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Soul, World, and Idea: An Interpretation of Plato’s Republic and Phaedo by Daniel Sherman. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013)

Soul, World, and Idea Daniel Sherman“To save the phenomena” of heavenly motions by undergirding them with rational, that is, mathematical, hypotheses—that is said to be the problem Plato set for astronomers in a passage from the Republic frequently referenced by Daniel Sherman.[1] His own project is, as I understand it, the inverse one: to save the Platonic ideas by a new interpretation of the dialogues in the title of his book. It might be said to be the deeper and more difficult problem to solve—and just as enticing.

But what, you may think, is the use of an inviting review, when you blanch at the price? This book, written by an alumnus of St. John’s (Annapolis, 1963) after a long teaching career and obviously much study and reflection, should be kept in mind by anyone of us who has more than a nostalgic interest in the Platonic dialogues; if you can’t afford it, you might persuade your local library to acquire it or get it for you on interlibrary loan.

It is surely a book not to be overlooked in any serious study of the Platonic dialogues, not just the Republic and the Phaedo. But—in any responsible review there must be “buts,” and I’ll get them out of the way, the more uninhibitedly to do this huge work justice—its very volume raises some obstacles, thought-provoking enough to induce the following little prefatory meditation on voluminousness.

There is an aphorism by Callimachus (third century BCE), the most famous librarian of the great ancient Library at Alexandria: mega biblion, mega kakon, which our wicked undergraduates at St. John’s used to translate: “A great book is a great evil.” What he actually meant is probably: “A long book is a big pain,” since he considered long epics to be antiquated. Having, on several occasions, inflicted such pain, I have come to think of book length as an independently significant factor. For one thing, it is involved with the distinction between “primary” and “secondary” literature—between a difficult, rebarbative original and its ancillary elucidation. There’s “learning’s crabbed text” and then “there’s the comment,” as Robert Browning says in “The Grammarian’s Funeral.”

A primary text may be as long as it pleases, say, the roughly seven hundred pages of the Critique of Pure Reason or the nearly double that of War and Peace. But a secondary text, a commenting explication? Well, how can it help but be a good deal longer than the original? It is, after all, an explication or “unfolding,” an explanation or “planing-out,” an exposition or “setting-out,” an elucidation or “bringing-to-light.” Anything that is smoothed-out will be larger in bulk than it was in its original implicitness or self-entanglement. However, the length of an exegesis that “leads-out” of a textual complexity is a very real problem of human temporality. Even for willing learners, since ars longa, vita brevis, if the artfulness of the text is great and the commentator tries to be adequate to it, there is the risk of displacing it, because human life is always short on time. Moreover, while words clarify, wordiness obscures matters.

To my mind this means that to make up for its preempting bulk, an interpretation has the obligation to be easier—and so, faster—to read, and the interpreter has the obligation to accordingly be willing to accept a loss of subtlety and depth. Although one might say that a great text is one long aphorism, being too brief for what it bears, surely the difference between a weighty text and its analysis is not merely that of succinctness and amplitude. In addition, an interpretation should willingly forego that mysterious penumbra of connotation and resonance, which attends a great book, and candidly admit that a great author’s scope is apt to exceed the interpreter’s perspective (not withstanding his—dubious—advantage of an added historical distance). To say it plainly: Secondary writing has a smoothing function; to it shallowness is mandatory. So much here for one of its qualities; more about its quantity below.

There is a now often deprecated notion behind the “primary/secondary” distinction which goes beyond that of “original/commentary,” namely, “great/not-so-great.” The one main mark of textual greatness is just this: exposition-proneness. Whatever spatial metaphor you may apply to the effort—illuminating the surface, delving into the depths, unrolling the convolutions—there is always more to be said about it. The exegete may be exhausted; the book never is. Put another way: A great book will contain many serendipities but few inadvertencies. (Even Homer nods, but rarely.) Thus the interpreter’s care is safely invested; there will be returns.

I have slipped from “commentary” to “interpretation” because, while a commentary might be pretty innocent, hovering around the factual extrinsicalities of the text, interpretations get inside it and are fraught with potential culpability. First of these is inadequacy to the meaning of the text: To interpret well, you have to begin reading literally, attend to the letter of the text. Any willing student can be trained to do that. But then it gets complicated, especially for the Socratic dialogues of Plato. Who among the participants understands what Socrates is asking and what he himself is saying? What is Socrates’ intention? Where is Plato? Which words or suppressions bear the meaning of the conversation? In what sayings or silences is its locus of truth? The effort of cluing this out is very nearly simultaneous with the exposition of that truth or of its occlusion—here’s a version of that notorious “hermeneutic circle,” that the parts are known by the whole, but also, inversely, the whole by its parts.[2] Inadequacy, lack of acuteness in construing the text from both ends, here vitiates the interpretation—but that is not at all the problem of Sherman’s book, and thus not my problem here.

