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4. Plato’s Republic

(Con)founding the Theoretical Imagination

Nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

The whole is the false.

Plato’s Republic is a founding text.[1] When Alfred North Whitehead remarked, in a famous and often-quoted phrase, that the European philosophical tradition “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” he might justly have added that the European tradition of political philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to the Republic.[2] Certainly no work of political thought has more vigorously captured the utopian political imagination. From Cicero to the Neoplatonists, from Thomas More to Thomas Hobbes, and from the socialist utopias of the nineteenth century to the science fiction utopias of the twentieth, the Republic has endured as a benchmark, a standard from which to begin thinking about the fundamental problems of politics. Of course, Plato’s utopian dream has not gone uncriticized. Thinkers as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper have denounced the Republic as a dystopian nightmare bordering on totalitarianism. For them, Plato certainly continues to instruct us, but his most salutary lessons are negative. They construe Plato’s Republic less as an appealing paradigm than as an object lesson to be avoided.

Today such instruction by way of criticism continues, even as contemporary critics shift accents and alter inflections. Two examples should clarify this point. For those excluded from the European tradition, the Republic is indeed a founding text, but what it founds is a tradition of Western cultural hegemony. At a time when the currency of the classics has been devalued by a multicultural economy that daily disinvests in the “tradition,” Plato’s Republic says less and less to more and more people. In these diverse and divisive times, any expectations that the Republic might supply us with congenial answers to our most pressing political problems have been dispersed in a solvent of cultural, religious, and ethnic differences, differences that have increasingly come to define the contours of contemporary politics. For their part, modernists and postmodernists alike decry any return to Plato’s founding vision as a desperate flight into an irrecoverable past, a retreat into coercive community that flirts with profoundly dangerous consequences. At a time when the sovereign, territorial nation-state has been rendered increasingly porous—and perhaps anachronistic—by the rapid globalization of permanently destabilizing forces, Plato’s vision of a homogeneous, face-to-face, territorially organized, and hierarchically ordered moral community cannot appear as anything but dangerously nostalgic.[3] To think that the ancient concepts can be wrenched from their institutional context and put successfully to work amid the complex realities of the postmodern nation-state is an exercise as futile as it is foolish.

Despite these most recent criticisms, the Republic persists. Such persistence might be explained by Plato’s residual status as a “classic,” by the sheer weight and inertia of a yet-to-be-overcome tradition. Or perhaps Plato continues to haunt our political and theoretical imaginations because the Republic addresses our profoundly felt and permanently unrelieved yearnings for community, solidarity, and authority. The resurgent wave of communitarian nostalgia that has emerged as a prominent feature of our shifting postmodern landscape articulates just such a yearning for the warmth of home, the solidity of place, and the security of a fixed cultural identity. Certainly, all these longings find seductive expression in Plato. Whether as utopian dream to emulate or dystopian nightmare to denounce, whether we think with it or against it—the Republic remains a founding text. To acknowledge it as such (and Plato as a founder), is not, however, to give the book the first (or last) word in the matter, nor yet to succumb to its nostalgic seductiveness. At a time when those few foundations that have not (yet) cracked are suspect, such acknowledgement need not, and must not, place Plato’s work beyond criticism. Yet to ignore its importance or to dismiss its considerable power to nourish thought is to do so at one’s peril. The Republic may not be a text to revere or privilege, but it is certainly one to respect. Nietzsche’s remark that a friend ought to be a worthy enemy applies no less to Plato. That kind of respect, the respect for one’s opponent, informs my own relationship to Plato’s Republic and guides my appropriation of it.[4] But my aim in offering one more reading of the Republic is neither to rediscover “what Plato said”[5] nor to recover the context in which he was able to say it in the first place. I am not interested in rescuing a liberal Plato, reviving a communitarian Plato, or denouncing a totalitarian one. I want to turn Plato to other, more radical, purposes by using him (often against himself) to intervene in the current struggle over the nature, status, and politics of theory.

As we have seen, that struggle presents us with a choice between a critical theory and a genealogical critique of society, between a theory confident of its ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate regimes, just and unjust exercises of power, and an anti-theory suspicious of all such attempts to ground politics in a theoretical discourse that reconciles contradictions in an all-encompassing totality. Where the critical theory of Habermas requires an enlightenment metanarrative of emancipation, in which all particular positions, practices, and identities might be harmonized through a set of universally valid rules of argumentation, Foucault’s antitheoretical genealogies expose the foundationalist pretensions of such globalizing discourses as so many regulative ideals that conceal their normalizing and disciplinary effects for the self and order. This controversy leaves us, then, with the choice between validating action and judgment in the give-and-take of moral communication and debate or participating in a game of global consensus that regularizes the rules of rationality and thereby also normalizes the differences among acting and speaking subjects themselves.

Polarized by the opposition between a critical theory that would think and judge the whole and a genealogical wariness of the tyranny of all globalizing discourses, Habermas and Foucault construct mutually antagonistic accounts of the theoretical impulse to stabilize all politics in a ground beyond contest. Where critical theory seeks ultimately to construct a systematic discourse that harmonizes all its components into a conceptual order that goes into reality without remainder, genealogical critique mobilizes those (inevitable) remainders—the selves and subjects that do not fit neatly into the order—against the accretions and sedimentations of an orderly theoretical discourse (and social system) that creates them as its founding repudiation. If critical theory in the end projects stable arrangements, genealogy disrupts those settlements, exposing the lie in all systems founded on such stability and order. But might it be possible to cultivate a theoretical imagination that both construes and denies such ultimate grounds, a discourse that sustains the (useful) fiction of a theoretical (and political) totality and at the same time disturbs that totality by means of a subversive (textual and political) practice? In other words, can we articulate a postfoundationalist sensibility that introduces heterogeneity, difference, and contest into our theoretical visions without at the same time relinquishing the need for (temporary) resting spots such textual and political agonistics are intended to disrupt?

Plato’s Republic suggests a way to elaborate just such an agonistics, an appropriate sensibility for the work of (con)founding the theoretical imagination now required. Put in simple, although not altogether misleading, terms, the Republic attempts to sink the foundations of politics—of rule, authority, and order—in an unshakeable truth beyond contest or question. Plato offers the strongest possible case for such a grounding, and although that project ultimately fails (and I think it fails on its own terms), it nonetheless offers valuable lessons about the tragic shortcomings of the Platonic theoretical imagination. To this end, the present chapter explores those foundings and foundations that the Republic constitutes (as foundationalist philosophy) and that constitute the Republic (as canonical text) for their confounding possibilities. By turning the text against itself, by searching out the gaps, the cracks, and the irregularities that traverse its landscape, this chapter appropriates the Republic as a book that not only founds, but also disturbs, the Western theoretical imagination. My hope is that Plato will provide salutary lessons in the seductions and dangers of global political theory, and I approach him as an important teacher on these matters. I also, indirectly, challenge those readings that interpret the Republic too comfortably—as either utopian dream or dystopian nightmare—readings that tame its disturbingly radical vision through dismissal or assimilation. My intention is to pursue Plato’s ability to provoke thought about the possibilities of theory and politics by appropriating a Republic that is theoretically and politically provoking. Perhaps the Republic can disrupt our familiar categories because it is such an unsettling and disruptive book itself, a book that challenges contemporary theoretical and political principles no less than it challenged the principles of the Athenian democracy of its day. Such a Republic would contribute to the work of (con)founding the theoretical imagination, a perpetual task that sustains the fiction of all theoretical foundations even as it disrupts the tyranny of theory’s globalizing discourse and resists its attempt to constitute reality without remainder.

The Republic is a foundational text in more ways than one. For not only does it found (for good or for ill) a tradition of political philosophy, but its philosophy is itself in an important sense foundationalist. If in Gorgias, Socrates mentions the form of the Good once and merely in passing, the Republic places it at the center of its ontology and makes it the ground of its politics.[6] And while the earlier dialogue abounds with craft analogies—Socrates compares the art of politics to other crafts, such as medicine—no account of the goal of the political craft is elaborated in such detail as in the Republic. Indeed, when Socrates says in Gorgias that the purpose of the political art is to make the citizens better, he gives little systematic substance to what he means by that claim. Justice—or the just life—remains largely undefined. Even though Gorgias raises justice and injustice as central issues, it is left to the later dialogue to supply both the ground for, and the details of, the argument that a life of justice is preferable to its opposite.[7] The Republic specifies with excruciating precision exactly how justice is to be produced in citizens, and that precision flows directly from the philosopher’s privileged access to the truth and subsequent knowledge of the Good. In the Republic, the philosopher and the technikos are one and the same. To employ Plato’s own metaphor, the philosopher-king cares for the body politic as the physician cares for the individual bodies of the citizens. Of course, Plato never suggests that the medicine dispensed by either civic or somatic physician will be easy to swallow.

The Republic thus elaborates solutions only hinted at in the earlier dialogue. As I presented it in chapter 3, Gorgias reveals the problems of politics to be a source of frustration (to the philosophically minded), as well as of constant energy and change, and repeatedly circles around the proffered solutions, only to reject (or at least only partially, with qualifications, to accept) them. Gorgias presents the ground of politics—including the possibility of its philosophical grounding—as always already contested. Even Socratic dialectic—the proposed model for the true political art—was implicated in the virtuosity and agonism of the rhetorical contest for power. The Republic, however, anchors politics firmly in the Real, positing an unchallengeable epistemology, which provides the stable basis for the order of both soul and society. In Gorgias Socrates somewhat ironically transfers political authority to himself (and to his dialectic) as the only Athenian practicing the true art of politics. The Republic invests that authority in a class of specially trained philosophers possessed of the expert knowledge necessary to achieve the true vision of the Good. Even as it seeks to root politics in the truthful soil of Socratic dialectic, the Gorgias nevertheless acknowledges that philosophical ground as (in most places and at most times) unstable and shifting, subject to—and the subject of—struggle. The Republic would seem to reject this earlier Socratic ambivalence in its attempt to establish a secure foundation for a political order beyond politics.

