BMCR 2004.04.02

Truth and Mockery in Platon and in Modernity: A New Perception of Platon’s Euthyphron, Apology, Criton and Phaidon

, Truth and mockery in Platon and in modernity : a new perception of Platon's Euthyphron, Apology, Criton and Phaidon. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2001. xxi, 276 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0595176291. $21.95.

1 Responses

Plato’s dialogues surrounding Socrates’ trial and death have not yet been examined as a thematically unified tetralogy, although they have individually received exhaustive scholarly attention. Thus Evans’ comprehensive study would seem, prima facie, to be a welcome addition to the existing Platonic scholarship, one that might fill an important gap by situating itself within the larger interpretive context. It is disappointing to discover that the book is sweepingly and unapologetically polemical: it combats without argument the traditional notion of ‘Platonism’ and the ‘insufferable propriety of modern academics’ by castigating their fundamentally wrong ways of doing research (28).1 Their error consists, according to the author, in missing truth’s ability to dissemble and mock, and in advocating in its stead a shortsighted objective thinking. Evans, a non-academic himself, avoids this tendency by writing a strictly univocal book in which he views Platonic truth as ‘heterogeneous’ or ‘heterosexual’ insight directed toward our concrete human condition. This insight, he claims, does not exclude the Forms but rediscovers them in our cosmic affairs. Quite ironically for someone with Evans’ fastidious interpretive agenda, the key concept here is the heavily used notion of Socratic irony, which undermines ‘theoretic clarity in the whole nature of things’ by delimiting the paradigm of universal knowledge (49). Scattered throughout the book are various connections between Socrates’ ironic call and modern ethical and epistemological concerns. The book consists of a preface, two introductory chapters that present concepts and method used, four chapters each devoted to one of the four dialogues, a conclusion, and an appendix.

Perhaps the book’s most novel contribution lies in its litmus-test for a proposed structural arrangement of the Platonic corpus. While explicitly following Thrasyllus’ principle of dialogic organization into nine tetralogies, Evans creates mostly new tetralogies that ‘reflect [a] deeper understanding of the interconnections among dialogues within a [given] tetralogy’ (52).2 Two tetralogic units (and a separate misfit, perhaps too conveniently consisting of four spurious dialogues) are made to abide by the same conceptual/organizational principle as that informing each one of their members: two dialogues articulate opposite ideas, a third one mediates between them, and the fourth advances a kind of positive knowledge ‘originating in a non-ironic, too straightforward synthesis of the previous three’ (xx). Accordingly, in Euthyphro and Crito Socrates shows the inadequacy of two opposite forms of divine and political knowledge, respectively: the former is predicated exclusively on formal definition, whereas the latter relies myopically on practical expediency. The synthetic view afforded in Apology blends the idea of the divine, as an indefinable, internalized monitor, with a truly Socratic obeisance to ‘internal self-knowledge and the lack of pretense’ (172). But, whereas the localization of the daimonion in Socrates’ soul constitutes a conceivable, subjective alternative to Euthyphro’s objectified notion of the divine, I remain sceptical as to whether Socrates’ notion of self-knowledge is a viable political alternative to Crito’s principle of expediency. Finally, as a philosophical satyr-play, Phaedo is said to offer a farcical, intellectualized account of truth as a detached, incorporeal, and a-political entity. The desideratum would then be for Evans ‘a fifth thing, the appropriate seeing and manifesting of this knowledge in daily acts of intelligent recognition.’ Such knowledge ‘must become daimonic; it must become our insight’ (212). But if both the third and the unwritten fifth pole view knowledge as subjective and internalized, why draw a distinction between them at all? Furthermore, what necessitates the intervention of the fourth pole? An interpretive schema such as the one suggested by Evans, which first affirms a position (Pole III) and then ironizes or subverts it (Pole ╬╣ in order to reclaim it as an unwritten thesis (Pole V) seems curiously redundant. Finally, Evans’ view of Platonic truth as an unstatable or ‘perceptual’ awareness is, perhaps unbeknownst to him, strangely similar to both the traditional, hard-core ‘academic’ interpretation of Forms as ineffable objects of contemplation and to the esotericists’ belief in the theory of unwritten doctrines.

In Euthyphro (Chapter 3), Plato is said to dramatize man’s inability to define piety ‘because [it] tempers the straightforwardness of belief or should do so when understood well’ (63). Evans thus views the dialogue’s aporetic ending as the natural result of an ill-aimed attempt to explain the true nature of piety objectively, by means of logical propositions. Since truth is, according to him, deeply ironical, its proper assessment requires our ability to listen to the ‘daimonic or spiritual in us,’ which concretizes and localizes the abstract and universal. The definitions provided by Euthyphro become, in Evans’ study, the poles of his four-part interpretive schema, which individually and as a whole show the futility of a dialectical enterprise set on establishing axiomatic truths. The First Pole, according to which piety is ‘that which is pleasing to the gods,’ endorses a Parmenidean specificity by ignoring changing circumstances and individual conditions. The inadequacy of the Second Pole, which defines piety as ‘that which all the gods love,’ lies in its Heraclitean failure to establish the notion’s ousia, despite changing conditions and affections. The Third Pole, which views piety as ‘the part of justice having to do with ministry ( therapeia) to the gods,’ synthesizes the metaphysical contrariety posited by the other two by introducing the notion of techn├¬, which employs a universal logic (Pole I) but not vacuously or formally (Pole II). The Fourth Pole, according to which piety is ‘knowledge of both sacrificing and praying,’ preserves the technical aspect of the Third Pole while viewing it as shameless business exchange. This definition also is inadequate, because it offers a ‘straightforward, non-ironic, commensurable knowledge of the divine, a knowledge separate from the good’ (86).

