BMCR 2001.01.18

Plato’s First Interpreters

, Plato's first interpreters. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. viii, 263 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 080143792X $55.00.

This is the third monograph by Harold Tarrant in the area of what has traditionally been called “Middle Platonism,” a catch-all label for the multifarious philosophical activities surrounding Platonism in the centuries between Plato and Plotinus. But while Tarrant’s two previous studies were focused on specific topics (epistemology, and the structuring of the Platonic corpus),1 the present work is “an account of ancient Platonism that concentrates on the interpretation of Plato rather than on the collecting of doctrines” (vii). It is not therefore an attempt to update standard accounts of Middle Platonism, of which John Dillon’s survey is the best known,2 but rather aims at providing, usually through detailed, often minute, analyses, a sense of what reading and interpreting Plato involved in antiquity. And, while the principal sources are Platonists of the period before Plotinus, there is also some discussion of material from later Platonic commentators such as Olympiodorus and Proclus. As Tarrant himself allows, the value of this study “will lie in the detail rather than in any sweeping themes” (214), and so Plato’s First Interpreters (hereafter PFI) does not, for example, parallel Julia Annas’ recent attempt to revive Middle Platonism as a partner in today’s burgeoning reaction against the developmental account of the Platonic corpus.3 Instead, it offers within two covers relatively easy access to a mass of philological and historical detail that has hitherto mostly been available only in specialized articles. Any student of Plato who is prepared to admit the importance of the ancient Platonic tradition will be extremely grateful to Tarrant for undertaking this exercise with thoroughness and authority and will want to consult his text and in some cases perhaps try to build on his results.

But the task of consulting PFI is not facilitated by its latent organization and laconic signposts. It is divided into three unidentified parts, consisting of three, four, and six chapters respectively. Part One deals with general themes, Part Two is a chronological account, and Part Three is an analysis of the interpretation of segments of the Platonic corpus and of individual dialogues. Each chapter has several subsections, but since the chapter titles themselves are so vague, and since the author does not supply an introductory synopsis, it would have been helpful if these had been included in the table of contents. Ch. 9 (“From false art to true”) is not, for example, self-evidently a history of the interpretation of the Gorgias in antiquity. Selective use of this book, particularly by non-specialists, is also not eased by the absence of any historical outline or brief prosopography. I sympathize with Tarrant’s wish “to avoid an excessively historical approach” (vii), but he does so at the expense of making it difficult for anyone without prior historical knowledge to engage with his material.

Part I is programmatic. Its three chapters (“What kind of text is this?”, “Are there doctrines here?”, and “Where do I look for Plato’s doctrines?”) explore the issues in Platonic interpretation suggested by the historical material. Thus Ch.2 (at 10-19) offers a useful introduction to the sceptical reading of Plato that has recently attracted considerable interest. Perhaps less insightful is the discussion of the esoteric Plato at PFI 19-25, where Tarrant eschews, in a dismissive footnote (21 n. 24), any engagement with the modern literature on Plato’s “unwritten doctrine.” Ch.3 usefully surveys the Middle Platonists’ approach to dialogues through defining their general character and conjoining them in illuminating ways; this essentially represents the program for the author’s closer discussion of texts in Part Three.

Part Two is something of an historical survey, though some readers may need Dillon (or some biographical dictionary) at hand to help them keep their bearings. Ch.4 (“Defending and attacking Plato’s work”) covers the early Academy and ch.5 (“The struggle for Socrates and Plato”) takes the story from Crantor to Cicero. Then ch.6 (“The re-establishment of Platonic philosophy”) looks at the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, while ch.7 introduces “The principal Neoplatonist interpreters.” The latter outline, brief as it is, usefully covers some less familiar territory, though if Tarrant (despite participating in an extremely valuable translation of Olympiodorus’ commentary on the Gorgias)4 has his way, few will be encouraged to explore it further. (See p.213 for Proclus put firmly in his place as not being a ” fresh interpreter” [author’s italics].)

Part Three contains the material that will be of widest interest and use to anyone trying to read and interpret the dialogues. It offers discussions of most parts of the corpus and several individual dialogues, though in varying degrees of detail. Annas (see n.2) has already shown how Middle Platonism assists in revising that developmental picture of the dialogues on which so many of us were reared. Tarrant supports this account, notably in chs.8 and 10, on the early dialogues and the “Middle Period” respectively. Ch.9, as I have mentioned, deals with the Gorgias, ch.11 with “The debate over the Theaetetus,” ch.12 (“The ‘logical’ dialogues”) with the Parmenides, Sophist, Cratylus, and Politicus, while ch.13 (“Extracting the doctrine”) reviews several dialogues, often somewhat summarily, though in some interesting depth in the case of the Philebus.

In working through this material, the issue that kept confronting this reviewer was the nature of the audience for whom this study is intended. Tarrant himself nowhere identifies it, and, as I have already indicated, PFI is not constructed in the fashion of an accessible handbook. Some of its chapters (notably 10 and 11 where heavy, though justifiable, use is made of the papyrus known as the Anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus) are definitely aimed at scholars with some prior mastery of primary and secondary sources. The reconstruction of an “Ur-commentator” in ch.10, for example, reflects an ethos of Quellenforschung that may not be easily picked up by general readers, or those with a philosophical rather than classical background.

