Statue in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, made 3500 BCE in the Cyclades Islands. Photograph taken by author. The statue, arms over chest, is in the position of a dead body in burial, suggesting a body without a soul. There are other remarkable features: the statue is feminine (as souls are in Greek language), with an elongated neck, over-sized and mis-shaped head, and absent eyes in a face that by its posture nonetheless seems to be looking at something. All these features make the statue less a representation of a body than of that which is perceptive when dissociated from the body, namely, a soul viewing the transcendent. As I interpret Socrates, it was the nature of his soul, most distinctively, to see the transcendent in human life. In this way the image, though predating Socrates by 2000 years, gives us a picture of his very soul.


blackwell great minds

edited by Steven Nadler

The Blackwell Great Minds series gives readers a strong sense of the fundamental views of the great western thinkers and captures the relevance of these figures to the way we think and live today.

1 Kant by Allen W. Wood

2 Augustine by Gareth B. Matthews

3 Descartes by André Gombay

4 Sartre by Katherine J. Morris

5 Charles Darwin by Michael Ruse

6 Schopenhauer by Robert Wicks

7 Shakespeare’s Ideas by David Bevington

8 Camus by David Sherman

9 Kierkegaard by M. Jamie Ferreira

10 Mill by Wendy Donner and Richard Fumerton

11 Socrates by George Rudebusch


Aristotle by Jennifer Whiting

Nietzsche by Richard Schacht

Plato by Paul Woodruff

Spinoza by Don Garrett

Wittgenstein by Hans Sluga

Heidegger by Taylor Carman

Maimonides by Tamar Rudavsky

Berkeley by Margaret Atherton

Leibniz by Christa Mercer

Hume by Stephen Buckle

Hobbes by Edwin Curley

Locke by Samuel Rickless




Socrates was not entirely successful in saving Athens from its anti-philosophical ways, yet nonetheless Athens owed him thanks. Likewise a number of readers have not entirely succeeded in saving this book from error, yet nonetheless I owe them thanks. Brian Hutler – with his genius for philosophy, his savvy as a manuscript reviewer, his devoted and detailed comments on each chapter as I first drafted it, and his final review of the whole – has played the greatest role in leading me to improve content, structure, and style.

In addition Kofi Ackah, Ashraf Adeel, Mark Budolfson, Mehmet Erginel, Gale Justin, José Lourenço, Fernando Muniz, Debra Nails, Hope Lindsay Rudebusch, and Christopher Turner each gave me a critical review of the entire book and comments that led to substantial changes. For astute help at various points, I thank Michael Baun, Betty Belfiore, Jeffrey Downard, Gail Fine, Steven Funk, Chris Griffin, Stephen Halliwell, Matthew Herbert, Adam Hutler, Rachana Kamtekar, Joe Lauer, Mark McPherran, Sara Rappe, Naomi Reshotko, Nicholas D. Smith, and Mike Stallard. For encouraging me at the outset to undertake the project, I thank Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Julia Annas, Terry Penner, and Gerasimos Santas. Finally, I thank Nick Bellorini, who visited me in Flagstaff and first proposed the project to me in his capacity as editor for Blackwell.

I wrote the bulk of this book while on sabbatical from Northern Arizona University in the academic year 2006–7. Jess Lorona, as an attorney’s professional courtesy, provided funding that enabled me to take the whole year for the project. I am grateful for this institutional and personal financial support.

In preparing to write this book, I benefited from the opportunity to make presentations and participate in discussions. For these benefits I am grateful both to the individuals who organized the meetings as well as to the institutions supporting my travel. I thank especially Mark McPherran for organizing each spring in Tucson the Arizona Plato Colloquium, and also Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Julia Annas, Tom Christiano, Chris Maloney, Fernando Muniz, and Terry Penner for bringing me to meetings that were crucial to the development of my ideas. For travel funding, I thank in particular my home institution, Northern Arizona University, and also the University of Arizona. In addition I thank the Olympic Center for Philosophy and Culture in Pyrgos, Greece, the A. G. Leventis Foundation in Nicosia, Cyprus, and the CAPES Foundation of the Brazilian Ministry of Education for their support of my travel to international meetings.

