Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.42

Michael Bordt, Platons Theologie.   Freiburg/München:  Verlag Karl Alber, 2006.  Pp. 286.  ISBN 978-3-495-48190-7.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by Barbara Sattler, Yale University (
Word count: 2867 words

Bordt's book wants to lead the study on Plato's theology out of what he conceives to be a dead end: the rigid dispute of seemingly incompatible positions that caused the neglect of Plato's theology by current scholarship on Plato. Even though Plato's theology is not treated as peripherally as Bordt thus suggests--quite a number of English publications in particular have appeared on this topic not too long ago--he is right that the positions still dominating this field were mostly framed before the second half of the 20th century and that it is indeed an area that seems to lack a basic consensus. What is more, each of the different streams of interpretation--Bordt counts three main ones--has good textual evidence. So has Plato left us a bunch of mutually exclusive thoughts? Or did he change his views on this topic dramatically? Not according to Bordt, who wants to show that all three interpretations simply focus on different aspects of Plato's not only coherent but also constant theological thought. This theology Bordt takes to be characterised by the assumption of one main god who has to be identified with the highest metaphysical principle, while the other gods are conceived of as souls which mediate between the sensible world and the last principle. Bordt's reconstruction is given in clear and for the most part readable language; he makes his book accessible, not only to the Plato scholar but also to a larger audience, by embedding each argument in a broader context so as to make it understandable for people not too familiar with the different dialogues too. All quotations are translated into German while the Greek text can be found in the footnotes.

The first chapter prepares the grounds for the investigation by providing a useful overview of the research on the topic starting from the end of the 19th century, comprising the English, German, French and Italian tradition, the more philological as well as the strongly philosophical, the continental and the analytical tradition. Bordt divides the research up into three streams: what he calls the metaphysical, the cosmological and the religious interpretation. Since there are only two last principles to be found in Plato, the metaphysical interpretation, established by Zeller on ancient grounds, identifies god with the highest Form so as to keep Plato's metaphysics consistent. While this tradition mainly rests on evidence from the Republic, the cosmological tradition, which came into being as an attack on the metaphysical one, mostly works with evidence form the Timaeus and parts of the Laws. Bordt sketches this position as assuming that gods are souls dependent on the last principle and mediating between the intelligible and the sensible world. The religious interpretation, finally, supposes that Plato's theology has to be understood independently from his systematic philosophy as a reflection on the religion of the polis in order to purify it from wrong assumptions. It is predominantly based on textual evidence from the Republic. For Bordt the debate on Plato's theology has become stuck in a dispute mainly between the metaphysical and the cosmological interpretation, and he wants to free it again by combining all three readings.

In order to do so, the second chapter tries to determine which field of investigation is actually referred to by the term "theology". This seems to be highly necessary given that it is not clear whether the different interpretations share a common notion of what they actually investigate, theology; the religious interpretation in particular seems to understand theology as linked rather to the worship of god than to a determination of its nature. However, even though this is the investigation announced at the beginning of the second chapter and needed for Bordt's project of combining the different interpretations, it is suddenly exchanged for an examination of what Plato himself might understand by theology when he uses this term in the second book of the Republic, the only occurrence in the Platonic Corpus. But since "a story about gods"--and this is what Plato understands by "theologia"--is not a satisfactory answer for a philosophical investigation, Bordt turns to explore Plato's philosophical project of determining two typoi of theology. These typoi are rules for the poets of how to talk about the gods reflecting their real character, and these characteristics are investigated in the third chapter.

Bordt wants to understand the fact that Socrates talks about ho theos rather than gods in the plural when investigating the divine character as an expression of what he calls Plato's "weak monotheism", arguing--based on an extensive inquiry of the usage of "ho theos" in Plato--that ho theos in this passage is neither a generalization nor a reference to one of the known Olympian gods. The notion of a weak monotheism, assuming one main god but many sub-gods, is certainly a useful notion to capture an important feature of Plato's theology, especially in the Timaeus. However, the specific variant Bordt chooses--he supposes a categorical difference between the one god and the many gods so that the latter, being created and not essentially immortal, do not have the features characteristic of a god any longer--gets close to a merely inconsistent monotheism. Thus, it is no surprise to find the following statement in Bordt: "Einerseits gibt es im strengen Sinne tatsächlich nur einen Gott, andererseits wird nicht die für den starken Monotheismus charakteristische These vertreten, daß es nur einen Gott und keine weiteren Götter gibt" (p.86)--so there is only one god in the strict sense but you don't state that there is only one god; it's not clear what it thus means to talk about gods in the plural. The relation between the one and the many gods Bordt analogizes with the relation between a Form and the many things participating in the Form. From this he concludes that god has the same position in religious contexts as the highest Form in metaphysical ones and that the many gods are images of the one god--some argumentative support would obviously have been helpful for this conclusion. The reason why Bordt tries to reconstruct the hierarchy among gods not from the Timaeus, where it is obvious, but rather from the Republic seems to be that he can thus show it as a constant feature in Plato's thought. Besides, the starting point of the theological discussion in the Republic is the religion of the polis, and thus Bordt can include the religious interpretation of Plato's theology, which otherwise gets somewhat lost in the investigation.

