BMCR 2022.06.41

Framing the Dialogues: how to read openings and closures in Plato

, , , Framing the Dialogues: how to read openings and closures in Plato. Brill's Plato studies series, 6. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xii, 318. ISBN 9789004443983 €120,00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This edited volume brings together fourteen works, eleven of which are based on papers presented at the conference entitled Framing the Dialogues: How to Read Openings and Closures in Plato, which took place in December 2015 at the University of Cyprus. The remaining three chapters were written ad hoc in order to broaden the views on the topic discussed in said academic meeting. In this sense, one of the virtues of the volume is that this distinction between the papers originally presented at the conference and those added later is imperceptible to the reader, since all the contributions share the same analytical approach: the consideration of the frameworks that Plato creates in his dialogues as fundamental elements for the understanding of the author’s philosophical message. Although the editors explicitly state that there was no search for unification or a generalized thematic approach on their part, the result is striking for its high degree of internal consistency.

The introduction to the volume, by Eleni Kaklamanou, is useful for obtaining an overview of both the purpose of the editors and the content of the book. With regard to the former, it emphasizes the intention to unveil the complexity of the frameworks written by Plato and to stimulate debate about them. This being the aim, it is natural that not all of the dialogues are analyzed, and that certain questions are left open. The volume also aspires to act as a discussion guide, whether for a specialized audience or for those who are just beginning to read Plato.

As far as the content of the book is concerned, the tacit attempt to divide it into parts in the introduction is dispensable, as it is more confusing than clarifying. Although it is true that the first six chapters can be gathered into two groups of three, dealing respectively with the literary resources of the Platonic frames and the so-called Socratic dialogues, and that the eighth and ninth chapters coincide in dealing with the “erotic dialogues,” the rest of the works cannot be associated in this way. That is why, with regard to the content of the volume, I consider it preferable to discuss each of the contributions separately, without forgetting that as a whole they enjoy a remarkable thematic unity around the need to analyze the frameworks of the dialogues as not only a complementary, but often an essential, part of Plato’s philosophical message.

In the first chapter, Stephen Halliwell argues that Plato plays with intradiegetic and extradiegetic dimensions to build bridges between philosophical enquiry and the contingency of life, which is manifested in the open-endedness of the beginnings and endings of his dialogues. Furthermore, the author compares the theory of discourses in Phaedrus with the very structure of the three logoi contained in the dialogue and concludes that the guidelines of the former do not correspond to the characteristics of the latter, which shows that it is possible to achieve unity through procedures other than the formalist approach.

The second chapter, by Margalit Finkelberg, deals with the transgression of the boundaries between different levels of narration, classifying the different uses of this literary device by Plato according to whether they produce rhetorical metalepsis or ontological metalepsis. While the former, the more common one in Plato, maintains the differentiation between narrative levels (between the extradiegetic and the intradiegetic level, or between two or more intradiegetic levels), the ontological metalepsis causes a mutual contamination between them. Despite these divergences, the author interprets the philosopher’s ultimate intention in employing metalepsis as being the same in all cases: to distance the reader from the fiction contained in the narrative and thereby prevent the audience from being ensnared by the deception of mimetic art.

In the third chapter, Carlotta Capuccino argues that it is in the double frames of mixed dialogues (those with an external proem that precedes the internal one) that Plato allows us to hear his own voice on what is the best style for philosophical writing. This is a style that combines diegesis and mimesis, but which establishes, in line with Plato’s critique of mimetic art, the exercise of control of the latter by the former: diegesis provides the voice of a narrator who is responsible for the dramatic part. In this sense, the author evokes ideas similar to the conclusion expressed by Margalit Finkelberg in the previous chapter on the need to contain the deceptive power of mimesis, which is why I consider the choice of the order of appearance of these two works in the volume to be a wise decision on the part of the editors.

