Plato’s Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic

  Schur, David. 2015. Plato's Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic. Hellenic Studies Series 66. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

1. The Problem of Literary Form

We rarely ask why Sophocles composed tragedies; Dickens, novels; or Dickinson, poems. These writers were presumably driven to these genres by psychological and cultural forces about which it would seem idle to speculate. When it comes to Plato, however, why he chose to write as he did has long been a serious question, becoming even more insistent in the modern era. “Why did Plato choose precisely this form?” asked W. G. Tennemann in his System of Platonic Philosophy, published in 1792. [1] The question has persisted into the twenty-first century. [2] In this chapter, my concern is with some of the most prominent ways that the question has been answered, while the next chapter deals with some general but crucial methodological assumptions that commonly guide the modern interpretation of literary form in Plato’s dialogues. I find that the prevalent view of literary form as philosophical rhetoric is marred by a methodological confusion between expository and literary conceptions of discourse.

Baldly stated, this chapter argues that the notion of persuasive rhetoric applies readily to expository discourse but not to Plato’s dialogues. The dialogues are widely recognized to be manifestly, and sometimes pronouncedly, not expository in form. Efforts to interpret the dialogues in terms of persuasive rhetoric are therefore compromised by insuperable methodological challenges. In the chapters following this one, I will continue to address the problem of literary form, while turning toward Plato’s Republic and engaging with textual evidence from that dialogue. My analysis will describe recursion as a master trope in the Republic, but one whose function is to diffuse or modalize rather than promote univocal positions, modalization being a function that has little in common with traditional rhetoric.

Schleiermacher’s Model of Unified Form and Content

Although Tennemann saw much that was good about the dialogue form chosen by Plato, which he called a delightful kind of “philosophical drama,” he nevertheless considered this aspect of Plato’s writing an aesthetic indulgence, ultimately inessential and potentially distracting (126–127). The “course of investigation” (der Gang der Untersuchung), presented in the dialogue form favored by Plato, can lead readers astray. It often encourages readers “to wander from the topic” (von dem Gegenstande abzuschweifen, 127). The topic (Gegenstand) under investigation, the “system of Platonic philosophy” announced by Tennemann’s title, thus becomes markedly distinct from the subject matter that the reader encounters directly, which may involve characters doing things in various locations and defending different positions in rational argument. Indeed, the dialogue form can make it difficult for readers “to distinguish the authentic topic (den eigentlichen Gegenstand) from the incidental, to grasp the correct viewpoint, and to find the authentic results” (127). So the reader who follows Plato’s written dialogues is at risk of getting lost, adopting incorrect viewpoints along the way, and reaching inauthentic results. Tennemann presumes to speak as one who has already found the authentic results that readers seek, and now that more than two hundred years have passed, some may be tempted to focus on the evident dogmatism of Tennemann’s concern. Yet the imagined object of study that is Plato’s authentic philosophy is by no means directly accessible through his writings. Tennemann’s expert warning reflects a disturbing and persistent problem: perhaps Plato’s style of writing obscures, rather than reveals, his real, authentic, actual message. To observe a separation between style (i.e. form) and message (content), as Tennemann does, is also to set appearance against reality. Form can mask, or even masquerade as, content, while content itself remains hidden from view. Conceptually, the preinstalled, retrievable message—the result of studying the object (which must be viewed correctly for the real topic to be seen)—is mediated by the thinker’s writing, and this mediation can be a kind of distraction from the author’s position.

Tennemann’s main successor in the world of Platonic scholarship, Friedrich Schleiermacher, explained the role of dialogue form quite differently, by emphasizing its purposefulness (Absichtlichkeit) and connectedness (Zusammenhang), and this view has made a vital contribution to the modern study of Plato. [3] Each dialogue, Schleiermacher argued, is an organic composition in which each part and every detail, when understood in its context, serves Plato’s global philosophical purpose. In his “General Introduction” to Plato’s dialogues, first published in 1804, Schleiermacher laments various misunderstandings of Plato. [4] Schleiermacher is especially keen-sighted in identifying Plato’s writings themselves as a major cause of widespread and enduring misunderstanding of Plato’s thought. Even those who recognize Plato’s greatness, he says, have trouble reconciling their esteem for the thinker with their impression of his writings—“the two will not agree”—because the writings appear to suffer from contradiction (Widerspruch) and disconnectedness (Unzusammenhang); such readers see the dialogue form as “a quite-useless and more-confusing-than-illuminating embellishment of the perfectly common way of presenting thoughts” (1836:8–9). We may safely assume that the common type of philosophical presentation meant here is the expository treatise or speech: a declarative, consistent, and linear presentation of an author’s propositions. Schleiermacher says that complaints about Plato’s unusual form of presentation may be resolved by demonstrating a holistic connectedness (Zusammenhang) in the dialogues, whereby the details in the texts, when seen correctly, are both interrelated and intelligibly related to the doctrines (Lehren) contained in Plato’s works (8). These remarks afford a glimpse of Schleiermacher’s revolutionary conception of Plato: his insistence on working with, and correcting misunderstandings of, the written dialogues themselves; his deep belief in the (inapparent) unity—the (nonobvious) interconnectedness—of thought and presentation in the dialogues; and his conviction that a systematic and unified Platonic philosophy, including Plato’s doctrines, pervades all of the dialogues, with each individual proposition being inextricable from its context in the text. [5] Along with its devotion to a philosophical system, Schleiermacher’s approach to Plato’s form is notably literary in its nonlinear and comprehensive attention to the whole text.

