UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Socrates’ strongest and deepest concern Kane, Marilyn


The Socrates of Plato's early dialogues (henceforth "Socrates") presents a problem for the interpreter. Since he claimed not to be a teacher of aretê, and neither was he able to learn virtue from anyone else, what exactly did he think he was achieving by the numerous energetic arguments he instigated? Certainly, he challenged the conventional stultification of Athenian thought and punctured puffed-up egos, but did he intend to do more? One theory is that, in spite of his denials, Socrates really was teaching people, but only by hinting at valuable moral information so that they would have an opportunity to conceive true beliefs about morality on their own, "autonomously." Gregory Vlastos referred to "moral autonomy" as Socrates' "strongest and deepest concern." Another theory is that Socrates was seeking someone who had an expert's grasp of moral issues so that he could adopt their principles and live a better life henceforth. On this model of moral edification, contra Vlastos, it is thought that the neophyte would be prudent to subordinate himself to the moral expert, rather than insisting on making up his own mind about moral issues. Richard Kraut refers to this as Socratic "moral authoritarianism." My contention is that both the autonomy and the authority theses are mistaken in detail and misguided in general. I believe that both of these interpretations place disproportionate weight on the kind of knowledge Socrates claims to have lacked, and neglect the importance of "the good judgment that he manifestly possesses."1 Both tend to view the Socratic model of making moral progress as acquiring a set of rules or moral definitions that would, supposedly, enable a person to solve all vexing moral problems, but they give short shrift to the fact that Socrates targeted not only propositions but also persons for moral analysis and assessment, with an eye to their improvement.

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