CJ Review: Rhodes on Shear, Polis and Revolution

posted with permission:

Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xv + 368. Hardcover, £60.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76044-7.

Reviewed by P. J. Rhodes, University of Durham

Julia Shear was one of a group of scholars assembled by Robin Osborne to work on “The Anatomy of Cultural Revolution, Athens 430–380 b.c.,” in Cambridge between 2001 and 2005, and this book embodies her contribution to the project. Her theme is the responses of the restored democracies to the oligarchic régimes of 411–410 and 404–403, designed to reclaim for democracy sites in the city to which the oligarchs had laid claim, and to establish democracy as the traditional constitution (patrios politeia), and indeed as the only legitimate and possible constitution. She is knowledgeable about the literary and epigraphic texts and the archaeology, and she weaves a rich tapestry.

Shear starts with the oath sworn in 409 according to the decree of Demophantus ap. Andoc. 1.96–8, and the decree of Theozotides for the sons of those killed fighting against the oligarchy, SEG xxviii 46, which she dates c. 402 (on both of these texts see further below). These allow her to introduce the themes of the chapters which follow. Ch. 2 discusses the régimes of 411–410, in particular the ways in which they enlisted the past in support of their innovations and made political use of particular locations in the city. Then chs. 3–5 look at aspects of the democratic response in and after 410: documents emphasized the regular functioning of the democratic machinery, including Cleisthenes’ council, and the revised code of laws published in the Stoa Basileios claimed Draco and Solon for the democracy; the acropolis was reclaimed with the resumption of work on the Erechtheum, and the building of a new bouleuterion after the old had been contaminated by the submissive council of 412/1 and the Four Hundred began, together with the publication of the law code, a development of the agora as a space for citizens; oaths and the Dionysia were used to unite the people as democrats and to display the power of the demos.

The second period of oligarchy and restoration are given comparable treatment. Ch. 6 discusses the Thirty, stressing that they wanted not only power but a reform of the laws in ways congenial to them, and that they too laid claim to the acropolis and agora, and also the Pnyx (Shear accepts Plutarch’s attribution of Pnyx II to them). Ch. 7 focuses on the reconciliation, the oaths and the attempt to reunite the citizen body, and the problems in making the settlement work. Chs. 8–10 look at the aspects of the democratic response which were studied for the first restoration in chs. 3–5: inscriptions (including the resumed revision of the laws), their formulation and their location; further developments in the agora, including the court buildings in the north-east, the mint in the south-east, and the statues of Conon and Evagoras set up after the battle of Cnidus in 394; rituals to reunite the demos, in which the recent struggle was represented as a polemos against foreign enemies (thanks to Spartan support for the Thirty) rather than stasis in which citizens were opposed to citizens, and the reenactment of the rituals as people read the inscribed texts; constitutional changes such as the distinction between laws and decrees, to make another overthrow of the democracy more difficult. Ch. 11 sums up the main points, noting that the second restoration had to respond not only to the second oligarchy but also to what had worked in the first restoration and what had not.

There is a great deal here to enlighten and stimulate, even if one does not accept all of Shear’s claims. In particular, her discussion of the architecture of the two phases of the revision of the laws makes a major advance. However, those who seek are apt to find, and to this reader the book seems to contain a certain amount of wishful finding. No text states when and why, or even that, the new bouleuterion was built: Shear’s view that it was begun as a response to 411–410 and was in use by 404–403 relies on an inference from its dimensions and from Xen. Hell. 2.3.55 that it had no vestibule (but it still has a vestibule in the latest agora Site Guide, and indeed in Shear’s fig. 2). The dating of the court buildings and the mint immediately after, and in association with, the restoration of 403 is speculative. Given that already before 411 the basileus and the council worked in the agora, and some of the courts met in the agora though not in dedicated buildings, I do not see as great a change of emphasis as Shear in the developments there of the late fifth and early fourth centuries. Guesses, indeed attractive guesses, once advanced are used as building-blocks: that the Athenians swore the reconciliation oaths of 403 at Agrae, organized by tribes and demes; that Theozotides’ decree was set up in front of the Stoa Basileios (this is qualified by “probably”). In the statues of Conon and Evagoras I see an Athenian over-reaction, to appropriate what was in fact a Persian victory over Spartans who claimed to be fighting for the Greeks, rather than a continuation of the democratic restoration by representing them as democratic heroes.

