Harold Tarrant and Dirk Baltzly, Reading Plato in Antiquity. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. ix + 268. ISBN 0-7156-3455-0. UK£50.00.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
To this reviewer, who is not only Greekless, but also largely unacquainted with the writings of the Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists, this book is a daunting proposition. According to the publisher’s cover, it is ‘an important collection of original essays’. More accurate, however, is the editors’ description of the contents (p. ix) as a compilation of fifteen conference papers which have subsequently been refereed, updated, and edited. The papers (or most of them) were read in July 2002 at a small symposium on the interpretation of Plato, held at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The theme of the book is ‘how the ancients responded to the challenge of reading and interpreting Plato, primarily between 100 BC and AD 600’ (ibid.). The contributors, who include distinguished scholars of international repute, are drawn from a number of countries. The editors, respectively a Professor of Classics and a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Australian universities, appear to be well-equipped for their task, for both have recently participated in a collaborative translation of Proclus’ Commentary on the Timaeus. Not surprisingly, several essays in the collection focus on the key figure of Proclus.
This production, like too many others of its kind, turns out to be, in essence, a pile of conference papers, attractively bound together and dressed up in book form, with little or no value added to justify the price. Notwithstanding the reassurance of the editors that ‘the papers are much changed as a result of refereeing, updating and editing’ (p. ix), the product remains a loose grouping of what are essentially articles whose natural habitat is specialist academic journals. There is a common thread which is, at best, tenuous. The book would hardly appeal to readers with a general interest in ancient philosophy, or even to the majority of mainstream Platonists. Many of the chapters presuppose a familiarity on the part of the reader with the Middle Platonic or Neoplatonic texts under discussion. The book would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a glossary of key terms, an interlinking commentary between chapters, and the addition at the end of each chapter of relevant extracts, in translation, from the works of Plato and the ancient commentators. Some of the more arcane contributions could profitably have been recast in order to render them more palatable to non-specialist readers. Moreover, the process of editing the papers into book form ought to have included the conversion of endnotes to footnotes. The former tend invariably to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Given the current proliferation of compilations of this kind, and their lack of appeal to the non-specialist reader, one is driven to conclude that a captive market awaits many of them.
On a more positive note, the editors deserve praise for a text refreshingly free from typographical errors. The book, moreover, includes a comprehensive bibliography, a detailed index of references to original sources (the ‘Index Locorum’), and short indices of ancient names, modern names and selected topics. I noticed one omission in the Index Locorum: in the entry for ‘ARISTOTLE Protrepticus’, there is no reference to p. 193, n. 5.
The very theme of this book, namely the writing of commentaries on Plato during a particular period in history, is problematic for one who believes, as I do, in the inherent and absolute superiority of original master texts, in this case the works of Plato, over all subsequent commentaries on and interpretations of those texts. This conviction is born of experience, for I can recall few commentaries which have enriched my understanding of Plato’s original texts (even in translation). On the contrary, commentaries often do more to obfuscate than to elucidate the original text.
From this conviction follows another -- the time and talents of Platonic scholars ought to be devoted, less to the production of an endless stream of complex and prolix commentaries, and more to close-reading Plato’s own words, to quiet reflection on the texts in order to penetrate their depths of meaning, and to disseminating Plato’s dialogues by translating them. In the Phaedrus, on which the editors place particular emphasis in their introduction (p. 1), Plato sounds a prescient warning to later commentators on his works, a warning which has gone largely unheeded. Speaking of his written dialogues, Plato says through the mouth of Socrates (Phaedrus 275d5- 275e5):
‘[Once] a thing is committed to writing, it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers. And it if is ill- treated or unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its rescue; it is quite incapable of defending or helping itself’.[]How then are Plato’s works to defend themselves against the avalanche of commentaries, ancient and modern, which presume to elucidate them?
The problem of the legitimacy of commentaries and interpretations becomes acute where, as in the case of the papers under review, the commentaries are twice removed from Plato’s original master text. What we have here, in effect, are commentaries on commentaries, that is modern commentaries on Middle Platonic or Neoplatonic commentaries on the works of Plato. In all this, how much of Plato survives?
