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Sheffield, Frisbee C. C. Plato's Symposium: The Ethics of Desire.

SHEFFIELD, Frisbee C. C. Plato's Symposium: The Ethics of Desire. Oxford University Press, 2006. x + 252 pp. Cloth. $99.00--This work, part of the Oxford Classical Monograph series, is one of several recent books in contemporary English philosophy, which concentrates on a single Platonic dialogue. This approach affords the opportunity to study the arguments and positions within the dialogic context in which they are embedded. Dr Sheffield's book focuses on Socrates' encomium on eros in four chapters (pp. 40-182) with a single chapter (pp. 8-39) on the previous speeches and prior events of the dialogue and a separate chapter on Alcibiades' speech (pp. 183-206). There is also a chapter connecting Socrates' speech with the other symposiasts (pp. 183-206), a brief conclusion (pp. 225-6) and an appendix, "Socratic Psychology or Tripartition in the Symposium?" (pp. 227-39), arguing that the textual evidence for tripartition is "undetermined in many ways" (p. 239).

The account of Socrates' speech follows the order of the topics addressed with a chapter each on the nature, aim and activity of eros and a final chapter in which Dr Sheffield addresses the role of others in philosophical eros.

Eros is defined as a psychological state, intermediate between states of lack and resource, which function in dynamic interaction to pursue the beautiful and good things. Eros is understood as being "cognitively informed" about these goals. Taking the Poros and Penia myth very seriously, Sheffield analyzes it in relation to Socrates' speech as a whole and as providing the aforementioned definition of eros. She also sees the interconnection of the two forces of resourcefulness (euphoria) and lack of resources (aporia) as indicative of the Socratic mode of philosophizing, which for her becomes the final topic of Socrates' speech in which eros rises to the vision of the form of the Beautiful itself. She interprets the Socrates-Diotima distinction as paralleling this account of eros: the resourceful Diotima teaming up with the youthful needy young Socrates, who is also the mature Socrates' version of Agathon. Sheffield ingeniously interprets Socrates as showing that humans possess the good by creating in the presence of beauty, which is the mortal way to share in divine immortality. The beautiful provides each person with an embodiment of what is valued for the obtainment of happiness and also can serve as a paradigmatic example of something that has fulfilled or realized itself, thus inspiring that person to strive for his/her own sense of virtue or excellence. The activity of eros reaches its peak in the life of contemplation: this best human life is productive of true virtue and happiness, an intricately complex goal only realized in the encounter with the form of beauty.

In a chapter devoted to criticizing Gregory Vlastos' conception of Platonic philosophical eros as divorced from human interaction, Sheffield argues that the Socratic account is quite consistent with caring for others for their own sake in a manner that does not detract from one's own happiness.

Alcibiades' speech is seen as an indication of Alcibiades choosing love of honor over philosophical enlightenment, a choice made possible through his focusing on what especially occupies him--political success and public acclamation--rather than ever allowing the level of philosophical love to develop to a point of critical judgment of his life.

Sheffield's book as a whole has many acute observations, careful weighing of alternative philosophical positions located in the footnotes as well as in the the main text, and is extremely effective in delivering a full fledged unified theory of eros that is congenial with the Socratic-Platonic emphasis on the inculcation of moral virtue and philosophical insight. The one regret this reviewer has is the reduction of most of the previous accounts' twenty seven Stephanus pages leading up to Socrates' encomium of eros as mere anticipation or muddled attempts to define the nature and power of eros. As Sheffield admits, "Our desires shape our lives in important respects and affect our chances of happiness. Analyzing our desires, then, is a way of reflecting on the kind of people that we will become and on our chances for living a worthwhile and happy life" (p. 4). Applying these observations to the various speakers would have brought out the extent to which Plato has presented the particular speakers, whose speeches are nearly as complex and in need of lengthy analysis as Socrates' speech, as portraying serious alternatives to Socrates' philosophic presentation of eros. Stanley Rosen's Plato's Symposium (1968) did offer this kind of account of the various speakers in the dialogue. Sheffield has one reference to Rosen's work (note 2, p. 184) and she points out (p. 31) that the Symposium "... has just begun to receive more systematic philosophical attention," citing works published in 1989, 1996 and 1998. Nevertheless, Sheffield's book should be studied by all serious Platonic scholars.--Donald C. Lindenmuth, The Pennsylvania State University.
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Author:Lindenmuth, Donald C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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