Friday, March 14, 2014


Christopher Warne, Arguing with Socrates: An Introduction to Plato's Shorter Dialogues. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. xii, 209. ISBN 9781441195449. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Aronoff, Trinity School (

Version at BMCR home site


Christopher Warne does two things especially well in this new book. First, he skillfully combines two approaches to Plato that commonly clash. Following Debra Nails,1 we can call these the literary-contextualist and the analytic- developmentalist styles.2 Second, Arguing with Socrates forces readers to think for themselves. Warne generally proceeds dialectically: he looks at arguments from many sides, but he rarely argues for his own conclusions. For both reasons this book should prove very useful to its target audience, namely early-level undergraduates.

The book contains two main sections. The first, which is much briefer at 28 pages, has two chapters: 'People' and 'How Socrates argues'. The second section spans just shy of 150 pages and offers nine chapters on individual dialogues: Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Hippias Major, Ion, Laches, Meno, Protagoras, Symposium. None of the chapters strictly require any other, and in theory they could be read individually and in any order. (As I'll explain later, I think this is another strength of the book.)

Although the chapters on specific dialogues form the backbone of Warne's project, the second chapter, 'How Socrates argues', is one of the strongest in the book. Warne manages to introduce students briefly but clearly to central questions about Socratic methodology. He covers the elenchus, Socratic definitions (i.e. the 'What is F-ness?' questions), Socratic ignorance, and irony (both Socratic and Platonic). In addition, Warne provides excellent coverage of Socratic epagoge for non-specialists. In particular, he explains that most of the arguments employing epagoge are not inductive proofs but rather illustrations that reveal the concept of a universal to interlocutors (and readers).

The chapters on individual dialogues all follow the same structure. For each dialogue, Warne considers (1) the dramatic situation, (2) the central theme and (3) the specific arguments in the text. The sections on drama give important historical background and sometimes discuss the dialogues as dramatic works, that is as literature. When discussing themes, Warne pulls back from Plato altogether. For example, in the chapter on Laches Warne talks about courage—whether or not it is a virtue, whether we can properly describe a criminal as being 'brave' while doing something vicious. Warne explains in the preface that he is sometimes deliberately provocative in these sections in order to open up the reader's mind. The last section in each chapter moves through the dialogue sequentially and carefully unpacks the arguments that Socrates and the interlocutors make. In these sections, Warne generally avoids coming down on one side or another. He describes the arguments and comments on strengths or weaknesses, but he abstains from telling the reader what to conclude.

We can get a better sense of Warne's goals and style by comparing his book with two other introductory works on Socrates, C. C. W. Taylor's Socrates in Oxford's Very Short Introduction series and George Rudebusch's Socrates in Blackwell's Great Minds series. Taylor and Warne are surveys without an overarching single thesis, while Rudebusch presents a unified and novel interpretation of Socrates. Rudebusch and Taylor argue towards specific conclusions, but Warne, as I said above, mostly explores arguments without picking one view over another. Rudebusch and Taylor could be read piecemeal, but really seem intended to be read in order all the way through. Warne is the other way around: You could read it cover to cover, but it invites reading chapters in any order. Taylor and Warne focus solely on Socrates as he appears in Plato; Taylor gives Plato pride of place, but he also considers Aristophanes and Xenophon, among others. Taylor and Warne are both pitched at a very introductory level, but Rudebusch makes more demands on his readers. Rudebusch and Warne are very much aimed at philosophers, while Taylor would also suit Classicists or the elusive general reader.

As much as these three books overlap, they each have distinct best uses. Taylor provides the best introduction to Socrates as a historical individual, and Rudesusch offers the most challenging and detailed interpretation of Socratic philosophy as a whole. Warne, however, gives the most guidance to less experienced students. In particular, he does the most to walk readers carefully through the arguments of the nine dialogues he covers. He shows students, by example, how to analyze and assess philosophical claims. Arguing with Socrates would be especially useful for first- or second-year undergraduates who were new to writing philosophical papers. Warne poses questions and weighs potential answers, but he doesn't usually make final decisions. Thus there is still plenty of room for students to explore their own views, and Warne has prepared the ground well for them in advance.

For such students, I recommend this book enthusiastically, but I do have one significant reservation. Warne is not always at his best when discussing history and biography. This is not surprising since Warne says repeatedly that the book is meant for philosophers more than historians. In addition, Warne mentions that he sometimes makes deliberately provocative historical claims in order to stimulate readers.3 Whether he is playing devil's advocate or simply not being sufficiently critical, he makes a number of claims that concern me. For example, Warne says, without any further elaboration, that Socrates may have worked as a mason or a usurer (5). He treats the Second Letter as evidence for Plato's views as an author (183). And Warne suggests that we might re-evaluate the courage Socrates displayed as a soldier since "he excelled himself in retreat" (5).4

The overwhelming majority of these questionable claims or provocations appear in Chapter 1, 'People'. To be frank, I would recommend that students skip this chapter altogether. Playing devil's advocate can work well for philosophical arguments, since a student needs only patience and thought to respond there. But in the case of historical facts, students are not easily able to assess Warne's claims, especially since he often omits mention of his ancient or modern sources. As a result, I think that Chapter 1 is the exception in an otherwise very student-friendly and useful book about Plato's Socrates.

So in sum Arguing with Socrates is a stimulating introduction to the philosophical methods of Socrates and to nine important Socratic dialogues. It best suits introductory-level readers, and (with the exception of Chapter 1) I recommend it very strongly.


1.   See the section on contemporary interpretative strategies in Nail's article on Socrates from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2.   The first approach reads individual dialogues closely and independently, paying careful attention to literary techniques and historical allusions. The second cares almost solely for arguments, downplays the dramatic structure of Plato's writing and happily puts together arguments on the basis of premises drawn from multiple dialogues.
3.   See pages 4 and 7 in the first chapter. In a similar spirit, note what Warne says on page xi of the preface.
4.   The emphasis is Warne's. I find this suggestion particularly outrageous. It runs directly against the clear implication of the passage Warne seems to have in mind. What Laches says there (Laches 181B) is that if the Athenian army had possessed more soldiers like Socrates they would not have needed to retreat at all. That is, they would have won the battle of Delium. It is bad faith to turn this into "Socrates was a great soldier—when he was running away."

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