In explaining his criteria for identifying authentic works of Plato, rather than those spuriously attributed to him, Schleiermacher insists on Plato’s commitment to “this peculiar form” (diese eigentümliche Form), an “art” (Kunst) of writing that Plato uses to address all topics great and small (36–37). [6] The following sentence gives a fuller description of the form’s peculiarities:

To the inward and essential condition of the Platonic form belongs everything in the composition resulting from the purpose of compelling the mind of the reader to spontaneous production of ideas: that frequent recommencement of the investigation from another point of view, provided nevertheless that all these threads do actually unite in a common center-point; that progression, often in appearance capricious , and only excusable from the loose tenor which a dialogue might have, but which nevertheless is always purposeful and artful; further, the concealment of the greater goal under a lesser one; the indirect commencement with some individual instance; the dialectic play with ideas, under which, however, the relation to the whole and to the original ideas is continually progressing: these are the conditions some of which must necessarily be found in all really Platonic works that have any philosophical bearing.


Schleiermacher does not deny that the dialogue form goes all over the place, but neither does he view this waywardness as a regrettable distraction. Instead, he tells us that the written composition (the whole as a specific ordering of its specific parts) is entirely motivated by a firm “purpose” (Absicht), which is to “compel” (nötigen) readers to think for themselves. [
7] The successful reader of Plato knows how to discern “the great purposefulness in the composition of his writings” (die große Absichtlichkeit in der Zusammensetzung seiner Schriften, 5). Although Schleiermacher clearly holds that form and content in the dialogues are “inseparable” (unzertrennlich, 14), his account resembles Tennemann’s in the way it must separate irrelevant appearance from purposeful reality. This separation is especially strong in Schleiermacher’s description of the “concealment” (Verbergen) whereby a meaningful but inapparent current of activity is located “under” the surface. [8] Indeed, elsewhere in the “General Introduction,” Schleiermacher tries to convince those readers who turn toward extratextual sources for the philosophy they are unable to find in the writings that Plato’s philosophy is a kind of “product” (Ausbeute) that can demonstrably be “taken from” (entnommen) the writings (13). This metaphor, redolent of mining for valuable ore, would seem more suited to the traditional extraction of doctrines than a holistic attentiveness to local contexts.

In his eagerness to affirm the unity of Platonic thought, Schleiermacher echoes Tennemann’s focus on “the authentic topic” (den eigentlichen Gegenstand) when he refers to “the authentic content” (den eigentlichen Inhalt) of the dialogues, “which is rarely expressed literally” (7). Yet although the nature and location of this content are ambiguous, in part because of ordinary and inevitable terminological metaphors, the implications of Schleiermacher’s model have been significant. Schleiermacher explains that one can retrieve a system of doctrines gradually, by accounting for details in their contexts and by gaining a proper perspective on the whole. [9] At the same time, he may be said to place a systematic philosophical purpose between the reader and the philosophical system; thus greater goals (but not necessarily doctrines themselves) are concealed under seemingly incidental preoccupations, and unity underlies manifest contradiction. To some extent, that is, Schleiermacher’s unity comes not from a univocal propositional system that is present in any identifiable place in the text, but from a guiding purposefulness that regulates the whole. In this holistic model, local details moving in different directions add up to a directed, systematic whole. For Schleiermacher, a pedagogical, didactic purpose inextricably unifies form and content, and because of that unity, one can progressively extract the philosophy from the writings. In any case, Schleiermacher develops a model of indirect communication in which apparent unruliness, when correctly understood, furthers progress toward a fixed but frequently inapparent educational goal. “So it is requisite that the final object (das Ende) of the investigation be not directly enunciated and put down in words”; readers, according to Schleiermacher, are not allowed to “rest content … in possession of the final result [das Ende]” without having first been “led on the way [Weg]” (17). Here, Plato’s gradual and devious promotion of his philosophy substitutes for straightforward and immediate didacticism. For many scholars today, this view has become a model of rhetoric, which I will discuss at length below: Plato is making effective use of literary language in order to pursue a didactic philosophical agenda. Because this view relies on an understanding of Plato’s goal or purpose in order to explain why Plato used the dialogue form, I will call this a teleological response to the question of literary form.

