Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.22

Nickolas Pappas, The Philosopher's New Clothes: The Theaetetus, The Academy, and Philosophy's Turn against Fashion.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2016.  Pp. 234.  ISBN 9781138929562.  $148.00.  

Reviewed by Filippo Forcignanò, Università degli Studi di Milano (

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According to some scholars, the history of western philosophy is also the history of the rejection of fashion as an object of conceptual approach. In her entry ‘Fashion and Philosophy’ in the Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, Karen Hanson writes that “an account of philosophy’s fear and hatred of fashion may reveal not only some neglected history of philosophy but also some of the subject’s buried motivations”.1 Nickolas Pappas has without doubt taken this claim very seriously. The main goal of his latest book, The Philosopher’s New Clothes: The Theaetetus, the Academy, and Philosophy’s Turn against Fashion, is to show that Plato pondered the question of what a philosopher—a professional philosopher, so to speak—should look like. For instance, should the philosopher go naked or dressed? Should he appear eccentric or ordinary? I believe that, in approaching the title, most reader will ask themselves: Why the Theaetetus? The answer is that this dialogue contains clues about and traces of Plato’s movement toward the institutionalization of philosophy. Despite its explicit presence in the subheading, The Philosopher’s New Clothes is not a book on the Theaetetus nor, stricto sensu, one on Plato’s thought. It is primarily a monograph on the relationship between philosophy, fashion and anti-fashion in Antiquity and nowadays. Plato is, as it were, the alpha and the omega of the volume. It is divided into three parts: ‘Socrates in the Theaetetus’, ‘Philosophy regarding fashion’, and ‘The philosopher’s new clothes’. The second part, with the exception of a brief interlude on Plato’s Republic, concerns modern and contemporary debates on fashion. Although it may at first appears to be impossible to discuss both Plato’s thought and the philosophy of fashion in a coherent and philosophically promising way, Pappas’ book shows that it is a feasible and challenging task.

The first part (divided into three chapters) is dedicated to Plato’s attempt to institutionalize philosophy in a school. Pappas thinks that the Theaetetus illustrates this process better than other Platonic dialogues. This is the brilliant idea that underpins the role of Plato’s philosophy in a book devoted to the philosophy of fashion. Pappas highlights the fact that in the Theaetetus Socrates continues to interrogate his interlocutors as he does in other dialogues, but without rejecting the title of “teacher”. Also the description of Socrates as a philosophical midwife is crucial to understanding his role as a teacher. As Pappas writes, the midwifing metaphor somehow carries Socrates from his own epoch to the fourth-century BC, in a city “in which schools teach Socratic philosophy” (p. 32). This is not because the metaphor converts him into an ordinary teacher, but because it makes room for a non-professional philosopher in the era of philosophical schools. According to Pappas, the Theaetetus was indeed written after the founding of the Academy. This is a controversial topic, but probably not a very decisive one for his interpretation: Plato could have had the foundation of the school in mind during the drafting of the dialogue.

Be that as it may, Pappas thinks that in the Theaetetus Socrates speaks of formal schooling more respectfully than in other dialogues and that for the first time he sketches out a sort of a history of philosophy. Taking up the role of a detective, Pappas searches for clues to this new approach. He finds several, many of them intriguing, but not all of them persuasive. For instance, Pappas translates Theaet. 180b6-7 to say that the Ephesians expound their theory of nature “in school [en scholê] to their students [mathêtais], whom they want to make [poiêsai] similar to themselves” (p. 49, my emphasis). Read this way, Socrates is portraying the Ephesian circle of philosophers as an actual school. Pappas’ translation is, in my opinion, untenable. Firstly, as Pappas himself admits, the Theaetetus “alone uses scholê on several occasions to mean ‘leisure’, with no other natural translation possible” (p. 49). It would be a bit weird if in only one passage the word possessed a technical (“school”) rather than ordinary (“leisure”) meaning. The presence of τοῖς μαθηταῖς is noteworthy, but I see only one way to translate ἐπὶ σχολῆς: “with ease”, “quietly” or “calmly”. This is proven both by the context and by Plato’s use of the expression in different contexts. In the Theaetetus passage, Socrates contrasts the spirit of the Ephesians when they discuss things aggressively (μαχομένους) and when they discuss them peacefully (εἰρηνεύουσιν): in the latter case they explain their own positions ἐπὶ σχολῆς. If we consider Theaet. 172d4 ff., we find exactly the same context: those who have spare time (σχολή) are used to discussing things peacefully, calmly (τοὺς λόγους ἐν εἰρήνῃ ἐπὶ σχολῆς ποιοῦνται). In the Euthyphro, Socrates brings his interlocutor back to the main point of the dialogue (i.e. what the holy is) by saying that Euthyphro will narrate amazing events concerning the gods some other time, at his leisure (ἐπὶ σχολῆς, 6c9). Analogously, in the Laws, at 858b7, ἐπὶ σχολῆς is contrasted to the pressure on someone who acts out of necessity. In sum, there is no way to interpret ἐπὶ σχολῆς as “in school”. Of course, at the time of Plato, “philosophers produce their discourses at leisure, but also at school” (p. 92), but this does not imply that the meaning of ἐπὶ σχολῆς is “at school” or that a Greek speaker would perceive a sort of overlap between “leisure” and “school”.

