BMCR 2011.03.52

Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame

, Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato's Gorgias and the Politics of Shame. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xiii, 218. ISBN 9780691128566. $35.00.


Abu Ghraib functions as one of the motivations for Christina Tarnopolsky’s study of the politics of shame. Tarnopolsky mentions the political consequences of the “horrific images coming out of Abu Ghraib” (195), and places the 2008 United States presidential election in the category of consequences. “Enough members of the collective self that is America actually felt truly ashamed of America’s actions in Abu Ghraib … to change it by voting in a new kind of administration” (188). At the end of the review, I will explain how this overdetermined example suffers from hyperinterpretation in the book.

The book’s title is largely an unfulfilled titillation, although the subtitle describes accurately the field of action, a detailed reading of a key Platonic dialogue, with Tarnopolsky covering a significant amount of scholarly ground (mining the disciplines mainly of philosophy and classics, but not rhetoric) in the six chapters, though the interpretative spotlight on the Gorgias ceases at Chapter Four’s end. Chapters Five and Six take up contemporary debates, some of which might appeal mainly to those in Political Science departments in North American universities. The subject of shame, however, remains on stage throughout, surrounded by a vocabulary indebted to Freudian therapy.

A seemingly minor puzzle appears early on, and warrants attention before a summary of individual chapters. How did the 2004 winner of the Leo Strauss Award for an earlier version of this book manage to produce a final manuscript without ever mentioning Leo Strauss? Perhaps the vernacular answer should be: “That is so Straussian!”1 Strauss taught a course on Plato’s Gorgias in 1973, and published more than one book about Plato. Tarnopolsky’s dissertation director, Nathan Tarcov, is Director of the Leo Strauss Center. Is the striking absence of Strauss a shameable moment, or simply symptomatic of Straussians?

Here is Tarnopolsky offering the exoteric purpose of her book: “This book … is meant to show the many ways that, and reasons why, shame led in both of these directions [tyranny and democracy] for the Greeks in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and for ourselves in our own recent history, so that we can devise the democratic institutions and practices that will tip the scale toward liberty, democracy, and reciprocity” (6).

Chapter One, “Shame and Rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias,” includes arguments for viewing the Gorgias as a transitional dialogue in the Platonic corpus. Tarnopolsky asserts that the Gorgias constitutes a key document in Plato’s efforts to shift attention from rhetoric to philosophy, partly through a smear campaign against rhetoric, a campaign that needed to be orchestrated carefully, because some ancients also considered Socrates a sophist. For Tarnopolsky’s purposes, Plato’s aim is not dispatching rhetoric in favor of philosophy, but insisting on a different kind of rhetoric, an upscale rhetoric that does not parade around the agora dressed in shameful ornamental frippery. Plato’s philosopher/rhetorician dons sensible shoes and a utilitarian frock while packing a linguistic Taser underneath, because, on Tarnopolsky’s reading, the philosopher/rhetorician must be someone who appears respectful, but who can also inflict pain (shame) on others. “A healthy democracy requires citizens who reciprocally perform and endure the pain of being rightfully shamed out of their conformity” (20). If that holds, Tarnopolsky neglects to mention examples of other gadflies who shame Socrates, completing the circle of reciprocity she insists is politically essential.

Chapter Two, “Shaming Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles,” spells out how Socrates shames (in a respectful and philosophical way, according to the author) his interlocutors, one of whom has the audacity to support the tyrant Archelaus. While Gorgias seems to be off-stage for much of the discussion, Tarnopolsky reminds readers that while other characters converse with Socrates, Gorgias intervenes at various moments (463a, 463d-e, 497b, 506a-b) and encourages more talk about the topics Socrates raises. This chapter includes a section (66) that demonstrates Tarnopolsky’s generous capacities for considering multiple aspects of a scene. In the midst of unfolding the relationship between shame and truth-telling, Tarnopolsky suggests a series of alternative interpretations, unstated in the dialogue, to explain Polus’ behaviour as he struggles to preserve himself in the face of Socrates’ interrogation. Tarnopolsky admires this struggle, characterizing it as a state of confusion, a nascent stage toward a possible change in his views about whether it is better to inflict injustice or to suffer it.

“Plato on Shame in Democratic Athens” is the title of Chapter Three, a pivotal chapter for Tarnopolsky, who wants to buck the “canonical interpretation” of Plato as anti-democratic. The “canonical view oversimplifies” (92), and oversimplification is a cardinal sin for Tarnopolsky. She craves the complex, the multi-dimensional. Generally, the author tells us, democracies encourage parrhesia, a term made famous by Michel Foucault,2 and Tarnopolsky recognizes that the term is a communicative thorn for democracies. Speaking freely about everything will inevitably upset someone. Western democracies can unearth a host of problems linked to “free speech,” from Charles Dickens’ having a poor woman arrested for using filthy language in the street to the U.S. government’s objections to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Predictably, Tarnopolsky affirms the virtues of parrhesia, such as its role in “placing the public interest over personal interests and pleasures” (97). She goes so far as to describe Socratic interrogations ( elenchi) “as a kind of courageous rhetoric for the benefit of one’s fatherland ” [my emphasis] (108).3

