Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.01.12

Leonard Brandwood, The Chronology of Plato's Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. x + 256. ISBN 0-521-39000-1.

Reviewed by Paul Keyser, University of Alberta.

[[NOTE TO READERS: The hard copy of BMCR 3.1 contains a very long essay review by Paul Keyser on a recent study of stylometric analysis of Platonic chronology; this follows Keyser's review of another such study in BMCR 2.7 (see BMCR 2.7.3, Review of Ledger, Recounting Plato). The length (about 52K, or 7500 words) and technical nature of this review make it impractical to send it on the nets -- too much detail would be lost in our crude system of transliterating Greek. I append here the opening paragraphs and the closing one; between there comes detailed discussion of the 20-odd attempts at 'counting Plato' that Brandwood discusses and Keyser discusses in turn. E-readers wishing a hard copy of this review should apply to JODONNEL@PENNSAS.UPENN.EDU and specify their snail-mail address.]]

Pythagoras said that the nature of all things is number (fr. 58 B 4,8 DK6 = Arist. Metaph. 1.5 [985b23-6a15, 987a9-10]), but Aristotle cautions that we must not expect more precision than the subject warrants (NE 1.3.1 [1094b12-4]). It is between these pillars that stylometry has fallen; Brandwood hopes to set it right, for Plato at least, by dint of greater breadth. Alas, he founders on a methodological rock, rarely perceived.

Although there is some evidence that the notions of measurement uncertainty (Thuc. 3.23, e.g.) and of combinatorics (Xenokrates apud Plut. QC 733a, Stoic Repugn. 1047c) had crossed the minds of Greek thinkers,1 and although the assigning of numerical values to letters and words (isopsephy) was a standard feature of Greek thought,2 it was apparently left for mid-XVIII cent. A.D. Swedish theological debates to prompt the analytic application of number to texts, first by a clergyman named Kumblaeus.3 With the development some decades later of modern statistical methods (by Gauss in 1801-9 in connection with the orbit of an asteroid4), the way was opened for stylometry (though that name was coined much later). The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) in 1807 seems to have been the first to attempt the way, with the incidence of 'hapax legomena' in [Paul] I Timothy.5 Beginning in 1867 with the work of Lewis Campbell (see below) stylometry was applied to Plato's works, mostly with a view to establishing their chronology (for a few works, most infamously Letter 7, authorship is a question).

Brandwood's book is a revision of his 1958 London U. doctoral dissertation, "The dating of Plato's works by the stylistic method," apparently delayed by the production of his great Word Index to Plato (1976), and his recovery from a brain haemorrhage (p. x). In fact the revisions are not great and some chapters reappear almost uerbatim (e.g., c. 2 on Campbell). Portions have been published elsewhere: the last chapter of the thesis (pp. 407-25), somewhat revised, appeared as "Analysing Plato's style with an Electronic Computer," BICS 3 (1956) 45-54, and, with further revisions, as c. 4 (pp. 50-65) of Mechanical Resolution of Linguistic Problems, Andrew D. Booth, L. Brandwood (still B.A.), and J. P. Cleave (New York/London 1958). On the other hand, some material has been added, notably cc. 21 and 22 (pp. 228-48), analysing studies which appeared after the thesis (p. ix).

The book takes the form of a brief introduction (2 pp.) on the external evidence and the status quo ante, followed by 21 cc. summarising various studies, arranged (in all but one case, c. 18) chronologically, and fitted with a brief conclusion (4 pp.) and a set of 4 brief indices (4 pp.). The lack of a bibliography is mitigated by the treatment of the 22 studies in the individual chapters. Because the book is essentially a review of previous work, it must be covered in detail to appreciate B.'s accomplishment. In many cases the impression a reader would gain (that there is evidence for some particular view of the chronology or other) is wrong, and it is important to take the opportunity to correct these.

* * * * * * *

And the chronology of Plato? -- I know no more than Campbell; nor does anyone. A Campbell would give the Scottish Verdict: "Not Proven."29


  • [1] G.E.R. Lloyd, "Observational error in later Greek science," Science and Speculation, edd. Jonathan Barnes, et al. (Cambridge/Paris 1982) 128-64; and S. Sambursky, "On the Possible and Probable in Ancient Greece," Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48, respectively. Cp. also O.B. Sheynin, "Prehistory of the Theory of Probability," AHES 12 (1974) 97-141.
  • [2] Paul Perdrizet, "Isopséphie," REG 17 (1904) 350-360.
  • [3] K. Dovring, "Quantitative Semantics in 18th Century Sweden," Public Opinion Quarterly 18 (1954) 389-94.
  • [4] H.L. Seal, "The Historical Development of the Gauss Linear Model," Biometrika 54 (1967) 1-24.
  • [5] I use 'hapax legomenon/a' relatively, to refer to words which occur once in a given text or author. Fr. E. D. Schleiermacher, Über den sogenannten ersten Brief des Paulos an den Timotheos (Berlin 1807), and repr. in Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämtliche Werke 1.2 (Berlin 1836) 221-320; the relevant passage is pp. 27-76 (pp. 233-254 of the reprint); this is followed by a study of words common to I Tim. and to II Tim. or Titus (pp. 77-104 = 254-65).
  • [29] I am indebted to Hugh G. Robinson for first introducing me to this fascinating topic, many years ago (1978); to Wm. M. Calder III for encouraging me in it over the years and for suggesting this review; to Richard Hamilton for giving me the great opportunity to write it; and to E. C. Kopff and E. E. Schütrumpf for stimulating discussions. But none of these is responsible for my scepticism or method.