Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.05

David Roochnik, Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character of Plato's Republic.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2003.  Pp. 158.  ISBN 0-8014-4087-4.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Colin A. Anderson, Philosophy, Hiram College (
Word count: 2369 words

It is Glaukon who voices the essential insight at the root of most Straussian interpretations of the Republic -- the distinction between a geometric and an erotic necessity (459d5). The distance between these two forms of necessity and the recalcitrance of the latter to rule by the former, contain the origin of the necessary collapse of Socrates' kallipolis, epitomized in and brought about by the failure of the philosopher-rulers to impose the "marriage-number." For Strauss-inspired interpretations of the Republic this is, in a certain sense, the central teaching of the text. The internal tensions and contradictions that grow out of this within the Republic make it impossible to read the dialogue as a straightforward political handbook for the budding philosopher-ruler. It is instead a philosophical work which attempts to think through the problem of justice. Rather than reaching a solution and packaging this in a doctrine, the text is exemplary for its philosophical deepening of the problem, its inhabiting of the tensions that traverse this problem, and its recognition of the irreducibility of the problem.

David Roochnik's (R. hereinafter) short, yet rich and provocative, book fits comfortably within this "Straussian" tradition,1 while developing an original reading of the structure of the text that sheds light on some of the most obscure and perplexing aspects of the dialogue, often revealing unrecognized subtleties and intricacies. R.'s central claim in this book is that the Republic has a dialectical structure. In this context, "dialectical" seems to include both a Socratico-Platonic and a quasi-Hegelian sense. In its Socratico-Platonic sense, it seems to mean that assertions represented in the Republic must be interpreted within the dynamic development of the whole conversation. Thus, "conclusions" are provisional and always open to, and perhaps even in need of, retrospective re-interpretation on the basis of later conversational developments. The preference for a colloquial meaning of "dialectic" -- understood as conversation -- rather than the more customary technical sense given to it in the middle and especially the late dialogues is defended in a lengthy appendix to the book. In the colloquial and non-technical sense, dialectic captures the dynamism and contingency of living conversation in opposition to the static necessity of a purely argumentative logical analysis. Most important of all is the non-linear character of conversation, which is characterized by digressions, interruptions, revisions, and qualifications. It is the revisionary character of the Republic that comprises the central insight of R.'s book.

Although R. emphasizes this Socratico-Platonic conception in his interpretation, it is a quasi-Hegelian sense that seems ultimately to structure his reading of the Republic. The book is organized in three chapters each corresponding to a thesis in a triadic dialectical progression: (1) the tripartite soul is an abstract static psychology; (2) the philosopher (and therefore the soul) can only be understood in terms of eros, which undermines the static psychology of Book IV sets it into motion; (3) the psychology of Books VIII-IX contains a dialectical synthesis of the abstract psychology and the erotic dynamism of the central books.

As should be clear from this schemata, R. takes the Republic to have a psychological rather than a political focus. He sees the analogy between city and soul, as Socrates himself claims, as an heuristic device enabling psychological and moral investigation.

The first chapter, "The Arithmetical" contains R.'s explication of the first stage of the Republic -- the founding of the kallipolis and the psychology of the tripartite soul. Unlike most commentators on the dialogue, R. argues that the analysis of the just city and the just soul are merely provisional in Socrates' view, containing an "abstraction" from the erotic dimension of the soul. The tripartite soul is not a "central doctrine" ascribable to Plato but rather only a provisional and limited perspective on the soul. To understand its meaning thus requires that we situate it within the unfolding analysis of the whole of the Republic. R. will argue in the remainder of the book that it is in fact undermined by the interruption of the erotic in Book V and replaced by a more elaborate psychology in Books VIII and IX.

The inadequacies of the psychology of Book IV, which have been discussed often in the literature, result from the methodological starting point of the conversation, the analogy between city and soul. When pressed, the analogy seems to result in one of two undesirable consequences: (1) an infinity of parts in the soul (22); (2) the presence in the soul of something that is "not me," a "brute" irrational force (27). R. also notes the impossibility of explaining sophrosune and philosophy on the basis of the tripartite soul (20 and 25). More interestingly R. identifies the specific feature of the analogy between the city and soul that generates these difficulties -- the decision to treat the pair "structurally" or "arithmetically."2

