Monday, August 15, 2016

2016.08.15

David Schur, Plato's Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic. Hellenic Studies 66. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2014. Pp. xii, 132. ISBN 9780674417212. $22.50.

Reviewed by Peter C. Meilaender, Houghton College (peter.meilaender@houghton.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

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This slender volume takes its start from a common puzzle that readers experience when encountering Plato: the expectation that his dialogues will supply some distinctive teaching or doctrine seems continually thwarted by their wayward, meandering, and even confusing character. Plato seems deliberately to conceal his true meaning, and therefore the dialogue form becomes a "problem." Schur argues that most modern interpreters of Plato, beginning at least with Friedrich Schleiermacher, strive in one way or another to solve this problem by looking behind the dialogues' perplexing surface appearance in order to discover their author's real meaning. He describes this as a philosophical or "teleological" approach to the dialogues, and he suggest that we should resist it. Instead, we should take more seriously the dialogues' literary form: unruly, contradictory, resistant to any univocal interpretation.

Schur distinguishes between what he calls expository and literary models of interpretation. The former, but not the latter, is an essentially historical project. It aims at recovering an authentic meaning or interpretation behind the text. Literary analysis, by contrast, focuses simply on the text itself, as a text. It is not concerned with what the author might have "really meant;" indeed, Schur emphasizes, not even having decisive evidence of authorial intent (such as a voice-recording of Plato explaining his intention in, say, the Republic) could establish the correct literary interpretation of a text. The literary form of expression is not expository, that is, it does not aim at making statements, establishing truth-claims, or even at persuasion. Schur's purpose here is not to denigrate expository interpretation, the legitimacy of which he recognizes, but rather to establish literary interpretation as a distinct and equally valid enterprise, albeit one with different goals.

Schur recognizes that many contemporary scholars, responding to the dialogues' puzzling character, have sought to emphasize their literary quality. Yet in doing so, he suggests—Christopher Rowe's sophisticated analysis is his primary example here—they generally treat them as a form of persuasive rhetoric, thus still assuming that they contain or point toward particular conclusions of which the reader should ultimately be persuaded. In this sense, such interpretations remain a fundamentally expository endeavor. Schur, by contrast, takes his inspiration from the New Criticism and subsequent movements like Deconstruction, which focus on the text as text and emphasize the multivocity of any text. An expository approach, he argues, effectively smuggles in a certain (expository) understanding of how philosophy must operate and thus leads us to assume that the dialogues must function in certain ways. But if we are prepared to drop these preconceived assumptions about philosophy, then we are freed to respect the dialogues' surface waywardness and approach them as genuinely literary texts.

Modern literary analysis, Schur explains, does not seek a single meaning in a text; rather, it attends to textual and thematic patterns, looking for recurring emphases and interests. It attends to multivocity (a favorite word in Schur's approach—trendy, to be sure, but perhaps not inappropriate for what are, after all, dialogues) and to overdetermination within a text, thus allowing for multiple possible interpretations to emerge. It focuses not on theses, but on themes and textual characteristics. For example, one important textual characteristic of Platonic dialogues in general and of the Republic in particular is what Schur calls "modality." Modality refers to the attitude expressed by a speaker toward the truth or probability of a statement. Modalization, a certain distancing of oneself from confident assertion, is a pervasive quality throughout the Republic, with the consequence that the various arguments expressed therein become speculative and conjectural.

Having laid out this general approach to Platonic interpretation in the book's first three chapters, Schur then turns in its last three to illustrations of it drawing specifically upon the Republic. These focus in turn on the very beginning of the dialogue, along with the Myth of Er at its end; the search for the best possible regime; and the image of the cave, together with its associated discussions of the sun and the divided line. In all of these discussions, Schur argues, the Republic's literary form is elusive, aimless, indeterminate, and deliberately avoids closure. Moreover, the dialogue frequently becomes recursive—that is, it reflects on itself—so that its own method becomes one of its chief topics. The conversation of the dialogue becomes a kind of path—the wayward path of Schur's title—and indeed the metaphor of a path or a journey is itself among the dialogue's prominent metaphors.

It is probably not necessary to discuss the interpretations advanced by these last three chapters in great detail, since, given this general description of Schur's interpretive approach, a reader familiar with the Republic will probably anticipate his emphases. I touch only briefly, therefore, on each in turn, with the following three paragraphs summarizing Chapters Four, Five, and Six, respectively.

