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"Why Plato wrote": the insularity of Platonic studies

“Why Plato wrote”: this startling title caught my eye as I was walking by the new books on display at the CHS. I immediately grabbed the book and brought it to my office, then I switched off my cellphone, closed the door. In sum: I disconnected myself from the world to devote all my attention to a question that has been haunting me ever since I have started reading Plato. Who is the author of the book? Hardly a minor figure: Danielle Allen (2010), Princeton, Cambridge background. When I asked my friends at the CHS, the answer was unanimous: not only is she a very clever scholar (I could see this much by myself), but she has developed into an influential public figure. What was the outcome of my greedy reading? Mixed feelings. At first – I must confess – irritation. Why? Well, the Prologue sounded very promising to me: I heartily agree with Allen’s idea that the primary goal of Plato’s dialogues is to change people’s lives, the intended readership being not limited to a closed circle of philosophers but including, at least potentially, “a general reader” (p. 5). Why be upset, then?

Allen’s book “both reclaims what has been known and understood about Plato by earlier generations and introduces new ideas” (p. 2). After this bold claim, Allen reminds her readers of her previous scholarly achievements: through the electronic Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, she was able to detect Platonic vocabulary in some 4th-century speeches, and this, in turn, resulted in her thesis that Plato managed to shape the mind of his fellow citizens. According to Allen, Plato was enough of a sociologist to understand that literature, too, shapes people’s minds, which ultimately calls for her conclusion that “Plato wrote … all his dialogues to displace the poets” (p. 77). This is the key to penetrate the true Plato:

“Happily, this question, ‘Why did Plato write?’ turned out also to be the key to the appearance of Platonic formulations in the mouths of Athenians politicians. Plato wrote, among other purposes, to effect political change. Yes, Plato was the world’s first systematic political philosopher, using text to record technical philosophical advances, but he was also, it appears, the western world’s first think-tank activist and its first message man. He wrote – not solely but consistently – to change Athenian culture and thereby transform Athenian politics. As Diogenes Laertius, one of the most important biographers of Plato, put it, ‘in his own city Plato did not meddle with political affairs, although he was a politician or political leader […], to judge from his writings'” (p. 4) [1].

A think-tank activist? The idea, Allen admits (p. 162, nt. 9), is not entirely her own: she borrowed the phrase from her “executive editor”, and a recent article (Rowe 2002) uses it to characterise the Academy. At this point, I had to pinch myself: The editor? A 2002 article? Or even Diogenes? Was I dreaming? The idea of a general reader for Plato’s dialogues is found as early as in Dicaearchus (ca. 350-290 BCE) and Allen’s approach closely recalls, say, the interpretation Nietzsche advanced in 1871, when he described Plato – if you pardon my anachronistic translation – “as a think-tank activist, who wants to turn the world upside-down and who wrote, among other purposes, to pursue that goal” [2]. Allen seems to ignore both, nor is she familiar with the work of Konrad Gaiser (1984 and 2004) and Giovanni Cerri (1991), who make a similar (and very strong) case for Plato’s “sociological” approach (Rowe himself, 2007, extensively discusses Plato’s art of persuasive writing).

To be sure, hardly any title written in any language other than English made its way into Allen’s bibliography, which possibly explains why she does not mention Dicaearchus either. His testimony, as quoted in Philodemus’ Index Academicorum, is preserved by a papyrus from Hercolanum, but unfortunately this is not yet included in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, and the relevant editions come in Latin, German and Italian (Mekler 1902; Gaiser 1988; Dorandi 1991). It is a pity: whatever we make of Allen’s claim that Diogenes was “one of the most important biographers of Plato” and of her (slightly biased?) translation from Diogenes’ Greek, Dicaearchus is easily a more “important” source. Here is one interesting passage:

π̣ρ̣ο[ετ]ρέψατο μὲγ γὰρ ἀπ̣ε[̣ίρ]ο̣υ̣[ς] ὡς εἰπεῖν ἐπ’ αὐ̣τὴν̣ δ̣ιὰ τῆς ἀναγραφῆς τῶν λ̣[όγω]ν. ἐπιπολ[α]ί̣ως δὲ καί [τινας] ἐπο[ίησ]ε φιλοσοφεῖν̣ …

By composing his logoi, Plato, as it were, led to philosophy (προετρέψατο) countless people; on the other hand, he caused some people to philosophise superficially … (PHerc. 1021, Col. I 11-17, ed. Dorandi).

