Thursday, May 29, 2014


Anne Sheppard (ed.), Ancient Approaches to Plato's 'Republic'. BICS supplement, 117. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Pp. 137. ISBN 9781905670420. £24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba-Budapest (

Version at BMCR home site

In recent years, there seems to be a growing interest in the peculiar aftermath of some of Plato's dialogues in antiquity. No doubt it is partly due to the recognition that interpretation of these works shaped the philosophical milieu both of the late Republican and of the Imperial period. The volume grew out of a series of seminars on the reception of Plato's Republic, held at the Institute of Classical Studies in London in 2007-8. Its subject fits in with many recent attempts to reveal the influence of certain dialogues on posterity.1

John Finamore investigates the passages in Aristotle's De anima that reacted in one way or in another to Plato's tripartition of the soul. The main thrust of Aristotle's critique was to show that Plato's division does not account for the huge diversity of psychic phenomena. The three parts each have multiple functions that should be treated separately. Moreover, the soul-parts are disruptive of the soul's unity. If the rational part of the soul is supposed to be in charge of the other two by unifying them, then it should be considered the soul (411b5-14). Location of the different parts in the body is also problematic since dissection of certain insects or worms shows that the bodily parts continue to live separately for a while (411b21-22), which implies that the soul-parts are not separable from one another either. As for the separability of the soul from the body, Finamore thinks that Aristotle's position is not significantly different from Plato's doctrine in the Timaeus. Except for the intellect, the soul is not separable from the body.2

The relation between the Republic and the Laws is still a much-discussed theme. Should we assume that Plato developed his theory in a way that leads from the optimism of the Republicto the pessimism of the Laws, which leaves room for contradiction between the two dialogues, or are the two doctrines complementary? Jed W. Atkins argues against the widely-held view that Cicero's complementary reading is naïve and simplistic. He shows that Cicero not only wanted to reconcile the two doctrines at crucial points, but also raised the important question of why Plato decided to make the regime of his Laws more attainable and whether he did so for reasons anticipated in the Republic. On his view, Plato constructed the best state of his Republic to exhibit the perfect rationality and harmony that would make a state most desirable. However, the discussion of the soul along with the description of various forms of deteriorated constitutions suggests that such a state is not possible for humans. Political harmony is highly difficult to achieve and human rationality also has its limits. We have to look for a second-best regime. Cicero believes that Plato has provided the remedy for the state of human affairs in the mixed constitution of the Laws.

J. G. F. Powell examines the same issue from a different angle. He draws attention to the many formal features that make Cicero's works important examples of Roman literary imitatio. Despite some significant differences, the message Cicero wants to convey to us is fundamentally Platonic in many ways which have escaped attention. He was engaged with a number of Platonic themes. This engagement, when recognized, may help us understand the arguments both in De re publica and in De legibus and, most interestingly, it may give us a clue to the content of the extensive parts of these works that do not survive. Moreover, Powell also suggests that Cicero's reading of Plato was more coherent than has been supposed. There are direct reminiscences of the text of Plato's Republic showing that that Cicero saw Plato's ideal state not primarily as a set of optimal prescriptions but rather as a convenient intellectual model, the main purpose of which was to facilitate arguments and illustrate principles. Cicero's view of aim of the Republic may have originated in his encounter with representatives of the Academy at an early stage of his career.

Instead of discussing the influence of the Republic as a whole, Erik Eliasson deals with one particular topic, the myth of Er, with a view of its role in Middle Platonist discussions of fate. After listing several ambiguities in the myth,3 he concentrates on Alcinous' Didascalicus, taking it as a representative schoolbook. It is 'representative' in the sense that it may rely on the existence of a common Middle Platonist account of fate, of 'what is up to us' (τὸ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν), and of their compatibility. The theory introduced the idea that fate has the form of a law. Just as political laws hold out the prospect of certain consequences for certain actions, so does fate, although fate includes some things hypothetically and other things as their consequences. Among the things considered hypothetical, at least some are up to us. To find hints at the myth of Er in Alcinous' work is not easy since the Didascalicus does not contain named references or explicit allusions to that story. Furthermore, even if there seem to be doctrinal similarities it turns out that they hide important divergences. For instance, although Alcinous credits the soul with a choice of life (179.8-10), this is not a reference to any pre-life choice in a disembodied state (75). For this reason, Eliasson is right in calling the reception of the myth in the Didascalicus mundane. That may also be due to the fact that Alcinous' interpretation owes much to the views of the Roman Stoics, most notably to Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. One might say that traces of the Old Stoa could also have been shown to a greater extent here.4

