
ther to argue about. But I suggest that the Laws™ authoritarian remarks are
embedded in a complicated set of debatable conditions that together make
their overall conclusion persuasive.
While I follow the usual division of the argument into three parts,
(1) the parent/city analogy (50c9“51c3), (2) the argument based on agree-
ments (51c6“53a7), and (3) “Crito™s concerns” (53a8“54b1), I shall show
that the argument is cumulative. There are not a number of independent
small arguments (for example, that Socrates™ relationship to the city is like
a child™s to its parent, or the argument from agreement), each of which
establishes by itself that Socrates™ escape is unjust. Rather, the argument™s
overall conclusion that Socrates should not escape is not complete until the
end. None of the three “parts” of the speech is intended by the Laws as
complete on its own; it is the cumulative effect of all of them that estab-
lishes the conclusion. A result of this is that the burden for each part of
the argument is lowered, and so the overall argument is a better one. If
one understands each argument as complete by itself, then each ends up
considerably worse, and, in fact, clearly inadequate. By contrast, the inter-
pretation defended here allows everything that the Laws say to be relevant
to the argument. I do not deny that the Laws™ speech is conducted in an
emotional and rhetorical style, and that this style is intended, in part, to
persuade Crito.61 But it is compatible with this that the entire content of the
speech is necessary in order to provide a complete argument for the Laws™
59 Bostock (1990), Miller (1996), Weiss (1998), Harte (1999) all argue that the Laws™ speech is
authoritarian; the latter three take this as a reason for rejecting it as representing Socrates™ posi-
tion. Kraut (1984) and DeFilippo (1991) argue against this. Kahn (1989), 40“1 thinks that in the
authoritarian conclusion of parent/city analogy (51b“c) “Plato has here allowed the Laws to be car-
ried too far along by the force of their own rhetoric, and that there is from the philosophical point
of view no hope of salvaging this passage.”
60 Many commentators have remarked on this: see Vlastos (1974/1995), following a long tradition
stemming back to Grote (1875). Kraut (1984) does not discuss the ¬nal section of the Laws™ speech
(53a“54b) in any detail.
61 And, as I said above, the choice of the Laws as speaker might help to lessen the emotional impact of
their conclusions for Crito.
Determining virtue in the here and now 79
conclusion, and so necessary for the determination of whether Socrates
does an injustice by escaping or by remaining. On other readings, much of
what is said by the Laws consists of beside-the-point details that are either
aimed only at Crito™s mistaken values, or else are entirely irrelevant.62 In
particular the presence of considerations such as age, friends, money, and
children in the Laws™ speech has led recent commentators to dismiss it as
not genuinely expressing Socrates™ own value system, but consisting rather
of an ad hominem argument for the bene¬t of Crito. But if I have been cor-
rect so far, the Laws need to address Crito™s own signi¬cant argument that
remaining in prison does do an injustice to Socrates™ friends, family, and

2.7.1 The parent/city analogy
The analogy between parent and city, child and citizen, and the resulting
claims that the citizen is the “slave and offspring” of the Laws, and that
his birth, nurture, and education are all due to them, have seemed to
commentators exaggerated. First let us look carefully at the transition to
this part of the speech. Socrates and Crito, as I explained above, have just
responded that they have been wronged by the Laws in a way that (at least
potentially) justi¬es their acting in a manner destructive to the city. The
Laws™ ¬rst reaction is to ask whether that was the agreement they came to or
whether it was an agreement to abide by the judgements of the city (50c4“
6). Socrates supposes that they might be stupe¬ed or amazed (qaum†zoimen)
by such a reply, and the Laws tell Socrates not to be, but to follow their
argument. The parent/city argument then begins. Why would Socrates
suppose that he and Crito might be stupe¬ed by the ¬rst response? How
is it a response to what they had said? When the Laws refer to abiding by
agreements, it is a clear echo back to Socrates™ earlier principle that one must
abide by agreements when the things one agrees to do are just (49e6“50a2).
The Laws™ appeal to an agreement, in advance of a determination about
whether remaining in prison is just, carries no weight, even by Socrates™ own
principle. According to Crito™s argument, an extremely condensed version
62 Bostock (1990), e.g. 8, 11, complains that the details of the argument are too dif¬cult to allow precise
formulation. He is frustrated that the Laws do not make clear when Socrates is supposed to have
made his agreement. There are so many “messy details” because the argument, I have claimed, is
a cumulative, not a decisive, one and because it is engaged in establishing a very particular claim:
that Socrates should not, then and there, escape from prison. Kahn (1989), 35“6 points out the
particular nature of the argument as applying to someone in Socrates™ condition, i.e., of Socrates™
age and “sedentary disposition.” Vlastos (1974/1995), 42 also recognizes the particularity of the Laws™
80 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
of which has just been mentioned, the injustice of Socrates™ condemnation
and impending execution, together with the effects of these events on
friends, family, and not least of all on Socrates himself, justi¬es, and in
fact requires, that Socrates do an act admittedly destructive of the Laws.
Now the Laws are con¬dent, of course, that what Socrates proposes to do
is unjust. But their appeal to the force of an agreement is premature, and
this response to Socrates™ being stupe¬ed reveals that they know it. They
turn, then, in their rather condescending tone, to explain throughout the
rest of the entire argument why they are right to think that the agreement
is in fact about things that are just to do, and unjust not to do.
Understanding the parent/city analogy, and making its argument plau-
sible, depend upon recalling the dual aspect of the Laws I noted above:
the Laws are not only the laws of Athens but also laws in general. When
the Laws begin with an appeal to the necessity of there being laws that
have force and that are not overturned by private citizens, they appeal to
a purportedly necessary condition for human beings to live together in a
civilized way. At this level, the importance of laws, then, does not have
anything speci¬cally to do with the Athenian laws. Perhaps the most puz-
zling claim comes when the Laws maintain that they “brought Socrates
to birth, and have been the agents of his father ˜getting™ (marrying) his
mother, and of her birthing him” (50d1“3). As Josh Ober wonders, is this
actually true?63 With respect to the further claims that the Laws nurtured
and educated Socrates, Richard Kraut attempts to ¬nd an actual Athenian
law that requires the physical and musical education of children.64
Such maneuvers are unnecessary, however, and the Laws™ point becomes
plausible once we realize that they are thinking of themselves not only as
the speci¬c laws of Athens, but also as the laws of any civilized society. In a
time when infant mortality rates were extremely high, the fact that Socrates
was born and survived at all could reasonably be attributed in large part
to the fact that he was born in a technologically advanced society: with
shelter, clean water, adequate food, midwives, and so on. The chances of
Socrates™ literal survival, were he born outside of any society, not under
the secure umbrella of some set of laws, are greatly diminished. This is not
to say, at this point of the argument anyway, that other societies, such as
63 See Ober (1998), 189: “And what of the oft-repeated litany of ˜we bore, nurtured, and educated
you™? If these are true claims, the Laws™ contractual argument holds, and their rhetoric, however
faulty, is irrelevant. But are they actually true? Did Socrates owe his birth to the laws of Athens? Was
he well raised and properly nurtured by them? How did they educate him? All of this goes oddly
unexamined in the dialogue.”
64 Kraut (1984), 91, n. 1. Ober (1998), 189, n. 63 and 232“40 is skeptical about the existence of any such
Determining virtue in the here and now 81
Thebes or Megara (which are mentioned later) might not have served this
role equally well. The Laws start their argument by considering whether
Socrates (and Crito) have a complaint against laws in general, so they begin
by explaining (again, as an orator might) the importance of having law and
order in the ¬rst place. Surely, they suppose, Socrates is not against laws
in general, for the ¬rst bene¬t of the existence of laws is increased chance
of actual survival. Many of us are probably accustomed to thinking of the
whole world as, basically, civilized, so that if we were not born in a hospital
in Toledo, we would be born in one in Turin or Sydney. Thus we do not
readily think that we owe our birth to any laws. But simply consider one™s
chances of survival were one™s mother attempting to give birth in a place
that has no established, enforced laws, where bands of people ¬ght one
another without any overarching authority. This point carries forward to
the other examples: the very meeting of Socrates™ father and mother might
be thought to be due to the presence of society “ especially the fact that he
knows who his father is. His nurture “ that is, the food, clothing, and shelter
he required to live “ is also more easily and plausibly supplied in a civilized
society, like Athens, but not only Athens. Rather than being far-fetched it
seems to me correct that Socrates (and we, in fact) owe our nurture to the
presence of society. Education clearly follows suit. Where and how, outside
of a civilized, law-governed society, could one become educated in “music”
and “physical training” (now we are approaching something that Athens
could provide particularly well, but again not exclusively)? In the “wild,”
there would be no leisure for education, and no one to supply it. Indeed
the arts of music and physical education would not have even developed
in the ¬rst place outside of civilized society.
But these bare facts, signi¬cant as they are, do not form the entire basis
of the Laws™ argument. In addition, for each of the three categories “ birth,
nurture, and education “ they also ask whether they ordered affairs ¬nely
(kal¤v), beyond setting up merely necessary conditions for them (50d4, d7;
Socrates agrees at 50e1). The implication is that Socrates could, in theory,
object at any stage if the Laws did not provide ¬nely the goods that a society
is supposed to provide. If they had been signi¬cantly wanting in any of these
duties, then that might be part of a justi¬cation for Socrates™ complaint and
his claim that he is right to act destructively against them. Thus we see that
the Laws base the notoriously strong conclusions that follow not only on
what we now see as the reasonable belief that they have provided important
necessities for Socrates™ life and well-being, but also on the claim that they
have provided them well. And indeed for Socrates and his fellow citizens
in ¬fth-century Athens this would hardly be an implausible statement.
82 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Understood in this way the argument of the Laws here should seem less
hyperbolic. The Laws draw two conclusions from it. First, Socrates and his
forebears are the offspring and slaves of the Laws (50e2“4). While this is
still unquestionably a strong claim, we have seen how it can be plausibly
defended. Moreover, in a badly ordered state, which did not “¬nely” provide
safety, security, or education for the young Socrates, we can presume that
Socrates would not rightly be considered that state™s offspring or slave.
What, then, does this status entail, according to the Laws? The Laws claim
that this ¬rst conclusion leads to a second: Socrates and the Laws are not on
equal footing with respect to what is just. Socrates cannot assume that what
is right for the Laws to do to Socrates (namely, to attempt to destroy him
in the belief, accepted as false by all, that Socrates has committed crimes
worthy of death) it is equally right for Socrates to do to the Laws (attempt
to destroy them, to the extent an individual can). This is justi¬ed by the
example of the relationships of parent to child, and, especially odious, of
master to slave. These parties are in an asymmetrical relation with respect
to what is right: what is right for a parent to do to a child, or a master to a
slave, is not right for a child to do to a parent, or a slave to a master.
I have three points, which are not, as far as I know, made in recent
scholarship. First, this asymmetry in the relationship between parent and
child is not presented as an absolute, universal rule.65 It is intended to be
analogous to the relationship between city and citizen. Given the argument
that has preceded, we should understand a child™s debt to his parents to be
due to their giving her birth, nurture, and education “¬nely.”66 In keeping
with that argument, if the parents have either not done these things or not
done them “¬nely,” the child would have a legitimate complaint against
them, and might well not be in such an asymmetrical relationship. The
legitimacy of the unequal footing conclusion depends, both in the case
of the parents and in that of the city, not simply on their providing such
goods, but on those goods being provided well. There is no reason to think
that this important addition applies only when the goods are provided by
the city and not by the parents. So, just as the Laws left open the possibility
that a citizen might have a legitimate complaint against a state for not
doing a good job at providing the conditions necessary for life, nurture,
and education, and therefore might be right to act destructively towards
the state, the parent/child relationship is no more absolute, if the parents