In the fourth chapter, Luc Brisson explains how the central themes of the content of Charmides are already implicit in the prologue of the dialogue. Although his contribution is not very innovative,[1] his analysis of the prologue in parallel to the themes discussed in the dialogue is thorough and precise.

Michael Erler begins the fifth chapter by stating a key issue for the whole volume: it is not possible to separate Plato “the philosopher” from Plato “the author”. On this basis, he focuses on Protagoras and Euthyphro to argue that in these dialogues, which are relatively aporetic, the ending frames open new inroads for further discussion (in the case of Euthyphro, for reasons of fictitious chronology, this final setting would also include the Apology). Although Erler’s work is very convincing, in my opinion it tends to anticipate the argument too far in advance of the analysis itself.

At the beginning of the sixth chapter, Maria Pavlou reinforces the internal cohesion of the book by asserting similar ideas to those stated by Erler and referring to Capuccino’s work in the volume. Pavlou argues that in both the external and internal frameworks of Protagoras, the importance of the notion of σχολή (leisure) for the development of philosophical education is perceived. Thus, the author’s contribution is clear: by analyzing the frameworks of the dialogue, she shows the centrality of slowness in philosophy, as opposed to the urgency of the ἀσχολία represented by the sophists gathered in the house of Callias.

Panagiotis Thanassas opens the seventh chapter with two contrasting views on the role of the prologue to the Republic. According to the author, none of these approaches correctly grasps the hermeneutic relationship between the parts and the whole: Burnyeat, by establishing a hierarchy according to which the philosophical content explains the meaning of the dramatic elements of the prologue, denies that these are by themselves significant components of the work; Ebert, by opposing the idea that these elements can be understood by referring to later passages, eliminates the possibility of enriching his interpretation in the light of the discussion collected in the dialogue. As an alternative, Thanassas proposes a circular reading of the prologue of the Republic, considering that it maintains an interdependent relationship with the rest of the work. Since the length of the proem is disputed, he analyzes the first scene, but also Book 1 and what would be the first part (including the beginning of Book 2). He concludes, after his commentary, that the theme of the Republic as a whole is the one shown in the proem: justice as individual happiness. While Thanassas’ interpretation is questionable for dismissing the political aspect of the Republic by subordinating it to a moral theme, it is also true that, as he defines his methodology, his argument is well constructed.

In chapter eight, Andrea Capra argues that the so-called ‘erotic dialogues’ owe a debt to the poetic tradition that is discernible in the early reception of these works; specifically, in Alexis’ Phaedrus. One of the author’s main contributions is that Alexis does not only think of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus in his writing: Capra develops several arguments to claim that he is also inspired by Lysis. Considering the subject of this chapter, the question arises as to whether its place would be alongside other works on reception which appear at the end of the volume (see chapters twelve and fourteen).

However, the ninth chapter ties in well with the previous one, as Kathryn A. Morgan also studies the ‘erotic dialogues’: the author analyzes the manifestations of Athenian erotic culture in the prologues of Lysis, Charmides, Symposium, and Phaedrus, focusing on the ambivalence of Socrates’ role, who can be perceived as a lover, as a beloved and/or as an educator who uses the erotic play of the elite of his time to establish intellectual relationships.

Eroticism aside, in the tenth chapter Zacharoula Petraki proposes a new reading of the framework of Phaedrus. The author argues that both the opening and the ending of the dialogue represent the transformation of Socrates’ body into a philosophical logos. She considers the indirect quality of the narrative framework, which allows Socrates to be seen from the outside, and the relationship that the interlocutors establish with the philosopher’s body, which foreshadows the need to free the soul from the physical body.

In the eleventh chapter, Antonis Tsamakis seeks to demonstrate that in the internal and external frames of the prologue to Theaetetus Plato suggests that he composed this dialogue for a select audience. The latter would correspond to readers familiar with Platonic biography and thought, probably associated with the Academy. The author observes signs of this ‘intended audience’ in different aspects of the prologue, ranging from its narratological form to the possible reactions it would generate in these original readers. As a controversial point, Tsamakis’ association between the necessity of the writing in the prologue of Theaetetus and Plato’s possible absence from Athens at the time of the work’s composition stands out: despite being an attractive idea, it excessively depends on a questionable absolute chronology.

