Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.14

Richard Marback, Plato's Dream of Sophistry.   Columbia:  University of South Carolina, 1999.  Pp. ix + 163.  ISBN 1-57003-240-8.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Mark Joyal, Memorial University of Newfoundland (
Word count: 1361 words

This book is about the Platonic tradition rather than about Plato's thought, and it is intended to be a contribution to the study of intellectual history rather than to the understanding of Plato. More precisely, it sets out to examine the influence that the Platonic writings have had since late antiquity upon the development of rhetoric and rhetorical theory. In order to achieve his goal, Marback (a Professor of English at Wayne State University) considers a wide range of sources, including Philostratus, Proclus, Augustine, Ficino, Francis Bacon, Kant and Hegel. One of Marback's basic premises is that "the meaning and significance of Plato, figured forth through investments in (or rejections of) Platonic rhetorics, change according to the contingencies of time and place" (2; cf. 78: "as the demands made upon the ancient texts changed, their significance changed and their interpretation changed").

Marback's statement of this position will undoubtedly strike many readers of BMCR (or of any classics journal, for that matter) as so obvious and unremarkable that it scarcely needed to be enunciated. We can go further still and observe that the meaning and significance of virtually any ancient author change according to the contingencies of time and place. Moreover, Marback's point is one that all humanists will recognize as a key to the permanent value and importance of literary, historical and philosophical studies. But it is not a profound statement, and the dominant impression which this book leaves is of superficiality and a lack of attention to detail. The opinions of modern authors (only works in English or English translation were consulted) are often adduced summarily -- frequently through the formulaic "as x says/has written ..." -- without a hint of the scholarly controversy that lies lurking, and there is little close engagement with the ancient sources themselves. Important texts are overlooked or misinterpreted (e.g. "As Plato's Socrates observes in the Phaedrus, rhetoric is a skill, or a 'knack' (as Plato called it in the Gorgias)" [2] -- but Socrates' characterization of rhetoric as a tribê is a criticism of rhetoric as it was currently practised not a description of its essential traits). Terms that are basic to Marback's arguments are not defined at the outset, esp. "sophist," "sophistic" and "sophistry," nor are we told what the Greek and Latin equivalents of the last of these are. There seems little appreciation by Marback, or indeed by the modern authors whom he cites, of the difference between the aims and methods of Socrates and those of the sophists. The author's grasp of Greek and Latin is shaky at best; e.g. parrhesia is paraphrased as "educated cultivation and care of self and friendship" (20) and claimed to be an Homeric word, an philosophoi parrhesia (sic) is translated "philosophical freedom of speech" (35); Plato is said to be "a divine philosopher, a prisca theologia" (54); Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria is cited as both Institutio Oratores (50) and Institutes oratoria (156). There is a philological naïveté in some pronouncements, e.g. we are told (47) that Ficino's translation "represented the standard text of Plato even into the nineteenth century" (for "text" read "translation"). Errors abound in the bibliography, e.g. Hans-Georg Gadamer is "Hans George Gadamer" (152), E.R. Dodds is cited (155) as translator rather than editor of the Gorgias, Benardete is "Berandette," Chicago (same entry) is "Chciago," Puritanism is "Purtianism" (156). It is apparent that Marback did not consult with scholars whose advice could have saved him from most of these embarrassing missteps, as well as others like them.

The book's title alludes to a late anecdote found in Olympiodorus' commentary on the Alcibiades I (2.156-162) and in the Anonymous Commentary on Platonic Philosophy (1.29-35), though it is here (vii) attributed slightly misleadingly to a Vita Platonis of Olympiodorus: shortly before his death Plato dreamed that he became a swan which flew from tree to tree, thus frustrating the bird-catchers who tried to shoot him down. In spite of Marback's attempts to the contrary (esp. 1-3), the anecdote cannot be used as evidence for the attitude which Plato took towards his own writings near the end of his life; it reflects instead the problems which subsequent thinkers experienced in their efforts to interpret Plato's doctrine. This is a small point, perhaps, but it warns readers that Marback is not at his best when he is trying to make historical sense of literary evidence ("past texts" 3). This is apparent again when he discusses the origin of the term rhêtorikê. Relying upon recent work by Thomas Cole and Edward Schiappa, he accepts the claim that the word made its first appearance in Plato's Gorgias and cites with approval Schiappa's contention that Plato actually coined the term. In a recent study ("Plato and Rhêtorikê," RhM 141 [1998] 10-23), G.J. Pendrick has clearly demonstrated that neither of these beliefs is at all likely to be right. But since Marback's goal is to examine receptions of Plato's discussions about rhetoric, we might set this problem aside and hope instead for illumination about the treatment of Plato by later thinkers.

This hope, however, is not realized, largely as a result of what is, perhaps, the book's most serious flaw. For Marback does not explicitly attempt at the outset to tell his reader what he understands by "rhetoric" and how this understanding of the term will influence his treatments of various thinkers. Ultimately the word seems to be applied so broadly in this book that its very meaning is in doubt. This failure to delimit the focus of investigation enables Marback to adduce texts which have little to do with rhetoric in any sense that most people -- certainly most philologically and historically trained classicists -- would understand the term. Hence he argues that Diotima's speech in the Symposium was interpreted by Ficino as concerned essentially with rhetoric. His selective quotations from Ficino's commentary make it hard to see how this can be the case, and so do the dubious connections which he makes between, for example, Ficino's Gorgias and Phaedrus commentaries on the one hand and his Symposium commentary on the other (63-64, 65). The Phaedrus commentary proves, however, to be a good focus for a discussion of Ficino's view of Platonic rhetoric, but the Phaedrus is, after all, manifestly and explicitly about rhetoric, so there is nothing surprising here. Although his discussion of Francis Bacon's theories of rhetoric (in ch. 3) is orthodox and reliable as far as it goes, I was left to wonder what it had to do with Platonic doctrine. As I read Marback's argument, Bacon rejected Ficino's teachings on the subject (the arguments are presented summarily) which had been guided by Neoplatonic ideas about rhetoric. By this point in the book the discussion is no longer about Plato, and only tangentially about Neoplatonism; rather, it is about Bacon's theories of rhetoric. Here again we can observe the book's lack of focus: we learn almost nothing about Bacon's views of Plato, little specific about his views on Ficinian understandings of rhetoric, but rather more about modern opinions on Bacon. A similar criticism can be made of his discussion of Schleiermacher, Brucker, Kant and Hegel (in ch. 4): the reader can only assess accurately how these four responded to Platonic statements about rhetoric if their relevant critiques on Plato's specific statements are quoted and analysed; this Marback does at 110 and 115, but much more along the same lines is needed. Granted that this book is about the Platonic tradition, we can nevertheless judge how "the meaning and significance of Plato ... change according to the contingencies of time and place" only if the Platonic writings are themselves made a central object of study.

My misgivings about Marback's enterprise stem from doubts about the validity of the problems which he has set for himself, as well as his ability to address these problems. The book may nevertheless be useful in providing interested classicists, most of whom are non-specialists in the fields which it discusses, with a starting-point for wider reading and reflection. But they will quickly advance to more authoritative studies (some of which are cited in the bibliography) and will leave this book feeling less than fully satisfied.

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