BMCR 2005.08.19

The Philosopher in Plato’s Statesman

, The philosopher in Plato's Statesman : together with "Dialectical education and unwritten teachings in Plato's Statesman". Miller, Mitchell H. Dialectical education and unwritten teachings in Plato's Statesman.. Las Vegas, NV: Parmenides Pub, 2004. 1 online resource (xxxiii, 186 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781930972438. $20.00.

This book is a reprint of The Philosopher in Plato’s Statesman (Martinus Nijhoff, 1980), with a new preface, an updated supplementary bibliography, and an essay by Miller (M.) first published in 1999, called “Dialectical Education and Unwritten Teachings in Plato’s Statesman.” Relatively pedestrian, the supplementary materials are nevertheless useful enough: the preface presents a helpful retrospective view of the central questions animating M.’s study, as well as the hermeneutic perspective from which they arise; the supplementary bibliography both reflects what M. claims is the “transformation” undergone by the Anglo-American community of Plato scholarship since the monograph’s original publication and, in the process, partially justifies that very claim; and the additional essay amounts to a provocative if programmatic final chapter to the book, sketching out — albeit with an economy that some may find excessive — an exciting and compelling interpretive thesis about the relation of the Statesman to the “unwritten teachings” Aristotle ascribes to Plato in Metaphysics A6. All the same, it is clearly the reading of the Statesman expounded in the main text that must justify this reprinting, and here we meet with a resounding success. For, twenty-five years after its initial publication, M.’s work remains strikingly contemporary; moreover, it is a remarkable combination of scholarly rigor, interpretive sophistication and creativity, and stylistic clarity.

The volume as a whole is organized in a straightforward way. The introduction provides a concise account of M.’s interpretive approach, stressing his view that the unity of form and content remains a vital aspect of Plato’s writing even in the later dialogues. The first chapter begins the attempt to make good on this claim by discussing the dramatic context of the Statesman, with particular attention to the impending trial of Socrates, which provides the dramatic backdrop, and to the dramatis personae of the dialogue, including Theodorus, the elder and younger Socrates, and the Eleatic Stranger. The second, third, and fourth chapters work out M.’s interpretation of the Statesman, following the text quite closely; their divisions, however, correspond to M.’s innovative suggestion that virtually all of Plato’s written compositions (the claim is asserted quite broadly) exemplify a distinctive “rhythm” originating in the experience of philosophical conversion. Specifically, M. claims to discern a triadic structure of elicitation, refutation/reorientation, and resumption which is generally characteristic of philosophical discourse in its communicative (as distinct from its formal argumentative) aspect. Following this compositional structure, ch. 2 discusses the initial diairesis of the statesman, culminating in the elicitation of Young Socrates’ assent to the definition of the statesman as a kind of herdsman (soon shown to be problematic); ch. 3 presents a treatment of the myth of the divine shepherd, as well as the notions of paradigm and the mean, as digressions intended to refute Young Socrates and reorient the conversation; and ch. 4 takes up the resumption of the inquiry into the nature of the statesman, now carried out in light of the preceding reorientation. The interpretation concludes with a brief epilogue in which M. suggests that the dialogue itself may be read as a “mean,” that is, as a work in which Plato proposes a “second-best” conception of the ideal state that is in fact better suited to the actual limitations of contemporary political life than the truly ideal conception (which is nevertheless implicitly revealed by the text) would have been. The volume as a whole then concludes with M.’s later essay, which considerably broadens and deepens some of the ontological reflections that are merely touched upon in the earlier work.

As indicated, M.’s interpretive stance involves being extremely attuned to the dramatic and literary form of the dialogues in order to unlock their philosophical content. In the preface, M. recalls that his approach to the Statesman twenty-five years ago stood in contrast to the then prevailing “developmentalist program.” Instead of “[resolving] differences in formulations of doctrine by assigning them to different stages in the development of Plato’s thinking” (p. xi), M. sought to attend to the concrete settings of the dialogues and the fictionalized characters and dramatic sequencing depicted within as a means of “hearing and responding to the indirect communication of the dialogues” (ibid.). As M. notes, this approach has become much more widely accepted in the years since his study first appeared (even if it can hardly be said to have replaced the developmentalist approach). Nevertheless, M.’s work remains an outstanding example of the fruitfulness of this interpretive mode — particularly for those who may be skeptical of its value. Indeed, I know of no other Plato scholar who works harder, or more cautiously, to establish the credibility of his approach — no doubt due in part to its minority status when the book was first written — and the payoff here is impressive. M. is consistently able to produce compelling explanations for seemingly throwaway remarks and to shed considerable light on the most obscure moments of the dialogue while at the same time developing a powerfully unified interpretation of the dialogue as a whole.

