BMCR 2001.10.08

The Platonic Theages: An Introduction, Commentary and Critical Edition (Philosophie der Antike 10)

, The Platonic Theages : an introduction, commentary, and critical edition. Philosophie der Antike, Bd. 10. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000. 335 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515072306 $75.

Mark Joyal (hereafter J.) has, in the wake of numerous Vorstudien, produced a splendid edition of the pseudo-Platonic Theages, but one clearly designed for the high end of the market. It is, in other words, an uncompromisingly scholarly editio maior, of a kind relatively rare in English-speaking Platonic scholarship of the past half-century, where dialogues have more often been presented as translations with commentaries, or in the form of editions aimed at groups with a limited knowledge of ancient Greek. While such publications have catered well to the wide audience that exists for Plato’s works, especially among philosophers, there has been a dearth of the kind of specialized philological work on display here. We can, then, rejoice in the appearance of J.’s edition, even if it will inevitably be a closed book to many who might have benefitted from improved access to a dialogue that is not without engaging historical and philosophical aspects.

Of course the Theages has never been, nor ever will be, on the front-burner for Platonic enthusiasts. It deals with a familiar theme from the Socratic dialogues, the problem of how a parent is to educate a child, and it elaborates the philosophically marginal topic of Socrates’ daimonion. The fact that, like some other neglected and pseudonymous Platonic works, it was also popular in late antiquity only minimally increases its attraction. But J. has ensured that, whatever its intrinsic limitations, the Theages can now be read, or perhaps more often consulted, with complete confidence in this editor’s skills in textual criticism and interpretation. There is a lengthy Introduction (9-172) covering all aspects of a dialogue that occupies only ten Stephanus pages (reproduced here with the lineation of Burnet’s Oxford Classical Text). There are also full discussions of date, both dramatic and compositional, of authenticity and textual transmission, as well as of characters and theme, while in an especially interesting and important section detailed attention is given to the status of Socrates’ daimonion as presented both in the Theages and in the First Alcibiades (98-99 on the latter).1 A commentary of exactly 100 pages (195-294) thoroughly examines every aspect of language and meaning, proceeding often at a snail’s pace (e.g., Theag. 128d, eight lines, merits fifteen notes covering just over a page), and showing a remarkable acquaintance with Greek idiom in general and its analysis in modern editions, and, of course, with Platonic idiom in particular. The bibliography and indices ( locorum, nominum et verborum) take up the book’s final thirty-nine pages. Material has been amassed with enormous care and thoroughness, and the conclusions reached are invariably balanced and judicious. There has obviously been extensive use of the TLG, and aficionados of stylometrics can feast on pp. 132-134.

J’s central, and entirely reasonable, conclusions (155-156), are that the work was composed around 345-335 BC, and that its dramatic date can be precisely set as 409 BC. The dialogue’s author is depicted as a member of the first generation of the Academy after Plato’s death, someone who was not “an original philosopher”, and whose limited knowledge of Plato was largely confined to the earlier and middle-period dialogues, where his interests were “largely at a literary level” (131). Those interests are best revealed in an elaboration of the Platonic evidence on Socrates’ daimonion. Whereas Plato, as J. notes (100), avoided introducing “commonplace elements” into his depiction of this “sign”, the author of the Theages transforms it into a daimon“i.e., an element in traditional patterns of Greek religious belief” (99-100). This “systematization of its demonological characteristics” was then its hallmark for most of antiquity (102). J.s lengthy discussion of this topic, which involves a close analysis of all the Platonic evidence, is the one part of this study that could be of great interest to all classes of readers. But since it calls for a knowledge of Greek (quotations are left untranslated), J. could perform a considerable service were he to find some way of communicating this material to a wider audience, and also (for reasons that will emerge below) provide a complete English translation, which he has rather surprisingly not included.2

The present reviewer’s high regard for J.’s work will be clear. But the best editions always offer a challenge in the details of their content and presentation, and the comments that follow are a reaction to a few such matters. They are minor quibbles about a study that will remain definitive for the foreseeable future, the labor of an editor whom it is reassuring to know will also soon be contributing to the new Oxford text of Plato.

The Text. The first thing that almost any reader will want to know is where changes have been made in Burnet’s still standard text. But (and this is my only major complaint about presentation) J. fails to list such changes, although he could easily have done so by supplying, say, asterisks in his Appendix of conjectures (191-193) beside those that he has adopted, instead of leaving them unidentified. (For the record there seem to be eleven such changes, of which J. is the author of four,3 and at least one orthographical change at 121a3.)

