BMCR 2003.01.13

Of Myth, Life, and War in Plato’s Republic

, Of myth, life, and war in Plato's Republic. 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.. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (ix, 249 pages).. ISBN 0253108799 $24.95 (pb).

“Yet another work on Plato, on that most universally recognized among the Platonic dialogues — the Republic.” (1) With this legitimate perception Claudia Baracchi (hereinafter B.) begins her serious and insightful study offering a new, somewhat post-modern and deconstructive interpretation of the Republic (hereinafter R.), which reveals the multi-layered intertwinement of myth, philosophy, political thought and culture in the structure of the dialogue. Aware of the unceasing popularity that the R. enjoys in the scholarly world, B. undertakes the challenge to attract the reader’s attention with the mastery of “her beautifully crafted prose,” to cite the jacket of the book, and an original thought-provoking interpretation of some key sections in the R. (the image of the cave; Socrates’ visit to Pireus [hereinafter all Greek names and terms are cited according to B.’s transliteration]; the construction of the just city; and the myth of Er).

The aim of B’s investigation is to penetrate the depth of the complexity of the R. and, by doing so, to uncover the text speaking for itself outside of any scholarly systematization. “In fact,” B. claims in the introduction, “this investigation presents itself as an attempt to effect something like a subtraction — to encourage a certain emptying, a certain hesitation to embrace all too customary assumptions.” (3) This premise determines the nature of the book as a highly personalized reading of the R., which is focused primarily on R., bks I and X, and secondarily on R., bks III-V and VIII. The study is divided into two parts: Part I includes chapters I-II analyzing the meaning of Socrates’ visit to Pireus in bk I. Part II includes chapters III-VI leading to the interpretation of the myth of Er in bk X through a series of convoluted digressions on the themes of imitation, memory, and poetry in bks III-V and VIII. Thus the thematic structure of the book, in spite of the author’s claim, is circular, enclosing the text of the R. from the beginning to the end.

The interpretation, or more precisely the notes on the R., “proceed less in the mode of argument than in that of performance” (11), to use B’s own qualification. B. begins her interpretive journey with the so-called προλεπτικόν — a preliminary study of the image of the cave in R., bk VII. B. finds that the text of the image of the cave thematizes a few motifs underlying the meaning of her later investigation, i.e., the image of the cave is an analogy that equips Socrates and his interlocutors with the understanding of the primal and invisible substrate in the nature of the universe. Through the intertwinement of experience and seeing, “the image of the cave, then, makes it possible for Socrates to envision himself — or, better, for those who are involved in the conversation to envision themselves.” The inside environment of the cave resembles “a rigor, a stiffness, a staticity to their existence” (23) at all levels — not only personal, but also political and even psychological. These levels are in constant flux determining “the articulated and articulating movement of life” and thus providing what “would be the formal structure of γένεσις, of becoming.” (25) The image of the cave also contains the impulse to break through from the stagnation of this immobile existence, germinated in Socrates’ invitation to Glaukon to imagine “the release, the relief, and, literally, the return to life that would be experienced if anything of this kind were, ‘by nature’ ( φύσει), to happen (515c).” (29)

