- The Language of the Cave
The scholarly essays in this collection focus on the tension between Plato’s expressed views about style, poetry, and intellectual discourse on the one hand and his own practice on the other. Why does a man fiercely hostile toward [End Page 266] literature and poetry write works that are themselves mimetic? Why does he repeatedly resort to story telling to make a point? Why do some of his works fail to fit his own prescriptions of clarity and unity? Six of the eight essays in this collection propose exonerating answers to these and similarly troubling questions.
In stimulating counterpoint to this massive rescue operation, John Gould (“Plato and Performance”) argues that Plato’s attack on the irrationality of Greek literature and poetry has irrational roots in Plato himself. The reality defined by literary art, Gould suggests, is one of contradiction and conflict; its “incorrigible plurality”—the “drunkenness” of things as they are—is something that “Plato, at least in the puritanical mood of the Republic and the Phaedo, would not have wished to feel” (p. 25).
Gould bases his contentions largely on a negative assessment of Plato’s arguments in the Republic. For him, the poverty and fierceness of those arguments strongly suggest an existential agenda at work. Implicitly supportive of this position, Penelope Murray (“Inspiration and Mimesis in Plato”) shows that the picture Plato paints of poets in the grip of irrational frenzy, in the Republic and elsewhere, far from being the traditional truth he purports it to be, is his own creation. It is a “far cry,” she convincingly argues, from the images of the poet that we find in pre-Platonic literature” (p. 46).
The most original defense of Plato is offered by Mary Margaret McCabe in “Myth, Allegory and Argument in Plato.” She proposes that logical arguments in Plato’s text stand in a dialectical relation to stories and allegories elsewhere in the text. Mere logic presents too lean a picture of reality, while myths and allegories present one that is, from an Ockhamite perspective, too rich. The responsibility for finding the right theoretical balance lies with the reader.
Now were it true that Plato’s famous images have no genuine heuristic value in the contexts in which they are offered, then McCabe’s thesis might be in some trouble. Yet that is precisely the claim of Manuela Teçusan (“Speaking about the Unspeakable: Plato’s Use of Imagery”), who reassures readers that because Plato resorts to poetic devices primarily in order to illustrate conclusions that are independently supported, he is not really guilty of an inconsistency needing to be explained away.
If Plato’s complaints against literature are typically understood as presupposing extravagant metaphysical theses of his own, one possibility is to show that he is not actually committed to those theses. Christopher Rowe (“Reflections of the Sun: Explanation in the Phaedo”) and Michael Stokes (“Plato and the Sightlovers of the Republic”) weigh in with carefully argued versions of that time-honored project. Rowe can discover no reference in the Phaedo to the unhypothesized Good of the Republic, while Stokes discerns no genuine Platonic commitment to a two-world theory in Republic 5.
Finally, Richard Rutherford (“Unifying the Protagoras”) diagnoses that dialogue’s notorious lack of unity as reflecting the disorganized minds and unsocratically competitive impulses of its Sophist participants, and Martin [End Page 267] Warner (“Dialectical Drama: The Case of Plato’s Symposium”) proposes that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, all of the Symposium displays both substance and unity.
Reading these well-researched, engaging essays, one may find oneself wishing that their authors would occasionally wonder aloud whether Plato had any choice but to express himself through the poetic/dramatic medium which he criticizes. Perhaps he could have invented the straightforward philosophical prose style, but perhaps he was too busy building its conceptual and cultural foundations.