BMCR 2000.11.12

Plato’s Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosophy

, Plato's democratic entanglements : Athenian politics and the practice of philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xi, 252 pages). ISBN 1400812720. $39.50.

Professor Monoson has written a fine book about the relationship between cultural meaning in the practice of classical Athenian politics and the philosophy of Plato’s dialogues. Her aim is to show how major claims in a wide range of Platonic dialogues not only reflect his Athenian citizenship but affirm in subtle, complex, and paradoxical ways the democratic character of the political order in which he lived. She succeeds admirably in fulfilling her aim and thereby contributes to the revisionist trend in scholarship on Plato (of which I am a part1) that understands his philosophy and political thought as less hostile to democracy than dominant interpretations of Plato in academic discourse for the past sixty years (e.g., from Popper, Strauss, and Arendt, to Vlastos, Finley, and their followers) would have us believe. At the same time, much of her argument illustrates the difficulties of using the approach of cultural studies to define the meaning and significance of philosophical texts.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, entitled “Aspects of the Athenian Civic Self-Image,” articulates four features of this self-image, which she also refers to as “the Athenian democratic imaginary.” These are (1) its association with anti-tyrantism, exemplified in the cultural role played by the re-telling of the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton in different literary venues; (2) praise of the parrhesiastes (frank speaker); (3) conceptualizing the citizen as erastes (lover), principally as done in Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration; and (4) valuing the citizen as theates (theater-goer). The second part, oddly titled the same as the book itself (“Plato’s Democratic Entanglements”) displays how these cultural figures appear in Plato’s dialogues, often in complimentary ways. Here she notes (1) Plato’s own anti-tyrantism; (2) his embrace of the parrhesiastes for offering a sound basis for philosophizing; (3) an interpretation of Plato’s Menexenus that reads that dialogue as a moderate critique of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and (4) Plato’s utilization and transformation of the role of theates as a critical theorist. The chapters of each part have a complement in the other, but the reader may feel that each chapter, and each part, could stand alone. While this feature indicates the strength of each chapter, it also illustrates discontinuities in the book’s narrative.

The evidence Monoson marshals on her behalf is wide-ranging and compelling. Drawing on both primary sources and respected scholarship, she builds a picture of Athenian cultural imagery that represents democratic thinking and that Plato treats relatively kindly. The best demonstrations of her general claims are her reading of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Chapter Three) and her depiction of Plato’s attitude towards democracy in his dialogues as more unorthodox than essentially anti-democratic (Chapter Five).

Monoson signifies Pericles’ praise of Athenian democracy in the Funeral Oration by reading his insistence that citizens gaze upon their city as an erastes to be a simulacrum of actual, cultural understandings of the proper relationship of adult male lovers to their younger, male beloveds. In particular, she notes that the unique, culturally praiseworthy character of that relationship did not involve (it was claimed) the presence of domination but the mutual enrichment that stems from equal, reciprocal exchanges. By virtue of his use of this metaphor, Pericles infuses his ideal of democratic citizenship with images of equal, reciprocal relations among citizens that are open to progressive reform. To make this point, Monoson draws on the abundant, recent scholarship on ancient Greek sexual practices. It shows how their particular erotic character was itself governed by criteria of social propriety and status. This allowed references to erotic activity to be used metaphorically by rhetoricians in politically specific ways. Throughout this chapter, therefore, Monoson taps a new historical and interpretive resource for reading Pericles’ Funeral Oration as a genuine encomium to an attractive democratic ideal — against, for example, Straussians and Loraux, who view the oration as a cover for either the excesses of politics and democracy or the hidden ascendance of aristocrats in nominally democratic Athens.

When she turns to Plato’s treatment of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in the Menexenus (Chapter Seven), Monoson shows how Plato replaces the democratic and reciprocal relations eulogized by Pericles with a greater emphasis on the metaphor of proper familial relations between children and their parents as the model for attitudes of virtuous citizens towards their political community. At the same time, she demonstrates that Plato’s ironic and critical rendition of Pericles’ Funeral Oration was not simply designed to damn it — and thus democracy — for the dialogue suggests features of funeral oratory that Plato seems to praise.

Despite Monoson’s claim that the distinctive character of her research stems from its use of cultural “imaginaries,” her account of Platonic philosophy as more “unorthodox” than wholly anti-democratic appears in a chapter that is relatively devoid of cultural references per se. Chapter Five involves careful readings of the Seventh Letter, a significant debt to Glenn Morrow’s reading of Plato’s Laws, an account of the Academy that views it as an honorable antecedent of liberal arts college education, and an anti-doctrinal reading of the Republic. With respect to the Republic, Monoson particularly emphasizes how Plato’s treatment of the democratic forms of unjust cities and men in Book 8 does not reveal their characters as the next-to-worst political and psychological regimes but rather as ambiguous and often praiseworthy forms of life. She convincingly argues that Plato takes democratic orders to be clearly better than oligarchies if also clearly worse than ideal aristocracies.