Chapter I discusses the theme of political founding in the R. with focus on the political “re-generation” as a movement “striving to re-constitute, to re-configure” “the communal organism” highlighted by Athens’ political decay. (39) Here is one of B.’s most keen discoveries in the text: Socrates delves into the darkness of the political status quo, which resembles, on one hand, the katabatic journey of Odysseus in bk XI of the Odyssey and, on the other hand, the staticity of the image of the cave. (41) Socrates’ descent faces the philosopher with “a series of arduous challenges” (42), presented by the inhabitants of this unordinary underworld of becoming — Kephalos, Polemarkhos, and Thrasumakhos. Socrates has to strive for his survival in captivity (327b) warding off “the intimidation and aggression” of the life in the corrupted city at the level of ἦθος and at that of νόμος. (43) He reacts against Kephalos’ view of justice (331b), representing the common man’s opinion, by winning over none other than Polemarkhos, Kephalos’ son, to investigate further the question of justice. Thrasumakhos, however, “poses a more severe challenge than the previous characters” (48). His understanding of justice is somewhat similar to Socrates’ since it involves the idea of τὸ ξυμφέρον, i.e., that which is profitable. But his terminology is inconsistent, B. argues, revealing a double standard according to which justice is “an advantage of the stronger and a personal harm to the one who obeys” just as injustice involves the ones who are obeying to “do what is advantageous to the stronger and make themselves unhappy.” (49) From the ashes of the multi-leveled perplexity of becoming that dominates the opinions of the father, the son, and the sophist, Adeimantos and Glaukon resurrect the desire to deepen their understanding of justice by further investigation bringing about Socrates’ construction of the just city. (52-54) Socrates’ role in this re-generation is to be “the de-forming and trans-forming force, the dynamizing impulse operative within the city, disrupting the closed circle of doxastic determinations and breaking through the fixity of necessity in its purely mechanical aspects.” (40)

The next focus of B’s attention (Chapter II) lies in the interpretation of Socrates’ idea of the just city, which, B. thinks, is inseparably involved with the concept of injustice. The two form an interplay which is left intentionally “unresolved” in the dialogue. (63) B., then, follows the development of the idea of the just city in a number of aspects: its nature as an image (64), the ability to be seen (65), the finding of the essence of justice (65-66), the image of justice itself in relation to the polis and the soul. (66-70) In this eidetic construction of the just city, B. discovers traces of unhealthy “preoccupation with faction inside and war outside.” (74) The just city is in constant preparation for war in order to perpetuate its peace, purity, and political conservation. (74-75) One of the means for this political sterility is “the administration of the φάρμακον of lies and secrecy.” Thus the just city contains elements of the unjust city: For “injustice is repeatedly associated with the lack of learning and lies. In its passion for self-assertion by such means, the Socratic city is, on Socrates’ own terms, far from a model of justice in its compromised essence.” (75) The discovery that even the just city must decay is confirmed in R. 546a-547a by none other than the Muses. Injustice is at the heart of justice and the Muses only describe its necessity, which originates from life, change, and mutability. (77-78) Justice cannot be brought to a determination and gives itself to thinking only in highly qualified circumstances in which thinking is articulated according to the provocation of justice. (81)

The second part of the book begins with a prolonged exegesis of the character of Socrates’ μυθολογεῖν as a conceptual introduction to the myth of Er — the second major focus of this study. The starting point of the discussion is the relation between μυθολογεῖν and μίμησις. Justifiably, first B. turns to the question regarding the manner (B’s italics and formulation) of imitation of the poetic mode. She examines Socrates’ ἀπόλογος in juxtaposition successively to “Homer’s epic-tragic singing, the Hesiodic poetry, and the Bhagavad Gita.” (91) Departing from the traditional framework of “the ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, B. reveals Socrates’ original way of engaging in the discourse: he speaks for himself whereas the poets invoke the Muses to speak through themselves. (99) Such immediacy is characteristic of the dithyrambic poetry to which Socrates’ narration of the myth of Er “would be akin.” (100) Contrary to this, the “pervasiveness of the imitative strategy” in the R. could not be ignored. After all, Socrates himself recalls the entire dialogue. According to B., this apparent contradiction makes Socrates’ “mimetic evocation more forceful” to the extent that “the movement, within μίμησις, against mimetic presentation evidently displays a genuine poietic [sic] effectiveness.” (101) Consequently, the indirect λόγος of the myth of Er is interrupted quite a few times by imitative reports of direct speech. (102-103) The other qualifiers of Socrates’ μυθολογεῖν are ἀνάμνησις and λήθη whose purpose is to bring back “what was once mindfully contemplated and kept safe.” (109) Here B. presents another sharp observation — remembrance could be thought as of “repetition of the unknown, or, what is the same, of memory of the new.” (111) Finally, considering “the comportment” of philosophy towards poetry, the ἀπόλογος of Er functions “as an apologetic self-manifestation” that becomes poetry itself.

