BMCR 2010.11.12

Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, and Protagoras. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought

, , Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, and Protagoras. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xliv, 214. ISBN 9780521546003 $29.99 (pb).

This text is perfect for political theory or intellectual history courses at any post-secondary level; nor would it be irrelevant for a philosophy class with supplementary discussion or reading. The translation is both fully pleasurable to read and true to Plato’s vernacular and dramatic intentions; the introduction is clear-eyed, smart, free of dogma, and non-didactic; and the format and apparatus provide every kind of help to be hoped for from a non-commentary. It is refreshingly oriented away from establishing or asserting Plato’s views about politics, justice, democracy, or some factitious version of “rhetoric.” The combination of three texts makes particular pedagogical sense, and for such a combination this edition wins out over alternative competing versions.

Griffith translates the conversations vividly and brilliantly, in a colloquial but elegant English, full of sensitivity to Socrates’ modulation of rapport with his interlocutors. The liveliness, levity, and naturalism of Griffith’s rendering depend on a certain liberality with idiom and slang, e.g., “Come on then, Gorgias, over to you”; “Imagine the people… standing before you, here and now”; “sucking up to people”; “take me to task”; “maestro”; “there are certainly plenty of reasons why being killed in battle looks like a good move.” But the relatively chatty register neither condescends nor sounds overly jaunty. At points the translation does sacrifice accuracy in favor of preserving contemporary (trans-Atlantic) English tone. Thus this text won’t appeal to philologists, those chasing down allusions or looking for patterns of word-usage. But the interpretative benefit such imaginative immersion allows makes up for the loss of historical exactness. Griffith brings out Polus’s pep and resilience, Protagoras’s distinctive reasonableness, and Socrates’ antic good nature with, I think, great insight into the overall drift and tenor of the discussion. Though he avoids the spots of high parody one finds in R.E. Allen’s Yale translations (e.g., Polus’s encomium to rhetoric at 448c, or Socrates’ mock-forensic address at 451b), humor, linguistic variety, and structures of emotional intensity and distance pervade each exchange. Schofield, as editor, claims that “Plato’s writing in the Gorgias has little of its usual urbanity, … strikes readers as… more bitter and passionate the longer it goes on, [and] communicates intense intellectual energy with remarkable directness,” as contrasted with that in Protagoras, with its “relaxed register of sly comedy.” Still, Griffith translates the Gorgias as filled with neither implausible hostility nor plodding determination. His Protagoras is genuinely funny; I have never read the dialogue so continuously before.

The translations come with about 250 footnotes. Schofield, their author, explicates no principle of inclusion, but succeeds admirably at judging what will help a new reader make sense of the three conversations. He inserts one-sentence recapitulations, descriptions of interpretative cruxes, foreshadowing signposts, cross-references, historical background, dramatic explanation, and (infrequently) translation matters. The four notes to Grg. 509-510 are exemplary: 95. See 474c-475e.
96. Callicles has apparently recovered some of his poise.
97. A version of the famous Socratic paradox: ‘No one sins willingly’—although as Irwin points out ( Plato: Gorgias, p.229), it has not in fact been articulated previously in the dialogue in so many words. Socrates and Polus have agreed (i) that nobody does something he wills if that turns out to be bad for him (468d), and (ii) that acting unjustly is harmful to the agent (480a).
98. A proverb as old as Homer ( Od. 17.218), but invoked as a physical principle by many fifth century Presocratic thinkers.

The notes don’t schedule all the puzzlements one should have reading these dialogues (e.g., “Why would Callicles say that?” or “What is the significance of Socrates’ remarks on Spartan philosophy in the Simonides section?”), and so the book doesn’t teach itself. But it allows someone to read it with enough comprehension to be able to talk well about it and come to it without too many prefabricated dialectics or presumptions.

