Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.44

Danielle S. Allen, Why Plato Wrote. Blackwell Bristol lectures on Greece, Rome and the classical tradition.   Chichester; Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  Pp. xii, 232.  ISBN 9781444334487.  $69.95.  

Reviewed by David J. Murphy (


Unlike critics who deny that Plato “says” anything in his dialogues, or who give authorial intent in general a wide berth, Danielle Allen in this wide-ranging study seeks to illuminate Plato’s meaning by answering the question, “Why did Plato write anyway?” (p. 4). Her study focuses on the power of symbols to move the emotions and focus the understanding. According to her, Plato’s goal in writing was to use the power of images in language to promote political reform. This subsumed his other motives: writing “to displace the poets . . . Plato wrote unacknowledged legislation,” aiming at a wide, educated readership, not only at a philosophical elite (p. 77). To test this conclusion, Allen traces the effects of Plato’s writing upon political institutions in Athens. When the same words and concepts occur in Plato and later in the fourth century BCE in Athenian political discourse, she concludes that they migrated from philosophy into politics as part of a “culture war” that Plato ignited. No advocate of withdrawal from politics, nor only a dialectician for initiates, Allen’s Plato was also “a master of the sound bite . . . the western world’s first message man” (p. 147).

This book expands Allen’s 2008 Bristol-Blackwell lectures and uses her previously published work on punishment in Athenian political thought. As a political theorist and classicist, Allen takes an interdisciplinary approach, looking at familiar texts in ways often new to other classicists and specialists in ancient philosophy. Hers is an ability to find patterns, and she illuminates many passages and their interconnections. Allen’s are not always the only patterns one can see in the material, however, and in some cases, it is not clear that our evidence presents a clear pattern. Nevertheless, she sheds new light on Plato’s images and on what she considers their aim to reform society as well as the individual.

In Part I, Allen argues that with a theory of symbols, which she seeks to reconstruct, Plato shows how philosophical writing can steer clear of the critique of writing in the Phaedrus and the strictures against poetry in the Republic. Allen finds that Socrates' argument against writing in Phaedrus 275-278 already had two "holes": the dialogue form declares its allegiance to live dialectic; like gardens of Adonis, “written words or concepts do have some generative power” (p. 28). In the Divided Line simile of Republic 509e-511e, according to Allen, Plato goes on to legitimize philosophical writing through a distinction which “scholars have not yet noticed:” there is a form of image-making that is more closely bound to the truth than is mimêsis, “imitation.” Allen calls it “model-making.” Poets produce shadow images, or eidôla; philosophers fashion “models” or “visualizations” in words (paradeigmata and other terms). Philosophers can use shadow images also to salutary effect when, by engaging the imagination, they implant beliefs and motives that lead people to act similarly to those who have knowledge of virtue. “Noble lies,” or “reminders,” like depictions of Socrates the individual, can do this. Models, on the other hand, help people gain knowledge of concepts. Socrates as “a theoretical model of the just man” (p. 74) can so function. Through “language that is enargês or vivid,” philosophical writing fashions both models and shadow images; “this includes both dialogic language and language that is full of metaphors . . . and other techniques that engage cognition in all its registers” (p. 139). The philosopher must write “in order to reach the whole citizenry” (p. 68).

Allen does Plato a service by showing how he gives some images, her “models,” the task of enabling conceptual thought. She makes the good point (pp. 41-42) that the domain of dianoia, “Thinking,” in the Divided Line is not restricted to mathematics; all domains, including the ethical and political, belong here . Her “models” are the images that Socrates says Thinking in the Divided Line uses (R. 510e3). These images are not shadows and reflections (510e2-3), which are the cognitive objects of the lowest subsection of the Line, eikasia, or “conjecture.” They are instead “visible forms” (510d5), the natural or man-made objects of the world, like drawings or models of a rectangle, or Socrates serving to model the just man. Because these “models” are at a higher ontological level than shadow images, and because they serve a higher cognitive activity by representing concepts, “models” do not fall afoul of Socrates’ critique of mimetic art. “It is philosophically acceptable for philosophers to write, provided they use their writing to make models instead of imitations.” Only when we can think without images are we in the realm of the Forms (p. 41), but dianoetic thinking using images/models gets us close to it.

In order to free perceptibles from Socrates’ criticism of mimetic art, so that some of them can serve as “metaphysically sound” models (p. 47), Allen wants to carve out space for perceptibles in the “intelligible” segment of the Line and not limit them to the “visible” segment of the Line, the realm of doxa, opinion and appearance. She does this by inference from Socrates’ division of the Line into unequal but proportional subsections. When one diagrams the Divided Line and works out the lengths of the subsections, one notices a feature that is not obvious at first when Socrates describes the Line, i.e. the subsections for Thinking and pistis, Belief, must be of the same length. Socrates does not explicitly identify the cognitive objects of Thinking, but Allen concludes from the two subsections’ equality that both mental activities operate upon the same objects, i.e. perceptibles, only “cognizing” them differently. Thinking “cognizes” perceptibles and uses them to grasp and reason about concepts.

