C. J. Rowe, Plato. London: Duckworth / Bristol Classical Press, 2004. Pp. xii + 228. ISBN 1-85399-662-9. UK£14.99.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The appearance of a second edition of this well-established introductory handbook, written by a distinguished scholar in the field of Greek philosophy, is surely a measure of its commercial and academic success. The new edition will doubtless be welcomed by academic teachers and scholars. The most impressive feature of the book is the author's consummate familiarity with Plato's dialogues. His overview of the entire Platonic corpus enables him, in discussing a particular theme, to move seamlessly from one dialogue to another. More of that anon.
A few points in the preface to the new edition call for comment. Rowe's view is that Plato is elusive, that he prefers indirect, provisional suggestion to pronouncement, that his manner of expressing himself is so indirect that it is quite possible to miss altogether the point of what he is saying (pp. viii-ix). Here I differ: the dialogues are rich in clear and precise principles, for example the Socratic definition of justice in the Republic, the definitions of the other three Platonic virtues in the same work, the duty of the judge in the Apology, the rationale for the citizen's duty to obey the law in the Crito, the notion of absolute beauty in the Symposium, and many others. These principles are no less clear and precise for the fact that Plato presents them, not as unilateral ex-cathedra declarations, but as consensual positions arrived at by way of a (sometimes very lengthy) bilateral or multilateral conversational process. Nor does the fact that many of the dialogues end inconclusively preclude them from containing key principles, identification of which may admittedly call for the closest reading, re-reading, and reflection. It is precisely those principles which make Plato's philosophy irresistible to the seeker of enduring truth that does not change from age to age or from place to place. It is by virtue of these principles, together with his use of reason in arriving at them, that Plato's philosophy remains constantly the West's most precious spiritual and intellectual inheritance from antiquity.
I would also take issue with Rowe's justification for the writing of handbooks on Plato (p. ix). To start trying to read Plato without one, he says, would be like trying to find one's way around a new city with no map. This analogy does not hold, because an attentive reader's faculty of reason is naturally attuned to the operation of reason inherent in the dialogues. This is not to suggest that all of the dialogues are equally accessible to the beginner: the latter is best advised, I believe, to eschew all secondary sources and to plunge directly and fearlessly into Plato's own words, by close-reading a carefully selected sequence of dialogues. While this is not the place to go into detail, an ideal sequence for the purpose would be Apology, Crito, Phaedo, a sequence which leads the novice in the most natural manner from the familiar, concrete world of the courtroom drama to the sublime heights of spiritual philosophy, in the great debate on the immortality of the soul. In my own experience, the depth of understanding of Plato's teachings gained by direct study of and reflection upon the dialogues has far outweighed the benefits derived from recourse to secondary sources, however clear and well-written these may be (and Rowe's, while far from flawless, is one of the best handbooks on Plato currently available in English).
What then is the proper place of an elementary handbook on Plato? It must perform one of two functions, in my view. It may usefully serve to inspire in the beginner the urge to cast aside the handbook and plunge directly into Plato's own words. Alternatively -- and this I see as the true value of Rowe's book -- it may enable the more mature student, who has already come to grips with the dialogues, to put his studies into perspective, thereby deepening his understanding.
Rowe gives a list of topics (pp. x-xii) on which his views have changed since the first edition of this work was published in 1984. These topics include the sequence in which the dialogues were written, and the interminable debate on whether the principal voice in the dialogues is that of Socrates or of Plato. Would it be heresy to suggest that such matters are of no value to a beginner, by comparison with the need for him to engage directly and urgently with Platonic reason and Platonic principle, as enshrined in the dialogues? Indeed, as one who holds that the content of the dialogues far outweighs all other considerations, I would relegate such topics to specialist publications addressed to scholars with an interest in them. The justification for this view is that the topics mentioned (and cognate ones, such as the characters and setting of the dialogues, biographical details of Plato or Socrates) form the context of Plato's teachings, while Platonic principles and reason have a timeless validity which is entirely independent of context. This is precisely why Plato's work remains alive and of vital importance two and a half millennia after it was produced. To the extent that it places emphasis on context rather than content, Rowe's handbook is in my view open to criticism.
