Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.40

Maurizio Migliori, Il Disordine ordinato: la filosofia dialettica di Platone. Vol. I, Dialettica, metafisica e cosmologia.   Brescia:  Editrice Morcelliana, 2013.  Pp. 720.  ISBN 9788837227500.  €39.00.  

Maurizio Migliori, Il Disordine ordinato: la filosofia dialettica di Platone. Vol. II, Dall’anima alla prassi etica e politica.   Brescia:  Editrice Morcelliana, 2013.  Pp. 784.  ISBN 9788837227517.  €39.00.  

Reviewed by Diego De Brasi, Seminar für Klassische Philologie, Philipps-Universität Marburg (

Table of Contents

[The author apologizes for the delay in the submission of the review.]

Platonic scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century includes four main trends: the Anglo-American unitarianism of Harold Cherniss, the Anglo-American analytic approach inspired by the work of G. E. L. Owen and Gregory Vlastos, the ‘Straussian’ school, and the esoteric approach of the so-called Tübingen School, whose main advocates are nowadays Thomas Szlezák and Giovanni Reale. 1 Professor Migliori, who has never hidden his sympathies for the esoteric approach, 2 offers now a powerful synthesis of more than 30 years of work on Plato in this tradition. His book, in two volumes, is in all respects colossal: every chapter (with – perhaps – the exception of Chapter 3) could have been published separately as a single monograph; the themes which are dealt with range from Plato’s style to his metaphysics, ethics and politics; the bibliography extends over 55 pages, with more than 850 references; the volumes are completed by four indices (of Platonic passages, of passages of other ancient authors, of names and of modern authors). Furthermore the book is written in a reader-friendly style: the line of argument is always understandable; unnecessary technicalities have been avoided; every chapter is introduced by a (relatively) short abstract; and a final chapter (ch. 8) of nearly 100 pages offers a dense summary of the whole two volumes.

It would be almost impossible fully to discuss the breadth and depth of Professor Migliori’s arguments, so I shall limit myself to short summaries of the main claims made in the first seven chapters, trying to stress a few notable points worthy of discussion.

After a brief introduction, Migliori presents in Chapter 1 the assumptions on which esoteric readings of the dialogues rest. 3 He argues that Plato intentionally leaves arguments out of the dialogues, because – as the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter attest – he thought of written words as the ‘lesser brother’ of oral communication (63-8). However, Migliori claims that Plato accorded the written word a certain importance too and argues, thus, that Plato’s dialogues are conceived of as ‘plays’ with protreptic intent, in accordance with Socrates’ maieutikê tekhnê. 4 In other words, the dialogues are not aimed at conveying Plato’s philosophy to the reader; rather they should teach him how to practice philosophy. How questionable esoteric readings can sometimes be shows, however, in Migliori’s interpretation of the abrupt ending of the Critias (39 and 470-1). Plato, he suggests, chose not to let Critias give an account of Zeus’ words to the others gods (121b7-c5) because the historical Critias would not have been the right person to do it. This looks to me – at first sight – rather unlikely. In particular, why should we assume (as Migliori suggests) that Zeus’ speech would probably have mentioned, or been based on, the form of the Good (471)?

In Chapter 2, Migliori deals with Plato’s epistemology and dialectic. The first section, to my mind the most stimulating of his book, focuses on anamnêsis as the basis of Platonic epistemology, and offers at the same time a reevaluation of empiricism within Plato’s thought, on the grounds that empirical experience can stimulate the process of anamnêsis and consequently lead to knowledge. In harmony with this analysis, Migliori argues plausibly that the allegedly strong distinction between knowledge (epistêmê) and opinion (doxa) within the dialogues should be replaced by a more nuanced classification. He recognizes in Plato’s oeuvre three different patterns (270-1):

(a) Sometimes doxa has an intermediate position between epistêmê and ignorance (agnoia).
(b) Sometimes knowledge and opinion are strictly distinct.
(c) Sometimes Plato distinguishes among ‘true’, ‘right’ and ‘false’ doxa.

