Plato is the great philosophical flirt. He is the philosophical critic of poetry and the most poetic of philosophers, the defender of justice whose apparent model of the good man shuns political participation, the critic of writing who writes—never, however, in his own voice, but typically through that of a man known for his irony. Plato is always tempting the reader with apparent morsels of knowledge, then skittering gingerly away from quite endorsing them, all the while compelling the reader somehow to hunt for Plato’s own views through the thickets of the philosophical conversations he reports. The question of what Plato wishes to teach us cannot be answered apart from the question of how we ought to read him in the first place. Christopher Rowe’s new book is a challenging, insightful, and provocative discussion of this relationship between what Plato believed and the literary form in which he chose to present it.
From the outset Rowe pits his reading of Plato against a pair of common interpretive approaches: the “skeptical” interpretation, which treats Plato as primarily interested in prodding us to think for ourselves, rather than promoting any particular set of doctrines; and the “doctrinalist” interpretation, which takes exactly the opposite view and regards Plato as advancing characteristic doctrines of his own. (See esp. pp. 1-7, though contrasts between Rowe’s and these alternative readings are ubiquitous.) Rowe delights in portraying his own interpretation as a kind of underdog trying to pull off an upset against these established contenders. But his chief target is a view of Plato held, in different ways, by both these approaches: the “developmentalist” claim that the Republic in particular marks a break in Plato’s writings, separating off the earlier “Socratic” dialogues from the later, more genuinely “Platonic” ones. The “skeptics” view this change “as marking Plato’s break with Socrates,” whereas the “doctrinalists” either regard the earlier dialogues as “of relatively little interest in themselves” or “assimilate [them] to the Republic” (6). Rowe attacks the developmentalist interpretation in either of these forms and directs at it his strongest criticism: “Perhaps as much as anything else, it will be my aim in the present book to replace this way of dividing up Plato’s work, which in my view has become the single greatest obstacle to a proper understanding of Plato and Platonism” (4-5).
Rowe sets out the essentials of his own approach to reading Plato in a lengthy introductory chapter on “Preliminaries,” which accounts for almost a fifth of the volume. His interpretive method rests upon several important claims, some of which are implicit in the attack on developmentalism. First, he argues that Plato’s body of work can be read as an internally consistent whole, incorporating some shifts of emphasis and development of ideas, but containing no radical break, no set of dialogues whose critical arguments or concepts are incompatible with those of some other set of dialogues. Rather, Rowe suggests, readers of multiple dialogues find repeated a familiar set of ideas about human motivation, knowledge, the soul, and other matters. This claim entails a pair of corollaries: (a) The reader is entitled to read across dialogues, drawing upon insights from one to aid in understanding another. (b) There is no sharp distinction between the views of “Socrates” and those of “Plato”—Socrates’ beliefs are also Plato’s own.
Attached to this argument about the broad consistency of Plato’s view is another about how we ought to read his works. What may at first glance appear to be inconsistencies among dialogues, Rowe argues, are typically the result of Plato’s having chosen to cast his ideas in the dialogue form. We must think of the Socrates of the dialogues as operating in much the same way that we ourselves do in conversation (with, needless to say, considerably greater philosophical sophistication). He does not necessarily say all that he thinks about a given topic any time he touches upon it. His arguments are always adapted to his immediate audience, sensitive to their own presuppositions and tendencies, attentive to what they are capable of understanding or likely to find persuasive, as Socrates attempts gradually to lead his various interlocutors (and Plato his readers) step-by-step towards a more adequate understanding of truth. Socrates will even adopt premises—though only for the sake of argument, without explicitly endorsing them—that are his interlocutors’ rather than his own, when doing so is likely to make an unexpected conclusion more palatable. In this sense, says Rowe, “Plato has a fair claim to be the inventor, as well as the finest proponent, of philosophical rhetoric” (268; emphasis in original).
