BMCR 2007.09.13

Metaphysics and Method in Plato’s Statesman

, Metaphysics and method in Plato's Statesman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii, 265 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521866081. $75.00.

The last thirty years have seen the emergence of only three monographs on Plato’s Statesman, and so Kenneth Sayre’s present study fills an acutely felt gap and enhances our appreciation of the dialogue’s preoccupation with method and metaphysics.1 With a remarkably Solomonian sense of fairness, Sayre divides the book into two halves of equal length, devoting the first six chapters (Part I) to a painstaking analysis of the method used by the Eleatic Stranger in defining his subject matter, while exploring in the remaining six chapters (Part II) the metaphysical underpinnings of his examination of measurement.2 An Appendix, titled ‘Equivalents for the Great and Small in Aristotle and His Commentators,’ lists the sources from which Sayre draws his survey of alternative designations for the Great and Small. The bibliography is adequate, and the book ends with three useful indices.

The interest in dialectical method in Part I is textually warranted. At 285d, the Stranger says that the main purpose of the dialogue is not, as one might expect, to define the statesman, but to make the participants in the dialogue better dialecticians. From a practical point of view, becoming a better dialectician requires competence in the use of the method of division. To this end, most of the dialogue’s early divisions, as well as the paradigm of kingly shepherding, are seen as negative illustrations of the ars dividendi. Sayre compares the Statesman‘s deployment of division with the use of the same dialectical procedure (together with collection) in the Phaedrus and the Sophist. He then turns to the paradigm of weaving and suggests that its importance lies in illustrating the use of paradigms in dialectical inquiry. Use of weaving serves to articulate the practical details involved in the statesman’s art and facilitates the definition of statesmanship, thereby illuminating the dialectician’s task. In Sayre’s own words, ‘just as the warp provides the structure into which the woof is interspersed by the weaver, and just as the contingent of courageous natures provides the structure into which the “woof” of well-behaved natures is interwoven by the statesman, so the formal definition provides the structure into which the dialectician interweaves descriptive details that bring clarity to the final product of his or her inquiry’ (135). This analogy conveniently assimilates the work of weaver, statesman, and dialectician. The inclusion of the dialectician into the mix nicely gestures to the Sophist‘s notion that logos depends on the weaving together of appropriate elements of speech.

Much though I have learnt from Sayre’s concentrated study of the practice of dialectic as key to the dialogue’s methodological preoccupations, I would have welcomed an examination of another central methodological concern of both Sophist and Statesman, the determination of whether sophist, statesman, and philosopher are one, two, or three kinds. Additionally, an assessment of the myth of Statesman as a methodological device for the articulation of important metaphysical matters would have been most illuminating, and could have afforded a useful transition from Part I to Part II.

In discussing the final definition, Sayre points out three features as particularly noteworthy. First, the Stranger carefully dissociates statesmanship from its rival arts. Secondly, he departs from the norm of dichotomous division that prevails in the first part of the dialogue (and occurs also in the Sophist). Sayre explains the use of non-dichotomous divisions here as simply ‘a return to a procedure employed previously,’ notably in the Phaedrus and the Philebus. Useful though the signaling of such inter-dialogic commonalities is, in a book of this length it may strike the reader as rather too indirect, thereby leaving dissatisfied both developmentalists, who will be offered no good reasons for reconsidering their position, and unitarians, who will crave more reasons for holding on to theirs. Furthermore, one cannot help but wish for an intra-dialogic explanation for the presence of this type of division: what makes the shift to non-bifurcatory divisions conceptually, methodologically, or even dramatically appropriate at this point of the dialogue ? Thirdly, the Stranger executes non-dichotomous divisions only on the left-hand side, contrary to his injunction in Sophist 264d-e to perform divisions on the right. Leftward divisions, Sayre contends, allows for a lavishly colorful account of the civic arts that are to be separated from statesmanship. But one wonders: what is it about left-hand side divisions that makes them capable of providing such rich descriptive details? The question becomes all the more pertinent in light of Sayre’s own admission that ‘comparable detail to the right is withheld until the final five pages of the dialogue’ (127). If, then, rightward divisions can, in principle, yield detailed accounts, why aren’t they deployed here in lieu of leftward divisions?

