BMCR 2001.08.24

The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy

, The platonic political art : a study of critical reason and democracy. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xi, 468 pages). ISBN 0271031026 $25.

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.01.13.]]

John R. Wallach shows us how to resist simple readings of Plato as a critic of democracy, since as he rightly points out the demos is not the main enemy of philosophy (p. 279). Plato is if anything more scornful of oligarchy than of democracy, since on his view democracy is subverted not by its ruling principle, the principle of equality, but by its failure to keep the distribution of wealth from becoming more unequal over time (pp. 293, 297). One should add that the Plato who wrote the dialogues, as opposed to the youthful partisan that Plato himself describes in the Seventh Letter, is not interested in replacing actual democratic regimes with some other recognizable regime type.1

Wallach’s book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 “Interpreting Plato Politically”, discusses methods of understandings Plato’s writings. Wallach’s principal contribution here is to show that a common failing of many approaches is an excessive reliance on the authority of Aristotle. In chapter 2, “Historicizing The Platonic Political Art”, Wallach presents the literary and political contexts of Plato’s discussions of the purported πολιτικὴ τέχνη. Chapter 3 elucidates “The Political Art in Aporetic Dialogues, or Plato’s Socratic Problem amid Athenian Conventions.” Under this heading Wallach includes the Protagoras and the Gorgias, which he does not treat as aporetic.

Chapter 4, “The Constitution of Justice: The Political Art in Plato’s Republic“, is the best chapter in the book—here the organization of the principal part of the book by text discussed rather than by concept does the least damage. Yet Wallach’s rejection of class struggle interpretations of Plato leaves his account rather bloodless.2 Because Wallach fails to situate Plato in the context of class struggle, he has no real understanding of stasis (see e.g. p. 237 n. 56), and he systematically slights the importance of the Spartan challenge to Athenian democracy, and of the “myth of Sparta” for Athenian opponents of that democracy. Sparta and Crete, not Athens as Wallach claims (p. 296), had the most stable forms of government in the Greek world.3

In chapter 5, Wallach discusses “The political art as practical rule” as exemplified in Plato’s Statesman and Laws. Wallach assumes that the political art of these two dialogues is intended to be the same as that of the Republic. This assumption certainly can be questioned but at least in the case of the Laws is probably the more helpful approach.4 Finally, in chapter 6, “The Platonic Political Art and Postliberal Democracy,” Wallach sums up what his Plato can add to our understanding of our own political situation.

The principal contributions of Wallach’s book are critical. Wallach forces his reader to think about Plato’s use of τέχνη in talking about politics without relying upon the comfortable Aristotelian distinctions to which the Plato literature generally resorts. Through his discussion of the image of the ship in the Republic and the division of the arts in the Statesman, Wallach shows that one cannot find in Plato a distinction between theory and practice (pp. 267-8 n. 102; p. 339 and n. 22). Wallach also argues, against Martin Heidegger and post-Heideggerians such as Arendt and Habermas, that in interpreting Plato one cannot rely on the distinction between τέχνη and πρᾶχις.5

Wallach is in a way a new British Idealist. Like Nettleship, Bosanquet, and Green, Wallach looks to Plato in order to think about mass opinion, scientific elites, and the common good understood social-democratically. Whereas the British Idealists looked to a social-democratic future, Wallach laments the decay of the social democratic or Progressive heritage. Wallach’s admiration of the Idealist interpreters of Plato such as Bosanquet and Nettleship is manifest, but the book’s purposes would have been greatly clarified by a systematic discussion of their Plato and their politics. Such an inquiry would explain, I suspect, why the Platonic political art was central to prewar English-language scholarship on Plato, as Wallach points out (p. ix).

It is hard to grasp Wallach’s main points in this large book, not only because his chief contributions are critical rather than positive, but because his writing here is somewhat diffuse, often repetitive, and on crucial points self-contradictory. These faults are, of course, more noticeable in a book of this length, and less easily forgivable.

Wallach attempts to emancipate himself from the quest for the historical Socrates (pp. 7-8, 87-90) in order to explain Plato’s Socrates, who is the Socrates of the Apology and the Charmides as well as the Socrates of the Republic. When, for example, Socrates makes his shocking claim in the Gorgias that he alone in Athens practices the political art, the claim has its shock value because this Socrates is the aporetic Socrates.6 It is jarring, therefore, to find many references to the “historical Socrates” when Wallach expounds what he calls the aporetic dialogues (pp. 92-101).

