Monday, February 8, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Catalin Partenie, Plato's Myths. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 255. ISBN 9780521887908. $99.00.
Reviewed by Emily A. Austin, Wake Forest University

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

Plato's myths resist a unified account. Some myths occur at the end of the dialogue, others quite early. Some are creation stories, while others include an eschatology. Though a few seem to be for entertainment purposes only, many illustrate philosophical content and may serve as arguments in their own right. Almost all of Plato's myths, however, have been under-explored by contemporary scholarship in the analytic philosophical tradition, which prefers to stay soundly on the logos side of the myth and argument divide.1 Plato's Myths, an excellent collection of ten papers edited by Catalin Partenie, demonstrates that the myths can inform the study of Plato's more rigorous philosophical projects and suggests that those who neglect the myths risk compromising their understanding of Plato as a philosopher.

Partenie's written contribution to the collection is a general overview of Plato's myths and the most popular interpretations of their philosophical role in the dialogues. His map of the intellectual terrain is quite helpful, though the reader might note two assumptions that seem to guide his survey. First, he assumes that Plato only aims the myths at the philosophically unsophisticated; neither Socrates nor Plato require myths. Second, he claims that, with the possible exception of the cosmological myth of the Timaeus, Plato knows the matter at hand. The myths, then, do not signal any self-avowed psychological or epistemic limitations of their author. Both of these claims can be defended, but Partenie devotes little or no space to their consideration. This small worry aside, Partenie's big-picture treatment of the myths contributes significantly to the volume, especially since most of the collection's authors avoid a generalist approach.

In "Plato's eschatological myths," Michael Inwood defies the standard strategy of his fellow contributors. Rather than addressing the role of one myth within the context of the single dialogue in which it occurs, Inwood raises a series of puzzles about moral responsibility and punishment that arise from the eschatological myths that close the Gorgias and the Republic. He aims to discover, in short, whether Plato has any moral justification for postmortem punishment. Inwood worries that an individual should not be punished for injustices committed by her soul's previous instantiation and that tyrants who had opportunities to act unjustly might not deserve more punishment than individuals who would have acted unjustly given the opportunity. Also, if one's physical body is a significant part of one's personal identity, then the disembodied individual undergoing postmortem judgment may not be the same recently deceased individual. While all of Inwood's puzzles are creative and compelling, some of his key claims depend on interpretations of numerous Platonic doctrines. These include recollection, reincarnation, personal identity, and the nature of the soul in the Phaedrus, Phaedo, Meno, Timaeus, and Laws. Since these concepts do not cut across the two eschatological myths upon which Inwood focuses, much less across the other myths and dialogues he references, things get increasingly muddy. One might get the impression that this very clever paper tries to do too much.

David Sedley's article, "Myth, punishment, and politics in the Gorgias," addresses the chief objection to Plato's eschatological myths: they undercut Plato's moral message by encouraging people to act justly from fear of hellfire rather than from the recognition that just action is good in itself. Sedley argues that the closing myth, like the earlier allegory of the jars (493dff), illustrates "moral truths about this life" (53). Zeus' solution to the mistrial of the wealthy and popular in the afterlife offers a commentary on the broken Athenian judicial system. The solution itself--the judgment and punishment of the naked souls--shows how Socratic dialectic reveals the true state of the soul through painful refutation. The afterlife's "incurables" may signal that Callicles is beyond reformation, since he refuses to reign in his appetites. Sedley concludes by considering two disjuncts. First, the myth's political commentary recommends either a call for philosophical reform of the existing political structure or the complete rejection of politics in favor of philosophy. In the Republic,Sedley notes, Plato opts for the latter, but the Gorgias leaves the question open. Second, it remains unclear whether Plato takes the myth's eschatological elements seriously. Sedley's circumspect response that the matter is "underdetermined" may seem a bit troubling, since it allows some yardage for the objection he seeks to surmount--that Plato encourages some agents to choose justice from fear of postmortem retribution. Nevertheless, Sedley offers a viable alternative for those queasy about the motivational role of the Gorgias' eschatology.

