BMCR 2020.08.31

Aufsätze zur griechischen Literatur und Philosophie

, Aufsätze zur griechischen Literatur und Philosophie. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag, 2019. 700 p.. ISBN 9783896657459 €129,00.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

This exceptional book clearly stands out from the usual scholarly work, and it does so in many ways. It contains a selection of 35 of Thomas A. Szlezák‘s most significant contributions; two sections refer, respectively, to Greek literature from Homer to Euripides and to Greek philosophy, largely focusing on Plato. The first section arises from an acute understanding of a specifically Greek world-conception, widely overlooked due to an increasingly evident tendency of recent scholarship to posit contemporary ethics as an appropriate parameter for the ancients. Szlezák’s approachresults in a precise anthropology enlightening the specificity of the classical Greek mind as expressed in its epic and tragic forms as well as a biting criticism of a specific scholarship, unwilling to accept the former’s fundamental alterity or guilty of imposing modern thoughts or debates on both a time and a world-view where they simply do not fit.

The enthusiastic claim has emerged in recent years that the Epic of Gilgamesh sets the foundation of the Occidental humanist tradition and sketches the model upon which the Iliad was moulded, thus shifting the origin of humanism to the East. If the Epic of Gilgamesh may indeed have exerted a certain (probably remote) influence on Homer’s Iliad, Szlezák underlines its speculative nature and foremost the Homeric specificity, whose towering and easily demonstrable influence on Occidental culture and literature provides the factual basis on which humanism was later built. In his works on Sophocles and Euripides, the author firmly reasserts the importance of the religious factor for the understanding of Greek tragedy and its underlying world-conception. The first section  concludeswith an enlightening and poignant tribute to the great Wolfgang Schadewaldt‘s contribution to ancient studies as a scholar and a translator.

Szlezák’s remarkable affinity for the classical spirit fuels his adhesion to the Tübingen School of Platonic interpretation, of which he is the major exponent today. On Plato’s modern reception, he traces  the shift of paradigm in Plato scholarship to the Romanticist approach of Schleiermacher, who first posited the autarchy of the Platonic dialogues, thus supplanting the then predominant esotericist paradigm represented by Tennemann and Tiedemann in the second half of the 18th Century. The usual objections to the Tübingen School are dignified with extensive answers in various articles. I shall very briefly evoke two noteworthy elements because of their relevance for current Plato studies. The Tübingen School was often accused of neglecting the dialogues in favour of the sole indirect tradition. The readers of this book will be witness of Szlezák’s sustained and original reflection on the complex structure of Plato’s dialogues, which flatly refutes these persistent but unfounded allegations. The polemical nature of Aristotle’s testimony has been perceived as sufficient by some scholars, especially in the English-speaking research, to justify its entire dismissal. This radical and destructive approach may be avoided in favour of a far more reasonable one, which simply incorporates Aristotle’s polemical testimony as one of the parameters of a responsible hermeneutics of Plato’s texts in view of all available sources. Since Sophocles and Plato are the two most studied authors in this collection of essays, presenting Szlezák’s view on each of them seems like an appropriate way to proceed.

“Sophokles oder die Freiheit eines Klassikers” (pp. 84-122) gives a good overall view of Szlezák’s understanding of Sophocles and contains a short study on each of Sophocles’ tragedies. It points out Sophocles’ wary outlook on the 5thcentury’s democratic excesses and his reticence at indulging in demagogical egalitarianism or exaltation of pro-Athenian democracy (pp. 119-121). In “Der Angeklagte Ödipus” (pp. 62-83), devoted to Oedipus’ personality, Szlezák opposes recent readings claiming Oedipus could have avoided parricide and incest (thus discrediting the oracle and anachronistically belittling the religious nature of Greek and especially Sophoclean Tragedy) and pouring negative light upon him and consequently on Theseus. His “Sophokles’ Elektra und das Problem des ironischen Dramas“ (pp. 37-62) opposes the ”ironic” interpretation of the play. Whereas the Aeschylean Oresteia symbolises the overcoming of personal vengeance through the establishment of a civil court of law, the ending of Sophocles’ Electra suggests, if taken literally, the endorsement of some sort of lex talionis. The now dominant ironic reading seeks to make sense of this “anomaly” by positing a hidden meaning likely to reconcile Sophocles’ play with a more contemporary set of values  Dawes[1] goes as far as athetising the last verses (1503-10), which explicitly contradict the ironic interpretation, thus giving an eloquent example of a philological petitio principii. While acknowledging the advantages of this reading (if it had none, it would clearly not be supported by anyone), Szlezák produces strong arguments against it. He points out how Sophocles differentiates his Electra from Aeschylus’ Choephoroi and Euripides’ Electra. Clytemnestra is unilaterally and far more criminal (not at all the case in Euripides); the oracle is never doubted (it is in Euripides); Orestes proves inflexible where his Euripidean counterpart hesitates; Electra proves relentlessly vindictive, more so than anywhere else.

