. 5
( 9)


virtue. In the next section I shall address, in a general way, the question of
why the dialogues of de¬nition fail to state a common feature of all and only
virtuous actions. Then, I shall consider another type of attempt at answer-
ing the “What is F?” question. As scholars have noted,4 although Socrates
fails to ¬nd a Socratic form for virtuous actions, the dialogues appear to
be more successful at saying what it is to be virtuous. In fact, in the view
of most readers, Socrates believes that being virtuous is a matter of having
knowledge “ more speci¬cally, of having knowledge of good and evil. How
does this allegedly successfully answer to the “What is F?” question address
the determining question which I have argued is front and center in these

4.2 t he d ia logu es of def in i ti on a nd th e “w h at i s f? ”
qu es ti on
In the dialogues of de¬nition, Socrates searches for a statement of what
is common to all token instances of virtuous action, for some particular
virtue. It is an assumption of Socrates™ investigation that there is such a
common element, and that, if someone knows what it is, he can put it into
words.5 In the Euthyphro, for example, Socrates reprimands Euthyphro for
offering an example of a (type of ) pious action, rather than stating what
piety is:
And do you recall that I wasn™t urging you to teach me about one or two of those
many things that are pious, but rather about the form [e²dov] itself whereby all
pious things are pious? Because you said, I think, that it was by virtue of a single

3 There are parallel failures in the Protagoras and Euthydemus, despite their lack of the “What is F?”
question. In the Protagoras, Socrates ultimately blames his and Protagoras™ failure on the fact that
they do not know “what virtue is” (361c5); and in the Euthydemus Socrates exclaims to Crito that he
was unable to discover what the “royal craft” is (292e). See discussion below, 4.4.
4 5 See Ch. 158e6“159a8, Eu. 5c8“9, La. 190c3“7. Cp. Rep. 1, 338a.
See, e.g., Burnyeat (1971).
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 141
character [miŽ€ «d”aƒ] that impious things are impious and pious things pious [. . .]
teach me then what in the world that character might be, so that by looking towards
it and using it as a model I may call pious any action of yours or another™s, which
conforms to it, and may deny to be pious whatever action does not.6 (6d9“e1 . . .
Socrates wants to examine different actions in the world and be able to
separate the pious ones from the impious by knowing what the distinc-
tive and unique feature is that all and only pious actions have in com-
mon. Throughout the dialogues of de¬nition Socrates employs a “techne-
analogy” in his search for a successful answer to the “What is F?” question.
In at least two ways techne appears to provide a good analogy with virtue.
First, both techne and virtue involve reliably acting in some way: doing the
right thing in the case of virtue, making or performing in the right way
for technai. Both virtue and techne are concerned with action, in a broad
sense. Second, in the dialogues of de¬nition actions done from virtue and
techne have a similar origin. A central part of the notion of a techne is that
it is a kind of knowledge, so that the actions performed by the expert stem
from a very speci¬c source and not from, say, blind luck, inborn talent,
or divine favor. To have a techne is to have knowledge. The analogy with
virtue then works as follows: just as the making of shoes is the result of
knowledge, doing the virtuous action is also the result of knowledge.
Notwithstanding such parallels between virtue and techne, there is
an obvious and overwhelming disanalogy in the dialogues of de¬nition
between the results of discussions about the technai and the results of
discussions about the virtues. Socrates and his interlocutors display no dif-
¬culty in satisfactorily answering questions posed in the elenchus about
various technai, while they are never able to answer these same questions
about virtue. Therefore, whatever analogical force Socrates may or may
not intend with his introduction of techne, there remains an indisputable
disanalogy in the fact that the questions posed about technai are easily
answered, while the ones posed about virtue end in aporia. But if virtue is
simply a techne, why do we have such a dif¬cult time answering the very
same questions that we have no trouble answering about the other technai?
The explanation of this rather obvious disanalogy is thought to be equally
obvious: no one can answer the questions about virtue because no one is a
moral expert, whereas there are plenty of experts in the ordinary technai.
But this explanation cannot be adequate. Consider two features about the
treatment of techne and the role of expertise in the Socratic dialogues which

6 Translation based on Gallop (1997), with “pious” and “impious” for “holy” and “unholy.”
142 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
have gone largely unnoticed. First, no one who is an acknowledged expert
at some techne is ever questioned about his knowledge of that techne;
we never witness expert knowledge in action in an elenchus. Interlocutors
who claim (always incorrectly, of course) to be experts at one or more of the
virtues are questioned, but a cobbler is never questioned about his shoemak-
ing.7 We witness only the reduction to aporia, or perhaps refutation,8 of a
character claiming knowledge or expertise in the area of virtue. Commen-
tators presume that a cobbler could pass the elenchus about shoemaking,
which I do not necessarily dispute, but we never see this happen, nor do
we have a clear reference to it having happened.
Second, and more importantly, all of the questions about technai that are
asked in the Socratic dialogues are answered easily and uncontroversially
(at least as far as the dialogues themselves are concerned) by people who
are not experts in those crafts. The same questions asked about virtue are
unanswerable by characters claiming to have knowledge of virtue. But, on
analogy with the technai, if those questions are answerable about virtue,
it should not take an expert to answer them. I do not need to have any
of the expert knowledge of a shipbuilder to know that shipbuilding is the
craft that produces ships. We can easily miss the fact that in the Socratic
dialogues all of the questions about technai (which are easily answered) are
answered by non-experts. And it is those very same questions “ the ones
answerable by non-experts “ that are unanswerable about the virtues.
So why do the dialogues fail in their search? The literature presents two
lines of response. The ¬rst is that virtue-knowledge is, in fact, in at least
some important respect(s) not analogous to ordinary techne-knowledge.
Since Socrates brings up the possibility of “second-order” crafts in at least
the Charmides and Euthydemus, this issue gets quite complex and is the
subject of signi¬cant debate.9 The second is that in fact there are no purely
non-evaluative or “behavioral” de¬nitions of virtuous action.10 I shall not
7 Socrates perhaps alludes to such discussions when he says that he went to the craftsmen while testing
the oracle and found that they knew many things that he did not (Ap. 22d). The craftsmen, however,
because of their success at their technai, thought they also knew “other most important things,”
which, as Ap. 30a proves, refers to ethical matters. It is entirely unclear, however, whether Socrates
practiced the elenchus on the craftsmen with respect to their crafts and whether that is how he
established that they knew their technai. It seems more plausible that Socrates could simply see that
these men were experts by the products they manufactured (see La. 185e).
8 See Frede (1992) for the former; Irwin (1995), ch. 2 for the latter.
9 Klosko (1981) and Roochnik (1986) raise problems for the techne-analogy, particularly as developed
in Irwin (1977). See also Irwin (1995). Roochnik (1996) argues that Plato in both the early and middle
dialogues rejects techne as a model of virtue-knowledge; Parry (1996), on the contrary, argues that
for Socrates and Plato virtue, and in particular justice, is a techne.
10 See Sachs (1963). In Irwin (1995) this is part of his developmental account of the difference between
the “early” and “middle” dialogues (the latter having given up the search for such a de¬nition).
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 143
endorse a speci¬c position in the ¬rst debate, for it would lead me too
far astray to discuss what precisely the dialogues™ conception of techne is. I
agree entirely with the second. Scholars who endorse this position, however,
are inclined to believe that “after” the Socratic dialogues11 Plato gives up
on trying to provide such an account of virtuous action, and replaces that
question with a question about the virtuous person. The key passages for
this are the “de¬nitions” of the virtues in Republic 4. There Plato de¬nes
them in terms of different states of the tripartite soul, assigning different
virtues to different parts or to certain relationships between the parts. In
chapters six through eight I shall argue that the account in Republic 4 is
not intended to supply de¬nitions of the virtues in the Socratic sense, i.e.,
with a view to resolving determining questions. Rather, it is part of meeting
the challenge of the skeptic who denies that there is any bene¬t in itself in
being just.
We should recall that all of the unsuccessful dialogues of de¬nition
spring from puzzles about what the virtuous course of action is in the here
and now. They have not left that determining question behind; it remains
front and center. It is of course correct that the dialogues move, without
much explicit discussion, from attempted de¬nitions of virtuous actions,
for example, that piety is “prosecuting the wrongdoer” (Eu. 5d) or “what is
dear to all the gods” (Eu. 9e), or that courage is “standing ¬rm in battle”
(La. 190e), to de¬nitions that describe virtuous characters (that is, what it
is to be virtuous), for example, that “piety is knowledge of how to sacri¬ce
and pray” (Eu. 14c) or that courage is “wise endurance” (La. 192d). It is said
that this shift is in fact the implicit, or perhaps sometimes explicit, message
of the dialogues “ the Socratic answer to the “What is F?” question, despite
his avowed inability to answer it.
But to say that virtue is knowledge, or knowledge of good and evil, is not
to supply the answer to the question “What is virtue?” even if it is correct. It
is to supply a quite different kind of answer. The claim that virtue is knowl-
edge is a putative description of the state of the virtuous person. In most
discussions this claim quickly leads to questions about the relationship
between knowledge and action “ central questions in moral psychology.
Socrates is taken to believe that virtue is identical to knowledge, so that
knowledge is both necessary and suf¬cient for virtue. While the necessity

See also Burnyeat (1971). These scholars believe, however, that the unsuccessful attempt to de¬ne
virtuous action is replaced by a more successful attempt to de¬ne the virtuous person. I shall address
this below.
11 Whether that is meant chronologically as on a developmental model, or simply as a metaphor for a
transition to more complex dialogues.
144 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
claim seems plausible enough, the suf¬ciency claim seems to many others,
to Plato and Aristotle in particular on most accounts, to be too strong. As
most readers will be aware, this is called “Socratic intellectualism.” Socrates
overemphasizes the cognitive, knowledge, component in the psychology
of the virtuous person and neglects the importance of a non-cognitive,
desiderative, component. For, on pain of denying incontinence, simply
knowing what one ought to do, what is required by virtue, is not suf¬cient
to do it “ to believe the contrary con¬‚icts with, in Aristotle™s phrase, “the
manifest appearances” (NE 7.2, 1145b28). What I want to make clear is
that this type of “knowing of what virtue is,” namely that it is knowledge,
only concerns the psychological state of the virtuous person. Answering the
question “What is virtue?” by reference to persons rather than actions is
not simply an alternative method of answering the same question. It is true
that the dialogues often turn to what it is to be virtuous once an attempt at
de¬ning virtuous actions has failed. But when we abandon giving a de¬ni-
tion of virtuous actions, we do not simply move from an “act-centered” to
an alternative “agent-centered” account. There are also signi¬cant rami¬ca-
tions, the most important of which is that the question of how to determine
which actions are the virtuous ones is dropped. Knowing what it is to be
a virtuous person goes no distance towards determining which actions are
virtuous. While I agree wholeheartedly that Plato rejects the possibility of
providing a “behavioral” account of virtuous action, his rejection of the
idea that we can provide a non-evaluative, behavioral, description of what
all virtuous actions have in common does not mean that he can or does
simply abandon the problem that such a de¬nition was supposed to solve.
Knowing that virtue is knowledge of good and evil will not help with
Socrates™ dilemma in the Crito: he needs to determine which action is the
virtuous one, remaining in prison or escaping.
The Socratic dialogues show that the attempt to state a common feature
of all virtuous actions in non-evaluative terms is doomed: the “What is F?”
question cannot be successfully answered for virtuous actions. We should
not therefore throw the baby out with the bathwater. While such a de¬-
nition may be impossible, the determining question it was meant to solve
remains as pressing as it ever was. The virtuous person, by de¬nition, and
because of his psychological state, has the ability to answer determining
questions correctly. In other words, the virtuous person correctly identi¬es
(at a minimum) what must be done; he knows what virtue is.12 In what does

12 She is also of course motivated to do it, whether this motivation stems simply from knowledge or
from some desiderative state in combination with it.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 145
this knowledge consist? Well, apparently not in a de¬nition. When scholars
maintain that Socrates believes that virtue is knowledge of good and evil,
most of the attention is paid to the alleged implausibility of knowledge
alone being suf¬cient for action. What gets lost in the shuf¬‚e is the point
that that knowledge, whether suf¬cient or simply necessary for action,
fails to answer the outstanding determining question. The fact that this
question remains outstanding both explains and justi¬es the aporetic end
of these dialogues.
I shall turn now to parts of three dialogues: the Euthyphro, Euthydemus,
and Protagoras. In different ways each of these foregrounds the importance
of the aiming/determining distinction.

