Monday, September 22, 2014


Luc Brisson, Francesco Fronterotta (ed.), Lire Platon. (Second edition; first published 2006). Quadrige Manuels. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2014. Pp. vii, 279. ISBN 9782130630265. €16.00 (pb.).

Reviewed by John V. Garner, University of West Georgia (

Version at BMCR home site

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

The nineteen essays in this collection aim to introduce readers to several "main lines" of Plato scholarship. The work succeeds as a handbook, since its essays entice the reader to explore their themes further and provide the means to do so through their individual, topical bibliographies. Even so, the target audience appears at times to be initiated readers, as many citations of the dialogues are treated as familiar. The book would serve as an excellent secondary reading for a course presupposing prior familiarity with Plato and the ability to engage with Francophone commentary.

The theme unifying the essays, according to Brisson and Fronterotta, is this: "The knowledge that is founded on the intelligible, considered as true reality, makes it manifest that our world, which is just an image of the intelligible, nevertheless possesses enough regularity and permanence to permit humans to think, speak, and act. Furthermore, it is only by granting primacy to the soul which is guided by an intellect endowed with this knowledge of true reality that humanity and the city can be well governed" (vii, all translations are my own). While not all the essays touch on this theme directly, nearly all interpret the dialogues, if not as containing a doctrine, then at least as pointing to certain core principles. At times the collection seems like an introduction to this way of reading the dialogues.

Here I can only mention some of the most interesting and outstanding entries from the book's six main divisions as well as a few minor problematic points.

Part I, "Predecessors and Historical Context," provides readers with helpful material on the historians, the sophists (whose unity is defended persuasively by Balansard), and the "pre-Platonic" philosophers. Dorion's entry is especially notable for the way, in contrast to the larger tendency of this volume, it uses the drama of the dialogues and non- Platonic Socratic sources to problematize the assumption of a homogeneous Socratic philosophy. Desclos' entry here is also important, as it attempts to reconstruct a philosophy of history from Plato. As she argues, Plato introduces intelligible forms, which are not subject to generation and destruction, precisely in order to oppose the objects studied by philosophy to those studied by traditional history (e.g., the rise and fall of cities and empires, the instability and diversity of values). Even so, philosophers can still be historians "on the condition that we understand by that the capacity to give a sort of stability to these human affairs which are by nature deprived of it" (11). The historical narratives told by philosophers thus have something in common with pedagogical myth, and Desclos' entry should be read alongside Pradeau's commentary on myth in Part II. Generally, Part I demonstrates well, as Brisson and Pradeau put it, that Plato's thought emerges not simply through a transmission of previous ideas but through a creative rupture and critique as well.

Part II, "Philosophy, Speech, and Knowledge," effectively introduces readers not only to research on the different modes of discourse in the dialogues but also to different interpretive approaches. Pradeau's chapter will interest researchers of religion and myth as it treats mythical discourse for Plato as false but still useful for the community. Brisson's essay on the sciences helpfully not only reviews the oft-studied Republic passages on the mathematical disciplines but also collects materials on physics, biology, scientific experiment, and imitative arts. By implicitly commenting on the present distribution of the academic faculties, this essay is a contribution not just to Plato scholarship, but also to a growing awareness of alternative academic divisions. Also helpful is Gill's review of interpretive approaches (dogmatic, esoteric, hermeneutic, Straussian, etc.).1 Gill argues for a "maieutic" approach, treating the written dialogues, and dialectic, as a necessary means to objective knowledge. Each dialogue introduces a distinct mode of dialectic and serves as "a context in which substantial progress can be made toward the comprehension of the fundamental principles of reality and of philosophical method" (67). This view of dialogue as a means seems implicit elsewhere in the volume, especially in Lafrance's entry (Part IV); and it could be said that this volume never considers in detail an important alternative view, namely that dialogue between multiple perspectives is central to the human good itself. Considering such a standpoint could have bolstered Ferrari's persuasive claim in Part III that any unwritten Platonic "principles" must always be corroborated by the written dialogues. While most of the authors appear to share this assumption, a theoretical justification of it—for example, Gadamer's claim that since the meeting of horizons depicted in written dialogues is essential to their very "lesson," it follows that the written dialogues cannot be treated as mere vehicles—is never provided.2