65 Neither, then, is the asymmetry in master and slave. As Kraut (1984), 107 points out, the master/slave
analogy is quickly dropped.
66 This is taken as obvious, whereas the laws™ contribution to a person™s birth, nurture, and education
needed to be pointed out, but, as I have argued, only brie¬‚y, and Socrates and Crito display no
inclination to disagree with it.
Determining virtue in the here and now 83
have failed to do a good job at providing such bene¬ts as well. Therefore
the asymmetry of the relationship between parent and child and state and
citizen is never simply absolute.
Secondly, what a legitimate asymmetry justi¬es is not that the citizen/
child do anything that the city/parent commands, but speci¬cally that he
suffer certain things. The Laws argue that acting symmetrically against a
state or parent who has performed its/his parental/state duties well is wrong.
The list of examples the Laws offer are summed up as things “you should
suffer” (p†scoiv, 50e9), and are all passive: in the case of what a parent
might do “ being verbally abused, being struck; and again a list of required
suffering (p†scein, 51b4) at the hands of the city: “being struck,” “being
bound,” or “being led into war to be wounded or killed.”67 The Laws say
that Socrates must “do” (poiht”on, 51b6) all of these things if the Laws
command it. But it is striking that the Laws never, in any of the examples,
command the citizen to actively do anything. In the one near exception,
commanding him to go to war, Socrates quickly adds “to be wounded
or killed” and not the active “to kill or wound.” This is not an insignif-
icant addition. In the ¬fth century there were well-known examples of
morally con¬‚icted military action, perhaps most famously the Mytilenean
and Melian dialogues presented by Thucydides.68 These were extremely
well-known cases of moral con¬‚ict in the ¬fth century, and it is implausible
that a reader of the Crito would not think of them. Given this background,
Socrates™ Laws are stunningly silent about what to do if the state com-
mands you to kill people unjustly, and a contemporary reader (or listener)
would notice this absence. The Melian expedition would, of course, violate
Socrates™ earlier principle: that one must keep an agreement, provided that
the things you have agreed to are just. The Laws say nothing against this
here. When one is led into war one must not “give way or retreat or leave the
formation” (51b7“9); that is, one must suffer anything rather than retreat,
give way, or leave the formation.69

See DeFilippo (1991), 257“9. Recall 48d5, p†scein, quoted above, where Socrates, in propria persona,
¬rst introduces the idea that he should suffer ill rather than do an injustice.
68 See Ober (1998), 94“104. Vlastos (1995) brings this example up as something that the Laws could
command Socrates to do, but that is immoral.
69 The passive examples are meant to be thinly veiled analogies to Socrates™ suffering the unjust penalties
of prison and execution. Anticipating the upcoming argument, however, we can see that it will be
necessary for Socrates to address what I call “Crito™s concerns” in the ¬nal third of the Laws™ speech.
For Crito has argued that Socrates™ remaining in prison is more than a mere suffering of injustice,
namely an example of doing injustice towards his friends, family, and self. If Socrates can establish
that he is not doing wrong, but only suffering it, by remaining, then he can rely on the argument
that a citizen must, under certain conditions, suffer what the state commands. I thank Tom Berry
for his comments about this.
84 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Note ¬nally that the Laws™ conclusion is to ask how Socrates can claim
to be acting justly by destroying them (again, as far as he is able) (51a6),
given that they are trying to destroy him while “believing that it is just”
(d©kaion ¡go…menoi e²nai, 51a4). A couple of important points here: ¬rst,
as Socrates presents them, the Laws act according to SV; they are not
simply setting out to destroy him for pro¬t, or for pleasure, but because
they think it just. So, although it is a common assumption by all involved
that Socrates™ conviction and impending execution are in fact unjust, the
Laws point out that they were acting in the belief that it was just. Second,
this shows that it is part of no party™s “value system” that destruction is in
itself wrong. Although the Laws may be wrong in this case to try to destroy
Socrates, executing a guilty criminal is not simply wrong because it involves
destroying. By parity of reasoning, Socrates™ attempt to destroy the Laws
insofar as he can is also (as I have been arguing throughout) not ipso facto
unjust, although it may turn out that Socrates™ attempt to destroy these
Laws in particular at this particular point in time will be unjust.
My goal is not to make the Laws™ argument here unassailable. In fact,
it is one of my claims that the entire argument of the Laws is at best
“what Socrates seems to hear.”70 While the Laws™ reasons for the injustice
of escape and the justice of remaining and suffering execution will drown
out all others by the end of the dialogue, I do not think that Plato intends
the reader to understand this as a perfect argument. Socrates™ disavowal of
knowledge of what justice is is in keeping with his claim that the argument
is the one that seems best to him at that time. It is expected that someone
could argue against the position of the Laws, as commentators on the
Crito of course reasonably do. We might still argue, for example, that the
parent/city analogy is too conservative. What I have tried to do so far is
to indicate that it is more plausible than it has seemed to many because it
appeals to the critical role of a state in general to the survival and welfare
of human beings, because it bases its claims on the condition that certain
services have been ¬nely provided, and because it demands only that the
party in the subordinate position suffer bad things, but not do them.

