Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.02

Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. 452.  ISBN 0-521-7900-9.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Kraut, Philosophy, Northwestern University (
Word count: 4395 words

Blondell (who has previously written under the name Mary Whitlock Blundell) has produced a fine study of Plato's use of characterization, one that must be reckoned with -- and will be read with pleasure -- by all serious students of the dialogues. The central thought behind her book is that the divide between "literary" and "philosophical" readings of Plato's works is artificial and unhelpful because a proper understanding of his philosophical concerns and his methods for expressing them require the integration of both approaches. Plato, as she reads him, sees all philosophical problems as, in a sense, ethical problems, in that they cannot be isolated from questions of character, education, and method. Correspondingly, the dialogue form, in Plato's hands, is both a representation of the interaction of characters and an illustration of proper philosophical method. There is, therefore, an intricate interplay of form and content in all of the dialogues: what Plato represents, by means of the voices and interactions of his dramatis personae, bears a complex relationship to the questions they raise and the answers they give. A full study of the philosophical content of a dialogue must therefore examine the way in which the pedagogy, methodology, and dramatic characterization of that dialogue interact with what the interlocutors say to each other.

Blondell defends this multi-layered approach to the reading of Plato in two stage-setting and programmatic chapters and then fleshes out her ideas by examining Plato's use of characterization in a diverse group of dialogues: Hippias Minor, Republic, Theaetetus, and (within a single chapter) Sophist and Statesman. Each of these individual studies, which can be read on their own, is full of fresh insight and greatly enhances our understanding of Plato. However, they are not mere appendages to the core ideas presented in the first two chapters; they round out and make an essential contribution to her argument that the dramatic form of Plato's writings is full of philosophical significance and should therefore receive our most careful attention.

One of the many great attractions of Blondell's book is simply the pleasure of reading her rich, vigorous and graceful prose. The range of her reading among secondary sources is enormous, and yet her footnotes and references never burden the text or disrupt the flow of argument. Fresh ideas, developed with careful attention to textual nuances, can be found on nearly every page. These features will help her work win a wide audience, and her views will have a significant and healthy effect on the way Plato is read and studied. Her enormous admiration for the dialogues as works of art and her way of revealing their artistry will make many students and scholars turn back to the reading of Plato with renewed interest and vigor.

Nonetheless, I believe that her way of approaching Plato's dialogues should not be accepted in its entirety. We can learn a great deal from her, but we will go seriously astray if we adopt her interpretive stance in its entirety. Before I explain where our disagreement occurs, I will summarize her ideas in fuller detail.

Blondell takes the defining feature of Plato's dialogues to be their dramatic form, where "dramatic" does not refer to their presentation of conflicting ideas (a treatise can be dramatic in that sense) but to their "imaginative presentation of persons" (16). They resemble theatrical scripts and many other literary works in that the voices of the persons represented are not those of the author. That suppression of Plato's authorial voice is of fundamental importance for Blondell; it makes the genre of Platonic dialogue more akin to works of literature than to philosophical treatises.

Blondell does not assert (and there would be no basis to claim) "that Plato never personally held any of the views explored in the dialogues" (18). For example, she says that it is "hard to believe" that the immortality of the soul was "not among Plato's abiding personal beliefs in some shape or form" (18). Nonetheless, she holds that we badly misunderstand what Plato was about if we take him to have written dialogues in order to convey to his audience what his convictions were. He wants us to consider carefully what his dramatis personae say to each other. But, by choosing to write dialogues rather than treatises, he withdrew from the business of making assertions.

Why did he suppress his own voice in this way? Plato does not tell us, but Blondell thinks that some of his purposes are beyond doubt: "... two of the most conspicuous and inarguable functions of this form ... are to avoid Platonic dogmatism and to draw in the reader as a participant in the discussion" (39). As Blondell says, "unmarked human assertion implies a claim to knowledge" and to "intellectual authority, especially in educational or argumentative contexts ..." (18). "The presumption of authority is, of course, still stronger when the discourse emanates from a philosophical 'master,' such as the head of the Academy" (40). Plato wants the members of his audience to think through the problems that vex him on their own and not to accept any thesis because it has his endorsement. His writings are devices for stimulating active engagement, not containers filled with propositions handed down from on high for our acceptance.