Here lies the foundation of many recent erroneous interpretations: Sophocles had no ethical problem in portraying Electra’s visceral hatred as the righteous carrier of justice. Szlezák also uncovers many textual hints at the idea that δίκηand εὐσέβεια are on Electra’s side of the feud. The absence of any explicit trial for matricide or the absence of the Furies, argumentum ex silentio as it may be, would also weigh heavily against the exponents of the ironic reading. But this last argument loses a bit of its persuasiveness if we consider that the chorus cries over γενεὰ τάλαινα (“the sorry race”) of the Atrids, that meets moreover, as Orestes wreaks vengeance on Clytemnestra, its ”wretched destiny” (νῦν σοι μοῖρακαθαμερία φθίνει, φθίνει, 1413-14). This could suggest the transposition of the miasma onto Orestes and his persecution by the Furies. But this alone, in my opinion, is insufficient to confute Szlezák’s position, but may serve as a useful reminder of the complexity of Sophocles’ composition. Szlezák also argues that the ironic reading overlooks the dramatic structure of Electra, which relies on the respective relations to justice, piety and especially liberty of the three female protagonists (Electra, Chrysothemis and Clytemnestra). Clearly, this is an essential dramatic element. But I wonder why the central theme should exclude Orestes whereas his role is much larger and more instrumental in Sophocles than it is, say, in Euripides. And if piety and liberty are certainly important elements, the judicial aspect of the Electra could have deserved more sustained attention. Actually, the Furies are evoked, but each time summoned against Clytemnestra (112, 491, 1418-21) or when Electra says of her mother that she fears them not, (Ἐρινὺν οὔτιν’ ἐκφοβουμένη, 276). This very Sophoclean transposition thematises retaliation such as at 245-50, where it precisely assimilates it to δίκη (248) and εὐσέβεια (250) and anticipates the final verses (1503-10), that 576-83 could then be seen to consolidate as νόμον βροτοῖς(580). The judicial relevance of the play is reinforced by the fact that Clytemnestra is explicitly said to be more δεσπότιςthan mother (597-98), thus also embracing the notion of liberty and justice, but from a perspective that could also be seen as indirectly political. This, to be fair, is far from incompatible with Szlezák’s interpretation, which evidence many of the flaws of the ironic reading.

Szlezák’s “Abschied von einem Klassiker” questions one of the most central and well accepted certitudes of contemporary Plato studies (at least in the English-speaking scholarship): the dialogues alone contain the integrality of Plato’s philosophy, which entails his philosophy was available to all, that nothing was withheld for the capable and virtuous few (thus contradicting Republic 484 a-487 a; 535 a-539 d). Szlezák thus follows and enhances the interpretation inaugurated by Hans-Joachim Krämer and Konrad Gaiser, later joined by major scholars such as Giovanni Reale, Jens Halfwassen, and Maurizio Migliori. The criticism of writing contained in Phaedrus 274 c-278 e represents in this view one of the most decisive and controversial passages of the corpus platonicum: if it should be applied to Plato’s own dialogues, it entails that Plato withheld the most valuable part of his philosophy, the τιμιώτερα, based on the distinction of the Adonis-garden analogy (276 b-277 a), “for the befitting soul” (λαβὼν ψυχὴν προσήκουσαν, 276 e6). This matter, in the English-speaking scholarship, is often considered through the lense of Vlastos’ critique of Hans-Joachim Krämer’s milestone Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles (Heidelberg, 1959). Szlezák’s intent here, simply put, is to confute Vlastos because of his towering influence. Three points in Vlastos’ paper are noteworthy ‒ I take these from Vlastos’ paper and not from Szlezák’s book, I will then review the latter’s refutation.

(1) The philosopher’s aid to his written speech does not involve “changing subjects”[2], say, passing from politics to metaphysics.
(2) Nothing in the Phaedrus suggests that the philosopher should be defined by his knowledge of a certain “set of objects” nor refrain from writing about a certain “set of objects”.[3]
(3) The τιμιώτερα (278 d9) refer to the activity of spoken word, that is the dialectical discussions at the Academy[4] and this involves no distinction of content.