2.7.2 The argument from agreement (51c6“53a7)
Despite the bene¬ts that the Laws have given Socrates (51d1, see kal¤n),
he is still not obliged by virtue of them alone not to escape from prison.
70 The frequent mention of the argument™s status as what “seems” to be the case need not imply that
Socrates is particularly doubtful about its correctness. So “seems” in the Crito does not mean “seems,
as opposed to is” “ as in, for example, the sun “seems” to sink below the horizon. Rather “seems”
means “is most probably true.” Nevertheless it still expresses epistemological hesitancy.
Determining virtue in the here and now 85
The Laws now argue additionally that Socrates has in fact entered into a
just agreement with them to abide by their decisions. There is, however,
an ambiguity in the phrase “a just agreement,” which yields two different
principles: (a) that one ought to abide by an agreement to do just things;
and (b) that one ought to abide by an agreement entered into under just
conditions. While the principle that Socrates and Crito agreed to earlier
(49e6“7) appeared to emphasize (a), the Laws seem to argue primarily for
(b).71 I don™t think we need to make much of this for a couple of reasons.
First, (b) is obviously relevant to a question of whether a person is justly
obligated to abide by an agreement. If you get me to promise to mow your
lawn by tricking me or by threatening me, I am not obliged by that promise
even though, let us presume, mowing your lawn is not an unjust thing to
do. So defending the claim that Socrates has entered into an agreement
fairly is certainly relevant as part of the Laws™ argument that Socrates is
required to remain in prison. Moreover, if one reads the argument from
agreement, as I do not, as one which by itself establishes the claim that
Socrates must remain, then it must (at least) also establish (a). But on my
interpretation, even if the argument from agreement establishes (a) and (b),
the Laws are still not ¬nished with their argument against escape until they
also explain, in the ¬nal section, that Socrates™ failure to escape would not
itself be doing an injustice (as Crito claims). This is part of the “cumulative”
interpretation. In addition, we have already seen that the parent/city part
of the argument went some distance towards establishing (a); it implied
certain limits to the claims of the Laws™ authority and command, with its
emphasis on what a citizen must suffer or endure at the hands of the state.
I maintain then that the Laws say nothing explicit on the question
in political philosophy of what a citizen™s obligation is when the state
commands him to do an unjust action: the Laws are in the midst of arguing
only that Socrates (and any citizen in a like position) is obligated to suffer
an unjust penalty. Nevertheless, we already have a hint that the Laws also
agree to SV when they make explicit that their attempt to destroy Socrates
is made “believing it to be just” (51a4). Furthermore, we will see below
that they boldly and explicitly endorse SV in the concluding lines of their
speech (54b2“8). Given these passages, and the fact that up until then they
had been at best silent on the question of what a person™s obligation might

71 Bostock (1990), 9“10 and Harte (1999), 126“8 complain that the “argument from agreement” estab-
lishes only the second, and not the ¬rst, and that the Laws make no attempt to show that what they
command, in this particular case, is not wrong. I shall show that they point out both that Socrates is
being commanded to suffer wrong, not to do it, and that in the ¬nal section of the argument, 53a8
ff., “Crito™s Concerns,” the Laws positively establish that allowing himself to be killed is in fact not
doing himself, or his friends, or his family, wrong, as we have seen Crito claims.
86 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
be if he were commanded by the state to do an injustice, it becomes clear
that the Laws do, after all, agree with (a) and with Socrates™ commitment
here and in the Apology never to do what is unjust.
Turning to (b), then, the Laws explain that a citizen is free to leave at any
time with all of his possessions, if the Laws are not pleasing to him after he
has seen how they conduct the state, despite the fact that he has accrued
the bene¬ts of birth, nurture, and education. When they make explicit that
“none of the laws is either an obstacle to this or forbids it” (51d5“6), they
clearly imagine a possibility where there was a law in some possible state
forbidding a person from leaving or requiring him to forfeit his property. If
there were such a law, then, it stands to reason that their case for claiming
that Socrates has entered into a fair agreement would be weakened. This
is part of an argument for the overall fairness of the situation in which
Socrates has been put. In addition, the option to persuade, which in this
section of the text is repeated several times, is another reason why attempt-
ing to destroy the Laws would be unjust. Presumably, once again, if the laws
of some state offered no opportunity for persuasion (whatever exactly that
amounts to)72 then perhaps Socrates™ obligation to suffer what they com-
mand him to would be mitigated, and he might be right in behaving
destructively towards them.73
The Laws next spend considerable time explaining why Socrates in par-
ticular is among those most susceptible to the charge of breaking a just
agreement about just things; they will give “great proofs” (meg†la tek-
mžria, 52b1) of this.74 The content of this argument is familiar: not only
has Socrates never lived anywhere else despite the fact that he has said
that Sparta and Crete are well governed (52e5“6), he has almost never left

72 See Kraut (1984), ch. 3; and discussions in Irwin (1986a); Bostock (1990), 13“17.
73 White™s (1996) overall analysis of the Laws goes seriously awry in my view when he claims (115) that
the argument from agreement commits a citizen to obey all the laws of the city: “The theory of the
Nomoi would oblige anyone who stayed in the city to obey an imaginable law, say one prohibiting
public speech or requiring one to carry out genocidal murders.” Part of the case that Socrates is
bound by the agreement is connected throughout with the fact that he must persuade or obey. We
do not have to follow Kraut (1984) in thinking that persuade may only mean “try to persuade” to see
that the agreement is between Socrates and a state that allows some sort of free speech with respect to
questions of justice and injustice, right and wrong. As for genocide, we have seen that the Laws say
nothing inconsistent with SV insofar as they emphasize what Socrates must suffer, and exclusively
use passive examples. We shall see below that they in fact declare their allegiance to SV later. See
also DeFilippo (1991).
One might well think of the meg†la tekmžria Socrates offers in propria persona in the Apology (32a4
ff.) for his claim that anyone who is committed to acting justly must live a private, not a public, life.
We can see from these passages that meg†la tekmžria in both cases involve a listing of particular
events in a person™s life. Here is one of many parallels between the way the Laws argue in the Crito
and the way Socrates argues in the Apology.
Determining virtue in the here and now 87
the city, except once for a festival and for military service (52b). In fact
even “the lame, the blind, and the crippled” have traveled out of the city
more than Socrates has (53a2“3)! Further, Socrates has had children in
Athens, thereby showing that the city was congenial to him (52c1“3). I call
attention to the cumulative nature of the argument. It is the mounting evi-
dence of these small details taken together that constitutes an overwhelming
case. But the presence of such details, and their relevance to the case at hand,
reveal something signi¬cant about the nature of the argument. Suppose that
Socrates had frequently left the city, spending years abroad, had only a loose
connection with Athens, and had raised a family in a different city. If any
of these things had been true, then Socrates™ obligation to suffer what the
Laws have imposed would have been mitigated to some degree. Would
Socrates™ having had a family in Sparta mean that he could escape from
prison justly? By itself, probably not. The particular facts would have to
be looked at and considered, just as the actual details are. I contend, how-
ever, that it is the accumulation of these details that constitutes the Laws™
argument. The Laws clearly do not take the alleged injustice of Socrates™
proposed escape to be deduced easily from a violation of some rule.
Finally the Laws also importantly refer back to the Apology:
Moreover, it was possible for you during the trial itself to assess the penalty at exile
if you wished, and to do then, with the city willing, what you are now attempting
to do, with it unwilling. But then you prided yourself that if it were for you to
die it would not be distressing, but you preferred, as you said, death over exile.
While now you are not ashamed before those arguments [l»gouv], nor do you
have regard for us, the Laws, since you attempt to destroy us and you do the things
that the basest slave would do: try to run away from the compacts and agreements
according to which you agreed to be governed by us. (52c3“d3)
These considerations are striking, particularly for those who would claim
that the Laws do not represent Socrates™ own position and values.75 It
seems clear that the Laws are rebuking Socrates for inconsistency in his
views. Calling him to be ashamed before his arguments echoes the earlier
part of the Crito where Socrates says he respects and values the same logoi as
before (46c1). Now the Laws proceed to challenge him: if this is true, how
can you go back on your earlier arguments without regard for them? We
should not make the burden of this consideration too heavy; it is not meant
to show Socrates why his escape, by itself, would be an unjust breaking of
his agreements. It simply points, cumulatively, to yet another feature of

75 Weiss (1998), 119“20 argues that the Laws are angry with Socrates™ “priding” himself on not fearing
death. This seems to me to strain the more straightforward reading.
88 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Socrates™ proposed action. The Laws do not reprimand Socrates for his
prideful attitude towards death, but for the fact that he is about to be
inconsistent, and it is a well-known precept for Socrates that one must be
consistent in one™s actions, as he himself has emphasized earlier in the Crito.

