BMCR 2007.12.37

New Essays on Plato: Language and Thought in Fourth-Century Greek Philosophy

, , New essays on Plato : language and thought in fourth-century Greek philosophy. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006. viii, 227 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 1905125100 $69.50.

The essays in this collection come from a panel on Plato at the Second Celtic Conference in Classics, held in Glasgow in 2002. The editor points out that this panel did not follow a theme but suggests that a unity is brought to the essays by the fact that ‘[e]ach of the contributions has at its core discussion of a word or concept — or set of words or concepts — which constitute the point of departure for a philosophical interpretation’ (p.vii). This statement is true, if rather bare, and no doubt reflects the methodological similarity of scholars working within a particular tradition and in a particular medium. Nevertheless, and as is familiar with collections of this type, the quality and scope of these essays vary. Before offering a brief account of and comment on each essay, I should mention that this volume was well bound and presented, and that I found only one error in it: Mason’s essay is given a different title in the table of contents and at the head of the essay itself.

Richard Stalley (“Law and Justice in Plato”) considers Plato’s approach to the relationship between law and justice in four dialogues: the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. The first three raise problems about the relation of law and justice without giving a solution, S. claims, while the Gorgias indicates “how Plato would ( sic) deal with the problems raised in the three trial dialogues” (p.4).

In the Gorgias, S. finds a new conception of law which underpins the ideas that “there is an intrinsic connection between law and justice and that being just is necessarily in our own interests. A key element in this conception is the association of law with the order of the universe. . .A second, and apparently more original, element in Socrates’ account is the insistence that the good soul exhibits order in the same way as the well-made artefact. This implies that law governs, not just our external behaviour, but the internal arrangement of our souls” (pp.15-6).

This conception is meant to solve a number of problems. In the Euthyphro, S. treats the argument that the gods love what is pious because it is pious as straightforwardly applicable to justice, and from this derives the insight that justice cannot depend on legislation — although the dialogue does not tell us how this can be. In the Apology and Crito, S. finds a series of problems about why it is in Socrates’ interest to be just, and why he adopts the attitude he does to the Laws of Athens.

The solution that S. finds in the Gorgias does what is required to offer solutions to the problems identified, although the problems could be spelt out further. However, a concern with this article is the lack of clear intertextual evidence that Plato himself thought of the new conception in the Gorgias as their solution.

Verity Harte (‘Beware of Imitations: Image Recognition in Plato’) looks at Plato’s thoughts on mistaking an image of something for that thing itself, centering around Phaedo 72-7. In the case of recollection where one is reminded of something by a likeness, H. reminds us that Plato claims (74a6-7) that “an additional experience is necessary, namely that ‘one have in mind whether or not [the reminding thing] is lacking in respect of likeness to that of which it reminds one'” (p.25). H. proposes that this additional experience is not an explicit act of comparison but rather the recognition that the likeness is an image of the original.

H. suggests her use of image recognition to understand the epistemic relationship between form and particular steers an interpretative course between a rejection of the senses and empiricism, by allowing both that the senses can lead one into error, and that perception can be a trigger for turning the eye of the soul toward the forms.

More specifically for the Phaedo, H. maintains that her interpretation can legitimately limit the number of persons who can be said to recollect fully — since recognising an image as such means being committed to the existence of the forms — without stopping the forms playing a role in the perceptions of the many mistaken people since the perceptible object is a likeness of a form, whether or not one mistakes it for the original.

H.s interpretation is both neat and convincing, minimising theoretical baggage and tying in well with themes that crop up elsewhere in Plato, perhaps the most obvious being the position of the prisoners in the Republic‘s image of the cave.

Fritz-Gregor Herrmann (” οὐσία in Plato’s Phaedo — The Meaning, Usage and History of a Technical Term”), identifies passages in the Meno, Euthyphro, and Phaedo where οὐσία clearly means “being”, and other passages in the Charmides, Gorgias, and Protagoras where it seems to have its earlier attested meaning of “property”.

