BMCR 2024.02.05

Plato of Athens: a life in philosophy

, Plato of Athens: a life in philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. 296. ISBN 9780197564752.



Robin Waterfield has established himself, over a period of several decades, as the world’s leading anglophone translator of ancient Greek prose literature. In a remarkable body of work (approaching some thirty volumes), he has produced characteristically fluent and stylish versions of such authors as Herodotus (complete), Xenophon (Anabasis and the Socratica), Aristotle (Physics and Rhetoric), Demosthenes, Polybius, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. But at the heart of his output have been the dialogues of Plato, of which he has translated sixteen to date, including Republic, Symposium, Theaetetus, and Timaeus.[1] He has also published several trade books on topics in Greco-Roman history, so he is highly experienced at writing for a general audience, the explicit target of the present work. In Plato of Athens Waterfield even anticipates readers who may not have sampled any of Plato’s own writing (94), and he is mostly very careful to take nothing for granted historically or philosophically; his light footnotes cite primary sources but contain only very occasional references to secondary literature (though a fifteen-page bibliography is supplied, surely overkill for novices). He certainly writes with a clarity and eloquence which will make his book engaging for non-specialists.[2] But does the aim of writing for such an audience justify Waterfield’s willingness to talk in terms of a ‘biography’ of Plato, when he knows full well the scarcity and shortcomings of the evidence available for such an undertaking? In a way, yes, since the book does not purport to be a rigorous reappraisal of the evidence for Plato’s life but, instead, one kind of ‘introduction to [Plato’s] work’ (x). Even so, Plato of Athens prompts some difficult questions about what it means, or might mean, to think about Plato biographically.

Waterfield alerts his readers to the central challenge facing his project in the very first sentence of his Preface: ‘The prospect of writing a biography of Plato is daunting, and many have judged it a lost cause’ (ix). Having indicated, as already mentioned, that he intends his book to serve also as an introduction to Plato’s work, he adds, somewhat defensively, ‘This is not a book about Plato’s philosophy but about Plato’ (x). What this awkward conjunction of intentions partly conveys is modesty on Waterfield’s part: his book does not pretend to offer philosophically probing or innovative readings of the dialogues; he calls his overall approach, in this same context, ‘fairly conservative’. But the tension I have noted also highlights the strangeness of aspiring to separate the ‘work’ from the ‘philosophy’, betraying some unease about how to construct the biography of a figure whose life’s work was (or so one might suppose) nothing but philosophy, as the book’s own subtitle acknowledges.

Waterfield’s strategy for dealing with the cluster of problems attaching to the idea of a biography of Plato has three main strands, all of them broached in a preliminary section on ‘The Sources’. First, from the copious ancient stock of biographical anecdotes about Plato he sifts out – often by mere intuition and with a resilient faith that even late sources preserve an older ‘tradition’ (xxviii) – details which strike him as plausible, or just appealingly colourful, sometimes not troubling to tell the reader that particular stories (‘It is said …’, ‘We are told …’) are attested only centuries after Plato’s lifetime. Secondly, he accepts the authenticity of the Seventh Letter (as well as the third and eighth letters), not just as a source of information about Plato’s Sicilian visits but also as a unique window on Plato’s mind and character; his minimal defence of authenticity, however, lapses into a priori gestures (‘No forger …’, ‘impossible for a forger …’). Thirdly, and crucially, he overrides the ostensible absence of Plato’s voice from his own dialogues by treating them as fundamentally doctrinal works (asserted on the first page of the Introduction, xxi, and, with occasional equivocation, throughout), a premise which enables him to convert their distilled philosophical content into, so to speak, a silent self-portrait of ‘the man’ though not of his ‘life and character’ (xxxix, another uncomfortable distinction). Plato, he says at one point, is ‘not silent’ after all, but a ‘ventriloquist’ (85). Waterfield could, one assumes, go further than he is able to do here in buttressing his principles of interpretation and in addressing objections to them: acceptance of the Seventh Letter, for one thing, does not sit entirely easily with a doctrinal reading of the dialogues. But he himself refers, more than once, to ‘risk’: it is a risk, au fond, of slipping into historical fiction.