2.7.3 “Crito™s concerns”
The ¬nal section of the Laws™ argument is where scholars have found
material that is deemed the most un-Socratic and irrelevant to establishing
the injustice of Socrates™ proposed escape. Considerations are raised about
friends, family, and Socrates™ own survival, clearly responding to the con-
cerns raised by Crito earlier in the dialogue. The theme that connects these
considerations is the question of what good will be achieved by Socrates™
escape, when escaping involves (as the Laws have already established) trans-
gressing agreements and harming an institution that Socrates in particular
should not harm. The Laws wonder whether perhaps some good will result
from what seems, so far, to be an unjust action. I believe that this is not an
idle question, nor is it a super¬‚uous part of the argument. There is a real
possibility that, although escaping from prison, other things being equal,
would be the wrong thing for Socrates to do, in the present circumstances
there is such a great good that would be achieved that it in fact makes escap-
ing, overall, the right thing to do. For Socrates considers the consequences
of his action with a view to determining what is virtuous, not because he
is trying to realize some other aim, such as saving his life.
Even more importantly, the Laws must address Crito™s argument that
Socrates will in fact be doing an injustice by not escaping. They concede
up front that Socrates will suffer one, and this is not disallowed by SV. In
addition, although they have made most of their case that he will do an
injustice by escaping, they must still show that there will be no injustice
done by not escaping.
The ¬rst possibility considered is the good escape will provide for
Socrates™ friends. This turns out to be fruitless: Socrates™ friends will them-
selves be exiled and deprived of a polis and/or have their property destroyed.
Perhaps, then, Socrates will gain something by escaping. First, where will
he escape to? If Socrates goes to a “well-governed” city (53b5), such as
Thebes or Megara, he will arrive as a hostile party (pol”miov). Anyone
who disregards the laws of his city when they have ful¬lled the duties that
the Laws have (providing well for one™s birth, nurture, education, allowing
one free speech, and the right to leave with one™s property, and so on) is
an enemy to laws in general, and so to civilized people, who, it has been
Determining virtue in the here and now 89
assumed throughout, must live under some laws which have force. Further,
if Socrates escapes he will con¬rm the idea that the jury was right to convict
him, for one who will corrupt and destroy the Laws would also certainly
corrupt the young and the na¨ve.±
Another possibility is to avoid well-governed cities and “civilized peo-
ple” (kosmiÛtatoi). The argument here is interesting. The question the
Laws ask is: will life then be worth living (53c4“5)? The Laws continue
by asking Socrates what sort of logoi he will have, and about what topics.
Will he still be able to argue justice and virtue are the most important
things for human beings? It is hard to imagine that this is not meant to
recall Apology 37c ff. where Socrates considers exile as a penalty and con-
cludes that the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.
There Socrates imagined someone asking him whether he couldn™t just
go somewhere else and be quiet, and not engage in conversations (37e3“
4). Here he has the Laws asking him the very same questions. The idea
that Socrates is now arguing on the basis of some different values, or in a
way entirely ad hominem, seems implausible. If Socrates could go to some
well-governed place and continue to discuss virtue every day, then perhaps
some good would indeed come from his escape. But this, the Laws argue,
is not the case. The appeal is not to some value system foreign to Socrates,
but to the heart of Socratic doctrine. Running away, without the possi-
bility of conducting logoi about virtue, would be an inconsistent act for
Thessaly, ¬nally, is an intemperate and licentious place, where Socrates
will be looked at as exceedingly greedy for life, given that he is likely to
live only a short time more (53d8). Again the theme of Socrates™ age is
brought up, just as it was at this point in the Apology (37c5“6 and 37d4).
Given, as we have seen, the prominent mention of Socrates™ age there, we
cannot simply suppose that this is a consideration that he trots out merely
because of the appeal it might have to Crito. The Laws also return again
to the question of what logoi Socrates will have with the type of people
in Thessaly, and without such logoi what will be the purpose of living.
Simply to feast (53e)? Socrates™ escape then does no good for his friends,
and, according to Socrates™ own values straight from the Apology “ that
one must discuss virtue every day (38a3) “ exile will provide no good for
Socrates. The remaining possibility is that he will do his children some
good. But this is also untrue, for he would not want his children raised and
nurtured in a place like Thessaly, and his children will be cared for in his
absence. If they are cared for in his absence by his friends, there will be no
difference whether he is in Thessaly or in the underworld.
90 Aiming at Virtue in Plato

2.7.4 The Laws™ conclusion
The Laws™ conclusion is carefully expressed: “Come then, be persuaded by
us who have nurtured you not to make more of (perª ple©onov poio“) your
children or your life or anything else instead of the just (pr¼ to“ dika©ou)”
(53b2“4). Here we see an unequivocal statement of SV, employing what
I have argued is the key idea of what one “attaches more value to.” It is
not that one™s life or one™s children are irrelevant to deliberation about
what constitutes the just action, for they have just now been taken into
consideration in the Laws™ deliberation (a deliberation, I have argued, that is
in line with and consistently appeals to Socratic values “ most emphatically
here with a statement of SV). Rather, one must be careful not to elevate
concern for such things above concern for the just. In short: one must
always adhere to SV. Now that the Laws have established, they believe, that
it is in fact unjust to escape from prison, and not unjust to remain, the only
thing that remains is to recall the commitment to SV. The risk is that, in
times of duress, the aim becomes simply saving one™s life or one™s children.
As Socrates had established with Crito at 48b5“6, what is perª ple©stou is
not living, but living well, where that means living ¬nely and justly. So now
the Laws warn again that Socrates must not mistakenly “make more of” his
survival or his children™s welfare. The Laws™ cumulative case is complete.
No single argument is decisive. Rather it is the succession and combination
of detailed considerations taken together which answers the determining
question by concluding that, overall, escape is the wrong thing for Socrates
to do. Had these details been different “ had Socrates been thirty-¬ve,
had there been a philosophical community to join, had Athens prevented
him from discussing virtue every day, had they indeed commanded him
actively to do something unjust rather than to suffer it “ the conclusion
of the argument might have been different as well. I think Plato leaves it
open that we could even resuscitate some of Crito™s own arguments. But
Socrates makes clear at the end that all of these considerations together are,
for him at least, decisive.
c ha p t e r 3

The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias

3.1 th e g o r g i a s a n d sv
Unlike the Apology and Crito, the Gorgias is not concerned with determining
what a person or people should do in a particular situation. In the Apology,
Socrates not only cites various speci¬c actions of his own and explains how
they were always done in accordance with SV, but he is also engaged in
attempting to persuade the jury to perform a particular action. The jury
must make concrete decisions then and there about what is to be done
with Socrates and he calls on them to hold to the standard of SV as well.
In the Crito, as we have seen, Socrates attempts to persuade Crito that to
escape is to do an injustice, while to remain in prison is not. There again a
concrete decision about what the virtuous action is must be made in the hic
et nunc of the dialogue. No such context is present in the Gorgias. Nor, at
least at the beginning, does the heavy atmosphere of Socrates™ impending
execution weigh over the dialogue.1
Although there are these differences between the Apology and Crito on
the one hand, and the Gorgias on the other, there are even more important
similarities. Although usually considered “early” or “Socratic” dialogues,

