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Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates
Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates, by Alexander Nehamas; xxxvi & 372 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, $65.00 cloth, $21.95 paper.
This collection of sixteen essays on Plato and Socrates, written during the past 25 years by Alexander Nehamas, consistently manifests the following virtues. In almost every essay, Nehamas has a well conceived and explicitly stated thesis to defend. He marshals his evidence methodically. He is finely attuned to 5th and 4th century Greek literature, and writes as confidently about Isocrates, Sophocles, and Herodotus, as he does about Plato and Socrates. He is capable of minute textual analysis and is level-headed to a fault.
Finally, Nehamas, or at least Nehamas's Plato, is morally serious. The very title of his volume is meant to suggest this. Plato is, for Nehamas, fundamentally devoted to distinguishing between "what is authentic and what is fake" (p. xxxii). Not only in metaphysics, but also in ethics and aesthetics, the genuine, or the real, is superior to the imitation. In sum, "For Plato, the inauthentic is the unethical" (p. xxxiv).
Nehamas's virtues are especially well exemplified when he challenges views widely held by 20th century Anglo-American commentators. For example, while Plato obviously believes that sensible objects fall short of intelligible ones, the exact nature of this, the "imperfection of the sensible world" (p. 138), is far from clear. Notable Plato scholars such as Taylor, Burnet, and Shorey have claimed that "sensible objects only approximate the intelligible objects which they represent" (p. 140). As a result, the language of approximation has become nearly standard in Plato scholarship. But Nehamas painstakingly shows that when Socrates describes a sensible object as only imperfectly beautiful or just, he does not mean that it is approximately beautiful or just. "Rather, he means that [it is] only accidentally beautiful or just" (p. 144). Whether readers finally agree with this claim or not, they can only be benefited by confronting it. Nehamas presents such a well crafted argument that it forces any critic to return to the text in order to see what is really there.
A second example: Burnet, Allen, Crombie, and Geach have claimed that interlocutors (such as Euthyphro) who face Socrates' famous "what is it?" question, fail to answer it properly because they confuse particulars with universals. By contrast, Nehamas argues that while "some of the definitions in these dialogues lack a required generality," this is not "the same as to confuse universals with particulars" (p. 164). He seems right, but once again, even if readers dispute this conclusion, they will find it useful to take it seriously.
Nehamas's insightful, sensibly argued commentaries are explicitly in debt to the work of Gregory Vlastos (to whose memory the book is dedicated and on whom a substantial essay is devoted). According to Nehamas, it was due to Vlastos (and G. E. L. Owen) that "the study of Greek philosophy was accepted as a branch of analytical philosophy." In particular, Vlastos "focused attention on Plato's arguments" and considered "the study of textual and literary issues [End Page 494] . . . irrelevant to the philosophical (argumentative and doctrinal) content of the dialogues" (p. xxiv).
Vlastos's presence is felt throughout this volume, not only in its lucid style of argumentation, but also in its choice of issues. Nehamas devotes six essays, those contained in the section titled "Questions of Metaphysics and Epistemology," to what have now become the staple issues for Anglo-American Plato scholars (e.g., the theory of forms and self-predication). One reason why this set of issues has become so prominent during the past twenty-five years or so is precisely that, as Nehamas puts it, Vlastos's transformation of Plato scholarship into a "branch of analytical philosophy" was "immensely successful both intellectually and institutionally" (p. xxv). In this sense, even if Nehamas challenges certain items of conventional wisdom, he does so within the general framework of the "analytical" or Vlastosian approach to Plato...