Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Ronna Burger, Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics (paperback reprint of 2008 edition). Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 309. ISBN 9780226080529. $22.50.
Reviewed by Thornton C. Lockwood, Boston University

At first glance, one might wonder how a philosopher such as Aristotle, born in 384 BCE, could--as the title of Burger's book puts it--have a dialogue with Socrates, who died in 399 BCE. Not only did Aristotle never see or hear Socrates in person, but since Socrates--according to his contemporaries--never wrote anything, Aristotle also never encountered the thoughts or opinions of Socrates at first hand. Of course, Aristotle encountered Plato's depiction of Socrates and it is Plato's Socrates whom Burger presents as Aristotle's central "interlocutor" in his Nicomachean Ethics [EN]. Burger presents a rich and challenging reading of the Ethics based on the interpretative principle that "Aristotle constructs the figure of Socrates as a perfect foil against which to develop a different account of virtue of character" (5). Burger's claim is not an empirical or historical one about whom Aristotle had in mind when writing the Ethics, but rather a philosophical claim about how Aristotle's Ethics begins in, wrestles with, and modifies a set of theses espoused by the Platonic Socrates.

Burger's argument is partially textual, based on analysis of the specific passages where Aristotle discusses the ideas of Socrates in the Ethics; but it is primarily philosophical, based on a conceptual thread which Burger locates primarily in Ethics II-VIII, but ultimately throughout the work as a whole. The result is a detailed analysis of most of the central passages and problems of the Ethics, with individual chapters devoted to the problem of the human good, the nature of ethical virtue, the depiction of individual ethical virtues, the nature of intellectual virtue, the problem of pleasure and akrasia, the nature of friendship, and the nature of happiness. Although undergraduates familiar with Plato's Socrates and Aristotle's Ethics will find provocative connections in Burger's book, Burger's intended audience are scholars and philosophers (many of whom are directly engaged in the over sixty pages of notes which follow the book's four appendices) who have sought to understand the overriding argument of the Ethics. Although inevitably Burger's interpretation of some passages seems unpersuasive, on the whole I found Burger's volume to be one of the most philosophically thought-provoking contemporary treatments of the Ethics.

Burger's central argument is that although the Ethics begins in apparent opposition to Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge--for instance, in its rejection of the idea of the good as relevant for ethical philosophy, its emphasis upon the place of ethical habituation, or its presentation of the ethical virtues as individuated--EN VI's account of phronesis as the necessary condition of ethical virtue which also unifies the individual virtues (and the desiring and reasoning parts of the soul of which the ethical and intellectual virtues are perfections) serves as a "pivot", after which Aristotle endorses a view closer to that of the Platonic Socrates. Burger writes that "the path of the argument from Book II through Book VI, then, must be the result of Aristotle's concerted effort to stave off as long as possible his acknowledgment of the Socratic position" (49). Why would Aristotle avoid such an acknowledgment? Burger argues that the problem of the intended audience of the Ethics is the source of his strategy in the Ethics. Although Aristotle claims that the young are not suited for political science, he also claims that ethical speeches are useless for those motivated only by the threat of punishment; further, they seem superfluous for those who already love what is noble (1095a2-6, 1197b7-10). If the lessons of the Ethics are inappropriate for the young, useless for the unethical and superfluous for the virtuous, then who is the work's intended audience? Burger resolves this paradox--which seems to be an "invitation to a prospective audience which cannot exist" (20)--by suggesting that the participant Aristotle has in mind is one who "must have experienced enough of life to have put into question the fixity of the moral education with which he was brought up" (18). More generally, whereas on the surface the Ethics appears to be a treatise offering instruction rather than questions, Burger locates in Aristotle's dialogue with Plato's Socrates a more aporetic work intended to call into question the very beliefs which the work presupposes in its audience.

