For Socrates choices are of a life-pattern. Decisions, which are the deliberated choices that a particular occasion calls for, are not his mode, even at a crucial moment. Such choice, decision occasioned by the moment, will become the pivot of action.

It is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, to catch, as it were, non-being by the tail, but perhaps even harder just to get it in your sights:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. 1

With this, his most famous observation, the world’s most famous detective teaches Inspector Gregory the importance of noticing negative facts.

I do not know that the toddlers of Hellas were not willful or her adults without will power. But the affect seems to have been without the formal accreditation of an articulated concept and thus inchoate and fugitive, as are motions of the soul untethered by uttered thought. There is, to be sure, thymos, a noun that expresses the proud, often angry, swelling of the soul that can appear as high spirits or as childlike sulking. There is tolman, a verb that signifies bold, even transgressing daring. There is the noun hybris, which betokens a heedlessly inflated sense of one’s own fortunate being and forgetfulness of the gods’ power. What we call “pride,” in its range from proper dignity to preposterous arrogance, is involved in all three. But what is not present in these capabilities, characteristics, conditions of human conduct is—and this is crucial—a sense of sin. I will claim that sin is the first parent of will, and will is a progeny that then outgrows and squelches its instigator.

Even, or rather especially, hamartia, the word by which Aristotle in his Poetics designates the so-called “tragic flaw” of the heroes of tragedy, although it is sometimes rendered as “sin,” is far more innocent than that; the tragic hero, and Aristotle cites Oedipus, becomes tragic “not because of badness or wickedness, but because of some mistake (hamartia).”

A mis-take is taking one thing for another; hamartia is a missing of the intended target, as when throwing a spear: “You missed (embrotes) and didn’t hit.”At least so it is in pagan times; in the Christian Bible hamartia is indeed the word for sin, the very antithesis of innocence, a state of depravity, secondarily expressed in deeds. 2

So what is this sin, absent in the writings of the pagan observers of human nature, the sin I am here delineating in its densest sense, for the sake of clear distinctions? Truth to tell, Aristotle’s hamartia is surely too narrow for its intended application to tragedy in general, since a tragedy may end as does Sophocles’ Antigone:

One must not be irreverent towards the gods.

The grand words of the overproud pay them

back in grand blows and teach them to be

wise in old age—

which implies that something like sin, some guilt, is indeed responsible for the extermination of the Theban royals. But post-pagan sinfulness is something else.

Sin in the narrow sense is, it seems, that kind of depravity of soul that loads it with guilt, not in the objective sense of a fault imputed by others, but in the subjective sense of a flaw felt within. And why is this sense of sin, or sinfulness, not so explicitly established among pagans? Because, whatever is the catalyst-deed of sin, the action behind it is colored by rebellion against the deity, by a proud resistance to divinity; this perverse passion will be at the origin of the will in its originating essence.

Now the Greek gods are hard to spite, for they are immune to the soul’s apostasy. The Olympians get offended if not given their material due, the pungent smoke of burnt offerings and the fragrant smells of vinous libations. But they are unanxious about being loved. If they want human love, they take it without much ado. Thus Zeus takes his mortal targets, such as Io or Leda, with bestial force, and Athena captivates her mortal parallel, Odysseus, with chaste fondling. They are even less concerned with being uniquely “believed in,” since they do not suffer any inherent inhibition about being imaged: Athens, a plural in English as in Greek (Athenai), means “the Athenas.” She is one of many deities, unproblematically all over the city, visible in her images to all her people among other gods—herself an unabashed polymorphous polytheist.3

At least, the above seems to be fairly true until the last of the great tragedians, Euripides, writes dramas such as the Hippolytus and the Bacchai, both of whose young heroes are savagely destroyed—the one for preferring Artemis’s blood sports to Aphrodite’s sexual love, the other for failing to recognize Dionysius’s divinity. These Euripidean gods begin to be, balefully, more eager to be acknowledged than fed, but these divine resentments are individual and local.