Even before coming up with the above mentioned commented edition (1988), Gaiser had been long working on Philodemus and Dicaearchus. Among other things, he used this passage as a starting point for his 1984 book on “Plato as a philosophical writer”, where he assembled and discussed internal evidence as found in the dialogues to argue that “at certain key junctures” Plato’s work “claims for itself nothing less than the status of a new kind of philosophical poetry and art: the status, indeed, of the ‘greatest music’ and even of ‘the finest and best tragedy’ … The notion of Platonic writing as itself a kind of poetry has roots … in explicit moments of self-consciousness in the dialogues as well as in their multiple literary qualities…” [3].

Ok, I admit it: I am cheating. Gaiser rarely wrote in English, and these are definitely not his words, although they sound very much like his. The quote is from a very recent article by Stephen Halliwell (2011, 241-242), who has reached this conclusion independently from Gaiser’s work on Plato and Dicaearchus. Halliwell does a great job in bringing to the fore the subtle (and no doubt self-conscious) ambiguity of Plato’s attitude towards poetry in the Republic, and he emphasises the novelty of his own approach and the corresponding deficiency of scholarship in English. Yet, ironically, his otherwise splendid article is also an example of the very deficiency he denounces: long before Halliwell began tentatively to unravel Plato’s “explicit moments of self-consciousness”, Gaiser had thoroughly discussed them. Gaiser 1984, later included in Gaiser 2004, is entirely devoted to this fascinating subject, and yet neither time did he make it across the Channel. Why?

Unfortunately, Gaiser, as an exponent of the so-called “Tübingen school”, is commonly associated with the declining querelle (largely a “continental” affair) about Plato’s “unwritten doctrines”, and – if that were not enough – the book on “Plato as a philosophical writer” was published in Italian (1984) and German (2004). As a consequence, the book received a number of substantial reviews by distinguished Platonists such as Joachim Dalfen, Michael Erler and Gabriele Giannantoni [4], but its English reception was limited to a very brief notice by Julia Annas [5]. The book’s main arguments, however, do not depend on the “unwritten doctrines” hypothesis (which, incidentally, I fully disagree with), and its virtual absence from the landscape of scholarship in English is yet another example of what Francisco Gonzalez refers to as “a growing insularity in Platonic studies, especially among English-speaking scholars: extremely helpful and worthy work is ignored simply because it is not in the right language or school” [6].

Speaking of “wrong schools”, the understandable hostility towards the “unwritten doctrines” may have momentarily led astray even the one English scholar who has taken the effort of reading and discussing at length Gaiser’s work on Philodemus (1988). I am referring to a brilliant and movingly sympathetic article (Gaiser had recently passed away) by Jonathan Barnes (1989), who reminds us that thanks to Gaiser’s “genial conjectures and supplements” Philodemus’ (and Dicaearchus’) text is now, comparatively, “luminously clear and intelligible” [7]. However, Barnes criticises Gaiser precisely for his interpretation of Dicaearchus’ testimony, which may (but, I insist, need not) be used in support of the “unwritten doctrines” theory. Whatever the case, Gaiser’s reading of the passage – says Barnes – “is surely wrong. First, Dicaearchus is not talking about Plato’s intentions at all: he is talking about the effects of the dialogues. He may have thought that Plato intended his dialogues to have a protreptic force; but he does not say so. Secondly, and more importantly, Dicaearchus does not state or imply that Plato’s sole intention in writing the dialogues was protreptic”. In my view, Barnes’ objections, on this specific point, are misplaced. Dicaerchus uses a middle form (προετρέψατο) in a sentence where Plato (and not the dialogues) is the subject: this is safe evidence that Dicaearchus is precisely highlighting intentions, i.e. “why Plato wrote”. This also affects Barnes’ (otherwise convincing) second point: granted, Dicaearchus’ Plato might have had other goals as well, but the emphasis is definitely on “protreptic force”.


