Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.01.37
Andrew S. Mason, Plato. Ancient Philosophies. Durham: Acumen, 2010. Pp. viii, 224. ISBN 9781844651740. £14.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Eleni Kaklamanou, Trinity College Dublin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Andrew Mason’s clear and engaging introduction to Plato’s thought is part of Acumen’s Ancient Philosophies series. The book, in the spirit of the series, aims to produce a volume suitable for senior undergraduates, graduate students and a wider audience with an interest in philosophy, presuming no prior knowledge of the topic under discussion. In principle, an introduction on Plato could be organised in a variety of ways. One might have chapters on individual dialogues, especially on the central ones such as the Republic, the Phaedrus, the Timaeus; alternatively one might choose to have chapters on the main topics. Mason has, I believe, taken into consideration the target audience in choosing the second option, although on occasion an individual dialogue does serve as the focus of a particular chapter. For example, in the chapter in which he discusses Plato’s views on God and nature, the analysis is concentrated on the Timaeus.
Mason’s firm belief is that practical concerns and metaphysical vision are inextricably tied in Plato’s system. In accordance with this general thesis, the choice of chapters is divided between Plato the metaphysician (Theory of Forms, Knowledge) and Plato the practical philosopher (Politics, Ethics). A chapter on the role of the soul in the Platonic system serves to link these two philosophical themes. In addition to the chapter on God and nature, there is one on aesthetics. Although there are certain obvious omissions, as Mason himself notices, the choice of topics is the most likely to give the best overall view of Plato’s thought. The treatment of each topic accomplishes what should be its primary purpose, turning readers towards Plato with a clear approach, an emphasis on the argument, a set of various perspectives and a willingness to face the problems and raise questions for further exploration. Mason avoids bringing up too many interpretive possibilities that, I think, could easily be too arduous for the readers to consider. He carefully incorporates views of major scholars in the field, such as Crombie or Morrow with the aim of explaining a thesis or arguing against a “traditional” reading.1
On a small note of criticism, it would be helpful, considering that the book is, in part, geared toward readers “with no previous knowledge” of Plato’s thought, if Mason had explained what Stephanus pages are, and the practice of citing them when referencing Plato. A short endnote to this effect would suffice. On the same note, unexplained references such Cic. Acad. or Aristox. Elem. Harm presuppose familiarity on behalf of the reader with the standard abbreviations of various works. A list of abbreviations at the beginning or end of the book would be of much use. These small flaws do not prevent the book from being an excellent introduction to Plato’s thought, and it should be recommended as one of the first readings for both students of philosophy and those who wish to engage with Plato.
Following a preliminary discussion on Plato’s life (time, place and work) and the scope and limitations of the book, Mason starts his exposition with a brief, informative chapter on the Socratic question and the development of Plato’s ideas. Regarding the latter, the author expresses his disagreement with the view, predominantly advocated by G.E.L. Owen (1953),2 that there is a radical shift between Plato’s central and later works, constituted primarily by the abandonment of the Theory of Forms (25). The core of the account is that Plato’s thought was by no means static and it did not develop in a linear way. The treatment of the soul in the various dialogues is one of the most salient examples of this. It is further observed that the “dialogue form means that Plato need not commit himself to all the views that his chief speakers express, even if he clearly intends to present them favourably” (26). Although this view might be a matter of debate, this seems a sensible line to take in an introductory work, considering the multifaceted nature of Plato’s thought. It will, I suspect, prevent much gnashing of teeth from students who attempt, for instance, to find a coherent conception of the division of the soul throughout the various dialogues.
The exposition of Plato the metaphysician begins appropriately with a chapter on the Theory of Forms. Forms are described as universals “which have a real and objective existence that we can discover; this is parallel to what we would now call a realist theory of universals” (29). The strategy of making reference to contemporary views is carefully chosen and proves to be profitable not only in Mason’s attempt to explain the role of Forms, but also in his explanation of other aspects of Plato’s philosophy. For example, when he deals with “the third man argument” and more specifically with the issue of the standard measures, he refers to Wittgenstein’s and Kripke’s views, with which students of philosophy at all levels should be familiar (56).
