BMCR 2011.08.30

Plato’s Republic: A Critical Guide. Cambridge Critical Guides

, Plato's Republic: A Critical Guide. Cambridge Critical Guides. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiii, 273. ISBN 9780521491907. $85.00.

Table of Contents

This contribution to the “Cambridge Critical Guides” series brings together a number of fine scholars to examine many central topics of Plato’s Republic. Nevertheless, this should not be mistaken for an introductory “companion.” In keeping with the purpose of the Critical Guides series (to offer “cutting-edge research volumes on some of the most important works of philosophy”), this volume, in the words of its editor, “is not a preparatory book or synopsis for those planning to read the Republic for the first time,” but rather is “for veterans of the text who are looking for thoughtful, detailed excursions into the problems Plato’s text and ideas pose” (2). In a first draft of this review, I attempted to do justice to each contribution with a detailed description and comments, only to discover that I had vastly exceeded the permitted length. So I offer here only the barest summaries, knowing that I do much less than full justice to individual essays. (I can only hope that I will not suffer psychic disharmony and years of torment in the afterlife as a result.) Where I occasionally add some observations, this reflects my own interests more than it does the merits or demerits of any particular essay.

The volume opens with a pair of essays addressing Plato’s authorship of the Republic. G.R.F. Ferrari contrasts the role of the dialogue’s “internal narrator,” Socrates, with that of its author, Plato. Unlike several dominant interpretive approaches, which portray Socrates as firmly in control of the dialogue’s progress, Ferrari argues that Socrates at various points (such as the openings of Books II and V) indicates his own surprise at the conversation’s course and finds himself forced to respond to unexpected or unwelcome objections. Plato thus draws our attention to his own authorial presence. Rachel Barney argues that the Republic, like many ancient works, is an instance of ring-composition, in which themes from earlier in a work are returned to and developed more fully later. Barney suggests that such ring-composition is not merely a literary device, but reflects a Platonic-Aristotelian conception of philosophic method, in which philosophy first argues toward first principles on the basis of hypotheses, and then works its way back again from those first principles, explaining the relevant hypotheses as it goes. She illustrates her claim with a detailed look at the relationship between the Book X discussion of mimetic poetry and the earlier discussion in Books II and III.

Three essays deal with political themes. Rachana Kamtekar ponders why Socrates spends so much time describing the ideal city in order to produce a definition of justice—a harmonious condition of the individual soul—that makes no reference to politics. She argues, first, that Socrates must provide a fairly elaborate description of the city in order to clarify the connection between justice within the soul and just actions; and, second, that doing so helps him reply to his interlocutors’ challenges both by portraying a city in which the laws do not merely serve the interest of the rulers (Thrasymachus), and also by showing first what justice is, before arguing that it makes its possessors happy (Glaucon and Adeimantus).

Nicholas Smith tackles one of the Republic‘s central interpretive difficulties, the “happy philosopher” problem: although the ideal city requires philosopher-kings, philosophers would rather philosophize than rule and must thus be compelled to govern. Smith’s solution has two parts. First, he suggests that refusing to rule would create psychic disharmony within the philosophers’ souls, because the shame and dishonor it occasioned would reflect not simply obedience to reason, but rather an inappropriate suppression of spiritedness. Second, he points out that the philosophers’ education is not complete when they return to the city. They still need their fifteen-year apprenticeship in rule before they can fully understand all the consequences that flow from having seen the Good. I am not sure that the first part of Smith’s argument avoids circularity—it seems that in order to explain the dishonor or shamefulness of not ruling, one would need an explanation of why indulging the spirited part of the soul in its desire for this particular form of honor is in fact good for the philosophers. That, however, merely restates the original problem of why it is preferable for them to return to the cave. Nevertheless, this is a very clever essay.

Zena Hitz explores Book 8’s discussion of degenerate regimes. She argues that each of these regimes pursues a characteristic dominant end: timocracy pursues honor, oligarchy wealth, and democracy freedom. (Tyranny, marked by unrestrained, lawless desire, has no single end.) The deterioration from one regime to the next reflects the gradual victory of the soul’s appetitive over its rational part. She further argues that each degenerate regime possesses a kind of shadow-virtue or image of order that represents the remnants of reason still present within it. Timocrats suppress their desire for wealth out of fear of shame; oligarchs’ love of wealth enables them to suppress their unnecessary desires; democrats establish a shadow of moderation under the guise of lawfulness. This description of the shadow-virtues of degenerate regimes is reminiscent of Augustine’s later description, in the City of God, of republican Rome as pursuing “splendid vice,” driven by its love of honor to suppress its other vices for the sake of this one, and in the process becoming, though not fully virtuous, nevertheless better than it would otherwise have been.

