Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.49

Clinton DeBevoise Corcoran, Topography and Deep Structure in Plato: The Construction of Place in the Dialogues. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy.   Albany:  SUNY Press, 2016.  Pp. xi, 289.  ISBN 9781438462691.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Geoff Bakewell, Rhodes College (


Corcoran claims that metaphysical concerns drive Plato’s use of (what non-philosophers might call) Athenian Realien. As Corcoran puts it, “the Good structures all dimensions of the natural and human worlds, and . . . also serves as a guide for Plato’s construction of his settings, themes, and the various narrative uses of space-time in the dialogues” (1). The Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave are central to his argument, which focuses primarily on Republic, Menexenus, Timaeus, Critias, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Symposium. According to Corcoran, Plato inflects place and history in non-naturalistic ways, thereby offering readers a transcendent experience of the Forms and of the Good that unites them. Clearly written and engaging, Corcoran’s book is a welcome reminder we should read broadly across the Platonic corpus, alert to the possibility that even the minutest details of individual dialogues carry metaphysical weight. Yet Corcoran’s book does not achieve its potential: it is stronger on metaphysical matters than topographical ones, and contains numerous grammatical infelicities and typos. The following paragraphs provide a brief summary of the contents, followed by some criticisms.

Ch. 1, “Descent into the Maelstrom,” argues that the Republic’s dramatic setting is deeply connected to its philosophical content. For Corcoran, the Long Walls and circuit wall of Piraeus provide a real-life counterpart to the Cave, into which the dialogue’s primary interlocutors descend. While in the port, they work in a gloom spread by politician-puppeteers like Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles, whose creation of and support for these same fortifications constitutes a deception of the Athenian public. Moreover, the torchlight and shadow of the pannychis are said to call to mind both the Eleusinian Mysteries and visits to the Trophonium at Levadia. The philosopher gains knowledge not from descent in darkness, but ascent amid light. In short, Plato has constructed “a philosophic model and journey that creates a mystic connection of all objects in the Realm of Becoming to the invisible Forms in the Realm of Being” (36). Ch. 2, “The Menexenus, Socrates, and the Battle of Arginusae,” explores the dialogue’s cooption of the genre of the epitaphios. Conflating past, present, and future, Plato uses the dramatic date of 386 BCE to present Socrates as a psychagogue returned from the dead, who addresses both the Menexenoi (his friend and his son) and his city all at once. “While most funeral speeches are the survivors’ exhortations to live up to the deeds of the dead, Socrates’s specter haunts his countrymen, warning them not to repeat their errors” (62). In its preference for empire and rhetoric over self-control and philosophy, Athens proves more dead than the man it executed.

Ch. 3, “The Symbolism in the City Plan of Plato’s Atlantis,” argues that Timaeus and Critias provide a critical perspective on Athenian history. The former “presents us with four slices, or snapshots, of Athens in time: (1) Ur-Athens, (2) the dramatic setting in Athens during the [Peloponnesian] war, (3) the hyperbolic form of Athens’s present seen as Atlantis, and finally (4) a retrospective perspective of the post-war Athens from the dialogue’s [later] composition date” (74). Corcoran further suggests that Atlantis’ rings and roads, canals, bridges and walls resemble Pericles’ dream of an island realm possessed of an unrivaled navy. Plato’s Atlantis is thus the archetypal “flawed Form” (74) of an aggressively imperial, maritime city.

Ch. 4, “The Slow Boat from Delos, or Socrates’s Ship Comes In?,” examines the approach of Socrates’ execution as depicted in the Crito and Phaedo, arguing that Plato creates uncertainty about when the state galley will return from Delos to expound on the proper relationship between divination and philosophy. Socrates’ (ultimately correct) dream that he will not (contra Crito) be executed until the third day establishes him as a clear-eyed devotee of Apollo; his last-minute turn to hymnody allows him to participate vicariously in the Delian festival and redeem the city by his philosophical activity. According to Corcoran, “it is not the Athenian theoric delegation that needs to avoid the pollution of Socrates’s execution, but rather Apollo who delays Socrates’s death so that Socrates may purify the Athenians’ defilements of his festival” (114). Put differently, “Socrates has divined the real source of the Athenians’ curse . . . [it] is the plague of pleonexia brought on by Athens” (114).

Ch. 5, “Wrestling and the Fair Fight in Plato,” argues that Plato’s wrestling metaphors have important aesthetic, ethical and educational dimensions, and that he employs them hierarchically: upright wrestling is better than ground wrestling, which is in turn superior to the disreputable pankration. Socrates’ agonistic rounds with his interlocutors, especially in Phaedrus, Republic, and Symposium assume added importance: in each instance, one or more souls are riding on the outcome of the dialogues’ discussions. For Plato, winning the wrong way is worse than losing. As Corcoran puts it, “proper philosophic argument, like proper wrestling, is concerned primarily with the correct practice and form of the art, with correctly developing an idea” (130).

