Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.22

C. J. Rowe, Plato. Second edition.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2003.  Pp. 228.  ISBN 1-85399-662-9.  £14.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ran Baratz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
Word count: 2428 words

Although many philosophical works, and more specifically introductions, tend to fall into obsolescence not long after their publication, Christopher Rowe's introduction to Plato has retained its relevance and vibrancy. Therefore, twenty years after its first printing, Rowe's 'Plato' has earned a second edition.

In the preface, Rowe declares that the book has been written to pave the way for students seeking to gain entry into Plato's philosophical thought, by expounding his system as captured in the Platonic dialogues. Over the years, Rowe has changed his mind on several important issues, and consequently his self-criticisms and reservations are conveniently articulated in a new preface. Overall, however, the author still considers his book a standard, traditional, "Anglophone" introduction to Plato.

Rowe opens the first chapter, entitled "Plato and Socrates", by tackling the "Socratic problem". He doubts our ability to discern Socrates apart from Plato and finds the issue unimportant, as all so-called "Socratic notions" may be considered Platonic. Nevertheless, after touching upon some historical facts that pertain to Socrates, the author turns to a rather comprehensive description of his views: for example, Socrates' demand for justification by reasoning, his rejection of social norms and common beliefs as a valid source for justification, and his imperative to care for soul before body. Rowe thinks that Socrates viewed philosophy as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Moreover, he believes that Socrates provided substantive answers to questions of conduct. In Rowe's opinion, the contention that "virtue (arete) is knowledge" clashes with Socrates' claim of ignorance, and he therefore reduces the latter to "lack of certainty". In addition, the author offers two less-paradoxical translations of the Socratic Paradox -- "no man does wrong willingly" (oudeis hekon hamartanei): "no man makes a mistake intentionally"; and "no man deliberately misses his aim".

Thereafter, Rowe turns his attention to the Socratic Method, which he considers a genuine method of inquiry that strives for the attainment of truth. Accordingly, he asserts that the early aporetic dialogues are not entirely negative since they teach us, e.g., how to methodically examine and reject popular views and that one should disregard bodily goods.

The discussion then turns to Plato, and here Rowe concludes that our knowledge of Plato is rather limited. He doubts the authenticity of all the letters, including the 'seventh letter', as he finds Plato's political adventure in Syracuse improbable. Rowe also cautiously avoids attributing any political motives to the Academy, and he concludes the chapter with a description of Plato's anti-democratic attitude.

In the second chapter, "The Dialogues and the Dialogue Form", Rowe rejects the view -- derived primarily from the 'Phaedrus' and the 'seventh letter' -- that Plato's genuine philosophy was propounded outside the dialogues. He contends that Plato wrote dialogues because they constitute the most accurate imitation of conversation, which is the most efficacious approach for engaging in philosophy. This method is especially conducive to reaching a more general audience, which -- unlike Socrates -- was one of Plato's objectives.

Subsequently, Rowe summarizes three dialogues: 'Euthyphro', 'Symposium', and 'Statesman'. The summaries are concise and accurate; not only do they elucidate the crux of the content, but they also impart a taste of the drama. The author also meticulously combines interim philosophical remarks in order to prepare us for the ensuing chapter.

While Rowe declares in Chapter 3, "On 'Forms'", that Plato did not construct a theory of Forms, he nonetheless appears to assume that Plato did maintain a systematic view on the subject. Naturally, any treatment of the theory of Forms is liable to stoke many controversies and disagreements, whose consideration makes the subject impossible to handle within a short introduction. Therefore Rowe proceeds to articulate his own perspective with only sparse reference to counter-arguments and rival interpretations. His scrutiny of the earlier and middle Platonic periods opens with a discussion of two characteristics of the Forms: separateness and what Rowe dubs "self-instantiation" (Rowe returns to the more common "self-predication" in the new preface). He discusses the Forms' special status as both universal and particular, emphasizes the pertinent arguments, and explores Plato's concept of "participation". Rowe subsequently examines the relation of the Forms to reality, thought, language and knowledge and notes the inter-related nature of the Forms. He also claims that Plato abandoned his belief in incarnation without surrendering his claim to knowledge.

Next, Rowe analyzes Plato's later works, including the 'Parmenides' and other later dialogues. An array of quotations are brought forth to prove that, while Plato was aware of the difficulties that the theory of Forms presented, he did not explicitly reject it. In fact, Rowe assumes that in principle Plato latently approved of the theory. In a postscript, Rowe states that the Forms are separate properties.