Even on the assumption that the making of commentaries on Plato’s works can in principle be justified, nagging questions remain, few of which are directly addressed by the contributors to this book. What function may a commentary on Plato legitimately serve? Should it aim to do more than to clarify confusion, misunderstanding, or perceived contradictions in the minds of students who have already engaged directly, even deeply, with Plato’s own words? Is it really the function of a commentary, as Baltzly, (p. 169) suggests, to ‘systematize Plato’s philosophy’? Or is it the function of a good commentary, as Dillon (p. 29) suggests, to ‘answer any questions that one might want to ask about a given Platonic text from a philological or historical point of view, together with some sober analysis of its structure and literary affiliations, if appropriate’? How closely ought a commentary to follow the original text which it purports to explicate? If the digression or deviation is so great that there is minimal resemblance between the two writings, can the later author legitimately be regarded as a commentator? In particular, can we legitimately use the terms ‘commentary’ on, or ‘reading’ of Plato to describe the works of Neoplatonists such as Porphyry, Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus? Ought not many of these works, despite their occasional invocations of Plato, to be regarded rather as original philosophical texts in their own right? Would Plato himself have endured the modern proliferation of prolix commentaries addressed to specialist academic audiences, when his own highest teaching, universal in its scope and simplicity, speaks to seekers of spiritual truth in every age and in every place? I merely raise these questions here, for this is not the place to explore them and others in any depth. I shall, however, revisit one or two of them below.
It is difficult to isolate a central theme in Harold Tarrant’s opening chapter, entitled ‘Platonic Interpretation and Eclectic Theory’ (pp. 9-18). The use of undefined terms (for example, ‘Academic communicative practice’ on p. 12) does little to improve the obscure, meandering narrative. Many readers would need to have Cicero’s De Legibus open before them in order to make sense of the discussion at pp. 12-14. However, Tarrant’s statement (p. 16) that the harmony of Plato, Aristotle and Zeno the Stoic must be sought beyond the level of their verbal message, is useful and true. So too is his concluding assertion that through Plato’s help we could recollect all that we needed to know about ourselves and our place in the world (p. 16).
John Dillon’s theme, ‘Pedantry and Pedestrianism? Some Reflections on the Middle Platonic Commentary Tradition’ (pp. 19-32), is the work of the Middle Platonist commentators, whose period lies between Antiochus of Ascalon (d. c. 68 BC) and Plotinus (b. 205 AD). In assessing their work, Dillon refers extensively to the Commentary on the Timaeus by the fifth century Neoplatonist Proclus. Dillon’s object is to examine, by means of selected examples, the ‘full range of types of comments indulged in by the various Middle Platonic commentators, in order to try to estimate how adequate or otherwise, from our point of view, their exegesis of the texts may have been’ (p. 21). The author arrives at the rather unremarkable conclusion that there is no reason to condemn the Middle Platonist commentators for being unduly pedestrian or pedantic (p. 29).
The function of commentaries on Plato, adumbrated above, is briefly considered in this chapter. According to Dillon (pp. 19f.), it was the Middle Platonist rather than the Neoplatonist commentators who largely established for all subsequent ages what role a commentary should perform, and what form it should take.
In the third chapter, John F. Finamore, ‘Apuleius and the Platonic Gods’ (pp. 33-48), examines two little-known philosophical works of Apuleius, and concludes that the Roman writer was also a philosopher who read and interpreted Plato in a particular Middle Platonic fashion (p. 42). Julius Rocca, ‘”Plato will tell you”: Galen’s Use of the Phaedrus in De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis IX’ (pp. 49-60) examines Galen’s use of the Phaedrus in order to show that he saw his relation to Plato as direct and unmediated by the Platonists (p. 56).
For readers who, like me, know little of the arcane complexities of Middle Platonism, John Phillips’s paper, ‘Platonists on the Origin of Evil’ (pp. 61-72) stands out sharply for its coherence, clear reasoning, and accessibility. His aim is ‘to determine what role Plotinus’ reading of Plato played in his theory of matter and its participation in the generation of evil in the world’ (p. 61). The author concludes (p. 70) that while Plotinus’s theory of evil was flawed, we must nevertheless admire a philosopher whose original and resourceful approach to the texts of Plato stands in bold relief to the comparatively staid Platonism that preceded and followed him.
Atsush Sumi, ‘The Species Infima as the Infinite: Timaeus 39e7-9, Parmenides 144b4-c1 and Philebus 15e1-2 in Plotinus Ennead VI.2.22’ (pp. 73-88), offers an interpretation of Plotinus’ reading of Plato in Ennead VI.2.22. Here Plotinus treats together passages from the Timaeus, the Parmenides and the Philebus, viewing the former two texts as Platonic riddles. Sumi’s scholarship is equal to the difficulties posed by this text of the Enneads.
