BMCR 2001.11.06

Plato: Clitophon

, , Plato, Clitophon. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries ; 37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 1 online resource (xv, 360 pages).. ISBN 0511004109. $69.95.

One of the attractive features of the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series has always been its attention to the seldom-read or less-familiar works of Greek and Latin authors. Not that the main stream has been avoided, of course; but alongside Shackleton Bailey’s texts and commentaries on Cicero’s letters and the editions of Tacitus by Goodyear, Martin, and Woodman can be found, for example, Gow’s Machon, Diggle’s Phaethon, and Reed’s edition of Bion. It is therefore no great surprise that the series’ first Platonic commentary is S.R. Slings’ on the Clitophon (a revised version of his 1981 Amsterdam thesis). As Slings observes, his is the first commentary on this dialogue, and despite the Clitophon‘s diminutive size—a little over four Stephanus pages—we can be grateful for the comprehensiveness of this project, for in addition to the commentary (73 pages, in small type) there is a long introduction (234 pages) which considers in exacting detail questions of composition, genre, characterization, meaning, and authenticity. Many will come away from reading this book with the conviction that scholarly neglect of the Clitophon has been unjustified.1

At the outset Slings asserts the methodological principle that the interpretation of Clit. deserves to take precedence over the discussion about its authenticity (p. 1). To be sure, research on Clit. has long been dominated by debate over its authenticity, and most investigation into the meaning of the dialogue has been motivated by the desire to reach a verdict on the question of authorship. Needless to say, this approach has been in large part responsible for the short shrift which scholars have so often given this work; the concepts “un-Platonic” and “unworthy of Plato” have frequently been treated as co-extensive, and “unworthy of study” has followed almost as a corollary (the same may be said of other Platonic dialogues whose authenticity is disputed and, mutatis mutandis, of many other ancient works considered to be spurious). Slings’ shift in emphasis is therefore both welcome and necessary. I would add that perhaps the most important reason why a thorough-going approach towards the Platonic dubia is necessary is that these works may be more important to us, not less, if they do not originate from the hand of Plato. If Plato is not the author of, say, Clit., the Alcibiades I, or the Erastae, then by studying these dialogues we are likely to gain a better understanding of the directions in which (non-Platonic) Socratic literature developed in the fourth century, of the interests of the Academy during those years, and of the criticisms to which it and its members responded. It deserves notice, for example, that in various ways the dubia seem to draw heavily upon Plato’s Apology, as indeed Clit. does (see, e.g., pp. 100-104). Even if we do not subscribe to Dihle’s views about the role played by Ap. in the development of ancient biography, this observation at least deserves an explanation, both in relation to the character of the dubia in general and with reference to Clit.

Apart from the fact that the book takes account of some of the scholarship which has appeared in the nearly two decades since the publication of the thesis, the main difference between book and thesis lies in the author’s view of Clit.’s authenticity. Whereas in the thesis Slings expressed a rather diffident opinion that it is spurious, he now sees the arguments against authenticity to be less compelling and judges the dialogue to be genuinely Platonic (though it may be a reflection of the methodological principle discussed in the previous paragraph that he “would gladly leave the choice between the two positions to [his] readers,” p. 233).2 Slings’ opinions on this issue deserve respect, since he has worked on the dialogue for thirty years (p. 233) and probably knows more about it than anyone else. But I cannot help feeling nagging doubts about his decision, as I am sure others will too. One of his arguments in favour of authenticity—the fact that Clit.’s genuineness was accepted, apparently without question, from at least late in the third century B.C.—is perhaps the least cogent and may even be treated as no evidence at all. The characterization of Clit. as a cento (p. 82 etc.), which is certainly not an illegitimate description, is also very difficult to explain if the dialogue is Plato’s. The term has with reason been applied to other Platonic dubia (as have “pastiche,” “farrago,” “medley” and so on, also used by Slings in connection with Clit.), and it is hard to resist the conclusion that literary compilation was a technique exploited by Plato’s imitators rather than by Plato himself. Slings is right to lay emphasis on the particular uses to which his dialogue’s author has put each of the passages which make up the compilation: if Plato is the author of Clit., he must have had good reason for referring to and drawing upon his own earlier material, as well as that of others, something which he does not seem to have done elsewhere in anything like the degree that he does here. As Slings observes, however, the allusions in Clit. are on the whole more subtle and less obvious than those in other Platonic dubia and serve the special purpose of parody. It turns out, therefore, that the term cento may be more aptly applied to some of the other dubia than to Clit., which appears to be less mechanical in its reliance on pre-existing material. Yet even at that there seems to be a measure of special pleading when Slings suggests (p. 233) that the author’s occasional clumsiness and obscurity in the exploitation of foreign material—potentially a criterion of inauthenticity—mitigates the impression that the dialogue is an attack on Socrates (which may also be treated as a criterion). I cannot shake the feeling that this argument produces circularity; but in fairness it has to be said that Slings’ decision about authenticity does not rest primarily upon it.

