BMCR 2003.01.28

Plato: Alcibiades. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics

, , Alcibiades. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xi, 254 pages ; 19 cm.. ISBN 0521632811 $23.00 (pb).

It is surprising that we have had to wait so long for a full commentary in English on the Platonic Alcibiades I (hereafter Alc. I). Questions of authenticity aside (for now), the dialogue has more than enough in it to interest readers of many kinds. It also has history on its side, for it was the dialogue that many ancient students read as their introduction to Plato (see e.g. Diogenes Laertius 3.62, Albinus Intr. 149.35-37 Reis). Given the resources currently available, the question must be asked: is this the book that we most needed now?

Viewed from an objective standpoint, Alc. I presents the commentator with an enormous number of problems and challenges to confront if his work is to be as useful as possible to the scholar and student. Because of these challenges, as well as the space which their full treatment is bound to consume, it seems doubtful that the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series is the right medium for a commentary on Alc. I. Ideally the commentator will keep in mind the fact that his book is breaking new ground, and, since there is a lack of alternatives, the reader should be able to expect that it will provide a reliable reference point and resource for further study. Denyer, however, has not aimed at comprehensiveness, elusive though that goal may have been. The argument could reasonably be made here that a less-than-full treatment of all issues is to be expected in a book which is intended for the undergraduate student, as those in the CGLC series are. But if so, should these students, whose time for reading Greek literature is strictly limited, be prescribed a work of doubtful authenticity instead of (for instance) Rowe’s Phaedo or Dover’s Symposium, which both appear in the same series? Alc. I has a claim on our attention as an ancient introduction to Plato, but for the many who (like me) continue to have grave doubts about its authorship, it is hard to see what place this book will find in undergraduate curricula except, perhaps, for special-topics courses (more on this below). As it is, it sits uncomfortably between two camps, satisfying fully the needs of neither the specialist, who requires attention to detail and a full consideration of earlier scholarship, nor student, who must wrestle with the text from beginning to end. The fact that Denyer has approached his task with the intention of vindicating the authenticity of Alc. I also raises serious questions about the appropriateness of including his book in the CGLC series.

Both the book’s strengths and its shortcomings are apparent in the Introduction. The student will learn much about Socrates and Platonic dialogues from the brief chapters “Alcibiades,” ” ΟἹ ΣΩΚΡΑΤΙΚΟ and Alcibiades,” “The Alcibiades and philosophical seduction,” and “Literary form and philosophical content” (1-11). It is no bad thing that these pages leave the reader wanting more, but apart from the fact that Denyer has provided almost no guidance here towards further reading, there is one significant gap in particular which he has elected not to fill. Readers who know little of the dialogue to start with will come away from this book with almost no recognition of the fact that Alc. I belongs to an important sub-genre of the Socratic dialogue — the Alcibiades-dialogue — many of whose features have been identified through long and intensive study of the genre’s extant representatives. These include not only Alc. I and the pseudo-Platonic Alc. II, but also the fragmentary Alcibiades of Aeschines of Sphettus (the object of considerable research), the Alcibiades of Antisthenes (a few interesting and suggestive fragments survive), Alcibiades’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, and Socrates’ examination of Euthydemus in Xenophon’s Memorabilia 4.2 — to say nothing, of course, about the various places in Plato’s dialogues which seem to reflect one or more of the works in this class. Denyer’s few words on p. 5 hardly count as a discussion; yet not only is the relationship between Alc. I and the other representatives of the genre in itself one of the interesting problems in the study of this work, it may also bear upon the question of authenticity. The topic, however, is not raised in the section that deals with that problem either.

