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If Plato Only Knew

The Republic of Plato

by Alan Bloom
Basic Books, 512 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Plato: The Dialogues, Second and Third Periods The Bollingen Series

by Paul Friedländer, translated by Hans Meyerhoff
Princeton, 634 pp., $7.50

It was Plato’s own fault. His manifold magics had to attract to him the large tribe of unphilosophical interpreters who have been fascinated by the Platonic dialogue as literature, drama, biography, sermon, prophecy or jeremiad, or else as vignette of Athenian social and cultural life, but have been incompetent to appraise their arguments. There did, of course, exist that golden Plato of theirs who is now at his ease in Heaven in the company of Dante, Cervantes, Bunyan, Swift, Boswell, Blake, Burke, and Aristophanes. But there did also exist the steelier Plato who is now at his especial ease in Heaven in the company of their bêtenoire, Aristotle.

There is another, much smaller tribe of interpreters whose prime interest is in Plato’s arguments. His dialogues are, for them, not just vivid conversation pieces or improving homilies; they are disputations in which things are or purport to be proved. These interpreters try to do justice to Plato’s reasonings by Aristotelianizing them. They dessicate the Socratic debates into premises and conclusions. The thuds of fists and cudgels are hushed for the squeak of chalk on blackboard.

Of the three authors whose books on Plato are here under review Bloom and Friedländer belong to the larger tribe of the commentators who are unphilosophers, Sayre to the smaller tribe.

1). Alan Bloom’s The Republic of Plato is, in the first instance, a new translation of the Republic. Rejecting Cornford’s principles of translation, Bloom undertakes to give us a blunt, literal, and nearly word-for-word rendering of Plato’s Greek into philosophically untendentious English. A few random checks show that he succeeds pretty well, though not perfectly. Bloom’s Englishings of Greek vocatives, like anyone else’s, make us giggle or choke; a repeated rendering of a Greek preposition by “depend on” creates a philosophical muddle of which Plato was innocent; Bloom’s verbs “to craft” and “to intellect” are not even mistranslations, since they are not English; “City of Sows” is no improvement of “City of Pigs,” and “ideas” (in italics) is no improvement on “Forms”; and so on. But for the most part the translation should—price apart—prove as satisfactory for the student of philosophy as the translations of Shorey and Lindsay, or even of Cornford, Davies & Vaughn, and Jowett. Most of the points over which these translations differ do not, philosophically, matter twopence; and on the points of interpretation and assessment over which, philosophers differ the rival translators usually have no help to give.

Bloom also provides 130 pages of an “Interpretive (sic) Essay.” This Essay is not a bit satisfactory. It has the outward appearance of a running précis of the Republic, but it constantly slides, without signals, into speculative elucidations, into objections, and into expressions of Bloom’s own sentiments, including some understandably anti-utopian ones. He ought to warn the student that it is not in Plato’s but in Bloom’s mind that “Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we call utopianism; as such it is the greatest critique of political idealism ever written.” In two dozen passages, one a page and a half long, Bloom peps up the Republic by adverting to Glaucon’s eroticism or passionate nature. It is left to the student to find out that in the text of the Republic there is only one sixteenline description of Glaucon’s character, plus two brief allusions to it.

Bloom’s intrepidity in expanding Plato’s thoughts is well illustrated on the fifth page of the Essay, where, commenting on the mise-en-scène at the start of the Republic, he says:

Polemarchus sees him [Socrates] hurrying off and orders a slave to order him to stay. This little scene prefigures the three-class structure of the good regime developed in the Republic and outlines the whole political problem. Power is in the hands of the gentlemen, who are not philosophers. They can command the services of the many, and their strength is such that they always hold the philosophers in their grasp. Therefore it is part of the philosophers’ selfinterest to come to terms with them. The question becomes to what extent can the philosophers influence the gentlemen? It is this crucial middle class which is the primary object (sic) of the Republic and the education prescribed in it. In this episode, the first fact is brute force, leading to the recognition that no matter how reasonable one may be, everything depends on the people’s willingness to listen. There is a confrontation here between wisdom as represented by Socrates, and power as represented by Polemarchus and his friends.

Tosh! Plato’s little anecdote needs no such inflation, and especially no such un-Platonic inflation.