Schofield’s twenty-five page Introduction is a model of good judgment and restraint. It avoids “treatment” of the Plato vs. Socrates question, simply talking of Plato as the writer and Socrates as the main character, and skips declaiming on “How to read a dialogue,” simply modeling the kinds of inquiry one might reasonably make into a Platonic text. It mentions only six Greek words, and those only incidentally, and says nothing about contemporary scholarship (providing instead a judicious guide to further reading). The content of the discussion is summarized by Schofield’s opening remark about the two longer dialogues: “Both present Socrates in argument with leading members of the sophistic movement, questioning the claims to wisdom or expertise that they make. In both Socrates brings the discussion round to his own central preoccupation with living a good life.” The development of this claim, combined with the discussion of Menexenus, is not clearly organized, and the section headings are opaque, but the matters the Introduction ranges through are universally interesting, often provocative, and incisively discussed: formal and tonal differences among the dialogues; a psychological hypothesis about their order of composition; the sophistic movement, especially about its optimism and relative influence; the context and significance of the arguments on power with Polus and Callicles; the fact that Socrates seems less puzzled at the end of the Gorgias (as in Apology and Crito as well) than he does elsewhere; potential motivations for writing the Menexenus and some history of the 390s; the relationship between the Protagoras and the Symposium; a diagnosis of Protagoras’ character and educational mission; the interpretation of Socrates’ apparent commitment to some type of hedonism; and Socrates’ remarkable “cooperative conversation… within the context of an intensely competitive oral performance culture.”

The biggest absence from this overview is a discussion about philosophy (as something similar or dissimilar to other modes of intellectual, critical, or social engagement). Schofield only twice mentions philosophy explicitly, fifteen pages apart: “Perhaps this just shows what it is to stake your life on philosophy,” and “So the reader is left wondering whether the realm of dispassionate enquiry in which Socrates thinks true philosophy needs to be conducted can ever exist, or whether philosophy must always be at odds with the political and cultural values of the world in which it actually finds itself.” Schofield could perhaps have qualified this extreme dichotomization. It would have been helpful to consolidate some of the distinctive ways Socrates talks in these dialogues, to make concrete what (mundane) activities Socrates might find “philosophical.” Plato has him make plenty of procedural, methodological remarks over dozens of pages in both the Gorgias and the Protagoras. We might want to take these seriously, if a key point of Platonic political philosophy is that, despite arguments to the contrary, politics does abide—indeed, depends on for its legitimacy—careful analysis, rigorous reason-giving, and degrees of abstract reflection. We might find that Socrates’ accustomed activity is, if potentially radical in the commitments it may convince one into accepting, not so radical or unfamiliar in practice.

The Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought was clever to bring together these three dialogues. From Plato the best information about his and Socrates’ Athenian political-intellectual culture surely comes, besides from hints in Republic Book I-II, from them. Each contains protreptic speeches to the study of virtue; each sets out some of the contemporary pedagogical situation of “association” with sophists, rhetoricians, polymaths, and other providers of elite education; each worries about how young adult men might come into proper democratic participation. They share overlapping concerns with how to talk about living well; the role of pleasure in happiness; and what a statesman ought to be able to do and say. Together they depict Socrates talking in and listening to a great variety of modes of speech. The Menexenus is an especially useful addition for students of Plato. Assigning it will help them recall the facts that Plato wrote against a concrete historical background and with a historical consciousness, see the kind of education-to-virtue recounting and interpreting social and military exploits would be expected to provide, and have a constant reminder about the difficulty in discerning just why Plato has Socrates say, ask, or repeat anything that he does.

This edition, despite its relative interpretative, analytic, and philosophical modesty, excels at usefulness, especially for the curious post-graduate student. It offers the following editorial matter: Introduction
List of forty principal dates
“General background”: 8 works
“The Platonic dialogue”: 16
“Socrates and the sophists”: 15
“The Gorgias ”: 20
“The Menexenus ”: 6
“The Protagoras ”: 18
A Dramatis personae for each work
An Analysis for each work, fairly precise
Grg : 45 sections (3 of which are headings)
Mnx. : 22 (2)
Prot. : 37 (4)
Grg. : 129 over 80 Stephanus pages
Mnx. : 41 over 15 pages
Prot. : 91 over 52 pages
Appendix (p. 205-6): reconstruction of Simonides’ poem (with a helpful footnote at 178n58 about how it differs from the one accepted in Nicholas Denyer’s recent Green and Yellow Protagoras (BMCR 2009.05.09 (from Adam Beresford’s uncited “Nobody’s Perfect,” CP 103, 2008).)
Index: merges English and Greek terms; is perspicuous and ample; 9pp of small type

The printing errors I found were mostly extraneous elements from type-setting (e.g., a “w” at Grg. 477e6; a “482” at 480b7; a “353c” at p. 194 n.84; but also a missing “be” at 447b8).