Chapter 5 of the Introduction is entitled “Date and motive of the Alcibiades” (11-14), and by its nature it hangs together with the chapter that follows, “The authenticity of the Alcibiades” (14-26). The first sentence in chapter 5 lays the parameters for the discussion about date: “We do not know when Plato wrote the Alcibiades“; in Denyer’s eyes, then, the dialogue’s terminus ante quem must be 347, the year of Plato’s death. Now, some may not wish to date Alc. I any later than 347 even if they consider the dialogue spurious, but to discuss date before authenticity necessarily forecloses a truly critical examination of both issues. Hence I prefer to concentrate upon Denyer’s discussion of the dialogue’s authenticity, which occupies nearly half the Introduction. I do believe, however, that his dating of the dialogue in the early 350s largely on the basis of Plato’s personal experiences is problematic. He draws together the threads of his discussion as follows (13): “in the early 350s, Plato therefore had every cause to reflect on what can happen when an older philosopher tries to win for philosophy young men subject to all the temptations of political power. An obvious medium for such reflections was a dialogue in which the older philosopher Socrates tries to win the ambitious young Alcibiades.” This proposal is attractive, but it can be countered that Plato had already reflected on this issue in the Charmides (which relies in some places on the reader’s knowledge of subsequent political events in which Charmides was involved) and, to a certain extent, in the Meno. ( Theaetetus on the other hand provides the counter-example of a young man who possesses philosophical gifts.) Whether we agree with Denyer’s reconstruction of the motives for writing Alc. I or not, the question must nevertheless be asked why the author would choose to pair up two characters whose presence in a dialogue would be certain to remind contemporary readers of other works in the Alcibiades genre. Having asked the question, we are driven back to the issue of literary affinities.

As we have seen, Denyer champions the authenticity of Alc. I. His discussion begins with a very brief account of the history of the problem. In antiquity the dialogue was never considered spurious (14). Contrary to the impression which Denyer tries to convey, this is not evidence one way or the other. The same people who included Alc. I in the tetralogical canon also found a place for Theages, which Denyer rightly considers spurious (84, on 103a5-6; this dialogue too was sometimes considered by ancients to be the best introduction to Plato), and they did so also for other dubia such as Hipparchus and Minos. It is only with Friedrich Schleiermacher that the authenticity of Alc. I fell into doubt (14-15). Denyer identifies 1836 as the significant turning-point, but that is merely the date at which William Dobson’s English translation of Schleiermacher’s introductions to his famous translations appeared. In fact, his original (German) introduction to the translation of Alc. I appeared about thirty years earlier. Before long the onus probandi lay with the dialogue’s defenders. Over a hundred years after Schleiermacher, Wilamowitz judged it to be “sheepshit” ( Shafmist), as we learn from the Wilamowitz-Friedländer correspondence, and he barely mentioned it in his Platon, but Friedländer, who is one of the most sensitive advocates that Alc. I has had, seems to have produced a change of mind in his former teacher.1 While this says a good deal about both Wilamowitz and Friedländer, it is also a salutary lesson to all who study the dialogue today: who among us can claim the knowledge of Greek and Greek literature that Wilamowitz possessed, yet he did not consider the question of authenticity so obvious that he could not be swayed. Given the scope of his discussion it is understandable that Denyer does not record Wilamowitz’s change of heart, but it is very hard to explain the absence from the Bibliography (27-29) of Friedländer’s two-volume work on Alc. I, not to mention the chapter on Alc. I in his three-volume Plato.2 Indeed, the Bibliography as a whole is disappointingly thin, listing only 17 works on Alc. I apart from editions, translations and commentaries. Contrast this with, for instance, Mastronarde’s Bibliography of 19 pages in his recent (2002) edition of Medea in the same CGLC series.

Having surveyed the background to scholarly debates about authenticity, though without dealing in detail with any of them, Denyer turns to “Frivolous arguments against authenticity” (15-17). That some of the arguments against authenticity have been frivolous there is no denying, but seldom have these arguments been used individually as the only evidence; more often they have formed part of a body of cumulative support. Denyer is therefore less than fully rigorous in singling out “frivolous” pieces of evidence as though they represent the totality of the case that scholars have managed to mount against Alc. I. What is more, in his commentary he employs the same methodology that he faults in those critics of Alc. I who find evidential value in words that appear in this dialogue but nowhere else in the Corpus Platonicum. One of the reasons which Denyer adduces for condemning 133c8-17 as interpolated is the occurrence there of ἔνοπτρον (c9, 14): “there is no other occurrence of this word in the Platonic Corpus” (237). Compare his short treatment of κρήγυος and ἄχραντος (15-16), especially his criticism of the “assumption that can scarcely survive being spelled out,” namely, “that everything in a genuine work of Plato has a parallel in other genuine works of Plato” (16).3

The fact that Denyer does not present a corresponding section on “Cogent arguments against authenticity” raises questions about the open-mindedness with which he is willing to deal with the issue. Clearly the whole chapter on authenticity is designed to defend the authorship of Alc. I and makes no pretence of confronting all the relevant problems and evidence in an objective manner. Yet there are serious arguments which cannot be simply ignored. Here, purely for example, are three questions which deserved to be confronted:

1. Alc. I was popular in antiquity in large part precisely because it functioned as an excellent introduction to Plato’s writings and the thought contained therein. Is it demonstrable that Plato would have written a work that performed this function so well and seems even to have been written for just this purpose? If it is assumed that he did, how does this assumption square with Phdr. 274b-278b and Ep. 7.341b-344e, which assign an inferior status to the written word?