If the Platonic search for stable foundations and pure origins bridles at Socratic ambivalence, it directly repudiates Sophocles’ insight into the perplexing ironies of a mortal wisdom founded on ignorance. Oedipus Tyrannos dramatizes the difficulties involved in discovering pure origins and creating stable foundations through the sheer power of intellect alone. This impulse—to search out a single, unifying form that will unite a world experienced as irreducibly heterogeneous—although largely rejected by tragedy, is present as a possibility both in Oedipus’s own search and in the structured (dis)order of the drama itself. With Sophocles’ play, Plato’s Republic contemplates the possibility (even necessity) of controlling the world, as well as the men and women in it, through the unifying power of human intelligence. Both Sophocles’ king and Plato’s philosopher search for a final, determinate form that will systematically encompass the whole of experience and render it intelligible to ambitious rational beings. Although of very different temperament and training than the impatient and unaided Oedipus (they have to be forced to rule), the philosophers of the Republic’s ideal city ultimately share his aim and quest. The Platonic philosopher’s ability to think abstractly and ascend from the multiplicity and indeterminacy of lived life to the singularity of an intellectual “form” that comprehends unity beneath the diversity of the “seen particular” recalls Oedipus’s own unifying mentality. Indeed, Oedipus’s solution to the riddle of the Sphinx anticipates the philosopher’s ability to discern the singular Form among its many embodiments, to uncover the permanent and unchanging amid the frustrating flux of worldly contingency.

The Republic also expresses a longing for the comfortable certainty of a stable identity that so tragically eluded Oedipus. In the ideal city, justice is doing what is one’s own and knowing with certainty one’s status and role in the city. Although that requires a lie for its legitimation, even the philosophers come to accept the myth of autochthony as an enabling fiction necessary for the establishment and maintenance of a stable and harmonious order. The Republic constructs its ideal city to provide a context in which certain knowledge is possible: thus does the Platonic theoretical imagination make the world safe for philosophy and philosophers. These philosophers are sure of what they know and certain that it is most worth knowing. Where Oedipus in the end came to understand that profound ignorance nourishes true wisdom, and where the play as a whole teaches that it is the best and most noble of us who are capable of the greatest tyranny, the Republic attempts a seemingly untainted vision of intellectual certainty and political stability that succeeds where Oedipus failed. Where Oedipus loses power the moment he gains knowledge, the Republic unites both in a paradigmatic embodiment that stands as a monument to the controlling power of human reason.

A text with a foundationalist epistemology in the sense already mentioned, the Republic also dramatizes a political “founding” as the central act of its performance. It thus anticipates my discussion of the themes of the Oresteia and joins that play as a form of cosmogony:[8] both Plato and Aeschylus are involved in nothing less than acts of world creation. In both dialogue and drama, worlds are defined through the ultimately creative power of the word. To this end, the Republic examines speech at the limits of coherence and, with the Oresteia, takes us to the edge of linguistic (and political) chaos. In Aeschylus’s trilogy, we see language in the throes of breakdown: mishearing, misspeaking, and misanswering plague all attempts at communication on stage. Yet the play also brings us back from that edge in a number of ways. The fragmented world within the play regains its coherence when Athena ends the interminable cycle of blood vengeance that has plagued the house of Atreus. With the foundation of the law court that establishes dikē as legal justice, cosmic and civic order is restored. Orestes wins acquittal (although the jury’s vote is tied), and Athens and Argos are allied. Moreover, Athena successfully persuades the Furies, now become Eumenides (Kindly Ones), to accept their new position as tutelary deities of the homicide court and so of the city’s new democratic order. Moreover, the meaning of the words lost in the exchange between the protagonists onstage is regained by the audience watching the play. However much Clytemnestra succeeds in deceiving Agamemnon through manipulative persuasion, the spectators (or readers) see through the queen’s deceitful game. Aeschylus here probes the limits of language and communication: the violent action of the drama pushes the world order to the limits of its intelligibility, but that order is restored for both characters and spectators alike when Athena’s newly established civic discourse merges with the democratic discourse of the city watching the performance.

Plato addresses a similar problem: the Republic portrays a world dislocated by misunderstanding, duplicity, and domination no less desperate than that dramatized in the Oresteia. Meanings multiply precipitously in the Oresteia as characters all appropriate the language of justice for their own purposes and interests; similarly, book 1 of the Republic portrays Athenian citizens as so factionalized that every interlocutor offers his own private definition of justice. Thrasymachus articulates the limit case when he defines and defends power as the only arbiter of meaning. Part of the dialogue’s task will be to found a just city in speech and so mediate between these competing and conflicting claims, reconciling them while respecting their integrity as far as possible. So, while Socrates offers “tending to one’s own affairs” as a definition of justice in book 4, Cephalus’s “paying back what one owes” and Polemarchus’s “helping friends and harming enemies” constitute suitable definitions of justice for the classes of moneymakers and warriors. Where Socrates’ act of founding and attempt to define the meaning of justice once and for all recall the trial scene of the Eumenides and Athena’s own contest with the Furies to establish dikē as legal justice, both dialogue and trilogy share a broader concern with the linguistic conditions necessary for a successful speech community and viable political life. The result of that concern is the foundation of a second community or “city,” the community of interlocutors within the dialogue led by Socrates. Book 1 is thus occupied with the obstacles that confront the establishment of a secure civic discourse and so a settled political order. The commonality of speech that such stability requires, however, threatens to become an excessive unity, in which all citizens say either “mine” or “not mine” simultaneously and agree all too complacently with every argument Socrates offers. While excessive unity may not be the appropriate response to excessive diversity, the Republic does dramatize the difficulties involved in establishing a common linguistic ground among the interlocutors and articulates the necessity of gaining just enough agreement to make their disagreements intelligible.

The Republic also shares another fundamental concern with Greek tragedy: the constitution of a community outside the dialogue or play. A tragedy like the Oresteia safely dramatized the breakdown of linguistic and political coherence because it assumed the context of a relatively cohesive and specific audience. But where Aeschylean drama explores the limits of order and chaos within the structured confines of ritual performance and before an already-constituted citizen-audience, Platonic dialogue lacks an institutional form and (beyond the members of the Academy) addresses an unspecified audience of readers. The Republic aims to constitute a community, not of citizen-spectators, but of citizen-theorists, or philosophers, and it does so in at least two ways. The dialogue offers its own model of what a political and philosophical community looks like, or rather it offers its readers a choice between two very distinct forms of community: one modeled on the dialogic community of interlocutors, the other on the theoretically imagined ideal city. In either case, the foundation of a rightly ordered community becomes an explicit theme and a controlling aim of the dialogue, both the subject and the intent of Platonic political theory. Since that foundation itself relies on a foundationalist ontology and epistemology, it is to the Republic as an example of “founding” theory that I now turn.

Countless and diverse readings of Plato’s Republic abound, no doubt a testimony to the complexity and multivocity of the work, to its seemingly inexhaustible power to generate meaning.[9] What else could account for so many different appropriations of the same book? As an ideal utopia, as a critique of idealism, as a blueprint for totalitarian politics, as a comedy and as a tragedy: there are almost as many Republics as there are interpreters. I want to explore the Republic, at least initially, for what it has to say about theory as a founding activity, where such theory also implies a “foundationalist” epistemology. This means reading Plato as both a “heroic” and a “critical” theorist: heroic because he delineates the epic proportions of great political theory in a way that usefully describes the work of founding in the Republic; critical because the means of explanation and the standards of evaluation Plato employs share affinities with the tasks of a critical social theory outlined by Habermas and introduced in chapter 1.

The dialogue is pervaded by the appropriately theoretical images and metaphors of sight, light, and vision. Socrates begins his famous narrative by recounting a visit to the Piraeus to see (theasthai) an inaugural festival of the Thracian goddess Bendis. This journey to see the sights and Socrates’ assessment of the spectacle invoke and transform an earlier meaning of the word theory and the vocation of the theōros. Originally, a theōros was an official envoy sent by the city to a strange or unfamiliar land to observe, and then report upon, the sacred events he had witnessed. But Socrates’ journey down into the Piraeus, Athens’s port and stronghold of radical democracy, does not conclude with his appraisal of the procession, nor does Socrates waste much time on the festival itself. He quickly moves on to describe the more important theoretical vision the Republic itself proposes. That initial journey, then, serves as both pretext and context for the prisoner’s journey up and out of the cave into the light of day, a journey that culminates in the upward ascent of the philosopher to the vision of the Good and ends with the mythical descent of Er into the underworld at the dialogue’s conclusion.

Of course, vision or sight as a controlling metaphor is nothing new in Greek literature. We have already encountered it in Sophoclean tragedy and know that the Greeks registered sight as a commonplace trope for knowledge in their literary and philosophical lexicons.[10] We have also seen the themes the Republic shares with Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos: the will to knowledge, a certain impatience with the constraints of tradition, the insistence on exposing underlying patterns of unity beneath the phenomenal world. Yet the Republic articulates a vision and transforms the tropics of “visual” discourse in a way that Oedipus only dreamed of and Sophocles perhaps feared to imagine. Where Oedipus seeks merely to master his own destiny (and perhaps the destiny of Thebes), Plato’s Republic would reimagine an entire world in order to master the destiny of mankind. Neither oracles nor curses, nor seemingly much else, limit the capaciousness of the Republic’s theoretical imagination: its vision is breathtaking, not only for its vast scope, but for its utter innovation, its radical break with all previous standards of thought and judgment. In a heroic act of thought, Plato sought to reconstruct his entire political world by grasping present structures and relationships in order to represent them in a new and unfamiliar way.[11] But Plato’s efforts involve more than a mere reassembling of the familiar world in a novel way. For the Republic does not merely—and fancifully—redescribe that world to us. Rather, it recreates the world as we know it, for the Platonic act of thought is in an important sense an act of creation, and the political theorist is also something of a political craftsman. In a crucial way, Platonic theory does not so much rearrange the old world as invents a new one. Such is the heroic task that the Platonic theoretical imagination sets for itself.