Second, the pedagogic ineffectiveness of interpretative commentary: I want to frame this aspect of secondary writing as a large problem, so to speak, that is little regarded—the problem of bulk. Having myself perpetrated several big books, I suppose I’m qualified. Here’s the problem: In writing of that sort there are levels of aboutness. At the bottom there is, once again, what the primary book literally says. On top of that (or wherever it’s to be located) there is the originating writer’s meaning—not that he failed in saying what he intended, but that he may have reached for a new language to convey his original notions, or that he may have suppressed complete articulation so as to involve the attentive reader. For most (no longer all) interpreters, it is an article of hermeneutic faith that there is such an implicit meaning, that its novel language often needs an interpreter, that the author’s intention is often not immediately obvious—and that they’re elected to open up the book to others’ view. So on top of that comes the secondary writer’s own understanding of the primary text, which any candid commentator will, by that little margin of modest doubt, know how to distinguish from its underlying template. And now, to top it off, there is a tertiary level, huge and growing: the more or less deviationist opinions of all the fellow interpreters, who each have different perspectives, reconcilable and irreconcilable. And in this perspectival fecundity lies the proof both of the primary text’s grander scope and of its human limitations.

indexSecondary bulk is a real and present danger: smoothing turns into smothering. Oddly enough, there is a device for the self-neutralization of big secondary books: the Index. For original books, excerpted reading is a hermeneutic no-no, precisely because of the hermeneutic circle, because the clue to the whole may lie in any or all parts. Not so in interpretative commentaries, whose writer should not be out to piggy-back a masterpiece on the underlying text, but should help the user to check out names, find definitive passages, and follow up themes. Indices affirm the secondary writer’s modesty; a detailed index signifies the writer’s blanket permission to spot-read, to use the interpretation in thinking about the text thus served. Primary texts usually aren’t indexed to begin with. Soul, World, and Idea has an index, but I wish Lexington Books had invested in a more ample one.

“Careful” unpacking, analysis, reading, is a phrase, the favorite one in Soul, World, and Idea, of hermeneutic virtue. Here’s the “but:” it leads to pertinent paraphrases of the text to be interpreted, together with commenting qualifications, modifications, cautious retractions—in short, to lengthiness. Add to this the dutiful inclusion, both in the text and in long footnotes, of tertiary commentary, in which the work comes to grips with, analyzes, critiques, or accepts a large number of contemporary interpretations by fellow scholars. Just as the careful reading often yields welcome insights (of which I’ll give an example a little below), the referencing of scholarship is often helpful. Instead of just citing names and numbers, Sherman actually reproduces arguments. But it nearly doubles the book’s length.

I am, as they say, “conflicted” about both of these efforts: the written record of “careful reading” and the learned absorption of “scholarship.” Who can doubt the value of carefully thinking through a worthy text by engaging in extensive internal i-dotting or the propriety of responsively considering others’ understandings and making a mental note of their putative mistakes? But, then, isn’t it the next best step to allow the bulk—not the gist—of our own thinkings and others’ errors to pass away, unpublished, into forgetfulness? Treat them as ephemeral, and let them die within days of their birth (as do those eponymous ephemerids, the mayflies) and enter forgetfulness, there to become the soil of reflection. Shouldn’t philosophy be resolutely anti-cumulative, ever at the beginning? Absent a firm settlement of my misgivings about bulky writings and extensive sourcing, I take refuge in a very practical solution: at least to pay attention to what is near and dear, and certainly to the works of alumni.

The Republic PlatoSo let me start with a sample of insights Daniel Sherman’s book offers, combining close reading and responsiveness to scholarship.(p. 165) An interesting issue is “the autonomy of philosophy” seen in personal terms, namely, as the ability of ordinarily thoughtful human beings to withstand the social order. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, surmises that the categories imposed by the power structure are intractable because they are unconsciously involved in the very struggle to escape them; thus, even the not-so-conforming characters of the Republic respond to Socrates’ sedition with responses varying from “metaphysical fury,” through friendly doubt, to sullen withdrawal. Against this defeatism, Sherman pits his interpretation of Platonic discourse as being very awarely situated in medias res. Socrates indeed operates, albeit quite consciously, in the context of the social setting and its implicit opinions. He employs dialogic practices to make these explicit and to ascend, starting from within the social and natural world, to the alternative realm of Ideas; the ideas are thus both continuous with and opposed to the given social context, hence, in a tension of critique and acceptance with respect to ordinary meanings. One might say that Sherman saves the autonomy of thinking from circumstance by arguing that it is its very implication in the opinion-environment of the world which, when brought to awareness, gives it its rightful claim to independent knowledge. (P.165)

I’ve begun with this example, taken from the middle of the book, because it is typical of Sherman’s saving, composing, middle-of-the-way responses to exaggeratedly alienating views of Plato’s project. Now it’s time to give a glimpse of the over-all structure of the book, chapter by chapter. Keep in mind that this is a dense exposition, consisting of four-hundred meticulously argued pages, so my summary will be skeletal indeed, and my queries will loom larger than they would were the detail not suppressed.