Like many other scholars, Blondell accepts the lateness of Critias, Laws, Philebus, Statesman, Sophist and Timaeus on the basis of their stylistic affinities. But she sees no basis for placing any of the other dialogues in a chronological order of composition, and she eschews developmental hypotheses. The familiar categories "early" and "middle," which many scholars use, do not appear in her interpretive arsenal. In place of that dichotomy, she proposes that we speak instead of several kinds of Sokrates (her spelling) -- the elenctic, the constructive, and the maximal (composed of the other two). The first two, she points out, often exist side by side in the same dialogue, though some dialogues contain far more of one than the other.

One of the principal motifs of her book is that there is a tension between these two manifestations of Sokrates, and that some of the dialogues contain a critique of the elenctic method. That is a critique she ascribes to the author of the dialogues, rather than to a Sokrates; thus she says that "the elenctic Sokrates and his methods embody a central strand in Plato's thinking about how to do philosophy -- a strand of which he was at times critical" (13, my emphasis). The "at times" of that statement is not a piece of developmentalism: she will not allow us to say, that Plato once unqualifiedly accepted the elenctic method and then became aware of its limitations. For all we know, some dialogues dominated by the elenctic Sokrates may have been written at the same time as or after another kind of dialogue in which the limitations of the elenctic Sokrates are exposed or taken for granted. Blondell is equally skeptical about what can be inferred from the dialogues about the historical Sokrates. She allows that the elenctic Sokrates may be closer than his constructive cousin to that flesh-and-blood figure. Even so, she sees no reason to suppose that all of the dialogues dominated by the elenctic Sokrates were written at the beginning of Plato's career.

The elenctic Sokrates -- negative, confrontational, ironic, inconclusive, full of aporia, dependent on the sincere assent of his interlocutors for his premises -- is fully ascendant in Hippias Minor, a dialogue that Blondell treats as an attack on both the value of a traditional literary education and on sophists like Hippias, who perpetuate the passive learning that pervades Greek culture. When Blondell turns, in her next chapter, to Republic, the transition from the Sokrates of Book I to the Sokrates of the remaining books allows her to elaborate on her thesis that these two figures are in tension. (She speaks here of Plato's "shifting attitudes towards philosophical method" [165], implying a growing unease with the elenctic method, though I do not see how to reconcile this with her anti-developmentalism.) When Glaucon and Adeimantus put forward an argument on behalf of injustice, they are not stating their own beliefs but those of others. Playing the devil's advocate, they abandon the limitations of Sokratic elenchus, which requires that all propositions under discussion express the interlocutor's sincere convictions. Freed from this straightjacket, a new Sokrates emerges, and the essentially critical and negative method of works like Hippias Minor is replaced by something far more wide-ranging and constructive. The dialogue form, in the hands of this constructive Sokrates, may examine philosophical theses regardless of who holds them. That means that there is less need, in dialogues that use this constructive method, for highly specific characterizations of individuals. They become bland and homogeneous (and in doing so they constitute no diminution in Plato's literary powers) because that allows the course of an argument to follow its own internal logic without being beholden to the premises that this or that type of individual can be expected to accept. For the same reason, Sokrates himself becomes more generic and bland -- more like an ideal philosophical type than an individual whose idiosyncrasies affect the turns taken by the argument.

The Sokrates of Theaetetus, as Blondell describes him, is in many ways an outgrowth of this transformation within the Republic. As other scholars have noted, his abrasiveness and combativeness have been eliminated in favor of a gentler and more godlike model. He is not identical to the wholly unworldly and barely human model of the philosopher depicted in the dialogue's digression, but there are nonetheless striking similarities between them. Blondell emphasizes the many ways in which Theaetetus is concerned with education and the perpetuation of philosophy among the young and with the communication of ideas once their authors are no longer present to defend them. (The discussions of Protagorean relativism and Heraclitean flux therefore have implications for philosophical method.) Socrates is in many respects unique and therefore cannot be replicated, but, if philosophy is to thrive in the future, there must be ways in which those who resemble him -- young people as talented as Theaetetus -- can become like him. Can that be accomplished by means of the figures who introduce the dialogue -- Terpsion and Euclides -- whose devotion to Socrates is expressed by reading the book framed by their opening conversation? Blondell sees Theaetetus as an exploration of the tensions between the forces that drive us and those that impede us in our search for philosophical understanding -- tensions between "the particular and the universal, the material and the abstract, which pervade [Plato's] work as a whole" (298).

