Monday, March 17, 2014


C. D. C. Reeve, Blindness and Reorientation: Problems in Plato's 'Republic'. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 214. ISBN 9780199934430. $65.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Penn State University (

Version at BMCR home site


Reeve's Blindness and Reorientation collects eleven previously-published papers in nine chapters. The first chapter addresses Plato's Apology; the second and sixth chapters, his Symposium; the remainder, the Republic. Blindness and Reorientation lacks a chapter-by-chapter narrative. It holds together in two other ways.

The chapters contribute, if obliquely, to Reeve's view that Plato "reforms" an epistemically-skeptical Socrates. The unreformed, elenctic Socrates "focuses obsessively on what seem to be objects of theoretical knowledge—namely, definitions of virtues, expressible in language." This Socrates does not worry about applying this knowledge to particular circumstances, or about molding one's desires and will. The reformed Socrates, by contrast, recognizes "theory's limitations," and cares about the systematic education of children and adults. Experience, not just reflection, matters. Living well depends on more than the excellent deployment of refutation and conversation; it depends, too, on reform of the entire society. Despite this theme of reforming Socrates, Reeve does not strive to prove that a change occurs— indeed, he avoids the tangles of the Socratic problem—or to give a robust description of the apparently unreformed Socrates.

The book's title reflects the stronger cohesion between the book's chapters: "problems." These are "the deepest interpretative and philosophical problems that specialists have raised." Thus Blindness and Reorientation is not a reading through of the Republic, or a discussion of its structure, but a series of pauses to raise and answer questions about justice, soul, knowledge, the philosopher, and the other conventionally important topics associated with the dialogue. From this perspective, the book holds together in presenting philosophically-mature readers of the Republic with a corpus of careful, rigorous, eminently plausible, and, frankly, really interesting arguments about the sorts of central matters this most-arresting dialogue suggests.

Yet who exactly are these readers? Reeve says they are not, in the first instance, "specialist scholars," but rather "those readers of Plato who have been inspired enough by the Republic to want to understand it better." This desire leads Reeve to minimalism in scholarly reference. Chapters have generally fewer than ten brief citations. It seems reasonable for Reeve to wish to focus on the Republic and the other Platonic dialogues themselves. Yet his questions obviously come out of a long history of scholarly discussion, and the papers were originally written into a continuing history of scholarly discussion. Indeed, many of the chapters appear to be implicitly preempting or responding to criticisms that a reader, were he or she unfamiliar with the scholarship, could find disorienting. Reeve spends little time generating real perplexity, establishing the significance of the problem, or explaining the breadth of material any suitable explanation would need to canvass. Reeve pitches this book to people who are already interested in certain problems delineated in certain ways—perhaps by teachers, perhaps by some critical introduction—and want one good view of them, but not a lot of access to other views. This is an mysterious group. Really, it seems, the true audience must really be scholars working on specific problems who want to learn from Reeve's penetrating analyses of specific issues, and who already understand the interpretative stakes.

In the following, I identify the contents of the book's chapters, focusing on the early ones, whose theses and purposes are less obvious from their opening pages.

The brief Preface (ix-xiii) identifies Socrates as a "midwife, not a begetter of children"; describes pederasty; relates the apparent shift in Socrates' nature between Republic Books 1 and 2, from "a negative critic into a positive theorist," to Plato's reflections on technê and ethical wisdom; quotes a long passage from Rep. Book 7 (538c6-539c2) on the dangers of elenchus; and identifies the topics of the ensuing chapters.

The title of Chapter 1, "Human Wisdom" (1-17), refers to Socrates' admission, in Plato's Apology, to possess only the knowledge that he lacks knowledge, not the divine wisdom about what to do in any circumstance. The chapter begins by treating of Socrates' relationship with Apollo. He is both advocate of the Delphic anti-hubris creed—you are not a god—and benefactor of the Apollonian daemonic sign—yet the god helps you prophecy. Late in the chapter, however, Reeve's real argument comes out. It is "craft knowledge" (Reeve's unmarked translation of technê) of good and evil that causes all good actions. The gods allow good action through their prophecies. So the gods must have craft knowledge of good and evil. "Once what is prophetic from the human point of view is seen as merely craft knowledge from the divine one… a road that might seem closed off becomes open. For if divine wisdom just is craft knowledge of some sort, it is something to which we can at least aspire. We needn't settle for the modest— albeit difficult to achieve—human wisdom Socrates thinks may be the best we can achieve. Thought we may not be able to become gods, we can at least become god like."

This chapter, brief for its range of topics and magnitude of its claim, is typical of the others in this book. Reeve moves readily from topic to topic, albeit with serious, fresh, and valuable results each time. Here, for example, he makes a nice point about the precise tenor of Meletus' indictment of Socrates for ou nomizôn the gods that the city nomizei. He does little signposting, letting the purpose of the chapter dawn slowly, and presenting the crucial evidence, and key claim, at unmarked points. Here, the main claim on p. 16 is supported by primarily by evidence on pp. 12-13. He uses frequent and very long inset quotations. This impedes the narrative, but gives rich and provocative reminders of the Platonic text. He cabins off questions that the key claim might raise. We might wonder, for example, why we should assume we can do better than Socrates, and how we would argue with Socrates that we should strive to become godlike.

