Catherine Zuckert’s Plato’s Philosophers defends an astonishingly bold thesis: according to her, the attempt, since the nineteenth century, to order Plato’s dialogues in chronological order of composition, and so to interpret them developmentally, is futile and misleading. Futile, because the dating on which the project relies is hopelessly speculative, and misleading, because she has identified the proper approach to interpreting the dialogues, namely, as episodes in a single dramatic sequence, ordered chronologically by internal clues as to date and setting. This has some stunning consequences: dialogues usually regarded as early, and so interpreted as immature, or perhaps even as reflecting Socrates’ own views rather than Plato’s (the Apology, the Crito), occur at the very end of Zuckert’s sequence, because they are set on or near the last day of Socrates’ life. By contrast, dialogues that are usually read as late, and so as more mature reflections of Plato’s thought (Parmenides, the Laws), occur at the very beginning of Zuckert’s sequence — the former is set during Socrates’ youth, and the latter is set before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, before the public career of Socrates had even begun.
Zuckert argues that Plato brings off a simultaneous endorsement and critique of Socrates’ philosophic enterprise, by placing Socrates’ philosophical development in tension with the thought of other philosophers — particularly the Athenian Stranger, Timaeus, and the Eleatic Stranger — who also serve as “philosophic spokesmen” in some dialogues, and whose philosophies are more coherent on the level of cosmology and metaphysics than is Socrates’ more personalist and ethical outlook. The upshot, as she sees it, is this:
“In presenting Socrates as his leading but by no means only philosophical ‘spokesman,’ in contrast to other philosophers who give better accounts of the world or the intelligibility of the whole but not of distinctively human concerns, Plato shows that he understood full well the problem that has bedeviled human thought since the nineteenth century: The mathematical, sometimes materialistic concepts that enable us to understand and manipulate the nonhuman world do not explain human actions — unconscious or conscious and intentional — very well. But Aristotle’s extension to the cosmos, even simply to biological organisms, of the purposive, teleological accounts that fit human affairs better than the more reductive, quantitative alternatives has not withstood the onslaught of modern physics. Plato does not present the problem merely as a matter of different forms of knowledge or ways of understanding things, however…Plato suggests that there is no one, fully comprehensive way of understanding the the whole, because the whole is made up of essentially different kinds of beings. The real problem is identifying what these essentially different kinds of beings are and how they are interrelated” (46).
Zuckert’s Plato is saddled with two incommensurable orders of being, one mechanistic, the other rational. One way of resolving those tensions might be in terms of Leibniz’s distinction, in the Monadology, of the “kingdom of efficient causes” from the “kingdom of final causes,” each of which furnishes a complete description of the world, but under radically different aspects (this is proximately probably a development of Spinoza’s notion that the “order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (Ethics 2P7), but Plato was never far from Leibniz’s mind either).