Gabriela Roxana Carone: Plato's Cosmology and Its Ethical Dimensions.
Plato's Cosmology and Its Ethical Dimensions.
New York: Cambridge University Press 2005.
US$70.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-84560-1).
Many readers of Plato's Phaedo, Republic, and other middle dialogues have been tempted to think that Plato is unqualifiedly opposed to empirical science and that his ethics too is driven by an antipathy to the empirical and the natural. But such readings of Plato and Platonism run headlong into the evidence of the Timaeus, the Laws, and other late dialogues, not to speak of the gap that then seems to separate Plato from the natural philosophy of the early Greek philosophers, Aristotle, the Stoics, and much else. Whereas Socrates seems to sit comfortably in that gap, Plato does not, and yet such anti-naturalist and anti-scientific readings of Plato are common enough.
Carone's provocative book builds a case for reading Plato otherwise, namely as a serious cosmologist, i.e. a natural philosopher, with equally serious ethical and religious interests. While there is recent work on Plato's later ethical and political commitments, Carone's book is distinctive. In her meticulous examination of the cosmological and mythical passages in the Timaeus, Philebus, Politicus, and Laws she argues that Plato held a kind of panpsychism and organicism that marries a teleological view of nature to a notion of the 'imitation of god. 'On her reading, the Forms stand for order and unity, but the real engine of Plato's later ethical cosmology is the soul whose roles are both cosmological and personal.
Plato of course does not simply canonize a vocabulary and employ it in dialogue after dialogue. Rather each account of the creation of the cosmic order by the Demiurge in the Timaeus, of the four elements in the Philebus, of the myth of the age of Cronus and the cosmic drama in the Politicus, is articulated in its own terms. Carone's strategy is to work through each text patiently and then eventually to assimilate them to a single cosmological picture of the cosmos as an interplay of several features, nous and ananke, a cosmic teleology, the presence of the world soul in nature, and the identity of the cosmos with the divine.
Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the Timaeus. Carone argues that the Demiurge represents the force of rationality and goodness in the cosmos, a teleological force that must contend with the resistance of necessity. This mythical image of 'the mind or principle of organization of the universe' (28) which requires embodiment in the physical is a model for human conduct. In the imagery of the Timaeus the Demiurge is the world-soul, 'immanent to the universe...rather than extrinsic to it' (45). This Demiurge or world-soul is the primary cause of the cosmos, imitation of which is possible for every human being; it is a model for human reason as it seeks to control the passions and attain eudaimonia. Moreover, astronomy provides a kind of 'popular therapy' to this end by helping non-philosophers to understand the consistent order of nature and the way in which reason can govern 'necessity' (74-6).
Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the Philebus. Carone examines the dialectical setting for the four-fold metaphysical discussion of apeiron, peras, the mixture of the two, and cause, and then analyzes the text in detail to show that the same picture that we found in the Timaeus is also present here: an immanent world-soul that seeks to impose order on a recalcitrant material universe. She then argues that Plato endorses a mixed life of intellect and pleasure. 'In a life ruled by intelligence, it is more likely that one will rightly experience pleasures of anticipation based on the true nature of things, and correctly estimate the net size of pleasure to be obtained from mixtures of pleasure and pain,' and hence there is 'good reason to view pleasure, insofar as it is peras, as at least one aspect of the human good' (110). Like the Demiurge, individuals should create lives marked by the right mixture of pleasure with moderation and wisdom (122).
Chapters 6 and 7 move on to the Politicus and the myth of the 'age of Cronus' and its political implications. Carone's radical proposal is to 'reverse' the standard interpretation and to argue that 'the myth tells us that god is after all in charge of our universe; but also that, even if god, or an idealised past golden age, functions as a model, it is not at the expense of individual autonomy at all' (125). One result of this 'reversal' is to show that 'in our actual world...nous and necessity coexist' (141), which brings the Politicus into line with the Timaeus. Carone then interprets the cosmic drama of the dialogue as symbolic of a 'human drama, that is, an ethical conflict that is in general absent from the world but common in humans, considered either individually or collectively,' and treats it as normative rather than simply descriptive. It is an invitation for human conduct to imitate that of the god that rules in our age: 'intelligence, philosophical life, and the happiness they entail, are not a mere gift but a task or ethical challenge' (158-9).
In Chapter 8, Carone turns to the Laws X, its proof for the existence of a providential god, and the role of evil in Plato's teleological conception of human life. The chapter's central point is that human beings, not some cosmic soul are responsible for evil, both natural and moral, and hence that human beings have the ultimate responsibility for accomplishing their own good and the good of the universe conceived as a cosmic, organic whole.
This brief sketch of the edifice of Carone's argument cannot do any justice to the scrupulous analysis of the texts that supports it. And it is surely at this level of detail that her case must be engaged. In order for Carone to expose a single cosmological vision with ethical implications, she must do some very hard work, and readers will find that some of that work strains the texts considerably. But a careful consideration of the details of her argument is deserved. Carone's project is driven by twin passions, for human dignity and respect for the natural world. There is in it a kind of courage that is worth our attention.
Michael L. Morgan