BMCR 2020.06.29

Thinking, knowing, acting: epistemology and ethics in Plato and ancient Platonism

Mauro Bonazzi, Thinking, knowing, acting: epistemology and ethics in Plato and ancient Platonism. Brill's Plato studies series, volume 3. Leiden: Brill, 2019. viii, 332 p.. ISBN 9789004398986 €154,00.

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

The present collective work is the result of research cooperation between the departments of Philosophy of the University of Freiburg and the University of Milan. It addresses the relationship between theory and action in Plato (chapters 1 to 9) and the Platonic tradition, from Aristotle to Plotinus (chapters 10-15). Most of its contributions advance original approaches to the general topic of the book and are competently supported by analysis of the primary sources as well as by discussion of secondary literature.

In the first chapter, Mauro Bonazzi advocates a compatibilist reading of Solon’s Elegy on the Polis and Elegy on the Muses, bringing to light remarkable antecedents of Plato’s discussion of justice. Franco Trabattoni engages in chapter 2 with performative contradictions in Plato’s dialogues, showing how he employed this type of contradiction, which arises when the content of a proposition contradicts the possibility of asserting it, to prove the necessity of general notions.

In chapter 3, Albert Joosse persuasively defends a unitarian reading of the Alcibiades I, contributing both to our current understanding of the dialogue and to the recovery of its philosophical interest. The author defends the view that self-knowledge as described in the second part of the dialogue provides a suitable response to the problems discussed in the first part concerning the nature of the knowledge that is constitutive of the political art. The crucial step of the overall argument is to be found in the interpretation of 133c-d, where Socrates claims that it is only through the knowledge of ourselves that we are able to know what is really ours (pp. 42-4). According to Joosse’s reading, self-knowledge gives you knowledge of what you essentially are, and, on this basis, it allows you to identify what is really good for you and, thus, what most genuinely belongs to you as an agent whose essence is defined by the possession of thought. The aim of the political ruler, then, is to help the ruled acquire self-knowledge by means of an educational process like the one paradigmatically exemplified in the conversation between Socrates and the young Alcibiades. Consequently, people who acquire self-knowledge become able to rule, for by doing what belongs to them they will act justly. At the same time, they will act in accordance with other citizens who have gone through the same learning process. Joosse’s interpretation of the role of self-knowledge in the argumentative structure of the dialogue is highly convincing and strongly supported with analyses of the relevant passages. I believe that it would have been helpful, however, to further specify the content of self-knowledge, presented here as the discovery that one’s own essence is thought (pp. 43 and 45-46). Does this discovery only refer to a purely descriptive knowledge of our own essence, or does it also imply certain know-how concerning our own rational capacities that we can acquire only through exercising them?

The next chapter, authored by Filippo Forcignanò, examines the relationship between knowledge and action in Plato’s Seventh Letter. It includes an insightful discussion of the notion of kairos and the role it plays in Plato’s political thought (pp. 55-62). In chapter 5, Emilia Cucinotta offers an interpretation of the Menexenus and its surprising treatment of virtue as separated from philosophical knowledge, also in the context of Plato’s political philosophy.

Chapter 6, by Sabrina Mertler, engages with Plato’s Crito. In contrast with usual readings of this dialogue focused on its political implications, the author approaches Socrates’ resolution to remain in prison from an ethical standpoint. Inspired by the ancient subtitle of the Crito, “On what needs to be done”, Mertler defends the view that the thematic core of the dialogue is the question about what the appropriate (angemessen) action is and, therefore, about where we should look for the criterion for action (Handlungskriterium). According to the author, Socrates refers to this kind of criterion when he declares that he always follows the logos that appears to him as the best one after careful examination of what is to be done (cf. 46b) (p. 103), a significant point already made by Burnet in his notes to the Crito, where he indicated that “logos” in this passage refers to “a ‘rule’ of conduct”.[1] As Socrates points out, the best logos is that of the expert in the matter at stake, in this case of the expert in justice as the well-being of the soul (47c and ff.). The second part of Mertler’s contribution offers a perceptive interpretation of the arguments advanced by the personification of the Laws of Athens, highlighting their essential connections both to Crito’s and Socrates’ previous interventions. In this sense, the author challenges Roslyn Weiss’ interpretation of the discourse of the Laws as tailor-made for a non-philosopher like Crito and therefore as having no relevant argumentative value (p.14). One of the merits of Mertler’s reading of this section is to show in a compelling manner that the discourse of the Laws is mainly based on Socrates’ previously stated principles. More doubtful I think is the author’s final remark—presented as a possible way to understand the mandatory force ascribed by Socrates to the conclusion of the Laws—that obedience to the conclusion is not due to the fact that it represents the best possible logos, but rather to the fact that Socrates and Crito are unable to find a better one and, therefore, to the fact that the old logoi (referred to in 48b-c) are still valid (p. 117). The old logoi, however, offer no concrete answer to the question whether Socrates should escape or not; they lead Socrates and Crito to examine whether it is just or not to escape, and if it is not, then to remain in prison (cf. 48b and ff.), and so it seems that the function of the discourse of the Laws is to undertake the examination required by the old logoi and so to provide the best logos.

