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Scrivere nell'anima: verita, dialettica e persuasione in Platone, and: Oralita e scrittura in Platone (review)
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Reviewed by
Franco Trabattoni. Scrivere nell'anima: verità, dialettica e persuasione in Platone. Firenze: La Nouva Italia Editrice, 1994. Pp. 396. Paper, 24000 Lire.
Franco Trabattoni. Oralità e scrittura in Platone. Milano: Università Degli Studi di Milano, 1999. Pp. 125. Paper, 16000 Lire.

Trabattoni's masterful 1994 book, which the shorter 1999 book supplements in important ways, offers nothing less than a refreshingly new and provocative interpretation of Plato's philosophy as a whole that makes it neither "conclusive-dogmatic" nor "problematic-sceptical" (7, 41-47, 161, 361-3). For Plato, on Trabattoni's account, while objective truth exists, any logos is incapable of fully expressing it and therefore refutable (158). On the other hand, dialectic can arrive at a logos sufficient (hikanos) for persuading a particular interlocutor in the context of a particular discussion (119-120), and thus for ethical and political action (330). Truth is therefore to be found onlyin dialogue (75-6, 338): that is, only where one person persuades another (249, 252, 328-9; 1999, 75). Persuasion and homologia are thus a necessary, though not sufficient condition of truth: only when capable of responding repeatedly to a wide variety of questions and objections does a persuasion deserve to be called "true" (158-9, 252, 329). This view rejects both the sophistical identification of truth with persuasion as such and the dogmatic identification of truth with universal doctrines.

Because persuasion and homologia are thus essential to it, philosophy cannot be an objective science but must always be at its core a form of rhetoric (239, and thus protreptic and ad hominem, 165-6, 355, 359), which is what Trabattoni takes the Phaedrus to show (48-99). In 1999 Trabattoni brilliantly demonstrated the unity of the Phaedrus by showing how both the discussion of eros and the critique of writing are closely linked to this conception of philosophy as rhetoric (54-93). Philosophy is not, however, the kind of rhetoric that, focused on words rather than truth, fails to persuade in a way that is stable and enduring (87; 1999, 75-6).

In the course of defending his "dialectical-dialogical" interpretation, Trabattoni provides an extraordinarily thorough and insightful critique of another interpretation that claims to offer a new Plato and that has become very influential in Trabattoni's native Italy: the "esotericist" interpretation, according to which fundamental questions left open by the dialogues are answered by a doctrine of principles which Plato communicated only orally. Trabattoni's 1999 book provides a very helpful account of the history and motives of the debate surrounding Plato's unwritten teachings, with regard to both their content and their significance (1-42). I see the following points of Trabattoni's critique as seriously challenging and, if unanswered, even discrediting the esotericist position: [End Page 269]

1) While the esotericists interpret the critique of writing in the Phaedrus as arguing for the superiority of oral discourse as such, Trabattoni interprets it as arguing instead for the superiority of the dialogical situation in which interlocutors can be chosen and their questions and objections addressed (19-26; 1999, 83). Fixed oral doctrines would be no more dialogical than written doctrines and thus no more capable of engendering knowledge "in the soul" (63), much less of constituting this knowledge (25). What would be superior to Plato's writings, according to the Phaedrus, is a dialogue with Plato, not what Plato said orally, lifted out of its dialogical context and reported in writing by Aristotle (115; 1999, 84-5, 124). Trabattoni interprets the Seventh Letter, in his complementary accounts of 1994 and 1999, as similarly contradicting, rather than confirming, the esotericist interpretation (210-11; 1999, 116-9).

2) Thomas Szlezàk has interpreted those passages where the main interlocutor deliberately leaves something out of the discussion ("Aussparungstellen") as referring to unwritten doctrines. Trabattoni argues that they are instead meant to indicate to the unknown reader, whose possible objections and questions cannot be anticipated, the possibility of proceeding further in the discussion (112-3, 182; 1999, 124). "[W]hen the dialogues are silent, they are silent always where there no longer exists the possibility or necessity of persuading; therefore, the true and only variable that...