Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.04

Michael Erler, Luc Brisson (ed.), Gorgias - Menon: Selected Papers from the Seventh Symposium Platonicum. International Plato Studies, v. 25.   Sankt Augustin:  Academia Verlag, 2007.  Pp. xi, 389.  ISBN 9783896653574.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by Malcolm Schofield, St John's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1767 words

This volume presents 46 papers (25 in English, 7 in each of French and Italian, 6 in German, 1 in Spanish) from among those delivered at the triennial conference of the International Plato Society held in Würzburg in July 2004. It has four sections. First come two keynote lectures, then a Gorgias section, a third one on the Meno, and finally a section of what are described as 'comprehensive papers'. These are followed by a consolidated bibliography, index locorum, and subject index (skimpy: one and a half pages to cover nearly 350 pages of close-packed text). There is no scholarly introduction, just a brief preface.

The first thing to strike one as one leafs through the book is that something has gone awry with the editing. The first section is entitled 'De Vogel Lecture, Sauders Memorial Lecture'. 'Sauders' must be a misprint (it occurs not once but twice) for 'Saunders'. But when one turns to the text of the lecture (by Harold Tarrant, on the Meno, particularly in the light of its Middle Platonist reception), it transpires that it was delivered in commemoration not of Trevor Saunders, but of Matthias Baltes ('The Matthias Baltes Memorial Lecture'). Things don't immediately improve much. The first paper in the Gorgias section is actually about not the Gorgias but the Symposium. The next is about Olympiodorus's treatment of the Gorgias -- but is separated by 250 pages from the one other paper on Olympiodorus's Gorgias commentary (included in the 'comprehensive' section, but so far as I can see no wider in scope; the same is true mutatis mutandis of several papers on the Meno in the same section).

What attracted the conference organisers to the Gorgias and Meno on this occasion? These dialogues could not have been such obvious candidates as some of those discussed at previous conferences in the series, such as the Statesman (1992) and the Laws (2001), which were certainly in need of further exploration, and where indeed important collections of articles resulted. In their preface the editors refer to the 'centrality' of Gorgias and Meno, and to the questions they raise about (for example) the good life, the possibility of knowledge, the threat posed by value relativism, the encounter with the Sophists. The more central a dialogue and the topics it makes its focus, the harder it is for new publications to say something both fresh and penetrating. It would have been interesting to know why and where the organisers thought it likely that significant progress in understanding could be achieved. Perhaps the Gorgias is not quite so saturated with commentary as the Meno, but neither dialogue can be said to be particularly neglected. In this connection it may be significant that Terry Penner's De Vogel Lecture (attacking Vlastos's conception of the Socratic elenchus) is the first one in the series not to have been devoted to the theme of the conference as a whole. He takes his examples principally from the Euthyphro, although of course he has written powerfully on the Gorgias in the past.

That said, anybody working on either of the two dialogues will be likely to find something of value for their teaching or research in this scholarly bran tub. To my mind, some of the shorter papers (the majority in the volume, presumably written for half-hour parallel sessions rather than as plenary lectures) were especially worth consulting. Here there can be the benefit of sharp focus on a well-articulated individual problem, with the prospect of larger implications. As my first example I take a paper in which Christopher Gill asks whether a famous passage of the Gorgias (505e-509c), where inter alia Socrates insists on the truth of what he asserts as 'held down and bound by arguments of iron and adamant', can really be taken to represent the firm conclusion of the dialogue: its Intended Learning Outcome, as the author puts it in a wry hint that the kinds of oversimplification characteristic of the academic audit culture have not always been avoided in Plato interpretation (he discusses the treatments of Kahn and -- in more detail -- Vlastos). Gill presents a powerful set of reasons for answering: No. He points to Callicles' 'mutinous silence' at this point (the 'shared search' has collapsed); to Socrates' reiteration of a thesis -- doing wrong is worse than suffering it -- that depends on a 'notoriously questionable' argument at 474b-475e; and to his unargued introduction of new themes such as 'the idea of proportionate equality as an ethical norm'. And Gill notes (to my mind most tellingly of all) the 'strongly rhetorical character' of the passage. All in all, this isn't quite the questioning Socrates as Plato usually presents him in the early dialogues. We should 'think twice -- or more' before reading 505e-509c as authoritative summary of Socratic doctrine.