The dialogue's beginning and end both exhibit a recursive, digressive, and inconclusive character. At its beginning, the not-yet-identified Socrates is stopped as he heads home after viewing a procession, and he is persuaded (or compelled) to go instead to the home of Polemarchus, so that the conversation that follows—the actual story of the dialogue—is itself a kind of digression. At its end, (Plato reports that) Socrates reports a story told by Er about what Er had seen and heard, and the dialogue concludes not by achieving closure but rather by gesturing toward a vague and indeterminate future in which the participants might, hypothetically, lead just lives.

As the Republic's characters search for the best regime, they talk about reaching conclusions rather than actually reaching them, and they repeatedly advance hypotheses conditionally as a basis for further discussion, in order to keep the conversation moving, leaving their tentative conclusions provisional and uncertain. Thus their search begins with a hypothesis (that justice in the individual resembles justice in the state); the definition of justice they reach relies on taking an admittedly inadequate shortcut; Socrates repeatedly and deliberately evades the question of the just city's possibility, reflecting instead on his own anxieties and doubts; he suggests that they be content if they can show the possibility of something that would merely approximate the ideal city; and he recognizes in the end that more needs to be said.

Finally, the allegory of the cave is not best understood as an allegory at all—not as a story whose components have one-to-one counterparts in a single correct interpretation—but rather as a hypothetical scenario. It begins as a digression, as Socrates evades having to give a specific definition of the Good. And although he concedes that their account of the Good has been inadequate, Socrates, instead of giving a clearer account, launches into a series of comparisons involving the sun (a child of the Good, which is itself like the Good) and the divided line. In this elaborate series of digressions and comparisons, the focus of attention comes to be on comparison itself—on likenesses, methods, and images—until Socrates advances an image of his own, commanding his listeners to make a likeness of people in a cave. Thus the whole account amounts to a long hypothetical scenario, offering no clear conclusions.

In a brief afterword, Schur nicely summarizes his argument in these terms: "Many of the major problems posed by the Republic can be understood as impasses, navigated by means of rhetorical tropes that allow the book to keep going. The journey to reach ideals is thus one of asymptotic approximation; a journey of perpetual approach. In a conversation that sets out with the end goal of perfection in mind, endings devolve into beginnings, while verbal displacements proliferate whereby the ideal world becomes the reality, theory becomes practice, method (path) becomes topic (place), and conversation becomes philosophy" (116).

Schur lays out his provocative interpretation in a book that is winsome and refreshingly concise, with occasional lapses into the jargon of literary theory that nevertheless do not detract from its overall clarity. I suspect that most readers will remain not entirely persuaded; or perhaps it would be better simply to say that they will choose not to adopt Schur's literary mode of interpretation, remaining instead in what he calls philosophical or expository modes. I confess that I myself largely share "the overwhelming impression"—to borrow a line that Schur quotes (critically) from John M. Cooper—"the overwhelming impression, not just of Antiochus, but of every modern reader of his dialogues, that Platonism . . . constitutes a systematic body of 'philosophical doctrine'" (25). And at one point in setting up his distinction between expository and literary modes of interpretation, Schur makes a small move that I find both telling and problematic. Philosophical interpretation—which is expository—has three tasks: to comprehend logical arguments, to reconstruct an author's claims and teachings, and to test the truth of those claims and teachings. "For the current discussion," he says, "I set aside the third of these (which evaluates the general truth or validity of particular arguments) . . . The other two goals, comprehension and reconstruction, assume that some fixed version of Plato's thought is waiting to be grasped" (23). This move allows Schur to describe the philosophical-expository project, in contrast to literary interpretation, as a fundamentally historical project. Yet why set aside the third goal? It is the third task—the discovery of truth—that explains the entire project. We want to reconstruct and comprehend Plato's claims not merely as a historical endeavor but ultimately because we want to know whether Plato has anything to tell us that might still be true, for us, today. And this, of course, might not be so very different after all from the reason we read Shakespeare, or Virgil, or Dante (cf. pp. 26 and 32).

Nevertheless, it is useful, I think, to be forced by Schur to reconsider the dialogues' undeniably perplexing literary quality. In particular from the standpoint of teaching the dialogues, it is helpful to remind students that Plato does not tell us straightforwardly what he thinks; rather, he invites us to become participants ourselves in a conversation that can lead in unexpected directions and that may well reach only provisional conclusions. One has taught Plato successfully when one's students do begin to join that conversation. And when they do, students being what they are, it may indeed take a somewhat wayward path. When this happens, it is not a defect in the conversation. That is just what conversations do.1



Notes:


1.   The reviewer wishes to apologize both to Professor Schur and also to the editors and readers of BMCR for the extreme and embarrassing tardiness of this review.

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