Three chapters are revisions of work published elsewhere. Chapter 7, “Puzzling Pedagogy,” is a revision of “Socrates, Wisdom and Pedagogy,” Philosophical Inquiry [Athens]: Festschrift in Honor of Gerasimos Santas, edited by G. Anagnostopoulos, vol. 30 no. 3–4 (2008) 1–21. Chapter 8, “Love,” is a revision of “Socratic Love,” in The Blackwell Companion to Socrates, edited by R. Kamtekar and S. Ahbel-Rappe, London and New York: Blackwell (2006) 186–99. Chapter 11, “Benevolence,” is a revision of “Neutralism in Book I of the Republic,” in The Good and the Form of the Good, edited by D. Cairns, F.-G. Herrmann, and T. Penner, Edinburgh University Press (2007) 76–92. I am grateful to these publishers and their editors for permission to use these works in revision.

translations used

Unattributed translations are mine, except for Bible translations, which are from the New American Standard. The line references I use are standard and should give the reader little trouble.


Goals of This Book

Plato’s dialogues tell a story about Socrates’ life, focusing on conversations about human excellence. This book follows that life from age 36 to age 70, from mastery over the “wisest man” Protagoras to death by poison. In those conversations, the conclusions Socrates reaches – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly – are wild:

Socrates’ arguments eliciting these results are open to obvious objections. Readers who take the objections to be successful have two interpretive options. One is to suppose that Socrates spent his life fascinated by what we easily see to be poor arguments. The second option is to suppose that Socrates did not intend such arguments seriously, but was being playful for some reason or other.

I propose a third option. Finding convincing replies to the obvious objections, I take Socrates’ results seriously and endorse the interpretation Alcibiades gives in Plato’s Symposium. Alcibiades compares Socrates’ arguments to “those statues of Silenus that open down the middle” (221d8–e1). This Silenus was a satyr, a mythical creature having a distorted human face and upper body, with the lower body of a goat. Silenus was ridiculous as a lusting drunkard, ever driven by sexual desire and incapable of sober thought – yet these very acts were his worship of the god Dionysus. Hidden inside the grotesque hollow statue was a beautiful agalma, that is, a holy image of the god, carved as an act of worship. The agalma would delight the lucky person who found it inside. Just so, Alcibiades says,

Socrates’ arguments seem ridiculous the first time you listen… but if you see them taken apart and get inside of them, you will find them to be the only arguments that are reasonable, arguments that are the most godlike, arguments holding inside a wealth of agalmata of divine excellence, arguments that are largely – no, completely – intent on everything proper for becoming a noble and good man.


I follow Alcibiades, seeing in Socrates’ arguments the power to bring joy and propriety to human lives.

I emphasize that there are alternatives to my interpretation. While some commentators prefer the first two options I mention above, others prefer a fourth option, which is to take Socrates’ arguments seriously, but to give tame interpretations of his conclusions. For example, some have interpreted the wild idea that expertise ensures happiness as the tame conventional wisdom that good people make the best of their circumstances. The wild idea that any life that does not consist of philosophical examination is not worth living becomes the tame advice that an examined life is the only hope for improving ourselves. Such taming has advantages: it both judges Socrates’ arguments to be good and at the same time leaves conventional moral wisdom unthreatened. Nonetheless, I urge that we recognize the possibility of a deeper and truer moral sensibility than conventional wisdom. Rather than construe Socrates’ view in the manner most plausible by our lights, my goal is to find what in Socratic argument will compel our assent, even if it turns human life upside down.

Thus 14 chapters that follow aim to show how Socrates gives compelling arguments for wild conclusions. Upon hearing Socrates in the Gorgias, Callicles appropriately replied: “If what you say turns out to be true, aren’t we human beings living our lives upside down and doing everything quite the opposite of what we ought?” (481c2–5). I agree with Callicles that everything important in human life hangs on the question whether Socrates’ views are true.

