BMCR 1998.07.17

Method and Politics in Plato’s Statesman. Cambridge Classical Studies


Melissa Lane sees the Statesman, despite its difficulties, as a whole, unified by its concern with political expertise and its emphasis on the methods of investigation. In her account method holds the dialogue together since the methods of investigation turn out to reflect on the method of the political technique itself. Her book thus aims to weave together the concerns of two usually opposed groups of scholars, the concern with methodology of analytical scholars, a tribe once ruled by Gilbert Ryle, and the concern with the form and unity of the Statesman shown in Straussian discussions. Indeed, Lane’s use of Straussian scholarship on the Statesman is generally fair and thorough, an untypical virtue in a Cambridge scholar of ancient philosophy. Here I will focus on the book’s principal contributions: its new interpretations of the Eleatic Stranger’s method and of the role of temporality in the dialogue. Lane’s accounts of the tale of the age of Kronos, of the rule of law, and of gender and the example of weaving will also reward the serious student of the Statesman.

The Statesman is Plato’s systematic discussion of politics as an art or expertise. The principal problem with the notion of political expertise or πολιτικὴ τέχνη, Lane explains, is that in distinguishing itself from the ordinary arts it rules, the political art would seem to leave to itself no peculiar capacity or knowledge (p. 141). The political art rules, but how? Lane’s original and compelling solution is that the Statesman‘s political art is the art of grasping the proper moment in time, the kairos, for any particular action done by any particular art among the arts that are ruled. To possess the true art of statesmanship is to know how to respond to the “dynamic flux” of events (p. 146). The general knows how to make war, but the true statesman knows when war should be made and when, instead, the survival of the regime he rules requires him to abstain from war and seek peace. The orator knows how to persuade, but only the possessor of political expertise knows when it is better for the city or her citizens to attempt persuasion and when to use force (pp. 135-6). As master of the possibilities of both force and persuasion, the political art overcomes rhetoric’s pretension to be the art of ruling cities, and at the same justifies its claim to rule rhetoric in cities.

Lane is thus led to stress the role of temporality throughout the Statesman. In particular, Lane stresses the sense in which the repeated failures of method in explication force a gradual evolution, in dialogic time, of the method itself. Previous scholarship on method in the Statesman focussed on the role of division. Lane shows us that division into kinds is joined with the method of demonstration by example or paradeigma. Indeed, while division is used both in the Statesman and in its fraternal twin, the Sophist, the Sophist precedes its divisions with the division of the example of angling, but the “example-less sallies” in the Statesman that precede the investigation into example and the “example of examples” fail repeatedly, and are admitted to have failed (p. 20).

Lane understands the Platonic use of examples ( paradeigmata) as efforts to depict the similarities and dissimilarities that are relevant to inquiry through division. To divide a genus properly is to cut the genus into its species along the relevant dissimilarity while forming a species that is itself grouped together around a relevant similarity. Lane compares Platonic paradeigmata to Thomas Kuhn’s famous “paradigms,” since both channel inquiry by manifesting structures of similarity and dissimilarity (pp. 83-85). Lane also compares the use of examples in the Statesman to the treatment of example in the rhetorical arts. In Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric the speaker brings forward an example to draw a conclusion from what he hopes will appear immediately to the audience as a relevant similarity (pp. 94-95). The Eleatic Stranger’s use of example, Lane claims, is by contrast intended to put into question “our ordinary assumptions about similarities and differences” when coupled with his more manifestly philosophical use of division.

The Statesman concludes with the metaphor of politics as weaving. In describing political weaving Lane weaves together the principal themes of her work. She shows that above all what must be intertwined are groups differentiated according to their relation to the time for action, the kairos, the quick who act in haste and excessively and the slow who act tardily and deficiently. These groups must be held together if the city as a whole is to act in timely fashion, neither quickly nor slowly (174-5). Each group finds persuasive those orators who speak of what is timely or untimely according to their own prejudices. According to the Eleatic Stranger’s art of statesmanship, these prejudices are not just to be counteracted in speech but also bred out of the audience by compelling the groups to intermarry, notwithstanding their preferences for others of similarly sluggish or quick temperaments (see p. 186). Rhetorical kairos is to speak according to the times: extra-rhetorical kairos thus masters rhetorical kairos by the timely adjustment of the audience’s inbred attitudes toward time. Machiavelli spoke of the Prince’s need to be both fox and lion, as the times demand: Plato’s Eleatic Stranger would seem to expect the statesman to produce both hares and tortoises as the moment demands. Since this statesman works not only through the inculcation of opinions as such but also through breeding, it is hard to see that what his art produces can be described simply as “an internal resolution to the conflict of judgement,” as Lane claims (p. 192). To breed humans for their opinions is rather to seek an external resolution to conflict, since the breeding is to be accomplished by compulsion more than persuasion.