The considerable amount of time Bordt spends on the discussion of the two typoi is due to the fact that the characteristics of goodness and unchangingness are preparing the grounds for Bordt to bring god and the Form of the Good together. As for the first typos, contrary to Solmsen's thesis that the assumption of the goodness of god is an old tradition, Bordt wants to show that Plato postulates this assumption against the tradition. However, since Bordt never really clarifies what Plato means by stating that god is agathos--e.g., whether it is restricted to moral goodness -, his thesis remains a somewhat empty assurance. Bordt gives us a kind of negative determination of agathos, though, by pointing out that we have to differentiate between gods having no bad characteristics, gods being just, and gods being good. However, he goes on to ignore this warning himself when it comes to Euripides' protagonists uttering that the gods cannot be bad, which Bordt quickly equates with "the gods are just"--I assume in order to prevent us from equating it with being good. The fact that these passages might not reflect Euripides' own opinion does not mean that Plato could not have picked up this view. There might not have been one continuous tradition building an increasingly positive understanding of the gods or a consensus of the Athenian society on this understanding, but it seems that there have been at least single positions that are fairly close to Plato's understanding of god as good. It is not a novelty Plato needed to introduce in order to unite his ultimate metaphysical principle and god.

As Bordt himself points out, agathos in pre-classical Greek has a more restricted meaning than in classical times--being suited for a certain activity, possessing the classical virtues, or indicating a social status. So the mere occurrence of the statement "god is good" would not even have been decisive for this dispute. However, the neuter "agathon" can also mean "beneficial" in pre-classical Greek, a meaning Plato does indeed employ when arguing that everything that is agathon is ôphelimon, god being no exception, who can thus only be the reason for good, not for bad things, Rep. 379b3-c8. But Bordt does not deal with this determination of "good" and does not find this Platonic argument convincing. He is only interested in the good as a cause of good things--without determining the sense of "good" thus further--which provides the sought connection between god and the Form of the Good. For Bordt assumes that one gets the impression ("man gewinnt den Eindruck" p.134) this discussion of god's goodness refers to the discussion about the Form of the Good--unfortunately, we don't get anything more than Bordt's impression. But this, for Bordt, is enough to conclude that the notion of the goodness of god cannot be derived from the historical Socrates, as Vlastos assumes. In this context and others, it would have been helpful if Bordt had tried to clarify further the difference between Plato's good god and Socrates' single deity.

The connection between the Form of the Good and god Bordt sees reconfirmed by the second typos, god's unchangingness. In its description Plato alternates between mythological and philosophical terms, thus showing that it is a feature applying to Forms as well as to god. Why Plato nevertheless does not explicitly identify god and the Good, Bordt explains in the fourth chapter with the fact that talking about god is only reasonable in the context of religion, while the Form of the Good is an object investigated in metaphysical contexts. Metaphysics searching for the ultimate principles of reality as a whole, however, allows us to find out more about god and the gods while the traditional investigation of the poets does not give us any criteria to judge the truth of their statements about the gods. Thus, the philosopher doing metaphysics also has a deeper understanding of religion.

The close connection between god and the highest metaphysical principle seems to be questioned by the tenth book of the Laws, which is the main focus of Bordt's fifth chapter. There Plato describes the souls that move the heavenly bodies as gods so that cosmology rather than metaphysics seems to be necessary to find out more about the gods. However, in the fourth book of the Laws Bordt takes the one god to be identified with nous on which the heavenly bodies of the tenth book are dependent. While the normal citizens will cling to the gods qua souls, the philosophers know about the one single god, nous--that's the way Bordt saves the identification of god with the last metaphysical principle for the Laws.