Finally, Rowe argues that although Socrates presents himself as a “know-nothing,” he (and through him, Plato) appears to hold a number of fairly consistent positions, which he is prepared to treat, for all practical purposes, as equivalent to knowledge (in the sense that they have repeatedly withstood dialectical challenge and bested competing alternatives). As Rowe puts it, “Plato’s Socrates always has a positive, and substantive, agenda” (21; emphasis omitted). The content of these consistent positions will not come as a surprise to a reader of the dialogues. They include such familiar and repeated Socratic views as the following: people always desire their own (real) good; they go wrong, therefore, only through ignorance; in order to achieve their (real) good, people require a special kind of expertise, knowledge about the good; the good man never acts to harm someone else; the soul is, fundamentally, a unity. (On this last point Rowe concedes that Plato’s thought does undergo a significant development or revision, but not in such a way as to undermine his underlying claim of consistency.) Indeed, the frequency and consistency with which the self-professed “know-nothing” Socrates, in a range of tremendously diverse dialogues on various topics, reiterates these fundamental convictions is itself part of the supporting evidence that Rowe offers to buttress his argument for the overall unity of Plato’s corpus.
But if Plato (like Socrates) in fact holds a number of consistent positions that can be summarized in a paragraph, why not just say so? Why put his views into the mouth of someone else (assuming that this is what he has done) and bury them beneath layers of complex dialectic? Rowe’s suggestion is that Plato must follow a strategy of indirection precisely because Socrates’ views are so odd, so very different from those generally held by his interlocutors—as well as by us, Plato’s readers. “Understanding that difference between Plato and his intended audience, and between Plato and ourselves,” writes Rowe, “is an essential part of understanding how to read his dialogues” (29). This may sound peculiar to those who read Plato’s dialogues for a living and are, as it were, inured to his oddness. What Rowe means, however, is that Socrates’ opinions are so contrary to commonly held views that stating them baldly would fail to persuade anyone. The evidence for this is in the verisimilitude of the dialogic conversations. Socrates’ conversation partners regularly express surprise and bewilderment at the notion, for instance, that the good man would never harm anyone, or that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Unlike Socrates, they simply don’t believe these things. Or, better, they don’t believe that they believe them—since the purpose of Socrates’ questioning is to reveal, to their confusion, that at some level they actually do. “The dialogues generally exhibit at least two levels of understanding, Socrates’ and that of the interlocutor, and the reader is in effect invited to ask himself or herself whether to side with the one or with the other” (31). It is because of this “mismatch between the speakers in a dialogue” (30) that Socrates approaches his subjects by so many twists and turns. His views on ethical matters are so unexpected that neither his contemporaries nor we can take them in all at once; rather, we need to be addressed first on our own ground, and gradually brought round to what Socrates considers more defensible positions. In this respect, however, we have an advantage over Socrates’ interlocutors, because we possess the dialogues, in which Socrates comes at us again and again from different directions and which we can read and re-read in light of Plato’s overall output.
In laying out his interpretation, Rowe discusses, sometimes briefly but often at some length, a considerable number of dialogues: the Apology, Phaedo, Charmides, First Alcibiades, Meno, Euthyphro, Phaedrus, Gorgias, Theaetetus, and Timaeus. In the course of his discussions he touches on a wide range of important problems: Plato’s moral psychology, his views on the nature of the soul and immortality, his cosmology, his theory of the forms, the concept of recollection, and others. Practically all of these, however, tie in at one point or another with his much longer treatment of the dialogue to which he devotes by far the most attention (over a third of the book): the Republic. The Republic takes center stage not only because of its own intrinsic significance, but also because it is a kind of test case for Rowe’s thesis. His developmentalist opponents regard the Republic as the dialogue in which Plato, by adopting the theory of the forms, makes his break with Socrates. Rowe is thus at pains to show that the discussions of the soul, of knowledge, or of the afterlife in the Republic are not fundamentally at odds with the views expressed in other (and especially earlier) dialogues, and that apparent discrepancies can be explained by Plato’s “art of philosophical writing”: by the need to adapt his arguments to the perspectives and presuppositions of different audiences at different times.
