Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.41

John J. Cleary, Studies on Plato, Aristotle and Proclus: Collected Essays on Ancient Philosophy of John J. Cleary. (Edited by John Dillon, Brendan O'Byrne, Fran O'Rourke). Ancient Mediterranean and medieval texts and contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, 15.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xxix, 609.  ISBN 9789004233232.  $277.00.  


Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson (lloyd.gerson@utoronto.ca)

Before his untimely death in 2009, John Cleary was professor in the departments of philosophy at Boston College and at the National University of Ireland, Maynouth. He was, among other things, the founder of the highly successful Boston Area Colloquium on ancient philosophy, in 1985. His wide interests, as indicated only partially in the title of this book, resulted in an impressively large number of publications. The present volume is a collection of some two dozen papers, the virtue of which is, generally speaking, Cleary’s insistence on taking the major philosophers of antiquity to be in continuous dialogue among themselves. Thus, Aristotle is brought in to illuminate various problematic passages in Plato, and Proclus is allowed to serve as a stand-in for Plato in his defense of Aristotle’s unrelenting attacks. Given the breadth of material covered in these essays, I have picked out only several main themes for discussion. A table of contents is found at the end of this review.

Cleary in several papers emphasizes and expands upon his assumption that Plato is a non-dogmatic thinker. In support of this view, he appeals, naturally enough, to the inconclusiveness of many dialogues and what he calls the ‘studied ambiguity’ of expression even in seemingly dogmatic works like Timaeus. Basing oneself exclusively on the dialogues, such an assumption makes sense. But then of course one must also assume that the substance of Plato’s philosophy is identical with that which is found in the dialogues, despite the testimony to the contrary of the indirect tradition, beginning with Aristotle. In any case, Cleary’s manifest affinity for Plato as a teacher, as a purveyor of paideia, leads him to explore the many dimensions of learning and education in the dialogues. These include the contrast between rhetorical and dialectical education in Gorgias, the erotic education of Socrates by Diotima in Symposium, and the education of the guardians in Plato’s Republic. Cleary sees in the latter Plato’s solution to the problem of what is now called Socratic intellectualism. The problem is that its central thesis—that if one knows the good or right thing to do, one cannot but do it—seems both reasonable, if we look at it from one direction, and yet apparently in sharp contrast with the phenomenology of ordinary experience. This problem, according to Cleary, is revealed in Republic when Plato countenances the possibility that one should act against one’s own knowledge of what constitutes virtuous behavior. The solution is to recognize that our dispositions to act are not exclusively formed by our cognitive states. Our human bodily endowments require the cultivation of moral character by means of training and habituation. Cleary finds this solution to be refined by Aristotle, although he insists that Aristotle is himself drawn to intellectualism in his view that immoral or incontinent behavior is a kind of cognitive failure caused by disruptive passions. One wonders, though, how one can speak of a cognitive failure owing to a non-cognitive cause. Cleary’s suggestion that the Aristotelian remedy for akrasia, namely, persuasion of the passions, leaves unexplained exactly how a passion as such can be persuaded.

One of Cleary’s central areas of research was in the history of mathematics. This interest culminated in a valuable and extensive treatment of Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics. Many of the papers in this volume focus on the mathematic dimension in Plato’s thought, Aristotle’s extensive engagement with this, and its aftermath in later Greek philosophy, especially in Proclus, who had an obvious taste for mathematics.

The possibility of rational persuasion of the non-rational comes to the fore again in Cleary’s treatment of Timaeus, in particular in the Demiurge’s application of mathematical ‘shapes and numbers’ to the pre-cosmic chaos. Cleary makes much of an apparent difference between what in Phaedo is taken to be a necessary condition for the imposition of intelligibility and what in Timaeus is only an ‘auxiliary cause’ (sunaition). I am not sure that this is more than a terminological adjustment, especially if we keep in mind that ‘cause’ is understood by Plato primarily as ‘explanation’. As such, a necessary condition need never have its (limited) explanatory role effaced by reaching ‘something sufficient’ as Plato puts it in Phaedo. More to the point, I think, is Plato’s apparently settled view that the only means available to a divine mind for making this world intelligible and hence as good as it can possibly be is mathematical. Things get to be good up to the limits of their materially bound capacity by acquiring geometrical and arithmetical properties. It hardly amounts to a criticism of Cleary to say that he does not face head-on this mathematization of the teleological in Plato, for in truth the dialogues are far from perspicuous in this regard.