2. Alc. I is a προτρεπτικὸς λόγος whose goal is to convince Alcibiades to “care for himself,” i.e., “care for his soul.” Slings has demonstrated that the dialogue is also “explicitly” protreptic; that is, it aims for and ends in the (temporary) conversion of Alcibiades. Unlike the usual pattern in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, its focus is not an ethical problem whose lack of resolution creates aporia and thereby serves as an implicit protreptic for the reader. According to Slings, “Plato could never have written anything like the Alcibiades I, because he never loses sight of the reader, whom he wishes to exhort by implication” (my emphasis).4 This criticism (I have greatly simplified Slings’s arguments) deserves to be faced.

3. Socrates’ divine sign is mentioned at the outset of the dialogue (103a4-b1) and several times thereafter, almost always through use of the term ὁ θεός : 105d3-106a2 (3x), 124c6-11, and by implication 127e5 and 135d6, where there is a play on the stock ἐὰν ; cf. 127e5 and its reference to Socrates’ μαντεία. Socrates’ communication with the divine through his sign is therefore an important theme in this dialogue, yet according to Denyer (commenting on 103a6), Socrates and Alcibiades “do not discuss [the divine sign] ever again in the course of this dialogue.” In the face of this statement it is hard to understand why at 16 n. 11 Denyer acknowledges that some of the references to ὁ θεός after 103a4-b1 are in fact references to Socrates’ sign (cf. also on 106a2). His equivocation demonstrates how difficult it is for an upholder of authenticity to make this acknowledgement, since nowhere in the certainly-genuine works of Plato is the sign referred to as ὁ θεός. For my own part, I believe that the use of the term in this connection in Alc. I is an indication of inauthenticity. Whether this belief is correct or not, the problem cannot be simply sidestepped.

“Stylometric tests” comes next (17-20). Here Denyer eschews the detailed consideration of specific evidence from Alc. I, choosing instead to deal with broad principles at a high level of generality. Some of the concepts that are presented here are applied in the next section, “The standard chronology of Plato’s dialogues” (20-24). Denyer points out that Plato’s literary production falls into three broad categories on the basis of chronology, that Alc. I demonstrates affinities with all three, and that the disposition of individual dialogues within each category is uncertain. How then to explain the heterogeneous style and character of Alc. I? Plato was capable of moving easily from one manner to another, as the Symposium makes clear, and could have done so in the case of Alc. I. “Plato wished to show Socrates taking Alcibiades from his original and quite unphilosophical condition to a condition in which he is prepared, at least for the moment, to do some fairly serious philosophising. These intellectual changes … are reflected in the changes of literary manner, from ‘early’, through ‘middle’, to ‘late'” (24). If this is so — and it is unclear why such shifts should entail concommitant stylometric changes as well, involving what are usually considered to be unconscious formulas of response — then it strengthens the impression that we are dealing with a dialogue that was intended to be an introduction to Plato’s writings; and this brings us back to the question whether Plato would have composed such a work.

The final section in this chapter is “The difference that authenticity makes.” By considering how the vindication of this dialogue may affect — even change — our understanding of the whole body of authentic Platonic works, Denyer does what few champions of suspect dialogues are prepared to do, and he is to be commended for this. Ultimately, however, he concludes that accepting the authenticity of Alc. I does not alter our understanding of particular Platonic doctrines, but instead more broadly affects the way that we read a Platonic dialogue: “We can allow that what Plato makes his characters say depends also or instead on who is being made to speak, to which audience, and with what motives; and we can attempt to explain in these terms the similarities and differences between his various works. It should not however take acceptance of the Alcibiades to make us realize these things” (25-26). This conclusion is a disappointment, implying as it does that authenticity does not after all make a great deal of difference. Yet if Alc. I is genuine, it follows that the various doctrinal and stylistic markers that have been identified in the past as signs of inauthenticity are really products of Plato’s mind; surely the attribution of such features to Plato himself should upset our conception of what Plato could and could not believe and write. We have already seen, however, that Denyer does not deal in detail with any specific arguments against authenticity, so it would be difficult for him now to adduce those arguments in a thorough analysis of the difference that authenticity makes.

