Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 500-502
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Turning Toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues
Turning Toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues, by Jill Gordon; x & 182 pp. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, $32.50.
Sometimes it seems that Platonic scholarship follows Hegelian lines. The dominant trend (thesis), as exemplified by Gregory Vlastos and his followers, pays close attention to the logical structure of arguments but has little to say about character development or dramatic detail. The counter trend (antithesis), as exemplified by Hans Gadamer, Drew Hyland, Charles Griswold, and Mitchell Miller, argues that the dramatic elements are critical. Turning Toward Philosophy is clearly in the tradition of the antithesis and seeks to argue that Plato's primary intention in writing the dialogues was not to advance a philosophic position but to stimulate critical reflection on the part of the reader.
Instead of going through the dialogues one by one, Gordon's book proceeds topically. There are chapters on dialectic, reader-response theory, drama, character development, irony, and image making. The dialogue that receives the most attention is the Meno, a classic text that combines all of the features Gordon considers important. Unlike Guthrie and Klein, she recognizes that the title character changes under the influence of Socratic questioning: the pompous youth who chides Socrates at the beginning starts to show greater humility and intellectual facility as the discussion proceeds. Socratic elenchus is not just a question and answer session. It tries to purge the soul of false conceit (Sophist 227d) and thus to restore a sense of balance and proportion.
Gordon's treatment of the Meno is in keeping with the major claim of her book. Not only does Socrates engage the respondent and get him to examine his life, but, more generally, Plato tries to do the same for the reader. "[T]he dialogues," she tells us, "encourage the reader to play a role in the drama, to interact with it and to philosophize along the way. Insofar as we play a role in the drama, we must ask questions of ourselves . . ." (p. 52). Although she is not the first person to point this out, Gordon makes a good case for the claim that drama is an integral part of Plato's conception of philosophy. Her purpose then is to offer what she describes as "a phenomenology of reading the dialogues" (p. 7).
In my view, the best chapter is the one on irony. Although he titled his last book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Vlastos had a very restricted view of what irony amounts to. According to him, irony is limited to the things a person says. In Socrates' case, it refers to the fact that what is said both is and is not what is meant. Gordon objects that Socratic irony is much richer and involves "an incongruity between phenomena within the dramatic context of the dialogue" (p. 122). In a nutshell, irony involves not only what the characters say but the dialogue as a whole. In the case of the Meno, Socrates [End Page 500] creates an incongruity by praising Anytus' father and then going on to argue that even the best fathers have difficulty passing their virtue on to their children. It is not that he does not mean what he says but that what he says must be judged within the overall context that Plato has created.
Another example involves Meno's claim that he has spoken about virtue many times in front of large audiences (80b) and the subtle way in which Socrates brings Meno's words back to haunt him. In the end, Meno does not fare any better than his slave; in some respects he fares worse. Once again the purpose of irony is to stimulate philosophic reflection by making the soul view itself and its circumstances in a new and more critical way.
A second contribution is Gordon's claim that despite Plato's well-known attitude to images and reflections...