Wallach writes correctly that “the significance of [Plato’s] ‘external’ historical references essentially constitutes the ‘internal’ philosophical meaning of his dialogues” (p. 91), but he also tells us that “Plato’s views about the nature of his times cannot be trusted” (p. 51 n. 21). These two statements seem to add up to the claim that Plato must be judged as a philosopher by his understanding of his own times and that he did not understand his own times; in consequence, Plato is of no significance as a philosopher. This seems in fact to be Wallach’s assessment of Plato’s criticisms of democracy, and so the reader remains unclear as to why we should turn to Plato to sharpen our own political insight.

Wallach’s decision to organize the main portions of his book by dialogue means that the principal conceptual points are relegated to footnotes. This problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there is not much more to say about Plato’s relation to the theory and practice distinction except that this distinction is not to be found in Plato. It is also true that it is difficult to discuss Platonic concepts systematically because Plato does not have a systematic terminology even within the same dialogue, even with regard to words as basic to any effort to understand Plato’s political art as τέχνη and διαλεκτική.

Yet Wallach insists on using τέχνη in a sense that is not justified by appeal to any non-Platonic text, as he concedes (p. 128). Crucial aspects of the literary context of Plato’s use of τέχνη are more uncertain than Wallach frequently wants to admit. At Thucydides 1.71.3 the Corinthians compare the contest between Athens and Sparta to τέχνη, but do not assert, as Wallach claims repeatedly (p. 5), that the Athenians practice politics as a τέχνη.7

Wallach wants to use Xenophon ( Memorabilia 1.2.31) to associate Socrates with a τέχνη λόγων. Yet as Wallach is aware Xenophon denies that Socrates practiced a τέχνη λόγων, or that his interrogation of his fellow citizens—what we call the Socratic elenchus—amounted to one (cf. p. 77 with p. 102 n. 162, p. 110). Wallach therefore acknowledges that his own reference to the elenchus as a τέχνη is “paradoxical” (p. 102), and admits that “it may seem inappropriate to categorize Socrates’ elenchus as a techne at all” (p. 111 n. 185). The problem is that in the end the reader is left unclear as to what motivates Wallach’s paradoxical usage. Finally, despite the very explicit account of the POLITIKH τέχνη that is given by Plato’s Protagoras, Wallach tells us that the historical Protagoras “may not have conceptualized his own discursive practice as a techne and probably never articulated the idea of a politike techne” (p. 157). As Wallach writes, the “democratic political art” that he posits as the object of Plato’s critique is never called by this name in Greek (p. 282).

What we most lack in The Platonic Political Art is a systematic discussion of the differences between ancient and modern democratic regimes. No-one is more aware than Wallach that the paradigmatic modern democracy, the American constitutional, representative, and federal democracy created and expounded by James Madison and others, was founded in explicit opposition to the principles of direct democracy that the American founders understood Athens to embody (see p. 18 n. 2, pp. 396-398, 402, 419).

The understanding of Plato’s political theory as “an attempt at intellectual therapy for disaffected aristocrats and oligarchs” cannot be dismissed as cavalierly as Wallach would have it (p. 63). It is, among other things, the interpretation offered by Wallach’s sometime collaborator Josiah Ober in Ober’s magisterial Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, and it makes better sense of Plato’s emphasis on the soul and on the individual choice of lives that concludes the Gorgias and the Republic. Plato reinterprets political life as founding and maintaining a just πολιτεία in the soul—it is in that sense, and not in the sense of participation in political institutions, that the good life is the political life ( pace Wallach p. 317).

Efforts to relate Plato to contemporary politics too often either are dogmatic and arbitrary, or the points they make do not really require the hard work of understanding Plato in order to be appreciated. Wallach can indeed be arbitrary, perhaps most strikingly in his judgement of Dick Morris, advisor to American Presidents of both parties (p. 3). The fact that Morris could work for both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton suggests that there is a public good above party, though whether Wallach believes there is such a public good, given his attachment to the rhetoric of class warfare in the American context, is another question. Dick Morris was, on one view, able to serve the common good in the Clinton impeachment scandal by guiding the White House in leading public opinion to focus on Clinton’s public achievements rather than on his character. Since Wallach, unlike the ancient Athenians—if we can judge from Aeschines’ Against Timarchus or Aristophanes’ arsenal of insults—believes the concern for “sexual stains” is an example of the “apolitical considerations of character” that ethics or politics nowadays signifies, he presumably would agree that Dick Morris did indeed serve the public good in that respect. Yet at the same time Wallach wants us to overcome the distinction between ethics and politics, a distinction he mistakenly attributes to Aristotle (pp. 27-28).