The text is a means to that end. But getting from overt waywardness to covert purposefulness by way of the text remains a profound difficulty for the interpretation of interconnected form and content in Plato. Recognizing Schleiermacher as a forerunner in the modern shift of attention to Plato’s dialogue form, Thomas Szlezák writes that the recent focus “has remained mainly lip-service; the unity of content and form, announced so programmatically, has rarely had any concrete consequences for interpreting Plato” (1999:85). [11] While acknowledging that significant efforts continue to be made, I agree with Szlezák on this point, but for a reason very different from his. For Szlezák, Schleiermacher initiated a “naïve belief” in “the art of ‘indirect’ communication” (79) that expects far more from writing than Plato ever did—Szlezák insists that the texts we have by Plato must be supplemented by specific oral teachings so that we may grasp the authentic philosophy. My criticism of Schleiermacher’s legacy in this chapter concerns the untenable combination of literary hermeneutics with philosophical goals. In my view, Plato’s writing obtrusively mediates his thought, and this mediation opens a distance that is by no means easy to cross or eliminate, however much sensitive and sophisticated readers may wish to overcome differences between form and content, or between literature and philosophy. It is tempting to argue that the distance is merely apparent; but as long as one holds that the appearance of the text is indeed significant rather than merely formal or merely literary, how can that distance be merely apparent? Once the form of a Platonic dialogue meets with consistent and comprehensive analysis, the distance between Plato’s writing and his thinking can no longer appear to vanish into content alone.

Looking for Content Beyond Form

When approaching the surge of interest in Plato’s written artistry, it may also be instructive to review attitudes expressed by René Schaerer, along with those of Szlezák, in the twentieth century. Both scholars stress the inadequacy of writing, and they seek to understand and explain how Plato could have meant for his written form to function in a Socratic, philosophical (and Platonic) manner. Crucial to their concerns is the basic contradiction between what Socrates says about the inadequacies of writing (notably in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter) and what Plato does as a writer. But we should also note that this contradiction is but a specific, if particularly reflexive, example of widespread contradictions within and among the dialogues. Thus the inadequacy of writing usually emerges as a twofold problem. First, writing may be inherently inadequate for the project of philosophy. Second, Plato’s written dialogues challenge our philosophical methods of reading insofar as statements made in them are sometimes inconsistent; arguments, unruly; positions, abandoned. The things the characters say in the dialogues do not add up neatly; the dialogues are not straightforward. And so it is incumbent on us, according to philosophers such as Schaerer and Szlezák, to develop methods of interpretation that will either avoid or explain away the inadequacies of the written texts and bring us to the elusive philosophical content. Such a focus on philosophical content is a crucial characteristic of philosophical interpretation, strikingly different from the sort of textual focus that I will argue is a hallmark of literary interpretation. Whereas Schleiermacher turns to the texts themselves for a fullness of philosophical meaning, a unity of thought that is inherent in their organic unity of form and content, other interpreters turn beyond the text, eventually finding the form inadequate and looking for the content elsewhere. The views of Schaerer and Szlezák exemplify the strangeness of a focus on form and writtenness or textuality (Schriftlichkeit) which, finding the texts inadequate and incomplete in themselves, ends up moving away from written expression in its search for essential content.

Schaerer sharpens Schleiermacher’s discussion of interpretation by focusing on “the problem of form” in La Question platonicienne, originally published in 1938. He draws a vivid contrast between the sublime simplicity of Platonism and the difficulties posed by Plato’s texts: “the written oeuvre is, in many respects, terribly, hopelessly complex: contradictions, obscurities, bizarreries abound” (1969:9; translations mine). Schaerer’s approach to the text is conventionally Platonic. Drawing on a Socratic-Platonic theory of Forms, Schaerer says that the subject matter of the dialogues is ultimately the reality of the thing-in-itself (246). “But because this thing is inaccessible to language, it follows that the dialogue finds its point d’appui outside of itself (en dehors de lui-même), on a superior plane, and that the rules presiding over its composition are not immanent to it, but transcendent” (246). As a composition based on, and leading toward, a transcendent reality, “the text aspires to be overcome [dépassé]” (250). To “overcome” a text is to look beyond it, to treat it as a means or instrument for reaching an “essence” that is “supradiscursive” (247). Hence Plato’s “literary oeuvre is only a play of allusions” (251). “One can therefore affirm that Plato wrote nothing, in the sense that one says Socrates knew nothing and said nothing” (251). As a Socratic withholder, Plato the writer is in a sense not a writer; behind, under, or beyond the apparent chaos of our everyday reality of reading lies a transcendent philosophical reality that the reader’s vision cannot see on the page.

