The Virtues of Plato

Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines

by J.N. Findlay
Humanities Press, 484 pp., $26.25

Plato and Platonism: An Introduction

by J.N. Findlay
Times Books, 256 pp., $12.50

Plato’s Moral Theory: The Early and Middle Dialogues

by Terence Irwin
Oxford University Press, 392 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The great difficulty in writing about Plato is to combine the depth and strength of the Platonic vision with the Socratic subtlety of the arguments by which it is conveyed. Plato’s dialogues are a miraculous blend of philosophical imagination and logic. The interpreter must somehow respond to both, for if the imaginative vision is cut loose from the arguments it becomes grandiloquent posturing, and the arguments on their own are arid, the mere skeleton of a philosophy. So it is already a criticism to say of the books under review that Professor Findlay’s work is all vision, without argument, and that Profesor Irwin’s is all argument with no vision.

In these failings, however, we see two opposed styles of Platonic interpretation taken to extremes. One might describe Findlay’s book as a caricature of the old-style visionary approach to Plato, Irwin’s as a caricature of the contemporary analytic mode—were it not that the unusual intensity with which each cultivates his chosen style brings compensating virtues. One-sided both may be, but there have been few interpreters so gripped with the Platonic vision as Findlay, few so remorseless as Irwin in following the twists and turns of the logic. Findlay’s prose is a mildly pompous amble, Irwin’s a formidable obstacle course of reasoning through whose densities one may not pass without first mastering the special code of abbreviations under which all the key propositions are securely camouflaged, but from both one can learn. In the comparison between them one can weigh the rival merits of two powerful styles of interpretation. If, in the end, Irwin’s book is a significant and challenging contribution to Platonic studies, and Findlay’s is not, that is because in the interpretation of Plato, as of any great philosopher, it is the argument, not the vision, to which the controlling priority belongs.

The plain fact of the matter is that if one is going to discourse about a large philosophical vision, one has to get it right, and one will not get it right without a close study of the arguments by which it is conveyed. This is not because the content of the vision is wholly determined by the arguments. In Plato’s case, I believe that he quite often means more than he has arguments to prove, and it is a characteristic fault of Irwin’s methodology that he is inclined to limit Plato’s positive commitments to what his arguments allow a coolly analytic mind to conclude. But Findlay is downright contemptuous of the arguments, and in consequence he is deeply wrong about what the grand Platonic vision actually is.

The cornerstone of Findlay’s Platonism is what he calls the Great Inversion. The ordinary man’s view is that there exist in the world about us sticks and stones, men and horses, etc., and among these many particular things some are in various ways to be accounted good or beautiful, others bad or ugly, some …

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An Exchange on Plato February 7, 1980