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      Subject: BMCR 2008.12.22, Christopher Rowe,Plato and the Art of
      Philosophical (fwd)


      >
      > Christopher Rowe, Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing.
      > Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 290.
      > ISBN 9780521859325. $99.00.
      >
      > Reviewed by Peter C. Meilaender, Houghton College
      > (peter.meilaender@...)
      > Word count: 3401 words
      > -------------------------------
      > To read a print-formatted version of this review, see
      > http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2008/2008-12-22.html
      > To comment on this review, see
      > http://www.bmcreview.org/2008/12/20081222.html
      > -------------------------------
      >
      > Table of Contents
      > (http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0810/2008271044-t.html)
      >
      > Plato is the great philosophical flirt. He is the philosophical critic
      > of poetry and the most poetic of philosophers, the defender of justice
      > whose apparent model of the good man shuns political participation, the
      > critic of writing who writes--never, however, in his own voice, but
      > typically through that of a man known for his irony. Plato is always
      > tempting the reader with apparent morsels of knowledge, then skittering
      > gingerly away from quite endorsing them, all the while compelling the
      > reader somehow to hunt for Plato's own views through the thickets of
      > the philosophical conversations he reports. The question of what Plato
      > wishes to teach us cannot be answered apart from the question of how we
      > ought to read him in the first place. Christopher Rowe's new book is a
      > challenging, insightful, and provocative discussion of this
      > relationship between what Plato believed and the literary form in which
      > he chose to present it.
      >
      >>From the outset Rowe pits his reading of Plato against a pair of common
      > interpretive approaches: the "skeptical" interpretation, which treats
      > Plato as primarily interested in prodding us to think for ourselves,
      > rather than promoting any particular set of doctrines; and the
      > "doctrinalist" interpretation, which takes exactly the opposite view
      > and regards Plato as advancing characteristic doctrines of his own.
      > (See esp. pp. 1-7, though contrasts between Rowe's and these
      > alternative readings are ubiquitous.) Rowe delights in portraying his
      > own interpretation as a kind of underdog trying to pull off an upset
      > against these established contenders. But his chief target is a view
      > of Plato held, in different ways, by both these approaches: the
      > "developmentalist" claim that the Republic in particular marks a break
      > in Plato's writings, separating off the earlier "Socratic" dialogues
      > from the later, more genuinely "Platonic" ones. The "skeptics" view
      > this change "as marking Plato's break with Socrates," whereas the
      > "doctrinalists" either regard the earlier dialogues as "of relatively
      > little interest in themselves" or "assimilate [them] to the Republic"
      > (6). Rowe attacks the developmentalist interpretation in either of
      > these forms and directs at it his strongest criticism: "Perhaps as much
      > as anything else, it will be my aim in the present book to replace this
      > way of dividing up Plato's work, which in my view has become the single
      > greatest obstacle to a proper understanding of Plato and Platonism"
      > (4-5).
      >
      > Rowe sets out the essentials of his own approach to reading Plato in a
      > lengthy introductory chapter on "Preliminaries," which accounts for
      > almost a fifth of the volume. His interpretive method rests upon
      > several important claims, some of which are implicit in the attack on
      > developmentalism. First, he argues that Plato's body of work can be
      > read as an internally consistent whole, incorporating some shifts of
      > emphasis and development of ideas, but containing no radical break, no
      > set of dialogues whose critical arguments or concepts are incompatible
      > with those of some other set of dialogues. Rather, Rowe suggests,
      > readers of multiple dialogues find repeated a familiar set of ideas
      > about human motivation, knowledge, the soul, and other matters. This
      > claim entails a pair of corollaries: (a) The reader is entitled to read
      > across dialogues, drawing upon insights from one to aid in
      > understanding another. (b) There is no sharp distinction between the
      > views of "Socrates" and those of "Plato"--Socrates' beliefs are also
      > Plato's own.