Plato exercises the creative powers of the theoretical vocation through the device of a foundation play. After the aporetic discussion of justice in book 1, Socrates must make a new start. He proposes the famous analogy between the city and the soul as a way to capture the truth about justice. Plato has Socrates cast himself and the company as founders (oikistēs) who will watch justice and injustice come into being with the growth of their city. The founding drama assumes the form of a political “cosmogony” as the founders create and order their successive cities and rank them in an ascending hierarchy, from Glaucon’s primitive “city for pigs” to the callipolis of book 7.

That final city most perfectly embodies the nature of justice. Comprised of three classes, which parallel the three corresponding parts of the soul and character types, the best city is ordered on the principle of “one person, one task.” This Platonic division of labor reconciles conflicting interests and conflicting classes: everyone and every class does what he, she, or it is best suited by nature to do. Justice becomes doing one’s own rather than paying one’s debts (Cephalus), helping friends and harming enemies (Polemarchus), or wanting or having more than one ought (Thrasymachus).[12] All three classes and parts of the soul are thus ordered by justice in conjunction with temperance. In this ordering, the good of each individual and of each class is identical with the good of the whole. Class relations, far from being antagonistic, are complementary and reciprocal. Under the principle of specialization, each class (and individual) contributes its proper share necessary for the successful functioning of the city. The result is a unified social and political order in which natural ability and social status are reconciled and harmonized. Certainly, there is hierarchy in this integrated order: some classes, some jobs, and some souls are indeed understood as more virtuous or valuable than others. Yet all are equally necessary to the just functioning of the city, no class or individual is demeaned, and in fact difference is cultivated and allowed to flourish. Moreover, that difference does not turn invidious, and the hierarchy that results in no way entails domination. In addition, advantages and rewards seem rather evenly distributed: for example, members of the ruling classes have access to political power, but they own no private property and hold all in common, while members of the working class may accumulate fortunes but are excluded from the workings of power. The rightly ordered city, the analogue of the rightly ordered soul, is thus in harmony with itself, and the Republic shows us how (and why) this order comes into being.

This rather schematic, truncated, and celebratory sketch of the just city’s political architecture and founding vision indicates that the Republic is no mere intellectual exercise, but rather the willed creation of an entirely new political order. This raises a crucial question: why does the discussion of justice assume the form of a founding and Socrates the identity of a founder or lawgiver (oikistēs)? One ready response has to do with the analogous structures of city and soul and the comparative ease of discerning justice in the former as opposed to the latter. On this account, the Republic concerns only the justice of the individual, a reading that finds support in the initial motivation of the search, as well as in the more pessimistic pronouncements about the possibility of actually founding the just regime later in the dialogue (592b). But that answer is too easy, for it fails to recognize the claim that “justice can belong to a single man and to a whole city” (368e), and so account for the centrality of the foundation play. A better explanation, to my mind, rests with the inseparability, for the Greeks, of ethics and politics. The distinction we moderns might make between the two would have made no sense to Plato, for whom “the goodness of individuals was closely related to the goodness of the state in which they lived; the good life demanded the good society in which to express itself and the good society promoted and made possible the good life.”[13] Yet even this Platonic expression of the “organic state” fails to confront the contending forces within the dialogue that drive Plato to confound the visual vocation of the theorist with the plastic craft of the political founder. A final reason for insisting that justice in the individual and justice in the city are coterminous has to do with Plato’s obvious concern for the quality of public life and his radical critique of Athenian democracy. If we are to believe the “Seventh Letter,” Plato never lost that concern for the politics of his native city, and ironically it was precisely that care for public things that turned him toward theory and makes his philosophy political philosophy.

As this latter remark implies, the Republic comprises a “structure of intentions” or set of controlling political purposes. The motivation behind its theoretical reformulation is a deep concern for public life. Although it may be a cliché that political theory emerges as a response to a crisis in politics, it is certainly true that without this concern, the Republic would not be political theory. If Plato indeed wrote the Republic in response to an experienced crisis in Athenian democracy, what was the nature of that crisis and why did it require a response of such extraordinary scope and so radical a nature? To be sure, Plato was not responding to this or that discrete failure in Athenian law, policy, or institutional arrangements, a failure that could be solved by other, less radical means. Rather, the Republic bears witness to a state of systematic distortion in the entire Athenian polity, a disorder in the fundamental structures, meanings, and purposes of the city, which, in Plato’s estimation, calls forth from the theorist a distinctly theoretical response. As Plato diagnoses it, systematic disorder requires an equally systematic reordering of a polity’s most fundamental principles.

Plato’s politics, then, are foundational, because his theoretical vision is foundationalist: nothing less than the complete reform of both soul and city, self and order, according to the dictates of an absolutist epistemology will suffice (that Plato has Socrates give up political reform in favor of the individual goodness of the philosopher at the end of book 9 in no way diminishes the Platonic will to order, but rather indicates the frailty and imperfection of the human world). The presentation of soul and city as analogues, then, and their subsequent reordering according to the form of the Good, is more than an aesthetic device that confers a certain level of satisfying symmetry to the construction (although it is that too). Rather, that presentation and reordering are driven by currents that run deep within the book (and perhaps within Plato himself): the almost obsessive impulse to place the unruly, disorderly, and disturbing matters of politics beyond contest and contestability. For these reasons, the Republic necessarily works from the ground up.

The Republic that has emerged so far is a work of heroic and critical theory. It is heroic because of the immensity and impossibility of its task. It is critical because its means of explanation and its standards of evaluation cohere in a single concept: to explain the systematic disorder of a polity is, in Platonic terms, also to judge that order from a critical vantage point. Explanation and judgment are necessarily “total,” and the Platonic theoretical critique is radical: Plato goes to the root of things. There is no piecemeal social engineering here, but rather the radical transformation of the foundations of the social and psychic totality. As an act of radical theory, the Republic reimagines that totality; as an act of radical politics, the Republic replaces it with the creation of its own theoretical labors. Plato does not merely offer a new vision or version of the world; he would transform the world itself and in that transformation “validate” his theory. Nowhere does Plato suggest that theory ought to yield the role of arbiter to the facts of the world: if the theory does not conform to the facts, then the conclusion we must draw (certainly the one Plato draws) is that the fault lies in our world, not in our theory. “Is our theory any the less true,” asks Socrates, “if a state so organized should not actually be founded?” (472e). On this telling, Platonic theory is both critical and radical, and the acts of the Platonic theoretical imagination are acts of radical politics. Plato barely leaves implicit what Marx would later make explicit in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[14]

The political dimensions of the Republic are hardly exhausted by this deliberately anachronistic, although I think rather telling, mapping of Marx’s revolutionary rhetoric onto Plato. There is another, considerably less obvious, way in which the Republic intends a politics. The Republic described thus far has been a text with theoretical designs on the political world. But perhaps the Republic has other designs in other directions as well. Here, I wish to mention briefly what I shall later develop in more detail. I want to suggest that the Republic comprises a complex set of strategies with political designs on its readers. At the level of its rhetoric and through its textual practice, the Republic deploys various and subtle strategies of persuasion: through the choice of its images and metaphors and in the tone, texture, and shades of meaning it gives words, the dialogue aims to draw us in and on, to bring us up short, to start our thinking anew, or to convince us of an argument we do not really believe. A book of diverse moods, the dialogue is now hopeful, now resigned, both confident and doubtful, at once conciliatory and combative, first comic, then tragic. A book of many rhetorical devices, the Republic deploys them to keep its readers off balance: we feel by turns provoked, seduced, repulsed, persuaded, or incited, but certainly never bored or disinterested. Judged in terms of communicative rationality, the Republic deploys an array of strategies and tactics meant to bring about perlocutionary effects—that is, effects of power—even as it states its illocutionary intent, its disavowal of power. But before I pursue a reading of the Republic as a complex set of rhetorical (and political) strategies, I should pause to take stock of my present position, survey the terrain I have covered, and chart the next stage of the journey.

The Republic considered so far, is, while critical and activist, also monolithic, unified, and hierarchical, a paradigmatic global discourse that values the Platonic virtues of order, harmony, and stability over the Athenian—and democratic—political virtues of contest, struggle, and liberty. Yet this gloss on the Republic hardly does justice to so complex, and at times contradictory, a work. Despite its smooth façade, the Republic remains an ambivalent book, no less fragmented by internal tensions, ambiguities, and paradoxes than the tragedy it rejects. It is now time to confront these fragments, to tease out of Plato a theory (and a politics) less total, less singular in form and less sure of itself than my reading has so far indicated. Paradoxical and disturbing book that it is, perhaps we should not be too surprised to learn that the Republic struggles against its own unitary, hierarchical, and, if I am right, ultimately disciplinary account of selves, citizens, and society. It is to that internally subversive narrative—as a countertext that interrogates and challenges the established authority of Platonic philosophy—that I now turn.

