BMCR 2007.05.17

Plato: Political Philosophy

Malcolm Schofield, Plato : political philosophy. 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.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 384 pages).. ISBN 9780191530432 $35.00.

Table of Contents

This impressive and timely study by Malcolm Schofield [hereafter S] is a contribution to the series Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought edited by Mark Philp. Scholars of Plato will readily argue that one cannot separate the great philosopher’s political thought from his philosophy as a whole. S understands this quite well, and has crafted his volume accordingly. The order of the chapters indicates a valid interpretive strategy, though not one necessarily beholden to traditional Platonic norms. S admits, at the outset, that his book will deal primarily, but not solely, with the Republic. This makes sense, of course, for not only is that dialogue the most widely read of Plato’s works, but it is the one most often utilized for discussions of Plato’s political thought. It is fortunate, for this very reason, that S includes generous discussion of other relevant texts.

The aim of this volume, clearly stated in the preface, is “both to ground an analytical account of Plato’s political philosophy in its historical context, and to suggest some resonances it finds or might find in more contemporary concerns and more recent political thought” (viii). The seven main chapters (subdivided into topical sections) serve this aim well, as they include both historical background, notably a fine discussion of “Some Dubious Platonic Autobiography” (13-18), focusing on the problematic Letter VII and its interpretation, as well as a lengthy exposition of Athenian democracy and its role in the development of Plato’s political thought (Chapter 2). This provides a seamless segue into sustained discussion of the democratic problem in the context of Plato’s developing philosophy.

Chapter 3, “Problematizing Democracy” (100-135), includes a careful reading of the Statesman and Protagoras, in order to show how these dialogues give us “a glimpse of democracy [arguing] back at [Plato]” (130). Here we find the beginning of the great question coming to light: Is it the statesman or the philosopher who is better suited to rule the polis?

This question, and the quest for an answer, drives the superb “Chapter 4: The Rule of Knowledge” (136-193), where S discusses J.S. Mill, Benjamin Jowett, and George Grote, on Plato. Grote’s anti-Catholicism led him to prefer a reading of Plato that downplayed the authoritarian nature of the ‘philosopher king’ of the Republic and the religiously beholden ‘ideal ruler’ of the Laws. Mill, to simplify, emphasized what he saw as the universalizing tendency of the Platonic striving for a truth that is open to all, regardless of its metaphysical foundations. Jowett, to his credit, recognized that Plato was a religious thinker and that the human salvific striving for transcendence is inseparable from the practical aspect of politics and right governance of a state. S provides a welcome (re)delving into these primordial sources of modern Plato scholarship — one of the highlights of the book. One is reminded that certain ‘common sense’ interpretations of Plato — e.g., those involving mind-body dichotomy, the superiority of the philosopher king, etc. — are by no means readily accepted, or even acknowledged, in the politically correct atmosphere of contemporary academia. A breath of fresh mustiness, then, is most welcome, especially in a book devoted to a topic as timely as politics.

Chapter 5, “Utopia” (194-249), provides a concise historical grounding in the modern discourse on utopian society and authoritarianism. Beginning with a consideration of Karl Popper, which is critical yet balanced, S offers the reader an excellent and learned entry into a saturated field, even including a discussion of the perennial question of Plato’s “feminism” (227 ff).

Chapter 6, “Money and the Soul” (250-281), is a lively examination of the soul’s appetite and its relation to the universal lure of monetary gain. Love of money as a type of disease, in the Freudian sense, is used as a launching-point into a wide-ranging discussion of Plato’s philosophy of wealth and moral obligation. S contrasts capitalism’s “naturally insatiable desire for money” with Plato’s “principled aversion” to the unbridled appetite for satiation in all forms, not just financial. S concludes this chapter with a refreshing declaration: “Finding more effective ways of exercising some control over [the insatiable desire for money] remains an urgent need” (275).

In the Introduction, S states that Plato is relevant for the modern age, and worth reading for his contribution to contemporary political theory (1-2), and writes, toward the end of the book, that “Plato’s concern that the religion shaping the life of a society should be rational religion may be something that social and political theorists need to take seriously again” (326). S is sensitive to the importance placed on religion by Plato. Indeed, our author notes in the final Chapter 7 (“Ideology”) that the first word of the Laws is θεός, and discusses the Orphic derivation of the saying at Laws 4.715e, regarding the god of history and the cycle of nature (292), reminding us that religion remained, for Plato, a source of inspiration and creativity.

Plato’s creative approach to the political question led him to revise his views throughout the course of his long career. The main contribution of this book is to detail the various influences and problems that exercised Plato’s mind during his lifetime and with which he struggled. S focuses on three major dialogues: the Republic, the Statesman, and the Laws, which he describes as, respectively, Socratic, Eleatic, and Athenian (18); but, as stated above, he does not ignore other dialogues, like the Gorgias and Crito, which the author rightly describes as “our earliest philosophical text on political obligation” (7). Such inclusions help cast valuable light on Plato’s development as a political philosopher.

The Bibliography and Index of Passages round out the volume, contributing to its usefulness as a reference and teaching source.

In sum, Plato: Political Philosophy is a well-balanced and painstakingly researched volume. The philosopher and political theorist will find much to whet his/her appetite, and the classicist will enjoy refreshingly creative crackings of old chestnuts. Even the theologian — that oft-maligned fringe-figure — will find solace in the fact that Plato is finally being considered, once again, as the religious thinker that he always was, despite his various revisionist reincarnations. As S ends his fine contribution to the field: “Plato’s conviction of the need even in utopia for the cohesive power of an ideology grounded in religion demands to be taken a lot more seriously in the early twenty-first century than it was in the relative calm of the secular post-war decades” (333). It seems that we are not yet through with our reading of Plato. Nor with his gifted interpreters.