Carlin Romano

Plato: A Philosopher, Not a Dramatist — A Second Reply to Enrico Mueller

The virtue of an agonistic pas de deux is that both parties get a chance to reflect on their beliefs and arguments and decide which positions make sense. I understand and respect that Enrico Mueller, in celebrating the spirit of agon in ancient Greece in his opening essay, honors the tradition of Jacob Burkhardt in his History of Greek Culture, the view that, as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht put it, “in certain historical moments individuals have a greater tendency to compete and strive for excellence than in some others.”

I’m nonetheless happy to see that Mueller, in his latest contribution to our back-and-forth, acknowledges a fundamental balance in ancient Greek culture between competition and cooperation. He writes now, “Every form of human coexistence and thus every culture of course depends on cooperation.” He says that what he described in his opening essay is a “cooperative agon.” If I’ve managed to nudge Mueller toward that somewhat oxymoronic conception of ancient Greek culture, I’m content.

He’s certainly correct that, in the spirit of our agonistic assignment, I emphasized the reductionist tilt of his views and moved in a polemical direction. Still operating in that spirit, I’ll try to address here his belief that I simplified his views into one-sided positions while misunderstanding his more textured stance. In doing so, I’ll nonetheless argue that he and I embrace very different understandings of Plato. That inevitably leads us into recapitulating the Plato-Isocrates agon that formed the subject of our first writings on this subject.

Mueller explains here that his sense of agon is not “a struggle for life.” He concedes that all cultures operate through both competition and cooperation, but describes ancient Greece as “more conflicted” and “more unstable.” Historically, of course, we know of both peaceful and warlike times in the ancient Greek world, though Ingrid Rossellini remarks in her Know Thyself: Western Identity from Classical Greece to the Renaissance (Doubleday, 2018), that “war remained the principal activity of the city states.” But if Mueller admits ancient Greece’s instability and conflict, how is that not “a struggle for life”? In short, how strongly, or softly now, does Mueller want to pose his agonistic thesis?

I’m happy that Mueller agrees to “integrating agon into cooperation,” but it might be better to describe things in reverse: integrating cooperation into agon, as Mueller does now in his reply. In gently complaining that he’s been oversimplified, he writes that the subject of his original contribution was the “cultural context of limiting agonism in politics, law, sports, and aesthetic.” In fact, one sees very little of that limiting in the essay, though Mueller occasionally suggests it in passing, as when he refers to “controlling” agonism.

Rather, I’d say, the thrust of his original essay is to “vaunt” agonism rather than limit it. He writes, “There was hardly an area of life that wasn’t shaped by competitive thinking.” He speaks of “the ancient Greeks’ agonism” and ancient Greece’s “Panhellenic agonistic self-image.” He describes “agonism as a foundational structure of the ancient Greek world,” which would habitually “channel the agon into cultivated forms.” Agonism, he says, became “the catalyst for almost all social developments.”

The notion of cooperation hardly appears. Readers following these essays can revisit Mueller’s original contribution to see which seems more accurate, that Mueller “limits” or “vaunts” agonism.

Turning to another matter, Mueller contends that my characterization of Plato and Isocrates is too black and white. He states that the “direction of [his] arguments” is “not a matter of playing off two thinkers against each other in order to devalue one at the benefit of the other.” Here, too, I suggest the reader revisit Mueller’s language in his original essay. There he indicates that Isocrates “missed the very nature of philosophy.” He appears to exclude Isocrates from the category of “True philosophers.” He associates philosophy with “timeless truth”—Plato’s approach—and discusses philosophy as interested in “objects as universal as possible.”

All of those characterizations jibe with the philosophical tradition’s history of denying Isocrates the status of philosopher–the black-and-white treatment of Isocrates versus Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that I’ve wanted to oppose. Since ancient times, the philosophical tradition has devalued Isocrates in comparison with Plato. Mueller says there is “no good or bad” here. I disagree—I say there is “bad” in devaluing Isocrates versus Plato. That there is “bad” in much of Plato’s general philosophical outlook, as when T.A. Sinclair, like Karl Popper, writes in his A History of Greek Political Thought (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967) of “the authoritarian trend in his political philosophy,” or Charles Freeman, in The Greek Achievement (Viking, 1999) notes “Plato’s bitterest attack on democracy” in the eighth book of Republic. In contrast, I think there’s much “good” in Isocrates.

In Part 2 of his essay, Mueller lays out what he calls “Plato’s Dialogic Art of Orientation,” an orientation-based reading of Plato. I won’t delve here into Mueller’s reading of individual dialogues, but rather address its underlying assumption: his idea that the form and genre of Plato’s work, the dialogue, doesn’t allow us to see him as an advocate of absolutes, or even distinctive philosophical positions, as opposed to Socrates or one of his interlocutors.

