BMCR 2000.09.20

Plato’s Dialogues and Ethics

, Plato's Dialogues and ethics. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000. iii, 146 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0761815007. $39.50.

Howard A. Slaatté, who taught philosophy for many years at Marshall University, is the author of various books on philosophy and theology, most of them published by UPA. These include Our Cultural Cancer and its Cure (1995), Religious Issues in Contemporary Philosophy (1988), The Seven Ecumenical Councils (1980), The Dogma of Immaculate Perception (a critique of logical positivism, 1979), three monographs on Berdyaev and one on Kierkegaard. Over the years S. has called for philosophy to unite logic and perception, to affirm the human subject and his creativity, and to lead us to meaning in self-transcendence. In the present study, S. finds these aspirations also in Socrates and Plato, and to a lesser extent, in Aristotle. The book consists of three parts: “Plato’s Dialogues Reviewed,” summaries of thirteen dialogues ( Ap., Crito, Phdo., Ly., La., Euthyd., Cra., Grg., Chrm., Euthphr., Meno, Prt., Smp.); “Plato’s Ethics Epitomized,” a run-down of basic elements of Plato’s ethics, with comparisons of Platonic ethics to Aristotelian ethics and to Communism; “Plato and the New Testament,” a survey of New Testament passages in which S. finds Platonic traces.

Nothing in this book indicates that it was written later than the 1950’s. The most recent item in the short bibliography is Koyre’s Discovering Plato (1946). Communism is spoken of as an aggressive, organized system that “is seeking to be a world order… and looks to the destruction of all national states” (109). Thomism reigns in the Catholic Church, which demands that Church and State be one (102). In an anecdote about his speech on refugee Jews in Europe and the Palestinian question, William Alben Barkley, Senator from Kentucky (1927-49, 1954-56) and Vice President under Truman, is identified simply as “Senator Barkley of Kentucky,” as though his public service is recent and perhaps does not yet include the Vice Presidency (80). One finds no reference to debates that have so energized Socratic and Platonic studies in the last four decades: the philosophy of Socrates, the nature and purpose of the elenchus, the genre of the Socratic dialogue, the hermeneutics that it demands, the traces of esoterism in Plato… Lacking a preface, the volume does not disclose the circumstances of its coming to press.

The book’s purpose and intended audience are scarcely easier to divine than its genesis. S. does not claim expertise in ancient philosophy or in classical studies, and in fact, he relies heavily on a few well-known Plato scholars of as much as a century ago: Grote, Jackson, Gomperz, Shorey, Taylor, P.E. More, Crossman. The summaries of the thirteen dialogues recount what happens and what is said as though S. is introducing Plato to novices. On the other hand, S.’s tendency to refer without explanation to Platonic topics like the Forms, Socratic maieusis or the “middle or emotional part of man’s soul” (97) gives the impression that he is writing for an audience already familiar with Plato. Although the summaries can convey the flavor and subject of their dialogues rather well (e.g. on the Lysis), often they restate rather than engage the arguments. The summaries that best identify philosophical problems, albeit the familiar ones, are those on the Cratylus, Euthyphro and Meno. On Ly. and Smp., S. observes, anticipating Vlastos and others, that Plato does not present persons as objects of love for their own sake. The book’s many comparisons between Platonic and New Testament texts and its characterization of Socrates’ and Plato’s work as a praeparatio evangelii suggest that it aims to convince Christian readers who have some acquaintance with Plato that his thought has much to contribute to their philosophical understanding.