Szlezák points out that (3) is grammatically unsustainable. τιμιώτερα is a comparative constructed with the perfectives ὧνσυνέθηκεν ἢ ἔγραψεν:  what he composed or wrote. This designates the product of writing and not its activity, or else the text would coherently say τὸν μὴ ἔχοντα τιμιώτερόν τι τοῦ συντιθέναι ἢ γράφειν instead of the actual τὸν μὴ ἔχοντατιμιώτερα ὧν συνέθηκεν ἢ ἔγραψεν. The comparison must henceforth be with the product of speech, that is what the philosopher is actually saying (p. 421-22). Szlezák  does not formulate this as drastically, but far worse than comparing apples and oranges, what Vlastos attributes to Plato resembles the comparison of apples and the activity of planting orange trees. On this point, I can simply not imagine why Szlezák’s text-oriented refutation should not be decisive, especially if one keeps 278 c4-d1 in mind, which completes the comparison. Philosophers know the truth (εἰδὼς τὸ ἀληθὲς, 278 c5) out of which they may come to the aid of what they wrote, while poets and logographs possess no τιμιώτερον. Clearly, the presence of τὸ ἀληθὲς and the absence of τιμιώτερον carries the essence of the comparison between philosophers and mere logographs. It is extremely likely that τὸ ἀληθὲς and τιμιώτερον, in this framework, are interchangeable. By inadvertedly bending Plato’s text, Vlastos confuses the truth of a higher and explanatory doctrine (τὸ ἀληθὲς, τιμιώτερον) and the means to obtain it (dialectics).

(1) “Changing subjects”? Szlezák argues that the Phaedrus offers a relevant example. After Phaedrus reads Lysias’ speech, Socrates explains what better discourses should contain: μείζω καὶ πλείω περὶ τοῦ αὐτοῦ πράγματος (234 e3), βελτίω καὶ μὴ ἐλάττω (235 d6-7) and especially ἕτερα πλείω καὶ πλείονος ἄξια, the latter being a perfect synonym of τιμιώτερα. In his first Eros-speech, Socrates comes to the aid of Lysias’ false thesis, producing stronger and better formulated argumentation. He later retracts and improves it by defending an  Eros-theory based on the distinction of four divine μανίαι; the explanation turns theological and ontological while remaining περὶ τοῦ αὐτοῦ πράγματος (on the same subject), showing that in Plato’s mind no contradiction emerged. Analogous is the case of the Republic when Glaucon and Adeimantus urge Socrates to defend the superiority of justice against captious attacks; the verbs βοηθεῖν, βοηθῶ, βοηθήσω are respectively used in 368 c1, c4, c7. This ultimately brings Socrates to the highly metaphysical foundation of justice, ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (505 a2), which is described as being ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας (509 b9). This metaphysical turn is not “changing subjects”, but explaining the hypothesis upon which a certain ethical or political claim is built, each higher hypothesis being more universal, less reliant on sensible contingency. The final hypothesis upon which contingent justice is founded is no other than the unhypothetical ἀγαθόν, referred to as the One (τὸ ἕν) in the doxographical sources. Although this position seems accurate to me, περὶ τοῦ αὐτοῦ πράγματος, if applied to the Republic, needs to be taken in a broader sense. The critique of poetry, for instance, is probably more of a corollary subject than a τιμιώτερον stricto sensu. Indeed relevant for the question of justice, it is mainly instrumental for the foundation of an ideal just state, but it is a τιμιώτερον in the sense that it contributes to putting a specific question in a larger context thereby pouring a more comprehensive light on it. To be fair, Szlezák provides a more extensive definition of the τιμιώτερα in other contributions. He succeeds in showing beyond doubt how Vlastos’ critique deforms both Krämer’s and Plato’s thoughts and, if I may say so, in a deplorably sophistic manner.

(2) Szlezák argues that Plato does indeed specify that there should be a selection of content and of recipient. Phaedrus (275 d4-e6) reminds us that writings do not choose their respective recipients, as opposed to the philosopher’s spoken word, that knows to whom it may speak, before whom it must keep silent (ἐπιστήμων λέγειν τε καὶ σιγᾶν πρὸς οὓς δεῖ, 276 a6-7). The τιμιώτερα as interpreted by Szlezák are a theoretical argument capable of deepening the philosophical foundations of a written argument which the philosopher, as opposed to poets, authors of judicial pleas and legislations(278 e1-2), possesses. Moreover, Szlezák rightly argues that Vlastos overlooks the Adonis-garden analogy. The wise farmer will not waste his best seeds (= content) in those artificial gardens (= recipient) because he knows they will but bloom briefly after eight days and bear no fruit (= appearance of knowledge). Fertile soil (= recipient) will receive the best seeds (= content) and bear fruit after eight months (= real knowledge). I believe that this interpretation of the Adonis-garden analogy is supported by the selection based on moral virtue and cognitive abilities presented in two long passages of the Republic (484 a-487 a; 535 a-539 d), determining who shall learn dialectics. The quotation given above (λαβὼνψυχὴν προσήκουσαν, 276 e6) only confirms that the Republic and the Phaedrus, most probably, refer to the very same thing. Szlezák’s argumentation is extremely well-documented and successfully reveals the flaws of Vlastos’ position while making a strong case for the hermeneutic paradigm of the Tübingen School, which strikes me as fairly different from its usual portrayal or, if I may, its usual caricature.