Whenever one publishes, one risks the misfortune of being too early for important new material. Theozotides’ decree for the sons of dead democrats (but not his proposal attacked in a speech by Lysias) is attributed to the first restoration rather than the second by A. P. Matthaiou:[[1]] in one footnote Shear notes the forthcoming publication and expresses doubt but does not know Matthaiou’s arguments. Shear builds a good deal on the decree of Demophantus and other documents quoted in Andoc. 1, but a strong attack on the authenticity of those documents will be made by E. M. Harris and M. Canevaro,[[2]] and if that attack is judged successful some of her points will be undermined.

There is still room, then, for further discussion, but this is a good book which contains much worthy of discussion, and it deserves a warm welcome.


[[1]] A. P. Matthaiou, τὰ ἐν τῆι στήληι γεγραμμένα (Athens, 2011) 71–81.

[[2]] E. M. Harris & M. Canevaro, “The Documents in Andocides’ On the Mysteries”, CQ n.s. 62 (2012), forthcoming.

CJ Review: Murphy on Adluri, Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy

posted with permission:

Vishwa Adluri, Parmenides, Plato, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence. Continuum Studies in Ancient Philosophy. London and New York: Continuum Books. Pp. xv + 212. Hardback, £65.00/$120.00. ISBN 978-0-8264-5753-0.

Reviewed by David J. Murphy, The Nightingale-Bamford School

In this highly original study of Parmenides’ poem and Plato’s response in the Phaedrus, Vishwa Adluri identifies the leading problem for both thinkers as “how do we speak/write about the finite, fragile, irreplaceable, incarnate fate of specific mortals, when language is, in some sense, outside of time?” (94). The inspiration for this book came in part from Adluri’s desire to pay homage, as Plato did to Socrates, to his mentor, Reiner Schürmann. One of Schürmann’s themes was the radical individuality of the mortal singular, which metaphysics cannot capture. Philosophy trades in language and argument, logos, which are abstracted from the things that form their subject matter. Yet we its practitioners are born, thrive, and die in time, each of us weaving a unique web of experience that defines us as mortal singulars. Mortality, “individual-being-in-time” (55), is the great problematic of the human, the stark divide for the Greeks between human and god. Philosophy misses its mark if it does not help us “belong to [our] own death” and, thus knowing, bear “untransferable responsibility” for self and actions (20). Parmenides and Plato so help us by depicting, not theorizing, the journeys of the kouros, the “youth,” and of Socrates, who return from logos about timeless being to self-knowledge in our home among fellow mortals, the world of nature, life and death.

This book is for readers with a background in ancient philosophy. After a Foreword by Luc Brisson there follow five sections: Introduction and Part I, setting out Adluri’s thesis and key concepts; Part II, an exegesis of Parmenides’ poem; Part III, Plato’s response; Part IV, conclusion; Appendix, translation and brief commentary. A bibliography and index of things and names close the volume.

In Part I, a key concept for Adluri is the polarity logos-muthos. Muthos (“account” or “narrative”) grasps individual mortal existence by foregrounding time and thus, the individual. Adluri finds a tripartite mythical structure in Parmenides’ poem: proem proper to the youth and his mortal journey; speech of the goddess about unchanging being; muthos of the poem as a whole, which articulates both (40). Parmenides’ message is to be sought in the structure of the entire work. The goddess’ second speech picks up important motifs already present in the proem, which is replete with action words that establish temporality, and nouns and prefixes that create multiplicity (mares, cities, maidens, paths, polu- compounds).

A second polarity is thumos-psukchê. Defining soul as self-awareness, Adluri distinguishes two souls as far back as Homer: thumos, the old “blood soul,” seat of the mortal person, and psukchê, “breath soul.” The latter gradually appropriates the functions of the former in Greek thought “except mortality” (25, Adluri’s emphasis). Adluri makes thumos the “cornerstone of [his] philosophy of radical individuality” and the key to his interpretation of Parmenides (27). Adluri contends that thumos, time-bound, singular, and desiring to overcome its mortality (cf. Homeric thumos’ woe at the prospect of death), marks the mortal as Parmenides’ subject from the first line of the poem (fr. 1.1, “… carry me as far as thumos might reach,” tr. Adluri). We attempt to “cure” mortal anxiety by immersing ourselves in intellection, or “timeless interpretation of phusis in logos” (28). We transcend time only in language, however, forgetting our still-present mortality. To make the birth-to-death trajectory of life central again, philosophy must recover the structure of journey, which Parmenides and Plato give us.

