BMCR 2016.05.28

The Platonic Art of Philosophy

, , , The Platonic Art of Philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. x, 341. ISBN 9781107038981. $99.00.


The Platonic Art of Philosophy is a well-deserved festschrift for Christopher Rowe, whose many contributions to the study of ancient thought and especially (since the 1970s) to the interpretation of Plato have set a remarkable standard for their depth, precision, and originality, especially in making Plato’s literary artistry more central to the understanding of his philosophic thought. Thus his work can be seen as part of a new mode of Plato interpretation that has evolved since the 1960s, characterized by the move away from the developmental model of interpretation, decline of interest in the study of a “Socratic” philosophy distinct from Plato’s and supposedly found in certain “early dialogues,” and relaxation of the more strictly dogmatic focus. This has been correlated with interpretation based increasingly on holistic and contextual study of the dialogues and on features of the dialogues as dramatic and literary texts, in addition to their more narrowly philosophic arguments, that are taken to be determinative of broader philosophic meanings. Awareness of these trends enables us to see interesting enlacements among the book’s chapters.

The papers, originally given at a conference in Rowe’s honor at University College, Durham, in 2010, have grown into a volume both larger and more dialogical in contributors’ conscious interactions both with Rowe’s work and with each other’s contributions, as well by the addition of two “reflective commentaries” by editors.

In the first chapter, Monique Dixsaut shows how study of a literary device can lead to discovery of significant philosophic meanings beyond the usual doctrines. She begins from the observation that, although Socrates criticizes some of his interlocutors for failing to be brief, he himself goes on at great length when he wants to. Investigation of this recurrent contrast between macrology and brachylogy leads Dixsaut to recognize digression as a constitutive element of Platonic thought. Through such digressions as those at the center of the Republic and Theaetetus, “Plato shows the reader how to read – like an intelligent interlocutor,” while they also serve an anti-dogmatic function. “These metatextual incursions tend to prevent the text from closing up on itself” (15) and they show us that “Thinking is not geometrical and linear, but astronomical and circular” (19).

David Sedley’s contribution, which also looks at a Platonic digression, is holistic and contextual, but comes to a more dogmatic conclusion. A look back at competing ancient Republic book divisions suggests that it is better “read as a single continuous conversation” (73). From there, he argues against frequently encountered interpretations, to the effect that in the ‘central digression’ of our books 5-7 the tripartite psychology actually reduces to the Socratic intellectualism of reason alone.

Sedley’s Socratic version of the Republic ’s psychology provides the starting point for Christopher Gill’s “reflective commentary.” It is a dialectical response to the positions of Sedley here and of Rowe (in Plato and the art of philosophical writing), who attempt to replace the formerly conventional developmental model with a unified “Socratic” one. Gill correctly stresses “the importance of locating Platonic ideas firmly in the dialectical context of the specific dialogue in which they occur” (111). Ultimately, and justly, he argues against there being Socratic and Platonic strands, seeing them as “aspects of a single integrated theory or argument” (118) of the Republic.

Like Sedley, M. M. McCabe focuses on structure and organization but, like Dixsaut, with a broader conception of what structures to examine and what kind of philosophic import they have. Beginning from the five distinct chunks of argument lined up in the center of the Euthydemus, she notes that they give an “illusion of unity” (131) on account of their paratactic structure but do not seem philosophically to connect. Against this appearance, she argues that there is both this horizontal and also a vertical order to the dialogue (which could well be observed in many other dialogues). Viewed in the latter perspective, it “focuses on the methods, reasons, and assumptions of the first-order discussion” (132), including the Principle of Non- Contradiction and external conditions or qualifications of knowledge (field, order, time, and value). Thus the dialogue focuses on central questions of epistemology and culminates in the contrast between the Sophists’ externalism and Socrates’ “thoroughly internalist” (146) epistemology.

Ugo Zilioli reverts to an older trope in Plato scholarship, identifying the philosopher or group to whom Plato is claimed to be responding, in this case in the Theaetetus. The chapter is explicitly contextualist (167, 169), but in arguing that the dialogue would have been read by its original readers as a response to Megarian epistemology it takes Plato’s purpose to have been communicating his philosophic doctrine. The claim is based on “traces of Megarian thinking throughout” (171) as well as on later ancient receptions of the dialogue by Damascius, Alcinous, and, more speculatively, on fragments of Aristocles and Colotes.