Ch. 6, “The Good as Architectonic,” sums up the many ways in which Corcoran understands the Good to be the primary force shaping all features of Plato’s dialogues. Taken together, these means establish the philosopher as the only figure able to “negotiate the manifold pitfalls of immorality and achieve true immortality” (159). In their devotion to Being, Socrates and his adepts stand in opposition to the mythic creature Glaukos, whose attachment to the realm of Becoming accounts for his misshapen appearance. And the topography of Plato’s several afterworlds (in Phaedo, Republic, Gorgias, and Phaedrus) “approximate[s] the structure of the soul, city, and universe, [thereby providing] models for an ordered life” (163). Corcoran concludes that for Plato, “the good life is exactly the one that is self-limiting and ordered according to its essence; the bad life is the indiscriminate and unlimited one. The nature of a thing, person, or complex sets its limit according to its form, what is just for it” (165).

One criticism of Corcoran’s book is that it is light on topography as commonly understood. By insisting that Plato everywhere subordinates particularity of place to metaphysical concerns, Corcoran makes it difficult to assess his argument in empirical terms. Yet Nails has argued persuasively that in general Plato allowed himself less rather than more poetic license.1 Thucydides offers an interesting counterpoint in this regard. Like his near-contemporary Plato, Thucydides stressed the contrast between opinion and knowledge, the difficulty in acquiring the latter, and the gulf between the mistaken many and the thoughtful few.2 Yet the historian stated that the truth was rooted in careful study of the concrete past. Was this really the case, or did his ktema es aei emerge out of imagined speeches and skillful juxtapositions? Either way, Thucydides relied on particular presentation of specific detail to make his case. What level of verisimilitude was required for the reader to perceive the “expansion, compression, superimposition, telescoping, and interdimensionality in time, space, and action” (14) that Plato allegedly undertook in service to the Forms and the Good? Consider for instance Corcoran’s treatment of the journey of Socrates and Glaucon at the beginning of Republic, on which much rests. He claims in a footnote that “the descent to the Piraeus, of course, would be between the Long Walls of Athens” (183 n.3). Yet the exterior cart track running just to the north was also a distinct, and arguably more likely, possibility.3 If so, then Corcoran’s elaborate analogy with the Allegory of the Cave loses luster. And his embrace of the view that Plato promoted an “esoteric doctrine” (9) accessible only to the few complicates matters yet further.

With regard to time, Corcoran’s Plato seems obsessed by the Sicilian expedition of 415. Yet equally formative for the young man was the struggle between oligarchs and democrats in the last decade of the fifth century. Indeed, Socrates’ route at the beginning of the Republic likely took him past Mounychia; Plato may have wanted to remind his readers of the recent civil war, and of tyranny more generally. Yet the Thirty and their overthrow are largely missing from Corcoran’s account, as are Plato’s later activities in Sicily. These episodes seem every bit as aktuell for the broader political and educational themes of the Republic.

Significant bibliographic gaps sometimes occur. Ch. 1’s discussion of the Bendideia betrays no knowledge of Parker or Wijma;4 Ch. 3 relies primarily on Jacoby for the patrios nomos and demosion sema, while neglecting Clairmont and Arrington; 5 Aleshire is missing from Ch. 4’s discussion of the Athenian Asclepieion.6

Despite these flaws, Corcoran’s book is worth reading. It tackles a challenging and understudied topic, uses a wide range of sources, and does so intelligently. If the results ultimately contribute more to metaphysics than topography, that is perhaps to be expected in a written work striving to transcend the physical and reach the Realm of Being.


1.   Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics Indianapolis, 2002, 307-308.
2.   On the relationship between the two figures and their work, see e.g. Mark Munn, The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates, Berkeley, 2000.
3.   Robert Garland, The Piraeus, London, 1987, 144-145.
4.   Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History, Oxford, 1996, 170-175; Sara Wijma, Embracing the Immigrant: The participation of metics in Athenian polis religion (5th-4th century BC), Stuttgart, 2014, 126-155.
5.   Christoph Clairmont, Patrios Nomos: Public Burial in Athens during the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.: The Archaeological, Epigraphic-Literary, and Historical Evidence, Oxford, 1983; Nathan Arrington, “Topographic Semantics: The Location of the Athenian Public Cemetery and its Significance for the Nascent Democracy,” Hesperia 79 (2010), 499-539.
6.   Sara Aleshire, The Athenian Asklepieion: The People, their Dedications, and the Inventories, Amsterdam, 1989.

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