In "Tale, theology and teleology in the Phaedo," Gabor Betegh also considers Zeus' problem-solving talents, this time with respect to the irresolvable disagreement between pleasure and pain. Betegh argues that Socrates' commendation of Aesop's fables (Phaedo 60b-61c) sheds light on Socratic expectations about how stories should represent divine agents. In particular, Socrates seeks 1) teleological explanations of current states of affairs that 2) explain the benevolent creator's practical reasoning, given the limitations of his starting material. Betegh argues that Anaxagoras' failure to offer a teleological explanation of this sort motivates Socrates' famous rejection of his account of Mind. Since Socrates consistently denies his own ability to offer such explanations, it may seem to undercut Betegh's case that Socrates offers a lengthy cosmological account at the close of the Phaedo. However, Betegh contends that Socrates' account only satisfies the first of his criteria, since he explains the current state of affairs without an account of why and how the divine creator made things as they are. Plato does not offer this complete account until the Timaeus. Betegh's article complements Burnyeat's contribution to the volume, as Burnyeat considers the epistemic weight of Timaeus' representation of the Demiurge. Given that Betegh thinks one can offer a commendable but false representation of the god's practical reasoning in the course of arguing for a false claim, there must be some criteria by which one can judge that a cosmological account approximates the truth.

Malcolm Schofield focuses on the Myth of Metals (Republic 414b-415d) in "Fraternité, inégalité, la parole de Dieu: Plato's authoritarian myth of political legitimation." Schofield claims that the myth has two purposes. The first part should convince the rulers to care [kedesthai] for the city. Since care is much more difficult to motivate than self-interest, Schofield thinks that ideology is the only way to generate the ruler's emotional attachment to the city. If caring is contingent on believing the myth, however, Schofield worries that the first rulers will fail to care for the city, since the myth's arbitrary and instrumental creation will leave them unable to believe it. Schofield suggests that the first rulers' emotional attachment to the city and endorsement of the myth might arise from the care they have for their future children, who will genuinely believe the myth. The myth's second aim is to provide a "myth of succession and survival" (111). The use of Hesiodic metals, Schofield argues, serves to theologically justify and preserve the social hierarchy. This is surely right. The contentiousness of Schofield's paper seems packed into his "final question" (113-115). He cautiously argues that the motivation for the philosopher-ruler's decision to rule depends on whether the foundation myth has long ago convinced her to care for the city. For, Schofield claims, her knowledge of the Good will prove insufficient and even distract her from civil service. The Myth of Metals, not the knowledge of the Good, is the sine qua non of the philosopher's return.

In "Glaucon's reward, philosophy's debt: the myth of Er," G. R. F. Ferrari argues that the closing myth of the Republic is tailored specifically for Glaucon, who cannot help but desire rewards and honors for choosing justice. The myth rewards those who act justly with what is "owed" to them--a debt for just action is repaid. Ferrari also contends, though, that the myth is decidedly tragic, even for the philosopher. The choice of one's next life is more punishment than a reward, since human life impedes the exercise of reason. The philosopher knows that from the perspective of divinity, even the best of human lives is ugly, and choosing another life requires descending once again into imperfection. The choice is required, however, as repayment for a debt incurred by being human rather than divine. Worse, it might not even turn out terribly well for the philosopher. Her philosophical life enables her to choose the best life available when her lot comes up, but her options might not include another philosophical life. Ferrari rightly notes that the Phaedo and Phaedrus express more optimism, since Plato suggests that the philosopher may eventually escape reincarnation and join the divine. He might make a strong case for a broader claim, though, that Plato thinks renewed embodiment should never be relished, even for the best of humans.