Part III, "The Sensible and the Intelligible," effectively introduces readers to problems in Platonic epistemology and metaphysics. Brisson and Macé, in a long and persuasive entry, argue that Plato does not posit forms in order to exclude material mechanics but rather simply subordinates the latter to the former. Even the Phaedo, they argue, treats bodily interactions as "that without which" a form's causality cannot become manifest, since, for example, nothing sharing in the Hot actually becomes hot "without the material action of sensible fire" (116). Also linking the question of the intelligible back to the sensible world is Fronterotta's entry, which interprets Plato's motivation for introducing forms as stemming from his awareness of the epistemic deficiencies of the sensible. "Objects that we can perceive by sight or touch," he writes, "are subject to becoming and movement […]. The image that we can obtain of them will thus in turn be indeterminate and indefinite and consequently incompatible with the truth of science. The sole means for safeguarding the possibility of true cognitive grasp is to make the following hypothesis: to sensible perception of material objects corresponds a non-sensible perception of immaterial objects […]" (130). This depiction of the motivation for forms could perhaps be called a "forms in the gaps" argument: if the sensible were (per impossible) not lacking stability, no forms or intellection would be invoked. Also controversial is Fronterotta's depiction of Platonic epistemology as "abstractionist": "[In] order to know what a (sensible particular) man is and to make of him an object of science and the subject of a definition, this 'X'' which the man is must become the object of a true cognitive grasp, and one must attribute to him the indispensable properties of immobility, eternity, and self-identity, etc., thus detaching him from becoming (which implies the generation and corruption that affect the body). What remains of the sensible particular man […] following the process of abstraction invoked above, is of necessity the essential and individual, simple and non-composite, intelligible and non-sensible reality that Plato calls the 'Form' of man" (132-3). Both of these theses are debatable, and one would expect a handbook entry to consider some alternatives. First, rather than suggesting that one must posit forms because the sensible world cannot bear genuine science, the dialogues might be read to suggest that only the soul positing forms (and accessing them intellectually) can for that reason properly approach the sensible. The motive for positing forms would thus not stem from observing the sensible world; rather, a prior grasp of forms would motivate recognition of the sensuous world as lacking in being. Second, rather than suggesting an "abstractionist" epistemology, the dialogues might be read to suggest that only the intellect accessing forms can recognize the sensible man as what he is and is not. Abstraction starting from the sensible man would thus be impossible, one might argue, since knowledge cannot have ignorance as its starting point. That said, Fronterotta's essay is extremely helpful: it provides a lucid account of an abstractionist epistemology (which should be read alongside other interpretations); it provides a wealth of references to many of the passages that will be central to any "Platonic" epistemology (as does Lafrance in Part IV); and its explanation of key terms such as "participation" would be indispensable for any beginner.

Part IV, "Body and Soul," is of note in particular for Brisson's depiction of soul vis-à-vis plant life, animals, humans, and gods. He treats the levels or kinds of soul as delineated by two criteria: the way soul relates to intellect; the nature of the body the soul moves. Brisson not only offers an admirable breadth of vision about the spectrum of soul; he also provocatively links psychology to ethics, suggesting, for example, that since animals are semi-rational souls, only vegetarianism can avoid cannibalism. On the whole, Part IV—also containing Fronterotta's summary of multiple dialogues' implicit claims about soul and Lafrance's rapprochement of psychology and epistemology—effectively treats Plato's psychology as inseparable from his biology, ethics, and epistemology.

