BMCR 2002.05.27

Plato’s Progeny

M. S. (Melissa S.) Lane, Plato's progeny : how Socrates and Plato still captivate the modern mind. Classical inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2001. 1 online resource (x, 165 pages).. ISBN 9781472502292 £9.99.

Duckworth has commissioned the production of a series called Classical Inter/faces whose goal is to show the influence of Classical thought on the modern world. As a member of this series, Plato’s Progeny seeks to show how and why Socrates and Plato captivate the modern mind. The body of this work consists of three essays that investigate how Socrates and Plato have been interpreted, with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries considered in relief from earlier interpretations.

The first essay is a study of the relation between Socrates and Plato. By ‘Socrates’, Lane means the historical person rather than the character present in, say, the majority of the Platonic dialogues. As such, she rightly includes an account of our knowledge of Socrates, including an account of the development of source-criticism by Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century. The core of the essay, though, is devoted to a study of the various ways in which the relation between Socrates and the state has been viewed throughout history. In the ancient world, the author recounts, the majority saw Socrates as an anti-democrat, mainly because of his relation to several members of the Thirty, while a few Socratic writers (including Plato and Xenophon) believed him to be a democrat whose activity ultimately benefited the state (19-21). Between the fall of democracy in Athens and the Enlightenment, she continues, the question of Socrates’ political views was eclipsed by an interest in his ethical and religious beliefs (13). The modern world, she states, saw a re-emergence of a focus on the civic Socrates, this time adding a study of his relation to Athenian culture (21-41). From her study, Lane concludes that during each of the three eras studied, our view of Socrates has been inappropriately compartmentalised. She contends that for the ancient and modern world, his relation to the state, understood as either straightforwardly political or including a cultural/historical dimension, was the main evidence for our conception of Socrates; and that in the interim, his ethical/religious beliefs were the primary source for our understanding (49). In order to remedy this mistake, she explains, we must understand his civic views in relation to his ethical/religious views (49). As the author herself puts it, we must remember “that the civic Socrates should not be segregated from the Socrates of the ethical and religious traditions, that Socrates’ public life grew out of his relationship with himself” (49).

Essay two is a study of Plato’s metaphysics and ethics. As Lane recounts, in the 19th and 20th century Nietzsche and his followers launched an attack on Plato’s philosophy. She explains that they charged him with idealism, which they claimed consists of the doctrines of transcendentalism and foundationalism, and that they believed idealism is false (53-55). The author notes that transcendentalism and foundationalism are doctrines that have many meanings. She points out that in one sense, transcendentalism states that forms are not immanent in the sensible world but are separate in substance; and in another sense, it states that forms are immanent in the sensible world and are separate either in substance or in thought (55). She continues that in one sense, foundationalism states that goodness is based upon reality and is universally accessible, in the sense that every person is guaranteed to achieve it; and in another sense, it states that goodness is based upon reality and requires moral effort to achieve it (56-57). The author contends that the Nietzscheans assume that Plato takes transcendentalism and foundationalism in the former senses, and that there is an equally formidable group of Platonically inspired post-modern philosophers who conceive of these doctrines in the latter senses (55-56). She proceeds to show how these philosophers base their understanding of Plato’s “immanent” transcendentalism upon his theory of beauty (70-76), and their understanding of his “aspirational” foundationalism upon his and their conceptions of art, love and imagination (76-96). Lane concludes that the Nietzschean criticism is directed at only one possible interpretation, and that another interpretation, which portrays Plato as believing that forms are present in the sensible world and that moral goodness requires effort, is superior by virtue of its immunity from the Nietzschean attack (56-57).

The third essay studies Plato’s politics. Lane explains that in the early 20th century there were a variety of conflicting interpretations of Plato’s politics. The source of this conflict, she contends, is that different thinkers focused on different aspects of the “Republic”, which prescribes radical means (e.g., communism of property) for the sake of holistic ends (e.g., civic unity) (97-100). The author proceeds to discuss these thinkers’ interpretations, only a few of which can be mentioned here. She explains, for example, how the Oxford idealists saw the holistic goal of civic unity as a source of moral inspiration (100-103), while others like Karl Popper criticised it on the grounds that it inevitably leads to totalitarianism (115-118). And she describes how in France several communists and feminists praised the radical means of communism of property and equality of the sexes, respectively, as beneficial to the state, whereas conservatives in France and America criticised Plato’s legislation of communism of property and abolition of family, respectively, as harmful to the state (106-108). She also discusses how several German scholars interpreted Plato, including how Hans F. K. Gunther saw Plato’s prescription for eugenic breeding as a source of inspiration for National Socialism, and how the Austrian scholar Hans Kelsen saw the “Republic” as evidence of the need for a value-free jurisprudence by interpreting Plato’s theory of justice as an attempt to justify his desire for pederasty (118-128). From this study, the author draws a conclusion similar to that of the first study, namely, that by attending to different aspects of Plato’s political philosophy the early 20th century interpretations have been inappropriately compartmentalised. Her suggestion is that Plato’s politics be viewed holistically, in an effort to understand the relations between education and legislation, democracy and culture, and liberty and self-discipline (5, 132-134).

This work demonstrates a magisterial command of the history of the modern interpretation of Plato. It does, nevertheless, appear to raise some difficulties. First, since the study purports to be historicist, the readings that the author endorses are themselves historically embedded, as she forthrightly admits (5). But this seems to sit ill with the claim that the endorsed readings are a result of criticism (5). For criticism aims to remove falsehood and achieve truth; and there is a logical gap between the claim that an interpretation is true relative to the person’s place in history and the claim that the same interpretation is true simply. What bridges this gap, as far as I can tell, is the claim that the interpreter’s place in history is correct, that is, that the historically conditioned conceptual apparatus she brings to her interpretation is right for the object of interpretation. Since this study makes no attempt to argue for such a claim, barring accidents it precludes itself from achieving its critical goal. Second, this study tries to provide a case for one reading over others by attempting to show how one reading is most able to address putative criticisms of Plato’s thought. In doing so, it employs the principle of generosity, according to which an interpretation that eschews criticism is superior to one that does not; and in this respect, it belongs to a venerable group of studies that tries to give Plato’s philosophy a fair hearing. Where this work differs from those, however, is in its pursuit of textual fidelity. Whereas those works attempt to convince the reader of an interpretation by arguing that it is the most generous while remaining true to the texts, this work contains less than a handful of references to the Platonic corpus. While I agree with the general conclusions of this study, I am still concerned that it fails to ask whether these readings can be found in Plato. Despite these reservations, Plato’s Progeny serves as a most useful guide for those interested in the influence of Socrates and Plato upon the minds of modern writers, politicians, and philosophers alike.