Plato’s Four Muses: The Phaedrus and the Poetics of Philosophy

  Capra, Andrea. 2015. Plato's Four Muses: The Phaedrus and the Poetics of Philosophy. Hellenic Studies Series 67. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


The Giants drag down everything from heaven and the invisible to earth, grasping rocks and trees with their hands … and if anyone says that anything else, which has no body, exists, they despise him utterly, and will not listen to any other theory … Therefore the Gods who contend against them strike cautiously from above, and they use noetic weapons from an invisible world, maintaining forcibly that real existence consists of certain ideas which are only conceived by the mind and have no body.

Sophist 246a–b, trans. Goold (modified)


Like so many others, I sometimes indulge in idle fantasies about my published work. I envisage a mythological creature called the “General Reader,” who will sip it like champagne, or devour it in one sitting as if it were a tasty novel. At other times, I imagine another prodigious figure, the “Platophagus,” an insatiable beast that chases me back and forth throughout the book, chews on my lengthy footnotes, repeatedly bites into all sorts of Platonic minutiae, and still clamors for more … This is pathetic, I know. Nevertheless, I have tried my best to write not just a painstaking book but an enjoyable one too. In so doing, I have aimed at catering for different kinds of readers, including even such fantastic animals as the GR and the Platophagus, or at least their less implausible fellow creatures.

Even the latter, however, are likely to be rather thin on the ground, because—let’s face it—we simply do not live in that kind of world. The tide of scholarly work is always on the rise, making reading time increasingly frantic and desultory. Some readers might want to find out something about a single dialogue, a passage, or even a textual reading. Others might just be looking for references, and so on. In short, I cannot rule out any possibility. What I can do, however, is provide directions so as to help my readers save precious time. Before they decide how or, indeed, whether to read the book at all, I ask them to read at least these pages.

This might sound like the prologue to some grand hermeneutical declaration, which would not be altogether inappropriate: debate is always raging in Platonic scholarship, and it is surely important to be clear about one’s assumptions. Theory does matter. However, I hope that my assumptions, which have not significantly changed over time, will be sufficiently apparent without the need for too much explicit theorizing. I do provide some indications of them, especially in the Introduction, but I shall desist from entering into yet another lengthy theoretical discussion (I attempted one in my 2001 book on Plato’s Protagoras).

In the next three paragraphs, I intend to make just a few brief remarks. Firstly, I comment on some specific problems related to Platonic studies in an attempt to forewarn the reader and help him or her decide whether or not to read the book. Then I explain the book’s structure and general features, so that different readers may decide how best to use it according to their specific needs. Finally, I draw an outline of its contents, so that whoever reads it may know what to look for, and—with the help of the relevant indexes—where to locate it.

Should I Read This Book? Plato and Hellenic Studies

Besides Platonists, the book is targeted at readers interested in lyric poetry (especially in Stesichorus and Sappho) and its classical reception, in the history of Greek poetics and in the cult of the hero (notably the poet-hero) from the Archaic to the Hellenistic age. It also takes into account Gorgias and Isocrates, while the intersections between philosophy and rhetoric are central to the book throughout. Other subjects include nympholepsy, the arboreal cult of Helen, different models of memory, the performance of poetry in classical Athens, the lives of the poets, Socratic iconography, the early history of Plato’s Academy, and early Greek notions of authorship. In the spirit of the CHS series, this book is meant to be a contribution to Hellenic studies. Every specific subject should be seen as part of a multidisciplinary Greek whole, which I have tried to approach by reading and learning as much as possible, often with the generous help of people who know much more than I do. It is from this “holistic” perspective that I address my primary audience, namely Platonists. This accounts for my lengthy footnotes and bibliography, which draw on a number of cultural and linguistic areas, and sometimes privilege works that have been ignored or forgotten by mainstream scholarship.

My reason for stressing this point is the often lamented insularity and oblivion of Platonic scholarship: different languages, traditions, and approaches are becoming increasingly self-referential. The epigraph describes the battle of the gods and the giants. Plato’s giants and gods are of course materialistic and idealistic thinkers respectively, but in terms of contemporary Platonic scholarship, the battle might be equally fitting as a caricature of the divide between opposed factions of Platonists. The giants want to feel the text, better still grasp the codex or the papyrus in their hands: any more general or abstract interpretation is likely to prompt a patronizing smirk on their faces, as if they were listening to some lunatic fantasizing about tragelaphs and unicorns. An equally dismissive grin is often seen on the faces of the gods whenever they encounter people who read the text with a painstakingly philological eye: surely these banausic accountants, who waste their time counting the instances of a given word in the Platonic corpus, or assessing the merits of two rival lectiones, are unable to contribute anything serious to our understanding of the father of western thought. Historically, the deepest divide is of course that between different species of philosophers and philologists, often resulting in an uneasy cohabitation. The two were soon divorced (indeed, as early as ancient times), and ever since they have lived apart under one, albeit ample, Platonic roof, even if, they now live in many countries in semi-detached, self-catering departments. In the meanwhile, further schisms have arisen.