Socrates speaks to us in ordinary language as human beings, not as academic specialists. It is not rocket science, but it is a philosophical project. Socrates’ method – beginning from premises accepted by his conversation partner and arguing step by step in ordinary language – to a large degree created the academic discipline of philosophy in European history. Plato and Aristotle took up many of the topics investigated by Socrates, and those topics have remained essential in the academic tradition of western philosophy. People to this day who have had only one philosophy course are more likely to have read a Socratic dialogue than anything else.

In my opinion the philosophical tradition has not given Socrates’ results the attention they deserve. His results are as surprising today as they were in his day. Yet it would be difficult to overstate how much my project depends upon a half-century of scholarship that uses the tools of analytic philosophy to interpret and evaluate the premises, inferences, and conclusions of Socratic arguments.

In addition to my goal of providing to readers a conversation with a philosophically astute Socrates, I have another goal. This is to recognize Socrates the Philosopher as one of the great religious inspirations of world history, comparable to such others as Confucius the Master, Krishna the Lord, Siddhartha the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, and Mohammad the Prophet – as they are called by their devotees. These cultural fountainheads make different and sometimes incompatible statements about supernatural beings and the institution of religion in society. But they share the theme that single-minded devotion to righteousness, done as a holy sacrament, is ideal life. In chapters 15 and 16 I propose a life of Socratic philosophy not as an alternative to the life of religious devotion but as itself the heavenly way for human beings to live, through the sacrament of cross-examination about human excellence.

To a far greater extent than other religious teachers, we possess in Plato’s dialogues step-by-step arguments aimed at demonstrating the truth of their shared theme. It is by considering objections and replies to these arguments that I propose to help readers decide its truth. To put it grandly, my goal is to lead philosophers to religion, to lead the religious to philosophy, and to lead those who are neither to both.

Who Was Socrates?

The Confucius, Siddhartha, and Jesus who have shaped world history are the characters preserved in classic texts. It is a matter of doubt to what degree those texts accurately present historical persons. Likewise the Socrates who has greatly influenced the course of history is the character we find in Plato’s dialogues. This Socrates in some ways (but not others) is similar to the Socrates presented in other ancient texts, most extensively in Aristophanes and Xenophon.

Readers want to know to what degree Plato’s Socrates is fictional and whether in important ways he is the historical figure. I save that question for the epilogue. It is appropriate to put that question last, not first, in this book. The important question for this book – like the important question for us as human beings – is not the particular flesh and blood who uttered these words but the great mind in the text for us to understand, whether that mind is a literary creation or a historically accurate account.

I sometimes (such as in chapter 5) contrast views of Socrates as he appears in different dialogues written by Plato. It is confusing to speak of Socrates and “another Socrates.” Following Aristotle, I refer to the other Socrates as Plato, even when the other Socrates speaks in the same dialogue with Socrates (as in chapter 16)! In the epilogue I defend the use of Aristotle’s distinction as a working hypothesis. But none of the book’s goals requires that the distinction between Socrates and the other Socrates be more than a convenience for talking about different threads of discussion found in Plato’s dialogues.

the ion

chapter 1

interpreting socrates

What does it take properly to interpret Socrates? A conversation that Socrates has at age 56 tells us. The conversation is with Ion, a professional rhapsode, that is, one who recites and interprets poetic texts. With Ion, Socrates reaches a surprising conclusion: the best interpreter of Homer is not a Homer specialist like Ion, but an expert in human well-being. The same expert, it turns out, will also be the best interpreter of Socrates.


After getting Ion to recite a passage on chariot racing, Socrates asks a question that is easy for Ion to answer:

SOCRATES: Tell me what Nestor says to his son Antilochus, when he advises him how to take the turn well in the chariot race honoring Patroclus.

ION: (reciting Homer’s Iliad, 23.335–40): Lean, he says:

Lean in the smooth chariot, just to the left of the pair.

Then goad the right-hand horse

As you shout him on and give him free rein.

Let the left-hand horse skin by the turning post,

So the hub built into your wheel seems to touch the edge

– But keep from striking that stone!

SOCRATES: Enough. Now who would know better, Ion, whether or not Homer speaks correctly with these words, a doctor or a charioteer?

