Monday, March 26, 2012


Livio Rossetti, Le dialogue socratique. Encre Marine. Paris: Éditions Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. 292. ISBN 9782350880419. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Suzanne Stern-Gillet, University of Manchester (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In this handsomely produced volume Livio Rossetti, who has a claim to being one of the foremost Socratic scholars working at the present time, has gathered the results of twelve years' reflections (1998 to 2010) on what is loosely called the Socratic problem. Eschewing what he deplores as the hagiographical approach of much current scholarship, he attempts to tease out of the extant Sokratikoi logoi data that would enable us to gain a fuller and more accurate picture of the historical Socrates' personality as well as of his characteristic argumentative strategies and the extent of his reliance on rhetoric. Building on earlier research carried out by Gigon (1947) and Giannantoni (1990), Rossetti estimates at some three hundred the logoi produced by practitioners of this historically elusive literary genre, which flourished in the first half of the fourth century BC and reached its peak in the years 394-370. As defined by Rossetti, a Sokratikos logos is 'a drama half-way between tragedy and comedy, written to be read privately or on occasions when one or two readers cum actors would recreate aloud a dialogue written by a Socratikos.' (p. 126) The genre was an eminently serious one since it aimed both at vindicating Socrates' way of life and at presenting it as paradigmatically philosophical. Plato's dialogues, of course, are the best known and the most significant of all Sokratikoi logoi, but they are far from being the only ones, and a great merit of the patient detective work carried out by Rossetti over the last forty years is to alert us to the gap likely to have separated the historical Socrates from the protagonist of Plato's aporetic dialogues.

Much of the evidence surveyed by Rossetti in this volume has also been discussed by C.H. Kahn in his Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (1996), and interested Anglo-American readers will almost inevitably be more familiar with this work than with Le Dialogue Socratique. But familiarity with Kahn's work is no reason to dispense with Rossetti's. Indeed, the opposite is true since the two authors approach the Sokratikoi logoi from two different standpoints and place different value on their relevance to the study of Plato's philosophy. While Kahn's primary interest is in Plato, Rossetti's is in Socrates. While Kahn dismisses the Socrates of Plato's aporetic dialogues as a largely fictional character, Rossetti painstakingly sifts out from the same dialogues the few features that he argues are most likely to be those of the historical Socrates. While Kahn thinks it unlikely that we should ever get to know the philosophical views of the historical Socrates, Rossetti is sanguine in the matter. While Kahn largely dismisses the testimony of Xenophon, Rossetti takes it very seriously indeed. Curiously, in view of Xenophon's absence from Athens at the time of the trial and execution of Socrates, and for many years afterwards, Rossetti is less concerned to establish his credentials as a historian than he is to ascertain those of Plato who was present in Athens during the whole period. This is all the more curious since Rossetti agrees (pp. 267-68) with what remains the communis opinio, namely that Xenophon's portrait of Socrates is not entirely independent of Plato's Apology.

Rossetti's approach to Xenophon puts him in the currently growing band of scholars intent upon rehabilitating his reputation as a writer and a historian. In two pieces included in this collection ("Savoir imiter, c'est connaître: le cas de Mémorables III 8" and "L'Euthydème de Xénophon") Rossetti works hard at re-thinking Xenophon's testimony on Socrates. Memorabilia III 8, he convincingly argues, points to the existence of a conceptual network shared by Socrates' pupils and gives us an insight into the manner in which the elenchos was practised by them. By showing how one particular pupil used against the master strategies that he had learned at his feet, Xenophon has given us something not to be found in Plato, namely a description of a pupil imitating the master in carrying out a typical Socratic refutation. Memorabilia III 8, therefore, proves right Socrates' famous warning (Apology 23 C) that, after his death, young men will imitate him and cross- examine others, whose claims to knowledge and wisdom will then be exposed in all their vacuity.

