Triangulating Towards Socrates: The Socratic Circle and Its Aftermath


Triangulating Towards Socrates: The Socratic Circle and Its Aftermath

October 12, 2020 - February 11, 2021


Gabriel Danzig (Bar-Ilan University)
James Redfield (University of Chicago) 

Research Group Assistant: Shlomit Kulik

The fourth century BCE saw a flourishing of philosophical speculation centered around the figure of Socrates. More than a hundred different Socratic compositions were produced between 394 and the middle of the fourth century. This unprecedented flourishing of philosophical literature in this period created not merely a new literary genre, but a new cultural phenomenon that eclipsed the previous intellectual traditions, both naturalistic and sophistic. It would influence the major philosophic traditions of the ancient world, not only the Platonic and Aristotelian schools, but also the Stoic, Skeptical and Cyrenaic schools; and it has had a huge influence on the modern world, including on the curricula of today's leading universities. This project aims to recover the unique features of the Socratic revolution by exploring the diversity of opinions within and around the Socratic circle. Our hypothesis is that the impact of Plato and Aristotle has effectively blocked out alternative views of the nature of virtue and the human good and reduced our appreciation of what is unique in Plato and Aristotle. In particular, we expect to challenge the Aristotelian conception of the virtues as fixed traits of character acquired through repetition and practiced with pleasure. This account of the virtues, which has become almost self-evident to scholars in all fields, does not fit well with the descriptions of virtues found in the full Socratic corpus. Xenophon, for example, believes that virtues are inherently unstable, require constant supervision and effort, and are not necessarily practiced with pleasure. This view requires the re-examination of the concept that virtues are ends in the themselves, so familiar from Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. We also find a much wider range of virtue terminology in the full Socratic corpus. Aristotle seems to restrict the virtues by schematizing them in relation to distinct emotions and behavioral challenges. By examining the other Socratic writers, we hope to be able to reconstruct an alternative account that can stand up to philosophical challenge.

In order to recover and test alternative views, we will make use of a variety of methods. Where complete literary texts remain (as in the case of Xenophon and the Platonic pseudepigrapha) we will attempt to reconstruct the author's views of the substantial issues connected with the virtues and the human good by standard literary and philosophical analysis. Work on this has been started by members of the group and others. In cases where we only have fragmentary remains we will focus on comparative semantic analysis of ethical and political terms and concepts, following principles of the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte) which pays careful attention to the historical and philological roots of philosophical concepts. While not a replacement for philosophical interpretation, this approach provides a necessary starting place and corrective to purely philosophical research. It will be supplemented by philosophical analysis and defense.