ION: A charioteer, of course.


Socrates and Ion leave unspecified what it is for Homer to “speak correctly” in these lines. There are many possible standards by which to judge the correctness of these lines. Was Homer speaking correctly in reporting Nestor’s words? – such a question calls for the expertise of a historian or biographer. Neither a charioteer nor a doctor can answer such a question. Again, if someone wanted to know if Homer was speaking correctly in his use of poetic form (for instance, whether the Greek is in proper dactylic hexameter), we would need expertise in poetic grammar to answer. Ion might even have replied to Socrates’ question as follows: “A doctor – since it is by expertise in medical risk of chariot injuries that we know whether Homer speaks correctly about permitting one’s son to participate in chariot racing.”

As it happens, Ion evidently takes the words speaking correctly to mean speaking correctly about how to win a chariot race, not about whether there is acceptable medical risk in chariot racing. If we interpret Socrates’ words speaking correctly the same way as Ion, then we will approve Ion’s answer. Ion correctly states that an expert charioteer is a better judge than an expert doctor whether Homer in this passage speaks correctly about how to race a chariot.

Ion goes on to agree to Socrates’ generalization from charioteering to any expertise: “Then he who lacks any expertise will not be able to discern well either the words or actions of that expertise?” – “True” (538a5–b1). When it comes to judging good and bad speech about chariot racing, not only is a doctor inferior to a charioteer, so is a rhapsode – even when the speeches are in Homer and the rhapsode is a specialist in Homer. The same is true for judging good and bad speeches about fishing, medicine, and reading omens about the future. The rhapsode will be inferior to the respective experts at assessing the value of the speeches for achieving goals in the spheres of the respective expertises. Ion is right to agree with Socrates.

Now Socrates challenges Ion. As Socrates has pointed out passages in Homer that belong to other expertises, he asks Ion to identify the speeches in Homer that belong to the expertise of the rhapsode, passages which the rhapsode by his expertise is able to consider and evaluate better than non-experts. Ion tries to say this is true of all the passages in Homer (539e6). After Socrates reminds him that by Ion’s own admission “the rhapsode’s expertise cannot know everything” (540a5–6), Ion gives a more promising answer. The rhapsode’s expertise includes “what’s proper for a man to say, or a woman, and a slave or freeman; and a ruler or his subject” (540b3–5).

I judge Ion’s answer more promising because it comes close to what Socrates himself stated earlier in the dialogue as the topic of “the most divine of poets,” Homer (530b10). According to Socrates, such poetry deals with “war, mainly, as well as social relationships of human beings with each other, both good and bad, lay and professional, and the relationships of the gods both with each other and with humans, and events in the heavens and in the underworld, and the genesis of gods and heroes” (531c4–d1). Socrates’ statement separates poetry from charioteering, fishing, prophecy, and other such arts. Charioteering expertise knows the relations between humans and chariots in racing. Fishing expertise knows the relations between humans and fish in catching. Expertise in prophecy knows the relations between humans and the future in reading omens. By contrast, the main topics of poetry are, first, the relations between humans and humans – be they good or bad, lay or professional – in both war and society; second, the relations between humans and the gods; third, the relations between gods and gods, including supernatural events (that is, events “in the heavens and in the underworld”). Finally, just as the expert at charioteering knows the origin of an expert charioteer – how to make a hero or god of chariot racing, as it were – so likewise does the expert at the main topic of poetry know how a hero and even a god come to be.

Socrates’ statement of the topic of poetry makes it a matter of universal and ultimate human concern. For example, the Bible is ultimately concerned with humanity and divinity as opposed to, say, chariot racing or fishing. We might read the Ten Commandments as giving us a list of religious duties to God (“Remember the Sabbath!”) and moral duties to other humans (“Thou shalt not murder!”). Confucius is a second example, from an independent cultural tradition of equal authority. Of ultimate concern to Confucius is rén Inline-Equation that is, the proper way to live among human beings. In many ways Confucius is as unconcerned with the gods as any atheist. Yet according to Confucius perfect human life will be lived entirely as Inline-Equation that is, as an act of religious devotion in the presence of the divine.

