Thursday, August 30, 2012


Zacharoula Petraki, The Poetics of Philosophical Language: Plato, Poets and Presocratics in the Republic. Sozomena. Studies in the recovery of ancient texts, 9. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. viii, 292. ISBN 9783110260977. $154.00.

Reviewed by Patrizia Marzillo, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (

Version at BMCR home site


As the title shows, Petraki deals with Plato's poetics of philosophical language and its application in the Republic. Accordingly, the book is divided into two main parts ( The Theory and The Republic), framed by an introduction and conclusions.

In the introduction, Petraki starts from the assumption that the Presocratics' influence on Plato is undeniable. Plato's Republic, in particular, can be seen as an attempt to reconcile Parmenides' Being with Heraclitus' Becoming. Also Parmenidean, according to Petraki, is Plato's account of sense-perception (most importantly sight), which is considered – if trained – as a valuable assistant to the intellect in grasping true Reality. On this basis, Petraki argues that Plato, after stating that poetry and its performance have failed in presenting ethical values correctly, himself uses traditional elements of poetry – only to turn them into an innovative philosophical idiom and so reach people who are not familiar with Platonic philosophy. The ultimate goal is to address human senses through poetry to help them support the intellect in its epistemic ascent to the Forms. All these issues are connected, in Petraki's opinion, with Plato's view on language, understood in the Republic as "a thought-structuring and communicative medium". In other words, language plays a role analogous to that of the senses in helping us approach Reality. Petraki thinks that Plato's treatment of philosophical language is organized around the oppositions of "mixture" vs. "purity" and "variety" vs. "simple", oppositions that play a major role in Presocratic thought and in poetry.

In Section One, methodological issues are examined and the opinions of existing scholarship are presented and discussed. The author explains her understanding of the following issues: (a) poetics; (b) the relation between myths and images; (c) imagistic discourse; (d) the dramatization of language; and (e) metaphorical language in the Republic. Her basic theory is that Plato re-organized what was regarded by the fifth-century B.C. audience as traditional or poetic in order to put it to new use. (a) Poetics is understood as both the poet's art and as the exploration of those features built into the poetry produced. Petraki, however, distances herself from an Aristotelian point of view and proposes an analysis of Book 10 in which Plato first condemns and then himself uses poetic patterns to describe the World of Becoming and its polymorphy. (b) In this section it is made clear how Plato adopted and adapted traditional material to tell a new story. (c) In this part, it is claimed that each participant in the dialogue is invited by Socrates to visualise a number of images, which Socrates himself formulates in words. Petraki introduces here the Presocratic concepts of poikilia and mixis, but also appeals to Gorgias' Helen to explain Plato's use of images. She uses Silk's work as her basis for discussing figures of speech which involve comparatio.1

Sections (d) and (e) are closely connected to (c). The word eikôn and its semantic field are at the basis of the whole discussion. Stress is also placed on the analogy between verbal and painted images. Socrates becomes a verbal painter just like that other verbal painter, the poet, the only difference being that the philosopher offers a correct representation of reality. The Republic is understood by Petraki on the whole as a "grand verbal picture". As for the 'dramatization of language' (section (d)): Petraki takes Thayer's study of the expression auto to in the Symposium2 as her starting-point for a similar investigation in the Republic.

Section Two opens with a detailed analysis of book 5 of the Republic. The author has chosen the central book of the dialogue for two reasons: it introduces the motif of mixture, and it offers the image of the polis as a human body. Plato's treatment of mixture should, in Petraki's eyes, precisely be understood as his attempt to make connections between the polis and human nature by the means of verbal imagery. It is, at the same time, a further attack against poetry since Plato wants to show how imagery should be deployed. Since Plato here also exploits his theory of the Forms, the book is dense with philosophical language. Petraki interprets all three waves of argument pointed out by Socrates – that is, his definition of the guardians' nature, his description of their lifestyle and his exposition of the theory of the Forms – as a unified philosophical lesson on Platonic thought and language. Here imagistic and poetical language dominates. According to Petraki, Plato brings together images, starting with the eikôn of the pedigree dog, as if he were a painter.