4.3 aim ing a nd d etermi n i ng i n the e u t h y p h r o
It is easy to ¬nd fault with Euthyphro. While in some dialogues Socrates
appears to have worthy, or nearly worthy, adversaries, Euthyphro is not
one of them. Socrates engages in conditional irony early and frequently.13
Euthyphro is pompous, self-righteous, and apparently incapable of reach-
ing even a modest degree of critical distance from his own beliefs.14 He
lacks the intellectual ability of a Protagoras, Gorgias, or Critias, and the
integrity, honesty, or faithfulness of a Hippocrates, Laches, or Crito. Nor,
as a sort of perverse saving grace, does he hold the radical and interesting,
if at times morally repulsive, views of a Polus, Callicles, or Thrasymachus.
Finally he does not even provide the comic relief of a Hippias, Euthy-
demus, or Dionysodorus. Euthyphro™s particular combination of these
qualities can make him an especially unattractive and unlikable inter-
locutor. Despite all of this, however, we shall see that he has something
signi¬cant in common with Socrates. As I have mentioned, the investiga-
tion into the nature of piety stems from a very particular situation that
Euthyphro faces, and his reaction to it. Appreciating this is important for
understanding the substantial ethical common ground between Socrates
and the over-zealous Euthyphro. The distinction between having virtue
as an aim and determining which actions are virtuous will once again be
Socrates and Euthyphro meet in front of the judicial building where
Socrates is answering his indictment and Euthyphro is ¬ling a charge.
As Socrates and the reader soon discover, Euthyphro is prosecuting his
13 See Vasiliou (1999a) and (2002a).
14 This is a common impression of Euthyphro; see the succinct survey of assessments by Beversluis
(2000), 162“3.
146 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
elderly father for murder, an action which shocks Socrates and has enraged
Euthyphro™s family. The facts of the case are rather complex (4c3“d5). A
dependant (pel†thv) of Euthyphro, who had helped Euthyphro™s family
when they farmed in Naxos, was drunk and in a rage slaughtered (ˆpos-
f†ttei) one of the household servants.15 Euthyphro™s father then bound
the killer hand and foot and threw him in a ditch while he sent to Athens
for advice from a religious authority (–xhghtžv) about what to do with
him. The father paid no attention to the welfare of the bound man and
he subsequently died from exposure before there was any response from
Euthyphro™s household has a mess on their hands. And Euthyphro has
a concrete practical problem: what should he do? The father™s actions have
caused, however unintentionally, the death of someone, and so something
ethically signi¬cant has certainly occurred. But what should be done, in
particular by Euthyphro as his son, is not by any means immediately clear
to us, I think, or to Plato™s audience, given the rest of the circumstances.
I take it that the point of the complexity of the situation is to present
what is called in contemporary terms a “hard case.” One ought to look
carefully at the reactions of Euthyphro, Socrates, and Euthyphro™s family
in order to understand fully what is at issue. Socrates™ initial reaction after
he learns that Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder, but before
he has learned the facts of the case, is suf¬cient to show that Euthyphro™s
action is considered very serious and highly questionable. Euthyphro is not
simply answering questions about the case at a trial or cooperating with
authorities; he himself is at the courthouse bringing the charge of murder
against his own father.
Socrates™ important reaction is dif¬cult and misunderstood. On hearing
that the charge is murder, Socrates responds (I translate this passage very
By Heracles! Surely, Euthyphro, it is not known by the majority in what manner
such things could ever be conducted correctly [‚ph€ pot• ½rq¤v ›cei];16 for I at

The word ˆposf†ttein connotes violence, typically meaning cutting the throat of someone (or
some animal). Thus the action of the “victim” is far more active and violent than the “action” (neglect)
of the elderly father, who, whether or not one considers him a “killer” (¾ kte©nav), certainly did not
“slaughter” anyone; see Harris (2001), 79. For a discussion of the relevance of the ambiguous status
of a pelates see Harris (2002), 424.
The force of the pot” should not be read as meaning, how could such an action ever be correct?
i.e., it can never be correct. pot” is frequently added to Socrates™ formulation of the “What is F?”
question, quite generally, to indicate the dif¬culty of the question, what “in the world” is piety after
all? See, e.g., 9c4, 13e10.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 147
any rate do not think that it belongs to any chance person to do this correctly
[½rq¤v],17 but to one who is already surely far along in wisdom. (4a11“b2)
Socrates claims that most people would not know how to proceed in pros-
ecuting their father correctly: only someone who is “already far along in
wisdom” could be con¬dent in taking such a bold and morally risky action.18
Socrates then attempts to make Euthyphro™s action appear less radical by
supposing that his father has killed someone else in the household (4b4“6).
Socrates™ reasoning here is important. As we would expect from the account
of Socrates we have given so far, he does not say that it would always be
wrong to prosecute one™s father, only that in order to be con¬dent that one
is doing such a serious action rightly one must be very wise. What is most
important is, of course, to act virtuously, not to refrain from prosecuting
one™s father. So Socrates attempts to supply a context where such an action