Part V, "Government of the Self and Government of the City," contains four excellent essays on morals and politics. While Merker's essay assumes without argument that to agathon means for Socrates what is profitable to oneself, she nevertheless gives a coherent account of two Socratic theses: doing wrong is always a problem of how one "applies" one's desire for good (never for evil); and doing what one desires (which is ex hypothesi self-benefitting) is also morally good. While the latter thesis seems slightly overstated, leaning too heavily on the Protagoras' hedonic calculus and ignoring the severity of the Philebus' problem of false pleasures, it nevertheless displays well how Socrates corrects the common view that moral goodness is opposed to self-benefit and pleasure. Mouze's essay likewise highlights humanity's affective nature, persuasively depicting Plato as treating humanity in the light of feeling and desire and not merely reason. Still, her point seems overstated when she says that for Plato humanity is fundamentally "defined by" the affective (207). Vegetti's essay (translated from Italian) shifts to politics and cogently argues that there is an important tension between the Republic, which treats the city is a means to the formation of good philosophers, and the Statesman, which treats the philosopher as a means to the formation of a good city. Lisi, by contrasts, focuses more on unity, especially between the politics of the Republic and the Laws. He argues, importantly, that Plato seeks no "total refusal of democracy, since the implementation or not of a system of government depends on the nature of the people there" (247). Furthermore, Plato, he suggests, is merely a problematic member of the "natural law" tradition, since the dialogues present an ambiguous concept of the relation of nature to law: on the one hand, nature is opposed to and restrictive of the power of nomos; on the other hand, it can be formed by the power of nomos. Generally, the essays on politics are more dialogical in tone and depict, rightly I think, a more ambiguous Plato than do the volume's more metaphysical essays.

Part VI, "Posterity," contains a single, informative essay by Brisson surveying the history of the Academy in the aftermath of Plato's death.

On the whole, this is an essential volume for readers of French. One general criticism I will offer is the way the essays tend to take for granted that there is a unified Platonic voice. While this assumption can sometimes be helpful, e.g., when one is trying to discern and evaluate shared themes across several dialogues, a cost of this assumption is that some alternative ways of reading Plato are passed over too quickly, e.g., considerations of the hermeneutic approach, the performative/dramatic Socrates, or the anonymity of Plato. Still, on the whole, this collection serves as an excellent handbook and provides a wealth of tools to explore Plato's dialogues.

The book concludes with a useful index of cited passages from the ancient authors; it lacks a traditional word index.

Table of Contents

(my translations and chapter numbers)

Luc Brisson and Francesco Fronterotta, "Foreword"

Part I: Predecessors and Historical Context
1. Marie-Laurence Desclos, "Plato the Historian"
2. Luc Brisson and Jean-François Pradeau, "The Preplatonics"
3. Louis-André Dorion, "The Paradoxical Figure of Socrates in Plato's Dialogues"
4. Anne Balansard, "The Sophists and Technique"

Part II: Philosophy, Speech, and Knowledge
5. Christopher Gill, "The Platonic Dialogue"
6. Jean-François Pradeau, "The Good Use of False Speech: Myths"
7. Luc Brisson, "Science and Knowledge"
8. Jean-François Pradeau, "The Divine Governors: Philosophy According to Plato"

Part III: The Sensible and the Intelligible
9. Luc Brisson and Arnaud Macé, "The World and Bodies"
10. Francesco Fronterotta, "What is a Form for Plato? The Reasons for and Function of the Theory of the Intelligibles"
11. Franco Ferrari, "Plato and the Theory of the Principles"

Part IV: Body and Soul
12. Luc Brisson, "The Continuum of Life in Plato: From the Gods to Plants"
13. Francesco Fronterotta, "The Reality of the Soul: Principle of Life, Source of Movement, Subject of Cognitive Grasp"
14. Yvon Lafrance, "Cognitive Grasp: Science and Opinion"

Part V: Government of the Self and Government of the City
15. Anne Merker, "'Nobody is Willingly Bad'"
16. Létitia Mouze, "Educating the Human Quality in Man: The Aesthetic and Political Work of the Philosopher"
17. Mario Vegetti, "Kingship and Philosophy in Plato"
18. Francisco L. Lisi, "Platonic Politics: The Government of the City"

Part VI: Posterity
19. Luc Brisson, "The History of the Academy and the Platonic Tradition"

Index of Cited Passages


1.   Gill's entry is translated from its English edition in M. L. Gill and Pellegrin (eds.). Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, pp. 136-150.
2.   See especially H.-G. Gadamer, "Platons ungeschriebene Dialektik" in Gadamer, H.-G. and W. Schadewelt (eds.). Idee und Zahl: Studien zur platonischen Philosophie. Heidelberg: Winter, 1968, pp. 9-30.

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