BMCR 2021.09.35

Plato’s exceptional city, love, and philosopher

, Plato's exceptional city, love, and philosopher. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 302. ISBN 9780367424473 $128.00.


A familiar reading of the Platonic dialogues goes something like this: the world of our experience is radically deficient, an incomplete and unstable imitation of a true reality beyond space, time, change, and imperfection; the things we encounter in ordinary life only dimly reflect the transcendent Forms and can never embody the ideal. Yet the dialogues also devote considerable attention to what we might call embodied ideals: outstandingly excellent instantiations of the ideal that could exist in principle as concrete particulars, whether or not they do or will. The clearest case is the Kallipolis of the Republic, which is not a transcendent Form but, as Myles Burnyeat put it, “a perfect but imaginary particular exemplification of justice.”[1] In this provocative, challenging, and eccentric book, Nickolas Pappas considers the ideal city of the Republicand two more embodied ideals that he calls “exceptions,” the philosophical lovers of the Symposium and the Phaedrus and the true philosopher of the Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, and, somewhat surprisingly, the Ion. Part One presents two chapters on eros; Part Two, three chapters on the Republic; Part Three, one apiece on Ion, Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman. If there is a single thesis unifying the book’s wide-ranging explorations of these exceptions, it is perhaps that despite his efforts and aspirations, Plato unwittingly reveals the impossibility and even incoherence of these ideals.

Far more than most books about Plato, however, this one defies summary in terms of theses and arguments. Two features of Pappas’ interpretive approach emphasize the process of reflection over conclusions easy to formulate in concise propositions: the book is highly digressive and its thought is primarily associative. Much of the treatment of the texts it considers hinges on contextual and intertextual associations, often loosely linked together. Hence Pappas spends a great deal of time discussing Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Aristophanes, and lesser-known authors like Artemidorus, Palaephatus, and Theopompus among a wide variety of sources for Greek myth and culture. The book’s rapid movements between various texts and between issues within the same texts challenge the reader to keep hold of the thread linking them together, but the challenge is greater because the thread so often consists only of apparently incidental associations. Since a mere summary cannot capture the winding path the book takes through its texts, I will instead offer just a few highlights from each of its three parts, along with some critical remarks on each.

Part One makes two especially striking claims about eros: first, Aristophanes’ myth in the Symposium is an allegory for parent-child incest and represents, from Plato’s point of view, the best that eros can be apart from divinity; second, the vision of eros in the Phaedrus, though intended to improve upon Diotima’s speech by retaining the Aristophanic notion of eros as restorative, turns out to be “inconceivably exceptional” (26). The allegorical reading appeals to Aristophanes’ treatment of the navel as the point at which one person was formerly connected to another; since it is of course true that the navel is the point at which each person was formerly connected to another, we are supposed to see that our longing to reconnect to our other half is in fact a desire for sexual union with our parent. This reading faces the obvious objection that the myth requires other halves who are male as well as other halves who are female, since it purports to explain male and female hetero- and homo-erotic desire alike, yet we were only ever connected via an umbilical cord to our mothers. In response, Pappas cites mythic fantasies of male pregnancy to show that “paternal pregnancy is imaginable, or imaginable enough not to refute the allegory of childbirth” (40). Many readers will be unpersuaded, as the argument relies on biological reality at one stage only to dispense with it at the next.

The case for the incoherence of eros as the Phaedrus envisions it appeals to the difficulty that the beloved will have in distinguishing it from ordinary, degraded forms of eros (90-93) and to the alleged contradiction of supposedly divine things like exceptional eros being embodied, given the separation of the bodily and the divine (66-72). Yet neither of these grounds is sufficient to render the ideal incoherent. For one thing, the idea that bodily things can be divine is hardly foreign to Plato; however we understand the Phaedrus, the Timaeus makes the cosmos itself and the heavenly bodies divine (34b1, 8-9; 40a2-c3) and calls the head divine on the grounds that it houses the immortal part of the soul and rules over the body (44d3-8), showing that Plato is not beholden to any absolute separation between the bodily and the divine. So too, though it can be circumstantially difficult to tell the difference between a genuine Platonic lover stricken with divine madness and someone who just wants the sexual use of your body, it is implausible to regard them as fully indistinguishable.

Part Two’s three chapters on the Republic apply a fruitful interpretive principle according to which allusions and intertextual connections import foreign voices that say more than the author intends or even recognizes. Thus Glaucon’s challenge, in drawing on the myth of Gyges, brings alternative versions from Herodotus and elsewhere along and thereby becomes a case of “steganography,” which “sends a message where there had seemed to be no communication at all” (107). The hidden message is, first of all, that “everyone has the mind of a tyrant, lacking only the capacity to act as tyrants do” (106), but by a series of associations between Glaucon’s Gyges, the bronze horse in which he discovers the body of the former owner of the ring, Pasiphaë and the wooden cow, and the similarity between the names of Glaucon and Glaucus, son of Pasiphaë, we arrive at the association of tyranny and sexual perversion: “If the story must begin with Gyges’ look at an undressed body, then telling the same story with a decisive difference requires giving him, mythically Oedipalized, a Pasiphaë to look at” (113). In this way, Glaucon “doesn’t notice that he has communicated the Republic’s argument against immoral behavior, which we might telescope into terrifying advice: Let yourself go undetected into full injustice and you will find yourself the sexual partner of a horse” (114).

