Harold Cherniss and the Study of Plato Today
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Harold Cherniss and the Study of Plato Today

There are, very broadly speaking, two interpretative approaches to the study of Plato. Let us call the first the “Protestant” approach and the second the “Catholic” approach. According to the first, the fundamental principle of interpretation is sola scriptura, adherence to the texts of the dialogues as the only vehicle providing access to Plato’s philosophy. On this approach, putative evidence for Plato’s thinking drawn from Academic testimony or the indirect tradition is to be either excluded altogether or, if given any evidentiary value, strictly subordinated to the “control” of the dialogues. Thus, the contents of the dialogues always trump testimony. According to the second approach, the dialogues are only one means, albeit perhaps the best means available to us, for access to Plato’s philosophy. That is, the dialogues are not the ultimate authority for Plato’s meaning. It is the Platonic tradition, beginning with the first-generation members of the Academy, that provides significant, although not unimpeachable, “control” for understanding what is in the dialogues.1 In cases where the tradition and the dialogues stand in direct conflict, some further principle or principles must be adduced to resolve that conflict. The most important witness that the Catholics have on their side is Aristotle. His testimony regarding Plato’s philosophy is extensive; his criticisms, based on his understanding of that philosophy, are penetrating and unrelenting. Aristotle is by no means the only witness. He is, though, the key witness. For the tradition that constitutes the backbone of the Catholic position relies heavily on [End Page 397] Aristotle’s testimony. In particular, Aristotle testifies that Plato “reduced” Forms to Numbers and that these “Form-Numbers,” as they are usually called, are themselves not ultimate metaphysical principles. Rather, they are themselves derived or in some sense generated from two ultimate principles, the One and the Indefinite Dyad (or “the Great and Small”), the former of which is itself identified with the Idea of the Good, the superordinate first principle of all in Plato’s Republic (509B). And though this dialogue seems fairly clear that the Idea of the Good has this pivotal role, it is far from clear in Republic or in any other dialogue that this Idea was identified by Plato with something called “the One” or that, in addition to the One, Plato posited another principle prior to any Forms and named “the Indefinite Dyad,” vel sim.

The Protestant approach rejects this testimony on the grounds that the dialogues themselves do not confirm it. But this puts the matter a bit too starkly. For there is, of course, much testimony in Aristotle’s works that is confirmed by the dialogues and nothing in the dialogues that contradicts that testimony in regard to the first principles, although this fact is seldom noticed. So, an obvious question in the face of this Protestant rejection is, why accept some testimony and not all of it, particularly since Aristotle nowhere distinguishes either between testimony based on the dialogues and testimony that is, shall we say, conjectural or speculative? One strategy for answering this question is to suggest that the Form-Numbers and the One-Indefinite Dyad belonged to late—perhaps very late—developments in Plato’s thinking and for this reason, we can construct a firewall around the dialogues (or most of them) such that these “new principles” do not need to be adduced to explain anything in the written works.

It is easy enough to see the vulnerabilities of each approach. The Catholic approach must defend the prima facie implausible claim that evidence other than the dialogues themselves can sometimes trump Plato’s own words as evidence for his philosophical position. The Protestant approach, by contrast, commits itself to the sufficiency of the dialogues for determining that philosophy. Indeed, one version of “extreme” Protestantism contends that, given only the dialogues as a data set, there is no way to determine Plato’s philosophy since in those dialogues Plato nowhere speaks in propria persona.2 More mainstream Protestants try to bootstrap an account of Plato’s philosophy from the dialogues alone. But since the dialogues are not obviously completely...