It may be surprising to many readers that Plato, according to R., considers the "arithmetical" nature of the analysis to be a weakness. For R. the "arithmetical" names an analysis that decomposes the soul into numerically distinct parts which are only externally related to one another (cf. 21). The "arithmetical," however, becomes a value-laden term for R. and seems to bear a great deal of weight in the argument. For R. the "arithmetical" is "static," "discrete," "determinate," and even "dry." Like the critique of tekhne in his previous book, there is something troubling about this assertion.3 It seems to share a view of mathematics that rings of Heidegger and Nietzsche rather than Plato and the Academy. In making his case for this view, however, R. turns to the curriculum of the philosopher-rulers (30-37). He argues that the mathematical possesses only an intermediate status, impelling the philosopher-students to transcend it towards the dialectical. This more moderate language allows R. to bolster his interpretation of the provisional character of the tripartite soul, yet it does not seem apparent that the intermediate character of the mathematical in the account of the paideia of the philosopher-rulers and on the divided line involves the same view of its deficiencies as R.'s description of numbers as "static" and "dry."

The second chapter contains the moment of negativity -- the seeming contrary to the first stage that undermines it and calls for synthesis in the quasi-Hegelian Aufhebung of the final stage. This negative moment is eros, specifically the eros of the philosopher. Of the three chapters in this book, this is both the shortest and in some regards the least radical. The ground of this portion of the argument has been well prepared by scholars such as Drew Hyland and Stanley Rosen.4 The task of the chapter is to show how the philosopher-rulers' erotic nature is suppressed by their paideia and how the kallipolis ultimately defeats itself. Thus we reach a central thesis of "Straussian" readings of the Republic -- the self-undermining of the city in speech. In the kallipolis, eros is suppressed according to R. This suppression, however, makes the education of philosopher-rulers impossible, for eroticism is essential for philosophy. Since the philosopher-rulers are the condition for the possibility of the kallipolis, the kallipolis is self-defeating.

What is most striking about R.'s reading here is that it takes the description of the paideia of the philosopher-rulers as only another one-sided and provisional stage in the development of the Republic. Rather than containing the central epistemological and metaphysical truth of the dialogue, for R. the proposed education of the philosopher is flawed: "the exclusively mathematical curriculum proposed for the guardians in book 7 ... is too one-sided to nourish the philosophical soul. As Socrates makes clear in books 8-10, a life of freedom and an exposure to human diversity is needed for that" (69-70). The philosopher needs to be educated in a regime that allows for the "flourishing of Eros. This regime is democracy" (77). There is much that is surprising here, but fundamentally R.'s interpretation rests on his view of the paideia of the philosopher-rulers -- and indeed of the citizens and city in general -- as a "suppression of eros." On R.'s telling, there seem to be two alternatives, suppression or allowing to flourish. This would, however, seem to ignore the original metaphors that Socrates invokes at the outset of the discussion of the city in speech, those of health, sickness, and remedy. The whole course of the discussion after Glaukon's decision to swell the city with fevered eros has aimed at katharsis or purification. Purification is not, however, suppression simpliciter. It is transformation and re-orientation not extirpation: in Book VII it is epistrophe and paideia.5

The last chapter of R.'s book is the most innovative and, if it is successful, achieves significant advances in the scholarship on Plato's Republic. The last three books of the Republic have seemed to many to unbalance the Republic: given the density of the previous seven books, the "payoff" from the last three seems thin. Certainly there are those few pages containing the critique of democracy, the final "arguments" for the choice of the just life, the critique of mimesis, and the immortality of the soul, but great swaths have seemed uncharacteristically meandering to some readers. R. seeks to rehabilitate the argument of these last books, discovering in them the fulfillment of the dialectical character of the dialogue. It would be the great virtue of R.'s reading to place the final three books as a culmination of the Republic rather than as a slightly awkward conclusion and appendix.

There are three significant claims in this last chapter, which is usefully titled "Democracy, Psychology and Poetry." First, Democracy: "despite appearance to the contrary ... the Republic actually offers a qualified and cautious defense, rather than a resounding condemnation of democracy." More than that, it is a defense of "democracy, 'multiculturalism' and erotic 'diversity'" (91). That Plato has a view of democracy more complicated than a superficial reading of the dialogue would suggest has become more generally accepted. R.'s interpretation, however, impels him at times to a stronger view than many others, and even he himself in some passages, would seem to want to advance. For example, "probably only in a democracy is political philosophy, at least of the sort practiced in the Republic possible" (emphasis in original, 79). This claim rests ultimately on his reading of the education of the philosophers, who need exposure to "erotic diversity" in order to cultivate their erotic natures. Thus, democratic pluralism and multiculturalism appear to be necessary conditions for philosophy. One might think that Plato would tell us that democracy is the best form of government except for (almost) all the others.

