Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.32

William H. F. Altman, The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher and the Post-‘Republic’ dialogues from ‘Timaeus’ to ‘Theaetetus’.   Lanham; Boulder; New York; London:  Lexington Books, 2016.  Pp. xxxvi, 517.  ISBN 9781498517867.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Carl O’Brien, Ruprecht-Karls Universität Heidelberg​ (


This volume is a continuation of Altman’s Plato the Teacher: the Crisis of the Republic (see BMCR 2012.07.12). Like its precursor, it pays detailed attention to the scholarly literature in an attempt to refute widely held assumptions about the manner in which we interpret Plato. The title The Guardians in Action is somewhat misleading since the Guardians (as the term is generally understood) are not the subject of the volume; rather the title is drawn from the famous passage at Timaeus 19b-20c, when Socrates expresses his wish to see the Guardians in action. These Guardians, Altman claims, are the readers of the Platonic dialogues (5-7).

The label “Post-Republic dialogues” in the subtitle requires some clarification. Altman investigates three paradigms which can be employed in order to decide the sequence in which the dialogues should be read: dramatic order, order of composition or Altman’s preferred solution, the reading order of the dialogues, based upon Altman’s assessment of Plato’s educational goals. Dramatic order is quite rightly rejected (on the basis that this would commit one to the view that the philosophically difficult Parmenides should be read first). Although Altman locates the Republic at the centre of Plato’s curriculum, he is opposed to the claim that any single dialogue should be represented as “the culmination of his thought” (xviii). He rejects the view that the dialogue’s characters can be regarded as speaking for Plato, as suggested by Aristotle’s references to these works, preferring instead the “creative readings” which have become predominant in the last fifty years (e.g. 418). Altman is also concerned with the reader’s experience of the dialogues: a central concern of the work is Plato’s employment of what Altman refers to as “basanistic” (or testing) pedagogy (xxii-xxiv). For Altman, then, the late dialogues should not be read as Plato’s rejection of views advanced earlier, but as containing passages intended to test his readers.

The first chapter on the Timaeus-Critias evaluates these twin dialogues with a view to the shadow cast on them by both Cicero and Taylor’s commentary. One very useful feature of this study is that Altman analyses the manner in which the philosophical views held by scholars have influenced their suggestions regarding the order of composition of the dialogues. For example, in evaluating the debate between Owen and Cherniss regarding the place of the Timaeus among the dialogues, he points to the effect that their respective views on the role played by the Theory of Ideas in Plato’s later thought had on their chronological assessment (22). Thus Altman ensures that the reader is informed about what precisely is at stake, since a given position on this topic naturally has wider-reaching consequences.

The second chapter places the Phaedrus after the Timaeus-Critias in Altman’s putative reading order, casting its twofold nature as both looking back at the preceding dialogues, as well as paving the way forwards to the technical Parmenides andPhilebus; this move allows him to employ the issue of the reading order as a mechanism for examining the vexed question of the unity of the Phaedrus (140-141). Altman acknowledges the difficulty of identifying a dialogue which might follow in the reading order after the Critias, but he argues for a parallelism between the three speeches of the first part of the Phaedrus and the three speeches of the Timaeus-Critias.

Altman’s analysis of the Parmenides in the next chapter is bound up with the question of the One and the Many, as well as evaluating the extent to which Aristotle underestimated Parmenides’ influence on Plato while overestimating that of Pythagoras (based on Metaphysics A.6). This issue leads to a discussion of Plato’s understanding of Number by way of developing this claim, although Altman further asserts that what Aristotle did not principally understand was the extent of Parmenidean pedagogy adopted by Plato (208-210).

Chapter 4 consists of an examination of the Philebus, which Altman presents as a “Mixture” (289) to explain its lack of unity, since his position is that certain passages suggest Plato’s abandonment of the Ideas while other passages are opposed to Revisionism. Three topics raised in the Philebus and central to Platonism are examined: (1) the central role of the Idea of the Good, (2) division between Being and Becoming and (3) the problem of the One and Many. The important role played by this third problem in the dialogue is of special significance for Altman, since it allows him to position the Philebus immediately after the Parmenides in his reading order (rather than immediately after the Timaeus). To further this claim, in the fourth chapter he revisits many of the topics he previously discussed in his treatment of the Parmenides, such as Number.

