BMCR 2021.04.06

The reception of Plato’s “Phaedrus” from Antiquity to the Renaissance

, , , The reception of Plato's "Phaedrus" from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 384. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. vi, 286. ISBN 9783110683639 $126.99.

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

Platonic studies have recently seen a remarkable flourishing of books and projects dedicated to the reception of Plato’s dialogues and thought throughout Antiquity. One might mention, for example, Brill’s recent Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity,[1] as well as several works on Neoplatonic and late-antique readings of the dialogues. In the context of this fruitful tendency, the three editors of the book under review had already offered scholars a valuable miscellany on the reception of Plato’s Phaedo in Antiquity,[2] deriving from a colloquium held on the topic in 2012.

The present volume stems from another conference organized in the same vein and held at the Royal Academy of Belgium in December 2016. The reason for choosing the Phaedrus as a fruitful case study for the reception of Plato in the history of ideas hardly needs justification, but the editors are right to remark in the Introduction that despite the dialogue’s “tremendous influence on Western culture since Antiquity,” there has been no cohesive attempt to trace the history of its reception throughout Antiquity and down to the modern era. This bibliographic vacuum is indeed relevant, and the editors’ enterprise is particularly welcome.

In the light of its origin and its ambitious task, the book does not claim to be a full-fledged history of the Phaedrus’s reception from the Classical Age to the Renaissance; rather, it presents independent studies which investigate ancient, Byzantine and modern interpretations of the dialogue by focusing on the different approaches to which such a complex work gave rise through the ages. Owing to the dense and rich nature of the chapters, it will be impossible to deal with all of them in detail.

This exciting intellectual journey begins with Plato’s most eminent disciple, Aristotle. Nicolas Zaks investigates the traces of the Phaedrus in the Rhetoric. by proceeding à rebours: he begins with Rhetoric Book III and subsequently turns to Books II and I. This is justified by the Aristotelian principle of starting from what is clearer and most evident and progressing to what is less known or, in the present case, disputed. The only explicit mention of the Phaedrus in the Rhetoric – and in the entire Aristotelian corpus – is to be found in Book III, in which the influence of Plato’s dialogue is broad and pervasive. More challenging is the search for Plato’s Phaedrus in Books II and I: the author convincingly argues in favor of connecting the treatment of πάθη and ἤθη in Rh. II, 2-17 to the idea of adapting the discussion to different souls advocated in Phdr. 271a-272b, in what is seen as an Aristotelian appropriation of the Platonic project. Moreover, Zaks maintains that the relationship between dialectic and rhetoric vindicated by Aristotle in Rh. I, 1 supports Plato’s discussion of genuine rhetoric as dependent on the mastering of dialectic (Phdr. 276e-277a), despite the different conception of dialectic advocated by Aristotle. The conclusion drawn by Zaks is that “Plato’s Phaedrus has a deep, various and positive influence on Aristotle’s Rhetoric,” providing a reevaluation of the role of Platonic speculation in framing the Stagirite’s philosophy.

Teun Tieleman explores the reception of the Phaedrus in Galen’s project of a philosophical medicine through three case-studies, respectively from the commentary on the Hippocratic treatise On the Nature of Man, from the ninth book of On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, and from a subtle allusion in his Protrepticus. As the author shows, Galen’s reading of the Phaedrus is directed toward the development of a synthesis between medicine and philosophy, an effort at self-definition which found a solid foundation in Plato’s remarks about genuine rhetorical τέχνη. By extending the Platonic patterns to all arts, Galen found support in the Phaedrus for his own conception of the physician’s training. This interpretation was strengthened by the reference to Hippocrates’ method in the dialogue (270cd), an invaluable case of explicit convergence between Galen’s two main intellectual influences.

