This paper seeks to make a methodological distinction between teleological and literary approaches to literary form in Plato. I argue against the teleological trend in classical scholarship that explains Plato's literary art as a traditional art of rhetoric, deployed by the didactic author to persuade readers, however indirectly, of his univocal beliefs. When scholars in the 1980s called for a reconsideration of the literary features in Plato's dialogues, they were feeling the impact of deconstruction (and of Derrida, in particular). Accordingly, the world of Platonic rhetoric whose potential is celebrated in Griswold's introduction to Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings (1988), for instance, is not just the art of persuasion associated with ancient oratory; instead, it is more akin to what Thomas Cole calls an "antirhetorical" sort of neorhetoric, concerned with multiplying the text's significance rather than reducing it to the author's single meaning. This neorhetorical sort of analysis is also essentially descriptive rather than prescriptive (Chatman). From the 1980s ownward, a wide range of critics (including Ferrari, Rutherford, Kahn, Blondell, and many others) have embraced and stressed the integral relevance of rhetorical and literary devices in Platonic argument, but they have eschewed the neorhetorical emphasis on polysemy and overdetermination. My argument takes no issue with such a traditionally rhetorical approach except insofar as it claims to comprehend the literary effects of literary form. A teleological focus on the presumed end of interpretation, ruling out and bypassing polysemy in favor of philosophical univocality, is perhaps a tenable desideratum within the academic discipline of ancient philosophy, insofar as it reconstructs and interrogates the beliefs of ancient thinkers. In literary studies, however, such an avowedly reductive and teleological method of interpretation, although often considered appropriate for expository texts, is manifestly incompatible with accepted notions of literary art.
My concern here is not to say that we should or must read Plato in the way that we read poetry, nor to classify Platonic dialogues as belonging to a genre that should be interpreted in one certain manner, but rather to set limits on the claims of a philosophical conception that is antithetical to literary interpretation. As an example of an overreaching approach to Plato, I consider remarks made by Rowe in his 2006 essay "The Literary and Philosophical Style of the Republic." Rowe argues that the stylistic waywardness of the Republic is only apparent; once one correctly understands Plato's use of style, one may comprehend "the content it is designed to convey" (20). I suggest that Rowe's approach effectively explains away rather than confronts Plato's art of writing. It rehabilitates literary style for philosophy by neutralizing literariness. By assuming a teleological stance that ultimately separates philosophical content from literary form, Rowe ends up falling into the familiar trap of treating literary features as mere window dressing.
I adduce Helen Vendler's discussion of interpretation in The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997) as a foil to Rowe's conception of Plato's art. Stressing that the literary art of the sonnets—self-consciously rhetorical flourishes included—is quite different from expository argumentation, Vendler lays out an unusually clear rationale for reading literary form in a literary way, as literature. Fully recognizing that almost any text can be read as an information-delivery device, Vendler defends Shakespeare from readers who would reduce the sonnets to nothing more than that. When readers treat Plato's art as merely more rhetoric in the service of fixed beliefs, they do that art an injustice from which it too deserves to be protected.