The introduction develops M.’s interpretive approach in more detail. The guiding thread is the recognition that “Plato is teacher and philosopher at once” (p. xxvi) — and that it is by virtue of his literary talents that he is able to fulfill both of these roles at once. Throughout the book, M. draws the reader’s attention to the various ways in which Plato’s text is able to achieve both pedagogical and substantive purposes simultaneously. With respect to the pedagogical purposes, M. argues that the dialogues are mimetic in the sense that some portion or element of Plato’s audience is put “on stage” before itself. Young Socrates, for instance, is taken to be a representation of the young men of the Academy. By observing and, presumably, critiquing their avatar, the young Academicians are drawn into meaningful self-examination. M. offers a similar view of Plato’s depiction of irony: even if the practice of irony fails in the action of the dialogue (for instance when the interlocutor becomes impatient or hostile), the reader who witnesses this failure, especially one who identifies himself with the interlocutor, may be motivated to do better. On the substantive side, M. argues that Plato, in addressing the public at large but by no means taking his audience as being uniformly adept at philosophy, must seek, like Odysseus, to speak “one thing to the captains, and another to the troops.” Indeed, on M.’s reading, the Statesman as a whole provides an outstanding example of this productive duplicity: this is the point of M.’s above-mentioned claim that the dialogue as a whole is a “mean.”

Chapter 1 discusses the dramatic context of the dialogue, focusing on the trial of Socrates, which by means of key dramatic clues is placed squarely in the background of the conversation depicted in the Statesman, and on each of the characters involved in that conversation. In particular, M.’s discussion highlights (i) the likelihood that the trilogy of Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman together represent a genuinely philosophical analogue to the decidedly unphilosophical trial of Socrates; (ii) the “substantive antagonism” (not to be confused with the personal friendliness) between Theodorus, the representative of geometry, and Socrates, the personification of philosophy; (iii) the excessively deferential character of Young Socrates, the student of Theodorus, whose tendency to uncritical assent may have reflected something in the contemporary atmosphere of the Academy — perhaps a certain cult of personality centered around Plato; (iv) the silence of the elder Socrates, which M. takes as “an indirect communication of the substantive estrangement which divides him from his friends” (p. 10); and (v) the significance of the Parmenidean heritage of the Stranger from Elea.

Chapter 2 takes up the initial demonstration of “bifurcatory diairesis,” the methodological technique, already established in the Sophist, of reaching a specific definition by means of successive halvings, or bifurcations, of progressively narrower generic forms of knowledge. M.’s attention here is directed to the manifest inadequacy of this method, despite its prominence in this dialogue and the Stranger’s concerted efforts to instill an adequate grasp of it in Young Socrates. We learn that while bifurcatory diairesis has considerable value as a means of leading Young Socrates to a more philosophical standpoint, it is not an adequate method for someone who has already attained such a standpoint. This is another example of the overlapping character of the pedagogical and the substantive elements in the dialogue. On the one hand, Plato has the Stranger impart a positive methodological teaching to Young Socrates; on the other hand, the later stages of the dialogue indicate crucial limitations of this method, limitations that Young Socrates himself is not yet in a position to understand — and which, moreover, would be dangerous for him even to catch sight of.

