Plato by Constance Meinwald
All those who profess ancient philosophy will no doubt have received from students requests for a reliable introductory monograph on Plato. It is a request that many—myself included—find somewhat embarrassing. For it is extremely difficult to think of an introductory book on Plato in English that is at once accessible to beginners, reasonably comprehensive, exegetically accurate, and philosophically sophisticated. But if these four desiderata are not met, any recommendation may actually do more harm than good. It is not difficult to show that the introductions by Andrew Mason (2010), J. C. B. Gosling (1973), G. M. A. Grube (1935), and A. E. Taylor (1926) fall short according to one or more of these criteria.
Constance Meinwald has made an heroic effort to write an introduction to Plato that meets all four of the above desiderata. The volume appears in the series from Routledge under the editorial direction of Brian Leiter. Meinwald makes no pretense to originality, for which reason it is a bit of a stretch to suggest, as she does, that professional philosophers and classicists can profit from this book. I would make one qualification to this claim: Meinwald writes in a vivid and engaging style, and she employs numerous charming examples, which I will be glad to avail myself of in class. The length of the book reaches the limit of a book that aims for accessibility. For this reason alone, one can sympathize with the author in the brevity of her treatment of most subjects. Meinwald tries to cover a lot expeditiously, and what she chooses not to cover might well be thought to be beyond the limits of an introductory text.
The book has ten chapters. The first three chapters (7–72), constituting part one of the book, are largely concerned with background material: Plato's life and works, the literary structure of the dialogues, the question of Plato's "development," Plato's relation to the historical Socrates, and Socratic Method. The presentation is concise, clear, and only lightly footnoted. Meinwald leaves unresolved some highly contentious issues here; something that seems to me to be eminently reasonable in a book of this sort.
The second part of the book, comprising four chapters (75–208), focuses on fundamental Platonic themes from the so-called central dialogues. These include love in Symposium, the immortality of the soul in Phaedo, the division of the soul in Republic, and virtue, again, in Republic. A notable structural feature of this section is that, while Meinwald regularly adduces forms as fundamental to the solution to the problems raised in these dialogues, she keeps them in the background, reserving for the third part a more technical discussion of metaphysics. Perhaps the least satisfactory chapter in this section is the one devoted, broadly speaking, to Plato's ethics, which here is limited to an account of how [End Page 170] Socrates argues for the sufficiency of virtue for happiness in Republic. This is the only chapter on ethics in the book. Nothing at all is said about the so-called Socratic paradoxes, nothing is said about pleasure, and only a bit is said about the moral psychology. Meinwald's strategic decision to separate the material in these chapters from the discussion of forms also has the unfortunate consequence that, in her discussion of Phaedo, the central argument for the immortality of the soul gets very short shrift.
The third part of the book has three chapters (211–300) and is devoted exclusively to an explication of the nature of forms and, in particular, certain issues arising in the so-called later dialogues. In my view, the author spends an inordinate amount of time on self-predication and an interpretation of the second part of Parmenides, which is probably too sketchy to be of much use to the beginner. She tries, not very successfully, I think, to explain in a simple way why Plato thinks that the sensible world is inferior in being to the intelligible world. She tries, with somewhat better results, to answer the difficult question of how a form can be simple and yet be the subject of predication in some sense. There is an unfortunately very brief discussion of the mathematization of forms in Philebus and Timaeus, and the method of collection and division. In addition, there is a brief appendix on various senses in which the forms might or might not be "transcendent" or "separate" from the sensible world.
Those who, like myself, are tempted to recommend this book to beginning students will no doubt do so with reservations, for the book that meets without compromise the above desiderata does not exist and probably never will. Regarding Plato's ethical theory and its foundation in his metaphysics, perhaps the most that can be expected from recourse to Meinwald's book is an awareness by the neophyte of how much more needs to be said.