BMCR 2008.12.05

Plato Ethicus: Philosophy is Life: Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Piacenza (Italy) 2003. Lecturae Platonis; v. 4

, , , Plato ethicus : philosophy is life : proceedings of the international colloquium, Piacenza (Italy) 2003. Lecturae Platonis ; v. 4. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2004. 353 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 389665327X. €49.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers in this interesting volume are from an international colloquium of the same title held in Piacenza in 2003; they are published here in English, though they have now also appeared in Italian (Brescia: Morcelliana, 2008). Although they represent a variety of approaches to Platonic ethics, they are united in favoring over-arching readings of the Platonic works over the (mere) analysis of particular stretches of Socratic argument. As a group they also constitute a sign of another major change taking place in Plato scholarship, away from the older assumption that Plato, like Aristotle and other philosophers, can be said to have a separate part of philosophy called “ethics.”

Given the number of papers, I will offer only a few general observations after summarizing the contributions.

One complaint made against contemporary Platonic esoterism, is that it ignores or devalues Plato’s constant concern with ethical and political questions. Berti reviews the debates and concludes that, given the coincidence of One and Good, there is an ethics in the “unwritten doctrines,” which is “founded on an extremely precise ontology” (48).

The claim that virtue is knowledge has often been taken as the basis of Plato’s ethics. Bravo reviews discussions of episteme from Ryle (1949) and Gould (1955) through Vlastos (1973) and some more recent interventions (Stalley 2000, Tsouna 2001). He concludes that for Plato episteme is both knowing that and knowing how but also “involves the acting self-consciousness of…the subject who obtains it…[and] includes as an essential element self-restraint, namely the capacity of dominating the impulses opposed to virtue…which is equivalent to a return of the soul to the Good” (61).

Brisson criticizes books about Plato’s ethics and politics — e.g., Irwin 1995 and Bobonich 2002 — that reduce “Plato’s ethics to that of Aristotle interpreted in the light of Kant” (63) and fail to deal with the myths. He argues that Plato’s ethics don’t make sense without the idea of transmigration of the soul and that “myths play a fundamental and permanent role” in this, since in them “we witness the emergence of a tendency to orient ethics towards physics…by resituating man within his place on the scale of all living things” (63). According to Brisson, Plato originated the idea of post-mortem retribution, a nexus of ideas that is physicalized and hierarchialized in the Timaeus. Like several other contributors, Brisson’s Plato is rather Neoplatonic.

Next come two papers on the much-debated question of the unity of virtue. Casertano argues that, although Protagoras and Laws are as different as comedy and tragedy, they are similar in their treatments of the relation between virtue and the virtues (unity and multiplicity) and share the view that discourse ( logos) is to be preferred to mere names and slogans about the definition of virtue. Centrone claims that, although Plato left it open to discussion, there is a dialectical relationship between unity and multiplicity. Plato “thought of the unity of virtue in terms of a holon, or rather a hen-holon, that is an organic and unitarian totality, consisting of different parts which are not merely summed up or juxtaposed” (93). So, the identity thesis should not be ascribed to Socrates. And Vlastos was wrong to see “erroneous inferences within the final argument of the Laches” (105) and thus deny that courage, for example, could be the whole of virtue. Centrone thinks both views are true, in different senses of the term: courage is the whole of virtue since all virtue is knowledge of good and evil, but the virtues differ from each other in that of which each is knowledge.

Erler points out, surely correctly, that in the Gorgias and Phaedo argument is not only epistemological but also ethical insofar as it is therapy for the passions, “curing man’s irrational elements” (118) as ethical preparation.

Ferrari compares ethical ideas in the Timaeus with Platonic ethical ideas that “seem to go back to Socrates’ thought” (121) — e.g., some views about the soul’s nature, the proposition that no one does wrong willingly, the idea of kallipolis, and eudaimonia as the telos of human life and as assimilation to the divine. Many of them are proposed again in the Timaeus, but involve, he argues, a de-Socratisation of their theoretical framework in favor of something more cosmic. Ethics is subsumed to physics, practical reason to theoretical.

The opposition between philosopher and politician is an ethical topos in several dialogues. Gastaldi examines it in the Republic, Gorgias, and Theaetetus as well as in Aristippus and Antisthenes. The confrontation, in her view, involves different kinds of knowledge as well as different ways of life; but she thinks the opposition is less stark than is often supposed, and overcoming it is “the main objective in the project of the Republic” (145).

Gerson is more candid than several other contributors in presenting a Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato’s ethics. He is surely right that it offers an interesting alternative to the usual Anglo-American version found in scholars such as Irwin (1977, 1995). Irwin doesn’t even consider the passage that was “the key to the Neoplatonic interpretation” (151), Theaetetus 176a5-c5, with its necessity of evil, flight from the world, and likeness to god, which coheres with Timaeus 90b1-d7. For Gerson, a Neoplatonic version of Plato, “does not so much contradict the mainstream interpretations…as it does supersede them in its comprehensiveness” also making “it impossible to view Plato’s ethics as autonomous or metaphysically innocent” (164).