In chapter twelve, Spyridon Rangos deals with the question of the unity of the third Thrasyllan tetralogy, which consists of Symposium, Phaedrus, Philebus, and Parmenides. The author seeks this unity in the relationship he perceives between the philosophical content of these dialogues and the dramatic details that appear in the openings and closures. He concludes that by reading these works according to the sequence indicated by Thrasyllus, the Socratic progress in philosophical research can be discerned.

David Horan revisits the prologue of Parmenides in the thirteenth chapter, arguing that this part of the work can be read as a guide on how to interpret the rest of the dialogue. Thus, the prologue of Parmenides would not have an internal purpose so much as an external one: to communicate that what follows are highly complex issues that only those readers naturally predisposed to philosophy will understand. In view of this idea, perhaps this chapter would have been better placed alongside Tsamakis’ work (supra).

However, the choice of Pauliina Remes’ work to ‘close’ the volume is appropriate, as it is linked to one of the interpretations that inspire the line of research of this book: Proclus’ exegesis of Plato’s proems. The author draws on the Neoplatonic notion of skopos in the commentary to Alcibiades I to determine that the theme of the dialogue (self-knowledge) was already present in the prologue.

In conclusion, not all the essays in this volume are particularly innovative, but this is to some extent understandable given the long hermeneutical tradition on which they depend. In all of the papers there are multiple secondary ideas of great interest that encourage debate. In addition, the footnotes are appropriate, the bibliography is comprehensive, and the volume adds two indexes for easy reference.  Overall, the volume is immensely useful as a guide on ‘how to read openings and closures in Plato’. This is why, ultimately, the publication perfectly fulfils its purpose of becoming a guide to the discussion of the Platonic frameworks.

Table of Contents

Preface vii
Notes on Contributors viii
Introduction, Eleni Kaklamanou 1
1 ‘Where Are You Going and Where Have You Come From?’ The Problem of Beginnings and Endings in Plato, Stephen Halliwell 10
2 Frame and Frame-Breaking in Plato’s Dialogues, Margalit Finkelberg 27
3 Paradoxical Proems. On the Relationship between Διήγησις and Μίμησις in Plato’s Dialogues, Carlotta Capuccino 40
4 The Prologue of the Charmides, Luc Brisson 63
5 Elenctic Aporia and Performative Euporia. Literary Form and Philosophical Message, Michael Erler 70
6 Leisure, Philosophy and Teaching in the Protagoras, Maria Pavlou 84
7 Justice as Happiness. Republic and Its Proems, Panagiotis Thanassas 107
8 Eros from Plato to Comedy. The Lysis and the Early Reception of Plato’s Beginnings, Andrea Capra 140
9 Eros in the Platonic Frame, Kathryn A. Morgan 154
10 ‘Were You There Yourself?’ The ‘Dialectics of the Body’ in Plato’s Phaedo, Zacharoula Petraki 176
11 The Necessity of Writing. The Introduction of Plato’s Theaetetus, Antonis Tsakmakis 197
12 Chance Encounters and Abrupt Endings. On the Preludes and Closures of Plato’s Third Thrasyllan Tetralogy, Spyridon Rangos 220
13 The Introduction to Plato’s Parmenides. What Does It Introduce and to Whom? David Horan 243
14 The Prooimion and the Skopos. Proclus’ Commentary of the Alcibiades I, Pauliina Remes 263
Bibliography 281
General Index 305
Index Locorum 308


[1] See, for example, Schmid, W. T. (1998), Plato’s Charmides and the Socratic Ideal of Rationality, Albany, State University of New York Press.