The final chapter examines the Cratylus and Theaetetus. This chapter illustrates nicely the manner in which Altman’s suggested reading order can enhance our understanding of individual dialogues: Cratylus is presented as an explanation for the manner in which the Philebus should be read by illustrating that even an eloquent discourse can be misleading if it is predicated on false assumptions (358). The Allegory of the Cave is also drafted in as an explanation for the failure of extreme naturalism, since names only refer to the shadows in the cave (360). Socrates’ analysis of the alphabet is presented as a key link between the Cratylus and Theaetetus, since it deals with the problem of infinite regress, treated again in the Theaetetus’ examination of the problem with an element-based theory of knowledge (364-365). Influenced by his understanding of the Theaetetus as a “post- Republic” dialogue, Altman draws a sharp distinction between the reader, who is already familiar with the arguments of the Republic, and Theaetetus himself who is not, despite his knowledge of higher mathematics (367). This allows Altman to revisit the claim made at the outset: that the Guardians are the readers of the dialogues, on the grounds that since the readers have attained a higher-level of understanding than Theaetetus, Socrates can be regarded as addressing the reader directly (370).

Altman concludes by returning to the tension between the dramatic order, his reading order and the order of composition. This tension arises since the Euthyphro and Apology, reflecting as they do Socrates’ trial, are regarded as early, while Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman are regarded as late, yet Plato clearly wanted to connect these dialogues (413). A unifying aspect behind several of the dialogues discussed in the volume—Phaedrus, Parmenides, Philebus and Cratylus—is that it is difficult to place them in any sort of reading order, since such an arrangement is not indicated by any sort of dramatic order (414). This difficulty might be taken as an indication that Plato never intended any sort of reading order to underpin these dialogues, but part of Altman’s argument for the reading order advanced in the volume rests on the central role that he claims for the Phaedrus, since he regards it as serving to connect the speeches of the Timaeus-Critias with the Parmenides and Philebus dialogues.

Claims made by Altman are not always convincingly argued. For example, Sedley’s The Midwife of Platonism is criticized on the grounds that it presents “Plato as a historian rather than a teacher” (376) by concentrating on Sedley’s thesis that the Theaetetus recounts the role which Socrates played in the development of Platonism (374-376). Such criticism seems to focus on a moot point given that Sedley’s work is concerned with the teaching role of Socrates and the importance of Platonic metaphysics in philosophical investigation. In any case, it does not accurately reflect Sedley’s argument that Socrates (at Phaedo 99c) anticipates becoming Plato’s student since the Timaeus will teach him what he failed to learn from the writings of Anaxagoras. 1

The formulation of some of the arguments is also not particularly persuasive. For example, Altman notes that Plato intended that his works would survive, but also required that those of both Thucydides and Parmenides would also do so (37). Even if claims such as this or “as far as Plato was concerned, the chances of Homer surviving…were better than those of Thucydides” (38) are based upon the frequency with which Plato quotes specific authors, it still seems to be a case of putting words in Plato’s mouth. To suggest that this is implied by Plato presenting his philosophy within a dramatic context is not a compelling enough proof: to my mind it is clear that the dialogues are enriched by the reader’s historical knowledge of the dramatis personae, but to assert that “Plato needed Thucydides” or that “Plato made a serious mistake” (39) in requiring Parmenides’ work to survive so that subsequent readers could properly appreciate his own writings appears to me to push an argument which the evidence cannot support.

A praiseworthy feature of the work is that Altman is consistently conscious of the biases and limitations of Anglophone scholarship (e.g. at 392 when commenting on the digression of the Theaetetus) and places the reception of Plato in the context of other significant interpretations (such as those of the Tübingen School). Altman has a lively and engaging style, but the volume should have been edited to reduce some of the extraneous material which can, at times, distract from the main line of argumentation. Another difficulty is that the work still bears the legacy of really being part of a multi- study volume (following Plato the Teacher and to be continued with the forthcoming The Guardians on Trial), rather than functioning completely effectively as a stand-alone monograph, an issue that Altman himself addresses (e.g. xviii-xix or at 351 where a justification for examining theTheatetus in conjunction with the Cratylus, and separate from the Sophist or Statesman, has to be postponed until the forthcoming volume).

I am not convinced of the utility of citing Wikipedia (other than in reference to popular culture) in an academic work (e.g.127, n. 486, 136 n. 523/524, 137, n.529), although in fairness to Altman, this is infrequent, occurring in the case of topics related to German National Socialism, rather than classical antiquity. There appears to be minor error with part of a footnote missing at 139 n. 1 and there are some minor misprints (e.g. 406 “Stanger” for Stranger). That said, Altman does an admirable job of separating Plato from his later reception (i.e. he makes a very conscious attempt to disentangle Plato’s own views from subsequent Platonism) and the volume is particularly rich in terms of the range of topics treated and number of challenges posed to the commonly held view of Plato. Enlightening as it is to read the Platonic dialogues on their own, our understanding of them is certainly enhanced when they can be used to illuminate one another, and Altman supplies the reader with numerous examples of how this can function in the case of the dialogues under discussion. Altman has produced a thought-provoking book that stretches across an extensive canvas and re-evaluates the nature and interrelationship of some of Plato’s most enduring works.


1.   Sedley, D. The Midwife of Platonism, Oxford University Press, 2004, 91-92.

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