Vasilis Politis takes a no less famous passage of the Meno (79e-80a), and asks: 'Is Socrates paralyzed by his state of aporia?' Meno's comparison of Socrates to a sting ray prompts from Politis a rewarding exploration of the notion of aporia in the Socratic dialogues, which concludes with the suggestion that it comes in two very different versions. One is the experience of being at a loss, without any idea about how to proceed, which as Socrates employs it has an intended cathartic function: purging the interlocutor from the pretence of knowledge, bringing him to recognition of his ignorance, and -- so far from causing paralysis -- stimulating in him an appetite for enquiry. But there is also aporia in the sense identified by Aristotle in the Topics (6.145a33-b20): the recognition and articulation of a particular problem, which 'helps to determine, structure and direct the particular search that one is engaged in' -- and can therefore 'directly contribute to finding what one is searching for: zetetic aporia. Politis takes the puzzle in the Charmides (167b) about knowing that one does or doesn't know what one knows or doesn't know as a case in point. But his Meno example is the aporia about the length of the side of a square double a given square to which Socrates reduces the slave boy (84a).

Finally among short papers I mention the witty and engagingly titled '21 punti su persuasione e verità nel Gorgia' by Giovanni Casertano (not room for as many theses as Luther, he pretends to grumble, but 'mi adeguo'). This piece is rather more obviously ambitious in scope, in that it constitutes a cameo study of the whole dialogue as a battle between two competing views of truth, propounded by interlocutors who can only talk past each other. It is not so much that their formal conceptions of what would count as truth differ, but that they are bitterly at odds (despite a patina of 'cordialità' and 'gentilezze', and despite the ideal of conversational agreement proposed by Socrates) over what they find attractive, intelligent, absurd; even over what they take to be facts (as in their divergent assessments of a Miltiades or a Pericles). The discourse of the one can have no effect, can demonstrate nothing, so far as the other is concerned. Truth turns out to be at bottom something that turns on choice of life, not on 'pura logica'.

None of these three papers will settle all arguments about their subject matter. Indeed one of their merits is that they obviously prompt further questions of various sorts. All are the work of experienced scholars, who know how to write incisively and elegantly and to hold the readers' attention. Other contributions sometimes needed more active editorial attention. There were cases among these shorter articles where I have little doubt that a refereed journal would have refused the piece outright (even if the author was a well-known senior figure), or required rethinking and rewriting (which can be more help to a younger scholar than accepting without challenge a piece that is obviously flawed).

Among the longer articles I found myself most enjoying (slightly to my Anglo-Saxon surprise) the very last piece in the volume: Thomas Alexander Szlezák's study of the Meno passage on the 'kinship of all nature'. Socrates' initial reference to priests and priestesses 'wise in matters pertaining to the gods' (81a) provokes Szlezák into a wide-ranging study of appeals to the wise (with associated use of the language of the mysteries) throughout Plato, first in Gorgias, then Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, and various later dialogues -- but with a footnote listing some of the numerous passages where use of sophos is 'manifestly ironic'. The suggestion that Plato's sophoi inhabit two apparently incompatible spheres -- religion and dialectic -- brings him to consideration of Diotima, who clearly bridges the two, and of how the Meno's anonymous priests and priestesses may function as a 'mask' for the dialectician -- which enables Plato to indicate truths about virtue and the soul which dialectic could establish given a partner in conversation more promising than Meno. Szlezák ends by connecting the 'kinship' (sungeneia) of all nature taught by the Meno's priests and priestesses with references to the 'binding together' of things and the 'kinship' (oikeiotes) of the mathematical sciences in Plato's mature dialogues, and to such passages as Phaedrus 270c ('Do you think it possible to reach a serious understanding of the nature of the soul without understanding the nature of the world as a whole?') -- but not without a final reference to the 'Prinzipienlehre' of Plato's 'more systematic' oral teaching.

Similarly familiar notes are struck in their usual styles by Holger Thesleff ('The Gorgias re-written -- why?'), Ada Neschke-Hentschke (Gorgias and 'die Tradition des europäischen Naturrechts'), Theo Ebert (recycling his scepticism about anamnesis from 30 years ago), and Charles Kahn (on proleptic composition). Vieux jeux may of course not lack their own interest: what variation are we going to get this time? They do reinforce a suspicion of some tiredness that is confirmed by other aspects of the volume (contributions from younger scholars are a bit thin on the ground). A radical rethink of the Symposium Platonicum format is overdue. For example, besides Szlezák's paper there are no fewer than four further articles which make the priests and priestesses passage in the Meno a main focus of concern -- but which have no option but to talk past each other, rather like the protagonists of Casertano's Gorgias. It is a strength of the Symposium that it brings together scholars speaking different tongues, from different traditions and from across the globe. On the evidence of this volume, it is not clear that it has yet found a way of helping them to listen to each other creatively once assembled.

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