Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.36

Jacob Howland, The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates' Philosophic Trial.   Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.  Pp. x, 342.  ISBN 0-8476-8975-1.  $68.00 (hb).  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Department of Philosophy (
Word count: 3116 words

Howland's book is an exercise in imaginative interpretation based upon a controversial view about the Platonic corpus. We may understand that view as consisting of a series of claims of increasing strength: (1) eight dialogues in the Platonic corpus are located dramatically within the final days of Socrates' life; (2) these dialogues actually fall dramatically in a clear sequence: Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Cratylus, Sophist, Statesman, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo; (3) it was Plato's authorial intention that these dialogues constitute a single, unified, stretch of philosophical investigation (an 'octology', as Howland labels it); (4) what is investigated in this octology is the nature and worth of Socrates' philosophical mission; and (5) specifically, the investigation proceeds by way of a 'trial', i.e. Plato aims to accuse, defend, and judge Socrates through the medium of philosophical dialogues, a more satisfactory way of arriving at the correct judgment than an Athenian court.

Claim (1) is probably true but in itself not interesting. One can quarrel with the details of (2), but not much hangs on this. However, there are genuine difficulties as regards (3). On the usual credible groupings of dialogues into Early, Middle, and Late, the putative octology comes out to be a heterogeneous mix. If the groupings delineate periods of Plato's development, then it is implausible to claim that they fall within a single group.1 Yet even if the groupings pick out mere differences in genre or approach, which do not amount to philosophical development, still it would be problematic to claim that dialogues radically distinguished in these ways had been intended by Plato to be combined into a single work. Of course, Howland wishes to hold that much of the support for (3) will come from his interpretation of the dialogues of the octology, which verifies their unity.

(4) is unobjectionable, if only because it is arguably a task in nearly all of the dialogues to investigate and evaluate Socrates: what holds for all will of course hold for some. Yet this will imply nothing about the unity of any set of dialogues which carry out this task.

(5) is either false or involves an abuse of language. A trial requires a prosecution, defense, and verdict. Yet these features cannot be located in the putative octology. Howland claims that the 'prosecution' of Socrates is found in the Sophist and Statesman, and a 'defense' is developed in the Theaetetus, Euthyphro, and Cratylus. But the Sophist contains elements that can be taken to defend Socrates, as much as aspects that appear to attack him; and contrariwise for the Euthyphro. Furthermore, the order is wrong: it would be an odd 'trial' in which the defense precedes any articulation of the charges.

Howland himself considers this objection: "The order of the parts of the philosophical trial -- first the defense, then the prosecution -- is unexpected, but not illogical" (4). Howland rather fancifully explains why this ordering would not be illogical: Socrates is portrayed by Plato as having prophetic powers (Crat. 396d4-397a1, Soph. 216b4-6), and so we may suppose that Plato thought there was no difficulty in having Socrates foresee prophetically and reply in advance to charges that were soon, in the future, to be brought against him. This is of course misguided and not merely fanciful: if we had clear, independent reason to think that the 'octology' was intended to carry out a philosophical trial, then we could thus explain away such a glaring, apparent inconsistency; but if we have no such evidence, then the fact that the texts cannot be meaningfully divided into the units that one expects to find in a trial is conclusive proof that no trial was intended.

The view of the Platonic dialogues on which the book is based is therefore misguided. But is the interpretation therefore without any merit? I shall consider first the content of the interpretation and then some points as regards method.

A large difficulty of Howland's interpretation is that it involves no clear thesis or conclusion. He tells us that his reading of the 'octology' is an exploration of various themes: "The encounter between philosophy and the political community"; "The intertwining of resemblance and antagonism"; "The ambiguity of identities"; etc. (5-8). These are fascinating topics all, but what is Plato's view as regards each? Howland never says. These themes prove to be simply dimensions along which Howland's imaginative discussions of the dialogues proceed. The final chapter tells us, by way of conclusion, "Our study of the philosophic trial has given us a vivid picture of Socrates as a caretaker of human souls whose overriding concern is the achievement of exemplary humanity through self-knowledge" (281). This is neither an interesting nor a novel thesis. Howland's other conclusion is hardly more informative: "The preceding reflections suggest that the nature of philosophy is ultimately exemplified neither by Plato alone nor by the characters of Socrates and the Stranger, but by the speeches and deeds of all three together" (283-4). Howland himself immediately admits the shortcomings of this result: "Unfortunately, this multiplication of philosophers merely restates, without clearly resolving, the problem with which we began" (284).

