Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Marina McCoy, Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. viii, 212. ISBN 978-0-521-87863-0. $80.00.
Reviewed by Evan G. Rodriguez and Ravi Sharma, California State University, Long Beach (evan.g.rodriguez@gmail.com; rsharma@csulb.edu)

Table of Contents

The "philosophers and sophists" of this book's title are not the historical figures whose work forms the intellectual background to Plato's. They are instead the characters of the dialogues themselves: the book is a study of Plato's attempt to differentiate his Socrates, the philosopher par excellence, from the various "sophists" who populate the dialogues. While there is no shortage of works concerning Plato's engagement with the sophistic movement, the current resurgence of interest in Plato as a literary author invites a fresh examination of the interplay between drama and philosophy in Socrates' many encounters with sophistry. The topic of the book is thus a timely one.

As McCoy points out, a comprehensive survey of that topic would engage most of the Platonic corpus. Her own account is necessarily more limited. There are six selective treatments, focusing on aspects of the Apology, Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic, Sophist, and Phaedrus. In an introductory chapter, McCoy develops her main theme, which is that there is no methodological distinction between philosophy and sophistry. Although dialogues like the Gorgias might be read as suggesting that the philosopher has a distinctive method, such suggestions are consistently undermined by dramatic features of the encounters between Socrates and his interlocutors. For, "philosophy, as Plato understands it, includes important rhetorical dimensions" (3). Here and elsewhere, McCoy uses the term 'rhetoric' to designate any persuasive verbal technique ("the means used to persuade through words" (3)). She is especially concerned with those techniques that appeal primarily to the emotions, and her thesis that philosophy includes rhetorical dimensions is thus a contention that Socrates freely avails himself of such techniques in examining his interlocutors. (See for instance pp. 3-4, 42.) As McCoy would have it, the ultimate difference between Socrates and the sophist is to be found "in character and moral intention" (1). That is to say, Socrates speaks as he does with an eye to some overarching goal of character formation, while the sophist does not. (What precisely the sophist's goals may be is not so clear. McCoy tells us at one point: "nor are the sophists consistently presented as disinterested in knowledge or morally corrupt" (3).)

In her chapter on the Apology, McCoy discusses the ways in which Plato appropriates characteristic themes and devices of the oratorical tradition in order to pursue his own moral purposes. She continues that discussion in her chapters on the Protagoras and Gorgias, where she contends that Socrates has no fixed conversational method and instead adapts his approach to the moral condition of his interlocutor. In subsequently analyzing the Republic, she argues that the dialogue offers a gradual disambiguation of the roles of philosopher and sophist. The former, it turns out, is a lover of the Forms who displays virtues both moral and intellectual. McCoy underscores the idea of the philosopher's virtue in her chapter on the Sophist, which contrasts the Eleatic Stranger, who identifies philosophy with the method of division and collection, with the true philosopher, who is centrally concerned with "self-knowledge and knowledge of the human soul and its moral good" (139). Her final chapter on the Phaedrus gathers together all of these themes. Here, the philosopher emerges as someone who uses rhetoric to lead the soul toward love of the Forms. It is this love that is crucial for self-knowledge and moral improvement.


The idea that Socrates avails himself of the same techniques as the sophist raises some familiar questions about Socratic sincerity. Is it acceptable for Socrates--who is of sound character and moral intent--to argue in a knowingly fallacious manner? Can one make someone else a good person (whatever precisely that might mean) without supplying models of honesty, clarity in argument, and so forth? Are these utterly non-moral values? At points, McCoy thinks not. For her, good character is inextricably linked to certain conversational virtues, namely good will and frankness. (Those virtues are a central theme of her chapter on the Gorgias; see pp. 86-7, 97, 103-6.) Yet this raises hard questions about her general idea that the philosopher can at times eschew "intellectual" appeals and appeal instead to "emotion."

Take her chapter on the Apology as an illustration. Denying that the work preserves a historical record of Socrates' trial, McCoy argues instead that it offers a "rhetorical defense of Socrates" (20). The defense is also "philosophical" in the sense that it shows Socrates to be centrally concerned with the moral improvement of his audience: apparently overcoming the reservations he expresses in the Gorgias about the efficacy of speaking before large audiences, Socrates seizes the occasion of his trial to work at improving the entire group of jurors, and perhaps the surrounding audience besides. Yet, Socrates realizes that "excellence cannot be taught" (24); and so he aims not so much to inculcate virtue as to provoke a kind of "intellectual and emotional disequilibrium" (24). His hope is that the disequilibrium will foster a commitment to moral truth.

This is precisely the sort of interpretation regarding which one needs a fuller elaboration. Why precisely should Socrates think that "disequilibrium" fosters any commitment to truth? And what techniques for producing disequilibrium are appropriate, given the larger goal? Instead of answering those questions directly, McCoy concentrates on defending the idea that the Apology is written in full consciousness of the oratorical tradition--a thesis that most scholars these days will hardly doubt.1 What the reader really needs, but doesn't so clearly get, is a more painstaking analysis of Socratic practice. There is little by way of precise discussion here or elsewhere as to what forms of moral and intellectual "seriousness" are relevant to Socrates' larger purpose. In general, the chapters of the book are much longer on paraphrase than on integration of the various themes the author sounds.