As I mentioned at the beginning, my first reaction on reading Allen’s book was one of irritation, and I was even tempted to entitle this post “Why did Allen write?”. By the end of the book, however, I came to feel much more sympathetic: it is in fact a very smart book, making a strong case – among many other things – for “Plato’s sociology of symbols” [8]. I learned an awful lot from Allen, and I will not fail to give her ample credit for that. Nevertheless, the story I told in this post – and Allen or Halliwell are, of course, just an example – is a disturbing one: are we really doomed to growing insularity? Perhaps even a continental drift? This, in turn, would raise the usual questions: who are the islanders? Are we to believe that, due to scholarly fog, “the continent is isolated”? And which continent, anyway? Whatever the case, it is sad that an insularity of sorts is affecting an author such as Plato, who made dialogue his mission in life and emphatically acknowledged his debts towards different cultures and people. Let me conclude, then, on a lighter note. Here are Barnes’ final comments on Gaiser:

“‘It is a long book. It is in German. It is clogged with pernickety points. It doesn’t say very much about philosophy. Must I really read it? Well, I do not like long books. I do not read German with any great ease. Pernicketiness can bore. But I learned a vast amount from Gaiser. What is more, far more, I found his argument gripping. It is that rare thing – a book to be enjoyed. And I should hope that any amateur of ancient thoughts would enjoy it. If you have a rich aunt, ask her to give it to you for your next birthday” (148).

I fully subscribe to these words, even though Barnes’ hopes were hardly fulfilled: blame the crisis, but rich aunts seem to be rather thin on the Platonic ground. And yet, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, “once they are written, books are trundled about everywhere”, and can end up in anybody’s hands. Gaiser’s have ended up in mine, and although he uses Socrates’ very words to argue for a thesis I strongly dislike (the “unwritten doctrines”), I fully enjoyed them. If every story needs the goodies and the baddies, then Konrad Gaiser is surely both the hero and, possibly, the charming villain of my hoped-for book on Plato.


Allen 2010: D. Allen, Why Plato Wrote, Malden MA.
Annas 1985: J. Annas, review of Gaiser 1984, “CR” 35, 401-402.
Barnes 1989: J. Barnes, Philodemus and the Old Academy, “Apeiron” 22, 139-148.
Cerri 1991: G., Cerri, Platone sociologo della comunicazione, Milano.
Dalfen 1987: J. Dalfen, review of Gaiser 1984, “GB” 14, 298-302.
Dorandi 1991: T. Dorandi (ed.), Filodemo. Storia dei filosofi. Platone e l’Acacdemia (PHerc. 1021 e 164), edizione, traduzone e commento a cura di T.D., Napoli.
Erler 1987: M. Erler, review of Gaiser 1984, “Gymnasium” 94, 82-85.
Gaiser 1984: K. Gaiser, Platone come scrittore filosofico. Saggi sull’ermeneutica dei dialoghi platonici, Napoli, then in Gaiser 2004, 3-72 (in German).
Gaiser 1988: K. Gaiser (hrsg.), Supplementum Platonicum: die Texte der indirekten Platonüberlieferung, Stuttgart.
Gaiser 2004: K. Gaiser, Gesammelte Schriften, hrsg. von T.A. Szlezák, unter Mitw. von K.H. Stanzel, Sankt Augustin.
Giannantoni 1985: G. Giannantoni, review of Gaiser 1984, “Elenchos” 6, 202-207.
Gonzalez 1998: F.J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, Evanston IL.
Halliwell 2011: S. Halliwell, Antidotes and Incantations: Is There a Cure for Poetry in Plato’s Republic?, in P. Destrée – F.G. Hermann (eds), Plato and the Poets, Leiden-Boston, 241-266.
Mekler 1902: S. Mekler (ed.), Academicorum philosophorum index herculanensis, Berolini.
Nietzsche 1994: F. Nietsche, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe, begründet von Giorgio Colli und Mazzarino Montinari, weitergeführt von Volfgang Müller-Lauter und Karl Pestalozzi, II,4 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (WS 1871/72 – WS 1875/75), Berlin.
Rowe 2002: C. Rowe, Two Responses by Isocrates to Demosthenes, “Historia” 51, 149-162.
Rowe 2007: C. Rowe, Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing, Cambridge.