I found Monoson’s book to be enormously interesting, principally because of the range of historical, political, cultural, and literary references that she coherently links and then uses to illuminate Plato’s dialogues. Additionally, her book does not overreach. Monoson does not claim that Plato was a closet democrat; nor is she a cultural determinist in her reading of Platonic dialogues. These strengths, however, reveal corollary weaknesses. For, after showing how simplistic readings of Plato’s political thought as essentially anti-democratic do not stand up against the evidence of his debts to Athenian democracy, she is not able to show conclusively what is the precise weight of the evidence she has gathered when put up against interpretations of Plato that read him as a literary dramatist, philosophical logician, architect of radical political critique, all three simultaneously, or some combination thereof at different times. At one level, this complaint is irrelevant, for she does not set out to refute specific Platonic scholars or interpretive perspectives. At another, however, it raises questions about how deeply her subtle and complex cultural readings of Athenian politics and Plato also shape our understanding of each of them. Here are four that occurred to me.

First, after accepting the social reality of cultural meaning, the practicality of a society’s “imaginary” or “self-image,” how are we to assess the weight of its influence on philosophical argument? To answer such a question, one should assess the worth of scholarship (by, for example, Castoriadis, Geertz, or Anderson) that affirms the importance of cultural studies for the interpretation of philosophical texts. Monoson does not undertake that project in this book; nor does she advance an answer of her own (although she certainly could do both in the future).

Second, in articulating “aspects” of the Athenians’ civic self-image, Monoson does not presume to have portrayed that self-image from every angle. But then individuals less well-disposed towards Athenian democracy than she might simply agree with her rendition of those aspects but downplay their significance. Pericles’ Funeral Oration, for example, has many dimensions. Not all of them have to do with praising or articulating democratic ideals. Indeed, one might say they make up a relatively minor portion of that speech. What about his self-laudatory praise of the Athenians’ capacity to recognize aretê, a term typically understood to have aristocratic resonances? or his emphasis on the Athenians’ capacity to stamp a lasting impression on anything they touch? or his degradation of the response of Athenian women to the death of family members? or his practical need to stiffen the backbones of his audience? What is the relationship of the citizen as erastes in Pericles’ speech to these rhetorical emphases? Why should we regard the political egalitarianism praised by Pericles as central, rather than peripheral, to what he (or Thucydides!) is doing? Answering such questions, to be sure, would require a monograph in its own right. But to leave them unposed in her interpretation of the Funeral Oration weakens its own power and authority.

Third, interpreting the extent to which any cultural or social practice in Athens can be exclusively associated with democracy is inherently tricky business. As Monoson points out, it is misleading to understand the Athenian political realm as consisting solely of activities undertaken within formal political institutions — not to mention that such a point justifies the political relevance of her use of cultural studies. But if the Athenian political realm is to be read through the dimensions of desire, theater, and burial rituals, as well as who gets to speak and vote, is it not also possible that aspects of that political realm are not straightforwardly referents of democracy but traces of a political way of life that is not fully expressed by its democratic politeia ? If that is the case, then certain erotic relations, endorsements of frank speech, or allusions to the theater may not be simply or primarily affirmations of democratic ideals. And if that is the case, then one needs to be able to argue why their democratic significance ought to take pride of place, particularly for Plato. Again, Monoson does not provide this kind of support for the significance of her own valuable research.

Finally, what does it ultimately mean to say that Plato and his dialogues were entangled by ideals and images that resonate with the practice of Athenian democracy? We know that Plato was an Athenian and that he probably even fought in the Athenian army. We also know, and Monoson does not doubt, that Plato was sharply critical in his dialogues of both Athenian politics and democracy, to such an extent that he believed that the only way to be of service to justice was to pursue a career in philosophy and to create a new institution in Athens for promoting and safeguarding philosophical practice. That leaves open the question of Plato’s understanding in one or more dialogues, or more generally, of the relationship of his philosophy to Athenian democracy. While that is the subject of Monoson’s book, and one whose understanding she uniquely has advanced, the reader may feel uncertain at the end of her book about what a disentangled understanding of that relationship might be.


1. See J. Peter Euben, John R. Wallach, and Josiah Ober (eds.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), in which Monoson has an article on Plato and parrhesia, and my book, The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, forthcoming, January, 2001).