Socrates’ account of poetry explains the ultimate benefit and exalted transcendence poetry and great literature in general have. And just as Ion and Socrates understand the chariot speech in Homer not as mere description or history but rather as words advising how to attain a goal, likewise we should understand Socrates’ statement of the topic of poetry to include words that advise us how to attain our ultimate goals as human beings with other human beings and before the gods.

I readily admit that not all poetry aims to help one comprehend and achieve the ultimate aims of human life. Some write poetry simply to communicate an emotion, experience, or point of view. Often we choose literature for entertainment rather than edification. Nonetheless, I say, Socrates’ account is correct. For he and Ion agreed upon the scope of their discussion of poetry at the beginning of their conversation: they were concerned with “the best and most divine of poets” (530b10), the most notable of whom in their time was Homer. I cannot conceive a better or more divine topic for any poetry than what Socrates himself stated.

Ion, therefore, is giving a promising answer to Socrates’ question – What parts of Homer are in the scope of the rhapsode’s expertise? – when he says, “what’s proper for a man to say, or a woman, and a slave or freeman; and a ruler or his subject.” But when Socrates tests Ion’s answer, Ion fails to distinguish what a man ought to say as a ruler of men from what a man ought to say as a ruler of soldiers or sailors.

SOCRATES: Are you saying that the rhapsode will know better than the pilot the sort of thing to say when you’re ruling a ship at sea and get hit by a storm?

ION: No, the pilot knows better in that case…

SOCRATES: Well, will he know what’s proper for a man to say, when he is a general advising soldiers?

ION: Yes, that sort of thing the rhapsode will know.

SOCRATES: What? The expertise of the rhapsode is the expertise of the general?


Although Ion fails, there is a successful answer to Socrates’ question. I take it that Socrates would agree that a terrorist, for example, might be ever so successful as a ruler of soldiers, or a pirate as a ruler of sailors, yet at the same time they might be failures both as human beings and as rulers of human beings, reckoning that failure in terms of personal depravity or wretchedness. Likewise it is possible to be an excellent doctor, cowherd, or weaver but at the same time be defective as a human being.

Socrates in fact makes this very distinction near the end of the Charmides, using nearly the same set of examples of other kinds of expertise in contrast to the expertise at doing well as a human being.

SOCRATES: Knowledgeable living does not make us do well and be happy, not even living according to all the other branches of knowledge together, but only according to this single knowledge of good and bad. For, Critias, if you choose to take away this knowledge from all the others, will medicine any the less give us health, or shoemaking give us shoes, or weaving give us clothes, or will the pilot’s expertise any the less prevent us dying at sea, or the general’s in war?

CRITIAS: None the less.

SOCRATES: But, my dear Critias, if this knowledge is missing, none of these things are well and beneficially given.


Socrates goes on to describe this single knowledge of good and bad as the expertise “whose business is to benefit us” (174d3–4), that is, us ourselves as opposed to benefiting our health, shoes, clothes, or wars.

With this distinction between expertise at human benefit and the other forms of expertise, we can reinstate Ion’s retracted claim (at 539e6) that the rhapsode is the best person to evaluate every passage in Homer, from the first page to the last. At the beginning of the Iliad (1.10–32), for example, Agamemnon, from desire to keep a young captive as his slave-wife, fails to conform to ritual propriety and disrespects the captive’s father, a suppliant priest bearing ransom. The disrespect was evidently a strategic error for Agamemnon as a general to make, leading to disastrous dissension in his ranks. But the poet’s topic is not military strategy but human strategy, and the passage shows us how Agamemnon fails as a human being, regardless of his generalship. It belongs to the expertise of the rhapsode to judge whether Homer speaks correctly not in advising about generalship in war but in advising about humanity in war (and society). At the end of the Iliad (24.507–676), to take another example, the poet describes how Achilles, despite blood-lust to defile a corpse, manages to conform to ritual propriety and feel sympathy with the father of the dead victim. Achilles produces financial benefit for himself as a corpse barterer in this passage. But Homer’s topic here is not how to make a profit in corpse bartering but how in such a case to produce human well-being through propriety and sympathy.