Back [1] Τρίτον ἦλθε διαλλάξων Δίωνα Διονυσίῳ· οὐ τυχὼν δὲ ἄπρακτος ἐπανῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα. νθα πολιτείας μν οχ ψατο, καίτοι πολιτικς ν ξ ν γέγραφε. Is Diogenes really saying that Plato was “a political leader”?
Back [2] “als agitatorischen Politiker, der die ganze Welt aus den Angeln heben will und unter anderem auch zu diesem Zweck Schrifsteller ist”. Plato, he adds “shreibt, um seine akademischen Gefährten zu bestäerken im Kampfe” (Nietzsche 1994, 9, from his Einleitung in das Studium der platonischen Dialoge).
Back [3] The references to “the greatest music” and “the finest and best tragedy” are to Phaed. 61a, Phaedr. 248d, 259d; Leg. 817b.
Back [4] Dalfen 1987, Erler 1987, Giannantoni 1985.
Back [5] Annas 1985. No review in English of Gaiser 2004 discusses Platon als philosophischer Schrifsteller (3-72), which is the German version of Gaiser 1984.
Back [6] Gonzalez 1998, ix.
Back [7] Barnes 1989, 142.
Back [8] I.e. the idea that Plato uses language in a self-conscious attempt to shape people’s minds, in a way that different significantly from that of the poets while at the same time appropriating their force.

9 Responses to "Why Plato wrote": the insularity of Platonic studies

  1. I enjoyed this, and the (modern, scholarly) political point is surely right: rather than complain about scholars failing to read all the books, we need to facilitate dialogue across linguistic and scholarly frontiers – and this blog is a good example of that border-crossing facilitation. On the ancient political point, could you summarise for me where you and Allen differ in your reading of Plato? I take your point that her book is a little opportunistic in presenting Plato as a think tank and in using echoes of Plato in 4th century political discourse to back that presentation of Plato with scholarly credentials; but – beyond that – where do you disagree on Why Plato Wrote? Is it that Allen is reductive in her emphasis on practical politics? What does Dicaearchus add? ‘Leading people to philosophy’ rather than politics?

  2. Having complained (fairly) that Danielle Allan cites hardly any scholarship not in English (and, I might add, she ignores a great deal of relevant work in English itself), Andrea Capra goes on to mention my own silence about Gaiser and then sweeps up this point into a general deprecation of those who don’t cite work that isn’t in the right language or from the right ‘school’ of thought. A casual reader might be left with the impression that I don’t cite much non-English scholarship in my own work. That is the reverse of the truth. The longer version of the piece of mine mentioned by Capra is Chapter 4 in my new book *Between Ecstasy and Truth*: the footnotes to that chapter cite a great deal of work in German, quite a bit in Italian, and some in French; the book as a whole, like all my other work, refers copiously to scholarship not written in English. Andrea Capra needs to learn to complain about others’ work in a less rhetorically undiscriminating manner. My reasons for not citing Gaiser have nothing to do with language or even school of thought: he did *not* anticipate the main line of argument, let only most of the key details, which I pursue in the piece/chapter in question.

