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  • Rereading Ancient Philosophy: Old Chestnuts and Sacred Cows eds. by Verity Harte and Raphael Woolf
  • Christopher Rowe
Verity Harte and Raphael Woolf, editors. Rereading Ancient Philosophy: Old Chestnuts and Sacred Cows. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 308. Cloth, $99.99.

The "old chestnuts" of this engaging volume are, to quote its cover, "well-known passages in the works of ancient philosophers about which one might have thought everything there is to say has already been said"; its "sacred cows" are "views about what ancient philosophers thought, on issues of philosophical importance, that have attained the status of near-unquestioned orthodoxy." The degree of success in the targeting of such bovine targets among the thirteen papers is variable: thus Shaul Tor makes short work of the ancient view, newly revived by Daniel Graham, that pre-Platonic natural philosophers operated with purely mechanical systems (Heraclitus's nature does love [to hide]); Amber Carpenter takes aim, via the Gorgias, at the established view that Socrates and Plato are eudaimonists, but apparently at the expense of proposing that we should take Polus's views about happiness seriously, even if Plato does not; Raphael Woolf argues that the problem for the Plato of the Symposium is not so much with loving individuals as with loving objects that are mutable, thus allowing that some individuals (e.g. Socrates) may be potentially more lovable than others (question: if Socrates's soul is "golden" because he is "in contact with the truth," and so with the immutable, does that make him an individual or just one in a million?); Tad Brennan proposes that the first wave in Republic 5 gives us a psychological as well as a political message ("women in general represent desires and pleasures in general, and a special subclass of philosophically adept women represent a special class of pure, true, and rationally acceptable desires and pleasures" [136]: not, surely, a happy outcome, if the male then is going to stand for the actual reasoning, the female for the pleasures of it—not least since the female rulers will actually be ruling alongside the male?); Verity Harte gives short shrift to that most sacred of cows (in some communities), the idea that in Republic 5 Plato seriously proposes that knowledge and belief cannot share the same objects. Richard Sorabji takes aim at an influential treatment (by Michael Frede) of an interpretation (by Susanne Bobzien) of the Aristotelian Alexander on necessity and responsibility "as if it were an orthodoxy not requiring discussion" (24 on); so in danger of becoming a sacred cow, to Alexander's discredit. Joachim Aufderheide ends up defending rather than slaughtering a sacred cow: Aristotle himself—sacred, that is, to virtue ethicists—Aufderheide concluding that whether Aristotle really was a virtue ethicist or not depends on what virtue ethics itself is. "If virtue ethics presents itself not as a rival to already existing deontological or teleological normative theories, but rather as the sustained study of virtue, then Aristotle ought to be revered as a prime sacred cow" (220).

Old chestnuts abound in Plato because of the tendency—perhaps inevitable, given the way he presents his thoughts—to interpret him via selected passages. So, especially, with the ancient Platonists; but in the final essay, on Plotinus on Plato's daimMn, Peter Adamson beautifully demonstrates Plotinus's sensitivity to the need, from a unitarian perspective, to "reconcil[e] apparently contradictory passages in the dialogues" (258). Modern interpreters also prefer to study particular passages, or dialogues, but usually abstain from committing to any but the blandest overall view of Plato. Thus Charles Brittain argues that Socrates's interpretation of Simonides in the Protagoras is not designed as a way of allowing him to [End Page 551] present his own views because "there is no reason to think" that two of those that appear in the context "are part of any substantive Socratic position, at least in this dialogue" (51). Rather, Socrates/Plato is involved in a complex dialectical game anticipating Aristotle and utilizing a series of intentional fallacies: one should not "help Socrates out with unlimited tacit premises" (54n53, a relatively recent addition to the sacred herd, itself made possible by the atomization...


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