BMCR 1991.02.07

The Tragedy of Political Theory

, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. 334 pages. ISBN 9780691218182

This book, as we are told in an autobiographical preface, was written in response to I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates, and Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, and their presentations of Socrates and Platonic philosophy especially in the Republic. The presiding figures in this study are Nietzsche and Foucault in philosophy, and in the discussion of Greek tragedy, F. Zeitlin and C. Segal. The plays discussed come from the major tragedians and are the predictable choices: Oresteia, Oedipus, Bacchae, the plays always read in the humanities or survey course offered to college freshmen. The book closes with a humorless analysis of Pynchon’s comic novel The Crying of Lot 49, which reads like a parody of modern literary criticism.

The author is limited in his command of the material by his lack of foreign languages. Unlike Stone and Bloom, he did not read the ancient works in the original languages. He relies on English translations of Nietzsche and Foucault, both writers whose works have been mistranslated and misrepresented in translation.

His discussions of the plays depend on scholarship in English of the last forty years (the few references to earlier work or work in foreign languages are clearly second-hand). But most troublesome of all, he hardly seems to have read the plays at all: mainly we hear of what other scholars have said about them. The book, with its constant and wearying name-dropping, often reads like an ordinary Ph.D. dissertation whose pages reveal more industria than ingenium.

The author is Professor of Politics and the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Caveat lector: if the reader is the kind of individual who likes modern mega-think, this book will be welcome; if not, not.