In Chapter IV, we are presented with a thorough examination of the presence of “war” at different levels of the dialogue, “ranging from utter destruction to deactivation, disempowerment, displacement, destabilization.” (14) The myth of Er itself raises formally the notion of war with the depiction of a battlefield. This theme “resurfaces at crucial junctions throughout the dialogue,” most important of which is the discussion of the connection between war and justice. (137-139) Different from its static presentation in the Timaeus, the just city in the R. is submerged in motion, development, and change. In this context, “war emerges as a mode of motion.” (153) The first level at which war abides in the dialogue is the agonistic conversation between Socrates and his interlocutors, especially the lord of war, Polemarkhos. (151-161) The second level is that of the ideology of the just city, i.e., the just city has to defend itself from factions and foreign invasion. (157-170) B. concludes, once again very lucidly, that these two levels reveal “the intimate relation between thought and war” and “Er the warrior who once died in war is now more fully uncovered as Socrates, as the philosopher returning in yet another guise — and his story as the recapitulation of Socrates’ deeds and discourses, of the dialogue as a whole.” (170)

Chapters V and VI deal with the myth of Er — an analysis, which was promised and lead to in chapter I. Er, like Socrates, makes a katabatic journey. Unlike Socrates, however, he transgresses unseen “in the shadow of his corpse, sheltered from the glowing of images that light up in this world.” (177) When Er comes back to this world, he narrates the story of his journey to “a most foreign place” as “an attempt at translating that place into this place and articulating an uncanny vision.” (178) The condition in which Er conducted his translation is also unusual. He is unaware of “his own traversing” and “self-same” to the extent that his visit reconstitutes him “as some one other than the one who left.” (178) Thus, the stillness of the battlefield where Er has fallen bears the potentiality for rebirth and for life. (179) With this distant narration, Socrates intertwines his own journey to the other world, described in R., bk I, and, like Er, he comes back as a messenger, “hovering between worlds and weaving them together in their irreducibility.” (180) In this context, Er becomes “a philosopher- ἄγγελος, coming to a daimonic place between heaven and earth.” (185) Following the course of Er’s journey, B. examines the souls in the meadow (185-188), the image of the law and Necessity (188-194), and the choice of the daimon (194-202). Er’s narration loses its individualized character as the story of the journey of a warrior and becomes a story of the journey of the soul, including that of a philosopher. (202-207) The rebirth of the souls and Er’s own coming back to life concludes the theme of re-generation, introduced in chapter I. (214-218)

In the concluding chapter, which B. titles perceptively “un-ending,” we are presented with a summary of the numerous aspects of the myth of Er and Plato’s μυθολογεῖν in general. The myth situates the discussion of justice within a vision of the cosmos. μῦθος also brings certain openness and un-ending to the unfolding of λόγος. μῦθος explicates that which the entourage of λόγος cannot, i.e., the order of necessity. “From these considerations it follows that (1) myth demands to be thought in connection with necessity (and vice versa) and (2) the speaking of the dialogue on the πολιτεία is not political scene.” (221) The myth of Er is the culmination of the dialogue in which μῦθος and λόγος come together to show that the love of wisdom or “the philosophical comportment cultivated during life” directs the soul in its selection of its next life. (223) Death and life are forms of forgetfulness and recollection, which determine the life of tomorrow in the recollection of the life of yesterday. (225)

