Thursday, April 30, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Dominic Scott (ed.), Maieusis: Essays in Ancient Philosophy in Honour of Myles Burnyeat. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 425. ISBN 9780199289974. $120.00.
Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin

This is indeed a most distinguished collection of essays, befittingly in honour of a most distinguished recipient. Myles Burnyeat has been for decades now acknowledged as one of the most outstanding minds of his generation in the area of ancient philosophy. Personally, I have always found him a formidable intellect to encounter, but one full of courtesy and consideration, as well as restlessly interested in corners of the ancient intellectual world with which he might not previously have concerned himself, such as later Neoplatonism, but on which he could always bring acute insights to bear.

This collection reflects many, though not all, of his interests, starting from Platonic epistemology and ethics, and extending forward to Aristotle and Hellenistic thinkers. Of the nineteen contributors, seven (Hankinson, Harte, Hobbs, Johansen, Lane, Notomi, and the editor, Dominic Scott, are former students), while of the others, another seven (Sorabji, Denyer, Lloyd, McCabe, Schofield, Sedley, Wardy) are former colleagues at London or Cambridge, the remaining five (Barnes, Bobzien, Broadie, Cooper, Nehamas) being friends and collaborators from elsewhere. One can see from this roll-call what a feast of philosophical speculation is in store for the reader.

I will first list the papers in order, and then make some comments upon them:

1. Mary Margaret McCabe, 'Looking Inside Charmides' Coat: Seeing Others and Oneself in Plato's Charmides'.
2. John M. Cooper, 'Socrates and Philosophy as a Way of Life'.
3. Melissa Lane, 'Virtue as the Love of Knowledge in Plato's Symposium and Republic'.
4. David Sedley, 'Equal Sticks and Stones'.
5. Nicolas Denyer, 'The Phaedo's Final Argument'.
6. Alexander Nehamas, 'Beauty of Body, Nobility of Soul: The Pursuit of Love in Plato's Symposium'.
7. Dominic Scott, 'Eros, Philosophy, and Tyranny'.
8. Robert Wardy, 'Virgil's Sacred Duo: Phaedrus' Symposium Speech and Aeneid IX'.
9. Angela Hobbs, 'Plato on War'.
10. Verity Harte, 'Language in the Cave'.
11. Malcolm Schofield, 'Metaspeleology'.
12. Sarah Broadie, 'Why no Platonistic Ideas of Artefacts?'
13. Noburu Notomi, 'Plato on What is Not'.
14. Thomas Johansen, 'The Soul as an Inner Principle of Change: The Basis of Aristotle's Psychological Naturalism'.
15. Suzanne Bobzien, 'Aristotle's De Interpretatione 8 is about Ambiguity'.
16. Jonathan Barnes, 'Sextan Scepticism'.
17. G.E.R. Lloyd, 'The Wife of Philinus, or the Doctors' Dilemma: Medical Signs and Cases and Non-deductive Inference'.
18. R.J. Hankinson, 'Self-Refutation and the Sorites'.
19. Richard Sorabji, 'Ideas Leap Barriers: The Value of Historical Studies to Philosophy'.

The volume is completed by a valuable list of Burnyeat's publications, and a set of indices.

This is a formidable line-up, on an admirably well-connected sequence of topics. By way of beginning, M.M. McCabe focuses on the argument of Charmides 166-9, and the distinction between 'knowledge of the self' and 'self-knowledge'. She has most stimulating remarks to make on the status of perception. This is followed by a useful discussion by John Cooper, taking off from Pierre Hadot's writings on philosophy as a way of life in antiquity, which shows how this conception properly goes back to Socrates, for whom "it consisted in constant and continued philosophizing: that is to say, in discussion and critical examination of one's own and others' opinions on questions of human life, and how best to lead it" (p.42). This is turn leads well into the essay of Melissa Lane, taking off from a remark of Alexander Nehamas that there is a paradox in respect of Socrates, in that Plato regards him as perhaps the best (i.e. most virtuous) man who ever lived, but virtue, on his own account, requires knowledge, and this Socrates denies that he possesses. Lane's solution is most plausible: Socrates may be regarded as possessing the natural virtues, as set out (by himself) in Republic VI, 485a- 487a.

On a rather different tack, David Sedley and Nicholas Denyer address various aspects of the doctrine of Forms in the Phaedo. Sedley analyses in detail the argument from physical 'equals' to the Equal Itself at 74a9-c6, with sound remarks on the conundrum of auta ta isa at 74c. Denyer takes on the 'final argument' (95e-107a), showing it to be rather more persuasive than it is often taken to be. I still do not see, though, that anything more is proven than that soul in general cannot perish; the specific soul of Socrates is another matter.

