BMCR 2024.06.03

How Plato writes: perspectives and problems

, How Plato writes: perspectives and problems. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781108483087.



This is a work in four parts with 14 chapters, most of them sectioned, and the usual front matter. The introduction explains that, “while the book focuses especially on how Plato writes, it asks also when he wrote…and why he wrote what he did in the way he did when he wrote it (2),” and, later on, the what is added (184). Part I, on approaches to the corpus, begins with a chapter on historical context, though Schofield notes that “evidence external to the dialogues…is either scrappy or suspect, or both (15).” Still, the author offers a multifaceted view of the context, notably the influence of what is understood to be a trip to the west, as a result of which “Plato converted to Pythagoreanism: to belief in the immortality of the soul; to a fascination with eschatology and myths of a last judgement,” and so on, which is described as “a decisive moment (24).” In Chapter 2, Schofield takes up the questions when and why Plato wrote narrated dialogues. The answer to the first is in the conventional middle period, and to the second, as Schofield says, “the narrated dialogue will plainly have given Plato greater scope (46),” in some cases, “to make Socrates himself both the self-conscious subject of the opening scene and the ironic lens through which others are presented as well as himself (47),” in others to indicate that the author is “taking the liberty to create his own transformation of the sorts of conversations in which Socrates may be represented as having participated (50).” In Chapter 3, Schofield turns his attention to the discussion in Victorian scholarship of whether Plato had a system, with especially Mill, Grote, and Jowett on the apparently atomistic side and especially Shorey on the system side.

Part II, on argument and architecture of the dialogues, begins with a piece on Callicles in the Gorgias. Schofield argues for the position that Socrates and Callicles are unable to reach agreement or to pursue their inquiry further together not because of a “radical failure of mutual comprehension” but of differences in “what they value most (94-95).” Chapter 5 considers scholarly discussion since 1954, along with that in earlier authors, of the regress arguments in the Parmenides. Focusing on Likeness, Schofield concludes that “the problem of evaluating the notion of a Platonism without a paradigmatic Form Likeness is part of the more general problem of what happens to Forms or their successor concepts in Plato’s later dialogues (116).” In Chapter 6, on the Cratylus, Schofield begins with Jowett’s uncertainty about the “motive” of the piece and subsequent attempts to identify the motive, or a part of it, by Barney, Sedley, and Ademollo (118). Schofield proposes “an approach to the dialogue which does not assume that its chief purpose is to communicate its author’s own views (119).” This approach proceeds through examining the two different presentations of Cratylus in the dialogue which are separated by a long interlude without him— the Heraclitean presentation in the first pages and then, after the long absence, the different Cratylus who returns at the end of the dialogue and is given three positions to maintain. These positions are that real names do not admit false speaking, that understanding names is the way to reality, and that, in line with the etymological analysis of the middle of the dialogue, all things are in flux (128)—that is, semantic, epistemological, and ontological components, traceable to earlier thinkers and to the contemporary Antisthenes. The author may have been “attempting to show . . . how a great deal of previous philosophy and (no less importantly) current sophistry can be fitted together to form . . . an utterly wrong-headed synthesis (130).” “To reach that end point,” Schofield concludes, “must have been one of the major objectives Plato had in composing the Cratylus (135).”

Part III focuses on the Republic. Chapter 7 leads off with the noble lie—”a lie,” according to Schofield, “because it attempts to persuade citizens of false things about their origin and upbringing, but noble because it communicates in symbolic form truths about the good city, its foundation in human nature, and the behaviour it requires (159).” It incorporates two myths. One grounds civic identity “in the natural brotherhood of the entire indigenous population,” the other makes “the city’s differentiated class structure a matter of divine dispensation (139).” Schofield calls attention to Socrates’ definition of a lie not as a locutio contra mentem but as ignorance: “What is disturbing about lying is not in the end saying something false out loud in words to someone else, nor deliberately trying to mislead them, but saying something false in your own mind to yourself, particularly something about ‘the most important things’ (2.382a; 145).” For him, “Socrates’ position” is that “there will always be cases where truth telling would not be just (148).” Chapter 8 follows with a discussion of the Cave, motivated by its apparent inconsistency. For Schofield, the Cave communicates two differing philosophical visions, one in the initial narrative and the other in Socrates’ commentary on it (163). The former offers “a moral and political allegory of the condition of ordinary people in the city,” the latter “an image of the reorientation of the soul which can be achieved by the practice of mathematics (164-165).” Looking at the narrative in more detail, the reader will find “a lot of mystery, no doubt much of it deliberate on Plato’s part (170).” Schofield concludes that the narrative and the commentary “work out ideas that are not merely different, but in terminology as well as in substance at odds with each other (179).”

