BMCR 2011.01.17

A Plato Primer

, A Plato Primer. Durham: Acumen, 2010. ISBN 9781844652280. £12.99 (pb).

In a mere 143 pages the recently deceased1 J. D. G. Evans provides a critical summary of Plato’s contributions to a variety of philosophical topics that is at once comprehensive and incisive.

The book is organized thematically. Its chapters each concern some sub-field of philosophy—knowledge, reality, dialectic, value, causality and change—with chapters on Republic serving as book-ends, at the beginning of the book to introduce many of the themes to be discussed in the balance, and, at the end of the book to address a number of smaller topics and serve as an envoi: “politics, art, and the fate of the soul.”

This organizational structure itself serves as a statement of one of the book’s central points: it is impossible to come away from the book without acknowledging the scope of Plato’s thought. Even in the chapter on causality, which he opens with an admission that there is a good deal of truth to the Aristotelian accusation that Plato ignored change, Evans shows persuasively that Plato surveyed the questions and problems to be addressed and thus set the agenda for future thought.

Evans introduces the book with the assertion that there is a “core” to Plato’s philosophy that needs to be expounded. This philosophy, moreover, can be found, he says, in the argumentative stretches of Plato’s dialogues, for “it is the arguments that count” (p. 1). These interpretive commitments might produce an expectation of the presentation of a unified Platonic philosophy. While certain basic principles of Platonic thought are emphasized (such as the necessity of knowledge for living well and a two-world ontology), the picture we are predominantly presented with is in fact one of a Plato who tackles a problem repeatedly and from various angles, in different dialogues.

The picture of a dialectical Plato is made explicit in the tail of chapter 4, where Evans considers various places in which the stability demanded by knowledge comes into conflict with the dynamism required by its being known by a mind. The upshot is “a complexity in Plato’s thought that belies the simplistic label ‘Platonism’” (p. 81). Evans resists both developmental and hermeneutic explanations for this and other such tensions, preferring instead a Plato who thinks that “knowledge of genuine reality was hard to attain” (p. 61).

This theme runs throughout the book, both before and after chapter 4. In chapter 2, Evans considers the differences between Meno and Republic on the status of knowledge in comparison with belief: in Meno, knowledge is belief of some sort; in Republic, there is a different faculty. The further criticisms of Theaetetus leave the questions of what knowledge is and its difference from true belief unresolved. There is not, according to Evans, a single theory; Plato should instead be construed as conducting a thorough and deep discussion of the issues.

Similarly, the upshot of chapter 3’s lengthy discussion of Parmenides is a Plato who continues “pursuing conceptual investigation” (p. 56). In chapter 5, while the dualism in Plato (especially in Phaedo) between body and soul explains the tensions within and between Protagoras and Gorgias concerning hedonism, Plato is also sensitive to the baser human aspects, as indicated by the psychology of Republic. In chapter 6, Evans notes that in Phaedo but not in Timaeus Plato sees material (mechanical), teleological and formal causes as competitors (p. 107). Chapter 7 offers the tension between the general and the particular (in the function of the ruler) as an other example of this “dialectical complexity” while Phaedrus revises the evaluation of rhetoric and of inspiration found initially in Republic.

These brief descriptions of the chapters make obvious Evans’ command of the Platonic corpus. In counterpoint to this breadth of range, Evans displays a most helpful willingness to provide incisive one-line descriptions of what is going on in each dialogue and to say in what ways different dialogues differ from one another with respect to the theme under consideration. These differences are not construed as contradictory but as different approaches or attempts at a single problem. To others, these might be taken as discrepancies to be reconciled into a unified position, but, by taking the approach he does, Evans’ position provides the reader with a guide to the available positions and key texts around which scholarship has focused. Each chapter includes a section of further reading, referencing translations, commentaries, and entry points in modern scholarship.

The separation of issues in a single dialogue into different chapters, combined with the sophistication of the analyses (and the occasional references to other thinkers and modern philosophical concepts) mean that this is as much, and perhaps more, a guide to various philosophical topics as found in Plato, as it is a guide to the works of Plato. It will perhaps be most useful to someone who approaches Plato with certain philosophical questions already in mind, rather than for someone who is beginning by reading one or more Platonic works. In terms of student populations, it is a guide and source-book for those intending to undertake sustained reading of Plato in a seminar rather than an introduction for those reading a few select works in a survey of ancient philosophy.

In sum, then, this is a superb survey of Platonic thought from a mature scholar, demonstrating both range and concision. A Plato primer will take an intelligent and determined reader of Plato a long way in a short time towards grasping the shape of the debates, opened up by Plato, which have gone on to form the course of philosophy.


1. An obituary can be found at the site of Queen’s University’s philosophy department.