Wednesday, July 11, 2012


William H. F. Altman, Plato the Teacher: the Crisis of the Republic. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. Pp. 489. ISBN 9780739171387. $90.00.

Reviewed by Richard Foley, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site


William Altman brings an uncommon but important perspective to the study of Plato and pedagogy. Drawing on three decades of teaching Plato mainly in secondary schools, Plato the Teacher is distinctive for the way in which Altman has dedicated himself to thinking about how to illuminate and exploit the pedagogic craft behind Plato's Republic. Building on his extensive commitment to public education, and helping himself to some unusual assumptions about how to order and read Plato's dialogues, Altman defends an interpretation of the Republic in which the central demand of justice upon philosophers does not involve the creation of the ideal state depicted in the Republic, but a return into the cave of current events to spread democracy through a philosophically ennobling educational program.

Altman opens his preface and introduction with a sketch of the method from which he derives his unorthodox results. He claims that the Platonic corpus can be arranged in a pedagogical order, where "early" dialogues are early just in the sense that they introduce the tools and concepts that will be essential for understanding the more complicated dialogues, and the title of the book, Plato the Teacher, partly reflects Altman's conviction that Plato's dialogues can productively be organized in such a pedagogic order. This ordering principle differs significantly from the usual attempts to organize Plato's texts by composition or dramatic dates, and Altman also argues against "hermeneutic isolationism", which advocates reading each text independently of the others. Altman's contention is that the Republic is eighteenth of thirty-five dialogues, squarely in the middle of Plato's pedagogic ordering. He additionally asserts that this position gives it special weight as a text on Platonic pedagogy, though both claims would require much more analysis to substantiate. However, one need not accept these specific claims to appreciate Altman's basic point that we could learn much about Platonism by studying the pedagogic ordering of Plato's dialogues.

In chapter two, Altman offers three hermeneutic principles as foundational to his approach, that Plato's work is "proleptic", "visionary", and "basanistic". "Visionary" appears to function largely as an honorific term identifying a doctrine as Plato's, important, and true (according to Altman). So presenting these doctrines in the appropriate place is preferable to discussing this term specifically. But the first and third principles are closely related logically, and both serve a more properly hermeneutic role. Altman's emphasis on pedagogy leads him to conclude that Plato as a teacher includes false or misleading claims, either as (1) "proleptic confusion", a salutary goad to pursue the next dialogue in sequence, designed to clarify matters, or (2) "basanistic", i.e. serving as a touchstone to see if the student has mastered a particular doctrine well enough to insist on its truth when faced with its denial. The result is that a false (or non-Platonic, at any rate) doctrine can either precede or follow the text containing the true doctrine. Altman's argument that Plato has sound educational reasons for appearing to endorse claims he takes to be misleading or even false is his most significant contribution to Platonic scholarship, and substantiates the title claim of his book—Plato is a teacher, sensitive to the pedagogical needs of his audience. This approach also introduces a vitality into our reading of Plato's texts, where our task is not merely to reconstruct the argument between Socrates and his interlocutor, but also to consider the way that the reader is to enter into the conversation. Are we supposed to stand up to Socrates, to demand greater clarity, or even to proclaim our resistance? To this end, Altman's readings invariably bring Plato's characters to life, and his prose frequently breaks down the wall between text and reader in unexpected ways. Yet the license to read a passage as proleptic or basanistic needs to be more closely guarded. To say of any given sentence that Plato means the perceptive reader to deny its truth risks licensing the wholesale rewriting of the dialogue. For it to be a genuine test, there need to be many who would fail, which means that the literal reading of the text must actually be fairly plausible. As Altman appreciates, there are many passages where he takes a proposition asserted by Plato to be basanistic (thus false), yet which have many "articulate defenders willing to redefine what is truly Platonic on their basis" (399).

Prepared to reject many of the claims of the Republic as false on these grounds, Altman can now develop his unusual interpretation in two chapters that are the heart of the work, chapter three, "The Shorter Way", and chapter four, "The Longer Way". The titles here capture Altman's basic point that a substantial part of the Republic is intentionally false; the shorter way prepares the student (through pedagogically crafted falsehoods) for the true enlightenment of the longer way.

