Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Getting to know Plato

Christopher Rowe

photo: lentina_x via Creative Commons

For early students of philosophy, can you tell us a little bit about who Plato was?

Plato (424/3-348/7 BCE) was a student of Socrates. He wrote more than 25 dialogues, a large number of which have Socrates as the main character, leading the conversation. The main point of the conversation is usually to get us thinking about what we think we know: we may say we know something (‘it’s obvious!’), but how sure can we be that it is true? Socrates said that he differed from other people mainly because, if he knew anything, it was just that he didn’t know anything. Plato’s dialogues sometimes end with Socrates and the people he is talking to concluding that their discussion – whether it’s been about courage, say, or friendship, or justice – has got nowhere. But at the same time we’re likely to find that the dialogue has quietly been advancing new perspectives even while demolishing old ones.

What are the Theaetetus and the Sophist about, and why are they two of Plato’s most important dialogues?

The Theaetetus is about knowledge, while the Sophist is about – sophists: teachers who, as the dialogue proposes, make money by merely pretending to have knowledge. The two dialogues belong to a trilogy, the third and last part of which is the Statesman, in which all existing statesmen are written off as themselves the worst kind of sophist. As such they are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the true statesman, who would govern or guide the state on the basis of knowledge; that is, knowledge of the true purpose of statesmanship – to make people better, and so allow them to live better lives – and of how to bring that about. (To be a better human being, Plato/Socrates holds, is to live a better life, whatever anyone may suppose.) Part of the importance of the Theaetetus lies in its extended arguments against one of the leading sophists, Protagoras, who had taken up a position diametrically opposed to Plato’s (and Socrates’) own, namely that all knowledge was relative, either to the individual or to the society in which he or she lives. That there is knowledge is a fact, conclude Socrates and his young partner in the conversation, Theaetetus. They are unable to say precisely what knowledge is, but we are left with a pretty good idea of what Plato would have said on the subject; and that leaves the way open for a frontal assault, in the Sophist, on the sophists in general. The Sophist also includes reflections about what there is in the world (e.g., just body, and what we can touch?), and a discussion about what is not  – i.e., falsity, something whose existence sophists like Protagoras tended to deny – that has fascinated modern philosophers, among them Wittgenstein.

What were the greatest challenges you faced in translating and editing your book, Plato: Theaetetus and Sophist?

The greatest challenge in reading, let alone translating, Plato is that he never says anything directly. This is true first of all in the obvious and literal sense that he never says anything, himself at all; everything he does say is said by and through his characters. Secondly, he employs dialogue, and his dialogues resemble real – philosophical – conversations, in which ideas are continually being introduced, contradicted, modified, rejected, replaced, until one can easily forget where they started and how they have got to where they have. And thirdly, most of the dialogues, unlike the Theaetetus and the Sophist, are singletons in terms of their form, standing independently on their own, as conversations, usually between different people, would necessarily be. All of this has the consequence that there is huge disagreement, and always has been in the 2,400 years since Plato, about how to interpret him. At the same time, at different periods particular interpretations tend to dominate. For the last century or so, the dominant story has been that Plato’s ideas are continually evolving, and that there are particular moments of radical change. The most important breaks, according to this story, are, first, between the earliest dialogues, which according to this model are based in and around Socratic methods and ideas, and a so-called ‘middle’ period, when Plato developed some of his most distinctive ideas, like the ‘theory of Forms’, or the idea that society should be ruled by philosophers (as in Plato’s Republic); and second, between this ‘middle’ period and later dialogues such as the Theaetetus and the Sophist. In my view this interpretation is built almost entirely on sand: there is, I contend, a fundamental continuity from the earliest dialogues, through the Republic to the Theaetetus and Sophist and beyond. Indeed, in my view the trilogy Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman can only properly be understood in light of, and as a continuation and/or amplification of, the ideas of the Republic. The kind of close reading necessitated by translating Theaetetus and Sophist – a hand-to-hand engagement, sentence by sentence – has appeared to me only to confirm this view. Yet I was rationed to no more than 10,000 words of Introduction, and minimal notes: enough to sketch my interpretation, but hardly enough to justify it properly. In many respects, though, that interpretation is hardly new: its main outlines would hardly cause a stir outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and would have been commonplace in many centuries before the last one.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you challenge current scholarly approaches to Plato’s work?

My last response has already begun to talk about that. A specific example: it is widely held (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) that there are no Platonic Forms in the Theaetetus, or – with one obvious exception – in the Sophist. My own position is that this view is based mainly on a misunderstanding of a central passage of the Republic, and that actually Forms, or forms (of the Platonic variety: I prefer not to capitalise ‘forms’), are everywhere in both dialogues. This has considerable consequences, both for our understanding of what a Platonic ‘form’ is, and for our understanding of Plato in general.

How does Plato: Theaetetus and Sophist fit with your wider academic interests and research?

I wrote my PhD thesis on Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, but apart from a few smaller pieces on Aristotle, and a new translation of his Nicomachean Ethics, I have spent most of my writing and teaching career focussing on Plato, who is my first (academic) love. As an undergraduate, and then as a young lecturer, I never felt that I had understood either of these two dialogues, partly because the fashion was, and still is, to talk about certain purple passages in isolation (like the one that interested Wittgenstein). I took on the task of translating the dialogues for CUP partly because I thought they – the dialogues – had been somewhat poorly served by previous translators, but mainly because it offered me an opportunity to get a proper grip on them – as I think I now have, although it’s still strictly relative: one of the things that make Plato such a great writer is that it is rare to go back to a passage of his of any size without finding some new aspect to it that one has missed before. I am not of course claiming – or if I am, only to myself – that my readings are right and everyone else’s are wrong; what I can say is that whenever I set out to translate something, and I have now translated a fair proportion of Plato (plus Aristotle’s Ethics, Nicomachean), my first aim is to make sense of the text for myself. And it is a great feeling when it seems to come out right, and everything looks as if it fits together.

Can you tell us a little about how your book is structured and how this will be useful for students?

It’s the standard format for the series: introduction, translation, with scattered and mostly tiny notes and index, but there’s a small chronology, there are short summaries of both dialogues to help students through a type of work that by its nature includes few signposts, there is a prefatory note on some central issues surrounding the translation (to do, e.g., with the Greek verb for ‘to be’), and at the end there is a set of notes on issues to do with problems in the Greek text (which despite having been handed down, copied and re-copied, over nearly two and a half millennia, is nevertheless in what seems to be surprisingly good shape). This is for the sake of openness, and completeness; nothing in the volume presupposes that the reader will know ancient Greek, and most of the target audience will not.

Where do you like to write?

I can write more or less anywhere, and once I am into it, I am oblivious to everything else; the pneumatic drill would have to be right outside the window to disturb me. In the afternoons, I like to write with the headphones on, listening mainly to Shostakovich, Mahler, Bruckner, and more recently a bit of Philip Glass, so that means I really prefer to be in my study where the music is.

What is the first book you remember reading?

Otto of the Silver Hand.

Describe your book in three words?

Accurate, readable, provocative [given current conditions; but it shouldn’t be].

About The Author

Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe is Emeritus Professor of Greek at Durham University. His publications include Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and tr...

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