Performing Plato

Hello! Let me get back for a moment to the provisional index of my book on the Phaedrus, which I outlined in my previous post:


Prelude: Plato’s self-disclosing strategies: survey and new insights

Chapter 1, ‘STESICHORE’: Stesichorus and the palinode

Chapter 2, ‘SAPPHO’: Gorgias, lyric poetry and philosophical rhetoric

Chapter 3, ‘OURANIA & CALLIOPE’: The cicadas and the initiation to dialectics

Chapter 4, ‘HELEN’: Plato’s tree, or a figural reading of the Phaedrus

Conclusions: What song for the Kallipolis?

After completing a continuous draft of chapters 1-3 and of the introduction, I am now working on the ‘prelude’, which aims to provide a survey of what I call Plato’s ‘self-disclosures’. Much like the tragedians, Plato could not possibly refer directly to his own output, given that sokratikoi logoi, like tragedies, are consistently set in the past. Any (meta)literary discourse, then, has to be confined to indirect allusions, and it comes as no surprise that many dialogues are to a certain extent self-referential. The end of the Symposium, when Socrates has Aristophanes and Agathon concede that the true playwright should be able to compose both tragedy and comedy, provides a good and well-known example: rather than referring to some 5th century contemporary of Socrates, Plato, as the 4th century author of the Symposium, is here suggesting that his own (4th century) dialogues embody an unprecedented dramatic art form, combining tragedy and comedy.

German and Italian scholars such as Konrad Gaiser and Mauro Tulli have extensively studied these ‘self-disclosures’, but much work remains to be done. I am currently focusing on the Lysis, which I will discuss at the conference “History, Philosophy, Tragedy” (February 24-25, Tampa). Among other things, the conference aims to explore Plato’s dialogues insofar as they “preserve the performative and contextual elements of speech at the same time as it demands explanations of, and arguments for—or against—the principles that are invoked in urging and justifying actions, as well as the notion of justification itself”. In this context, I proposed the following abstract:

“Performative elements of speech are very prominent in Plato’s early dialogues, which were sometimes thought of as suitable for recitation or performance at symposia (e.g. ps. Demetr. 226; Plut. Quaest. Conv. 711b-c). The Lysis is a good case in point: it begins, I argue, with an unnoticed poetic exchange between Hippothales and Socrates, who utter, respectively, a iambic trimeter and a funny quasi-hexameter (actually two hemistichs). This curious feature has escaped the attention of modern scholars, but, arguably, it was fully grasped by Plato’s contemporaries whenever the Lysis was delivered orally: it is remarkable that the extant trimeters of Alexis’ Phaedrus refer back not only to Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, but also – I argue – to the the Lysis and its poetic beginning. Moreover, Hippothales’ beginning perfectly fits his character, in that he soon proves to be a fanatic performer of traditional poetry. The main conversation of the Lysis takes place in a newly-built gymnasium, and features – among other things – an implicit contest between different forms of paideia, old and new. We hear the voice of Pindaric poetry, and even – I argue – a distinct echo of the amorous exclamations known as ‘kalos inscriptions’, which were as common in the first half of the 5th century as they were old-fashioned by the time of the Lysis. This culture was rapidly ageing, and is accordingly ridiculed by Ctesippus, one of Socrates’ interlocutors in the Lysis. This aggressive character is portrayed as an uncompromising promoter of a new kind of paideia, based on eristic discourse as opposed to poetic exchange. Arguably, Socrates strikes a middle course, and Plato somehow assimilates old poetry and traditional paideia, along with dialectics, into the fabric of his own dialogue” (warm thanks to Alex Pappas for her illuminating help with the abstract).

This assimilation, I further argue, has a self-referential quality, in that it reveals Plato’s own positioning within the literary/poetic spectrum of his age. Accordingly, it will fit nicely – I hope – in my prelude to the Phaedrus, arguably the most self-referential among Plato’s dialogues.