Blondell's study of Theaetetus is followed by a chapter devoted to the remaining two dialogues that constitute Plato's "triad" (a term she prefers to "trilogy," because the latter implies more thematic unity than she believes these works possess). The principal theme of her discussion is the displacement of the concrete and particularized Sokrates in Theaetetus by the faceless and generic visitor in Sophist and Statesman. What is Plato's reason for transforming his dramatis personae in this way? Blondell emphasizes that the increasing generality and idealization of Plato's characters is a process that parallels the transition from Book I to the later books of Republic. But she also insists that Plato's demotion of Sokrates and introduction of the visitor is an expression of his conviction that there can be no single adequate representation of the ideal practitioner of philosophy. There is no single best philosophical method; the elenchus, like myth and division, in some contexts serves a useful purpose and at other times does not. It is important for Plato to avoid the suggestion that the imitation of Socrates -- even an idealized and less ironic Sokrates -- can by itself be a fully adequate expression of the love of wisdom. He therefore selects, as the dominant figure of the second and third installments of his triad, someone who bears some resemblance to the constructive Sokrates of the core books of Republic and the maieutic Sokrates of Theaetetus, but who also has a more capacious methodology than these figures. For this reason, Blondell believes that it is a mistake to suppose, as some scholars do, that the death of Sokrates plays an important though implicit role in Sophist and Statesman, by virtue of their sharing the same dramatic date as Theaetetus. Rather, as she reads this triad, the replacement of Sokrates by the visitor is Plato's way of bidding farewell to his preoccupation with the events of 399.

I turn now to an evaluation of Blondell's main ideas. To begin with, the interchange between Sokrates and the slave in Meno suggests that Plato wishes us to see the continuity between the negative and the positive uses of the elenchus. It would be highly artificial to suppose that there are two dramatis personae talking to the slave -- first the elenctic Sokrates, who exposes false hypotheses, and then the constructive Sokrates, whose leading questions result in the solution of a mathematical problem. There is one Sokrates here -- someone who destroys in order to create. Now turn to Republic. In Book I Sokrates is certainly destructive, but he also endorses a number of striking theses about justice, political offices, the soul, and happiness. Plato retains him as the dominant character of the whole work (no Eleatic or Athenian visitor need replace him), and nowhere in Books II-X does Sokrates present himself as someone who has acquired wisdom -- in fact, he emphasizes his ignorance of the greatest subject of all, the good. Where Plato seems eager to emphasize continuity, Blondell sees contrast. Of course, the arguments used in Book I do not carry conviction -- though no one says what is wrong with them -- and so a fresh start is needed. But that does not mean that Plato wishes us to see the Sokrates of Book II as a new character equipped with a new method. The arguments that get underway in Book II are presumably stronger than the ones that precede it. But does that show that the premises used in Book I were false or merely that much more argumentation than that is needed if the doubts of the interlocutors are to be overcome?

By far the most important component of Blondell's book is not her interpretation of this or that dialogue, but her whole approach to reading the dialogues. Here I take one of her principal claims to be undeniable: to reduce Plato's dialogues to a list of conclusions for or against which Socrates or some other dominant speaker argues, together with the premises used in those arguments, omitting the dialogues' "play of character" (in her wonderful phrase), would neglect features of these compositions that are of the greatest philosophical (and not merely literary) interest. It is through the representation of the interplay of character, and not solely through the cataloging of arguments, that Plato explores such topics as dialogue, agonistic and collaborative relationships, methods of learning and teaching, and the nature of wisdom, philosophy, reason, and emotion. The dialogues show us how difficult it is to acquire knowledge by representing, through the depiction of characters in complex social and intellectual relationships, all of the substantive, methodological, emotional, and social difficulties that beset someone seeking it.