S.’s presentation of Socrates and Plato as idealistic reformers is sincere, his tone at times bordering on the devotional: “the sublime calmness of soul seen here (sc. end of Ap.) is one of the heights of spiritual triumph among the martyrs” (7). S. is on safe ground when he locates a leading edge of Plato’s philosophical vision in the polarity of Being and Becoming. “He seeks to destroy the Sophist (sic) belief that there is no certain reality behind our sense of the good and beautiful” (91). On several occasions, S. asserts similarity between the transcendental as envisioned by Plato and that envisioned by Kant, although the likenesses and differences in their approaches are not explained. S. divides Plato’s oeuvre into five stages: 1) a Socratic period, in which Plato represented his master’s maieutics, “which leads to the awareness that one does not know as much as he is apt to think he does” (89, a confusion between elenxis and maieusis), and showed that one must discover truth “in solitary travail;” 2) dialogues of a higher literary quality ( Prt., Grg., Euthyd., Phdr., Meno, Smp.), which present Plato’s own rudimentary theory of the ideas; 3) Plato’s attempt to expand from the Forms a systematic ontology and epistemology ( Rep.); 4) further development of theory of Forms in ontological ( Prm., Phlb., Ti.) and logico-epistemological dialogues ( Tht., Sph., Plt.); 5) investigation of social problems and ethics, under reduced hope that man can know “the good in itself” ( Laws). In the epitome of Platonic ethics that follows, S. describes Plato’s dualistic psychology (without mention of tripartite soul), his defense of justice in Grg. and Rep., the organization of the ideal state in the Republic as a counterpart to the just soul, Plato’s critique of poetry, and his prejudices against the lower classes. S. enumerates some ways in which Aristotle’s ethics differ from Plato’s: 1) Plato makes good things copies of the Good while Aristotle, putting form in matter, sees the good as immanent in them; 2) Aristotle acknowledges certain particulars as good in themselves although he organizes their value around a final end; 3) “unlike Plato, Aristotle had no hope for a perfect state” (103 — nor did Plato); 4) Aristotle criticized many features of Plato’s Republic and gave more attention to the rights and duties of the citizen; 5) Aristotle incorporates habit and emotion to a greater extent in his ethical theory; 6) Aristotle constructs his scheme inductively, Plato, deductively. Master and pupil agree that virtue is a state of soul as well as an activity, that just forms of government have unjust counterparts, that the state should make citizens good and promote happiness and justice, and that the highest pursuit is contemplation.

As noted above, complex problems become reduced either to sweeping generalizations or to the objects of passing allusion. S. can become imprecise to the point where he misleads. An example: “In the Theaetetus, Plato is more Heracleitean in that all perceived things are seen to be in a flux, and therefore unknowables, but besides the plurality of particulars in phenomena, there exist the ideal forms or Ideas as immutable objects of opinion and knowledge” (91). The Theaetetus does not discuss the Forms — if the second part of this sentence is meant to refer to other dialogues, that needs to be made clear — and the assertion that the Forms are the objects of opinion is on the face of it un-Platonic. It is not really correct to say that Plato acknowledged only two causes, the material and the formal (139), and if S. means to allude here to Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.6 988a9-15, he needs citations and explanation. Constantly, S. evaluates something in Plato or Aristotle by his own opinion or on authority without grappling with the argumentative structure in the original; e.g. “I think Socrates was wrong [to maintain that no one willingly chooses evil] because some people can know the good and choose evil, though they know they ought not, yet ‘would not come to the Light lest their deeds be reproved'” (66). Only one chapter is furnished with Stephanus page references. Some minor blunders are egregious: e.g. S. says that Lysimachus and Melesias are the two generals of the Laches, while Laches and Nicias are “young eristics” (29), the Euthydemus depicts the thought world of 500 B.C., Crito is the man halfway between philosopher and statesman (37, cf. Euthyd. 305c), Pindar formulates a definition of color (66, cf. Meno 76d3).

In Part III, S. draws some interesting parallels between Platonic and biblical passages, especially from the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the heavenly temple is the original of the earthly copy. The moral and epistemological dualism of St. Paul and the Fourth Gospel has a counterpart in the Platonic duality of Becoming and Being. S. believes that Plato was a “philosopher-prophet” who helped prepare the way for the Christian revelation (117ff.). Only a brief reference to Stoicism reveals any awareness of the 350 years of Hellenistic philosophy and religious syncretism that transmitted mid-4th century Greek thought to the New Testament writers. On these topics S. supplies too little background for the novice and no original insights for the specialist.

As an aside, it is necessary to observe that this book needed careful editing. Errors of spelling are so frequent as to become annoying (e.g. “Paul Shovey,” “Menexomus,” “Thoedore Gomperz,” “Ctessippus” consistently in the Lysis summary, “Nietzche,” “resounce,” many Greek words). One wonders whether a typist was working from a hand-written manuscript. Footnote format is often incomplete.

This book bills itself as a summary and epitome, not as a work of original scholarship. Although researchers should not encumber their perspectives with all the assumptions of their forerunners, one still expects a new publication to be up to date if it is not advertised as a reprint. I cannot pronounce this book a safe guide for the beginning student of Plato, and professionals will not find that it sheds new light on any problem. Perhaps it may be of interest to those who wish to follow S.’s career or who want to embark on a comparison of Plato with the New Testament.