Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Thomas Bénatouïl, Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, Michel Narcy (ed.), Platon et la politique. Philosophie antique, 17. Villeneuve: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2017. Pp. 233. ISBN 9782757418079. €22,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Philosophie antique is a periodical that since 2001 has published annual thematic fascicles on a range of topics in ancient philosophy. They also publish a few articles not within the range of the announced topic of the fascicle in question (under the rubric "Varia"), as well as book reviews, and there have been two volumes hors-série.1 This somewhat unusual format has left each fascicle an anomaly—something between a periodical and a book—with the result that they have not been reviewed as widely as they might have been.2 The editors have, however, given a few laconic hints regarding their understanding of the coherence of the thematic fascicles, and in the present case that coherence is very clear.3

The seven articles of "Platon et la politique" (four in French and three in English) range from a close (and revealing) reading of a single neglected text (Schofield) to broad attempts to clarify specific concepts in Platonic texts on the state (El Murr, Helmer, van den Berg), to explorations that set out to rethink those texts and their interpretation in fundamental ways (Brouillette, Rowe) and finally a discussion of a passage of the Laws that would appear to weaken Michel Foucault's description of the unique and contrasting qualities of Greek political speculation compared to its eastern (and Biblical) antecedents (Macé).

The following is a brief account of the essays in the order in which they appear. Malcolm Schofield ("Callicles' return: Gorgias 509-522 reconsidered") offers a careful reading of a passage that (as he shows) has been too easily passed over in accounts of the Gorgias, perhaps because it is less dramatically engaging—and less productive of substantial results—than what precedes. Reviewing and reassessing a half-century of readings, from E. R. Dodds' seminal study of 1959 to Doyle (2006) and other more recent scholars, Schofield restores coherence to the motivation of the final argument and sympathetically illuminates the nature of the interaction of Socrates and Callicles.4

Xavier Brouillette ("Socrate « oikiste » et Apollon exégète") examines the historical pattern of colonization in the founding of the Kallipolis. He points to the particular relevance of the founding of Thurii (444/3), where Cephalus' sons are said to have gone on their father's death and, in the spirit of Carol Dougherty,5 he proceeds to explore the importance of the οἰκιστής (here, Socrates) and of Apollo and the Delphic Oracle both in actual colonization and in the colonization ἐν λόγῳ of the Kallipolis of the Republic.

Christopher Rowe's contribution ("The City of Pigs: a key passage in Plato's Republic") is part of his ongoing (57, n. 1; cf. 59, n. 12) reevaluation of the "City of Pigs" (Glaucon's term for the "first" city described by Socrates in the Republic, 372d5) in the overall argumentation of the dialogue. What is at stake, of course, is the relation of that first city to Kallipolis, and finally the light thrown on the entire enterprise of the description of Kallipolis itself. One has the sense here of being given access to only a small part of a very large and complex elephant—one of great importance for the reading of the Republic.

Dimitri El Murr returns to a subject he has explored in several earlier articles in "Hiérarchie et communauté: amitié et unité de la cité idéale de la République." He focuses here on Aristotle's criticisms of the Republic in the Politics, maintaining that a φιλία that is constantly built, tested, and reinforced by education can in fact extend to a new and paradoxical conception of communal property, including wives and children, among the guardians. The φιλία that should bind the minority guardians to the bulk of the population (whose property will be held in the usual way), however, is more difficult to render plausible, and El Murr seems to concede this to Aristotle (citing Pol. 1263b15-29). He explains that Plato and Aristotle have fundamentally different concepts of the role of φιλία in the state, Aristotle understanding that a goal of the city is to preserve φιλία among its citizens in the service of the final goal of the εὐδαίμων life, whereas for Plato φιλία is a means of preserving the unity of the city.

