The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Wrestler and internatio­nal political troublesho­oter

- Republic’s

the strange and disputed story that he was enslaved while at sea, then ransomed, Waterfield offers various intriguing hypotheses about if, or in what way, it’s true.

His account of Plato’s later years is more circumstan­tial. Relying on the authentici­ty of Letter 7, he gives a detailed account of Plato’s time at the court of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius II. His reluctant visits to Syracuse were, declares Waterfield, in aid of fulfilling his philosophi­cal duty. The Academy was “a kind of consultanc­y” that dispatched “internatio­nal political trouble-shooters” to neighbouri­ng states. Waterfield supports this original idea by citing peripateti­c Academicia­ns who did, perhaps, promote better government abroad.

He invokes, too, allegory of “the human condition”: imprisonme­nt among flickering shadows and distorted sounds in an undergroun­d cave, from which one prisoner breaks free, staggering up into the light. “Socrates” urges that this freed philosophe­r should not linger to philosophi­se on “fixed and immutable realities”, but return to the illusory social world for at least five years. Philosophe­rs must “participat­e in the hard work of politics”; “our job as lawgivers” is to teach the prisoners of illusion how they too can reach “knowledge of the good”.

According to Waterfield, Plato wrote the dialogues to stimulate debate. Rather than promoting an orthodoxy, he was encouragin­g his students to disagree with him. “An idea, a thesis, a piece of doctrine,”

Waterfield writes, “is not owned by readers of a dialogue – it remains an idea of Plato’s alone – until they have argued it through for themselves.” Yet for him to assert that “there was no ‘party line’” hardly tallies with the incessant deference to “Socrates”. If, as he says, the dialogues provide few clues to Plato’s character, then surely he misses several: they’re pervaded by authoritar­ian elitism, and reason is exalted at the cost of depreciati­ng the physical. Plato of Athens is erudite and fascinatin­g, and realises its aim of showing that his works were magnificen­t, that “Plato invented philosophy” not as a body of doctrine but an open-ended and insatiable quest. But Plato the man eludes it – perhaps inevitably.

 ?? ?? All talk: an artistic view of Plato, left, and Aristotle in full philosophi­c mode
All talk: an artistic view of Plato, left, and Aristotle in full philosophi­c mode

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