Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reasoning/Sprited: Dates in the Platonic Corpus #3

My Thoughts on Dating the Platonic Corpus: I think that dramatic dates are most important for philosophically interpreting the Platonic corpus. There are two primary reasons for this, but each reason requires a significant amount of explanation.

It is important to note that although the dramatic timeline of the dialogues show a philosophical evolution, this is not any indication of the order in which they were written or read by the public (Zuckert 10-11 footnote 23). Furthermore, there is no indication that the philosophical trajectory sketched here is one that either Plato or the historical Socrates experienced. Rather, some philosophical understanding is to be gained not only from each dialogue, but from the context in which the dialogue is set historically as well as the context in terms of the dialogues before and after it. Socrates' life, and the lives of the other characters, as presented in the Platonic corpus, make both a philosophical and a political argument [1].

First, dramatic dating is more historically and methodologically sound. I realize that this is a particularly controversial claim. As a disclaimer, it is important to note that I am a "unitarian" in terms of the Platonic corpus, i.e. I believe that Plato's philosophical views did not evolve drastically over time. It is important to note that I did not always advocate strongly for the "unitarian" hypothesis, I was persuaded when a friend of mine introduced me to Plato's Philosophers. As such, I will present a group of arguments which convinced me. Most of these come from Zuckert's book, because her reading on the subject is much more extensive than mine (she spent 12 years writing Plato's which is an 880 page tome on the subject).

Historically, the dramatic dating is more sound because no extand ancient sources provide any reason to assume a change in Plato's philosophy over time. Obviously there is a lot of ancient work that is now lost, but as no extent text, including Aristotle who studied with Plato and Diogenes Laertius who provides the 35-text catalog of Plato's work, even hints at a change in Plato's thought signals a historical problem for the evolutionary hypothesis. The evolutionary hypothesis is an early 19th century invention by Friedrich Schleirmacher (Zuckert 2). Importantly, three of the dialogues which rely primarily (or entirely) on main interlocutors other than Socrates are dramatically set significantly earlier than the primarily Socratic dialogues (Laws, Epinomis, and Parmenides) (Zuckert 30, date chart 8-9). This hints that these dialogues are not an evolution beyond Socrates, but rather demonstrate some kind of a philosophical precursor. Dramatic dating produces a narrative about philosophical evolution and accounts for the changes in Socrates and Plato's other philosophers, but does not ascribe a change to Plato's philosophy and does not posit any dates of composition for which there is dearth of information.

Methodologically, compositional data is problematic. Originally, the timeline was based on scholarly assertions and the vestiges of evidence left over from later authors (e.g. Artistotle and Diogenes Laertius on the Laws, which I will discuss in a subsequent blogpost). In my Phaedrus class, my professor told us that scholars originally believed that the Phaedrus was Plato's first dialogue, because they believed it was clumsily written. Then they thought it might be his last dialogue and he had become senile before he wrote it. More modern subscribers to the evolutionary hypothesis place it closely in time with the Republic.

In the past hundred years or so, most compositional chronology is determined through stylometric analysis. As I mentioned in my recent blogpost, stylometric analysis examines the linguistic style of a text in order to determine the authenticity of composition. Scholars have employed surveys of word-choice, article use, particle use, elision, etc in order to determine the possible order of the Platonic corpus. They place the dialogues into groups by any or all of these factors. However, after this point, the ordering of those groups is primarily done through guesswork or reliance on previous chronological analysis of philosophical themes. More problematic, most of the work, even in the age of computers, has been done by sampling (i.e. examining only small portions of the corpus or work and creating generalizations based upon these). For a short survey, see Leonard Brandwood's "Stylometry and Chronology" in Cambridge Companion to Plato (CCO). The final, and most important methodological flaw in most (if not all) of these compositional chronologies is that they do not account for the differences in the interlocutors (i.e. to whom Socrates and the other primary philosophers speak). Zuckert explains this problem best in one of her footnotes "Plato was a consummate artist who was able to use many styles in depicting exchanges between different individual characters" (Zuckert 17 footnote 30) [2], so even if dialogues are grouped by similar phrasing, it may be based on the similarity of interlocutor or situation more than the time in which Plato composed them.