phaedo-plato-paperback-cover-artThe Introduction sets out the interrelation of cognizing soul, experienced world, and Sherman’s own conception of discourse-embedded ideas, in the Republic and the Phaedo. He reviews the various values accorded by scholars to their dramatic aspect, from mere embellishment, through an attendant enactment of philosophical life to an inextricable involvement of action and argument. Jacob Klein[3] was an early and vivid proponent of this third view, and Sherman recalls Klein’s influence on him in the warm appreciation of his Preface. In particular, Klein’s close-to-life reading of the dialogues is reflected in Sherman’s “most radical and challenging suggestion:” the ideas are not atemporal beings separated from the world, but they have a temporal, world-implicated dimension; consequently the Platonic account of ideal being can the better be the operative basis of a philosophic life of learning, teaching, talking. Images and image-making—and image-recognition, I would add—will be crucial in drawing the ideas into human cognition and moral activity.

Chapter 1. The Interlocutor’s Request analyzes the problems posed to Socrates in the Republic by Plato’s two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus: to show that justice is an inherent good, hence a source of happiness. Here, I might comment, is a first occasion for Sherman’s “careful parsing;” he delves deep into the shallowness of Socrates’ talking partners. I think that approach, a dimension of the whole book, is a little hard on these young men, as well as the all-but-boys of the Phaedo. After all, they are there all night in the Republic and all day in the Phaedo, attentive and eager; they do about as well as would any of us. If I’d been there I wouldn’t have intruded my every mental reservation either, and, I think, that the same experience of a tacit critical descant that Plato asks of a reader, Socrates respects in his companions. We must supply knowing smiles, snickers, raised eyebrows, furrowed brows, just as in a St. John’s seminar. I think Socrates is more apt to bring out his present partners’ strengths than to expose their efforts to our cavils—if they’re young.

To satisfy the brothers’ request, Socrates sets up that problem-fraught analogy between the offices of the castes of a well-constituted political community and the powers of the parts of the soul. Sherman’s thorough expository prose obscures a little—a dramatic hiccup would have helped—the arresting political assumption of this magnifying image, in which the individual psychology is said to be mirrored in the communal “constitution” (whence the Greek title Politeia, “Polity”): civic justice is understood as the image of psychic adjustment. The consideration of imaging becomes more urgent.

Chapter 2. Discourse treats of the possibility of realizing a city so constituted. Recall here that Socrates in fact gives an unambiguous final answer: It makes no difference whether the ideal city will ever exist or is just a model laid up in heaven; the point is to practice our inner politics in its image—to use its politeia in turn as a model for constituting our own, individual, psychic balance.(592b) However, Sherman introduces several levels on which the possibility question may play out. One condition for the existence of the just city is that a philosopher-king will turn up—and, I would add, before he arrives there must be a pre-royal philosopher-founder—a proven unlikelihood, as is shown by Plato’s misadventures with Syracuse’s tyrant-dynasty, set out in his Letters. Therefore, Sherman now reviews these royal philosophers’ nature and their education, and in preparation, the underlying characteristics of degrees of cognition and their objects. Thus the “digression of the central books” is justified.(p. 77) Some readers may recall that Rousseau saw the center of the Republic in these books. Whatever the title may imply, he says, it is really a treatise on education (Émile I) and, I might add, on the constitution of the soul and the beings of the world. Apparently, Sherman agrees.(p. 137) However, he regards the application of the ontology (the account of Being) and its realization in a program of education as provisional, incomplete. The Phaedo is a necessary supplement. In any case, for him the prerequisite imaging of the ideal in discourse looms yet larger.

PlatosCaveChapter 3. The Cave: Education and the Lack of It deals with the Image of the Cave (the venue of human life) and the Divided Line (the gradation of beings and the ascent of cognition). Sherman takes the cave to be the city and, in clever accord with the order of the Republic’s earlier books, where city precedes soul, but in reversal of Books VI-VII, where the enabling ontological line precedes the consequent civic cave, manages neatly to insinuate his main thesis, the implication of the Ideas in the human experience and knowledge of the world. A bonus is Sherman’s account and critique of Heidegger’s interpretation of the Cave Image as embodying a loss of openness to the direct presence of beings, a receptivity still retained by the Pre-Socratics. Sherman shows that Heidegger himself actually appeals to the “ungrasped essence,” said to be deformed by discourse, an appeal that vitiates the purity of his cherished immediacy. Since Sherman himself supposes that beings come, so to speak, into Being only in thinking and its speech, he argues that Plato’s image-dynamics more adequately facilitates the sharing of Ideas between soul and world than does Heidegger’s hope of “unhiddenness.”

