Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.01.14

Richard Gotshalk, Loving and Dying: A Reading of Plato's Phaedo, Symposium, and Phaedrus.   Lanham:  University Press of America, 2001.  Pp. xix, 288.  ISBN 0-7618-2072-8.  $39.00.  

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield (
Word count: 1843 words

This book is a self-confessedly subjective reading of three of Plato's dialogues, based on the author's 'life-experience' rather than scholarly literature. Following an introduction, the book falls into three parts, one for each dialogue, and each with several chapters. The longest part is devoted to Phaedo (Part I; 138 pages), then Phaedrus (Part III; 48 pages), and finally Symposium (Part II; 42 pages). The parts are divided by two brief 'interludes', which act as bridges from one part to the next, and the main body of the book ends with two 'codas', which allow time for reflection on these Platonic dialogues and the intertwining of their themes with the author's personal experience. Then there are notes, a very short bibliography, and a good index. If forced to pigeonhole Gotshalk in a philosophical school, I would look to existentialism, but really the book contains just his own individual reading of the dialogues as dramas which have the potential to be just as meaningful for anyone who reads them.

This is not an approach to the Platonic dialogues (or anything else) which I find congenial. The exercise of those who adopt this approach is not the historical one of trying to understand Plato and his intentions in a given work or passage or teaching; instead the dialogues are taken as so non-dogmatic that any reader can find what she is inclined to find there. This means that the quality of the results published by practitioners of this approach varies enormously, depending on how insightful any given writer is. But most of the books and articles I have read which adopt this empiricist (?) approach strike me as vacuous, and Gotshalk's book is unfortunately no exception. I pick up a book on Plato in order to learn something about Plato, not about the interests of the author of the book, except incidentally. And I maintain that Plato often, even if not universally, guides our thinking, rather than leaving things wide open -- and this is certainly the case in the three dialogues studied by Gotshalk in this book. They are not canonical Socratic dialogues, where the pervading irony can create the kind of uncertainty the empiricists thrive on.

In the Introduction, which is an extended meditation on what it is to do and read philosophy, Gotshalk positions himself squarely within the interpretive tradition which has been called 'new Platonism' (by Gerald Press, in the recent volume he edited: Who Speaks For Plato? (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)). However, given the lack of references to other scholars, it is impossible to tell whether Gotshalk stumbled upon this approach of his own accord, or whether he is aware of his academic lineage. For Gotshalk, philosophical thinking is necessarily non-dogmatic and, to a degree, sceptical, because the clarity of the truth is 'edged by darkness', and understanding is necessarily tentative and mediated by the reader's own experiences. This makes writing philosophy extremely difficult, because a writer who shares Gotshalk's views (as Plato does, Gotshalk must be assuming) will try to communicate not just the clarity, but the darkness at the edges, and his reader will be contributing his own uncertainties too, in this shared 'problematic of meaning'. Gotshalk claims that the way through this potential minefield of uncertainty is to attend to the form in which the philosophical work has been framed. In Plato's case, that means stressing that they are dialogues in which Plato speaks through characters rather than in his own voice, that the conversation is tailored to the situation and characters involved, and that the meat of the dialogue is surrounded by dramatic devices. In other words, it means stressing precisely those aspects of a Platonic dialogue which ancient philosophers used to ignore. It has, I think, been a positive result of the impact of the 'new Platonism' over the last decade or so that interpreters of Plato will never again be able to glibly ignore these features.

There are three main, intertwined strands to the new Platonist approach: the invisibility of Plato; the emphasis on the form of the dialogues; and the notion that the main purpose of the dialogues is not to convey a set of systematic doctrines, but to get the reader to think for herself in a philosophical fashion. We have already seen that Gotshalk subscribes to the first two, and it is no surprise to find the third as well: 'Plato reinforces in us the call ... to engage in reflective inquiry; and at the same time he offers us something shaped to invite and provoke that inquiry to move in this direction rather than in that' (xvi). This qualification -- that the dialogues do supply a certain direction -- is what allows a new Platonist to feel that he has something useful to contribute; without it all opinions would be equally valid. The qualification is hardly a sop to the more rigorous and analytical study of Plato, and Gotshalk's summary of his interpretive approach could stand as a slogan for the new Platonists: 'Plato's speech to us is not an exposition of ideas -- his own or anyone else's -- but his offering of a fictive representation of reality which is to work on us in a directive vein' (xvii).