The text of Alc. I is in relatively good condition, and Denyer has very reasonably based his edition upon Carlini’s (1964). The apparatus is highly abbreviated and usually clear. There is however a recurring problem with one of the sigla. In several places the note “not in D” appears (115d2, 115e5-7, 128a13 etc.; likewise “not in d” at 105e1-2). The reader who follows up this reference will learn that “D” means “The only reading found in the manuscripts that provide our direct evidence for the text” (26). I suppose that “not in D” is intended to mean “does not occur in any of the manuscripts that provide our direct evidence for the text,” but if so, Denyer has chosen a confusing way of conveying this idea.

I read Denyer’s edition of Alc. I with a group of good students in a course whose purposes included the placing of this dialogue into the broader context of the Alcibiades-dialogue genre. My experience with undergraduate students of Greek is that unless a commentary demonstrates to them quickly that its aim is to provide the kind of practical help that they need, they will pay increasingly less attention to it. So it was with this book. There is no doubt that Denyer’s treatment of the Greek text includes many good notes that elucidate its meaning, though far fewer than are needed in the CGLC series. Moreover, he is alive to the dramatic qualities of Alc. I; he shows, for instance, how various forms of direct address can provide a key to a character’s meaning and intentions. His analysis of the dialogue’s argument in its broader features and in its details is, as we should expect, especially helpful, and anyone who wants to achieve a better understanding of the philosophical content ought to consult it. But too often we find comments of the kind on 107a10 γάρ που. After a sensible explanation of the meaning, Denyer continues: “The only significance to the collocation of the particles is that ‘we may recognize in Plato a certain fondness for the juxtaposition of γάρ and γε with που : and there is something characteristic about καί που : while on the other hand οὖν που is avoided’ ([sc. Denniston] GP 493). Our dialogue has γάρ που four times ….” Most learners do not really care whether Plato is fond of this juxtaposition of particles, or of others for that matter; cf. notes on 105c8, 107b6, 108e6, 113c4-5, 124d9. I can only surmise that this discussion and others like it are intended implicitly to score points in favour of authenticity. Such notes, however, are not a substitute for explicit, extended argumentation, and no professional scholar will be impressed by them unless they are part of a thorough consideration of style which includes the use of resources that were unavailable to Denniston (e.g. the TLG) or of information that was overlooked by him. At moments like these it is unclear what the book’s readership is intended to be.

It would go too far to say that this book represents an opportunity lost, for there is valuable material in it, and the scholar who undertakes the much-needed editio maior will not want to neglect it. I have misgivings about the nature of the project and the methodology applied to it and doubt that it will serve either students or scholars as well as it should. We can hope, however, that it will stimulate closer study of Alc. I.


1. William M. Calder III and Bernhard Huss (eds.), ‘The Wilamowitz in Me’: 100 Letters between Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Paul Friedländer (1904-1931) (Los Angeles 1999) 118 (#63: 7 December 1917), 175 (#85: 31 March 1924); Wilamowitz, Platon: Sein Leben und Seine Werke, 1 (Berlin 5 1959) 84 n. 3, 296 n. 1. I am grateful to Professor Calder for bringing this correspondence to my attention.

2. P. Friedländer, Der Grosse Alcibiades. Ein Weg zu Plato (Bonn 1921) and Der Grosse Alcibiades. Kritische Erörterung (Bonn 1923); Plato, 1 (Berlin 3 1964) 214-226, 331-335 = Plato, 1, trans. H. Meyerhoff (London 1964) 231-243, 348-352.

3. In connection with this passage Denyer ought to have cited and used Burkhard Reis, “Im Spiegel der Weltseele. Platon, Alkibiades I 133c8-17 und der Mittelplatonismus,” in J.J. Cleary, ed., Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honour of John Dillon (Aldershot 1999) 83-113 (with extensive bibliography).

4. S.R. Slings, Plato: Clitophon (Cambridge 1999) 163-164 (quotation at 164).