Unfortunately, Blondell does not see that one can accept this fundamental point and nonetheless read many of the dialogues as devices designed by Plato to achieve the goal of convincing readers of the truth of certain propositions. What I have in mind is something that I would describe as a "straightforward" reading of many of the dialogues, according to which, for example, Plato argues in Ion that poets and rhapsodes don't know what they are saying, in Gorgias that it is better to be unjustly treated than to be unjust, in Phaedo that the soul is immortal, in Republic that justice is the greatest good, in Sophist that we can intelligibly speak of not-being, in Philebus that knowledge is closer to the good than pleasure, in Laws that a city ruled largely by non-philosophers can be well-governed, and so on. Blondell believes that these positions are affirmed by imaginary characters called "Socrates," or "the Eleatic visitor," or "the Athenian" -- but she regards it as a "basic methodological mistake" to "infer" "the equivalence of any of Plato's characters with the voice of the author" (19).

But why should we not make this inference, when, after close examination, our best explanation of a dialogue's manner of construction is that Plato is trying, by means of argument and other devices (such as characterization), to lead us to accept the propositions for which Sokrates (or some other dominant character) argues? For example, what better explanation can we have for the presence of various arguments in the dialogues for the immortality of the soul than that Plato is trying to convince us of this, and that he himself finds these arguments convincing? Of course, some scholars might argue that in fact, when we examine Phaedo and other dialogues carefully, we will see that, on the contrary, they are trying to undermine the Socratic endorsement of immortality. But if we find such an interpretation to be far-fetched and strained (as I do), then we have every reason, based on our reading of the texts, to read Phaedo and other dialogues as attempts made by Plato to bring his readers to the rational acceptance of certain conclusions that he himself has reached.

Recall Blondell's admission that it is "hard to believe" that the immortality of the soul was "not among Plato's abiding personal beliefs in some shape or form" (18). Why so? What reasons did he have believing that the soul is immortal? The answers are obvious: any reasonable reading of certain of the arguments contained in the dialogues will come to the conclusion that Plato is trying to lead his readers to accept them, and he would have no reason to do that unless he himself accepted them. That, I suggest, is why Blondell "finds it hard" not to attribute a belief in immortality to Plato. She herself implicitly accepts what I am calling the "straightforward" reading of Phaedo.

If we accept such a reading, then, although the dialogues are not treatises (no one could mistake them for that), many of them are nonetheless, in a certain respect, treatise-like. In a treatise, it is the author who makes assertions. Plato does not do that; it is only his characters who do. Nonetheless, like a writer of treatises, he aims at the goal of a treatise -- persuasion -- and he organizes his material with a view to its achievement. That is not an a priori assumption that we are entitled to bring to our reading of Plato's works, regardless of what we find there. It is rather an intelligent reaction to our reading of them -- one that I attribute to Blondell, in light of her ascription to Plato of a belief in immortality.

Furthermore, this "straightforward" reading is entirely compatible with the acceptance of what I have described as Blondell's main point, namely, that to ignore the representation of character in Plato is to miss a significant portion of the philosophical interest of his works. Plato's dialogues, properly read, are treatise-like and dramatic at the same time. They are devices by means of which he tries to persuade his readers of this or that proposition, without ceasing to be depictions of proper and improper methodology, pedagogy, social relations, and character. The complex relationship between these two aspects of the dialogues is a matter to which we should give the most careful attention, without losing sight of the point that Plato, like a writer of treatises, is trying to lead us to certain conclusions, even though he does not affirm those conclusions, or anything else, in his own voice. It is a pity that Blondell, who so much wants to bring philosophical and literary approaches to the dialogues into a closer working relationship with each other, does not recognize that her entirely justified emphasis on the play of character should not keep us from reading Plato's compositions as treatise-like works.