In Part II, Adluri devotes relatively little space to the goddess’ arguments that Being is unitary. Borrowing from Charles Kahn, he stresses that the durative aspect and locative value of “to be” set up the goddess’ realm as “merely grammatical” (76). Thinking and being can be the same (fr. 3) only in metaphysical logoi. Adluri emphasizes instead how the goddess brings the youth back to nature from metaphysics. He rightly points out that the goddess accords being to nature in fr. 1.31-32 (“…how it was inevitable for things seeming to be, ta dokounta, to be, einai, assuredly, dokimôs”) and fr. 8.25 (“…for being approaches to being”). For Parmenides, “[t]hings that exist spatio-temporally do exist in a certain way, although not as fully as being” (143). Against dismissals of the second speech, as well as attempts to reconcile the speeches by reinterpreting the first’s monism (e.g. Mourelatos, Curd, Thanassas), Adluri argues that in the second speech, the goddess deconstructs her first speech. Parmenides shows up the conflict between metaphysics (first speech) and our world of growth, change and decay (second speech), the proper object of mortal knowledge (84). Adluri in fact could have contended even more forcefully that the text establishes the youth’s return to the cosmos, for komisai (fr. 2.1) can mean “carry… [sc.
my word] away” (Kirk–Raven), not merely “keep well” or “take well to heart.” Only regenerative nature (cf. daimoness who steers all things, fr. 12.3) remains as a hope. Readers will benefit from Adluri’s many insights into connotations and cultural background of the poem. Not all may be persuaded, however, that Parmenides emphasizes the mortal singular to the degree that Adluri maintains, for even the second speech is about natural phenomena, not individual persons.

In Part III, Adluri locates Parmenides’ deepest influence on Plato in the Phaedrus. Both works put soul at the center of a journey from men’s ways through contemplation of eternal being to self-knowledge. Against Derrida’s analysis of the Phaedrus as a critique of writing as pharmakon, drug/poison, Adluri maintains that all language, since it uses abstractions, is shown as a problem. Derrida neglects the individuality of characters (122), but Plato gives us, more importantly than the Forms, the mortal Socrates, who will become sacrificial victim, pharmakos. By accepting the death of Socrates as a philosophically worthy topic, we can hope to “restore Socratic philosophy as anthropology, that is, an account of the anthropos” (98). Philosophy’s task is to know by linguistic categories and to recognize the singular person in love and death (124-25). More clarification of hermeneutical method was needed, however, for, although rejecting a “mouthpiece” interpretation of utterances of Plato’s characters (100), Adluri says much about Plato’s views without establishing how to go from “Socrates says” to “Plato means.”

Schürmann was an expert on Martin Heidegger, who said much about Parmenides. In Part IV Adluri turns to Heidegger’s claim that metaphysics reached its end in Nietzsche. Heidegger wanted to reach back to pre-Socratic thought, before, as he held, Plato separated essence from existing things. Adluri criticizes Heidegger’s description of temporality for neglecting the concretely existent, mortal individual. Adluri traces this tendency to the influence of Luther, whom Heidegger was reading in the 1920s: the Christian attitude of waiting for the parousia prevented Heidegger from fully understanding “the Greek experience of time in its twofold aspect of fluxing becoming and eternal being” (133). Parmenides and Plato, using the language of initiation, better preserve individuality and our ultimate concern, our mortal life.

The Appendix provides an accurate translation of Parmenides’ difficult language, and Adluri’s literal rendering helps one see how he construes the Greek. The notes explain Adluri’s editorial choices and give reasons when his results differ from those of other scholars. Two passages needed comment: (1) the disputed text at fr. 8.19; (2) fr. 8.38, where “all these things that mortals believe true … shall be a [mere] name,” ὄνομ’ ἔσται (DK, Kirk–Raven, Tarán, Coxon), has advantages over “all things … have been named,” ὀνόμασται (also Woodbury, Curd), since the goddess has just said that “there is nothing apart from what is, and Fate has bound it down to be entire …” One quibble: it is circular to use ἄστη, a conjecture adopted at fr. 1.3, as evidence that the Phaedrus borrows city imagery from Parmenides (97), and then to invoke ἄστει at Phdr. 230d5 as evidence for that conjecture (138).

The volume is attractively prepared, with few typos and incorrect page numbers in cross references. I did wish for an index locorum.

This book is not for those looking for focus on Parmenides’ purported monism, or for a comprehensive review of the scholarship. It is for those who want to think in a new way about familiar works. Students of Parmenides, Plato, and indeed, of other philosophers who write narrative, will not look at these thinkers the same again after this provocative reading.

Socrates was a mortal singular. Socrates the character is a pseudo-object, wholly constituted by the text. “The mortal singular” is an abstraction. Philosophical writing, like all language, is logos. I think Adluri would agree that even discourse about the mortal singular is implicated in the stasis that he finds in logos. We look forward to Adluri’s projected rethinking of transcendence beyond metaphysics (8, 135), for it promises important insights about how philosophical writing can be, not “a form of idolatry” (4), but authentically human.