Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.39

Paul Ryan, Plato's Phaedrus: A Commentary for Greek Readers. Oklahoma series in classical culture, 47.   Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.  Pp. xxix, 344.  ISBN 9780806142593.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrea Capra, Università degli Studi di Milano (

After a brief preface and a list of works cited (VII-XIV), this book features a twelve-page introduction to the Phaedrus by Mary Louise Gill (XV-XXIX), followed by a reproduction of Burnet's text, including the relevant apparatus (3-75). The core of the book is a continuous commentary on the Greek text, divided into three main parts and eighteen sections (79-332).1 Three indexes conclude the book: Greek terms, English terms, Proper terms (328- 344). Ryan's target audience is students, and he defines his work as "unashamedly didactic" (VII). This is true in the sense that the commentary offers basic and safe guidance on historical, prosopographical, textual, grammatical and especially stylistic facts. Scattered in the book, however, there is much of interest for specialists as well. In sum, Ryan gets the job done, and some of his rich notes belie his gracious modesty.

Ryan is just as modest when he stresses his debt towards de Vries' commentary, and expresses his regret for his inability to take into account the Green and Yellow edition by Yunis, which appeared too late.2 To be sure, Ryan's debts to de Vries are clear enough, but this is not the whole story. While he always guarantees the minimal basic guidance I have mentioned, many of Ryan’s notes are in fact much richer than this and invite comparison with scholarly commentaries. As a rule, he takes de Vries into (selective) account. Sometimes, however, he goes beyond de Vries. In particular, as Ryan himself suggests, his notes "give perhaps more than the usual amount of attention to the logical connection, nuance, and emphasis lent by particles" (VII), which is true and welcome.

On close inspection, Ryan does not always agree with de Vries, and on a number of occasions he improves on him. A good example is 241d1, where Socrates utters what he refers to as an epic verse that the manuscripts give as ὡς λύκοι ἄρνας ἀγαπῶσιν, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί. Ryan reminds the reader that the line is an adaptation of (some version of) the hexameter proverb from the scholia to Iliad 22.262: ἄρνα φιλοῦσι λύκοι νέον ὡς φιλέουσιν ἐρασταί. Ryan goes on to say that "Socrates, who was speaking in 'dithyrambic' style before he interrupted himself after 238c4, now narrowly escapes speaking in hexameters. Becker's conjecture ἄρν᾿ ἀγαπῶσ᾿ would perfect the meter, but perhaps that is not necessary or even desirable . . . The very imperfection of the text . . . heightens the impression that some external influence is in the process of turning Socrates' speech into verse" (156-7 ad 241d1, and 159 ad 241e1). Ryan is likely to be right, and one may add that, as a general rule, metre tends to protect the text, so such a corruption is unlikely to have occurred. Ryan modestly does not mention that de Vries opts for Bekker's conjecture, as do many others.

Ryan, then, often comes up with cautious and sound assessments of the text. At other times he offers uncommonly abundant information, particularly from the stylistic point of view. This is the case with his comments on 237a-b, where Socrates summons the ligeiai Muses and places his speech in a fictional setting by narrating that there was once a boy who happened to have many lovers. To begin with (ad 237a7-b1), Ryan provides detailed information on the Ligyans, something that cannot be found in other commentaries. Second (ad237b2), he dwells on οὕτως as a formula to introduce a fable, and he does so by contextualising the relevant passages (whereas de Vries merely mentions them). This is no doubt for the benefit of his primary audience of students, but then comes the third innovative note in a row: one of the lovers was sly, αἱμύλος, and Ryan's relevant note is actually more informative than de Vries', as it includes the important remark that αἱμύλος is almost a hapax in Plato (and thus further contributes to the poetic aura of the passage, as is so often the case with hapax legomena in the Phaedrus).