The topics which, at a not very highly theoretical level, are congenial to Bloom are social and political matters. His few references to other thinkers are to Hobbes, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Marx, as well as to a few of Aristotle’s and Kant’s ethical and political thoughts. On matters epistemological, logical, methodological, metaphysical, and semantic he is uncommunicative. The Essay does not tell us why Plato divided the soul into three; it does not mention his allocation of fields proprietary to knowledge, opinion, and “ignorance”; it does not explain the mathematical and astronomical curriculum of the guardians-to-be; it fluffs the subordination of mathematics to dialectic. Unlike the Line and the Sun, the Cave does inspire a lengthy exegesis; it caters for Bloom’s political interests and epistemological uninterests. Plato’s replenishment-theory of pleasure is unmentioned, as are his arguments for the soul’s immortality.

The Theory of Forms is sketched with an enthusiastic indefiniteness which leaves it a mystery why Aristotle, or Plato himself in his Parmenides, troubled to criticize it. The student is not apprised that they did criticize it. Of dialectic the student will learn: “…the friendly conversation, as practiced by Socrates, is this combination of daring and moderation,” and “Dialectic, beginning from the commonly held opinions, will lead to an ultimate agreement. It is this activity which can guide us to the discovery of the natural objects; and it implies (sic) that we begin from the phenomena as we see them.” Bloom does not explain why Socrates fiercely prohibits young men from taking part in these cosy chats about, presumably, flowers and sea-shells. It might be news to him that Aristotle wrote an Art of Dialectic, i.e., his Topics, as a training-manual for a very different activity.

On the last page of the Essay there occurs this brisk thought-transition: “The myth [of Er] attributes full responsibility to men for what happens to them and thus teaches that there is no sin but ignorance.” The student should soon learn to prefer his Republic uninterpreted.

2). The book by Paul Friedländer is Volume III of a trilogy, and the second of a pair in which he expounds Plato’s individual dialogues. Here Friedländer expounds, in this order, the Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Theaetetus, Parmenides, Phaedrus, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias, and Laws. Hans Meyerhoff’s translation of the German edition of 1960 reads excellently, and the volume is well printed, organized, annotated, and indexed. Friedländer writes with an un-Teutonic limpidity in a sustained tone of glowing and humorless reverence, which sometimes spills over into gush. His rhetorical questions have often elicited from one contra-suggestible reader the unintended, but true, answers.

Philosophically Friedländer draws, not very deeply, on the Existentialism of Heidegger and Jaspers, usually without spoiling or improving his exegeses thereby. “The Socratic existence” is mentioned with awe now and then, without it being made clear whether or not it had a snub nose. We hear how “The mathematician Theodorus opens the conversation [of the Sophist] and, without participating in the dialectical discussion, represents the stage of mathematical existence in the search for being and not-being.” Presumably “represents…” means something more profound than that the mathematician Theodorus was there, but did not join in.

Friedländer deploys his very wide scholarship uncoercively and conveniently. His copious references to the writings of other historians and scholars do not interrupt the reading of his own text. Furthermore, everything of Plato’s that he reads reminds him of certain, probable or barely possible sources, allusions, parallels, and echoes elsewhere in the Platonic writings or elsewhere in Greek literature. It is indeed chiefly out of these shoals of scholarly associations that Friedländer assembles the “deeper meanings” that all Platonic passages have to possess. Many of these cross-references are helpful, but the callous reader sometimes finds himself wishing that Plato had concentrated more on what he was doing than Friedländer permits and less on what he had done or would do elsewhere. Or even finds himself wondering whether Plato did not in fact so concentrate. Perhaps, pace Friedländer, Plato could stick to a point without thereby ceasing to be both synoptic and profound.

Friedländer is at his best in his descriptions of the dramatis personae and in his comparative analyses of the dramatic structures of the dialogues—though he exhausts us with his blessed “tensions” that are to make everything viscously relevant to everything else. Undialectical dialogues like the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and the Laws are considerably enriched by his scholarly supplementations.

On the other hand he is, unfortunately, at his worst where a dialogue has a philosophical point and proceeds by philosophical argumentation. Friedländer does not, like Bloom, shirk these hazards; he conscientiously wades in, but is straightaway pathetically out of his depth.

