"Why Plato wrote": the insularity of Platonic studies

Andrea Capra

“Why Plato wrote”: this startling title caught my eye as I was walking by the new books on display at the CHS. I immediately grabbed the book and brought it to my office, then I switched off my cellphone, closed the door. In sum: I disconnected myself from the world to devote all my attention to a question that has been haunting me ever since I have started reading Plato. Who is the author of the book? Hardly a minor figure: Danielle Allen (2010), Princeton, Cambridge background. When I asked my friends at the CHS, the answer was unanimous: not only is she a very clever scholar (I could see this much by myself), but she has developed into an influential public figure. What was the outcome of my greedy reading? Mixed feelings. At first – I must confess – irritation. Why? Well, the Prologue sounded very promising to me: I heartily agree with Allen’s idea that the primary goal of Plato’s dialogues is to change people’s lives, the intended readership being not limited to a closed circle of philosophers but including, at least potentially, “a general reader” (p. 5). Why be upset, then?

Allen’s book “both reclaims what has been known and understood about Plato by earlier generations and introduces new ideas” (p. 2). After this bold claim, Allen reminds her readers of her previous scholarly achievements: through the electronic Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, she was able to detect Platonic vocabulary in some 4th-century speeches, and this, in turn, resulted in her thesis that Plato managed to shape the mind of his fellow citizens. According to Allen, Plato was enough of a sociologist to understand that literature, too, shapes people’s minds, which ultimately calls for her conclusion that “Plato wrote … all his dialogues to displace the poets” (p. 77). This is the key to penetrate the true Plato:

“Happily, this question, ‘Why did Plato write?’ turned out also to be the key to the appearance of Platonic formulations in the mouths of Athenians politicians. Plato wrote, among other purposes, to effect political change. Yes, Plato was the world’s first systematic political philosopher, using text to record technical philosophical advances, but he was also, it appears, the western world’s first think-tank activist and its first message man. He wrote – not solely but consistently – to change Athenian culture and thereby transform Athenian politics. As Diogenes Laertius, one of the most important biographers of Plato, put it, ‘in his own city Plato did not meddle with political affairs, although he was a politician or political leader […], to judge from his writings'” (p. 4) [1].

A think-tank activist? The idea, Allen admits (p. 162, nt. 9), is not entirely her own: she borrowed the phrase from her “executive editor”, and a recent article (Rowe 2002) uses it to characterise the Academy. At this point, I had to pinch myself: The editor? A 2002 article? Or even Diogenes? Was I dreaming? The idea of a general reader for Plato’s dialogues is found as early as in Dicaearchus (ca. 350-290 BCE) and Allen’s approach closely recalls, say, the interpretation Nietzsche advanced in 1871, when he described Plato – if you pardon my anachronistic translation – “as a think-tank activist, who wants to turn the world upside-down and who wrote, among other purposes, to pursue that goal” [2]. Allen seems to ignore both, nor is she familiar with the work of Konrad Gaiser (1984 and 2004) and Giovanni Cerri (1991), who make a similar (and very strong) case for Plato’s “sociological” approach (Rowe himself, 2007, extensively discusses Plato’s art of persuasive writing).

To be sure, hardly any title written in any language other than English made its way into Allen’s bibliography, which possibly explains why she does not mention Dicaearchus either. His testimony, as quoted in Philodemus’ Index Academicorum, is preserved by a papyrus from Hercolanum, but unfortunately this is not yet included in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, and the relevant editions come in Latin, German and Italian (Mekler 1902; Gaiser 1988; Dorandi 1991). It is a pity: whatever we make of Allen’s claim that Diogenes was “one of the most important biographers of Plato” and of her (slightly biased?) translation from Diogenes’ Greek, Dicaearchus is easily a more “important” source. Here is one interesting passage:

π̣ρ̣ο[ετ]ρέψατο μὲγ γὰρ ἀπ̣ε[̣ίρ]ο̣υ̣[ς] ὡς εἰπεῖν ἐπ’ αὐ̣τὴν̣ δ̣ιὰ τῆς ἀναγραφῆς τῶν λ̣[όγω]ν. ἐπιπολ[α]ί̣ως δὲ καί [τινας] ἐπο[ίησ]ε φιλοσοφεῖν̣ …

By composing his logoi, Plato, as it were, led to philosophy (προετρέψατο) countless people; on the other hand, he caused some people to philosophise superficially … (PHerc. 1021, Col. I 11-17, ed. Dorandi).

