Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.13

Gerald M. Mara, The Civic Conversations of Thucydides and Plato: Classical Political Philosophy and the Limits of Democracy.   Albany:  SUNY Press, 2008.  Pp. x, 327.  ISBN 9780791474990.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Diego De Brasi, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg (
Word count: 3400 words

Gerald Mara (hereafter M.) presents to the academic community a complex, insightful and quite difficult book, whose audience, it should be immediately said, could only be one of specialists.1 The reading of his book entails, indeed, not only knowledge of his previous book on Socrates,2 where M. traces in more detail the opposition between Socratic logos and ergon, but also a reasonably deep acquaintance with modern democratic theorists such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and John Rawls.

The first chapter, which represents a sort of introduction to the central analysis of Thucydides' History and some Platonic Dialogues, elucidates M.'s goals. Beginning with an observation about the different effects of progressive democratization on political practices and on political thought, the author sets out the principal thesis of his book: that the power and justice of democratic institutions need continually to be reexamined, this scrutiny having a valuable comparative source in the works of Thucydides and Plato (cf. 2). This means, in practical terms, that M. will compare Thucydides' narrative and Plato's διαλέγεσθαι with four types of modern democratic theory, viz: rational choice theory (chapter 2), deliberative democratic theory (chapter 3), the interpretation of democratic culture (chapter 4) and postmodernism (chapter 5). The author proceeds to explain the method he will use (reconstructive readings) and the aim he pursues: against the interpretation of both classical authors as enemies of democracy, M. argues that (3):

they address the limits of democracy by extending the borders of what can legitimately be talked about within democratic political deliberations. Neither author believes that establishing democratic political institutions is a sufficient guarantee against mistaken or destructive political acts. And both suggest that the language of democratic political culture resists some intellectual sources whose presence is vital for democracy's well-being. However, these criticisms do not mean that democracy can or should be replaced with any alternative form of politics. Instead, I show the ways in which both authors broaden practical discourse, potentially making democratic politics more thoughtful and more just.

To do that, M. presents three areas in which, according to him, democratic practices and theory are still in need of problematization: the question of civic/human rights, the question of democratic governance, and the question of democratic quality of life. He argues that the four modern democratic theories that are going to be analyzed through the book cannot offer an exhaustive examination of these problems. Thereafter he sets out why, according to him, classical political thought, as expressed in the works of the Athenian historian and of the founder of the Academy, does have the necessary means to offer such a problematization. M.'s main point consists in underscoring within both authors the difference between speeches or arguments, which are explicitly critical toward Athenian democracy, and speech-acts, which are more discursive and conciliatory. This leads him to claim that both authors practise a conversational rather than a deductive form of political thought.

Even though many of M.'s methodological implications are undoubtedly correct, e.g. the importance of dialogical form, which he rightly emphasizes,3 and the stress on the political and historical contextualization of Plato's Dialogues (21), that some arguments are, already in this chapter, hard to follow. It is quite unclear how the ways of theorizing possibilities for improvement attributable to democratic institutions shrink as democratic political theory becomes hegemonic (1). M. offers his own non-dogmatic interpretation of a passage of Plato's Republic, without considering other possible interpretations or undertones.4 Moreover, M. seems to accept the Second Letter as genuinely Platonic, without even mentioning in a note the debate over its authenticity.5 And in general it must be said that the examination of speech-acts given by M. could have the disadvantage of distracting attention from how pathological the two classical authors consider democracy to be.6

