Some literary problems are quite old, very old actually, though interestingly new or--better put--continually new. Let me provisionally suggest that the "old" problem of Platonic Anonymity and the historically newer problem of Pessoan Heteronymity are mutually elucidating and of interest to scholars pursing research in Plato or Pessoa Studies. A thorough discussion of Platonic Anonymity should demonstrate some of the common features and questions raised in these problem spaces, and, hopefully, provide something of an object lesson for approaching Fernando Pessoa's works.
Platonic Anonymity is a "problem" for Plato scholars, historians of philosophy and literary theorists interested in understanding Plato's writings. The problem has waxed and waned periodically over the history of Plato scholarship, and these changes in approaches to Plato's works should be noted, but we must bracket the issue for now. For those unfamiliar with the problem of Platonic Anonymity, I will spend time elucidating it. The term "anonymity" is somewhat misleading when speaking of Platonic Anonymity unless one understands that the manner in which Plato is considered "anonymous" is in light of his absence as a philosophical theorist in the manner established by Aristotle through his writings and historical reception. Plato is "anonymous" insofar as he does not write philosophical treatises utilizing the methods formalized by Aristotle (and "proper" to philosophical writing thereafter). Plato did not write treatises. He wrote dialogues and, perhaps, some letters (all of which have been questioned as to their authenticity at some point). It is in contrast with Aristotle and his legacy that Plato has been called "anonymous" and this is what is typically considered the traditional problem. This way of conceiving the problem barely scratches the surface veiling deeper issues regarding Plato's writings.
Anyone daring to roll up their sleeves and delve into the problem of Platonic Anonymity will quickly question this "anonymity" to some degree. Plato does appear as a character in his own dialogues. In the Apology, Socrates mentions that Plato is present ("Plato here..." 38 b). In the Phaedo, a framed dialogue in which two characters, Echecrates and Phaedo, discuss the events at Socrates' execution, Phaedo tells Echecrates that Plato was ill, absent when Socrates dies (59 b). Plato is a truly minor character, but he is a character among the many characters he develops in the philosophical-dramatic genre he invented. He writes himself as among the least of his characters, but he is not precisely "anonymous."
As a writer experimenting in non-comedic verisimilitude, Plato's characters appear in his dramas as seemingly "real" persons. They are not quite Pessoa's heteronyms, as they are all authored by "Plato," yet Pessoa's heteronyms are very much like dramatic characters, having biographies and lives independent from their author or some form of authorial independence. Plato created characters that stand apart from himself (and from each other) biographically and philosophically in the way that heteronyms do (more will be said later about the power of Plato's heteronyms to appear "real"). Most of Plato's characters are historical figures, and it is easy to forget they are effectively crafted dramatic representations of people from a generation before Plato wrote (the dialogues are set during Socrates' lifetime in the 5th century B.C.E., Plato wrote in the 4th century B.C.E. until his death in 347/8). Some of his characters appear to be "inventions" with no historical reference. Some of his characters even appear to be inventions of characters within dialogues. Diotima in the Symposium, for example, is a character we have no historical evidence for, and, moreover, her speech related by Socrates directly references Aristophanes' speech--in parody, perhaps, but the references are obvious nevertheless. Plato's presentation illustrates the invention of a character by a character. It should be noted that the Symposium is a framed work related by a character, Apollodorus, who relates the account of the Symposium that yet another character, Aristodemus, had related to him. Not every Platonic dialogue is this elaborately framed and related by multiple characters. Some dialogues are set in "real time," unfolding in the eternal present of performance, while other dialogues relate a discussion from the near or more distant past. Plato's Socrates relates the entire lengthy discussion of the Republic to an unnamed audience the day after it had occurred. In the Timaeus we find out who some of the members of this audience are and get to hear two of their speeches (although one unnamed character remains conspicuously absent). In Plato's writings, we find a proliferation of characters whose roles in the dramas vary, and whose contributions to the discussions depicted vary widely. There are unnamed audiences present. There are sumptuously described audiences present (Protagoras). There is privacy (Phaedrus, Euthyphro). Angry interlocutors stand by observing conversations as they continue (Thrasymachus, Anytus). It is easy to focus exclusively on the content of the exchanges in a dialogue, overlooking just how many characters Plato has operating in the work.