      >
      > Attached to this argument about the broad consistency of Plato's view
      > is another about how we ought to read his works. What may at first
      > glance appear to be inconsistencies among dialogues, Rowe argues, are
      > typically the result of Plato's having chosen to cast his ideas in the
      > dialogue form. We must think of the Socrates of the dialogues as
      > operating in much the same way that we ourselves do in conversation
      > (with, needless to say, considerably greater philosophical
      > sophistication). He does not necessarily say all that he thinks about
      > a given topic any time he touches upon it. His arguments are always
      > adapted to his immediate audience, sensitive to their own
      > presuppositions and tendencies, attentive to what they are capable of
      > understanding or likely to find persuasive, as Socrates attempts
      > gradually to lead his various interlocutors (and Plato his readers)
      > step-by-step towards a more adequate understanding of truth. Socrates
      > will even adopt premises--though only for the sake of argument, without
      > explicitly endorsing them--that are his interlocutors' rather than his
      > own, when doing so is likely to make an unexpected conclusion more
      > palatable. In this sense, says Rowe, "Plato has a fair claim to be the
      > inventor, as well as the finest proponent, of philosophical rhetoric"
      > (268; emphasis in original).
      >
      > Finally, Rowe argues that although Socrates presents himself as a
      > "know-nothing," he (and through him, Plato) appears to hold a number of
      > fairly consistent positions, which he is prepared to treat, for all
      > practical purposes, as equivalent to knowledge (in the sense that they
      > have repeatedly withstood dialectical challenge and bested competing
      > alternatives). As Rowe puts it, "Plato's Socrates always has a
      > positive, and substantive, agenda" (21; emphasis omitted). The content
      > of these consistent positions will not come as a surprise to a reader
      > of the dialogues. They include such familiar and repeated Socratic
      > views as the following: people always desire their own (real) good;
      > they go wrong, therefore, only through ignorance; in order to achieve
      > their (real) good, people require a special kind of expertise,
      > knowledge about the good; the good man never acts to harm someone else;
      > the soul is, fundamentally, a unity. (On this last point Rowe concedes
      > that Plato's thought does undergo a significant development or
      > revision, but not in such a way as to undermine his underlying claim of
      > consistency.) Indeed, the frequency and consistency with which the
      > self-professed "know-nothing" Socrates, in a range of tremendously
      > diverse dialogues on various topics, reiterates these fundamental
      > convictions is itself part of the supporting evidence that Rowe offers
      > to buttress his argument for the overall unity of Plato's corpus.
      >
      > But if Plato (like Socrates) in fact holds a number of consistent
      > positions that can be summarized in a paragraph, why not just say so?
      > Why put his views into the mouth of someone else (assuming that this is
      > what he has done) and bury them beneath layers of complex dialectic?
      > Rowe's suggestion is that Plato must follow a strategy of indirection
      > precisely because Socrates' views are so odd, so very different from
      > those generally held by his interlocutors--as well as by us, Plato's
      > readers. "Understanding that difference between Plato and his intended
      > audience, and between Plato and ourselves," writes Rowe, "is an
      > essential part of understanding how to read his dialogues" (29). This
      > may sound peculiar to those who read Plato's dialogues for a living and
      > are, as it were, inured to his oddness. What Rowe means, however, is
      > that Socrates' opinions are so contrary to commonly held views that
      > stating them baldly would fail to persuade anyone. The evidence for
      > this is in the verisimilitude of the dialogic conversations. Socrates'
      > conversation partners regularly express surprise and bewilderment at
      > the notion, for instance, that the good man would never harm anyone, or
      > that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Unlike
      > Socrates, they simply don't believe these things. Or, better, they
      > don't believe that they believe them--since the purpose of Socrates'
      > questioning is to reveal, to their confusion, that at some level they
      > actually do. "The dialogues generally exhibit at least two levels of
      > understanding, Socrates' and that of the interlocutor, and the reader
      > is in effect invited to ask himself or herself whether to side with the
      > one or with the other" (31). It is because of this "mismatch between
      > the speakers in a dialogue" (30) that Socrates approaches his subjects
      > by so many twists and turns. His views on ethical matters are so
      > unexpected that neither his contemporaries nor we can take them in all
      > at once; rather, we need to be addressed first on our own ground, and
      > gradually brought round to what Socrates considers more defensible
      > positions. In this respect, however, we have an advantage over
      > Socrates' interlocutors, because we possess the dialogues, in which
      > Socrates comes at us again and again from different directions and
      > which we can read and re-read in light of Plato's overall output.