Where Schaerer is idealistic, Szlezák is primarily historical. Convinced that Plato’s written dialogues were complemented by explicit oral teachings, Szlezák writes, “the dialogues are to be read as fragments of Plato’s philosophy with a propensity to encourage the reader and at the same time to point beyond themselves. But the form must be regarded as essential for the content” (1999:118). As with Schaerer, the problem of form has been solved by conceiving of the writings as purposefully protreptic—they do not function as a complete expression of the philosophy (the doctrinal content) so much as they turn readers toward it, and thereby lead beyond themselves. And like Schaerer, Szlezák envisages a transcendent process of interpretation: “From the start Plato conceives of philosophical writing … as writing whose content must be transcended if it is to be fully understood” (1985:66). I take Szlezák to mean that form and content are united in the protreptic usefulness of Plato’s texts, but also that this combination of form and content is nevertheless incomplete, not self-sufficient, and not in itself a proper basis for philosophical interpretation.

I certainly do not mean to give the impression that the scholars discussed in this chapter underestimate or neglect Plato’s written dialogues. Both Schaerer and Szlezák, more than many, take the dialogue form to be of tremendous importance, as does Schleiermacher. What I wish to highlight is a peculiar methodological phenomenon: modern interest in the Schriftlichkeit of the dialogues, driven by a desire to recover Plato’s authentic philosophical purposes, tends to adopt an instrumentalist and teleological view of textuality, which paradoxically abandons the written form in favor of a stable Platonic lesson plan. This is so whether the writings are understood to be complete in themselves or parts of a greater undertaking, and whether the lesson is a propositional system of knowledge or a more general call to philosophy. Thus the writings become a meandering path toward something that in Plato’s mind was straight. According to this model of interpretation, the indirect appearance of each dialogue belies its underlying didactic directedness.

Bolstered by widespread respect for the evidential power of textual specifics, advances in the treatment of Plato’s dialogue form since Schleiermacher have been increasingly influential. Traditional readings, in their disregard for major aspects of the written presentation of Platonic thought, can willfully ignore much of the text itself by sequestering it as peripheral context: who says what in a dialogue, where he says it, and so on. The intellectual historian Gerald Press has been an important chronicler, herald, and advocate for alternative approaches. “An identifiable mode of interpretation of Plato,” wrote Press in 1993, referring to the traditional approach, “has prevailed, with rare exceptions, since antiquity” (1993b:107). Press called for greater unity and “self-consciousness” in a “transformation of Plato interpretation that is now taking place” (1993a:viii–ix). This transformation has continued to unfold, leading from a narrow focus on the philosopher’s doctrines toward increased attention to features of writing now recognized as literary: features such as characterization, setting, plot, and wordplay. Welcoming the appearance of Debra Nails’s Platonic prosopography (Nails 2002), Christopher Rowe signaled “a time when we have come to realise that almost any aspect of a Platonic dialogue may help to throw light on what it is for, even, or especially, philosophically” (2003:250). [12] From the time when hermeneutic disagreement grew more prominent in the 1980s, however, two sides emerged (with misgivings and unavoidable simplifications) in the academic imagination. [13]

The long-dominant philosophical approach to Plato is one that focuses on logical arguments, propositions, and positions, which it attributes to Plato without much regard for the discursive contexts in which the arguments are presented. While a recent shift in perspective is evident among specialists, the traditional approach—which has been called dogmatic, doctrinal, literalist, analytic, and philosophical—will probably still dominate both the study and especially the teaching of Plato in the foreseeable future. Its orthodoxy is firmly established in, and its authority endorsed by, a powerful current of the Western tradition. The other range of approaches (whose proponents, not surprisingly, have done most of the labeling) has called itself nondogmatic, dialogical, dramatic, literary, and contextualist. The change in perspective owes much to Schleiermacher’s holism, although many scholars do not explicitly acknowledge his contribution. [14] By attending to features that are typically identified as literary, the holistic approach contends that Plato’s stylistic choices form a context for each proposition he makes in the dialogues, and that this style is therefore essential to any understanding of “what he is trying to say” (McCabe 2008:89). In practice, many scholars continue to combine the two main approaches, insofar as an interest in form need not preclude a search for Plato’s doctrines, just as an interest in the unity of form and content need not rule out the unity of Plato’s thought. [15] But increased interest in the dialogue form of Plato’s writings has shifted the modern gaze in such a way that formal concerns now seem obtrusive and insistent, to the point where they present a glaring challenge to unreflective linear argumentation; and so an exclusive focus on Plato’s linear arguments has come to seem limited if not narrow, blinkered, and naïve. My argument here concerns explanations of literary form that conceive of it as goal-driven rhetoric, explanations made by scholars who do in fact take Plato’s formal complexity seriously. Although the idea that Plato wrote the way he wrote (rhetorically) in order to say what he wanted to say (univocally) is a neat and nearly indisputable explanation, I see some serious problems in this now-prevalent view of literary form. It bears repeating that for traditionalists focused solely on linear argumentation, a genuine confrontation with the written form of the dialogues can only disappoint, by leading away from univocal, philosophical discourse. Yet for contextual approaches, too, an emphasis on rhetorical persuasion is similarly inadequate to the manifest waywardness of Plato’s texts. As long as the asystematic texture of Plato’s dialogues is surrendered to the retrieval or reconstruction of a persuasive agenda (inevitably tantamount to a didactic system), rhetoric will always remain a set of superficial devices, separable from a presumptive substance.