Second, Psychology: "stories can tell much about who we are in ways arguments based on the PNO [Principle of Non-Opposition] and its 'at the same time' [the condition that allows Socrates to distinguish the three parts of the soul in Book IV] never can" (97). Having been shown proleptically that the tripartite soul is inadequate, we have been waiting to see what an adequate psychology will look like. R. argues that temporality and eros are inextricably linked. Thus by introducing eros, psychology necessarily becomes diachronic rather than structural. It takes the form of poetry rather than mathematical analysis. Psychology cannot be structural but rather must be narrative psychology. It is in the psycho-biographies of the oligarchic, aristocratic, democratic, and tyrannical men that we can discover the true psychological teaching of the Republic.

Finally, Poetry: "philosophy includes a poetical moment" (130). The view of narrative psychology that R. uncovers suggests that poets might come closer to the truth about our souls than philosophers. It is thus necessary that Socrates re-open the question of poetry at the beginning of Book X. It will perhaps be surprising, however, that the discussion of poetry occurs in the terms of tripartite psychology, rather than the narrative psychology that has replaced it. The dialectical structure that R. has uncovered might seem to stutter at the beginning of Book X, regressing to an earlier inadequate psychology. R. argues, however, that the critique of mimesis is an attempt to differentiate philosophy and poetry, which have become inextricably entwined in the previous books and are running the risk of being conflated. In the same way that the arithmetical presents only an intermediate stage for the philosopher -- a moment of the Aufhebung of philosophical paideia -- so poetry must be shown also to be "abstract," to fail to do justice to its antithesis, the mathematical. The critique of mimesis thus is the critique of poetry from the perspective of the mathematical -- "it would be valid only from the perspective of a divine being capable of apprehending the rational structure of the whole at a glance" (120) -- and cannot simply be identified with the philosopher's view of poetry.

With this last discovery R. reaches the deeply paradoxical character of the philosopher -- that the philosopher exists in the tension between the poetic and the mathematical, unable to resolve it without becoming either merely a mathematician or a poet. This philosopher is not, of course, the expert in ruling the city, but rather Socrates himself: "And yet, who really is the philosopher? Is he the one who contemplates the harmony of the spheres and the dry wonders of the Forms? Or is he more like Odysseus, fluent in the ways of the human world and primed for adventures? Socrates, of course, incorporates both ... [Socrates] is the dialectical character of the Republic (129)."

There is much to question and examine in this book. Its conclusions are striking, indeed radical, and need more careful examination than this review allows. There will be some, I am sure, for whom this revisionary Republic will be implausible. This book should not, however, be dismissed too easily. R. has offered a clearly articulated, carefully argued, and hermeneutically innovative reading of the most complex and difficult text in the Platonic corpus. The book is selective in its focus and rigorous in its development. It makes no attempt to exhaust the inexhaustible Republic, no attempt to solve all of the dilemmas raised by this text or by the voluminous literature on the dialogue. It picks its fights carefully and strategically, never losing itself in scholarly minutiae, always illuminating through its disagreements. It is ultimately a provocative book.


1.   I use this label "Straussian" to indicate a hermeneutic approach to the Platonic dialogues and not, of course, in the recently popularized sense in which it is used to denote certain so-called "neo-conservatives." Whether there is any connection between a particular reading of the Republic and a certain conservative political theory is a matter for serious consideration, but certainly not in this context. R. refers to Strauss in several places in his text, but by no means announces his reading to be a "Straussian" reading; in fact he explicitly attempts to distance himself from Strauss' use of irony as a hermeneutic principle (cf. 74-76 and 91). Nonetheless, there is more than a sort of "family resemblance" between Strauss' reading of the Republic and R.'s here to justify the qualified and careful use of this term.
2.   In his discussion of the literature on the psychology of the tripartite soul, R. has greatest difficulty with those interpreters who are philosophically closest to him on this problem. For example, Charles Kahn has argued that the distinction among the parts of the soul is a distinction among desires and not among faculties. Interestingly this is similar to the view that R. will defend. R.'s response to this work is to call foul on the interpretation because "these commentators do not justify, explain, or even bother to wonder why it is legitimate to refer to the later books of the Republic in order to bolster the psychology of book 4" (18). He concedes the substantive philosophical point but rejects the hermeneutics that leads to this point. Without an argument that, for some reason, these commentators could not offer such an explanation, or without an argument that "refutes" alternative hermeneutic starting points, this critique remains unpersuasive.
3.   Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne. Penn State Press, 1996.
4.   See Stanley Rosen's "The Role of Eros in Plato's Republic," in The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought (Routledge 1988) and Drew Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues, (State University of New York Press, 1995).
5.   Cf. 399e and R.'s discussion on 85 where he renders Socrates' diakatharairontes as "purge" with its connotations of expulsion, rather than "purification."

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