In "The charioteer and his horses: an example of Platonic myth-making," Christopher Rowe argues that the elaborate myth of the Phaedrus does not indicate that Plato lacks knowledge of the nature of the soul, nor does it target what is inferior in us--the irrational part. Instead, Plato uses myth as a substitute for argument, a substitute which can be usefully employed for audiences with less philosophical talent and interest. The more sophisticated the audience, the more rigorous the arguments; an audience with a "variegated" (poikilos) soul requires a mix of argument and story. Even in this latter case, though, the target of the method is not the irrational parts of the soul, as, Rowe notes, he himself once argued. One chief impediment to Rowe's current claim is the passage at Phdr. 246a4-7, in which Socrates suggests that the myth is a stand-in for something more divine that is beyond the reach of rational argument. Nevertheless, Rowe contends that one can have knowledge that falls short of divine knowledge, that Plato possesses this approximate knowledge, and that Plato's knowledge is sufficient to produce a good argument. Rowe also devotes a portion of his article to a new interpretation of the relationship between Socrates' two speeches and between the Phaedrus and other "erotic dialogues." At the close of his paper, Rowe argues that the irrational part of the soul does not contain the emotions, but houses only brute necessary desires, such as for food and drink. It is not the sort of thing with which one can reason, even if one should want to do so. Rowe notes that some of his arguments are promissory notes for a longer defense, and the further development of this last claim will be of interest to many scholars working on the capacities of the lower parts of the soul (among the most recent, Hendrick Lorenz, Jessica Moss, and their critics).

In "The myth of the Statesman," Charles Kahn wonders why the dialogue begins with a failed definition of the statesman as shepherd of the "human herd," which is summarily refuted by means of a myth. Since a shepherd is superior to his sheep, only something superior to humans could shepherd the human herd. The divine shepherd, the myth tells us, ruled the human herd before there was strife, labor, and laws. Since the statesman the discussants seek is human rather than divine, and humans now need laws and suffer strife, the statesman cannot be a shepherd of the human herd. Kahn argues that Plato introduces and abandons the divine shepherd in order to signal that he has left behind the ideal city of the Republic and its philosopher-rulers. Plato recognizes that he must instead construct a second-best city and describe its fallible rulers. Kahn's argument turns on two claims: that the divine shepherd represents the philosopher-ruler who rules Kallipolis, and that the human statesman rules the second-best city--Magnesia of the Laws. Since the inferiority of Magnesia has been recently contested by Chris Bobonich, Kahn spends the final part of his paper offering textual evidence in support of this second claim. Though I find Kahn's evidence convincing on this front, I worry a bit about the first claim. If Kahn is right that the myth of the Statesman refers to Kallipolis, then it suggests that Kallipolis is not a city at all, that there were actually no technai in Kallipolis, no farmers, and no army (since humans would not war with one another). The political element of the comparison, then, must be somewhat loose.

Timaeus, the namesake of the dialogue in which he appears, consistently refers to his cosmology as an "eikos muthos," the Greek phrase from which M. F. Burnyeat's excellent article takes its name. Burnyeat argues that the standard translation of "eikos" as "probable" or "likely" mistakes Timaeus' epistemic hedge as a worry about the limitations of scientific empiricism or as another manifestation of Plato's commitment to the impossibility of knowledge of the sensory world. Instead, Burnyeat claims that Timaeus hopes to offer an "appropriate myth," which piously befits the divinity of the Demiurge and the perfect practical reason that guided his creation of the best world (given the limitations of his starting material). Far from denigrating the sensory world, Timaeus challenges his audience to see the divine order surrounding them. Since something divine crafted the world, the end-product must have some genuine value. Burnyeat seems to complicate matters, though, by subsequently embracing the standard translation of "eikos"--probable. There need be nothing particularly tricky about this, though, since he thinks that any account which satisfies the "appropriate" criterion will also be "probable." I have only one small worry. One might wonder about Burnyeat's closing claim that offering a cosmology is analogous to engaging in political discourse. He claims that Timaeus' account of the divine practical creation of the world is mirrored in Socrates' construction of the ideal city, which happened the previous day. However, Timaeus aims to explain a current state of affairs, while Socrates, one might argue, prefers to construct a city that exceeds the limitations of the political starting material.

