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Die Idee des Guten in Platons Politeia: Beobachtungen zu den mittleren Buchern (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 43, Number 3, July 2005
pp. 354-355 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0139

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 43.3 (2005) 354-355

Thomas A. Szlezák. Die Idee des Guten in Platons Politeia: Beobachtungen zu den mittleren Büchern. Sankt Augustin: Academia, 2003. Pp. viii + 160. Cloth, € 24,50.

The first part of this book consists of a series of lectures delivered at the University of Macerata in April 2000. These lectures provide a detailed and illuminating analysis of the middle books of the Republic, with the focus naturally on the three great similes. Appended to these lectures are three previously published articles on the Cave Analogy, the Idea of the Good, and Rafael Ferber's supposedly "skeptical interpretation" of Plato (the latter expanded). While some repetition is unavoidable in such a compilation, the different parts of the book for the most part complement and reinforce each other.

One might expect just more special pleading for the "unwritten doctrines" interpretation. However, this volume is concerned mainly with the details of Plato's texts and makes little appeal to unwritten doctrines. The introductory lecture indeed attacks the "naïve" hermeneutical assumptions of those who reject the Tübingen-Milan interpretation and one of the articles argues that Socrates' account of the Good as principle in the Republic is to be understood as an intentionally incomplete version of the "unwritten" theory of principles, rather than as a distinct theory incompatible with it (111–31; see also 46, 48). However, the debate Szlezák mainly pursues is not that between the "esotercists" and the "anti-esotericists," but rather what Szlezák himself recognizes to be the distinct and more fundamental debate between two opposed interpretations of Plato's conception of philosophy: philosophy as an endless striving devoid of doctrines versus philosophy as capable of reaching an end in the achievement of knowledge (138–39). These two debates have not always been kept distinct: many of those who reject the relevance of the unwritten doctrines do so because they reject the attribution to Plato of a "doctrinal" conception of philosophy, while some of those who defend the importance of the "unwritten doctrines" do so at least in part because they see them as confirming their view that Plato was a dogmatic and systematic philosopher (I would put H. J. Krämer in this category).

As evidence that "Platonisches Philosophieren ist kein endloses Untersuchen" (36), Szlezák often cites the reference at 532e3 to "a rest from the way and an end of wandering." Furthermore, Socrates speaks of "the sufficient seeing of the Good" (519d1–2; see 79–80) and attributes to the soul the power to persist in the contemplation of it (518c9–10) and to examine and regard how it is (516b6–7) (98). Szlezák also objects that those for whom philosophizing is "ein ewiges Unterwegssein ohne Aussicht oder Ankunft" (101) would need to rewrite the Cave Analogy so that what is seen outside the Cave is only an overcast sky (101).

Yet it is surely ill-advised to cite what Glaucon says at 532e3 as evidence of Socrates' or Plato's conception of dialectic, especially since Socrates immediately suggests that Glaucon would not be able to follow an explanation of dialectic. As for the other passages Szlezák cites and correctly interprets, we must ask if the Cave analogy is providing more than a utopian ideal to which philosophy can no more than approximate.

Szlezák does directly challenge this suggestion. He makes the valid point that even if the ideal republic were utopian (though he insists that it is not: 83, 107), this would not thereby have to be true of the knowledge of the Good, since the impossibility of attaining the latter is never presented as a possible argument against the possibility of the former (143). He furthermore asserts that 519d1–7, with its suggestion that today philosophers are allowed to remain outside the Cave, would be "sinnlos" if there currently existed no one who had sufficiently seen the Idea of the Good (83, n. 211; 84). But then how do we reconcile this with Socrates' claim at 505a5–6 that "we have no adequate knowledge" of the Good and with his refutation of the conceptions of both the...

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