It also seems arbitrary to assume that from the point of view of Platonic justice the salient forms of injustice are those most blatant to a contemporary American Democratic Party activist (p. 318), and not, say, the abandonment of Black Africa by the European colonial powers after World War II. Most arbitrary is Wallach’s creation of a Plato who has no intrinsic relationship to the subsequent history of organized religion (p. 272). “There is no theodicy in Plato” (p. 310) is hard to square with the myth of Er or the accounts of justice ruling the cosmos in the Timaeus or in Laws X. Thomas Jefferson understood the possibilities Plato offered to the priests of the future with greater precision (see e.g. his letter to John Adams of 5 July 1814), as for that matter did Ernest Barker, whom Wallach maligns repeatedly.

Wallach rightly admits at the end of his work that nothing he pulls out from Plato about politics requires us to read Plato in order to understand it (pp. 421 n. 42). I believe that the study of Plato is indispensable for clarifying our own political thinking, though not because Plato’s political art is compatible with democracy, as Wallach often wishes to claim, but because our own regimes institutionalize the Platonic critique of democracy in their constitutional courts and meritocratic civil services.8

Wallach’s concerns are those of a teacher of Plato in an American university. He shares the American ideal of a classless society, and so he does not really stop to consider that Plato is primarily concerned to promulgate an ethic of noblesse oblige. Wallach is engaged with the problems of mass education: he is interested in the political art as a skill of citizens, even as he acknowledges that Plato concentrates on leadership (p. 329), or rather on the choice to be a leader.

As Arthur Adkins, Nicole Loraux and Josiah Ober have shown, the values of the Greek aristocratic elite, prior to their Platonic revaluation, were the values of Athenian democracy. The main problem of the history of Greek political thought is to understand the relation between democratic rule and aristocratic values. In accepting without argument the Michelsian thesis, successfully refuted by Ober in Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Power of the People (Princeton, 1989), that the Athenian democracy is governed by a ruling class, Wallach misunderstands both the Athenian achievement and the Platonic critique of that achievement. He therefore misunderstands the Platonic critique of the aristocratic efforts (of Plato’s relatives and their co-conspirators) to blot the Athenian achievement from the face of the earth.

Wallach’s essays in journals such as Political Theory, and History of Political Thought are sharp, clear, and tightly organized.9 One therefore hopes that the project of The Platonic Political Art will be explicated with further essays, on the meaning of τέχνη in Plato, on theory and practice, and on the relation between ancient and modern democracy.


1. Wallach is willing to re-open the question of the authorship of the Seventh Letter (pp. 59-63, 333-35); V. Bradley Lewis makes a compelling case for its authenticity in “The Rhetoric of Philosophic Politics in Plato’s Seventh Letter,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 33(2000): 23-38.

2. See the highly refined and to my mind persuasive work of Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (Princeton, 1999) and my “War, Class, and Justice in Plato’s Republic,” The Review of Metaphysics 53(1999): 403-423.

3. Paul Rahe rightly makes the Spartan case central in his account of ancient republicanism in Republics Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill, 1992).

4. See “The Unity of Virtue and the Limitations of Magnesia,” History of Political Thought 19(1998):125-141; “Plato’s Eleatic and Athenian Sciences of Politics,” The Review of Politics 61(1999): 57-84.

5. The power of Wallach’s argument is diminished somewhat by an odd opposition between the form and content of the political art (p. 283), whose Platonic basis I cannot see.

6. Wallach denies this particular point about the Gorgias I should note (pp. 118-19 n. 195).

7. Wallach, for his part, admits this at p. 43 n. 7. He does not seem to have revised his manuscript to take account, however, of the consequences of this admission.

8. See Wallach’s own comparison of the Nocturnal Council of the Laws to the United States Supreme Court (p. 386).

9. Wallach’s views are far more advantageously presented, for example, in his article “Plato’s Socratic Problem, and Ours” History of Political Thought 18(1997): 377-398.