Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reasoning/Spirited: Dates in the Platonic Corpus #4

Before I finish writing and post the final installment of "Dates in the Platonic Corpus" on the Laws, I thought I should clarify, correct, and supplement some of the previous statements in this series.

First, if anyone is interested by the evolutionary hypothesis, although Zuckert, in her footnotes, provides a lot of sources dedicated to this that one could read, Richard Kraut in his "Introduction to the Study of Plato" from The Cambridge Companion to Plato (CCO) is a great introduction to the way that scholars defend and employ the evolutionary model in the study of Plato. Being a quasi-Tubner, quasi-unitarian, defender of dramatic dating myself, Kraut's arguments are pretty infuriating to me, but he is intelligent, clear, and direct, which I admire. A lot of my clarification and supplementation comes from this introduction.
Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) Politics: A Treatise on Government
Second, to clear up some matters of business.
  • Concerning the Compositional Date of the Phaedrus: Apparently the 19th century philosophers who posited that the Phaedrus was Plato's first dialogue were not simply asserting that the Phaedrus was the work of Plato's confused youth from nothing. They used the "youthful" justification to explain what appeared to them to be a flawed dialogue in conjunction with ancient testimonial. According to one of Kraut's end notes, that Diogenes Laertius "reports a story that the Phaedrus was Plato's first dialogue" (Kraut 35, endnote 17). Kraut furthers that because of this statement Diogenes Laertius' "chronological information does not inspire confidence" (Kraut 35, endnote 17). This amused me, because although Diogenes Laertius is not a reliable source, the evidence Kraut would use to contradict this claim relies on stylistic analysis that is seriously methodologically flawed. Personally, I think it would be incredibly awesome if the Phaedrus was Plato's first dialogue because it is so incredibly sophisticated and it contains the fabulous charioteer metaphor, employs the crazy image of the philosopher sprouting wings, and provides an incredible critique of writing. This, however, is entirely irrelevant to the dramatic dating that I am defending in this series of blogposts.
  • Concerning my Mockery of Stylometric Dating: I still whole-heartedly believe that my mockery of stylometric dating is justified. Kraut makes it sound slightly more reasonable (although all of the criticisms I leveled in my recent blogpost still apply. According to Kraut, all stylometric dating is geared off of the Laws, which ancient sources reveal was Plato's final dialogue (Kraut 35, endnote 17). According to Kraut, the dialogues were arranged into groups by style, and then placed in chronological order by the relation of that style to the Laws, i.e. the ones most different from the Laws were considered to be the earliest, while the ones with the most similar stylistic patterns were considered to be the latest (Kraut 4-5).
    • The ancient sources: Kraut specifically says that Aristotle tells us in the Politics 1264b26 that the Laws was written after the Republic, but Aristotle makes no indication that the Laws was late in the series of dialogues or at the end of Plato's life, and he certainly does not treat it as though Plato was senile when writing it or that the dialogue was unfinished. Kraut also cites later evidence: "Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride 370ff.) says that Plato wrote it when he was an old man; the battle referred to at Laws 638b is often identified as that took place is often identified as one that took place in 356 B.C. (nine years before Plato died)" (Kraut 35, endnote 17). Diogenes Laertius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.37) is the source of the claims most widely used about the Laws (and which I will address at greater length in a subsequent blogpost): a) it was potentially unfinished at Plato's death (Kraut 35, endnote 17), b) it was Plato's final dialogue, and c) it was transcribed from the wax tablets on which Plato wrote it by Philip of Opus. For reference, I do not have any problem with the Laws being the final dialogue that Plato composed, but I do see issues with both stylometric dating based on this assumption and the thought that it is unfinished, because the Laws does not appear to be unfinished to me.
    • Last (amusing) thing about stylometric dating: Even Kraut, a devotee of compositional dating, finds the specifics to be frustrating: "Unfortunately, there is at best meager evidence of this sort [contemporary historical events mentioned], and assigning dates to the dialogues is a highly conjectural matter" (Kraut 37, endnote 25).
  • Concerning Ancient Sources: Ancient sources are troubling. 
    • Aristotle is probably the best bet for an accurate source on Plato. Although Aristotle was one of Plato's students, he is a philosopher in his own right and uses Plato alternately as a source of wisdom and as a straw-man argument [1]. I believe, this means that one should employ Aristotle as a source with some skepticism. Furthermore, from what I understand, none of the extant texts of Aristotle are his actual treatises; what remains are lecture notes. As such, I think that readers must be careful in the interpretation of Aristotle. That being said, I think that there are some fascinating insights about Plato's work (or at least its reception by an ancient audience) in Aristotle (so long as they are viewed with ample caution). I reread the section of the Politics where Aristotle discusses Plato's Republic and his Laws (1260b-1266a-- note I was not reading this in Greek, so I cannot be entirely assured of the accuracy of the translation). One of the things that I noticed was that Aristotle never refers to the ideas encompassed in either text as Plato's. Instead, he attributes them to the character (and not the historical figure) of Socrates which Plato creates. This signals to me that Socrates was not a mouthpiece for Plato or at least not seen that way by a contemporary audience, as Kraut (Kraut 33 endnote 10) and most other modern authors assume (Zuckert and Szlezak are notable exceptions). Furthermore, Aristotle does not seem to indicate that the Laws should be taken more or less seriously than the Republic or that Plato reconsidered his views from the Republic and wrote the Laws as a portrayal of his later thought. Rather, Aristotle seems to consider them with almost equal weight. That also indicates to me the problems with the evolutionary hypothesis. This is obviously tenuous evidence, but it certainly does not favor Kraut and proponants of the evolutionary hypothesis. If you want to check this out, I included a public domain copy at the bottom of the post, or you can get a free copy from Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or Google. I included public domain copies, in part, because I am not about the best translation of the Politics. Does anyone have any ideas?
    • Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius are significantly more problematic. Both wrote in a time far removed from Plato, Plutarch in the 1st century CE and Diogenes Laertius in the 3rd century CE, and neither of them are known for their accuracy (I believe even in their own time, but I might be mistaken). Modern readers may be able to glean something from them, since they were closer to Plato, but they also did not have the benefit of modern methodology, computers, and archaeological techniques so it is difficult to say. When I look into this more deeply, I will write about it more extensively.
For all those in the US, have a wonderful Thanksgiving! To everyone else, have a lovely day.

  1. I also consider how accurately I would represent the work of my professors if I were to write about them. For example, my analysis of William's lecture on the Dipylon Vase certainly could be subjected to interpretive debate. Can a modern audience to a higher standard? Perhaps. But should they? I am not convinced.

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