Chapter 4. The Divided Line and Dynamic of Ascent gives a dynamic interpretation of the Divided Line, as an ascent and descent, turn and turn-about, of living thinking, whose motor, so to speak, is imaging: The Divided Line represents the cosmos, both its shifting appearances and its stable beings, as a top-down cascade of images and a bottom-up effort of image-recognition.[4] Sherman begins with the triple causation attributed to the Idea of the Good, which is off the line, “beyond Being.” It is a hyper-principle that brings things into being, allows them to flourish, and makes them knowable (as its image, the sun, causes birth, growth, and visibility). Sherman deals with a scholarly claim (Annas’) that the Good is too impersonal and offers no human fulfillment thus: As the source of the world’s intelligibility, it is surely good for human beings. I would add that the Good was in Plato’s “Unwritten Doctrines”[5] named the One; thus it is a principle of unification, hence responsible for all human community, be it the civic union of politics or the private bond of friendship; that is why it is introduced in the Republic.

There follows a close reading of the Line as a ladder of dialectic ascent, which cannot be thrown away—“a serious claim” (p. 134) moving toward Sherman’s interpretation of the Ideas as tied to psychic activity. The problem of images comes ever more front and center in a critique of one scholar’s (Patterson’s) analytic treatment of the sort of things the original Forms (Ideas) must be if worldly things are their images: The Form is what its name says it is, but not as having the qualities its namesake images possess. This makes more sense than you’d think (though like all analytic explanations it’s flatly clarifying rather than brightly illuminating): A Horse-Form is what a horse in truth is, but it’s not for riding. Sherman must object. Whatever this analysis of being a form means, it implies that forms, ideas, are quite separate in kind from their physical images; he is preparing to bring forward a way of understanding the (moderated) separateness of Ideas from Soul and World that requires their (ultimate) interdependence. The rest of the chapter concerns the soul’s different cognitive relations to the rising reality of the objects represented by the upright Line.

Plato and SocratesChapter 5. Education and the Mind’s Eye attends to Socrates’ filling in the lack of education in the Cave with the education for the philosophic rulers. Sherman dwells on the significance of Socrates’ beginning the program of study with arithmetic—not the technique of numerical calculation but the science of the nature of numbers.[6] This science, beginning with the unit, the one that constitutes each of the unit-assemblages called arithmos, has special powers of philosophical levitation. The “one,” that is the beginning of counting-up, of generating numbers, is, one might say, the inverted image of the One that is the principle of the unity of all that is, the Good: The least constituent mirrors the whole constitution.

From the first study I pass directly—Sherman leaves no such lacuna—to the final one, dialectic, which dwells on the Ideas: “Dialectic, then, produces the image of discourse [my italics] as the song of reason of which the relations of Ideas as a harmony of the whole is the ultimate objective content.”(p. 198) Sherman means this literally: The identity of Ideas is inseparable from the relations among them, and those relations are insubstantial, it would seem. By “insubstantial” I mean that normally relations emanate from and terminate in beings, which is why humans have to be somebody to relate to somebody. It’s not that existence as a mere node of relations is unthinkable, but rather that it’s demeaning. However, since the treatment of the objects of dialectic, the Ideas, is deliberately inexplicit in the Republic, it is in any case insufficient for a persuasive theory of ideal being, and that deficiency makes room for Sherman’s speculation.

Chapters 6-8. The Phaedo’s Arguments for Immortality, The Problem of Wrong Beginnings, From Logos to Idea—these chapters bring in the Phaedo’s fuller account of the soul as capable of learning and its more direct treatment of the Ideas as necessary hypotheses; “image” and “separation” (chorismos) are the concepts to be further clarified.(p. 211)

In Chapter 6, the issue is whether the separation of the soul from the body that the Phaedo appears to propose, be it as a means of moral purification or as a condition of immortality, is to be taken literally or imagistically, whether it is logos or mythos (p. 221, though as it turns out logoi are also “images”). Sherman prepares for his denial of this separate existence of the soul and that of the Forms, whose separation is implicated in the immortality and thus in the separability of the soul, by arguing that if the reading of the text is properly dramatic, separation will always appear as “mythical” (p. 256), that is to say, figurative—and that the naive boys of the Phaedo are not up to the image-recognition required by Socrates’ myths.

It is a little absurd to balk at a book’s bulk and then to ask for more. But, by concentrating on the boys’ inept literalism,[7] an image-ontology, though projected in Chapter 7, is displaced by a critique of the interlocutor’s powers of image-recognition and interpretation. Such an ontology would, I think, give an account of two aspects of image-being: 1. Whence comes the difference in plenitude of being that distinguishes an original from its image, that admixture of being and non-being which makes an image a mere image to the detriment of its dignity (as set out in Plato’s Sophist);[8] and 2. What is that similarity, that admixture of sameness and difference, that connects an image to its original—a far more complex question. It is this second inquiry that would seem to me pertinent to Sherman’s central thesis, which will involve a right reading of imagistic logoi or rational mythoi. Here is how the philosophical problem of similitude presents itself to me: Can objects from realms that are conjoined by no exhibitable “isomorphism,” no structural identity, have an image-relation? How far can the ordinary word “image” be stretched, salva significatione, with its meaning being saved?

