“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
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
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
The second part of the book begins with a prolonged exegesis of the character of Socrates’
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-
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
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
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
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)