The conviction that content outweighs context in Plato's philosophy leads me also to question the inclusion of Chapter 1, 'Plato and Socrates' (pp. 1-19). This chapter does little to serve what I have identified above as the primary need of the beginner. Rowe's view (p. 16) that the Laws is, with the exception of some parts, the least readable of Plato's dialogues is open to challenge in the wake of Trevor Saunders' splendid 1970 translation (and even Jowett's much older translation remains eminently readable).
Again, Chapter Two, 'The Dialogues and the Dialogue Form' (pp. 20-51), to the extent that it goes to context rather than content, is in my view, unsatisfactory and dispensable. The fact that the dialogue form is the ideal vehicle for the playing out of Plato's dialectic becomes self-evident once the beginner immerses himself in the texts: Plato's adoption of this form does not require a chapter to itself in an introductory handbook. In this chapter, Rowe discusses three dialogues in order to exemplify Plato's use of the dialogue form (pp. 28-50). But since the discussion deals more with the content than with the structure of these dialogues, it sits uneasily in this chapter. All this is not to gainsay that the chapter contains some valuable material, for example the treatment of the tension between Plato's written work and his oral teachings or 'unwritten doctrines' (pp. 22-24). This topic, however, should have been held over to Chapter 9, which is devoted specifically to the 'unwritten doctrines'.
Chapters 3 to 9 (pp. 52-200), which make up the heart of the book, deal with key Platonic themes and strands, such as the forms, the nature of knowledge, the Good, the relationship between the state and the individual, the soul, science, education, and the role of the arts in society. The discussion of each theme draws on a number of relevant dialogues and effects a synthesis of their teachings on that theme. It is here, as he demonstrates his impressive familiarity with the full range of Plato's thought, that the author comes into his own. The mature student, who has already read the dialogues in question, will no doubt derive benefit from these chapters, and find his understanding enhanced. But Rowe's synthesis of ideas drawn from different dialogues is often long, complex and densely-packed. A case in point is his treatment of the Forms in Chapter 3 (p. 55ff.). How easily will most beginners cope with such discussions?
In Chapter 4, ‘Knowledge, Pleasure and the Good’ (pp. 87-122), neither Rowe's synopsis (pp. 101-02) of the mighty debate on justice in the Republic (331-444; 472-79; 588-92), nor any other commentary on this subject that I know of, can provide the novice with a fraction of the depth of understanding attainable by close-reading the original text. This may be trite. Yet transient critiques and commentaries are too often accorded the attention and respect which properly belong to the original source alone. Moreover, the very inclusion of the subject of Platonic justice in this chapter is difficult to justify. The topic would have fitted better in the following chapter ('State and Individual', pp. 123-44).
Chapter 7, 'On the "Soul"' (pp. 163-78) contains accurate summaries of the debates on the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo (pp. 166-68) and in the Phaedrus (pp. 171-73). It is to be regretted that space did not allow the author to do more than touch on the interesting and important topic of Plato's 'unwritten doctrines' in Chapter 9. Rowe is undoubtedly correct in his view (p. 197) that any account of Plato's thought must be prepared to recognize the existence of his oral philosophy, which was no doubt reserved for the ears of his mature students. My own view, for which I can admittedly cite little or no authority, is that Plato's highest teaching was about formless, absolute truth, which lies beyond all manifest phenomena (including the 'forms'), and is their unmanifest source. But this is to digress.
In Chapter 10, ‘Plato and the Thought of his Time’ (pp. 201-06) Rowe raises the question of the originality of Plato's ideas and the earlier thinkers who may have influenced him. The chapter as a whole correctly places emphasis on the (to me, decisive) influence of the Eleatic school. I would go further and agree with Jowett in his introduction to the Parmenides: 'From the Platonic Ideas we naturally proceed to the Eleatic One or Being, which is the foundation of them. They are the same philosophy in two forms. . . .'[]
The Epilogue, which deals mainly with Plato's contribution to modern science, is disappointing. What of Plato's contemporary influence in the fields of ethics, values, metaphysics, law, politics, constitutional theory, education and others? And what of Plato's greatest contribution to every age, which is to inspire in his reader the love of truth, and provide him with the finest spiritual and intellectual nourishment? Is there any better medication than Platonic reason for the ills of our own age, which is floundering in the mire of both secular materialism and religious extremism?
[] B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato (Oxford 1953) 2.660.