In chapter 7, Giusy Maria Margagliotta provides a careful account of the distinctive epistemological functions attributed to the Socratic daimonion in the pseudo-Platonic Theages. In chapter 8, Emmanuelle Maffi challenges a long-standing tradition of reading the Theaetetus as an indirect confirmation of Plato’s epistemology in the middle dialogues. He does it by offering an innovative interpretation of the so-called Digression (172a1-177c4). I leave it to the reader to decide how successful Maffi’s attempt is and whether we should read this dialogue as merely restating previous epistemological structures or, as he claims, as taking them up and modifying them (p. 155). The next chapter (9), written by Mariapaola Bergomi, discusses Plato’s philosophy of language in comparison with Isocrates’, providing valuable insights into how these authors developed significantly different forms of linguistic conventionalism.

Andrea Falcon’s chapter 10 begins the second section of the book, contributing to the current discussion on Aristotle’s method of inquiry in ethics by arguing that Eudemian Ethics 1-2 reflects the procedures outlined in the second book of the Posterior Analytics rather than those advanced in the Topics. More specifically, the author’s main thesis relies on a close analysis of the methodological passage in EE 1.6 (1216b26-35), according to which the method of inquiry is that of a progressive clarification of what is true but initially still unclear (pp. 188-190). The analyses of this passage as well as of other passages are complemented with discussions of recent English translations; the author makes a strong case for reading legomena and phainomena in EE 1.6 as referring to “authoritative ethical facts” (pp. 190-191). After outlining the general methodical approach of EE, Falcon shows how the abovementioned method applies to Aristotle’s inquiry on happiness in the same work and, on these grounds, how clarifying our initially unclear notion of happiness requires us to clarify one of its essential components, namely excellence or virtue. All of this, together with the examination of some relevant passages of Physics 1 and Posterior Analytics 2, provides a compelling view of Aristotle’s method.

In chapter 11 Marilú Papandreou discusses the relationship between shame and the noble in the Nichomachean Ethics by drawing on some valuable comments of Alexander on this work. In the next chapter (12), Paolo Torri examines the Platonic topic of the homoiōsis theōi and its reception in the Middle Platonists, suggesting that, contrary to usual accounts, praxis plays an essential role in it. Bernard Hene studies in chapter 11 the Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Theaetetus paying special attention to the notion of “simple knowledge” and how it is reached by means of recollection. Maria Luisa Garofalo (chapter 14) explores the relationship between physiology and ethics in Galen, highlighting the ethical implications of the Galenic theory of mixtures. Finally, in the last chapter (15), Giovanni Panno discusses the concept of self-movement (autokinēsis) in Plotinus’ Enneads.

Although all chapters relate to some extent to the general theme of the book, sometimes the broad range of topics and authors discussed makes it difficult for the reader to perceive the thematic unity of the volume. This minor issue, however, should not prevent anyone interested in the topics discussed in it from reading this otherwise excellent work. I hope that this necessarily brief account of its content is sufficient to show that it will prove a valuable source of learning and inspiration for those interested in Plato and Platonism or in the philosophical treatment of the relationship between theory and action.

Table of Contents

“Introduction” – Mauro Bonazzi, Filippo Forcignanò and Angela Ulacco.
“Acting and Knowing before Plato: on Solon’s Theodicy”–  Mauro Bonazzi, pp. 1–19
“Plato and the ‘Performative Contradiction”–  Franco Trabattoni, pp. 20–29
“Self-knowledge and Politics in the Alcibiades I”–  Albert Joosse, pp. 30–52
“Plato’s Journey through the Conflict: Knowledge, Action and καιρός in the Syracusan Experience”–  Filippo Forcignanò, pp. 53–71
“Learning from the Gods: Episteme and Politics in Plato’s Menexenus”–  Emilia Cucinotta, pp. 72–98
“Der beste Logos als Handlungskriterium in Platons Kriton”–  Sabrina Mertler, pp. 99–118
“Das δαιμόνιον im Theages und der Weg zur Weisheit”–  Giusy Maria Margagliotta, pp. 119–137
“The Theaetetus Digression: an Ethical Interlude in an Epistemological Dialogue?”–  Emanuele Maffi, pp. 138–160
“Kompsoi Logoi, Some Remarks on Plato’s Linguistic Conventionalism and Its Ethical Implications”–  Mariapaola Bergomi, pp. 161–185
“Aristotle’s Method of Inquiry in Eudemian Ethics 1 and 2”–  Andrea Falcon, pp. 186–206
“Is the Phronimos Shame-Less?, Shame, Habituation and the Notion of the Noble in Aristotle”–  Marilù Papandreou, pp. 207–227
“The telos of Assimilation to God and the Conflict between theoria and praxis in Plato and the Middle Platonists”–  Paolo Torri, pp. 228–250
“Wissen und Meinung im anonymen Theaitetoskommentar”–  Bernd Hene, pp. 251–278
“The Theory of Mixtures and Its Ethical Implications: Role and Responsibility of the Galenic Physician”–  Maria Luisa Garofalo, pp. 279–299
“Selbstbewegung und Kreisbewegung. Autokinēsis in Plotin anhand der Enn. 6, 9, 8 [9]”–  Giovanni Panno, pp. 300–324

[1] Burnet, John (ed.), Plato’s EuthyphroApology of Socrates, and Crito. Oxford University Press, 1924, p. 188.