  3. My apologies to Danielle Allen for misspelling her surname in my previous comment.

  4. Dear Prof. Capra,
    Thank you for your interesting piece. You’re quite right–and I am embarrassed about it–to call attention to the absence of non-English language sources in my bibliography. The bibliography of my book, The World of Prometheus, tells a very different tale. Why the change, then, from that project to this? I realize as I reflect on your post that I now begin all of my searches for sources online. Only at this moment do I now realize that this method dramatically reduces the quantity of non-English language material that I find. Thank you for calling my attention to that.
    Best wishes, Danielle Allen

    • Here are my replies to the comments by Danielle Allen, Barbara Graziosi and Stephen Halliwell.

      Danielle Allen

      Let me begin by thanking Danielle Allen for her graciousness: if, as we hear in Plato’s “Gorgias”, being criticised is a greater benefit and joy than refuting other people, then Allen’s words are truly Socratic in spirit, as much as her book sounds very Platonic to me, in a way that is rarely found in more narrowly philosophical readings of Plato. The only thing I might add is a question. As Allen points out, her “World of Prometheus” really tells a different story (it was a pleasure for me to consult that book too), which suggests that technology, supposedly designed to promote dialogue and reduce distances, sometimes backfires. So what are we to make of Prometheus’ δεινὰ δῶρα? Is clever necessarily synonym with dangerous, as the Greek adjective δεινός, covering both meanings, ominously suggests? How can we revert this trend and have technology do what it is supposed to?

      Barbara Graziosi

      I’ll now switch to Italian, partly because my post advocates multiculturalism, ma soprattutto perché mi sento sempre un po’ in difficoltà nel rivolgermi a Italiani in altre lingue, specie quando li ho conosciuti di persona (e poi, confesso, per pigrizia: quel che segue contiene un po’ di taglia-e-incolla). Dove sta la differenza fra me e Allen di fronte alla domanda “perché Platone scrisse”? Allora: anzitutto la risposta non la conosco per certo, e infatti ho scritto nel post che il problema mi assilla da quando ho cominciato a leggere Platone. Rispetto a Danielle Allen, quindi, mi sento molto più dubbioso. Comunque, direi che sì, sono vicino alla posizione di Dicearco. La tradizione aneddotica, da questo punto di vista, è interessante. Dopo aver letto il Gorgia, si racconta, un contadino di Corinto si precipitò ad Atene per conoscere Platone e si fece membro dell’Accademia (Temistio, Or. 23.295c-d. Cfr. D.L. 2.125). Forse questa storiella, nella sua semplicità, indica come Platone voleva fossero letti i dialoghi: devono innescare quel processo di “conversione” dell’anima che è l’essenza della filosofia, come suggerisce l’allegoria della caverna.
      Il sapere – dice Socrate nel Simposio – non si trasmette come un liquido da un recipiente pieno a uno vuoto, e la lettura dei dialoghi non deve tanto comunicare una serie di dottrine, quanto favorire, anche attraverso il trauma dell’aporia, un cambiamento di vita, un nuovo βίος; questo è in perfetto accordo con quanto Platone dice nella VII lettera: nel cosiddetto excursus filosofico, la filosofia è fatta consistere non in una serie di dottrine scritte ma nel dialogo fecondo fra discepoli che accende la scintilla della verità (344b-c). In questo quadro, il lavoro di Gaiser è per me fondamentale perché sposta il problema a un livello più alto e “socratico”: invece della solita domanda “perché Platone ha scritto dialoghi” o anche della domanda “perché Platone ha scritto” e punto, Gaiser di fatto si chiede: “cos’è un dialogo platonico”? E la risposta la ricava da Platone stesso, attraverso uno splendido studio comparato di quesi passi in cui Platone implicitamente parla dei suoi dialoghi (vedi anche sotto la mia risposta a Halliwell).
      Per Platone, il dialogo è indubbiamente una forma di poesia, e per Platone la poesia è importante da un punto di vista sociologico, nella misura in cui orienta il sentire della polis. Proprio per questo, i dialoghi sono, in effetti, anche “politici”. Tornando a Danielle Allen, la sua tesi è che Platone avrebbe voluto, attraverso i suoi dialoghi, influire sulla politica politicante, in particolare ad Atene. Argomento interessante, non c’è dubbio, e in parte congruente con quel che osservavo ora. Non bisogna però dimenticare una cosa: sappiamo da Ateneo, se accettiamo almeno in parte la tradizione riportata in 11.508f ff., che l’Accademia fu una fucina di politici, anche di aspiranti re e tiranni. Quindi l’aspetto politico, ancor più che nell’azione diretta dei dialoghi sui lettori (un’influenza che non saprei quantificare: le indagaini lessicali di Allen sono interessanti ma forse un po’ rischiose. Cf. la recensione di D. Murphy su BMCR, 2011-11-44), va forse cercato nel comportamento dei “convertiti” alla filosofia: questi accademici non erano certo avulsi dalla società o disinteressati alla politica e – come del resto fece Platone a rischio della propria vita – cercarono come poterono di cambiare il corso degli eventi. La politica c’è, insomma, ma a me sembra soprattutto una conseguenza della conversione alla vita filosofica, con tutto ciò che quest’ultima comporta anche in termini di impegno civile e perfino politico.

