Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.24

Gerald A. Press, Plato. A Guide for the Perplexed. Guides for the Perplexed.   London/New York:  Continuum, 2007.  Pp. viii, 240.  ISBN 978-0-8264-9176-3.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by S. A. Burgess, Mediterranean Centre for Arts & Sciences (
Word count: 2488 words

Plato: A Guide for the Perplexed (hereafter PAGP) by Gerald A. Press (hereafter GP) aims to introduce 'non-specialist' readers to the richness and philosophical significance of the literary qualities of Plato, by showing that, throughout the dialogues, 'drama is a form of argument and argument a form of drama' (5). The book is not a summary of Plato's major works and ideas or a detailed review of all the major dialogues, but a sustained presentation of Plato as a non-dogmatic, open ended and dramatic writer, which challenges many of the more established or traditional interpretations of the corpus.1 After a brief 'Introduction' outlining the argument (1-13), PAGP contains four main sections: 'part I Background' (13-39); 'part II Sources of Perplexity: Change' (39-146); 'part III Plato's philosophy: Permanence' (146-185); 'part IV Help in reading and understanding Plato's dialogues and philosophy' (185-221). Each chapter is followed by suggestions for further reading, and the whole is followed by a glossary of Greek terms (221-230), bibliography (231-234) and an index of dialogues, persons and subjects (235-240).

Part I 'Background' (13-35) concentrates on contexts. Chapter 1 (13-22) gives an introduction to Plato's life and the Academy and examines some of the issues concerning the assembly of the Platonic corpus -- including questions of authenticity, revision and later arrangements -- as well as a brief discussion of the 'unwritten doctrines' to be found in the letters. Chapter 2 (23-35) provides brief summaries of the political and historical background and of selected thematic and chronological aspects of Greek intellectual history and concludes with a sketch of Socrates as a historical and then as a literary figure within the works of Plato.

Part II 'Sources of Perplexity: Change' (39-146), by far the largest section in PAGP, is divided into seven separate chapters examining various aspects of Plato's writings that exhibit change. It begins with a chapter (chapter 3, 39-54) devoted to the history of Platonism, which provides a survey in summary form of the various schools of interpretation from antiquity to the modern period. Within this survey GP identifies and contrasts the 'open-ended...anti-dogmatic, sceptical, aporetic or Socratic Plato' (53) advocated by the 'New' Academy with the 'dogmatic, systematic (and for a long time Neoplatonic) Plato' (53) of later schools, treating both views (the sceptical and the non-sceptical interpretations) as misrepresentations of genuine Platonic thought. He concludes with the proposal of a 'third' Plato 'whose writings and whose conception of philosophy was dramatic and non-dogmatic' (53), that is as 'something that is more than a vague, general guideline [and as such not sceptical] but less than a doctrinal system [and as such not doctrinal]' (181). This view of Plato's dialogues as non-dogmatic and of Plato's philosophy as non-doctrinal is maintained throughout PAGP, although GP does admit that some works at least appear to be doctrinal. In chapter 4, for instance, he divides the Platonic corpus into three types: (a) works which 'explicitly do not arrive at an answer to their central question', (b) works which ' answer their main question' and (c) those that remain 'apparently inconclusive' (58). The Laws, a text which plainly appears to be doctrinal in nature and which has consistently been viewed on the basis of considerable evidence as a genuine work of Plato is, surprisingly, excluded from these groups and discounted as spurious. After drawing attention to some of the possible literary or dramatic models for Plato's dialogues, chapter 4 (55-74) provides a summary of the linguistic highlights of Plato, stressing the variety of literary devices and techniques employed and in general his use of language. The chapter concludes with a longer discussion of the dramatic aspects of the dialogues, in which it is repeatedly emphasized that they ought to be regarded as 'carefully crafted fictions' (64) with traceable links to earlier and contemporary Greek literary forms. Various interpretations of the functions of the dialogue form are discussed: as repositories of doctrine; as a replacement for sophistic and traditional forms of education in the sense that they offer a redefinition of traditional moral terms; as an invented intellectual medium designed to introduce new cultural heroes; and as imitations of philosophy in the sense that the interplay between dramatic and philosophical elements creates a drama of ideas in which the reader becomes a participant. GP also examines here the more general idea that the entire Platonic corpus can be looked at as a continuous literary or dramatic whole.

Chapter 5 discusses Plato's use of elenchus (with extended passages of demonstration from the Euthyphro focusing on the personal and destructive or non-doctrinal and non-constructive nature of Plato's argumentation) and dialectic (identifying a less-dogmatic, Platonic, form of dialectic as opposed to a more-dogmatic, Eleatic form). These discussions are set within a more general presentation of dialogues as essentially open-ended in nature, in which GP stresses, again, the non-doctrinal nature of Plato. Turning to Plato's specific use of myths, irony and humour, chapter 6 (92-105) aims at a reconciliation of any possible perceived conflict between the use of myth/ poetry/ literature and the use of philosophy or rational argument. It does so chiefly by positioning the dialogues themselves as myths or stories -- we are advised to remember that 'every idea and every theory presented in a Platonic dialogue is fictive' (98) -- containing elements from Greek tragedy and comedy and then by identifying myth itself as a form of argument. GP identifies the various types of myth employed by Plato and their uses as entertainment and as imaginative expressions or representations of difficult ideas.

