Book Review: Plato’s Wayward Path
by David Schur
Harvard University Press: 2014
Because he wrote dialogues, western philosophy’s first great writer — Plato — has always been an embarrassment. Plato’s dialogues are little plays, ready for the stage. They emphasize personality and event. They have plots. All this embarrasses the latter day philosopher because he must play hide and seek with Plato, unable to conclude with certainty what he thought about the ideas his characters discuss. Why couldn’t Plato just write nice linear treatises like everybody else?
In Plato’s Wayward Path, David Schur surveys how Plato’s heirs have interpreted the master’s perverse choice of genre, and he pronounces those heirs wrong.
Modern Plato scholarship has split into two major traditions. One takes its cue from Plato’s first, greatest interpreter, his own pupil Aristotle. It treats the literary aspects of dialogue as so many barnacles to be scraped off the real doctrines. This tradition is an industry for turning dialogues into treatises. The other tradition, fathered by the German classicist and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, bills itself as a “literary” approach to Plato according to which form is as important as content. For this tradition, Plato’s literary devices do not conceal but actually lead to the insights he desired his readers to make — by not revealing his hand, Plato forces his readers to arrive at the correct insights on their own.
Schur believes that both of these traditions share an error. For both of them Plato’s, “writings become a meandering path toward something that in Plato’s mind was straight.” Whether the literariness of Plato is obtrusive ornament or didactic strategy, both traditions look beneath or beyond his actual writings to interpret them. But maybe there aren’t “correct” insights to be gleaned from Plato’s dialogues at all.
In contrast, therefore, to all of modern Plato scholarship, Schur proposes a genuinely literary interpretation of Plato. To get at what this could mean, he proposes this interesting thought-experiment:
Given how little we actually know about Plato’s own view of the dialogue form, we could turn to a writer like Shakespeare for a momentary comparison. Does it even make sense to ask after Shakespeare’s motive for writing Hamlet as a play rather than a treatise? And what is the goal of Hamlet? If the form of Hamlet merely ornamental, merely aesthetic, merely literary?
Such questions sound silly to us, and Schur proposes that the reason they sound silly is that we have come to Shakespeare predetermined to read him in a literary way while we come to Plato predetermined to read him in an expository way.
He spends some time fleshing out the distinction between these two approaches to reading:
Literary approaches are oriented toward the composition of the text itself as the primary object of study, and their claims concern the text as created by the author. Expository approaches, in contrast, look through the text toward univocal messages installed in it it by the author, messages that readers can extract and then consider separately from the wording of the written composition.
Another way of getting at this difference is to say that literary reading looks for themes, while expository reading looks for theses.
All this sounds right, but how useful is it? Don’t philosophers look for theses because they read to seek answers in a book to problems larger than the book, while literary critics, for example, are interested primarily in discussing the book itself? Schur stakes the importance of his distinction between literary and philosophical reading — which takes up the first half of his short monograph — on the idea that Plato may have intended his dialogues to be interpreted in a literary rather than expository manner. To support this idea, the last half of his book is a commentary on Plato’s Republic.
[M]y overall argument concerning the Republic goes roughly as follows: Along with great abstract topics such as truth, justice, and political organization, the Republic is about a conversation. And in a continual, recursive movement of self-reflection to which Plato has bent the dialogue form, a major topic of that conversation is itself […] through this running metaconversational commentary, the conversation becomes a topic of conversation, and questions of method become matters of content.
Schur believes that an additional topic of the Republic beyond its obvious traditional topics is Plato’s own method: dialogue, conversation itself. But he also believes you could only notice this if you read the Republic from his own new literary perspective.
If you did so, you would notice how digressive it is, built like a set of Chinese boxes. For example, it ends with a commentary by character-Socrates on a story about a fellow who claimed to have died, seen the afterlife, and returned to tell humans; but this commentary is itself a digression from a conversation between character-Socrates and his friends which, in turn, is being told to the reader as a narration by narrator-Socrates of a memory of that conversation. This sort of Arabian Nights-like complexity of narrative framing, which doesn’t just happen in the Republic, but gets explicitly noted by the characters as the dialogue progresses, constitutes, according to Schur, a sort of proof that Plato himself intends us to approach him as Schur does: not looking for the straightforwardness of exposition, but for the waywardness of literature.
In the end, the book amounts to a doubtless correct recommendation that readers of Plato’s dialogues read them as dialogues: that is to say, as texts that dramatize a problem rather than assert an answer.