The Moral Foundations of Socratic Political Philosophy
University of Chicago Press
The relation between virtue and knowledge is at the heart of the Socratic view of human excellence, but it also points to a central puzzle of the Platonic dialogues: Can Socrates be serious in his claims that human excellence is constituted by one virtue, that vice is merely the result of ignorance, and that the correct response to crime is therefore not punishment but education? Or are these assertions mere rhetorical ploys by a notoriously complex thinker?
Lorraine Smith Pangle traces the argument for the primacy of virtue and the power of knowledge throughout the five dialogues that feature them most prominently—the
Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, and
Laws—and reveals the truth at the core of these seemingly strange claims. She argues that Socrates was more aware of the complex causes of human action and of the power of irrational passions than a cursory reading might suggest. Pangle’s perceptive analyses reveal that many of Socrates’s teachings in fact explore the factors that make it difficult for humans to be the rational creatures that he at first seems to claim. Also critical to Pangle’s reading is her emphasis on the political dimensions of the dialogues. Underlying many of the paradoxes, she shows, is a distinction between philosophic and civic virtue that is critical to understanding them.
Ultimately, Pangle offers a radically unconventional way of reading Socrates’s views of human excellence: Virtue is not knowledge in any ordinary sense, but true virtue is nothing other than wisdom.
Lorraine Smith Pangle is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also codirector of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. She is the author of three books, including, most recently,
The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin.
Virtue Is Knowledge is an extraordinary accomplishment: suffused with insight, gracefully written, and powerfully argued. It will challenge much of the received wisdom about the meaning of the Socratic ‘paradox’ and set down important signposts for students of Socrates who wish to understand the full dimensions of his defense of philosophy and its significance for moral and political life. The book will easily take its place as one of the gems among the books devoted to the Platonic dialogues.”
— Susan D. Collins, University of Notre Dame
“Lorraine Smith Pangle has written an ambitious and important book, one that richly rewards the effort it requires of readers. In it, she advances our understanding of Plato and unravels with remarkable clarity and comprehensiveness an important and enigmatic Socratic teaching. The power of her argument and the fruitfulness of her approach will make her book one with which every serious scholar will have to reckon.”
— Aristide Tessitore, Furman University
“Pangle leads the reader on a thrilling intellectual journey, through Plato’s five most important dialogues on virtue, in search of a clear understanding of the moral character of Socratic philosophy. By demonstrating that Plato combines philosophic intransigence with a consummate moral and political realism, Pangle provides a vital correction to the traditional stereotype of Plato as a hopelessly naïve idealist. Through a remarkable combination of rigorous textual analysis, deft psychological insight, and bold philosophic reflection,
Virtue Is Knowledge offers both a singularly illuminating account of the central moral teaching of Socratic philosophy and also a wonderfully vivid account of the life and soul of the philosopher.”
— Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Davidson College
“Read alongside the dialogues, [Pangle’s book] provides compelling analysis of the texts and a frank presentation of the paradoxes of Socratic questioning. She successfully demonstrates the joy of close reading, both through her careful study of rhetoric and through focusing on the political aspects of the dialogues.”
— Bryn Mawr Classical Review
“A fine introduction to an increasingly influential approach to the interpretation of Plato. Pangle’s method is a close reading and exegesis of each of the five dialogues, attending to the place of the political passions in the dialogues and to the distinction between philosophic virtue and civic virtue. The great virtue of Pangle's book lies in this attention to detail, and the presentation of the results of this sort of close reading in a manner that should be palatable to mainstream Platonic scholarship. This book is recommended for readers of Plato at all levels. Recommended.”
“Well-worth reading. . . . In this rich and thoughtful work, Pangle tackles several Platonic dialogues in order to explore the sense in which Socrates or Plato regards virtue as a matter of knowledge or wisdom.”
— Polis, The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
"[An] excellent book . . . . All of the readings are rich and provocative.”