The relationship between Plato’s philosophical arguments and the dialogues in which they are contained has attracted scholars from a variety of disciplinary starting points. While some philosophers in the analytical tradition still attempt to extract Plato’s arguments entirely from the fictive settings in which he delivered them, much of the richest recent scholarship on Plato has shown how the literary and argumentative content of the dialogues interacts.1 Margalit Finkelberg’s book offers a useful contribution to the literary analysis of Platonic dialogue, in applying the technical methods of narratology to the construction of individual dialogues. This exercise provides a range of insights into Plato’s authorial practice, and delivers interesting conclusions about the corpus as a whole. It demonstrates that Plato developed his dialogue form to deliver narratives tightly controlled by either the narrator (when that is Socrates) or the focal character of the dialogue (when the narrator is not Socrates). Plato scholars will find it a useful resource, confirming some suspicions about Plato’s art and demanding a more careful reading of the dialogues as works of fiction.
Finkelberg argues that Plato’s narrative constructions anticipate developments of modern fiction; she compares his framing of Socrates’ discussions with the framing of novels. Her Plato is as much a literary innovator (and critic) as a philosopher, although his innovation is entirely in the service of his philosophy. Her introduction contains a careful consideration of the relevance of narratology and its toolset to reading ancient texts, pointing out some dissimilarities and adjustments keyed to Gérard Genette’s original terminology and its continuing development.2 Readers less familiar with the language of narratology will find this a useful orientation, with definitions of important terms. This will come in useful in some passages of the later analysis, which are occasionally dense with technical jargon.
As a tool of literary analysis, narratology is perhaps falling out of fashion after its heyday in the 1990s. Its original application was to the modern novel, but novelists themselves as well as Genette made use of Plato’s contrast of diegesis and mimesis in the Republic, and the Theaetetus provides an example of metadiagetic economy, the omission of the speaker identifications which mark reported speech. Like other recent scholars, Finkelberg finds parallels but not a direct match between Plato’s account of how texts imitate speech and Genette’s model of narration.3 During its first adoption by classical scholars narratology was applied productively to epic and historiographical texts, where the significance of narrative style is perhaps easier to grasp.4 But given Plato’s allusive engagement with both Homeric epic and Thucydidean historiography, and reliance on their contributions to the common framework of Athenian culture, it is not such a great leap once one makes the move of treating arguments as narrative.
Treating philosophical dialogues as if they were emplotted in the same way as an epic or historical text might seem counterintuitive. But Finkelberg argues that the dialogues do have plots—the unfolding of arguments—and narrative structures as different speakers come to the fore, arguments are tested and abandoned, and most significantly, sections of dialogue are enclosed within frames, so that whole passages of argument are focalised through specific characters. It is in the analysis of these structures, Plato’s deployment of complex and multi-level containers for his characters’ speech, that her approach provides the most welcome clarity. Other scholars of Plato have pursued similar lines of enquiry into his authorial choices—Malcolm Schofield’s survey of Plato’s use of narrated dialogue, for example, makes some similar observations—but Finkelberg has the space to work through more examples.5 That is not to say that the possibilities of narratological analysis are exhausted by this book; although she surveys all the dialogues, her focus is on major structural elements, leaving scope for more detailed readings of some of the texts.
The book is divided into two sections, the first assessing dialogues according to their ‘mode of presentation’, narrated, direct or mixed, and the second containing three interpretive arguments based on that analysis. Finkelberg begins by examining the mismatch between this set of categories and the discussion of mimesis and diegesis in Republic 3; she suggests that the Republic itself would only pass the test given there if it were authored by Socrates himself rather than by Plato. She closes with a look at Republic 10 and its multi-level account of representation. Her analysis offers many reminders that the dialogues are a fictive world controlled by Plato, not documentary evidence of Socrates and his philosophical practice. In this world narrators act as gatekeepers, controlling readers’ access to the philosophical conversations of Plato’s characters.
The Republic is the major example of the first type of dialogue, the narrated dialogue, in which a first-person narrator relates first a social encounter and then a philosophical conversation (Chapter 2). These dialogues offer clarity on one of Plato’s signature structural devices, the frame narrative/dialogue. Finkelberg is particularly interested in the shifts Plato sets up to separate these from the subsequent conversation; these may involve changes of setting (examples include the Lysis and Republic), the introduction of new characters ( Lysis, Republic, Charmides), and temporal shifts. Finkelberg demonstrates how the ‘zooming in’ of these narrative shifts enables Plato to focus the reader’s attention on specific arguments. In the Republic, she concurs with Ruby Blondell that the shift between books 1 and 2 is strongly marked, but notes that Socrates still emerges as a narrator at key points, such as opening of book 5, which introduces the ‘three waves’ of argument which lead into the epistemological explorations of the central books.