The crux is that no Greek god has made mankind. The gods are themselves—mostly—born, sexually generated, and humans—not all, only the heroes—are, in turn, begotten from them by sexual congress; most of mankind originates in procreation, not creation. The creator god of the other root tradition of the West, single and (except in incarnation) sexless, is thus liable to an anxiety, to speak anachronistically, an insecurity, by which the Olympians are not burdened: the ingratitude and independence of the creature, original with the first couple and inherited by all conspecifics, since all humans descend from two parents who were created by God himself.

As a propensity, rebellious pride might be inherent in all creatureliness from its origin—in which case the Creator himself is co-responsible for sinfulness (if not for the sin). Or, as an act committed, it might be an impulse original with the human being, in which case the creature alone is guilty of sin (if not always responsible for its occasion). In any case, the actual deed, which hurts the Creator and devastates the creature, is an act of free will, an endowment that is given to created humanity by its Creator. And it is only a free will that can pervert itself, be perverse. With this tightly-clenched will to resist begins the will proper, I will claim. It is a sentiment that the Greeks of poetry and philosophy did not feel or choose to acknowledge—how would I, or anyone, know which?

A. Homer: The “Will” of Zeus

When you read these Greek texts in translation (as do we all), the word “will” does, of course, turn up. A prime example is in the fifth line of the West’s first poem, the Iliad: Dios d’eteleieto boule, “And the Will of Zeus was being fulfilled.” That is one way, frequent from early to recent time of rendering the line. Alternatives are “counsel” and “plan.” “Plan” seems best to me. The Father of Gods and Men doesn’t have a fixed, omni-temporal will; he has wants, desires, intentions, very budgeable by blandishments and barely enforced by threats. Indeed, he is not omnipotent but bound by Fate. This plan of his that is being realized, even as Achilles’s anger sends the souls of many warriors—on his own side—to Hades, is a clever equivocation: Achilles will get what his pride requires: to be abjectly needed; and he will lose what he most loves: his dearest friend, who is among those Hades-bound fighters. Zeus’s plan is a design to be sung—for our delectation and that of the watching gods. Consequently, then, there is a difference in tone. Homeric epic, the Pagan scripture, is serious, grand, while the Judeo-Christian Bible is earnest, intense.4

B. Socrates: Will-less Philosophy

I have titled this sub-section “Socrates” rather than “Plato” because it is Socrates—Plato’s Socrates, to be sure, the most potently Socratic Socrates, as it seems to me—whose “way to be pursued” (which is the meaning of the word methodos) matters most to my story of the will. This is the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues, which their author attributes to Socrates, a Socrates “become beautiful and young.” Said of the ugly, elderly man of most of the dialogues, this description sounds ludicrous, but it is true of his soul, particularly the youthfulness. His is the springtime of thought incarnate; his philosophizing is as a young green tracery of things to come, less ostensive and more malleable, more enticing and less determinate than the mature elaboration and stiffening to follow. This Socrates is inherently early, an embodiment of what in Greek is called an arche, a ruling beginning, one that disappears into but regulates the sequel. His conversations consist of questions that exceed his explicit answers in scope, and his questioning often leads to an im-passe (a-poria). Yet an answer to be developed lurks implicitly in every get-together; a pertinent example will be given below. 5

I mean the above as an encomium, to be sure, but mostly as the backing of a claim: Socrates forestalls willfulness and will power well before their appearance in the going scheme of psychic faculties: a rebuttal before the charge.