Changing the subject yet again, Alexander Nehamas treats us to an extended (37pp.) and thought-provoking meditation on the theory of Beauty in the Symposium, and in particular the implications of the ladder of ascent to the Beautiful Itself. I quite agree with him, as against Gregory Vlastos, that the philosophic lover does not just exploit and then discard his beloved boy as he 'ascends', despite some rather misleading language by Plato; while in a somewhat complementary essay, Dominic Scott makes the interesting point that the philosopher and the tyrant, while polar opposites, are both extremists, as being in the grip of one or other form of eros, and thus both essentially anti-social; which is why the philosopher has to be forced to return to the Cave.

The sequence continues with a fine meditation by Angela Hobbs on whether Plato regards war as inevitable in human society. She concludes, I think correctly, that in an ideal world where all states were run by philosopher-kings warlike impulses would be transcended, but admits that anywhere short of that, Plato envisages war, and prepares for it.

There follow two stimulating essays on aspects of the Cave analogy in the Republic. Verity Harte focuses on the intriguing problem of the language of the prisoners -- what they talk about, to what objects they are referring (e.g. how do they know to refer to the shadow of a model of an ox as 'ox'?). In all this she perhaps presses Plato's allegory rather harder than he intended, but her discussion is no less interesting for that. Malcolm Schofield, for his part, tries to disentangle two strands of allegory that Plato is combining here: a critique of the democratic polis and an analysis of the sense-perceptible realm.

Following these, we have a number of essays which, while still concerning Plato, move beyond him into a discussion of Aristotle and the Academy. Sarah Broadie, starting from the Aristotelian critique of the Ideas, wonders why Plato and his successors rejected the possibility of Ideas of artifacts, and doubts that Xenocrates' 'eternalist' interpretation of the Timaeus is an improvement over a more literal, 'creationist', version. I must say I don't see the force of this; Xenocrates' demythologized Nous-Monad seems to me just as coherent a concept as Aristotle's Unmoved Mover.

Noburu Notomi addresses the question of Not-Being as it is set out in the Sophist, developing creatively the 'joint illumination' or 'parity assumption' first identified by G.E.L. Owen. For Notomi, the structural parity of the arguments about 'what is not' and 'what is' is more than a mere literary device; it is the key to understanding what Plato is doing in the dialogue. He ends, interestingly, by seeking some enlightenment on the unspeakability of 'what is not' from Damascius, that master of ineffability from later antiquity.

With Thomas Johanssen we turn to Aristotle. Starting from one of Myles Burnyeat's seminal articles, that on 'De Anima II 5' (Phronesis 47 [2002]), he gives a convincing account of how the soul is the efficient cause even in the case of perception, where this honour might seem to be accorded to the external object. Still on Aristotle, Suzanne Bobzien, on a logical topic, sets out to argue, against such authorities as John Ackrill and C.W.A. Whitaker, that De Interpretatione 8 is in fact concerned with homonymy, and specifically, homonymy as it may occur in dialectical arguments; and I think she proves her point.

Bobzien in an end-note thanks Jonathan Barnes for 'incisive comments' on her paper; and the next paper is a characteristically lively effort by Barnes himself, dissecting the specific features of the skepticism professed by Sextus Empiricus in the Outines of Pyrrhonism. Barnes has a rather poor opinion of Sextus' consistency, and he makes a persuasive case.

We have next a fine essay from Geoffrey Lloyd, also taking off from an article of Burnyeat's ('The Origins of Non-Deductive Inference'), studying the use of arguments that are less than syllogistically valid, in that still neglected body of works (but one which Lloyd had made his own) the Hippocratic Corpus. The details of various patients' urine samples, including those of the wife of Philinus, hardly make jolly reading, but the analysis of the texts is superb. This is followed in turn by a most useful essay by R.J. Hankinson on the Sorites argument and its importance -- or more precisely, the importance of its refutation -- for Stoic logic. I must say I rather like what I take to be Chrysippus' suggestion (reported by Sextus, p. 360) that the Sage, faced with a Sorites, will at a certain stage simply keep silent -- though I'm not sure if that entirely solves the problem!

The collection is rounded off by a most stimulating meditation by Richard Sorabji on the transferability and preservation of philosophical concepts, drawing on his own vast experience and his many conversations with the honorand. His conclusion that philosophy does not 'advance' like a science, but more in the way that art might be seen to do-- a thought borrowed from Burnyeat (p. 389) -- fittingly brings this excellent volume to a close.

The list of Burnyeat's publications at the end is also most useful to have, and remind us what the world of ancient philosophy owes him.

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