Navia's own approach to the Socratic problem is curiously nebulous. For Navia, in order to gain access to the "Socratic presence" (p. 97) we must identify the "common features" of the various accounts of Socrates in the primary sources (p. 20). This means that a set of Socratic characteristics that are peculiar to one writer (and so absent in the others) should at the very least be regarded with suspicion. But, in a separate passage, Navia appears to confer legitimacy on such material by claiming that it is an honest reflection of the "complex and multifaceted presence of Socrates" (p. 91). Navia does not offer a working solution to the Socratic problem, but a thinly disguised restatement of it.
The Aristophanic Socrates is, according to Navia, a "caricature" of the historical Socrates (p. 46), as well as a comic portrait of the generic Athenian philosopher-cum-sophist as "eccentric", "ridiculous", "antisocial" and a "danger to society" (p. 56). In Xenophon's eulogistic writings, Socrates is presented as a "clear-minded citizen", a "judicious gentleman", and one who "respects religious traditions" (p. 61). The Platonic Socrates is, of course, the Socrates with whom we are most familiar: the gadfly of the Athenian agora who engages in philosophical discussion those who are willing and, more importantly, unwilling to have their ears bent. But Plato's Socrates also manifests a pronounced religiosity that, as Navia notes, has been suppressed by the modern humanistically-minded commentator (pp. 120--4). Finally, the Aristotelian Socrates is the first philosopher exclusively to concentrate on ethical questions, principal among them being the question of the nature of the relations that exist between knowledge, virtue and the emotions (p. 142).
In the final two chapters -- and now relying exclusively on the testimony of Plato and Aristotle (p.179) -- Navia provides variations on two familiar Socratic themes. In 'The Search for the Soul', Navia explores Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates' "avowed goal", Navia writes, is the "search for the soul" (p. 183), and the "meaning of the soul is found through dialogue" (p. 194). Thus, Navia's view is that for Socrates the diseased psyche can only be regenerated through the cathartic process of dialogue. The latter process is constitutive of the examined, and therefore worthwhile, life.
In 'The Socratic Faith' -- the last chapter -- Navia claims that Socrates is "animated by some sort of faith", a faith that allows him both to be explicitly conscious of his own ignorance, and yet not to abandon his self-examination for the sanctuary of scepticism (p. 216). Navia suggests that Socrates possesses an optimistic faith in the overarching worth of virtue, but lacks knowledge of the precise content of virtue (p. 220).
In the closing pages of the book, Navia impatiently cuts through the flesh of the Socratic problem in order to lay bare Socrates' bony essence. Socrates is not a "language philosopher", "an existential thinker", "a Platonic idealist", "a Cynic", "a fanatic", nor "a materialistic thinker" -- he is a "philosopher, that is, a man committed to the use of reason" (p. 262). Or as Navia puts it in a different passage: "Socrates' quest is ... the enthronement of reason as the one and only means to render human life meaningful" (p. 8). If this is Socrates' quest, and indeed legacy, then perhaps it would have been preferable for Navia momentarily to put to one side the indissoluble hermeneutic debates of the Socratic problem, and critically to examine the value of rationalism as bequeathed to us by Socrates.
© 2008 Ruben Berrios
Ruben Berrios is a philosopher whose research interests are in ethics and aesthetics. He has taught philosophy at University College Dublin, the University of Ulster, and Queen's University Belfast.