1 The dialogue begins with a joke by the most infamous interlocutor, Callicles, who teases Socrates:
“Callicles: This is the way they say one ought to join a war or a battle, Socrates. Socrates: You mean
˜We™ve arrived after the feast,™ as they say, and we™re too late?” (447a1“4). With hindsight, one might
read more into this apparently playful interchange and understand it as a ¬rst stab by Callicles at
Socrates™ “manliness.” Later Callicles will question the courage and manliness of those who occupy
themselves into adulthood with philosophy (484c ff.). In addition, if Dodds (1959), 188, is right to
say that the expression that Socrates and Callicles are referring to is something like “¬rst at feast, last
at fray,” Socrates™ response is signi¬cant for setting the stage for what is to follow. While Callicles
analogizes the epideictic displays of Gorgias, which Socrates has missed, to “the fray,” Socrates turns
the expression around and refers, with feigned innocence, to what preceded as the “feast.” As he
makes clear over the next Stephanus page, this is just ¬ne with him: he can see the display some other
time, but now he would like to have a “discussion.” Thus, having missed what he considers to be
the feast, Socrates implies that the “fray” is the discussion that is about to ensue. See Ion 531a, for a
similar reluctance to hear an epideixis. As we shall see, later in the discussion with Callicles there is
much foreshadowing of Socrates™ eventual trial and execution.

92 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
all three lack some typical criteria for inclusion in that group: none ends in
aporia and none attempts to determine in general terms what virtue or a
virtue is. In contrast with the Apology and Crito, the Gorgias does address a
“What is F?” question, but the F is not a virtue, but rhetoric. Despite the fact
that the “of¬cial” topic of the dialogue is “What is rhetoric?” scholars have
focused more on arguments that on the face of it have little to do with the
nature of rhetoric: whether people can do what they see ¬t without doing
what they want; whether suffering injustice is better than doing it; whether
pleasure is the good; and whether there is a distinction between what is just
by convention and what is just by nature. Moreover, Socrates appears to
take de¬nite positions on all of these issues, and to argue one side of the
case against his interlocutor, in contrast with more aporetic dialogues.2
For my purposes in this chapter, however, the most important feature of
the Gorgias is that, like the Apology and Crito, it is centrally focused on SV.
The three “episodes,” each of which takes place mostly between Socrates
and a new interlocutor (Gorgias, Polus, and ¬nally Callicles), draw on the
same reasoning we saw presented brie¬‚y in the Apology and Crito. In a
more expanded form that resembles what we shall ¬nd in the Gorgias, the
reasoning proceeds as follows: human beings are combinations of body and
soul, the soul is a distinct locus of harm and bene¬t from the body, and so
both the body and the soul each has its own “good condition” or “health.”
Further, the value of the good condition of the soul is incomparably superior
to the value of the health of the body.3 Once these beliefs are established
(at times no trivial accomplishment), one can ask what it is that causes this
healthy condition of the soul “ that is, what bene¬ts the soul qua soul “
and the answer for Socrates is of course virtuous actions. The “myth” at
the end of the Gorgias develops with vivid imagery the idea of the soul as
an independent locus of harm and bene¬t that has, to different degrees,
been harmed or bene¬ted by the actions in which it has engaged. As I have
argued in the ¬rst two chapters, an interlocutor can concede this much
without anything following either about the nature of the virtuous action
in the here and now, or about the nature of virtuous action in general.
Much of Socrates™ long speech near the end of the dialogue, after Callicles
has ceased to be an active interlocutor, will highlight the importance of the
distinction between aiming and determining questions.
2 See Irwin (1979), Introduction.
3 The text, as far as I can tell, is indeterminate about whether the superior importance of the soul is
a superiority in quantity or quality (or perhaps both). I shall not try to resolve this. Either way it is
clear that the importance of the well-being of the soul is taken to be incomparably greater/superior.
Nussbaum (1986) attempts to argue that Plato wants to make all value commensurable. A central
text for her is the hedonism argument from the Protagoras (351b ff.). See 4.4.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 93
In the Apology and Crito Socrates does not argue for SV in detail nor
does he encounter any objections to it. In the Gorgias matters are more
complex. I shall read the Gorgias as displaying three interlocutors whose
primary differences revolve around their relationship to SV. In a nutshell,
Gorgias has ignored or failed to pay attention to SV (3.3). Seduced by the
power, fame, and wealth afforded him by his “craft,” he has never critically
thought about the relationship between rhetoric (and the uses to which
he puts it) and virtue. Once, however, Socrates raises questions about this,
we shall see that Gorgias concedes the truth of SV, and not simply, as
Polus will claim, because he is ashamed not to. Polus is a different sort. He
acknowledges ordinary examples of just and unjust actions, but he denies
that virtue is supreme. I shall show that this is because he lacks the concept
of the soul as an independent locus of harm and bene¬t (which Gorgias does
not) (3.4). The idea that something that does not harm his body or deprive
him of material possessions can nevertheless harm him (let alone, as Socrates
claims, harm the most important part of him) is not something Polus “
especially at the beginning of his encounter with Socrates “ understands.
Callicles is different yet again (3.5“7). While he begins by advocating what
sounds like a radical, non-conventional, conception of excellence, we shall
see that he employs a very ordinary conception of harm and bene¬t. His
eventual conception of the good “ appetite grati¬cation “ is something
he conceives of as a good for the soul. It has the distinct advantage of
settling determining questions relatively simply: the virtuous action is the
action that most grati¬es one™s appetite. Once Socrates shows a con¬‚ict
between Callicles™ elite sense of superiority and his idea that the good is
exhausted by appetite grati¬cation, the problem of what constitutes virtue