remembrance of things pastBut perhaps before ontology should come phenomenology, an account of the way imagining works and images appear.[9] Sherman puts to use a long passage from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (p. 236), a practice I like very much because good novelists are master-phenomenologists—it’s their métier. Marcel is enamored of a black-eyed woman, but every time he re-envisions her, the memory presents her as blue-eyed—as he says, because she was a blonde. Perhaps, he perversely concludes, if her eyes had not been so strikingly, intensely black, he would not have been so particulièrement amoureux with her as blue-eyed. Sherman understands Proust’s passage—due notice being given to its perversity—to illuminate a kind of “recollection,” here of dredging up those image-memories from the soul in which the image of an object brings with it the image of a person, as in the Phaedo a lyre is associated with its owner, a beloved boy. His point is that this boy-image lacks observed detail; it is of a “total person,” and the details may well be mistaken. But—here’s the difficulty—Marcel is not making a mistake. He knows, first and last, that the woman is black-eyed. He is engaging in deliberate perversity: the imaginative potentiation by willful modulation of an observed reality that is too opaquely positive for a languid sensibility. More simply put: Marcel rearranges reality on the slight excuse of blondness to make it his; so adjusted, it furnishes the object of his self-pleasingly repetitive daydreams (je repensai); you might call it bed-ridden love.[10]

I’ve picked on the Proust passage because Sherman infers from it a solution to the problem of similarity I posed just above:

The picture does not look exactly like its original, but then neither does the lyre look like the young boy, yet we bridge this difficulty by our ability to respond to the image as image. The sense of both “like” and “unlike” is in fact multiple; it can be both in order of vivacity (picture vs. object) and visual resemblance (lyre-person). And this is true of relations of the non-visible of “resemblance” and recollection.(p. 237)

Sherman concludes that in the lyre-boy passage, Plato is stressing the possibility of such non-similar resemblance (I’ve intentionally put it as a contradiction in terms), and that is what I want to question: When push comes to shove, how far up the ascent to Being can image-recognition take you without obscuring the very nature of the objects, the Ideas, which you want to attain?[11]

In Chapter 8, From Logos to Idea, Sherman’s thesis is fully developed, once again with the aid of the Phaedo, where on his last day Socrates himself says more about the Ideas than anywhere else.[12] Socrates recounts his taking refuge in the use of of logoi for looking at the truth of beings, lest his soul be blinded by sensory looking. To pursue this way, Socrates has recourse to hypothesizing (literally, “supposing”), a way of proceeding by hypotheses, namely Ideas, such as the Beautiful Itself.(Phaedo 100a ff.) Sherman helpfully observes that a Socratic hypothesis is not, as for us, a theory to be verified by being tested against experience, but the converse: Experience derives such being and intelligibility as it has through some sort of presence in it of the forms.(pp. 294-5)

But to test (worldly) things against the (transcendental) idea means—and here I am not certain I follow (that is, understand rightly or, if I do, agree)—to test them against the “idea functioning as a logos.”(ibid.) Moreover, it now turns out that “the hypotheses as the particular idea expressed as a dianoetic [discursive] logos is the idea at work,” and that this logos-idea is in fact to be verified, not to the detriment of the idea but to the logos which may have applied it wrongly by misclassifying the things of which it meant to give an account. This human action (praxis) is, then, “a verification of the idea as logos, that is to say, as a hypothesis which is an image of its idea.”(p. 299; I’ve italicized the last clause) But Socrates has already said that his images are both deficient and not logoi: “for I don’t at all concede that somebody who looks into beings in accounts [logoi] looks at them in likenesses [images] to a greater extent than one who does so in actions” (Phaedo 100a)[13]—namely, does not look at them at all.

The clearest formulation of Sherman’s thesis I found is this: “The subjective form reflected in a logos must be seen as an image of the objective Idea: the form is a rational image.”(p. 217) The soul’s ability to make and read “noetic images”[14] is its very immortality, and the ideas it images are correspondingly eternal.(p. 320) The logos-involved soul, that is, the form-informed soul and the ideas share an ontology because they are interdependent; “though something more than concepts, ideas do not have any real independent existence outside this human dialectical triad of world, soul and idea.”(p. 387) And, as the logos-soul, the soul of the subjective form, is immortal and atemporal in the act of knowing in which it accepts the eternal idea, so, reciprocally, the objective ideas are timeless because they are congruent with the soul, not because of some other worldly stability.(ibid.)

This account, if I have it correct, is certainly circular,[15] which is no argument against it. The most invulnerable philosophical accounts are circular; they are ontological mirror images of the above-mentioned hermeneutic circle: Grounds “cause” consequences, consequences “confirm” grounds; inquiry requires pre-knowledge, knowledge comes from inquiry. But in this perfect mutuality of soul and idea, the outside third, the world (and the Idea of the Good that makes the world intelligible) have somehow dropped out; how are worldly things, which ideas were to serve both as causes (sources of existence) and as reasons (sources of intelligibility), actually involved in the triad?

