BMCR 1998.07.22

Toward a New Interpretation of Plato. Translated from the tenth edition and edited by John R. Catan and Richard Davies


Giovanni Reale’s new Plato is the well known teacher of esoteric doctrines. Since the publication of the Italian original in 1984 Giovanni Reale has been known as one of the protagonists of the Tuebingen School. An abridged version of his major work on Plato has now been translated into English. English publications that put forward esoteric readings include, most notably, Findlay (1974), Gaiser (1980) and Kraemer (1990); their most influential opponents are Cherniss (1945), Vlastos (1963) and more recently Brisson (1995); a compromise is pursued by Sayre (1983). The esoteric Plato was put forward by Richard (1986) in France, and, not least due to Reale, the thesis has been somewhat successful in Italy. There and in Germany, where the latest phase of esoteric interpretation was inaugurated by Kraemer (1959), a lively debate is taking place; in the Anglo-Saxon world, however, esotericists still have little or no success.

The starting points of the esoteric approach are the “criticism of writing” in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter as well as representations of Plato’s doctrines in later ancient authors such as Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Simplicius, Sextus Empiricus and others. Their remarks are called “indirect tradition” as opposed to the “direct tradition” of Plato’s philosophy in the dialogues. Selections from the indirect tradition are available to the English reader in Findlay (1974) and Kraemer (1990). It is a long-standing puzzle that the indirect tradition ascribes doctrines to Plato which are not to be found in the dialogues (Sayre (1983) opposes this view). In order to explain the discrepancy between the two sources, esotericists put forward the hypothesis that Plato conveyed parts of his doctrines orally to his pupils in the Academy. They support this hypothesis by the “criticism of writing,” claiming that for some reason Plato did not want to put all his doctrines into writing; in fact they maintain that the most important issues were exclusively discussed orally. The most prominent example is the doctrine of first Principles from which the Ideas are derived, which has already been presented in earlier publications, for example Kraemer (1990) (cf. Guthrie (1978)).

Reale’s book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of groundwork in which he adopts Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution, applying it to the history of Plato scholarship, and justifies his esoteric approach by interpreting Phaedrus 274b-279c and 340b-345c of the Seventh Letter; the second part is concerned with Phaedo 96a-102a and presents the ontological hierarchy as the result of the Second Voyage; part three comments on some dialogues from the esoteric point of view, and finally Reale provides a reinterpretation of the Demiurge in part four. New are the application of Kuhn’s theory, the account of the Second Voyage and Reale’s interpretation of the Demiurge as occupying an important place in Plato’s philosophical doctrines at least from the Phaedo onwards. Apart from some remarks on the Seventh Letter, I will therefore focus on these points.

According to Reale four paradigms have been dominant in Platonic studies. The first was applied by his immediate followers Aristotle, Speusippus and Xenocrates. It had its genesis not only in the dialogues but also in oral discussions in the Academy and depends therefore to a great extent on the unwritten doctrines. The second paradigm was formulated by Middle- and Neoplatonists and at least the latter made considerable use of the unwritten doctrines. The so-called “indirect tradition” that has come down to us consists of the texts and fragments of representatives of these two approaches. The Neoplatonic paradigm remained unchallenged until the times of Schleiermacher, who replaced it with his own “dialogical” approach, which found its first influential expression in Schleiermacher’s translation of Plato’s dialogues into German (1804-28) and his introductions to the translations (an English translation of the introductions by William Dobson (1836) is available in several reprints). Finally, we are in a period of “extraordinary science” initiated by the Tuebingen School, and it is the fundamental tenet of Reale’s book that their paradigm will replace “Schleiermacherianism.”

Reale characterizes Schleiermacher’s paradigm by three premisses: it postulates, first, the unity of the literary form and philosophical content of the dialogues, secondly a doctrinal unity of Plato’s thought, and thirdly it takes the dialogues as self-sufficient, so that Plato’s thought can be found in them without taking into consideration the indirect doxographical tradition. The approach is said to have had considerable success in establishing authenticity and chronology and studying “form and structure” of the dialogues. Especially during this century, however, anomalies in the form of the indirect tradition gradually emerged. Since the indirect tradition draws heavily on the unwritten doctrines, which cannot be found in the dialogues, self-sufficiency and the former doctrinal unity were increasingly in conflict with these reports. In the resulting crisis of the former approach the Tuebingen School started from this very anomaly in order to put up a new paradigm.