Likewise we can reclaim the passages Socrates himself mentions. For example, the passage quoted at the beginning of this chapter, where Nestor advises his son Antilochus, certainly is an account of charioteering technique. But Nestor introduces this advice with the following praise of all forms of expertise.

Dear son, be sure to store in mind all forms of craft,

So that victory’s prizes do not slip out of your hands.

Craft makes a woodcutter far better than strength.

It is craft that lets a pilot on the wine-dark sea

Keep a swift ship on course when a gale strikes.

And craft makes one charioteer better than another.


Nestor’s aim in this speech is to advise his son about charioteering, but only because he judges that successful charioteering contributes to his son’s successful life as a human being. Given Nestor’s subordination of chariot racing to success in human life, the poet’s topic likewise is successful chariot racing only insofar as it promotes successful human life. And it belongs to the expertise of the rhapsode to judge whether Nestor advises well to make it one’s goal in human life to “store in mind all forms of craft” rather than, as Socrates concluded above with Critias, to aim only at the expertise of knowledge of human well-being, not expertise even of “all the other branches of knowledge together.” The rhapsode may take the very words that Ion recited from Nestor’s speech as a metaphor for expert human advice: “Let the left-hand horse skin by the turning post, so the hub built into your wheel seems to touch the edge – but keep from striking that stone!” As the chariot must follow the most direct line best to win the prize, likewise human life must subordinate all else to the most direct line producing well-being, and not be the foolish charioteer, who, “trusting in horses and car, thoughtlessly curves wide to this side and that, and his horses veer up the track uncontrolled” (Iliad 23.319–321).

Facing Socrates’ challenge, I take myself to have successfully defended Ion’s claim that the rhapsode is the best person to evaluate nearly every passage in Homer. The starting point of my defense was Socrates’ own premise about poetry’s topic: The best and most divine poets, such as Homer, write mainly on the topic of ultimate concern to human beings, namely, how to live as a human being among human beings and before the gods. There are objections to this premise. Some will find the reference to gods unnecessary. Some will deplore the omission of a reference to the natural world apart from humanity. I respond to these objections by interpreting the gods as ancient Greeks did: I leave open whether the gods must be supernatural beings or might include those aspects of nature that call for our reverence. Interpreted this way, Socrates’ premise is true, as it seems to me and I suppose to most people.

Although nothing I have said so far is wild, there is a wild conclusion to draw. Socrates was no poet, yet his topic in discussion was the poet’s topic, namely, ultimate human well-being. Not just Socrates but anyone who discusses ethics discusses that same topic. It follows almost at once that it is one and the same expertise that evaluates both Socrates and Homer, that evaluates both poetry and ethics. I say almost because there is one more premise about expertise needed to draw this conclusion: One expertise differs from another if and only if they are about different topics. It is no coincidence that Socrates establishes this same premise about expertise in the Ion:

SOCRATES: Then tell me now … whether you think this rule holds for all expertise – that by the same expertise we must know the same things, and by a different expertise things that are not the same; but if the expertise is different, the things we know by it must be different also.

ION: I think it is so, Socrates.


It is wild to say that one and the same expertise evaluates both poetry and ethics. It is bad enough to conclude, as Socrates does with Ion, that anyone who is expert at Homer is also expert at any and every other poet who ever wrote: “We shall not be wrong in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in the other poets, since Ion agrees that the same man will be a competent judge of all who speak on the same things, and that practically all the poets treat of the same things” (532b3–7). Are literature departments wrong-headed to look for different credentials for expertise at Homer and, say, Emily Dickenson? – and likewise philosophy departments to think there are different branches of expertise for say, Socrates and Confucius? And are universities wrong-headed to house literature and ethics in different departments as if they were two different fields of expertise with different methods?

One might object that, even if they have the same goal, poetry and ethics use different means (say, emotionally charged imagery as opposed to prose argumentation). Dealing with different means, they require different skills and cannot be identified. We can easily broaden this objection from expertise at human well-being to other kinds of expertise. Surgery requires different skills from drug treatments, though both aim at the patient’s health. Hiking a desert requires different skills than climbing a mountain, even if the two routes are alternatives to the same destination. In general, it is obvious that one can know one method or means to an end without knowing every other method and means.