As the articles by Sedley and Gill question inherited models of Plato interpretation, two other articles criticize the application to Plato of broader modern philosophic beliefs. Terry Penner, like Zilioli, is interested in the Theaetetus, but uses it as an opportunity to argue against some pervasive misunderstandings of Plato, especially against the orientation of “modern analytical philosophers” (186) who have been misled by post-Platonic logical developments (“Aristotle gives birth to perhaps the most consequential revolution in the history of Western philosophy … the logical turn” 216) and by the Fregean ‘linguistic turn’ into introducing psychological contexts and intentional entities (e.g., propositions and meanings) that are foreign to “Socratic-Platonic Ultra Realism” (195), which, on his view, sees the problems more plainly as the falsity or non-being of things and states of affairs in the real world.

Like Penner, Denis O’Brien also argues against Frege-inspired misinterpretation of Plato, in this case that of G. E. L. Owen, Michael Frede, Myles Burnyeat, Charles Kahn and others, who, misled by the Fregean linguistic turn, and the false analogy between ‘is’ and other verbs, failed to see that the Sophist not only uses existential einai, but that this use is at the heart of its solution of the problem of non-being.

Plato’s characters are focal in Sarah Broadie’s analysis of the Timaeus-Critias. The narrative continuity between the monologue of Timaeus and that of Critias, the “weaving together [of] the obviously fictitious story of Atlantis with a cosmology obviously not intended as mere fiction” (250f.), generates a puzzle about their intended status as fiction or non-fiction. Careful consideration of the characters and the irony of their personal connections and of the question of why it matters whether a would-be veracious account is true or not leads Broadie to claim that in the Timaeus-Critias Plato wants to bring out the differences between two truth-relevant practices, recounting the past and laying out ideals. This aim is accomplished via the Critias-character “who is constructed as a contradiction that is unaware of itself” (256). Broadie plausibly finds that Critias has no interest in philosophic truth and does not really believe in reason at all. Since the “dissociation between Socrates and Critias could scarcely be greater” (266-7), the puzzle about narrative continuity leads through reflection on character to awareness of the difference between the merely historical interests of a Critias and the universal philosophic interests of Socrates. Because of Plato’s regular use of historical characters and event references, Broadie’s kind of careful parsing of fictional characters and their expressed beliefs as against those of the original audience, not to mention the present one, could profitably applied to many dialogues.

Mauro Tulli is also interested in the Timaeus-Critias, but approaches them from the perspective of a small literary mystery. Although a poem by Solon about Atlantis is mentioned in both dialogues, we have good reason to believe it never existed. Why, then, does Plato have that poem mentioned? Tulli argues that he does so in order to bring out three relationships: between the Atlantis story and Athens’ actual past, between his own family and Socrates’ inquiry, and between the story of Atlantis and the literary tradition (273).

It is perhaps a pleasant coincidence that this collection of testimonies of professional friendship concludes with Malcolm Schofield’s discussion of the theme of friendship in political philosophy. Like Tulli’s, his argument turns on what might be thought a small literary detail. The theme of friendship appears in the conclusion of the very first sustained argument of the Laws 626e-628c. It recurs in an extended passage at the end of Book 3 (693a-701e), where reflection on the triad friendship—wisdom—freedom, leads Schofield to propose that “a highly ingenious literary and historiographical maneuver is afoot” (290). Plato is both echoing and rewriting one of the “oracles of Lycurgus” that were fabricated at the end of the Peloponnesian War and borrowing from Xenophon’s Cyropaidia. More generally, in the Laws ’ “assessment of the Athenian situation, Plato exploits—but also subverts—tradition” (294) (an observation that could be made of Plato’s procedure in many other dialogues as well). For in the Laws, Plato has cleverly substituted friendship, wisdom, and freedom for the triad attributed to Lycurgus by Diodorus Siculus (7.12.2-4) omonia —courage—and freedom.

The volume concludes with a Bibliography (298-311), a complete list of Rowe’s “Publications 1969 – 2012” (312-24), an “Index of Ancient Passages” (325-37), and an “Index of topics” (338-41). Finely produced, The Platonic art of philosophy is both a contribution to and a measure of how Plato scholarship has changed in the 40 years during which Christopher Rowe has served as both a contributor to and a leader of it.