Love, Friendship, Beauty, and the Good

Plato, Aristotle, and the Later Tradition

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Kevin Corrigan
Veritas
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , August
     2018.
     170 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532645495.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

 

Kevin Corrigan’s Love, Friendship, Beauty, and the Good, a crisply written libellus, begins with a disarmingly great opening sentence: “Since desire, friendship, and love, together with the search for truth, beauty, and goodness, are necessary for any human life, and yet nothing is more likely to get us into trouble, more enigmatic in the final analysis, and more potentially fatal, I want to examine some for these issues in Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and some other major figures in the later history of thought” (1). This is an ambitious task, beautifully carried out. The list of “major figures” to be consulted includes Porphyry, Plotinus, and Proclus, but not Origen or others in the Christian tradition, with the exception of Pseudo-Dionysius. What follows is a judicious balance of synopsis and critical analysis, gusseted with a generous quantity of quotation, much of it helpfully retained in Greek.

One of this book’s strengths lies in the capaciousness of its hermeneutical approach. I suspect that no one who picks up this book will be unfamiliar with Plato’s Apology or Republic, but few readers possess the ability to keep the whole of Plato’s corpus—much less the wider historical orbit of his thought—in mind while puzzling over specific passages. Such interpretive coherence is one of Corrigan’s gifts; his close readings of the primary texts struck me as consistently clear and well considered. I also appreciated the way in which Corrigan reads Aristotle as a fellow traveler to Plato, rather than merely a rival or successor. On topics such as the relation of love to motion (27) or pleasure and activity (93), Corrigan traces a hidden thread of continuity between the disparate views of Plato and Aristotle: “while their texts do, in fact, say very different things, they can also speak simultaneously in, to, and through each other” (118).

There are a few places where Corrigan seeks to cut against the grain of established scholarship. For instance, he makes a detailed case in support of the view that the beautiful and the good are not coincident classes, but that beauty is in some sense founded upon the good (34, 117. The point is arcane, but a matter of exegetical rigor. It would also appear to have some profound downstream implications—not least in the domain of theology, as when later Christian thinkers debated whether to include beauty among the divine attributes.

Another example of the author departing from established positions: Corrigan chafes against the common claim that Plato’s idealized view of love leaves no room for people who are flawed, fallible, and mired in “the ambiguities of ordinary experience” (3). In his view, a careful study of Alcibiades I and especially the Symposium must inevitably dispel this notion. Plato supplies his readers not only with dialogue and speeches, but with narrative furniture of character, setting, and plot, not to mention the tragic backstory of Socrates’ death. This means—to take but one prominent example—that we cannot praise Plato’s famous image of “the ladder of love” as a model of spiritual ascent without also recognizing how its meaning is inflected by the odd way in which Socrates frames it (secondhand, a bit of wisdom he learned from a certain wise woman in Mantinea), by the varied speeches that precede it (that of Agathon, for instance, whose praise of love is devoid of knowledge), or finally by the mix of persons who happen to be present at the party. The unexpected arrival of the drunken Alcibiades, by turns violent and vulnerable, prompts us to see that “fragility, vulnerability, and even the possibility of catastrophe are built into Plato’s treatments of friendship and love” (60).

Corrigan makes a persuasive case for such relational complexity in Plato, over against scholars who have tended to oversimplify Plato’s thought by relying on tired stereotypes. At the same time, in rereading the Symposium alongside Corrigan’s commentary, I found myself wondering less about philosophical complexity than moral clarity. Does the intrinsic messiness or complexity of love make an ascent to the good all but impossible? Such questions seem timely because the fictive world of the Symposium bears a disturbing resemblance to the world of our present day—whether in the form of child pornography, the prevalence of rape culture on college campuses, or the recent parade of wealthy men indicted for using their status to perpetrate sexual abuse. These twisted dynamics are most clearly seen in the speech of Pausanius (Symp. 180c–185c), who complains that Athenian fathers are far too protective of their good-looking sons. If “no action is either good or bad, honorable or shameful” (Symp. 181a), then what is really needed is a change in law or custom that would make it easier for high-minded men to take young lovers.

As Corrigan notes, what Pausanius advocates sounds perfectly sincere, but is also “a consummate recipe for sexual exploitation” (63). Reading between the lines, we find “unconscious amoral consequences hidden in what appear to be the best intentions” (64). If I were persuaded by the suggestion that Pausanius represents Plato’s own theory of love and friendship as improvement in virtue (63), I would be strongly tempted to give up reading Plato altogether. I am grateful to Corrigan for a work of excellent scholarship, but I also see the need to read Plato in the company of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dante.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bo Helmich is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Corrigan is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Emory University, Atlanta. He is the author of Gregory and Evagrius: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century (2009); Reason, Faith and Otherness in Neoplatonic and Early Christian Thought (2017); Plotinus, Ennead VI 8: On the Voluntary and on the Free Will of the One (2017, with John D. Turner).

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