The question remaining is how this god qua nous is related to the Form of the Good of the Republic, and this is what Bordt quickly deals with in his last chapter, which is probably the most unsatisfactory one, for we only get a very rough sketch of what is meant to be a final synthesis. Since the two functions that Bordt sees nous fulfilling in the Timaeus--to structure the world and to explain why everything is good--he also believes to be fulfilled by the Form of the Good in the Republic, Bordt argues that the Form of the Good and nous are just two aspects of the same thing. The possible objection, that in contrast to nous the Form of the Good is after all a Form, Bordt considers to be refuted by the fact that the Form of the Good is said to be "beyond" ousia, from which he concludes that the sense in which it is a Form is essentially different from the sense in which all other Forms are Forms.

Bordt finishes off this short chapter by mentioning two problems of his interpretation which he, however, believes to show simply that Plato left some problems open for discussion in the Academy: The ontological dependence of the other Forms on the Form of the Good does not have any parallel in the Timaeus, since there the Forms are not dependent on the demiurge, whom Bordt equates with nous. The second problem, that nous is the subject, while the Form of the Good is the object of knowledge, Bordt mentions as something that might be seen as a problem but that after all just shows that the query leading to the notion of noêsis noêseôs can already be found in Plato. This is one of the points where Aristotle's metaphysics--on which Bordt has just published a book--comes in a bit quick, as it does in Bordt's discussion on soul and nous as last causes.

The first problem Bordt thinks to be solvable by understanding the demiurge only as a didactic device--an understanding that according to Bordt allows us to conceive nous as belonging to the Forms. Furthermore, Plato's cryptic dictum that the father of the universe cannot be announced to everybody Bordt takes as a reference to a higher principle beyond the Forms on which the Forms are dependent and which can be equated with nous. An argument for this career of nous is, however, missing in this somewhat rushed and not necessarily convincing harmonisation. And so the objection has to be raised that the demiurge is needed to explain the coming into being of the world--his activity explains a change that cannot simply be derived from the realm of the Forms. Besides, Bordt's proof for the demiurge's metaphoricity, that the demiurge is not mentioned at the beginning of the necessity part of the Timaeus, can easily be given a different explanation--e.g. by the fact that in this part the difference between the paradigm and the cosmos as its image is discussed, a difference for which matter not the demiurge is responsible. And finally, Plato's statement that it is impossible to announce the father of the world to everybody should first of all raise the question what "announcing the father" actually means--is it referring to naming him (e.g. as nous) or to a philosophical investigation of his essential nature? In any case, it does not mean that the demiurge is not this father; it is enough to assume that a treatise like the Timaeus is not conceptualised so as to be understandable by everybody--in contrast to the Laws, which, as Bordt continuously points out, are meant to be accessible to everybody.

This accessibility is also Bordt's explanation for what he conceives to be argumentative flaws in the Laws--a fuller theology would require complex philosophical arguments not necessarily motivating for the normal citizen. Why then is Bordt not focusing more on the Timaeus which does not have this limitation and which states more clearly than any other dialogue the hierarchy between the one single and the many sub-gods? Perhaps because god gets somewhat lost in Bordt's interpretation of the Timaeus--by equating the demiurge with nous the god is used to establish nous as the highest principle in the Timaeus only to be immediately expelled as a mere presentation device. And if one wanted to keep the demiurge, it is not that easy to get rid of the mediating function he fulfils between the paradigm and the cosmos, which Bordt wants to restrict to the lesser gods. But a mediating demiurge would undermine Bordt's seemingly harmonious division of labour of the different streams of interpretation--the metaphysical interpretation for the one god, the cosmological for the many.

The neglect of the Timaeus is part of what seems to be a certain imbalance of this book where 40 pages are spent on discussing the different occurrences of ho theos but only 10 pages on how the Form of the Good and nous can be identified. There are some small and thus unproblematic flaws, e.g., it is not Theaetetus, as Bordt states, but the Stranger from Elea who is called divine in the beginning of the Sophist. More problematic are mistakes that do affect the argumentation as when Bordt translates "noun men proslabousa aei theon orthôs theois" (Lg. 897b1 f.) as "die Vernunft, die auch für die Götter der Wahrheit entsprechend ein Gott ist (p.234)" in order to conclude that if it is "auch" the gods for whom nous is a god, then this must also be the case for human beings--unfortunately, the "auch" which carries the argumentative proof is wholly imported by Bordt's translation and not to be found in the Greek.

A good philosophical book is like a Columbo sequel, we are told by Bordt in the beginning: its quality depends less on what is discovered (the crime or the thesis) but more on how the result is achieved. Unfortunately, however, it is more Bordt's stimulating hypothesis that seems to be convincing than his way of arguing for it; more of the thorough investigation of Columbo would have been desirable.

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