Chapter 4, "Knowledge, Pleasure and the Good", begins with the remark that the inquiry into the Form of the good was not something Plato seriously pursued. Rowe suggests that Plato's commitment to the view that cosmic and human good are related stems from their shared demand for order, harmony, and measure. He attempts to shed light on Plato's identification of good with both virtue and knowledge by thoroughly examining Plato's shifting attitude towards pleasure. Rowe opens with 'Protagoras', continues with 'Gorgias' and the 'Republic', and closes with an extensive review of 'Philebus'. The ultimate conclusion is that Plato believed the view that the good way of life combines pleasure and wisdom. The chapter ends with a rebuke of Plato's preference for the sovereignty of wisdom and his dismissal of human choice ("moral autonomy"), which Rowe considers "perverse".

The focus of Chapter 5, "State and Individual", is on Plato's demand for a virtuous state that produces better citizens and on internal difficulties within Plato's theory (lack of choice is raised again). However, Rowe reminds us that Plato preferred persuasion and argument to coercion, and that he relied on an understanding of human nature that prepares individuals for a more enlightened rule, which ultimately provides greater happiness for all. Rowe opens the chapter with a discussion of the 'Republic', including its unpopular features (the author mitigates some of Plato's harsher contentions), and the problematic comparison of statesman to craftsman. He concludes by suggesting that the 'Statesman' and the 'Laws' provide a more progressive approach insofar as the enterprise's practicability is concerned, a view that he abandons in the new preface.

Chapter 6, "Poets, Orators and Sophists", elaborates on Plato's attitude towards the aesthetic arts (mousike) and the crucial educational role that he attributes to them. Plato's attitude has metaphysical and moral grounds; art is concerned with appearances and does not discriminate between good and bad. Therefore, only a philosopher can be a true artist. A similar criticism is leveled against rhetoric, that the skilled orator is quite susceptible to vice.

Rowe boldly suggests that Thrasymachus and Callicles (on textual grounds) as well as Protagoras and Hippias (on interpretative grounds) were not genuine sophists. He believes that Plato's criticism was aimed specifically at the "eristic brand of philosophy", while those (like the latter two) who accept the importance of arete, even if only as "lip-service", were not the targets of Plato's arguments. Nevertheless, the author eventually concludes that Plato classified both types under the same genus due to the fact that they both claim to teach arete and prefer persuasion over knowledge.

Rowe begins Chapter 7, "On the 'Soul'", with Socrates' novel notion that the soul is the moral aspect of mankind's existence but maintains that Socrates never formulated a theory of soul. The author suggests that Plato's theory of incarnation should not be dismissed and elaborates on Plato's unitary and tripartite models of the soul. Rowe doubts that Plato was actually committed to any model and concludes that we should only cling to Plato's demand for soul as a rational element and that it is impossible to completely resolve the tension between its united and plural conceptions.

Chapter 8, "On the Natural World", is primarily concerned with 'Timaeus' and several discrepancies in Plato's cosmology. Rowe very plausibly attributes greater importance to 'Timaeus' as more definitive than other dialogues with cosmological elements. His persistent emphasis on the primacy of reason and Plato's "cosmic" rationality, which accounts for the possibility of a proper explanation of the cosmos, are straight to the point.

Rowe concludes with two concise chapters and a brief postscript. In chapter 9, "The 'Unwritten Doctrines'", Rowe defends the significance of the dialogues by asserting that they reveal Plato's genuine doctrines and suggests that Plato's lectures were basically on mathematics. In chapter 10, "Plato and the Thought of his Time", he also questions whether Plato himself believed that these lectures contained any truth. Rowe objects to the long-standing tendency -- originating, in his view, with Aristotle -- to "reduce" Plato to his predecessors. In the epilogue, "Plato and the Twentieth Century", Rowe surveys Plato's foresight into modern science, political philosophy, and ethics. The author rejects the first notion, but accepts Plato's perspicacity regarding politics and ethics.

The book also includes a rather cumbersome and selective bibliography. Regrettably, the original bibliography was not revised, although Rowe does add several items in the new preface. Finally, the book provides both a general index and an index of Platonic passages.

Overall, Rowe's language is lucid, especially in his depictions of the philosopher's most important arguments, which include the more complicated, later ones. The book covers in a detailed manner almost all the important philosophical issues that pertain to Plato, while managing to retain its vibrancy throughout. Rowe's translations are accurate, and he either transliterates the Greek or discusses the difficulties of almost every relevant term.