Luc Brisson’s paper, ‘The Doctine of the Degrees of Virtues in the Neoplatonists: An Analysis of Porphyry’s Sentence 32, its Antecedents, and its Heritage’ (pp. 89-106) is, together with that of Lloyd Gerson (discussed below), easily the most impressive, cogent and well- reasoned in this collection. Brisson’s theme is the virtues. After considering Plato’s use of arete, he turns to examine the notion of virtue in the Stoics and in the Neoplatonists. It is the Sentences of Porphyry which receive the most detailed attention. Brisson points out that in his discussion of the virtues, Porphyry, like Plotinus, refers not to Plato, Aristotle or any particular Stoic, but to the representatives of the Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic schools (p. 93). In other words Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics are considered by the Neoplatonists only through an interpretative filter. Thus, the four cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance, which derive directly from the Republic, find themselves stripped of the political garb they wore in that work. Brisson develops this point through a systematic examination of Porphyry’s treatment of the different kinds of virtues (pp. 93-99). Brisson’s critique of Plotinus and, in particular, of Porphyry amounts in my view to a damning condemnation of the so-called commentaries of those Neoplatonists -- they are clearly engaging with Plato only at second hand. In terms of the questions I posed earlier, the Neoplatonic texts examined in Brisson’s paper cannot legitimately claim to be ‘commentaries’ on, or ‘readings’ of Plato. This is not to deny, of course, that Plotinus, Porphyry and other Neoplatonists are philosophers of the first rank in their own right.
In a paper entitled ‘The Mathematics of Justice’ (pp. 107- 24), Hayden Ausland identifies three kinds of equality: arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic. These he derives from a trilogy of Platonic dialogues (Timaeus, Republic, Critias). The author’s aim is to discover how all three kinds of equality may contribute towards a mathematical solution of the problem of justice. The reasoning is obscure and complicated. Moreover, by Ausland’s own admission (p. 112), the attempt to develop a mathematical model of justice finds no support in the philosophy of Socrates or Plato (even if there is some basis for it in the Pythagoreans, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonist Iamblichus). Ausland himself aptly remarks (p. 115) ‘One might at this point feel inclined to wonder what any of this has to do with Plato’. Perhaps the most interesting and useful part of the paper is the discussion (pp. 116f.) of the function of law in Archytas’ political doctrine of a complex harmony. The conclusion (p. 119) is tentative and indecisive.
Tim Buckley’s paper ‘A Historical Cycle of Hermeneutics in Proclus’ Platonic Theology’ (pp. 125-34), is well- written, logically argued, and contains some valuable insights. However, I would challenge Gadamer’s view, quoted in the opening paragraph, that the meaning of a text is necessarily dependent on historical distance (p. 125). Buckley points out (p. 125) that the proem of Proclus’s Platonic Theology sets out the relation between Plato and his Neoplatonic followers. The forebears that Proclus mentions (Plotinus, Amelius, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Theodorus, and Syrianus) are select philosophers who meet in a divine choir, and have reached a state of ecstatic revelry through engagement with Plato’s texts. The Bacchants in this description are reminiscent of the happy band of philosophers mentioned (though not named) by Socrates in the Phaedrus myth itself (Plato Phaedrus 250b-c). Buckley asks some telling questions about the philosophers on Proclus’s list. For example, how is Proclus able to award a general honour for faithful exegesis to philosophers who seem to have been at each other’s throats over their differences? (p. 127). The most useful insight in this paper, if not in the entire book, occurs in Buckley’s statement (p. 129) that the Phaedrus may be regarded as a
‘test-case of interpretation. It addresses itself to one who understands what is said by virtue of the fact that he is implicated in it . . . And so it may be that the [Phaedrus] myth had particular value for Proclus as a way of distinguishing the true initiate from the orthodox or profane follower.’This insight, in my view, is valid for the entire Platonic corpus, which is addressed, not to the disinterested academic scholar trapped in the mire of opinion, controversy, and complexity, but to the spiritual aspirant or initiate, the seeker after truth, the lover of simplicity who is ascending to the realm of absolute knowledge. Buckley’s conclusion (p. 133) is that the inspired mode of the Phaedrus ‘serves as a test by which Proclus estimates the worth of his predecessors, and as a force that gives historical shape to these estimations.’
