BMCR 2000.11.10

Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity

, Who speaks for Plato? : studies in Platonic anonymity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. vi, 245 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0847692183.

There have been several collections of this sort published over the last ten or twelve years, investigating what Plato’s adoption of the dialogue-form can tell us about his intentions as a philosopher. Some of these collections have included, for contrast, the thoughts of those who as a rule have paid little attention to the dialogue-form or to any literary features of Plato’s dialogues; others consist entirely of exercises in what Gerald Press calls ‘the new Platonism’ (2). This ‘new Plato scholarship’ (2) — note the equivalence — he defines by two markers: it takes the dialogues to be non-dogmatic, and it regards their literary features as crucially important to their correct interpretation. But Press’ collection distinguishes itself from all its predecessors. He has had the excellent idea of requiring his contributors to address a single problem: Is it legitimate to treat certain favoured characters in the dialogues — Socrates, above all — as Plato’s spokesmen? The tradition among English-speaking Plato scholars in this century has been to take the character who leads the philosophic discussion in any particular dialogue — or at least Socrates, Timaeus, the Eleatic and Athenian Strangers — as representing Plato’s own philosophic views and as offering arguments that Plato would endorse. If such a character resorts to a rhetorical ploy, these scholars assume that Plato would approve it for the situation at hand. New Platonists, by contrast, find no representatives of Plato within his dialogues. None of his fictional characters speaks for Plato; if anything speaks for him, they contend, it is the whole dialogue. How one answers the question “Who speaks for Plato?”, then, might seem to determine fundamental differences of approach, and an obvious merit of Press’ editorial decision is that it gives his collection urgency and focus. A less obvious merit is that it gives the critical reader a chance to grasp, at a stroke, what is wrong with the new Platonism; for on closer scrutiny the question “Who speaks for Plato?” turns out to be a question that fails to hit the mark. It is not the right question to ask if we seek to distinguish new Platonists from traditionalists. And its failure is interesting.

Not every contributor to this volume is a new Platonist. Although Lloyd Gerson’s is the only voice to speak unambiguously on behalf of the traditional approach, Holger Thesleff combines the new Platonist belief that the dialogues are non-dogmatic with the traditional belief that Socrates and other figures worthy to be called “Plato’s philosopher” speak for their author from within the dialogues (61, 64). Erik Ostenfeld too, despite announcing in the very title of his essay that everyone in a Platonic dialogue speaks for Plato, ends up conceding that Plato does after all have his heroes (217) and that if we find patterns of thought recurring across dialogues we are entitled to treat them as Platonic tenets (218). Thesleff agrees (65), but insists that patterns of thought so general as those we label “the theory of forms” or “the sublimating force of eros” are closer to thought-experiments than to doctrines (61).

A traditionalist might well accept that the dialogues are non-dogmatic if by that we mean only that the dialogues are philosophically experimental or provisional. But most contributors to this volume mean more than that by the term. They and the traditionalist have a genuine disagreement. Two themes characterize the new Platonist understanding of the dialogues’ non-dogmatism: one, that the dialogues are intended to set the reader thinking for himself rather than to tell him what Plato believes; the other, that a principal function of the dialogues is to illustrate, quite generally, how philosophy is done.

Both themes are nicely articulated in the essay by Debra Nails that opens the collection. While not at all denying that the dialogues have philosophic content, or even that Plato had doctrines, she holds that the primary function of the dialogues was to stir academic debate, not only by setting out philosophic positions in such a way as to invite critique (the first new Platonist theme), but also by offering illustrations of philosophic discussion (the second theme) (25). Those illustrations show the reader what is possible in philosophy, and spur him to participate in its general project. Other contributors than Nails make this aspect of the second theme explicit. For Joanne Waugh, the function of the dialogues is to help the reader to learn, through vicarious participation in the fictional debate, how to speak and think philosophically (49). Elinor West believes that through the dialogues we experience something of what it was like to be present at a Socratic interrogation and that this encourages us to practice philosophy in an open-ended fashion (102, 111). Ruby Blondell applies the theme to Plato’s art of characterization: when a character is well dramatized, the reader is more likely to be drawn into evaluating that character’s philosophic potential and so into sharing Socrates’ search for those with true philosophic talent (130).