In Chapter Four, Tarnopolsky moves to divide Socratic rhetoric from Platonic rhetoric, citing the dialogue’s concluding myth of the judgment of souls in the afterlife as pertinent for the case. While Plato (you can substitute Socrates here) valorizes sequential thinking, logic, and mathematics, the world of logos, he knows how to capitalize on muthos, to play simultaneously the linguistically ostentatious peacock and the reserved, armored turtle. Tarnopolsky interprets the myth in the Gorgias as confirmation of shame’s centrality. In the myth, the judgment of the dead hits a snag, and Zeus must tweak the scene to correct some reportedly poor judgments on some souls who were apparently allowed to escape Tartarus. Surprisingly, the main problem turns out to be, in Zeus’ mind, that the judges need to be naked if correct judgment is to occur. This scene inspires Tarnopolsky to paraphrase a demonstrably false claim by Bernard Williams: “Being seen naked is a paradigm instance of the experience of shame both for the Greeks and for ourselves” (115). Tarnopolsky falters here by not recalling the existence of exhibitionists, nudists, or people from unclothed tropical-zone cultures. In short, being naked is not a shame-producing condition for everyone.4

Nakedness plays into a related issue for this chapter. To bolster her endorsement of positive rhetoric attributed to Socrates and Plato, Tarnopolsky realizes that she needs to address Socratic irony, since “the intention to deceive [cover up, hide] was typical of the Greek words eironeia, eiron, and eironeuomai ” (131). Tarnopolsky shifts irony’s meaning away from its ancient context and toward a modern one, something akin to not speaking literally. Socrates’ interrogations, while sometimes appearing harsh and haughty, ought to be seen in a different light, according to Tarnopolsky. “The interlocutor is presented with a puzzle by Socrates’ ironical assertions, and these ironies are not meant to deceive him but to get him to do the hard intellectual work that would allow him to understand what Socrates means by his paradoxes” (132).

Chapter Five examines mainly two texts, Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life and Jean Elshtain’s Democracy on Trial. For Tarnopolsky, both books are “oversimplistic.” However, Elshtain and Warner are in good company, because later, Kant will also have an “oversimplistic” view of shame (175). The difference among the three is that Tarnopolsky uses quotations from Elshtain’s and Warner’s books, but her criticism of Kant derives solely from secondary sources. It is clear that Tarnopolsky wants to distance herself from any Kantianism. Her corrective advice for Elshtain and Warner: “We should be attentive to the ways in which shame takes on both virtuous and vicious forms, and should try to ensure that our institutions and actions embody more of the former and less of the latter type of shame” (154). This innocuous and feeble hortative, with that unspecific “should try to ensure,” figures as one of several difficulties that arise in the book.

Back to Abu Ghraib. Tarnopolsky mentions those “horrific images” coming out of the prison. The collective shame she assigns to the event did not emerge initially from an elenchus with a modern-day Socrates or Plato practicing so-called positive rhetoric. Images have expressive power, though that entire communicative world plays no role in Tarnopolsky’s telling of the story. Furthermore, Tarnopolsky’s triumphalism that the 2008 election of a new administration resulted in an end to the shame of Abu Ghraib needs rethinking. The “torture memos” constructed by John Yoo, among others, have not been rescinded.

Deep into the book, Tarnopolsky mentions in a footnote Plato’s Seventh Letter (189), an Ur-text for philosophical and political esotericism of the sort Leo Strauss preached and enabled. It is difficult imagining anyone coming away from a reading of that letter convinced (1) that Plato had faith in democratic politics and (2) that it is possible to take any of the Platonic dialogues at face value, given Plato’s statements, such as: “When one sees a written composition, whether it be on law by a legislator or on any other subject, one can be sure, if the writer is a serious man, that his book does not represent his most serious thoughts” (344c). The writer who gives us guardians and philosopher-kings presupposes a world with a ruling class, a hierarchy. Tarnopolsky acknowledges that “elenchein means to disgrace, put to shame …, and to get the better of” (38), but does her best to whitewash the matter, before the veil dissolves with this statement, “But I follow Sharon Krause in arguing that even our modern notions of respect and distinction can refer to a salutary hierarchical but reciprocal relationship between a self and an other.” I do not salute the hierarchy, and conclude by noting that Tarnopolsky misreads an important aspect of the Athenian political context. She writes, “Before decrying the elitism of Socrates and/or Plato it is necessary to ask ourselves whether we would want the most important political offices of our own democracies to be chosen by lot” (14). What Tarnopolsky presents as an absurdity, Kojin Karatani recommends. “The salient characteristic of Athenian democracy is not a direct participation of everyone in the assembly…. The core of the system invented to stop the fixation of power in the Athenian Democracy lay not in the election itself, but in the lottery”.5 Karatani understands that lotteries are not a quaint feature of a distant past, their use unthinkable in a state the size of the U.S. or Canada. The contingency of a lottery counteracts the forces in state and capitalism bent on centralizing power.


1. Geoff Waite, “Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss: The Hidden Monologue, or, Conserving Esotericism to Justify the High Hand of Violence,” Cultural Critique, 69, (Spring 2008): 113-140.

2. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2001.

3. “Fatherland” seems an especially odd word choice given Tarnopolsky’s knowledge of Nicole Loraux’s work on the topic of autochthony in ancient Greece, and the attempt, rooted in Plato’s Menexenus, to privilege the earth as mother of all Athenians at the expense of mortal women and their childbearing. See Nicole Loraux, Born of the Earth: Myth and Politics in Athens, trans. Selma Stewart, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

4. Tarnopolsky’s emphasis on nakedness is part of an offensive to valorize vulnerability, making it a virtuous by-product of Platonic rhetoric. The use of rhetoric always already highlights human vulnerability. See Hans Blumenberg, “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric,” trans. Robert M. Wallace, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. Kenneth Baynes, et. al., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

5. Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, trans. Sabu Kohso, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 182-84.