In his carefully structured paper, ‘Proclus as a Reader of Plato’s Timaeus’ (pp. 135-50), John Cleary seeks to identify some of the hermeneutical assumptions that guided Proclus in his reading of Plato’s Timaeus. In addition, the author addresses the question, posed in that dialogue, of whether or not the sensible universe is generated. Proclus reformulates the question in Neoplatonic terms: Is the universe self-constituted or not? (p. 135). As Cleary points out, the question seems incidental to the dialogue itself. Here again we are confronted by a question raised earlier: To what extent do Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists who deviate from Plato’s original text deserve to be called ‘commentators’ on, or ‘readers’ of Plato? Cleary points out (p. 135) that ‘given our historical distance from Proclus, it is relatively easy to identify his interpretive presuppositions, though our own prejudices remain largely hidden from us’. This kind of self-awareness is markedly absent from some of the other contributions to this volume. Cleary concludes (p. 147) that ‘Proclus’s guiding idea in his explication of Timaeus 27d6 [is] that the sensible cosmos is generated according to its essence…. [P]roclus continues the long tradition of reading Plato’s Timaeus in the light of a particular solution to the leading metaphysical question about the relationship between the sensible universe and a creative Demiurge’.
Marije Martijn’s paper (pp. 151-68) is entitled ‘The Eikôs Mythos in Proclus’ Commentary on the Timaeus’. The author’s aim is to show that the ‘divine aspect of nature, combined with Neoplatonic hermeneutics, accounts for Proclus’ treatment of the eikôs mythos passage in the Prooemium of the Timaeus’ (p. 151). Here, if anywhere in this collection, is a paper which cries out for its author to quote the passage under scrutiny and to provide a glossary definition of at least her key term, eikôs mythos. Their omission, to reiterate a point made earlier, may perhaps be excusable in a specialist journal article, but not in a book which presumably seeks to attract a wider readership. However, Martijn’s closing remarks (p. 162), made about the Timaeus but applicable to the Platonic teaching as a whole, are especially apt:
‘In general, the reading . . . of a text . . . [is] to be valued not for the final result or the facts (if any) it conveys, but for the impact the process of reading has on the soul of the audience…. The reader’s soul (if appropriately advanced) is able to become like the truth by studying and absorbing these images.’These are words of wisdom, which emphasize that Plato’s teaching can be penetrated only by deep, direct engagement with his words. Commentaries are no substitute.
Dirk Baltzly, ‘Pathways to Purification: The Cathartic Virtues in the Neoplatonic Commentary Tradition’ (pp. 169- 84), deals with the cathartic virtues in the Neoplatonic commentary tradition. His opening statement (p. 169) cannot go unchallenged: ‘One of the many reasons to study the commentary tradition on Plato is to see how the commentators attempt to systematize Plato’s dialogues into a unified philosophical position’. Plato, to repeat, does not need commentaries; he reveals his secrets to qualified readers in the form of sincere seekers of truth, aspirants who are willing to reflect deeply and patiently on his words (in particular the Phaedo, which features so prominently in Baltzly’s paper). The Platonic corpus is a unified and complete statement of truth -- it merely needs to be penetrated and understood. It certainly does not require the efforts of commentators to ‘systematize’ it. On the contrary, most commentaries serve merely to obscure the reader’s direct experience of Plato’s teaching.
Given that Baltzly’s theme is the ‘cathartic virtues’, one would expect this term to be formally defined at the outset. Here one is disappointed -- there is no express definition, no quotation of relevant passages from the Phaedo and the Republic (the foundational Platonic texts for this paper) and no citation of such passages. Oblique references to Plato (for example, Phaedo 69bc, cited p. 173) are hardly helpful here. As a result of this lacuna, the paper lacks a coherent focus. Only half way through the paper (at pp. 177-79), does Baltzly squarely address the possible meanings of catharsis. Even then, ‘catharsis’ is explicated, not directly with reference to Plato, but with reference to Proclus’ Commentary on the Alcibiades. This is too little, too late. More’s the pity, because Baltzly does present interesting Neoplatonist perspectives on the Socratic virtues.
