Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.28

Julia Annas, Christopher Rowe, New Perspectives on Plato, Modern and Ancient. Center for Hellenic Studies Colloquia 6.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2002.  Pp. xii, 270.  ISBN 0-674-01018-3.  $50.00.  

Contributors: Julia Annas, Dorothea Frede, David Sedley, David Blank, Christopher Taylor, Brad Inwood, Charles Kahn, Charles Griswold, Christopher Gill, Kathryn Morgan, Terry Penner, Christopher Rowe, Andrea Nightingale, Richard Rutherford

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield (
Word count: 2309 words

Faced with such a galactic list of contributors, the reader knows he is in for a treat, and will not be disappointed. It must have been quite a colloquium. The format of the book is that of paper followed by response; thus there are seven main papers (by Annas, Sedley, Taylor, etc.) and seven 'comments' (by Frede, Blank, Inwood, etc.). None of the comments is slight; each is about half as long as the preceding paper. But in order to save space I shall focus mainly on the main papers.

The editors explain, in the Introduction, that the colloquium was intended as an exploration of the current state of play in the light of two recent shifts in Platonic scholarship: first, a growing dissatisfaction with developmentalism (How does one securely determine whether a dialogue is early, middle or late? Is it in any case useful to do so?); second, an increasing number of studies which relate the form, or artistry, and the content of the dialogues. The two shifts are linked in a number of ways. Above all, those who focus on the artistry of the dialogues will be more inclined to look at each dialogue as a self-sufficient unit, without relating it to others, and also tend to think that Plato was not the kind of dogmatic or systematic thinker who can usefully be approached from a developmental perspective. The editors also suggest another link: ancient commentators on Plato rarely adopted a developmental perspective, and often looked at the form as well as the philosophical content of the dialogues. Hence the title of the book.

In 'What Are Plato's "Middle" Dialogues in the Middle of?', Annas focuses first on two related features of the 'early' dialogues: they are commonly aporetic, and Socrates commonly relies on ad hominem arguments. The middle dialogues, by contrast, says Annas, are usually taken to reflect an increase in Plato's confidence, but this kind of psychological speculation is dangerous. Here I think she misplaces the emphasis: most scholars would not talk about Plato's confidence, but about a decrease in his desire to reflect the historical Socrates as opposed to developing his own views. But this does not substantially affect her main point: why should development involve shedding ad hominem argumentation? Rather, as ancient commentators also stressed, the 'early' dialogues teach us that all ideas, however plausible and however authoritative (even if they come from Plato himself in his 'middle' period), must be examined and questioned, even with ad hominem arguments. And so there is no point to the contrast between 'early' and 'middle' dialogues: both groups work together. Annas goes on to demolish the contrast between 'middle' and 'late' dialogues. What chiefly characterizes the later dialogues, she argues, is engagement with other philosophers and traditional issues such as cosmology and politics, and a 'willingness to let others' views in part determine Plato's own conception of what the problems are' (10). The late dialogues read like texts for discussion, perhaps by students at the Academy. They have a different target audience from the 'early' or 'middle' dialogues, and therefore cannot be accurately dated. Only Parmenides can really be characterized as 'critical', which might lead one to developmentalism; but like the 'early' dialogues it can be seen as testing views, not urging that those views be rejected tout court. This, again, is how ancient commentators saw the dialogue. There is good revolutionary stuff here, but the trouble is that it is too sketchy. Both Annas's paper and Frede's reply are conducted at the level of generalizations and plausibilities; book-length treatment is required. Until then neither will convince anyone who does not choose to be convinced.

Sedley's 'Socratic Irony in the Platonic Commentators' dovetails nicely with Annas's paper. He too believes that the ancient commentators, for all their occasional inanities, have something to offer modern scholarship. He too stresses that they are less concerned with developmentalism than with differences within Plato's 'didactic strategy' (38). His paper is an examination of how they treated Socratic irony. There were three possible positions: the denial of irony and the attempt to analyse apparently ironic statements as true; the acceptance of irony as a strategy Socrates used only with certain audiences (an approach Sedley commends as an alternative to developmentalism); a middle way, that Socrates used irony for statements which were true from one point of view but false from another. In different ways, all three strategies led their holders to look for hidden depths in Plato's writings. The conclusions they reached, however, were guided by their own philosophical prejudices -- as are ours today. Blank's comments expand Sedley's views, by a closer examination of certain key texts, rather than substantially disagreeing with him.