Mueller’s turn in this direction is deeply problematic. To see Plato merely as an impresario, as what Hollywood types call a “showrunner” or producer, clashes with a long philosophical and cultural tradition that honors Plato as a major thinker in his own right, not just a channeler of the views of others. To be sure, another venerable interpretive tradition sees the early dialogues as more tilted toward the views of the historical Socrates, and more expressive of Plato’s views in the later ones. Those dialogues culminate in Plato’s final work, the Laws, in which Socrates does not even appear, unless one accepts the decidedly minor critical tradition that the Athenian Stranger in that three-way conversation is Socrates.

Scholars still disagree on the exact chronology of the Platonic dialogues, as they disagree on the authenticity of some of them and some of the letters. But there’s virtually no dispute, given Aristotle’s reference to it, that the Laws came at the end of Plato’s long life, and that it remained unfinished at his death.

Many scholars offer judgments on the Laws that undermine Mueller’s thesis of Plato as the Tom Stoppard of his time, choreographing the discussions of intellectuals. Kenneth Sayre, in Plato’s Literary Garden (University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), understands the late dialogues as the equivalent of arguments and doctrines in treatises, and extends that understanding even to the “middle dialogues.” Kenneth Dorter, in Form and Good in Plato’s Eleatic Dialogues (University of California Press, 1994), writes, “In no ancient source is there ever any suggestion that Plato changed his views in a radical way,” adding, “Aristotle, for example, always write[s] as though Plato consistently defended the theory of forms throughout his life.” And T.A. Sinclair, in his history of Greek political thought cited above, writes of Plato that “in later life the desire to instruct, to put his own thoughts on paper increased, and the dialogue form becomes less of a reality. If no one would call the Gorgias a text-book, neither would anyone mistake the Laws for a real dialogue; it is much more like a treatise on government that Plato would have allowed himself to write in his younger days.”

Mueller, citing the Republic, the Statesman, and the Laws, asks, “In this personal polyphony, in this multitude of different perspectives on the state in different situations—where exactly could Plato’s true concept of politics be located? It is the distillates and reductions of contextless reconstructions that makes Plato metaphysical, dogmatic, and ideological.” Perhaps. But many commentators—among them Cicero, Gadamer and George Klosko in his The Development of Plato’s Political Theory (Macmillan, 1986)—take the Athenian Stranger in the Laws to represent Plato himself.

Mueller, then, essentially argues that Plato’s use of the dialogue form raises a similar problem to the one faced by interpreters of novels who must decide the extent to which the novelist’s views emerge from one character or another and become the writer’s spokesman. He writes, “In Plato’s oeuvre, his most famous ideas cannot be found in a clear and unconditional shape. For the dialogue, as a deliberately chosen form of philosophical writing, highlights a focus on communication that doesn’t allow for absolutes in Plato’s philosophizing—neither in an ontological nor in an epistemological sense.”

Again, most Plato interpreters reject that view. Most commonly, as noted above, commentators identify Plato’s views as closer to Socrates’s in the early dialogues, more likely his own in the later work, and rarely radically opposed to those of Socrates.

One reason has been that it would be bizarre to identify Plato’s views with characters in the dialogues with whom we know him to disagree, such as Gorgias. Another rests on Plato’s enormous expressed admiration for Socrates as the best of the best. Would Plato have seen him as such if he did not agree with Socrates’s dialectical approach and views? Catherine H. Zuckert writes in Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (University of Chicago Press, 2009), “[I]f Plato thought the views presented by Timaeus or the Eleatic were truer than the arguments presented by Socrates, why did Plato continue to make Socrates the most prominent philosopher? Plato is known to have reworked the dialogues until his death.” Trevor Saunders, a 20th-century translator of the Laws, dubs it “Plato’s last and longest sermon to the world.”

A further reason for feeling confident that Plato, as philosopher, held actual philosophical views and expressed them, is what Sayre called the more treatise-like form of the later dialogues, such as the Laws, with its very detailed, concrete declarations of policies and rules for the Cretan utopia of Magnesia. By the by, to the extent that we identify a philosopher’s views with those he or she held last, one might puckishly quote a thought from the Laws apropos of ancient Greek culture and its supposed fealty to agon: “We must remember, about all gymnastic contests, that only the warlike sort of them are to be practiced and to have prizes of victory; and those that are not military are to be given up.” (Laws, VIII, 832).

Mueller nonetheless is committed to his thesis that “As a dramaturge of dialogues, the thinker Plato clearly distances himself from the thoughts he expresses: he does not write in his own name.” Leaving aside why Mueller describes Plato as a “thinker” in the very sentence where he undercuts that view, Mueller wants to argue here that Plato the “dialogue-artist” shows rather than tells in the dialogues. Mueller rejects what he calls “metaphysical schoolbook Platonism.”

All of this strikes me as significant backpedaling by Mueller from his acceptance in his opening essay of Plato as a philosopher with ideas and beliefs of his own. Suddenly, Plato’s a great dramatist in the tradition of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, or an ancient P. T. Barnum—an impresario of ancient Greek philosophy rather than one of its great thinkers. He’s an arranger of voices rather than a voice himself.