In other contributions it is the first theme that dominates — getting readers to think for themselves. Eugenio Benitez, taking the Laches as a paradigm, argues that Plato compels his readers to reflect on the difficulty of identifying what is essential in any philosophic matter and achieves this by refusing to do the job for them himself (83). P. Christopher Smith’s Gadamerian analysis of the first book of the Republic concludes that in general, if Plato has any doctrine for us, it is that the question is always more important than the answer (125). Ruby Blondell — who like Nails works with both themes — thinks of the Republic as inviting its readers to do better as critics than Glaucon and Adeimantus have managed (144). For Gary Scott and William Welton, the figure of Diotima shows us something of the collective spirit of the dialogues. Diotima’s teaching about the forms is not hesitant or aporetic but doctrinaire; yet her ecstatic vision remains tantalizingly beyond what knowledge can grasp. So too the dialogues must be content to awaken philosophic longing in their readers; they cannot impart knowledge, even though they are right to insist that it exists and is worth striving for (155-157). Francisco Gonzalez casts a suspicious eye on the Eleatic Stranger’s methods in order to illustrate the general claim that no perspective within any of the dialogues is complete or authoritative. Rather, each character’s perspective has its limitations and what the reader gets from their combination is not a single view but a problem to ponder (162). In a similar vein, Hayden Ausland reminds us of the sheer variety of characters, some of them anonymous, to whom important theses are attributed in the dialogues; of how some dialogues begin by alluding to discussion already in progress; of how Socrates is a reticent ironist. He concludes that not only is it through the whole dialogue that Plato speaks, but that he speaks playfully, leaving each dialogue incomplete or ambiguous in some crucial regard (187).

Other contributions are more restricted in scope. Harold Tarrant confines himself to an account of how the ancient commentators read Plato, in which he gives pride of place to such tendencies as he can find among them not to treat Socrates, Timaeus and the rest as Plato’s spokesmen. Gerald Press, perhaps because he has already endorsed the new Platonism in his introduction and argued at length for it in other publications, contributes a purely negative article to this volume: a critique of the logic of attributing characters’ views to Plato, and a response to the views of Richard Kraut. J.J. Mulhern provides a ruminative coda, revisiting his articles from the 1960’s on the fallacies in the traditional position, taking Constance Meinwald to task in order to show how little has changed in some quarters, and suggesting a program for the new Platonist alternative.

The quality of these contributions varies considerably, from the astute, scholarly and stimulating at one extreme to the flaccid and strident at the other. Enough of them, certainly, gather in the neighbourhood of the positive pole to recommend this volume to the attention of specialists and to mark it as a superior and important specimen of its genre.

But it is time to set aside the variety of this collection and consider instead, for the remainder of this review, what is troubling about the new Platonist consensus that the volume represents. This can be briefly stated. New Platonists believe that only if we refuse to identify Plato’s views with those of any of his characters are we giving his dialogues a truly literary reading. And they believe that philosophic dialogues written to be read in this way are for that reason alone philosophically undogmatic. Both of these beliefs are questionable.

In a theoretical introduction to The Truthtellers, his classic study of Jane Austen, George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, Laurence Lerner distinguishes between two kinds of literature, the committed and the dramatic. Austen, Eliot and Lawrence are all committed writers. Their novels have positives; they lead the reader to prefer some attitudes over others — whether those attitudes are represented by one or more of the fictional characters or not. Dramatic literature, by contrast, presents the various points of view that it contains without intruding the author’s opinions, even implicitly. It allows the reader to choose, or to suspend choice, or perhaps to appreciate for himself something to which only global consideration of the contrasting points of view can give access. Dramatic literature does not attempt to persuade. (Anyone who believes that this distinction can be dismissed out of hand as anachronistic in a discussion of Plato had better not read any further.)