Slings believes that the dialogue is a critique not of Socrates, nor even of the literary Socrates, but of a specific branch of Socratic literature, namely philosophical protreptic. Whether one agrees with Slings’ findings or not (his arguments are rich in their detail and, to my mind, persuasive in their general sweep), there is no question that the introductory essays which deal with philosophical protreptic and Socratic elenchos mark a real advance in our understanding of the genre of protrepetic, its use in the Platonic corpus, and its relation to elenchos. The book is therefore much more than a study of one minor Platonic dialogue, and many who have no special interest in Clit. itself will find reason to read the long Introduction carefully. Since Slings is dealing with a dialogue which has received insufficient attention, he has found it necessary to do some basic spade-work on protreptic literature. This has enabled him to identify a number of fundamental characteristics and motifs in philosophical protreptic of both the Platonic and non-Platonic types. One of the products of this investigation is the identification in Clit. of the author’s use of material not only from surviving protreptic literature but from lost protreptic sources as well. Those who do not have a taste for Quellenforschung may well chafe at Slings’ arguments; for my own part I do not find the hypothesis at all extravagant that the author of Clit. drew upon lost protreptic writings, given the popularity enjoyed, for instance, by such works as Aeschines Socraticus’ Alcibiades. His overview of protreptic leads Slings to draw an interesting and extremely useful distinction between “implicit” and “explicit” protreptic. Implicit protreptic is identified with Socratic elenchos, while explicit protreptic is the more familiar kind which Plato himself describes in Sophist 229e4-230a10 as ineffective (p. 129). One consequence of this distinction is that the Alcibiades I, whose authenticity is debated by Platonic scholars, is analysed as an example of explicit protreptic; since, on Slings’ reading, Plato avoided explicit protreptic in his dialogues, Alc. I is judged to be spurious (e.g. p. 164). It will be interesting to see how advocates for the authenticity of Alc. I respond to this challenge.

The section on characterization (pp. 35-58) demonstrates how attention to methodology can advance our understanding of the dialogue’s purpose. Problems of interpretation are acute here, especially in Socrates’ case, since in Clit. he appears in more than one guise (i.e., the dramatic character himself and the character drawn by Clitophon), and these portrayals can be understood as being mutually exclusive (p. 39). Slings’ rigorous analysis of the differences between the two characters is important because it strengthens his argument that the object of criticism in Clit. is the literary character who is familiar from a variety of texts (a “perversion” of what the author considered to be the “real” Socrates, p. 286), some of which are alluded to or used in Clit.3

The commentary provides much of the detailed philosophical and philological discussion on which the arguments in the Introduction are based, but it contains much else besides. There are, for instance, few matters of a textual or linguistic nature which are left unexamined here,4 and it goes without saying that all places that are textually suspect or whose meaning is uncertain are fully discussed. Slings has a subtle and nearly unerring feel for Platonic Greek; among many good notes may be cited those on 407b3, 407e4, 408d1, 409e9-10, 410e1-3. This commentary provides the groundwork on which all further serious work on Clit. will build; what is more, a great deal can be learned from it about the Greek language and Greek expression in general.

The book includes a new text of Clit., the first to be based upon a thorough study of all known evidence, including the indirect tradition (I cannot say whether the apparatus testimoniorum is absolutely complete—it is unlikely to have omitted much, if anything, of importance). Slings has very usefully provided a concordance of his text with those of Hermann, Schanz, Burnet, Bury and Souilhé (pp. 343-344). This concordance shows that his text differs least from Burnet’s (in fifteen places) and most from Hermann’s and Schanz’s (twenty-three each). Given the average number of differences per Stephanus page (between about four and six, depending on the comparandum), and given that several of the differences involve fairly minor matters, it is evident that the new text departs rather modestly from those that have hitherto held the field. This is hardly an unusual circumstance or outcome for the editor of Plato,5 and it does nothing to call into doubt the need for new texts of the Platonic dialogues. The greatest service that an editor of Plato can perform is to present the evidence on which the text is based as fully and accurately as possible; this Slings has done superbly in his apparatus criticus (but see next paragraph). Intelligent readers can be expected to make up their own minds in doubtful cases, and they now have Slings’ commentary as an indispensable touchstone. His argument for publishing a discussion of only the primary witnesses for the dialogue (in Appendix II, pp. 340-344) instead of a section on the whole textual tradition is that it would be “pointless” to “rehash” what can be found in the 1981 version of the book. Fair enough; but since the earlier book had only a limited circulation, it can hardly be assumed that most readers, or even many, will have access to the full treatment (even now an updated version of this discussion would certainly deserve publication). It is, however, harder to understand why his collations of the three primary witnesses—A (Paris. gr. 1807), D (Marc. gr. 185) and F (Vind. suppl. gr. 39)—were not made by autopsy, especially since the relevant portions of these mss. are very small (the same may perhaps be said of Paris. gr. 1809 and Vat. gr. 2196, which contain readings from a lost primary source). In any case there can be no doubt that Slings’ identification of A, D and F as primary witnesses is correct. The book also contains a good, original translation which has been keyed to the text and commentary quite carefully and consistently.

