Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.17

Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Plato's Republic and the Greek Enlightenment.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 1998.  Pp. viii, 96.  ISBN 1-85399-494-4.  £8.95.  

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield, St Martin, Cornwall, UK
Word count: 1238 words

This book is slight in extent and is clearly aimed at a student audience (witness, for example, the minimal bibliography and lack of footnotes, the illustrations scattered throughout the book, and the list of suggested essay questions on p. 94). But the theses it attempts to argue for are, on the contrary, bold and interesting. My main criticism of the book, then, is that it is entirely the wrong format in which to have undertaken such arguments. L-T wants to argue (1) that Plato cannot be sharply distinguished from the Sophists and rhetoricians he deplores, indeed that 'his entire conception of the art of philosophical writing was sophistic' (19); (2) that Plato was not seeking to propound a particular philosophy, but to promote philosophy in general. The connection between the two theses, according to L-T, is as follows: if Plato is seen as propounding a certain philosophy -- moral realism -- one of the main ways he does so is by contrasting Socrates with the Sophists. So, if L-T can narrow the gap between the Sophists and Plato (and weaken the influence of Socrates), he can more plausibly argue that Plato was not intending to promote a particular philosophy. This doesn't follow, of course; L-T could argue for either of his main theses independently of the other. It seems rather to be the case that he has used this book to exorcise bees that were buzzing in his bonnet, by tying them somewhat loosely together within a single book. At the same time, a great deal of the book is not even devoted to developing arguments for these theses, but to standard summaries of the work of the Sophists, Socrates, and Plato, designed to be helpful for the student reader. This is all too much work for a short book to do.

It will already be seen that the title of the book is utterly misleading. The focus is not particularly on Plato's Republic at all. There are brief surveys of all the early and middle-period dialogues, with only slightly more space devoted to Republic than to, say, Phaedo. Indeed, for obvious reasons, L-T's theses could work best when considering the early dialogues. There the dialogue form is prominent, aporia is rife, and no particular philosophy is espoused, but rather a philosophical method. There too the number of weak arguments might allow L-T to narrow the gap between philosophy and rhetoric. This is not quite the course that L-T follows, however; his terribly unsatisfactory survey of the early and transitional dialogues is devoted to plotting the putative development of Plato as a stylist, and these dialogues might as well have hardly any content as far as L-T is concerned. Thus, for instance, the speech of the Laws in Crito is described as an interesting 'technical experiment', but there is no discussion of what Plato has the Laws say, its relation to the earlier part of Crito, to aspects of Apology, and so on. This emphasis on Plato's 'style' is misleading. No one denies that Plato was a consummate stylist, but it does neither Plato nor his modern students any service to pretend that all there was to the man was style.

It will also be seen that, in a book of this limited extent, bold theses such as L-T espouses can be argued for only with a high degree of generalization. This is exactly what we find. He claims that Plato had three objectives in writing the dialogues: to defend Socrates' memory, to attract pupils to the Academy, and to promote the discipline of philosophy. But did Plato have only these three broad objectives in all the early and middle dialogues? Was he not also interested in the particular subject or subjects each of the dialogues explores? When was the Academy founded, such that Plato needed or wanted to attract pupils? L-T takes as his target the view that all the early and middle dialogues are supposed to be devoted to the 'defence of a philosophical position which is known as the Theory of Forms' (33). But no Platonic scholar would lump all the earlier dialogues together like this. These and similar generalizations run throughout the book, and will make it hard for most scholars either to accept L-T's theses or recommend the book to their students.

At the same time, his arguments for his theses are usually weak, and in any case no more than suggestive. As I have already said, even if as a stylist Plato borrowed the techniques of the Sophists, there is more to Plato than a mere stylist, and so the gap between him and the Sophists remains. Or again, following a standard summary of the work of the sophists and Socrates, L-T tries to narrow the gap between them. Here, I think, he fudges the issues. It is hard to deny, at least on the available evidence, that Socrates was a far more systematic and thoughtful philosopher than the Sophists, and it is hard to dismiss the importance of Socratic innovations such as the categorical denial of the propriety of ever injuring anyone else. The only point of doctrine L-T is interested in is the Theory of Forms (TF), and here, as I have said, he wants to deny that there is such a theory. This is not as controversial a thesis as L-T makes out; it is commonly recognized that Plato nowhere propounds the TF as a theory, rather than assuming it in certain contexts. Nevertheless, L-T surely goes too far when he says (67): 'the Theory is not something that Plato or anyone else ever actually held (at least not until it was revived by middle and late "Platonism").' What, then, was Plato himself criticizing in Parmenides? What was Aristotle responding to? There is a huge difference between recognizing that Plato never gives us the official version of the doctrine, and denying that there was any such doctrine at all.

According to L-T the TF, such as it is, is 'an elaborate rhetorical device'. The pupils he wanted to attract to the Academy would expect a philosopher to have a theory, so he dangles the TF as a lure to potential pupils, making out that they can expect to undergo the kind of initiation that the mystery religions were offering. This is the core of the conclusions L-T reaches after considering Phaedo and Republic. It is not surprising to find that L-T regards Phaedrus as in some sense Plato's maturer statement of the service rhetoric can perform for philosophy, applicable to all the earlier dialogues. I think L-T wants us to believe that on arrival at the Academy pupils would be encouraged to study philosophy, but not necessarily Platonic philosophy; this is a plausible (and again not original) thesis, but it does not require the trivialization of Platonic thought that L-T has outlined in this book.

On the plus side, it must be said that L-T writes elegantly, and often comes up with a pithy way of encapsulating an idea which will be of great service to students. So, for instance, the atmosphere of the meeting between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato's Protagoras is 'rather like that of a particularly intense men's singles final at Wimbledon' (13). L-T reads Plato as a consummate stylist with little interest in the meat of philosophical doctrine; this looks to me very much like a case of his judging Plato by his own standards.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:19, Friday, 03 April 2009