But did Plato pick up this new usage from an earlier philosopher? Against the background of the Phaedo‘s focus on certain Presocratics, H. notes the use of οὐσία to mean “being” in Philolaus fr.6. H. goes on to note that, just as there were with compounds of – ἐστω, there were compounds of – οὐσια where the root from εἶναι retained the etymologically direct sense of “being”. Since, H claims, it is plausible independently that Plato read Philolaus before writing the Phaedo, we are to conclude that Plato’s employment of οὐσία was influenced by, if not derived from, Philolaus’ use of ἐστώ.

This interpretation seems attractive. However, in my opinion the presence in the earliest texts of – οὐσια compounds with the meaning “being” suggests that it is dangerous to assume we must look to another form altogether — ἐστώ — in Philolaus for an explanation of Plato’s usage, rather than seeking something closer to home. Perhaps such a qualm is mirrored by H.’s cautious phrasing in his conclusion: “in the Phaedo the use of οὐσία…is not independent of Philolaus’ use of ἐστώ, and indeed, Philolaus’ use seems to some extent to have been the inspiration for Plato’s new, etymologizing use of οὐσία (p.62).

Stefan Buettner (“The Tripartition of the Soul in Plato’s Republic“) attempts to provide a systematic grounding for the theory of a tripartite soul which links it to Plato’s epistemology.

B. goes about this by rejecting an approach which sees the soul divided between “a receptive and preconscious sense or emotion on the one hand and a spontaneous, conscious and unemotional thinking on the other” (p.79). Instead he suggests that the three “parts” correspond to three aspects or levels of the functioning of the soul, each characterised by its own pleasures and desires. In ascending order, the levels of functioning are represented as the perception of bare qualities (e.g. brown, square, hard), the generation of opinions based on these perceptions (e.g. this particular thing is a door), and reflection on the thing itself (e.g. the idea of door).

While it certainly seems salutary to rid ourselves of the early modern notion that the lowest part of the soul is unthinking and highest part unfeeling, and to give the θυμοειδές a clearer role, there are some questions around B.’s article. The descriptions of the pleasures and desires of each aspect of the soul seem thin, and the manner in which these descriptions marry with the texts themselves is not completely clear. For example, B describes the pleasures of the θυμοειδές as “such pleasures as are felt by grasping the ἔργον of any particular (by δόξα)” (p.86); yet I remain unclear how this links to the role of the thumoeides in supporting the rule of law laid down by the λογιστικόν, which B. looks at on pp.86-8. Perhaps clarification could be achieved by strengthening the descriptions of the pleasures and desires of the aspects of the soul.

Anthony Hatzistavrou (“Happiness and the Nature of Philosopher-Kings”) tries, by use of an externalist approach to moral motivation, to explain how the Republic‘s philospher-kings do not sacrifice their happiness in ruling. His idea is that a desire to do the city good is trained into the guardians as part of their education, and that this desire finds satisfaction in leading the city.

H. contrasts his approach with three others. First, there is the suggestion that philosopher-kings are motivated to rule through self-interest. Second, there is the suggestion that they are motivated to rule by wanting to express the form of the good in social arrangements. Third, there is the suggestion that they are motivated to rule by wanting to imitate the order of the forms in social arrangements.

Each of these is rejected, although I think that the rejection of the second and third alternatives is rather weak. H. maintains against the second that “nowhere does Plato ascribe to the rational part of the soul a desire to instantiate the form of the good” (p.101), claiming that simply knowing the form of the good is sufficient for philosopher-kings. This, however, apparently fails to take into account that being good — which philosopher-kings presumably are, and are such by knowing the form of the good — involves participation in the form. What is participation if not instantiation?

Likewise, the third alternative is rejected because “Plato stops short of asserting that the philosopher desires to imitate the rational order of the Forms in social arrangements” ( ibid.). But how else could a philosopher-king make a society good without bringing that society to participate in the form of the good, and thereby instantiating the form in social arrangements? Further discussion of these points would be needed to convince this reader that the apparently plausible second and third alternatives were no good. Perhaps problems such as these are inherent to any theory that makes moral motivation in Plato externalist.

Patricia Clarke (“Appearance and Belief in Theaetetus 151D-187A”) discusses the meaning of ” φαίνεται” in Protagoras’ measure doctrine, as presented in the Theaetetus. This discussion centres around whether “things are for me such as they appear ( φαίνεται) to me” should be understood as “things are for me such as I believe them to be”.

