Tag Archives: Phaedrus

Enthusiasm and Divine Madness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Enthusiasm and Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue Phaedrus [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Josef Pieper, trans Richard Winston, Clara Winston.

Pieper Enthusiasm and Divine Madness

Had you told me I could enjoy an interpretation of Plato’s Phaedrus written by a German Neo-Thomistic philosopher noted for his sympathetic translation of C.S. Lewis, I would have been quite skeptical. Nevertheless, Pieper’s Enthusiasm and Divine Madness is accessible and engaging, although hardly as profound as other approaches I have read to the same dialogue. 

To his credit, Pieper is concerned to encourage readers to explore the real issues of the dialogue, and not merely to treat it as a textual artifact. He assumes throughout, of course, that those readers will be Christian, heterosexual, and probably male. In his treatment, he proceeds through Plato’s text from start to finish, quoting seldom, but paraphrasing nearly its entirety.

The scene-setting and discussion of the earlier segments of the dialogue are especially good. Pieper is acutely conscious of how terribly funny so much of the repartee is. When it comes to discussing the frenzies, he dodges much of the matter of antique religion, evidently in an effort to keep the business “relevant” to the reader. In fact only the Muses are named out of the several deities in this section — Dionysos, Apollo, and Aphrodite go unmentioned. (For a contrasting treatment that grounds its relevance in those three gods particularly, see Aleister Crowley’s “Energized Enthusaism.”) Likewise, his treatment of the closing myth of Thoth both elides the divine characters of Tammuz and Thoth, and embraces the most superficial reading of the paradoxes in this writing about talking about talking about writing. (The reader who seeks an extreme sport of interpretation for this section must look to “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Derrida’s Dissemination.)

So while I may have found some of Pieper’s readings a bit shallow — especially in his anxieties to make Plato palatable for Christians — I still think he does a fine job of providing some context for the modern reader of the Phaedrus, and more importantly, throwing into relief the nature of the dilemmas addressed by the text. He intrudes very little of his own conclusions regarding the questions raised, even if he presumes a little too much about his readers. I suppose the presumptions were statistically warranted anyhow — at least in the mid-20th century when he wrote this book.


Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece by Jesper Svenbro, tranlated by Janet Lloyd, part of the Myth and Poetics series edited by Gregory Nagy, the 1993 paperback from Cornell University Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Jesper Svenbro Janet Lloyd Phrasikleia from Cornell University Press

“One of the most haunting early examples of Greek alphabetical writing appears on the life-sized Archaic funery statue of a young girl. The inscription speaks for Phrasikleia, who ‘shall always be called maiden,’ for she has received this name from the gods instead of marriage.

First published in French in 1988, this extraordinary book traces the meaning and function of reading from its very beginnings in Greek oral culture through the development of silent reading. Focusing on metaphors of reading and writing, Jesper Svenbro offers a series of rich analyses of sepulchral and votive inscriptions and myths as well as works of epic and lyrical poetry, legal exegesis, drama, and philosophy. Svenbro draws upon the theoretical insights of Foucault as he discusses such texts as the Iliad, the poetry of Sappho, and the ABC Show by Callias. With reference to the shift to silent reading, Svenbro illuminates a pervasive metaphor in Greek culture—the pederastic paradigm, in which the reader submits to the domination of the writer. In the central section of Plato’s Phaedrus, however, Svenbro discerns an alternative model: reader and writer mutually engaged in the search for truth.

Phrasikleia opens up fascinating new perspectives on the culture of ancient Greece and the genesis of reading. A wide range of classicists, literary theorists, anthropologists, and ancient historians will welcome its availability in Janet Lloyd’s lucid and fluent translation.” — back cover