For, to anticipate the outcome, if “virtue is knowledge”—a maxim attributed textbook-wise to Socrates but never so formulaically stated by him—then doing right is not a matter of purity and strength of will (not to be confused with strength of character, as in Aristotle’s ethics). It is rather a matter of having learned and now recollecting knowledge at the moment of action—I almost said “of decision,” but then there is no such moment. What we know passes straight into what we do, seamlessly.6

What is Socrates’ supporting account, his logos? I think his way in is to begin from a vice in the soul. But first an adumbration of that key word “virtue” (arete): It means excellence, goodness, efficacy; vice is its opposite: lowness, badness, debility. In the second book of the Republic, Socrates distinguishes a deeply debilitating vice as the “lie for real,” the true lie, the lie in the soul. It is being deceived about what there is and the ways things are. Even if this lack of truthfulness is below awareness, it is still imputable to us: Ignorance is never innocence. Thus Socrates firmly nails self-deception (a notion that seems to flip about so oddly between privity and nescience) to culpability. Ignorance about ultimates is a choice. In the last book of the Republic, Socrates puts a mythic frame around the guilt of ignorance as suppressed knowledge and ultimate responsibility: Souls released by death into a cosmic setting make a post-mortem and pre-natal choice of a “life,” which will be their way of being, their pattern of conduct, when once they are reborn onto earth.7

I might point out here that Socrates tends to use “choice” with respect to whole lives, not for the single election that determines decision. This fact will soon be seen to have great significance, for the souls’ choice of a life-pattern is to be based on what the souls have learned or ignored in their previous lives.8

At first, however, this myth seems off-puttingly confounding. Are we or are we not responsible for our excellence or lack of it when our choice was made before birth? But it can be brought back into daily life with this meaning: At every moment of this present life, our readiness to learn was, and is now, up to us, was and is our responsibility, and on every day our life breaks around the before and after of a life-changing choice, whatever our congenital predispositions may be—though all the past choices ease or obstruct the present one. Our cosmos, the place of ended and beginning lives, is here and now. 9

Thus, unlike Aristotle, Socrates trusts in the possibility of conversion, in turning on a dime—not a religious or moral turn but an intellectual one. Past history is everything and nothing in a cosmically situated human life—this is Socrates’ familiar mode of subtly sensible paradox. Once again, however: choice is of, and is, a way of life; I don’t think that Socrates gets himself into quandaries requiring choice with respect to single acts of conduct.10

The lie in the soul can reasonably be thought blameworthy only if ignorance is thought to be eradicable. Socrates does not supply a cognitive theory (or any theory) but a working hypothesis for inquiry, one which removes the excuse for what might be called “ontological ignorance,” ignoring the being behind appearances. On the face of it, such ignorance might be said to be “the last to know itself” and thus not really open to the charge of self-deception.11

Socrates, however, thinks that learning—not of facts or information but of thought-matters—is itself what might be called “activated ignorance”—acknowledged and knowledgeable ignorance. Learning becomes possible when we know that we don’t know, and in such recognition there lies not only the positive readiness to engage in a search but also a negative knowledge of what is sought. We somehow know what we don’t know, where “somehow” is not a handwaving evasion but an enabling qualification. It is an invitation to engage in “recollection,” Socrates’ descriptive term for, speaking archaically, “bethinking oneself.”12

Thus prepared, it is possible to pass in time from ignorance as a vice to virtue as knowledge. For the converse of the former also holds: vice is ignorance, or so Socrates claims—as apparently disputable an assumption as can be for us who know how keenly knowing bad people can be, but it is at the heart of Socrates’ way. No one, he says in the Meno, knowingly desires bad things, no one wishes for what’s bad, understanding that it is bad, hurtful. Put positively: “This wish and love [is] common to all human beings”: to have good things because they make them happy—and that humans want to be happy is an ultimate fact. Socrates’ diction easily passes from “desire” (epithymia) or love (eros) to “wish” (boule); “wish” and “want” are the same to him here. It seems to me significant. Boule is the word often translated as “will,” but that meaning does not work here. Who among us post-pagans could agree that no one wills evil, knowingly and vehemently? But it is not impossible to see how being bad or wanting bad things is always shrouded in a haze of unknowing, if all want happiness. In a word, Socrates asserts that wishing harm implies a condition of unawareness; we have learned that willing harm implies an acutely cognizant state. Wished harm may be ignorant badness; willed harm is knowledgeable evil.13

