Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.32

Gerd Van Riel, Plato's Gods. Ashgate studies in the history of philosophical theology.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2013.  Pp. 146.  ISBN 9780754607014.  $39.95 (pb).  


Reviewed by Robbert M. van den Berg, Leiden University (r.m.van.den.berg@hum.leidenuniv.nl)

Table of Contents

The laconic title of this book may look completely innocent; in fact the plural is highly provocative. It challenges what the Belgian scholar Gerd van Riel identifies in his introduction as the dominant, Aristotelianizing approach to Plato’s theology. On this view, the divine in Plato coincides with the highest metaphysical principle. It thus effectively reduces the numerous Platonic gods, for example the twelve Olympian gods from the myth of the winged charioteer in the Phaedrus, to one ultimate God, comparable to Aristotle’s divine Intellect. In this study Van Riel resists this reduction of theology to metaphysics, arguing that for Plato the gods are not metaphysical principles, but souls – of an admittedly superior type – in charge of the sensible universe.

The first two chapters prepare the ground for the full exposition of Van Riel’s interpretation in the third and final chapter. The first one deals with Plato’s religion which, Van Riel argues, is characterized by humility and moderation: God, not man, is the measure of all things (Laws 716c-d). As Van Riel points out in a subtle reading of the famous myth of Prometheus from the Protagoras, primeval mankind received the gift of fire before those of justice and shame. The former allowed them to develop culture, religious sacrifices included, the latter to live together in political societies governed by nomoi. Religion thus predates the activities of the lawgiver and hence falls outside his sphere of competence. In contrast to the modest lawgivers of the Republic and the Laws, who are happy to simply accept existing religious traditions, Euthyphro in the eponymous dialogue goes wrong because of his lack of moderation. By proclaiming himself to be an expert on religious matters, he takes himself, rather than god, to be the measure in religious matters. Plato’s insistence on moderation sets him apart from Aristotle. Van Riel warns against interpreting the famous Platonic command to become like God to the extent possible in Aristotelian terms. Plato does not tell us, as some modern scholars assume, that we should somehow become like Aristotle’s divine Intellect by thinking the thinking god’s own thoughts. As the addition “to the extent possible” indicates, there exists an essential difference between god and mankind. To become like god consists in recognising this difference and in acting accordingly, i.e. with moderation.

In the second chapter Van Riel works out the consequences of this moderation for the way in which Plato practises theology. Unlike Euthyphro, he is very hesitant to speak about the gods. Rather, as was the case with the lawgivers of the Republic and Laws, he feels obliged to accept the religious views of our ancestors. As Van Riel rightly observes, it is remarkable that Plato never rejects anthropomorphism as such as, for example, Xenophanes had done. Van Riel is, of course, well aware that Plato is critical of Homer’s and Hesiod’s poems, yet we should not conclude from this that Plato intends to reinvent Greek mythology. Rather his aim is to set up a series of rules for talking about these traditional gods. We should think of them as good, as unchanging and as supervising our moral progress. In what will turn out to be a decisive step in Van Riel’s argument, he gives a detailed reading of the myth of the winged charioteer in the Phaedrus. Van Riel insists on the fact that in that myth Plato describes the Olympian gods as perfect souls. They are pure, undisturbed in their contemplation of the intelligible by their bodies, if they already have one. Taking his clue from Laws 930e-931a where Plato distinguishes between visible (i.e. corporeal) and invisible gods, Van Riel concludes that for Plato not all gods have a body, let alone that we should identify them with the celestial bodies. Against this cosmological interpretation of Plato’s gods – the dominant view before the present, Aristotelianizing approach gained momentum in the 1960s – Van Riel rightly maintains that we should think of the planets as possible manifestations of the traditional gods, not as replacements for them.

It may well be that for Plato the traditional gods are pure souls, but this raises the question of how these gods relate to Plato’s metaphysical principles (Intellect, the Forms, the Good), i.e. how theology relates to metaphysics. Aristotle collapses the two when he makes god into the highest object of metaphysics. This Aristotelian “metaphysical monotheism”, Van Riel claims, has been wrongly projected back upon Plato, for example in recent studies by Stephen Menn (Plato on God as Nous, 1995) and Michael Bordt (Platons Theologie, 2006) that argue that for Plato god is a metaphysical principle, be it Intellect and/or a manifestation of the Good. Much of the discussion of Van Riel with his opponents centres around the interpretation of the Demiurge in the Timaeus. Here Van Riel faces a seemingly uphill struggle: throughout the Timaeus, the Demiurge, Intellect, is called god and presented as the father (the metaphysical principle so to speak) of the traditional gods. But, Van Riel insists, if one takes the description of the Demiurge at face value, one is left with a very exceptional divinity, one very much unlike Plato’s usual description of the gods. Apart from his different ontological status and his position over and against the other gods, he has no part in what Van Riel in the second chapter identified as one of the characteristics of Plato’s gods, the continuous task of taking care of the cosmos. How likely is the unexpected introduction of such an exceptional god? Not very, Van Riel opines, now seeing his way clear to introducing a new interpretation of the Demiurge. He next sets out to demonstrate that according to Plato there cannot be intellect without soul. His star witness is Philebus 30c (“There could not be wisdom and intellect (nous) without a soul”), but he argues that other passages including some from the Timaeus (46d: only soul possesses nous) can be taken to imply the same thing. For Plato, then, intellect, is a property of the divine souls, not some sort of ultimate god. This property allows the soul-gods to contemplate the intelligible world and transmit its order to the sensible world, thus performing their typically divine task of caring for what is inferior to them. On this reading, the Demiurge is the personification of this property, his speech to the gods a reflection of the divine souls on their task.

To my mind, Van Riel’s most important contribution to the debate is that he manages to effectively cast doubt on the privileged place that the Demiurge holds in many discussions of Plato’s theology. However, the Demiurge is repeatedly called a god and the suggestion that we read his speech as a reflection of the soul-gods on their task may seem a bit contrived. Van Riel addresses the former issue, arguing that we should not over-interpret the fact that the Demiurge is called a god since we are dealing here with a “likely myth”. This is a valid point, but one that deserves to be pursued a little further. The story about the Demiurge may be a myth, but so are the stories about Prometheus in the Protagoras and the winged charioteers in the Phaedrus. There is no good reason to assume that one Platonic myth carries a greater authority than another. Perhaps we should allow Plato’s various accounts of the divine to exist side by side, rather than trying to fit them all into one big picture. One could well imagine that Plato felt that in one context – e.g. that of laws meant for the common man – a more traditional version of the divine was called for, while in another – e.g. that of a cosmology aimed at natural philosophers attracted to Anaxagoras’ concept of a cosmic Intellect – a more metaphysical one was. I am not convinced that, say, the more traditional picture that the Phaedrus paints of the divine is necessarily closer to Plato’s “real” theological convictions than the Demiurge of the Timaeus. This is not to say, of course, that for Plato everything goes – the rules that Van Riel identifies in Chapter Two would still apply –; rather, that the contexts in which the various statements are made deserve more attention than they tend to get in these thematic approaches.

To conclude: Van Riel’s thought-provoking book is a pleasure to read. His grasp of over a century of scholarship impressive, yet it does not obstruct the argument, which is always admirably clear. His discussions of Plato’s well-known texts are intelligent and nuanced, and often have an unexpected twist. Most importantly, it gives a new and powerful impetus to the important debate about Plato’s god – or, as Van Riel has convinced me, gods.

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