3.2 soc rates a nd rh e tori c i n th e g o r g i a s
The dialogue opens with a Socrates apparently familiar from the dialogues
of de¬nition: he raises a “What is F?” question, inquires about whether
Gorgias would be willing to engage in a discussion, rather than put on
a rhetorical display (447b9“c4), and insists, sometimes quite zealously,
on short responses to his questions that avoid any rhetorical ¬‚ourishes
(448d“e, 449b“d). Once Polus™ attempt to take over the role of answerer is
rebuffed, Gorgias, anxious to please, assumes the role and boasts that no
one can answer as brie¬‚y as he can (449c3). Also familiar from such dia-
logues as Protagoras, Hippias Minor, Hippias Major, Euthydemus, and Ion
is Socrates™ mistrust of and thinly-veiled dislike for sophists, orators, and
94 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
speech-makers “ particularly those with a large reputation.4 He goes after
Gorgias aggressively, pausing occasionally for asides about whether Gorgias
minds being refuted, which he himself thinks is a great good (457c ff.).
Despite such disclaimers, however, readers can easily get the impression
that Socrates is simply gunning for a refutation.5 After Gorgias has been
refuted, suspicions about Socrates™ hostility towards Gorgias and rhetoric
appear to be con¬rmed. When Socrates explains his own positive views
about rhetoric, we discover that he denies that it is a skill (t”cnh) at
all, but claims instead that it is a mere “knack” (–mpeir©a) (462b“466a;
cf. 500a5“501c5). What is worse, it is a knack that falls under the heading of
“¬‚attery,” as kolake©a is usually translated, or, less delicately, “grubbing.”
The crudeness and hostility of this description of Gorgias™ purportedly most
noble and powerful skill is con¬rmed by Socrates™ hesitation to speak his
mind.6 Rhetoric has two defects, corresponding to the above descriptions:
¬rst, insofar as it is ¬‚attering it aims only at the pleasant without regard for
the good,7 and, second, insofar as it is a “knack” it merely guesses at how
to achieve this, without the principled understanding of a skill. Without
looking at the argument more closely here,8 it is plain that Socrates, at
this stage of the dialogue, does not think much of rhetoric. His attack on
Gorgias and rhetoric is motivated not only by what Gorgias says, but by
certain of his own beliefs about the nature of the activity. Still, none of this
is particularly surprising coming from the Socrates we see in the Apology,
Crito, and the dialogues of de¬nition: the advocate of virtue above all, the
relentless admirer of the technai, and the constant seeker of “de¬nitions.”
But there are other aspects of Socrates™ behavior in the dialogue that are
strikingly odd when viewed in light of the issues just discussed. For one, at
the very opening of the dialogue Plato lets the reader know that Socrates has
come there expressly to see Gorgias. Although they have missed Gorgias™
rhetorical display, Chairephon reassures Socrates: he is Gorgias™ friend and
Gorgias will give them a display anyway (447b1“3). Callicles is shocked
by this: “What, Chairephon?! Does Socrates desire to hear Gorgias?”, to
which Chairephon replies, “Indeed, it was for this very thing that we came”
4 See Ap. 22a where Socrates says that in his investigations of his fellow citizens he found that those
with the greatest reputation had the least knowledge, while those with less were better off.
5 See, e.g., Beversluis (2000), ch. 14.
6 See how Socrates does not hesitate to call rhetoric a knack, but pauses in embarrassment before
calling what Gorgias does “grubbing” (462e6“463b1). Socrates here at least acts as though he might
be ashamed to say what he really believes about Gorgias™ alleged “skill.”
7 This foreshadows the signi¬cance of Callicles™ later hedonism, and Socrates™ arguments against it.
If pleasure simply is the good, then the idea that rhetoric aims only at pleasure will not count
against it.
8 See 3.4.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 95
(–p¬ aÉt¼ g” toi to“to p†resmen, 447b6). When Socrates speaks next he
con¬rms what Chairephon says, asking whether Gorgias would be willing
to have a discussion, because he wants to know what the power of Gorgias™
skill is, and what he professes to do and teach.
Such a beginning is without parallel in the Platonic dialogues; never
does a dialogue begin because Socrates speci¬cally seeks someone out to ask
him a question.9 Although commentators have not found this noteworthy,
Callicles certainly does. Socrates wants to talk to Gorgias and his inquiry
into Gorgias™ area of expertise is clearly not as na¨ve as it sounds. He knows
as well as anyone what Gorgias professes to do. Indeed, Socrates himself is
the ¬rst person in the dialogue to use the word “rhetoric” (448d9), when he
says that it is clear to him that Polus has studied “what is called rhetoric.”
Some ten lines later, when Socrates ¬nally gets to ask Gorgias directly what
skill he possesses, Gorgias responds, “Rhetoric,” to the surprise of no one.
So despite the hostility and suspicion that Socrates appears to bear towards
rhetoric, Plato makes it clear to the reader from the beginning that Socrates
wants to ¬nd out about it. There is something about persuasion, and the
skill that purports to generate it, that Socrates himself seeks to discover.
Why is Socrates so anxious to talk to Gorgias about the “power of his
craft,” especially when he seems so hostile towards rhetoric, and indeed
later denies that rhetoric is even a skill? Socrates is a notorious failure
at persuasion. The most famous instance, of course, is his inability to
persuade the Athenian jury, even though he explicitly sees his duty in
that context as one of “teaching and persuading” (did†skein kaª pe©qein,
Apology 35c2). Indeed, Socrates sums up his life™s work there as attempting
to persuade (pe©qein, 36c5) each citizen to care for nothing more than being
the best and the wisest possible. In the Crito, Socrates thinks it important
to persuade Crito (48e4), and both Crito™s appeal to Socrates and the Laws™
contain several entreaties to Socrates to “be persuaded” by them (45a2, 46a8,
53a6, 54b2, 54d1). Further, as we have discussed, the Laws require citizens
“to persuade or obey [be persuaded]” (51e). In other dialogues, characters
are discussed who have associated with Socrates, but have famously not
been “persuaded” by him: Critias, Charmides, and Alcibiades are standout
9 Typically Socrates is waylaid by people he happens to meet (Euthyphro, Laches, Lysias, Republic). In
other cases he is taken somewhere by someone (Protagoras) or obligated to be at a party (Symposium).
In the Charmides Socrates goes of his own volition to the gymnasium, having been away at the battle
of Potidaea, in order to ¬nd out what is going on among the youth “ whether any are excelling
at beauty and/or philosophy. So here Socrates initiates contact with his interlocutors, but he is not
looking for anyone in particular nor looking to ask a particular question. As Debra Nails pointed
out to me, in the Parmenides (127c), a very young Socrates along with others goes purposefully to
listen to Zeno; but even here Socrates is not looking to ask someone a speci¬c question.
96 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
examples. In the context of the Gorgias, the theme of persuasion becomes
quite urgent. From the perspective of the outer frame we might suspect that
Plato depicts Socrates as seeking Gorgias out as a sign to his readers that,
despite his hostility towards rhetoric as it is practiced by Gorgias and his
followers, Socrates himself has a problem with persuasion; he needs some
skill that will do what rhetoric purports to do. In the encounters with Polus
and Callicles, as we shall see below, Socrates confronts characters that do
not seem amenable to persuasion. Whereas Gorgias breaks into the “Polus
episode” to understand Socrates™ claim that rhetoric is an “image of part
of politics” (463d), and then also intercedes twice during the conversation
with Callicles (497b, 506b) to prevent him from abandoning the discussion,
we hear no more from Polus after he is “refuted.” Further, I know of no
commentator who thinks that Socrates persuades Callicles at the end of the
dialogue, and Plato provides many clues that Socrates™ attempt at persuasion
is unsuccessful. Indeed, it appears that Callicles™ own willingness even to
continue the discussion with Socrates is waning as early as 497b5, with
thirty Stephanus pages of what continues in some form to be a conversation
between him and Socrates still to go. It is Gorgias™ intrusions that keep the
discussion going and Callicles himself states twice (501c8, 505c5) that he
is continuing only to gratify Gorgias.10 In fact, for signi¬cant stretches
(506c“509d, 511c“513c, 517b“519d, 523a“527d) Callicles says practically not
a word “ at most offering Socrates a sarcastic “keep going,” and not even
offering his typical grudging assent. In fact, it would be accurate to say that
for most of 500a ff. Socrates gets carried away by his own rhetoric “ even
commenting on it himself at 519d“e.
The behavior of Socrates in the last thirty pages of the dialogue is espe-
cially striking when we compare it to the Socrates we see at the start. What
is Socrates doing at the end of this dialogue? He is making speeches aimed
at persuasion. In the most stunning example of this Socrates relates his
logos to Callicles, who he claims will think of it as a “story” (m“qov, 523a).
One thing this logos does is to provide a vivid illustration of the importance
of SV: one must always aim at virtue because virtuous actions cause the
soul to be healthy and beautiful, and vicious actions do the opposite. In the
underworld, when one will be “stripped naked” and appear with his body
removed, the nature of his soul will be clear to the judges there. What is the
point of such a logos? Surely to be persuasive. Where did the Socrates who
insisted on short question and answer go? The closing lines of the dialogue,
considered in this light, are remarkable:

10 At 516b he says that he is answering simply to gratify Socrates.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 97
Therefore be persuaded by me [–moª o”n peiq»menov] and follow me here to where
you will be happy both while you live and once you have died, as the account
[l»gov] indicates . . . For it is disgraceful, being in the state we now appear to be
in, where we act like youths as if we are somebody, we for whom the same things
never appear to be the case about the same topics, and these topics about the most
important things “ we have come that far in our lack of education [ˆpaideus©av].
Therefore, let us use the account [t¤€ l»gwƒ] as a guide, the one which has now
been made clear, which indicates to us that this way of life is best, the one that
practices justice and the rest of virtue both in living and dying. Therefore let us
follow this way, and let us call on others [to do so] as well, and not follow that one,
which you who believe in it call on me [to follow] “ for that one is worth nothing,
Callicles. (527c4“6 . . . 527d5“e7)

This is as clear an example of an attempt at persuasive, protreptic speech
as one may ¬nd, complete with an explicit call to be persuaded, and three
closing hortatory subjunctives urging collective action. This is quite a
rhetorical display by the man who began the dialogue hostile to all such
displays and sharply critical of rhetoric and its practitioners. If we consider
this from the perspective of the outer frame it seems clear that Plato asks
the reader to look critically at Socrates™ relationship to rhetoric. Socrates
cannot simply ignore rhetoric: he needs it and wants to be persuasive,
although it seems he is not successful. Why he fails is a topic of continuing
interest for Plato, and one that will be centrally addressed in the Republic.11
While Socrates is critical of rhetoric and orators, we see that in the end he
needs it and, almost desperately in these ¬nal lines, seeks to persuade. The
portrayal of Socrates saying these things to an entirely unpersuaded and
perhaps unpersuadable Callicles,12 with his eventual trial and execution on
the horizon, makes for a dark and disturbing end to the dialogue.

