BMCR 2003.07.02

Platon. Le Politique

, , , Le politique. GF Flammarion ; 1156. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, c2003. 316 p. ; 18 cm.. ISBN 2080711563.

Why should this journal’s predominantly Anglophone scholarly readership be interested in a pocket-sized French translation of one of Plato’s most difficult and least-read dialogues? In the first place, because the translators are Luc Brisson and Jean-François Pradeau (hereafter B/P) two formidable Platonists who bring to their project an enormous wealth of scholarly and philosophical expertise, both on Plato in general and on the late dialogues and political theory in particular. Secondly, because this is not simply a translation for the casual reader but comes supported by an extensive scholarly scaffolding: a fifty-five page introduction; more than four hundred notes occupying another fifty-five pages; three appendices (one listing neologisms and terms in ‐ικος, one diagramming the paradigm of weaving, and one explaining the mathematical joke at 286abc); a multilingual, highly specialized, twelve-page bibliography; a detailed chronology of events in Plato’s life; a list of some thirty textual variations from the (new) OCT; and two indices (general, and proper names). An astonishing wealth of material is thus contained within the covers of this lilliputian volume, most of it in print large enough to read without eye-strain. For the Francophone, this is truly Plato on the go.

The obvious Anglophone comparandum is Christopher Rowe’s 1995 Aris and Phillips edition, with its facing English translation and extensive philosophical commentary.1 Indeed, Rowe’s edition was preemptively in dialogue with B/P’s from the time it appeared, with its repeated references to Brisson’s then unpublished translation of the myth—presumably a forbear of this volume (see e.g. Rowe on 268e7-9, 271c4-7, 273e3-5). Rowe had thus already whetted his reader’s appetite for this French translation, and set the stage for continued scholarly and philosophical exchange.

B/P’s excellent introduction is much more extensive than Rowe’s, covering in a broad sweep most of the central themes and salient issues surrounding the Statesman. It starts with the dialogue’s relationship to the dramatically-linked Sophist and Theaetetus, plus the hypothetical Philosopher (9-13), which B/P argue—rightly, in my view—was never planned by Plato as a separate work. Next comes a discussion of the general topic of the dialogue—the politikos and politike techne and its relationship to treatment of similar matters elsewhere in Plato, especially the Republic. Also included is a fairly detailed discussion of the dialogue’s three principal modes of dialectic (division, myth, and example). B/P rightly present the Statesman as a kind of methodological tool-kit, in which all three methods are used in interrelated and complementary ways, and all are deemed necessary for the philosopher.

B/P argue strongly—against Rowe and others—for the importance of law in the ideal state, despite the fact that the ideal ruler is entitled to contravene or change the law when he deems fit. Law is not simply a pis-aller to be followed under inferior modes of government, but an essential tool of the ideal ruler, since he cannot personally attend to everyone’s needs at all times. Moreover—and more controversially—they argue that even under second-rate constitutions the laws should be made by real experts in the relevant areas (pp. 55-6). This is what makes some of the inferior states better “imitations” than others of the ideal. This provides an interesting approach to one of the most puzzling problems in this dialogue—the question of how, exactly, the inferior states should be thought of as “imitating” the ideal. But it is hard to find much support for it in the text, particularly because the dialogue pays no attention (unlike the Republic) to the question of how experts in the art(s) of government may actually be produced. (All we are told is that the ideal ruler does not spring into being naturally, like the “king” bee in a hive.) B/P place a similarly heavy emphasis on the role of the subordinate—but crucial— technai in the functioning of the ideal state as described at the end of the work. The main point of the weaving model, in their view, is to show that politike techne works with materials prepared in advance by other experts (p. 63).

B/P’s notes are detailed and extensive (though less so than Rowe’s, which occupy sixty-eight equally crowded and much larger pages). They provide a mass of learned detail on all kinds of things, from parallel passages in Plato and elsewhere (often quoted at length), and references to the modern literature, to detailed information on textual and historical matters. They tell us a lot more than Rowe does about such concrete cultural specifics as the Egyptian god Ammon (n. 8), public doctors (n. 22), heralds (n. 254), secretaries (n. 255), priests (n. 257), and the game of petteia (n. 281). This gives the reader a wealth of valuable material for situating the characters and arguments of the dialogue in their cultural context. But B/P themselves rarely take this step. For example, their detailed note about Lydia and Phrygia (n. 45) makes no reference to the negative cultural valence these regions carry from an Athenian perspective (noted by Rowe, among others), which gives their appearance in this passage special point.

Rowe’s notes include far more explication of the argument and philosophical analysis, including engagement with differing interpretations. B/P do occasionally address divergent scholarly opinions (e.g. n. 209 against “esoteric” interpretation; n. 217 against Owen; n. 266 against Rowe; n. 291 against those who downplay the significance of law). More often, however, they present their own views dogmatically, with little reference to alternative views or controversies. The need to save space in such a compact volume makes this understandable; yet B/P are comfortable providing lavish detail on more tangential matters. They could surely have spared a few sentences to let the neophyte know, for example, that their interpretation of the myth of cosmic reversal is anomalous, especially since it is far from obvious from the text. B/P favor the view that the cosmic cycle involves three stages, rather than the more conventional two. This three-stage theory has had some distinguished adherents, most notably Brisson himself and also Rowe. Nevertheless, it is still a minority view, and the reader should be alerted to this fact. Rowe, by contrast, both marks this interpretation as a departure from the norm and argues for it in detail, in both his introduction and his notes.