The second section of Chapter 2 presents a close analysis of the concept of dialectic and a classification of two different methods of diairesis. The main argument of this part is that Plato conceives reality as ‘complex unity’, and that dialectic is the instrument which helps the philosopher decipher reality. Migliori concludes this chapter by stressing that Plato was deeply aware of the limits of human reason, although also deeply convinced that the truth could be reached through dialectic. On this point, I think, Migliori goes too far, for his line of argument is based, among other things, on the final scene of the Theaetetus, a passage which could as well be read as a profession of skepticism. I do not understand, indeed, why Socrates’ statement that his art cannot accomplish more than to let Theaetetus recognize that he only apparently possesses wisdom (210b4-c6) should be interpreted as a hint about Plato’s intention of abandoning the Socratic Method.

Chapter 3 represents a sort of preamble to Chapter 4 and focuses mainly on the similar literary devices and dramatic structure of the Philebus and the Timaeus. Migliori stresses above all that the dialogues are intertwined: the considerations about psychology and ethics – the main theme of the Philebus – need the metaphysical-cosmological reflections of the Timaeus in order to be completely understood.

In Chapter 4 we find a detailed account of Plato’s Prinzipienlehre. On the basis of his depiction of dialectic as method which provides the philosopher with instruments to decipher reality as complex unity, Migliori identifies the two ontological principles responsible for the ontogenesis of the world with the peras, i.e. the ordering principle which is defined in the dialogues as the Good, as Beauty, and most correctly as Measure, and the apeiron, i. e. the principle of disorder. The peras interacts with the apeiron through a divine efficient cause (the dêmiourgos) and produces a third element, Mixture, which is intrinsic to (sensible) reality. The result of this process is the birth of the cosmos, a divine but matter-bound reality, subject to a cyclical alternation between order and disorder. Here again a short example can show how questionable an esoteric reading could be. Examining the Allegory of the Cave (R. 512a-521b), Migliori focuses on lines 517c7-d2, 5 which he takes to suggest that there is not an inside or an outside of the Cave but just different ways of being in it (585-6). That seems to me hard to believe.

With Chapter 5 begins the second volume of Migliori’s book, which is mainly dedicated to Plato’s psychology, ethics and politics. Dealing with Plato’s concept of the soul, Migliori examines first of all its nature and argues that Plato conceives of its tripartition as a true ontological differentiation, rejecting the analyses of those scholars who interpret the tripartite soul as an ontological unity with different functions. As a consequence of this he claims that, although the tripartite soul outlives the body by many years, only the rational soul is immortal, so that Plato’s psychology does not ultimately imply personal survival.

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Migliori rightly stresses the difference between Plato’s holistic philosophy and modern thought: ethics and politics are according to Plato two sides of the same coin, and both are deeply related to his metaphysical and epistemological convictions. After this Migliori deals with almost every main interpretive problem within Plato’s ethical and political thought: on the one hand the unity, importance and teachability of the virtues, the role of pleasure in life, and the determination of the happy life; on the other hand, the interdependence between individual and society, the more or less utopian character of Plato’s political ‘projects’ and the correlation among them, the nature, role and function of laws and of the statesman, and the relationship between politics and philosophy. Particularly interesting are Migliori’s analyses of Plato’s conception of the unity of the virtues and of the relationship between the political ‘projects’ described in the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Laws. With respect to the unity of the virtues, Migliori examines at length the Protagoras and argues that none of the possibilities which Socrates discusses with Protagoras is actually taken to be valid by Plato: already in the Protagoras, and even more in the Statesman and in the Philebus, it emerges that virtue, as reality, is a complex unity and that the virtues constitute a unity insofar as they all represent the right balance within action. This reading is, indeed, stimulating. It should be noticed, however, that Migliori does not take into consideration – as far as I understand his line of argument – the distinction traced in Phaedo82a-b and in Republic 500d between the philosophical discussion about virtue and the existence of a ‘popular virtue (dêmotikhê aretê)’ which can be obtain through exercise and practice. With respect to the utopian character of Plato’s political projects and to the relationship between them, Migliori chooses a ‘weak’ position: Plato proposes various political models which (a) were never planned to become actual, (b) all rest on a similar basis, i.e. the fact that they all are rational buildings aiming at a ‘fairer’ society, and (c) show different degrees of ‘realism’. Although I think that this interpretation is a good starting point for discussion of Plato’s utopianism, I am also convinced that it does not offer a real solution to the ‘bigger’ question, namely the question of the relationship between the Republic and the Laws.

