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Penology and Eschatology in Plato's Myths (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 3, July 2003
pp. 410-411 | 10.1353/hph.2003.0025

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.3 (2003) 410-411

S. P. Ward. Penology and Eschatology in Plato's Myths. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Pp. v + 295. Cloth, $99.95.

In this work the author begins by asking himself the following question: What is an eschatological myth? The adjective "eschatological" indicates that the discourse it qualifies is concerned with the last things; that is, death and the judgment of souls that follows it. Hence, the relation that may be established between eschatology understood in this sense and penology, which refers to the punishments the soul undergoes at the end of its earthly existence. As far as the meaning of 'myth' is concerned, the author, influenced by G. S. Kirk (The Nature of Greek Myths [Penguin, 1974]), adopts a relativist position. He does not think it possible to give a general definition; therefore, he limits himself to pointing out some of the characteristics of this type of discourse, on the basis of passages from the Platonic corpus which are usually considered as myths.

Having set his analytical tools in place, the author proposes a commentary on the eschatological myths at the end of the Gorgias (523a-527e), at the end of the Phaedo (107c-115a), at the end of Republic X (614b-621d), in the Phaedrus (246a-249d), in some parts of the Timaeus (42b-d, 91a-92c), and in the Laws (903a-905d). He then examines the relations between penology and eschatology in the dialogues of the first period, the intermediary period, and old age.

Although Plato takes his inspiration from traditional myths, those that appear in the dialogues are distinguished from traditional myths by two features: a scientific background, which indicates an influence from the Presocratics; and the role played by elements proper to the Platonic doctrine. The insertion of considerations of a scientific nature into myths makes them more credible, but is not enough to make them into true discourses. Thus, the question of the relation in Plato between these myths and his philosophical doctrine remains open. Nevertheless, and although it is sometimes difficult to justify particular points in the myths, it is still true that we can note a great deal of coherence between what they recount and the ethical questions developed in the dialogues in which they appear.

In spite of this consistency, one observes an evolution in the way these myths are presented. In the Gorgias, the punishments inflicted on the soul by the gods are presented as intended to make the soul better. The idea of reincarnation plays no role here, but it is present in the Phaedo. In this dialogue, however, the question arises of how to harmonize reincarnation with post-mortem punishments which, because of it, no longer seem to be necessary. In the Republic, emphasis is placed instead on the role of individual responsibility in the process of reincarnation. The Phaedrus continues in this direction, but is characterized by its allusions to the theory of intelligible forms. In the Timaeus, by contrast, Plato abandons the theme of a way of life and that of the judgment of souls, for a vision of the process of reincarnation that is integrated, not without difficulty, within a cosmological vision. The Laws continue along this path.

This analysis shows that Plato evolved on questions of eschatology and penology, even if he did not radically change his mind. Yet there is one point on which he never varied: even if he did not establish precise frontiers between science and religion, Plato never thought his myths to be true discourses, but he always considered their capacity for ethical edification and their pedagogical value.

This work is clear and well structured. It is completed by a bibliography and a general index, is easy to read, and presents a genuine usefulness. One also notes, on the part of the author, a good overall knowledge of the whole of Greek literature, from the origins to the end of Antiquity. Nevertheless, three criticisms may be made: (1) This publication merely reproduces the format of his thesis, with all the lack of elegance that that entails; it may also be noted that the Ancient Greek type, in general well...

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