But this objections fails. We expect an expert doctor to know the best treatment for our disease. I do not qualify as an expert if I know how to treat your illness with amputation but cannot tell you if amputation is better or worse than drug therapy. Likewise I am not an expert back-country guide if I can only tell you one route to take but cannot tell you if that route is safer or quicker than other routes. Just as we expect an expert pilot to know the best route to the goal and an expert doctor to know the best treatment plan, so also we expect the expert at human well-being to know the best life plan and therefore to know when emotionally charged images are better than prose argument at guiding a human being.

The Subjectivity Objection

Before agreeing to restructure the academy, we ought to consider a second objection. The subjectivity objection is that Socrates’ argument ignores the subjectivity of poetry and perhaps ethics. Socrates might be right about the topic of ethics and even poetry. But the interpreter’s expertise needs to know not the truth about that topic but the subject’s thoughts about the topic. To take again the example of Nestor’s advice to his son, the interpreter needs to know Nestor’s thought as expressed in his words: “Dear son, be sure to store in mind all forms of craft, so that victory’s prizes do not slip out of your hands.” This advice is at odds with the advice Socrates gave to Critias: a human being ought to lay up in mind expertise at the “single knowledge of human good and bad,” not expertise even at “all the other branches of knowledge together.” Since Nestor’s advice differs from Socrates’, it is possible to know one without knowing the other. Thus it is possible for an interpreter to know Nestor’s (or Homer’s) thought without knowing Socrates’ thought. Our conventional academic distinctions are thereby preserved. If we are looking for a professor of Homer, we want someone who knows Homer’s thought. An expert at Socrates’ thought, or anyone else’s subjective thought, need not apply. And suppose for the sake of argument that we found a scientist of objective human well-being with expert advice about the truth at issue between Nestor and Socrates, an expert who in fact knew whether human beings ought to aim only to learn the single knowledge of human well-being, or whether they ought to aim to learn expertise of every sort related to prize winning. The academy would not be interested in hiring such an expert for professorships either in Homeric or Socratic thought, on the grounds that such objective expertise would not establish one’s expertise at knowing either Homer’s or Socrates’ subjective thoughts.

I recognize that many people are uneasy with the very idea that expertise about human well-being is objective. Such people find it incredible that some expert could objectively discover that someone else’s subjective moral and religious values are false. On the other hand, there are undeniable analogies between the expertise of healing a defective body and that of healing a defective soul, and between navigating a sea voyage and navigating one’s way through life. It is surely because of their analogous features that Socrates in his dialogues so often refers to healing and navigation.

But the subjectivity objection remains, even if Socrates is right and there is something objective about human well-being. Let me show how the subjectivity objection holds true even in the case of an objective expertise, like medicine. In that case, the objection would be that it is possible to be a specialist in Homeric medicine without knowing other traditions of healing. We would not expect an expert at healing – that is, the objective truth about healing – to know Homeric thoughts about healing. The academy marks this distinction in its division between the sciences and the humanities: medicine belongs to the sciences while the history of medicine, like the interpretation of poetry, belongs to the humanities. The subjectivity objection holds true for objective branches of expertise like medicine, and so, even if there is an objective science of human well-being – as opposed to it being mere subjective opinions – the objection still holds true.

There is, however, a price to pay to use the subjectivity objection. The objection distinguishes objective truth from subjective opinions about a topic, so that the expert on a subject’s thought knows not the truth but mere opinions. The price is that this distinction makes it impossible for such expertise to evaluate how well the subject thinks or speaks about their topic. Such expertise does not have the power to make comparisons of better and worse between poets. But Ion, like other interpreters and professors of poetry, wants to make such comparisons:

SOCRATES: You do say that Homer and the other poets, among whom are Hesiod and Archilochus, all speak about the same things but in different ways, since one does it well, and the rest worse?

ION: Yes, and what I say is true.


