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Plato's World: Man's Place in the Cosmos.

Cropsey, Joseph. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. x + 225 pp. $29.95--Taking as his "hermeneutic object" the two trilogies of dialogues (Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman and Apology, Crito, Phaedo) linked by the Euthyphro, supplemented by his own choice of the Protagoras as an appropriate introduction, Cropsey weaves an interpretative web, whose woof is moderate, relatively straightforward paraphrase, and whose warp is occasional bold imposition of his own preoccupations on slight textual occasions.

His main preoccupation, and the book's dominant motif, is the absence of divine providence in Plato's world, the main textual basis for which is the Eleatic Stranger's myth of the reversed cosmos, as told in the Statesman. Cropsey suppresses the many ambiguities of the myth on the tacit premise that they are thin disguises for the harsh truth it intends to convey: despite his neediness, man lives in a world bereft of divine care. For Cropsey, a corollary of this harsh truth is that the philosopher, as the one who knows it, is in a position to supply the care for humanity not forthcoming from the divine.

As to the motivation for providing such care and the form it might take, Cropsey seems to suggest that there is some difference, in both theory and practice, between Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger. In discussing the Apology, Cropsey implies that there was something inordinate in Socrates' efforts to improve his fellow citizens, not explicable by any rational calculation of his own good, but only by "an innate inclination toward right and good . . . that had in him the force of necessity in the appearance of altruism" (p. 157).

By contrast, the Eleatic Stranger seems more cognizant of the limits which the resistance of human nature places on the kind and degree of caring which the philosopher can safely and effectively supply to the ordinary run of his fellow men. On Cropsey's account, Socrates' silence through most of the Sophist and Statesman betokens a respectful and perhaps receptive attention to what the Stranger says, including his critique of various aspects of Socrates' life and teaching, for example, the dangers of mere purification of conceit of wisdom without positive supplement, various alleged difficulties with the doctrine of separate [four Greek word cannot be converted in ASCII text] and the excessive optimism and neglect of his own safety involved in Socrates' version of the project of improving his fellow men.

Cropsey may be intimating that Socrates has learned enough from the Stranger to change his tactics somewhat in the last chapter of his life, being less intent on exposing the ignorance of others and more willing to practice the philosophical music or poetry of insinuating noble or edifying lies. In stressing this musical character of the whole "argument" in the Phaedo, Cropsey poses, without resolving, a conundrum about the intended audience for this music: the philosophical few seem neither in need of it nor credulous enough to be persuaded by it, while the unphilosophical many find that nature is too resistant to bodily mortification to purchase belief in an afterlife at this price.

Cropsey may also be suggesting that the Stranger's correction of Socrates goes beyond greater prudence of tactics to a lowering of goals, perhaps aiming at nothing more than a Hobbesian civil virtue, as that which is indispensable to peace, commodious living, and toleration of philosophy. If so, does the philosopher's care extend beyond the conditions of his own commodious living?

While Socrates, the Stranger, Plato, and Cropsey all seem to affirm the goodness of philosophy, it is not clear on what grounds each does so. While acknowledging (p. 150) that the goodness of philosophy does not lie in the attainment of its end, that is, "a wisdom desired above all good things," because it pursues this end "in full acceptance that the quest must remain unconsummated," Cropsey does not explain why this unconsummated quest is good. Instead, he merely remarks that its necessary condition is a combination of the moral virtues of courage and moderation analogous to that needed by the citizens of the tolerable polities enumerated in the Statesman. From this account, it remains unclear what is meant by calling such necessary conditions moral virtues in either case.

As regards the answers to these questions, Cropsey's care for us, at least as exhibited in the cosmos of his book, abandons us to our own devices.
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Author:Dink, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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