      Stephen Halliwell

      I re-read my own post with Halliwell’s words in mind, and I must say he is right: a casual reader might be left with the impression he cites little non-English scholarship, thereby promoting “insularity”. As a long-time admirer of Halliwell’s work, I, for one, know very well that this is not the case: I just took it for granted, and in so doing, at least potentially, I misrepresented his work and his contribution (inter alia) to Platonic studies. Fortunately, once we discard my closest relatives and friends, the possibility of a casual reader who ignores Halliwell’s work but happens to read my Platonic post amounts to a remote and fantastic scenario, and yet this does not excuse my misleading account. Of course one could question Halliwell’s tone (“Andrea Capra should learn” etc.) or his choice of defending his article by attracting attention to the existence of a longer version (how could I know?), but this would be unfair, given that I am to blame for the misunderstanding. So let me just apologise and state my point more clearly.
      After reading Halliwell’s longer version (namely ch. 4 of “Between Ecstasy and Truth. Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus”, OUP 2011), I still think that Halliwell’s failure to cite and discuss (in either version) Gaiser’s work is relevant to the problem of “insularity”. Only, as I should have made clear in my post, this is hardly a matter of individual choices: one may be very open-minded and willing to entertain a dialogue with other approaches, and Halliwell is well-known for being precisely this kind of reader (this is what I mean when I say that I took him for granted). And yet life is short, scholarship is an ocean, and if the reception and the dissemination of a fundamental book is hampered by its association with a “wrong school” and with “wrong languages”, which I think is precisely what happened to Gaiser’s work, then one is much less likely to read or (as I bet is the case with Halliwell) remember it. That said, we are left with a more specific question: would it make the difference for Halliwell (and more generally for Plato’s readers) to take Gaiser’s work into account?
      My first answer is “yes”. Halliwell argues the very unorthodox view that “Republic” 10 does not banish the poets in any definitive way, the text being far more nuanced and open-ended than scholars usually assume. To this effect, Halliwell is interested in those passages where Plato seems close to break the dramatic illusion and refer to his own work. One such example, it seems to me, is the focal point of Halliwell’s argument: I am thinking of Republic 608e, where Socrates mentions an “incantation” designed to protect Socrates from the temptation of falling back to his love for poetry. Scholars usually equate the “incantation” with knowledge as mentioned at 595b, but Halliwell puts forward a number of good arguments against this interpretation. Socrates’ love for poetry is “real”, and his (and Plato’s) attitude is that of someone who does not intend to abandon poetry for good, but would rather like to put poetry to a good use and to move beyond the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy: “If poetry can seduce the soul with a sort of rapture in words and images … it has a psychagogic power which Platonic philosophy itself would ideally like to make its own”. Accordingly, “Socrates’ incantation is a metaphor (though hardly a metaphor at all) for the reading of Plato’s own work” (“Between Ecstasy and Truth”, 206 and 203).
