Monday, September 17, 2018


John V. Garner, The Emerging Good in Plato's Philebus. Rereading Ancient Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 180. ISBN 9780810135604. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Michael Korngut, University of Western Ontario (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is divided into two parts, each containing two chapters. Part I includes the subtitle Basic Dialectical Concepts, and contains Chapters One and Two: "The Learning Procedure" (5-35); and "The Mixed Life and Its Causes" (37-66). Part II, with the subtitle Pure Pleasure and Knowledge in the Order of the Good Life, contains Chapters Three and Four: "The Intrinsic Goodness of Pure Pleasure" (69-101); and "Purity and the Sciences" (103-40). There is also a brief conclusion with the subtitle Why Should the Good Come to Be? (141-4).

As Garner observes in his opening lines, unlike some other works by Plato, "the Philebus is far from a dramatic masterpiece" (ix). And while the dialogue was hugely influential during the rise of Italian Renaissance Neoplatonism,1 perhaps this is one reason why today, familiarity with the dialogue, even among those who consider themselves somewhat well versed in Plato, cannot be assumed. Overall, the majority of literature on pleasure in the Philebus tends to be narrow in scope, concentrating on interpreting the dialogue's account of false pleasures (ψευδεῖς ἡδοναί; cf. 40c-50e). This is certainly the case concerning the plethora of literature produced in this millennium.2 Thus the initial observation to make about Garner's work is that it sets itself apart from the pack in this regard, instead devoting itself to the Philebus' account of pure (καθαρός) pleasures, skipping over the difficulties and controversies surrounding false pleasures almost entirely. I make this observation here, just in case a potential reader should have the not unreasonable expectation that, as a monograph dedicated to exploring value and pleasure in the Philebus, a substantial analysis of false pleasures would be contained within it.

But, beyond this, Garner's reading of the Philebus in fact offers a radical challenge to conventional views of Plato's whole ontology. For Garner argues that this is a dialogue that challenges the priority of Being and, as he says, "steps in as becoming's advocate" (144). According to Garner, the Philebus argues that the Good, aside from being a precondition for and cause of the world of becoming, is something that also emerges into the world on the back of human engagement in dialectic, and the pleasure we take in such an experience. In the world of becoming, the goodness of pure pleasure comprises "a sufficiency that in its pure immanence, imports the hope of the transcendent" (144).

Epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics are of course intimately interwoven in Plato, and the Philebus bears heavily on all three. The dialogue, framed as an investigation into the ingredients that comprise the best lived life, also introduces a novel, or at least a nuanced, version of collection and division as a methodology, and a fourfold division of what exists in the universe.

In Part I, Garner reads the methodological and ontological sections as Plato's presentation of the necessary features of true inquiry, i.e., what is necessary to provide a true account of an object, to engage in proper dialectic. Key for Garner is his claim that these sections of the dialogue show us that for Plato, "a genuine account of something, for example, a definition, could never be true unless what it accounts for can be manifest as a multiplicity" (5). Garner sees a demonstration of this in the dramatic context of Socrates nudging his hedonist interlocutor Protarchus towards admitting that pleasure, as a genus, is varied, against Protarchus' inclination that commitment to the principle that pleasure is the only good must entail that all pleasures are equal and thus an undifferentiable unity. Thus, for Garner, when Plato speaks of dialectic as "positing and searching for the metaphorical number of something through discourse" (141), the "number" in question involves the appearance of the thing as multiple: "A true intellection or coming to know of any such object, to grasp the 'thing as truly itself in every way', i.e. the pinnacle and essence of dialectic, requires that the learner will become comfortable with witnessing such objects, although posited as a unity, to appear as multiple or multifaceted" (5). Garner sees a further demonstration of this when Socrates and Protarchus are inquiring into whether the life comprised exclusively of reason, or the life comprised exclusively of pleasure could, as theoretically constituted, be in possession of the good (εἶχε τἀγαθόν, 22b3). Both candidates are rejected by granting the appearance of the good as multiple, as sufficiency and perfection (ἱκανὸς καὶ τέλεος, 22b4). Since both lives are revealed to be lacking in these characteristics, neither could be the good life.

The remainder of Part I focuses on a second aspect of a thing's "metaphorical number" that must be involved in a true account of it. Parsing out this second aspect is what goes on to ground Garner's presentation in Part II of pure pleasure as both "wholly" and intrinsically good, and emergent. For Garner, this second aspect is the proper measure, understood as a norm, of an object of inquiry, with that object, as it exists within the universe (πάντα τὰ νῦν ὄντα ἐν τῷ παντί, 23c3), understood as a mixture.