To our minds, the book's strengths and weaknesses are most clearly on display in the chapter on the Protagoras. That chapter is a reworked version of an earlier article focusing on the dialogue's final section, the one devoted to hedonism. McCoy's main argument here is that Socrates' questioning of Protagoras is not meant as an exposition of the explicit views of either thinker. It is instead meant to bring out the implications of what Protagoras says earlier, in his "Great Speech," where he characterizes human behavior as essentially self-interested and directed towards "survival, pleasure, and other physical goods" (62). When Socrates forces Protagoras to embrace a hedonistic position, he effectively shows that Protagoras' truncated conception of the human good fits poorly with the sophist's inclinations to celebrate the nobility of courage and to proclaim his own wisdom as a teacher.

In working out this reading, McCoy is at her best as an interpreter. Her account of the "Great Speech" brings together a number of otherwise puzzling features of Protagoras' narrative and creates an engagingly nuanced portrait of Protagoras as a thinker. Her approach to the discussion of hedonism also holds a good deal of promise. At 351b6 and e2, Socrates introduces the whole discussion in a way that would suggest he expects a positive answer regarding the truth of hedonism. McCoy's interpretation neatly explains such remarks: Socrates invites Protagoras to embrace hedonism precisely because he believes it to be the upshot of what Protagoras has already said. Regrettably, however, McCoy does not develop that interpretation in detail. Rather than discuss the workings of the hedonism argument, she largely confines herself to general comments on the passage's significance.

The last section of McCoy's chapter shows how some of the novelties of her approach can be stretched too far. There, she argues that Socrates' labor in the dialogue is not entirely negative and critical. Instead, Socrates is engaged in a "process of discovery," one that is essentially dialogical in the sense that it cannot be the work of an "autonomous rational agent" (71). In elaborating this idea, McCoy relies almost entirely on a few lines in which Socrates offers a quotation from Homer to support the idea of a joint undertaking (348c-d). As she reads those lines, the passage "testifies" to Socrates' "skepticism about the individual human being's ability to reason adequately on his own" (73). It also supports the idea that one could never be sure one has made an intellectual discovery without the presence of another person to confirm it. For, "Socrates does not hold there is some independent, universal epistemic standard by which a person could judge whether his beliefs are adequate or inadequate" (73). These are large claims indeed--much too large for the slight support of the passage on which McCoy relies. And unfortunately, we find out little about how precisely McCoy would develop them. She tells us that philosophy "has performative elements" in the sense that the meanings of the key terms under discussion are "created" in the process of conversation. However, she also insists that Socrates is trying to get at something he deems objectively real, existing beyond any social construction. It is of course a significant question how these two ideas can be held together.

McCoy would like to resist any suggestion that the process of discovery can be reduced to a single method of inquiry: "[Socrates'] approach to questioning varies depending upon the person with whom he is in dialogue" (61). Accordingly, she rejects Vlastos' famous account of the elenchus as too reductive an explanation of Socrates' conversational practice. Yet it remains unclear how precisely Socrates might think he can get at "the real" through the process of question and answer. Most of McCoy's positive descriptions of Socratic practice would seem to apply equally well to features of Vlastos' view or to the many modifications of it that have since been proposed. In the end, she offers a host of interesting suggestions about how to approach the Protagoras and other dialogues; but her treatments are far too short on connections between the larger themes she sounds. To that extent, her conception of Socrates as a thinker of many methods seems ultimately to get in the way of a more fully integrated account of his philosophical concerns.

The book is handsomely produced, as is typical for Cambridge University Press. There are, however, a number of distracting errors. Most puzzlingly, the name 'Palamedes' is given the non-standard spelling 'Palamades' throughout the book (even in bibliographical references in which the standard spelling is used). And there is occasionally an unfortunate casualness about matters of fact. On p. 25, for instance, McCoy cites with cautious approval Ledger's late date of 386 BCE for the composition of the Apology. Then on p. 28, she tells us that by the time that Plato wrote the latter work, a certain rhetorical device had become quite familiar. Among the figures cited in support is Demosthenes, who of course was not born until 384.2


1. Over the course of the chapter, we get precious little by way of reference to the numerous scholarly discussions of the composition and structure of the Apology. There is no mention, for instance, of S. R. Slings and E. De Strycker, Plato's Apology of Socrates: A Literary and Philosophical Study With a Running Commentary (E.J. Brill, 1994).

2. This stretch of the book also contains a number of misspellings of ancient proper names: 'Demonsthenes' for 'Demosthenes' (p. 28), 'Manthitheus' for 'Mantitheus' (p. 28), and 'Denarchus' for 'Dinarchus' (p. 30).

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