Plato's First Interpreters (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (1):121-122 (2003)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.1 (2003) 121-122 [Access article in PDF] Harold Tarrant. Plato's First Interpreters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. viii + 263. Cloth, $55.00. This is Tarrant's third book on the ancient Platonist tradition, following his Scepticism or Platonism? (1985) and Thrasyllan Platonism (1993). In those earlier volumes his focus was on the first centuries bc and ad. Here his scope is much wider. Stating that "Platonic interpretation is today at a crossroads," he has written a book that explores "ancient attempts to wrestle with this corpus," with the ultimate objective "to encourage a fresh, almost primitive reading of Plato himself" (vii).He begins engagingly by confronting the ancients with questions any modern reader of Plato must ask: What kind of text is this? Are there doctrines here? Where do I look for Plato's doctrines? The second part of his book is a historical survey, taking us from Plato, the early Academy and Aristotle, through the Hellenistic and early Roman Imperial period, and concluding with the principal Neoplatonist interpreters. In the third and longest part, he focuses on the interpretation of specific dialogues, giving most space to the Gorgias and Theaetetus, but also dealing in particular detail with the Meno, Parmenides, and Philebus. Something is said about every dialogue, but Tarrant writes only briefly about such major works as the Republic and Timaeus. He explains his selectivity (not very convincingly) as due to his wish to "discuss issues of meta-interpretation, with emphasis on the period before Plotinus" (198).Taking his book as a whole, one realizes that few strands of modern interpretation were not prefigured to quite a large extent in antiquity. The two most obvious exceptions are the chronological and developmental approach (Early, Middle, and Late), at present under strong attack from some quarters, and the theological, numerological, and allegorical readings practiced by Neoplatonists. Plato's ancient interpreters were doctrinal unitarians, but they implicitly anticipated our tendency to distinguish "Socratic dialogues," which some of them called "gymnastic" and "inquisitive," from such "canonical" works as the Phaedo,Republic, Symposium, and Timaeus, to which they applied the labels "dogmatic" and "expository." And they recognized that both types of characteristics could be found in the same dialogue, as in the Meno and Theaetetus. Plato himself, they proposed, spoke primarily through the voices of Socrates, Timaeus, and the Eleatic and Athenian strangers; but other characters, such as Pausanias in the Symposium, or Protagoras in the dialogue of that name, utter thoughts with some philosophical value. In explaining difficult passages of one dialogue, they would typically refer to passages from other parts of the corpus. An especially intriguing instance is the strategy of the Anonymous Commentator on the Theaetetus, who reads the Meno into the dialogue on which he is officially commenting.Ancient scholars, just like ourselves, asked questions about the unifying themes of complex dialogues. Hence the sub-titles given to certain works: "On the soul" for the Phaedo, and "On justice" for the Republic, etc. For Olympiodorus (whose commentary on the Gorgias Tarrant has recently co-edited [Leiden, 1998]), earlier interpreters have seriously erred by giving too limited an account of that dialogue's scope. It is not, he says, simply about rhetoric, nor about justice and injustice; nor is its theme the divine demiurge (as some Neoplatonists had strangely proposed, on the basis of the concluding myth). Rather, the subject of the Gorgias is "the ethical principles that lead to constitutional well-being" (125). [End Page 121] However, Olympiodorus's eminently "sensible" reading (as Tarrant calls it) is deeply embedded in the Neoplatonic contrast between the "purificatory virtues" of the Phaedo and the "constitutional virtues" of Republic4.Strong or weak scepticism, esotericism, unwritten doctrines, spurious versus genuine, a canon of central dialogues, dramatic considerations, and the philosophical importance or non-importance of the dialogues' prologues—all of these are interpretive approaches that Tarrant surveys in this immensely learned book, and all of them continue to resonate for us. Modern scholars, who emphasize the literary and philosophical unity of each dialogue, are walking...

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Anne Long
Macquarie University

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