Thursday, June 18, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Giovanni Cerri, La poetica di Platone: una teoria della comunicazione (Terza edizione aggiornata e ampliata di Platone sociologo della comunicazione). Il vello d'oro 26. Lecce: Argo, 2007. Pp. 175. ISBN 9788882343910. €14.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Diego De Brasi, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in the submission of the review.]

The book on review represents the third edition of Cerri's Platone sociologo della comunicazione (1st edition 1991; 2nd edition 1996). As the author explains (23), the book does not contain very substantial variations from its previous edition, aside from the introduction of a new chapter in the first part (ch. IV, 'Dalla dialettica all'epos: la trilogia Repubblica, Timeo, Crizia'), which had been already published 2000 in a book edited by Giovanni Casertano.1

The book is quite short (175 pages) and, although it examines insightfully two of the most disputed subjects of contemporary Platonic research (relation between philosophy and poetry; importance of writing within a general acceptance of unwritten doctrines), it could be read easily and with profit by beginning students.

After a preface by Bruno Gentili (7-14), who begins with some considerations about the Platonic contradiction of writing philosophy within a deep criticism of writing itself and then focuses on the theme of μῦθος in Greek literature and on the ambiguity of it within Plato's dialogues, Cerri itemizes in his Introduction (17-21) the leading ideas of the book: (1) Platonic scholarship has not yet analyzed deeply enough Plato's interest in the different types of discourse and their relation to different types of audience in the Greek polis; (2) a precise examination of this aspect would lead to the conclusion that Platonic criticism of mythos and poetry is directed against traditional (Homeric and Hesiodic) epos and not against mythos and poetry itself; (3) poetry and mythos might acquire an educational function, if they were considered under the perspective of δόξα; (4) Plato's criticism of writing should be understood within the broader frame of a criticism of persuasive discourse (πείθειν), opposed to the dialectic-demonstrative one (διδαχή): in this sense both written discourse and poetry--once reformed by philosophy--are meant to accomplish a positive role in the doxastic sphere.

The book is then divided in two unequal parts which develop at length the analysis of some key passages in the Platonic dialogues under this perspective: the first part (Mito e poesia, 25-95) engages with the first three items, while the second part (Oralità e scrittura, visibly shorter, 97-125) concerns the fourth.

The first chapter examines a long passage of the Republic (II, 376B11--III, 392C8). In disagreement with the common interpretation, according to which the passage is simply moralistic censure of poetry, Cerri proposes to read it within its dialogical-narrative context. The discourse about poetry and myths starts--as Cerri notices--as the elaboration of an educational system for children of the new Socratic state. While considering which kind of music should be used for children's rearing, Socrates introduces a distinction between true (ἀληθής) and false (ψεῦδος) discourse and classifies tales for children as a false discourse which could still contain elements of truth. These elements, although they cannot be seen as historical or factual truth, have the power to fix in a child's mind some τύποι, i. e. characters which will shape the individual personality. This should be interpreted, as Cerri rightly argues, as a signs of Platonic interest in social psychology, and above all, in the sociology of communication. Moreover, Plato's sociology does not ignore a subconscious level of communication: the τύποι are, indeed, quite similar to subliminal messages. Once the sociological interpretation of Plato's criticism of myths has been grounded, Cerri proceeds with the analysis of the remainder of the passage and notes that Plato assumes, in his examination of Homeric and traditional poetry and mythos, that the latter are more or less similar to children's tales in content and therefore could be interpreted on the base of the same psycho-sociological analysis as the former (31, Cerri quotes Rsp. II, 377C7-D1 to support his interpretation). Homeric and traditional poetry and myths are, consequently, false discourses too and must be esteemed for their intrinsic (moral) value. Plato uses the notion of εἰκός to qualify the positive morality of myths: he admits into Kallipolis' educational system only verisimilar myths, that is, as Cerri defines precisely, myths which help to imprint in the mind of the audience morally right beliefs. Cerri concludes his first chapter (38):

Platone, è bene sottolinearlo, non condanna la poesia in assoluto: condanna quasi in blocco la poesia del passato, ma presuppone la possibilità di creare una nuova tradizione poetica. E ritiene fermamente che la funzione paideutica primaria, la formazione della struttura della personalità di base del cittadino, non debba passare dalla poesia alla filosofia, ma debba invece restare alla poesia, riformata dalla filosofia.