The Status of the Dialogues: Did Plato Write Platonic Dialogues?

Given how little we actually know about Plato’s own view of the dialogue form, we could turn to a writer like Shakespeare for a momentary comparison. Does it even make sense to ask after Shakespeare’s motive for writing Hamlet as a play rather than a treatise? And what is the goal of Hamlet? Is the form of Hamlet merely ornamental, merely aesthetic, merely literary? Plato’s dialogues are certainly not Shakespearean plays—and Shakespeare was not what we call a philosopher—but contrary to popular belief, we do not know how Plato intended his writings to function, and the practice of philosophy itself has gone in directions that he could not have foreseen. Meanwhile, asking why Plato wrote in the way he did rests heavily on the assumption that Plato’s text is always teaching us a lesson of some sort. Even simply to question this assumption is unorthodox. Many experts find the notion of a nondidactic Plato inconceivable, but their sincere conviction on this point should not foreclose all further investigation. [16] In any case, it is worth noting that a prejudicial certainty about Plato’s goals can create an undesirable methodological tautology: it may limit interpretation to finding what was already presumed to be there, what we always expected to find—the moral of the story, if you will: the lesson of Platonic philosophy waiting as a foregone conclusion. Uncooperative features of the text are thus destined to be ironed out (justified, straightened) after the fact.

Without a doubt, Plato was one of the world’s greatest thinkers and teachers. Even if we could bracket Plato’s intellectual-historical influence (and lose the benefit to humanity from having read him), a nondidactic Plato would be difficult even to imagine. [17] It is nevertheless worthwhile to consider how the inherited view of Plato’s purposes underpins the modern (and ancient) reading of his texts. As noted above, the problem of literary form has been addressed in modern times by way of questions that lead back to Plato’s philosophical motivations: “Why did Plato write dialogues?” asks one scholar; “Why so much deviousness on Plato’s part?” asks another, who wonders about “Plato’s motive for holding back”; “Why, then,” writes a third, “did Plato choose to write philosophy in this peculiar form?” [18] These questions express an admirable unwillingness to ignore the particularity of the texts as Plato wrote them. But they also presume that these texts are peculiar by way of contrast with a philosophical norm, a blend of philosophy and discourse that was not firmly established until after Plato’s time. Plato did not write what we expect him to have written: namely, univocal philosophical treatises. According to Northrop Frye’s handy definition of philosophical discourse, “philosophy is assertive or propositional writing” (1957:329), and it is against this background that Plato’s way of writing stands out. [19] Frye’s remark captures two relevant aspects of philosophy, understood as a genre or discourse type. For one thing, proper philosophical discourse (so understood) states points, and it does so avowedly. This philosophy is linear and rational argumentation, taking us from point A to point B along a straightforward path of reasoning that should not rely on turns of phrase. As is often noted, Plato did not write like Aristotle (even if Aristotle did sometimes write like Plato, in now-lost dialogues, and even if Aristotle treated Plato’s writings like treatises). Compared with the syllogistic progression of Aristotelian discourse, Plato’s style is certainly peculiar. Frye’s formulation also suggests that philosophy is essentially a practice of writing. Lectures, conversations, and solitary thinking are, at best, profound but ephemeral philosophical activities, which may enter the genre of philosophy itself only through written discourse. (And Socrates is a paradoxical catalyst of the Western tradition, known only from a distance, not by his writing but by having been written about.) In any case, by focusing on the dialogue form as the context of Platonic philosophy, readers are apt to continue seeking a univocal text (philosophical content) hidden inside a dialogical context (literary form).

As a piece of writing, each dialogue is a verbal mechanism that arguably presents readers with more perplexities than instructions. “When one compares Plato with some of the other philosophers who are often ranked with him—Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, for example—he can be recognized to be far more exploratory, incompletely systematic, elusive, and playful than they” (Kraut 2009:3). Strangely enough, even though Plato’s writings largely underlie our conception of philosophy, our conception calls for sustained, direct, and coherent argumentation, a mode of communication that is often manifestly abandoned or perverted in the dialogues themselves. Yet most readers, even those who acknowledge the texture of the dialogues, begin with an institutionalized assumption that has far-reaching effects: Plato is presumed to have designed each text to lead us toward a foreknown goal, to lead us to some brand of Platonism. This assumption comes naturally when we move from Plato the legendary thinker to Plato the writer. Plato was a philosopher; therefore, what he wrote must have been in the service of philosophy. Plato was a teacher and continues to be our teacher; therefore, Plato’s texts are, to put it crudely, teaching machines. [20] Where are we to find Plato’s real thought if not in his writings? [21] His writings, one presumes, must have been made—and must be made—to communicate his real teachings, his fixed beliefs. [22] It is the must be made, the active pressure on interpretation that I see being imposed by our preconceptions about philosophy, that gives me some pause about this conventional line of reasoning. And this pressure is one of the driving forces behind the conception of literary form as rhetoric, and of rhetoric as persuasion in the service of philosophy.