Translations. In the commentary there is a summary of each section, along with occasional translations in the notes. J. may have omitted a complete translation because of the recent appearance of one by Nicholas D. Smith in the Hackett Plato.4 But there are at least four places (122b2, 122b3-4, 126b4, 130b8 and 130c1) where J. has identified an idiom that Smith has missed. For example, at 130c1 the question τί μάλιστα; is incomprehensibly minimized to “Why?” by Smith, when it obviously, as J. says, means “Why exactly?” Also, at 126b4 καί is not just “probably” (J., 242) explicatory, but certainly so, as Smith’s version readily reveals.5 On the other hand, Smith does translate τὸ δαιμόνιον as “the spiritual thing” whereas J. in his paraphrases (e.g., in the title of ch. 2 of his Introduction) uses the more traditional equivalent “divine sign”. J.’s comment on Smith’s version would have been welcome, particularly since the latter seems to accord with the interpretation that our editor, as we have seen, offers of the Theages as assimilating the δαιμόνιον to the religious concept of the δαίμων.

Commentary. The multiplicity of separate notes on the same line of text is sometimes a little confusing (e.g., 223, 230-231, 233), and perhaps notes on short sections of text might have been condensed into continuous paragraphs. For example, when at p. 223 we are given the order “see on [123]b7 below” we have three notes to choose from. Also, there are times when the impressive use of authorities and external references in explaining points of text or language may inconvenience a reader using this edition away from a well-stocked library. What motivates this complaint is that J. is superb when he is explicit, as in a masterly note (280-281) on ταῦτα δή in its use to summarize a preceding exposition, where he manages to supplement Denniston no less.

The following deal with some specific points in the commentary.

P. 221, on 123a8. In discussing μάχεται τε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλει J. defines it as a case of explicated metaphor, something that E.R. Dodds discusses ad Gorg. 447a3. But relevant also is Robert Renehan’s discussion, which J. cites ad 130b4, since Renehan’s comments on “elevated” words or phrases being prosaically interpreted apply a fortiori to metaphors.6 But frustratingly J. offers no translation. I assume that this would not have been Smith’s “he argues…and refuses”, but perhaps more like “he gets in my face, I mean he refuses…”7

P. 223 (the first of the three notes on 123b7). The aorist form in ἀν ἀπεκρίνω is indeed used because of its aspect (“a single, complete event, not an act in the past”), but not only does this usage, as J. notes, explain away the apparently mixed present unreal conditional at this locus (cf. my discussion of this idiom at BMCR 8:2 [1997] 171), but it also highlights the frequent use of this particular verb in this way in Socratic dialogue. See, for example, the question TI/ ἀν ἀπεκρίνω; at Meno 72b3 (cf. Protag. 311c1), where it means “What’s your answer [sc. in a nutshell]?” This accords with Socrates’ wish (e.g., Protag. 334c-d) for succinct responses (i.e., single, complete, and brief) to his questions.

p. 272 on 129a3. Here J. has valuable remarks on the use of verbs indicating motion as auxiliaries with future participles in a discussion of the clause ἀποθανούμενος ᾔει. As he notes, this idiom is not confined to cases where the participle is a verb of saying, and to his Platonic references for such an extension add Protag. 313a2. On the other hand, since no translation is offered, J’s note left me confused as to whether he regarded the verb of motion as a “mere auxiliary” or as one involving “physical movement” (to use the terms of his own analysis). Smith’s “I’m going off to die now” is firmly in the latter category.

Finally, a couple of minor errors: at p. 292 on 131a1 there is a cross-reference “see on 123e2” with regard to the use of μέν solitarium; but no such note, so that perhaps “on” mistakenly crept in; (b) ad 122a9-b1 there is a helpful note on the use of χρή, but no reference in the Greek index at p. 334.


1. A new edition of the Alcibiades by Nicholas Denyer has now appeared in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series.

2. Interestingly S. R. Slings, in a recent and similarly thorough treatment of another marginal Platonic dialogue, saw fit to include a translation; see Plato: Clitophon (Cambridge, 1999).

3. These are, with “J.” indicating those by this editor, 123b1 (J.), 125c10, 125d6, 126b4, 126c1, 128a6 (J.), 129a3 (J.), 129d8, 129e5 (J.), 130b7 (bis).

4. Plato: Complete Works, J.M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (eds.) (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1997), at 627-638. Smith adopts, without attribution, seven of J.’s eleven changes to Burnet’s text and introduces one of his own at 123a7, something he might not have done had he been able to consult J.’s note ad loc..

5. That is, Smith translates a reference to equine experts as being to “those who are themselves outstanding at these things, and who have horses and work with them” (my italics), whereas we need something like “namely” or “in other words” before “those who have horses etc.”

6. R. Renehan, Studies in Greek Texts (Göttingen, 1976), 136-137.

7. While on this idiom, I respectfully dissent from J. (on 122a8) who takes Theag. 125a5 also as an interpreted metaphor. I think that the juxtaposition in this particular case, φθονεῖς τε αψ, is hendiadys rather than explication: i.e., do not translate it as “you are begrudging to him, that is, you are unwilling” (and certainly not by Smith’s tautology “you begrudge…and refuse”), but along the lines of “you spitefully refuse”. That is, as usual, one of the components in the hendiadys is adverbial in force.