Gerald Press and his associate editors, Harald Tarrant, Deborah Nails and Francesco Gonzalez, have given us a companion to turn (and return) to for succinct guidance about topics in Plato’s philosophy, the intellectual context in which he wrote, and the many different historical and contemporary interpretations of his work. Unlike comparable volumes,1 it contains brief entries rather than full-blown chapters – generally four columns, that is two pages, long. Virtually all 148 entries succeed admirably in briefly introducing their topic, summarising the relevant material in Plato’s work, and in giving a sense of the main points of debate surrounding the topic.
The companion has a wide thematic range, but will nevertheless primarily speak to those interested in Plato as a philosopher. The editor has chosen contributors of divergent scholarly orientation and has not intervened to create consistency of opinion across the contributions. In agreement with much recent work in the field, ample attention is given to matters of authorial strategy and style. A distinctive and welcome feature of the volume which makes it particularly useful to students is the inclusion of lemmata on different contemporary philosophical approaches to Plato.
The companion is divided into five sections. The first, ‘Plato’s life – historical and intellectual context’, includes entries on his intellectual predecessors and contemporaries. These entries consider the theories and genres that Plato would have been familiar with through his environment as well as Plato’s use, both receptive and critical, of them in his own work.
The second section, ‘The dialogues’, opens with a succinct description of the constitution of the Platonic corpus and its transmission. The subsequent entries offer summaries of each of the dialogues and comment on their place in ancient and modern scholarly discussions. The choice of dialogues is agreeably broad, including separate entries on the Theages and Alcibiades I, and one entry on further dubia and spuria.
Section three highlights ‘Important features of the dialogues’. The entries gathered here are weighted towards the literary character of Plato’s output, discussing issues like Platonic anonymity, the use of irony in the dialogues, and Plato’s treatment of character. The editorial team has emphasised the close relationship between the literary and philosophical aspects of Plato’s writing, through the choice of entries on e.g. ‘play’ or the ‘pedagogical structure’ of the dialogues.
Compared with the other parts, part four, ‘Topics and themes treated in the dialogues’, is perhaps the closest to a philosophical dictionary to Plato. The reader finds usual suspects like ‘appearance and reality’, ‘cause’, ‘epistemology’, but also useful treatments on ‘non-propositional knowledge’, ‘character’, and ‘antilogy and eristics’.
Part five covers both overviews of the influence of Plato’s works in different historical eras and accounts of modern-day ways of interpreting Plato. Through the latter category the book provides helpful orientation in a rich secondary literature.
The contributions are too numerous and varied to discuss individually here. They are of consistent high quality, written by Plato experts from around the world – scholars from fifteen different countries have joined in the project. The volume has been explicitly designed to represent the wide range of approaches to Plato in contemporary scholarship. This is not only a choice for which the editor and his assistant editors are highly to be commended; it also works.
The entries differ in character and tone. Some – not only those discussing individual dialogues – closely follow the texts relevant to their topic, while others offer a more systematic treatment; some take more time to explain their terms to ‘newcomers to Plato’ (p. 240), while others aim at a somewhat more advanced audience; some raise questions above all, others explicitly argue for a particular view.
Together, these contributions provide an authoritative overview of the key philosophical issues in Platonic studies and convey the richness of Plato scholarship today. Certain emphases are nonetheless present: the entries tend to distance themselves from developmentalist readings of Plato’s output and to emphasise the interdependence of literary form and philosophical-pedagogical purpose.
A number of improvements could be made, however. In view of the intended aim of the entries ‘to inform the reader where to learn more about the topic’ (introduction, p. 6) it is regrettable that a sizeable number of them include few references to further reading, with some providing none at all.
Furthermore, there are occasional points of confusion. An entry on the influence of Plato on the different versions of nineteenth-century German idealism has been erroneously entitled ‘Nineteenth-century Plato scholarship’; the next entry is called ‘Nineteenth-century Platonic scholarship’, and this time the title does reflect its contents. At the end of the account of Plato’s life, one finds a mere list of the 43 names cited by Diogenes Laertius as the sources of his biography; it is not clear what they are meant to add or what the reader is to do with them.
While many entries helpfully state the relevant points of controversy in current scholarship, controversial ideas are very occasionally introduced without clear indication that that is what they are. This may be highly misleading for the companion’s intended audience. In the entry on ‘Desire’, for instance, Plato is credited with espousing psychological egoism without further qualification; more problematically, the entry on the ‘Musical structure of the dialogues’ propagates the idea that the dialogues have an underlying twelve-tone musical structure without noting that this is very controversial.
Unfortunately, the book contains frequent typographical infelicities. Additionally, a great number of the bibliographical references in the text are not included in the bibliography, or only in a different form. For a book of this type, more effective use could have been made of cross-referencing.
Both in overall conception and its individual entries this companion is much to be welcomed. It deserves a second edition soon, without the many typographical flaws, and hopefully at a somewhat student-friendlier price. The high standard of the contributions and the rich array of entries make this companion an excellent resource for courses on Plato or individual dialogues, while it also has much to offer to anyone who wants a concise and up-to-date introduction to aspects of Plato, his work, or his philosophy.
1. For instance, from the handful of English-language companions on Socrates or Plato, the recent Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates, which despite its different set-up is from the same publisher (the Continuum series now being continued as Bloomsbury titles), see BMCR 2013.11.36.