Why then has the tradition of classics scholarship mischaracterized Plato so, and not lumped him in with the great dramatists? Because, I’d say, it’s simply incorrect to classify Plato that way. One key reason for rejecting that vision is his line of work (at least after he stopped wrestling). That’s right—the Academy. We know why Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides didn’t found an academy or lyceum. They wrote true dramas—they arranged voices rather than philosophers. But everything we know about Plato, especially after Athens drove his idol Socrates to suicide, is that he turned toward philosophy, toward instilling his Academy’s students with beliefs and an intellectual method he urged. Plato’s letters, in which we hear Plato speaking directly for himself, also confirm him as a thinker with a clear-cut desire to put his theories into practice.

As it happens, there’s a major scholarly work on Plato, Zuckert’s Plato’s Philosophers mentioned above, that, in effect, works out Mueller’s view at a gargantuan 888 pages. Zuckert, like Mueller, builds her study around the puzzle—she dubs it “Platonic dramatology”– that Plato offers us multiple philosophers in the dialogues, but never speaks for himself. How, then, can we know or characterize his views? She even provides a chart that represents Socrates, Parmenides, Timaeus, the Eleatic Stranger, and the Athenian Stranger, and compares their “Comprehensive View,” “Problems,” “Interlocutors,” and “Argumentative and Investigative Procedure.”

Zuckert, in other words, starts from the same place that Mueller does. She writes, “Plato’s understanding is to be found in what he shows, first in individual dialogues, taken as a whole. It is not to be found in individual arguments Plato puts in the mouths of specific characters conversing under particular conditions.” Zuckert’s belief is that “it is necessary to look at the arguments in context.” She never, however, suggests that Plato did not have philosophical views, or an “understanding” that scholars can determine. Indeed, her massive book attempts to divine them.

What does she conclude? Zuckert—partly for some of the reasons thumbnailed above—declares that such a methodology ends up providing us with what Plato thought. As she puts it, Plato shows that “in the end there is no better alternative” than the views of Socrates even if Socrates’s arguments are sometimes imperfect. She asserts that Plato “self-consciously and intentionally presented a new form of education—political as well as philosophical.” He indicated “the direction in which human beings need to move. We may never be able to obtain knowledge properly speaking, but we can learn something about the limitations of our power and, consequently, how we should restrict our ambitions to command others—much less to conquer the world, or to remake it entirely—by seeking knowledge.”

Zuckert thus draws substantive Platonic positions from the same dialogic genre that Mueller sees as obstructing determination of Platonic positions. To her mind, Plato did not merely dramatize “the best form of human existence as he understood it. By contrasting Socrates with other philosophers, Plato also indicated why philosophy will always remain a search for wisdom rather than the possession of knowledge.” For those beguiled by Mueller’s approach to Plato in his most recent piece, I recommend following up by reading Plato’s Philosophers.

Toward the end of his recent reply, Mueller refers “to the paradox that perhaps the most influential teacher of Western philosophy conceived of his thinking as that of avoiding any teaching.” That appears to be a reference to Plato rather than Socrates, though the sentence is a bit ambiguous. My own failure to understand this, Mueller suggests in his recent reply, means that I turn “Plato’s intentions upside down.”

I disagree. I share company with those who reject Mueller’s judgment that “Plato’s thinking can be understood as a dramatization of Socrates’s existence and dialogical practice.” I believe the Academy’s founder proved to be a powerful thinker in his own right, who increasingly set out his beliefs with great literary artistry.

Finally, I do value Mueller’s appreciation of what he calls my “clever and constructive” bringing of the ancient Greek concept of kairos to our discussion. He’s right that I see it at the heart of the divide between Isocrates and Plato. He’s also correct that I want to assert “Isocrates’s philosophical superiority over the latter,” at least in this sense: Isocrates better understands how real life and wisdom come together.

I agree with Mueller that Phaedrus is the dialogue in which Plato comes closest to honoring Isocrates as a thinker, and portraying the latter’s methods of reasoning as not foreign to philosophy. But while Mueller says that he doesn’t “want to exclude the possibility that Plato’s new interpretation was inspired by his opponent,” I read in his closing words an attempt to credit Plato with employing kairos in a way that exalts his own philosophy even more, and leaves Isocrates in the dust. Mueller closes by announcing, “It speaks for the greatness of Plato’s philosophy [Wait, he had a philosophy?] to dare, even in his final works, a thought experiment that makes all forms of aesthetic, scientific, theoretical, and practical knowledge dependent on the powers of situational appropriateness.”

Oh, no, sorry—that’s not going to fly! That’s highway robbery. Plato as the champion of kairos, once again stealing Isocrates’s thunder? My man Isocrates gets the credit for kairos and its centrality in a philosophy of practical reasoning. I hope that Mueller, with a smile, appreciates that when I call out this end-of-essay theft of Isocrates’s laurel, I’m simply engaging in the ancient Greek spirit he celebrates in his original essay—the spirit of agon, the Greek winner-take-all ethos in any competition. As Mueller writes there, “Every competition only ever has one winner.”