The dialogue form of the Republic comprises one challenge to the book’s unitary narrative, a challenge that pushes back and against its imposing theoretical mass to open up cracks and fissures in an otherwise smooth and seamless surface. Written as a dialogue, the Republic is philosophy, although its form is in an important sense dramatic, not discursive. As such, Plato’s work contains not one, but many, voices. While Socrates has the largest part in the dialogue, other speakers play important, even necessary, roles. Ten characters comprise the cast assembled in the house of Cephalus, and of these, seven speak, some at length, others quite briefly. This polyphonic form lends the Republic a certain complex multidimensionality and indeterminacy uncharacteristic of foundationalist philosophy: while several characters speak, Plato—as author(ity)—remains anonymous. This is especially true of book 1 (although not unique to it), where Plato represents a plurality of positions, viewpoints, and arguments, all expressed through the responsiveness of dialectical interactions. Dialogue thus offers an open-ended, ongoing discussion, rather than an authoritative pronouncement, proclamation, or prepackaged truth. As Paul Friedländer has justly remarked, “The dialogue is the only form of book that suspends the book form itself.”[15] Moreover, by presenting multiple positions, and so multiple points of possible engagement, dialogue forces the reader “to enter critically and actively into the give and take” of the debate.[16] And, as we shall see, the challenges put to Socrates in book 1 recur periodically throughout the Republic. Dialogue thus asks the reader to take sides and make judgments, something a global theory or treatise is structurally incapable of doing. Yet my characterization of the Republic’s dialogue form begs an important question: how can one justly consider a book a dialogue in which most characters remain silent and Socrates does all the talking? Must we not look to other—less obvious, but still subversive—structures in the Republic to make Plato speak against himself?

One such structure upon which the Republic relies is the form of tragic elenchus. This point becomes most obvious when one compares a play like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos to a Socratic conversation. Sophoclean drama, like the Socratic dialogue that followed it, charts the course of confidently asserted claims that further developments and subsequent questioning prove wrong. Oedipus resembles a character in a dialogue who, blind to the dimensions of his decidedly self-serving beliefs, discovers that his grasp of, and control over, practical problems is irreversibly lost. As does the outcome of the play, individual scenes make this clear—he misinterprets oracles, misunderstands Jocasta, and falsely accuses both Creon and Tiresias. Oedipus’s quest and the entire structure of action in fact parallel the structure of a Socratic elenchus. The king’s certain belief that he knows who he is, who his parents are, and with whom he lives is permanently subverted. Here, drama most clearly reveals its influence on Socratic philosophical inquiry: the elenchic cross-examination that leads to Oedipus’s discovery is not merely part of the drama, it is the whole of it, both the structure of the action and the substance of the plot.[17]

Again, book 1 of the Republic proves instructive. The dialogue opens with a Socratic cross-examination of three characters: Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. Each conversation, however, plays a variation on the classical theme of tragic elenchus. Altthough Cephalus withdraws from the conversation before philosophy can affect him (a withdrawal that short-circuits the cross-examination), the subsequent debate with the spirited Polemarchus dramatizes an exemplary Socratic performance. Socrates successfully refutes the traditional definition of justice as helping friends and harming enemies, persuading Polemarchus to join him as an ally in the further search for justice. Thrasymachus, too, suffers defeat, but, like Callicles in Gorgias, and despite his blush of shame, answers merely to please the company, not from the conviction that justice is indeed more profitable than injustice.[18] As the three divergent responses of indifference, genuine conviction, and hostile denial indicate, Socratic elenchus—the central structural component of the dialogue—intends, although not always successfully, to effect a reversal at the level of both belief and action.

The force of the dialogue form, then, lies in its warning about the dangers inherent in all searches for a single or unitary form of truth. Dramatic dialogue, with its portrayal of diverse characters, motivations, and points of view, is relentlessly multivocal, even multiperspectival, and heterogeneous. Against the singularity and simplicity of the pure Platonic Form, dialogue—following tragedy—“continually displays to us the irreducible richness of human value, the complexity and indeterminacy of the lived practical situation.”[19] Socratic dialogue’s primary responsibility lies with the particular individual’s response to an immediate and complex ethical situation, rather than with general, abstract, or determinate accounts that simplify or otherwise reduce an unavoidably ironic and contradictory world. Socratic elenchus warns against such reductionism in thought and action by demonstrating the dangers of clinging to an overly narrow and excessively rigid conception of oneself and one’s world.[20]

But Socratic elenchus is not just at work in this or that exchange between Socrates and his hapless interlocutor. As in tragedy, elenchus also defines the larger dramatic structure or form of the Republic. By form, I mean not only drama, dialogue, or treatise as a characteristic literary genre, but the architecture of a work’s composition, the arrangement of its formal elements, including the structural articulation of both the action and the argument. This elenchic structure poses a further challenge to the book’s intended theoretical unity, for the Republic disturbs expectations and sensibilities by reversing the direction of travel of its own narrative.[21] Like the unexpected reversal of action in Oedipus Tyrannos, and like Socrates’ reversal of judgment on the great Athenian statesmen in Gorgias, the Republic unexpectedly changes course. Socrates literally reverses his initial direction of travel, up from and out of the Piraeus, to go back down to the harbor for an all-night festival. The peripetetic reversal of this opening scene certainly reflects through dramatic means the change of mind so essential to a successful Socratic elenchus. It also anticipates the “turning around,” subsequent enlightenment, and grudging descent back into the shadows central to the parable of the cave and the dialectical education of the philosopher. That education is itself structured by a reversal, for a moral understanding of the world—an understanding that results in a just citizen—requires more than the dialectical sharpening of wits. The “turning around” that describes the philosopher’s education reflects a change of heart, a metaphorical reorientation or reversal of one’s life. Such reversal also structures the all-consuming task of the interlocutors, provides the Republic with a tragic sense of loss, and balances the central, hopeful ascent to the Forms with a concluding descent: after the long and exhausting upward journey that culminates in the polis of the idea, the ideal city proves as fragile and vulnerable as any finite human life. No sooner is the city in words completed than it begins to unravel in a downward spiral of decay and decomposition. From the optimism of books 5 to 7, where philosophers sought to remake the world in the image of the transcendent idea, the Republic gives way to the pessimism of book 9, where Socrates hopes that at least the polis of the idea could be realized in the soul of the individual (592b). These reversals at the level of the dialogue’s dramatic structure subvert even the most confidently self-contained theoretical account, alerting us to its attendant insufficiencies and inconsistencies.

The Republic unpredictably changes its course to violate its own assumptions, prejudices, and expectations, not only by means of reversal but also through the use of interruptions, paradox, and the juxtaposition of opposites. A series of interruptions, false closures, and new beginnings disrupts the forward (and upward) movement of the Republic’s narrative, further subverting the “tyranny” of its foundational discourse with discrete acts of resistance directed against any final closure. Book 1 ends in typical and well-known Socratic confusion, so that many have considered “Thrasymachus” a self-contained example of the early and aporetic type of dialogue in which Socrates himself admits ignorance (354c).[22] Yet while parallels to this inconclusive conclusion abound in the Platonic corpus, no other dialogue offers anything like the beginning of book 2, where Socrates reopens the problem of justice. The aporetic closure of book 1 thus proves deceptive and disruptive: against our expectations (and against those of Socrates), Glaucon and Adeimantus force Socrates to renew the argument.[23] The dialogue begins anew. Still other examples of inconclusion in a dialogue that refuses to conclude indicate the Republic’s resistance to its own impulse toward theoretical closure. First, there is Adeimantus’s challenge to Socrates’ description of the guardian class at the beginning of book 4, when he asks: “What would you say in your defense, Socrates, if someone were to say you don’t make these men very happy?” (419a) Adeimantus is satisfied with Socrates’ defense, but others, either inside or outside the dialogue, may not be. Perhaps this overture, and others like it in the dialogue, are invitations to interrupt the flow of Socratic discourse from the outside and so interrogate its adequacy, as do the interlocutors from the inside. Or consider the digressionary nature of the Republic’s central books, books that introduce the most controversial themes in the dialogue. If Socrates had his way, that conversation would never have occurred. For once Socrates has completed founding the “city in words,” he turns, at the start of book 5, to discuss the types of cities and characters that are inferior to the best regime and lack its degree of perfection. This would seem the next step in a logical argument, but Socrates is interrupted in mid-sentence by Polemarchus, who asks Adeimantus: “Shall we let him go on, or what?” (449b) With this interruption, Plato has Socrates introduce the three waves of paradox that we most associate with the city of the idea: the equality of the sexes, the community of women and children, and rule by philosopher-kings. It is not until the beginning of book 8 that the narrative resumes its interrupted course, when it takes up, once again, the cycle of political decay and decline.

This series of interruptions fragments the totality of the book’s theoretical discourse, forcing the reader to consider a Republic of one book (the aporetic “Thrasymachus”), three books (1–3), six books (1–4, 8–9), and finally of ten books. But how complete, one may ask, is a Republic of ten books, given repeated interruptions in which Plato has radically qualified a founding discourse that could easily be self-content and self-contained?[24] It is not merely the aporetic book 1 that resists closure. The entire Republic is structured by a series of interruptions, false closures, and reopened or contested arguments.

The Republic’s deployment of startling oppositions and paradoxical contradictions further disturbs its apparently settled order and mar(k)s an apparently flawless and seamless text. The Republic conjoins opposites in uneasy and paradoxical tension: it juxtaposes the novel and innovative to the ancient and traditional, it joins poetry to philosophy, and suggests that justice requires an essential equality between men and women, the community of women and children, and the unity of political power and theoretical knowledge. This last paradox—the third wave that threatens to engulf Socrates—unites power and knowledge and indicates a paradox central not only to the Republic but to the vocation and phrase “political theory” itself. On one hand, politics concerns the vicissitudes of human affairs in the city and has to do with particularities of time and place, the indeterminacy and unpredictability of chance in human action and decision; in short, with all that is mutable, changeable, and fluid. Theory, on the other hand, concerns the fixed, the necessary, the eternal and unchanging order of the cosmos, those things that exist by nature and admit of certainty as independent objects of contemplation. “Political theory” thus joins two separate realms of knowledge and its objects and two distinct sensibilities or styles. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle expresses his own astonishment at the attempted unification of politics and theory when he remarks that only an uneducated man would expect the same amount of precision from the human sciences as from the theoretical sciences. By joining two activities and modes of knowing traditionally in opposition to each other in the paradoxical unity of philosophy and politics, the Republic invites its readers to question now-established categories and divisions as each term in the phrase “political theory” interrogates its counterpart. Here is one more example of elenchus at work in the Republic.

