BMCR 2023.04.17

The Cambridge companion to Plato

, , The Cambridge companion to Plato. Second edition. Cambridge companions to philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xvii, 620. ISBN 9781108471190.


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


This volume is the successor to the first edition of 1992, minus the chapters by Terry Penner, Ian Mueller, Michael Morgan, G. R. F. Ferrari, Nicholas White, Dorothea Frede, and Trevor Saunders and with eight reprints or revisions and nine new chapters. Eight of the contributors have been associated with institutions in the Chicago and Madison areas. The revised introduction and the new chapters will be addressed in this review.

Ebrey and Kraut lead off the volume with “An Introduction to the Study of Plato” organized mainly around sections on “Socratic,” “middle,” and “late” dialogues, though expressing a concern “not to take a stand on chronology” (6). Their announced hope is that the collection will be “a guide to exploring the dialogues” (34).

Eric Brown asks “what [wisdom] Plato’s Socrates loves and what activities constitute his wisdom-loving” (118), drawing especially on the Apology. The answer to the first is “how to do everything one does—how to live” (120). The answer to the second has three parts—critique (123), learning (acquiring better beliefs through the pursuit of wisdom, 127), and teaching others, which includes examining oneself and others, exhorting, and showing (131).

Agnes Callard argues that “the distinctively Socratic approach to ethics . . . bottoms out” (apparently not in the usual sense of reaching a worst or lowest point, as in the case of an economic contraction, but of coming to rest) “in the value of the virtue one has, rather than the use to which one puts it” (147). She argues this in connection with an attempt to “defend Socrates” against “trading on a verbal equivocation” (148), since many commentators have “charged Socrates’ argument . . . with equivocation” (151) in the Hippias Minor. The conclusion is that Socrates subscribes to “a theory on which the difference between right and wrong must be made solely by reference to an inner, imperceptible state” (170).

Suzanne Obdrzalek, considering the Symposium and the Phaedrus, proposes that erotic paths to philosophy differ from non-erotic ones in that they are “grounded in our mortality and imperfection” which “gives rise to a desire for immortality and the immortal;” that “philosophical erōs is an arresting response to beauty through which we are brought to recognize and value the ideal properties of the form of beauty and, indeed, of all the forms;” and that erōs is a “focusing desire” (204-5).

Gábor Betegh argues that “Plato’s engagement” with the mysteries can help illuminate some central topics in the dialogues (233): “what the mysteries promise, philosophy can fulfill” (237), as in the epopteia of the Symposium and Phaedrus (241). Betegh illustrates this argument by comparing the dialogues with what is known of the Eleusinian mysteries. For him, Plato “creatively repurposed religious ideas” (254) where immortality, reincarnation, and recollection appear in the dialogues. So far as civic religion is concerned, Betegh concludes that, in the Laws, “Plato finally shows how a philosophical understanding of the divine [in the Nocturnal Council] . . . can trickle down and mold civic religion” (262).

David Ebrey proposes that the account of forms in the Phaedo, before the Republic (268), proceeds in discrete stages to show (1) that forms are not perceptible (274), (2) that they are known before birth (274), (3) that they are uniform auto kath’hauto unlike perceptibles, which are, hōs epos e[i]pein (rendered “virtually” here), never in the same condition (278), (4) that they are causes (282), and (5) that “the compresence of opposites arises because of how ordinary [perceptible] objects are in relation to (pros) one another” (284). In a section on “bringers,” the ontology is extended to include things that bring the form: “The relevant feature that fire possesses, heat, is what is responsible for something’s being hot, rather than fire as such. The form of heat, being uniform, is exactly what is responsible for a thing’s being hot, whereas any ordinary object (whether a bringer or not), being multiform, will have many parts that are in no way responsible for being f” (290).

Henry Mendell approaches the scholarly discussion of the objects of mathematics in the Republic, Phaedo, and Timaeus from the standpoint of the development of mathematics during the fifth and fourth centuries. He notes that Socrates in Republic VI “explicitly avoids ascribing any special objects to the mathematical sciences,” which raises the question “how, on his [Plato’s] view, mathematical propositions are true, and what, if anything, they must be true of” (359). He goes on to address Aristotle’s suggestion that the objects of mathematics are between forms and perceptibles, which yields a tripartite ontology. Although none of the ways this suggestion has been interpreted is entirely to his satisfaction, Mendell does not reject the suggestion itself, because “Aristotle has one advantage over us all—he was there” (388). And so he concludes: “as important as mathematics is for Plato, he is not interested in directing his reader to precise ontologies of it. As readers of Plato, we want desperately to know what he thinks. He just prefers us to think” (390).

Emily Fletcher argues that, in the Timaeus, “foolishness and vice, far from being accidental, regrettable features of the cosmos, are in fact necessary for its completion (466-7),” based on the treatment there of human nature (phusis anthrōpinē); “Timaeus’ speech contains four references to ‘human nature’” (480). The author notes, however that “[t]he question remains how weighty a notion of ‘nature’ is at play here” (485 n. 2). In the end, based on the discussion of mortal and immortal souls in the Timaeus, “there do not seem to be any psychic features that distinguish human beings from other mortal animals; instead, humans share at most superficial bodily features, such as possessing an upright, bipedal body” (483); “human nature does not contain a normative ideal for human beings . . . [T]he ultimate payoff . . . is to transcend mortal embodiment altogether” (484).