In the Phaedo Socrates demolishes the tempting idea that the soul stands to the body as harmony to the flute by, inter alia, the argument that, while there are degrees of harmoniousness, one soul is not more of a soul than another. In a later parlance, harmony and soul are in different categories. Yet Friedländer objects rhetorically “Is not the soul of Socrates incomparably more ‘soul’ than that of any of us? Are there not…more or less perfect melodies—and souls?” Oh dear! In the Theaetetus Socrates crisply demolishes the suggested equation “knowledge=correct belief” by contrasting the eyewitness, who knows what happened, with the jurors, who believe what he tells them. They do not know that which they do correctly believe, so knowing≠correctly believing. Friedländer retails this argument without mentioning the eyewitness. He thinks that Plato is highmindedly disparaging the denizens of law courts. Oh dear! In his exposition of the Parmenides he tells us “That in this exchange he [Socrates] fails and Parmenides ultimately prevails is no reason to misunderstand the relative merits of the respective arguments.” So Socrates’ arguments, though weaker, are stronger. Oh dear! Indeed their debate is a Socratic triumph since “His [Socrates’] own theory of eternal Forms had to be tested—in this test to gain a new clarity—against the radical rigidity of the Parmenidean view of being.” Oh dear!

In his sketch of the three stages of the argument in this first part of the Parmenides, Friedländer says of its second move, namely that if one fragment of a Form occupies each one of its instances, it is fragmentable, that it “…is purely eristic and, with Socrates assenting, Parmenides himself shows that it [the argument] is nonsense.” A reductio ad absurdum argument has itself to be an absurd argument. Oh dear!

Friedländer contentedly construes the, of course authentic, Seventh Letter as showing that “Plato, then an old man,…has come to expand the world of Forms so that it includes geometric shapes and coloured surfaces, moral concepts, all bodies both artificial and natural, the physical elements, living creatures and all the states of the soul.” Plus Uncle Tom Cobbley and All? What could Aristotle have been objecting to? The paragraph concludes “Evidently this is a problem that, by its very nature, must not be settled definitely lest the result be dogmatic rigidity.” Oh dear! A freshman would not so assimilate reasoned to unreasoned conclusions.

How alien to Friedländer Plato’s arguments are is shown by his concluding survey of the Theaetetus:

Finally, when we look back from the end of the dialogue to the beginning, and from both beginning and end to the digression in between, we can see epistemology, ethics and metaphysics, and beyond them all another dimension: human existence. It is here that we encounter what Jaspers has called the “boundary situation” of life—the struggle against brute force, the acceptance of suffering and the knowledge of death. All this is present in the living reality called “Socrates.” And all this permeates (more than a reader of the Theaetetus may suspect) the enquiry into what is knowledge.

Tosh! These grave themes are not in the dialogue at all. They would have squandered the dialogue’s close and sustained argumentation if they had been there. Plato’s dialogues, like any other philosophical compositions, have points. They are not cosmic moonings.

Friedländer’s exposition of the philosophical core of Plato’s Sophist is not so bad. He acknowledges indebtedness to some unpublished lectures on this dialogue by Heidegger, who obviously had some idea of the drift of the dialogue’s argument. But the student will find Plato himself more perspicuous.

3). The third book here reviewed is K.M. Sayre’s Plato’s Analytical Method. Sayre belongs to our second tribe of expositors. He aims to interpret Plato by anatomizing the dialogues’ arguments, with the help of procedures and especially locutions of modern formal logicians. Of these, here and there, he makes too much of a parade. Sayre is not under the illusion that his exposition of an argument is correct merely because it is couched in up-to-date codes, shorthands, and idioms, but he rightly thinks that an interpretation becomes effectively checkable for correctness or incorrectness as it acquires edges of its own. If a stencil is the wrong one, its misfits glare.

In fact plenty of Sayre’s interpretations will elicit grateful, because sharply focused, disagreements. He is overloyal to Cornford; and Cornford’s amateurish philosophical exegeses are sometimes rendered more brittle by the technical stiffenings that Sayre contributes to them. Those of us who find Plato’s Sophist centrally concerned with the notion of Negation will quarrel with Sayre, who almost ignores the crux-notion of Not, while operating vigorously with the derivative and more complex notion of Incompatibility. This rival interpretation is now before us in uncompromising black and white. Similarly, where the Method of Collection and Division that is recommended in Plato’s Phaedrus and exemplified in his Sophist and Statesman is applauded by Sayre as an advance upon the Phaedo‘s Method of Hypothesis, those of us who are tepid about armchair taxonomy, will, for Plato’s sake, wish to shoot down the idea that he either did frequent or thought that he should frequent this philosophical blind-alley. Our target is now well marked for Bulls’ Eyes, Inners, and Outers.