      >
      > In laying out his interpretation, Rowe discusses, sometimes briefly but
      > often at some length, a considerable number of dialogues: the Apology,
      > Phaedo, Charmides, First Alcibiades, Meno, Euthyphro, Phaedrus,
      > Gorgias, Theaetetus, and Timaeus. In the course of his discussions he
      > touches on a wide range of important problems: Plato's moral
      > psychology, his views on the nature of the soul and immortality, his
      > cosmology, his theory of the forms, the concept of recollection, and
      > others. Practically all of these, however, tie in at one point or
      > another with his much longer treatment of the dialogue to which he
      > devotes by far the most attention (over a third of the book): the
      > Republic. The Republic takes center stage not only because of its own
      > intrinsic significance, but also because it is a kind of test case for
      > Rowe's thesis. His developmentalist opponents regard the Republic as
      > the dialogue in which Plato, by adopting the theory of the forms, makes
      > his break with Socrates. Rowe is thus at pains to show that the
      > discussions of the soul, of knowledge, or of the afterlife in the
      > Republic are not fundamentally at odds with the views expressed in
      > other (and especially earlier) dialogues, and that apparent
      > discrepancies can be explained by Plato's "art of philosophical
      > writing": by the need to adapt his arguments to the perspectives and
      > presuppositions of different audiences at different times.
      >
      > The space of a single review is not adequate to consider the full range
      > of themes addressed by Rowe. So I shall follow his own lead by
      > focusing briefly on some aspects of his discussion of the Republic. An
      > excellent example of his approach can be found in a section that he
      > labels the "Appendix to Chapter 5," in which he takes up the argument
      > between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic. He
      > focuses in particular on a Socratic argument often regarded as weak,
      > perhaps even embarrassingly so. This is the "like/unlike" argument:
      > Thrasymachus claims that the unjust man wants to "get the better of"
      > everyone, whereas the just man only wants to get the better of those
      > who are unlike him (the unjust); in other arts, however, the expert
      > practitioner only wants to get the better of those who are unlike him
      > (the inexpert), not of other experts; it is therefore the just, not the
      > unjust, man who resembles the wise expert, whereas the unjust resembles
      > the ignorant; but because Thrasymachus has also claimed that both are
      > of the same sort as that which they resemble, the just man turns out to
      > be wise, the unjust foolish.
      >
      > The difficulty with this argument is that Socrates and Thrasymachus
      > have very different things in mind when they speak of "getting the
      > better of" someone. Thrasymachus is thinking of acquiring those things
      > commonly held to be goods, common objects of human striving: money,
      > pleasure, glory, power. Socrates, however, by introducing the model of
      > the expert craftsman, relies upon a non-scarce good for which we must
      > not compete with others: knowledge. Little wonder that Thrasymachus,
      > though bested in argument, is unpersuaded. Yet Rowe argues that the
      > mismatch between Socrates' and Thrasymachus' real premises does not
      > itself make Socrates' argument a bad one. It means only that he is not
      > likely ultimately to satisfy Thrasymachus--as of course he does not.
      > (Recall here Rowe's earlier claim that Socrates' actual views are, by
      > the standards of his interlocutors and by our own, quite odd.) Rowe's
      > point is that we must understand the argument here as proceeding on two
      > levels, one based on the premises of Thrasymachus, the other on those
      > of Socrates. Each argument works on its own terms: Thrasymachus is
      > brought to admit Socrates' conclusions, while Socrates himself really
      > does believe what he is saying: that the just man is wise and good.