So literary form emerges as a problem largely because of our expectations. We want to have a Plato of propositions and assertions, but instead we have a diverse collection of perspectivized propositions and assertions. The corollary implied in questions about the dialogue form is this: Why did Plato manifestly not write expository discourse? That is, why did he not manifestly urge something (whether some kind of convincing wisdom or a wise course of action) on his readers? With a seemingly minor change in emphasis, one comes to ask why Plato did not write manifestly expository discourse. Either way, the presumption that Plato was a didactic writer leads to an answer something like this: Plato did not write manifestly didactic discourse because he wrote covertly didactic discourse. On the one hand, the dialogues seem to taunt us with the prospect of wisdom and guidance withheld. Regardless of his motives, Plato’s choice of literary form suggests to many that he hid his real meaning in the dialogues as in puzzles to be solved by readers. [23] On the other hand, Plato’s dialogues are saturated with explicit arguments. But the abundance of argumentation embedded in the dialogues only heightens the taunting quality that readers notice when they try to extrapolate a point from their written form. For contextual readers who do not presume that a dialogue will have a dogmatic agenda, an explicit argument in the context of a conversation or a speech will always be significantly different from a straightforward, authoritative, expository declaration.

Having expected expository treatises from Plato and being faced with overtly digressive dialogues, scholars naturally turn to conventional generic categories in order to determine the Platonic text’s status or type of discourse, and the author’s stance or intention. The status might be, among other possibilities, fictional, historical, dramatic, theoretical, philosophical, literary, or experimental. The stance could be, for example, didactic, dogmatic, skeptical, playful, proleptic, propaedeutic, or provisional. Unfortunately, such overlapping terms potentially introduce new confusions, and the theoretical problems involved are extraordinarily difficult. But even more confounding: Plato and his contemporaries were exploring and developing the conventions of genre and discourse that we now take for granted in the Western tradition; it furthermore seems clear that Plato was transgressing the generic boundaries recognized even in his time; and there is no reliable account of Plato’s stated intentions. Can we presume to know the final cause, the telos of Plato’s written dialogues; that is, why Plato wrote dialogues and not treatises? The telos is usually assumed to be some combination of education and Platonic philosophy. The teleological approach to Plato is in accord with a long-established goal of philosophy in general: to reconstruct what Plato thought and what he wanted to teach us. Indeed, this goal or telos is essential to philosophy’s own self-understanding as a pursuit that follows in Plato’s footsteps. [24] The possession of this goal (tantamount to a desired commodity that Plato possessed) has led analytically minded interpreters to ignore dialogical contexts of argumentation at will, and has led literary-minded interpreters to explain Plato’s form and wording in terms of a rhetorically purposeful, didactic master plan. In both instances, it appears that our goal has been aligned with Plato’s goal.

We do know that the genre of Socratic discourses was a specific precedent for Plato’s type of dialogue, and it is likely that Plato was sometimes emulating or playing off against contemporary writers. [25] At the same time, as pointed out by Andrea Nightingale, Plato brings the conventions of multiple genres (such as tragedy, epic, oratory, and history) into dialogue with each other, thereby differentiating and advancing his own brand of philosophical activity. [26] Insofar as Plato is “introducing and defining a radically different discursive practice” against a backdrop of ancient conventions, the historical context cannot help us much with the unconventional status of his texts—unless his once-radical version of philosophy actually is in accord with our now-familiar version. [27] Otherwise, we are still left trying to reconstruct or establish some ground rules for interpreting a radically challenging corpus. Even if Plato may be said to have invented philosophy—as Nightingale proposes, while acknowledging concerns about the tendency to retroject our version of philosophy back into its origins—the texts he left us are not what the subsequent tradition of philosophy would lead us to expect. [28] All of which suggests that the invention was and remains unconventional. R. B. Rutherford sums up the situation acutely: “Neither the origins nor the generic status of the dialogue form can be firmly established: in the one case this is a matter of lost evidence, in the other it reflects the genuine complexity of Plato’s literary enterprise.” [29]