The study of Alexandra Michalewski concentrates on the importance of the Phaedrus in Platonist reactions to the Aristotelian arguments against the self-moving soul, focusing primarily on Atticus and Plotinus. The paper has the merit of thoroughly investigating the context of transmission of Atticus’ (and Plotinus’) criticism of the Peripatetic conception of soul, that is to say chapters 9 to 11 of Book XV of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Praeparatio Evangelica, stressing the philosophical coherence of Eusebius’ project. The main difference between Atticus’ and Plotinus’ criticisms is to be found in their degree of complexity: while the former attacks the conception of soul as a property of the body developed by the Peripatetic school of his time, the latter provides an articulate response to the Aristotelian account, based on a redefinition of the relationship between ‘act’ and ‘motion’ in the intelligible realm. Plotinus is also the protagonist of Suzanne Stern-Gillet’s paper, which traces the history of two key concepts in the Phaedrus, that is to say the ascent to beauty and reminiscence, from Plato to their reception in the Enneads. With respect to both topics, the Plotinian interpretation of Plato’s dialogue is markedly original: the ascent to the beautiful and the development of reminiscence are conceived of as an inward-looking process by virtue of which the individual human soul can grasp the συγγένεια that connects it to the intelligible realm, and even attain contemplation of τὸ πρῶτον καλόν, that is to say the One.

Claudio Moreschini investigates the reception of the Phaedrus in the so-called School of Alexandria. This is filtered by Middle Platonist interpretations in terms both of its theological orientation and – as the author compellingly shows through case-studies drawn from Clement and Origen – of its methodological approach: individual passages of the dialogue are given a pivotal importance in order to uphold doctrinal tenets, while no overall commentary on the dialogue is attested. This set the ground for the marginalization of the dialogue among later authors, such as Methodius and Eusebius, in whose works traces of the Phaedrus become more ‘rhapsodic’. Clement is the main focus of George Karamanolis’ paper, which gives a broader account of the dialogue’s reception in early Christianity, underlining Christian authors’ need to respond to Plato’s criticism of writing, in order to defend the Scriptures as well as their own texts. Karamanolis finds a particularly interesting case-study in the reception of the myth of the Charioteer, which exerted a remarkable influence on Gregory of Nyssa, despite the latter’s criticism of its allusive and enigmatic presentation by Plato. The dialectic between the Christian and the pagan reception of the Phaedrus is at the center of Gerd van Riel’s chapter, in which the author deals with echoes of the dialogue in Augustine’s criticism of Plato and Porphyry’s incomplete account of immortality. Indirect knowledge of the Phaedrus, mainly via Cicero’s translation of the argument about the soul’s immortality (245c-246a) and the ‘clusters’ of eschatological doctrines transmitted in Imperial sources, explains how the Bishop of Hippo could interpret a Porphyrian reading of Phdr. 248e-249b as an innovation with respect to Plato’s account.

The arrangement of the Neoplatonic section does not strictly follow a chronological order, but is rather thematic: it begins with two contributions seeking to interpret the Phaedrus as a “manual – broadly speaking – for Neoplatonic hermeneutics.” The first, penned by Pieter d’Hoine, focuses on the anonymous sixth-century Prolegomena and on the exegetical practice of late Neoplatonic commentators. The author convincingly argues that the hermeneutic strategies developed in Late Antiquity can be traced back to a consistent interpretation of key passages in the Phaedrus, starting from the famous comparison between the λόγος and a living being (264c), and further including the remarks on correct division (265e) and the analogy between a living being and the κόσμος. This interpretation of λόγος was employed to tackle the classic preliminary question of why Plato wrote dialogues, despite the criticism of writing developed in Phdr. 274b-278e: thus, the Phaedrus was a primordial source of both problems and solutions, which furnished Neoplatonic readers with a set of methodological indications bound to have a lasting influence. The same stimulating approach is followed by Marc-Antoine Gavray’s paper, which concentrates on Proclus’ treatment of poetic inspiration and interpretation of myth: the Phaedrus, together with the Ion, constitutes a key text for reconciling Plato and the poetic tradition and for accounting for the philosopher’s use of myths and narratives in his dialogues. Gavray elucidates the role of the discussion of poetic enthusiasm at Phdr. 244a-245c in Proclus’ hermeneutic strategy. Proclus believed that inspired poetry, like all forms of inspiration, could ensure contact with truth and beauty in the intelligible realm. The Phaedrus, being the clearest example of an inspired dialogue, provided a key to reconciling Plato both with Homer and with himself.