This collection of articles reflects a courageous career in which Szlezák was often led to oppose drastically the standard positions of the fields in which he was active. Especially given that today  Plato scholarship has turned its attention to the dramatic frame of the dialogues (long regarded as superfluous decoration), this book provides insightful and innovative analysis  capable of solving many exegetical aporias and thus opening auspicious paths for new constructive debates over long-shared hermeneutical consensus. His firm historical perspective stays free of Zeitgeist-oriented anachronism and remains conscious of the religious, political and cultural undertones of both Plato’s dialogues and Sophocles’ tragedies. This long-awaited collection of articles presents us a vigorous, manifold and masterful opus. I may add with the greatest conviction that this book, following other milestones in Plato-scholarship such as Platon und die Schriftlichkeit der Philosophie (1985) and Das Bild des Dialektikers in Platon späten Dialogen (2004), deserves the utmost attention of scholarship and contributes to establish Szlezák as one of the leading Plato-scholars of his generation.

Chapter titles

1. Ilias und Gilgamesch-Epos (2004)
2. Sophokles’ Elektra und das Problem des ironischen Dramas (1981)
3. Der angeklagte Ödipus: Zum Charakter des Titelhelden im Oedipus Coloneus (2007)
4. Sophokles oder die Freiheit eines Klassikers (1994)
6. Polis-Arche-Adikia. Deutungen Athens bei Sophokles, Thukydides und Platon (1999)
7. Wolfgang Schadewaldt als Übersetzer (2005)
8. Alpha Elatton: Einheit und Einordnung in die Metaphysik
9. Die Lückenhaftigkeit der akademischen Prinzipientheorien nach Aristoteles‘ Darstellung in Metaphysik M und N (1987)
10. La prosecuzione di spunti platonici nella Metafisica di Aristotele (1993)
11. Von der τιμή der Götter zur τιμιότης des Prinzips. Aristoteles und Platon über den Rang des Wissens und seiner Objekte (1998)
12. Sechs Philosophen über philosophische Esoterik (2003)
13. Dialogform und Esoterik: Zur Deutung des platonischen Dialogs Phaidros (1978)
14. Wer braucht den Siebten Brief? Methodische Überlegungen zur Diskussion um die mündliche Philosophe Platons (2012/2019)
15. Are there Deliberately Left Gaps in Plato’s Dialogues? (2015)
16. Struttura e finalità dei dialoghi platonici.
Che cosa significa «venire in soccorso al discorso»? (1989)
18. Gilt Platons Schriftkritik auch für die eigenen Dialoge? Zu einer neuen Deutung von Phaidros 278 b8-e4 (1999)
19. On the Meaning of the Key Concepts in Plato’s Criticism of Writing. A Philological Approach to Phaedrus 274 b-278 e (2015)
20. Abschied von einem ‚Klassiker‘. 50 Jahre nach Vlastos‘ Rezension von Krämers „Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles“ (2016)
21. οὓς μόνους ἄν τις ὀρθῶς προσείποι φιλοσόφους. Zu Platons Gebrauch des Namens φιλόσοφος (2000)
22. Abbild der lebendigen Rede. Was ist und was will ein platonischer Dialog? (2009)
23. Schleiermachers „Einleitung“ zur Platon-Übersetzung von 1804: Ein Vergleich mit Tiedemann und Tennemann (1997)
24. Friedrich Schleiermacher und das Platonbild des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (2004)
25. Der Begriff „Seele“ als Mitte der Philosophie Platons (2010)
26. Sokrates‘ Spott über Geheimhaltung. Zum Bild des φιλόσοφος in Platons Euthydemos (1980)
27. Das Höhlengleichnis (Buch VII, 514 a-521 b und 539 d-541 b) (1997)
28. Die Idee des Guten als arche in Platons Politeia (2002)
29. Über die Art und Weise der Erörterung der Prinzipien im Timaios (1997)
30. The Indefinite Dyad in Sextus Empiricus’ Report (Adversus Mathematicos 10.248-283) and Plato’s Parmenides(2010)
31. platonische Dialektik: der Weg und das Ziel (2005)
32. Platons Gründe für philosophische Zurückhaltung in der Schrift (2008)
33. Zur üblichen Abneigung gegen die Agrapha Dogmata (1993)
34. Platon und die Pythagoreer: das Zeugnis des Aristoteles (2011)
35. Hermeneutische Grundprobleme der Platondeutung (2019)


[1] Dawe, R. D., Studies in the Text of Sophocles, Vol. I, Leiden, 1973.

[2] Vlastos, G., “On Plato’s Oral Doctrine” in: Platonic Studies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 396.

[3] Op. Cit. p. 397.

[4] Op. cit. p. 397-98.