This silence regarding competing explanations extends beyond the interpretation of specific arguments to methodological matters that inform the very basis of interpretation. B/P say nothing at all about methodology—their own or anyone else’s. It is clear enough, however, that they adopt an old-fashioned “mouthpiece” stance, that is, they assume that the dominant character of a Platonic dialogue—in this case the Eleatic visitor—is speaking directly for Plato. (When discussing his ideas they regularly use such locutions as “Plato says…”.) Elsewhere, indeed, Brisson has made this methodological position explicit, though his defense of it is circular.2 Granted, this is still the dominant interpretive tradition, at least among those trained in analytical philosophy. But it has come under attack in recent years,3 to a degree that requires those still employing it to justify themselves. Many philosophical interpreters—including Rowe—have used other approaches to enrich their understanding of Plato without detriment to their analytical insights. Moreover, some important recent studies of this particular dialogue depend on alternative methodologies.4 B/P make no reference at all to this kind of work (though some of it is in their bibliography).

Their “mouthpiece” posture causes B/P to ignore almost entirely the fact that this dialogue represents a conversation between a number of dramatized characters. Revealingly, they state baldly that we know “nothing” of either of the two main speakers, young Socrates and the Eleatic visitor (p. 13 n. 1; p. 215 n. 11). There are two problems with this. First, B/P apparently mean that we know nothing of any actual historical figures that lie behind these characters, yet several scholars, notably Miller (above, n. 4), have argued quite persuasively that we can identify a young man named Socrates in Plato’s Academy. Miller uses this information to impressive—if not always persuasive—effect, and the mysterious matter of young Socrates’ identity should at least be raised. Second, even if no such historical persons did exist, we do, of course, know a good deal about both young Socrates and the Eleatic visitor as characters in this dialogue, and in its companion piece, the Sophist. Simply collapsing the Eleatic visitor with Plato (and by implication with Socrates in other dialogues) leaves all kinds of interesting questions not only unanswered, but unasked. Why did Plato abandon Socrates as his alleged mouthpiece? Why did he turn to a nameless foreigner instead? Why did he provide him with such a spineless interlocutor? Why is Socrates himself sitting silently listening? And so on. It also has a deadening effect on interpretation, which may be seen, for example, in B/P’s disappointing treatment of the intriguing passage where the Eleatic visitor criticizes those who draw a line between Greeks and barbarians ( Stat. 262d). B/P declare the passage “facetious,” on the grounds that this commonly-found distinction is mentioned uncritically elsewhere in Plato (n. 44). But such reductive unitarianism is unhelpful. If all of Plato’s inconsistencies were to be thus dismissed, he would have to be accounted the most facetious of writers.

Despite these methodological caveats, the serious student of the Statesman (and can there be any other kind?) will find a great deal of value in this little book. It is a pity, then, that it is not organized or formatted in such a way as to facilitate their use. The notes are placed at the back of the book and numbered consecutively, without Stephanus references, so that anyone who is not concerned with the translation per se, but wants to find out what B/P have to say in their note on a specific passage, must first find the passage in the translation (which does have Stephanus numbers), then locate the note number, and finally go back to the notes to find it. This makes it cumbersome and time-consuming to mine B/P’s notes for their wealth of information, not to mention comparing them with the Greek text or other commentaries.

In addition, the notes contain numerous references to scholarly works which are not included in the bibliography (contrary to what is claimed on p. 289). Some of these items appear several times, with an irritating loc. cit. There is no way of retrieving these references without plowing laboriously through the small print of all the preceding notes. There is a similar problem with the use of “éd. citée” in the bibliography. Moreover, the bibliographical entries are—bizarrely—not always arranged alphabetically under their subheads. Though the general bibliography is mercifully alphabetized, the list of editions and translations and the bibliography on the myth both seem to be arranged by date—yet this has not been accurately executed. This makes it hard to find even things that are in the bibliography.

Many of the notes are concerned with textual matters, and these are often written as if the reader had the Greek in front of her, rendering them incomprehensible if she does not. An additional quibble is that there is no Greek script anywhere in the book. Greek is used freely, but only in transliteration. (Mercifully, accents and macrons are used, but the indication of rough breathings is sporadic.) This is particularly disconcerting in the discussion of textual issues. An additional pet peeve of mine is the transliteration of gamma before palatal stops as “g”, an ugly practice (though it is is admittedly becoming quite common) which gives us words like sugkritike.

On the positive side, outright errors are very few. There are almost no typos, and the only troublesome mistake I noticed was a reference in n. 94 to N. Loraux’s L’Invention d’Athènes which obviously should have been to the same author’s Les Enfants d’Athéna (neither is in the bibliography). And the translation itself reads well, at least to my Anglophone ear. French seems to me better suited than English to the rendition of the interlocutor’s many bland formulae of response, which sound more nuanced and less painfully unnatural than they tend to do in modern English. But this may be just a happy consequence of my own limited sensitivity to the feel of French.


1. C. J. Rowe, trans. and comm., Plato: Statesman (Warminster 1995).

2. He argues that we must treat the visitor as Plato’s mouthpiece, otherwise we cannot tell what Plato thinks and cannot trace the development of his thought (“Interprétation du mythe du Politique,” 349, in C. J. Rowe (ed.), Reading the Statesman, International Plato Studies 4 (Sankt Augustin 1995): 349-63.

3. See especially G. A. Press (ed.), Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity (Lanham, MD 2000).

4. Notably M. H. Miller, The Philosopher in Plato’s Statesman (The Hague 1980).