Chapter 2, "Alcibiades and the Socratic Craft of Love" (18-34), argues that the fascination with Socrates and with "'human affairs' more generally," at least according to the Symposium, is "dangerously unphilosophical." The dialogue shows us that we should be interested in philosophy, virtue, and the forms instead. Alcibiades treats Socrates as hiding within himself agalmata (miniatures) of virtue. Reeve shows that these miniatures have embryonic and seed-like aspects, and point beyond themselves to the divine and universal ethical norms, which Diotima treats as connected to immortality. The imagery thus fuses procreation and education. Failing to appreciate the latent or proleptic qualities of these agalmata leads, as it has led Alcibiades, to idolatry and the confused and comic desire to possess them or their pregnant owner. Republic Book 6, 500b1-d2, provides Reeve one of his most important pieces of evidence for his claim that philosophy prefers appreciating the really real over individuals.

Chapter 3, "Cephalus, Odysseus, and the Importance of Experience" (35-52), rehabilitates the householder hosting the Republic's conversation, arguing that reason, not money, appetite, or honor, directs his life, and that he, like the Homeric hero, relies on experience for living well. Cephalus' old age has made him "like" a philosopher, Reeve says, despite also claiming that Cephalus benefits from his avoidance of elenchus. Cephalus' expectation that money helps him live justly differs little from the "unreformed" Socrates' instrumentalist understanding of justice. The true philosopher of the Republic, Reeve argues, combines Socrates' "theoretical component" and the "experiential one introduced by Plato" and instanced by the old man. Principal evidence comes from the Phaedrus's speech to "the rhetors" from "the writer" (271d7-272a8), which claims that rhetoric, if it is to be a technê, includes "the sort of practical knowledge that comes only with experience gained outside school." This chapter, after making several feints at its beginning, comes to make an impressive case for the importance of Socrates' first conversation in the Republic. All the same, it does not explain how experience is supposed to work, or what to say about those whose experience has not made them good. Nor does it try to avoid the austere picture of an unreformed Socrates totally unconcerned with practical self-development.

Chapter 4, "Glaucon's Thrasymachean Challenge" (53-78), argues that Glaucon's argument in Book 2 coincides with Thrasymachus' argument in Book 1. Thrasymachus' tyrant seeks the appearance of justice as much as Glaucon's adulterer or assassin does. The tyrant simply uses the promulgation of new, self-benefiting laws as his cover; once his laws have become custom, he needs no longer strain over his dissimulation. This is a complex and difficult chapter, as befits the roiling arguments it addresses; happily, it commits itself exclusively to the two relevant stretches of argument.

Chapter 5, "Souls, Soul-Parts, and Persons" (79-109), shows that, in the Republic (as well as, it seems, in the Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Phaedo), we as persons are our reason ("the soul's rational part"), but we also have human souls that are complexes of appetite, spirit, and reason. These parts are "nonsouls, parasites on the rational part that can alter its functioning and change its goals," but also "reason's providers and defenders." They manifest themselves only in conflicts of rule, and differ from one another, and from reason, in terms of their characteristic actions, loves, pleasures, and types of rule. The chapter contributes to the theme of education's importance (p. 93) and the proximity of men to the gods (p. 106).

Chapter 6, "From Beauty to Goodness" (110-134), returns to the Symposium to ask, essentially, why Diotima defines love as "begetting in beauty" (tokos en kalôi). The dative, Reeve claims, is not locative but of manner, "in conformity to a token of beauty that serves for the male progenitor as a paradigm for his offspring." This is an image of education, "the successful transmission of values." The successful ascent up the latter of love takes suitable background conditions—compliant appetites; beautiful laws, constitutions, and kinds of knowledge; teachers available to help study the various beauties in the right way; and knowledge that the beautiful is also the good—that are, not surprisingly, the conditions the Republic conversation discusses in its picture of an ideal city. This chapter provides one of the terms for the book's title, in Reeve's contrast between "upward blindness" (sexual appetites preventing one from seeing the forms above) and "downward blindness" (the love of truth preventing one from seeing the people below). It also presents the surprisingly productive image of three kinds of genital—the penis, the "thumigenital" and the "logigenital"—and the sex each allows.

Chapter 7, "Education and the Acquisition of Knowledge" (135-150), comes out of a contribution to a Critical Guide to the Republic, and thus, uniquely in this book, addresses a series of problems in turn: how knowledge and belief differ; whether there is knowledge of perceptibles; whether an image's being like what it represents amounts to its being a reliable source of information for it; why knowledge depends on experience, as the educational curriculum of the Republic's leaders shows it does; why philosophers must rely on the contributions of non-philosophers, like poets and mathematicians; and why the complex soul, not just reason, must be turned toward the good.

Chapter 8, "Craft, Dialectic, and the Form of the Good" (151-174), a fascinating tour through those titular issues, especially in light of the Republic's concern with mathematics, comes to argue that rational order is the good.

Chapter 9, "The Happiness of the Philosopher-Kings" (175-198), explains the reasoning a philosopher in the Republic's ideal city could accept to justify leading it.

The book has a robust "Index of Passages" but no bibliography. Among the important typos: p. 11n19, Plato's Academy likely did not exist "c. 400 BC"; p. 47, errant "as" after "lacks"; p. 52, replace "treason" with "reason."

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