This detailed examination of the first chapter was required by the complexity of the book itself, which can be properly understood only if, after reading the introduction, the reader understands that the aim of M.'s investigation is the engagement of Thucydides and Plato with modern democratic theory from a critical point of view, and not the application of modern democratic terms for the interpretation of their works. Once this is clear, it is possible to examine in a more summary way the rest of the book.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to the examination of the contributions made by Thucydides and Plato to rational choice theory. First, M. offers a brief presentation of the central arguments of this theory and a critique of it as a theory which, putting too much stress on private interests, forgets the borders of rationality, i.e. non-strategic and irrational choice. On the basis of this critique, he analyzes, as examples of the different treatment that Thucydides provides of rationality, the speeches of Corcyrean and Corinthian envoys at the Athenian assembly in the first book of the History, the speeches of Euphemus and Hermocrates in Camarina (6.75.3 - 88.2), the Melian dialogue in the fifth book and the debate about the future of Mytilene between Cleon and Diodotus (3.36.6 - 49.1). The main thread of M.'s interpretation is the accentuation of multi-vocality in making political decisions. He claims that Thucydides represents the political γνώμη as the product of interaction of λόγος and ἔργον and, on this basis, argues that the Athenian historian does not represent political debates as a conflict between private strategic interests, as rational choice theory would allege, but as the emergence, through opposing arguments, of psycho-cultural elements that inform the political imagination of the parties involved. (By political imagination must be understood the condition for rational political speech and action.) In particular, a more complex understanding of the λόγος-democracy relation appears from Diodotus' speech, as this Thucydidean character seems to argue, against Cleon's rational choice theory (men are looking only for their interests and these originate outside politics), that emotions and rationality are related in a way that originates in Athenian cultural and political institutions. M.'s assertion that characters such as Philocrates, son of Demeas, and Diodotus are not necessarily historical people, but fictive characters, created by Thucydides to express in an indirect way his own critical opinion of Athenian imperialism, seems problematic.

As for Plato, M. examines in this chapter the Protagoras and the Charmides. These dialogues are dramatically contextualized in the period of the Peloponnesian War (note e.g. the presence of Critias and Charmides in both dialogues, and the presence of Alcibiades in the Protagoras), and, M. argues, this contextualization should allow the reader to look upon the ethical themes at the centre of these works from a political perspective. In particular, M. offers an interpretation of the scene near the end of the Protagoras (the debate about courage which slips into a discussion about hedonism and the μετρητικὴ τέχνη) which tries to show how Socrates, in spite of a strategic rationality, refuses this technical science and privileges a more dialogical way of thinking: rationality should be understood as a perfecting and not as a strategic activity. The analysis of the Charmides develops this claim from another point of view. Critias is the champion of a directive rationality, so to speak: Plato's cousin argues in the dialogue for the power of rationality to exercise political government. It emerges from the discussion that, in M.'s opinion, the political aim of the dialogue in terms of democratic theory is to uncover the illusion and the dangers in aiming to establish a scientific hegemony.

Chapter 3 focuses on deliberative democratic theory, and it begins again with a description of the main theses supported by these theorists. At first sight it seems that deliberative democratic theory could be quite similar to the political thought of Thucydides and Plato as M. represents it. Deliberative democratic theory, in fact, points out how discursive interaction and democratic politics reinforce each other, on the one side by stressing the importance of communicative reasoning, on the other side by recognizing that historical and cultural circumstances constitute situations with which interactive discourse engages. In this respect deliberative democratic theory is preferable to rational choice theory but has the drawback that it does not focus on the teleological significance of discursive political interaction, and shows an overriding focus on procedures. The examination of the classical texts is thematically organized in this chapter: first an analysis of how both Thucydides and Plato treat the relationship of political trust to political mistrust, then a scrutiny of the way in which they represent political judgment through their works. The main point of the first part is to argue that, in the Mytilenean debate and Plato's Protagoras, the classical texts offer a more complex view about the relation between political trust and political mistrust than that presented by deliberative democratic theory.7 In the section on political judgment, M. examines the three Periclean speeches in the Thucydidean narrative, the speech of Diodotus, again, and the speech of Athenagoras during the Syracusan debate (6.33-41). According to M., it appears that the Periclean speeches, from which a one-sided conception of Athenian well-being emerges, offer a nondescript form of civic judgment. Conversely, the argumentation of Diodotus prompts the democratic theorist to consider more closely how political trust and democratic judgment intersect. This impression seems to be confirmed by the dichotomy between speech and speech-act in Athenagoras' performance.