These elaborations, however uneven, are always welcome, and range from textual problems to topography (e.g. ad 229c2, with an excellent discussion of Socrates' and Phaedrus' walk), meteorology (230a6 with the history of the word τυφῶν), zoology (ad 249d7-8 with an interesting remark on the behaviour of birds) and especially style, as befits Ryan's interest in particles. At times, Ryan's notes are humorous as well as sensible, as when he comments on the strange image of the growing πτερόν (either wing or feather) under the soul's form: "I do not think that Plato's imagination troubled itself to go into the matter very far; if we attempt consistency [sc. on the meaning of πτερόν] we evoke in our imaginations fallen souls with naked wings like plucked chickens and other grotesqueries" (ad 251b6-7). Ryan's elaborations seem to be slightly more frequent for the first half of the Phaedrus,3 which is just as well. The judicious commentary by Yunis is especially strong and informative as regards rhetoric, which is the object of the second part of the dialogue.

By way of conclusion, it may be appropriate to spell out what the reader should not expect to find in this book. The commentary is of the running type, and sticks strictly to such a format. In contrast to C. J. Rowe's deservedly popular edition,4 it explicitly caters to "Greek readers". Any problem that exceeds the span of a few Greek words is unlikely to be discussed, so that Ryan has not much to say about longer units such as scenes or philosophical arguments. "Hardened Platonists will quickly see that I am not a historian of philosophy" says Ryan (VII). His note ad 249b6-c1, where Socrates makes a somewhat convoluted and elliptical reference to dialectics, nicely captures Ryan's overall down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to philosophical issues: "The general sense is clear, the exact text less so. I accept Heindorf's τὸ because κατ᾿ εἶδος λεγόμενον seems unidiomatic without it: 'For a human being must understand a thing that is said according to class [or type], gathering it into one by reasoning, although it comes from many perceptions'. My cat Tom sits in the window and observes many occasions when it is snowing, but only I can bring them together into a single concept and give it a name".

This may not be very palatable to some but can still make perfect sense. I find more problems on the literary side, in Ryan's treatment of entire scenes. Thus the conclusion of the dialogue, with the reference to Isocrates and Socrates' final prayer to Pan, is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic moments of the Phaedrus, and yet not only does Ryan fail to offer a solution to the thorny problems raised by these lines, he does not even mention that there is a problem. By and large, this is a consequence of the commentary's format, which lacks the more general introductions to larger parts that are found in so many commentaries, including Rowe, de Vries and Yunis. This may prove misleading especially for students, who are Ryan's primary audience. Yet it is true that his commentary is intended for the classroom: a good teacher can easily minimize the danger.

It remains to say something about M. L. Gill's introduction, revolving around "Dramatic Setting", "Dramatic Date", "Date of Composition", "Love and Rhetoric", "Unity of the Phaedrus", "The Rhetoric of Philosophy". I found it clear, concise and informative. The whole book exudes care and passion for teaching — the commentary is in fact a revision of the material Ryan has used to teach the Phaedrus. Over time, he seems to have incorporated feedback from the students themselves, which strikes me as a nice example of Platonic communication. The book is elegantly produced and seems to be happily free from misprints and typos. I appreciate the policy of having the Oxford text accompanied by Burnet's relevant apparatus, as I think that students should be exposed to the complexity of the text. Granted, Ryan has not consulted the manuscripts, but since he pays attention to textual problems in a way that is accessible to non- specialists, this is possibly a better solution than the scanty textual notes provided in the Green and Yellow series. All in all, this book is a welcome addition to the already existing English commentaries on the Phaedrus.


1.   I The Nonlover has his day (The Walk; The Speech of Lysias; The First Interlude; The First Speech of Socrates; The second Interlude); II The Palinode (The Kinds of Madness; The Soul in Deduction and Similitude; The Hyperuranian Experience; The Struggle and the Prize; The Soul Falls in Love; The Soul in Love); III Toward an Art of Speaking (In the Heat of the Day; Knowledge, Truth and Rhetoric; Definition, Collection, and Division; Handbooks and devices; Toward an Art of Speaking; Two Cheers for the Written Word; Epilogue).
2.   G. J. de Vries, A Commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato, Amsterdam 1969; H. Yunis (ed.), Plato, Phaedrus, Cambridge 2011.
3.   The first thirty or so Stephanus pages (226a-257b) are given 154 pages of commentary (79-233) as against 95 (237-332) covering the remaining 22.
4.   Plato, Phaedrus, with Translation and Commentary, Warminster 1986. Like Ryan, Rowe emphasises his debt to de Vries and successfully caters to both students and specialists, but his target audience is primarily English readers.

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