      > The awkwardness of the argument arises from the overlapping sets of
      > conflicting premises, not all of which are explicitly stated.
      > Thrasymachus' premises are clear enough: he thinks that life is full of
      > perfectly obvious good things, of which we should try to accumulate as
      > much as possible, while avoiding equally obvious harms. But even
      > though the argument "works," its conclusion rests somewhat uneasily
      > with these views. Its conclusion hangs much more naturally with
      > Socrates' premises: that the wise man never does harm, that it is
      > better to suffer injustice than to commit it. But those premises are,
      > as it were, partially submerged, because Thrasymachus--like
      > us?--regards them as simply preposterous. As Rowe puts it, "The
      > position Socrates is defending is not the same as the one Thrasymachus
      > is attacking, or thinks he is attacking, because their
      > perspectives...are quite different. Most obviously, Socrates doesn't
      > think the just to be simple-minded, as Thrasymachus does.... They
      > simply have a different idea of what they want out of life, of what is
      > good; and so also of what it is to have more than someone else. The
      > reason why Socrates hold this view hasn't yet been articulated, but
      > then neither has Thrasymachus told us why he thinks unlimited power and
      > money a good thing." And then Rowe continues with the main point he
      > wishes to make about Republic I, a point that seems to me entirely
      > correct: "This first part of the argument...is, I propose, as important
      > for what it begins to tell us about Socrates' own position, and the
      > difference between it and Thrasymachus', as it is for the ammunition it
      > provides for Thrasymachus' dialectical defeat.... Socrates starts from
      > what he himself believes..." (189).
      >
      > This summary of a portion of Rowe's argument nicely illustrates his
      > overall interpretive approach to the Republic (and to Plato's corpus as
      > a whole). The entire dialogue, for Rowe, is shaped by this distinctive
      > philosophical style, conveying an argument that moves consistently in a
      > Socratic direction but whose particular twists, turns, and even
      > conclusions are marked always by Socrates' attentiveness to the
      > assumptions and desires of his partners. Rowe's treatment of Socrates'
      > description of the soul, for example, suggests that Socrates devotes
      > much of the dialogue to developing an argument that--though it prepares
      > his interlocutors to accept a more adequate view of the human
      > good--Socrates himself does not fully accept. The Republic's founding
      > of the just city in speech and its parallel within the individual
      > person rest upon the tripartite division of the soul into reason, the
      > desires, and spiritedness. Yet in Book X Socrates indicates to
      > Glaucon that their earlier discussion of the soul was inadequate,
      > because they had considered it only as it appears distorted and even
      > mutilated by the conditions of a disordered life, not as it truly is in
      > its own nature (cf. Rowe, 140-141). This admission, however, should
      > not really surprise the reader, since Socrates had indicated earlier,
      > in Book IV, that he was taking a philosophical shortcut, and that a
      > proper investigation of their subjects would require a longer and more
      > difficult road; and already in Book II, as he set off on the argument
      > that was to discern the nature of justice and injustice as well as the
      > divided soul, Socrates had warned us that this argument was based upon
      > a "feverish" city, rather than the "true" one that Glaucon had
      > dismissed as a city of pigs. Socrates takes this approach, despite his
      > warnings that it will not reveal the full truth, because it is better
      > suited to persuade the young men with whom he is conversing of the
      > desirability of justice. Socrates may not believe that justice is best
      > discerned in feverish soul, or city, torn between reason and desire,
      > but that is how Glaucon and Adeimantus perceive humans to be (it is
      > their own condition, as we see in their speeches at the beginning of
      > Book II), and it is in a city of such people that they expect justice
      > to make its advantageousness or disadvantageousness known. In order to
      > win them to the side of justice, Socrates must work with premises that
      > make sense to them. (For Rowe's full treatment of the issues in this
      > paragraph, to which I have not done justice, see in particular his very
      > interesting chapter 5.)