Chapter 7 (106-117) catalogues the various types of irony and humour in Plato and their uses. Chapter 8 then looks at the more general relation between playfulness and seriousness in the dialogues, identifying Socrates as a 'playful' archetype, and arguing that a sense of playfulness pervades the dialogues, both in the obviously playful passages and in those that are less than obvious (hence even 'exceptionally serious statements...may be playful precisely in their unusual and excessive but merely superficial seriousness' (125). GP warns against ignoring this playful element: 'ignoring play enables some readers to freeze Plato's thought into doctrines, but somewhat ridiculously to miss the point' (125).

Chapter 9 (130-142) draws together the claims of the preceding three chapters to give a presentation of the dialogues as paradoxical works designed to invert the expectations of readers through a variety of means, including semantic inversion (the changing use of technical and philosophical terms and inversion of popular identifications) and the contrast between the foreground (what is said) and background (what is intimated, suggested) of a text in which different issues are raised and presented. The central point is that the dialogues are not 'statements of philosophical doctrine...they are enactments of philosophy' (138), and that they are able to enact philosophy precisely because they 'operate through the imagination and emotions as well as through intellect' (139).

As GP allows, however, the analysis of the preceding chapters seems less applicable to some dialogues than to others: a number of Platonic works do indeed 'seem to be more "constructive"...' (81). These are the apparently less playful dialogues referred to as type (b) above, i.e. those that do seem to answer their central question. Included in this group are Timaeus, Sophist and Statesman, and with slightly less certainty, Phaedo, Symposium, Philebus and Republic -- the last of which is said to be the most 'superficially' constructive of the dialogues, but is intended as a 'satire on utopian thinking and an ironic treatment of oligarchic views' (82). When approaching works which are seemingly constructive or less playful we are told (with specific reference to the Timaeus) that their lack of a sense of playfulness shows that these dialogues are not really what Plato considers to be philosophy. The absence of a playful Socrates in the Sophist and Statesman is an indication that they are less than seriously intended, just as it signals in the Timaeus that the dialogue 'is only to be taken as a story' (123). Though these works do contain doctrine, GP concludes, the silence of Socrates is an indication that they are not to be taken seriously, i.e. that they are not the genuine products of a non-doctrinal Plato but of a doctrinal Academy: 'Socrates sitting silently through the...presentations in Sophist, Statesman and Timaeus is significant, though it can be debated whether it signifies Plato's having gone beyond the limitations of the historical Socrates' purely refutative dialectic or Plato's quietly and ironically critical assessment of the quasi-dogmatic use to which dialectic was being put by some members of the Academy' (132).

In Part III (Plato's philosophy: Permanence 146-181) GP turns to an examination of those aspects of Plato which seem to 'exhibit permanence' (8). He maintains that Plato's philosophy is neither a fixed set of doctrines nor a set of doctrines which change or develop over time, 'but something more general and differently focused' (146): Plato's philosophy is 'something that is more than a vague, general guideline but less than a doctrinal system' (181).

Chapter 10 examines the 'problem' of Platonic anonymity, and concludes that it is 'an indication of Plato's conception of philosophy as non-dogmatic and as teaching indirectly through enactment' (158). In chapter 11 (159-171), GP continues to develop his view of Plato's philosophy as a process, characterised as a vision, rather than as a set of doctrines, by arguing that though there are some stable principles (such as the immortality of the soul) and some central concerns (moral and political), to which Plato may or may not have been committed and which may or may not have expressed through Socrates,2 these are 'introduced but never fully defined' (165), and always remain 'open to objections and reconsiderations' (154). One of the principles GP analyses in accordance with his open-ended view of Plato's thought is the theory of Forms, in which reality is divided into two levels (more traditionally viewed as two worlds). GP argues that problems of interpretation of this central idea have arisen from ignoring the provisional nature of Plato's thought, an error which has led to 'the rigid, and slightly ridiculous, two-worlds metaphysics that is found in many books' (163). (It is not made clear how the two level model differs from a two world model.) Plato 'does not mean to say that reality is divided into two "realms" utterly separated from each other and about which we can make various true statements. Rather he envisions a world existing simultaneously at two levels.' The ideal is 'there to be seen with the eyes of the soul through the real' (163). The remainder of the chapter concentrates on defining dialectic as a problem-solving tool which transcends ordinary oppositions and thus provides Plato with a third way between such opposites.3

Part III concludes (chapter 12, 172-181) with the presentation of Platonic philosophy as a path in which 'the journey is the end sought' (174). Rather than a set of doctrines Plato's philosophy is seen as something that is essentially open-ended, something that 'seeks to inculcate orientations, attitudes and practices, not specific beliefs' (151). This point is expressed through a consideration of the dialogues as dramatic stories as, 'enactments' of philosophy, as a path or process and not as repositories of doctrine. GP identifies three stages within this drama, or within the path of the would-be philosopher, from (a) the pre-philosophical which leads, through dialectical cross-examination, to the (b) 'spiritual crisis' of aporia and finally to the (c) open ended spiritual ascent that follows conversion from sensation to thought.