There is surely much at stake here for those of us who have the sense that the explication of these matters might be, in all un-hyperbolic sobriety, a matter of life and death. The reason is that, if we believe that philosophical reflection (even if only occasional) makes life more—and death less—real, this is an ever-present question: Are there super-sensible realms for us but also beyond us, attainable, but not just yet? And Sherman is surely speaking to just that question, but perhaps not altogether clearly.

myth of erChapter 9. Closing the Circle. Now Sherman “closes the circle” by returning to the Republic, to its last book. On the basis of his theory of thinking as primarily image-recognition, he defends Socrates’ condemnation of the imitative arts as practiced primarily by painters and also poets against various scholarly critiques: Socrates is not simply against the fine arts and their ways with reality, but he, in fact, has knowledge of a more veracious image-making and a more truth-telling myth-making.(p. 349) So Sherman ends by recurring to the inadequacy of the conversation partners here, especially the vein of reward-seeking he discerns in Glaucon (which is, in accord with the pervasive human theme of the Republic, the happiness to be gotten from practicing justice even incognito). Finally, he resumes his own hermeneutic preoccupation by interpreting in his own mode the final myth, the myth of Er, who returned from the Afterworld: It requires us “to see through our images to the invisible in this life.”(p. 379)[16]

Although it is not Sherman’s modus scribendi to collect his theses in one place succinctly and crisply as he goes, the Conclusion does contain some summations, and therefore I may properly park my three main queries under its title, ready to withdraw them if I’ve misread the text.

1. This three-pronged question eventually arises in reading Platonic texts: Do the thirty-six dialogues form a somewhat organic corpus, are the dialogues parts of a whole, or is each dialogue its own dialectic universe, a conversational world of its own? In reading dialogues, we should, I have no doubt, begin with the latter supposition. But for a global interpretation it seems necessary to take notice of the ensemble. Sherman leaves the erotic dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus, out of account, and in these (as well as in Plato’s Seventh Letter) the ascent to the Ideas is a work of love, the virtues are practiced to disencumber the soul from the world, the logos ceases as the soul comes within sight of the Ideas, and the sojourn with them has an ecstatic element. In fact, in the Symposium it is said explicitly of the paradigm form, Beauty, that it is “neither some logos nor some knowledge.”(211a)[17] So I think that Sherman’s sort of implication, his dialogical immanence, has to be balanced, reconciled—whatever—with the other-world separateness of the Ideas as desirable and distinct objects. And, to be sure, that is practically impossible within the constraints of “careful” dissection, scholarly respectability, and the effort to keep Plato plausible to contemporaries. For it requires a certain—rightly suspect—suspension of scrupulosity. [18]

2. I have misgivings about a Socratic (though not so much about a Platonic) ontology of the soul. To be sure, Socrates is a master of psychology, of the soul’s phenomenology. But it seems to me that in the Socratic dialogues, and so in Plato’s view of Socrates, the human soul hovers outside and around the structure of beings and Being. As Sherman flips the Socratic sequence of Divided Line and Cave, to give preeminence to the human context, so he seems to me to have flipped the Divided Line laterally, so to speak. Reading left to right, the four line segments representing objects of knowledge come first, on the left side, together with their inherent kind of knowability. The four corresponding human capacities, including image-recognition, are appended in one sentence (Republic 513d) to the right—an afterthought, as it were. But Sherman gives them priority. Perhaps the thoughtful soul’s standing among beings remained a rousing enough problem in the Platonic Academy for Aristotle to center his own philosophy around its solution, achieved by setting up the unmovable moving divinity of his cosmos as Nous, “Thought” or “Intellect,” whose activity is noesis, “intellection,” the highest power for Socrates. Thus, Aristotle made possible an integration of soul and being—and a soul-ontology. For now beings do not one-sidedly inform the soul, but intellect reciprocally moves the world into its own being, its fulfillment.

But if it is the case that the soul for Socrates is not within but about being, then it may be difficult to make it the part-parent of the Ideas. And even if the soul is a being among beings, I don’t grasp just how the Ideas can be in their relation to it dependent and also in themselves independent, in short, how they can be both subjective and objective. I am all for paradoxes; I think our world is such that they are its most adequate type of speech—provided the inner nature of the beings that elicit them is first clearly worked out, so that paradoxical speech is summary speech, language that collects necessarily disparate insights. That is why I here conclude with queries rather than with counter-claims—because I’m not sure how the “both/and” is justified, what mental incongruities I must—and would willingly—entertain to get the good of the duality.

