The theatrics of thought

“Socrates, is virtue teachable?” asks Meno. And so Plato’s Socratic dialogue, Meno, begins.

Meno has, of course, been studied extensively. But rather than offering a new interpretation of the dialogue, Jan Zwicky, in her recent book, Plato as Artist, offers a new approach. She treats Meno not as a piece of pure philosophy, but as a piece of philosophy and art.

Plato as Artist’s main goal is to “enliven” Meno, which, Zwicky writes, is a “philosophical jewel” with “a kind of geometrical perfection.” She aims to regard Meno’s “every detail as worthy of our concentrated philosophical attention,” so that its meaning “springs to life.”

To do this, she synoptically treats the dialogue as a plot, in which the characters feel and respond and act as beings who are more than mere pawns expressing philosophical ideas. Meno, Meno’s slave, Socrates – all are depicted with psychological realism: why does Meno turn his head? Here, the way Socrates touches Meno’s shoulder is ironic – he’s implicitly mocking Meno’s vanity. Here, Meno is lying – look at the way he scratches his elbow. Meno says that, but really he means this – the details are in his posture. Artist treats the characters intimately; they become more like us.

Plato as Artist’s approach is refreshing. Delving into the nuances of Socrates’s dialogue, illuminating Meno’s implied thoughts, and treating the characters’ gestures as another form of language sheds, in Platonic fashion, new light on an old work. Artist deals with the implicit language of Meno more than it does the explicit, and the former comes to have a meaning of its own which, in turn, contextualizes the latter. Through this approach, Meno’s hidden strengths are highlighted; apparent quirks and contradictions begin to make sense. And it becomes clear that Meno’s theatrics are worthy of such attention.

Unfortunately, Zwicky’s prose style is unsuited for Artist’s subject. She often favours rhythm over content, cleverness over truth. The book mingles high formality with slang, falls into long-winded digressions and, at its worst, ignores the economization of expression and clutters what should be clear. Discussing Meno’s passivity in responding to Socrates, Zwicky writes, “Meno’s failure to engage, his apparent insouciance thrown lightly over the abyss of his inattention, is breathtaking.” More breathtaking is this sentence’s lack of clarity.

Considered in pieces, the style is often bright and animated. But collectively, it weighs Plato as Artist down. For an essay which deals with philosophical issues that are famously complex, the style is distracting.

Artist’s best moments are when the clarity of its expression equals the originality of its approach. In a passage early in the book, for example, Zwicky masterfully combines Socrates’s behaviour regarding moral beauty with her extensive knowledge of Plato’s other works to strengthen the connection between Plato’s account of the relationship between moral and mathematical beauty. Later, she compares Meno’s naïve idea of virtue with a “field of naturalists” who “leap to reflection on the genus of some plant, without looking carefully at its special characteristics.”

In moments like these, Artist is an energetic and informative commentary on Meno. To a new reader, it offers a more human approach to a text that, considered in the traditional scholarly way, is daunting and obscure (who really acts or speaks like Socrates?). And to an experienced reader, it offers new views and moments of realization – I never thought of it like that before!
As a work that changes the way Meno is often discussed, Artist succeeds. It applies sympathy’s power over understanding to a text that is often viewed unsympathetically. Ultimately, though, Artist falls short of the potential its best moments hint at, as its tendency toward convoluted and inaccessible language defeats the originality of its project.