BMCR 2021.12.10

Liberty, democracy, and the temptations to tyranny in the Dialogues of Plato

, Liberty, democracy, and the temptations to tyranny in the Dialogues of Plato. The A. V. Elliott conference series. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2021. Pp. xx, 257. ISBN 9780881467857 $25.00.

It is not unusual for a collection of papers originating in a conference to lack cohesion, but it is rare for such a collection to convey something of what it was like to attend the conference. Thanks to the evident amiability of Charlotte C. S. Thomas, the conference’s organizer and this volume’s editor, one gets a sense of how collegial and indeed fun the 2019 conference on “Liberty and Tyranny in Plato” at Mercer College (Macon, Georgia) must have been. In her introduction to the book, Thomas not only celebrates the eleven essays it contains but helpfully situates Plato in the context of Athens’ “mysterious success at Marathon” (xii), invoking in the process the distinction between liberty and libertinism (xv-xvi). The theme of “liberty” receives emphasis because the conference was sponsored by the McDonald Center for America’s Founding Principles, and, since the Straussian orientation of most of the conference participants reflects the continuing influence of Leo Strauss (who died in 1973), it should surprise nobody that the Plato who emerges from the collection is at best a qualified supporter of liberty in any recognizably American sense, or that liberalism, even in the broadest sense, is subjected to a Platonic critique, or at least a critique that is made to seem Platonic. In this context, Thomas’s amiable collegiality—epitomized by her decision to invite the distinctly non-Straussian scholar Nicholas Smith—combined with her emphasis on the Miracle of Marathon, mitigates a certain predictability of emphasis among those who address the conference’s theme effectively.

Unfortunately, not all of the papers do so, and thus the collection suffers from the lack of cohesion typical of such proceedings. This problem is most evident in the contributions that take a narrow focus, as does the paper of Alex Priou on Alcibiades—an essay which fascinates by revealing a scholar in transition between a first book on Parmenides and what is obviously a new book project—Devin Stauffer on the tripartite soul, Mary Townsend on the treatment of women by Protagoras in Protagoras and Gorgias in Meno, Keven Honeycutt on the scant information he can piece together about the otherwise unknown Callicles, Khalil Habib on the dubious connection between Plato and Machiavelli’s Mandragola, and Jennifer Baker’s interesting but out-of-place essay on the relevance of the Athenian Stranger’s preludes to the flaws of our own criminal justice system. Baker’s emphasis on Laws is salutary, but it comes too late; this dialogue should have played a much larger part in a conference devoted to “Liberty and Tyranny in Plato” that is otherwise almost exclusively dominated by attention to Gorgias and Republic. Perhaps the greatest offender in this regard is Peter Ahrensdorf’s otherwise fine and detailed essay on Socrates and Achilles, which relies on the Republic to discriminate between the two on the fear of death but does so without discussing Socrates’ comparison of himself to the son of Thetis in the Apology.

The collection gets off to a mixed start with Catherine Zuckert’s “Plato on the Connection between Liberty and Tyranny.” Zuckert is generous and repeatedly acknowledges her debts to Arlene Saxonhouse in particular. But even though this important and often innovative scholar also cites a broad array of sources in the notes, Zuckert falls into the practice of summarizing Plato’s Gorgias in a manner that inevitably emphasizes some passages at the expense of others, forcing the reader to decide what is being ignored as well as what is being emphasized. In the end, one comes away from reading such paraphrases with impatience, and I trust that every Straussian would agree that there are far better reasons to reread a Platonic dialogue than to discover which passages a scholar has “passed over in silence.” And as her penultimate footnote indicates (20n17), both Zuckert and the conference’s other participants—apart from Baker, that is—needed to be considerably less silent with regard to Plato’s Laws. A fair-minded assessment will discover more of value in Nick Smith’s well-argued “Pity the Tyrant” than in Zuckert’s coy defense of at least some measure of tyranny.