From that retrospective point of view, Socrates might be called a pre-lapasarian innocent: Evil and its conditions, knowledgeably intentional badness and its source, are not quite comprehensible and certainly not fascinating to him (not, of course, for lack of acquaintance with ineradicable corruption of soul—was he not off and on a companion of Alcibiades, Charmides, Critas, three attractive and promising youths who became repellently bad men?) Here he too stands as a beginning of philosophical tradition. He regards badness as non-being and sidelines evil as un-reality.14

As evidence of this ontological innocence and avoidance, I think of the famously puzzling inner voice of Socrates, that daimonion, the “divine something” that only tells him when to desist from an action. As I will try to show just below, Socrates’ acts spring immediately from his thinking. But where the object of thought is, somehow, unpresent, incomprehensible, a thought-less alternative comes to his aid, something like an aversive instict—the daimonion.15

Back to “vice is ignorance,” which Socrates clearly wants us to think of as a convertible proposition: Vice and ignorance, as concepts, coincide in the universe of discourse in which Socrates is moving for the moment; they have as their logical complements—their exhaustive opposites or negations—their inverses, non-vice and non-ignorance respectively, any middle ground being excluded. Therefore we can think “virtue” and “knowledge” for these negative terms, and these positives too coincide: Virtue is knowledge, and the converse. 16

I think there is more than one way through the different dialogues, explicit or implicit, in which Socrates reaches this conclusion. With respect to the dialectial logic of the dialogues, reasonable intuition is more profitable than inexorable logic, and a liberal use of the principle of charity is in order. We know what he’s getting at and supply the missing steps, discovering, as we are intended to, the surely deliberate paralogisms and the environing assumptions on the way. What matters is to think out the moral meaning of the maxim “virtue is knowledge.” 17

Meno, that documented rogue, begins his conversation with Socrates about virtue by putting the cart before the horse. Instead of asking, as would Socrates, “What is virtue?” he wants to know how it’s acquired. Being altogether set on acquisition and, here, on a free rhetorical lesson, he asks Socrates, “Do you have [something profitable] to tell me… (echeis moi epein…),” namely, is virtue teachable or does one come into our possession “in some other way”?18

Nonetheless this inverted start gives Socrates an opening, for if virtue is teachable it is, ipso facto, knowledge (one of those sly assumptions we might balk at, to be sure, but acceptable in the context). Much of the conversation is taken up with the crucial question of what teaching itself truly is (not delivering the goods for a fee), and whether there are any teachers of excellence (only one, Socrates himself, who practices a compelling sort of abstention). In a crucial episode, the dialogue, one of those that only seem to end with an impasse, delivers by demonstration a toned-down version of an answer to the true question “What is virtue?” A little boy, perhaps twelve or fourteen years old, a Greek-speaking slave, a possession of Meno, shows the inattentive Meno what it means to be good. He willingly, attentively, and out of himself, responds to Socrates’ questions, admits to being mistaken and at an impasse, but bravely goes on to learn a piece of mathematics that is both practical and deep: how to double the area of a given square, and that the line which does it, the diagonal, has no articulable relation to its side, that it is irrational—inarticulable—when measured against the side. We can get hold of more than we can articulate.

What Socrates brings out in this boy is that excellence, effective goodness, virtue, is learning (mathesis), the acquisition of knowledge and also of thoughtfulness (phronesis), an effectively intent sort of mindfulness, a virtue-tinged quality of mind. Therefore one might say that virtue is finally knowledge, but the disposition to be attentively thoughtful is incipient wisdom, sophia; it is evinced in this lovable little boy as a young stage of philo-sophy, the love of wisdom.19

So what is the human effect of this identity of virtue with the inclination to learn, to admit confusion, to think responsively, so as perhaps finally to know? Excellence so understood is, I think, will-less in acquisition and in exercise—though not effortless. Although it is not a forcible exertion of some special power, innate to begin with, trained in time and exercised harshly, ascetically in self-denial, it is effortful. The meaning of “ascetic” tells the story: In Socrates’ Greek, askesis means “regular practice, exercise” he certainly thinks that self-government and courageous exertion have a part in the life he loves. In our use—I surmise under the pressure of the Christian will—“ascetic” means self-denying self-control, not self-fulfilling self-government. (Looking ahead, let me say this: Strange as it may sound, that precious Self of ours, The Self, hadn’t even come on the scene yet. Its appearance will mark the final loss of that springtime innocence I’ve mentioned.)20

The knowledge coincident with virtue that Socrates means is—to use the spatial figures that speech about human non-somatic being requires—so deep in the self-knowledge of the soul and so high on the thought-scaled ladder of being that everything closer to the world falls in place immediately when the occasion arises.

