Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.40

Gail Fine (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Plato.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xi, 604.  ISBN 9780195182903.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Ravi Sharma, Clark University (
Word count: 1580 words


The editor of an essay collection on Plato faces challenges that are not faced, at least not to the same degree, by the editor of a collection on any other figure of comparable stature. Since Plato mainly wrote dialogues, not treatises, there is no neat way to survey the corpus. A topical approach runs the risk of ignoring the interconnection of themes and arguments within a given dialogue, while a dialogue-by-dialogue approach would be unnecessarily tedious and more than a little repetitive. Gail Fine's reasonable policy is to mix topical essays with studies of selected dialogues. In addition to her long introduction, the book contains twenty-one newly commissioned essays: three framing pieces, ten topical studies, six appraisals of individual dialogues, and two discussions of later reactions to Plato's thought. Each of the contributions is intended as an "authoritative, original, and up-to-date discussion" that can be read by "everyone from advanced undergraduates with little or no background in Plato to scholars in the field of ancient philosophy" (p. v).

On the whole, the collection succeeds remarkably well in offering fresh perspectives on a number of themes in Plato's work while avoiding excessive scholarly wrangling or overly technical discussions of individual passages. To be sure, some of the chapters may prove too arduous for an undergraduate audience, either because they canvass too many interpretive possibilities without enough detailed exploration of the principal candidates, or because they cover too much terrain in the Platonic corpus for students lacking an antecedent familiarity with the dialogues. And at the other end of the readership spectrum, scholars will undoubtedly find many details with which to quibble: the demands of originality sometimes conflict with the impulse to convey a balanced sense of the issues, and experts will occasionally note the omission of an important recent work of scholarship or of a now-neglected classic. But on the whole, the collection accomplishes what should be its primary purpose -- turning readers toward Plato with a fresh set of interpretive perspectives and questions for further exploration.

Professor Fine has helpfully surveyed the contributions in her detailed introductory essay, so these comments will be limited to some general reflections on the attractions and limitations of the Handbook as a survey of Plato's thought. First, a few observations on the scope of coverage, which is quite selective. Most noticeably, there is relatively little discussion of the "Socratic" dialogues -- the generally short works in which Socrates plays the questioner on topics mainly involving the moral virtues. The reader interested in those dialogues will find only two essays dedicated to them, while the volume's bibliography of further reading devotes only three pages (out of about twenty-six) to their study. The two essays that are included address a wealth of issues: Gareth Matthews provides a complex discussion of "The Epistemology and Metaphysics of Socrates," evaluating a number of views on Socratic ignorance, the project of definition, and the elenchus; and Daniel Devereux thoughtfully treats a number of topics in "Socratic Ethics and Moral Psychology," focusing inter alia on the teachability of virtue, the denial of weakness of will, and the relation between virtue and happiness. Apart from those contributions, there are several essays that offer extended discussion of themes prominent in the early dialogues -- for example, Christopher Bobonich's fine essay on "Plato's Politics." Nonetheless, the volume will be of limited use to those approaching the study of Plato through the "Socratic" dialogues -- including many of those coming primarily from a background in Greek literature and culture. Since those dialogues are the ones that engage many of Plato's newer readers, this seems an opportunity missed.

As for the rest of the Platonic corpus, the volume's coverage is tilted heavily to the group of works often regarded as belonging to Plato's later period. Apart from the Republic, the dialogues that receive chapters of their own are the Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Timaeus and Philebus. The justification given is that "[t]hese dialogues are especially rich and complex philosophically; they also pursue particular topics systematically and in detail." One might quibble with both aspects of that claim. To name just a few of the obvious candidates, the Cratylus, Phaedo, and Laws are arguably as detailed and systematic as what is on the list. And dialogues like the Gorgias, Protagoras, and Phaedrus are certainly rich enough to merit chapters of their own. In fact, the combination of literary and philosophical complexity in the latter works might make them especially suited for chapters discussing the ways in which our perspective on their philosophical themes is enriched by an appreciation of the dramatic form in which those themes are explored. As Professor Fine is careful to note in her introduction, the reader can find discussions of all the above-mentioned works in other chapters of the book. Yet one cannot help but think that the selection of dialogues receiving independent chapters is guided partly by a sense of the relative philosophical importance of those works. Be that as it may, the Handbook will surely be of the greatest value to advanced students and scholars wanting a broad overview of certain themes followed by a sustained examination of philosophical issues in the "later" dialogues.

