Plato's Stepping Stones. By Michael Cormack


Pp. vii, 148 , London , Continuum , 2006 , £55.00.

The ‘stepping stones’ of Cormack's title are twofold. First, he is a unitarian about Plato's philosophy: he rejects developmentalism in both its major forms (development away from the historical Socrates, or development away from Plato's own earlier views) and believes that Platonic thought is essentially the same throughout the dialogues. He also follows Charles Kahn in believing that Plato often wrote proleptically, which is to say that earlier dialogues adumbrate or hint at themes of later dialogues. And so earlier dialogues are ‘stepping stones’ to later dialogues (p. 94). Moreover, the central thesis of the book is that Plato held there were multiple ‘degrees of virtue’, each of which is the same as, or closely linked to, a different cognitive state. So not only does knowledge equate with true virtue, and belief with the lesser but homonymous virtues as sketched at Phaedo 69b – all scholars recognize these two states or stages – but there are also, according to Cormack, other degrees of virtue besides these two. Together these states of virtue are ‘stepping stones’ in the sense that they form a ladder of ascent to true knowledge and virtue.

The first chapter is an introduction to the Socratic problem and the related issue of unitarianism or developmentalism within Plato's dialogues. It can serve as no more than an introduction, because he is basically dismissive of developmentalism, without giving it due credit. Consistent with unitarianism, his method of approach to the dialogues often involves reading between the lines somewhat and assuming that Plato expected readers to spot weak arguments and see that Plato didn't really mean them.

The next two chapters begin to address the relationship between virtue and knowledge in Plato's dialogues - a central and highly controversial issue. Half a dozen early dialogues are discussed, and the relevant parts of these dialogues are ably summarized, in a way that would make clear reading for an undergraduate. Cormack's purpose in these chapters is to argue that, despite some grey areas, Plato is committed to the notion that moral knowledge resembles craft knowledge. He argues that solutions to the difficulties that appear in some dialogues can be excavated from other dialogues, and so that Plato is committed to the analogy, even if not as an exact fit. The lack of exact fit is due to the fact that moral knowledge is in fact a superordinate kind of knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil, that guides craftsmen and others in all they do. Yet Plato is committed to the analogy as showing that moral knowledge has the good as its object and has a product, happiness.

Having established that virtue and knowledge go hand in hand, Cormack goes on in the next two chapters to argue for there being different kinds of virtue in certain later dialogues. He finds this idea hinted at in Protagoras, and made explicit in Meno, Phaedo, Republic and Symposium. His discussion of the relevant passages of these dialogues remains as clear and methodical as in the previous chapters, but I believe it to be flawed. In distinguishing between the two levels of virtue (true virtue that involves knowledge, and ‘civic’ virtue that involves opinion), he argues that a difference between them is that the first but not the second is teachable (p. 74), whereas in Meno, a critical dialogue for Cormack's thesis, where ‘teaching’ is redefined as ‘reminding’, the experiment with the slave is said to result in opinion, until the slave converts his opinion into knowledge by ‘calculating about causes’. This is an example of how Cormack fails to delve quite as deeply as he might into the complexities of dialogues such as Protagoras and Meno. As another example of the same weakness, he leaves undeveloped one of his most interesting ideas, that virtue could be both an intrinsic and an instrumental good (pp. 107–8), not just one or the other.

A final chapter (discounting a brief ‘Conclusion’) claims to draw threads together, but in asserting that there are in fact five levels of virtue in the dialogues Cormack resembles a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Nothing that has gone before has prepared us to think that there are more than the familiar two levels of ‘epistemic certainty’ and their corresponding kinds of virtue, one based on opinion and one based on knowledge. It is hard to make good sense of the idea that there are so many levels of virtue. The distinction between ‘naturally acquired’ and ‘habitually acquired’ true opinion is particularly spurious; it depends on a contrast between unstable and stable opinions, but Plato consistently states that all opinion is more or less unstable; I know of nothing in Plato's texts that licenses such a distinction. Moreover, he identifies the ‘lowest’ level as ‘recognition of the limitations of one's knowledge’ (p. 112), and yet this is the only knowledge that Socrates lays claim to in Apology, while still describing himself as a good man, a man of no paltry kind of virtue. And as with all such schemes, one has to ask: if Plato was operating with a model of five degrees of virtue, why did he never come out and say so? But perhaps Cormack recognizes the weakness of his thesis at this point, because a few pages later (p. 122) he describes this lowest form of epistemic certainty not as a rung of the ladder, but as a ‘component’ of the life of virtue.

The main virtue of this book is that it is clearly and carefully written, but it reads like pretty good postgraduate work rather than a book that academics will take seriously.