The architecture of the Republic presents another paradox, different from, although related to, the paradox of “political theory” I have just mentioned. In chapter 3, I argued that the dramatic form or structure of a play often reflected its substantive teachings. For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, form rearticulates content in the complex interplay and interpenetration of language, action, and plot. The ambiguity of the play’s language (its duality) reflects the ambiguity of Oedipus’s actions and self. Thus the paradoxes of idiom and speech that characterize the language of the play also characterize Oedipus. The play unfolds on two distinct and separate levels of meaning, until the final revelation unites word with deed, character with fate, and Oedipus with himself. The tensions and ambiguities—of action, knowledge, and meaning—lived by Oedipus are thus reflected in the formal structure and language of the play.

Something similar happens in a Socratic dialogue. Socratic question-and-answer is the most appropriate form for imparting the substantive philosophical teaching that true knowledge is rooted in an awareness of one’s ignorance. Socratic wisdom recognizes itself to be partial, one-sided, incomplete, and so in need of others: the dialogue form recognizes these deficiencies as the necessary conditions for the collaborative pursuit of wisdom. The Socratic search is thus a collective endeavor, and Socratic philosophy an ongoing activity of debate and deliberation, of vision and revision. Since the dialogue form also invites interlocution, as auditors we are welcomed into the human community of the dialogue and encouraged to explore its substantive arguments and conclusions for ourselves. Socrates’ teaching about wisdom’s reliance on ignorance is thus reiterated by the partial, incomplete, and fragmentary character of the human conversation and quest the dialogue embodies, represents, and at its best attempts to mitigate.

The parallel relationship between philosophical substance and dramatic structure that characterizes Socratic dialogue does not, however, adequately describe the Republic. The Republic’s dramatic form does not so much reflect its explicit teaching as subvert it. Where the tensions and ambiguities of form reflect the tensions and ambiguities of content in Sophoclean drama and Socratic philosophy, the architecture of the Republic presents a paradox of its own. There is a disjunction or dissonance, if not a contradiction, between what Socrates and the interlocutors say, and the way they say it. The practice of Socratic philosophy, which displays justice in the activity of the search for it, subtly subverts the substantive definition achieved by that practice. I want to conclude this present discussion by suggesting one last way in which the dramatic form of the dialogue struggles against the Republic’s pretensions to foundationalist theory.

This struggle points to an ambiguity, if not an outright opposition, between the kind of philosophy Socrates and the interlocutors practice in the dialogue and the kind of philosophy they come to recommend through the dialogue.[25] The familiar interpretation evaluates the Republic as radically discontinuous with the Socratic philosophy of the Apology.[26] This Republic proffers as rationalist construct an ideal city intended to be embodied in the world. Objective knowledge of justice, apprehensible by properly initiated and trained philosophers, is possible given favorable circumstances and a few citizens with suitably philosophical inclinations. The Republic is a work of utopian philosophy that manifests the will to power of the philosopher who would remake society in the image of the transcendent idea. Plato’s radical reform of the social order requires the judicious use of philosophical technique on political matter in order to banish art and poetry, institute communism, enforce strict educational practices, and pacify the inhabitants with a calculated lie. The result is a harmonious and well-ordered polis, in which the rational part rules the whole as it does in the well-ordered soul. Less generously, the society of the Republic is, to use Karl Popper’s phrase, a closed one. In the closed society of the Republic’s best regime, philosophy tends toward tyranny and the dogmatic closure of the mind one associates with the possession of truth, rather than with the open and pious quest for wisdom, knowledge, and justice.

But I have pointed to ample evidence that the Republic is, if not consistent with Socrates’ self-interpretation in the Apology or Gorgias, certainly more ambivalent and ambiguous than a “Platonic” reading allows. Its dramatic form as dialogue and structured elenchus and the patterns of reversal, interruption, and paradox are all tactics and strategies the dialogue deploys to fragment the global theoretical (and political) totality Socrates constructs, tactics and strategies that resist the disciplinary closure we most associate with Plato’s Republic. In these terms, the Republic’s countertext approximates an aporetic dialogue, and philosophy the open-ended quest for knowledge, wisdom, and justice, unpretentious and conscious of its mortal limits. This Republic, no less than the early “Socratic” dialogues, obeys the Delphic maxims “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” Socrates and his partners search for the nature of justice, but they never find it. They do, however, embody it in the just community they create among themselves during their search. Justice, like the other virtues, may not prove definable, nor may absolute knowledge of it be possessed, but it can be practiced. The Republic thus illustrates justice indirectly in the action of the quest. The activity of philosophical speech that the interlocutors undertake in the dialogue, rather than any definitive or final possession of knowledge, is justice.

On this “aporetic” reading, the Republic neither presents a plan for political action nor constructs an ideal utopia to be realized in the world. The practice of Socratic philosophy demonstrates, rather, the impossibility (and undesirability) of such plans and constructions. By showing the interlocutors (and readers) the limits of philosophical discourse in the uncompleted task of defining justice, Socrates also shows us its limited application to politics. The Republic issues a call, not for the radical transformation of the social and political order administered by a philosophical elite, but for the moral reform of the individual in its call to practice philosophy.[27] Such a reading also finds its justification in the pessimism of book 9, where Glaucon despairs of the possibility of ever founding a just city: “If this [harmony of the soul] is his deepest concern, he will not willingly become involved in politics” (592a), for the city they have just founded in words “exists nowhere on earth” (592b). Socrates then qualifies this statement by adding: “Yet perhaps there is a pattern for this laid up in heaven for the man who wants to observe it and, holding it in his sight, to found this city within himself [heaton katoikizein]. It makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will. It is in the life of this city that he would be active and in no other” (592b). If the Republic can be said to be “foundational” in any meaningful sense, that foundation is now restricted to the “inner polity” within the just individual. That justice is not possible in the city, but only in the soul of the individual is further indicated in the myth of Er, which concludes the dialogue. Given a choice between a life of ambition and that of an ordinary citizen who minds his own business, the soul of Odysseus chose the latter life, saying that had he been given first choice rather than last, he would not have chosen differently (620c).[28] With these pronouncements, it seems that philosophy has bid farewell to the heroic impulses that structured the earlier books and taken leave of politics altogether.

Each conception of philosophy also implies a corresponding form of political community and a corresponding relationship between them. The first community, constructed in speech by Socrates with the help of the assembled company, is an ordered hierarchy of three classes, which corresponds to the appetitive, spirited, and rational parts of the soul. In this community, led by the philosopher-kings, the rulers do not so much respond to the individual needs of their subjects as create and limit those needs through various manipulative mechanisms: the myth of the metals, or “noble lie,” and poetic and gymnastic education. Rather than being grounded in dialogue, this community is remarkably silent and philosophy the privileged and private activity of a few, which consists of the pursuit of a pristine knowledge purged of the particularities of those individuals who pursue it. Such knowledge entitles the philosopher to rule the city as a captain rules a ship: with absolute authority.

The second community, composed of the interlocutors and led by Socrates is, if not democratic, certainly not authoritarian. It relies on the art of dialogue and debate, and resembles the deliberative community Socrates sought to establish as a paradigm for politics in Gorgias.[29] Socrates here leads the philosophical community he has helped establish, ever responsive to the particular needs of his partners in conversation. He originally let himself be persuaded by Polemarchus to return to the Piraeus, and it is evident that he treats each interlocutor differently according to differences in character. At the end of book 5, when Socrates is about to begin an account of the best regime’s decline, he responds courageously to the spirited entreaties of Glaucon and Polemarchus to render a full account of the philosopher’s education and so of justice. In the give-and-take of dialogue, the community is “ruled” as much by the collectivity of interlocutors as it is by Socrates. In that collectivity, individual needs, viewpoints, and characteristics are honored as irreplaceable parts of a larger whole: Thrasymachus’s passion for power is just as necessary to the community of the dialogue as Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’s passion for justice.

Such ambiguities and oppositions concerning the nature of philosophy and its relation to politics complicate any interpretation that understands the Republic as either a utopian ideal or an anti-utopia intended as a critique of idealism.[30] To maintain that it is simply one or the other means to mistake a part for the whole, that is, to do what Oedipus did when he “solved” the riddle of the Sphinx, what Gorgias did when he claimed for the craft of rhetoric more than was its due, and what the interlocutors in book 1 of the Republic do when they claim a partial and self-serving understanding of justice to be the whole of it. But the Republic is neither simply a utopia nor an anti-utopia. Nor does it ultimately resolve its contending parts into a grand synthesis that contravenes the dialectical tensions that drive it. To think that it does ignores the dialogue’s warning against the dangers of attaining a single or unitary account of anything, about gaining unity, consistency, coherency, and order at the expense of individuality, particularity, and diversity. It also fails to account for the varied strategies by which the dialogue struggles against its drive toward final narrative closure.