Nevertheless, the book cannot be considered an introduction per se. Rowe assumes that the readers are acquainted with Plato's work and that they are at least familiar with the basic tenets of western philosophy. Moreover, the arrangement of Plato's doctrines according to their metaphysical importance forces him to eschew a more pedagogic order of presentation, which could have been expected of an introduction. Furthermore, Rowe generally does not introduce each topic; instead, he dives straight into argument without considering the basic terminology beforehand. This hardly constitutes a fault, but anyone who intends to use this book as a preliminary guide to Plato's philosophy is best forewarned. It should also be noted that, despite his promise, Rowe does not depict the historical setting to a satisfactory degree.

The remainder of this review will be devoted to more specific remarks and critiques. As the author readily admits in the new preface, the first chapter regrettably ignores Socrates' "intellectualism", despite the fact that it is a vital aspect of his reasoning and one which had a profound impact on Plato. Rowe also fails to touch upon the significance of the 'elenchos', and his doubts concerning the crucial Dion affair in Syracuse (whom he neglects even to mention by name) are insufficiently grounded.

In the third chapter, Rowe probably should have restricted some of his declarations on controversial (yet in this context, marginal) subjects. For example, he claims that "mathematicians are concerned with Forms" [p. 64]; and that "Plato ... is implicitly committed to a broad theory of language as naming" [p. 59].

With regard to Rowe's attack on Plato in the fourth chapter (regarding his restriction of choice), it is somewhat ironic that Kant, the champion of "moral autonomy" (a term Rowe and many other modern authors borrow in order to signify the agent's right to choose), was in this matter rather Platonic. It seems that Plato's position could have been elucidated and defended to a greater extent. It is also worth noting that Rowe subsequently confirms that choice is indeed an important aspect of Plato's thought: "success and happiness of course depend on our making the right choices; and the ability to do that will follow from real, Socratic, knowledge" [p. 158]. Although this discrepancy is probably more apparent than substantive, it would have been best to avoid such a literal inconsistency.

In the fourth chapter, the author occasionally allows himself too much leeway with his translations. 'Phronesis' is interpreted as "wisdom", "insight", and "intelligence" without an adequate explanation for the various options. Similarly, 'sophrosyne' is translated as "self-control" and "temperance" while in a previous text by Xenophon it was rendered "good-sense", once again without an explanation.

Unfortunately, the Socratic paradoxes are not treated on a separate basis, despite the fact that Plato used them consistently and never abandoned their consequences. Rowe also unhesitatingly considers 'thumos' to be an irrational part of the soul, although Plato considers it a mediator between reason and desire. There also appears to be a discrepancy between the author's assertion that Plato deemed pleasure a necessary part of the good life and his earlier statement that Plato, unlike Socrates, demanded "care for your soul and not your bodies" [p. 6]. Plato and Socrates may share closer perspectives on this issue than Rowe suggests.

Several statements in the sixth chapter seem to bear the marks of haste. The claim that "the ignorant -- who are, of course, in a Socratic-Platonic context, the vicious and the unscrupulous" [p. 148] seems to contradict the Platonic contention that ignorance and vice are not coextensive (to say the least). The phrase, "how things really are -- which Plato identifies with how things would ideally be" [p. 149] -- is also troubling, as it forces the ideal to be unreal. Lastly, the contention that 'Republic' 492a "explicitly denies that the sophists 'corrupt the young'" [p. 156] appears to be premised on the absence of a clear distinction between old and young sophists, which is quite crucial in this context.

My final reservation is perhaps more subjective. Although Rowe is definitive on several issues, he is highly skeptical of our ability to understand crucial aspects of Plato's thought. This is perhaps a legitimate claim, but it cannot support the conclusion that Plato himself held no definitive opinions on the issues in question, a conclusion Rowe draws more than once. I contend that this reasoning is flawed. Even if we are forced to decipher the dialogues via a complex, dialectical screen, they are important because Plato not only has a definitive view but also sophisticatedly (perhaps too much so) reveals it. If not, Rowe's interpretation cannot be deemed superior to the contentions based on the premise that Plato lacked a system or that he concealed his beliefs behind copious, false texts (and Rowe is neither a Straussian nor a postmodernist). If Plato was indeed a skeptic, or nowhere meant or believed what he said, then the dialogues are significant only as protreptics, a view that Rowe judiciously rejects.

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:51, Friday, 03 April 2009