Monday, May 14, 2018


Radcliffe G. Edmonds, Pierre Destrée (ed.), Plato and the Power of Images. Mnemosyne supplements, 405. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. viii, 243. ISBN 9789004345003. $147.00.

Reviewed by Brett Robbins, San Diego State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Plato and the Power of Images is the third and final volume in a series that also includes Plato and the Poets (2011) and Plato and Myth (2012). It brings together twelve essays originally "presented in draft form at the pair of conferences held in the fall of 2013 at Bryn Mawr College in the United States1 and in the spring of 2014 at the Université Catholique de Louvain and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium." Its contributors "offer various perspectives on the ways Plato has used images, and the ways we could, or should, understand their status as images." The first six papers focus on dialogues other than the Republic, the second six on the Republic itself, which is most often associated with Plato's infamous ambivalence toward the use of images, a leitmotif that resurfaces several times throughout the volume.

In the Introduction, the editors point out that "[two] themes...recur throughout the collection, the problem of how an image resembles what it represents and the problem of how to avoid mistaking that image for what it represents." This is especially true for the three papers that focus on the epistemology of image-making. In "The Power and Ambivalence of a Beautiful Image in Plato and the Poets," Francisco Gonzalez identifies in Plato an ambivalence toward the "beautiful image" consistent with the ambiguity of the image per se as a vehicle for direct experience despite its referential elusiveness. In "Perspectivism in Plato's Views of the Gods," Gerd Van Riel argues that Plato's ambivalence toward imagery does not justify the adjustment of simulacra to approximate more accurately the effects that their corresponding referents should have on the viewer, suggesting on the philosopher's part the advocacy of a more faithful rendition of reality despite the inherent unreliability of the senses. In "Putting Him on a Pedestal: (Re)collection and the Use of Images in Plato's Phaedrus," Radcliffe G. Edmonds III demonstrates how Plato "poses the problem [the image] can be used improperly for immediate gratification or properly for recollection." Edmonds's distinction between (in this case Phaedrus's) direct desire for images and Socrates' use of them as a means toward the search for truth is helpfully kept in mind throughout the volume as Socrates is continually shown to be cognizant of the irony of his choice to employ images for rhetorical effect despite his awareness that doing so conflicts with his stated antipathy toward them.

All but two of the remaining nine papers focus on the practical aspects of image-making and might be subtitled "How to Do Things with Images." Four papers are concerned with image-making for PR purposes: In "Alcibiades' eikôn of Socrates and the Platonic Text (Symp. 215a-222d)," Andrew Ford examines how Alcibiades' comparison of Socrates to Silenus statuettes provides a commentary on how the philosopher's ugly exterior is belied by the beauty of his interior and, by extension, on "the superiority of Plato's Symposium against other accounts of Socrates' banquet." Ford's insight that Alcibiades' eikôn encourages the reader to adopt an analogous penetration into the deeper meaning of Plato's dialogues is especially intriguing. In "The Image of Achilles in Plato's Symposium," Elizabeth Belfiore also considers how Plato uses images to aggrandize Socrates, only, in this case by portraying Achilles as Socrates' opposite by contrasting, in the philosopher's favor, their respective images in the Symposium and the Iliad. After making several incisive comparisons between Achilles and Socrates, Belfiore concludes her analysis with the insightful afterthought that, whereas Achilles at the end of the Iliad is lying down in his tent (next to Briseis, no less: possible overtones of Zeus and Hera at the end of Book 1?), Socrates, at the end of the Symposium, is "awake and standing, engaging in the customary activities of his life," the sort of subtle detail one would not expect from an author whose banishment of poets from his ideal polis has led many (incorrectly, as the contributors to this volume so ably demonstrate) to associate with an antipathy toward images per se. In "Images of Oneself in Plato," Christopher Moore considers how Plato urges his interlocutors to use images to aggrandize themselves through the use of "the aspirational image," in particular of Prometheus as prescriptive model and Typhon as proscriptive model. In "The Ship of State and the Subordination of Socrates," A. G. Long examines how Plato has Socrates use Ship of State imagery to demonstrate his own intellectual capacity to engage in political discourse convincingly enough to call into question the mutual exclusivity of philosopher and politician and, by extension, to increase the attractiveness of the notion of the future emergence of a philosopher-king. By doing so, Long offers a corrective to those who might be tempted to take Plato at face value when he occasionally discounts the feasibility of implementing (at least certain elements of) his ideal state in the real world.

Three papers are concerned with image-making for propagandistic purposes. In "Political Images of the Soul," Olivier Renaut points out how, by comparing the city to the soul, Plato draws an analogy between them, ultimately leading to an association between a properly run state and a properly organized soul that encourages one to become a good citizen in a more effective way than if he were prompted to do so through more straightforward means. In "Plato's Goat-Stags and the Uses of Comparison," Kathryn Morgan shows how Plato uses the hybrid image of the goat-stag in Book 6 of the Republic as an implicit comparandum for the philosopher-king in a more effective way than if he were to attempt to do so without the use of images. In "Poetry and the Image of the Tyrant in Plato's Republic," Penelope Murray focuses on "the inter-related themes of poetry, tyranny and desire in Plato's Republic," casting a wide heuristic net to examine image-complexes that emerge throughout the work and ultimately underwrite Plato's banishment of poets from his ideal polis. In each of these essays we are made aware not only of how prevalent but also of how subtle and suggestive Plato's use of imagery is as a means by which to call into question assumptions grappled with most effectively beneath the surface level of the discourse.

Two papers stand alone both functionally and thematically. In "The Power of Plato's Cave," Grace Ledbetter is concerned with the phenomenological aspects of the description of the cave in Book 7 of the Republic, in particular the way Plato induces his interlocutor Glaucon (and, by extension, the audience-member) to imagine himself traveling along with the prisoners as Plato leads him out of the cave, resulting in an experience that "functions more like a film than like a static photograph." It is refreshing to find the philosopher at work as a maker of specifically kinetic images in a manner analogous, I believe, to the winged-word-borne images of Homeric cinema. In "The Tripartite Soul as Metaphor," Douglas Cairns uses the triform image of the soul presented by Plato at the end of Book 9 of the Republic as a springboard for examining "images of tripartition" in a broader sense. Here we find Plato at work as a maker of images to foster deeper insight into the workings of the psyche as well as the self-improvement of the reader.

This book is a very worthy successor to the previous two volumes of the series and a valuable addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in exploring Plato's expert use of images despite his ambivalence toward them. While the chapters of the volume can be read for profit individually, it is clear that its authors were given the opportunity to read and cross- reference each other's essays before submitting their final drafts, which most of them took advantage of, thus enhancing the collaborative feel of the book without sacrificing the self-sufficiency of each contribution.


1.   Links to YouTube videos of the papers delivered at Bryn Mawr (followed by Q & A sessions) are available at

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