Chapter two (39-46) focuses on the search for antecedents for Plato's criticism of traditional poetry and sees one of them in Xenophanes' elegy on the Symposium (Fr. 1 D-K=Fr. 1 Gentili-Prato). Cerri offers a résumé of Xenophanes' poem, an analysis of the lexical similarities between it and Plato's expressions about poetry and, though finding a certain subconscious interest also in the archaic 'philosopher', recognizes as Plato's the discovery of the theory of τύποι.

Chapter three (47-58) examines the Platonic use of myths in the dialogues. After recollecting the different interpretations which have been offered through the 19th and 20th century (pedagogical function, knowing process from mythic to logic, myth as discourse about becoming, intuitive function, subsidiary function, psychagogical function), Cerri underscores how myths within Platonic dialogues are of different types and therefore could not be unified under a sing le label. Cerri points out that, nonetheless, Plato himself seems to offer a theory of myths within philosophical literature. Focusing again on the Republic (412Bff.), Cerri argues that Plato strongly stresses the theme of persuasion (πείθειν). The assumption underlying Cerri's interpretation is the fact that myths present in the dialogues will know mostly an oral diffusion after their appearance in written form. This leads Cerri to the conclusion that myths, as they are used by philosophical writers such as Plato, constitute for Plato an independent way of acculturation or education not for the philosopher but for the 'masses' and especially for the children. That is also the reason why Plato, while creating new myths, utilizes old narrative settings and structures: myths with a philosophical underground and with a known narrative frame will be accepted more easily by the audience.

Chapter four (59-77), one of the longest of the book, deals with book X of the Republic, especially with the myth of Er. Cerri's starting point is the problematic setting of the dialogue in its relation with Timaeus and Critias. Cerri reminds the reader firstly that the Republic is a narrated dialogue and secondly that, at the beginning of the planned trilogy Timaeus, Critias, Hermocrates, Socrates ties clearly the contents of the Republic with the continuation taking place in the latter (Tim. 17A1-C2). These narrative suggestions are read by Cerri in a very plausible way: Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates constitute the audience that the day before listened to Socrates relating the discussion which builds up the Republic.3 Within this dialogic frame Cerri proposes his interpretation of the myth of Er. Primarily he underscores that book X is absolutely separated from the analysis περὶ τῆς πολιτείας of the other books, and he notes that Plato may have in mind to develop in a different way the poetry-myths criticism of book II and III. Investigating the context of the narrative of Er, Cerri stresses the fact that from a literary and paideutic point of view the aim of book X could be to reintroduce poetry and myths into the education of human beings. Cerri reads a positive evaluation of myths in the criticism of poetry of book X. The interpreter should be aware, argues Cerri, of Plato's twofold attitude towards mythos and poetry: on the one side a strong criticism of traditional (Homeric) poetry, on the other side the possibility of creating a new sort of mythmaking (67). Under this perspective the closing myth of the Republic could be considered as an attempt to write poetry according to the philosophical rules enucleated in books II and III: the narrative of Er shows in a mythical, persuasive and doxastic way why people should live justly; and the Timaeus's and Critias narratives are part of this Platonic reformulation of mythmaking for a broader audience.

Chapter five (78-95) concentrates on the esthetic/poetic concepts of ἔλεος and φόβος. Beginning with the Philebus, where Socrates discusses with Protarchus a 'phenomenology' of the mixture of pleasures and pains, Cerri argues plausibly that the Aristotelian theory of tragedy was actually already known before Plato, as the Philebus itself (48A) seems to prove. To support this interpretation, Cerri quotes, apart from that later dialogue, also passages from Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, from the Phaedrus and moreover from the Ion. Of the latter Cerri proposes a more detailed analysis, from which it emerges that the Homeric passages under examination in the dialogue are all understandable under the categories of ἔλεος and φόβος. Cerri claims that the communis opinio about the κάθαρσις theory and about the ἔλεος-φόβος theory (Plato derives from Gorgias the idea that poetry stirs up ἔλεος and φόβος) should be challenged and substituted by weaker a thesis (viz. the φόβος-ἔλεος theory, implicitly present in traditional poetry, became explicit during the 5th century BCE) followed by a chain of questions without answer (e.g. who made this theory actually explicit?). Moreover, Cerri underscores the innovations Plato brought to this literary theory, as can be inferred from the Philebus: 1) pleasure pertains to passions (i.e. the audience feels pleasure listening to/reading poetry not because of external poetic elements like rhythm or narrative structure but because of the intrinsic pleasure of passions, which are, indeed, a mixture of pain and pleasure); 2) pleasure is inherent in passions not only in poetry and literature but also in life. Cerri notes at the end of the chapter that Plato placed the first steps for the Aristotelian theory of κάθαρσις but that he deliberately refused it, as he was convinced that passions developed by poetry would lead the audience not to purification but to assimilation with the fate of the hero or to addiction to the felt passions.

