Plato on Drugs, Imagination, and Ecology

There are always so many books on Plato coming out, it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re not a devoted Plato scholar (and I’m not).  In any case, I’ve been trying to keep up with a few of the recent books on Plato.  First, a new book on Plato and ecology was recently released, William Ophuls, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (MIT Press, 2011).  Ophuls does a good job of indicating the importance of traditional (i.e., pre-modern) wisdom for developing viable responses to contemporary environmental problems.  Ophuls argues that modern civilization has largely misunderstood Plato, particularly the mystical and shamanic dimensions of Plato’s thinking and Plato’s similarity to Daoist and Native American worldviews. 

Ophuls attempts to show that Plato isn’t the patriarchal dualist that many environmentalists make him out to be, yet Ophuls claims that he isn’t romanticizing Plato.  Plato isn’t an ecological noble savage, but is a “more experienced and wiser savage.”  Ophuls uses a lot of natural law theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and C. G. Jung to develop his political ecology.  Overall, I don’t find Ophuls convincing.  Although he makes assertions that he isn’t romanticizing Plato, he doth protest too much.  He falls into the typical narrative for which the ecological woes of the modern world are due to its disconnection from the spiritual fabric of the universe, which was palpable to traditional/ancient peoples.  That’s far too simplistic of a reading of the emergence of modernity, and a call for more spiritual-material connectedness is far too simple to provide a comprehensive and long-term political solutions to ecological problems. 

In other Plato news, Sonja Tanner has a nice book on Plato’s sense of imagination, In Praise of Plato’s Poetic Imagination (Lexington Books, 2010).  In contrast to the caricature of Plato as an anti-poet and anti-imagination super-rationalist, Tanner shows that there is a more complex role of imagination in Plato, and that complexity can help shine light on contemporary debates about the relationship between philosophy and poetry or, more generally, philosophy and literature.  In particular, I like Tanner’s detailed attention to Plato’s engagement with the “pharmacological structure” of imagination. 

Whether exploring the imagination or political ecology, it seems to me that the key to working with Plato is the complexity and ambiguity of Plato’s pharmakon.  Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s articulation of “drugs” (pharmaka) is already well-known, and more recently Isabelle Stengers has adopted the pharmakon to refer to the kind of knowledge cultivated by cosmopolitics.  Derrida and Stengers have a lot to contribute to a more pharmacological Plato, but the most thorough and comprehensive account of Plato’s pharmacology comes from Michael Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Lexington Books, 2011).  I’m only a few pages into Rinella’s book, so I don’t have much to say yet.  It’s extremely well-researched.  It’s basically an extension of Foucault’s analysis of sexual ethics to an ethics of drugs, intoxication, and ecstasy.

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