The space of a single review is not adequate to consider the full range of themes addressed by Rowe. So I shall follow his own lead by focusing briefly on some aspects of his discussion of the Republic. An excellent example of his approach can be found in a section that he labels the “Appendix to Chapter 5,” in which he takes up the argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic. He focuses in particular on a Socratic argument often regarded as weak, perhaps even embarrassingly so. This is the “like/unlike” argument: Thrasymachus claims that the unjust man wants to “get the better of” everyone, whereas the just man only wants to get the better of those who are unlike him (the unjust); in other arts, however, the expert practitioner only wants to get the better of those who are unlike him (the inexpert), not of other experts; it is therefore the just, not the unjust, man who resembles the wise expert, whereas the unjust resembles the ignorant; but because Thrasymachus has also claimed that both are of the same sort as that which they resemble, the just man turns out to be wise, the unjust foolish.
The difficulty with this argument is that Socrates and Thrasymachus have very different things in mind when they speak of “getting the better of” someone. Thrasymachus is thinking of acquiring those things commonly held to be goods, common objects of human striving: money, pleasure, glory, power. Socrates, however, by introducing the model of the expert craftsman, relies upon a non-scarce good for which we must not compete with others: knowledge. Little wonder that Thrasymachus, though bested in argument, is unpersuaded. Yet Rowe argues that the mismatch between Socrates’ and Thrasymachus’ real premises does not itself make Socrates’ argument a bad one. It means only that he is not likely ultimately to satisfy Thrasymachus—as of course he does not. (Recall here Rowe’s earlier claim that Socrates’ actual views are, by the standards of his interlocutors and by our own, quite odd.) Rowe’s point is that we must understand the argument here as proceeding on two levels, one based on the premises of Thrasymachus, the other on those of Socrates. Each argument works on its own terms: Thrasymachus is brought to admit Socrates’ conclusions, while Socrates himself really does believe what he is saying: that the just man is wise and good. The awkwardness of the argument arises from the overlapping sets of conflicting premises, not all of which are explicitly stated. Thrasymachus’ premises are clear enough: he thinks that life is full of perfectly obvious good things, of which we should try to accumulate as much as possible, while avoiding equally obvious harms. But even though the argument “works,” its conclusion rests somewhat uneasily with these views. Its conclusion hangs much more naturally with Socrates’ premises: that the wise man never does harm, that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. But those premises are, as it were, partially submerged, because Thrasymachus—like us?—regards them as simply preposterous. As Rowe puts it, “The position Socrates is defending is not the same as the one Thrasymachus is attacking, or thinks he is attacking, because their perspectives…are quite different. Most obviously, Socrates doesn’t think the just to be simple-minded, as Thrasymachus does…. They simply have a different idea of what they want out of life, of what is good; and so also of what it is to have more than someone else. The reason why Socrates hold this view hasn’t yet been articulated, but then neither has Thrasymachus told us why he thinks unlimited power and money a good thing.” And then Rowe continues with the main point he wishes to make about Republic I, a point that seems to me entirely correct: “This first part of the argument…is, I propose, as important for what it begins to tell us about Socrates’ own position, and the difference between it and Thrasymachus’, as it is for the ammunition it provides for Thrasymachus’ dialectical defeat…. Socrates starts from what he himself believes…” (189).
