Friday, November 19, 2010

Reasoning/Spirited: Dates in the Platonic Corpus #1

There was a great comment on my blog [1] the other day concerning dramatic and compositional dating of Plato (and specifically Plato's Laws) which I thought merited a significantly longer answer than I provided it. So this post will be the long version of my discussion about dating the Platonic corpus. I thought I would provide a brief introduction to the reasons that dating the Platonic corpus is helpful for Plato scholarship before I launched into my own (and Zuckert's) thoughts about creating a chronology.

Why Dating the Platonic Corpus is Important: Over the last few centuries, scholars have noticed that the ideas which emerge from Plato's dialogues as well as Socrates' character (and his importance as a speaker) change radically throughout the Platonic corpus. In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher postulated the evolutionary hypothesis in an attempt to account for these differences in the texts, which proposes that Plato's ideas about philosophy changed as he grew older. Many 19th and 20th century Plato scholars have followed this (Zuckert 2) and many of them have tried to verify or update this theory with stylometric evidence [2]. These dates are the compositional dates, i.e. the dates when Plato wrote each of the dialogues.

A second way to evaluate the dates of the dialogue is through dramatic dating, i.e. the dates when the conversations are supposed to have taken place. These dates can gleaned through certain types of references, the age of Socrates, and the age and/or presence of particular interlocutors. Some of these dates are more difficult to determine, either because there are few or only vague datable references, or because there is no possible time that the conversation could have taken place (e.g. the Phaedrus [3]), but most of them can be assigned some sort of approximate date (even with the slight historical inconsistencies) [4]. These dramatic dates are important for a number of reasons. Some scholars believe that some of the elenctic dialogues may have actually occurred [5]. More importantly, in my mind, these dialogues are set in particular historical moments which provide a context for the arguments being made. Although these arguments may not have-- and probably were not-- made during the years in which they are dramatically dated, they may shed some light on the context in which the contemporary audience would have viewed the dialogues and the arguments contained within. To me, it seems that being dialogues with specific characters and settings, the audience can mine much more information out of them if we assume that those characters and contexts have some meaning.

For me, both types of dating are important. Each one sheds some light on the related concepts of philosophical interpretation and historical context. Compositional dating has philosophical importance insofar as it gives the reader an understanding of the context in which the philosophical ideas were written. Also, if those who believe in the evolutionary model of the Platonic corpus are correct, it could show the audience the changes throughout Plato's philosophy over his lifetime. I do not agree with the evolutionary hypothesis, but my arguments will come in the next section. It also allows us to compare the Plato's Socratic dialogues with those written by Xenephon. In terms of dramatic date, the historical situating of the Socratic dialogues is important because it must have influenced the contemporary readers philosophical interpretations of the arguments within. Furthermore, it possibly gives us some possible historical background on the people and events mentioned [6].

My Thoughts on Dating the Platonic Corpus: in a subsequent blogpost.
Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues Plato: Phaedrus (Aris & Phillips Classical Texts) Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher
The person who commented said something about 408 as a possible dramatic date of the Laws. Does anyone know anything about this hypothesis. I am really interested to look into it.

  1. Please note that I slightly edited the first paragraph of this blogpost because I realized it was unclear (based on the comment I received). It is not changed in argument; I simply tried to clarify my point by expounding.
  2. Stylometry is the study of linguistic style. Scholars have employed surveys of word-choice, article use, particle use, elision, etc in order to determine the possible order of the Platonic corpus. For a short survey, see Leonard Brandwood's "Stylometry and Chronology" in Cambridge Companion to Plato (CCO).
  3. Due to historical evidence about Lysias ans Polemarchus, the dialogue must take place between 412/411 and 404. However, Phaedrus remained in exile during the entirety of this period (Rowe 13-14, Zuckert 9-10).
  4. There are four dialogues for which Zuckert poses no dramtic date: Philebus, Hipparchus, Minos, and the Rival Lovers. Zuckert uses Diongenes Laertius' list of the 35 dialogues ascribed to Plato because, although there may be evidence to the contrary and Laertius is not an entirely reliable source, Laertius provides a source that is much closer to Plato's own time than any modern hypotheses (Zuckert 10 footnote 21). For these four dialogues, which all fall into her period of dates when Socrates is examining the just, the noble, and the good (Zuckert 25 and date chart on 8-9), Zuckert only places the Philebus on her chart because it is "thematically related to the Republic" (Zuckert 25 and date chart on 8-9). She does not dismiss the three other dialogues completely, but only covers them in a short section (Zuckert 25-29) given their brevity and their lack of any dating material.
  5. When I say "elenctic dialogues" I borrow a term from Gregory Vlastos, and mean what many scholars term the "early dialogues," i.e. the short dialogues which come to no conclusion.I do not believe any of the dialogues actually occurred. I will discuss this further.
  6. Many scholars of tragedy look to Plato for evidence in terms of the years when Plato was writing, but the discussion of his characters could provide some tentative evidence for the times in which he set these dialogues rather than when he composed them.

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