Taylor's 'The Origins of Our Present Paradigms' is an immensely useful historical survey. He locates the start of a diachronic approach to Plato in the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century. For the Romantics, human knowledge and perfection were gradually emerging, and so on the smaller scale an individual writer may also have changed and developed. Schleiermacher was the key figure in articulating this view: he saw Plato as working in three stages towards the fulfilment of a preconceived scheme. Others accepted developmentalism while rejecting Schleiermacher's extreme unitarianism. For K.F. Hermann and others, the external events of Plato's life triggered developments in his writing. They were the first to identify as early a group of dialogues in which Plato was faithfully recording Socrates' work, as middle a group of dialogues displaying philosophical concerns other than those of Socrates, and as late a more systematic group. The stylometric studies of the later nineteenth century fine-tuned these earlier studies but did not alter the basic developmental paradigm. Grote, who wanted to read each dialogue as a separate dramatic and philosophical entity, was a voice crying in the wilderness -- and a somewhat inconsistent voice, since he allows traces of developmentalism. Grote was no fully fledged postmodernist before the time. Taylor's paper is so factual that Inwood is reduced to urging a wider lens (some of the ways in which modern scholars look at Plato date back to the ancient commentators, not just to the nineteenth century) and to pertinent remarks on the concept of a paradigm and on whether Platonic scholars are or should be influenced by them.

Kahn's 'On Platonic Chronology' is another valuable historical survey, this time of 'the achievements and limitations' (93) of stylometry. Kahn is convinced that stylometric studies have securely identified three groups of Platonic writings, not least because Lewis Campbell's original findings have been 'repeatedly confirmed' (94) by other scholars. Kahn rightly regrets the attempt to use stylometry to be more precise -- to fix the order of dialogues within the three groups. However, as Annas too pointed out, the existence of three groups does not in itself tell us anything about chronology. Campbell's -- and Kahn's -- assumption is that Plato's style is 'unmistakably oriented in the direction of Laws (95), which is Plato's latest dialogue. Kahn also emphasizes what has become obscured in recent scholarship, that the three stylometric groups do not exactly coincide with the three doctrinal groups, 'Socratic', 'theory-building' and 'systematic'. He surveys the impressive results of the stylometrists in order to demonstrate their plausibility, and briefly responds to criticisms such as that Plato was a consummate writer who could change his styles at will. In response, Griswold argues that the existence of the three groups is not as certain as Kahn makes out, and that in any case our study of Plato is not helped by developmentalism or knowing the order of composition of the dialogues. Of more value are the chronological pointers left by Plato himself, which have to do with events in Socrates' life. Griswold has always been among the best of the content-based students of Plato, and his comments usefully expose some of the assumptions necessary for such an approach, as well as problems in stylometry.

'Dialectic and the Dialogue Form', by Christopher Gill, is for my money the outstanding essay of the book. He takes the old exam-question chestnut, 'Why did Plato write dialogues?', and surveys a number of answers that have been given. Gill argues that dialectic is a constant, even in dialogues as unpromising in this respect as Laws and Timaeus, and he stresses that we can find Plato's own justification for the use of the dialogue form in his views on dialectic but that these views (that philosophical dialogue is the best route to understanding any issue and locating it within the structure of reality and that, in order for it to be so, the participants in the dialogue bring to it certain qualities and follow dialectical strategies appropriate to the subject matter) assume that each dialogue is a separate, specific dialectical encounter. This of course suggests that we read each dialogue in the first instance on its own, as many modern scholars do not. Gill discusses apparent cross-references in Platonic dialogues, which would seem to license interpreting any given dialogue by reference to the content of other dialogues; he finds such cross-references sufficiently vague or uncertain that the differences between the dialogues in question become as important as any similarities, until we are left with the necessity of reading each dialogue independently. Morgan's comments focus on the views I have summarized in parentheses above, which are the most philosophically interesting aspect of Gill's paper; she develops the tensions inherent in them between universal truth and particular participants or situation and looks at the historical background to Plato's use of dialectic. Most usefully, she stresses that participants in dialogue have to be aware of their procedures and their limitations in order to rise from the particular to the universal; in this sense dialectic is opposed to rival 'arts of speech' which were current at the time. She ends with a plea, reflecting the local-universal tension of Gill's analysis of dialectic, for the value of supplementing the detailed analysis of particular dialogues with a synoptic approach.

