BMCR 2021.10.53

Ascent to the beautiful: Plato the teacher and the pre-“Republic” dialogues from “Protagoras” to “Symposium”

, Ascent to the beautiful: Plato the teacher and the pre-"Republic" dialogues from "Protagoras" to "Symposium". New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020. Pp. 618. ISBN 9781793615954 $170.00.


With Ascent to the Beautiful, Altman adds the final entry to his five-volume series Plato the Teacher, an ambitious re-reading of Plato’s work. As the title suggests, Altman interprets Plato—the founder of the Academy—as primarily a teacher, and his written works (the dialogues) as teaching texts. So what did Plato teach his students, and how did his “eminently teachable” dialogues work to advance his pedagogical aims? (xiv). In this series, Altman endeavors to reconstruct the “Eternal Curriculum” of the Academy, a highly sophisticated and intentional educational program he finds in Plato’s surviving written work.

Before we get into this volume, some comments are in order about Altman’s unusual interpretive approach. First, he leaves out nothing from Thrasyllus’ compilation of Plato’s work (xxiv). He embraces not only disputed works like Alcibiades Major and Hippias Major but also dialogues that are widely considered spurious like Lovers and Clitophon. This commitment becomes particularly relevant in this volume, which covers several ‘dubious’ dialogues. In fact, Altman’s introduction specifically targets Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 19th-century German scholar credited with a major role in excising many of these dialogues from the corpus. Altman contends that what Schleiermacher and others failed to understand is that Plato wrote these dialogues specifically for beginners—that is why the Alcibiades Major and Hippias Major are relatively simple. As Altman puts it, he hopes to offer “a pedagogical argument for the authenticity of the Alcibiades Major … Plato wrote Alcibiades Major [and these other dialogues] with the needs of an otherwise completely unprepared beginner in mind…” (2).

Next, for his interpretation Altman rearranges the dialogues into his own reconstructed Reading Order (always capitalized), a tightly ordered sequence which Plato expected his students to follow in their encounter with his work. (The sequence is given in the Preface, xviii.) Altman even (somewhat playfully) imagines a curriculum for each of five years of study at the Academy, each year corresponding to one of his volumes (483). Notably, Altman’s Reading Order differs substantially from common orderings. He does not follow a possible “order of composition”, as is common with developmentalist interpretations of Plato (xvi). On the contrary, he believes that developmentalism has been a great obstacle to comprehending Plato: Plato’s work, he contends, must be seen as a complete project with a unified, comprehensive goal and strategy. For example, concerning the Ion, Altman contrasts what he calls “inspired” and “uninspired” interpretations of Plato:

And most uninspired of all is the sad consequence that we have entered an interpretive universe where the Order of Composition paradigm can justify the elimination of an entire dialogue because it appears to be inconsistent with a particular conception of Plato’s Development. Explaining intra-dialogue contradictions out of existence, an uninspired interpretation of Plato must neutralize the evidence of the Ion… (330)

Here Altman alludes to two problems he has with Developmentalist interpretations: first, developmentalism justifies excising important and interesting dialogues simply because they do not fit neatly into its paradigm. The Alcibiades Majorand Hippias Major have the form of “early” dialogues but refer to themes supposedly addressed only later in Plato’s development. Second, developmentalism makes it too easy to resolve contradictions between dialogues. For example, why does Plato’s Socrates endorse hedonism in the Protagoras, while arguing against it in the Gorgias and Philebus? A developmentalist can say that Plato merely changed his mind, but Altman thinks something more pedagogically interesting is going on.

Altman’s reconstruction has some surprising results. For him, Plato’s students begin their journey with the Protagoras, while the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo appear only in the last year of the curriculum. Within this curriculum, Altman sees Plato deploying a variety of pedagogical strategies. Many dialogues, Altman contends, contain proleptic teaching, meaning that they introduce concepts and themes that a student will not grasp fully on a first reading, but which prepare them for future insights: Plato “begins by confusing the student in an ultimately salutary manner, i.e., about things that it is pedagogically useful for the student to be confused” (xxiv). According to Altman, the “introductory” dialogues, covered in Ascent to the Beautiful, are especially proleptic. Students encounter key ideas from Plato’s teaching in striking or provocative forms, but they will not understand them fully until later stages of their learning journey.

The proleptic aspects of Plato’s teaching complement Altman’s most distinctive idea, what he calls “basanistic” or “testing” pedagogy:

In order to test whether the student has a grasp on the truth, the teacher designs a series of carefully designed falsehoods that can only be resisted on the basis of what the student really knows. … We are always being asked whether we regard as true what [Plato’s] characters are presently saying. … Plato tests us from the start by means of deliberate deception … (xxv-xxvii)

When using this method, Plato has his characters (including Socrates) assert or argue for claims he knows to be false, specifically to “test” his students. He challenges his readers to decipher the problems and thus to discover the truth for themselves. This idea gains some support from clear examples in the corpus where key characters say things that Plato would undoubtedly have known were false—for example, the distortions of Athenian history in the Menexenus (403). But Altman pushes this idea much further: he argues that “deliberate deception” is a frequent and critical part of Plato’s teaching method. For example, on Altman’s reading nearly all the arguments and claims advanced in the Protagoras—often taken as a key locus for “Socratic” doctrines such as the claims that virtue is knowledge or that no one does wrong willingly—are actually basanistic: Plato is “speaking falsely, erring, and being deceptive deliberately for the sake of prompting us to discover the Beautiful for ourselves” (121). Plato never seriously believed that pleasure is the good or that a person must use knowledge to measure and compare pleasures and pains. As Altman puts it, the Protagoras is a “poetic masterpiece of pedagogy, enticing us with all the right questions and confusing us with all the wrong answers” (125).