If the book has no clear or interesting thesis, does it perhaps repay study, nonetheless, in the details? Because of deficiencies in Howland's method, the answer is: generally, no. Howland's book is a contribution from what may fairly be described as a 'school' of interpreting Plato, which derives from the work of Drew Hyland (Trinity) and Stanley Rosen (Penn. State, Boston University), and the leading practitioners of which are mentioned in Howland's Preface (ix-x). The work of these scholars varies considerably in quality, subtlety, and accuracy. Their distinctive mark is that they wish to read Plato as writing great literature as well as great philosophy, which requires that one attend to each of his words and expect that even minor details of the text contribute to some artistic effect, in pursuit of Plato's ultimate, authorial aims. (Less admirably, it seems also to be the tendency of members of this school to take Plato to be a romanticist and irrationalist, in the sense that they take him as holding that eros, as understood in a certain way, has priority over logos, both in the human soul and in the cosmos.) When the approach of this school is carried out well, what results is often illuminating. However, when it is done poorly, we are left with something that is unreliable and misguided. Howland's book is an example of the bad execution of this approach. Yet for precisely this reason it displays the characteristic deficiencies of the less praiseworthy work of this school in a particularly clear form. We may therefore make good use of Howland's book by using it to identify and describe, however briefly, these shortcomings -- as if identifying the symptomatology of a disease from the study of a single, particularly serious case of it. I label and document eight such shortcomings.

(1) Sliding from hypothesis to dogma. Howland frequently forgets that a claim was hypothetical or speculative and begins treating is as an established result. This often occurs because of a failure to distinguish the evidence for a theory from the theory itself. We saw an example of this already: it is a theory that the 'octology' presents Plato's philosophical trial of Socrates; yet Howland treats that theory as established fact and uses it to explain away clear evidence against it.

(2) Undisciplined inference. Howland often ignores Mill's 'method of difference' in evaluating textual evidence. We should evaluate the claim that the occurrence of X in a particular dialogue, D, is meant to indicate Y, by seeing whether, in other dialogues in which X occurs, it is also meant to indicate Y: if not, then we cannot, pro tanto, conclude that X means Y in D. We have seen an instance of this also: that Plato is concerned with evaluating Socrates' mission (X) in members of the octology (D) is regarded as evidence that the octology constitutes a philosophical trial (Y); yet Plato is just as much concerned with Socrates' mission in dialogues outside the octology (e.g. the Symposium), which are, however, not said to be carrying out a philosophical trial of Socrates.

(3) Ignoring Plato's arguments. Howland fails to attend to the philosophical arguments in Platonic texts, while attending exclusively to putative literary features in the texts. Of course no member of the Hyland-Rosen school would say that Plato's arguments should be ignored. Howland in fact claims the opposite and gives a balanced view in his opening methodological remarks: "I have found that the most provocative and insightful interpretations of the dialogues are those that are attuned to the complex interplay between their arguments, their narrative structure, and the three mimetic modes described ... by Jacob Klein."2 Yet in practice Howland ignores arguments. In fact, there is not a single insightful analysis of an argument in his book -- there is hardly a single exposition of an argument. Thus he actually fails to link together the aspects of the dialogues he wishes to unite.