3. Now comes the more technical crux of these inquiries. Just how is logos imagistic? Out of the welter of uses for the word logos, let me choose the two most prominent ones: word (or noun) and rational discourse (or thoughtful speech). One word names, intends (how is unknown) numerous instances, distinct in time, place, or shape (morphe) and yet the same in some respect (or we would not have a natural inclination to use this logos collectively); that something “same” in all of them is what a logos picks out and names; it is Socrates’ form (idea). A word conveys (how is unknown) the idea without being in any normal sense a likeness: I think it is impossible to detect any image-function in this naming-logos without stretching the meaning out of all recognition. I shall say why.

barbed“Rational discourse” consists largely of propositions conveying meaning. Some of these sentences are descriptive and raise mental images (how is unknown), and such logoi are indeed image-making.(Plato, Sophist 234c) Others, however, are not descriptive but dialectic or “dianoetic;” they “think through” the thought-structure of appearances and beings, and such logoi are only forcibly imagistic. To be sure, in the lower reaches, some logical arguments can indeed sometimes be represented in spatial diagrams[19] (how is unknown), because the logic-diagrams image not the proposition but a mental image, a quasi-spatial corralling of class-members: Visualize “All bulls are bovines” as a herd of cattle, enclosed in a barbed-wire fence, which includes a round pen just for the uncastrated males; then erase the cattle and retain the spatial schematism.

So, if, going from the second to the third part of the Divided Line, I recognize by the power of dianoetic (thoughtful) image-recognition that a geometric sphere is the true, more being-replete original of a soccer ball (quite a feat, since to ordinary thoughtless image-recognition the ball is surely more real), it is not because the logos is an image but because it isn’t; it’s about images; it comprehends them. In other words, insights of image-recognition (eikasia) seem to be expressible in logoi, but they aren’t images.[20] I have a suspicion why that is: The logos has a negative capability: not or non-, while images have no inherent negativity. They have the same thoroughgoing positivity as the spatial world. It takes words to dub any aspect or space, even emptiness, as a not-this or an absence. As I said, with Sherman I like to see the novelists bear me out: The fatal Marabar Cave, in Forster’s Passage to India (Ch. XIV), is the venue of negation in words, but in experience it is a resounding “boum”—for negation has no sensory image as such, and so propositions that are negated can’t be wordlessly imaged.

In sum, I’m not sure whether language intends, symbolizes, or represents,[21] but it doesn’t seem to be at all isomorphic with sensible objects so as to image them. And when it comes to speech about the Forms, verbally expressible thinking seems to fail, as Sherman’s helpful report of scholars’ battles, for example, with self-predication[22] amply shows.

* * * *

Plato soul, world and orderThese queries have been about Sherman’s unquestionably thought-arousing interpretation of the Republic and the Phaedo, or rather, about its philosophical consequences; indeed they are the very proof of its interest. But Sherman also has, besides the intention of doing the texts justice by reading them as conversations among differently inclined and diversely responsive human beings, a motive, a hoped-for effect, which his interpretation is to serve: to let us, with Socrates, “see ourselves as essentially engaging collectively in a discourse that brings us together rather than drives us apart.”(p. 392) And that aim is beyond querying; what is an open question, one on whose terms Sherman’s opus focuses the mind, is this: Do we come closer to the way things are by recourse to the working-hypothesis of Ideas, unattainable in this life but informing the soul from beyond with expectant desire and responsive logoi? Or do we do better by means of Sherman’s thesis of a human rationality so inseparably involved with the Ideas that they are “not manifest” outside this union, within which they are interpretable “as essentially atemporal experience wholly in this life”(p. 386)—as our experience, it seems, not as unequivocally separate Beings?

Has Daniel Sherman saved the Ideas, and if so, are they Socrates’ Ideas? I leave that question open. But he has surely done his part to see that the “myth was saved” (Republic, 621b) and is now before us to consider—just as Er did by not drinking of the River of Forgetting.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 55.2, Spring 2014) and is republished here by permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


[1] Republic 528 ff. Simplicius (Commentary 43, 46) reports Plato’s challenge to the astronomers.

[2] The “hermeneutic” or interpretational art is named after the herald-god Hermes, one of whose offices it was to convey plainly the meaning of messages.

[3] Jacob Klein (1899-1978) was tutor (1938-69) and dean (1948-58) at St. John’s College, and teacher until his death.

[4] “Image-recognition,” which is the mode of ascent along the Divided Line, is Jacob Klein’s rectifying translation of eikasia, often understood as a mode of guessing, conjecturing (as by Sherman himself, 151). Thus the ability to distinguish between original and copy becomes the basic and pervasive ontological capacity. Images, the objects recognized by image-recognition, the central problem of Plato’s Sophist, present a never-ending enticement to ontological reflection, some of which is being carried on in issues of this journal: Review of Eva Brann, The World of the Imagination (1991) by Dennis Sepper, The St. John’s Review 42.1 (1993): 1-19; review of Dennis Sepper, Understanding Imagination (2013) by Eva Brann in this issue, 1-16; and now this review of Sherman’s book.

[5] Plato’s oral speculations, reported first by Aristotle.

