The Play of Truth

"The Play of Truth." Review of R.B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic InterpretationBoston Book Review, November 10, 1995. Reprinted in The Archaeology of the Soul, 2012.


R.B. Rutherford wishes to restore to the understanding of Plato what Cicero already knew and practiced in his own dialogues. In a passage not cited by Rutherford, Cicero writes that with Plato as his guide he followed what he thought was Socrates’ way of disputation, “so that he might conceal his own opinion, relieve others of error, and in every discussion seek what was most like the truth.” It might seem odd that Rutherford’s attempt at such a restoration should be necessary, but Oxford philosophy for some time now (as well as almost the entire scholarly tradition since Schleiermacher), insofar as it dealt with Plato, concentrated almost exclusively on the so-called arguments in the dialogues and pushed to one side their setting, characters and style. The dialogues were not dramas for them. Their arguments were not in motion, and there was no argument in their action. Rutherford wants to break with this narrow interpretation of Plato. He comes close to a complete break with it when he implies that in the Republic Plato combined the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus; but apparently he does not know that he is merely echoing what al-Farabi, in the tenth century, had already said. According to Rutherford, he is relying on what has been done in the last thirty years or so: “this book may seem old-fashioned, but if so it is not naively so.” The book, hoewever, is not old-fashioned enough, and its understanding of Plato is far too moralistic. Rutherford has learned but not fully absorbed the lesson the lawyers of O.J. Simpson know perfectly well: “Since the time of Plato, scholars have recognized that one cannot judge the merits of an argument based on the character of the person advancing the arguments.”