That is Reale’s theory in outline. It is, however, hard to see how Aristotle, Speusippus and Xenocrates employed a common paradigm apart from their supposed use of the unwritten doctrines, and it is even more problematic to characterize the research of the last two centuries in Reale’s way: the only common element is probably the rejection of a distinct oral doctrine, but I am not concerned with that. The question is rather, why does Reale adopt Kuhn’s theory and is he justified in doing so. There is no need to apply this theory in order to make us aware of the different phases in Platonic studies. All the talk about paradigms rather serves two related purposes: showing that the extremely critical reactions provoked by the Tuebingen School are not proof of the unsoundness of its results and making the Tuebingen approach immune against criticism in “categories” derived from Schleiermacher’s paradigm (13, 17, 21), since these “categories” are in a “dimension which is radically different” (21).

Kuhn explains, and Reale quotes at length (13f., 18f.), that stubborn resistance and sometimes even hostility against the new paradigm from scientists who did their creative research in the old paradigm is a side-effect of extraordinary science. And Kuhn also says that scientific revolutions produce a shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in legitimate problem-solutions. Thus, different paradigms are fundamentally at cross-purposes and the incompatibility of concepts implies the incommensurability of different paradigms; nevertheless translations into the language of other paradigms are possible.

However, if Reale says anything at all on the issue, his presentation is disappointingly weak in reflecting upon the supposed incommensurability and the conceptual change that is so essential to it. The incommensurability is not caused by the enlarged textual basis: Schleiermacher himself, for example, did not exclude Aristotle’s testimony as irrelevant for interpreting Plato; he only claimed that it was not entirely unfamiliar from the dialogues (Dobson (1836), 12-13), an assumption that, according to Sayre (1993 in his review of Kraemer (1990)), has still not been disproved. Furthermore, the fundamental question of both approaches is “What are Plato’s philosophical doctrines?” and there is no reason why different philosophical doctrines that are put forward as answers to that question should not be commensurable. From this point of view, the different approaches are not “fundamentally at cross-purposes.”

Nevertheless, Reale uses concepts that do not make sense within a non-esoteric approach. His notion of “esotericism” is the key concept. The “unwritten doctrines” did not remain unwritten by accident or because they were a late development in Plato’s thought. They were hidden from the public and conveyed to a restricted circle of followers within the Academy. Only in relation to the existence of an esoteric unwritten doctrine do concepts like “allusion” (to the esoteric doctrines) and Reale’s distinction of “Plato the writer” and “Plato the thinker” (88: the first strategically conceals the doctrines of the latter) make sense.

A philosophical doctrine has to be evaluated with regard to the problem with which it is concerned. Interpretations of texts have to be tested by recourse to the texts. An esotericist, however, would not test an interpretation by recourse to the dialogues, since they allegedly conceal important parts of Plato’s doctrines, and even what they reveal must — at least in some cases — not be taken as a proper account of these doctrines.

The indirect doxographical tradition consists of scattered remarks, and in the case of Aristotle these remarks serve to contrast with his own superior account, so that Plato’s doctrines are forced into Aristotle’s own terminology. In quite a few cases it is not obvious to whom a given passage refers, whether to Plato or somebody else. And some of these criticisms yield doctrines that are not at all consistent with each other, so that we can hardly ascribe all these doctrines to Plato. Critics who put forward such points are heavily criticised by the esotericists for “explaining away” Aristotle’s testimony. But on the other hand, in order to extract the unwritten doctrines from the testimonia considerable emendations of the testimonia are necessary.

If we raise an objection on the basis of a dialogue, we are told that Plato intentionally misrepresents this point in the dialogues. Thus the source of the immunity of Reale’s interpretation against objections couched “in categories of the dialogical paradigm” becomes apparent: We must neither infer from the silence of Plato the writer that Plato the thinker did not maintain some doctrine, nor are contradictory statements of the writer the final criterion that the thinker did not put forward some doctrine. However, if we raise an objection on the basis of what we learn from the indirect tradition, either that it does not say anything about an issue or that other parts of the indirect tradition contradict an esotericist’s interpretation, then we are told that the indirect tradition misrepresents the doctrine as well. Thus Reale’s interpretation is also immune against objections couched in categories of the esoteric paradigm. Carried to extremes this means that we cannot test Reale’s claims, not even from his own point of view. It is, therefore, impossible to prove or to disprove these claims.

