Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Plato's Republic and the Greek Enlightenment. Classical World Series. London: Duckworth (Bristol Classical Press, distributed in the US by Focus Publishing), 1998. Pp. viii + 96. ISBN 1-85399-494-4. UKú8.95; US$16.95.
Robert B. Todd
Department of Classical, Near-Eastern, and Religious Studies University of British Columbia, Vancouver
This book belongs to a series described on its back cover as 'designed for students and teachers of Classical Civilization and Ancient History at school, college and university.' But these target groups will not be well served by the eleven brisk chapters of this misleadingly titled, badly printed, poorly illustrated, scantily documented, and unindexed volume. Lawson-Tancred offers revisionary ideas, but with no indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the positions being revised. Instead, he provides a quirky squib, purporting to show that Plato is a non- dogmatic, non-systematic, thinker who in the course of his early and middle-period dialogues recreated within the realm of philosophy the ethos of the sophists and orators of the late fifth century. These figures define for him the 'Enlightenment' with which the Republic (the subject of only eleven pages), and much else in the Platonic corpus, is therefore continuous.
Lawson-Tancred's thesis can be summarized in a series of general and specific propositions. (i) Plato is one of the most misunderstood of all great thinkers (p. 1), since he did not (as is standardly believed) advance any substantive philosophical position; for him philosophy was radically 'second-order', involving not positive answers but reflection on the possibility and coherency of such answers (pp. 2f.). (ii) He transferred to philosophy the literary techniques of the fifth-century sophists and orators (reduced to a rather implausible homogeneity in chapter 2) in seeking to defend Socrates (p. 27); the Apology is thus seen as 'the product of a highly sophisticated rhetorical technique' (p. 40), and an essentially Platonic composition that could not have been the work of a 'cobbler's son' (pace Diogenes Laertius 2.18, for whom Sophroniscus was a LIQOURGO/S). (iii) The early dialogues (in dialogue form largely due to sophistic influence, p. 42; has Lawson-Tancred not heard of Aeschines?) are works of a 'sophistical and rhetorical apprenticeship' (p. 50), with the Republic later being 'the single greatest achievement of ancient rhetorical theory' (p. 79). In general, it is 'no disgrace' for Plato to be classified with sophists and orators' (p. 93). (iv) The 'Theory of Forms' is 'a rhetorical construction to enhance the effect of the dialogues', and has 'an essentially religious character' (p. 68, with reference to the Phaedo; on the Republic, see pp. 77f.). (v) The political theory of Republic Books 2-4 is 'essentially a tease', designed 'to dramatize the absurdity of an encroachment by political science on the territory of philosophy' (p. 75); the account of the tripartite soul in Book 4 of that work is 'a parallel attempt to put empirical psychology in its place' (p. 75). (vi) The Symposium rehabilitates beauty as integral to philosophy, and 'paves the way for the acknowledgment of rhetoric itself as a central part of philosophy . . . in the Phaedrus' (p. 85), a task for which the Gorgias had prepared the way (p. 55). Readers of Lawson-Tancred's introduction to his 1991 translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric will see that he now finds Plato considerably more sympathetic towards rhetoric, though in (v) he is recycling an earlier vague, and sweeping, claim that Plato was responsible for rigidly segregating moral philosophy from 'the psychological and social sciences.'[]
Given the nature of the Classical World Series, the main issue raised by this reconstruction is: should it be read by first-year or second-year university students? Should they, that is, be distracted with such ideas when they are reading the dialogues for the first time? The present reviewer thinks not, and will therefore saying nothing more about the pedagogical inadequacy of this book, and the anomaly of its inclusion in this series. Instead, I shall briefly comment on the author's thesis as though it were presented in a scholarly form, rather than in an assertive, badly written (see below), and thinly documented manner.
Lawson-Tancred's underlying ideas neither lack merit, nor are they without recent precedent.[] As he himself notes, albeit in passing (p. 3), 'the twentieth century' has seen philosophy seriously considered as a species of writing, continuous with other forms of creative literature. More specifically, the last twenty years have seen this conception emphasized, both in metaphilosophical studies generally, and in Platonic scholarship in particular. But why could Lawson-Tancred not have defined this trend, and eased readers of this book (of whatever level) into reconsidering the early and middle Platonic dialogues in light of it? Instead, he has flung his views out in a 'take it or leave it' manner rather than offer the kind of constructive debate over approaches to the Platonic dialogues attempted elsewhere.[] Of course, Plato is a writer; of course his arguments are presented in an often unsystematic way in dialogues that follow a complex expository path; of course, he was indebted to the sophistic culture that preceded him, and so deeply preoccupied by oratory that he was able to parody its various forms brilliantly; and of course, in the Republic and other dialogues he advocates, as well as practices, philosophy. But does it follow, as Lawson-Tancred thinks, that Plato never intended to consider theories at all, but merely wanted to experiment with reasoning for provocative, and often protreptic, purpose in the spirit of the sophistic movement? Jacob Klein quite legitimately claimed that Plato's 'seriousness [was] permeated by playfulness'[]; but that is a far cry from Lawson- Tancred's assertion, that the Theory of Forms is 'a kind of dummy message' (whatever that means), designed to attract converts to philosophy (p. 67). Through such overstatements Lawson-Tancred has lost an opportunity to counter the familiar procedure among philosophers of reconstructing Platonic arguments and theories without reference to their wider purposes, or to the literary qualities of the dialogues. Yet to appreciate these aspects need not involve reducing Plato to a propagandistic rhetorician, uninterested in substantive philosophical theses.
Finally, Lawson-Tancred's prose cannot pass without mention. Its most appalling feature is the overworked impersonal construction, often deployed in flimsy reasoning. For example, at p. 67 we learn that 'it remains quite possible' that Plato held the Theory of Forms, but 'it is . . . possible to suggest quite a different explanation.' In plainer English this probably means, 'I disagree with the orthodox view (and incidentally won't even bother to acknowledge Aristotle's testimony), and much prefer my own.' Lawson-Tancred's love of slang and contemporary analogies is also over-indulged. Thus the Sophists showed 'chutzpah' (p. 18), while in the metaphysics of the Republic Plato, we are told, was trying to 'tap . . . the higher end of [the mystery cults market]' (p. 68). The Kallipolis is compared to an 'Ancient Greek Waco' (p. 75), and Socrates' debate with Protagoras to 'a particularly intense men's singles final at Wimbledon' (p. 13). I would not want my students to emulate Lawson-Tancred's prose, but, as should by now be clear, I would not want them (or anyone else) to read his book.
[] See H.C. Lawson-Tancred, Aristotle: The Art of Rhetoric (London 1991), at p. 6 and p. 57 respectively.
[] See Charles Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form (Cambridge 1996), a work of sober scholarship, not cited in Lawson-Tancred's bibliography, although it covers essentially the same ground, and also sees Plato's motives as procedural and educative; cf., for example, Kahn pp. xivf. and Lawson-Tancred at p. 3.
[] See, for example, Charles L. Griswold (ed.), Platonic Writings: Platonic Readings (New York and London 1988).
[] Jacob Klein, Plato's Trilogy: Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman (Chicago and London 1977) 1.