Nor does the historical reception of Plato’s writings offer a helpful vantage point from which to assess the author’s stance or the texts’ status. The difficulties in interpreting Plato’s writings have always been there—and whether or not his dialogues were designed to do so, they have provoked an extraordinarily varied and industrious response. In a general introduction to ancient philosophy, Julia Annas adduces the Republic as a prime example of why we should not take our current assessment of ancient works for granted, citing basic facts of history that are little known by the public and rarely allowed to interfere with modern interpretation. “Plato is the only author for whom we can feel certain that we possess all the works he made public.… But even Plato is not a straightforward author to read; for one thing, the dialogue form distances the author from the ideas he puts forward, and interpretations of Plato are probably the most varied of any ancient philosopher” (2000:23). Annas summarizes “the changing fortunes” of the Republic: while today this dialogue holds a dominant position in the canon of ancient philosophy, for centuries it attracted far less attention, and was rarely celebrated for its Idealist metaphysics or its ideal model of political organization, which were eventually favored and promoted by Benjamin Jowett and others starting in the nineteenth century. [30] “Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” notes Annas, “Plato fell into philosophical neglect, and the Republic was regarded as a mere oddity, if it was regarded at all” (27–28). Thus the reception of Plato’s dialogues (and of the Republic, whose history offers a particularly striking example of vicissitudes in reception) is unlikely to contribute decisive evidence as to the generic, discursive, and pragmatic intentions or motives of its author. Historical data concerning reception can certainly inform our ways of thinking about the dialogues: “The ancient Platonists,” for instance, “remind us of how Plato was read in the ancient world—that is, for some hundreds of years; and this may at the very least give us some perspective on our own assumptions in reading Plato.” [31] And the historical data will, one hopes, keep growing in depth and accuracy. But ultimately, Plato’s contemporaries and immediate followers were no more straight on this than we are—these resources give vital insight into the historical development of Platonic philosophy, but when it comes to the historical-biographical fact of Plato’s stance as a writer of dialogues, they are nothing more or less than more speculation. The study of ancient texts would get nowhere without such speculation, but the “overwhelming impression” that Plato wrote to teach us lessons should not blind us to our methodological limitations. [32]


[ back ] 1. Tennemann 1792:127 (Warum wählte Plato gerade diese Form … ?); translation by the author. Tigerstedt 1977:67 calls Tennemann’s book “the first modern monograph on Plato.” See also Szlezák 1997, Lamm 2000.

[ back ] 2. English-language variations of the question may be found in, e.g., Scott 2007:xviii, Rowe 2007:25, Blondell 2002:38, Cooper 1997:xviii; Rutherford 1995:8; Sayre 1995; Griswold 2002:1, 143.

[ back ] 3. See Klein 1965:3–10, Krämer 1990:3–74, Szlezák 1997, Lamm 2000.

[ back ] 4. Much of the “General Introduction” may be read as a rather direct response to Tennemann. So Krämer 1990:222n34, Szlezák 1997:51–53, Lamm 2000:218–222.

[ back ] 5. On context, see Schleiermacher 1836:14 and Krämer 1990:219n4. Nails 1995:36–43 identifies a modern version of “literary-contextualism” that counterbalances the “analysis” associated with analytic philosophy.

[ back ] 6. Note the similarity between Tennemann’s question (“Warum wählte Plato gerade diese Form … ?”), Schleiermacher’s reference to “diese eigentümliche Form,” and Blondell’s twenty-first-century version “Why, then, did Plato choose to write philosophy in this peculiar form?” (2002:38).

[ back ] 7. Cf. Schleiermacher 1836:14. Cooper 1997 provides a modern example of this common sentiment: a dialogue’s literary form helps make it a “springboard for our own further philosophical thought” (xxii).

[ back ] 8. Cf. Szlezák 1999:12–17 on concealment.

[ back ] 9. As described by Krämer 1990, Schleiermacher holds that Plato’s system “unfolds in successive stages, according to a precise didactic plan” (3–4).

[ back ] 10. For Szlezák, however, the text points outside itself, to other texts and ultimately to oral doctrines that have left traces but no longer exist. Szlezák’s view is first and foremost a historical attempt to recover what Plato meant to teach only to those ready to learn it. His argument relies heavily on the Phaedrus, the Seventh Letter, and “the historical reality of a doctrine of principles which was never set down in writing—the doctrine of principles which Aristotle prefers to cite in his criticism of Plato in the Metaphysics” (1999:31). See also Szlezák 1985. I will suggest below that this sort of historical project, while perfectly valid in itself, is categorically different from reading the dialogues as texts in their own right. Cf. Krämer’s conviction that “the sphere of the esoterica” needs to be “elevated to a concrete historical reality comparable to the writings” (1990:12). To the degree that the esoterica do not exist in writing, I must insist that, once elevated, their concrete reality would be incomparably different from that of writings that actually do exist.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Klein 1965:3–10.

[ back ] 12. See also Rowe 2007:viii. One may observe a significant change in, e.g., the contrast between Kraut 1992 and 2009, the latter being far more conciliatory toward contextual points of view. (For criticisms of Kraut 1992, see Nails 1995:39–41 and Press 2000:35–37.) Cf. the shift in attitude between Annas 1981 and, say, 1992. Cooper 1997 is notable for using a widely visible forum to emphasize Plato’s “renunciation” of authoritative knowledge (xxiii–xxiv). For overviews of literary, dramatic, and contextual approaches, see Klein 1965:3–31; Press 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2012; Nails 1995:36–43.