In an explicitly “exploratory and provisional” way (176), Gill tries to initiate a more nuanced discussion of the role of mathematics in Plato’s ethics. He raises objections to the “maximalist” views of the esoteric theorists (such as Berti, Migliori, and Reale in this volume) about the identity of the One and the Good and of Burnyeat that mathematics is the core of Plato’s vision of the world.

Migliori, one of the editors of the volume, unfortunately allowed himself the longest chapter in the volume. At 50 pages it is more that four times the length of the papers by Gill and Notomi and plumped up with unnecessary quotations. Migliori attempts to resolve the apparent conflict between positive valuations of pleasure in some dialogues and the generally anti-hedonistic tone of many others by relating it to what he considers the fundamental ontological relation between unity and multiplicity. The key is his somewhat mystifying claim that the “structural polyfunctionality of the points of view which Plato adopts case after case,…allow[s] his concepts to undergo often quite diverse adjustments” (223).

Assuming, perhaps rather optimistically,, that the history and operation of dialectic are well understood, Napolitano Valditara claims that eunoia, eumeneia, praotes, and philia are prerequisites to it and constitute the ethics of dialectic. They are not merely empty and superficial, but “formal and methodological obligations” (239) for both dialectical participants; and they do not reduce dialectic to something merely emotional because it arises from a cognitive acknowledgement of not knowing. Although the paper is properly contextual, she reads the dialogues uncritically as direct instruction and takes Socrates as Plato’s mouthpiece.

Plato’s way of doing ethics is “historical” rather than “systematic,” according to Notomi, although “dialogical” might be a more accurate word for what he means. Instead of defining the various virtues, Plato uses dramatic dates, settings, and characters in the dialogues to evaluate the specific lives of Socrates and his interlocutors and the ethical issues they raise. Socrates’ conversation with Critias in the Charmides illustrates this. Although Critias’ statements often sound like Socratic ideas, Plato uses them and other dialogical details to reveal the aristocratic or oligarchic interpretations Critias put on them, thus distinguishing Critias’ views from Socrates’ and defending Socrates against contemporary and later attacks.

Even more than Migliori, Reale uses long and unnecessary quotations — approximately one half of this short paper — to support the claims that the henological (read: esoteric) metaphysics of One and Many is the basis of Plato’s ethical position and is distinct from the Aristotelian ontological metaphysics of being, becoming, and not-being. As appears from the Philebus, the One is the conceptual basis of the ideal city, the moral life, the “great metaphor of the soul” (261), and health of soul and body in the Republic, as well as assimilation to God.

Like many other contributors, Rowe asserts that “ethical concerns permeate and inform the whole of the Platonic corpus” (265), but his main point is to argue that the principle that all our desires are for the good is already present in early or transitional dialogues, such as Gorgias, Meno, Euthydemus, Symposium, and Lysis. All the theorizing about ethical goods in these dialogues, Rowe thinks, presupposes the cosmic perspective that becomes explicit in Republic, Philebus, and Timaeus. For Plato, “there is no physics or metaphysics, or indeed much else, without ethics … and no ethics without physics and metaphysics” (268). Like most other contributors, he takes Socrates’ words to be Plato’s despite writing, “I am of course perfectly aware that Plato never actually says anything to us himself” (268n8).

Santa Cruz deals with “a few…aspects of the Platonic conception of equality in the fields of ethics and politics” (273) in Laws, Politicus, and Republic. She connects proportionate equality ( isotes) in Laws with mean or measure ( metrion) in Politicus and argues that that conception of equality was first instantiated in the Republic‘s admission of women into the guardian class.

The best chapter in the book is Scolnicov’s elegant and sophisticated argument that “…irony is Plato’s and his Socrates’ main tool for escaping the limitations imposed by the nature of the dialogue form, live or purportedly ‘reproduced,’ without forfeiting its crucial personal character” (290). Like Notomi, he shows the philosophical import of a literary and dramatic feature of the dialogues; but, beyond this, the paper is the best brief analysis of irony in Plato’s dialogues — what it is and what it does — currently available. Scolnicov’s critiques of interpreters such as Beversluis passim), Vlastos (293), Hadot (294, 297), and others and of interpretive approaches such as dogmatic metaphysics and the esoteric theorists’ pursuit of the ungeschreibene Lehre (297f.) are jewels of precision.

Tulli plausibly ascribes a broadly ethical dimension to the Menexenus. In it, he claims, Plato offers a mythical history that is the ideal past of an ideal city ( katholou) and that counters the real past of the real Athens ( kath’hekaston) found in Xenophon and Diodorus.