Even before coming up with the above mentioned commented edition (1988), Gaiser had been long working on Philodemus and Dicaearchus. Among other things, he used this passage as a starting point for his 1984 book on “Plato as a philosophical writer”, where he assembled and discussed internal evidence as found in the dialogues to argue that “at certain key junctures” Plato’s work “claims for itself nothing less than the status of a new kind of philosophical poetry and art: the status, indeed, of the ‘greatest music’ and even of ‘the finest and best tragedy’ … The notion of Platonic writing as itself a kind of poetry has roots … in explicit moments of self-consciousness in the dialogues as well as in their multiple literary qualities…” [3].

Ok, I admit it: I am cheating. Gaiser rarely wrote in English, and these are definitely not his words, although they sound very much like his. The quote is from a very recent article by Stephen Halliwell (2011, 241-242), who has reached this conclusion independently from Gaiser’s work on Plato and Dicaearchus. Halliwell does a great job in bringing to the fore the subtle (and no doubt self-conscious) ambiguity of Plato’s attitude towards poetry in the Republic, and he emphasises the novelty of his own approach and the corresponding deficiency of scholarship in English. Yet, ironically, his otherwise splendid article is also an example of the very deficiency he denounces: long before Halliwell began tentatively to unravel Plato’s “explicit moments of self-consciousness”, Gaiser had thoroughly discussed them. Gaiser 1984, later included in Gaiser 2004, is entirely devoted to this fascinating subject, and yet neither time did he make it across the Channel. Why?

Unfortunately, Gaiser, as an exponent of the so-called “Tübingen school”, is commonly associated with the declining querelle (largely a “continental” affair) about Plato’s “unwritten doctrines”, and – if that were not enough – the book on “Plato as a philosophical writer” was published in Italian (1984) and German (2004). As a consequence, the book received a number of substantial reviews by distinguished Platonists such as Joachim Dalfen, Michael Erler and Gabriele Giannantoni [4], but its English reception was limited to a very brief notice by Julia Annas [5]. The book’s main arguments, however, do not depend on the “unwritten doctrines” hypothesis (which, incidentally, I fully disagree with), and its virtual absence from the landscape of scholarship in English is yet another example of what Francisco Gonzalez refers to as “a growing insularity in Platonic studies, especially among English-speaking scholars: extremely helpful and worthy work is ignored simply because it is not in the right language or school” [6].

Speaking of “wrong schools”, the understandable hostility towards the “unwritten doctrines” may have momentarily led astray even the one English scholar who has taken the effort of reading and discussing at length Gaiser’s work on Philodemus (1988). I am referring to a brilliant and movingly sympathetic article (Gaiser had recently passed away) by Jonathan Barnes (1989), who reminds us that thanks to Gaiser’s “genial conjectures and supplements” Philodemus’ (and Dicaearchus’) text is now, comparatively, “luminously clear and intelligible” [7]. However, Barnes criticises Gaiser precisely for his interpretation of Dicaearchus’ testimony, which may (but, I insist, need not) be used in support of the “unwritten doctrines” theory. Whatever the case, Gaiser’s reading of the passage – says Barnes – “is surely wrong. First, Dicaearchus is not talking about Plato’s intentions at all: he is talking about the effects of the dialogues. He may have thought that Plato intended his dialogues to have a protreptic force; but he does not say so. Secondly, and more importantly, Dicaearchus does not state or imply that Plato’s sole intention in writing the dialogues was protreptic”. In my view, Barnes’ objections, on this specific point, are misplaced. Dicaerchus uses a middle form (προετρέψατο) in a sentence where Plato (and not the dialogues) is the subject: this is safe evidence that Dicaearchus is precisely highlighting intentions, i.e. “why Plato wrote”. This also affects Barnes’ (otherwise convincing) second point: granted, Dicaearchus’ Plato might have had other goals as well, but the emphasis is definitely on “protreptic force”.


As I mentioned at the beginning, my first reaction on reading Allen’s book was one of irritation, and I was even tempted to entitle this post “Why did Allen write?”. By the end of the book, however, I came to feel much more sympathetic: it is in fact a very smart book, making a strong case – among many other things – for “Plato’s sociology of symbols” [8]. I learned an awful lot from Allen, and I will not fail to give her ample credit for that. Nevertheless, the story I told in this post – and Allen or Halliwell are, of course, just an example – is a disturbing one: are we really doomed to growing insularity? Perhaps even a continental drift? This, in turn, would raise the usual questions: who are the islanders? Are we to believe that, due to scholarly fog, “the continent is isolated”? And which continent, anyway? Whatever the case, it is sad that an insularity of sorts is affecting an author such as Plato, who made dialogue his mission in life and emphatically acknowledged his debts towards different cultures and people. Let me conclude, then, on a lighter note. Here are Barnes’ final comments on Gaiser:

“‘It is a long book. It is in German. It is clogged with pernickety points. It doesn’t say very much about philosophy. Must I really read it? Well, I do not like long books. I do not read German with any great ease. Pernicketiness can bore. But I learned a vast amount from Gaiser. What is more, far more, I found his argument gripping. It is that rare thing – a book to be enjoyed. And I should hope that any amateur of ancient thoughts would enjoy it. If you have a rich aunt, ask her to give it to you for your next birthday” (148).

