Socrates v. Aristippus, Round Two: Memorabilia 3.8
David M. Johnson
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Memorabilia 3.8, Socrates' second conversation with Aristippus in the Memorabilia, raises at least two puzzles. The first is Xenophon's obscure description of Socrates' approach at the outset of the chapter. The second is Xenophon's decision to couple Socrates' rather abstract conversation with Aristippus about the good and the beautiful with Socrates' rather concrete discussion, now with unnamed interlocutors, about domestic architecture and the proper placement of temples and altars. I suggest that the second puzzle solves the first, for in his comments on houses, temples, and altars Socrates emphasizes the different pleasures such things can provide, and it is was to avoid discussing pleasure that Socrates chose his tack with Aristippus. I conclude with the suggestion that the chapter is a sort of response to Plato's Protagoras.
The Socratic hedonist Aristippus, still smarting from Socrates' earlier refutation (Mem. 2.1), thought that he could trap Socrates by asking him whether he knew anything that is good. Aristippus knew that he could show that most apparent goods are sometimes bad. What Aristippus hoped to do, I argue, was to force Socrates to name pleasure as the good, thus undermining Socrates' insistence on the essential Xenophontic virtue of self-control. But Socrates, "wishing to benefit his friends, answered not like those determined to defend their argument in every way, but like those convinced that they must do what is proper." In this case the thing to do was to get rid of Aristippus. While naming pleasure as the good would have allowed Socrates to defend a position against Aristippus, Socrates instead refused to name anything good, or anything fine, save things which are useful for some particular end.
Xenophon then describes how Socrates used to argue, with anonymous interlocutors, that the same houses were fine and useful. But Socrates' main point was that the same house can be pleasant in both winter and summer, if it has a high porch on the south side that will catch light from the low winter sun but provide shade from the high summer sun. Ischomachus advocates a similar design in the Oeconomicus (9.1-5), but emphasizes the usefulness of an orderly design more than the pleasant southern exposure. So too temples and altars in visible but secluded locations are pleasant both to worship from afar and to approach in reverence. Socrates' comments limit the apparent relativism of the earlier passage by showing that one and the same design can be best from varied points of view. They also make it clear that in other contexts Socrates was willing to discuss pleasure as an end. As in 2.1, then, Xenophon presents Socrates in opposition to the immoral hedonist Aristippus, but not as an all-out opponent to pleasure but as a moderate hedonist.
In the Protagoras, Plato's Socrates was willing to consider hedonism more explicitly. In that dialogue, pleasure appears to provide a more definitive guide to action than can the rather empty concept of happiness. But Xenophon's varied examples of pleasure show how complicated pleasure is: we are pleased by heat and by cold, by worshipping an altar from afar and by reverently approaching it. Pleasure is no more univocal than the good or the fine. Perhaps, then, Xenophon recognized that the diversity of pleasure limited its value as a guide to action. The chapter as a whole, then, would respond not only to Aristippus but to Plato.
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