Sayre’s undertaking is to elucidate not, save incidentally, this or that particular dialogue, but Plato’s doctrines about philosophical method, as expounded in the Phaedo, Republic, and Phaedrus, and as applied in the Theaetetus and Sophist. This undertaking is subject to a double hazard, one of which is clearly realized by Sayre. First, Plato’s ideas on philosophical method are likely to have changed between the time of the Phaedo and that of the Sophist. Sayre discerns such a change. His anatomizations have, in consequence, to be genetic. Plato’s initial Method of Hypothesis is only the embryo of what is being applied in the Sophist. Second, when a philosopher, natural scientist, historian, or mathematician theorizes about the “hows” of his daily practice, the methodology that he arrives at is bound, at best, to lag behind the cunnings of his thinkings when on the job. Izaak Walton was inevitably better as an angler than as an angling-instructor. Excellent scientists sincerely but ludicrously prescribe canons of Induction, and excellent mathematicians pay sincere but ludicrous tributes to rules and regulations of Deduction. A fortiori, even Plato, at the dawn of philosophy and before the dawn of logic, should be expected to garble the methodology of philosophy. We, two thousand years later, are garbling it still.

Sayre lacks these qualms and so attends too much to Plato’s rather barren “Discourses on Method” and too little to his permanently prolific philosophical crafts. Not even for contrast’s sake does he compare the confutation-techniques of Plato’s pre-Phaedo dialogues with the ways in which Plato reasons after giving up the Socratic Method. We hear how the Sophist does or does not implement the Method of Hypothesis; we do not hear or see the concrete ways in which it differs in strategy and therefore also in tactics, from, say the Protagoras. Fortunately, however, Sayre is so much interested in the actual argumentation of the Theaetetus that here he ceases, for long stretches, to match the ratiocinative moves that Plato makes against any prescriptions that he else-where advocates. We are allowed to forget that Plato is or should be emulating G.E. Moore’s “analytical method,” and to concentrate on the ways in which Plato tackles an actual problem that baffled him, baffles us, and irks even Sayre.

As the interpreter of a philosopher Sayre is safeguarded, but also handicapped by his apparent immunity from any consuming philosophical zeals of his own. This immunity does save him, as not all of us are saved, from representing Plato as an early member of this or that school of modern thought—unless the “analytical method” that he credits Plato with is that of G.E. Moore, seen though Cornford’s spectacles. On the other hand he does fail to bring Plato to life by imputing to him perplexities that we do or could share. The Theory of Forms is, of course, a very grand theory; but Sayre does not even hint that it was a lifeline for Plato in any sea of specifiable and sharable troubles. Plato’s final methodology comes out as a plan for establishing definitions of a pre-Speusippan sort; but Sayre seems not even to ask himself what good such definitions would do, or why no philosophers, including Plato and Moore, have either provided us with any, or disappointed us by withholding them. If that was Plato’s plan, it flopped, and should be reported to have flopped.

Sayre’s Plato, unlike the Platos of Bloom and Friedländer, is a careful craftsman, whose toolshop deserves to be brought up-to-date. But Sayre, like Bloom and Friedländer, does not dream that Plato was ever intellectually wrenched; or that he made himself a craftsman just because he direly needed the crafts. For example, the technical problem “What is the way to solve philosophical problems?” to which Sayre devotes his book, did not merely interest, it desperately worried Plato. What was this worry? Did it worry Aristotle? Kant? Wittgenstein? Sayre, who has obviously never been worried by it himself, treats Plato’s attempted solutions of the problem merely as, so to speak, interesting contributions to the professional journal that G.E. Moore would one day edit. That Plato felt the problem in his heart and in his bowels does not occur to Sayre. The bite of the problem eludes him.

Nonetheless, of the three authors it is to Sayre that Plato signals his thanks from above. Sayre does Plato the justice of examining his work.


Plato April 9, 1970

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