Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.12
Paul Allen Miller, Charles Platter, Plato's Apology of Socrates: A Commentary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 225. ISBN 978080614025. $26.95 (pb).
Reviewed by David Hernández de la Fuente, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As a fundamental landmark not only in the history of Ancient Philosophy, but also for the shaping of western political theory, modern ethics, identity and sensibility, Plato's Apology has been for many years a basic reading in the syllabus of classicists, historians and philosophers. As this new commentary goes to show, the Apology must still be regarded as an essential text for those who aim at having a command of Ancient Greek language and culture. In the last years, some didactic approaches and introductions to Plato’s dialogues for the use of students of Philosophy and Classical Studies have been published: we can cite, for instance R. Hunters’ work on the Symposium, or W. Stokes’ edition, translation and commentary of the Apology, among the many existing surveys of single Platonic dialogues for first-time and intermediate readers.1 However, the aim of this volume edited by Paul Allen Miller and Charles Platter goes beyond the usual educational purposes and presents a new and complete commentary on the Greek text with thorough explanations, both of grammatical and content features, and a series of 33 essays, as many as the traditional chapters of the Apology, intended to promote class discussion and further reading and thinking.
The book takes a beneficial approach for “intermediate students of Greek,” (xiii, 3) who can read the dialogue in the original language, solve their language problems—thanks to the abundant apparatus of grammar and glossaries—and reflect upon the main questions of its philosophical, historical and political background. Miller and Platter intentionally chose not to present a detailed survey of the background of the Apology, for which the teacher can refer the students to fundamental works such as Brickhouse and Smith (1990), Slings and De Strycker (1994) and D. Nails (2002).2 After a short presentation of the aims of the volume, Miller and Platter do offer two concise sections dealing with the historical and socio-cultural Athenian context of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Section I (pp. 4-6) briefly presents the Athenian trial procedure in the context of the oligarchic revolution and Section II (pp. 7-10) examines the main topics of the Socratic-Platonic approach to philosophy and moral responsibility.
The brevity of these sections, though, means that this may not be an ideal introduction to Plato for absolute newcomers nor a thorough study of the Apology for scholars, who will not find the usual set-up with systematic preface, background, chronology, influence, etc., followed by the Greek text and the detailed commentary at the back of the book. Instead, Miller and Platter have opted for a more convenient format for students and instructors. Readers find themselves right away face to face with the Greek text in a very attractive layout divided in three parts. The upper part of the page has the Greek text, based on that of Burnet’s OCT edition, apart from some twenty departures, which are listed in an appendix (p. 195). The text has a clear traditional structure with page and paragraph numbers from Etienne’s edition in the margins, which allow an easy lookup in the running commentary. Moreover, each of the 33 chapters is preceded by a useful summary as preparation for the students. The middle part has a running vocabulary with the purpose of displaying “less common words and expressions the first time they appear on the text” (xiv). Finally, at the bottom of the page, there is a running commentary including its main features.
Miller and Platter show a very remarkable command of the text and the numerous interpretations of the most discussed passages, as clearly noticeable in both the commentary and the essays. The running glosses present the virtues of the traditional line-by-line commentary. Here the reader can enjoy a rare combination of erudition, both philological (e.g., pp. 52, 99) and philosophical (e.g., pp. 49, 97), and even humor (p. 39). A good instance is the note to 26e1, where Miller and Platter discuss the meaning of ὀρχήστρα, using nine different commentaries (from 1908 to 2002) and convincingly explain the passage to the student.
It is possible to take issue with some parts of the commentary, e.g. the interpretation of ἀλογώτατον in 18c8 at an allegorical level as “unutterable”.3 It would have been interesting to comment in 33c5 and 39c1 on the influence of the irrational in Socrates’ conception of dreams and oracles, in line with E.R. Dodds,4 and some further discussion on the daimonion from the point of view of divination5 would have been useful (though this is partially developed in essay 19). However, these are minor observations, and more suggestions for further analysis in class than criticisms, for, in general, the tone and information are most suitable to both learners and instructors.
Especially worth mentioning as a distinctive feature of this edition and commentary is the series of 33 essays, incorporating not only the latest views on Socrates and Plato’s Apology, but also the basic topics of the dialogue. The discussion thus offers both stimulating perspectives on traditional debates, such as the relation between poetry and philosophy or the use of Platonic myths (p.158) and helpful comparisons between ancient, modern and contemporary topics. Among the latter are references to modern juries and legal systems (p.164) and to the contemporary conflict between science and religion over the theory of evolution (p.151), as well as some thought-provoking discussions about civil disobedience that bring in Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King (p. 186-7). The essays include reflections on the importance of grammar and syntax for the understanding of philosophical contents (p. 172) and accounts of the high-level scholarly debates (e.g. that between Vlastos and Nehamas in pp. 177-8) which make clear at the same time the learning of Miller and Platter and their comprehensive approach to the Apology.
Finally, a concise bibliography of the works quoted in the commentary and accompanying essays (pp. 11-16) and a complete glossary of all the words contained in the running vocabulary (pp. 197-222), conveniently located at the end of the volume, must be also mentioned and should be most welcomed for students. The accuracy of the Greek text is, by the way, very remarkable: we have only found one mistake: φπς instead of φῄς in the gloss to 27d1 (p. 79).
To sum up, this volume in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Literature presents a very valuable tool for its use in intermediate Greek courses. Miller and Platter successfully achieve their goals in a carefully prepared didactic edition and commentary and a challenging collection of essays for class discussion. It is a very advisable acquisition for any department of Classics as a textbook for students of ancient Greek and as a guide for instructors who wish to offer a course on Plato’s Apology.
1. Hunter, R., Plato, Götingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht 1963 and Michael C. Stokes, Plato: Apology. With an Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1997. Both of them reviewed in BMCR, cf. respectively 2005.04.54 and 1918.104.22.168.
2. T.C. Brickhouse and N.D. Smith, Socrates on Trial, Princeton University Press 1990; S. R. Slings and E. De Strycker, Plato's Apology of Socrates: A Literary and Philosophical Study With a Running Commentary. Leiden, New York, and Köln: E.J. Brill, 1994; D. Nails, The People of Plato, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2002.
3. Perhaps it is more ironic than allegorical: cf. D. M. Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato's Apology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 46
4. E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1951, 107.
5. On problems of the daimonic prophesies to Socrates cf. e.g., M.L. McPherran, "Introducing a New God: Socrates and His Daimonion," in P. Destrée & N.D. Smith, Socrates' Divine Sign: Religion, Practice, and Value in Socratic Philosophy. Kelowna, BC: Academic Printing and Publishing, 2005, pp. 13-30. On the daimonion as a intermediate between the Socrates and the gods, cf. also the traditional views of A. Tovar, Vida de Sócrates, Madrid: Revista de Occidente 1947, p. 223 ff. and H. Gundert, “Platon und das Daimonion des Sokrates”, Gymnasium 61 (1954), 513-514.