Like many other contributors, Vegetti denies the autonomy of a Platonic ethics. He illustrates the linkage among ethics, politics, anthropology and psychology by examining pleonexia in Republic and Gorgias. Vegetti observes, “the dialogues represent the enactment of the philosophical quest … [which] will be perceivable as such only subsequent to a thorough reading of the dialogues…” (316).

The Bibliography (329-44) seems to include only items cited by contributors, rather than providing more extensive coverage of the volume’s topic; and, since some contributors cite many of their own publications, it is somewhat lopsided.

The “Introduction” explains why the papers are arranged simply alphabetically. This choice is understandable, but it makes for a sense of disorientation when the reader moves, for example, from a discussion of ethical features of the unwritten doctrines in chapter 1 to the meaning of episteme in “virtue is knowledge” in chapter 2 and then to Platonic myths in chapter 3. The footnotes in the “Introduction” identify a number of interpretive threads of interest connecting various contributions, e.g., seeing a link between ethics and metaphysics or ethics and physics, which might have suggested arrangements more helpful to the reader.

As the “Introduction” says, the contributors share two quite reasonable beliefs. First, ethical topics are discussed throughout the corpus because there is no Platonic ethics distinct from other parts of philosophy, as there is in Aristotle and later philosophers. Second, the contributors criticize and reject an approach to interpreting Plato’s ethics that used to dominate Platonic scholarship in English. Napolitano Valditara describes it as, “Anglo-Saxon,” “linguistic,” and “pertaining to the ethical propositions and argumentations” (8), but in practice this turns out to mean opposition to the approach centered on the reconstruction of a “Socratic philosophy”, with its attendant assumptions and orientations, rather than to Anglo-Saxon approaches in general. Far more is going on in English writing about Plato’s ethics than is suggested by the repeated (even if deserved) criticisms of Vlastos and Irwin in this volume.

An attempt to wrest control of the discussion of “Platonic ethics” from the Vlastosians may still have been a good idea in 2000 or 2001, when the conference was being planned, but it now seems somewhat outdated, since the movement appears moribund. It also seems narrow, since many interpreters have long approached the dialogues without trying to extract an autonomous ethical theory. Moreover, most contributors actually share with the Vlastosians a number of developmental, dogmatic, and non-dialogical assumptions that don’t represent either the state of the discussion or the diversity of present work. Morcelliana’s advertising for the Italian version inaccurately states, “I testi qui raccolti, andando oltre questi modelli interpretativi, dimostrano che Platone parla di etica dialogicamente, come di ogni altro tema.” Only the papers by Notomi, Scolnicov, and Tulli can be described as dialogical.

It is an interesting idea to publish the same papers both in original languages and in English. Unfortunately, many of the English translations here are not very good, and there are frequent errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and idiom. On the other hand, for those who don’t read Italian, German, or Spanish, the volume offers a fine opportunity to encounter unfamiliar scholars and modes of interpretation that are interesting and fruitful in various ways, and certainly worth knowing about. The volume should be read by all who are interested in Plato’s ethical ideas and purchased by all research libraries.

Table of Contents Linda M. Napolitano Valditara, Introduction (5-33)
Enrico Berti, Is There an Ethics in Plato’s ‘Unwritten Doctrines’? (35-48)
Francisco Bravo, What is the Meaning of episteme in the Socratic Proposition e arete episteme estin?“(49-61)
Luc Brisson, Myths in Plato’s Ethics (63-76)
Giovanni Casertano, Virtues and Virtue: Names and Discourse (77-106)
Bruno Centrone, Platonic Virtue as a ‘holon’: From the Laws to the Protagoras (93-106)
Michael Erler, ‘Socrates in the Cave.’ Argumentations as Therapy for Passions in Gorgias and Phaedo (107-20)
Franco Ferrari, World’s Order and Soul’s Order: The Timaeus and the De-Socratisation of Socrates’ Ethics (121-32)
Silvia Gastaldi, The Philosopher and the Politician: Competing or Comparable Ways of Life (133-50)
Lloyd P. Gerson, The Neoplatonic Interpretation of Plato’s Ethics (151-64)
Christopher Gill, Plato, Ethics and Mathematics (165-76)
Maurizio Migliori, What is Fair and Good about Virtue? (177-226)
Linda M. Napolitano Valditara, An Ethics for Plato’s Dialectic? (227-44)
Noburu Notomi. Ethical Examination in Context. The Criticism of Critias in Plato’s Charmides (245-54)
Giovanni Reale, ‘Henological’ Basis of Plato’s Ethics (255-64)
Christopher Rowe, “All our desires are for the Good.” Reflections on some key Platonic dialogues (265-72)
Maria Isabel Santa Cruz, On the Platonic Conception of Equality (273-88)
Samuel Scolnicov, Plato’s Ethics of Irony (289-300)
Mauro Tulli, Ethics and History in Plato’s Menexenus (301-14)
Mario Vegetti, Anthropologies of ‘pleonexia’ in Plato (315-26) Bibliography (329-44)