None the less, Reale draws on Plato’s writings, but he succumbs to the temptation of reading into Plato’s writings what fits into his esoteric preconception rather than scrutinizing the text. Reale interprets Plato’s writings partly as stating the doctrine in question straightforwardly and partly as alluding to some doctrine. It is, therefore, fair enough to compare text and interpretation.

Reale interprets the Seventh Letter straightforwardly as establishing Plato’s strategy of concealment (62-69). Without being particularly sensitive to the text or to the consequences of his claims, he takes the passage in question (340b-345c) to mean that Plato refused to write about those matters about which he is “serious” (341c2), so that they are not to be found in the dialogues. The matters about which he refused to write are exactly the content of the unwritten doctrines and most notably the first Principles, the Good/One and the indefinite Dyad. The first Principles are not intrinsically incommunicable or ineffable; on the contrary they are both sayable and writable. The so-called philosophical digression (342a7-344d3) indicates the epistemological reasons why the philosopher did not entrust them to the written works. Reale writes: “We use (1) names, (2) definitions, and (3) images to achieve (4) knowledge which brings us (5) to grasp the intelligible itself” (65). And indeed, as an example for the fifth Plato mentions the “good” (342d4), and later on he even uses the expression “first and highest Principles of reality” (344d5-6, cf. 67). Since the first three are sensibles, they present qualities to the soul that are contrary to the intelligible, therefore they are said to be only defective “means” for the soul.

There are many problems in this account of a highly complicated passage, but I shall restrict my discussion to the most pressing one. Reale understands the digression as Plato’s justification for not putting the first Principles into writing. But this makes sense only if the reasons given apply exclusively to first Principles and not to normal Ideas, which Reale takes to be presented in the dialogues adequately and without restrictions. Therefore, the philosophical digression should be expected to refer to issues concerning first Principles only, or at least it should distinguish between Ideas, first Principles and the reasons why Ideas will be put into writing, whereas first Principles will not. But this is not the case. In fact, the digression not only does not distinguish between Ideas and first Principles, there is not even a hint that its author had Reale’s “first Principles” in mind. He rather provides a whole list of examples for the fifth thing (342c7-e1), i. e. the intelligible itself, and all these examples are presented as normal Ideas, the “good” amongst them. Here we find the Ideas of the circle, straight and curved shapes, the good, the beautiful, the just, artificial and natural bodies, fire, water and the like, all kinds of animals, etc. Whenever Plato refers to them as the “greatest,” the “most serious things,” the “first and highest Principles of reality” (341b2, 344c6, d5-6, cf. 67), we have to suppose that he is concerned with Ideas, and not with first Principles as opposed to Ideas. Thus it becomes apparent why the philosophical digression causes so much concern: How is this verdict against putting the Ideas into writing consistent with the dialogues?

Furthermore, the philosophical digression is framed by a presentation of Plato’s meeting with the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse. The Letter leaves no doubt that only one philosophical meeting took place (345a3-5), and during this meeting the philosopher tested the suitability of the tyrant for philosophy by stressing the great effort that is connected with philosophizing. The author of the Letter complains that Dionysius is said to have written about the doctrines which he heard during this lesson as if they were his own. Note that Plato only blames the tyrant in case he wrote the book, since he knows about the tyrant’s book only by hearsay (341b3-6). Without paying attention to the fact that it is not certain whether the book was written at all, Reale takes that for granted. And since Reale assumes that only first Principles should not be put into writing, he consequently believes that Dionysius II was taught about these issues during the meeting and wrote about them afterwards (62). But if this most important and highest doctrine was only conveyed to the most inner circles of the Academy, it is highly implausible that Plato told the tyrant about it on the occasion of a very first, preliminary meeting.

The interpretation of the Seventh Letter is an attempt to prove Plato’s esoteric attitude toward first Principles. The Phaedo is supposed to connect written and unwritten philosophy. According to Reale Phaedo 96a-102a is a map of Plato’s metaphysical project, consisting of “three fundamental parts of his metaphysics: the theory of Ideas, the theory of Principles, and the doctrine of the Demiurge” (95 n. 3). This metaphysical project is the so-called Second Voyage. The First and Second Voyage each proceed in two stages. The First Voyage is concerned with sensibles; its first stage is “inspired by the doctrines of the Physicists in general” (96), its second stage by Anaxagoras — his doctrine of the Nous is criticized by Socrates and in this corrected version identified with Plato’s Demiurge. The Second Voyage is concerned with supersensibles; its first step is the theory of Ideas, the second step is the theory of ultimate Principles (96). Two claims of this interpretation are most astonishing, firstly that the Anaxagoras passage tells us something about the Demiurge and secondly that we can learn from the Phaedo something about first Principles.