That is not to say that the volume will be of negligible value for other readers. Questions of scope aside, the quality of the individual contributions is quite high, reflecting some of the best recent work on Plato's philosophy. And the volume contains valuable resources for new readers of Plato as well as for seasoned students. Especially important in this regard are the three framing pieces that open the collection. Malcolm Schofield's "Plato in his Time and Place" is a gem of incisive exposition: in a "series of snapshots" (36) of Plato's place in the intellectual currents of his day, it offers a concise and thoughtfully balanced perspective on Plato's influences and intellectual relationships. (Particularly valuable for the student are the judicious suggestions for further reading contained in the footnotes.) T. H. Irwin's "The Platonic Corpus" is similarly informative, this time as regards issues relating to the composition, dissemination and transmission of the dialogues. Since the essay covers a lot of ground about which it is difficult for the non-scholar to learn, it should be required reading for all new readers of Plato's work.1 Finally, Mary Margaret McCabe's "Plato's Ways of Writing" offers a nuanced and wide-ranging discussion of the relation between the argumentative content of the dialogues and their "frames," or dramatic settings. McCabe illustrates her view as to the intimate relation between "picture" and "frame" with examples drawn from throughout the Platonic corpus. This makes her essay useful reading for students interested in all aspects of Plato's thought. Indeed, McCabe's essay is the only one to address directly the significance of the dramatic form of the dialogues, and it will therefore be crucial reading for those inspired by the recent upsurge of interest in the "literary" aspects of Plato's thought.

Among the ten topical studies that follow, some adhere to the divisions of contemporary academic philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, ethics) and some track themes that figure prominently in Plato's thought (the soul, love, education and art). The studies are predominantly "analytic" in character, reflecting the focus on argumentative analysis that constitutes the mainstream among English-speaking scholars. Several of these studies are less immediately accessible than the framework chapters, either because they refer to a wide range of dialogues that they treat in highly selective fashion, or else because they engage closely with issues whose broader significance may not be immediately evident to the student. But at their best, the topical essays offer compelling overviews of their subjects -- ones that neatly frame the scholarly debates while encouraging a return to the dialogues with new avenues for exploration

The six chapters on individual dialogues are of similarly high quality. In them, one finds a sampling of some of the most thoughtful recent scholarship on Plato's epistemology, logic and metaphysics. (These chapters also offer a useful orientation to the now-overwhelming secondary literature.) The inclusion of this material makes the volume especially attractive as a companion work for a course focusing closely on themes in Plato's mature thought. The volume closes with two pieces dealing with ancient reactions to Plato's theories: Christopher Shields focuses on Aristotle's confrontation with the theory of Forms, while Charles Brittain offers an detailed introduction to the later tradition (c. 100-600 C.E.) of Platonist philosophy. Both treatments are rich, though perhaps a little too brief given the complexities of their subject matter. But in view of the long shadows that those subsequent traditions have cast over the interpretation of Plato, there are good reasons for including a discussion of them in the volume and for exposing students -- at least graduate students -- to some of their intricacies.

The book is handsomely produced and is virtually free of typographical errors. It helpfully prints footnotes to the essays at the bottom of the page, and it offers an "Index Locorum" and an "Index Nominum" as well as a general index. The bibliography at the end of the volume is an updated version of the bibliography in Fine's earlier edited collection Plato (OUP, 2000). It is a useful but not a failsafe guide to the recent literature. One minor criticism: the volume's running heads would have been much more useful had the left-side (verso) heading printed the name of a given essay's author, rather than merely repeat the title of the volume throughout.


1.   Late in his chapter, Irwin defends the "standard" division of the dialogues into early, middle, and late, and he ends with some reflections on whether the thought of Plato may be found in the pronouncements of Socrates. Much of this material will be controversial, but Irwin argues forcefully for his conclusions. And he ends precisely where one should, by recognizing the need, in treating these issues, for reflection on the philosophical content of the dialogues.

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