Monday, June 29, 2015


Andrea Capra, Plato's Four Muses: The "Phaedrus" and the Poetics of Philosophy. Hellenic studies, 67. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2014. Pp. xvii, 234. ISBN 9780674417229. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (

Version at BMCR home site


This erudite volume is part of a recent surge in interest in the cultural background of the Phaedrus.1 Capra's study focuses on Plato's authorial self-portrait, as it can be gleaned from the dialogue, as well as his relationship to poetry, examining the intertextualities between this work and those of Stesichorus and Sappho amongst others. A major strand running throughout the study is the question of how Plato sees his own works fitting in amongst the pre-existing literary genres and how his self-understanding of his authorial role can be used to resolve his ambiguous, and often contradictory, attitudes towards the poets.

The volume is structured around four chapters treating the Phaedrus: three of them are named after the Muses Plato mentions at Phaedrus 259c-d: (1) Terpsichore, (2) Erato, (3) Calliope and Ourania; while the fourth focuses on the setting of the dialogue. These are framed by an introduction and conclusion, both of which contextualize the dialogue against the background of the wider Platonic corpus, while an appendix focuses upon Gaiser's interpretation of Plato's self-disclosures.2 Most of the chapters are preceded by a 'cover page' with supporting texts and images, and conclude with an "Endnote: New Facts", outlining the principal thread of the argument. Both of these sections are prepared in the style of a handout and make the volume attractive background reading for undergraduate courses (as does the lucid style of writing). A particularly extensive bibliography rounds out the work.

The introduction evaluates the nature of Plato's dialogues, asking both how they can be generically classified (in relation to poetry, given the parallels between the dialogues and both tragedy and lyric) and whether they were intended for a general audience. (This section reflects the influence of reception theory on Gaiser's work.) Since Plato's dialogues never directly comment upon themselves as literary works, Capra relies upon the various allegedly self-disclosing strategies that Plato utilizes: his thesis, that Socrates in the Phaedrus has an "authorial aura" (pp.19-20), is supported by various parallels between the Socrates figure and Plato (particularly Socrates' claim that philosophy is an oral and written undertaking, which is inapplicable to the historical Socrates).

The first chapter connects the dialogue to Stesichorus: Socrates' recantation of his first speech is presented as a re-enactment of Stesichorus' palinode, but Capra also examines less obvious indications; the opening of Socrates' palinode, "this is not a genuine logos", was a verse in one of Stesichorus' poems, and the correspondences between Socrates' and Stesichorus' performances are confirmed via detailed textual analysis. Capra explores the philosophical consequences of this intertextuality: Stesichorus was particularly popular amongst the Pythagoreans since he provided an example of how to 'cleanse' traditional myths, and his championing of the austere Phrygian mode makes him a far more acceptable poet to Plato than the producers of decadent modern music, whom he criticizes in the Republic and the Laws. Potentially the most influential aspect of this Stesichorean background for Plato's thought is Capra's argument that the eidōlon (image) of Helen that Paris uses to soothe his thwarted erōs for the real Helen (found in Stesichorus' text) influenced Plato's concept of the eidōlon which serves as the lover's anterōs (counter-love) in the absence of the beloved.

Chapter 2 explores the Helen theme further, by examining the manner in which the Phaedrus creates an intertextual web with other works concentrating on her: Gorgias' Helen, Isocrates' Encomium on Helen and Sappho's poem on Helen. Since the primary theme of Gorgias' Helen is the manner in which irrational forces, especially rhetoric, can deceive the mind, it forms a logical intertext for Plato, and Capra regards the four types of divine madness that Plato identifies in the Phaedrus as a rehabilitation of the four forces that Gorgias claims led Helen astray. The possibility of Isocrates' work as an intertext is perhaps more noteworthy, given his noted rivalry with Plato, as well as the use both writers make of Stesichorus' palinode to Helen. A much more complex example of intertextuality involves Plato's relationship with Sappho. The poet is mentioned along with Anacreon at Phaedr. 235b-d, and Maximus of Tyre would later identify Platonic and Sapphic love. Capra explores such references in order to re-evaluate Plato's relationship with the lyric poets, as well as his redirection of the language of lyric poetry into philosophical channels in his conception of the lover who transcends the physical body in pursuit of abstract beauty.3 The list of symptoms experienced by the lover upon seeing Beauty at Phaedr. 250-1 is attributed by Capra to the inspiration of Sappho 31, while Plato's emphasis on the sight of the beloved and upon the erotic importance of memory in retaining an impression of beauty, even in the absence of the beloved, are likewise attributed to Sapphic influence.