[6] He takes his departure from Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992). Alumni of the St. John’s Program will recognize all the elements of Socrates’ program of learning, but will want to ponder the fact that we begin our mathematical studies with Euclid’s geometry, with shapes and magnitudes rather than with numbers and multitudes. I’d like to hear speculations about, and opinions of, this pedagogic reversal.

[7] I keep saying “boys.” Simmias and Cebes are neaniskoi (Phaedo 89a), adolescents with incipient whiskers or youths with first beards. To me they seem the age of freshman, boys and men in turn.

[8] Generally the original is distinguished by several primacies: in time, dimensionality, functionality, reality. Not so in representative art: A mound of two-dimensional, inedible, unreal apples, painted by Cezanne from a prior arrangement, is generally regarded with more respect (and certainly costs more) than a bag of Pink Ladies bought by anyone at the supermarket. That’s the valuation Socrates wants, on ontological grounds, to forestall in Republic X.

[9] As Sherman comes near saying (p. 388). For if human discourse is image-making, then its interpretation is image-recognition (p. 391).

[10] Proust’s way with love meets its refutation in a charming movie, It Happened in Brooklyn, a 1947 film directed by Richard Whorf, starring Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and Jimmy The Sinatra character takes his girl for granted, Lawford’s is really in love with her. Durante (Brooklyn’s wise man) tests Sinatra: What’s the color of her eyes? He dithers: perhaps blue? And so with other detail. Lawford knows on the instant: brown. Q.E.D.: True love is hyper-observant; in fact that’s its hallmark: acutely observational concentration.

[11] Sherman has certainly considered, but apparently without consequence, the notion that for the highest thought, for noesis, the image- logos might fail (p. 392, n. 1); but perhaps it is fairer to say that because he gives so much “a wider interpretation” of images and image-making, he considers the restriction overcome.

[12] Along with his first appearance, as a boy in the Parmenides, so that they are shown to preoccupy him first and last as problems; the Socratic Ideas are ever works-in-progress. In the Symposium and the Phaedrus the vision of the Ideas is imaginatively consummated.

[13] I’ve taken this rendering from Plato’s Phaedo, trans., with introduction and glossary by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 1998). We thought that “in actions” means something like “in sensory reality” (p. 14). My own sense, expressed elsewhere, is that the Phaedo’s blatantly unpersuasive arguments for the immortality of the soul are each occasions for Socrates’ formulating the questions he is leaving behind; he is handing on his forms as works-in-progress, as problems for future philosophy.

[14] Sherman apparently identifies “rational” (dianoetic, discursive) and “noetic” (intellective, directly beheld); they are, however, different segments on the Divided Line.

[15] While circularity—certainly no venial sin in secular argumentation—is excusable in philosophical discourse, equivocation is, except in deliberate, inspired double-speak (such as Socrates’ “invisible looks,” the Ideas) not so I think some of my difficulties stem from subtle meaning-shifts in key words such as image, separation, soul, rationality—shifts away from common usage and also variations of use within the book.

[16] That sounds just like our understanding in the Phaedo translation: the Socratic invitation to practice death in this life (61c ) intends us to rise in thought to the invisible realm here and now (and, of course, now and then). But we did not mean that the realm of invisibility is somehow subjective, that is, only equivocally objective, psychically objective, so to speak, or, on the other hand, that human beings come within actual sight of it—except perhaps Socrates in the several episodes mentioned in the dialogues, when he seems to be enraptured (e.g., Symposium 175b, 220c).

[17] However, the logos—not as thinking but as uttered language—is imaged, “as in a mirror,” namely, in sounds (Theaetetus 206d).

[18] It is a fair question what role the very desire for a beautiful Beyond plays in making it plausible. One side might well say that such longing vitiates sober inquiry. The other may counter that, on the contrary, the desire is itself a testimonial to transcendence, since it is fed by veracious intimations.

[19] Such as Euler diagrams.

[20] Sherman actually speaks mostly of image-making rather than image-recognition. But I think the logos penetrates rather than produces images. The difficulty may be located just here: What, in Sherman’s view, is the work, what are the processes proper to logos?

[21] I half suspect that Sherman would answer my difficulty by saying that he has enlarged the meaning of “image” so as to mean representation, a way of representing something, of recalling, of standing-for a thing, that requires no similarity. I think it would still be necessary to show how logos “represents.” The proper naming of logos’s relation to the things it is about is, I think, the perplexity of language.

[22] For example is the Idea of Justice itself just? The problem is a version of the question raised in a note above: Is “similarity” reciprocal between an idea and its copy? I should say that to me philosophy becomes wonderful just when “rational speech” (actually a redundancy: logikos logos) fails, becomes para-doxical, “counter-credible.”

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  1. In “philosopy becomes wonderful” does wonderful substitute for mystery, mystery as known/suspected good not quite grasped, mystery as fuel sustaining the inquisitive, delightfilled soul yearning for completeness?

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