Let's see how this approach fares in practice. In order to be able to review Gotshalk's work meaningfully, I focus on just one of the dialogues he studies, Phaedrus. I should say that there is no real continuity between the three parts of the book: the studies of the three dialogues are effectively three separate studies, though Gotshalk hopes that his readers will find connections, which he chooses to leave largely unstated (though, as the book's title implies, they centre around the themes of love and awareness of mortality). Phaedrus is a good test case, because it is arguably the most carefully and artistically composed of Plato's dialogues, and its artistry has triggered a number of treatments in recent years, at book length and in periodicals, by both new Platonists and their opponents.

Gotshalk's study of Phaedrus begins, as do the other two parts of the book, with a summary of the dramatic setting. And my worries begin straight away. One of the main difficulties I have with the new Platonist approach is that it very often does little more than summarize the course of a dialogue, rather than subjecting it to critical analysis, or even developing it in an interesting fashion. Given their emphasis on form rather than content, one can see why such summaries might be important to these scholars, but, first, anyone who is already familiar with Phaedrus can skip this first chapter without missing much and, second, we have before us the model of a number of thoughtful and provocative reflections on the dramatic aspects of the dialogue. John Ferrari, Kathryn Morgan, Catherine Osborne and Richard Rutherford, to name just the first four to come to mind, have all shown that it is possible to combine a focus on the dramatic setting with the avoidance of bland summary.

The next chapter, on eros, starts with a full summary of the relevant bits of Socrates' palinode, before turning to commentary. In the commentary, Gotshalk seems to espouse a quasi-Piagetan interpretation of some of the psychology of the dialogue. The soul's entanglement with the body and the senses is ascribed to an early stage of development, before we become 'mature' human beings and strive to 'reach beyond our own initial incompleteness' (217). This is interesting. Although Gotshalk doesn't make the connection, it has puzzled me that at 255d, when the boy eventually falls in love with his lover, he is said not to know 'what he is in love with'. This is puzzling because, as a human being, the boy has had pre-incarnate knowledge of Beauty and the other Forms (249b) and therefore should have at least an inkling that he is glimpsing a pale reflection of Beauty in his lover. So perhaps Plato is assuming a developmental thesis, whereby children are incapable of recollection; certainly, it was the traditional Greek view that children are less than fully rational creatures. But in so far as this is, at the most, an assumption Plato is making, Gotshalk is wrong to make it the main emphasis of his interpretation: it is not Plato's main point at all. He is closer to the mark when he talks of the rarity of transcendent experiences even for mature people. We don't grow out of our involvement with the bodily senses and desires, and this involvement is what impedes full recollection. Plato's point is precisely that love is one of the best ways -- perhaps the only way -- for an incarnate human being to see beyond a narrow, sensual world. But this is already obvious in the text, and we don't need Gotshalk's commentary to bring it out. This chapter, then, has a mistaken emphasis, and fails to deliver any meaningful insights into the palinode.

The remaining chapter of the section on Phaedrus is about speech. I think Gotshalk is right to say that the link between love and speech in the dialogue is, minimally, that in so far as love is interpersonal, it involves one in speaking. But apart from this piece of commentary, the entire chapter is summary, with no meta-remarks at all. Gotshalk mainly brings out the ultimate coincidence of rhetoric and philosophy, but we don't need him just to tell us about it, because Plato does that himself, perfectly adequately.

Phaedrus throws up a number of interesting questions. Off the top of my head: Does Plato think his ideal of true rhetoric is attainable, or has he not really changed his mind since Gorgias? Does he think that the human soul is all immortal, or only its highest part? What is it to be a 'part' of the soul? What is the connection between the various dramatic cues Plato gives the reader and the philosophical meat of the dialogue? What is his position on heterosexual love? How insoluble are the paradoxical doubts expressed, in this written work, about the value of writing? What exactly is the connection between love and rhetoric? Does the dialogue have unity? Not one of these questions is addressed in this book.

Assume -- correctly -- that in a longer review I would have found just as little to remark on in the sections on Phaedo and Symposium, and you have my main conclusion: this book is too long, and too hard work, for the meagre results it offers. There was not much to learn about Plato here, though I suppose someone closely involved in the issues of 'loving and dying' would profit from some of Gotshalk's reflections. But, to repeat, they are reflections on loving and dying, not really on Plato; for new Platonists, Plato is either just a trigger for their own views, or a master whose words one can only summarize and leave to make what impression they will. This is not a productive way to delve into an author's meanings.

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