The fifth and sixth essays, while quite different in their thrust, are both concerned with what the city excludes, and how. Arnaud Macé ("Purifications et distributions sociales: Platon et le pastorat politique") takes as his primary target Foucault's use of the (good) shepherd, committed to the good of every member of the flock—conspicuous in oriental and Biblical theorizing of rulership and the nature of the state, but supposedly absent from Greek thought on the subject—as a marker to distinguish fundamental differences between the two traditions. Macé offers as his principal exhibit for his correction of Foucault a reading of Laws 734e-736b. Here we find the figure of the shepherd explored extensively, but with the emphasis on an unexpected element in the governance of society: the purification of the flock before it can be "woven" into a coherent whole. Étienne Helmer's contribution, "Aux frontières de la cité: les incurables de Platon," examines the phenomenon of the excluded (the "incurables") across the range of Plato's political writings, working toward a "functionalist" rather than "essentialist" account of the phenomenon. His conclusion is that this vanishingly rare (and never clearly defined) category of individuals represents "figures de l'inacceptable" (145), a structural category rather than an identifiable group (or groups) of people, and he leaves the reader with the question whether political thought can get along without such a category to define what is inside and what is outside the civic community.

The final essay in the collection, Robbert van den Berg's "Proclus and Damascius on φιλοτιμία: The Neoplatonic Psychology of a Political Emotion," turns on a fascinating dissonance between Plato's writings on the state and his late-antique commentators. Proclus' Commentary on the Alcibiades gives a puzzling prominence to the φιλοτιμία of Alcibiades, considering the fact that the word occurs only once in Plato's dialogue. Proclus develops a distinction between "good" and "bad" φιλοτιμία, only the latter of which is to be viewed negatively. Van den Berg introduces Marinus' Life of Proclus and Damascius' Life of Isidore as examples of Platonist texts that present exemplary individuals whose lives express a positive φιλοτιμία. This shift of perspective and apparent reassessment are consonant with Peter Brown's characterization of late antiquity as an "age of ambition."6

This collection constitutes a stimulating challenge, on several levels, to the orthodoxy of the interpretation of Plato's political writings. The essays complement one another and resonate with the optimistic hope of the editors of the first volume in the series to offer "l'écho des recherches en cours."7

Table of Contents

Platon et la politique
Malcolm Schofield, Callicles' return: Gorgias 509-522 reconsidered, 7
Xavier Brouillette, Socrate « oikiste » et Apollon exégète, 31
Christopher Rowe, The City of Pigs: a key passage in Plato's Republic, 55
Dimitri El Murr, Hiérarchie et communauté: amitié et unité de la cité idéale de la République, 73
Arnaud Macé, Purifications et distributions sociales: Platon et le pastorat politique, 101
Étienne Helmer, Aux frontières de la cité: les incurables de Platon, 125
Robbert van den Berg, Proclus and Damascius on φιλοτιμία: The Neoplatonic Psychology of a Political Emotion 149
Izabela Jurasz, Éphrem, Bardesane et Albinus sur les incorporels: une confrontation entre le platonisme et le stoïcisme en milieu syriaque, 169


1.   The periodical was founded in 2001 under the directorship of André Laks and Michel Narcy, who together edited the first fourteen fascicles. Subsequent fascicles have been under the directorship of Narcy along with Thomas Bénatouil and Jean-Baptiste Gourinat. Some fascicles (including the first) have presented papers from a conference, but the source of the material for the majority of the thematic fascicles has generally been unclear. (Presumably, articles were solicited, and not simply selected from random submissions, the procedures for which are briefly outlined in each fascicle. It seems a priori unlikely that the thematic fascicles could have been assembled from "les articles [proposés] qui auront retenu l'attention" ["Conditions de Publication," inside front cover].)
2.   Although at least one other fascicle has been listed as received and available for review in BMCR, the only fascicle other than the present one actually reviewed here to date seems to be #9, on Neoplatonism, reviewed by David Hernández de la Fuente, BMCR 2011.04.26
3.   Note that the present review does not discuss the one piece listed under "Varia"—though Izabela Jurasz's paper on Ephrem and Bardaisan is in fact quite impressive—but is confined to the seven papers that constitute "Platon et la politique."
4.   E. R. Dodds (ed.), Plato, Gorgias, Oxford 1959; J. Doyle, "The Fundamental Conflict in Plato's Gorgias" OSAPh 30 (2006) 87-100.
5.   C. Dougherty, The Poetics of Colonization, Oxford, 1993, here cited at 33, n. 3.
6.   P. Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity, Cambridge MA, 1978, p. 31. Quoted here at 151.
7.   "Editorial" Philosophie antique 1 (2001), 7.

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