Socrates may dominate philosophical discussion in some dialogues, yet meet his matches in others where interlocutors like Protagoras, Callicles, Timaeus, Parmenides and the Eleatic Stranger are not clearly refuted by him at all. Characters' views go unchallenged in some dialogues, famous views like the theory of ideas in the Republic and Phaedo, yet are demolished in another dialogue (Parmenides), or ignored entirely while other methods are operating (Philebus, Theatetus, Sophist, Statesman). It might appear that Plato "developed" philosophically and changed his mind about his views, yet at this point stylometry no longer supports a clear developmental hypothesis about Plato's thought. Much, much worse, whatever you may think of the developmental hypothesis, is the fact that regardless of the order in which Plato wrote the dialogues, he crafted the majority of them so that they preserve an overarching narrative--the story and fate of Socrates leading to his death. The Parmenides, where the theory of ideas is demolished is set as the very first of all the dialogues; the young Socrates' encounter with the venerable Parmenides and his eromenos Zeno. All of the "theory of ideas" dialogues are set after this initial demolition. The Theaetetus is set just prior to the Euthyphro. The Sophist and Statesman occur between the Euthyphro and the Apology. The Phaedo follows the Crito in terms of the dramatic order of the the Platonic Corpus. Dialogues considered "early," "middle" and "late" are juxtaposed and intermingle within the overarching narrative of "the Socrates Story." More importantly, the conflicting philosophical perspectives and methods of the dialogues' characters inhabit the order of a single narrative fate, not the clean order of a developmental system. They do so without explanation or apology. These are the texts we have.
In this complicated literary context the real problem of Platonic Anonymity arises. For where is Plato in all this? He appears as both present and absent when he makes himself a character; one of his most minor characters of all. He is the writer of the dialogues, though he never explains in any clear, independent theoretical manner what his dialogues are--that is, unless we take whatever literary theory a character within the dialogues expresses as Plato's "true" literary theory. However, even if we made this move, for instance taking Socrates' view of writing in the Phaedrus as Plato's theory, we still end up with grave difficulties. In this text, Socrates claims that writing, at its best, can merely facilitate remembering in those "who already know." Written works are "amusements" that can never take the place of face-to-face discussion. If we take the 7th Letter seriously (and there is debate on its authenticity), we find Plato claiming he never wrote any of his philosophical views. It becomes unclear why Plato spent most of his entire adult life writing the dialogues as "amusements" or having virtually no relation to his actual philosophical views at all. Under these reconstructive views the dialogues become even more mysterious, not less. It seems more than reasonable to ask why we would take what any of Plato's characters, including himself in the 7th letter, claim about writing as "the account."
No matter what route we take, whether we are (wisely) skeptical about taking any theory expressed by one of Plato's characters in any of the dialogues as the "master theoretical key" to interpret the whole Platonic Corpus, or we diligently attempt to reconstruct such a "master theory" from pieces of Plato's writings, we are left stranded. We do not know what his dialogues are supposed to be or supposed to do. Platonic Anonymity is the absence of any master hermeneutical key to the dialogues.
No theory of the dialogues has stood the test of time. And the prospects of achieving one do not look so hot. Although such a theory might be a holy grail sustaining Plato scholars, to be pursued and formulated until it can finally be established, celebrated and venerated, the question remains: Should there be a theory of the dialogues?
Doesn't Plato's writings themselves suggest the defiance of a master hermeneutical key?
Why have we wanted it so badly, in spite of the texts themselves? Who or what are we trying to save?
