Thursday, November 20, 2008


Greg Recco, Athens Victorious: Democracy in Plato's Republic. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Pp. vii, 253. ISBN 9780739123263. $75.00.
Reviewed by Jakub Jirsa, Charles University, Prague (

Greg Recco's main thesis in Athens Victorious is that "Plato's Republic deliberately demonstrates the superiority of the democratic constitution" (1). According to him, the Republic supports political and psychic freedom and connects the central democratic principle of freedom with dialectic and philosophy.

Contemporary debate has indeed moved a long way from the dispute between Popper and Vlastos concerning the totalitarian character of the Republic.1 For Recco is not alone in his attempt, which on the general level tallies with the works of Peter Euben, Arlene Saxonhouse or Sara Monoson. His question, though, is not whether Plato was a totalitarian thinker, but whether he might have been a more-or-less disguised democrat. Recco does not engage in the contemporary debate too much; rather he focuses on a close reading of selected passages from the text.2 This close reading, together with his seeking for truth hidden between the lines of the dialogue, Recco inherits from Leo Strauss. On the other hand, he claims to focus on the argument, and he writes that in his interpretation he follows the "drama of the argument" (4).

This drama is structured in his book in the following way. The first two chapters (pp. 15-71) discuss the tripartite psychology of Republic IV, and focus especially on the role of the middle part (to thumoeides). The main task of these two chapters is to show that courage based on thumos is necessary for "citizenship and for philosophy as Plato presents it" (62).

Chapter three (pp. 73-93) forms a transition between psychology and politics and shows how Socrates' interpretation of his own trial vitally connects philosophy and the polis. Recco convincingly argues that Socrates' attitude to the laws focuses on duties rather than rights, and that his acceptance of the death penalty as contrasted with his refusal of several other ordinances (the trial of ten generals and orders of the Thirty) reflects his deeper concern with what citizenship actually means.

Chapters four and five (pp. 95-190) present a detailed discussion of Republic VIII, dealing in more detail with timocracy, oligarchy and the establishment of democracy. He sets his discussion of politeia in the context of Hesiod's Theogony and Herodotus' "constitutional debate" (Histories III.80-2).3 Recco's point is to distinguish constitutions by the objects they honor and not those they merely desire. According to him, honor "explicitly assigns a lower value to competing objects" and therefore serves as a better mark for distinguishing different constitutions than desire (144-5). It is honor connected with thumos that is the strongest force behind constitutional changes, and Recco wants to show that democracy is considered as the only regime which properly reflects the tripartite psychology discussed in previous chapters.

The final Chapter, six (pp. 191-239), argues for an essential connection between democracy and the art of dialectic. If I understand Recco's argument, he claims that education means basically a change of perspective or orientation in our lives. Such a move is easiest in liberal democracies, and dialectic is the high peak of education. It follows that democracy and dialectic are best friends with each other.

Recco's project is an ambitious one: it argues for an interpretation that is far from self-evident, without using much evidence other than the text itself. However, I have several worries and questions about the success of this project. I will start with general ones, proceeding to more particular points that I still consider interesting for readers. Recco's methodology at several places faces the serious problem that faces any Straussian reading.4 I do not mean esotericism or elitism, but something much simpler. His interpretation uses "errors", "contradictions" or indirect suggestions of "paradoxical assessments" (e.g. 22, 99, 124, 217) as hints of a hidden meaning that needs to be uncovered. But we do not have any credible tool by which to distinguish "errors" that signal a secret meaning from real ones or those that could be solved within a traditional interpretation equally well.

The interpretation moreover does not seem to distinguish between a liberal society and a democratic society.5 Recco reads into Plato's description of the democratic regime the virtues of liberal democracies and so can conclude that Plato's democracy is the right environment for philosophy. For example, according to him "democracy values freedom above all" (145), and even though he examines license (exousia), which he characterizes as arbitrariness (156), he does not consider Plato's democratic freedom as mere arbitrariness. But what else it is when in a democratic city one could found a city of one's own (Resp. 557d)?6

Recco's further support for reading the Republic as praising democracy is that according to him the genesis of a democratic regime is different from that of all other constitutions since Plato deliberately removes it from the series of constitutional changes produced by internal mutation alone (especially 153-4). But the text seems to suggest something else. The genesis of democracy is firmly grounded in oligarchy (Resp. 555b-d): it retains existing features, and acquires new ones just as any other constitution, and it is not true that it necessarily needs external intervention to be established (cf. ἄνευ τῶν ἔξω στασιάζει at 556e10).