Dramatically, Socrates comes to introduce the classes of the unlimited (ἄπειρον), limit (πέρας), mixture (ἐκ τούτων… μεικτὴν καὶ γεγενημένην, 27b9-c1), and reason (νοῦς) as cause (αἰτία), after positing a third candidate, the mixed life of pleasure and knowledge, as the good life, and hinting that the investigation has transitioned into whether pleasure or knowledge is more responsible for causing goodness in the good life. Garner argues that Socrates introduces the universe as a case study to serve two purposes. First, since mixtures, as a genus, arise as harmonious generations that connote due measure (when limit combines with the unlimited in a very particular way), it establishes reason as the divine cause that facilitates the emergence of goodness in the world of becoming, appearing as a manifold of proportion (συμμετρία), beauty (κάλλος) and truth (ἀλήθεια). And second, it establishes that true accounting involves recognizing the measure, the limit that is appropriate to any given object of study. Providing an account, the "number" of the good life, as a mixture, involves locating the measure or order of it; seeking both the number of its causes, pleasure being one among them, and what portion of goodness each cause is responsible for contributing.

For Garner, an account of how pleasure causes goodness in the good life is also part of, or perhaps derived from, the account, i.e. the "metaphorical number," of the good itself.

In Part II, at the outset of Chapter Three, Garner presents a list that appears at the end of the dialogue (66b-d), which he reads as "The Ranking of 'Possessions' Causing Goodness to Emerge in the Mixture" (69). Each member on the list "share[s] in causing the overall order to emerge with measure" (95). For Garner's purposes, the placement of this list here puts the learning process, and the pure pleasures that accompany it, center-stage for the remainder of his book. This is because ranking fifth on the list, after things like measure (μέτρον) and reason, are the pure pleasures that follow (ἕπεσθαι) science (ἐπιστήμη) or perception (αἴσθησις).

What separates pure pleasures from all others is that they are painless (ἄλυπος, 66c). Pain or lack, i.e. ignorance in the case of learning, does exist, but the soul is unaware of this lack, and the reality of one's ignorance is unperceived until the pleasure has been taken and the ignorance has been replaced by a lesson learned (Garner reads Plato's 'disintegration and restoration' model of pain and pleasure as operative in the Philebus).3 It is the painlessness of pure pleasures that, for Garner, instantiates their complete goodness. The emergence of pure pleasure embodies a progressive attunement of the soul in accordance with the normative standard natural to it, i.e. its capacity for knowledge, thus constituting eminent goodness. The learning process, and the pure pleasure attendant on it, is an "experience of coming to psychical order" and "is also soul's emergence beyond the extant self into the power of the new, that is, into νοῦς (intellect), that is, into the noetic, creative power that, by definition, always brings order and defines itself strictly in light of the measure itself" (93-4). Learning, and experiencing that process as pleasurable, generates "a mode of measure," a "norm" for the soul, "never yet accessed and instituted-into-becoming" (94). Pure pleasure thus makes "an active contribution" to the good life "due to the way it signals the arrival of the true measure" in the soul (94-5). For Garner, pure pleasure is thus wholly good, and wholly emergent.

The most succinct way to flesh out Garner's presentation of the learning process and pure pleasure may be to invoke a presentation of the learning process as a microcosmic instantiation of the four-class ontology expounded earlier in the dialogue. Just as cosmic or divine reason causes the emergence of harmonious mixtures when an appropriate limit is imposed upon a member of the unlimited class, the faculty of human reason actively causes the generation of goodness, appropriate measure, i.e. one's own psychical attunement, to emerge during the learning process. The learning process plays a critical role in this presentation, because, for Garner, the activity of enjoying the pure pleasure of learning is when the soul "appropriates the lesson actively and shares in changing its own existing order" (93). There is a metaphysical 'taking the lesson to heart' (or soul!), as Garner reads Plato.

The passion Garner brings to his research is clearly evident, and the thesis of this book is stimulating and provocative. I understand his passing over an analysis of false pleasures; avoiding that briar patch allows Garner to argue for his thesis in a direct and fluid manner. But given the prevalence of belief in the Philebus' phenomenology of pleasure, I find it quite unfortunate that the book lacks any account whatsoever of belief, particularly as it: (1) fits into the phenomenology of the learning process, as the deficient epistemic state that typically precedes knowledge; and (2) constitutes, arguably, the object of some pleasures (the thing enjoyed by the enjoyer, ᾧ τὸ ἡδόμενον ἥδεται, 37a9). Garner even identifies the agent's "judgement" that select sensuous schemata exhibit the "idea and very possibility that measure can come to be in the descending strata of existence" as what pleases the agent, which, as stated, seems to pick out at least one, if not two beliefs that have roles to play in the enjoyment of pure pleasures of perception (132-3).


1.   See M. Allen, Marsilio Ficino: The Philebus Commentary. A Critical Edition and Translation (Berkley: University of California Press, 1975).
2.   See Garner's rather exhaustive bibliography (167-75).
3.   See D. Frede, 'Disintegration and Restoration: Pleasure and Pain in Plato's Philebus', in R. Kraut (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 425-63.

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