The Apology, which Evans discusses in Chapter 4, is said to contain Socrates’ most persuasive defense of the human wisdom of knowing what we do not know. The triadic structure is here built out of the material provided by Socrates’ three accusers. Pole I is the poets’ objective, straightforward access to the divine world, and Pole III is the orators’ principle of doxastic expediency. These two are synthesized by the craftsmen’s practical knowledge (Pole II) whose techniques ‘successfully mediate the eternal form and the world of expediency … [by] crafting a much narrower product than beautiful and good human beings’ (123). Then in Pole IV Socrates seeks to offer his tragic alternative, namely his notion of the daimonic within us which captures his own philosophic combination of spiritual insight and learned ignorance. Evans draws an interesting distinction between the public domain of Socrates’ accusers, which he calls ‘the theater of homogeneous reason’ (115), and the philosopher’s occupying a place that is private, centered on his own home and relations. One finds here, amidst what are in my opinion among the book’s best remarks, the occasional leap of imagination, as for example Evans’ symbolic interpretation of Socrates’ three children as the ‘triad of the Socratic understanding’ or his willingness to see in Plato’s active role in the dialogue an attempt to honor Socrates.3

In examining Plato’s Crito (Chapter 5), Evans opposes the traditional non-ironic appraisal of the dialogue, according to which Socrates argues for an unmitigated trust in the customs of one’s society, and instead submits that the philosopher defends ‘the laws of Athens, and the unique way he has lived, philosophized and been condemned to death there’ (157). But perhaps Evans’ exclusive pursuit of his ‘localized’ reading is too narrow here. Although a good portion of the speech of the Laws certainly refers to Socrates’ particular love for Athens (52a-53a), the remainder could equally well be read as a general admonition against defying the laws of the fatherland, of any polis. As far as this dialogue is concerned, and for no apparent reason, Evans’ four-part structure proceeds in a reverse order, from the fourth to the first pole. Pole IV represents the speech of the Laws which defends justice as the unmitigated acceptance of their authority. Evans rejects this position as ‘more farcical than real, even for a Greek,’ but fails to provide justification for this sweeping characterization. The Third Pole consists of two parts: the negative part reflects Socrates’ choice to remain in prison and await his fate, whereas the positive part is the divine enthusiasm at the end of the speech. Both parts are united through their advocacy of a divine dispensation or insight which makes death, the ultimate unknown, the only viable alternative to formal knowledge, which is clear but deficient. This notion of the daimonic arbitrates between the two contrary positions represented by the remaining two poles, namely the homogeneous rigidity of the strong-lawed cities (Pole II) and the homogeneous laxity of the cities with loose laws and disorder (Pole I).

The Phaedo tells, according to Evans in Chapter 6, ‘the story of the ideas as causes, not of an objective reality, but of the reality of qualitative appearances’ (188). As the fourth and last dialogue in Evans’ tetralogy, it adopts the farcical style of the dramatic satyr play by offering a detached, theoretical view of truth. Its non-ironic stance is evident in its showing a purified, chastened, and otherworldly place with no grounding in the circumstances of living. The four-part structure of this dialogue is created out of Socrates’ proofs for the immortality of the soul. The First Pole is the Heraclitean argument for the unity of opposites, which, Evans claims, ultimately supports the qualitative homogenization of all being by attributing veridical status to all things. The antithesis to this view is represented by the third proof of the immortality of the soul (Second Pole), namely the belief in the separation of the phenomena from the eternal world of the Forms. The mediating Third Pole is the second proof involving recollection, which, by showing the soul’s ability to move from the changing appearances to the invisible realm of the Ideas, synthesizes, in chiastic order, the first two poles. The Fourth Pole is the fourth argument for the soul’s immortality, which assimilates the pure soul with the pure world of Forms. It ignores both life’s heterogeneity and the particular care and attention needed for self-knowledge, and as such offers no viable practical solution to man’s need for goodness in this world.

There is no doubt that Evans’ reading of the first Thrasyllan tetralogy contains some new and interesting remarks and may be of interest to those seeking inspiration outside the ‘trodden path’ of current Platonic scholarship. But the quality of these remarks is, in my opinion, compromised by the author’s adoption of an irksome evangelical tone as he constantly urges us, like a new Socrates, to wake up from our complacent slumber and see the real truth. If one adds to this Evans’ lamentable avoidance of any theoretical reflection that would provided reasons for his choice of methodological approach, one gets the uneasy feeling that the book ultimately reads more like a self-help guide than a rigorous philosophical analysis. But perhaps that is all that its author intended in the first place.

[[For a response to this review by Dale Wilt Evans, please see BMCR 2004.04.29.]]


1. Evans ‘introduce[s] the new English spelling Platon’ as a visual reminder, as it were, of his radical opposition to academic Platonic scholarship. Yet, the term is neither new nor foreign to academic usage.

2. Evans adopts only Thrasyllus’ first tetralogy ( Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo). He retains the members of the sixth tetralogy but reorders them (i.e. Gorgias, Euthydemus, Meno, Protagoras). As far as the spuria are concerned, he excises only the Epinomis and the Letters. Finally, his tetralogical structuring incorporates the unwritten Philosopher and Hermocrates. For those interested in Thrasyllus’ tetralogical ordering, see H. Tarrant, Thrasyllan Platonism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. See also L. Gerson’s review of the book in BMCR and the author’s response.

3. To describe as active Plato’s initiative to help Socrates raise the amount of his fine from one to thirty minas is perhaps an overstatement. Evans’ strange fascination with the number ‘three’ is evident also when he attaches particular significance to the fact that Plato’s intervention at Socrates’ trial is one of the three instances in the Platonic corpus in which the author’s name is mentioned.