17 This word is excised by Burnet (1924), who is followed in the Grube (in Cooper [1997]) and Gallop
(1997) translations. I think that the repeated emphasis is important. The point is precisely that
Socrates does not see how just anyone can do this correctly. Of course anyone can prosecute their
father “ but what only someone far along in wisdom would know is how to do it correctly: that is,
under what circumstances it would be the right thing to do. In addition, omission of the second
½rq¤v aside, both the Grube and Gallop translations seem, in different ways, potentially misleading.
Grube: “Certainly, Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It
is not the part of anyone to do this, but . . .” I think this slights the force of the adverb, ½rq¤v.
The idea is not about doing an action and being right, but performing an action, the prosecution
of one™s father in this case, correctly “ that is, performing the action in the right manner, under
the right circumstances, for the right reasons, etc. Grube™s translation makes it sound as though
there is a question about the inherent rightness or wrongness of prosecuting one™s father: one cannot
prosecute one™s father and be right. But, as we shall see, both Socrates and Euthyphro would deny
this. Further, it makes nonsense of the idea that a person “far along in wisdom” would be quali¬ed
to do this. Thus Socrates believes that there might be such circumstances, but thinks that only a near
moral expert could be con¬dent in judging them correctly. Gallop translates: “Well, Euthyphro,
most people are obviously ignorant of where the right lies in such a case, since I can™t imagine any
ordinary person taking such an action.” This translation, also following Burnet™s excision, suggests
(though less explicitly than Grube™s) that the fault lies with the taking of the action as such, and not
with whether the action is correct.
18 Beversluis (2000), 164“6 accuses Socrates of inconsistency with his position in the Crito and Gorgias
in suddenly appealing to what most people think as evidence of the incorrectness of Euthyphro™s
decision. He writes, “[Socrates] observes that most people would strongly disapprove of a son who
prosecuted his own father. He adds that he himself is inclined to agree that it would not be right for
just anyone to do such a thing” (164). But this is an inaccurate paraphrase. Socrates is not referring
to an opinion of the majority, and then endorsing it, but rather making a knowledge claim about
the majority: the majority of people would be ignorant about the circumstances in which it would
be correct to prosecute one™s father for murder. The opinion expressed here is pure Socrates. It has
nothing to do with any “common belief” about not prosecuting your father; Euthyphro™s family will
present that point of view momentarily. (Beversluis, 164, n. 21 also claims that Euthyphro™s family
does not object that it is wrong for a son to prosecute his father; but Euthyphro says that they do say
precisely this at 4d9“e1.) Here Socrates simply declares that a person would have to be a veritable
moral expert to judge con¬dently in such tricky moral terrain; and most people surely could not
do that. There is absolutely no appeal to any views or opinions of the many. Nor is there any claim
that such an action can never be right.
148 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
might most easily be understood to be the virtuous one: if your father
has, for example, killed your mother or sibling. He does not say, nor does
he believe, that this would be the only context in which prosecuting one™s
father would be the virtuous action; it is just that this is, relatively speaking,
more easily understood.
Euthyphro responds as follows:
It is ridiculous [gelo±on], Socrates, that you think that it makes any difference
whether the victim is a stranger or a household member; it is necessary to watch
for [ful†ttein] this alone: whether the killer acted justly or not. And if justly,
then let [him] go, but if not justly, prosecute, even if the killer shares your hearth
and table. The pollution is the same if you knowingly associate with such a person
and do not purify yourself and him by bringing him to justice. (4b7“c3)
This should sound to us quite similar to SV, and of course Socrates never
disagrees with it. Just as Socrates does not believe that prosecuting one™s
father is always wrong, Euthyphro does not believe that killing is always
wrong. What is always wrong is killing unjustly, which simply follows from
SV as a limiting condition: it is never right to do wrong. Furthermore,
Euthyphro argues, if you knowingly associate with someone who has killed
unjustly, even if that person is part of your household, you are acting
impiously and wrongly if you let the unjust killer go unpunished.19
Matters are a bit more complicated than Euthyphro makes clear, however.
There are two relevant actions at issue, and thus two moral assessments that
need to be made. The ¬rst concerns the proper understanding of what the
father did: has the father killed the hired man unjustly, and so is he truly
a “wrongdoer”? Two facts about who the victim is may appear relevant to
this determination:
(1) the fact that the victim is a person who has just “slaughtered” a member
of the father™s household;
(2) the fact that the victim is a “day-laborer” and so is inherently of less
value as a human being than those in the upper classes.
(1) appears obviously relevant, and, as we shall see, is brought up repeat-
edly. It is (1) that caused the father to treat the victim in the way he did.
If the person had not just murdered someone, the father would never have
19 For Euthyphro the moral wrong goes hand in hand with religious prohibition, and so Euthyphro
sees wrongdoing as a matter of “pollution” (mi†sma). But that is unimportant for the present point;
Euthyphro is arguing that it is wrong and impious to knowingly allow an unjust murderer to go
unpunished. The relation between religion and ethics is explored in the “third de¬nition” of piety,
where Euthyphro agrees “ with what degree of understanding it is dif¬cult to tell “ that the gods
love piety (i.e. what is right) because it is pious, and not that an action is pious because it is loved
(10d). Therefore Euthyphro agrees that what is pious has a nature of its own that is independent of
the attitude of the gods.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 149
bound him and tossed him in a ditch. Even if he was not treated as he
should have been,20 the fact that he had just cut someone else™s throat
in drunken anger does mitigate to some degree the rough treatment he
receives. In modern terms, the father committed, at most, “involuntary
manslaughter” not murder, and the fact that the person he did this to
had just “slaughtered” someone else is particularly relevant. (1) is brought
up ¬rst by Euthyphro himself as the explanation of his father™s neglect,
which led to the hired hand™s death (4d1“3), then in describing his family™s
condemnation of him (4d8“9), and, ¬nally, it is repeated later by Socrates
(9a3“4) when he raises questions again about Euthyphro™s con¬dence in the
correctness of his action.21 Despite the fact that this point is raised three
times, however, Euthyphro never addresses it, nor does he even attempt to
explain why it is not relevant to an assessment of the father™s action.22
By contrast, we ¬nd it repugnant to consider (2) morally relevant.23 It is
important to notice, however, that, regardless of Athenian class prejudice,
no one in the dialogue cites (2) as by itself generating mitigating grounds in
the assessment of the action. The one passage that even hints that it might
be relevant comes from Socrates himself at the very end of the dialogue
when he says that without clear knowledge of what is pious and impious
Euthyphro would never “have tried to prosecute on behalf of a man, a
servant, a man, his elderly father [Ëp•r ˆndr¼v qht¼v Šndra presb…thn
pat”ra]” (15d5“6). Although awkward in English, this translation retains
the Greek word order and repetition of ˆnžr in the original and thus the
emphasized contrast between the two different descriptions of each man “
one man, a servant, the other, his elderly father. Even here, however, it is
not (2) by itself that carries the argumentative burden. The contrast of
primary signi¬cance, which will be important in the second moral dilemma
I shall discuss (whether Euthyphro should prosecute his father), is simply
between the treatment of one™s father and others. It is hard nevertheless
not to see the mention of the other man as a “servant” as intended to
deepen that contrast, and thus to re¬‚ect common Athenian class prejudice;
Socrates could have simply repeated the more frequent description of him
20 We would, of course, need more details to render a more con¬dent ¬nal judgement. Did the man
continue to pose a threat, and so had to be forcibly restrained, or was he shocked and remorseful at
what he had just done? Did the father, who is quite old (4a2“3, 15d6), reasonably fear for his own
safety and the safety of others in the house? And so on.
21 At the culmination of what we shall see is an important, but neglected, stretch of argument.
22 As we shall see below, Euthyphro speaks to different identity issues.
23 Beversluis (2000), 165 n. 23 attempts to defend Socrates against Irving Stone™s criticism that he
never paid attention to lower classes. While Stone™s view is an exaggeration, I ¬nd no evidence that
Socrates holds that all human beings qua human beings are of equal worth. There is obviously a lot
of room between these two positions.
150 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
as a killer.24 But no one in the dialogue argues that the person™s death is of
less concern simply because he is a servant. Indeed the much more often
repeated emphasis on the victim as himself a murderer does not appear to
lose any force simply because the person he killed was a house-servant.
So much for what the father has done. The second moral puzzle is what
Euthyphro himself should do in relation to his father™s action. Obviously,
deciding this depends crucially on how one resolves the ¬rst issue. If, as
Euthyphro™s family complains, the father either did not in truth kill the
servant or did not cause his death unjustly, but in the course of reasonably
restraining a man who was a murderer, then, by Euthyphro™s own argument,
neither Euthyphro nor anyone else should prosecute the father, for he is
no wrongdoer. The key problem with Euthyphro is that he slides past this
¬rst issue far too quickly, and proceeds to focus on a second one: that an
unjust killer must be prosecuted, even if that unjust killer is one™s father.
The relationships between the victim and the prosecutor, and between the
killer and the prosecutor, do not count against doing the right thing and
prosecuting the wrongdoer. Euthyphro shows his commitment here to SV;
he rejects the idea that one should value one™s father more highly than
doing what is right. And Socrates would certainly agree. But we have seen
in chapters one and two that he understands SV, crucially, as an aim. It
would be wrong to elevate the aim of one™s father™s welfare above virtue,
but this does not mean that the welfare of one™s father, and the fact that a
person is one™s father, might not be relevant in the deliberation about what
the virtuous course of action is.25
Euthyphro believes that, if anyone prosecutes someone who does not
deserve prosecution, that person is acting wrongly towards the person he
prosecutes. Indeed, Euthyphro has made it apparent that this is his view
earlier in the dialogue when he displays no concern about determining
what is just in reaction to Socrates™ ironically ¬‚attering picture of Meletus.26
Euthyphro, missing any irony in Socrates™ claim that Meletus seems to be
the only one of the youth to start out in the right way, simply objects that
Socrates is wrong about Meletus:
For he absolutely [ˆtecn¤v] seems to me to start off by doing evil [kakourge±n] to
the city “from its hearth,” by trying to wrong you [–piceir¤n ˆdike±n s”]. (3a7“8)
Euthyphro simply applies a version of SV without bothering to make
any determination at all. Of course, if Meletus is wronging Socrates, then
24 Of course, Plato is writing this dialogue, and his elitism is clear in the Republic and elsewhere.
25 A similar point is the central contention about the Crito in chapter two.
26 See Vasiliou (1999a), 468“9 for a discussion of this passage and its irony.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 151
by de¬nition he must be “doing evil.” The question however is whether
Meletus™ prosecution of Socrates is in fact a case of doing wrong. Euthyphro
says that Meletus “does wrong” to Socrates before he even ¬nds out how or
why Meletus says Socrates corrupts the youth. He follows the above speech
with, “So tell me also, what does he say you do to corrupt the youth?”
At this point in the conversation Euthyphro™s uncritical assumption that
Socrates is not doing wrong might look like the reasonable con¬dence of a
friend. But with hindsight it becomes more troubling once we see that he
does not distinguish between appreciating the importance of never acting
wrongly and the issue of determining, in some particular situation, what
acting wrongly is. One might think that he ought to hear this ¬rst, and
then afterwards pass judgement on whether Socrates is being wronged or
not.27 There is an extra layer of irony here insofar as Socrates™ views about
the gods, and his “¬nding it hard to believe” the traditional stories about
them, might lead us to suspect that Euthyphro would in fact ¬nd his views
impious, if only he were less concerned with his own troubles.
By Euthyphro™s own lights, then, false prosecution is doing a wrong.
This wrong would be compounded, and also be clearly describable as a
major impiety, if one wrongly prosecuted one™s own father. Euthyphro
therefore has engaged in an extremely risky action; if he is wrong about his
substantive judgement that his father acted unjustly, a fact which we will
see that not only has he not determined carefully, but about which he does
not appreciate the nature of the judgement that must be made, then he
himself will have committed a very substantial moral offence, worse than
if he had acted wrongly against just anyone. When Euthyphro con¬dently
and proudly declares that it is irrelevant whether the victim or the killer is
a stranger or a household member, then, he means that it is irrelevant in a
deliberation about whether a person who has killed unjustly ought to be
prosecuted. And, as I said above, Socrates voices no objection to this. Since
he lacks an answer to the “What is F?” question, he can never know in
his own case that what he is doing is not wrong (except, as always, via the
intervention of his divine sign). He supposes that Euthyphro, in a similar
position, would only feel forced to risk doing so great an injustice “ namely
wrongly prosecuting his own father “ because his father had killed one of
Euthyphro™s family.28 Socrates and Euthyphro are in complete agreement
27 Contrast Socrates™ reaction to hearing Euthyphro™s account of his prosecution. Even when he hears
the surprising fact that Euthyphro is prosecuting his father he does not claim Euthyphro is wrong;
he asks about the charge and the case. Then, as we saw above, after he hears the seriousness of the
charge, he still would not say that Euthyphro is acting wrongly; of course he cannot say this without
violating his disavowal of knowledge.
28 Or, perhaps more accurately, supposes Euthyphro should feel and reason this way.
152 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
about SV. But Euthyphro™s conviction has troubling consequences because
it is not combined with any awareness of even his own potential ignorance
about what virtue is in general, and, as the dialogue makes clear, his closely
related fallibility with respect to judgements about the virtuous action in the
here and now. He is blind to the signi¬cance of the determining question:
has his father in these circumstances in fact acted unjustly?
This has caused confusion in commentators. John Beversluis accuses
Socrates of inconsistency, given the passage in the Gorgias (479e ff.) in which
Socrates argues that a person should denounce wrongdoing especially in
the case of his loved ones since he would thereby be improving their souls.29
Beversluis argues:
The only possible conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that, given Socrates™
views about the duties of people vis-`-vis wrongdoers, as set forth in the Gorgias,
there is nothing outrageous or even mildly dubious about Euthyphro™s litigation
against his father; on the contrary, he is doing exactly what he ought to be doing.
Insofar as Socrates denies (or questions) this in the Euthyphro, he contradicts
himself. He also does Euthyphro the grave disservice of diverting him from doing
what he himself believes is the right thing.30
I quote this passage as an example of the confusion wrought by the
failure to distinguish SV from the question of what the virtuous action
is. Since Socrates everywhere trumpets the prosecution and punishment
of wrongdoers, why does he suddenly pick on poor Euthyphro when he
tries to do the same? He can only be contradicting himself and arguing
unfairly. But this reasoning is incorrect. Socrates agrees in the Euthyphro,
and everywhere else, that the wrongdoer should be punished, as we saw in
the Gorgias.31 Euthyphro also agrees wholeheartedly, indeed zealously, with
SV. But he fails to see that by itself SV is insuf¬cient to generate correct
action; one must also make a determination about what the right thing to
do is. I shall now show that the text clearly indicates that Euthyphro does
not have a clear grasp of this most crucial distinction.
By the end of Euthyphro™s speech (4e3), he is vehement that his family,
and, as he thinks, Socrates, are wrong that it is impious for a son to prose-
cute his father. But we have seen that Socrates does not say this, and that,

29 This is the passage which provokes Callicles into the argument, when he asks whether Socrates is
serious, and says that if he were, it would turn the world “upside down.” See discussion in 3.5.
30 Beversluis (2000), 167.
31 The claim that “wrongdoers ought to be prosecuted/punished” does not strictly follow from SV,
although Socrates (and Euthyphro) treat it as though it does. Socrates appears to understand pun-
ishment as a corrective to help a person become more virtuous; see, e.g., Gor. 472e, 480a“481b; cf.
Pr. 323c“324c.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 153
in addition, Euthyphro himself believes that it is doing someone wrong to
prosecute them unfairly (as is happening to Socrates at the hands of Mele-
tus). The principle upon which Euthyphro relies is that a wrongdoer must
be punished, regardless of who he is, whom he has wronged, or the nature
of his relationship to the punisher. Furthermore, we learn from Euthy-
phro™s own mouth two essential facts that are relevant to whether the father
is, in fact, a wrongdoer: (1) the victim died of neglect and accidentally “
the father clearly did not intend to cause his death; and (2) the victim had
just murdered someone else. These factors certainly appear to be relevant
to whether it is right and just to prosecute the father for murder, rather
than take some other sort of action. Euthyphro, however, never considers
them at all. He does not attempt to rebut them, nor does he even seem to
understand what mitigating force his family intends them to have. He sees
the matter as simply one of trying to deny punishment to a wrongdoer.
He claims precise (ˆkrib¤v) knowledge of piety and impiety and so claims
that he has no fear of doing something impious in prosecuting his father
(4e“5a). But Euthyphro does not see that the dif¬cult moral dilemma is not
whether a son should prosecute a father who has done wrong, but whether
the father has acted wrongly, and in a way that rightly deserves prosecution
for murder by his son. Euthyphro never speaks to this issue.
After a barrage of conditional irony, Socrates proceeds to pose his “What
is F?” question. This investigation arises as the result of the demand by
Socrates to be shown how the knowledge of piety that Euthyphro claims
to possess is able to determine that the action he is taking in the here and
now against his father is the right one.32 Socrates gets Euthyphro to assent