The second part of the book is much shorter than the first (five chapters in less than thirty pages) and deals with an essential problem of Platonic scholarship of the last decades, namely the question of Plato's criticism of writing.

After a short resume (99-101) of the different positions supported by historians of culture (Turner, Havelock, Vegetti) and philosophy (debate on the unwritten doctrines, Tübinger Schule), Cerri presents his own analysis of the question. He examines (102-106) the passage of the Phaedrus (276A-E), where writing is criticized and underscores the ambiguity of this criticism. Writing is called a 'game' (παιδιά) but also described as a memorandum (ὑπόμνημα). Beginning with this last, Cerri underscores the role of memory (ὑπομνήσεσθαι) within Platonic thought and supports it with an example from the Phaedrus (277B). Although Cerri knows his interpretation could be easily contradicted, he supports it with another example from the Seventh Letter (344D3-E2), which he considers authentic: combining some aspects of the Tübingen interpretation and some of the cultural interpretation of Plato's criticism of writing, he argues that for Plato it is only the theory of principles that should not be written, while any other philosophical or scientific doctrine needs a written memorandum.2

The next chapter (107-112) develops these premises within a broader discourse. Examining the philosophical excursus within the Seventh Letter (342A-343E), Cerri notes that this passage, which underlines the weakness of human language, leads to a criticism not only of written but also of structured discourse, i.e. of discourse which does not have the open-endedness of philosophical διαλέγεσθαι. Cerri's opinion, which I share, is that the criticism of writing in the Phaedrus should be integrated with and extended to a criticism of any discourse which does not fulfill the expectations of dialectic. Reading the Phaedrus, Cerri brings to light the closeness that for Plato exists between the verb γράφειν (to write) and συντιθέναι (to compose) and rightly extends it to the entire work of the philosopher. He concludes--rightly in my opinion--that Plato upholds a distinction between 1) a philosophical, open-ended discourse, which aims at the uninterested discovery of the truth, and 2) a closed, highly structured one, which does not look for the truth but for a rhetoric effect or a demonstration of a preconceived thesis.

Chapter IX (113-119) sums up the acquisitions of the book and generalizes them. Cerri reminds the reader that, for Plato, poetry could be 'saved' if it is based on knowledge of the truth. The Phaedrus allows him to extend this interpretation to rhetoric and, supported by evidence from the Protagoras, the Symposium and the Nomoi, to laws, too. Cerri argues that within the Platonic dialogues there is a thoroughly positive attitude towards structured discourse and writing, which, again, could be shown through a close examination of the final pages of the Phaedrus. As Cerri concludes, this kind of discourse has its place in Platonic society: its audience is not the philosopher but the common people, like poetry. Within these coordinates (i.e. limited to the level of δόξα and of persuasive discourse) writing too has a positive value for Plato: the poet, lawgiver, or rhetorician, who through the dialectic has reached the knowledge of the truth, should write works aiming at the education of the masses but should also always keep in mind that his writings are poorer than διαλέγεσθαι. The last chapter (120-125) examines some passages from the Nomoi which exemplify Plato's positive attitude towards writing and underscores again Plato's attention towards a twofold kind of audience: the philosophers, who search for the truth, and the common people, who need to be persuaded of the goodness of the Platonic project.

An insightful, easy readable book in which Plato's criticism of poetry and of writing are presented from a point of view which highlights the philosopher's interest not only in the philosophical elite, but also in the common people. That is in simple words what Cerri offers us.


1.   Casertano. G. 2000. La struttura del dialogo Platonico. (Napoli: Loffredo), pp.7-34.
2.   Even though I do agree with Cerri's analysis about the importance of writing for Plato, I should underscore that I do not accept the conclusions of the Tübinger Schule about the unwritten doctrines, especially in "hardcore" version as presented by Giovanni Reale (the unwritten doctrines are Plato's true philosophy). I opt for a stronger interpretation of Cerri's theory: every philosophical theme could be the object of writing (where 'writing' has both its connotation as παιδιά and as ὑπόμνημα) while oral discourse, which is 'better than writing', is only an argumentative help and does not imply a deeper metaphysical knowledge.
3.   In 136, n. 8 Cerri lists some bibliographical references.

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