M. proceeds with an examination of Plato's Gorgias. Here too, M.'s goal is to show that a 'reconstructive' reading of Socrates' arguments could offer more support to democracy than a literal reading of Socrates' statements. M. asserts, rightly, that for Socrates political judgment is situated between private and public realms and that he has a teleological perspective. Then, he continues, the Socratic critique of rhetoric shows its political significance by pointing out that rhetoric tries to silence rationality as the self-critical element of a human being, by accentuating the role of emotion in making political decisions. This should however not be misunderstood: the Socratic dialogic ἔργον stresses that Socrates does not present himself as an authoritative leader, but as a champion of discursive philosophy. In this insight, M. repeats again his main thesis, that discursive philosophy implies self-criticism, rational but with affective associations, and that it seems to be more firmly grounded, like the sort of self-criticism postulated by modern democratic theories. Less clear, however, is how the stress on παιδεία, which for Plato and Socrates is the first element which could improve a State, slips, with respect to the Gorgias, into the statement that all cultural practices, in theory, exert educative influences on members of a society. Moreover, M. seems to go too far again when he states that Plato includes comedy, and with it a strong democratic point of view, as a critical voice in his works, persuaded as he is that comedy is not criticized by Plato in any of his works.8

Chapter 4 analyzes the interpretation of democratic culture according to Rawls' Political Liberalism and constitutes undoubtedly the most complex and least clear chapter of the book. M. concentrates on the investigation of justice in Rawls, Thucydides and Plato. With respect to the ancient authors, he assumes the central role of the fifth century debate over νόμος vs. φύσις, reformulating it as a contrast between culture and nature (where nature is seen as the psychic force in human behavior which cannot be bounded by cultural education). M. presents the Thucydidean narrative of the στάσις on Corcyra as the historian's meditation on the nature and role of φύσις in political communities and argues that the goal of Thucydides in this passage is to show how culture could exercise any influence on human perception of nature. From this point the analysis switches to an examination of the definition of justice in the History: Thucydides does not offer one in his own name, but represents it through his account of the Spartan and the Athenian way of life. He further claims that the two rival cities interpret justice in light of political cultural priorities (so for the Spartans just behavior consists in a sort of conformism, but for the Athenians a sort of self-criticism deeply bound up with Athens' perception of power and its imperialism). In this context, it is not clear how M. could argue that the deceitfulness of the Spartans does not imply a calculated hypocrisy, given the importance of respect for oaths and duty in the Spartan notion of justice both as they express it and as they embed it in their educational system.

On the other side seems to stand Plato's Republic, read by M. as the description of civic community κατὰ φύσιν. Although M. is surely right that the Republic contains historical features, it is hard to agree with him, that the basis of the dialogue is heavily historical and tied with the Corcyrean narrative of Thucydides, or that this work draws heavily on the meanings and practices of democracy, or that what goes beyond democracy are not the insights of pure intellection but the outcomes of critical reflection on both psychic and cultural possibilities. It has to be asked if reading the cave myth as a myth against culture is epistemically legitimate: the reading of the images of Sun, Line and Cave together shows clearly that their epistemic value goes from a sensory to a philosophical knowledge of the world, where the Ideas and the Good transcend the sensory world. Moreover, what does M. mean when he says: 'The political arrangement in the cave binds all of the members in their places, yet interactions among them can also lead to a release from bonds and upward movement'? This reconstruction of the text again goes too far, as there is no mention of such 'democratic' interaction in the text.9 Also questionable is the assertion that the metaphor of democracy as a multi-colored garment (557cd) does not imply that for Socrates democracy's political organization is incoherent, but only that the critics are addressed to the broader democratic culture rather than to its arrangement of political power. M. seems to ignore again that παιδεία and politics were for Socrates/Plato two faces of the same coin, and that, therefore, a critique of democratic culture implies a critique of democratic political action.10

Chapter 5, finally, examines Plato and Thucydides in close dialogue with postmodernism, understood as the democratic theory of critical pluralism. Against this view, M. criticizes postmodernism for not offering an appropriate treatment of otherness, as it limits itself to the defense of 'others' from attempts to demonize them, and it does not pursue critical judgments in politics with a vigor proportional to its stress on the need for searching beneath the categories of difference, otherness and fundamentalism. Furthermore, it offers citizens little guidance for exploring the positive or negative effects of any proposal for collective action. Different again, according to M., is the treatment of these themes in our classical authors. M. examines first the Thucydidean narrative of the invasion of Mycalessus by the Thracians (7.29ff.). The behavior of the Thracians during the invasion is represented by the Athenian historian as similar to that of barbarians, who are moved only by bloodthirstiness. M. argues that Thracian bloodthirstiness is connected with Athenian daring as presented by Pericles funeral speech, showing that Thucydides challenges the Periclean image of Athens and that the other Greeks perceived the Attic city with a turbulent mixture of fear and admiration. Thus the Thracian incursion into Boeotia occurs because of Athens' desire for victory and honor, and the barbarian element, i. e. the bloodthirstiness, which in this case -- so M. -- acts in interaction with Greek culture as praised by Pericles, leads to the most reproachable war actions, i. e. impiety against the gods and genocide. So, concludes M., Thucydides aims to elicit the critical self-examination of democracy, pointing out that otherness (in this case τὸ βαρβαρικόν) and self (i.e. τὸ Ἑλληνικόν) could almost be related.