      >
      > He takes the shorter road, therefore, because of "his awareness of the
      > needs of his interlocutors" (176). At the same time, he leaves enough
      > clues along the way--by warning us that we are studying a feverish
      > city, and taking a shortcut, as well as in Book I's inconclusive
      > conversation with Thrasymachus--to indicate the need for further
      > reflection on our part. As Rowe puts it, "For those who can follow
      > [Plato], and his Socrates, with due attention to his various nods and
      > winks, at least an outline of the proper story is there to be
      > grasped--and, usually, to be filled out from other dialogues" (176, n.
      > 41). This comment about Plato's "nods and winks" raises one of my own
      > questions about Rowe's overall approach. I am broadly sympathetic to
      > his method of reading Plato: to the view that Plato can be understood
      > only with due attention to his method of writing, to the claim that
      > Socrates often adopts (without endorsing) for persuasive purposes
      > premises other than his own, to the willingness to read across
      > dialogues and the anti-"developmentalist" approach. But I am not sure
      > this is quite as revolutionary as Rowe claims. An admonition to pay
      > attention to Plato's nods and winks is highly reminiscent of one of the
      > last century's most important interpreters of Plato: Leo Strauss.
      >
      > Strauss's readings of Plato (like his readings of other philosophers)
      > are, of course, controversial, and one is not normally surprised to see
      > them neglected by non-Straussians. But Rowe's interpretive approach is
      > so very similar to Strauss's that in this context the omission is
      > striking. When Rowe, in his Epilogue, explains that he has not
      > concerned himself with various "Platonists" because "my interest is
      > solely in the dialogues themselves, starting from them, and not from
      > others' interpretations" (273), I hear echoes of my own mostly
      > Straussian teachers. Yet Strauss does not appear in the bibliography;
      > nor do Bloom, Rosen, Benardete, or other notable Straussian
      > interpreters. The similarity of method leads one to wonder what Rowe
      > would make of the most distinctive Straussian claim about the Republic:
      > that the reluctance of philosophers to become kings, suggested by the
      > need to compel them to return to the cave, indicates that Socrates does
      > not actually regard Callipolis as a political possibility, and that its
      > description is thus really intended to illustrate the limits of the
      > human quest for justice. This conclusion relies on giving "due
      > attention to [Socrates'] various nods and winks." It appears, however,
      > that Rowe--though he does not explore the question in detail--takes
      > Callipolis more seriously as an actual political alternative than
      > Strauss does. For he describes the shortcut of Callipolis and the
      > tripartite soul as the "political option" that Socrates pursues once he
      > has come to grips with the political reality that "the majority of
      > souls are already in a non-ideal contition ('feverish', divided)"
      > (180), requiring rule by the wise, philosophical few in order to lead
      > the best and most just life possible. "In short, the Socrates of Books
      > II-X is one newly ready to meet the challenges posed by the condition
      > of actual cities and individuals, in which and in whom reason is only
      > uncertainly in control, if it is in control at all" (180). Given that
      > Rowe reaches this conclusion, apparently different from Strauss's, by a
      > notably similar interpretive method, it would be interesting to see him
      > engage the Straussian reading directly.
      >
      > Apart from this omission, however, Rowe--notwithstanding his claim to
      > be interested only in the dialogues themselves--displays an impressive
      > grasp of a wide range of literature. And as I hope the preceding
      > description has indicated, he will have managed to provoke quite a few
      > interpretive schools already. His book offers a penetrating analysis
      > both of Plato's "philosophical rhetoric" and of various core Socratic
      > (or Platonic) doctrines. His closely reasoned arguments are always
      > grounded carefully in Plato's own texts and repay a second and third
      > reading. Even those who disagree with Rowe's conclusions--or, for that
      > matter, his method--will profit from a thoughtful engagement with his
      > interpretation. Rowe's book is further confirmation (not that more is
      > needed) that Plato has still, after more than two millennia, left us
      > with more than enough to argue about.
      >
      >
      > -------------------------------
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