C. takes five examples where φαίνεται without either participle or infinitive seems to signify perceptual experience without implying either that the appearance is manifestly true (the traditional reading of φαίνεται + participle), or that the appearance is believed to be true (the traditional reading of φαίνεται + infinitive). What does this mean for the measure doctrine? C.’s answer is that “no completely univocal interpretation can be given” (p.126). Her reason for saying this is that while φαίνεται is being used to refer to a literal appearance in cases of perception, the use of φαίνεται metaphorically in both perceptual and non-perceptual cases “is not convincing,..for such a connection with literal appearing would be too weak to make Socrates’ associating Theaeteus’ suggestion that knowledge is perception with the measure doctrine at all plausible” (p.137).

I find this conclusion a little too hasty, since it appears to rely on the contention that verbs such as ” φαίνεται” and “seems” are being used in some metaphorical sense when they pick out non-perceptible qualities, in a narrow sense of “perceptible”. Nevertheless, the investigation of the use of φαίνεται makes this an interesting article.

Vasilis Politis (“The Argument for the Reality of Change and Changelessness in Plato’s Sophist (248e7-249d5)”) considers whether the proper interpretation of Sophist 248e7-249d5 presents a defence of a tiered or a tier-insensitive approach to being (i.e. an ontology that recognises levels or grades of being, and one that does not). V. isolates the crucial point as the interpretation of the potentially ambiguous ” τὸ παντελῶς ὄν” (which out of context is ambiguous between “all-inclusive being, counting everything” and “perfect being, wholly real being”).

Despite mixed textual support, P. chooses “perfect being” as the correct interpretation in this argument, and not “all-inclusive being” (a prominent reason being that the only other occasion when the phrase is used, Republic 5.477a3-4, it is said to refer to the upper level of reality). This interpretation makes the Sophist passage read as an argument for the inclusion of a small number of changing things into the realm of perfect being, as opposed to an argument to the effect that change is not a reason to rule something out of the class of beings.

P. goes into some depth spelling out this interpretation; however, he does not seem to get beyond this. The arguments against alternative positions are quite scant, and consequently it is difficult to see that this essay will convince potential opponents.

Andrew Mason (“Why Does Plato Believe in a Timeless Eternity?”) identifies the problem of how Plato could think (in the Timaeus) that the temporal world could be like its model, the intelligible world, in its eternal timelessness, but only imperfectly so: how can the one be an image of the other?

M.’s answer is to say they both share the property of neither becoming or passing away: this is their shared eternity, but they do it in different ways, one being timeless, the other everlasting: “for temporal things it is a contingent matter that they do not come to be or perish, while timeless things, of their nature, cannot do so” (p.182).

This problem and M.’s solution to it are interesting, although one wonders quite what the exact import of “contingent” might be in the passage I have just quoted. However, a puzzling fact about this essay is that it does not seem to give an answer to the question in its own title.

Stephen Halliwell (“An Aristotelian Perspective on Plato’s Dialogues”) looks at “the most revealing remark — indeed, the only general evaluative remark — made by Aristotle on the character of Plato’s works” (p.190): Politics 2.6.1265a10-3.

H. analyses the standard meaning of the four qualities that Aristotle predicates of Plato’s dialogues: τὸ περιττόν, τὸ κομψόν, τὸ καινοτόμον, and τὸ ζητητικόν. He looks both at how these terms are used in Aristotle, and how Plato uses them himself, concluding overall that Aristotle intends to pay a double-edged compliment to Plato with this passage.

H. goes on to consider what such a double-edged comment might mean for Aristotle’s reading of the Republic and the Laws in the Politics, and suggests the picture is one of general hesitancy to ascribe all the views expressed in the Republic and the Laws to Plato: “Aristotle had a strong sense of, and some considerable respect for, the dialogic finesse and dramatic form of Plato’s writings — so much so that he went out of his way to discuss the Republic in a fashion which avoids equation of its ideas with the author’s personal beliefs, while following a similar though slightly less sustained hermeneutic method in the case of the Laws as well” (pp.202-3).

This paper is a fine piece of philology, using close analysis to make the sensible suggestion that we would do well to be careful when drawing conclusions about Aristotle’s reading of Plato’s (or indeed Socrates’) views, as opposed to his reading of the dialogues.