Sunday, February 7, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Holger Thesleff, Platonic Patterns: A Collection of Studies by Holger Thesleff. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2009. Pp. xviii, 626. ISBN 9781930972292. $68.00.
Reviewed by J. J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania

[Contents and their correspondence with original publications are listed at the end of the review. Page numbers cited in square brackets are those of the original publications which the current publisher has included in the margins.]

This collection, which includes three monographs, four articles, and an introduction by the author along with a consolidated bibliography and index, documents the shift in Professor Thesleff's focus away from the chronological emphasis that has provided the dominant pattern in traditional Platonic studies. The second and third monographs already have been reviewed separately in BMCR.1 Inclusion of the first monograph and the articles in this volume offers new readers a convenient opportunity to appreciate the main lines of Thesleff's overall contribution to Platonic scholarship.

Two cardinal assumptions of Platonic scholarship from the eighteenth century forward have been that the dialogues show the style of a single author, Plato, and that the dialogues can be dated by analysis of features of Plato's style in them. Styles (1967) continues this tradition, referencing the usual points of interest, including hiatus avoidance, rhythm, and period (55 [67-68]). Within what he sees as the overall pedimental character of many dialogues (their tendency to be composed with a central turning point "which is often combined with a culmination of the course of the argument," 28 [34]), Thesleff distinguishes five types of exposition, identified by the letters A through E (elenchus, conversation, reported dialogue, dialogue tending to monologue, and monologue, 29 [35]), and ten classes of style (colloquial, semi-literary conversational, rhetorical, pathetic or affected, intellectual, mythic narrative, historical, ceremonious, legal, and onkos or "impressiveness of style," as Roberts rendered onkos in the Oxford translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric 1407b26, 51 [63]). Thesleff cautions, though, that this classification of styles is "vague" and "only indicates tendencies." He puts these classes of style to use in analyzing the Republic section by section and then in analyzing what he distinguishes here as other authentic works along with the dubia and spuria. In a concluding chapter, Thesleff draws together his observations on the relation of style to structure, offering BABAB (conversation, elenchus, conversation, elenchus, conversation) as the basic structure of the dialogues (131 [159]); and he addresses the place of style in characterizing the speakers where he finds such characterization, especially in the case of Socrates and his interlocutors (133 [161]). At the end, he concludes that Plato "constantly and deliberately changes his style from passage to passage and from work to work (141 [172])." Since this change already has been explained in part by the use of style to characterize the speakers, the sense apparently is that Plato constantly and deliberately changes the style to fit his interlocutors from passage to passage and from work to work, at least where the works have been brought to completion or close to it, that is, where the interlocutors have been characterized fairly fully. (Characterization may be an advanced stage in writing dialogues, coming after the arguments have been selected and the parts, such as questioner and answerer, have been assigned. In dialogues that are least finished, on this view, characterization would be most lacking.)

Chronology (1982) includes a critical section and an hypothetical section. Thesleff begins the critical section by tracing attempts to link dates of composition, stylistic changes, and doctrinal changes that led to the two-part Lutoslawski-Raeder-Ritter thesis, which is that the dialogues reflect development in Plato's thought and that Plato's style and linguistic practice offer independent evidence for the order of composition of the dialogues (150 [4]). Asserting development in Plato's thought is a step beyond assuming that the dialogues can be dated, since dating by itself is compatible with unitarian approaches such as Shorey's (151 [5]). Thesleff then presents a conspectus of 132 chronologies, some partial and some comprehensive, from Tenemann (1792) through Kahn (1981). His next step is to consider six criteria for establishing the Platonic chronology (external, content, literary and technical, linguistic, those associated with revision, and those associated with authenticity). Given these criteria and considerable analysis, Thesleff finds that the Platonic corpus "represents in fact a varying degree of authenticity (242 [94])." The works that he views at this stage as semi-authentic represent a large part of the corpus and derive from Plato, according to Thesleff, but possibly were not "written down by Plato exactly as we have them." In the hypothetical section, he offers yet another chronology of his own, which reflects his view that dialogues were revised and edited over an extended period (381-382 [236-238]).

Thesleff's later program is directed toward identifying "the different situations and contexts in which the [Platonic] texts were originally meant to be presented" (xvi). Thesleff finds ultimately that revision (Plato's and others' reworkings) and cooperative authorship (by Plato and his associates) have contributed to producing a text that provides little basis for the theories about chronological development that have dominated Platonic scholarship.

