OUP (2023) h/b 255pp £21.99 (ISBN 9780197564752)

The book begins with a substantial introduction plainly setting out a generous estimate of Plato’s importance, and goes on to a careful and judicious survey of the chief sources available for a reconstruction of Plato’s life, including the Letters whose authenticity has been so much discussed ( Waterfield accepts three as probably authentic ). The sources are described and valued in the context of many of the achievements and the fashions of modern scholarship, and the reader is left in no doubt that, varied though the sources are, an orthodox, narrowly-focussed biography would necessarily be a very slim volume. The author happily throws his net wider.

The life story begins with a persuasive revision of Plato’s date of birth from the traditional 428/7 BC to 424/3. Plato’s early years are located in the context of an Athens at war and the likely experiences and attitudes of someone growing up in a family of considerable means and a comfortably high social position, His two brothers, Glaukon and Adeimantos, appear in some of the dialogues but we know no details of family life; it can only be guessed that Plato followed the normal path and education of a typical young Athenian about to enter on the life and obligations of a well-to-do citizen—apart, that is, from a life-changing, if not world-changing, acquaintanceship with an extraordinary man when Plato was about 16. Some social issues and practices which have become prominent parts of modern discussion are touched upon: for Plato’s sexuality in the context of a society which accepted pederasty, such evidence as there is suggests that he was not perhaps ‘triumphantly gay’, and on questions of slavery and attitudes towards women he seems not to depart far from the accepted notions of his contemporaries. Did he ever write poems—perhaps as contributions to symposia? A number are attached to his name in the Greek Anthology, but are any genuine? Waterfield leaves the door slightly ajar. Religious consciousness is very tricky ground, especially in view of the history and later influence of ‘Platonism’, but Plato was no stranger to awe, perhaps even to a kind of mysticism. What was he really like?  Quiet and studious perhaps and even a little naïve, yet capable of wryly barbed humour— ‘there is plenty of banter, irony and sarcasm in the dialogues, but there is little to make one laugh out loud’. Then taking up Plato’s youth again, there are two political events which helped to decide his convictions and his future: the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and the trial and execution of Socrates.

A long chapter follows on the intellectual environment which Plato seems to have absorbed, and some of the elements which plainly contributed to his thinking—Parmenides and the Eleatics, Heraclitus, and later on the Pythagoreans are all in the background. The Sophists were a prominent and exciting attraction for Greek youth, and the reaction to them of Plato and his mentor Socrates could perhaps have benefited from more attention. Aristophanes did a splendid hatchet job and the scars still show to this day. Yet, is there not more than mildly offensive over-politeness behind the conversation with Protagoras, for instance? The crucial relationship between Socrates and Plato remains a hugely tantalizing mystery to which the ancient sources contribute very little. Plato probably met Socrates when he was in his teens and the relationship lasted some eight or nine years. The dialogues themselves are the only reliable evidence for what happened between teacher and taught, but Socrates’ influence was clearly incalculable. Waterfield rightly spends some time on Socrates’ reasons for not leaving anything in writing and on the crucial importance for philosophy of his insistence on agonistic discussion and argument as the most fruitful mode of advancement.

The next chapter begins with Socrates’ trial and execution and the political situation after the end of the Peloponnesian War. It seems likely that Plato left Athens in the aftermath of the execution and then saw some service in the Athenian army during the Corinthian War, but the tradition of his travelling widely abroad before coming home to found the Academy is very doubtful—the Wanderjahre are all too common a constituent of famous philosophical life stories. Attention then moves to the dialogues themselves, and a pattern is proposed for their nature and their sequence of production. Waterfield admits that this is not watertight but it fits well enough to offer useful points of reference to accompany the known facts of Plato’s later career. The Academy was founded in 383 BC and by then Plato had become well-known as an influential teacher. Around 385 BC he had paid his first visit to Sicily and South Italy, perhaps to take up Pythagorean and other philosophical contacts, and there had met the young Dion, brother-in-law of the tyrant Dionysius 1, who was to become a crucial figure in his next two ill-fated visits to Syracuse.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the Academy itself, a wonderful institution which lasted until the sixth century AD and, as a concept, a pattern and an ideal, still flourishes today. This is a brave attempt to try to recapture the atmosphere and some of the substance of what went on there, from the serious pursuit of research to the young bloods of Rome who went to Athens inter silvas Academi quaerere verum. It takes account of what evidence there is but so much remains out of reach.

Chapter 6 concentrates on philosophy and especially on the middle group of dialogues—as Waterfield says, surely ‘the most famous sequence of philosophical writings that the Western world has ever produced’. He does his best to tackle and explain some of the hardest concepts including the Theory of Forms and largely succeeds, but it is a bit of a disappointment that such a perceptive and sensitive writer does not give more examples of the brilliant images and analogies through which these concepts are often expressed—such things have inspired so many readers and teachers.

The following two chapters deal with Plato’s two subsequent visits to Syracuse, his bruising encounters with Realpolitik and his association with the young Dion. This is a complicated story and parts of the jigsaw are missing, but Waterfield gives a clear narrative of much of what happened and offers a very plausible account of the kinds of compromise which Plato may have proposed to a tyrant who had professed a genuine interest in philosophy and who had seemed to offer some hope of putting into practice some of Plato’s deepest convictions. The story of the subsequent mess involving Dion’s later attempts at counter-revolution is well told, and conjures up a good idea of the disillusionment Plato must have felt, and a picture of a well-intentioned, probably naïve academic seriously out of his depth but still trying, perhaps partly out of friendship, to salvage a way forward. This shows above all in what he wrote: it is beyond question that the Statesman and the Laws betray the intellectual results of  these struggles in Sicily and, in answer to ‘What is to be done?’, offer a solution departing some considerable way from a state in the hands of the idealized Guardians of the Republic.

The late dialogues are curiously separate ‘almost as if they had come from a different pen’, and they too may indirectly give evidence of a thinker whose world-view has been bitterly shocked. Plato died in 347 BC and there is the usual collection of brief epitaphs in his memory,

This is a readable and wonderfully enlightening book. It is not a bare biography (for which there is scant information), nor is it a systematic, professional summary of Plato’s philosophy, but a remarkably successful attempt to paint a believable picture of the intellectual journey of someone who is unquestionably one of the great landmarks of European thinking and whose work is still provocatively relevant and accessible. In this ambitious enterprise the author has used his raw materials well, but he has had one tremendous advantage which he is too modest to mention. Any translator worth his salt has necessarily had the experience of becoming more and more attuned to the thoughts and habits of the writer whose text he is translating, and Robin Waterfield has a long and distinguished list of Plato translations to his credit. This sympathy and familiarity shows at every turn and often stimulates an uncanny instinct for understanding. He is disarmingly honest too—he admits that some of the dialogues, especially the later ones, are pretty hard reading—and he never presumes to be other than a well-read, cultivated, serious enquirer who is after the truth. Plato would have liked that, and that is the highest praise.

John Muir

King’s College London