There are various ways to put this effect. One is this: In acting well, there seem to be, as a first approximation, three elements: knowing what to do, deciding that it must be done, and launching into the doing. If virtue is knowledge and knowledge virtue, these stages are melded. To know is to do—smoothly, serenely bypassing difficult decidings and agonizing irresolutions. The choices that require decision and the reluctances that prevent action will have been forestalled (“prevented” in the original meaning of “being anticipated”) by long thinkings-out of the way things are, not only here but also beyond, and of what is required to be in accord with that realm and its reflection here. Action then appears not as a spasm of the will, but as a work of love.

Here is an example of what such virtue looks like, taken from Socrates’ life, or rather his death. It is sometimes surmised that Socrates’ defense of his activities before the Athenian jury is on his part a plain provocation, an invitation to assisted suicide because of failing old age. Xenophon, at the beginning of his version of Socrates’ Defense (Apologia) says so outright. Aside from the fact that Socrates condemns suicide, this end seems to me to make cunningly ignoble nonsense of his life and of its public defense. If you want to die, why not just do it, without staging a public scene?21

What happens after he is condemned seems to me to give very different testimony. When his old friend Crito offers to arrange for his escape, Socrates is serenely ready with reasons (the basis, in our time, of civil disobedience) for not running away. On the day of his dying he engages his friends—one might almost say, entertains them, for though there is weeping in the background, there is banter in the foreground—in consolingly engrossing conversation, lasting to the moment of his death. In this conversation he sets out for these alert youngsters, under the guise of proving the immortality of the soul, all the main unresolved perplexities of his philosophizing, his legacy to them: questions concerning soul, sensation, learning, becoming, contrariety, causation, forms, numbers—no sign of failing in the old man here. When the last moment comes, it is blithe; Socrates has composed his own features in dying.22

This is not a portrait of strenuous self-control before the anxious youngsters but of genuine tranquility before an ultimate transition already fully thought-experienced. Nor is it a giving-up of self-will in resignation but a still-perplexed anticipation of a next possibility.

Now is the moment to admit that the above is much less than half the story. What is missing is the actual account of Socrates’ reasons that virtue in its very being is knowable and that the knowledge which coincides with virtue is, I am tempted to say, a happy knowledge (for there can surely be an un-merry science)—one thought in which, we can be sure, Socrates and Plato were at one. Here is an indication, if not a proof: There are signature phrases that mark a human being’s being; thus, closer to us, Bach ends his compositions with the dedication Soli deo gloria, “to God alone the glory,” and thus Plato long ago begins his letters and Socrates ends his Republic with eu prattein, “Be—and do—well.” The latter is a dual injunction both to prosper and to do right, and it is knowledge that supplies this eupragia, “right- and well-doing.” Knowledge has this ability because it reaches for beings, divinities, which Socrates first, and Plato after him, calls “invisible looks,” forms (eide). In this life these may remain just hypotheses all the way to the end, but since they are necessary to Socrates’ philosophizing, they are, in their attractive perfection and power, the objects of Socrates’ philosophic faith. (This may be logically circular, but what attempt to make things come together isn’t?) These beings bestow at once such knowability and such goodness as the sensible world evinces.23

I have ended this subsection with so insufficient an account of what matters positively to Socrates because I am trying to track something, a designated human capacity, that is, so far, only negatively there—in hindsight, as an absence: the will.