Rossetti makes high claims for the value of Memorabilia IV 2 as a source for the study of Socratic cross- examination. Since this section of Xenophon's work features Socrates in conversation with a bumptious young know- all and thus ranks as a dialogue, Rossetti seeks to upgrade it by calling it 'L'Euthydème de Xénophon'. Its value, so he tells us, is double: it shows how skilfully and slyly Socrates unsettled the composure of his interlocutors prior to confuting them, and it exposes his disingenuousness in the choice of the counter-examples with which he challenged their generalisations. As to why Xenophon should, by means of that dialogue, undermine the eulogistic portrait of Socrates that he draws elsewhere in the Memorabilia, Rossetti suggests that it was to impress upon his audience that Socrates' overall aim was always, not indeed to instruct his interlocutors, but to lead them to recognize their need for further paideia. This, for all we know, may have been Xenophon's intention. But, if it was, the difference between Plato's and Xenophon's Socrates is not as significant as Rossetti claims it to be. Indeed, in the aporetic dialogues, Plato does not shy away from drawing attention to Socrates' occasional bout of bad faith (e.g. in the Hippias Minor), feeble argument (e.g. in the Ion) or ability to unsettle his opponents psychologically (e.g. in the Meno). As for the words famously put into Socrates' mouth in the Apology, 'the unexamined life is not worth living', what are they if not the Platonic Socrates' way of urging us all to think and live better? As for Socrates' broadly educational, as opposed to narrowly instructional, aim, what better example of it can there be than the end section of the Laches (189 a)?

In the longest and most ambitious article of the collection, Rossetti turns to Plato's Euthyphro with the dual aim of separating the Socratic wheat from the Platonic chaff and of situating the dialogue in the Platonic corpus. Quintessentially Socratic in that dialogue, he claims, are such aspects of Socrates' 'relational strategy' (p. 134) as are also highlighted in other Socratic writings, namely Socrates' manner of professing ignorance before leading his interlocutor onto unfamiliar terrain, lulling him into a false sense of security, slyly undermining his certainties, in order to gain full control over the debate later and, by means fair or foul, force him to recognize his incompetence. Since the search for general definitions of the type 'what is X?' features only in the Platonic dialogues, Rossetti concludes that it is likely to be a Platonic extrapolation, which Aristotle took over uncritically (Met. XII 4). While Rossetti's exegetical premise is not unreasonable, it could equally well be argued that it took Plato's genius to draw out the philosophical potential of Socrates' interest in definition and Aristotle's acumen to recognize the value of Plato's extrapolation. How, in any case, could we ever know for sure? As for the place of the Euthyphro in the Platonic corpus, Rossetti is on surer ground when he argues that the dialogue dates from the end of Plato's aporetic period in view of the greater depth and sophistication of the definitions presented in it; not only are they cumulative rather than collateral, as they are, for instance, in the Charmides, but they are also clearly aimed at expressing the essence, as opposed to the extension, of the concept under discussion.

The last article in the collection contains useful lexicographical data on the use of philosophos and philosophein in the 5th and 4th centuries. According to Rossetti, it was the authors of Sokratikoi logoi who gave the words currency from the closing years of the 5th century onwards, intent as they were on presenting Socrates as the very paradigm of the philosopher. If Rossetti is right - and there is no reason to doubt his analysis of the data – we are heirs to two significantly different conceptions of the philosopher. On the one hand, there is the determination of the Socratic writers to distinguish Socrates, who sought wisdom, from the Sophists, who claimed to possess it; on the other hand, there is the preoccupation of Aristotle, who turned back in time in search of the first thinkers engaged in an activity that he could identify as philosophy and thus as propaedeutic to his own. A survey of the later history of the dual meaning of 'philosopher' would be a most desirable offshoot of Rossetti's analysis.

The book will be of interest to all those who, for one reason or another, are concerned to demarcate the historical Socrates from his Platonic counterpart. Rossetti's writing pace is leisurely throughout and has each articulation in the reasoning flagged as such, easing the reader into the issues discussed without making heavy philosophical demands on him or her. The rendering of Rossetti's Italian prose into French by Michel Narcy and J.-L. Defromont is so very smooth that readers hardly notice that they are reading a translation. Occasional repetitions, although mildly irksome, are inevitable in a collection of papers originally published independently of each other. The book is mostly free of typos and other blemishes, the only notable exception being the omission of Tarrant 1993 (mentioned on p. 141, n.2) from the bibliography. The omission is all the more unfortunate in that the book is short of references to scholarly works written in English. Especially regrettable in that respect is Rossetti's lack of engagement with Vivienne Gray's The Framing of Socrates: The Literary Interpretation of Xenophon's Memorabilia (1998).

Table of Contents

Avant-propos (par François Roustang)
Le dialogue socratique in statu nascendi
L'Euthydème de Xénophon
Savoir imiter, c'est connaître, le cas de Mémorables III 8
L'Euthyphron comme événement communicationnel
Le ridicule comme arme entre les mains de Socrate et de ses élèves
La rhétorique de Socrate
Le côté inauthentique du dialogue platonicien
Les socratiques premiers philosophes et Socrate premier philosophe
Index des noms

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