Two-Level Model (1999) marks a further and decisive step since, as Thesleff here says, "I take it for granted that little or nothing can be said with certainty about the relative and absolute chronology of the 'early,' 'middle,' and 'semi-authentic' dialogues (399 [13-14])." Again, "I am a non-believer in conventional 'developmentalism' (recently associated with G. Vlastos in particular) (413 [28])." Thus "Chronology is not in the focus in this work (503 [121])," though Thesleff continues to maintain that the traditional late dialogues are late. He goes on to argue that different purposes and audiences are "more relevant as explanations of the different approaches and degrees of explicitness than is any alleged line of development of doctrines or methods (503 [122])." A feature of this work is Thesleff's unwillingness to recognize the theory of ideas or forms as central to the dialogues. This unwillingness is supported by his argument that the theory "is nowhere in the dialogues subject to a really thematic or systematic treatment (437 [53])." He nonetheless does propose a reconstruction in which ideas are upper and forms are lower (453 [70]), though both may be viewed as upper with respect to particulars (501 [119]). This model is not the familiar two-world contrast of being and becoming or of forms and sensibles but rather, in Thesleff's mind, Plato's disposition toward approaching everything in terms of relations of higher and lower, "an intuitive pattern only, a crude form for what Plato felt and wanted to say" and "not a set of doctrinal or aesthetic rules (500 [118])."

Thesleff's earlier work in chronology is redeployed as he moves on to consider Plato's purposes and audiences and as his six "criteria for establishing the Platonic chronology" are reflected in a list of eleven issues that suggest the "two-level vision," as Thesleff sometimes calls it. Two-Level Model attempts to reorient Platonic scholarship by putting the reader in Plato's position to see how what the dialogues present might have reflected Plato's own orientation. This approach is quite different from putting oneself in the position of an observer with an interest in theory construction and seeing how the material in the dialogues might be incorporated into a theory of ideas or forms or the world or whatever, which has been the more usual program.

Thesleff's progress suggests that the traditional account of the dialogues calls for considerable modification. Instead of the two-world ontology and the imagined independent author whose development through published works can be traced to construct an intellectual biography which fits with this ontology (a very difficult enterprise, as the scholarship has shown), we have a complex figure who interacts with his students, who shares authorship with them, who revises his works or has his students revise them, who introduces thought experiments, and so on. The dialogues of Plato as we have them appear finally as a communal product, including texts "revised or rewritten in the Academy (xvi)."

The four articles in this collection offer further examples of Thesleff's later approach. The 1990 article "Theaitetos and Theodorus" is an examination of the evidence for Theaetetus's achievement. After making some statements on method, Thesleff turns to the mathematical or Theodorus section of the Theaetetus, 147C-148C; he argues that Theodorus was not trying to prove anything but rather giving directions for drawing an helix of 16 right triangles, beginning with the one whose hypotenuse is radical 2. Thesleff presents a drawing of the helix. In the rest of the article, he takes issue with the tradition about Theaetetus which dates from Eva Sachs in 1914 and which attributes to Theaetetus an important place in the theory of incommensurables and surds and in stereometry, concluding that "the explicitness of his [Theaetetus's] discoveries has been exaggerated by modern interpreters (518 [159])." 730;2. Thesleff presents a drawing of the helix. In the rest of the article, he takes issue with the tradition about Theaetetus which dates from Eva Sachs in 1914 and which attributes to Theaetetus an important place in the theory of incommensurables and surds and in stereometry, concluding that "the explicitness of his [Theaetetus's] discoveries has been exaggerated by modern interpreters (518 [159])."

"The Early Version of Plato's Republic" (1997) attempts to confirm the view that the Republic as we have it was not originally one work . According to Thesleff, Gellius's report that Xenophon was provoked to write the Cyropaedia by reading approximately two books of the Republic suggests that the Republic became available only piece by piece. He then examines the possibility that the Timaeus, the Ecclesiazusae, and other works, were similarly published in installments. As the article unfolds, Thesleff commits himself provisionally to the authenticity of the Seventh Letter (532 [165]). Once having committed himself so far, he slips into saying what "Plato thought," which is notoriously difficult to know, and into identifying the Younger Socrates of the Theaetetus with Plato (534 [168]). These hypotheses seem to go beyond the evidence, as does his use of the term "Ideal City" (536 [170]), for which there is no unequivocal linguistic correlate in the text, as von Fritz and Kapp pointed out almost 60 years ago. Ultimately, he comes to the question of the author's intended audience, which is taken up in the next article, as a decisive point for interpretation.