The Platonic concepts of mimēsis and enthousiasmos are treated in the third chapter. This allows Capra to address the apparent contradiction between the treatment of poetic inspiration in the Phaedrus and Plato's negative attitude towards it in the Ion and Republic. Mimēsis can either mean identification (with immoral characters in the Republic) or reproduction, in the sense of producing representations that are removed from reality (p. 92). Capra frames both of these interpretations of mimēsis in more positive terms, offering the possibility of audience identification with noble characters (instead of morally reprehensible ones) or the idea of poetry as an attempt to reproduce intelligible realities at a lower level. Similarly, enthousiasmos is an ambiguous notion in the Ion, where its non-rational nature means that it is not a comprehensive or all-encompassing form of knowledge, a position which is at odds with its more positive evaluation in the Phaedrus. Capra finds a rehabilitation of the rhapsode's role in the Symposium, where Socrates' recounting of Diotima's speech can also be regarded as a rhapsodic performance. Furthermore, the multiple layers of narration that separate the reader from the original speech can be compared to the Ion's famous explanation of the ever-decreasing force of the Muse in terms of a chain of iron rings suspended from a magnet. The Muses occur again in Plato's myth of the cicadas. Capra suggests three possible reasons for Plato' choice of this myth: the cicadas are (1) excessively devoted to mousikē, (2) representative of Athenian autochthony or (3) loquacious philosophers. Most importantly of all, the cicadas conduct their mousikē in dialogue form and thereby represent the emergence of Plato's distinctive method of philosophizing.

The Phaedrus is unusual amongst Plato's dialogues on account of its setting, which is in the countryside around Athens: Capra uses this setting as a culturally-charged frame in which to read the work, particularly focusing upon the central image of the plane tree (which is possibly a pun upon Plato's name).4 Furthermore, the plane tree had cultic significance; while Capra explores the later evidence for Socrates as the recipient of heroic honours (such as the rites which Proclus conducted at the Sokrateion, or Plutarch's celebration of Socrates' birthday), his argument rests primarily upon the internal evidence of the dialogues themselves, as well as the evidence for a statue of Socrates in the Mouseion of the Academy. Furthermore, the landscape of the dialogue highlights once again the significance of Helen: the plane tree, Capra argues, is evocative of the cult of "Helen dendritis (of the trees)" as well as of the Academy itself. The Academy is further connected to Helen via its association with Hecademus, a minor figure whose sole significance is his role in the Helen myth, and who was the reason that the Academy was spared during the Spartan invasion of Attica. Capra uses this interweaving of connections to suggest that the setting of the Phaedrus collapses into that of Academy itself, with the plane tree representing chastity and lust. According to Capra, in the later reception of the dialogue the plane tree was also regarded as symbolising Plato's writings (pp. 16-18; 145).5

A key question that reappears throughout the study is why Plato feels the need to "musicalize" philosophy (p. 149). A possible explanation is that he was attempting to rehabilitate Socrates, who in Aristophanes' Clouds is negatively represented as fostering a distaste in his students for the traditional arts, and who in the Frogs aids Euripides in ruining tragedy. This rehabilitation leads Plato to associate Socrates with Stesichorus and Sappho, as well as with poetic initiation and heroic poetic cults. Since mousikē is the result of inspiration, and rationalistic rhetoric is criticized in Phaedrus, this leads Capra to identify a surprising anti-intellectualist strand in the dialogue (pp. 150-6).

An important contribution made by this volume is its engagement with much of the influential non-Anglophone scholarship, which Capra uses to counter the insularity that he thinks can increasingly be found in Platonic studies (p. 11). The appendix outlining Gaiser's interpretation is worth noting, particularly since it also addresses the issue of the extent to which Plato's criticism of writing in the Phaedrus applies to his own dialogues, even though the Laws suggests that a fine education and a philosophical state require appropriate writings. While Plato's alleged self-disclosures do not appear to fit into a coherent framework, Capra avoids simply relying upon the differing contexts of the dialogues to account for this. Instead, he ties the appendix in to the rest of the work by presenting an image of Plato already advanced in the main text as an author who is transitional between orality and writing. He also defends Gaiser's claim that Plato regarded his dialogues as a new form of poetry. This allows Capra to trace a unity in Plato's self-disclosures, though the form of poetry he presents is one containing both tragic and comic elements, as well as reinforcing one of the major observations made throughout the study: the notion that Plato's dialogues are fluid with regard to genre.

In Plato's case, scholars have been particularly conscious that his dialogues were not composed in a vacuum and paid considerable attention to the cultural and intellectual background of his works. A significant aspect of Capra's work, however, is that he focuses upon literary or metaliterary references that have traditionally not been accorded much importance, and investigates the extent to which this either shaped certain unusual details in Plato's thought or may provide clues towards understanding both Plato's self-presentation and his portrait of Socrates. In so doing he tackles the issue of the unity of the dialogues, searches for a fundamental coherence underlying Plato's remarkably ambiguous attitude towards poetry, and has produced a thought-provoking book.


1.   See, for example, D. Werner, Myth and Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus (Cambridge, 2012), reviewed by Jenny Bryan at BMCR 2013.06.22.
2.   As outlined principally at K. Gaiser, Platone come scrittore filosofico: Saggi sull' ermeneutica dei dialoghi platonici (Naples, 1984).
3.   See also E. E. Pender, 'A Transfer of Energy: Lyric Eros in Phaedrus', in P. Destrée, and F.-G. Herrmann (eds.), Plato and the Poets (Leiden, 2011), 327-48.
4.   platanos = plane-tree.
5.   Capra cites passages from Themistius and Timon of Phlius to demonstrate this.

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