Review of J. Clerk Shaw, Plato’s Anti-hedonism and the Protagoras, Cambridge, 2015 [Book Review]

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 11 (2015)
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In his exciting new book, Plato’s Anti-hedonism and the Protagoras, J. Clerk Shaw paints a masterful portrait of the Athenian majority, or “the many,” as portrayed by Plato not just in the Protagoras (as the title advertises), but throughout the Platonic corpus. Shaw offers an incisive diagnosis of popular “double-think,” which balances the incoherent complex of commitments to hedonism (the view the pleasure is the good), to the possibility of akrasia (weakness of will) and to the belief that injustice is prudent, i.e. in one’s own self-interest to do. Shaw also puts the dialectical context of the Protagoras to good use in identifying the double-talk that Protagoras is forced into by his own conflicting claims and commitments. The central thesis I question is that the sophists have internalized the opinions of the many, thus absorbing conventional morality as their own as opposed to waking the tightrope of popular opinion. Certainly the sophists’ currency is the opinions of the many, reflecting their own views back to them, and this creates difficulties and tensions in their stances (not least because they are reflecting the incoherent double-think that Shaw so beautifully brings out). However, all this can be true independently of the possibility of the sophists’ actually internalizing the views of the many, i.e. without speculating about their psychology at all. I argue that this thesis of Shaw’s is not necessary for his core insights about the many, and (likewise) that we can resist two other interpretative moves he makes. Shaw’s readings of the Protagoras—of Socrates as committed to spirit (thumos), and of the argument that akrasia is ignorance and courage is wisdom as independent of the commitment to hedonis—reveal his sympathies for a so-called “unitarian” interpretation of Plato, which takes the corpus to provide a unified doctrine rather than reflecting the author’s intellectual development. Here too, I suggest, Shaw’s insights can be preserved without running afoul of this interpretive disagreement.



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Vanessa de Harven
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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