32 Beversluis (2000), 168 criticizes Socrates and “legions of commentators” for unfairly foisting on
Euthyphro the Socratic approach to moral philosophy “ i.e. attempting to come up with an answer
to a “What is F?” question: “The implication is that . . . [Euthyphro] cannot know that it is pious to
prosecute his father unless he knows what piety is. The fact is, however, that Euthyphro has already
justi¬ed his litigation by invoking the principle that wrongdoers ought to be prosecuted, including
friends and relatives “ a principle that Socrates accepts. So if Euthyphro™s father is a wrongdoer,
the morally required course of action seems crystal clear: he ought to be prosecuted. So why does
Euthyphro need a de¬nition of piety? The answer cannot be: in order to determine whether it is
pious to prosecute his father . . . In the Gorgias, Socrates has no de¬nition of justice; but that does
not prevent him from arguing that it is just to prosecute wrongdoers “ all wrongdoers, including
member of one™s own family. If the absence of a de¬nition of the relevant moral term poses no
problems for Socrates, why should it pose any for Euthyphro?” (his emphasis). The crucial sentence
is the following: “So if Euthyphro™s father is a wrongdoer, the morally required course of action seems
crystal clear: he ought to be prosecuted.” The problem facing Euthyphro concerns determining the
truth of the if-clause; for, if his father is not a wrongdoer, then his prosecution is impious and wrong.
While Beversluis is right that Socrates™ lack of de¬nition does not prevent him from saying that
wrongdoers should be punished, Socrates never goes ahead to prosecute anyone (as is mentioned in
the opening of the Euthyphro [2b]) precisely because he lacks knowledge of who the wrongdoer is:
how can one know this without knowing what is pious and impious? Socrates demands justi¬cation
154 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
to the idea that all pious actions are pious “through one form,” and then
asks him, as a knower of piety, to tell him what that form is. Euthyphro
I say then that the pious is that which I am doing now: to prosecute the wrongdoer
[t¤€ ˆdiko“nti] whether about murder or temple robbery or the one at fault about
any other of such things, even if he happens to be your father or your mother or
anyone else at all; but not to prosecute is impious. (5d8“e2)
Before Alexander Nehamas™ important article, it was said that Euthyphro
did not understand that what was wanted was a type of action and not sim-
ply a token example of piety. Nehamas persuasively shows that, although
Euthyphro has not given a de¬nition, but only an example, of piety, he is
not confused about the type/token distinction.33 Euthyphro has given an
example of a type of pious action: to prosecute the wrongdoer, of which
his particular action, the prosecution of his father, is a token. To defend his
de¬nition, he offers a “great proof” by appealing to a divine example where
a son punished a father. He argues that while Zeus, who is agreed to be “the
best and most just” (Šriston kaª dikai»taton) of gods, despite the fact that
he castrated and bound his father for swallowing his sons “unjustly” (oÉk –n
d©kh), everyone is angry at him for prosecuting his father for being a
wrongdoer (ˆdiko“nti) (6a1“5), and so people end up contradicting them-
selves.34 What is the example of Zeus supposed to prove? If we assume
that Zeus always acts rightly, it shows that a son can rightly punish his
father, when his father has acted unjustly. Zeus™ knowledge that he is
doing the right thing, however, must include knowledge that his father
has acted unjustly. Regardless of the extent to which Euthyphro fails to
supply an adequate de¬nition of piety by Socratic standards, more impor-
tantly the divine example goes no distance towards addressing the worry
of Socrates and Euthyphro™s family about the rightness of his concrete
action in the here and now. All his example shows is that punishment of
a father who has acted unjustly by his son is sometimes right. But the bur-
den Euthyphro faces is to show that his prosecution of his father in these
very particular and complex circumstances is the right thing to do. There-
fore to show that he is not acting impiously, as Socrates wants, he must

not for Euthyphro™s claim that wrongdoers ought to be punished, even when they are relatives, but
for the claim that what Euthyphro has done in this very case is the right and pious action. And for
this to be the case, for it to be the case that Euthyphro knows that he is prosecuting his father rightly,
he must know what piety is.
33 Nehamas (1975/1999).
34 Here is another similarity between Euthyphro and Socrates. Just as they both hold SV, Euthyphro
is concerned with con¬‚ict in the beliefs of others.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 155
show how he knows that his father is guilty of wrongdoing which requires
him to be prosecuted as a murderer. Simply to repeat that a wrongdoer
ought to punished, even by his son, goes no distance towards establishing
After Socrates expresses some reservations about the truth of stories about
the gods, he returns to Euthyphro™s speci¬c answer, and questions him
again, focusing on the concrete case at issue:
socr at es : For now try to say more clearly what I asked you to just now. For
earlier, friend, you did not teach me adequately when I asked you what piety
is, but you told me that piety happens to be this: what you are now doing,
prosecuting your father for murder.
eut hyphro: And I was telling the truth, Socrates.
socrat es: Perhaps.
Socrates™ complaint focuses once again on the token case, which Euthyphro
still insists he is right about. Socrates™ “perhaps” indicates that they have
not made any headway on resolving that question. Since Euthyphro grants
that there are many pious actions other than his prosecution of his father,
what is it about Euthyphro™s prosecution of his father that makes it (and
other alleged pious actions) pious?
Socrates formulates the demand quoted above:
And do you recall that I wasn™t urging you to teach me about one or two of
those many things that are pious, but rather about the form itself whereby all
pious things are pious? Because you said, I think, that it was by virtue of a single
character impious things are impious and pious things pious . . . teach me then
what in the world that character might be, so that by looking towards it and using
it as a model I may call pious any action of yours or another™s, which conforms to
it, and may deny to be pious whatever action does not. (6d9“e1 . . . 6e3“6)
Note that it is explicit here that Socrates is seeking a method for determin-
ing what the virtuous/pious action is in concrete circumstances,35 which
is necessary if they are to make a con¬dent judgement on the piety of
Euthyphro™s action. This project is necessary if they want to be able to act
properly on their joint commitment to SV.
When Euthyphro replies that the pious is what is dear to the gods,
Socrates is pleased and congratulates him on providing the right sort of
answer (7a). Socrates then turns to an apparently ad hominem argument
against this de¬nition. Beginning from Euthyphro™s belief that the gods
35 By itself this does not necessarily imply that one needs to maintain the priority of de¬nition. But it
does insist that some method is needed.
156 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
disagree about some matters, Socrates elicits Euthyphro™s assent to the claim
that the topics of disagreement, for both gods and people, are “the just and
the unjust, the ¬ne and the shameful, and the good and the bad” (7d1“2).
Socrates proceeds to attempt to draw a contradiction: how can piety be
what the gods love, if some of the gods are pleased by a particular action,
say, “what you are now doing, punishing your father” (8b1“2) but others
are displeased? We should note again Socrates™ emphasis on the concrete
action of Euthyphro, insisting that the question is how we can know that
it is the right thing to do.
I quote at some length the interchange that follows, for it has not received
much scholarly comment, and it shows that Euthyphro does not grasp the
central role of the determining question. The highlighted numbers repre-
sent the ¬ve times Socrates repeats the principle, which he and Euthyphro
take to follow from SV, that a wrongdoer ought to be prosecuted. The
highlighted letters show the contrast he draws by reference to making
determinations in the particular, concrete, case.

eut hy ph ro: But I think, Socrates, that none of the gods would differ with one
another about this at least: that it is (1) necessary for a person who has killed
someone unjustly [ˆd©kwv] to pay the penalty.
soc r at es: What? Have you ever heard of some person, Euthyphro, who argues
that (2) one who has killed unjustly, or who has done any other thing what-
soever unjustly, ought not to pay the penalty?
euth yph ro: They never stop arguing these things, both in the courts and
elsewhere; for although they have done very many injustices [ˆdiko“ntev
g‡r p†mpolla], they do and say all sorts of things to avoid the penalty.
socr at es: And do they also agree, Euthyphro, that (A) they do injustice, and
having agreed, nevertheless (3) say that they ought not to pay the penalty?
eu thy ph ro: In no way [do they do] this, at any rate.
socr at es: Then they do not do and say everything; for I think that they do not
dare to say this, nor do they even argue it, that (4) if indeed they do injustice
they should not pay the penalty, but I think that (B) they deny that they do
injustice. Isn™t this right?
e uth y phro: You speak the truth.
soc r at es: Then it isn™t the case that they argue about that, at any rate: (5) that
the one who does injustice ought not to pay the penalty, but perhaps they
argue about this, (C) who is the one doing injustice, what he did, and when.
e uth yphro: You speak the truth.
soc r at es: Therefore haven™t the gods also experienced these same things, if
indeed they quarrel about the just and unjust matters, as your account [says],
and (D) some say that they do injustice to one another, but others deny
it? Since surely, wondrous man, no one among gods or human beings dares
[tolmŽ€] to say that (6) a wrongdoer ought not to be punished.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 157
eu thy phro: Yes, this is true, Socrates, at least on the main point.
socr at es : But I think at any rate, Euthyphro, that those who argue, both humans
and gods (if indeed gods argue), argue about (E) each [™kaston] of the things
that have been done, differing about some action [pr†xeÛv tinov p”ri], some
saying that it has been done justly, but others unjustly. Isn™t this so?
e uthy phro: Very much so.
soc rat e s: Come now, my friend Euthyphro, teach me too, so that I may become
wiser: what is your proof that all the gods believe that that man has been killed
unjustly, the man who, while a hired laborer, becomes a murderer, is bound
by the master of the victim, ends up dying because of his bonds before the
one who bound him can learn what it is necessary to do with him from the
authorities, and that on behalf of such a man it is correct that a son prosecute
and press the charge of murder on his father? Come, try to show me something
clear about these things that indicates that all the gods de¬nitely believe that
this action is done correctly “ and if you show me this adequately, I will never
ever stop praising your wisdom.
This rather neglected passage is of paramount importance for the argu-
ment.36 I shall make several remarks about it.
First, the passage occurs as a digression from the main topic, triggered
by Euthyphro™s ¬rst speech quoted above.37 He had de¬ned piety as what
the gods love, and Socrates was proceeding to raise problems about this
as a way of picking out all and only the pious actions in the world since,
by Euthyphro™s own admission, the gods disagree with one another and, as
Socrates has pointed out, the matters about which people (and presumably
also the gods)38 disagree concern the just and unjust, ¬ne and shameful,
and the good and bad. Then Euthyphro states that surely the gods do not
disagree that one who does injustice ought to be punished. This principle,
like SV, however, needs substantive determinations to be made before it
can be properly acted upon. If one should always act virtuously above all,
then it can never be right to do wrong, not even, as was said in the Crito,
in return for a wrong. As I argued in chapter two, this principle, however,
leaves entirely undetermined what is wrong; it merely asserts a conditional:
if an action is wrong/unjust/vicious, then it must never be done. In reading
the Crito we had to be careful not to slip into what I called a “moral-
izing interpretation” of this principle, where we think we already know