Reale interprets most of the passage describing the Second Voyage (99d-102a) along the lines of a non-esoteric interpretation. In the first step the existence of the Ideas and of participation in them are hypothesized. But at 101d6 Socrates discusses the possibility that Cebes, maintaining a hypothesis (supposedly about Ideas), may be asked to give an account of the hypothesis, and Socrates advises him: ἄλλην αὖ ὑπόθεσιν ὑποθέμενος ἥτις τῶν ἄνωθεν βελτίστη φαίνοιτο, ἕως ἐπί τι ἱκανὸν ἔλθοις (101d7-e1). According to Reale the “higher hypothesis” must put forward first Principles, since the “indirect tradition states that, above the Ideas, Plato placed the first and highest Principles” (106). The interpretation of the “higher hypotheses” as the One and the indefinite Dyad might seem plausible, and Reale is confident enough to note that other scholars have been “very embarrassed by these passages” (107). Nevertheless Reale’s reading does not solve the problems which make the whole passage so difficult and is basically stuck with the same difficulties as a non-esoteric interpretation.

By way of recapitulation, the major problems are, firstly, an explanation of the hypothetical method itself; secondly, since the Ideas are introduced by the hypothetical method, they do not look like a metaphysical dogma, if they are supposed to be a “doctrine” at all; and, thirdly, the “higher hypotheses”. In addition, there are textual questions like the meaning of “strongest” (100a4) and ὑποθέσεως ἔχεσθαι (101d2 and d4), while contextual problems include the relation to the method of the natural philosophers, the following argument for the soul’s immortality, and the immediate understanding of Phaedo’s interlocutors. And this is not a complete list. Of course, no commentator can be blamed for not solving all the difficulties at once, but Reale mentions the “embarrassment” that the passage caused for other scholars in such a way that we might suppose that he has overcome the embarrassing perplexities. In fact, he is only concerned with one major problem, i.e. the higher hypotheses; but as I shall argue his suggestion does not fit the text.

Scholars have often interpreted the Second Voyage as a foundation of a dogmatic metaphysical doctrine of Forms, which is exactly what Reale tries to do. Their difficulties emerge in Reale’s interpretation as well, and Reale is not really better off regarding the key proposition (101d6-e1). Firstly, for Reale the one “higher hypothesis,” namely the Good, is not hypothetical at all, since it is identified with the “unhypothetical principle” of the Republic (511b6, 218; cf. Blank (1986)). Secondly, Reale’s “higher hypotheses” are quite determined, namely the Good/One and the Dyad, and he can put them forward only together as constituting the Ideas; thus Reale provides a single determined higher hypothesis. Cebes, however, is advised to take again ( αὖ) a hypothesis (not the hypothesis, there is no article in the text), whichever ( ἥτις) of those higher ( τῶν ἄνωθεν : Cebes seems to have a choice) hypotheses that seems ( φαίνοιτο) best, until ( ἕως suggests a regressus, not in infinitum but certainly longer than one step), he gets something ( τι) that is adequate.

The entirely determined higher hypotheses of Reale’s interpretation are at odds with the vagueness stressed in Plato’s formulation, and moreover Socrates’ advice to Cebes does not seem particularly sound. Reale argues that the Ideas are put forward in the first hypothesis (100a3-4). Now, I can think of two questions that could possibly be met by putting forward first Principles, namely, what are the material and formal causes of Ideas (other questions are hardly more that reformulations of these). But I can also think of many objections, e.g. those to be found in the Parmenides or in Aristotle, against which Cebes’ perpetual repetition of first Principles would hardly be convincing, and it is not unthinkable that someone who doubts the existence of Ideas may doubt the existence of first Principles as well, perhaps even adducing the same objections. Thus, the higher hypothesis is hardly “something sufficient” ( τι ἱκανὸν). It may, therefore, well be questioned whether Reale is justified in saying: “It is here that the new paradigm shows one of its greatest powers in solving long-standing puzzles” (107).