Part IV is concerned with the Laws. In Chapter 9, “Religion and Philosophy in the Laws,” Schofield argues that, while the Laws is a philosophical work, the place of philosophy in the Cretan city is limited by religion, as the Athenian uses “a myth [the myth of Cronos]” which does “most of what might otherwise have been the argumentative work.” Here reason is the source of law, and “to accord this role to reason is tantamount to introducing a theocracy (193).” It is argued that Plato wrote this work the way he did because he was writing for “practised readers” who would read the Laws with the Republic and Statesman in mind (194). Chapter 10, following Aristotle, takes up the politeia—“the social and political system or constitution (203)” in the Laws. Schofield argues that Aristotle “has exposed rather acutely something initially puzzling about Plato’s whole project in the dialogue (205),” that there are in fact two connected projects there. The original one has to do with “a system generally applicable to cities,” the other with “something much more resembling the attempt to construct the best city previously undertaken in the Republic (211),” the latter being the “fundamental enterprise of the dialogue (213).” Chapter 11, on the opening pages of Laws I, suggests that at this point the Laws may show the influence of Xenophon’s Lacedaemonians where the Athenian, contrary to Cleinias, presents the view that the goal of Lycurgus’ legislation was to promote the whole of excellence, not just preparedness for war; that the content of the legislative program was “properly Cretan and Spartan;” and that the Lycurgan law is devoted to citizen development throughout the life cycle, especially by promoting sound customary practices (219-220). Schofield finds that there were competing interpretations of Lycurgus’ goals in the fourth century and thereafter in antiquity, instancing Aristotle on Cleinias’ side and Xenophon and the Athenian on the other side. Schofield finds also that the content of the legislative program is consistent with chapters 7, 9, and 10 of Xenophon. On the third point, he finds that for the Laws, as for Xenophon, the emphasis is on sound customary practices. Chapter 12 argues that the Laws preserves the Socratic paradox—“nobody will willingly be an unjust person or commit wrong or injustice, or willingly live the life of self-indulgence without restraint,” in one version, although “ there is no attempt to marshal any sort of Socratic intellectualism in its support (241).” Because of “passion and fear and pleasure and pain and envies and desires,” one may be in “a condition in which there may be knowledge, but where its natural authority is rejected (242)”—the condition of akrateia, as Schofield says here. The subject of Chapter 13 is the image of the marionette operated by strings in the explanation of self-rule and especially the development of courage. The strings that control behavior most of the time are the hard strings of pleasure and pain and desire, but there is also the gentle golden pull of calculation aided by law as “the communal voice of the entire city (268).” Schofield points out that the Laws here differs from the Republic, where Socrates had argued that different impulses in the soul require different things in the soul over and above them, so that “we should dismiss any thought that the Athenian’s talk of ‘prevailing over’ and ‘being overpowered by’ oneself is meant to imply any distinction between a higher and a lower self (270).” The book ends with Chapter 14, on childhood and play, which begins with references to Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, in which “Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play (275).” This fluidity is reflected in paradoxical passages in Heraclitus and Plato—the intellectual superiority of the child to the drunken grownup, that the obvious may not be obvious and vice versa (278-279), “the counterpoint of childhood and adulthood (281),” the human and the divine (285). For the Athenian, according to Schofield, “The playful in life is the one truly serious thing about us.” This play is “playing one’s whole life through in the particular activities of sacrificing, singing, and dancing (286).” The chapter concludes with a comment on ritual and religion.

In the absence of an epilogue, readers have the opportunity to put their own constructions on the book as a whole. The book, whose pages are filled with detailed discussion, raises many questions which merit further attention, for example the possibility of Aristotelian influence in the Laws, which the author mentions in a passing reference to André Laks: “One might even go so far as to wonder whether there is already something truly Aristotelian in the Laws (217, n. 19).” The author has observed in his own voice: “Perhaps like Aristotle we may be predisposed to think of children as mere potential for adulthood (288).” Of course, Aristotle’s notions of both childhood from the embryonic stage forward and adulthood are highly developed, probably in part because of his own work in animal biology; and he does find a place for paidia, even though for him it is not the purpose of life. For him, in mature life, where leisure is possible, the citizen, if educated properly, will pursue excellences of many sorts, and will even have learned music and enjoy it, as suggested, for example, by the citations from the Odyssey in Politics VIII.3. Perhaps this topic will be addressed at greater length elsewhere. In any case, the chapters in this book sometimes note where alternative interpretations are possible and give credit to other scholars where it seems called for, even if some of those scholars may not be well known today, while making incisive arguments where it finds that other scholars may be mistaken. Readers who use a range of approaches to the dialogues will be able to appreciate these chapters.