36 For example, there is no mention of it in Irwin (1995) or Beversluis (2000). McPherran (1996), 42
recognizes that Socrates is questioning Euthyphro about his particular case.
37 Allen (1980) calls it an “interlude.”
38 “If they disagree,” as Socrates keeps adding, thereby implying that this is not his view but
Euthyphro™s. See 7.3 for some discussion of Socrates™ quite different account of the gods in Rep. 2.
158 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
what is wrong; e.g., breaking out of prison, or bribing the guardsmen, and
so on.
The idea that wrongdoers must be punished presents the same problem
for Euthyphro. He needs to show that all of the gods love his prosecution of
his father, and he wrongly takes himself to have established that by asserting
that all of the gods would believe that someone who commits an injustice
ought to be punished. The only outstanding issue, as far as Euthyphro is
concerned, is that he is his father™s son, and he has tried to mitigate this, as
we have seen, by appeal to divine cases where a son has punished a father.
He has entirely missed what I have argued is the crucial issue: has his father
done something unjust and something that warrants his son prosecuting
him for murder? It is this substantive, determining, question that must be
And this is just what Socrates tries to show Euthyphro in the passage. He
agrees that not only would the gods not dispute that claim that wrongdoers
ought to be punished but that no person whatsoever would “dare” to; a
zealous moralist like Euthyphro does not even imagine someone like Polus
or Callicles. Euthyphro thinks that this is what is at issue in most court
cases, and indeed in people™s objections to his treatment of his father, but
it is not. By the end of the passage he seems to be at last understanding the
difference between his, for the present purposes, uncontroversial assertion
that wrongdoers ought to be punished, and his very controversial substan-
tive judgement that his father has killed someone unjustly and ought to be
prosecuted by him for murder. In his concluding speech Socrates rehearses
in meticulous detail all of the relevant aspects of the case that make it a
“hard case,” and thus dif¬cult to make a clear judgement about. Now that
he has shown Euthyphro that his strong belief, supported by the gods, that
doers of injustice must be punished goes no distance towards making the
determination of the case at hand, he might hope that Euthyphro would
withdraw his claim to knowledge about the concrete case. Euthyphro of
course concedes nothing, claiming that he could show him clearly even
though it would be a big deal. Euthyphro has failed to understand the
Socrates™ speech at 9c“d draws the discussion away again from the con-
crete case. He says that even if he were to come up with the best proof
possible that all of the gods hate the action of Euthyphro™s father, and
consider the death of the victim unjust, that still would not advance the
issue of discovering what piety is, since he and Euthyphro are still oper-
ating under the de¬nition that the pious is both loved and hated by the
gods. So, Socrates proposes, perhaps they should amend the de¬nition
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 159
of piety to what all the gods love, and of impiety to what all the gods
While the characters in the Gorgias are disturbing for the way that they
would ignore, openly ¬‚out, or nefariously reinterpret SV, Euthyphro™s com-
mitment to SV, combined with his lack of understanding that he needs
a way of making determinate judgements about virtue in concrete cases,
generates a different sort of danger. Strong commitment to SV without
Socrates™ disavowal of knowing what virtue is results in a fundamentalist
type of moralist, blindly con¬dent not just that there is a right and wrong,
but that he knows what it is.40 Socrates™ discussion shows us the critical
importance of the realization of one™s ignorance, the resulting aporia, and
his own disavowal. As he reminds Euthyphro at the end of the dialogue,
if Euthyphro did not think he knew that his father™s action was unjust, he
would never have ventured to prosecute him. Euthyphro has given no indi-
cation of how he knows this. We may criticize the stringency of Socrates™
“What is F?” question and its demand that one state one form that all and
only virtuous actions have in common, but we (and Socrates) need some way
of determining the content of virtue in order to be able to act rightly. And
the Euthyphro shows us this, with its constant concern for acting rightly in
the here and now. The “What is F?” question is not simply of philosophical
interest; ¬nding an answer to it, or replacing it with some other way of deter-
mining what the virtuous action is in the here and now, is necessary for any
person committed to SV who turns to put that commitment into action.
While Socrates™ humility in his disavowal has seemed to many readers over
the centuries exaggerated if not downright disingenuous, Euthyphro shows
the danger of not sharing it. Committed to doing the right thing, certain
that it is never right to do wrong or to let a wrongdoer go unpunished,
Euthyphro fails to understand that a knowledgeable determination about
what is right and wrong must be made before one acts.
39 Once Euthyphro agrees to this new de¬nition, Socrates asks whether they should examine it to see if
it is “well said,” a typical enough Socratic comment, but then he takes a few more lines to elaborate
an alternative in a way I think quite telling: “Or shall we leave it and shall we in this way accept
these [statements] of ours and of others “ [that is,] if someone simply says that something is in some
way [ti ›cein oÌtw], we then agree [sugcwro“ntev] that it is. Or should we consider what the
speaker is saying?” (9e5“7). Talk of how things are clearly echoes Euthyphro™s dogmatic assessment
of how things stand in his father™s case. See 4a12, 4e2, 4e5, 9b2. In these passages the issue is whether
matters stand correctly (›cein ½rq¤v).
40 It is not dif¬cult to recognize that Euthyphro™s zealous prosecution of his father is a thinly veiled
analogy for Meletus™ zealous prosecution of Socrates. As Socrates ironically says, since Meletus is
prosecuting him for impiety and corrupting the youth, he must therefore know what corrupts the
youth and what doesn™t, and therefore he must be wise (2c“3a); see Vasiliou (1999a), 468“9. The
alternative is that he is doing what Euthyphro is doing: proceeding with a serious action without
adequate justi¬cation that what he is doing is right.
160 Aiming at Virtue in Plato

4.4 aiming a nd determ i ni ng i n t h e p r o ta g o r a s
a nd e u t h y d e m u s
The Euthydemus is not generally grouped with the dialogues of de¬nition,
for, unlike the case with the Charmides, Euthyphro, or Laches, there is no clear
“What is F?” question on which it centers. Its explicit focus is protreptic.
Socrates and a pair of sophists, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, offer com-
peting arguments and argumentative methods with the aim of “exhorting”
(protr”pein: see 275a1, 278d2, 282d6) the young boy Cleinias to pursue
virtue and philosophy. Socrates has two substantive philosophical discus-
sions with Cleinias, the ¬rst of which is explicitly an example of Socrates
trying out his protreptic skills. In this protreptic discussion Socrates argues
that only wisdom is bene¬cial, because it alone guarantees the correct use
of things (278e“282d).41 Other apparent goods, like fortitude, wealth, or
health, are merely conditional goods insofar as their goodness depends upon
their being used properly (i.e., by knowledge). Misused, these “apparent”
goods can become downright harmful. This argument clearly leaves impor-
tant questions unanswered. Let us grant that it successfully establishes that
knowledge of how to use other things correctly (½rq¤v) is necessary for
those things to function as goods. Knowledge then is the state that enables
an individual to make correct use of things. But we still have not discovered
what it would be to use, for example, wealth “correctly.” If I want to do what
is truly good in the here and now with my wealth, simply knowing that I
need to know how to use it correctly, and not misuse it, will not help me to
determine what to do. We should not be too surprised at this lack, however,
when we recall that the explicit goal of this argument is a protreptic one: to
convince the young Cleinias to pursue virtue and wisdom. And judging by
Cleinias™ enthusiastic response, it seems to do just that (282d2“3); indeed,
this is just what Socrates is excellent at according to Cleitophon.
The determining question is addressed in Socrates™ second engagement
with Cleinias in the Euthydemus (288d“292e).42 Although it does not ask