To support her claim that Aristotle develops his own position in dialogue with that of Plato's Socrates, Burger discerns a pattern in the way that Aristotle refers to Socrates by name in the Ethics (a pattern which is documented in the book's first appendix). Socrates is cited by name seven times in four different clusters in the Ethics: first, in the account of courage (EN III.8), secondly, in the account of irony (EN IV.7), thirdly, in the account of the relationship between ethical and intellectual virtual (EN VI.13), and, finally, in the account of akrasia (EN VII.2-3). Burger argues that the treatment of the individual ethical virtues in EN III-V presents a sort of "phenomenology" of ethical virtue, one which brings out the partial truths and inner contradictions in ordinary experience of the virtues, much like aporetic Platonic dialogues (72). Within this framework, Aristotle's treatment of courage--for instance--introduces for the first time in the Ethics as a whole a thematized treatment of the beautiful (kalon), including the claim that the beautiful is the telos of virtue (1115b11-13). Aristotle introduces Socrates here, for the first time, attributing to him, and then criticizing, the claim that virtue is a kind of knowledge (episteme). But, although Aristotle criticizes Socrates' account of courage, Burger suggests that the invocation of Socrates here should also bring to mind the deeds of Plato's Socrates, including those at his trial and at his execution (and, by extension, his deeds after the battle of Arginusae or before the Thirty Tyrants, which are reported in Apology 32a-e). Burger writes that "Aristotle mentioned Socrates only to mock the thesis that courage is knowledge; but it is hard not to think of Socrates when Aristotle assigns true courage finally to the person who faces the end of a life he believes to be the most worth living" (79-80).

If Aristotle's treatment of Socrates in the case of the individual virtues is meant to initiate questions about the internal coherence of the ethical virtues, understood individually in abstraction as the result of habituation and as the perfection of the desiring part of the soul, the investigation of intellectual virtue in EN VI--especially in its last two chapters--in Burger's words "transforms ethical virtue, with the result that it no longer constitutes an independent sphere. What was originally the duality of virtue of character and virtue of thought becomes the unity of practical virtue, or excellence of action" (111). And of course, EN VI.13, where Aristotle argues not only that ethical virtue presupposes intellectual virtue but also that it is impossible to possess a single ethical virtue without possessing all of them, is Aristotle's explicit concession to the partial correctness of Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge. Aristotle's treatment of Socrates' account of akrasia in EN VII follows a similar pattern: Although Aristotle initially appears to criticize Socrates' denial of a conflict between reason and desire, he concludes--after presenting the phenomenon of akrasia as a failure of knowing particulars in the case of action--by again conceding the truth of Socrates' position. But, as Burger points out, Aristotle arrives--through his consideration of the Socratic position--at the conclusion that "what makes one vulnerable to akrasia is precisely reliance on virtue acquired solely through habituation" (152; cf. 201-2). Just as the Myth of Er at the close of Republic X teaches the perils of "participating in virtue by habit, without philosophy" (Rep. 619c7-d1), Burger argues that Aristotle's reflection on the misfire between reason and desire in the case of akrasia ultimately champions the Socratic claim that virtue is knowledge.

Although Aristotle's last explicit reference to Socrates takes place in EN VII.3, Burger locates "Socratic" turns elsewhere in the remainder of the Ethics, for instance in Aristotle's thematization of thumos in EN VII (149), the rejection of a natural scientific or cosmological account of friendship (163), the investigation of eros within the account of friendship (183), and the rethinking of pleasure in EN X (191). More generally, Burger argues that the account of philosophizing together which concludes the account of friendship (188) or the elevation of contemplation over the second best way of life are "Socratic answers" to the Socratic question of what is the good life for a human being (212). Indeed, Burger's book closes by arguing that the dialogue which Aristotle establishes between himself and Socrates also establishes an "energeia of theoria" in which we too participate.