This brings us to the sequence of dialogues that is the subject of Ascent to the Beautiful, which Altman envisions as comprising a student’s first “year” at the Academy. On the opening day of the Academy, Altman imagines, new students would watch a dramatic performance of Protagoras, performed by older students (35, 48). They would be entertained by its “agonistic” tone (35-6), but they would also find it confusing, provocative, and self-contradictory. This experience leads them into the next set of (easier) dialogues: the Alcibiades duology, Lovers, the Hippias dialogues, Ion, and Menexenus. Reading and discussing these more genuinely “beginner-level” dialogues, students would gradually experience what Altman calls the “Reversal of Protagoras” (127). That is, they would see the egoistic, intellectualist picture of ethics and life presented as a test in their opening experience become increasingly complicated and challenged. First, Alcibiades Major introduces the idea (developed in later dialogues) that true nobility (to kalon) lies in sacrificing one’s life for one’s friends (133-5), and it suggests that the highest self-knowledge requires looking to God (175). Plato’s students learn that “whatever else θεοφιλῶς πράττειν [acting in a god-beloved way] may turn out to mean, to do so will require looking to something far more Beautiful than our own happiness, and acting accordingly” (180).

The Hippias Major marks the next major step in the learning journey. Altman calls this dialogue the “pons asinorum” of the Ascent to the Beautiful (the “asses’ bridge”, a lesson that must be learned for further progress to be made) (236). That is because this dialogue tempts us to conclude that “mere capacity” or a “morally neutral δύναμις” is beautiful; however, Plato challenges his readers to realize that what is merely useful for me cannot be what is Good or truly Beautiful (248-50). Hippias Minor follows up this lesson, raising further problems for the idea that virtue is knowledge (304-5), while the Ion suggests that true value is to be found not in petty craft-knowledge (τέχνη) but in inspiration from a higher source (339).

The culmination, or “τέλος”, of the Ascent to the Beautiful is the Symposium, a complex masterpiece encompassing both tragedy and comedy, visionary truth and basanistic testing through deliberate deception. Diotima’s speech especially encompasses this tension. At first, Diotima appears to endorse the same egoistic eudaimonism we saw in the Protagoras. She even argues that apparently selfless acts, like Alcestis dying for Admetus or Achilles’ actions on behalf of Patroclus, are selfishness in disguise, motivated by a desire for personal fame (425). The reader must return to Phaedrus’ speech—and his praise of these characters’ selfless love—to recognize that Diotima—the “perfect sophist”—is testing us (428, 431). The truth emerges in the last movement of Diotima’s speech (the famous “ascent”) (460-1). The student who succeeds at the Ascent to the Beautiful grasps that true virtue and nobility are found only in working for a greater good, even at the cost of self-sacrifice:

The more difficult and Platonist basis of true virtue—i.e., its dependence on a vision of a transcendent Idea of Beauty—reveals that a merely instrumental conception of the virtues that subordinates them to the τέλος of εὐδαιμονία … yields nothing more than εἴδωλα ἀρετῆς. (472)

For Plato, true virtue is Socrates accepting death to benefit his city, or the philosopher returning to the Cave to save those left behind (442, 447). His pedagogical goal is that, by the end of this first set of dialogues, his students will begin to appreciate this vision (that is, to glimpse the Beautiful Itself), even if it requires more work before they grasp it fully.

Altman’s vision presents an interesting and welcome challenge to common scholarly assumptions. I am both impressed by and wary of the project’s sweeping scope. First, Altman’s Reading Order and Curriculum are imaginative but also highly speculative. Even supposing Plato had a specific reading order in mind, I think the evidence is too ambiguous to make definitive conclusions about its sequence. Altman defends his order by finding a “snug fit” in connections between dialogues—shared topics, recurring characters, and repeated references or phrasing (xxii-xxiii). The problem is that we find too many such connections—Plato’s dialogues are highly intertextual—and when we identify some connection between two dialogues, how do we determine their order? For example, both Laches and Symposium mention Socrates’ bravery in the retreat at Delium. But which goes first? Usually, scholars assume the Laches is first. Its reference to the event is brief, while Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium presents it more fully and personally. But Altman argues for the opposite order (418). The ordering matters, though, because the order in which one encounters the dialogues can make a significant difference in how one thinks about Plato’s philosophical orientation and goals.

In addition, Altman’s strategy of taking significant passages and arguments as “basanistic” or deliberate deception carries significant risk. I do not deny that Plato sometimes has characters, including Socrates, say things he knows are false or self-contradictory. Applied too broadly, however, this strategy can license an interpreter to reject any argument or claim he does not like or agree with. He can just write it off as Plato “testing” us with deliberate falsehood.

Overall, though, I think the interpretive framework of reading the dialogues as teaching texts is productive and promising. It pushes us to read them not merely as vehicles for arguments and doctrines (with fancy but ultimately superfluous dramatic embellishment) but as texts created to do some kind of work upon their reader. In this framing, philosophical arguments, dramatic staging, and even deliberate deception have roles to play in the pedagogical journey the reader takes. Thus, even if one disagrees with Altman about the details, the general approach is worth exploring further.