An examination of Plato's Symposion follows. In this case too, M. looks for an historical and thematic connection between the Mycalessian narrative and the dialogue. Questionable is whether the simple presence of Alcibiades legitimizes this connection from the historical perspective, and whether the device of having the banquet narrated by Apollodorus and his friend at the dramatic date of 416 B.C., while the symposium itself took place much earlier, could be interpreted as a reflection on how memory intersects with privileged symbol systems. Examining the seven speeches of the dialogue, M. argues rightly that the dialogue creates a theme of the question of love at various levels and underscores the substantial otherness of ἔρως as it emerges from the description of Socrates offered by Alcibiades, who affirms that his beloved is not similar to any other human being (221c4-5). In particular the otherness of ἔρως and the way in which it could be accommodated by culture (a theme of the speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachos, Aristophanes and Agathon) must be stressed, as must the otherness of philosophy with respect to politics (in the speeches of Socrates/Diotima and Alcibiades). This second otherness, because of the discursive and dialogic character of philosophy, is always active within politics. In the conclusion of this chapter, M. puts the problematic image of otherness that emerges from his analysis in comparison with the theories of Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler, to claim again that the classical political thought of Thucydides and Plato, interpreted in light of its dialogical and discursive character, questions and obfuscates the problem of otherness, fundamentalism and difference in a more complex and multi-vocal way than postmodernism.

With chapter 6, M. offers his conclusion. He reconsiders the three questions that he posed at the beginning of the introduction (civic/human rights, democratic governance, and the way and quality of life in democracies), and sums up the answers that his examination of Thucydides and Plato has brought to the surface. He then focuses on the contribution of those ancient authors to democratic conversation. Thucydides seems to be comparable with Hannah Arendt, when she affirms that politics is a space between past and future, but presents a more problematic approach to the political problem, for Diodotus' speech shows that: 1) the condition of politics is a pragmatic encounter with difficult dilemmas rather than simply plurality; 2) when these dilemmas are engaged, they require appropriate choice as their solution; 3) political discourse should be--as Diodotus' speech argues--critical and constructive; 4) political dilemmas need to be examined from the perspective of the realities of human nature; 5) the right approach to politics is to cope with persistent and inevitable problems. With respect to Plato, M. underscores again the difference that lies between the content of his arguments and the dialogical context which frames them. According to this reading, the Socratic virtues could be read as 'supportive of a political morality compatible with democratic conventions' and the political portrait of Socrates as a dissident against democracy11 should be considered in a more positive way. Socrates would not be perceived as a critic of Athenian democracy, but a democratic citizen who underscores the need for rationality in democratic politics, and conversely the resistance of the latter against the former. The final words of M. are intended to present a more intriguing point of view on those two authors from the perspective of war and peace.

As I said at the beginning of the review, the book is complex and requires advanced knowledge both of the original texts and modern democratic theories. In my opinion, the strong separation between speech-content and speech-act that M. seems to enforce throughout the entire book is generally questionable. Could the speech-acts only be interpreted as a democratic device that mitigates Socrates' harsh comments on democracy? Moreover, M. declares that it is not possible to equate Thucydides' points of view and those of his characters, but he contradicts himself when he considers Diodotus' speech to be a sort of Thucydidean perspective. Additionally, it must be said with respect to Plato that his political theory, even when expressed in dialogical form, cannot be separated from the other branches of his dialectic system, i.e. metaphysics, ethics and anthropology: political action should be led by knowledge of the Good and not only by 'democratic' conversation. In other words, M.'s image of Thucydides and Plato seems to be only a milder version of the common view on them. Finally, as a European, I should regret the absence, in the bibliography, of any interpreter or scholar who does not belong to Anglophone scholarship.