Despite the fact that the dialogue internally subverts its own foundationalist impulses, the Republic does make explicit what remained largely implicit in Gorgias. Plato’s repudiation of Socrates and Socratic political philosophy—his triumphant announcement of political knowledge beyond contest—indicates that however useful radical philosophical questioning may be, it does reach a point of diminishing returns. Socratic philosophy, or so Plato indicates in the Republic, is unable to provide the foundations necessary to secure a stable political community. Criticism is certainly necessary, but so too are the visions of unity, wholeness, and harmony that make it possible and that the Republic provides. The Republic is thus a perfect example of what Foucault terms a global theoretical discourse. In its diagnosis of political problems in systemic and structural terms, in its elaboration of an analogy between city and soul, in its creation of a center and a hierarchy, and in its derivation of a comprehensive theoretical and political order from an epistemological absolute, the Republic indeed assumes global aims and proportions. None of this means that Plato escapes the contradictions of political and theoretical foundings. I have been arguing that the dialogue subverts its own tendency toward such theorizing and the disciplinary regime that accompanies it. As necessary as it is to think in both systemic or structural terms and provide visions of unity, reconciliation, and fulfillment, such terms and visions tend to turn into closed systems. Even the most inclusive of systems excludes what necessarily falls outside or below the threshold of its cognition, forecloses some aspects of the world even as it discloses others, and enslaves the subjects it intends to liberate. From one perspective, the Republic seems to offer just such an inclusive, self-confident, and self-contained vision of the whole. From another—simultaneous—perspective, it invites its readers to wonder if Socrates would not be the first banished from the ideal city, Socratic philosophy purged from it along with poetry, and philosophical discussions of justice (like the one in the Republic) outlawed.

The Republic is neither simply continuous nor discontinuous with the Socrates of the early dialogues. Although it presents the activities of Socrates familiar from those dialogues, it also contains an account of philosophers that does not describe Socrates himself. Two modes of philosophy and two models of political community contend with one another for authority in the Republic. To the extent that it is cast in the form of a dialogue in which these two opposing conceptions interrogate each other, the Republic is an extension of Socratic philosophy. But to the extent that the Republic agrees with Socrates’ Athenian accusers and questions the practice of Socratic questioning,[31] rejects his ironic stance for an altogether unironic conclusion, and entertains the idea that objective knowledge of the Good is possible and perhaps necessary for establishing a well-ordered city and soul, the Republic betrays both the practice and the intention of a Socratic philosophy based on the ironic knowledge of ignorance.

These ambivalences and oppositions, the contending forces and competing claims that struggle against each other, leave us with no easy conclusion about the kind of theory and politics the Republic recommends. To reduce the Republic to an “aporetic” dialogue means to miss Plato’s warning (already registered in Gorgias) about the insufficiencies inherent in “pure” Socratic philosophy, and to ignore his caution against naively raising “dialogue” to a cult. To reduce it to a “dogmatic” dialogue ignores Socrates’ warning about the tyrannical closure of mind to which even the best-intentioned intellects—and theories—fall prey. The Republic is thus a paradigm, but not without its own internal tensions and ambiguities, which subtly disrupt the settled order the dialogue so powerfully projects. Such tensions and ambiguities recall the ambiguous status of Sophocles’ paradigmatic hero, Oedipus. Like Oedipus, the Republic is both noble exemplar and object lesson, perhaps the greatest example of a global theoretical discourse and the greatest criticism of such globalized thinking, one of the finest examples of a systematic order of knowledge and a negation of the possibility of such an order.[32] I do not think, however, that the Republic successfully resolves the tensions, ambiguities, and ambivalences that mark its theoretical vision and textual practice. In its own terms, the Republic must be judged a failure: Plato’s dialogue wavers between two contending and compelling modes of theory (or philosophy) and models of politics. Ambivalent book that it is, we are left contemplating a global theoretical discourse of epic proportions, the singular totality of which is fragmented by multiple points of view, fresh starts and false closures, reversals, interruptions, and tragic disappointments. Yet like the tragedy that it simultaneously criticizes and absorbs, the Republic asks us to render a judgment about its achievements and failures, a judgment it has helped educate its readers to make.

The tensions and ambiguities that pervade the Republic have enabled the search for those internal subversions that fragment the dialogue. I have argued that the Republic is as much philosophical fragment as self-contained theoretical totality. That fragmentation has allowed me to turn the text against itself for the contemporary purpose of discovering that within its global discourse, the Republic deploys a variety of textual strategies and practices that struggle with and against totality in both theory and society. Against the systematic order of its identitarian discourse and the disciplinary regime it simultaneously creates and legitimates, the dialogue mounts something like a counterattack. The interruptions, reversals, and paradoxes that punctuate the Republic and disrupt the even flow and smooth functioning of its orderly narrative (and its projected political order) work like the strategies and tactics of those Foucauldian genealogies that disturb the hegemonic claims of globalizing discourse in the struggle against the forms of discipline such discourse engenders. Within and against its own orderly body of theory, the Republic gives subversive expression to disruptive experiences, knowledges, and selves that it would otherwise suppress or banish, much as genealogies excavate the local, discontinuous, disqualified, and illegitimate knowledges that have been buried and disguised within and beneath formal systems of knowledge. What I have been calling the Republic’s countertext—a “text” that is heterogeneous, dispersed, discontinuous, and fragmentary—resists the dialogue’s unified narrative and so the closure that mar(k)s all theoretical and political foundations. That the Republic contains such a fragmentary countertext does not mean, however, that the dialogue is fragmented. The fragmentary character of the book is mediated by a thematic coherence (whether one reads the Republic as the answer to, or a continued search for, the solution to the problems generated by politics, justice is the common theme) that makes the book a whole, even as it subverts its own forcefully projected theoretical totality.

But strategies of disruption, fragmentation, and disturbance necessarily require a “center” against which to push, a suitable amount of law and order to make disturbing the peace worthwhile, a foundation stable and permanent enough to withstand seismic assault. That foundation is, of course, the philosopher’s knowledge of the Good, a knowledge that enables a just ordering of the city. Such knowledge is in an important sense independent of power, interest, passion, and even argumentation—it is a knowledge beyond the contest of politics—and so beyond speech. The Platonic desire to escape politics, to settle once and for all the struggle and contest over meanings cultural, social, and theoretical, has always been a dream of critical theory. Since its inception, critical theory has sought a way to fix power’s limit through an appeal to reason in order to distinguish between just and unjust regimes, between legitimate and illegitimate exercises of power.[33] That desire is no less present and operational in Habermas’s latest iteration of the Frankfurt legacy.[34] Like the Platonic philosopher in the presence of the Forms, the subjects of communicative reason seek to be wholly transparent to themselves and to others, perfectly present in a context of communication the fundamental (and unperceived) irony of which is that its logic leads beyond speech to silence. Critical theory’s temptation to transparency flees politics (and its own critical vocation) by failing to acknowledge that its linguistic grounds are also subject to contestation, that even the claims of reason conceal strategies and mechanisms of power—are political. Platonic dialogue alerts its readers to the need for, and the inadequacy of, its own theoretical foundations, so that even a “closed” book like the Republic keeps on talking. By contrast, critical theory tires of its labor and seeks a final resting spot beyond speech. It thus contravenes its own prohibition of silence. But there is a further irony here: the almost impenetrable discursive form of Habermas’s critical theory unwittingly works against, rather than with, the theory’s communicative intent. What are we to make of a theory founded, and grounded, in speech that positively discourages the give-and-take of moral communication and debate? Would not a form less willfully obtuse, one more akin to dialogue, prove more appropriate to a theory of communicative action purporting to be democratic?

Although I shall let these criticisms stand, I do not want to dismiss Habermas’s project of a rationally grounded politics too readily. After all, the Republic is sometimes silent about its own origins, and Socrates, too, often seems ready to discourse at length rather than pursue a conversation. Moreover, what I am unwilling to relinquish in Plato—a standard (or paradigm) that is useful both for explaining and for criticizing systematically distorted social relations—is no less present in the critical theory of Habermas. But what other lessons might critical theory learn from Plato? How might the Republic instruct contemporary theory committed to reason and enlightened thought today? One way has to do precisely with a theory’s (or theorist’s) relation to its own origins, a point the dialogue at least reveals to its readers, even if it does not in fact get it quite right. Critical theory would thus leave this staged encounter having learned both the attractions and dangers involved in constructing a self-contained and self-contented discourse. Such theory would also recognize the necessity of providing a critical account of its own activity by treating its theoretical foundations with proper genealogical suspicion, and in this manner keep the dialogue it seeks to establish alive. The Republic aids in the present task of imagining a postfoundationalist theoretical sensibility by balancing the quest for an orderly theoretical account of politics with the drive to subvert, interrupt, and interrogate all such comprehensive, “global” orders. Plato’s dialogue helps articulate a theoretical sensibility that both founds and confounds the Western theoretical imagination and points toward an agonistic ethos that introduces heterogeneity, difference, and contest into our theoretical visions, while conserving those aspects of order—rule, authority, stability—as elements of a center against which to struggle. Because the dialogue (con)founds the theoretical imagination in this way, it is particularly useful for resisting the polarized terms of the present contest over the meaning of theory, for charting an alternative route through that unstable terrain. The usefulness of the Republic for contemporary theory lies precisely in its ability to think such apparently intractable contradictions in tension, to embody the very dilemmas it seeks to solve, to give voice to the very conflicts it would erase.