With this more sophisticated take on Platonic Anonymity and the questions it raises, we are in a position to reflect on Pessoan Heteronymity. It would seem that Pessoa's multiple heteronyms, their poetry and prose, his "own" poetry and prose, his semi-heteronym, jointly constitute a similar problem space. Precisely where do we locate an authoritative Pessoa, the one who will bestow a master theory of his work upon us? The problem is not looking for Pessoa, for he is present in his writings, in a way akin to Plato. Pessoa is a character among his characters, and just as unhelpful. He is not the most interesting of his characters, and does not give himself final word or aim at consistency with his "others." The temptation to reconstruct a Pessoa and his "point of view" is a real danger because, like Plato, the disagreements, contradictions, diversity of methods of expression and plurality of expressions across characters are integral to his writing. Strike that--ARE his writing. Pessoa is "anonymous" in the way that Plato is. Or Plato is heteronymous in the way that Pessoa is.
Unlike the Platonic Corpus, we do not find an overarching narrative under which competing views are juxtaposed in Pessoa's work, but we do find strands of narrative--the master/student relations of Caeiro, Reis and Campos, and we find similar reference and connections to historical "real life" figures and contexts. Pessoa studies will suffer unnecessarily if Pessoa scholars believe these tidbits of "reality" appearing in the texts are the reality and hence granted decisive hermeneutical value and weight. For generations, Plato's beautifully crafted heteronyms seduced readers into believing that they were, in fact, reading accounts of the "real" historical Socrates and other "real" famous historical figures. (We did not want to lose the historical Socrates, I suppose, even though he deliberately wished to be lost.) It took until relatively recently for Plato scholars to grasp and make explicit this "seduction" operating in the dialogues and in our interpretive projects. Stylometric analysis of the dialogues arose in the mid 19th century, promising to to help us discern the "real" Plato and his philosophy. Instead, we have found a lack of consensus on the patterns of the dialogues, and conditions suggesting that Plato revised them over time, may have written groups simultaneously, and even may have had students write with him. The "groups" do not tell us about particular ordering, and do not come close to explaining Plato's attention to the overall narrative of Socrates' life across his career until he wrote the Laws. Scholarly arguments that position dialogues with respect to Plato's development beg the question, using views presented in the dialogues to establish the order Plato wrote them, while using an accepted view of the order he wrote them to verify the views he held. Yes, it's been that bad. These are the kinds of things that have happened on the search for the one true Plato. It would be wonderful for Pessoa scholars to skip this quest, finding more productive approaches to his work.
Perhaps it seems odd to talk of new approaches to theory-resistant anonymous- heterononymous authors, when the question might be: How is scholarship of Pessoa or Plato possible? Or is it scholarships?
It seems to me, after years of teaching and studying Plato's works, that their immediate intelligibility within any context is a matter of provisional choices of the frameworks at hand, whatever framework is needed in a pragmatic sense in order to enter into engagement and dialogue with the works. Do anonymous/heteronymous works have the potential to make explicit the continually changing, historically grounded "selves" that communicate about them from context to context? And offer an opportunity to admit this provisional, continually changing, and re-created interpretive situation? Or, just as often, an opportunity to deny it?
Do I have the courage, today, to admit the heteronymity solicited of me each and every time I engage a heteronymic work?
Tomorrow, when "I" am teaching the Republic, and need to explain the "theory of ideas," who will be speaking?
(You suspect that she won't resemble the writer of this blog, don't you?)
Department of Philosophy UMD
Ludwig Edelstein, "Platonic Anonymity," The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 83, No. 1, Jan. 1962, pp. 1-22.
Charles L. Griswold, "Irony in the Platonic Dialogues," Philosophy and Literature, Vol 26, No. 1, April 2002, pp. 84-106.
Gerald Press, ed., Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
Debra Nails, "The Early Middle Late Consensus: How Deep? How Broad?" In Plato: Critical Assessments, Vol. I. N. Smith., ed., London and New York: Routledge, 1998, pp. 164-179.
Plato, Complete Works, eds. J. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997.
Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construction of Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.