There is much to commend in Drew Hyland’s most recent book, though much in it frustrates this reader. The reader who is not eager for arguments or detailed engagement with the scholarly literature, and is interested in a more literary approach to the dialogues, will likely benefit from this book. When one thinks on Plato, however, and chances to experience the “leaping spark” of insight that Hyland touches on, it is valuable to find others who share such experiences. To put it another way, this work strikes me as something best enjoyed by specialists, a group I imagine as eager always for more, not less.
Hyland presents close and often compelling readings of several key passages, and he offers a happily concise overarching account of this important subject. The overall argument attempts to elucidate the role that beauty (
Hyland begins with the Hippias Major, which he claims fails in its attempt to define beauty because “there is something about ‘beauty itself’ that is not accessible to logos at all” (p. 25, original emphasis). The fact that beauty cannot be defined has, on Hyland’s reading, some surprising results: there is a sense in which Socrates is responsible for the characters’ failure. And, in a further, related surprise, there is a sense in which Hippias, who persists in offering “paradigm instances of beauty,” rather than the definition Socrates seeks, “may indeed be right” (pp. 24-5).
Next Hyland discusses the Symposium, where he more directly addresses this ineffable nature of beauty. There is much of interest here, but I will discuss two of Hyland’s most compelling claims. First, Hyland points out that since eros is not divine, there can be no “form of Eros,” which means that to the extent that one can know eros, “not everything about which we have knowledge has a form” (pp. 52-3, original emphasis). That is a striking insight; I only wish that Hyland had expanded on this insight and its significance for accounts of Plato’s epistemology.
Hyland also focuses much attention on Diotima’s claim that beauty itself will not appear “as some discursive account nor as some demonstrable knowledge” (
The following chapter addresses the first part of the Phaedrus. That dialogue helps Hyland explain how the experience of beauty leads to philosophic living. Such an experience must be non-discursive, but it gives rise to discourse. That discourse, in turn, may lead to the non-discursive “insight, as the Symposium has it, into ‘Beauty itself,’ or as the Phaedrus puts it, the recollection of our ‘earlier’ non-discursive experience of beauty itself” (p. 88).
In explaining this relation between non-discursive experience and discourse, Hyland invokes the sun analogy of Republic VI. He writes that, like the experience of beauty that leads to but cannot be captured by speech, “the gift of the sun is not to enable us to see the sun itself . . . the gift of the sun is to enable us to see the things of our experience . . . in the light of the sun which itself is not directly ‘visible’ on pain of blindness” (p. 88, original emphasis). That is a helpful comparison, but in Republic VI Socrates very clearly says that the sun is in fact visible (at 508b9-10). It’s certainly true that looking at the sun causes blindness, but that fact is never acknowledged by the characters in the Republic, and to suggest otherwise is both misleading and distracting.
Hyland then turns to Plato’s Second and Seventh Letters, which he uses to support his assertion that Plato wrote not to capture any doctrine or dogma, but to “limn the possibility of philosophy” (p. 108). Philosophy, then, does not involve established doctrine, but rather living a certain way. In establishing these claims about Plato’s views on knowledge and living, Hyland contrasts Plato with Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that
The final chapter returns to the Phaedrus and approaches the issue of the relation between
One of the more compelling parts of this chapter addresses the apparent inconsistency in Socrates’ treatment of writing and reminders. Earlier (249c), Socrates spoke of reminders (
In many ways, Plato and the Question of Beauty is a successful study. The book, however, has some serious shortcomings. Much of my objection, to be fair, may ultimately have to do with Hyland’s interpretative approach. Hyland is less interested in arguments than in the more “literary” aspects of Plato’s work, as is natural enough in a work published in a series on continental thought. And secondary literature is given scant attention. I find it quite remarkable that in a work addressing three of Plato’s dialogues and two of his letters, the bibliography mentions only 31 texts, five of which are by Plato while four are by Hyland himself. Short bibliographies are one thing, but if an author is going to mention “other recent books” (p. 7), preface clauses with phrases like “as many have noticed” (p. 60), and mention the “vast and important literature” (p. 138n.15) on a point of interpretation, that author ought to cite her or his sources.3 Not to do so is perhaps more ungenerous than anything else: Hyland has clearly benefited from reading other works on Plato, and yet denies the reader the information she needs to get that benefit herself.
Let me also register a protest against transliterating Greek. Hyland’s book includes only transliterations, and these are often extensive, as at p. 105, where Hyland transliterates an entire fragment of Heraclitus (DK B112). If I cannot read Greek, then I cannot read transliterated Greek; and if I can read Greek, then I am only going to be confused and irritated by transliterations, especially ones like this, which does not mark the difference between long and short vowels. Including the actual Greek should be easy in this age of computerized typesetting, and readers would certainly benefit.
I end with a final concern. According to Hyland’s Plato, genuine philosophy is something lived rather than studied. Part of that way of life involves questioning, and Hyland in the end asserts that questioning “comes before any possible answers occur to us and is the only genuinely philosophical response to the answers that so occur” (p. 134, original emphasis). In this spirit of questioning, then, I ask: is Hyland’s Plato a skeptic? Is that the lesson of this closing? What reasons might persuade me to accept such a strong claim? And what exactly does this have to do with beauty?
1. Especially in Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
2. For similar instances, see pp. 36, 103, 118, 129, 138n.15, 140n.23, 141n.25, and 144n.1.
3. I am thinking especially of Charles Griswold’s Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), which also discusses the various claims about “reminders” in the dialogue. Hyland mentions this text in the earlier chapter on the Phaedrus, but regrettably does not return to it.