- Reading and Writing Plato
Why did Plato write dialogues? How should his dialogues be read (does the literary form matter, for example, to our getting at the heart of what Plato is saying)? These questions are now familiar in contemporary Plato scholarship, and their answers—which undoubtedly are interconnected—are the subject of lively and fascinating exploration. Any doubt that Platonic studies flourishes would quickly be put to rest by the four books under review here.
It was once thought that attention to the "dramatic dimension" of Plato's literary-philosophical productions was the province of two much despised schools of thought: "the Straussians," and "the Continentals." The first of these was viewed as advocating a dangerous combination of esotericism (the idea that somehow Plato's meaning is not on the surface of the dialogues, but concealed in them, as though they were a cryptogram), elitism (the idea that the true Plato is only available to [End Page 205] "the few"—such as the Straussians, according to themselves anyhow), and unphilosophical and dilettantish meanderings about this or that literarily cast "teaching." Straussian hermeneutics was thought to open the way to unprincipled appeals to irony whenever it suited the interpreter, so that any text could end up saying pretty much whatever the interpreter wished for it to say, including the opposite of what the surface of the dialogue appeared to say. And further, it was thought (perhaps in a manner at odds with the "unprincipled interpretation" charge) that the Straussians' mode of "taking into account" the dramatic context—and in particular their contextualization of claims made in the dialogues such that this or that claim gets "explained" as a rhetorical gesture addressed by character X to character Y in context Z, a gesture whose content and validity, so to speak, are limited to that exchange—robs the dialogue of its philosophical content. Hence the worry that Straussian hermeneutics leads to skepticism about the possibility of philosophy itself—philosophy understood precisely in the way that it is regularly spoken of in the Platonic dialogues, namely as the effort to transcend perspective and partiality and to grasp through argument the essence of the matter as such. To cap it off, there is the background suspicion that Straussians are politically conservative, in a way that is somehow connected with their interpretation of Plato.
There is more than a kernel of truth in the view that Straussians have insisted on the hermeneutic importance of the dialogue form, taking their cue from Strauss's own remarks in such texts as The City and Man. He did argue that Plato's meaning is not on the surface (and thus in some sense is esoteric), that it was intended by Plato to be available to "the few" while not debunking the beliefs of "the many," and that Plato is an ironist. There is also warrant for the worries about unprincipled interpretation, as well as about the reduction of philosophy to a sort of literary sensibility substituting for genuine philosophical argument (where, after all, are Strauss's arguments for any philosophical position, whether or not about a Platonic "teaching"?). And it is by and large true, so far as I can tell, that his self-identified followers are politically conservative (in the contemporary American sense), and in a way somehow tied to their interpretation of Plato.
I myself find Strauss's interpretation of Plato to be deeply problematic both in its substance and its method (I put aside the issue of the political conservatism of Strauss's followers, a "teaching" I also find objectionable). And while I join the authors of the four...