There are some misprints, a few infelicities of expression, and some inaccuracies in general; and while these are usually only a slight distraction, they are a little more numerous than they should be.6 More problematic is the inconsistency between the line numbers in the apparatus criticus and apparatus testimoniorum on pp. 242 and 244 and the lineation of the corresponding text, as well as the misplaced reference in the app. crit. for 409c3 on p. 252, which should have appeared at the beginning of the app. crit. on p. 254. In the list of sigla on p. 237 v is said to designate “Codicum ADFVa (Pa) consensus,” but as far as I can tell this siglum is never used in the app. crit., having been replaced instead by the boldface ‘ω’. The 234 pages of Introduction are not as easy to find one’s way through as they could be, since all internal references are to section, sub-section, and sub-sub-section rather than to individual pages (apparently an inheritance from the original thesis format). Since there is relatively little Greek text on each page, it would increase ease of reference if Stephanus page numbers were given not only on their first occurrence, but in addition as headers on each page.

But of course these flaws in production are relatively minor, and it would be unfair to dwell any further on them. This book is an important and original work of scholarship, well and thoroughly done.


1. I note that the recent Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (2000) devotes a brief chapter to Clit. and the Platonic Minos (303-309, by C.J. Rowe).

2. Here and there it appears that the book’s content has not been made to conform fully to Slings’ revised view of Clit.’s authenticity. Cf., e.g., p. 43 n. 82: “It is immaterial whether or not the author [sc. of Clit.] thought that the literary character Socrates as found in Plato was a true image of the historical figure. Personally I am not sure Plato thought so.”; p. 271, on 407a6: “it is perfectly possible, even probable, that the author of Clit. took it over from Ap.” (the accompanying reference to section. II.2.3.1 of the Introduction conveys a similar impression that the author of the Apology is being treated as different from the author of Clit.).

3. It is good to see Slings make use of W. Boder’s undeservedly neglected Die sokratische Ironie in den platonischen Frühdialogen (Amsterdam 1973), but his claim at p. 15 n. 22 that “Irony is mainly or exclusively a trait of Plato’s Socrates” (Slings’ emphasis) seems rather too confident to me. And even if this claim were true, irony would then be a trait with which an imitator would be likely to invest his Socrates.

4. E.g. discussions on the use of καὶ at 406a7, a9-10, 407a3; 406a11-12 πρός με (the reference to J. Vendryès, Traité d’accentuation grecque is welcome since the phrase is routinely said to be inadmissible); 407a1 ἀλλὰ …μεν; a5 γαρ (with reference to one of Slings’ own recent papers); 408b1 ; 409e2 οὔδε; 410e7-8 ἐμπόδιον τὸ γενέσθαι.

5. See, e.g., my review of E.A. Duke et al., Platonis Opera, I (Oxford 1995) in Hermathena 165 (1998) 119-129, at 124-126.

6. E.g. p. 3 n. 2, line 2 (for “and” read “at”); p. 9 n. 4, last line (n. 272 relates to section II.3.3, not II.3.4); p. 15, line 19 (read “406a7”); p. 64, line 3 (read “separate”); p. 74, line 8 (read “inauthentic”); p. 84, line 11 ( πολλὰ, not πολλά); p. 86 n. 161, line 5 ( μὲν, not μὲγ); p. 87 n. 164, line 5 (read “Geschichte”); p. 102 n. 187, line 10 ( δυνάμεις, not δύναμεις); p. 119, line 1 ( οὔτ’, not οὐτ’); p. 122, line 18 (read “not”); p. 142, line 11 ( ὤν, not ὦν); p. 267, on 406a10-11 ( πρὸς σὲ, not πρός σὲ); p. 267 (read Vendryès); p. 276 (read “Porphyrogenitus”); p. 282, line 5 ( αἴδειν, not ἀείδειν); p. 301, on 408d2 νῦν ( νυν rather than the lemma νῦν is defended in the commentary); p. 330, on 410c8 ἐθέλεις (read “urbane”).