For Socrates choices are of a life-pattern; they might occur any day by bootstrapping or under the care of a teacher who compels by abstaining: “I was never yet anyone’s teacher,” he says. Decisions, which are the deliberated choices that a particular occasion calls for, are not his mode, even at a crucial moment. Xenophon reports that Socrates told a friend that he tried twice to consider what to say at what was to be a capital trial, and that he was stopped when his negative sign intervened; he explains: “Don’t I seem to you to have lived through my life preparing my defense?”24

Now however, just such choice, decision occasioned by the moment, will become the pivot of action, and one of the two roots of will, the pagan and the Christian, is about to begin to burrow its way up into conscious reflection.

This essay was originally published here in October 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. This essay is excerpted from Un-willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo it by permission of Paul Dry Books (2014).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze,” The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894).

2. Hamartia: Aristotle, Poetics 1453 a 10—the dictionaries list “sin” among the synonyms for hamartia, though at least at first it means making a mistake. The mistake made is a hamartema; Aristotle cites a poet’s depiction of a horse throwing both right legs forward (1460 b 18), a simple, sinless error of observation; spear-throwing: Iliad V 287—embrotes is the second person singular of the verb hamartano, from which hamartia is derived.

3. Chaste fondlingOdyssey XIII 287 ff.

4. Examples of “will” for boule in Iliad I 5: George Chapman (1598, celebrated in Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), Johann Heinrich Voss (1793, the great German translator of Goethe’s day), Richard Lattimore (1951), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Robert Fagles (1990). But many others, including the latest, Anthony Verity (2011), accurately say “plan.”

5. The most potently Socratic Socrates: I mean, as compared to Aristophanes’ comic meteorologist in the Clouds but also to Xenophon’s dispenser of what the Germans call Lebensweisheit in the Memorabilia; methodos: for example, Republic 531 c, 533 b, c. The point is that Socrates has no method in our sense, namely, a rule-directed procedure; the beautiful and young Socrates: he occurs in Plato’s Second Letter (314 c), where Plato disclaims any “writings of Plato.” That the dialogues are not his writings is in a wonderfully cunning way true: no doctrines are announced in the author’s behalf and no first person appearance is made—only two third-person references, Apology 38 b and Phaedo 59 b; Alcibiades: he is himself the most beautiful of men but only in his visible looks; on a memorable night he opens up ugly Socrates to display his inner divinities, his beauty of soul (Symposium 215 b).

6. Perhaps Socrates does say it outright, but conditionally and negatively: “Thus, if there were anything else good, separable from knowledge, perhaps virtue would not be a kind of knowledge” (Meno 87 d).

7. Lie in the soulRepublic II 382 b; choice in a cosmic framework: X 617 e ff.; choice of life: X 617 e ff., which bristles with forms of the verb “to choose” (hairesthai).

8. Examples of choice of life in other dialoguesPhilebus 21 d, Laws V 734-c (boulesis tes haireseos ton bion, “intention in the choice of lives”).

9. Life-choice: for example, Socrates seems to demand such a choice of Callicles in the Gorgias.

10. Turning on a dime: This “sudden” (515 c) turn, achieved, to be sure, with help, is called periagoge (518 d), a “bringing round”; a contemporary way to put this is: Socrates carries on his life “ethically” that is, imbued by virtue: he does not perform acts “morally,” that is, governed by willed decisions.

11. Meno, a thoroughly bad man (Xenophon, Anabasis II 6), mounts a superficially clever argument against inquiry along these lines: We can’t engage in a search for what we’re ignorant of because how will we know that we’ve found what we didn’t/don’t know (Meno 80 d)? In other words, as ignorance seems to him incapable of knowing itself for ignorance, so it can’t recognize its remedy.

12. Recollection (anamnesis): Meno 81 d. If one must speak of consciousness with respect to Socratic cognition, I think it would be better to say that recollection recalls knowledge from the subconscious rather than the Unconscious, which is a technical term fraught with Freudian meaning. To put it concisely: Socrates thinks that deep truths now unavailable are by no means forever inaccessible to us, but can reached through a soul cure based not on a psychological theory of therapy but on an ontological hypothesis of cognition.

