Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

3. Authenticity and chronology

Thrasyllus rejected from the canon a variety of minor pieces, some of which still survive through the manuscript tradition. Modern judgment concurs with the ancient verdict against them. It also questions or rejects some he thought genuinely Platonic. But we can be fairly sure that we still possess everything Plato wrote for publication.

Attempting to determine the authenticity or inauthenticity of ancient writings is a hazardous business. Egregious historical errors or anachronisms suffice to condemn a work, but except perhaps for the Eighth Letter, this criterion gets no purchase on the Platonic corpus. Stylistic analysis of various kinds can show a piece of writing to be untypical of an author’s œuvre, without thereby demonstrating its inauthenticity: Parmenides is a notable example of this. Most of Plato’s major dialogues are in fact attested as his by Aristotle. The difficult cases are short pieces such as Theages and Clitophon, and, most interestingly, three more extended works: the Seventh Letter, Alcibiades I and Hippias Major. Opinion remains divided on them. Some scholars detect crude or sometimes brilliant pastiche of Plato’s style; a parasitic relationship with undoubtedly genuine dialogues; a philosophical crassness or a misunderstanding of Platonic positions which betrays the forger’s hand. Yet why should Plato not for some particular purpose recapitulate or elaborate things he has said elsewhere? And perhaps he did sometimes write more coarsely or didactically or long-windedly than usual. Such assessments are inevitably matters of judgment, on which intelligent and informed readers will legitimately differ.

Prospects for an absolute chronology of Plato’s writings are dim. There are no more than two or three references to datable contemporaneous events in the entire corpus (leaving aside the Letters). Relative chronology is another matter. Some dialogues refer back to others. A number of instances have been mentioned already, but we can add a clear reminiscence of Meno in Phaedo (72e–73b), and of Parmenides in both Theaetetus (183e– 184a) and Sophist (217c). According to one ancient tradition Laws was unfinished at Plato’s death, and Aristotle informs us that it was written after Republic (Politics 1264b24– 7), to which it appears to allude (see, for example, Laws 739a–e). Attempts have sometimes been made to find evidence, whether internal or external, for the existence of early versions of works we possess in different form (see for example Thesleff 1982). One example is the suggestion that Aristophanes’ comedy Ecclesiazousae or Assembly of Women (388 bc) was parodying an early version of book V of Republic. But while the idea that Plato may have revised some of his writings is plausible, concrete instances in which such revision is plainly the best explanation of the phenomena are hard to find. Even if they were not, it is unlikely that the consequences for relative chronology would be clear.

For over a century hopes for a general relative chronology of Plato’s writings have been pinned on the practice of stylistic analysis. This was pioneered by Lewis Campbell in his edition of Sophist and Politicus, published in 1867. His great achievement was to isolate a group of dialogues which have in common a number of features (added to by subsequent investigators) that set them apart from all the rest. Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Politicus, Philebus and Laws turn out to share among other things a common technical vocabulary; a preference for certain particles, conjunctions, adverbs and other qualifiers over alternatives favoured in other dialogues; distinctive prose rhythms; and the deliberate attempt to avoid the combination of a vowel at the end of one word followed by another vowel at the beginning of the next. Since there are good independent reasons for taking Laws to be Plato’s last work, Campbell’s sextet is very likely the product of his latest phase of philosophical activity. Application of the same stylistic tests to the Platonic corpus as a whole, notably by Constantin Ritter (1888), established Republic, Theaetetus and Phaedrus as dialogues which show significantly more of the features most strongly represented in the late sextet than any others. There is general agreement that they must be among the works whose composition immediately precedes that of the Laws group, always allowing that Republic must have taken several years to finish, and that parts of it may have been written earlier and subsequently revised. Parmenides is ordinarily included with these three, although mostly on non-stylistic grounds.

Since Campbell’s time there have been repeated attempts by stylometrists to divide the remaining dialogues into groups, and to establish sequences within groups. The heyday of this activity was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since the 1950s there has been a revival in stylistic study, with the use of increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques and the resources of the computer and the database. Secure results have proved elusive. Most scholars would be happy to date Phaedo, Symposium and Cratylus to a middle period of Plato’s literary and philosophical work which may be regarded as achieving its culmination in Republic. But while this dating is sometimes supported by appeal to stylistic evidence, that evidence is in truth indecisive: the hypothesis of a middle period group of dialogues really rests on their philosophical affinities with Republic and their general literary character. The same can be said mutatis mutandis of attempts to identify a group assigned to Plato’s early period.

The cohesiveness of Campbell’s late group has not gone unchallenged. For example, in 1953 G.E.L. Owen mounted what for a while seemed to some a successful attack on his dating of Timaeus and Critias, on the ground that these dialogues belong philosophically in Plato’s middle period. Broadly speaking, however, stylistic studies have helped to establish an agreed chronological framework within which most debates about philosophical interpretation now take place. This is not to say however that there is unanimity about the way Plato’s thought developed; and some scholars refuse to assign any importance to the notion of development for understanding his philosophical project or projects in the dialogues.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Authenticity and chronology. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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