A good example is his treatment of the famous 'Euthyphro argument': after telling us that the argument at 10a-11b is 'dizzying', Howland adds, "Beyond this, the main conclusions of the argument are as follows. Being loved by the gods is not the aitia, the cause or responsible factor, that explains why something is pious. It is rather something that happens to the pious, a pathos, and so does not speak to the ousia or intrinsic being of piety" (125). This may well be correct. But the point is that this sort of dogmatic pronouncement about the 'conclusions' of a difficult passage cannot replace thoughtful exegesis, and certainly it cannot provide the sort of insight that one presumes would be necessary for an interpreter to identify deep connections between such arguments and other aspects of a dialogue.

(4) Approaching the dialogues as if divinely inspired text. Howland seems to presume that Platonic texts are infinitely deep and that they therefore license any degree of ingenuity in one's interpretation of them. Hence Howland maintains that one should interpret Plato as one might interpret Scripture (9). But frequently what Howland would ascribe to Plato's depth seems to be rather a projection of his own creativity. Examples of this are too numerous to cite or discuss fully: they occur on nearly every page. (Of course, whether an interpreter has committed this mistake depends upon whether he has exercised good judgment, his interpretation has intrinsic plausibility, and there is an absence of any forcing of a particular construction.) In any case, Howland's approach in this regard seems at odds with his admission that Plato regarded the written word as inherently limited in what it could accomplish (10). If it has such limits, one wonders why Howland never encounters them in the course of his lucubrations.

(5) Interpretation through free association. Howland presumes that his own free associations as regards the text are a reliable guide to Plato's intentions. For instance, when discussing the opening of the Theaetetus, Howland writes, "In the names 'Theodorus' and 'Theaetetus' we hear an echo of the Greek words θεός ("god") and θεωρεῖν ("to contemplate"). Both of these words, in turn, are audible in the word θέατρον or "theatre", a place where spectators assume the observational posture of gods as they gaze upon the drama below" (63). From these remarks Howland infers: "In listening to Socrates' digression, Theodorus is able, as it were, to view himself on stage" (ibid.). This is free association with the semblance of sound etymology. Howland then extends and exaggerates his idea in a wildly irresponsible way, which is the product of his own mind and not something that can be ascribed to Plato: "Like the leader of the chorus of philosophers, Theodorus looks down upon life in the cities of men from a perspective of godlike contemplation, with which only universal, timeless, unchanging beings -- exemplified by the pure noetic objects of mathematics -- are acknowledged to be worthy of attention" (63). These irresponsible leaps of interpretation are made worse by the show of philological scholarship that precedes and appears to justify them.

(6) Exaggeration of minor details. Another problem, related to this, is that Howland frequently reads great philosophical significance into some detail that has a slight or very different significance in the plain meaning of the text. A good example is what Howland reads into a remark of Socrates in response to Meletus in the Apology (2c-3a). Howland (102) quotes Socrates as saying this: "For it is correct to care first for the young in order that they may be as excellent as possible, just as it is fitting for a good farmer to care first for the young plants, and after this for the others. And moreover, Meletus is perhaps first purging us, the corrupters of the young shoots, as he claims. Then, after this, it is clear that, having taken care of the older ones, he will be responsible for the most and greatest good things of the city, as is likely to happen for one beginning from such a beginning."

Howland thinks this passage is an attack on the 'Protagorean' assumption "that human beings are in truth plants and cannot be otherwise" (107). Socrates' remarks about plants of course have a straightforward and unproblematic interpretation, without great philosophical significance: Socrates is ironically asserting that Meletus must be concerned with people he thinks corrupt youths, as a farmer must be concerned in the first instance with tending to the delicate shoots of his plants, which require special care and are particularly exposed to danger. But Howland, from the mere mention of 'plants', it seems, claims that Socrates is attributing to Meletus a 'Protagorean' view that "human beings are passive and pliant" (104). Howland carries on with this idea for about three pages: "Socrates' horticultural analogy exposes some of the important implications of Meletus' indictment. Meletus is not a 'plant' if he is able to think for himself" (104) ... "If Socrates were a plant, he would presumably be a weed" (ibid.) ... "This talk of philosophical natures as plants should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in the passage at hand Socrates does not actually refer to the corrupters of the young as plants" (105) ... "Socrates can be pronounced guilty or not guilty of corruption only if he is not a plant and others -- the ones he corrupts -- are" (105) ... "Most people would be willing to acknowledge that it is possible to corrupt children, because children are in some sense like plants" (106) ... "In terms of the present discussion, human beings are like plants that dream they are farmers" (107) ... "Is the city justified in being angry at Socrates because he does not treat its citizens, and the young men who are its future citizens, like plants?" (108). It would be difficult to imagine a discussion of a single, slight detail of imagery which was more heavy-handed and grotesquely exaggerated than this. Yet it is supposed to be distinctive of the Hyland-Rosen school that its members read Platonic texts with literary sensibility.