This growing compartmentalization is alarming and, I believe, sadly un-Platonic. My ideal reader, on the other hand, whatever disciplinary perspective he or she may adopt, will resist the common temptation to construe Plato’s complexity as if he suffered from some kind of dissociative identity disorder and will be intent, instead, on understanding and appreciating Plato’s world as fully as possible. This, in my view, demands an interest in history, and a curiosity in a universe that is at once both mysterious and familiar. In some ways Plato is both the father of our philosophy and, curiously, the child of a civilization very different from our own, where philologos and philosophos (Socrates uses both words in the Phaedrus) could easily be one and the same non-schizophrenic person. Another crucial requirement is a willingness to entertain the idea that the ultimate goal of Plato’s dialogues is to influence, persuade, and convert people to the life of philosophy. Accordingly, the poetic or rhetorical quality of Plato’s works, together with his own theories about the role of poetry and philosophical discourse in society, are not embellishments or quirks of fancy, but lie at the very heart of Plato’s philosophia. To read the dialogues solely, or even primarily, as an exposition of a set of doctrines may result, I believe, in a fatal misunderstanding.

At this point, the reader may either dislike my approach and decide to close the book right away or, in a fantastic scenario, may feel like reading it from cover to cover. The two following paragraphs, however, are particularly relevant for all those other potential readers who may be either interested in parts of the book or else have not as yet made up their minds.

How to Use This Book: Structure and Features

My attempt to combine different perspectives and approaches will possibly require some patience on the part of the reader. For my part, I have opted for a particular structure, designed to make things easier. The book’s four chapters are devoted to the Phaedrus, whereas the Introduction and the Conclusion, taken together, expand the scope of the book beyond the Phaedrus, to include the entire Platonic corpus. Each chapter has a cover page providing both textual and iconographic material, partly in the form of a handout, so as to avoid overloading the main exposition, and partly as an eye-catcher designed to set the tone of the chapter. The cover page is typically followed by a brief introduction, in which my own interpretation is developed against the background of other approaches, in an attempt either to break new ground or to provide new evidence for the solution of crucial interpretative problems. Each chapter, moreover, presents its own set of conclusions (as opposed to the book’s general Conclusion), complete with an endnote called “Facts.” Whereas the conclusions focus on general implications, the note highlights more detailed results of my work in a way that should be palatable to the giants, in that it briefly lists the literary and philological discoveries relevant to any given chapter.

Needless to say, the distinction between facts and interpretation is to a large extent artificial, and it does not require any particularly sophisticated hermeneutics to recognize that the very notion of “fact” can be a slippery one. Still, I hope it will prove useful. At the risk of sounding naively positivist, my emphasis is on new “facts.” All too often, we tend to believe that factual advance in Platonic scholarship is no longer possible, as if all the relevant data, historical, textual, literary etc., were already available once and for all, much like over-microwaved leftovers. By contrast, my aim is to provide new evidence and fresh ingredients, set firmly within Plato’s historical framework. No-nonsense “giants” can check my lists of “facts” for themselves. I hope they will also be interested enough to trace some of my arguments in the relevant chapters and see the larger interpretative implications of the new evidence. The “gods,” in turn, can have a look at my general Introduction and my Conclusion to see what position the book occupies in the field of Platonic studies. Once again, I hope to stir their curiosity and persuade them to go through some of the details of the central chapters and the philological data on which my interpretations are built. Ultimately, dialectics is the art of matching the general with the particular, and Plato is both the “astronomying” philosopher who falls into the well and the whimsical maid from Thrace who has a hearty laugh at his expense.

What and Where? Summary of the Book

The aim of the book is to reconstruct Plato’s self-portrait as an author through a fresh reading of the Phaedrus, with an Introduction and Conclusion that contextualize the construction more broadly. The Phaedrus is Plato’s most self-referential dialogue, as I argue on the basis of largely neglected data, both internal and external. I take my cue from Plato’s reference to four Muses in Phaedrus 259c–d (Terpsichore, Erato, and the couple Ourania and Calliope), which I read as a hint at the “ingredients” of philosophical discourse. Plato’s dialogues—and this is the book’s main contribution to the field of Hellenic Studies—turn out to be, among other things, a form of provocatively old-fashioned mousikê.