For these reasons, the Republic proves instructive as a model for contemporary theoretical critique, for the establishment of a “text” in tension with its margins provides the dialogue with a position from which to transform the “norms and forms” both of its inherited culture and of its own founding principles. That transformative capacity in the Republic is an instance of what I have been calling immanent critique. Two examples, one from tragedy, the other from Socratic dialogue, should prove sufficient to recall the context for this claim. A tragedy like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos could question the present from within the tradition of a public festival by juxtaposing past and present in a way that would initiate a dialogue among the members of the citizen-audience and so promote collective self-examination. Rooted firmly in the conventions of civic tradition and religious ritual, tragic action nonetheless questioned the order in which it participated. Although Socratic philosophy was not anchored institutionally in any way, it performed its own critical work in a similar manner. Socrates appealed to such traditional Athenian values as justice, courage, temperance, and piety, and at the same time subjected these unexamined meanings to the most severe and critical scrutiny. Like tragedy, Socrates thought within and against the Athenian tradition in order to think beyond it. But what of the Republic? Does not Plato finally and decisively break with all inherited Athenian traditions, especially the poetic? How can I claim that Plato pursues a strategy of immanent critique similar to the practice of both tragedy and Socratic philosophy when the Republic proposes a form of civic education that emphatically rejects the two cornerstones of Athenian paideia—epic and tragic poetry? One response is that while the Republic rejects poetry, the dialogue itself is a profoundly poetic work, impossible without the epic and tragic tradition to give it substance, scope, and definition. The Republic positions itself within and against the poetic tradition in order to redefine and transform it.[35] Second, the Republic is a work of philosophy and philosophical education that, as I have indicated, seems to repudiate Socrates, its greatest exemplar and source of inspiration. Yet even as it suggests that Socratic elenchus is not enough to secure a stable political community, the Republic is a highly Socratic work by virtue of its dialectical form and self-critical stance: as a critique of Socratic philosophy, it refuses to abandon Socratic philosophy. Platonic philosophy, too—at least in the Republic—thinks with and against Athenian tradition in order to think beyond it.

I want to end this chapter and prepare for the next by returning to the theme of founding with which I began, for Plato’s Republic and Aeschylus’s Oresteia are both “founding” texts.

Looking back over these reflections, I am not at all sure that the Republic successfully conceals its will to power—manifest in its global theoretical discourse and the disciplinary politics that follow—behind a metaphysical veil of pure knowledge and pristine origins. Indeed, I am not even sure it attempts such a philosophical sleight of hand, at least not in any simplistic way and not without making such an operation clear—almost transparent—to the reader. The interruptions, paradoxes, and reversals that mark and mar the text invite the reader to question its founding constructions and interrogate its fundamental theoretical assumptions. Despite the seamless façade of its smooth surface, the Republic is a dialogue traversed by cracks and fissures, which provide critical purchase for the inquiring and adventuresome reader who remains skeptical of any author(ity)—textual, political, theoretical—constituted by pure forms and revealed essences. The Republic is a surprisingly permeable text. A dialogue that produces itself by generating diverse and contradictory meanings, it employs multiple strategies to resist the Platonic drive toward final political and theoretical closure. As the dialogue attempts to establish a psychic and social order securely grounded in foundations beyond the reach of political contest and contestability, that ground begins to shift and move, to fragment and fall away. Once stable terrain yields to fractures and fault lines, the depths of which I have here tried to plumb.

But does this permeability and impermanence mean the dialogue escapes the “paradox of founding”? Does not the Republic, too, violate its own precept of justice precisely at the moment of its origin, a violation it subsequently conceals in a series of retrospective justifications, standards, and judgments that amount to a pernicious politics of forgetting?[36] After all, is not the authority of the Republic derived from the philosopher’s incontestable vision of the good, and is that authority—and the controversial social arrangements that support it—not precisely what the dialogue seeks to establish? Like all acts of foundation, the Republic’s is a supremely political act—an act of power—in spite of its sometime denials and evasions to the contrary. I say sometimes because Plato’s dialogue is distinct (although not unique) for facing that beginning squarely and recognizing clearly—almost brutally—the violent excesses at its own origin. The Republic thereby acknowledges its reliance upon the violence and exclusion that attend every founding. We have only to recall the acts of “injustice” at the origin of the just city: the principle that the happiness of the guardians is secondary to the health of the whole, the radical purge of poetry, the forced exile of all those over ten years of age, the “noble lie” and the program of eugenics that accompanies it. Moreover, the dialogue reveals its own deployment of strategies and rhetorical devices that conceal the rifts they necessarily open. Consider the meaning of a book that excoriates mimetic representation, yet itself contains just such an imitation; or the fact that Socrates himself would not be allowed to practice philosophy in the city he founds; or, finally, the paradox of a text that radically rejects poetry yet is itself a poetic work. How to appropriate such ambiguities, inconsistencies, and ambivalences is a substantial burden of this chapter.

I have suggested that as a series of internal subversions, such paradoxes and inconsistencies struggle with and against the global narrative of the Republic, arresting its flow and fragmenting what appears to be a seamless totality flawed by neither conceptual, political, nor structural gaps. They thus force us to consider its act of founding—and the accompanying invention of a global theoretical discourse—as a political act, an act that is sui generis, unlegitimated by any prior agreement, consent, or author(ity). This further suggests that the norms of justice it subsequently inscribes are not derived epistemologically, but fabricated politically (perhaps punningly?) by that divine plastic artist (ho theos plattōn of 415a) who created them.[37] As a text that founds itself, the Republic is a supremely creative text, a text that initiates something for the first time. As a text that confounds itself, the Republic also disrupts its own bid for an absolutist epistemology from which it might derive ultimate political authority. Perplexing book that it is, the Republic both founds an order that (perhaps) satisfies our deeply felt longings for the certainties of community, solidarity, and identity by anchoring its politics in a knowledge of the Real that is beyond contest and confounds—by struggling against—the ordering, hierarchizing, and systematizing mentality it projects. The Republic thus helps us negotiate those theoretical foundings and foundations that living in an unstable postmodern world entails by exposing the reductions and violations such acts of founding (and foundationalist theory) necessarily engender.

The Oresteia, like the Republic, is also a “founding” text. To the extent that it is, the trilogy shares with Plato’s dialogue all the characteristics of a globalizing discourse: the narrative steadily progresses from blood vengeance to legal justice and from myth to enlightenment, authoritatively distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate regimes, decisively establishes stable social categories and triumphantly reconciles a previously fragmented world into a harmoniously ordered social totality. Competing forces and contending figures join in a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts: reason is reconciled with passion, Olympian with chthonic divinities, the younger with the older generation, men with women. Such is the achievement of Athena’s artful wisdom and Aeschylus’s wise art. As a text about political beginnings, however, is the Oresteia any less immune to the paradox of founding than was the Republic? Does the triumphant celebration of the democratic polis that concludes the trilogy similarly conceal violations, exclusions, and subordinations that accompany its origin? Or are these questions merely the objections of an obsessive pedant unwilling to acknowledge the tremendous achievements Aeschylus dramatized onstage? While I agree that the twin accomplishments of restored cosmic order and the invention of democracy are hardly negligible, I must also ask at what price such achievements are purchased, and who underwrites their costs? The questions put to Plato must also be put to Aeschylus. For the Oresteia is no less ambivalent and no less (d)riven by contending currents and impulses than the Republic. To make sense of how those ambiguous impulses work themselves out over the course of the trilogy and to assess the disciplinary costs of democracy for the “subjects” of the social order are the appropriate tasks of the next chapter.


1. I owe the title of this chapter and much else of what is good in it to Mark Reinhardt. See his The Art of Being Free (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), esp. ch. 3. I have used the Greek text of John Burnet, vol. 4 of Platonis Opera (1902; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). I have also relied on the commentary by R. C. Cross and A. D. Woozley, Plato’s Republic: A Philosophical Commentary (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964). Translations are from various sources and I note them where appropriate. [BACK]

2. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, ed. D. R. Griffin and D. W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 39. [BACK]

3. Among such recent critics of Platonic political philosophy, and of ancient Athens in general, see Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), esp. introduction and ch. 1; Stephen T. Holmes, “Aristippus in and out of Athens,” APSR 73, 1 (Mar. 1979): 113–27; Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers (New York: Viking Press, 1984), esp. conclusion; see also the essays collected in The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). [BACK]

4. To honor one’s enemies is the lordly way, as Nietzsche puts it in the first essay of The Genealogy of Morals (1887; New York: Modern Library, 1918), 1.10. [BACK]

5. Paul Shorey, What Plato Said (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933). [BACK]

6. The presence or absence of a theory of the forms is sometimes used to distinguish, along with other criteria, between early, middle, and late dialogues. The Gorgias is usually considered a “late” early or aporetic dialogue, while the Republic is generally agreed to be from Plato’s middle period. For this generally accepted schema, see W. K. C. Guthrie, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues, vol. 4 of A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 236. On dating Gorgias as a very early, or presystematic dialogue, one written before the so-called “Socratic” dialogues Laches,Charmides,Lysis, and Euthyphro, see Charles Kahn, “Did Plato Write Socratic Dialogues?” in Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, ed. Hugh H. Benson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 35–52. I am less concerned with the dating of the dialogues, which is inexact in any case and cannot determine an interpretation, than with the contending and contradictory impulses that inhabit the dialogue. [BACK]

7. Cf. Guthrie, Plato, 298, who states that the Republic “is Plato’s full and final answer to the question in the Gorgias, ‘how to live’ ” (pōs biōteon,Gorgias 492d). The phrase at 500c, hontina chrē tropon zēn, occurs in identical form at Republic 352d. [BACK]

8. On Aeschylus’s use of the cosmogonic myth, see Froma I. Zeitlin, “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Oresteia,Arethusa 11, 1–2 (Spring/Fall 1978): esp. 162–63. [BACK]

