Category: Works of Plato

Spurious dialogues of Plato

Since antiquity, those texts not considered to be authentic Platonic writings have been characterized as spurious dialogues of Plato. However, to this day the exact criteria on which this selection was made, by whom and when, elude us. From the nineteenth century onward, this evaluation has been made on primarily linguistic and literary criteria. Nevertheless, there is another version too, guideline of which is the publishing practice in Plato’s day.

The publishing procedure that Plato had imposed in the Academy, for those essays and treatises intended for circulation in the Agora by Academy members, was subject to specific critical evaluation. We should assume that the Dialogues of Plato, excepting Laws and Epinomis, were subjected to this procedure.

A book was considered as published provided it had previously been subjected to the “trial” of public reading aloud, in the presence of members of the Academy circle. Plato had entrusted the role of “anagnostes” (reader, lector) to Aristotle, who is referred to also as “Nous” (Mind) or “Mind of the Treatise”. The contribution of the “reader” to the entire procedure was not limited to a mere reading aloud but extended to the role of “literary reviewer”. His observations, as well as those of the rest of the audience, were incorporated in the text submitted for publication, in Plato’s presence. This publishing procedure was strict, as is deduced also from the phrase: [Νούς] άπεστι, κωφόν το ακροατήριον (Absent [mind], deaf audience). This means that those Dialogues of Plato which remained in the work stage were considered unpublished and therefore “spurious” by certain Academy members. This characterization is not Hellenistic, it was known first hand by Plato’s students, such as Speusippus. Xenocrates, Heraclides Ponticus and, of course, Aristotle.

The question that immediately arises is: When was this bibliographic distinction made at Academic level? Was it from the time of Speusippus or was the classification of Plato’s works left to the Alexandrian philolologists and in this case to the initiative of Callimachus? Certainly, Aristotle in his didactic treatises does not mention any dialogue that is today considered “spurious”. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that these dialogues contained nothing noteworthy, in the opinion of Andronicus of Rhodes, who published the didactic works in Aristotle’s library. Our guide in tracing the first official classification of the “spurious” dialogues of Plato is the adventure of Aristotle’s library, which included treatises by natural philosophers and sophists, as well as works by Plato, Speusippus, but also Theophrastus, among others. This book collection was inherited by Theophrastus, who in his turn bequeathed it to his student Neleus, who moved it to his birthplace, Scepses. Through Neleus, heads of the Library of the Ptolemies in Alexandria acquired the originals or copies of this body of books, excepting the didactic treatises of Aristotle. On present knowledge, this is the only way of explaining the acquisition of Plato’s oeuvre by the Library of the Ptolemies and its classification in tetralogies by Callimachus, who compiled the Pinakes, in which “spurious” dialogues are also included (between 285 and 240 BC). Precisely when they were characterized as “spurious” dialogues of Plato is not known. However, Diogenes Laertius in his Lives presents a list of those works considered “spurious”, probably on the basis of Hermippus, none of which is entered in the tetralogies of Callimachus’ Pinakes, such as Sisyphus, Axiochus, Demodocus, and others.

When speaking about writings that were characterized as “spurious” even in antiquity, we should bear in mind the extensive pseudepigraphical activity that was observed in the course of constituting the “universal library” envisioned by the Ptolemies and the heads of the Museum of Alexandria. Olympiodorus spells out both the specific reasons why literary forgery existed, and indeed on such a scale, and the manners that the “counterfeiters” used. According to Galen, these writings were compiled with such great skill that often solid philological knowledge and a great deal of time were demanded in order to distinguish the pseudepigraph, as excerpts from the authentic text were masterfully interwoven with the spurious one. The Ptolemies Philadelphus and Euergetes I, who bought books at whim, without previously checking their reliability, offered fertile ground for such uncontrolled activity.

In the light of the aforesaid on the dialogues considered “spurious”, these should be classed in two sub-categories: those presenting great linguistic and ideological affinities with the authentic ones, and those that were written with the aim of being considered authentic or that represent exercises of students in some Platonic school of the Hellenistic period. Furthermore, the possibility that students of Socrates and of Plato were expressing, through unpublished (spurious) dialogues, theories and views different from those of Plato’s teaching, as in the case of Theages, cannot be precluded. It is suspected that object of this dialogue, protagonist of which is Theages, son probably of General Demodocus, whom Thucydides mentions and Plato speaks of in the Apology (33d) and the Republic (496b), was the narrating of anecdotes on Socrates’ “daimonion” (daemonic thing). According to the passage in Republic, Theages would have been lost to “philosophy” if his disability had not intermediated, forcing him to remain on the margins of public life. In the discussion between the personae of the dialogue it is obvious that entire passages and phrases from other dialogues by Plato, which are considered genuine beyond doubt, have been used: the “daimonion” is described in exactly the same words (128d) as used in Apology (31d), while Theages’ warning to Socrates, that some young men would not benefit from their interaction with him, is broached in Theatetus (15a). The discussion again with regard to Archelaus’ usurping of authority unfolds with the same phraseology as that in Gorgias (124d).

What is apparent here is that both the writer of Theages and those who wrote the Platonic dialogues considered as “spurious” must have had access first hand to material from the seminars (Hypomnemata) of their teacher in the Academy, which they integrated in dialogues fashioned in the style of Plato, probably after the philosopher’s death. Again judging by Theages, in which the protagonist of the dialogue presents the “daemonic sign” as leading Socrates to control acts of others, something that runs counter to Platonic ideology and is not recorded in any of the dialogues of Plato that are considered genuine.

There is much to be observed too in the case of other Dialogues that have been classed among the “spurious”, such as Minos and Axiochus. Minos, which opens the ninth tetralogy in the classification of Callimachus’ Pinakes, is regarded by many as an introductory text to the Laws, and the choice of the title, Minos, is perhaps related also to the Cretans’ proposal to Plato that he draft legislation. Axiochus again, although explicitly referred to as spurious by Diogenes Laertius, was perceived as authentic by the “great generation” of Greek and Italian philologists of the Renaissance. In the end, this distinction into authentic and spurious will have perhaps been of no concern to Plato, judging also by his expressed conviction that: το μη σπουδάζειν επι τοις ονόμασι (you guard against taking names seriously) (Statesman, 261e).

Author: Konstantinos Sp. Staikos
  • Friedländer, P. Die Platonischen Schriften. Berlin-Lipsia, 1930.
  • Soyilhe, J. Platon Dialogues suspects. Paris, 1930.
  • Staikos, K. Sp. The Library of Plato and the Academy. Athens, 2013.
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