The main body of the book consists of eight chapters. The first three cover what we might call Plato’s formation. Chapter 1, which accepts a birth date of 424-3 (following Deborah Nails’ The People of Plato, rightly called ‘indispensable’, xi, but not cited for individual details), treats Plato’s family background and (conjectural) early experience during the Peloponnesian war, providing the general reader with basic historical information on such phenomena as pederasty, symposia, and the ephebeia; its most surprising feature is the ascription to Plato, without any hesitation, of belief in reincarnation (15, an idea not in fact explained at all until its fourth mention, on 113). Chapter 2, ‘The Intellectual Environment’, deals in broadbrush fashion with the influence on Plato of both Presocratic thought and Socrates, the latter’s search for moral and political knowledge providing the essential antidote to Sophistic relativism and amoralism, though Waterfield helpfully sketches the diversity of ‘the first Socratics’ as a larger group (‘there was no such thing as Socratic orthodoxy’, 56). Chapter 3, starting to draw on the Seventh Letter, recounts Plato’s shortlived attraction to the Thirty at the end of the Peloponnesian war and the revulsion from practical politics caused by both that grim episode and the prosecution of Socrates. It also introduces the problem of dating the dialogues, putting its faith, partly on the basis of stylometrics, in a version of the familiar tripartite model (early-middle-late) of Plato’s work, as well as accepting, with (to my mind) too hasty an inference from Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, that a ‘proto-Republic’ existed as early as the 390s (76-7).[3] A rough-and-ready chronological framework for the dialogues’ composition concludes the chapter (94).

In the remainder of the book, Waterfield builds up a picture of a Plato whose life was an unresolved quest, in both word and deed, to harmonise a realm of absolute truth with the all-too-human imperfections of the world around him. Chapter 4 expounds the start of that quest, in the earlier dialogues (about whose precise ‘Socratic’ credentials Waterfield somewhat hedges his bets), as driven by a conviction of ‘virtue as knowledge’, a desire to expose false pretensions to knowledge on the part of sophists, politicians, and poets, and adherence to a method of critical thinking which, according to Waterfield, is ‘the foundation of the humanities’ (109). The chapter also recounts Plato’s first trip to Magna Graecia (where, reliant on his intuition, Waterfield has ‘no doubt’ that he met Dionysius I: 119) and lends some credence to stories of his temporary enslavement. Chapter 5 discusses the foundation of the Academy (dated to 383), its nature as a sort of research institute of independent scholars (as well as, more controversially, a sort of political ‘consultancy’), its rivalry with Isocrates’ school, and its notoriety as reflected in contemporary comedy. Chapter 6 juxtaposes the philosophised eros of Symposium and Phaedrus with the so-called Theory of Forms, depicting Plato’s mind as permeated by a ‘mysticism’ derived from the Pythagoreans (168, though oddly the language of mysticism occurs nowhere else than this one page). Despite metaphysics and mysticism, Plato, for Waterfield, remained committed to practical politics, and Chapter 7, following the Seventh Letter in detail, retells the story of the fateful second and third visits to Sicily with their putative failure to win Dionysius II for philosophy and/or to reconcile the tyrant with Plato’s friend Dion. Waterfield is prepared to convict Plato of ‘a certain naiveté’ (199, 207) in all this; others, even if they accept the authenticity of the Seventh Letter (as I myself do not), might wonder whether grotesque misjudgement would be an apter verdict. The point carries over to Chapter 8, which deals with the philosopher’s final years (as well as, briefly, the Academy after his death) and recycles the notion that it took his dealings with Dionysius II to make Plato finally ‘change his mind’ about the possibilities of political leadership (212) and resort to the ‘mundane realism’ of the Laws (216).

In conclusion, Plato of Athens attractively fulfils its aim of introducing Platonic philosophy to a general readership by combining elements of historical reconstruction with key values extracted from the written work, the two things synthesised into an imagined portrait of a life. If it cuts some corners as regards the most contentious matters of Platonic scholarship and interpretation (there is, among other things, no more than a passing remark on 81-2 about the special status of the myths, which are mostly treated as readily decoded into philosophical propositions), that is perhaps inevitable in a book of this kind. One can confidently expect that if indeed some of Waterfield’s readers may never have tackled any of the dialogues for themselves, they will be stimulated to do so (and in Waterfield’s own fine translations) by his eloquent passion for a ‘super-important’ thinker who is now ‘read and studied in, I dare say, every country in the world’ (xxii-iii).

I noticed hardly any errors or misprints: in the stemma on p. 7 the label ‘the poet’ for the older Critias belongs to the younger Critias, ‘the oligarch’, and p. 194 confuses Dion’s Athenian friend (and later assassin) Callippus with the astronomer of the same name from Cyzicus. The book is rather faintly printed; its eleven miscellaneous black-and-white images are consequently dull.



[1] For further details, together with an interesting outline of his multi-stranded career as academic, editor, independent scholar, and more besides, see Waterfield’s own website at

[2] Specialists, in turn, may wish to notice some issues on which Waterfield nails his colours to the mast: he dismisses the idea of the ‘unwritten doctrines’ (152-3); he takes the tripartite soul to be of Pythagorean inspiration (168, 173-4); he thinks the Apology’s story of Chaerephon’s question to the Delphic oracle is Platonic fiction (100-1).

[3] For some counter-considerations, see my Plato Republic 5 (Warminster, 1993) 224-5.