PFI‘s painstaking detail and its measured judgments on details also make it difficult to criticize, or engage with, argumentatively. Tarrant (214) indeed prides himself on his lack of dogmatism: “Dogmatic interpretation closes off options.” Quite so, but a writer without some axe to grind can leave readers without any strong response. So let me take Tarrant up on some of the details that he sees as his main contribution by looking closely at a short section of Ch.10.

This whole chapter is an interesting, if involved, discussion of the way that passages from different dialogues are combined by the commentator on the Theaetetus. Pp. 149-151 discuss specifically the use made of the theory of recollection (capitalized by Tarrant for some reason) from the Meno and Phaedo, and we are told (at 149) that a “prominent source of truth in TC [Theaetetus Commentator] are the common or natural notions, his epistemological equivalent of the Platonic Idea and an acknowledged starting-point of demonstration in early imperial philosophy.”5 Tarrant, partly reprising his earlier work, then goes on to discuss how such innate notions help interpret Socratic midwifery in the Theaetetus, in that their dim presence in Socrates’ interlocutor helps explain the latter’s hesitancy. So far, so good, at least from the point of view of strictly historical scholarship, since no modern interpreter is likely to read Socratic midwifery in this way.6 But the payoff for Tarrant is that by contemplating this ancient exercise in reading the Meno into the Theaetetus, we can today get a better handle on the Meno. To quote: “The epistemological content within [the Meno ] begins to have a unity that modern interpretation seldom allows it. The Theory of Recollection, instead of being a quaint attempt to explain how discovery is possible, dependent in turn upon an earlier discovery that requires explanation itself, becomes a doctrine of innate knowledge (however acquired) that underpins other epistemological considerations in the Meno and the rest of Platonic epistemology too.” Hence the slave-boy’s recollection can be linked with the visions of prophets and politicians ( Meno 99c) in a unified theory of what Tarrant labels “subconsciously accessed recollectable knowledge” in a way that equally encompasses passages from the Phaedrus and Phaedo, and represents a unified Platonic substratum for the use of natural notions by the Theaetetus commentator.

Now, there are two issues here: historical veracity, and philosophical and exegetical utility. On the first, there is no doubt that Tarrant is conveying the kind of considerations that led to the Theaetetus commentator’s using something that we might call subconscious knowledge. But does this really help us (today’s readers) to get a better handle on the Meno, and other Platonic passages dealing with recollection? The tendency in modern scholarship on recollection has been to respect the distinctions between the different ways that this notion is deployed in different dialogues and to unify them with reference to issues of metaphysics and concept formation rather than a theory of consciousness. Surprisingly Tarrant does not cite Dominic Scott’s outstanding work in this area.7 And as for the language in which the ancient commentator describes these “subconscious ideas,” i.e. “common or natural notions,” Tarrant might have made more of the Stoic origin of these terms. For, if Scott is right,8 the Stoics also regarded them as innate and in that way forged the link between this language and philosophical theory that the Theaetetus commentator later exploits.

So once anyone gets into the details of PFI, there will inevitably be bones to pick, and bone-picking specialists may get more mileage out of this book (or at least out its heart in Part III) than more populous classes of readers, notably students of Plato in departments of philosophy, who still desperately need a work that will systematically and comprehensively survey ancient Platonic interpreters from the perspective of the increasingly pluralistic realm of contemporary approaches to Plato. PFI is not that book, but, if it is ever written, Tarrant’s compilations of details, both here and in his numerous articles, will be crucial to that project.


1. Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy (Cambridge 1985), and Thrasyllan Platonism (Ithaca and London, 1993); the latter was reviewed at BMCR 94.03.07 (with a reply at 94.09.04).

2. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 B.C. to A.D.220 (London, 1977).

3. Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca and London, 1999). This enthusiastic appreciation of Middle Platonism is not without faults of overstatement, as an insightful review at BMCR 99.09.28 has demonstrated.

4. R. Jackson, K. Lycos and H. Tarrant, Olympiodorus: Commentary on Plato’s ‘Gorgias’, Philosophia Antiqua 78 (Leiden 1998).

5. At 149 n.44, Tarrant backs this claim up with two general references to Plutarch’s De communibus notitiis and Alexander of Aphrodisias’ De fato. He would have done better to have cited secondary literature, such as my discussion at Symbolae Osloenses 48 (1973) 45-75 at 60-63 and Dirk Obbink at OSAP 10 (1992) 194-231.

6. For a decisive critique of attempts, ancient and modern, to link the midwifery of the Theaetetus with the Meno’ s account of recollection see M.F. Burnyeat, “Socratic Midwifery, Platonic Inspiration,” BICS 24 (1977) 7-16 at 9-10.

7. Recollection and Experience: Plato’s Theory of Learning and its Successors (Cambridge, 1995).

8. His “Innatism and the Stoa,” PCPS ser. 3:30 (1988) 123-153 offers a fuller argument for this view than the reprise at Recollection and Experience 201-209