Finally Migliori offers in Chapter 7 three appendices whose aim consists in underpinning the textual analyses of the previous six chapters. A first appendix is dedicated to Plato’s biography and stresses, among other things, his engagement with the Pythagoreans, while arguing for a friendly relationship between Plato and Isocrates, both pupils of Socrates. In the second appendix, Migliori deals with the indirect evidence about Plato’s unwritten doctrines. The third appendix focuses on the method of reading a philosophical text, arguing against Reinhard Brandt 6 that a philosophical text needs to be read within the parameters of a hermeneutical ‘paradigm’ – although this should not be thought of as a rigid scheme: the ‘interpretive paradigm’ needs to be tested on the text and could, indeed should, be improved while working with it.

Considering the size of this opus magnum, typos are surprisingly few and of minor importance. Here are just a few examples: ‘inganno..’ (55 n. 71); ὁμολογουμένος for ὁμολογουμένους (291, quoting Ti. 29c4-d3); ‘Fronterotta 2077’ (367 n. 330); ‘crematisi’ for ‘crematisti’ (1043 n. 264); σωφρωνεῖν for σωφρονεῖν (1115); ‘Limita’ for ‘Liminta’ (1401).

Esoteric readings are still sometimes underestimated or the target of hostile attacks which are not always based on objective considerations. Thus it is important to acknowledge that Professor Migliori has written a fine book, which – especially in the sections on platonic epistemology and politics – is very stimulating and deserves the widest reception possible. 7


1.   Cf. C. Gill, ‘Dialectic and the Dialogue Form’ in: J. Annas and C. Rowe (eds.), New perspectives on Plato, modern and ancient (Cambridge, MA; London 2002), 145-71 (at 145-9). See also Y. Lafrance’s review of F. Cossutta and M. Narcy (eds.), La forme dialogue chez Platon. Evolution et receptions (Grenoble 2001), in Dialogue. Revue canadienne de philosophie 42 (2003), 153-6. However Lafrance replaces Anglo-American unitarianism with the historical tradition of the ‘École de Paris’ and names as representative of this school Luc Brisson, Michel Narcy, Monique Canto-Sperber, Néstor-Luis Cordero, Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé and Richard Goulet.
2.   Cf. M. Migliori, ’Il recupero della trascendenza platonica e il nuovo paradigma’, Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica 79 (1987), 351-81; ‘La scuola di Tubinga-Milano’, Il Cannochiale (1992), 121-42; ‘De la critique de Schleiermacher aux commentaires récents. Évolution et articulation du nouveau paradigme de Tübingen-Milan’, Les Études Philosophiques (1998), 91-114.
3.   Migliori however rejects the term ‘esoteric’ as misleading, since it invites us to consider the Academy a sect and the unwritten doctrines a series of dogmas secretly taught and profoundly different from what is said in the dialogues (169-71).
4.   Migliori also argues that the dialogues were written with posterity in mind, something that can be argued from a passage in the Phaedrus (276d3-4).
5.   ‘Come then, I said, and join me in this further thought, and do not be surprised that those who have attained to this height are not willing to occupy themselves with the affairs of men, but their souls ever feel the upward urge and the yearning for that sojourn above. For this, I take it, is likely if in this point too the likeness of our image holds’ (transl. Shorey).
6.   R. Brandt, Die Interpretation philosophischer Werke (Stuttgart; Bad Cannstatt 1984).
7.   At 85 n. 122, Migliori notes, speaking about Christopher Rowe’s book Plato and The Art of Philosophical Writing (Cambridge 2007), that Rowe ignores Italian authors related to the Tübingen School (‘quelle [i.e. the interpretations] degli italiani sono evidentemente inesistenti, perché i suoi esponenti, a partire da Reale, non sono mai citati’). But this ‘reproach’ can be extended to Anglophone scholarship in general, as the book edited by Dmitri Nikulin (ed.), The Other Plato. The Tübingen Interpretation of Plato’s Inner-Academic Teachings (New York 2012), indirectly confirms: here can be found only translations of publications by German scholars.

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