      Now, Plato’s “self-conscious” passages are precisely the subject of Gaiser’s book: he offers powerful readings – among other dialogues – of the “Ion”, the “Symposium”, the “Phaedrus”, and the “Laws”, and argues for the general thesis that Plato (indirectly) refers to his own work as a form of incantation and/or purification, in a never-ending dialogue with poetry. To this effect, he uses a strategy that can be compared to Halliwell’s: according to both scholars, for example, Plato at times puts forward unilateral or “dialectical” arguments, which cannot be taken at face value but imply complementary tenets. As for the “Republic”, at some point Gaiser argues that the banishment of poetry cannot be taken as final (“la condanna che qui è rappresentata a modo di una sentenza, è certamente limitata da due punti di vista…”, Gaiser 1984, 118, cf. Gaiser 2004, 52-53), and even suggests that the “incantation” found at 608e should be equated with Plato’s dialogues (“Socrate designa la propria argomentazione contro la poesia dannosa con il termine di canto magico-terapeutico [ἐπωιδή]. Con tale espressione egli rimanda a una comunanza tra poesia e filosofia … Platone ebbe consapevolezza di se stesso come poeta-filosofo”, Gaiser 1984, 119, cf. Gaiser 2004, 53).
      Let me now give my second answer, which, as one should expect, is a big “no”. True, Halliwell’s premises and assumptions are similar to Gaiser’s, and, in point of fact, Gaiser even hints at Halliwell’s conclusion (incantation = Plato’s dialogues). And yet the “Republic” is definitely not Gaiser’s focus, and his references to it are comparatively brief and uninformative. Halliwell’s discussion is much more deep and persuasive, and his arguments against Plato’s (allegedly) unqualified banishing of poetry are by and large different. This is true of Halliwell’s shorter version, and even more so of the longer one, namely the fourth chapter of his book “Between Ecstasy and Truth”. My hope is that this book will help scholars radically revise standard interpretations of the “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy”, not to mention many more interesting things (the chapter, which I guess is representative of the whole book, is remarkable for its overall argumentative force as well as for its detailed and illuminating readings of individual passages).
      After my big “yes” and “no”, let me conclude with a qualified “yes”: Gaiser can make “some” difference. I would like to share this conclusion with Halliwell, insofar as the story is relevant to his work as well as to my own. All in all, Gaiser’s book, with its emphasis on self-consciousness, provides a very powerful interpretative paradigm, which can nicely accommodate Halliwell’s intriguing and compelling discussion of one specific (if crucial) instance of Plato’s “self-consciousness”. Much in the same vein (I hope!), my own work also discusses other such instances, and I think that Gaiser, once we disentangle his arguments from the question of the “unwritten doctrines”, provides a very comfortable umbrella for me, as well as – I hope – for Halliwell, Allen and others. Needless to say, this does not detract from the originality and relevance of our readings: on the contrary, it can offer a shared horizon, and even help us all to cure some cases of “Platonic insularity”.