This characterization of the dialogue’s central argument distorts it by focusing on (peculiar) external consequences of injustice, and there is no need to appeal to hidden meanings to read Glaucon as arguing that everyone has the mind of a tyrant; that is a fairly straightforward inference from what he explicitly says. Yet Pappas equivocates when he moves on to characterize “the philosophical meaning of Glaucon’s story” as “that tyranny is always possible” (115); institutions and culture might make political tyranny unlikely even in a society of Glauconian individuals who would all like to be tyrants if they could get away with it. Pappas concludes that “the Republic unknowingly transmits the message that tyranny might appear anywhere” (124). He recognizes that the constitutional story in Book VIII contradicts this conclusion, but he holds that “Plato primes his readers to look in other allusive passages for words and suspicions that challenge the Republic’s conclusions” (124), pointing to references to Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Along the same vein, Pappas reads the dialogue as suggesting that Kallipolis will never come to be because so long as it does not exist, only philosophers will be able to distinguish it from tyranny, and so the philosopher-founders will find no followers (124, 135, 198). This is not the conclusion that Plato wants, but it is what his text communicates; “The energy that the Republic expends in depicting tyranny as the psychological worst case, and as political antipodes to the new city, reflects the repression of the fear that the philosophical argument is itself producing tyranny” (135). At this point we might worry that Pappas’ interpretive principle is too fruitful, effectively yielding whatever interpreters want. Only the interpreter’s cleverness or imagination limits what Pappas calls the “surplus or subversive meanings” that can be constructed through intertextual association (118).

Part Three turns to the philosopher. Pappas makes a strong case that the Ion is concerned to distinguish philosophers from non-philosophers and that the Theaetetus envisions the philosopher as “a personage in history and within companies” (227). He is less convincing when he constructs an Oedipal reading of Ion himself, with Homer as mother, on the basis of the famous magnet metaphor for poetic inspiration (“Socrates’ image has him hanging from Homer as if about to drop,” 216) and the feminization of Homer (since poets are called kouphos and compared to bees, both associated with the feminine, 217). He then sets up an elaborate series of associations between philosophy, Iris as the child of Thaumas, the rainbow as a harbinger of the monstrous (teras), and Socrates as philosopher (235-241) to conclude that “The Iris-midwife, Socratic philosophy as teras, suggests an impossible sequence of teras philosophers each bringing the news that philosophy has once more failed to reproduce itself” (241); Socrates, like Ion, is Oedipal, and “his identification with his (eventually) sterile mother extends to making him (essentially) sterile as philosopher” (231).

The treatments of the Sophist and the Statesman in later chapters proceed similarly. The Sophist tries to distinguish the philosopher from the sophist by envisioning the philosopher as both an exception and an insider to the civilized community from which it wants to exclude the sophist, yet the sophist belongs by virtue of participating in the economy, while the philosopher remains an exception to the norm yet “craves the position of the norm and human standard” (262). Pappas reads the myth of the Age of Cronus in the Statesman as a chronological allegory for a geographical difference, with the former age standing for barbarian uncivilization. Barbarians, like humans in the Age of Cronus, lack political communities but also philosophy; philosophy is inherently Greek. Yet the philosopher is a counterpart to the divine shepherd of the myth not because both rule, but because the philosopher’s method of division (diakrinein, dianemein) linguistically echoes the god’s act of herding (dianemein). Thus philosophical training “gives the impression of having begun in a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what people had done in other countries” (284). Whatever its origins, philosophy cannot be sustainably reproduced in the city; “The dream of a city that trains its philosophers has not come true, and the Statesman suggests it never will or even should” (281).

At one point, Pappas concedes that a particular line of argument “might be only free-association on metaphors in Plato” (262). That is how a great deal of the book reads to me. Pappas raises a number of important questions about Plato’s efforts to theorize embodied ideals: can eros ever transcend its problematic origin in self-seeking sensual desire? Can we so easily distinguish between divine love and an ultimately aggressive and manipulative one? Could Kallipolis obtain and retain the support of a population not already born and educated in its institutions? Can the citizens of Kallipolis understand the exceptional character of their city, given that they will be deceived about its origin (144-6)? Can philosophy as Plato understands it become institutionally embodied in a way that preserves its exceptional character and yet survive in ordinary cities? Yet the book’s answers to these and related questions suffer from two major problems: its reliance on strained and arbitrary associations leaves us without much in the way of argument in favor of its eccentric interpretations, and it makes little effort to consider alternative readings that might resolve or avoid the problems that Pappas finds. For these reasons, I suspect many philosophers will find it as unsatisfying as I have.


[1] M.F. Burnyeat, ‘Utopia and Fantasy: The Practicability of Plato’s Ideally Just City’, in Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul (Oxford 1999), 298.