13. No one knowingly desires badMeno 77 c ff. Put positively: We desire [only] good things: Symposium 204 e. “Desire” and “love” (or their verbal forms) are more frequent than the occasional “wish.”

14. Companion: The dialogues named after Alcibiades and Charmides foreshadow these pedagogical disasters; history books tell the rest: treachery and tyranny.

15. Ontological innocence: The tradition of badness as non-being assumes ontological shape in the Platonic dialogue The Sophist, which Socrates instigates but then listens to in silence. Here the being of Non-being and its diversifying as well as its deteriorating effects are established, to be fully worked out by Plotinus and in some Christian theologies; particularly relevant for my book is Augustine; the daimonion: for example, Apology 31 d, Phaedrus 242 b, Theaetetus 151 a.

Contrary to the more sophisticated current view, some people of great talent and acute insight actually find the tranquility of goodness more desirable than the frisson of vice. Witness Jane Austen at the end of Mansfield Park:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly at fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with the rest.

16. Middle ground excluded: In fact, Socrates does introduce—his very own thought—such a middle ground between knowledge and ignorance and attaches to it a qualified cognition and its efficacy. Its name is doxa, “opinion, seeming, deeming.” It is deficiently grounded and untethered knowledge accompanied by the laudable effort to make it right or even true (orthe or alethes doxa, for example, Meno 97 b ff.; Republic V 476 d ff., VI 509 d ff.; Theaetetus 200 d ff.).

17. I have never read a formal logical version of a philosophical thought process that did not present it as hopelessly inspissated (so to speak) with insufficiency in its progress and affected with dubieties at the beginning and doubt at the end.

18. Meno the rogue: See Note 11 above. The dialogue ends with a completely disgusted Socrates taking up Meno’s “some other way.” It suggests with the most cutting sarcasm that virtue is ours by a “divine portion.” The dialogue Ion (533 d) confirms that this suggestion is indeed meant as sarcasm.

19. In the Meno, where the question is whether virtue is teachable, Socrates shifts to phronesis (98 d).

20. Courageous exertion, self-government (“rule over oneself”): Meno 86 c–d; askesis: for example, in Republic 536 b, the learning involved in philosophy is called an askesis.

21. Xenophon: The Defense of Socrates Before The Jury 1–9; in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates condemns suicide as being cowardice, like that of a soldier stationed in a garrison running away (62 b). See also Eva Brann, “The Offense of Socrates: A Rereading of Plato’s Apology,” in The Past-Present, ed. Pamela Kraus (Annapolis, Md.: St. John’s College Press, 1997), 81–98.

22. Civil disobedience: Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), evidently referring to Plato’s Crito, cites Socrates’ civil disobedience (defying unjust law but facing the legal consequences) as partly responsible for our academic freedom.

WeepingPhaedo 117 d; banter: throughout the dialogue; features: 118; program of perplexities: Eva Brann, “Socrates’ Legacy: Plato’s Phaedo,” in The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004), 36 ff.

23. Well-doing and knowledgeEuthydemus 281 d; eidos means “looks, aspect”; as beings they belong to “the realm of the invisible” (aeides) to which the soul also belongs: Phaedo, passim, especially 79 b ff.; forms brought in as hypotheses: Phaedo 100 b, Republic 511 a–b. In the Republic, a Socratic hypothesis seems to be, from its very etymology, ambivalent—insofar as it is “something put,” a thesis, it is a mere hypothesis in our sense, a conjecture or assumption; insofar as it is put “under,” hypo, taken as a ground, it is a first “beginning,” an arche, and a firm belief; goodness of world: Phaedo 99.

24. No one’s teacher: Apology 33 a; no deliberation on his defense: Xenophon, Defense 5.

25. Aristotle, Metaphysics: I 1, 980 a; XIII 7, 1072 a.

Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from “The Death of Socrates” (1787), by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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