41 See also Meno 87e“89a. I think that the argument in the Euthydemus should not be taken, as it
often is, as straightforward evidence of what Socrates (or Plato) thinks about wisdom, goods, and
happiness, since it arises in a very particular and charged context: an explicit example of protreptic
aimed at turning the young Cleinias towards virtue and philosophy. It is not an investigation into
the truth about the nature of wisdom and happiness, but an attempt at conversion, to be contrasted
with the methods of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. I cannot argue for this fully here, however.
42 Gonzalez (2002), 176“7 believes that the second engagement with Cleinias is also a “protreptic”
discussion. By contrast, I believe that the second engagement turns to the determining question
of what the wisdom is that Cleinias has already been convinced to pursue via the ¬rst protreptic
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 161
a “What is F?” question, it does seek to determine what the knowledge is
which was identi¬ed in the ¬rst argument. In this second argument Socrates
and Cleinias conclude that it is some sort of “royal skill” (basilikŸ t”cnh)
that will provide us with knowledge of how to use the ¬rst-order skills
and their products (291b4 ff.). But they (and Crito as well) are not able
to specify what that knowledge is of (292e), parallel to the way in which
the dialogues of de¬nition fail to ¬nd adequate de¬nitions of the virtues.43
Thus, even in this brief discussion, we can see that the structure of the two
arguments in the Euthydemus matches the aiming/determining distinction.
Moreover the results of the arguments ¬t with what we would expect from
Cleitophon™s critique of Socrates: he delivers a successful protreptic speech,
convincing Cleinias that virtue and wisdom are most important, but then,
when it comes to saying what that wisdom is, he utterly fails to answer
the determining question. The situation in the Protagoras, by contrast, is
interestingly different.
The most notorious feature of the Protagoras is Socrates™ apparent
endorsement of hedonism in the ¬nal argument (351b ff.). I do not believe
that Socrates is a hedonist, not even within the con¬nes of the Protagoras.44
I believe that his use of hedonism is merely ad hominem, and that Plato
gives clues to a careful reader to indicate that this is so. I shall not argue for
this here, but I am largely sympathetic with the analysis of the argument by
Charles Kahn.45 As I have already discussed in connection with Callicles in
chapter three, and will return to in chapters six and eight on the Republic,
hedonism is a signi¬cant position in Plato not only because of the natural
43 It seems clear to me that the interchange between Socrates and Crito at 290e“291a is meant to
indicate that what Socrates reports as said by Cleinias in the second argument “ including the claim
that the hypotheses of mathematics ought to be handed over to dialecticians (290c) “ was not in fact
said by him. Crito™s incredulity that the boy came up with this makes Socrates say that perhaps he
was mistaken and suggests other candidates, including Ctesippus (about whom Crito replies: “Not
the Ctesippus I know!”) or else some “superior being”; the only thing that Socrates is sure of is that
it was not Euthydemus or Dionysodorus. Crito responds that he is sure it was a superior being “
transparently referring to Socrates himself. Gonzalez (2002), 177 thinks that Cleinias himself has
already, via protreptic alone, become a dialectician. Reeve (2003), 46 appreciates the humor.
44 Irwin (1995), 91“2 believes that the hedonism of the Protagoras is Plato™s defense of the moral theory
of the Socratic dialogues; he believes that the historical Socrates most probably did not clearly
either accept or reject hedonism. Gosling and Taylor (1982) argue that Socrates™ hedonism in the
Protagoras is compatible with his rejection of hedonism in the Gorgias and with his claims about
the importance of virtue in the Apology and Crito. Although rejecting Gosling and Taylor™s analysis,
Rudebusch (1999) also argues that Socrates is a hedonist and that the various texts are compatible,
once one understands that Socrates distinguishes between “modal” and “sensate” pleasure.
45 See Kahn (1996), 238“43. I am less convinced by Kahn™s larger conclusions about the Protagoras.
Zeyl (1980) is an earlier, well-known, article that makes a strong case for Socrates™ hedonism being
merely ad hominem; Kahn™s view differs in some important ways. A defect of Rudebusch™s (1999)
account is that it does not address the arguments advanced for the ad hominem interpretation by
Zeyl or Kahn.
162 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
and obvious effect of pleasure on human lives. If hedonism is true, then
determining what right action is will be relatively straightforward: right
action will be whatever leads to the maximization of pleasure. If, however,
hedonism is false, and being virtuous and/or doing virtuous actions is (part
of ) the supreme aim and ultimate good, then the question of what the
virtuous actions are remains outstanding.
The Protagoras shows the reader quite clearly how the outstanding
determining questions could in principle be solved. The key difference
between the hedonist argument in the Protagoras and Socrates™ arguments
in the Euthydemus is that, although they both agree that knowledge is of
paramount importance, the Protagoras argument proceeds on the assump-
tion that what the good is has already been determined. The knowledge
that is critical to happiness has an object in the Protagoras: it is knowledge
of the measurement of pleasures and pains (357d). In the Euthydemus the
wisdom is simply wisdom of how to use things “correctly” or “rightly”
(½rq¤v); it is, further, a knowledge that will make people good (292d) “
but in what respect they are good remains undiscovered. In the Protagoras,
by contrast, the good, and thus right, action is clearly determined: “rightly”
means in order to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure overall. The “art
of measurement” is not a skill the possession of which enables a person
to know what the overall good is, any more than knowledge of medicine
is what makes a person know that the end of medicine is health; it does
not address that question in moral epistemology. Nor is the art of mea-
surement a second-order techne, whose end or product is problematic, as
was the case with the “royal skill” of the Euthydemus. It is rather a ¬rst-
order techne, whose end is clear: the maximization of pleasure. What the
knowledge of this skill will enable one to do, in contrast to the mere “power
of appearance,” is to guarantee that one gets acting well in the here and
now right, given that pleasure is truly the good. It does not help, nor is it
concerned with, the question of whether pleasure is in fact the real or only
the apparent good. The art of measurement provides the answer to the
outstanding determining question: what is the right action to do? The art
of measurement, however, would be the “salvation of life” (357a6“7) only
on the assumption that hedonism is true.
The art of measurement of pleasures and pains, which is a ¬rst-order
craft, does prevent the agent from confusing an action that appears to be
good (most pleasant) with one that is really good (most pleasant). That this
knowledge by itself causes us to choose the real good is plausible only when
conjoined with the Protagoras™ psychological hedonism. This ¬rst-order
techne, the art of measurement, is not a “royal craft” because hedonism
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 163
preempts the necessity for such a second-order skill “ the special sort of
wisdom that cannot be misused. As I noted earlier, the second-order craft
arises in the context of there being no substantive picture of what will
count as using the ¬rst-order crafts, and the other “apparent” goods, cor-
rectly. Hedonism solves that problem: things are used correctly when they
maximize pleasure. And, as I shall elaborate below, in the context of the
Protagoras it is assumed that no one would voluntarily act against what is
most pleasant. When Socrates denies having techne-knowledge of virtue,
what he denies is knowledge of what virtue is in general and of how to
determine what the right action is in the here and now.46 If he were able
to answer the Socratic “What is F?” question he would be able to distin-
guish without error the virtuous from the non-virtuous actions. This is the
knowledge that the art of measurement provides on the assumption that
hedonism is true. Without this knowledge a person can never know that
what she does is actually virtuous, even if she is explicitly aiming at acting
virtuously (i.e., at maximizing pleasure). But this kind of “going wrong” is
of course different from cases of weakness of will “ a central focus in the
hedonist argument. If the good is not identical to pleasure, but to virtue,
then there are two ways we might “go wrong.” One is that we might mis-
takenly believe that pleasure is the good: when we pursue the pleasant then
we are not acting incontinently, we are pursuing what we falsely believe is
the good. In addition or alternatively, we may pursue our conception of
the good as pleasure (whether or not it is true) incorrectly by not doing the
actions that would in fact lead us to maximize our pleasure “ this would be
recti¬ed by the knowledge of the art of measurement. Both of these cases
of going wrong would be different from “weakness” cases in which we are
acting against either what we believe to be our overall good, or what we
take to be the good in the here and now.
In chapter one I discussed how the aiming/determining distinction
affects our understanding of Socrates™ own relationship to incontinence
(1.6). The hedonism argument in the Protagoras is where Socrates most
explicitly denies the possibility that a person could act against knowledge.
I cannot fully examine this argument here; I am simply concerned to show
how the aiming/determining distinction affects our understanding of it. I
shall argue that by appreciating the aiming/determining distinction we can
see that Socrates™ argument for a general denial of incontinence depends for
its plausibility speci¬cally on the hedonism with which it is conjoined. By

46 He cannot determine what is virtuous in the here and now knowledgeably; he can and does, as we
have seen, follow the argument that seems best to him or follow the prohibitions of his divine sign.
164 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
“general denial” I mean that Socrates is not merely denying that he himself
has ever been incontinent, as I argued he did in the Apology, but that the
phenomenon itself is impossible.
As far as I can see, nothing in the hedonist argument rules out the pos-
sibility that there could be a character who, despite his knowledge that
hedonism is true and despite his knowledge that action A is the one that is
the most pleasurable via his knowledge of the art of measurement, never-
theless chooses action B because, say, he is overcome by pity.47 What makes
“being overwhelmed by pity” implausible, and so simply not considered
one way or the other in the Protagoras, is the plausibility for the many
of hedonism and in particular of psychological hedonism. If instead the
good were something else, for example the accumulation of wealth, then
it would not be plausible in the least that mere knowledge of an art of
measurement about which actions would in fact make one the wealthiest
would by itself ensure that one did not act contrary to that knowledge. As
the many believe, it is a very familiar phenomenon for people to be tempted
by pleasure to do something contrary to what they think they ought to do.
But, as Socrates argues, if hedonism is true, then the problem is not with
their aim but with whether they correctly determine which action, in fact,
yields the most pleasure (factoring in the pleasurable and painful effects
of delayed grati¬cation and so on: see 356a“c); this is where the art of
measurement would guarantee the right answer. By contrast it would be a
very unusual circumstance for a person to have a “weakness” for fairness
or pity contrary to what would truly be most pleasurable for him. But it
would only be impossible, as opposed to merely unusual, if psychological
hedonism were true. Thus, nothing in the argument rules out incontinence
in general, understood as acting against what one knows to be best. For a
person who was overcome by pity to act generously, despite the fact that
it is less pleasant for him and he knows it is, would be to display (a kind
of ) incontinence. Such incontinence is only rendered implausible given
the alleged truth of ethical and psychological hedonism “ positions that,
in the Protagoras at least, the many do not question. Likewise, for someone
who is unwaveringly committed to SV, as Socrates himself claims to have
been throughout his life, all that remains to guarantee virtuous action is the
correct determination of which action is the virtuous one. In the Protagoras
Socrates argues similarly: if one should be and is unwaveringly committed
47 We might also think of Callicles™ extolling of the virtue of courage in pursuing one™s appetites
without regret and in rejecting conventional calls to justice or temperance; a convinced Calliclean,
then, might be persuaded that he ought to gratify his appetites as much as possible, but, overcome
by conventional social pressure, nevertheless act “incontinently.”
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 165
to doing what is most pleasant, all that is needed to guarantee correct action
is the correct identi¬cation of which action truly yields the most pleasure.
Thus the Protagoras shows how the adoption of hedonism renders the
problematic determining question much more manageable. If the supreme
aim is not virtuous action or being virtuous as such but pleasure, then
the virtuous action becomes identical to the most pleasurable action. A
successful life, then, will result from determining what is most pleasurable
not on the basis of the “power of appearance,” but by possession of a craft
of measurement of pleasures and pains. Outside of the Protagoras, where
hedonism is rejected as it is in the Gorgias, the supreme aim remains virtue,
whose content is once again a mystery. When Socrates says at the end of the
Protagoras that he sees “distinctly that all these things are terribly scattered
upside down (p†nta ta“ta kaqor¤n Šnw k†tw taratt»mena dein¤v)”
(361c2“3), I take him at his word. If hedonism is rejected, he truly does not
know what virtue is, and until he does, he will not be able to determine
what the virtuous action is.
c h ap t e r 5

Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1

It is dif¬cult not to read almost all of Plato™s dialogues either as preludes
to the Republic, or as subsequent comments and re¬‚ections on it. I shall
discuss aspects of the Republic on the assumption that one has read the
dialogues we have previously discussed. As I have said, I do not assume that
all of these must have been composed before the Republic; but I shall discuss
how the positions presented in the Republic might usefully be understood
in relation to views in those dialogues. As a device of convenience, I shall
refer to the dialogues we have already discussed as “earlier,” without that
committing me to a view about their relative date of composition. Perhaps,
as some commentators argue, the Republic represents a new phase in Plato™s
philosophical thinking; perhaps, as others claim, many of its views are
hinted at in other works which play a more propaedeutic role.1 With regard
to the topics that I am focused on, I shall argue that the Republic elaborates
views we have seen in the other dialogues in ways that are more detailed
but nevertheless consistent with what we have found so far.
In this chapter I shall show that Plato has Socrates and the interlocutors
in Book 1 move back and forth between debating the aiming principle SV
and arguing about determining questions about just actions. Keeping the
aiming/determining distinction in mind will help to explain and give order
to the bewildering and rapid switching of interlocutors and, apparently,
topics. As we shall see in chapters six through eight, most scholars under-
stand the main body of the Republic as rejecting any attempt to de¬ne just
actions and replacing this issue with the question of what it is to be a just
person. I have argued in chapter four that such a strategy will not help with
outstanding determining questions. Although I agree that the Republic will
provide the most detailed account we have seen for what it is to be a just
person, I shall argue that this is meant to address the challenge of why we
ought to be just, but not to count as the answer to the question of what

1 Irwin (1995) is a well-known example of the former; Kahn (1996) of the latter.

Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1 167
justice is; for it provides no way of determining what just actions are and,
we shall see, this is necessary if we even want to be just. Here in Republic 1
we shall see that Plato sets the groundwork for distinguishing aiming ques-
tions from determining questions.