Although I have chosen to focus on the central motif of Socrates in Burger's book, it should be noted that her discussion ranges more broadly throughout the Ethics, for instance, taking up the different "peaks" of the Ethics (e.g. greatness of soul and justice), the relationship between friendship and happiness, the connection between Aristotle's two different accounts of pleasure, and Aristotle's final transition to politics. The sixty pages of notes at the end of the volume engage a welcome diversity of methodological approaches to the Ethics, discussing the work of scholars like Strauss and Bernadete, Aquinas and al-Farabi, and Irwin and Kraut. Burger notes in her acknowledgments that the volume has been in the works for over a decade and it is clearly the mature reflection of a scholar equally conversant in philosophy and classics.

As noted at the outset, Burger's interpretation of individual passages or sections of the Ethics will invite the scrutiny and disagreement of Aristotle scholars in passing, but I wish to consider at length a more general methodological presupposition of the book. In her introduction, Burger notes that she uses the term "dialogue" in her book's title "not in the spirit of an empirical claim about what Aristotle had in mind when writing the Ethics, but as a tool of interpretation, to be judged by the philosophical results it yields, in particular, the underlying argument it discloses whose movement makes the work a whole" (5). Thus, the "Socrates" of Burger's interpretation is an heuristic device--one whose worth can be judged by the philosophical richness of the interpretation. As I hope my review makes clear, I find Burger's interpretation quite rich and thought provoking, and thus her use of Socrates as an heuristic device quite defensible. I think she has hit upon a major thread that runs through the work as a whole--one which explains a good number of the twists and turns of the Ethics. And yet Burger presupposes throughout her book that all invocations of "Socrates" in Aristotle's Ethics refer to the character of Socrates in Plato's dialogues. In one note, she acknowledges that scholars have tried to distinguish Aristotle's references to the historical and Platonic Socrates, but she then goes on to dismiss the evidence which calls into question whether there is only one Socrates in Aristotle's Ethics (249 n. 20). More precisely, in the case of EN III.8 Burger endorses the validity of Fitzgerald's canon--which asserts that references to ὁ Σωκράτης indicate the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues--but then she disregards its relevance in the case of the other invocations of Socrates in the Ethics, all of which, according to Fitzgerald's canon, refer to the historical Socrates.1

Although the veracity of Burger's presupposition does not undermine her use of Socrates as an heuristic device for interpreting the Ethics, it leaves undecided precisely whom Aristotle himself thought he was arguing with in the Ethics, and more generally his attitude towards the historical Socrates and other historical Socratics and members of the Academy whom Aristotle discusses in the Ethics, such as Plato, Speusippus, Xenocrates, and Eudoxus. Although discerning the doxographic identity of those authors in Aristotle's writings is an age-old problem, a study oriented to the "dialogue(s)" of Aristotle's Ethics needs to consider the historical question of Socrates' identity. If Aristotle distinguishes the historical and Platonic Socrates (which he appears to do, for instance, in the Metaphysics, the Politics, and the Magna Moralia), and the Socrates of EN III.8 is the character of a Platonic dialogue but the Socrates of EN VI.13 the historical Socrates, then the interpretative claim that EN III-VI presents a trajectory of thought defined by a dialogue with Socrates is questionable. Even if determining a final answer to the "Socrates problem" seems impossible solely within Aristotle's corpus, there is still ample evidence within Aristotle's writings to discern when he has the historical or the Platonic Socrates in mind. The basis of Burger's interpretative claim could be strengthened by consideration of such empirical evidence.


1.   Fitzgerald's canon was first articulated in W. Fitzgerald, Selections from the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (Dublin, 1853). W. D. Ross presents a defense of the canon in the introduction to his edition of Aristotle's Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), vol. 1, pp. xxxiii-xlv, in response to A. E. Taylor's criticisms of it in his "On the Alleged Distinction in Aristotle between Σωκράτης and ὁ Σωκράτης," in Varia Socratica, 1st Series (Oxford: James Parker, 1911), pp. 40-90.

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