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Van Riel, Gerd. Plato's Gods.

VAN RIEL, Gerd. Plato's Gods. Ashgate Studies in the History of Philosophical Theology. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. 137pp. Paper, $39.95--Beginning with Cicero's de natura deorum which recounts the inconsistencies of Plato's views on god and the divine, the enigma of Plato's theological doctrine remains an enduring one. Gerd Van Riel's Plato's Gods rightfully places the question of religion at the heart of Plato's philosophy by attempting to "articulate a unifying view that at least solves more questions than it raises." If we are to properly decipher the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible, the political organization of the city, or the foundation of morality in Plato, we must begin, as Van Riel does, with a systematic inquiry into Plato's theology. Van Riel's refreshing analysis of these often divergent themes will be an invaluable resource for Plato scholars as well as those interested in philosophical theology and intellectual history. Since most readers of Van Riel's book will want to know how the author resolves the quandary between Plato's theology and his metaphysics, that will be the focus of this review.

Van Riel provides a concise reconstruction of the historical context of Plato's own reception of Greek religion and theology in the fourth century BC beginning with the endeavor to morally purify the gods while paradoxically preserving the anthropomorphism of the traditional Homeric/Hesiodic account. If their moral purification leads to a metaphysical interpretation of Plato's theology whereby Plato's gods or supreme God becomes identified with the Form of the Good as the highest metaphysical principle, then the tendency to preserve their anthropomorphism leads to a cosmological interpretation that sees the gods as "personified forces responsible for bringing order to the sensible world." In Van Riel's assessment, these countervailing tendencies ultimately culminate in the introduction of the unmoved mover in Aristotle's Metaphysics, "even if there is a plethora of Platonic gods, they need to be hierarchically subordinated to a metaphysical principle on which all other things depend."

Thus, Plato's account of the divine purportedly serves as a reflection of his metaphysics throughout much of the history of Platonic commentary. Van Riel is explicitly critical of the Aristotelian interpretation of Plato's theology, which depicts Plato's God or gods as the highest metaphysical principle. Against Aristotle's view that metaphysics and theology converge on the idea that the highest being or God is the final cause of the universe, Van Riel seeks to revive the cosmological interpretation of Plato's gods spanning from the early Socratic dialogues, especially the Euthyphro, to the Timaeus and Laws. By arguing that the Aristotelian interpretation is essentially an anachronism, Van Riel adeptly distinguishes between Plato's metaphysics and his theology. Underlying Van Riel's thesis regarding their separation is the claim that Plato's gods are not metaphysical principles. Instead, "they constitute a multitude of divine souls, each of whom has the specific task of looking after each part of the sensible world."

In the first chapter, Van Riel surveys the role of religion within the Platonic city, and the connection between religion and morality. The highlight of this chapter is Van Riel's exposition of the role of piety as a virtue that sustains Plato's understanding of religion throughout his entire corpus. Van Riel most notably returns to Book Four of the Laws where Plato states "that piety consists in 'taking god as the measure', thus admonishing human beings to be moderate, and not take themselves to be gods. This powerful axiom can be shown to lie at the basis of Plato's speaking about the gods and ultimately to underlie his views on the relation between theology and metaphysics."

The second chapter as a propaedeutic to Van Riel's cosmological argument investigates how the moral purification of the gods takes place throughout Plato's theology by emphasizing the goodness of the gods as the safeguard for order in the universe, "The order of the world is the expression of a goodness that sets forth in the moral conduct of gods and human beings." Van Riel specifically focuses upon Plato's tendency to morally purify the gods in order to ensure that the gods can be identified with the Form of the Good. The goodness of the gods is always to be equated with their cosmic function since the order of the world is an expression of their moral excellence.

Van Riel reserves the major claims of his argument for the last chapter where he directly addresses the weaknesses of the most recent metaphysical interpretations provided by Stephen Menn and Michael Bordt. By de-Aristotelianizing Plato's theology, Van Riel succeeds in clarifying their misconceptions without risking an archaic reading that simply retrieves the cosmological interpretation. Instead, Van Riel's argument is a fine example of a philosophical hermeneutics that strives to preserve the authenticity of genuine religious experience in Plato without succumbing to the temptation to become a god.--Josh M. Hayes, Alvernia University
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Author:Hayes, Josh M.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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