Richard Stalley's article, "Myth and eschatology in the Laws," contests Trevor Saunders' reading of the eschatological myth in Book X, which clears ground for Stalley's competing interpretation. The myth is directed at a young man who has renounced his childhood religious beliefs in favor of materialism. After a series of theological arguments to the effect that god(s) exist and care for humans, the Athenian adds a myth for good measure, as a "charm" [Laws 903b]. The myth's eschatology, though, seems positively dull when compared to the elaborate myths of the Gorgias, Phaedo, and Republic. (Boredom seems to be a general point of comparison between the Laws and other dialogues). Saunders argues that Plato renounces flowery myths for mechanical, scientific myths of reincarnation, a shift he initiated in the Timaeus and that depends in part on the Laws' new theory of punishment. Stalley argues quite rightly that there is nothing terribly new about punishment as moral improvement and notes some differences between the myths of the Timaeus and Laws. Stalley then turns to his positive argument, which is that the novelty of the Laws' myth is primarily one of audience and intent. In the earlier myths, Plato aims to convince a select group of elite young men to become philosophers. The Laws' myth, though, targets non-philosophers, to whom Plato is notably more generous than in his previous political work. Thus, Stalley's argument depends on the intellectual and moral promise of the young man, who Stalley claims cannot become a philosopher. However, one might note that Plato offers similar "charms" to Cebes and Simmias in the Phaedo (77e, 114d), both of whom are philosophically talented and under the spell of materialists. Adeimantus asks Socrates to prove that that the gods exist and benefit the just [Republic 365d-366b], and he is also offered a myth for good measure.

The concluding essay of the collection, Elizabeth McGrath's "Platonic myth in Renaissance iconography," is a change of pace. It has pictures. McGrath collects and examines Renaissance depictions of Plato's myths and allegories, as viewed through the lens of the Christian and neo-Platonist traditions and the influence of Marsilio Ficino's Latin translation of Plato's dialogues. Among the popular topics for representation were the Phaedrus myth of the charioteer and his horses, the androgynes from the Symposium, and the Allegory of the Cave. McGrath concludes by drawing attention to the connections between Plato's Timaeus and Kepler's models of the planets. Though she devotes some attention to a discussion of Renaissance thought about the philosophical role of the myths, McGrath notes that any claim must be highly speculative due to a substantial lack of primary evidence. McGrath's article is fascinating and informative, though the quality and clarity of the reproductions are understandingly limited by the medium, and it seems a bit out of place in a collection concerned with the interplay between philosophy and myth.

Anyone with a philosophical interest in Plato's myths will find Partenie's collection rewarding, and it is necessary reading for those interested in publishing on the topic. All of the articles are of high-quality, and many of them are truly excellent. The book itself is attractive and well-edited. I found only two errors. In the introduction, Partenie twice refers to "the Demiurge" without his definite article (15, 16), while otherwise affording it to him.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Catalin Partenie
1. Plato's Eschatological Myths, Michael Inwood
2. Myth, punishment and politics in the Gorgias, David Sedley
3. Tale, theology, and teleology in the Phaedo, Gabor Betegh
4. Fraternité, inégalité, la parole de Dieu: Plato's authoritarian myth of political legitimation, Malcolm Schofield
5. Glaucon's reward, philosophy's debt : the myth of Er, G. R. F. Ferrari
6. The charioteer and his horses: an example of Platonic myth-making, Christopher Rowe
7. The myth of the Statesman, Charles Kahn
8. Eikos Muthos, M. F. Burnyeat
9. Myth and eschatology in the Laws, Richard Stalley
10. Platonic myth in Renaissance iconography, Elizabeth McGrath


1.   There are, of course, exceptions. Partenie offers a useful list of recent work on the myths in the "Suggested Further Reading" section at the end of the text (239). My only additional recommendation is: R. G. Edmonds (2004), Myths of the Underworld Journey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Among other things, Edmonds offers a concise summary of competing interpretations of Plato's distinction between muthos and logos. Not only is it difficult to determine what the myths do, it is difficult to determine which instances are myths.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.