5.1 so crates , c epha lu s, a nd p ol em a rch us
Commentators argue about the merits and faults of Cephalus and Pole-
marchus, Socrates™ ¬rst two interlocutors in Book 1.2 The Socrates we ¬nd
in Republic 1, however, appears quite familiar. He does not seek out the
conversation; it seems simply to happen by chance. He and Glaucon are
waylaid by Polemarchus, Adeimantus, and others. In a brief interchange
(327c), Polemarchus says that Socrates and Glaucon must stay with them,
rather than continue back to Athens, given “how many we are.” When
Socrates asks whether, despite their overwhelming strength, he might not
persuade them to “let us [him and Glaucon] go,” Polemarchus responds by
asking Socrates whether he could “persuade someone who did not listen.”
When Glaucon says that there would be no way one could, Polemarchus
says that he and Socrates should keep in mind then that they are not lis-
tening (Þv to©nun mŸ ˆkousom”nwn, oÌtw dianoe±sqe, 327c14).3
Near the end of Socrates™ conversation with the elderly Cephalus, he
rather suddenly seizes on Cephalus™ exposition of the worth of living a just
life and raises the “What is F?” question about justice: is it correct to say
that speaking the truth and paying one™s debts are “without quali¬cation”
(‰pl¤v) what justice is, or are there not clearly counterexamples, such
as returning borrowed weapons to a person who has gone mad (331c1“8)?
Socrates seems a bit overeager. He takes the apparently friendly remarks of
an old man about how best to handle old age, restates them as a potential
answer to a Socratic “What is F?” question, and supplies refuting counter-
examples in the space of about eight lines. Even if Cephalus is at best morally
complacent and so in dire need of the philosophical critique Socrates sup-
plies,4 it remains true that Socrates moves quite suddenly from an ordinary
conversation to a completed mini-elenchus. If Socrates™ goal is to persuade
2 See the differing views of Annas (1981), 18“34, Beversluis (2000), chs. 10“11, Irwin (1995), §118, and
Reeve (1988), 5“9. Gifford (2001) is the most thorough treatment of the relation between the historical
lives of Cephalus and Polemarchus (which a reader/hearer of the Republic could be expected to know)
and Plato™s philosophical aims. He argues, to my mind conclusively, that Cephalus and Polemarchus
are presented in an extremely negative light.
3 I remind the reader that I am using Slings™ (2003) text, the line numbers of which vary slightly from
Burnet™s edition.
4 As Annas (1981), 18“22 believes, and Gifford (2001) establishes.
168 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Cephalus to move away from complacency and to think more critically
about his views on justice and the best life, he completely fails;5 Cephalus
quickly becomes the ¬rst example of someone who is not going to be per-
suaded because he will not listen.6 Although Cephalus has extolled the
pleasures of conversation in his old age (328d2“5), Socrates™ quick refuta-
tion of an elicited de¬nition results in his walking away entirely, leaving
the conversation to Polemarchus.7
We ought to notice further that the “de¬nition” Socrates attributes to
Cephalus would count as a possible answer to the “What is F?” question
in the dialogues of de¬nition, and, if it were correct, it would provide us
with a way of discriminating between just and unjust actions. As we have
seen, however, Socrates immediately shows that the de¬nition is too broad,
given the existence of cases where it would obviously be unjust to speak
the truth or return what is owed. When Polemarchus takes over, then,
the conversation concerns an attempt to discover how to discriminate just
Polemarchus claims that Simonides would insist on the truth of the
de¬nition extracted from Cephalus. When Socrates asks him to say what
Simonides said “correctly” (½rq¤v, 331e2), Polemarchus simply repeats that
Simonides said “¬nely” (kal¤v) that what is just is giving to each person
what is owed to him (331e3“4). As stated so far Polemarchus™ de¬nition is
susceptible to exactly the same counterexample Socrates has just employed
against Cephalus; he has merely added the authority of Simonides. Indeed,
after some polite words about “wise and godlike” Simonides, Socrates pro-
ceeds to repeat the same counterexample step by step: a person ought
not to return weapons to someone who is mad, even though, since the
madman did lend the weapons in the ¬rst place, it would be right to say
they are “owed” to him. Thus justice cannot be “giving a person what is
5 Notwithstanding Gifford™s (2001), 73 claim that Socrates is “well within his rights” to question
Cephalus as he does. Gifford, sensitive to what I have called the “outer frame,” is correct to ask, at
81 n. 63 and §8, why Plato has Socrates let Cephalus go so quickly.
6 And perhaps the most extreme insofar as Cephalus leaves the conversation entirely and goes off to
conduct a sacri¬ce. Thrasymachus, although obviously much more aggressive and willing to engage
with Socrates in argument, and despite the facts that he gets up to leave at one point (344d) and
is certainly not persuaded by Socrates at the end of Book 1, nevertheless remains and listens to the
rest of the conversation of the Republic. He even speaks again at the beginning of Book 5 (450a)
to encourage Socrates enthusiastically to complete his account, his earlier hostility towards Socrates
having apparently subsided.
7 Given Gifford™s (2001), 52“80 thorough criticism of Cephalus™ character, we might see the fact that
he enters into the conversation from having made a sacri¬ce and leaves it to engage in further
rites as foreshadowing Adeimantus™ lengthy description in Book 2 of how most people believe that
punishment from the gods for injustices can be bought off by expensive and elaborate sacri¬ces.
Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1 169
owed to him” (331e7“332a6). Before we look at Polemarchus™ elaboration of
Simonides™ claim, I think we should note how Plato has had Socrates twice
detail this particular counterexample. It is the ¬rst philosophical argument
in the Republic. Its prominent position and its repetition place the puzzle it
raises front and center in the dialogue. It succinctly emphasizes the problem
of determining what the just action is, which we are familiar with from the
other dialogues. It reminds a reader of the dialogues of de¬nition of how
dif¬cult it is to give an account of what the right or virtuous action is that
can cover all cases. If Socrates rejects a de¬nition as plausible as “returning
what is owed” on the strength of the counterexample of a person who is
mad, it suggests that a general answer to determining questions may be
impossible to come by, which leaves us with a problem about how determi-
nations in the here and now are to be made properly, that is, how they could
be made on the basis of knowing what justice or virtue is. Any adequate
account of the body of the Republic ought to explain how this problem is
either solved or else shown to be not as urgent as it appears. I shall take this
up in chapters seven and eight.
Polemarchus then claims that what Simonides means is that one ought
to give to friends and enemies what is “owed” to them, which is equivalent
to what is “¬tting” (t¼ pros¦kon) for them: to friends what is owed is
something good (332a9“10), to enemies something bad (332b7“8).8 Socrates
quickly gets Polemarchus to agree that justice is the techne that provides
“bene¬ts to friends and harms to enemies” (to±v f©loiv te kaª –cqro±v
Ýfel©av te kaª bl†bav, 332d5“6) and that what this amounts to is the idea
that justice is “doing well” (e” poie±n) for friends and doing “evil” (kak¤v)
to enemies. If we recall Crito 49c, however, we know that Socrates believes
that it is never right to do wrong (kakourge±n), to do injustice (ˆdike±n),
or to do evil (kak¤v poie±n), all of which are equivalent expressions for
violating SV. Indeed “it is never right to do wrong” is the expression of
SV as a limiting condition.9 What began then as an attempt to answer the
determining question of what just action is has now transformed into an
aiming question about whether it is ever right “to do evil.” They are no
longer trying to say what all just or unjust, right or wrong, actions have
in common. In the earlier dialogues we saw that Socrates is much more
epistemologically positive and argumentatively constructive on the topic
of SV. In the Crito and Gorgias Socrates holds that it is never right to do

8 See Gifford (2001), 88“91 for the irony of this de¬nition given Polemarchus™ historical fate.
9 See Introduction.
170 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
wrong and that one should never harm anyone. We learned further, at the
end of the argument with Polus, that if one were “to do evil” to someone,
he should let them get away with all of their injustices without ever paying
any penalty (Gor. 481a5“481b1). We saw that Socrates is concerned with
harm and bene¬t to one™s soul as such, independently of the effects that
actions might have on one™s body or possessions. This was a central issue
in the discussions with Polus and Callicles, as we saw in chapter three.
In a condensed, rapid-¬re form, almost as though he were bored, Socrates
proceeds to raise the same question here: “Does it belong to the just man
to harm anyone at all?” (335b2“3). He is setting the stage for establishing
SV, in a formulation familiar from the Crito. He will conclude by the end
of the argument that it has seemed to them that “it is never the case that a
just person should harm anyone” (335e5“6).
The argument proceeds in two parts and may be summarized as follows
An argument about harm:
(1) The virtue of a thing makes the thing good, and a good thing.
(2) When something is harmed it becomes worse in the virtue that makes
it a good thing.
(3) If human beings are harmed, they become worse in human virtue.
(4) Justice is (a) human virtue.
(5) So people who are harmed become more unjust.
Then a “function” (›rgon) argument:
(A) It is not the function (›rgon) of one property to produce its opposite.
(B) So it is not the function of goodness to harm, but its opposite.
(C) A just person is good.
(D) So, a just person doesn™t harm anyone, that is, from the argument
about harm, doesn™t make anyone more unjust.
This argument leaves much to be desired.10 I need only emphasize here
that to say that a good person would never want to make anyone worse in
human virtue does not mean that a good person would not kill someone,
physically injure them, or deprive them of something, and so on, as we
learned from our study of the Crito in chapter two. We must be careful not
to “moralize.” Socrates has done what he typically does in the dialogues
of de¬nition. Beginning with an answer that would, were it true, enable
them to determine which actions are virtuous and which are not, he moves
the discussion, in the face of counterexamples, to consider instead either an
10 See Beversluis (2000), 215“16, who cites additional scholars.
Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1 171
aiming principle or a claim about what it is to be virtuous. (3) is a crucial step.
There Socrates implicitly restricts harm and bene¬t to harm and bene¬t
for the soul. What harm is is harm to human excellence. If justice is an
excellence,11 then to deprive a person of justice is to harm her. Socrates,
however, makes an even stronger claim than this (335c1“2). He states that,
if a person is harmed, then she is made worse with respect to human virtue.
As many commentators have noticed, this assumption is controversial, at
best.12 It may be controversial, but it is certainly familiar. As we saw in
chapter one, Socrates claims in the Apology that a better person cannot be
harmed (bl†ptesqai) by a worse and so concludes that, even if Anytus and
Meletus kill him or deprive him of all of his property, they will not thereby
be harming him in the strictest sense (30c8“d5).13 What makes this more
than just madness are Socrates™ beliefs, discussed in the Apology, Crito, and
Gorgias, that the body and soul are each an independent locus of harm and
bene¬t, and that the value of the well-being of the soul is incomparable with
any harm or bene¬t to the body or to one™s material possessions. Strikingly,
Socrates does not introduce any premises about soul and body here in
Republic 1. And it is most probably correct to think that Polemarchus, with
his entirely conventional views, would be at best hazy on the Socratic idea
that virtue and vice bene¬t and harm the soul as such, independently of
their effects on the body or on one™s possessions. Nevertheless a reader of
the earlier dialogues ought to recognize the familiar Socratic idea of SV
and the premises upon which it has rested in those works. This sets the
stage for the challenge of Thrasymachus and Glaucon™s and Adeimantus™
restatement of that challenge in Book 2, where the idea that real harm to a
person consists in harm to that person™s soul will be explored in detail.
Before we leave Polemarchus behind it is worth considering what Socrates
concludes from his discussion with him. At 336a, Socrates takes himself to
have established that it is true that a just man would not harm anyone.
On this basis he decides that neither Simonides nor any other “wise and
blessed” person could have said otherwise, for then a wise person would
have said something false. He then turns back to the question of what justice
could be, when Thrasymachus interrupts (336a9“10). Socrates seems utterly
11 It need not be identical to virtue; it might be simply necessary for virtue.
12 For example, see Annas (1981), 32“4; Irwin (1995), 172.
13 “In the strictest sense” is, as we have seen, the sense he wants to emphasize in the Apology as
supremely important: harm (and bene¬t) to the soul. At Gor. 469c1“2 it is clear that Socrates
considers suffering injustice (which is most often suffering a harm to one™s body or a loss of one™s
“possessions”) undesirable; it is nevertheless of a value that is incomparable to the harm done to
one™s soul by doing injustice.
172 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
content to have shown that a just person does not harm anyone, while still
being at a loss about how to determine which actions are just. This is in
keeping with the distinction that we have seen throughout the dialogues
between the aiming principle SV and questions about how to determine
what the virtuous action is.
We should note, ¬nally, that thus far Republic 1 is somewhat different
from the Euthyphro, Laches, and Charmides insofar as aiming principles
are not debated in those dialogues. There are only attempted de¬nitions
of virtues that pertain either to virtuous actions or to virtuous persons.
By contrast, the Apology, Crito, and Gorgias carefully avoid “What is F?”
questions about virtue, focusing instead on statements and defenses of
SV. Here in Republic 1, even in the ¬rst interchanges with Cephalus and
Polemarchus, we see Socrates move from attempting to answer a “What is
F?” question about just action, to establishing that a good person would
never harm (i.e., do wrong to) anyone. This foreshadows the complex
interplay to follow between aiming and determining questions. We shall
see in the rest of this chapter that the Thrasymachus episode treats the two
issues separately, and in subsequent chapters that the rest of the Republic
follows suit.

