BMCR 2004.04.15

Politics, Philosophy, Writing: Plato’s Art of Caring for Souls

, Politics, philosophy, writing : Plato's art of caring for souls. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 1 online resource (vii, 261 pages). ISBN 082626302X $19.95 (pb).

Too often Plato’s dialogues are presented according to the latest school of thought in philosophy, reducing Plato to merely “a footnote in the works of other philosophers” (p.1). The edited volume Politics, Philosophy, Writing attempts to reverse this trend in scholarship by reinterpreting Plato’s dialogues as texts that represent a horizon of understanding that can question our own comprehension of reality. The volume consists of an introduction and seven chapters, each one focusing on a different dialogue or work of Plato’s. In each chapter the author expands on a specific mystical, poetical, or political theme that tries to read and understand Plato’s dialogues on their own terms. These chapters in turn are linked together with the volume’s theme of caring for the soul, whether it is in politics, philosophy, or in writing itself. Socrates’ caring of the soul was to practice a politics that encouraged the proper flourishing of human nature as diagnosed and defended by philosophy. For these authors, the political life and the philosophical one are one and the same as presented in Plato’s writing.

Hutter’s study of the Charmides focuses on the “dramatic structure and mythopoetic psychotherapy that surrounds the theoretical arguments” of Socrates and Critias for the psychagoge — the leading and guiding of the soul — of Charmides (p. 15). Hutter also wishes to show how his analysis is particularly relevant to our modern understanding of human nature. Socrates’ understanding of human nature is one that recognizes our dependency on a larger order beyond human control — “nature, the cosmos, the divine or God, or however it may be called” — as opposed to Critias’ view that “man is the measure of all things” (p. 32). Although Socrates ultimately fails in his attempt to turn Charmides’ attention to the care of his own soul, Plato is able to present a challenge to Critias’ and our current ways of life that aspires to a “technological utopia in which all human affairs are ruled by exact knowledge that are themselves governed by a scientific soundmindedness” (p. 36). According to Hutter, Socrates’ call for sophrosyne as properly recognizing the inherent limitations of human existence is the antidote needed today for the dreams and ideologies of human perfectibility.

In the next chapter, Eisenstadt examines the role of shame in both the Meno and the Apology. She points out how Socrates was brought to trial by Anytus because Socrates revealed that he was shameless (pp. 44-45). Socrates later would use shame to show how the assumptions of others were unjust and false. Those susceptible to shame may change the conditions of their souls towards Socratic wisdom or resent Socrates and feel hatred for him. And there are those who are unable to experience shame, like Anytus, who ultimately are responsible for Socrates’ death (pp. 46). By analyzing the voting patterns of the Athenian jurors in their condemnation of Socrates, Eisenstadt concludes that Socrates was sentenced not by those susceptible to shame but those, like Anytus, who are vulgar and shameless (pp. 57-58).

Plato’s dialogue, Meno, is the focus of Leon Craig’s study. Instead of treating the dialogue as an epistemological philosophical work, Craig focuses on its political dimensions (pp. 61-62). Craig concentrates specifically on the question whether virtue can be taught, especially to those in politics. This is the “epistemological paradox” of the Meno : whether knowledge, such as virtue, is teachable if it is impossible for someone to seek either what he knows already or what he does not yet know (p. 72). As Craig points out, the paradox cannot itself be resolved; but it reveals what is distinctive in human nature. Unlike the politician, the statesman requires not only knowledge of virtue but knowledge how to facilitate its acquisition by others (p. 79). Meno therefore is both an epistemological and political dialogue, the latter neglected by scholars.

Barry Cooper’s analysis of the Republic is divided into two parts: the first concentrates on the “historical symbolic context” of the dialogue, while the second focuses on the Socrates’ first word, kateben, “I went down,” and the imagery of the Myth of Er. In the first part of his analysis, Cooper tries to place his symbolic interpretation of the Republic in the context of the works of Fontenrose, Kirk, Butterworth, Eliade, and Voegelin (pp. 80-104). In the second part, he applies this “historical symbolic” analysis by showing the mystic and daimonic experiential dimensions of the dialogue in his examination of the connections between kateben and the Myth of Er (pp. 104-121).

“Homeric Imagery in Plato’s Phaedrus” by Planinc also points out the connections between Plato’s dialogues and Homer’s Odyssey. According to Planinc, the Phaedrus is designed to mimic Homer’s epic structurally (p. 128). Rather than presenting the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, Planinc argues that poetry and philosophy co-exist harmoniously with each other. Socrates’ repeated references to Homer reveal that both he and Plato were conscious of the need to use material with which the reader would be familiar. The musical mania that produces poetry is in perfect concord with the erotic mania of philosophy (pp. 122-123).

Kenneth Dorter’s interpretation of the Timaeus looks at Socrates’ first words in the dialogue, “One, two, three, but where is the fourth?” Instead of presenting a fourfold classification of things, Socrates uses a threefold classification (p. 163). Plato is inviting the reader to look carefully for the fourth term, although it will be present in different contexts throughout the dialogue. What is discovered is that the mediating term is the thing that is missing: 1) the philosopher mediates human and divine truth; 2) the gods of air mediate divine and natural elements; 3) the mixture of the rational and irrational mediates the realms of being and becoming; and 4) the world soul mediates between the cosmos and the individual (p. 176). These four lacunae point to the fundamental experience of aporias in the Timaeus, inviting the reader to participate in his own philosophical enterprise.

The final chapter, “Mystic Philosophy in Plato’s Seventh Letter,” argues for the Platonic authorship of the epistle and recounts the historical backdrop of the letter. Like Dorter, Rhodes argues that the composition of the letter invites the reader to participate in the philosophy (p. 195). Rhodes also argues that Plato ultimately is a mystic philosopher. The fifth term that Plato alludes to in his letter is the experience of wisdom itself that cannot be perfectly articulated into language, especially in writing (pp. 238-240). This contention that Plato was a mystic philosopher is presented further in Rhodes’ book, Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues.

Politics, Philosophy, Writing is a book that Plato scholars should consult. Like most edited volumes, it suffers from the problem that the issues each author raises are treated in isolation from one another. The introduction tries to tie the themes together, but does so weakly. However, the analyses and arguments as well as the review of the secondary literature on the dialogues are excellent. The authors examine Plato’s dialogues on their own terms and arrive at insightful conclusions. By presenting fresh interpretations of the dialogues, all of these authors have done more than save Plato from being “a footnote in the works of other philosophers.” They have pointed to a new direction in Platonic scholarship that hopefully others will follow.