"Plato and His Public" (2002) suggests that the material that we have as the Platonic dialogues was intended for a small audience. Drawing on his pedimental principle, Thesleff suggests that the same dialogue might serve a narrower and a wider, but still small, audience by concentrating the intellectually most challenging material in the middle of the work. Thesleff's overall position in this paper (and elsewhere, xvi), that the dialogues originally were mostly scripts intended to be read aloud by the author or someone close to him rather than being published in the modern sense (549 [297]), is plausible. Additional evidence is offered in the next paper.

In "A Symptomatic Text Corruption: Plato, Gorgias 448a5" (2003), Thesleff investigates what might follow for our understanding of the dialogues if we received them without character sigla to identify who was speaking. If, as Thesleff suggests, there originally were no character sigla in the dialogue scripts, there is a case to be made that identification must have been taken care of by using narrated dialogue as opposed to dramatic dialogue, since, in a narrated dialogue, the narrator can give the required direction ('I said', 'he said'). Suppose, for example, that the Gorgias "was originally a narrated dialogue, later revised and expanded and rewritten in dramatic form" (552 [252]). When it was converted into dramatic form (inserting sigla), there might well have been a question about attribution, and Thesleff suggests that there was a question at 448a5, where the line is given traditionally to Gorgias, which Thesleff thinks poses difficulties which are removed by giving this line to Socrates (554 [255]). Thesleff concludes that the suggested misattribution of Gorgias 448a5 is symptomatic of "the slide in Plato's dialogue technique from narrative [reported] to dramatic form; the preference for oral presentation in Plato's environment; and Plato's deliberate withdrawal from publicity" (556 [257]). The slide, the preference, and the withdrawal all are plausible features of Platonic behavior and might well be exemplified at 448a5.

Over many years, as this collection shows, Thesleff explored chronology as a source of enlightenment for readers of the dialogues. His catalogue of 132 chronologies perhaps was the turning point. Where so many scholars derive different results from the same evidence, which they all acknowledge, there must be some complicating factor at work, perhaps some mistaken common assumption or set of assumptions. Thesleff in fact has proposed a set of such assumptions. These include the assumption that a single author gave us our present text and that the text was published once for all. Further, Plato never speaks in his own voice in the dialogues, and the language they contain belongs to different people from different parts of the Greek world who have been educated differently and who have different purposes in speaking at different dramatic dates, and so on. To the extent that Plato the author and, as Thesleff thinks, his authorial and editorial coterie carried off their effort well, the stylometric project in the main collapses, since there is no single author's style to trace, and with it go the traditional Platonic chronologies so far as they are based on stylometry. Thesleff could make this point even more forcefully than he does.

Had Thesleff's work been more widely known when it first appeared, it might have done more to redirect Plato interpretation in the later decades of the twentieth century, which still was preoccupied with chronology. The preoccupation with Platonic chronology may be seen even today. Thus some readers may find this collection unsettling because it challenges assumptions of the traditional mainstream of Platonic scholarship. It suggests that, while there is a Plato out there, he is accessible not as he often has been thought to be, as a developing celebrity, but rather as a somewhat reticent teacher who deliberately only partly controls the enterprise in which he is engaged, an enterprise in which others participate as well. Those who continue to advocate the traditional developmental approach will be challenged as they try to come to grips with Thesleff.



Studies in the Styles of Plato (Acta Philosophica Fennica 20). Helsinki: Societas Philosophica Fennica, 1967.

Studies in Platonic Chronology (Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 70). Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1982.

Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model (Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 113). Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1999.

"Theaitetos and Theodoros," ARCTOS, Acta Philosophica Fennica xxiv (1990), 147-159.

"The Early Version of Plato's Republic," ARCTOS, Acta Philosophica Fennica xxxi (1997), 149-174.

"Plato and His Public," 289-301 in Noctes Atticae: Studies Presented to Jergen Meyer on his Sixtieth Birthday, March 18, 2002, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen (2002) .

"A Symptomatic Text Corruption: Plato, Gorgias 448a5," ARCTOS, Acta Philosophica Fennica xxxvii (2003), 251-257.




1.   Studies in Platonic Chronology Helsink, 1982). BMCR 1992.03.04.17; Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model (Helsinki, 1999). BMCR 2000.08.22.

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