Two authors deal with Plato’s description of the soul. Mark McPherran, in an essay he describes as “aporetic,” puzzles over the problem of moral responsibility in the Myth of Er. The myth is supposed to absolve the gods of responsibility for our misfortunes by emphasizing that we ourselves choose our fates. But because each soul’s choice is profoundly shaped by its pre-existing character, which was itself determined by the life lived as a consequence of its previous choice, and so on, it is unclear how an unphilosophic soul could ever break the vicious cycle trapping it in unjust and miserable lives. Christopher Shields probes an apparent contradiction in Plato’s moral psychology. The tripartite division of the soul developed in Book IV is crucial to the Republic‘s argument. But if the soul is composed of distinct parts, then—since Plato appears to believe that composite entities are subject to disintegration—it cannot be immortal, as Socrates argues in Book X. Shields resolves this dilemma through a detailed examination of what Socrates actually means in describing the soul as comprised of “parts.” He reads Socrates as claiming not that the soul has three distinct components, but rather that the one soul can be described under different aspects or features. Socrates thus helps us think through the difficult psychological problem of a single, undivided soul that nevertheless experiences internal discord—at least until it has become truly just.

Two essays focus on issues of Plato’s philosophical method. J.H. Lesher offers a close and detailed examination of the meaning of sapheneia in Plato’s famous image of the divided line. He argues that common translations such as “clarity,” “precision,” or “truth” do not fully capture the meaning of the word as Plato uses it. After examining the word’s appearances in Plato’s texts as well as other ancient sources, Lesher concludes that its meaning is best understood as a “full, accurate, and sure awareness” of an object or idea. Hugh Benson elucidates two distinctions between the dianoetic and dialectical methods in the simile of the Divided Line. First, dianoetic mistakenly regards its hypotheses as truly known when they are not, whereas dialectic regards them as only hypotheses until successfully traced back to the unhypothetical first principle. Second, dianoetic tests its hypotheses in light of what it takes to be the true or essential consequences of the Forms, but which are in fact only contingent ones, resulting from their appearing in a particular context (as philosophers appear vicious or useless within already existing, imperfect states). Dialectic, however, because it truly understands the Forms themselves, can test its hypotheses against the Forms’ genuine and essental consequences, not their accidental, contextual features (so that philosophers are seen to be beneficial for states when the true nature of philosophy is correctly understood).

The volume closes with a pair of essays on Platonic education. C.D.C. Reeve focuses especially on the meaning of Socrates’ puzzling claim that education consists not of putting sight into the eye of the soul, but rather of turning the soul in the right direction so that it will see properly. To do so, he covers a remarkable amount of ground, discussing epistemological, ontological, and ethical issues as he moves toward a description of educating the whole soul. Perhaps the most charming moment of his essay comes in his chastened portrait of the philosopher-kings: far short of omniscience, their achievement of the city’s good requires that their own knowledge be supported by many other forms of knowledge possessed by different citizens who, though not philosophers, make substantial contributions to the city’s flourishing. Malcolm Schofield’s essay (perhaps the finest contribution in the volume) highlights the importance of music—not simply poetry and the spoken word, but music itself—to the Republic‘s educational scheme and Platonic developmental psychology. Schofield argues persuasively that Plato regards music itself as tremendously influential. Musical modes and rhythms shape the young soul to admire beauty and order, so that when people reach the age at which their reason can be actively engaged, they are already predisposed toward and derive pleasure from the beautiful and good. Schofield buttresses his argument by examining the continuing importance that Plato attributes to music in the Laws. Schofield might wish to consider one discussion that should ultimately be understood as an attempt to take seriously Plato’s teaching about the importance of music: the much (but unfairly) maligned chapter attacking rock’n’roll in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

In thus grouping the essays thematically, I have omitted one contribution, the chapter by Julia Annas examining the link between the Republic and the story of Atlantis in the Critias. Annas argues that Plato’s account of ancient Athens as the ideal, virtuous city that defeats imperialist Atlantis only to be destroyed itself in the ensuing catastrophe illustrates the core ethical argument of the Republic : that virtue is its own reward, to be purused regardless of whether reputation, wealth, or other benefits flow from it. She closes with some enjoyable speculations about why Plato might not have completed the Critias. I admit that, as my placing it here may suggest, this essay seemed to me an awkward fit in the collection, since its focus is really on the Atlantis story rather than the Republic itself.

The book’s shortcomings have less to do with the particular contributions, which are of a high quality, than with the nature of the volume. There is no interplay among the contributors, despite opportunities: Barney’s essay, for example, might be taken to reinforce Ferrari’s argument; both Reeve and Smith highlight the philosophers’ need for political practice in order to complete their education; and Schofield’s discussion of music’s effect on the soul returns us to Shields’s examination of tripartition.

Furthermore, there is a certain tension built into the goal of the “Cambridge Critical Guides,” aimed as they are at a relatively advanced audience. A volume such as this is essentially equivalent to a themed special issue of a journal. The effort to include contributions covering most of the dialogue’s important topics produces such a diverse set of essays that few other than reviewers will read the book straight through, while most readers will find themselves primarily interested in only a subset of the essays.

On the other hand, the breadth of scope does mean that anyone venturing the whole volume will finish it with a good sense of current scholarly debates about the text. And almost every reader will find at least something here that is of interest.