Philosophy and Religion in Plato's Dialogues by Andrea Nightingale (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 62 (1):149-150 (2024)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Philosophy and Religion in Plato's Dialogues by Andrea NightingaleMarina Berzins McCoyAndrea Nightingale. Philosophy and Religion in Plato's Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 308. Hardback, $39.99.Andrea Nightingale has written a scholarly work that will prove indispensable to restoring the centrality of religion and theology to Platonic philosophy. She demonstrates that Plato uses the language of Greek religion to inform his metaphysics and his very conception of philosophy. She deftly interweaves classical scholarship with close readings of a wide range of texts in order to build her claims. She gives especially good treatments of Eleusinian mysteries and Orphic ritual. She also explores the way in which the epiphanic nature of the encounter with the Forms has a transforming influence on the philosopher's soul.In the introduction, Nightingale presents an overview of key "divinity markers" (8–23) present in the dialogues—occurrences in which the Forms are described as godlike, references to Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, poetic narratives of epiphanic encounters, and references to the sacred spectacle. She also assesses why these references are so often overlooked in contemporary scholarship, noting many contemporary scholars' unfamiliarity with the specific nature of Greek religion, and a general movement toward secularism in philosophy. She acknowledges some notable exceptions (e.g. Mark McPherran's work), but she might have given attention to others as well. Specifically, Jill Gordon's Plato's Erotic World: From Cosmic Origins to Human Death (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) characterizes Platonic philosophy in terms of both striving for and alienation from the divine, and Ross Romero's Without the Least Tremor: The Sacrifice of Socrates in Plato's Phaedo (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009) on religious sacrifice in the Phaedo is another example. Still, Nightingale is accurate in her assessment of the field's tendency to ignore religious language or to assimilate it too quickly to later monotheistic traditions. Her book convincingly argues that religious language can serve a philosophical purpose in suggesting how union with Beauty and the Good is experienced. The book as a whole provides precious information about many connections between Greek religion and culture that add depth and richness to particular Platonic passages.Chapter 1 sketches out a theory of the Forms and argues that as a group they are treated as "divine." The Phaedo connects the Forms to concepts of eternality, unchangingness, and intelligibility (50). Human beings can connect with the Forms through contemplation (51). Similarly, the Republic describes the Forms as divine and the soul that contemplates them as undergoing a kind of divinization. The Form of the Good is the highest divinity, and its pursuit is an encounter with the divine. Nightingale notes that this does not mean that the Good can be grasped completely. But insofar as we can contemplate the Forms, Plato thinks that we can come to know the Good and become more like it.In chapter 2, Nightingale turns to the topic of human longing, focusing on the Symposium. We humans, Plato believes, have two different but related kinds of longing for immortality. While human beings long for a divine kind of immortality that is ultimately unreachable, they can have a partial kind of immortality through desiring the Good and giving birth to "children" of the soul. The vision of the Beautiful can be a kind of divine epiphany that leads to wonder. Nightingale delves more deeply into the concept of epiphany through texts such as the Homeric Hymn to Dionysius and Herodotus, as well as sanctuary inscriptions. Epiphanies validate the Greek religious system. Similarly, Plato's metaphysics is validated [End Page 149] by a philosophical vision of the Forms. Nightingale's detailed account of Eleusinian mysteries brings together a wide range of source material with which many philosophers will be unfamiliar, and which is especially valuable for scholars seeking to interpret Platonic passages that allude to the mysteries. Nightingale also offers an engaging interpretation of Alcibiades as one who has encountered the divine in Socrates yet failed to understand it, and so has "profaned" the mysteries in the context of human relationship (107–13).Chapter 3 examines Socrates's accounts of the soul and immortality in the Phaedo. Whereas those...

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Marina McCoy
Boston College

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