[ back ] 13. Nails 1995 describes a “self-destructive duel” characterized by “intense and unhealthy enmity” between two main philosophical approaches; she also notes the potential for disciplinary boundaries (as between philology and philosophy) to complicate such disputes (36). Blondell 2002 laments a “false dichotomy” for which Plato himself is possibly to blame (1), a point to which I will return. See also Gordon 1999:7–13.

[ back ] 14. Press is a notable exception.

[ back ] 15. E.g. Kahn 1996 and Rowe 2007 value both context and doctrine, taking different views of Plato’s possible development as a thinker over the course of different dialogues, and claiming to account for literary style while reading in what is, as I argue below, a decidedly philosophical (i.e. nonliterary) manner.

[ back ] 16. Press 1993a:viii suggests that questioning whether Plato’s dialogues “are meant to communicate any settled teachings” is a key focus for the “new Platonism.” Questioning Plato’s didacticism per se has proved unpalatable for most mainstream researchers. See also Scott 2007: “Plato must have wanted to communicate something in some way. But in what way do dramatic works ‘communicate’?” (xix). And if one starts to ask how works of art communicate, didactically is not the only answer.

[ back ] 17. Note Press’s distinction between Platonism and “the study and interpretation of the dialogues in and for themselves” (1998:309). In this sense, Platonic philosophy—like professional philosophy itself, for that matter—is a historical development focused on the thought of a historical figure rather than a text-oriented interpretation of Plato’s writings.

[ back ] 18. Griswold 2002:143, Kahn 1996:65, Blondell 2002:38. Kahn acknowledges (65–66) that a writer’s manner is likely to have many motivations; Rutherford 1995 makes a similar point (8–10).

[ back ] 19. Like any genre, this one has seen any number of exceptions and challenges; nevertheless, the category of straightforward, reasoned argumentation in expository prose does exist as a norm and has had a far greater historical impact on the interpretation of Plato than, say, the niche into which we might fit Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, whom we see more as modern subverters of expository norms than as inheritors of Plato’s ancient subversiveness.

[ back ] 20. Press 1997:3 traces a similar line of assumptions underlying dogmatic interpretations of the dialogues: “since Plato is a philosopher, he must have doctrines.” My emphasis here is less on doctrines per se than on teachings as a presumptive notion that, while perhaps nondogmatic, continues to guide or control the process of interpretation.

[ back ] 21. Again, the possibility of an unpublished but doctrinal legacy only underscores my point that a historical focus on Plato’s thinking is likely to lead away from his writing.

[ back ] 22. Schleiermacher: “it is clear that he must (er muß) have endeavored to make written instruction as like as possible to that better [Socratic] kind, and he must (es muß ihm) also have succeeded” (1836:16). See also Cohn 1999:27 on what John Updike called the “must have” school of speculative biography.

[ back ] 23. So Kraut, quoted above. Cf. Scott 2007: “The more one studies Plato’s dialogues, the more one has the gathering sense that Plato ‘knows’ more than he reveals in his works” (xviii). Hence the persistent efforts of readers—encouraged, one may well argue, by the texts themselves—to reach through the works toward a commodity that seemingly ought to be have been pre-possessed by Plato and then put into them. Consider this biographical anecdote testifying to Plato’s legendary, taunting elusiveness: just before his death, Plato dreamed of turning into a swan, “and leaping from tree to tree, he frustrated the attempts of the bird-catchers to hunt him down” (Olympiodorus Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades, Riginos 1976:24). Annas 1996 also emphasizes Plato’s elusiveness.

[ back ] 24. If “the dialogues are supposed to teach us a philosophical lesson”—which is thus identified as an assumption—then the first lesson Plato taught us, notes M. Frede with a nod to Whitehead, is how to write “footnotes to Plato” (Frede 1992:219).

[ back ] 25. See Rutherford 1995:10–15; Kahn 1996:1–35; Nightingale 1995; Ford 2010.

[ back ] 26. Nightingale 1995:1–12. I simultaneously agree with Rutherford: “The Platonic dialogue is too familiar, too central to the classical tradition, for us to realize how remarkable it must have seemed at first” (1995:15).

[ back ] 27. The quotation (if not necessarily the point) comes from Nightingale 1995:5, with 10nn30–31.

[ back ] 28. Nightingale 1995:10–11, with reference to Kraut 1992:1. Cf. Annas 2000:19–36.

[ back ] 29. Rutherford 1995:15. Cf. Press 1997:7–12.

[ back ] 30. Annas 2000:19–36. For a different perspective, see Pappas 2013:273–282. See also Press 1996 for a more detailed discussion of reception and the Republic. Press 1996:72n16 and Ferrari 2007:510 list relevant secondary literature on the topic.

[ back ] 31. Annas 1999:2. Writing of the development from Socratic to Platonic ethics, Annas also suggests that the “framework for reading, teaching, and discussing Plato is so familiar that it may come to seem inescapable. It is a presupposition of discussion rather than something to be discussed itself” (4).

[ back ] 32. For the “overwhelming impression,” see Cooper 1997:xxv.