Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.16

Pierre Destrée, Fritz-Gregor Herrmann (ed.), Plato and the Poets. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 328.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xxii, 434.  ISBN 9789004201293.  $217.00.  

Reviewed by Eleni Kaklamanou, The Plato Centre, Trinity College Dublin (

Table of Contents

The troublesome relationship between Plato and the poets is best known from Plato’s banishment of the poets from the ideal city and his famous statement that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Rep. 607b5-6). It is also well known that this long discussed “quarrel” is not restricted in the Republic nor to the philosopher’s views on aesthetics and education. Plato’s attitude towards poetry and the poets plays an influential role in his views on moral psychology and he often sketches his world-view in contrast to that of the poets. The volume Plato and the Poets readdresses most of these topics showing in a vivid way the continuous scholarly interest in discussing and analyzing, often with an eye toward resolving Plato’s antagonistic view toward the poets and poetry. Although resolution is rarely reached, the depth of the analysis, the attempts to correct misconceptions and the willingness to present an illuminating discussion, make it a great contribution to the ever expanding bibliography on the topic.

The volume contains 19 articles of length (from 20 to 30 pages) in addition to the introduction. Footnotes at the bottom of the page and a bibliography can be found in each chapter, and another concise bibliography and an Index Locorum are added at the end of the volume. The order of the essays roughly follows the putative order of the composition of the dialogues with the Republic being the cornerstone (6 essays focus on it). Most of the key terms, including inspiration and mimesis, are discussed. A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of two chapters on the Symposium and two chapters on the Laws. Also, a breath of fresh air is the inclusion of articles on diverse topics such as “Tragedy, Women and the Family in Plato’s Republic” by Penelope Murray and “Myth and Poetry in the Timaeus” by Gretchen Reydams-Schils, topics which are often marginalized in discussions relating to Plato’s attitude towards poetry. Cross-references between chapters are frequent but not tiring. Due to the length of the book and the multiple readings of and approaches to a single topic, for example inspiration, the introduction of the editors, Fritz-Gregor Herrmann and Pierre Destrée, serves as a necessary and well-executed summary and guide for the following chapters.

The first essay of the volume has the intriguing title “What quarrel between Philosophy and poetry?”. Glenn Most, taking as his starting point the famous statement at 607b of the Republic, shows vividly the difference between what Plato meant by the famous quarrel and how the modern scholarship has come to interpret it. Our attitude toward reading Greek Literature, which determines our expectations from Greek Literary Criticism, is not necessarily the same as Plato’s. Further on in the volume, Noburu Notomi, “Image Making in the Republic and the Sophist”, convincingly argues, through a careful reading of the relevant passages from the Republic and the Sophist, that in reality the quarrel is not between the poets and the philosophers but rather between the makers of true images and the makers of false and misleading images.

The first chapter includes a series of essays that roughly focus on the dialogues that are thought to predate the Republic. The concept of inspiration dominates the discussion. Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, one of the editors of the volume, makes the interesting suggestion that the dialogue Gorgias is a strong candidate to be the missing link between Plato’s earlier and later criticisms of the poets. Along similar lines, Catherine Collobert explores the difference in attitude toward the early conception of inspiration and the later conception of mimesis. She identifies a tension in that a poet can tell the truth, despite the fact that he doesn’t possess the subject matter or simply doesn’t know it. Carlotta Capuccino demonstrates that in the Ion Plato’s main criticism is not directed towards poetry as such but toward the way the rhapsode functions. The main task of the rhapsode is to praise the poet, transmitting in this manner to the audience the words of an ignorant man. Stefan Büttner, in one of the most interesting essays of the collection, “Inspiration and Inspired Poets in Plato’s Dialogues”, explores the value of the poet in Plato’s work by arguing that the philosopher shows a clear preference for inspiration rather than empiricism. He rightly observes that “the decisive factor for the quality of the poetry in relation to both inspiration and mimesis is the content of knowledge with which the poet is able to invest his work…The philosophical poet represents a special category of poetic inspiration. He can do both: through thought, he can be inspired by the object of his thought; and he can justify his thought” (128).

The issue of the philosophical poet and the difference between a philosopher and a poet occupies two further chapters. Truth and knowledge are at the core of the discussion as the features that differentiate a poet from a philosopher. Reading the Ion and the Phaedrus, Francisco Gonzalez argues that the main difference between the role of philosophers and poets in education is that, even when the philosopher is possessed, he still maintains his cognitive and rational abilities. Gretchen Reydams-Schils rereads the Timaeus, and argues that Plato, via the character of Timaeus, is a kind of philosophical poet. She points out that “Timaeus with his philosophical attitude, or better, Plato as a poet in his Timaeus, dismembers the features of traditional poetry by giving us, for instance, a direct speech of a god that is not set in meter; he paints, but with words; he remolds the familiar for us like an artisan, so we get to see it as different; he borrows the rhetoricians’ tool of persuasion, but in order to shape physical reality and our souls by redirecting towards Truth and Being” (360).

The discussion of the Republic occupies many pages with six essays. The tensions and inconsistencies between books II-III and X, especially the accounts of mimesis given, is the focus of the debate among the scholars. In one of the most rigorously argued chapters, Stephen Halliwell shows that Plato, contrary to what modern scholarship suggests, appears hesitant to banish poetry form the Callipolis, a view that the ancient doxographic tradition shares. Gabriel Richardson Lear and Jera Marušič, on the other hand, attempt to minimize the tensions between the earlier and the later accounts of mimesis. In particular, Lear claims that mimesis implies the making of appearances even in the early accounts of it.

Two essays deal with the complicated interaction between soul and Plato’s attitudes towards poetry and the poets (Singpurwalla, Destrée). Rachel Singpurwalla argues that the division of the soul in Book X has a central role in how Plato approaches poetry. The main support of this thesis is the fact that is it also found in the Protagoras. The tripartite division in the central books of the Republic is a special case. Penelope Murray offers a fresh reading of the relation between the role of woman in the Republic and poetry. She shows vividly how and why women and the form of poetry they exercise are a serious threat to the harmony of the city and the soul.

The frenzy and intensity of erotic poetry in contrast to philosophy is the topic of Elisabeth Pender. Focusing on the much discussed parable of the soul as a charioteer, she argues that although the image draws on traditional Greek imagery (Sappho, Anacreon, Ibycus), “Plato sets against them a need for disciplined and tough self-control to redirect the soul’s energy away from physical beauty and towards the Forms” (348).

As mentioned above, the inclusion of two essays on the Symposium is a pleasant surprise. Dominic Scott focuses on the issue of poetic creativity. The way the speakers of the Symposium engage with poetry is the focus for Elizabeth Belfiore in a very interesting essay. She demonstrates how all the speakers engage to some extent with poetry and some even rely on it, but more significantly she shows that Diotima makes a different use of it. She seems both to understand and challenge it, unlike the rest of the interlocutors.

The focus of the final two chapters by Antony Hatzistavrou and Susan Sauvé Meyer is the Laws. Hatzistavrou examines the conditions for correct poetry found in the Laws. When he refers to the correctness of a work of art he makes an interesting distinction between the intention of the artist and the object of the intention of the artist. By the latter he refers to the original image and not to an image in the mind of the artist (377). Although, I am not fully convinced by the distinction, the attempt of the author to provide us with a fresh analysis of Laws 668c4-669b3 is noteworthy.

On the whole, the collection succeeds remarkably well in offering fresh perspectives on a number of themes relating to Plato's attitude towards poetry and the poets while avoiding excessive scholarly wrangling or overly technical discussions of individual passages.

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