In 'The Historical Socrates and Plato's Early Dialogues: Some Philosophical Questions', Penner tackles the perennial Socratic Problem. Penner thinks we can identify in Plato's early dialogues the philosophy of the historical Socrates but that it looks quite different from that identified by Vlastos; this also commits him to developmentalism, especially over the differing moral psychologies of Socrates and Plato. Penner summarily dismisses alternative views as a way to delineate his own view, which is also no more than summarized, with references to his copious publications on the issues. Above all, he does not think Socrates was a moralist but a psychological egoist. He argues that Socrates' position, properly understood, is inconsistent with moralism (but I disagree: there is plenty of evidence that Socrates held that, in many cases, what is good for me is promoting what is good for others) and is deterministic: I am bound to pursue my own true good. Rowe is generally convinced of Penner's view as an interpretation of the moral psychology of the early dialogues, but not entirely convinced that he has isolated the view of the historical Socrates. In the first place, stylometry has not uncovered an unequivocally Socratic phase of Plato's writing; in the second place, it is hard to maintain securely that Aristotle's evidence (which Penner thinks points unambiguously towards a distinct Socrates, identifiable with the figure in the early dialogues) is independent of the early dialogues; in the third place, is it plausible to suggest that Socrates was not a systematic thinker, while attributing to him this systematic theory? And so Rowe concludes by trying to force some 'shades of gray' into the 'black and white' of Penner's interpretation (224).

In 'Distant Views: "Realistic" and "Fantastic" Mimesis in Plato', Nightingale finds a novel way to relate form and content. She starts with the discussion of perspective at Sophist 234b-e. Among other possibilities, a knowledgeable artist has to cater for the fact that his audience may not be capable of perceiving the truth of what he is saying. This is presumably an analogy for Plato's own situation as a writer. How can he communicate with an ignorant audience? At 235d ff. Plato divides mimesis into 'eikastic' and 'fantastic' imitation: the first preserves the exact proportions and attributes of the original, the second distorts in order to make the image look correct from a distance, though it will look wrong from close up. Nightingale proposes that Plato's early dialogues are cases of 'eikastic' imitation: characters and situations are portrayed realistically, as ordinary people in everyday life. One of the consequences of this is that Socrates is distanced from the reader, because he is so enigmatic. The reader may see him close up but becomes aware of the 'epistemic distance' (233) between him and Socrates. Interlocutors too frequently fail to comprehend Socrates. In the middle dialogues, Plato uses 'fantastic' mimesis alongside realism, creating different perspectives to help the reader see the truth of epistemically distant or large realities, while not disguising the distances involved. Nightingale examines the eschatological myths of Gorgias, Phaedo and Phaedrus to show various ways in which fantastic mimesis achieves its effects. Rutherford somewhat qualifies Nightingale's remarks on how Plato wants us to view Socrates in the dialogues by reference especially to whether a dialogue is dramatic or narrated and then points out how Plato's handling of things such as time, place and shifts of register in the dialogues -- not just in the myths -- is designed to alter the reader's perspective.

Every article in this book is written by a scholar who is sure enough of his or her material to write clearly and well. The book as a whole is probouleutic, written by a modern philosophical Council; it remains to be seen what the Assembly will make of any of the proposals, but I am sure that the debate will be long and valuable.

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