R. B. Clark, The Law Most Beautiful and Best : Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws
Randall B. Clark, The Law Most Beautiful and Best : Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws, Lanham-Boulder-New York-Oxford, Lexington Books, 2003, 179 p.
1In recent years, several studies have been devoted to questions surrounding the preambles and the role of persuasion, both rational and irrational, in the Laws. The import of the medical analogy also captured the attention of several interpreters interested in the place granted to rhetoric in this last work of Plato. In the context of such questioning, Clark’s book explores a dimension of the analogy between legislation and therapeia often neglected : the presence, be it metaphorical or not, of ‘magical-religious’ therapeutic practices in the Laws. In fact, the author seeks to show that the rational medicine (of Hippocratic type) used explicitly as a model by the Athenian Stranger in his legislative task, is not the only aspect of the medical analogy Plato employs in this dialogue. A thorough examination of the text reveals that the Athenian relies and touches on a persuasive form inspired by wilder elements of traditional Greek therapeutic culture, such as : ‘shamanic’ purification, sorcery, exorcism, incubation, oracular prescriptions, rites linked to Mystery cult practices, the use of ‘voodoo’ dolls, musical enchantment, magic charms, incantatory poetry, as well as intoxication by alcohol, aphrodisiacs and hallucinogens. When anticipating the resistance that certain audacious legislative measures could provoke among the citizens, the Athenian Stranger favours these less philosophical means of persuasion in order to avoid resorting to coercion. Thus, in Clark’s view, we see a symbolic rehabilitation of religious medicine and magic in the Laws, in which Plato recognizes a need for recourse to both rational and irrational modes of therapy if the city’s health is to be preserved.
2The chapter following the introduction is devoted to the traditional practice of ‘magical-religious’ treatment, both by itinerant priests and in the temples (detailed attention is paid to worship of Asklepios). The third chapter focuses on the practice of medicine in the Hippocratic tradition. While chapter 4 concentrates on the kinship between this tradition and the Platonic innovation of legal preambles, in chapters 5 and 6, Clark seeks to show how Plato subverts the bringing together of legislation and rational medicine. Indeed, according to Clark, the many irrational forms of therapy Plato mentions in the Laws counterpoise the Athenian’s valorization of rational medicine. Finally, the two last chapters explore the way in which one of these irrational forms of medicine, the incantatory therapy, plays a central part in the Athenian Stranger’s suggested approach to controlling the devastations caused by three potentially sickening desires : food, drink and sexual drive.
- 1 « La doctrine médicale des Indo-Européens », Revue de l’histoire des religions 130, 1945, p. 5-12. (...)
- 2 L. Brisson, « L’incantation de Zalmoxis dans le Charmide (156d-157c) », Plato : Euthydemus, Lysis, (...)
3Although the bibliography is fairly complete, one can object to the fact that Clark does not mention the study of Benveniste, who, following Darmesteter, suggested that Indo-European culture owned a medicine based on a tripartite classification of illnesses and treatments (a plant medicine, an incantation medicine and a cutter medicine)1. Clark also ignores the recent study in which Luc Brisson argues that this tripartite division is to be found in Plato’s work, especially the Charmides and the Republic2. This is unfortunate since it would have been interesting to see if Brisson’s hypothesis may apply to the Laws. Had he taken these studies into account, Clark could have given a subtler description of the relationship between rational and irrational medicine in this dialogue. Indeed, according to Beneveniste and Brisson’s theses, far from being opposed, plant medicine, incantation medicine and cutter medicine were complementary. It is also regrettable that Clark could not discuss G.E.R. Lloyd’s book, In the Grip of Disease, Studies in the Greek Imagination (Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press) published in 2003. As I previously highlighted in a book review which appeared in the second volume of the Études Platoniciennes (2006), through a close examination of philosophical as well as medical and poetic texts, Lloyd challenges the idea according to which religious medicine and the cult of Asklepios would have been supplanted by scientific Hippocratic medicine. His analysis shows that these two kinds of medicine coexisted during the classical period and that they share many features despite their different foundations and the rivalry that opposed them. Now, if this is accurate, Clark’s thesis, according to which Plato aims at rehabilitating ‘magical-religious’ medicine in the Laws, seems to lose much of its relevance. Conversely, if one chooses to acknowledge the importance devoted to this irrational type of medicine in this work, it perhaps becomes difficult to claim – as Lloyd does in his book – that Plato tried to establish the authority of philosophical practice by stressing its similarity with Hippocratic medicine. In brief, it is a shame that these two interpreters did not have the chance to confront their theses. One can only hope that such a critical discussion will eventually take place in the future.
4In closing, one ought to know that the style of this work may lack appeal to purists. Indeed, it features a curious mélange of erudition and examples drawn from North-American pop culture that may come as a shock due to the colloquial tone employed and the anachronistic character of certain comparisons.
1 « La doctrine médicale des Indo-Européens », Revue de l’histoire des religions 130, 1945, p. 5-12. This text is absent from Clark’s bibliography.
2 L. Brisson, « L’incantation de Zalmoxis dans le Charmide (156d-157c) », Plato : Euthydemus, Lysis, Charmides, Sankt Augustin, Academia Verlag, 2000, p. 278-86.Haut de page
Pour citer cet article
Annie Larivée, « R. B. Clark, The Law Most Beautiful and Best : Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws », Études platoniciennes, 4 | 2007, 401-402.
Annie Larivée, « R. B. Clark, The Law Most Beautiful and Best : Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 4 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2016, consulté le 25 avril 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/946Haut de page
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