Richard Sorabji, ‘The Transformation of Plato and Aristotle’ (pp. 185-94), explores the different ways in which Plato and Aristotle are ‘transformed’ in Neoplatonist literature. This transformation, he explains (p. 185), is partly driven by a wish to harmonize Plato and Aristotle. Sorabji looks at what happened to the views of Plato and Aristotle in Neoplatonism, at what factors besides harmonization are at work, at whether Plato is transformed in the process as much as Aristotle, at whether the harmonizations are hostile or friendly to Aristotle, and at where the transformations proved important for subsequent philosophy (p. 186). Sorabji correctly points out that it is difficult to reconcile Plato and Aristotle on certain issues. For example, Plato maintains that perception can do practically nothing without the aid of reason, Aristotle holds that perception is entirely separate from reason. The attempt of the Middle Platonist Alcinous to reconcile these views fails to convince (p. 186f.). Sorabji concludes that on most of the issues canvassed in his paper, Plato and Aristotle did not agree (p. 192).
The theme of Neoplatonist attempts to harmonize Plato and Aristotle is resumed in Lloyd Gerson’s paper, ‘The Harmony of Plato and Aristotle according to Neoplatonism’ (pp. 195- 222). Gerson offers a more sharply focussed and insightful treatment of the topic than does Sorabji. By citing persuasive authority (Diogenes Laertius, Antiochus of Ascalon, Cicero, Alcinous) and advancing cogent arguments, Gerson makes a strong case for the ultimate harmony of Academic and peripatetic thought (p. 195 and passim). In ancient thought, this harmony was seen to rest on the idea that Plato was authoritative for the intelligible world, Aristotle for the sensible world. Moreover, Aristotelian principles could be subsumed under the more capacious and, ultimately, true Platonic system (pp. 195f.). The Neoplatonist approach has much in common with this view, although Gerson does not press the point. The Neoplatonists held, unanimously and correctly, that Plato had a more profound and accurate grasp of principles than did Aristotle (p 198). Gerson continues:
‘Thus, for example, in countless matters relating to physical nature, Aristotle’s pre-eminence was readily acknowledged. But Aristotle did not, according to the Neoplatonists possess the correct comprehensive view of all reality. In particular, he misconceived the first principle of all reality by identifying it with intellect. But in part because he did recognize that there was a first principle, and that it was separate from and prior to the sensible world, he is legitimately counted as being fundamentally in harmony with Plato’ (pp. 198f.).A more accurate and admirable summing-up of the fundamental similarities and differences between Plato and Aristotle would be hard to find. Gerson proceeds to identify five areas in which he believes the Neoplatonist case for harmony is strongest. These areas include ethics, the forms and the immortality of the soul. In treating of ethics, Gerson points (p. 204) to the highest and most potent harmonization, one which far transcends all their differences:
‘Both Plato and Aristotle urge us to try to achieve immortality as much as possible, as if that was something both in our power and allowing of degrees. Both urge us to emulate divine life, though the focus of ethics would seem to be our ineluctable humanity. And both urge that the divine life is a contemplative one, specifically removed from “human affairs”. And both rest what they say upon an assumption that the “we” of ethical striving is in fact different from a human being’.Gerson’s paper is a fine, clear, deeply researched piece of comparative philosophy.
As if the Middle Platonist and Neoplatonist commentaries were not already far removed from the original Platonic fountainhead, Ken Parry’s paper, ‘Reading Proclus Diadochus in Byzantium’ (pp. 223-36) adds yet a further degree of remoteness. This topic is, of course, problematic in terms of the concerns expressed earlier. Having said that, I hasten to add that the paper offers an interesting, concise, and readable historical survey of the topic, in chronological sequence, from the death of Proclus (485 AD) to Gemistos Plethon (d. 1452). The author’s aim, clearly set out in the opening paragraph (p. 223), is to give a preliminary overview of Proclus, his readers, and his writings in the Byzantine period. The eleventh century clearly represents a watershed in the history of reading Proclus in Byzantium (p. 223). Parry mentions a number of witnesses to the influence of Proclus during the Byzantine era. These include Dionysius the Areopagite, John of Damascus, John Philoponus, Michael Psellos, and Gemistos Plethon. The name of Proclus became synonymous in Byzantium with a pagan tradition of philosophizing which was considered irreconcilable with Christian theology. Parry’s conclusion (p. 232) is that the re-emergence of Proclus as a formidable thinker of influence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries still requires detailed explanation. Parry’s clear, straightforward narrative, refreshingly free from jargon, brings the volume to a pleasing close.
[] Plato (tr. Walter Hamilton), Plato: Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII (London 1973) 97.