To see what is misleading about the question “Who speaks for Plato?”, let us consider instead the question, “Are the Platonic dialogues committed or dramatic?”.

The distinction between committed and dramatic literature is not a matter of form. Plays can be committed; novels can be dramatic. Critics may dispute whether the same work is one or the other. They may even disagree because they assume that literature, just to be literature, must be committed, or must be dramatic. New Platonists are attracted to the second belief. They assume that unless we attend to the multiplicity of voices within a dialogue and resist the temptation to treat any as authoritative, unless we allow the whole dialogue to speak, as they put it, we are not reading the dialogues as literature at all, but are turning them into disguised treatises. The comparison with Greek tragedy, ubiquitous in this volume, reinforces the claim. Modern professional readers of Greek tragedy know better than to sift through the characters’ speeches for nuggets of their author’s wisdom or to read off a tragedian’s philosophy of life from the gnomic pronouncements of the chorus.

One could, however, agree that neither Oedipus nor Teiresias speaks for Sophocles but that Sophocles himself speaks, if at all, via the entire play (as Hayden Ausland asserts, 184), yet still dispute whether Sophocles is a committed or a dramatic writer. Scholars of a previous generation drew conclusions about Aeschylus’ religiosity, and scholars of the current generation draw conclusions about his social agenda, without finding those views to be represented by any one character within the plays.

We might of course reject the comparison between Platonic dialogue and Greek tragedy entirely. (We would be best advised not to do so for the reason Lloyd Gerson gives, that representation is not argument, and arguments have a life of their own (205)—as if characters in plays do not, or could not, produce arguments.) But even granting the validity of the comparison, it does not settle what is really at issue between new Platonists and the tradition they oppose, any more than does the new Platonist refrain, “the whole dialogue speaks”.

A reader of the dialogues could derive Plato’s philosophic views from the interaction of the characters, from the flow and the outcome of the discussion, could take action and characterization into account, could do all this without ever attributing directly to Plato the arguments of a particular spokesman and still assume that Plato’s intention, no less than George Eliot’s, was to make his views apparent and to persuade his readers of their validity. The reader to whom Plato seems a committed author could allow the whole dialogue to speak and never feel that Plato, for whatever reason, was refusing to divulge his views—whether because he had none of which he was sufficiently confident, or because he thought there were none of which anyone could be sufficiently confident, or because he had some but thought it would be either useless or dangerous to communicate them in writing.

In short, nothing compels the reader who finds no representatives of Plato within the dialogues to take the dialogues as philosophically non-dogmatic. Yet new Platonists insist on this connection. Assuming that literature worthy of the title is dramatic rather than committed writing, they argue, in effect, that if a philosopher chooses to write dramatically, his philosophic goal must be to write non-dogmatically.

Often the argument begins from the consideration that the dialogue-form is an indirect way for a writer to communicate. Press, responding to Richard Kraut’s claim that the corpus of dialogues has the shape we would expect if their author were struggling to express and argue for the truth, makes the inference particularly clear. Since in his dialogues Plato “never speaks directly … the dialogue’s obvious shape is not what we expect for the expression of one’s own view of truth.” (37) But the only sense in which it is uncontestably true that Plato does not speak directly in the dialogues is the sense in which this is true of any writer of any type of fiction. And in that sense of the word, committed and dramatic authors speak with equal indirectness. Furthermore, one need only think of everyday speech — of how we often choose to make a point more vivid or effective by dividing it between imaginary speakers whose voices we take on — to appreciate that fictional dialogue is very much what we may expect for the expression of one’s own view of truth.