In the chapter on knowledge, Mason is eager to emphasize the connection between Forms and knowledge, avoiding focusing solely on the Theaetetus and the proposed definitions of knowledge therein. On the question “Can only Forms be known?” Mason is keen to highlight the connection between Forms and action. One of the biggest achievements of this chapter is the clear and careful way he approaches the theory of recollection, considering how extraordinary a contemporary student of philosophy would find it. Mason cites Meno, Phaedo and Phaedrus, highlighting the fact that the theory of recollection is formulated in each of the dialogues differently, and in the context of a different problematic each time. It is clear that Mason doesn’t necessary look for a single theory of recollection. The chapter on the Soul could well be prescribed as a mandatory reading for anyone embarking on the study of Plato. His presentation of the soul and its peculiar characteristics (self-motion, immortality, division) is very lucid and engagingly shows why each element is important to Plato. Once again, Mason does not argue that Plato had a single unchanging theory of the soul. At the same time, the problems of the divided soul, and especially the issue of mental conflict, are probed by the author. For example, he says “when we act rationally, our reason is in control; when we act irrationally it is overcome by one of the other elements. There seems no place for an act by which we decide between the rational and irrational aims. In what part of the soul might that decision be located?” (116).
It is notoriously difficult to write about Plato’s political thought without falling into controversies of interpretation, especially regarding its seemingly authoritarian nature. Mason however, produces a chapter which is articulate, clear and illuminating. His presentation of the Republic and the comment that Plato sees the Kallipolis as a “genuine ideal”, will prevent, I suspect, much of the undergraduate confusion regarding Plato’s motives for writing the work. Although the chapter is primarily on the Republic, it also extends to consider the political works of the later phase of Plato’s career, the Statesman and the Laws. The chapter on ethics confirms Mason’s assertion in the introduction to the book that Plato’s philosophy is a seamless web. Politics and ethics go hand in hand. The focus, as one would expect, is on topics such as justice, virtue, goodness, happiness of the individual in the Republic.
The chapter on God and nature is a real achievement. Mason manages to introduce the Platonic God in the most effective way by answering the question “Why does Plato believe in God?” and by focusing on the differences between Plato’s God and the God of theism. For example, Plato’s God is not omnipotent. Mason refers to Timaeus 48a, where “we are told that (divine) intelligence persuaded (material) necessity to guide most of the things that come to be towards the best, and at many places that good results were achieved as far as possible (167). The discussion of the problems of disorder and necessity are paradigmatic of Mason’s willingness to deal with difficult topics without getting bogged down by issues of interpretation. Although the chapter focuses on the Timaeus, there is also a brief section on the cosmology in the Laws. The concluding chapter is on Plato’s aesthetics, something students often find outrageous and awkward. Mason places it within the educational framework of the Republic. The section on imitation is particularly successful in presenting some quite elementary points, while also avoiding any hint of condescension.
Mason offers a very useful guide to further reading, with an updated bibliography for the individual dialogues as well as on the specific areas of Plato’s thought. The use of endnotes is quite limited and they only appear when absolutely needed, which helps the reader to follow the flow of the writing and makes the page as neat as the exposition. Further, the references given in the endnotes are comprehensive–well beyond what one might expect in an introductory work such as this. I take this to be another indication of Mason's refusal to underestimate his readers. Mason at the beginning of the books states that nothing can replace a reading of Plato’s dialogues; he is right, but his book is a very good supplement.
1. I.M. Crombie, An Examination of Plato’s Doctrines 2 vols (London, 1962); G. Morrow, “Necessity and Persuasion in the Timaeus”, Philosophical Review, 1950147-64. Reprinted in R.E. Allen (ed.), Studies in Plato's Metaphysics (London, 1965), pp. 421-37.
2. G.E.L. Owen, “The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Dialogues”, CQ 3 (1953), 79-95.