Let me turn now to the overall flow of the argument. An apparent strength of the book is its close, thoughtful, and very original reading of numerous passages in the dialogue. Some of my favorites are: the interpretation of the image of the cave as an analogy to primordial darkness, the life of becoming, and the philosopher’s liberation from his doxastic immobility in chapter I, the socio-political connection between νόμος and νομός (47), the (re)generative connotation of σεύω and σῴζω and the cognitive relation between ἀνάμνησις and ἀλήθεια (106-107), and the philosophical implications of war symbolized by the tribal affiliation of Er as “Pamphylian,” namely “of mingled tribes and races.” (170) However, these and many other thought-provoking insights do not flow together into one or any other certain number of arguments. But it is true that the author disclaims her interests in laying out the themes of the book “in the orderly fashion” or with “authorial strategy.” (11) Such openness, although quite unorthodox, fits well the goal(s) of the book — to offer yet another interpretation of the R. After reading the last pages of the conclusion, I still wonder what precisely the book tells us. Perhaps this is one of the strengths of the argument: It is about “myth, life, and war” in the R. in all of its unaccountable complexity that escapes, in a very protean way, the stability of any traditional scholastic systematization.

B.’s style is intricate and convoluted and its most impressive feature is its admirable mastery of sophisticated expression. I must confess that often I caught myself going over and over again certain statements in an attempt to understand them. For instance, “This saying [with reference to the diction of the Muses], haunted by a numinous nebulosity, unveils the emergence of alterity and its veils in the midst of the one who recounts — an emergence revealing one as an other, the same as differing from itself.” (122) B. expresses distinct affection for tripartite rhetorical gradations, as when she declares “This agreement, this coming together of desires, this desire to agree is that which allows for all bringing and joining together in analogy.” (22) Although the expressionistic character of such statements is admirably clever and perceptive, it becomes cumbersome after a while especially when the subject of examination is such a difficult text as the R. On the other hand, B.’s style serves as a beautiful complement to Plato’s sophisticated style. The task of the reader is to penetrate both. The success of this undertaking will be a matter of decision for the individual reader. For the connoisseur of exquisite and endlessly sophisticated style of expression adorning the pearls of insight, reading this book will be very satisfying. For the connoisseur of the elegant simplicity of style that lets the subject alone shine through, this book will be a trial, however rewarding for its content.

The bibliography is reasonably labeled “selective” and includes a relatively wide range of topics. Of course, it is a quite impossible task to provide an exhaustive bibliography on Plato’s R. or his myth. There are, however, some conspicuous lacunas such as L. Albinus, “The Katabasis of Er. Plato’s use of myths, exemplified by the myth of Er,” in Essays on Plato’s Republic, Erik Nis Ostenfeld, ed. (Aarhus 1998) 91-105; F. Arends, “Plato as a problem-solver. The unity of the polis as a key to the interpretation of Plato’s Republic,” in Essays on Plato’s Republic, above, 28-41; Ch.J. Rowe, “Myth, history, and dialectic in Plato’s Republic and Timaeus-Critias,” in From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought, Richard Buxton, ed. (Oxford 1999) 263-278; K.F. Moors, Platonic Myth: An Introductory Study (Washington D.C (1982); R. Zaslavsky, Platonic Myth and Platonic Writing (Lanham, New York, and London 1981).

The publisher’s editorial work is overall good. The transliteration of the numerous Greek names and terms is very consistent although I would expect to read Sokrates instead of Socrates when the other names are spelled as Polemarkhos, Glaukon, or Lusias. There are almost no typographical errors in the English with the exceptions of “cthonian” for “chthonian” (57) and the omitted space between “) to” (55). On the other hand, the Greek text contains numerous errors pertaining mostly to diacritics. An abbreviated list includes κεφαλὰς (24), μίμησις (32, footnote 8), μετ’ (76), αν (107), ἀλήθεια (108), ψυχή (156). The Greek Index, which is relatively short, seems to be particularly affected by omission or misplacement of diacritics, especially page 247.

Baracchi has succeeded in offering “the rigorously responsive reading” of the R. promised in the introduction (4). Her interpretation uncovers some significant points about the pervasive presence of the themes of myth, life, and war in the structure of the dialogue, to the extent that her book itself reads like its subject with “tumultuous, conflicted tentativeness — as a living, vibrant, even torn exercise in passing away.” (10)