Indeed, if Homer or Socrates in truth had anything to teach us about what concerns us most, the expert on subjective thought would not know it.

The subjectivity objection saves for us an identifiable expertise at nothing but Homer’s thought, but it does so at the price of making expertise at Homeric thought a thing of no existential value, that is, of no practical value for us as human beings. Expertise at Homeric thought would hold our interest only for, as they are called, academic reasons that are detached from human concerns.

The subjectivity objection lies behind many readers’ reactions to the Ion. Most scholarship on the Ion falls into two camps. The first takes Socrates at face value and is appalled at his expectation that a truth-seeking expertise governs the topic of poetry. This camp faults Socrates for not recognizing what I have called the subjective nature of poetry. The second camp finds it wildly implausible that Socrates would honestly believe that a truth-seeking expertise governs poetry. This camp gives one or another ironic reading of the dialogue in order to construe the character Socrates as recognizing that absurdity.

Yet the subjectivity objection fails as soon as we interpret Socrates and Ion as themselves existential human beings. At the beginning of the dialogue Socrates says, “I judge rhapsodes worthy of emulation for their expertise … To apprehend the thought and not merely learn off the words is worthy of emulation,” and Ion agrees (530b5–c1). Socrates and Ion esteem the expertise of the rhapsode not for academic reasons but precisely because it is practical expertise at achieving the ultimate goals of human well-being. Given their overriding concern for poetic interpretation as a guide to life, we can be sure that neither would buy the subjectivity objection at the price of making literary interpretation a thing of mere academic interest.


Let me turn now to my project of interpreting not Homer but Socrates. It is possible that some study Socrates merely for academic reasons. It is possible to earn money and enjoy a certain prestige, living as I do – a paid professor specializing in the study of Socrates. It is also possible to enjoy puzzling over Socratic texts for the same sort of pleasure one gets from crossword puzzles: an amusement, nothing more. In contrast to those who study Socrates merely to gain money and prestige or who find Socratic texts merely amusing are those readers who come to the texts with existential concerns, whose motive for reading Socrates is that they may gain some expertise how to live as human beings. My interpretation of Socrates is aimed at this existential reader, whose overriding concern with Socrates is as a guide to life and who wonders whether Socrates might be a wise guide. Like that reader, my interpretation aims not merely to know the words of the text, but to apprehend Socrates’ thought so as to be able to evaluate it as better or worse than the alternatives. My evaluation of Socrates will thus require the very same expertise as needed to evaluate Homer or Confucius or anyone else who writes poetry or ethics, and my evaluation will be as severely limited as my own understanding of human well-being.

If we were able to challenge Socrates with the same question he put to Ion – Where are the passages that use the rhapsode’s expertise? – what would his answer be? The bare text before us does not give an answer to that question. But the interpretive method I follow does determine an answer. In seeking some expertise for ourselves about human wellbeing, we do better, facing an interpretive choice about the text, always to make the most charitable assumption consistent with the text. Perhaps this charity is a duty we owe to the dead author, Plato, and his main character. But I have a more practical reason in mind. By seeking the wisest answer we can, consistent with the text, we maximize our own chances of learning something wise from the text.

When Ion agrees with Socrates that to have the expertise of the rhapsode is a condition worthy of emulation, he makes a further claim that distinguishes himself from Socrates: “I consider I speak about Homer better than anybody” (530c8–9). Although Ion appears to be in this happy condition, especially to himself, the course of the dialogue shows that, despite the appearance of this expertise, in reality Ion is unable even to say what this expertise is. Socrates’ effort to show Ion his ignorance is an example of his divine mission, as the next chapter will show.


The character rén Inline-Equation is composed of the character for human being Inline-Equation and the character for two Inline-Equation hence the proper relationship between two people. The character Inline-Equation is a combination of two characters, the left depicting revelation from heaven and the right depicting a bowl filled with offering. Combined, the characters refer to acts done in and for divine presence.

further reading

George Rudebusch, “Plato on Knowing a Tradition,” Philosophy East & West 38 (1988) 324–33. The article gives a further reply to the subjectivity objection.

the apology