The third part of the metaphysical map is the doctrine of the Demiurge. Anaxagoras was, on Reale’s interpretation of Phaedo 97b-99c, right to affirm that Mind is the cause of everything, ordering it in the best way (99). Anaxagoras was only mistaken in proceeding with physical explanations instead of arguing in terms of the Good. Taking the issue up again in chapter 16 we read that “[a]nyone who introduces Intelligence as the cause of things must proceed on the basis of this structural connection between the doctrine of Intelligence and the Principle of the Good” (309). This is what Anaxagoras ought to have done and what we are supposed to believe that Plato did when he wrote the Phaedo. Therefore, Reale concludes, the Demiurge was not a late addition to Plato’s thought.

The activities of the Demiurge, however, do not include only the creation of the whole realm of sensibles (324), as well as the creation of the elements of the sensible, i.e. water, air, earth, and fire, by “mathematical means” (324f., 333, 392, cf. 271), but also the creation of the “formal elements,” i.e. numbers and mathematical and geometrical structures (333, cf. 271), the “mixture” of the Philebus (270f.), the Ideas of artifacts (330f., 426), the world-soul (307, 424), and the visible Gods (424). The Demiurge is concerned with this manifold business, not creating ex nihilo but rather bringing the unformed mass to order (391) using the first Principles and Ideas of natural things while being subordinate to the Idea of the Good that lays down the rules for the creation. Anaxagoras’ Nous, on the other hand, even in Socrates’ corrected version, would only generate and order sensibles with regard to the Good as final cause.

I do not doubt that Plato had some views about Anaxagoras’ doctrine, and the question is neither whether Plato maintained the doctrine in question at some time and expressed it elsewhere, nor whether Plato had this opinion at the very time when he wrote the Phaedo. The question is whether we can infer from the Phaedo that its author maintained the doctrine of the Demiurge, given that Reale does not understand this as a mere allusion. Reale quotes extended parts of the passage repeatedly and at length, but for some reason he omits its conclusion (99c7-d1). Hence we are not told that the character Socrates expressly abandons Anaxagoras’ ideas and does not refer to his metaphysical Mind again. There is no other support for Reale’s claim that the author of the Phaedo was convinced of the doctrine of the Demiurge than Socrates’ presentation of some experience with a similar but nevertheless different approach which he dismissed.

Since Plato does not speak in propria persona in the dialogues it is already problematic to infer Plato’s opinions from “Socrates'” views, but here Reale even infers from Plato’s presentation of Socrates as rejecting a doctrine expressly that this doctrine in an altered version has to be regarded as Plato’s. In the hermeneutical grey area of retrieving Plato’s convictions from the dialogues, Reale’s procedure is hardly acceptable. We cannot draw any conclusions about Plato’s Demiurge on the basis of the Phaedo, but in order to prove his thesis that the Demiurge is not a late addition to Plato’s thought, Reale produces a passage from the Republic.

In Republic 596e-597e, Plato develops the triadic schema of Idea-God, artifact-artisan, imitation-imitator. It is the only passage in the whole corpus where some Ideas are said to be created. There are indications that the divine creation of Ideas is introduced for mere reasons of symmetry and thus should not be read literally, but even if the passage is interpreted literally, a divine creator of Ideas of artifacts has nothing to do with the Demiurge of the Timaeus. We must not jump to the conclusion that the Demiurge of the late dialogues is present in the Republic. This having been said, it is of course still possible that the Demiurge is not a late addition to Plato’s doctrines, but neither the Phaedo nor the Republic provide the necessary evidence.

In sum, even if one adopts Reale’s assumption that Plato had an esoteric attitude toward parts of his doctrines, the Second Voyage of the Phaedo is unlikely to refer to these esoteric teachings; and both Phaedo and Republic do not prove any systematic importance of the Demiurge in the thought of their author. The esotericism itself, which includes first Principles and leaves the normal Ideas in the exoteric realm, cannot be retrieved from the Seventh Letter. Finally, concerning the application of Kuhn’s theory, clarifications are badly needed: we can expect more from a philosophical book than a collection of metaphors as a characterization of an allegedly new paradigm, and its author could have said something about the “incommensurability of categories” of the different approaches. This would have revealed that “hidden” and “esoteric” meanings are retrieved from Plato’s writings rather independently from the textual evidence. The book under review fails to be convincing with regard to any of its major contributions.

I am grateful to Professor David Blank for his valuable comments.


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