The final part of PAGP contains advice (chapter 13, 185-208) on how to read a Platonic dialogue as well as brief summaries of selected works. GP identifies three steps or readings of a Platonic dialogue:

(a) The logical reading, concentrating on the 'foreground or surface level dialectical argument' (185), in which the reader attempts to identify the apparent conclusion; the sub-arguments; the presence of apparent fallacies or logical errors and the overall structure of argumentation.

(b) The literary or dramatic reading, designed to grasp the 'background or deeper level of the dialogue's dramatic and literary aspects' (185), in which the reader attempts to identify such features as: contextual, literary and dramatic elements (including dramatic date), narrative structure, depth and chronology, characters, historical connections, physical setting, overall plot, references and allusions, physical action, humour and irony, prologues, interruptions, digressions, and the significance of the first and last lines.

(c) The integrative reading, which combines (a) and (b) into a 'more complete understanding of the dialogue as a philosophical enactment' (186), by identifying the ways in which the drama may be used to clarify, intensify, counterbalance or invert something in the argument, on the hypothesis that 'Plato has constructed the relationship between the arguments and the stories deliberately and carefully' (191). With this final reading, as with the literary reading, '[t]here is no right or wrong answer, but readings can be better or worse, depending on how the logical structure is explained in co-ordination with literary and dramatic is a matter of judgement or intuition' (192). These three readings are then applied to a section of the Meno (70a-74b, printed in full). On the question of whether these three reading are to be performed consecutively or simultaneously, GP admits that 'while it is practicable for one to read the Euthyphro or Crito three times, it is quite impractical for us to reread the Republic in that way because it is so much longer' (207). GP also admits that this three part system is not readily applicable throughout, noting that some dialogues are richer in dramatic detail than others, and that some dialogues (Timaeus, Statesman, Sophist, Philebus and Parmenides) 'contain more sustained, complex and seemingly constructive (or didactic) information' (207).

Chapter 14 (209-220) contains very brief summaries of a selected number of dialogues in dramatic order, including Parmenides, Charmides, Laches, Hippias Major, Symposium, Timaeus, Phaedrus, Gorgias, Meno, Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Sophist, Politicus, Apology, Phaedo -- all of which are approximately half a page in length -- Ion, Crito -- both of which are less than half a page -- and Republic -- the longest at almost two pages.

Throughout the book GP presents a singular view of Plato as non-dogmatic, open ended, playful and dramatic or 'Socratic' and a method or approach which is admitted to be less applicable to Plato's 'seemingly constructive (or didactic)' (207) works. So perhaps it is not surprising that when GP encounters genuine Platonic works where Socrates is not the leading character and which are less open-ended or appear to contain positive doctrine, he either discounts these texts as inauthentic (Laws) or treats them as non-serious or ironic. In sum, though PAGP is a rich source of information about contemporary approaches to the corpus and would be a suggestive companion for students who are already familiar with more traditional approaches to Plato, this is not a book intended to provide an explanation or summary of Plato's dialogues or of his doctrines for beginners.4


1.   PAGP is an excellent source of reference to these approaches but see especially Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model (Helsinki 1999), by H. Thesleff (to whom this book is dedicated).
2.   'Plato's vision is expressed in general principles to which Socrates is consistently committed' (163) and, more generally, 'Such beliefs are often identified as Plato's doctrines...and Plato may have actually held them. On the other hand they may simply be views and arguments that he found interesting. Or perhaps they were thought experiments which Plato took seriously, but expressed playfully in fictional dialogues instead of asserting any as doctrines.' (165)
3.   This analysis of dialectic as a third way is applied to Plato's metaphysics in general. 'There seems to be an antinomy between the Heraclitean view that nothing exists except sensible material things that are always changing and the Parmenidean view that only a single unchanging, rational entity exists. Transcending these oppositions is the implicit Platonic two-level vision, often mistaken for a doctrine, of a changing, sensible, material reality thoroughly penetrated by an unchanging, immaterial reality that is different, higher and intelligible rather than sensible.' (169)
4.   For such content see W.K.C. Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy vols. 3.2, 4 and 5 (Cambridge 1971-8) or C. J. Rowe, Plato (London 2003, second ed.).

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