Other new Platonists in this collection take for their starting-point towards the same conclusion the formal contrast between Platonic dialogue and the philosophic dialogues of Aristotle, Cicero, or Hume (17, 183). These writers are generally thought to make their fictional spokesmen clear, in some cases by introducing themselves into the dialogue as named speakers. But this argument ignores the fact that the distinction between committed and dramatic literature is not a matter of form. The contrast between Plato and less accomplished writers of philosophic dialogue could be explained by comparison with that between George Eliot and, let us say, the William Morris of News from Nowhere or the Edward Bellamy of Looking Backward. Plato is simply a better writer of fiction than Cicero. He knows how to make his scenes and characters memorable. That he does not write thinly fictionalized tracts, however, fails to decide the question whether he is a committed or a dramatic writer.

For all that the Platonic dialogues could be read not only as committed literature but also as lacking internal representatives of their author, it is true that the traditionalists who are the target of this volume, and who think of Plato as a committed writer, do typically assign him a spokesman within each dialogue. Indeed, the impression they receive from the dialogues that each contains (or that most contain) a principal, philosophically adept speaker, with whom the author strongly sympathizes, is an important factor in forming their belief in Plato’s commitment. Whatever we think of this position, we should not think, as new Platonists do, that it refuses to treat the dialogues as literature. It is perfectly possible for a literary work to vindicate by its content the viewpoint of a central character and to express through that viewpoint something of the author’s own beliefs. Think of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or of Chesterton’s Father Brown.

It is on this issue that some contributors to this volume play the irony card (74, 185). Suppose we grant you, they suggest, that Socrates in the dialogues is Plato’s philosophic spokesman; what, then, do you make of the fact that Socrates is an ironist? The thought behind this challenge perhaps descends from Leo Strauss, who wrote: “to speak through the mouth of a man notorious for his irony seems to be tantamount to not asserting anything” ( The City and Man, 51). But Strauss correctly hedged his claim (“… seems to be tantamount …”). Irony is a form of communication. It is only from the victim of the irony that the ironist conceals his message, not from its audience. Occasionally, that audience is represented within the dialogues — think of Nicias in the Laches. But the ever-present audience for Socrates’ irony is the readership of the dialogues.

Closely related to Socrates’ irony is his characteristic practice of asking questions rather than offering answers, at least in the aporetic dialogues. This is another way in which Plato’s alleged spokesman would fail to deliver Plato’s views, according to some contributors to this volume (25 n.24, 78, 213-214). And a similar rebuttal is available. That the ironist communicates by implication does not alter the fact that he communicates. Likewise, if the drift of Socrates’ questioning indicates to the reader where and why the person being questioned is going wrong, then a message has been sent — a philosophic message, delivered by a literary medium. It does not matter that, formally, the respondent rather than the questioner is making the statements, nor that the questioner’s beliefs are, as a matter of logic, irrelevant to the course of the argument. This was already appreciated in the anonymous commentary on the Theaetetus, even though Harold Tarrant quotes it in this volume (78) as if it supported the new Platonist cause. Having noted that Socrates asks questions but does not declare his view, so that he proposes neither truth nor falsehood, the commentator adds: “But to those familiar with his method he reveals his preferred view imperceptibly” — imperceptibly, that is, to all but the readers.

Those who accept the distinction between committed and dramatic literature and think of Plato as a committed writer have as good an explanation as any new Platonist of why Plato chose to write dialogues when he could so easily have written philosophic treatises — a question that Press assumes to work in his favour (5). George Eliot wrote non-fiction in which she expressed her views on some of the political and ethical issues that appear in her novels. Does anyone complain that she chose to write the novels too? Whatever the differences between committed novelists and philosophers, the advantages of writing literature — vividness, memorability, grip, to name a few — are the same for both.

The argument between new Platonists and traditionalists in recent decades has been marred by bluster and dismissiveness on both sides, stifled on both sides by factional sentiment, by the atmosphere of the coterie. In its overall effect, and with several individual exceptions, this volume cannot be said to represent a departure from that trend. A reader could be forgiven for supposing that the answer to the question “Who speaks for Plato?” that matters most to the diehard new Platonists among its contributors is: “We do.” The argument would be better served by less trumpeting of new paradigms and a focus on more pertinent questions.