(7) Exaggerated allegorization. Similarly, Howland tends to excessive allegorization, leading to implausible results. For example: the Euthyphro is set at the Stoa Basileios; evidence suggests that the legal codes of Draco and Solon were written on stelai at this place; Plato uses the word γραφή ('indictment', lit. 'written charges') at the beginning of the dialogue; Euthyphro points out that Socrates is not comfortable in the law courts; and therefore, Howland says, Plato is trying to indicate that Socrates "is more at home in the company of living, erotically charged youths than that of frozen letters" (99). Also, "Socratic speech is correspondingly flexible" (ibid.). However, and in contrast, "... it is from the universal and relatively inflexible nomoi of the city ... that Meletus derives his understanding of care as a kind of mechanical imprinting of opinions upon the soul" (ibid.). Howland would have us believe, most implausibly, that a big theme of the Euthyphro, implicit in its literary details, is the contrast between Socrates' 'flexibility' and Meletus' rigid adherence to the inflexible, because written, codes of law. -- This way of arguing, too, is all the more deplorable because it is accompanied by a display of scholarship, in this case, an appeal to archeology.

(8) Implausible inferences drawn from the Greek. We have seen some examples of this shortcoming already. A favorite of Howland's is the claim that a construction involving the genitive is ambiguous and intended by Plato to be so, for philosophical purposes. Thus, Howland (107) quotes Socrates in the Apology as saying, "For the Athenians, as it seems to me, it is not a matter of much concern [μέλει] if they think that someone is clever, unless he is capable of teaching his own wisdom [τής αὑτοῦ σοφίας]" (3c-d). Howland says that the genitive is ambiguous: "Depending upon how one hears the reflexive pronoun hautou, this phrase could be translated either 'his own wisdom' or 'wisdom about himself'. I suggest that we are meant to understand the text in both ways: if Socrates can be said to have any wisdom at all, it has to do with his own soul. Socrates implies here that the cleverness the Athenians think he is able to transmit to others, and about which they care enough to get angry at him, is nothing other than self-knowledge" (107-8). Note how this unfortunate line of thought causes Howland to miss what is truly interesting about the phrase, viz. its suggestion that Socrates' 'wisdom' is his and not anyone else's -- and thus it is the sort of thing that can arouse envy, an emotion typical (we are meant to think) of democratic rule.

In conclusion, one can see how eager undergraduates, or serious graduate students looking to Plato for some kind of wisdom and not mere cleverness or technique, might be attracted to this way of reading Plato: it holds out the hope of deep insights, hidden from those who look at things in a conventional manner. But it is surely a mark of a good way of interpreting Plato that those who become accomplished in it become thereby better able to write philosophy that resembles that of Plato. Whether this has been achieved by the best practitioners of the Hyland-Rosen school, I cannot say. However, as regards Howland's book, it appears to be little more than an emotional and undisciplined appeal to the imagination -- all the while leading its readers away from the calm, bold, and constructive use of reason in the service of goodness, which is perhaps Plato's most distinctive and most attractive trait.


1.   Hence Howland elsewhere has regarded himself as obliged to attack chronological distinctions in the Platonic corpus. See his "Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology", Phoenix, 45:3, (1991), 189-214.
2.   Howland cites J. Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 18, which nicely distinguishes three types of homomorphism one can expect to find across various aspects of a Platonic dialogue.

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