It remains unclear why Recco translates to logistikon as the "calculating" part of the soul. It is of course a possible translation, but it is not the most common one and it is very loaded.7 Since Recco seems to understand to logistikon as a calculating device, capable of no more than comprehending the conflict of motivations, he claims that no previous interpretation has satisfactorily explained why reason should rule, and considers existing attempts to do so "mildly vexing" in their paternalism (192). I wonder which interpretations Recco means, but just by looking into the Republic itself, couldn't its supremacy (suggested already at 432a) be grounded in the fact that to logistikon knows -- as the only soul-part that can -- what is good, and indeed what is good for the entire soul and not just for itself (441e4-7 and 442c5-8)?8

Finally, Recco's interpretation of dialectic takes, I believe, the analogy with the senses in 530d6-7 and 532a3-5 too far. Recco claims: "dialectic thus has the character of recognizing in ordinary perception, as it is located in the characteristic activity of its bodily organs, a drive towards truth . . . Progress in dialectic would thus enable a kind of progress in perception itself -- not a rejection of it, but an appreciation and strengthening of its proper role, which is already to be a search for truth" (221, italics in original). Of course, both perception and dialectic are essential features of Plato's theory of knowledge: we start acquiring knowledge by looking at things around us. But this epistemological interpretation demands much more argumentation than Recco gives. The mere analogy between seeing and thinking does not establish a firm ground for claiming that dialectic (even partially) takes place already in the activity of a bodily organ.

Recco's book is truly ambitious and provocative. Several points in his interpretation are important and well presented (e.g. his analysis of citizenship in the Crito, his reading of Resp. VIII in its historical context, or his focus on the genesis of different constitutions). However, I am still inclined to believe that Plato's work is normative in the sense that it tries to find a government which would "at best help man achieve a moral goal in society, justice and good life" as Finley puts it.9 I think the government of Callipolis is an aristocracy -- for doesn't the equality, which Recco so enthusiastically praises in democracy (178), actually undermine the entire project of philosopher-kings?

1. Neatly summarized and assessed by Brown, L. (1998): "How Totalitarian is Plato's Republic?", in Ostenfeld, E. N. (ed.) Essays on Plato's Republic, Aarhus, pp. 13-27.

2. Compare especially Euben, P. (1990): The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken, Princeton; Saxonhouse, A. (1996): Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists, Notre Dame; Monoson, S. (2000): Plato's Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosopy, Princeton. Of these books Recco mentions and uses only Saxonhouse.

3. In this context Recco surprisingly omits to take into account the very genre "On the Politeia" with its normative and usually pro-Spartan character. Cf. Menn, S. (2005): "On Plato's ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΑ" in Boston Area Colloquial in Ancient Philosophy eds. J. J.Cleary and G. M.Gurtler, vol. 21, pp. 1-55.

4. Cf. Burnyeat, M. (1985): "Sphinx Without a Secret", New York Review of Books vol. 32, no. 9 (May 30, 1985), pp. 30-6.

5. Not every democratic society has to be liberal: cf. the famous notion of "illiberal democracies" from Zakaria, F. (2003): The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton).

6. As far as I can judge, lines Resp. 557b and 557d suggest a measure of arbitrariness in any democratic polis that even threatens its unity. Moreover, a strongly anti-Socratic anarchism is added to its characterization (557e-558a). Arbitrariness in the democratic character is described at Resp. 559d-e, 560b and 560d-561b. A more credible interpretation seems to me the connection between freedom and justice that is presented for example in Stalley, R. F. (1998): "Plato's Doctrine of Freedom" in Proceedings of Aristotelian Society vol. 98, issue 2, pp. 145-58. This idea then depicts Plato as a proponent of what Isaiah Berlin calls positive liberty.

7. Moreover, this understanding of to logistikon ignores the fact that it is only one possible way of referring to this soul-part: Plato uses to philomathes and to philosophon as well.

8. Cf. John M. Cooper's articles "Plato's Theory of Human Motivation" and "The Psychology of Justice in Plato" in his Reason and Emotion, Princeton University Press, 1999.

9. Finley, M. (1973): Democracy Ancient and Modern, Chatto and Windus, p. 5.

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