Once we see this, the door is open to the discussion of the developmental questions that many scholars pursue but that Blondell regards as illegitimate. We can ask whether Plato's conception of the ideal city changed, and we can raise similar questions about his ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. It would be an evasion of our responsibility as serious readers to do otherwise, but Blondell's approach to the dialogues forces us to abandon such inquiries. She allows us to ask what Sokrates is up to in Republic, what the Eleatic visitor is about in Statesman, what the Athenian means in Laws -- but not what Plato is trying to get his readers to see. That way of breaking down the study of Plato into the examination of independent and isolated dramatizations deprives us of the thought that he felt some obligation to bring his thinking under the control of the principle of non-contradiction. Isn't it more reasonable to suppose that he used the dialogues as means of working out and presenting to others a philosophical position that he found reasonable and that (for example) apparent differences between depictions of the best possible city in different works call for some explanation in terms of Plato's own thinking?

Blondell has created trouble for herself because she can think of only one reason why Plato did not write treatises, or why he did not insert himself into his dramas as their principal character. Her conjecture is that Plato effaced himself because he feared that, had he composed works in which he affirmed propositions, his readers would accept what they read merely on his say-so and would never develop the independence of mind that he so prized. By creating characters who affirm or deny various philosophical theses, he frees himself from the need to affirm anything in his own voice. His readers, however hungry they are to know what Plato believes, are forced to think for themselves.

The problem for this conjecture is that by selecting Sokrates as his dominant character in so many dialogues, Plato has constructed a remarkably lame device if it is construed as a way of discouraging readers looking for an authority-figure whose doctrines they might passively absorb. The dialogues must have been written for an audience that held Sokrates in great esteem. It was Sokrates, not Plato, who was identified with the very voice of philosophy -- or, at any rate, this must have been the case at the beginning of Plato's career as a writer of Sokratikoi logoi. Plato could easily have composed dialogues filled with nothing but bland and nameless inventions -- characters even less inspiring than the visitors in Statesman, Sophist, and Laws. In doing so, he would have avoided giving any authority-loving members of his audience a model-philosopher to be mimicked. But instead he chose as the dominant character of so many dialogues the very figure who was most likely to speak to them with magical authority. If his decision not to write treatises, or dramas featuring his own voice, was driven by worries about the influence of the voices of authority, he could not have made a more questionable choice.

Once we see all that Plato is able to accomplish by means of his dialogues -- how much more he can do in this way than by the creation of mere treatises -- the question "why dialogues and not treatises?" has thereby been answered. The construction of philosophical dramas, many of which are treatise-like, allows Plato to achieve several related goals, as we have seen. He can portray a social milieu and the characters who inhabit it; he can depict methodological issues, and not merely describe them; he can invoke the memory and authority of Sokrates; and none of this requires him to step outside his own philosophical skin because the dialogues can at the same time be devices organized around the goal of persuading readers to adopt the very positions at which Plato himself had arrived.

We should, in any case, be careful not to fall into the trap of supposing that at some point in his life Plato made a conscious decision to put all of his future philosophical reflections, whatever they might be, into the form of a dialogue. It is more realistic to suppose that at the beginning of his career as a writer of philosophy the dramatic exchange of ideas among concrete characters was the only suitable vehicle for accomplishing his purposes: writing a single-voiced treatise was simply not a thinkable option for a writer who wanted to do all that Plato set out to do in such dialogues as Protagoras, Gorgias, Charmides, and other works that can, with equal justification, be called "elenctic" or "early." We can plausibly assume that such works as these were well received by their intended audience and that such success encouraged Plato to retain the dialogue form as a device so flexible in its format that it could easily adapt itself to his continuously developing philosophical goals. The dialogue form became his signature -- a way of marking the continuity of his authorship and his intellectual projects. Rather than ask the global question, "Why did Plato write dialogues?" it is more fruitful, and more realistic, to ask of each particular work, "What has Plato been able to accomplish by using these various voices?" -- and to allow ourselves to give different sorts of answers for different sorts of dialogues. The reasons why he wrote Laws as a dialogue need not be anything like the reasons why he wrote Meno as a dialogue.

Blondell's great achievement is to have made clear, through the details of her analysis of Plato's "play of character," how much more is at work in the dialogues than can be captured by an extraction from them of premises and conclusions. Though few of us can do this sort of thing as well as she, we should follow her example -- but without abandoning the utterly reasonable assumption, drawn from a careful reading of his works, that large portions of them were written in order to persuade his readers to adopt the views that he himself found most compelling.

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