Pappas’ general approach to the Theaetetus is stimulating. He brings together in a very tempting and original way the setting of the dialogue (that is, according to Pappas, a gymnasium), wrestling as a metaphor for the philosophical dialogue, and nudity as a social and cultural category. Platonic philosophy is a sort of naked wrestling, but it involves souls and not bodies. To state it more correctly, philosophizing is not an alternative to physical exercise, but an extension of it. This is the reason why the Charmides and the Theaetetus exhort us to strip and philosophize in two different ways. The Theaetetus’ position on nudity comes from its focus on athleticism, in particular the interpretation of athleticism as a combative art, while in the Charmides and elsewhere (Meno, Laws) “wrestling is a synecdoche for education” (p. 218). Nudity is a central topic in Pappas’ book. In ancient Greece, moreover, stripping naked was a marker of civilization. There is a social and cultural difference between the animalistic nudity of the uncivilized men of Protagoras’ myth in the Platonic dialogue of the same name and the conscious nudity of the civilized men who practiced wrestling in the gymnasia. As Pappas writes, “you can take your clothes off and declare the result to be a costume, only after having been clothed” (p. 80).

A link between the Theaetetus and the second part of the book (which is divided into three chapters) on the philosophical discussion of fashion is provided by the fact that Pappas believes that the Theaetetus’ reference to dress leads into the subject of fashion. For many philosophers, as Pappas reminds the reader, fashion is simply not relevant at all, or even anti-philosophical in itself. According to George Santayana, for instance, “fashion is something barbarous, for it produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit” (The Life of Reason, New York 1905, iii.7.15). Fashion is, in Plato’s lexicon, similar to a tyrant, that is to say the very opposite of the philosopher. Pappas reveals a polished expertise on fashion in philosophy and the history of anti-fashion, as well as on some peculiar fashion and anti-fashion articles of clothing, like men’s suits, denim jeans, and black clothes. Reading these pages, with their many references to contemporary media, historic style icons (in particular, Beau Brummell) and philosophers who have theorized about fashion and its social and cultural effects, is pleasant and very informative. Still, the reader might wonder if it is legitimate to speak of ancient fashion. This is, in my opinion, crucial for Pappas’ interpretation of Plato. It goes without saying that Plato is an anti-fashionist if and only if “fashion” means something significant to his mind and epoch. According to many historians and theorists, what we call “fashion” only started in the 1300s. Gilles Lipovetsky distinguishes between the very beginning, precisely in the fourteenth century, and a second movement that started around 1850. Pappas argues that something like a fashion discourse existed in ancient Greece in terms of what we might call the argumentative strategy of the discussion on personal attire. According to Pappas, both the ancients and the moderns have spoken of dress in terms of (a) diversity in dress, (b) change in dress, (c) justification for that change (p. 157). Certainly, some Greek historians (namely, Herodotus and Thucydides) describe dress-related behaviour that is in a way similar to fashion. But what about Plato? Pappas writes: “the thought that clothing in its present form is falsely valued (evidently, so valued by mass culture), together with the desire to ward off trendsetting changes, would keep any fashion industry out of Platonic states” (p. 167). The fifth book of the Republic allows us, according to Pappas, to attribute to Plato a certain awareness of what fashion is and the rejection of its implications. Plato was favourable to the transformation of social customs, but not to fashion. It would perhaps be appropriate to pinpoint a specific lexicon of (quasi- or proto-) fashion in Herodotus, Thucydides and Plato, and to discuss it in a well-structured way, but Pappas’ proposal to extend the notion of “fashion” to ancient Greece deserves to be discussed by classicists and historians of Greek culture.

The third part of the book (divided into two chapters) is entitled ‘The Philosopher’s New Clothes’, with a clear reference to the famous short tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Is the king naked also in Pappas’ story? Of course he is. But Platonic nudity “contains a feature of sociability that is missing from the Cynic’s variety of uniforms, or rather a feature that the Cynics have excluded from their act of dressing” (p. 217). It is not necessary to be naked to be anti-social. For instance, the nudity of the Indian gymnosophistai is more similar to the tribôn of the Cynics than to the nudity of men and women in the Platonic kallipolis (the reference is the fifth book of the Republic). Nudity is the conditio sine qua non for active engagement in wrestling, not an anti-social attitude. “A philosophy for which wrestling is a metaphor must likewise be an engagement containing the opportunity for both active and passive roles for all participants” (p. 217). The Cynics’ ideal of independence from all communities, their cosmopolitanism, prescribes a particular dress code, a sort of uniform, that ratifies the exclusion of the philosopher from fashion. “Uniforms escape fashion,” as Thoreau knew and Pappas writes. According to Cynicism, therefore, clothes have an intrinsic meaning. Plato was not a cosmopolitan and he was not at all a Cynic. Rather, he was “parochial” (p. 217). But he “sensed the anti-fashion in his culture’s use of nudity and therefore appropriated nudity for use by philosophy” (p. 221).

Like Socrates, Nickolas Pappas’ book is somehow atopos, yet able to stimulate reflections and debates. More than anything else, The Philosopher’s New Clothes is a very original book, one of a kind in Platonic studies. A very meticulous philologist might waste his time (not without reason) nit-picking instead of understanding that Plato is only an excuse, so to speak, to pose—once again—the question of what philosophy is and what it means to be a philosopher. It is certainly no coincidence that the volume does not end with Plato, but rather with Thoreau and Kierkegaard.


1.   M. Kelly (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 1998), 157-61.

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