Second, dramatic dating yields more historically and philosophically plausible and interesting results. I realize this statement may sound a little flimsy, but since there is no way to determine Plato's intention in writing the dialogues (and even if we could, would this really elucidate anything?), but a theory must rise to the forefront based on a combination of the best historical plausibility, methodological reasonableness and consistency, and interesting, historically compelling results that account for inconsistencies and enigmas. Zuckert provides two reasons in her introduction, and I will provide one further to indicate the reason that dramatic dating provides the best yields. First, it affords the audience the ability to account for "the differences in Plato's presentation of Socrates that led most commentators to adopt the developmental thesis...without claiming historical knowledge that we in fact lack about the times in which Plato wrote individual dialogues" (Zuckert 18-19). Second, it demonstrates the acknowledgment in the Platonic corpus of the philosophical and political problems that Plato inherited, and establishes a vision of the ways to solve them, through the figure of Socrates, and then critiques certain characteristics of the solutions (Zuckert 19).
 Finally, more specifically (and importantly to me) reading based on dramatic date provides an explanation for the "doubling" of the city-in-speech dialogues (the Laws and the Republic), accounts for the inconsistencies between them both in policy and prose-style, and provides a fascinating (albeit at least partially fictional) account of the evolution of Greek, and especially Athenian, political thought from the end of the Archaic Age to the Peloponnesian War.

Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues
Zuckert's Dramatic Dates (Zuckert 8-9):


Laws (followed by the Epinomis)
(Socrates' turn from the study of nature or the beings to the examination of the logoi related in the Phaedo)
(Socrates' turn from the logoi to the doxai, related in the Symposium and the Apology)
Acibiades I and II
Charmides (after the battle of Potidaea)
Hippias Major and Minor
Ion (treated thematically in note to the Republic)
Clitophon (introducing the Republic)
Philibus (thematically related to the Republic)

Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Cratylus, Sophist, Statesman, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo
Zuckert divides the groups of dialogues by horizontal lines, in order to delineate the different philosophical trends in the arguments. The first group occur before Socrates becomes a public figure and demonstrate the political inviability of pre-Socratic philosophy and the necessity of Socratic questioning in order to create a regime based on the principles of true goodness, nobility, and justice (Zuckert 11-13). The first stage of Socratic dialogues (group two) demonstrate both the Socratic method of questioning and the problematic nature of the traditional conceptions of terms like justice and goodness (Zuckert 13). In the second stage (group 3), "Socrates no longer remains content merely to show the inadequacy of the opinions held by his interlocutors. He begins to put forth a kind of positive teaching of his own, albeit in the form of images and myths" (Zuckert 14). He attempts to demonstrate the benefits of positive philosophy. The third stage (group four) shows that Socrates, although he has managed to gain a reputation and a following (in contrast to the dialogues in group 2), he cannot convince people to follow these positive teachings in the way that he might like, which is the reason that these dialogues do not come to conclusions in the way of those in the second stage (group 3) (Zuckert 14-16). The fourth and final stage (group 5) include the dialogues which surround Socrates' trial and death, foreshadowed by stage three (group 4), and examine knowledge as such, in light of this (Zuckert 16-17).

As a disclaimer, I cannot verify many of Zuckert's claims about the dating because I have not investigated the dramatic dates as extensively as she has. However, I can (and have in my thesis) argue for the Laws as earlier than the Peloponnesian Wars, and later than the Persian Wars based on historical references, the relationships of the three old men, and discussions of the funerary rituals and the death penalty. I will save arguments about the Laws for a subsequent post.

  1. If this is not already clear, both Zuckert (and I) believe(s) that Socrates, the other leaders of discussion, and the interlocutors are not "impersonal" spokesmen, not concerned with the individuality of others (Zuckert 2 footnote 2) and that the dialogues concern people and action, not merely arguments (Zuckert 5-6 footnote 13). Furthermore, Plato's philosophers who stand as primary interlocutors in the dialogues are not spokesmen in that "no one in the dialogues speaks for Plato simply or directly" (Zuckert 13 footnote 25). Rather, the convergence of ideas in the dialogue create a philosophical understanding in the mind of the reader which is not ever voiced by a single character (for a similar argument, see Zuckert 19).
  2. According to the wonderful professor who taught my Phaedrus class, the Lysianic speech delivered by Phaedrus in the dialogue was considered by many to be actually written by Lysias. Some resent stylometric research, however, showed that it had too many Lysianic tropes in a short space of time to be actual Lysias, but was rather an expert mockery. In general, Plato's emulation of the Greek prose of others is extremely impressive. As such, his style may change from dialogue to dialogue based on whom he is emulating.

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