1.   I am grateful to Mr. Dustin Heinen, University of Florida, who kindly revised the English text of this review, and to the BMCR referee, who made further improvements.
2.   G. M. Mara, Socrates' Discursive Democracy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997).
3.   Cf. e.g. on Plato, G. A. Press, Plato. A Guide for the Perplexed (London / New York: Continuum, 2007).
4.   The passage in question is Plato. Resp. 533a, in which Socrates, speaking to Glaucon, affirms that Plato's brother would not be able to follow him on the way to the discovery of the Good. He would no longer see an image of the things they are speaking about, but the truth itself as it appears to Socrates. Even though I do not belong to the so-called Tübinger Schule, there is sufficient reason to see in this passage one of Szlezák's Aussparungstellen (cf. T. A. Szlezák, Platon Lesen, Stuttgart / Bad Cannstadt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1993). Namely, there is a point in the dialogue in which it is not possible to say more about the theme, either because Socrates' interlocutor has not yet acquired the philosophical preparation to understand the real essence of the Good (which is the actual point of view of the Tübinger Schule) or because it is not possible to know more about the Good, except that it exists over the Ideas (cf. for this position, F. Trabattoni, La verità nascosta. Oralità e scrittura in Platone e nella Grecia classica, Roma: Carocci, 2005.). M. goes too far in seeing the passage as an examination of the objectivity of philosophical knowledge and as an assertion about the nature of wisdom as a merely questionable point of view. See also Szlezák, Die Idee des Guten in Platons Politeia. Beobachtungen zu den mittleren Büchern (Sankt Augustin: Academia, 2003). On the side of the new skeptical interpretation of Plato, several scholars argue for the ontological transcendence of the Good and consequently for its objective value against opinions. See e.g. F. J. Gonzalez, Perché non esiste una 'teoria platonica delle idee' in M. Bonazzi and F. Trabattoni, Platone e la tradizione platonica (Atti di un convegno platonico tenutosi a Milano nel novembre 2001. Quaderni di Acme, 58) (Milano: LED Edizioni, 2003), 31-67, and R. Ferber, Platons Idee des Guten (2nd edn) (Sankt Augustin: Academia, 1989).
5.   Cf. M. Erler, Platon (= vol. 2/2 of H. Flashar, ed., Philosophie der Antike) (Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2007), 311. An acceptance of a contested work (in this case the Alcibiades major), without any mention, even in a note, of the debate about it happens also in chapter 5 (although I am an advocate of the genuineness of this dialogue: see De Brasi, 'Un esempio di educazione politica: una proposta di analisi dell'Alcibiade primo', Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumwissenschaft n. s. 32, 2007, 57-110).
6.   See J.-F. Pradeau, Platon, la démocratie et les démocrates. Essai sur la réception contemporaine de la pensée politique platonicienne (Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2005).
7.   It is questionable whether it is possible to argue that Socrates' treatment of democracy in the Protagoras is more positive than Protagoras' without misreading the general sense of his speech. See the papers in G. Casertano (ed.), Il Protagora di Platone. Struttura e problematiche (Napoli: Loffredo, 2004).
8.   On the criticism of comedy in Plato's Dialogues see A. W. Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue. Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), which M. quotes in his references but does not really challenge in his arguments. Moreover M. seems to forget that the platonic dialogues are meant to be the new form of education in the perfect state. Philosophy is, if one reads the Republic and the Laws, the new tragedy and the new ἔπος. See on this point G. Di Panno, Dionisiaco e alterità nelle Leggi di Platone. Ordine del corpo e auto movimento dell'anima nella città tragedia (Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2007).
9.  σκόπει δή, ἦν δ' ἐγὼ, αὐτῶν λύσιν τε καὶ ἴασιν τῶν δεσμῶν καὶ τῆς ἀφροσύνης, οἵα τις ἂν εἴη, εἰ φύσει τοιάδε συμβαίνοι αὐτοῖς. I follow the text of the new OCT: S. Slings (ed.), Platonis. Rem publicam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003).
10.   Not to forget that the aim of the Platonic city--whether it would be realizable or only thinkable as an ethical model for future governments--is its unity and not its multi-vocality. Cf. J.-F. Pradeau, Plato and the City. A new introduction to Plato's political thought (transl. by Janet Lloyd) (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002).
11.   Cf. D. Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), which M. also quotes.

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