At any rate, the myth of Er may contain problems that threaten the whole argument of the Republic, and which have attracted quite a few interpreters in recent times. James Wilberding refers to Porphyry as a commentator who managed to explain the myth in a way which preserves our autonomy as agents here on earth. In his treatise entitled On what is in our power, he distinguishes between two meanings of 'life' (268F Smith), the first referring to one's biological kind of life (the distinction between human and canine life, or between the life of men and women), the second to its additional characterisation (hunting dog or tracking dog). It is only the first kind of life to which the daemon is said to bind us (617e2-3, 620d8-e1). Choice of the first kind of life does not determine our actions on earth fully, although this power of determination varies according to that choice. Furthermore, the second kind of life is divided into two domains, those features that we simply inherit, such as looks or ancestry, and those that we can ourselves choose to pursue. Of course, inherited features can set us on certain career trajectories easily.5 Against modern critiques of such an interpretation, Wilberding shows that it has a sound textual basis, most persuasively in 619a5-b1. He also suggests that Porphyry was able to establish a sort of choice as a completely rational act that is free from outside influence, thus validating Plato's claim that 'virtue has no master'.

Anne Sheppard examines Proclus' contribution to the reception of Plato's work. Although she makes some passing remarks on the Platonic Theology, she concentrates on the Commentary on the Republic.6 The essays constituting this 9th-century compilation are of a varied nature. For instance, Essay 7 seems to be a substantive part of a lecture-course on the parts of the soul, while Essay 9 is a separate piece discussing Theodorus of Asine's views on the equality of men and women. Sheppard points out that in some cases Proclus relied on authors other than Plato or Plotinus, such as Aristotle (in Essay 3, which owes much to the Nicomachean Ethics) and Amelius (in Essay 3, 13 and 16). The essay on the speech of the Muses (546a-547a) receives particular attention, with an emphasis on the striking parallels with the notes found in P.Oxy. XV 1808. She thinks that the speech was not regularly studied alongside the dialogues in the canon established by Iamblichus: rather it was a popular and much-discussed part of the Republic itself.

Music always had a specific role in Platonism, perhaps due to the influence of Pythagorean teaching. Sebastian F. Moro Tornese stresses its importance in the educational program of the Republic and draws attention to a similar, but much shorter account in the Timaeus.7 Then he turns to the commentaries on the Timaeus and the Republic to see how Proclus handled this heritage. Not surprisingly, sometimes he treated it in a mythological context. His discussion of the Sirens in Odyssey's journey (in Remp. ii. 68.3-16 Kroll) is interpreted by Moro Tornese as drawing a parallel between the Sirens' song and music; just as the song can hinder and at the same time help the voyagers, so music can promote, but also prevent, the ascent of the soul.8 The discussion of the fourfold classification of music (in Remp. i. 57.3-60.13) and the comparison with Boethius' division into mundana, humana and instrumentalis music is instructive.

The book contains two indices, general and of passages cited. The slips I have noticed are very few and small (e.g. 90 n.21). It is a well-made collection of fine papers.


1.   On the ancient reception of the Republic, see the volume edited by Mario Vegetti and Michele Abbate, La Repubblica di Platone nella tradizione antica (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1999).
2.   Finamore seems to take distinguishability in place as a condition for being a part (9). On his view, Aristotle may not consider the various faculties as parts for they do not have separate places in the body. One might say, however, that Aristotle regards them as definitional units only. On the parts as definitional units, see K. Corcilius and P. Gregoric, 'Separability vs. difference: parts and capacities of the soul in Aristotle', OSAP 39 (2010), 81-120.
3.   Eliasson seems to suggest an ambiguity in Plato's account which might not be there. He interprets 619e1 as saying that having the last lot would make a happy life impossible (61). But the passage may only say that true love of wisdom and having another lot together guarantee the happy life on earth.
4.   To mention but one example: in discussing the distinction between the theoretical and practical lives (152.30- 153.2 Hermann), one can show that Alcinous like the Old Stoics is committed to the view that the importance of the practical life is a secondary to that of the theoretical. Unlike Eliasson, I suggest that Alcinous is relying on the Old Stoic view that actions follow upon impulses (ὁρμαί). On the Old Stoic view, we do not have the possibility of choosing between two actions; we can act in one way only, which is determined by our impulses since our only autonomous act is assent to φαντασίαι.
5.   It is not quite clear how to conceive of "inherited features". At the moment of choice, the soul has no inherited feature whatsoever since it does not originate in anything. Its choice is mostly determined by its experiences, earthly and other-worldly alike. Far from being sure that its embodied existence will go on in the same family. Porphyry does not seem to make any mention of such characteristics.
6.   One may draw attention to the Commentary on the Timaeus as well, especially to the passages on harmonies (e.g. ii. 118.13-24 Diehl) or on the myth of Er (iii. 325.19-326.21).
7.   One might raise doubts whether the term ἁρμονία in Tim. 90d3 (quoted on p. 120) necessarily refers to musical harmonies. One cannot rule it out, of course, but it may equally refer to the specific ratios, the bonds which hold the cosmos together. On the use of listening to fine music, see 47c4-e2.
8.   One might object that in that passage Proclus seems to contrast the song of the Sirens with the better harmony to be followed by true musicians. It implies that the Sirens do not support the voyagers at all.

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