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Of dialogues and seeds

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 167-178 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0007

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 167-178

Critical Discussions

Plato's Literary Garden: How to Read a Platonic Dialogue, by Kenneth M. Sayre; xxiii & 292 pp. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995, $34.95.

One of the best known paradoxes in the Platonic corpus occurs in the Seventh Letter (341), when Plato says that he has never written about the problems which concern him and never will. His reason: "This knowledge can never be put into words like other subjects; but is generated by living with the matter itself and from many conversations (ek polle\s sunousias). Then like a flashing light when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and nourishes itself." Why would the most gifted philosophical writer in history say that when it comes to goodness, beauty, or justice, language is an inadequate medium in which to convey truth?

One answer is that Plato had an esoteric doctrine that he divulged to a few close associates but did not express in the dialogues. The crux of the esotericist position is that Plato's objection is not to language as such but to written language in particular. A more satisfying answer is offered by Kenneth M. Sayre in this recent book. According to Sayre, Plato wrote dialogues to allow the reader to have conversation (sunousia) with the author "in an indirect manner" and to facilitate the reader's own discovery of truth. In other words, the dialogues are surrogates for the sort of discussions Plato shared with Socrates "in hopes of producing a similar effect in the mind of the reader."

If Sayre is right, the problem discussed in the Seventh Letter is not limited to written communication but involves "logoi in whatever form we might identify them today" (p. 159). Sayre enlarges on this insight by claiming (p. 18) that for Plato "philosophic knowledge is not awareness of the truth of propositions" but "discernment of some aspect of reality." Nor is this view limited to the Seventh Letter; Sayre finds it expressed in dialogues ranging from the Meno to the Statesman. Although I have problems with some of the details of this interpretation, it is noteworthy that the Seventh Letter (342a) does claim its epistemology is not new and "has been expounded many times before."

The title of Sayre's book is taken from a famous passage in the Phaedrus (276), where Socrates says that while written language gives the appearance of finality and inviolability, it is an image (eido\lon) of living speech, by which he means words that can defend themselves and are accompanied by knowledge. But as Sayre points out, the passage also carves out a role for written speech by claiming that it is legitimate for the dialectician to plant seeds in "a literary garden" to assist memory in later years and to help others who "wish to walk in the same path."In fact, the passage tells us that the dialectician will select a soul of the right type and take pleasure in watching the seeds grow and mature. In keeping with Plato's metaphor, Sayre organizes his chapters into functions associated with gardening: some dialogues prepare the ground, others sow the seeds, train the shoots, or allow us to reap the fruit. The book ends with an appendix on how to read a specific dialogue, the Theaetetus, in a way that emphasizes indirect or imagined conversation. As one might expect, Sayre takes the Theaetetus to imply that knowledge cannot be defined as true belief with a logos.

Although not a highly technical work, Plato's Literary Garden is a thoughtful and thought-provoking one designed for someone who wants students to see that Plato is not just another philosopher with another doctrine to peddle. So the first step in reading a Platonic dialogue is to recognize with Sayre that the dialogues are not "proto-essays" and that the decision to write dialogues is tied up with important features of Plato's epistemology. But does that mean, as Sayre claims (p. 12), that "Plato's dialogues were not conceived by their author as contexts in which to develop and to display positive arguments for one or...

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