  5. Hi Andrea,

    I don’t have anything substantive to add here, except to reiterate an old dictum that my dissertation adviser Greg Thalmann once told me. With regard to your adoption of Gaiser’s theory (let’s call it that) of the ἐπωιδή as Plato’s designation for ‘dialogue’, you say (in your response to Barbara) “Per Platone, il dialogo è *indubbiamente* una forma di poesia”. As my adviser used to say, “we tend, when we are making some claims, to qualify them unconsciously with adverbs like ‘undoubtedly’, ‘clearly’, or ‘obviously’, precisely because those claims we are making are doubtful, unclear, or not obvious.” Anyway, this is what came into my head this morning when I read your blog. 😉

    Cheers, and my best wishes,

  6. Hi Phil, thank you! This post is becoming a kind of novel, both for its length and because, as its author, I now even have a critic who fathoms my unconscious! Jokes aside, you’re of course right: sometimes we say things like “undoubtedly” precisely to qualify things that are far from obvious. Yet I would not say that Gaiser’s (and Halliwell’s: I find his arguments on ἐπωιδή very persuasive) position is unclear: rather, it is true that they have to work out something that is implicit, given that in the dialogues Plato never openly comments on his writings (precisely as the tragedians never openly comment on their plays: does this suggest that they did not conceive of their works as poetry?). Moreover, in the Greek world poetry has a much wider (and different) meaning than in ours (e.g. the poets are “sophoi”). In the Phaedo, we hear that poetry is definied by the presence of mythos, although Socrates claims he is not good at creating myths. And yet the Phaedo itself concludes with a myth! What are we to make of that? To me, this is sufficiently clear (I won’t say undoubtedly!): Plato is suggesting (or implying) that his own work is a form of poetry, and this is one nice example of ‘self-disclosure’, whereby Plato implicitly refers to his written work (I wouldn’t use the term “designation”). Now, Gaiser fully discusses at least five such instances in the corpus. Halliwell adds one in his book (Republic). I add at least four in the book I’m writing. Then there are external points, e.g. Plato’s association with the Muses (these things were obvious for Plato’s contemporaries as they are remote from our mind). So I think that the burden of proof is firmly on those who assume (unconsciously?) that the dialogues are *not* poetry!

  7. Dear Prof. Capra, I too thank you for your provocative comments on Danielle Allen’s and Konrad Gaiser’s works. I already know Allen’s book; you stimulated me to read Gaiser’s “Platon als philosophischer Schriftsteller.” One issue I do not see confronted above, however, is the increasingly widespread claim that because they consist of characters’ speeches and are not treatises, Plato’s dialogues by definition do not express any view of Plato’s. In them, as John Mulhern says, Plato chose to portray, not to “say.” It would follow that even if we can agree with Allen that Plato was a “message man,” the dialogues do not contain any message of his – at least when “message” is understood to consist in assertions. And it would follow that Gaiser cannot with justification talk about Plato’s dialogues as “die massgebliche Grundlage fuer das Verstaendnis seiner Philosophie,” since in them, Plato would not be articulating elements of his philosophy but only portraying other people philosophizing.

    Do you have a view on this hermeneutical question?

  8. I am a bit confused here, while the topic seems relatively clear, I see little mention of the immediate political value and implications, after the reign of the Thirty Tyrants in the opportunistic occupation (not actually of a defeat of the political Athenian culture in that political context). Beginning with the plaque over the entrance to the academy, “Let Only Geometers Enter Here.” This alone announces a political agenda. Further in my readings of Plato’s “dialogues,” the political implications are substantial along several dimensions, yet this sort of contextualization seems to be substantially absent. It may be that this sort of contextualization/hermeneutic, such as found in. Heideggers’ book “Parmenides,” is not the framing that is used here. If so, I would appreciate suggestions to texts of a more . The absence as well in the at least semantic tension between the “Republic” and “The Garden” seems to be comparable, and reflective of the Laconiphile (neo-Mycenean) Athenian political agenda which was intent upon restoring the political philosophy and institutions to the Pre-Solon manoral/symposia centered, la “Republican,” polity. I am not a classics scholar by any means. I would appreciate leads to a more historically based social science analysis which has been generally absent.

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