11 Which, like the Apology, begins with a mention of persuasion and who can be persuaded, why, and
so on; see chapter ¬ve.
12 While it is fairly clear that Callicles is unpersuaded by Socrates™ words, whether Plato wants to
depict him as unpersuadable through argument is more dif¬cult to determine. At 513c3“6, Callicles
says that he is experiencing what he claims many do who speak to Socrates: he thinks Socrates
is speaking well but he is nevertheless “not quite persuaded” by him. The problem is that “not
quite persuaded” translates oÉ p†nu soi pe©qomai, which can mean either “not quite persuaded”
or “not at all persuaded.” The fact that Callicles refers to his experience as one that many have
who listen to Socrates seems to me to suggest the former interpretation. Socrates is surely somewhat
persuasive to many of those he speaks with. Irwin (1979), 233 comments: “Though Callicles is still
not entirely convinced, Socrates does not suggest (contrary to Dodds) that he is unreachable by
rational argument.” See too Irwin (1986b). Irwin is perhaps right that Socrates does not suggest this,
believing that repeated examination will eventually produce conviction, but, from the perspective of
the outer frame, perhaps Plato does. After all, as we mentioned above, if Gorgias had not intervened,
it seems clear that Callicles would have simply ceased to talk to Socrates at all any longer. See also
Cooper (1999b), 73“5.
98 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Socrates is stuck somewhere between the ¬‚attering knack of the rhetoric
practiced by Gorgias and the true rhetoric he endorses. As we shall see in
the discussion of Socrates™ response to Callicles, true rhetoric would be an
activity that had both the correct aim (virtue) and the understanding of
the nature and causes of that aim. In the language of this book, the true
rhetorician would combine commitment to the aiming principle SV with
the substantive moral expertise that would resolve determining questions.
While Socrates is committed to SV, he lacks the techne-knowledge that he
hopes would make his rhetoric persuasive, as we shall see below.13
The “of¬cial” topic of the Gorgias is the power of rhetoric, and so,
fundamentally, of persuasion. If we understand the dialogue as displaying
the limitations and failures of Socratic persuasion, we may be able to revise
the common conception of it as Plato™s ¬rst, rather ¬‚awed, attempt at
addressing the issues of the Republic. Instead of seeing the Gorgias as a
bad Republic,14 we can understand it as presenting the methods, and the
problems inherent in them, for persuading distinct types of interlocutors
of SV, particularly in an inadequate, non-ideal political situation.15

3.3 gorg ia s, socrate s, a nd sv
By the time Gorgias ¬nally provides an answer that satis¬es Socrates to
the “What is F?” question about rhetoric, we have learned a bit about him
and Socrates. Socrates, applying his techne-analogy, has pressed Gorgias
to specify what sort of persuasion rhetoric is and what subject matter it is
about (454a6“b1). After ¬ve Stephanus pages, Gorgias at last responds:
I say that [the rhetorical art] is about this persuasion: persuasion in law courts and
in other mobs, as I was saying even now, and it is about these things: things that
are just and unjust. (454b5“7)

Gorgias has speci¬ed a domain of expertise over which his techne reigns:
things that are just and unjust. If, as he has claimed, he himself is an expert
rhetor and thus a possessor of the rhetorical techne, then he must be an
expert at things just and unjust. This implication of Gorgias™ claim is never
made explicit, but it has an active and important role in the argument to

13 See 3.8.
14 That is, as supplying poor arguments in support of the idea that doing injustice is always worse than
suffering it.
15 Thus, as many commentators would agree, the Gorgias does point the way to the Republic; see Ober
(1998), 211“13.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 99
come.16 No scholar that I am aware of, however, is struck by the fact that
we have an example here of an interlocutor who claims to know what is just
and unjust but whose claim to expert knowledge of virtue is not challenged
by Socrates. There is a clear opening at this point for Socrates to seize on
the avowal of knowledge itself as an object of critique in the way he does
in any other dialogue where a character claims knowledge of virtue or a
virtue; but he does not. While Socrates and his interlocutors sometimes
agree on speci¬c examples of virtuous actions, or even of types of virtuous
action “ perhaps prosecuting the wrongdoer in the Euthyphro, or Socrates™
and Laches™ brave retreat in the Laches “ no interlocutor ever claims expert
knowledge of virtue and then walks away from Socrates unchallenged.
Moreover, Socrates often uses such an avowal of knowledge as an oppor-
tunity to contrast it with his own disavowal of techne-knowledge of what
virtue is.17
In the next stretch of argument (454c“455a), however, Socrates draws
a distinction between learning and being convinced, and gets Gorgias to
agree that there are two forms of persuasion: the former being persuasion
with, the latter persuasion without, knowledge. Socrates then speci¬es that
the sort of persuasion Gorgias effects in “law courts and other mobs” is
persuasion “without knowledge,” the reason for this being that it would
not be possible to teach (that is, persuade with knowledge) so many people
in so short a time about such important matters (meg†la pr†gmata)
(455a5“6). John Cooper sees Socratic irony here in Socrates™ suggestion that
the problem is one of time (and, I would add, perhaps numbers), instead
of Gorgias™ lack of expert knowledge of what virtue is, as one who had read
other dialogues “ particularly the dialogues of de¬nition “ would expect.18
One might also suspect some playfulness at work on Socrates™ part insofar
as there appears to be a clear opening to refute Gorgias at this point, and
not in the way he will eventually refute him. The Socrates of the Euthyphro,
we might imagine, would be “delighted” at Gorgias™ claim, employing a
profusion of conditional irony: “if you have knowledge of what is just and
unjust and can teach it to me, I would be forever grateful,” “if rhetoric
is the techne that teaches such things, and you are the possessor of that
techne, then you have (according to Apology 20d“e at least) a wisdom that
is more than human, and rhetoric is a divine techne.” After such remarks

16 Cooper (1999b), 34“5 argues that by this point Gorgias has made the crucial admission that will
lead Socrates, when he assumes his own moral psychology, to be able to elicit a contradiction from
Gorgias™ views. Cooper makes an excellent case that this admission is made considerably earlier than
either commentators or Polus have noticed.
17 18 Cooper (1999), 35.
See the discussion in chapter one.
100 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Socrates would proceed to have Gorgias tell him, since he knows, what
exactly justice and injustice are. Once Gorgias failed to answer the “What
is F?” question adequately, Socrates would show that he does not possess
the techne he claimed to after all, and poor Socrates had not found the
teacher he had hoped for. But this never happens. Amazingly, Socrates lets
pass the opportunity to investigate the question “What is justice?” and
to examine a person who appears to claim knowledge of what is just and
unjust. From the perspective of the outer frame, it is dif¬cult not to notice
how different this tack is from Socrates™ in the dialogues of de¬nition. We
should recognize that if Socrates had pursued the line of argument sketched
above rhetoric would in fact be, given Gorgias™ claim, the ethical techne
for which Socrates is searching. There would be no difference between the
rhetorical expert and the moral expert. Socrates might show that Gorgias is
no rhetorical expert, that is, no ethical expert after all, but the long-sought
after ¬eld of moral expertise would have a name: rhetoric.19 But this is not
how Socrates proceeds with Gorgias, and as we consider how he does, we
might ask ourselves why not.
Once Gorgias has agreed that rhetoric generates the persuasion of con-
viction (without knowledge), Socrates backs his way into asking a question
on behalf of Gorgias™ potential students. Socrates had suggested that when
the city must make decisions it surely ought to choose the one who is most
skilled (tecnikÛtaton, 455b5). If the city is discussing walls, then builders
ought to be consulted; if the question is occupation of territory, then gen-
erals ought to give advice. He then poses a question to Gorgias, taking on
the persona of a potential student:
Gorgias, what will we get if we associate with you? On what matters will we be
able to advise the city? Will it be only about the just, and the unjust, or will it also
be on the matters about which Socrates was just speaking? (455d2“4)

Socrates is arguing strangely here. Of course, the question of how one
ought to proceed in order to occupy territory and the question of whether
territory ought to be occupied in the ¬rst place are entirely different. Let