The only extant Neoplatonic commentary on the Phaedrus, written by Hermias, is at the center of Saskia Aerts’ contribution. While the Phaedrus was undoubtedly central to Neoplatonic research on the σκοπός of the dialogues, its σκοπός was controversial: Hermias rejects a series of hypotheses and sides with Iamblichus in identifying the σκοπός as τὸ παντοδαπὸν καλόν (9, 13-10, 9 L.-M.), but the very nature of this varied goodness raises the problem of the unity and development of the dialogue. The true element of cohesion is the theme of ψυχαγωγία, which is common to the pursuit of all the different kinds of beauty presented in the dialogue. Particularly remarkable is the analysis of Hermias’ treatment of the two speeches by Socrates, which constitutes the core of the study. Simon Fortier, in the dense last chapter of the Neoplatonic section, explores Proclus’ reading of the ‘climax’ of the ascent to beauty in the Phaedrus (247cd). For Proclus, this is the main Platonic text on the first triad of the intelligible-intellective gods, and the ‘soul’s pilot’ is identified as a μερικὸς νοῦς which is capable of grasping the divine Forms within this order. This intellect is not, per se, accessible to human beings: an incomplete and secondary contemplation of the intelligible-intellective order is nonetheless possible, through the λόγος which constitutes the summit of the human soul’s διάνοια, which Proclus finds in Plato’s mention of the ‘class of true science’.

The last two papers differ in scope and extension. Pantelis Golitsis gives a precise and detailed account of Michael Psellos’ treatise on two central passages of the Phaedrus, the procession of the gods (246e-247a) and the myth of the charioteer (246ab)(Phil. min. II 7). Golitsis shows that, while the Byzantine scholar’s main source is Hermias’ commentary, Psellos feels free to rework his materials according to his own exegetical, more than philosophical, agenda. This does not suffice to explain the apparently harsh criticism of Plato as γελοῖον which is found at II 7, 14, 19-20, and which should be interpreted as a gloss which has penetrated the text. Golitsis’ choice to concentrate on the close analysis of a particular problem is balanced by the closing chapter, in which Guy Claessens accompanies the reader on a thrilling, fast-paced journey through the main readings of the Phaedrus in the Renaissance, concentrating on Plato’s criticism of writing, which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century interpreters drew upon in their reflection on the relationship between memory and writing.

The essays are followed by an extensive bibliography and two useful indices (locorum and nominum).

Overall, this volume offers many precious insights into the history of the interpretation of Plato’s Phaedrus and constitutes an extremely welcome addition to the history of Platonic studies and of the reception and afterlife of Platonism.

Authors and titles

Introduction (Sylvain Delcomminette, Pieter d’Hoine, Marc-Antoine Gavray)
1. The influence of Plato’s Phaedrus on Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Nicolas Zaks)
2. Galen’s Self-Understanding and the Platonic Phaedrus (Teun Tieleman)
3. The Causality of the Self-Moving Soul: Platonic Responses to the Objections of De Anima I 3 (Alexandra Michalewski)
4. Beauty and Recollection: from the Phaedrus to the Enneads (Suzanne Stern-Gillet)
5. The Phaedrus as a Testimony of a Theology of the Gentiles according to the School of Alexandria (Claudio Moreschini)
6. The Reception of Plato’s Phaedrus in Early Christianity (George Karamanolis)
7. Echoes of the Phaedrus in Augustine’s Discussion with Porphyry (Gerd van Riel)
8. Plato’s Phaedrus as a Manual for Neoplatonic Hermeneutics: The Case of the Anonymous Prolegomena to Plato’s Philosophy (Pieter d’Hoine)
9. Plato’s Phaedrus as a Manual for Neoplatonic Hermeneutics: Inspired Poetry and Allegory in Proclus (Marc-Antoine Gavray)
10. How to Lead Souls to Beauty: Hermias on the Unity of the Phaedrus (Saskia Aerts)
11. Proclus on the Climax of the Phaedrus (247c6-d1) (Simon Fortier)
12. Michael Psellos’ Exegesis of the Expedition of Gods and the Chariot Flight of the Soul (Pantelis Golitsis)
13. The Phaedrus in the Renaissance: Poison or Remedy? (Guy Claessens)
Index Locorum
Index Nominum


[1] Tarrant, H., Layne, D. A., Baltzly, D., Renaud, F. (2017), Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity, Leiden-Boston.

[2]  Delcomminette, S., d’Hoine, P., Gavray, M.-A., (2015) Ancient Readers of Plato’s Phaedo, Leiden-Boston.