Such features are less explicit in the second type, the direct dialogues, which lack explicit narration, but Finkelberg shows that narrator figures in the direct dialogues perform similar roles to that of the narrator of narrated dialogue. Her third chapter shows how techniques such as ‘zooming in’ work in these dialogues. Even the short, presumed ‘early’ dialogues (such as the Euthyphro) exhibit ‘zooming in’ through the identification of the interlocutor and the question at hand. But Finkelberg reveals the presence of an ‘implicit narrator-observer’ in these dialogues, through whom the dialogue is focalised. While Socrates is the focus of attention (and so, as Finkelberg argues, most dialogues are focalised ‘ on him’), most direct dialogues are focalised through an implicit narrator character, who delivers much of the scene-setting and stage directions of the text, helping the reader follow the action and setting the scene for important stretches of argument. This character is not always Socrates himself. In the Laches, for example, it is Lysimachus who is present throughout, introducing the setting although retreating into the background during the main conversation.
In the much longer Gorgias, the initial conversation between Callicles, Socrates and Chaerephon takes place in the street, with the main dialogue beginning when they encounter Gorgias and Polus at Callicles’ house. Here, Finkelberg argues that Chaerephon is the implicit narrator—the dialogue as a whole is the ‘remedy ( pharmakon) for the presentation he and Socrates have missed’ (p. 67). She cites Chaerephon’s intervention in the discussion, where he points out the response of the larger crowd watching the discussion ( Gorgias 458c3-7). But there is room for further assessment of the impact of these interventions—the behaviour of the crowd is marked as thorubos, and there is a political resonance to the function of the implicit narrator which Finkelberg does not follow through. Nonetheless, this suggests that there is fruitful space for the technical work of narratology to engage with further political analysis of the dialogues, in pursuing the fraught question of Plato’s relationship to Athenian democracy.
The third type of dialogue, in which direct and narrated sections are mixed, shows Plato weaving together the techniques found in the first two types. These dialogues contain the most explicit instances of metalepsis, as characters from the frame dialogue interrupt the narrator of the central section. Again, these mark important points in the argument of a dialogue, the problematic identification of the master art in the Euthydemus and the argument for immortality of the soul in the Phaedo. Finkelberg shows that these are not isolated instances, but part of a broader pattern of ‘metaleptic contamination’ between levels of the dialogue, marked throughout the Euthydemus by Socrates’ apostrophes to Crito. Other scholars, notably James Collins, have used narratology’s technical terminology to unpick what Plato is doing in this complex dialogue.6 Finkelberg’s interest lies more in identifying the use of narrative devices than in determining the consequences of their use for Plato’s argument.
However, the second part of the book sets the model to argumentative use in identifying features of Plato’s dialogic world. Finkelberg uses her account of Plato’s changing narrative style to suggest a developmental account of the corpus. This enterprise offers an intriguing balance to schemas, such as that of Gregory Vlastos, concerned with the development of specific ideas communicated in the dialogues.7 While Plato’s work is characterised by ‘experiments with narrative voice’, these have been shown to fall into patterns of narrative. But this can be taken further; earlier dialogues have a single ‘focus of perception’, while later dialogues privilege the perspective of Socrates. Plato’s experiments with different ways of framing dialogues, and of breaking those frames, offers another way through the dialogues—one that offers an intriguing ordering of composition of key dialogues. The lack of characteristic narrative features in some dialogues may also inform debates on authenticity ( Alcibiades I, for example, lacks ‘zooming-in’).
Another feature that emerges in this second half of the book is ‘clustering’, the tendency for metanarrative features of the dialogues to be located around key structural moments in the dialogues. A further examination of the Gorgias illustrates this well—from Chaerephon’s appeal to the audience to the repeated discussions of different styles of speaking, stretches of argument are regularly punctuated by reminders of the fictive world and its construction.
Finkelberg leaves readers in no doubt of Plato’s narrative control and the limited access he provides readers to his fictional world. But she leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the philosophical and political consequences of that narrative control. For this reader, the political consequences are significant—Plato has been linked with controlled and closed societies before, after all—as are the pedagogical consequences, raising questions about the possibility of Socratic dialogue as a model for educational practice.8
1. For example Blondell, R. (2002) The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); McCabe, M.M. (2000) Plato and his Predecessors: the dramatisation of reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
2. Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse, trans. J. E. Lewin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), 162-6, 236-7.
3. Liveley, G. (2019) Narratology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
4. Jong, I. J. F. De (2004) , Narrators and Focalizers: the presentation of the story in the Iliad (2nd edn.; Bristol: Bristol Classical Press); Rood, T.C.B. (1998), Thucydides: narrative and explanation (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
5. Schofield, M. (2013), ‘When And Why Did Plato Write Narrated Dialogues?’, in I. N. Theodoracopoulos, E. Moutsopoulos, and M. Protopapas-Marneli (eds.), Plato, Poet and Philosopher: in memory of Ioannis N. Theodoracopoulos: proceedings of the 3rd international conference of philosophy, Magoula-Sparta, 26-29 May 2011 (Athens: Academy of Athens Research Centre on Greek Philosophy), 87-96.
6. Collins, J.H. (2015) Exhortations to Philosophy: the protreptics of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press).
7. Vlastos, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
8. Popper, K.R. (1966) , The Open Society and Its Enemies: Volume One: The Spell of Plato (5th edition; London: Routledge).