In chapter three, "The Shorter Way", Altman rejects the traditional view that the Republic offers a blueprint for Plato's ideal society. Drawing on the metaphysics and epistemology of the divided line, Altman argues that the elaborate description of this putatively ideal state is merely an image of an ideal, and that the original of which this is the ideal can only be found in the allegory of the cave. As a consequence of this interpretation, we are to reject the hierarchy found in both the tripartite class structure and the corresponding tripartite soul. Altman's opposition to these ideas flows from his commitment to democracy and his belief that Plato has included these departures from democracy as a test to determine if the reader can persevere through confusion to repudiate false doctrines. The key issue in this test involves recognizing the Trojan-horse quality of one of the more vexing issues in Plato's political philosophy, viz. Plato's claim that the philosopher-monarch must be compelled to abandon the realm of ideal contemplation for the dark and dangerous world of politics. Why would anyone acknowledge this requirement as binding merely because their soul is arranged as Plato describes it? The virtue of Altman's reading is that this difficulty evaporates upon recognizing that the "harmonious person" is not in fact Plato's ideal because she fails to structure her life around the care for others. Recognizing this lack enables the reader to recover Plato's real motive, a democratic commitment to civil service that is the basis of chapter four, "The Longer Way". On the other hand, this basanistic interpretation requires a substantial realignment of wide swaths of the secondary literature. For example, Plato's criticism of the feckless vacillations of the democratic character become an exhortation to prove him wrong, and Altman's defense of democracy requires reading all of the Noble Lie as a lie—there are no classes by nature.

"The Longer Way" of chapter four offers a full-throated defense of the claim that democracy is really being praised in Book VIII, and that this advocacy is closely linked to the free choice of the philosopher to sacrifice her preferences by returning to the cave. Altman simultaneously rejects the definition of justice as "doing one's own work", in favor of the embodiment of justice represented by this return to the cave.

The organizational principle of the book as a whole given above is somewhat reductive, particularly since Altman tends to vary his order of presentation. At times he merely follows the sequence of Plato's text, other times he organizes on the basis of conceptual proximity. The uncertainty here is compounded by chapter- and section- headings that might be Altman's own attempt at proleptic confusion. For example, the first chapter divides into four sections, each drawing its title from the first line of the Republic. This works very well with κατέβην, which Altman fruitfully links to the philosopher's descent into the cave. However, the sections on μετὰ Γλαύκωνος and τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος feel more gerrymandered, the former (via Glaucon's military service) containing a discussion of the Peloponnesian War, the latter a discussion of the other son of Ariston, viz. Plato himself. This first chapter, ostensibly on the first sentence of the Republic, ranges widely over the allegory of the cave, the Form of the Good, and Platonic metaphysics. This freedom means that the reader would be well advised to rely on the book's excellent indices to find their way through Altman's arrangement of arguments and texts.

Similarly, and somewhat more problematically, chapter six devotes considerable space to a discussion of Platonic Forms under the title of "Democracy and Education". It might be true that mathematics is part of any reasonable plan of education, but Altman offers little argument in support of his claim that education requires Platonic metaphysics. In fact, for a book that stridently demands, "are we prepared to believe that Plato had seen the Idea of the Good?" (69-70), Altman doesn't offer any reason to accept Plato's metaphysics other than the weak contention that "few would claim, for example, that belief in the monotheistic God of Judeo-Christian-Muslim revelation has been or even can be refuted" (276). Declaiming against the anti-theological "prejudice" of Plato scholars might be a fair way to force reconsideration of an unpopular interpretation of the meaning of Plato's texts, but more work would need to be done to make this interpretation philosophically viable.

Altman pays scrupulous attention to the enormous secondary literature on the Republic. His conclusion is that we have largely failed to understand what Plato meant just because we have failed to see that we were being tested with false statements. The sweeping, contrarian nature of this interpretation means that anyone who takes up this book (which must include anyone interested in Platonic pedagogy) will find much to disagree with, but even more that challenges our often unstated assumptions about what Platonism must be.

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