5.2 th ra s ymac h u s™ init ia l accou nt of j usti ce
Socrates™ conversation with Thrasymachus is one of the better-discussed
parts of the Republic. There is still, however, substantial disagreement about
how to understand Thrasymachus™ own position.14 There is consensus that
Socrates™ arguments are inadequate, although one might wonder whether
this negative assessment is more easily reached given the subsequent nine
books of the Republic that, in some way, restate the challenge and offer new
responses. If all we had was Republic 1, perhaps we would be inclined to take
it more seriously on its own terms. Be that as it may, I shall not attempt
a thorough treatment here. Rather, I examine Socrates™ arguments with
Thrasymachus in light of the distinction between the aiming principle SV
and the determination of what virtue is. We have already seen Socrates move
from a determining question to the establishment of an aiming principle
in his argument with Polemarchus. When Thrasymachus breaks into the
conversation, Socrates seemed about to go back to the determining question
“What is justice?”
14 See, as a selection, Annas (1981), ch. 2; Barney (2004); Beversluis (2000), ch. 11; Chappell (1993);
Everson (1998a) with Chappell™s (2000) response; Henderson (1970); Hourani (1962); Irwin (1995),
ch. 11; Kerferd (1947) and (1981); Reeve (1988), ch. 1.
Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1 173
After some aggressive remarks and taunts, Thrasymachus is prepared to
offer his own answer. He is being deliberately provocative when he states
that he has a good answer to what justice is. He claims that it is “the
advantage of the superior” (to“ kre©ttonov) and then immediately asks
Socrates to “praise him” (338c2“4).15 His call for praise is rather disingenu-
ous, because he knows full well that he has not said anything that is clear
yet. Thrasymachus is engaging in a familiar rhetorical trick: state the sur-
prising conclusion of an argument as though it were obvious, and then, in
a way that insults one™s listener, pretend that the explanation should have
been obvious to anyone with any sense. It is a way, common enough in
philosophical discussions past and present, of trying to show that you are
cleverer than your listener. In fact, here it succeeds to a certain extent insofar
as 338d is the only time that Thrasymachus is able to ask the questions and
have Socrates answer, which is something Thrasymachus is clearly ready
to do to explain the conclusion he has pretended is obvious, but which he
clearly thinks of as sophisticated.16
After Socrates has spurred Thrasymachus to insult him by suggesting that
“superior” in Thrasymachus™ answer means simply “physically stronger,”
he asks Thrasymachus to say more clearly what he means.17 Without any
further prompting from Socrates, Thrasymachus introduces what he pre-
sumably takes to be empirical facts: different cities have different types
of governance and the ruler or leadership is the superior element in the
city. More controversially he also assumes that the ruler in any type of
government makes laws that are advantageous for that ruler. So, according
to Thrasymachus, the laws that have been established in a democracy are

15 I am here expanding on a point that Everson (1998a), 102 makes and attributes in part to Sidgwick.
16 Thrasymachus tries once more (343a) to grab the reins of questioner from Socrates by interrupt-
ing with an insult about Socrates™ needing a wet nurse for his snotty nose. Socrates retorts that
Thrasymachus ought to stick to answering his questions rather than asking them. This does enable
Thrasymachus to get in his “immoralist speech” (343b ff.). But other than this, Socrates remains the
questioner throughout after 338d.
17 The more traditional translation is “advantage of the stronger.” While it is entirely correct, a short-
coming of this translation is that “the stronger” is frequently understood to refer to physical strength.
Although kre©ttwn can mean physically stronger (as Socrates exploits), it can also mean morally
better or superior in character. “Superior” nicely leaves open the relevant respect of superiority (cp.
Aristotle NE 1177b26“27). At 338c, Socrates provokes abuse from Thrasymachus, who calls him
bdelur»v for suggesting that kre©ttwn simply means being physically stronger. Correspondingly
Socrates and Callicles argue about the intended sense of this word at Gorgias 488b ff. (see chapter
three). Callicles too abuses Socrates when he makes the same point against him, insulted that Socrates
could interpret “superior,” which Thrasymachus and Callicles both clearly intend to carry the sense
of being a superior human being, in a debased way that refers to mere physical strength. The issue
is that if superior does not refer to superior strength, which would be a clear, easily determinable
type of superiority, Socrates wants to know precisely in what respect Thrasymachus™ and Callicles™
superior man is superior.
174 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
for the advantage of the rulers of the democracy, the laws in a tyranny for
the advantage of the ruler of the tyranny, the tyrant. Since in each case
we assume that the ruler “is superior,”18 then following the laws is to the
advantage of the stronger. The last premise needed19 is that it is just to obey
the rulers, which is to be understood as claiming that it is just for those ruled
(to±v ˆrcom”noiv, see 338e4, 339c10) to follow the laws instituted by the
rulers for their own advantage.
This leads to the question of how we ought to understand Thrasymachus™
two initial claims: that justice is “the advantage of the superior” and that
justice is “for the subjects to follow the laws instituted by the rulers.” On
my view, his ¬rst response is purposefully shocking, and represents what
he takes to be a sophisticated understanding of a na¨ve person™s conception
of justice. What justice really is for Thrasymachus, at least at this stage of
the discussion, is simply determined by the laws of any city. Thrasymachus
starts, at least, as a conventionalist.20 Justice is following the established
laws. What Thrasymachus thinks is his clever insight is that the laws of the
city are simply put in place for the advantage of the rulers. And as such, the
laws do not, for example, follow from some wisdom about the true nature
of justice, as some na¨ve person (like Socrates) might think. Thrasymachus
shows here some similarity with Callicles insofar as each takes himself to
be more sophisticated than ordinary folk. They have each seen through the
sham that is ordinary justice.21 While most people might think that there
is something more to justice than obeying laws for the advantage of those
who rule, something that is in some way signi¬cant or valuable about acting
justly and obeying the laws, that is in reality untrue; it is really nothing
more than the advantage of the stronger.
Therefore, if we think about Thrasymachus™ ¬rst reply here as an answer
to a Socratic “What is F?” question, his answer to that question is that what

This might be more easily assumed in Greek, since Thrasymachus asks whether the ruler krate± in
each city, using a verb cognate with kre©ttwn. krate± can mean “is stronger,” or “is ruler/master
of.” Chappell (1993), 3 sees no reason to concede this point to Thrasymachus.
19 As Everson (1998a), 102 points out.
20 Beversluis (2000), 227“8 insists that Thrasymachus intends “justice is the advantage of the stronger”
(as Beversluis translates) as an identity statement, which provides the essence of justice. He does not
explain how it ¬ts with Thrasymachus™ strong af¬rmative (“of course”) to the following question:
“But whatever they [the rulers] enact must be done by their subjects, and this is justice [kaª to“t» –sti
t¼ d©kaion]” (339c10“11). This occurs after Thrasymachus has easily agreed that rulers sometimes
err, and I agree with Everson (1998a), 123 that it establishes, at this point at least, that Thrasymachus
agrees to conventionalism. The language strongly suggests, as I argue above, that Thrasymachus
takes this to be what justice is. Chappell (2000), 105“6 disagrees. Annas (1981), Barney (2004),
Kerferd (1947) all deny that Thrasymachus maintains conventionalism. Hourani (1962) believes he
accepts it.
21 What Callicles calls justice “by convention.”
Socrates and Thrasymachus: Republic 1 175
is just is to follow the laws. That is, what all just actions have in common
is that they are legal, and it is their being legal that explains why they are
just; there is no other explanation. If it were true, such thoroughgoing
conventionalism would successfully answer the “What is F?” question.
Socrates could look at an action, determine whether it was lawful or not,
and thereby know whether and why it was just or not. Such an account of
justice would give a way of answering determining questions about justice.
This is an important and recurring feature of conventionalism that seems
to make it attractive.22 Like Callicles™ account of virtue and happiness
consisting in appetite grati¬cation, it suggests that determining questions
may be answered relatively simply by appeal to laws or occurrent desires.
There is nothing more to virtue or justice than that. One of Euthyphro™s
de¬nitions generates a similar situation: if Euthyphro had agreed that what
was pious is pious because the gods loved it, and not the other way around,
then the gods™ attitude would determine and explain what is pious and
what is not (Eu. 10d).

5.3 thra s ymac h u s™ “d e fi ni ti on s” of j u st i ce
But should we think of Thrasymachus™ “accounts” of justice so far, and the
ones to follow, as so much as attempting to supply a Socratic de¬nition
of justice? In the course of criticizing Stephen Everson, T. D. J. Chappell
argues that Thrasymachus ought not to be understood as having any sophis-
ticated ideas about the nature of de¬nition such as, for example, providing
necessary and suf¬cient conditions or a property-identity.23 He approvingly
quotes the following sentence from Everson: “There is no reason to think
that Thrasymachus is supposed to have any considered views about what
formal properties a de¬nition should have.”24 Chappell says that there is
no textual evidence to think otherwise. And what is more, Socratic and Pla-
tonic requirements for de¬nition were exceptional at the time and so there
would be no reason to expect that an ordinary, intelligent Athenian would
subscribe to them.25 For these reasons, Chappell concludes, the most we
22 In reality matters are more complex insofar as actual Athenian law is “open-textured” and so does not
settle determining questions simply and conclusively; see Harris (2000) for discussion. Nevertheless
conventionalism at least provides some account of what justice is.
23 Chappell (2000).
24 Everson (1998a), 104, quoted by Chappell (2000), 102“3. Chappell proceeds to accuse Everson of
unjusti¬ably and surreptitiously attributing more robust conceptions of de¬nition to Thrasymachus,
from which Everson eventually concludes that Thrasymachus™ account of justice is incoherent. Chap-
pell thinks that, if we don™t attribute such unjusti¬ed assumptions about de¬nition to Thrasymachus,
then his position ceases to be incoherent.
25 Chappell (2000), 104“6.
176 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
ought to say about Thrasymachus™ “de¬nitions” of justice is the following:
“a Thrasymachean de¬nition of x is merely some remark about x that gives
us ˜an understanding of the nature of x™: it is a remark that indicates a diag-
nostic property of x, a property that shows what x is ˜really all about™, rather
than a formal speci¬cation of a property identity between x and something
else.” What is a diagnostic property exactly? Chappell offers the following


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