My Introduction steers clear of the usual question “why did Plato write (dialogues)?” More radically, I ask “what is a Platonic dialogue?” My starting point is Plato’s “self-disclosures,” that is, those passages where he implicitly refers to his dialogues as poetry and music. Such “self-disclosures” have been partially studied by Konrad Gaiser, Stephen Halliwell, and others. The Introduction, together with the Appendix, aims to provide the most complete discussion of this aspect so far and to pave the way for my reading of the Phaedrus, where I detect a new set of powerful “self-disclosures.” In order to introduce the reader to the Phaedrus, I also provide some general background for its interpretation and new evidence on its self-referential character.

Chapter 1, “Terpsichore,” argues that the first half of the Phaedrus is also a consistent reenacting of Stesichorus’ Helen poem and, more specifically, of its performance, as I demonstrate by discussing unexplored linguistic, philological, and metrical data. By appropriating Stesichorus, who was highly valued by Plato’s Pythagorean friends, Plato builds on the opposition between Stesichorus and Homer, and thus conceptualizes philosophy as a topical or flexible discourse as opposed to “rhapsodic,” or crystallized, rhetoric. In this formulation, philosophical discourse is unique in its capacity to adjust itself “musically” to the needs of different listeners.

Chapter 2, “Erato,” focuses on Helen. I argue that, in his great speech, Socrates reproduces the quadripartite structure of Gorgias’ Encomium and also toys with Isocrates’ Helen. Both works allude to Sappho 16 Voigt, and so does Plato, who makes Helen’s presence felt through the Phaedrus’ plane-tree, which refers to the arboreal cult of Helen. The as-yet-unnoticed reworking of 16 Voigt is integral to Plato’s definition of philosophy as eroticized rhetoric. Plato inherits from Sappho a notion of erotic oblivion: lyric eros proves crucial for severing the ties that bind us to the sensible world, and for sparking the process of recollection. Plato’s recollection, however, differs markedly from Sappho’s in that it uncovers the general as opposed to the particular.

Chapter 3, “Ourania and Calliope,” takes its cue from Ion’s magnet simile. My argument in this case is that the image applies equally well to philosophy, which the Phaedrus specifically assigns to the two Muses. Sokratikoi logoi take the form of an oral chain of accounts, whereby the human “rings” experience precisely the same symptoms as Ion and his audience. This, once again, points to philosophy as inspired mousikê as opposed to uninspired rhetoric. Philosophy, however, distances itself from epic rhapsodies in that the rings are vigilant and active. Similarly, the story of the cicadas is Plato’s reenacting of a common myth, that is, the poet’s initiation as a result of the Muses’ epiphany in the country (cf. Hesiod, Archilochus, Epimenides). Again, deviations from the pattern are the code Plato uses to highlight the special status of his own production, which is, among other things, rationally vigilant and intrinsically dialogic (hence two Muses).

Chapter 4, “The Muses and the Tree,” begins with a new interpretation of Socrates’ prayer to Pan in the light of poetic initiations: in fact, Socrates invokes a poetic license and hints at the possibility of heroization. Comparison with similar stories of heroism in fieri (especially Posidippus) and with the relevant honors (I compare Socrates’ statue in the Academy’s mouseion with that of other poet-heroes) allows one to interpret the passage in the light of the cult of Socrates, as developed in the Academy from the fourth century onwards. The setting of the Phaedrus, I argue, prefigures both the cult of Socrates in the Academy, where he was worshipped as a logos-inspirer (i.e. a quasi-poet), and that of Plato, the writer (and quasi-poet) who constantly disavowed authorship. In other words, the Phaedrus provides an aition for the foundation of Plato’s Academy.

In my Conclusion, I argue that Plato’s return to mousikê, a recurring theme in a number of dialogues, amounts to a self-conscious paradox, which I construe to be the hallmark of Plato as author. I conclude with Socrates’ conversion to “demotic,” as opposed to metaphorical, music in the Phaedo, which, I maintain, closely parallels the Phaedrus and is apologetic in character, since Socrates was held responsible for dismissing traditional mousikê. This parallelism reveals three surprising features that define Plato’s works: firstly, a measure of anti-intellectualism (Plato “musicalizes” philosophy so as to counter the rationalistic excesses of other forms of discourse, thus distinguishing it from prose as well as from poetry); secondly, a new beginning for philosophy (Plato conceptualizes the birth of Socratic dialogue in, and against, the Pythagorean tradition of the birth of philosophy, with an emphasis on the new role of writing); thirdly, a self-consciously ambivalent attitude with respect to the social function of the dialogues, which are conceived both as a kind of “resistance literature” and as a preliminary move towards the new poetry to be performed in the Kallipolis.