The most provocative essay in this collection is Richard S. Ruderman’s “Plato on the Tyrannical Temptation,” and it deserves careful attention. Its power can be detected first in the addition of “temptations” to the book’s title, and its core claim is to establish a close connection between the tyrannical and philosophical impulses, predictably linked by the kind of ἔρως that tends to become indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s Wille zur Macht. Ruderman’s most interesting notion is that there is a connection between the lawlessness of philosophical dialectic and the tyrant’s political subversion of law. What makes this essay so important is that Ruderman imagines the first step in a philosopher’s education as overcoming what he calls “the lure of the noble” (68), a process that culminates in “the refutation of the noble” (68n13 and 72). The way he introduces “the noble” therefore deserves to be quoted: “If the noble attracts us with its promise to offer something that transcends our mere self-concern—that appeals to our desire to act for others or the common good, even at a cost to ourselves—then the law and justice would seem to be the paramount exemplars of the noble” (67). Ruderman needs to link “the noble” to law in order to join dialectic to lawless tyranny; he ignores the fact that the law of Callipolis—indeed the existence of Callipolis—depends on the philosopher’s obedience to the demands of “the common good” (Republic 519e), explicitly linked to justice just a few lines later (Republic 520d). There are other treasures here, as when Ruderman states that Strauss “simply passes over in silence the passage on dialectic” that is the foundation of the essay’s characteristic ambivalence on tyranny, and his single reference to the master’s On Tyranny (71) points in an even more illuminating direction. After reading Smith’s essay, it is likewise enlightening to consider Ruderman’s claim that Socrates’ description of the tyrant “contains within it the troubling concession that the life of tyranny is the alternative to the best life, the life of philosophy” (72; emphasis in the original). In short, particularly with respect to “the refutation of the noble,” Ruderman’s essay should be required reading.

But the collection’s crown jewel is Jeffrey Dirk Wilson’s “Gorgias as Reductio ad absurdum Argument: Socrates as True Politician but Failed Teacher.” Wilson’s is a unique scholarly voice: he has published little but has thought deeply, and his exuberant seriousness is evident in his engagement with Plato, the secondary literature, and the other conference participants. As delivered at Mercer, Wilson’s paper was a more or less standard “insufficiency of reason” reading of Gorgias, and he is scarcely unique in supplying the dialogue with an inexorably unpersuaded Callicles, the ending which Plato himself “passes over in silence.”[1] Wilson’s thesis is that Plato turns to myth at the end of Gorgias because reason has failed, for it is Socrates’ failure as a teacher that performs a reductio on his claim to being a true politician (174). What makes Wilson’s paper unique is that he supplemented it after delivery with an excited and exciting coda calling for “De-Cartesianizing Our Reading of Plato” that would make room for “an appeal to the imagination” embodied in the eschatological myth. He explains the addition of this section in a fascinating footnote (179n15): “After the conclusion of the formal session, Smith, along with Catherine Zuckert, Alex Priou, and one or two others and I walked together from the room where our formal sessions were held to the hotel. Smith and I continued the conversation, the dialogue, continuing as Socrates [in the Q&A immediately following Wilson’s talk, ‘Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates-like, rose from his seat’] with a chief interlocutor and others along the way.” Even if he misconstrued Smith’s position as based on something more profound than a neo-Aristotelian distinction between an intellectualist Socrates and a more ἀκρασία-friendly Plato, it is most refreshing to hear Wilson describe this dialogue as “an epiphanic moment for me, for which I thank Professor Smith” (180n15). Like any number of other scholars, this reviewer has found a silver lining in the replacement of the in-person conference by means of Zoom: it is free, easy, and less psychologically draining. Wilson’s words are a timely and eloquent reminder of the gold that goes missing when there are no such conversations on the way back to the hotel.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Charlotte C. S. Thomas (xi-xx)
Catherine Zuckert, “Plato on the Connection between Liberty and Tyranny” (1-21)
Alex Priou, “The Socratic Turn to Alcibiades” (22-41)
Nicholas D. Smith, “Pity the Tyrant” (42-58)
Richard Ruderman, “Plato on the Tyrannical Temptation” (59-79)
Devin Stauffer, “The Myth of the Tripartite Soul in Plato’s Republic” (80-97)
Peter Ahrensdorf, “Socrates’ Critique of Homer’s Education in the Republic” (98-120)
Mary Townsend, “Sophistry, Rhetoric, and the Critique of Women: Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras on Female Injustice” (121-145)
Kevin Honeycutt, “Notes on the Character of Callicles” (146-170)
Jeffrey Dirk Wilson, “Gorgias as Reductio ad absurdum Argument: Socrates as True Politician but Failed Teacher” (171-193)
Khalil Habib, “Liberty, Tyranny, and the Family in Plato and Machiavelli” (194-218)
Jennifer Baker, “The Worst and Less Humane Way: The Platonic Condemnation of a Criminal Justice System Like Ours” (219-235)


[1] Only Kevin Honeycutt, Thomas’s colleague at Mercer, mentions Werner Jaeger’s suggestion “that Callicles is Plato himself, or, rather, a Presocratic Plato” (147n5). I am grateful to Nick Smith for his helpful comments.