9. The literature on the Republic is vast. Particularly useful are Paul Friedländer, Plato, trans. Hans Meyerhoff (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958); Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943); A. E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work, 3d ed. (1926; New York: Dial Press, 1929); Guthrie, Plato; F. M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950) T. H. Irwin, Plato’s Moral Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Literature and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. Christopher P. Smith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980); and Charles Griswold, ed., Platonic Writings / Platonic Readings (New York: Routledge, 1988). Among political theorists, see Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961); Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), and Between Past and Future (New York: Viking Press, 1958); Leo Strauss, The City and Man (New York: Rand McNally, 1964), J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990); Mary P. Nichols, “The Republic’s Two Alternatives: Philosopher-Kings and Socrates,” Political Theory 12, 2 (May 1984): 252–74; and Alexander Sesonske, Plato’s Republic: Interpretation and Criticism (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1966). [BACK]

10. The etymological beginnings of theory and theorist are to be found in the postHomeric vocabulary. The verb theōrein, originally derived from the noun signifying a spectator (theōros), came specifically to mean “to look on, contemplate or observe.” It differs significantly from the Homeric panoply of “sight” verbs because, as Bruno Snell has remarked, “it does not reflect an attitude or an emotion linked with sight, nor the viewing of a particular object: instead it represents an intensification of the normal and essential function of the eyes” (Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953], p. 4). Theōrein thus emphasizes the object seen and the intensity of the viewer’s experiences rather than the “palpable aspects, the external qualifications, of the act of seeing” (ibid.). The Homeric attributes of manner do not cling to this verb, which in the classical period meant “to contemplate.” Theory thus comes to signify mental activity, not the function of the eyes, although Plato uses the expression “to see with the mind’s eye” (Republic 582c) to denote mental vision. The turn away from the Homeric conception of vision is both a turn outward, toward the object of perception, and a turn inward, toward the intensity or depth of the experience. A theōros was originally a spectator of a sacred event or a public performance, an emissary sent to the oracle at Delphi, a witness of religious rituals, rites of purification, or the sacred games at Olympia. The theōros also traveled to other poleis in an official capacity to observe an event and then returned home to report on what he had witnessed. Theory became an activity that entailed watching and observing a spectacle related to things divine and recounting the essentials of the witnessed event clearly, accurately, and with discernment. This means that only those citizens were sent who could “see” with discrimination. Since theory required embarking upon a journey to foreign lands, the theorist acquired the connotation of a traveler, someone who had experienced the world beyond the parochial confines of the polis and even beyond the Hellenic civilizational area. Theory subsequently entailed “seeing with an eye toward learning about different lands and institutions, alien practices and experiences, distilling and comparing the pattern of things seen while engaged in travel” (J. Peter Euben, “Creatures of a Day: Thought and Action in Thucydides,” in Political Theory and Praxis: New Perspectives, ed. Terence Ball [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977], p. 34). The etymology of theater also bears out a relation to philosophy and theory. The theater (theatrōn) is a place for seeing or beholding a spectacle, especially dramatic representations; it is also a place of assembly and a collective noun for hoi theatai, the spectators. The Greek theatrōn originates in the feminine noun thea, which signifies “see, sight, gaze, look upon, behold admire and contemplate.” From it, Greek derived a field of words having to do with seeing, sight, and spectacle, e.g, to theama (sight, spectacle, play), hē theama (spectacle), and the verb theaomai meaning “to gaze at or behold, to see clearly and with a sense of wonder or admiration.” Theaomai not only designates physical vision (Rep. 327a), but mental activity as well, especially in the sense of contemplation or a “vision of the mind” (Rep. 582c, Phd. 84b). On the etymology of thauma,thea, and theōros, see Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue grecque (Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1970), pp. 424–25, 433, as well as Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1960), p. 669. [BACK]

11. I draw this account from Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” APSR 63, 4 (Dec. 1969): 1078. [BACK]

12. Though I should add parenthetically that both Cephalus’s and Polemarchus’s definitions of justice are encompassed in the class structure of the ideal city: the members of the moneymaking class pay their debts; the members of the warrior class are like well-bred dogs, kind to their friends, fierce to their enemies. Thrasymachus and the justice of tyrants remains unexplained in this schema. Perhaps that is owing to the difficulty of successfully uniting philosophical knowledge and political power. In terms of the drama of the dialogue, can Thrasymachus’s desire for power be tamed and his soul turned toward the love of wisdom? Or, conversely, is the philosopher’s will to knowledge really a will to power, and Socrates’ desire not for wisdom but for rule and control? [BACK]

13. J. H. Jacques, Plato’s “Republic”: A Beginner’s Guide (Derby, Eng.: Citadel Press; London: Tom Stacey, 1971), p. 51, cited in Guthrie, Plato, p. 444–45. [BACK]

14. The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 145. [BACK]

15. Friedländer, Plato, 1: 143. [BACK]

16. Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, p. 126. [BACK]

17. Alister Cameron, The Identity of Oedipus the King (New York: New York University Press, 1968), pp. 50–51. [BACK]

18. Not all dialogues idealize the experience of conversion. Polemarchus hints at this when he asks, “How can you persuade us if we won’t listen?” and in Gorgias, Callicles refuses to listen. [BACK]

19. Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, p. 134. [BACK]

20. I have here taken certain liberties with Martha Nussbaum’s account of philosophical dialogue. I should say something about her claim that dialogue moves from particular to general accounts and judgments, and that “tragedy warns us of the dangers inherent in the search for one form by continually displaying to us the irreducible richness of human value, the complexity and indeterminacy of the lived practical situation,” while Socratic dialogue does not. As I have indicated, that warning might come from Socratic philosophy as well. I certainly argue that philosophical dialogue attends to the particular: Socrates treats his interlocutors as particular individuals with different and distinct needs. He treats his fellow citizens, not as abstract equals before the law, but as a father or older brother would treat his sons or younger brothers. At the same time, we should not neglect the philosophical elements in tragedy: Socrates does show us how to rise above the particularities of tragedy to inquiry, yet conversely, Oedipus and Socrates show us that inquiry can be tragic. I therefore think that Nussbaum understates tragedy’s search for truth. Tragic theater indeed displays “the complexity and indeterminacy of the lived practical situation,” yet it does so in a highly ordered and structured way. Tragedy might not ultimately find a “single or unitary form of truth,” yet the impulse to search it out resides in the fabric and organization of the text, even as the play itself warns against such searches. Nussbaum both underplays the intellectual aspects of tragedy and overstates her case against philosophical dialogue when she argues that tragedy is antiphilosophical and dialogue overly abstract, determinate, ultimately reductionist, and so antitragic. [BACK]

21. This is as true for Plato’s contemporaries as it is for us. See Julia Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 2. [BACK]

22. Friedländer, Plato, 2: 50–56. [BACK]

23. Diskin Clay, “On Reading the Republic,” in Platonic Writings / Platonic Readings, ed. Charles Griswold (Routledge: New York, 1988), p. 22. [BACK]

24. Ibid., p. 23. I agree with Clay that the Republic is structured by interruptions and questions, but where he argues that the book is ultimately “an open dialogue,” I maintain that the text subverts itself, undermines its drive toward closure, and questions its conclusions. This is to recognize contending forces at work in the text that make it an ambivalent book, but not to settle for a “single” reading, either “open” or “closed.” [BACK]

25. For a recent statement of these two positions, see Dale Hall, “The Republic and the Limits of Politics,” Political Theory 5, 3 (Aug. 1977), and the response by Allan Bloom that follows. Nichols, “The Republic’s Two Alternatives,” pp. 252–74, finds a discrepancy in the Republic as to what philosophy means, although she finally concludes that “Plato obviously prefers Socrates, whose way of life he immortalizes in his dialogues, to the philosopher-kings of the Republic” (270). For Nichols, the most telling way in which Plato distinguishes himself from Socrates is by writing. For an extended treatment of this position, see her Socrates and the Political Community: An Ancient Debate (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987). [BACK]

26. This is Cornford’s position in Unwritten Philosophy, pp. 58–59, as well as Karl Popper’s in The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. 1: The Spell of Plato (1949), 5th ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966). R. S. Bluck defends Plato against some of Popper’s more outrageous allegations in “Is Plato’s Republic a Theocracy?” Philosophical Quarterly 5, 18 (Jan. 1955): 69–73. [BACK]

27. For a similarly dramatic reading of Plato’s dialogues, besides the works of Strauss, Sesonske, and Friedländer cited in n. 9 above, see Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957); Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Paul Plass, “Philosophical Anonymity and Irony in the Platonic Dialogues,” American Journal of Philology 85, 3 (1964): 254–78; and J. H. Randall, Plato: Dramatist of the Life of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970). [BACK]

28. On this issue of pessimism and the renunciation of politics, see Clay, “On Reading the Republic,” pp. 32–33. [BACK]

29. Arlene Saxonhouse characterizes Socratic philosophy this way in “The Philosophy of the Particular and the Universality of the City: Socrates’ Education of Euthyphro,” Political Theory 16, 2 (May 1988). [BACK]

30. Strauss, City and Man, p. 127; Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968), “Interpretive Essay.” [BACK]

31. On Plato’s questioning of Socratic questioning, see John Sallis Being and Logos: The Way of the Platonic Dialogue (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1978), p. 27. [BACK]

32. Timothy Reiss, in Tragedy and Truth (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 21ff., describes Greek tragedy this way. [BACK]

33. See, e.g., Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in id., Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell et al. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 243. See also the “Postscript,” p. 246, where Horkheimer compares critical theory with Greek philosophy: “Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery. In this it resembles Greek philosophy, not so much in the Hellenistic age of resignation as in the golden age of Plato and Aristotle.” [BACK]

34. See, e.g., the essays in Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970); id., Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971); and The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, 1987). [BACK]

35. On this point, see Martha Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, pp. 121–32, esp. p. 123. [BACK]

36. William Connolly, “Democracy and Territoriality,” Millenium: Journal of International Studies 20, 3 (Winter 1991): 465. [BACK]

37. On this pun in Plato, see Clay, “On Reading the Republic,” p. 19. [BACK]

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