Though an important step forward for our understanding of the dialogue, the book does have its failings. Lane’s account of the Sophist is inadequate to the argument that depends on it, as is her account of sophistry itself. Most seriously, the method of the Statesman poses problems in the philosophy of language that require more elaborate treatment than she adopts.

First, on the Sophist : Lane fails to situate her account of the statesman’s art correctly within the framing inquiry of the Sophist and the Statesman. That question is not whether sophists and statesmen exist but whether they can be distinguished from each other and from the philosopher ( Sophist 217a, Statesman 258b; contrast Lane p. 129). Lane’s final words, that “Method and politics in the Statesman become one” (202), suggest that the statesman is the philosopher, but she does not elucidate the discrepancy between the Stranger’s initial profession of a threefold distinction in the Sophist and this final conclusion.

Lane’s handling of the Statesman‘s context in contemporary rhetoric and sophistic is too dependent on a few secondary sources. Lane’s own brief accounts of the rhetorical understanding of kairos and paradeigma rely on Aristotle. The rhetorical masters who preceded or were contemporaries of Plato are invoked only by reference to a highly selective sample of the secondary literature (see e.g. p. 144). To be persuaded of Lane’s argument the reader needs a direct discussion of the relevant texts from the sophists and orators, since contemporary scholarly understandings of rhetoric before Aristotle vary so widely.

From a philosophical perspective the greatest need for sophistication is in regard to the role of language in the Statesman. Lane does not seem to take account of the fact that the method of division and example is a method for verbal inquiry, not for collecting or recording sense-data. A “linguistic” method would seem to presume that “names” as used prior to investigation do have some use in that investigation. Lane, however, pushes division and example very far in the direction of modern empiricism, in which names are not interrogated but categorically doubted: “Without divisions, names may happen to be sparsely or profusely provided, but there would be no reason to expect their profusion to correspond to the nature of things” (p. 33). For Lane the expectation that names provide about species-divisions is to be dismissed in favor of an account that divides and renames species according to the natural facts relevant to the purpose at hand (see pp. 54, 64 n. 89). Yet for the division to make sense as a production in language the expectation that names provide must be maintained in the conversation in which the division is conducted, even while it is somehow put into question for the particular names and things that are being divided. Division can revise names, as Lane says (p. 42), but “revision” implies an initial vision that names present, if an imperfectly clarified vision. To use Lane’s own words, “division validates claims to names” (p. 51) — that is to say, the claims are made before division commences, and, Lane’s doubts notwithstanding, in Plato as in life this claim is given some weight. Insofar as the method of the Statesman is linguistic, while the political art assesses and alters the conditions of persuasive speech with the aid of extralinguistic tools, method and politics in the Statesman are two, not one. This is what we would expect if the Eleatic Stranger does not speak ironically when he distinguishes the statesman from the philosopher.

All in all this is a fine book. Though it does not completely lay out the picture of pre-Aristotelian rhetoric on which it depends, this lacuna serves more to stimulate further investigation than to call into question Lane’s own argument. Scholarship on the Statesman has progressed mightily in the last fifteen years: further progress will build on Lane’s understandings of time and method in the dialogue. It will also require that we examine Plato’s understanding of language with the greatest philosophical rigor and sophistication. For this reason even, or especially, readers of the Statesman from the Anglo-American analytic camp would do well to approach this dialogue through Heidegger’s lectures on the Sophist.

Cf. Thomas Cole, The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (Baltimore, 1991) with Robert Wardy, The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato, and their Successors (London, 1996). See my “Plato’s Eleatic and Athenian Sciences of Politics,” forthcoming in The Review of Politics. Now available in English as Martin Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, tr. R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer (Bloomington, 1997).