This summary of a portion of Rowe’s argument nicely illustrates his overall interpretive approach to the Republic (and to Plato’s corpus as a whole). The entire dialogue, for Rowe, is shaped by this distinctive philosophical style, conveying an argument that moves consistently in a Socratic direction but whose particular twists, turns, and even conclusions are marked always by Socrates’ attentiveness to the assumptions and desires of his partners. Rowe’s treatment of Socrates’ description of the soul, for example, suggests that Socrates devotes much of the dialogue to developing an argument that—though it prepares his interlocutors to accept a more adequate view of the human good—Socrates himself does not fully accept. The Republic‘s founding of the just city in speech and its parallel within the individual person rest upon the tripartite division of the soul into reason, the desires, and spiritedness. Yet in Book X Socrates indicates to Glaucon that their earlier discussion of the soul was inadequate, because they had considered it only as it appears distorted and even mutilated by the conditions of a disordered life, not as it truly is in its own nature (cf. Rowe, 140-141). This admission, however, should not really surprise the reader, since Socrates had indicated earlier, in Book IV, that he was taking a philosophical shortcut, and that a proper investigation of their subjects would require a longer and more difficult road; and already in Book II, as he set off on the argument that was to discern the nature of justice and injustice as well as the divided soul, Socrates had warned us that this argument was based upon a “feverish” city, rather than the “true” one that Glaucon had dismissed as a city of pigs. Socrates takes this approach, despite his warnings that it will not reveal the full truth, because it is better suited to persuade the young men with whom he is conversing of the desirability of justice. Socrates may not believe that justice is best discerned in feverish soul, or city, torn between reason and desire, but that is how Glaucon and Adeimantus perceive humans to be (it is their own condition, as we see in their speeches at the beginning of Book
He takes the shorter road, therefore, because of “his awareness of the needs of his interlocutors” (176). At the same time, he leaves enough clues along the way—by warning us that we are studying a feverish city, and taking a shortcut, as well as in Book I’s inconclusive conversation with Thrasymachus—to indicate the need for further reflection on our part. As Rowe puts it, “For those who can follow [Plato], and his Socrates, with due attention to his various nods and winks, at least an outline of the proper story is there to be grasped—and, usually, to be filled out from other dialogues” (176, n. 41). This comment about Plato’s “nods and winks” raises one of my own questions about Rowe’s overall approach. I am broadly sympathetic to his method of reading Plato: to the view that Plato can be understood only with due attention to his method of writing, to the claim that Socrates often adopts (without endorsing) for persuasive purposes premises other than his own, to the willingness to read across dialogues and the anti-“developmentalist” approach. But I am not sure this is quite as revolutionary as Rowe claims. An admonition to pay attention to Plato’s nods and winks is highly reminiscent of one of the last century’s most important interpreters of Plato: Leo Strauss.
Strauss’s readings of Plato (like his readings of other philosophers) are, of course, controversial, and one is not normally surprised to see them neglected by non-Straussians. But Rowe’s interpretive approach is so very similar to Strauss’s that in this context the omission is striking. When Rowe, in his Epilogue, explains that he has not concerned himself with various “Platonists” because “my interest is solely in the dialogues themselves, starting from them, and not from others’ interpretations” (273), I hear echoes of my own mostly Straussian teachers. Yet Strauss does not appear in the bibliography; nor do Bloom, Rosen, Benardete, or other notable Straussian interpreters. The similarity of method leads one to wonder what Rowe would make of the most distinctive Straussian claim about the Republic : that the reluctance of philosophers to become kings, suggested by the need to compel them to return to the cave, indicates that Socrates does not actually regard Callipolis as a political possibility, and that its description is thus really intended to illustrate the limits of the human quest for justice. This conclusion relies on giving “due attention to [Socrates’] various nods and winks.” It appears, however, that Rowe—though he does not explore the question in detail—takes Callipolis more seriously as an actual political alternative than Strauss does. For he describes the shortcut of Callipolis and the tripartite soul as the “political option” that Socrates pursues once he has come to grips with the political reality that “the majority of souls are already in a non-ideal contition (‘feverish’, divided)” (180), requiring rule by the wise, philosophical few in order to lead the best and most just life possible. “In short, the Socrates of Books II-X is one newly ready to meet the challenges posed by the condition of actual cities and individuals, in which and in whom reason is only uncertainly in control, if it is in control at all” (180). Given that Rowe reaches this conclusion, apparently different from Strauss’s, by a notably similar interpretive method, it would be interesting to see him engage the Straussian reading directly.
Apart from this omission, however, Rowe—notwithstanding his claim to be interested only in the dialogues themselves—displays an impressive grasp of a wide range of literature. And as I hope the preceding description has indicated, he will have managed to provoke quite a few interpretive schools already. His book offers a penetrating analysis both of Plato’s “philosophical rhetoric” and of various core Socratic (or Platonic) doctrines. His closely reasoned arguments are always grounded carefully in Plato’s own texts and repay a second and third reading. Even those who disagree with Rowe’s conclusions—or, for that matter, his method—will profit from a thoughtful engagement with his interpretation. Rowe’s book is further confirmation (not that more is needed) that Plato has still, after more than two millennia, left us with more than enough to argue about.