19 I think this is further evidence that Plato is not simply hostile to rhetoric without quali¬cation. The
defeat that the question “What is rhetoric?” suffers at Socrates™ hand is the same as the defeat that all
proposed answers to “What is virtue?” suffer in the dialogues of de¬nition. But no one thinks that
Socrates and Plato are not serious about virtue. Although this would take me too far a¬eld to discuss
in detail, it seems to me that Plato believes that one with ethical knowledge would be an expert
rhetor. Socrates says as much in the opening of the Apology, where he denies being a rhetor, unless
that means one who speaks the truth (17b), and also at the end of the Gorgias (503b, 504d), where
he distinguishes between a proper, true rhetoric, which aims at making souls as excellent as possible
and is a true skill, and rhetoric as it is usually practiced. The Phaedrus is also clearly relevant here.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 101
us call the former a “technical” question, to be answered by an expert in
particular area “ the general in this case; let us call the latter a “political-cum-
ethical” one. Now Gorgias has already stated what the distinct subject matter
of rhetoric is: the just and the unjust (454b7). That is, rhetoric deals with
political-cum-ethical questions: “Should territory be occupied?”, “Should a
wall be built?” and so on. Rhetoric is the skill that effects persuasion about
these questions in groups such as the Athenian Assembly. Socrates can only
be acting willfully ignorant when he con¬‚ates this type of question with
the technical type. Further in the passage above, the “prospective student”
asks: will rhetoric only be about the just and unjust? Does Socrates not see
that the questions about whether territory should be occupied or not are
questions about virtue? Later in the dialogue (517e ff.) he certainly does.
What sort of questions might a rhetor discuss with a group that are only
about the just and the unjust? Criminal cases like Socrates™?
These objections and questions occur to us in the outer frame, but they
do not occur to Gorgias in the inner, and that is signi¬cant. He replies
at once to Socrates, pointing out that Socrates himself has led the way
with his examples of dockyards and wall-building. Gorgias does not draw
any distinction between political-cum-ethical questions and technical ones.
Instead, he points to empirical facts: the ones who got the walls to be built
were orators “ Themistocles and Pericles “ not architects. In fact, Gorgias
points out, whenever there is the sort of choice to be made that Socrates
was talking about, the rhetors always give advice, and their decrees always
win (456a1“3). Socrates professes a long-standing amazement at this fact;
he claims that it is what has led him for a long time to wonder what the
dunamis of rhetoric is (as he asked at the very beginning of the dialogue) and
to consider this dunamis something divine.20 Gorgias appears to relax at
this point, since Socrates seems to be catching on to the wonder of rhetoric
at last:
If only you knew everything, Socrates “ namely, that rhetoric has collected together
under itself so to speak all of the powers. (456a7“8)

20 We have grounds later, of course, for seeing irony here. The cause of the persuasive power of rhetoric
as it is practiced is not divinity, but the fact that it appeals to the grati¬cation of the appetites of
people who are ignorant about what parts of them ought to be grati¬ed. Socrates takes this up
at the beginning of the Polus episode when he draws a distinction between skills and “knacks,”
and elaborates on it further in his long (rhetorical) speech against Callicles, after the point where
Callicles has ceased to be an engaged interlocutor (see below). But in another sense Socrates is not
simply being disingenuous. We have just seen that, if Gorgias truly knew what he claimed, he would
be a moral expert, and we know from the Apology that Socrates believes that someone who had
techne-knowledge of virtue, which he disavows, would have a knowledge “more than human.” The
irony at work then seems to be conditional irony.
102 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Gorgias™ claim is interesting. He has the idea of a superordinate techne, a
techne that rules over and controls other technai.21 He already showed this
earlier, when he bragged that with the rhetorical techne one is in control
of the doctor, the trainer, and the money-maker (452e). This is a feature
as well of true, philosophical rhetoric as Socrates sees it in the ¬nal speech
(517e ff.). But in what follows Gorgias explains that such a powerful ability
can be misused. This speech is important because it is here that he displays
a commitment to SV.
Gorgias begins by offering Socrates a “great proof” (m”ga tekmžrion,
456b1) that this superordinate status for rhetoric is true.22 When Gorgias
travels with his brother, who is a doctor, or with some other doctors, he is
able to persuade the patient to submit to treatment even when the doctors
cannot, and he does this not with medical skill, nor with any craft other than
rhetoric (456b).23 The power (dunamis) of rhetoric is here clearly shown,
which is what Socrates has been seeking all along (447c1“2). A doctor,
with medical knowledge alone, is impotent to get the patient actually to
do anything, even though he knows what the patient ought to do. It is only
persuasion, in the absence of force,24 that is effective, that in fact provides
the power for other technai. Without persuasion, walls and harbors would
not get built, patients would not take medicine. It is easy to think of a
bene¬cial and extremely useful role for rhetoric here.25 In contemporary
medicine one of the primary problems faced in questions of public health
revolves around the question of persuasion: how do we get people to do
what they are supposed to do? People notoriously fail to diet, exercise,
follow medication regimens, and so on. An effective Gorgias would be a
wonderful asset. Of course, as advertising for fast food restaurants makes
clear, one™s persuasive power could also easily be used to get a person to
behave in ways contrary to those that a doctor would recommend. The
21 The claim that a techne of virtue would be a superordinate techne can be seen in the Charmides™
knowledge of knowledge (170c ff., 174b) and the Euthydemus™ discussion of a “royal craft” (basilikŸ
t”cnh, 291c4“5).
In chapters one and two we saw meg†la tekmžria in the Ap. and Cr. consisting of particular
anecdotes from a person™s life that illustrate the point being made. It is the same with Gorgias™ use
of the phrase here.
23 It may be worth noting that at 456b3 Gorgias makes clear that he is persuading some individual
patient (tina), and so not employing persuasion simply among a mob or group, which has been the
emphasis until this point, and which will be important in the next example as well.
24 Which may be alluded to by Gorgias at 452d5“8, when he says that rhetoric provides what is in truth
the greatest good and the cause of freedom for human beings and at the same time of one ruling
over others in the city. See Cooper (1999b) 33, n. 5 and also the beginning of Rep. 1 and the very
end of the Charmides for the force/persuasion opposition. In his Helen the historical Gorgias equates
persuasion (peiqÛ) and force (b©a).
25 Beversluis (2000), 304“5 makes a similar point in the context of “defending” Gorgias.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 103
specter of a doctor advocating the right medicine for a patient competing
with an orator working not in the service of the doctor but of an evil-doer
is chilling.26
Matters get even more chilling in the next example. Gorgias goes on to
exclaim that a rhetor could get himself chosen over any technical profes-
sional in any city given that the decision was going to be made “with speech”
(t¤€ l»gwƒ) by a group or mob (plžqov) (456b6“c7).27 He had used himself
in the ¬rst example, and one can understand it positively when we imagine
him coming to the aid of his brother and a sick patient by persuading the
patient to submit to medical treatment that is bene¬cial. Gorgias, however,
puts his second example impersonally. He imagines a doctor and an orator
coming into a city and competing for who should be chosen doctor.28 The
orator, he claims, would always win out. This is a much more nefarious
example. Gorgias imagines a quali¬ed, knowledgeable doctor being passed
over as state physician for a skilled speaker with no knowledge of medicine.
This certainly does exhibit the power of rhetoric, but it seems to be the
ability to deceive and to achieve a crucially important position in the city
without any thought of merit or quali¬cation. The potential danger this
poses to a community is manifest.
Assessment of Gorgias™ position is hampered by the lack of distinction
between technical issues and political-cum-ethical issues. It is of course
absurd to have someone who knows nothing about wall-building build
walls, but it is equally absurd to have only wall-builders decide whether or
not a city is best off with walls. It is dif¬cult to believe that Plato did not
deliberately leave this distinction unclear here, for he has Socrates expound
it at length later in the dialogue (511c ff.) when Socrates makes the distinction
between a skill that can save a life “ for example, swimming or piloting
a ship “ and one that could determine whether a life is worth saving or
not. The latter, Socrates says, would be an achievement worthy of some
In Gorgias™ imagined contest, then, which skill are they competing over?
If he understands this under the technical model, as seems more to the point
of Gorgias™ actual example since it picks up on Socrates™ earlier speech about
how one ought to choose the best craftsman, then the orator is simply a


. 3
( 9)