Chapter 3 deals with the lengthy series of digressions that comprise the middle portion of the dialogue. This portion of the book is especially effective as M. displays considerable insight and dexterity in elucidating the “manifold function” of the myth of the divine shepherd. Still joining pedagogical and substantive aims, Plato now, according to M., introduces a penetrating critical analysis of contemporary politics as well. M.’s treatment of the myth is complex, but his careful organization of the discussion exemplifies one of the real strengths of the book, its capacity to explicate serially what Plato achieves simultaneously. According to M., the myth has two main functions: first, it provides a “transcendent measure for statesmanship” (p. 37); second, it manipulates a number of traditional images, including the Homeric “shepherd of the people” and the Hesiodic “age of Cronus,” to achieve a critique of contemporary Greek political consciousness. Ultimately, M. claims, this critique discloses Plato’s “real antagonists,” those who would, knowingly or not, fulfill the despotic implications of the Protagorean declaration of homo mensura. The problem, M.’s reading shows, lies not merely in the claim that man is the measure, but also in the fact that this declaration, to use the language of the myth, is subject to a dangerous forgetfulness: unaware that the golden age of Cronus has passed and the age of Zeus is at hand, it could conflate, to potentially disastrous result, “the human despot with the divine shepherd” (p. 50).

M. concludes his interpretation of the Statesman in Chapter 4, which focuses on the new, non-bifurcatory form of diairesis introduced by the Stranger and the division of the arts that care for the city which results from that diairesis, but also pays close attention to yet another lengthy digression. As the dialogue moves toward its conclusion, M. shows how the tension between the Eleatic Stranger’s pedagogical and substantive aims is heightened. On the one hand, Young Socrates has repeatedly shown himself to be unprepared for serious philosophical reflection; on the other hand, the elder Socrates still silently awaits the promised definition of the statesman. M.’s explication of how Plato navigates this tension is nothing short of brilliant. I can only indicate here a few of the more striking claims. First, M. argues that the shift from bifurcatory diairesis to a new form based on a continuum is actually the result of the self-overcoming character of the bifurcatory method. (In the essay that follows, this notion of a continuum will be linked with the ontological category of the Unlimited presented in the Philebus.) Second, M. demonstrates the internal logic of the sequence of the arts revealed by this new method, showing that “each step brings us closer to the statesman” (p. 84). Third, M. shows how, in the dialogue’s final extended digression, the Stranger distinguishes the true statesman who rules by virtue of epistemic insight not only from the tyrant but also from the rule of law and, while explicitly presenting the rule of the true statesman as the ideal, nevertheless defends the rule of law as the situationally appropriate “mean” for those who, like Young Socrates, are not yet (and may never be) capable of eidetic intuition.

The supplementary essay, “Dialectical Education and Unwritten Teachings in Plato’s Statesman,” deals with the eidetic structure whose recognition constitutes, on M.’s reading, the ultimate goal of philosophical education. The main contribution of the essay is to demonstrate that the structure depicted by the distinction of the fifteen kinds of art that care for the city near the end of the Statesman is itself part of a “much more comprehensive structure” (p. xvii). Other aspects of this larger structure are revealed in key passages from the Parmenides and the Philebus. What is most exciting here is the possibility that these passages, on the reading sketched here, might in fact represent concrete, written instances of the so-called “unwritten teachings” summarized by Aristotle in Metaphysics A6. Moreover, M. suggests a number of other possible connections, for instance in the Philebus, the Timaeus, and the Republic, perhaps pointing towards “a Platonic archipelago, the full expanse and interconnectedness of which is still to be charted” (p. xviii). Cautious readers will want to see this hypothesis developed more fully, but it is surely a promising line of thought. Indeed, coupling this essay with the original monograph is an excellent idea, since the latter develops some of the key starting points of the former in a highly coherent interpretation of the dialogue as a whole, thus rendering the individual points all the more plausible.

One could quibble about perceived omissions. For instance, we hear about how the continuum form of diairesis anticipates Aristotle’s notion of pros hen analogy, but not about how the Stranger’s notion of essential measure anticipates Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean or how the limitations of law might be linked to the conceptual formalization of phronesis. Or, M. could have included some comparison of Plato’s “political philosophy” as it appears in the Statesman with related issues in the Republic and the Laws. But these concerns are tangential to M.’s project, and so it is hard to count them as deficiencies. The lack of a subject index is partially compensated for by a very detailed table of contents, but I would have liked an index of modern as well as historical persons. M.’s writing style is elegant, trim, and direct. Parmenides Publishing has done a good job with the presentation, although some readers may find the typeface too small and the margins not generous enough.

In sum, this is an outstanding example of a careful reading of a Platonic dialogue, insightfully attuned to its literary aspects without neglecting its philosophical content.