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Socrates and Eudaimonism in the Euthydemus and Meno

Iakovos Vasiliou

With very few exceptions, scholars take Socrates'[1] ethics to be eudaimonist. (White [2002] is the exception; eudaimonist interpreters include: Vlastos [1991], Irwin [1995], Brickhouse and Smith [1995] and [2000], Annas [1999], Penner and Rowe [2005], Penner [2010], and Bobonich [2010].)  I examine passages from two dialogues – Euthydemus 278e-282d and 288d5-293a and Meno 78c-79a and 87d-89a – most thought to justify attributing eudaimonism to Socrates.[2]  The eudaimonist interpreter (henceforth "the eudaimonist") holds that something is a virtue if and only if it benefits the agent.  The hope of the eudaimonist is that the notion of benefit can give content to the notion of virtue: if we know what truly benefits us, virtue can then be understood as whatever gets us that benefit.  While Socrates and Plato certainly believe that acting virtuously benefits us (and so we are better off or happier when we act virtuously), we look in vain in these dialogues for an account of benefit that can independently ground our account of virtue.  Knowing the answer to what truly benefits us turns out to be just as problematic as knowing what the virtuous action is.

In the Euthydemus and Meno similar arguments are offered as to why wisdom is the sole good.   Socrates points out that it is not merely the having of good things that makes us happy, but the using of them, since good things would be no advantage to us if they were not used (Euthyd., 280e3; Meno, 88a4-5). Socrates then argues that for these things to provide a benefit – and so genuinely to be goods – is not sufficient for them to be used, but they must be used "rightly" (orthôs); if used "badly," they will harm us (e.g., Euthyd., 281d2-e5; Meno 88c1-d3).  Wisdom enables us to use these "rightly." So the familiar conclusion is that the other so-called "goods" are actually dependent on wisdom for their goodness, while wisdom is the sole "independent" good.

In the Euthydemus, Socrates motivates this idea with typical examples from the technai; knowledge of carpentry brings about correct use with wood (281a).  But what is the "right use" of, say, an axe? It is not merely knowing how to use an axe, but cutting the right things at the right times in the right way.  In some circumstances, it would be the "right use" of an axe to use it as a weapon. Socrates makes the same point with "wealth, health, and beauty" (Euthyd., 281a6-b; Meno, 87e6-7). To use these "rightly" is to use them virtuously, which is an objective matter concerning what ought to be done with them on specific occasions.

There is no claim that what it is to use something rightly is to use it in order to benefit oneself (the eudaimonist's understanding). The claim is rather that using something rightly will make it a benefit for one. The former makes it sound as though the question being answered is, "what benefits me?"; whatever that is will be "right use." By contrast, the genuine Socratic position is that "using something rightly" is "using it virtuously" and so what we need to figure out, as Socrates ubiquitously emphasizes, is how to act virtuously. Thus figuring out what to do – and the wisdom that would enable us to do so knowledgeably – is not acquiring knowledge of how acting virtuously benefits us; it is knowledge of what the virtuous action is. A major problem with the eudaimonist's understanding of Socratic ethics is that it makes it appear as though that question may be sidestepped.  I show that, at least in the Euthydemus and Meno, there is no account of genuine benefit that can ground an account of virtue. Socrates' own concern remains, as always, focused on virtue.

[1] The Platonic character.

[2] A third is the Lysis. Arguably, however, the Euthydemus and Meno are more important.

Session/Panel Title:

Friendship and Affection

Session/Paper Number

32.2

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