Cleary’s fine treatment of Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s Form-Numbers and of Aristotle’s own solution to the problem of the objectivity of mathematical truths is rich in detail and insight. Cleary asks the question of where in the history of mathematics Aristotle’s own theory should be located. He rejects, rightly, any claim that Aristotle is a logicist, intuitionist, or quasi- empiricist owing to his theory of mathematical abstraction and his definition of mathematics as the study of the movable qua immovable. Finally, Cleary concludes that Aristotle is a logical realist in the way that Frege is. But as he himself notes, Frege was a Platonist. So, how are we to understand Aristotle’s Platonism in mathematics over against his rejection of Form- Numbers? The crux of the problem seems to be that unlike ordinary second-order accidental attributes which are transitively predicable of their subjects, the properties of mathematical objects—both geometrical and arithmetic—are not obviously properties of bodies. This seems to give them an independence that a Platonist would gladly embrace but an anti-Platonist would abhor. Over against Plato’s mathematization of metaphysics, the power of Aristotle’s objections in books M and N of Metaphysics needs to be carefully evaluated. Cleary makes some important steps in this direction, both in his monograph and here, especially in his account of Proclus’ philosophy of mathematics. Proclus is both a constructivist and a Platonic realist. What enables him to combine these two positions is that he sees constructivism in us as a reflection of an eternal intellect cognitively identical with all the mathematical truths there are. So, Proclus’ mathematical constructivism (including all mathematical discoveries) is a ‘projection’ (probolē) into the sphere of human discourse of what is eternally present both in an infinite divine mind and in our minds, available to us through recollection.

The last section of papers is the most disparate. Even Hegel and Hans-Georg Gadamer—a friend and mentor to Cleary— make appearances. I found the paper on Aristotle’s division of the theoretical sciences particularly valuable. The problem Cleary sets for himself is how Aristotle’s threefold division of theoretical science—physics, mathematics, and theology—can be reconciled with Aristotle’s anti-Platonic ontology. He wishes to contest the claim of Philip Merlan that the threefold division is a sort of leftover from Plato’s division of ontology into Forms, mathematicals, and sensibles. Cleary acknowledges the identity of the science of theology with the science of being qua being, arguing that, nonetheless, they differ formally in their objects. Theology studies substance as the primary mode of being, specifically the divine as the purest kind of substance. But this science is also the science of being qua being because this science is concerned with all being, whether pure or impure. Cleary argues that theology is ontology because the nature of being is better revealed therein. This, though, does not it seems to me answer the next obvious question which is why the nature of being is thus better revealed. That is, the causality of the primary in relation to all else is crucial, although Cleary insists that this causality can only be final. The answer to this question would seem to be that this works only if the primary and unique primary referent of ‘being’ is the perfectly actual substance that the unmoved mover is. So this primary referent is not a kind of substance, as Cleary has it. This would suggest, as indeed Aristotle insists, that, were the objects studied in theology not to exist, then primary philosophy would be physics. That is, a science of being qua being would not be possible.

As I write this, I realize yet again and even more forcefully than I did upon hearing of his death, that I will never again have the very considerable pleasure of debating these points with John Cleary. His was a fully engaged mind, still available to us in this very substantial collection of papers.

Table of Contents

I. Paideia
Back to the Texts Themselves
The Paideia of the Historical Protagoras
Competing Models of Paideia in Plato’s Gorgias
Erotic Paideia in Plato’s Symposium
Cultivating Intellectual Virtue in Plato’s Philosopher-Rulers
Paideia in Plato/s Laws
Socratic Influences on Aristotle’s Ethical Inquiry
Akrasia and Moral Education in Aristotle

II. History of Mathematics
The Mathematical Cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus
Abstracting Aristotle’s Philosophy of Mathematics
Proclus’ Philosophy of Mathematics

III. History of Philosophy
A. Plato
Plato’s Teleological Atomism
The Role of Theology in Plato’s Laws
‘Powers That Be’: The Concept of Potency in Plato and Aristotle
B. Aristotle
On the Terminology of ‘Abstraction’ in Aristotle
Science, Universals, and Reality
Phainomena in Aristotle’s Methodology
Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Form Numbers
Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s First Principles
Should One Pray for Aristotle’s Best Polis?
Emending Aristotle’s Division of the Theoretical Sciences
C. Proclus and Later
Proclus’ Elaborate Defense of Platonic Ideas
Proclus as a Reader of Plato’s Timaeus
The Rationality of the Real: Proclus and Hegel
Plato’s Philebus as a Gadamerian Conversation?
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