I fully subscribe to these words, even though Barnes’ hopes were hardly fulfilled: blame the crisis, but rich aunts seem to be rather thin on the Platonic ground. And yet, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, “once they are written, books are trundled about everywhere”, and can end up in anybody’s hands. Gaiser’s have ended up in mine, and although he uses Socrates’ very words to argue for a thesis I strongly dislike (the “unwritten doctrines”), I fully enjoyed them. If every story needs the goodies and the baddies, then Konrad Gaiser is surely both the hero and, possibly, the charming villain of my hoped-for book on Plato.


Allen 2010: D. Allen, Why Plato Wrote, Malden MA.
Annas 1985: J. Annas, review of Gaiser 1984, “CR” 35, 401-402.
Barnes 1989: J. Barnes, Philodemus and the Old Academy, “Apeiron” 22, 139-148.
Cerri 1991: G., Cerri, Platone sociologo della comunicazione, Milano.
Dalfen 1987: J. Dalfen, review of Gaiser 1984, “GB” 14, 298-302.
Dorandi 1991: T. Dorandi (ed.), Filodemo. Storia dei filosofi. Platone e l’Acacdemia (PHerc. 1021 e 164), edizione, traduzone e commento a cura di T.D., Napoli.
Erler 1987: M. Erler, review of Gaiser 1984, “Gymnasium” 94, 82-85.
Gaiser 1984: K. Gaiser, Platone come scrittore filosofico. Saggi sull’ermeneutica dei dialoghi platonici, Napoli, then in Gaiser 2004, 3-72 (in German).
Gaiser 1988: K. Gaiser (hrsg.), Supplementum Platonicum: die Texte der indirekten Platonüberlieferung, Stuttgart.
Gaiser 2004: K. Gaiser, Gesammelte Schriften, hrsg. von T.A. Szlezák, unter Mitw. von K.H. Stanzel, Sankt Augustin.
Giannantoni 1985: G. Giannantoni, review of Gaiser 1984, “Elenchos” 6, 202-207.
Gonzalez 1998: F.J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, Evanston IL.
Halliwell 2011: S. Halliwell, Antidotes and Incantations: Is There a Cure for Poetry in Plato’s Republic?, in P. Destrée – F.G. Hermann (eds), Plato and the Poets, Leiden-Boston, 241-266.
Mekler 1902: S. Mekler (ed.), Academicorum philosophorum index herculanensis, Berolini.
Nietzsche 1994: F. Nietsche, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe, begründet von Giorgio Colli und Mazzarino Montinari, weitergeführt von Volfgang Müller-Lauter und Karl Pestalozzi, II,4 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (WS 1871/72 – WS 1875/75), Berlin.
Rowe 2002: C. Rowe, Two Responses by Isocrates to Demosthenes, “Historia” 51, 149-162.
Rowe 2007: C. Rowe, Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing, Cambridge.

Back [1] Τρίτον ἦλθε διαλλάξων Δίωνα Διονυσίῳ· οὐ τυχὼν δὲ ἄπρακτος ἐπανῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα. νθα πολιτείας μν οχ ψατο, καίτοι πολιτικς ν ξ ν γέγραφε. Is Diogenes really saying that Plato was “a political leader”?
Back [2] “als agitatorischen Politiker, der die ganze Welt aus den Angeln heben will und unter anderem auch zu diesem Zweck Schrifsteller ist”. Plato, he adds “shreibt, um seine akademischen Gefährten zu bestäerken im Kampfe” (Nietzsche 1994, 9, from his Einleitung in das Studium der platonischen Dialoge).
Back [3] The references to “the greatest music” and “the finest and best tragedy” are to Phaed. 61a, Phaedr. 248d, 259d; Leg. 817b.
Back [4] Dalfen 1987, Erler 1987, Giannantoni 1985.
Back [5] Annas 1985. No review in English of Gaiser 2004 discusses Platon als philosophischer Schrifsteller (3-72), which is the German version of Gaiser 1984.
Back [6] Gonzalez 1998, ix.
Back [7] Barnes 1989, 142.
Back [8] I.e. the idea that Plato uses language in a self-conscious attempt to shape people’s minds, in a way that different significantly from that of the poets while at the same time appropriating their force.

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