This interpretation puts a lot of weight on an assumption about the import of a latent feature of the text. What is more, Allen seems unaware that, however you slice it, the equality of the second and third subsections of the Line generates contradiction in some aspect of the simile.1 This calls into question her argument for perceptibles as objects of Thinking. On that score, pace Nicholas D. Smith, whom Allen does not cite, the text shows that the cognitive objects of Thinking are not perceptibles, although perceptibles bridge the gap between Belief and Thinking in a way not entirely clear.2 Intelligibles are the objects of cognition in the “top” segment of the Line, and when people doing Thinking use perceptibles as images, they are “not thinking (dianooumenoi) about them but about those things which they are like, the square itself . . . and the diagonal itself,” 510d6-8. I lean toward the view that those “itselfs” are not Forms but concepts like the mathematical intermediates that Aristotle says Plato held (Meta. 987b15-18). The simplest account of what happens to perceptibles when used as images for Thinking is that they are cognized by Belief. Be that as it may, Allen at least should have confronted the Divided Line’s murkiness about the objects of Thinking, for she has not shown that a perceptible, say, Socrates, can be made into an intelligible. In texts, in any case, there is no relevant difference between the ontological status of Socrates as model and Socrates as shadow image. A literary character is not a “perceptible” object. A character is a function of the text, a “pseudo-object” in Gérard Genette’s words, wholly constituted by discourse.3 Putting one of Plato’s notoriously thorny passages at the center of her analysis, Allen would have profited from consulting a wider literature.

In Part II, Allen assesses the impact of Plato’s writing upon Athenian politics. One expects Plato had some political influence. There are stories that he was asked to make laws for Megalopolis and Cyrene, and he had friendly relations with Perdiccas III of Macedon, although not with Philip II.4 Citing her earlier work, Allen singles out forms of words and “linked concepts” in fourth-century orators that had occurred with frequency in Plato and concludes that they are instances of his direct influence upon political discourse. In addition to prohairêsis, which she argues orators picked up from Aristotle, Allen emphasizes as Platonic such key words and concepts as kolazein/kolasis (“corrective punishment”), nomothetês in the singular as “founding lawgiver, and plattein, “to mold.” Allen concludes that Aeschines, Lycurgus, Demades, and Hyperides use Platonic concepts like corrective punishment. Their Platonism pushed the first three to favor cooperation with Philip and political leadership by a cultured elite. Demosthenes, on the other hand, opposed this Platonic politics, for he recognized that it threatened the power of the democracy. After Athens’ final defeat, Demetrius of Phalerum as epimelêtês of the city “introduced institutions that we see first in Plato’s texts” (138): nomophulakes, who were to judge the constitutionality of laws, and “guardians of women.” For Allen, these innovations show that Plato’s influence had effect.

As a survey of the TLG reveals, however, Allen’s politically significant terms had already borne these senses in orators before Plato (or Aristotle). Allen notes some earlier instances without acknowledging that they undermine her thesis that attitudes toward Platonic politics explain the relations among Aeschines, Lycurgus and Demosthenes. For example, an audience is hardly likely to have understood Demosthenes’ ti logous platteis? in On the Crown 121 as “Why do you talk like Plato?” (p. 104). Since that idiom appears already in Ajax 148, we could as easily say that Demosthenes wants to assimilate Aeschines to Sophocles’ Odysseus, the deceiver.

Allen therefore does not establish that Aeschines or Lycurgus was promoting Platonic politics. Her ancient evidence that Aeschines was Plato’s pupil is contradicted by the scholion on Against Timarchus 4 (16a Dilts), the Vita Aeschinis III (Dilts) 6-7, and [Plut.] 840F. Aeschines’ statement (3.6) that there are three kinds of constitution is more in line with Herodotus or Isocrates. Aeschines does seem to allude to the first two speeches of the Symposium in Against Timarchus, but there, his topic is pederasty, and his choice of the least philosophical parts of that dialogue, along with his general opportunism, hardly mark him as the “Platonist” that Allen takes him for. Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates contains Platonic echoes (128, 135) but nothing about correcting the wrongdoer, while visiting the sins of the fathers upon their children (79) and praise of Homer as the font of wisdom (102) are not Platonic themes. Lycurgus makes heavy use of timôria for someone who is supposed to have adopted Plato’s view that punishment should correct the wrongdoer. Praise of Plato’s justice in the pseudo-Demosthenic Fifth Letter shows that a well-informed forger in the third century BCE did not recognize Demosthenes as antipathetic to Plato. Although Demetrius as a student of the Peripatos may well have been influenced by Platonic texts when he enacted his legislation, there were precedents for nomophulakes and gunaikonomoi (a term not in Plato) in the fourth century in other Greek cities, where the attempt to realize a philosophical program cannot have been a motive. Allen notes this fact (p. 204 n. 40) without confronting its implication, that Demetrius’ legislation is to be explained more as part of a general tendency in the later fourth century than as an attempt to enact Platonic politics.5

I have learned much from this book. It demands that we connect Plato’s writing to real life in his city. Even those who do not share all its conclusions will be challenged by Allen’s many original insights into how Plato used symbols to work on our intellect, our preconceptual beliefs, and our emotions.


1.   Of the extensive literature see now R. Foley, “Plato’s Undividable Line: Contradiction and Method in Republic VI,” JHistPh 46.1 (2008) 1-23.
2.   N. Smith, “Plato’s Divided Line,” Ancient Philosophy16 (1996) 25-46.
3.   Narrative Discourse Revisited (Ithaca 1988) 135.
4.   On invitations, possibly apocryphal, to Plato to write laws, cf. A. Swift Riginos, Platonica: The Anecdotes Concerning the Life and Writings of Plato (Leiden 1976) 191-193. On relations of Plato and the Academy with the Macedonian court, cf. A. Natoli, The Letter of Speusippus to Philip II (Stuttgart 2004).
5.   Cf. S. Lape, Reproducing Athens: Menander’s Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City (Princeton 2004) 50; M. Haake, Der Philosoph in der Stadt: Untersuchungen zur öffentlichen Rede über Philosophen und Philosophie in den hellenistischen Poleis (Munich 2007) 67-70.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 21:54:16, Sunday, 20 November 2011