Verity Harte writes that “Socrates’ fourfold classification in the Philebus” (the unlimited, limit, mixtures of these two, and the cause of mixture) “is directed toward an analysis of craft objects . . . Socrates puts in place . . . material for an analogy drawn from the craft of medicine . . . [with] a craft of human living” (495). The author notes: “Limit or peras is on occasion characterized as ‘having limit’ (e.g., 24e2). . . . The sense in which things in the extension of the form, limit, have limit is that they are such as to bring limit to what lacks it” (504).

Rachana Kamtekar and Rachel Singpurwalla argue that law in the Republic, Statesman, and Laws is supposed to conduce to “individual virtue and civic unity” (523)—in the first, indirectly through institutional legislation (528), in the second, by providing standards for the city as a whole (533), and, in the third, in both ways (537). The chapter relies on the later theoretical language of constitutions (544 and elsewhere, especially in the notes) and the common good (535, 541), where ‘constitution’ is taken as the appropriate equivalent for politeia and ‘common good’ for koinon en tēi polei (545, 697d1). Koinon agathon does not occur in the Laws.

Among the chapters which may provide helpful guidance, Mendell’s may encourage readers to be more reflective in their interpretative efforts. When an interlocutor explicitly avoids a discussion or skips a postponed one, for example, should one, as Mendell suggests, “just accept that Plato doesn’t want to discuss the issue, for whatever reason (360)?” If not, how should the situation be explained? By putting a “hidden thesis” into the interlocutor’s mouth, which Mendell rejects? In another way?

Perhaps some other items might have been important to mention in a book whose aim is to provide a guide to exploring the dialogues today as opposed to thirty years ago, including the availability of electronic research aids—the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, on the web since 2001, which allows a study of the language of the dialogues far beyond anything available earlier, and which, though not replacing Ast, is an invaluable supplement to it; the availability of Unicode fonts for classical Greek, so that scholars can reproduce for others the language they have in mind; L’Année philologique, now available on line; and the Bryn Mawr Classical Review itself, among others, which helps its readers keep up with current scholarship.

As well, there might be some mention of the difficulties associated with attempting to draw the author’s intellectual biography from the dialogues, including the difficulties posed to stylometry by the genre issue—that the dialogues do not offer the utterances of a single individual during half a century of writing but the representation of, as Irwin says, “encounters between individuals with distinct personalities and outlooks” (67), and arguably distinct dictions. There is also the issue of revision and editing of the dialogues over time, which undercuts the credibility of a stylometric chronology. Even the Laws, after all, which is the basis of much stylometric chronology development, itself must have been written over an extended period and may have been revised, intentionally and otherwise, in the course of being transcribed by Philip of Opus (DL II.37); it may not be the work of a single author at a single time.[1] Again, it has been suggested in recent scholarship that systematic Platonism was a development of the centuries after Plato. Perhaps students should be made aware that the systematic Platonisms of the post-Hellenistic period and subsequent centuries, of which there are multiple conflicting examples, are not easy to find in the dialogues.[2]


Authors and Titles

  1. David Ebrey and Richard Kraut, Introduction to the Study of Plato
  2. T. H. Irwin, Plato in his Context
  3. Leonard Brandwood, Stylometry and Chronology
  4. Eric Brown, Plato’s Socrates and his Conception of Philosophy
  5. Agnes Callard, Being Good at Being Bad: Plato’s Hippias Minor
  6. Gail Fine, Inquiry in the Meno
  7. Suzanne Obdrzalek, Why Erōs?
  8. Gabor Betegh, Plato on Philosophy and the Mysteries
  9. David Ebrey, The Unfolding Account of Forms in the Phaedo
  10. Richard Kraut, The Defense of Justice in Plato’s Republic
  11. Elizabeth Asmis, Plato on Poetic Creativity: A Revision
  12. Henry Mendell, Betwixt and Between: Plato and the Objects of Mathematics
  13. Constance C. Meinwald, Another Goodbye to the Third Man
  14. Michael Frede, Plato’s Sophist on False Statements
  15. Emily Fletcher, Cosmology and Human Nature in the Timaeus
  16. Verity Harte, The Fourfold Classification and Socrates’ Craft Analogy in the Philebus
  17. Rachana Kamtekar and Rachel Singpurwalla, Law in Plato’s Late Politics



[1] The state of this question and its history are discussed in Debra Nails and Holger Thesleff, “Early Academic Editing: Plato’s Laws,” in Samuel Scolnicov and Luc Brisson, eds., Plato’s Laws: From Theory into Practice. Proceedings of the VI Symposium Platonicum: Selected Papers (Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2003), pp. 14-29.

[2] See, for example, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, ed., From Stoicism to Platonism: The Development of Philosophy, 100 BCE-100 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2017), especially chapters 1 and 5.