Part II deals with the metaphysics of the Statesman, a topic that has eluded systematic scholarly analysis. Here Sayre continues the ‘inquiry into the metaphysics of Plato’s late period’ (1) that preoccupied him in Plato’s Late Ontology: A Riddle Resolved (1983), by concentrating on the expression of ‘Excess and Deficiency,’ used twice at either end of a sequence occupying the exact middle of the dialogue (283c-285c). In discussing this passage, the Stranger examines two kinds of measurement, one of contraries with respect to each other, the other of contraries with respect to fixed measure. Sayre interprets the term ‘Excess and Deficiency’ as a synonym for expressions used in the Philebus (as well as in the Parmenides, and possibly in the Republic) that designate the Great and the Small. He then returns to a point made in the Statesman that all the arts depend for their existence on the second kind of measurement, especially those of statesmanship, weaving, and, implicitly, dialectic. A glance at the Philebus reveals dialectic as the most accurate of the arts in its use of numbers and measures. Taking into account Aristotle’s attribution to Plato of the thesis that Forms are numbers, Sayre argues here for a point he has argued in Plato’s Late Ontology, namely that Forms are numbers in the sense of measure. Dialectic makes divisions according to Forms qua measures.

But how does division work? In what is perhaps one of the best argued parts of the book, Sayre successfully undermines the prevalent hierarchical notion of division. He argues that division cannot follow a downward path of decreasing generality because definitions of the same thing can occur along many different paths. Rather, dialectics ‘begins with the positing of kinds that are determinate with respect to certain pertinent features but indeterminate in other features relevant to the project at hand. The role of division is to make these other features determinate in progressive stages … until all pertinent features have been segregated into relevant kinds’ (237). This is a most interesting reconceptualization of the nature and aim of diairesis that is also sensitive to the nuances of the Platonic text.

Although Sayre’s study of the metaphysics of the Statesman is always careful, methodical, and insightful, its being conducted with one eye on the Philebus metaphysics inevitably raises, once again, the issue of the significance of the established connections between the two dialogues. This is not a mere quibble but a serious matter. For unless the author’s comparative observations are accompanied by an assessment of what we are to make of them and of how they fit into the overall project of Plato’s later metaphysics, they run the risk of appearing flat and piecemeal.

In general, Sayre’s work is replete with interesting remarks, and his arguments, although they may not always reach far enough, are solid and thought-provoking. Students and scholars of Platonic philosophy will find much to ponder here. The book is also well produced.3


1. Mitchell Miller, The Philosopher in Plato’s Statesman, Boston 1980 (second edition Las Vegas 2005, reviewed BMCR 2005.08.19); Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Statesman: The Web of Politics, New Haven 1995; Christopher Rowe (ed.), Reading the ‘Statesman’. Proceedings of the Third Symposium Platonicum, Sankt Augustin 1995; and Melissa Lane, Method and Politics in Plato’s Statesman, Cambridge 1998.

2. In the Introduction, Sayre states that Part II was created before Part I, an order that was observed in the initial draft of the book but was reversed in the final draft. Although I respect, without necessarily endorsing, his explanation for the reversal—method is better known to readers of the Statesman than metaphysics, and so ‘a specialized book like this should begin with material familiar to its intended audience’—I wonder whether the title should be made to reflect this reversal.

3. I have only noted five minor typographical errors: ‘assigning the name “dialectician” persons,’ instead of ‘to’ persons (52); ‘all division,’ instead of ‘all divisions’ (64); ‘ didastik,’ instead of ‘ didaskalik‘ (67); ‘comprehension,’ instead of ‘comprehensive’ (89); ‘ostensive,’ instead of ‘ostensible’ (31, 139).