The second chapter of Section Two deals with the philosophical style of Socrates' third wave of argument. What follows is an excursus on Glaucon as the most philosophical of Socrates' interlocutors, and on the dialogic genre as the most appropriate literary vehicle for Platonic philosophy. The third wave of argument is divided into three parts: in the first, Socrates speaks to Glaucon who accepts the existence of the Forms; in the second, he asks Glaucon to adopt the sight-lovers' point of view; in the third, Socrates directly addresses the sight-lovers with a remarkable change of style which becomes fully pictorial and poetic. The reasons for this change are explained in Chapter 3 by an analysis of the images of books 2 and 6 of the Republic. Petraki states that Socrates turns to a more imagistic style because he wants to educate his interlocutors. He wants to show how the variety of the sensible world contrasts with the simplicity of the world of the Forms. The chapter is closed by some considerations on the image of the Sun as analogon of the Good.

Chapter 4 focuses on the early part of book 6, and on books 8 and 9, in particular on the images used to describe democracy and tyranny. Petraki then examines Plato's use of skiagraphia (shadow-painting), which she reads as an attack on this technique for producing visual illusions. She also returns to skiagraphia in her conclusion, by analysing the use of the term in Plato. In her opinion, this is the word to which Plato resorts when he wants to speak of the erroneous way in which poetry portrays ethical reality.

Several passages of the Republic are introduced as evidence, accompanied by a translation into English. Petraki also analyses Socrates' main interlocutors in the dialogue, Glaucon and Adeimantus, since the differences between the two brothers are philosophically essential to Socrates' choice of specific discursive modes and linguistic styles of doing philosophy. Glaucon was already introduced in chapter 2 as a genuine disciple of Socrates. Adeimantus is mentioned in chapters 3 and 4 as a forgetful character who has to be replaced by his more philosophical brother as soon as the subject of discussion becomes too difficult.

Petraki tries to find in the Presocratics some aspects of the imaginative language that she sees in Plato, but if we expected a book that describes Plato's dependence on Presocratic language we would be disappointed. Presocratics are referred to in the introduction and then appear from time to time throughout the volume together with some other authors, so that it is not possible to distinguish the Presocratics' influence from what we could call the general influence of previous Greek literature or, in particular, of other "philosopher poets" such as Pindar (for the light- darkness metaphor) or Hesiod (for the Golden Race or the image of the "drones").

The bibliography is reasonably complete. It is understandable that the author could not take into account titles on the same topic appeared in 2011,3 but the omissions of Giuliano's monograph4 and of Leszl's studies on Plato and poetry5 are puzzling. A two-page index of names closes the volume. I could find only few misprints.

On the whole the book is well structured. The author is diligent in explaining the individual sections and passages of her argumentation – although her discussions of terminology and methodology, and her numerous verbatim quotations from other modern scholars sometimes make the reader lose the main thread. The intention is to provide a new way to read the Republic, a dialogue which Petraki shows that she know profoundly. She treats a number of images used by Plato in the Republic such as the Sun, the animal metaphors, and the image of the badly steered ship. She also analyzes the different linguistic registers present in the Republic, registers which change according to both the subject under discussion and the interlocutor addressed. When speaking of our world, and to sight-lovers, Plato adopts a poetic language characterised by variety and color; but when he wants to describe the unmixed, pure realm of the Forms he often uses an imageless, sober style. The aim is pedagogic: Plato appeals to both poetry and painting in order to attack them as the language of the ignorant, and to promote the didactic, philosophical style.

I do not know if this understanding of the Republic can open new fields of research on other Platonic dialogues. The idea that the language of the Republic constitutes a highly complex mosaic in which images predominate and in which different modes of linguistic configuration converge is at any rate interesting.


1.  Silk, M. S. 1974. Interaction in Poetic Imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.  Thayer, H. S. 1993. Meaning and Dramatic Interpretation. In Plato's Dialogues: New Studies and Interpretations, Gerald A. Press (ed.), 47-61. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
3.   I refer to A. A. Long's article "Poets as philosophers and philosophers as poets: Parmenides, Plato, Lucretius, Wordsworth" in: B. Huss, P. Marzillo, T. Ricklin (eds.), Para/Textuelle Verhandlungen zwischen Dichtung und Philosophie in der frühen Neuzeit, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2011, 293-308; and to the volume Plato and the poets by P. Destrée and Fritz-Gregor Herrmann (eds.), Leiden: Brill, 2011.
4.   Giuliano, F. M., Platone e la Poesia: Teoria della composizione e prassi della ricezione. International Plato Studies Vol. 22. Sankt Augustin: Academia, 2005.
5.   Leszl, W. G., "Plato's attitude to poetry and the fine arts, and the origin of aesthetics 1", Études platoniciennes 2004/1: 113-197; " Plato's attitude to poetry and the fine arts, and the origins of aesthetics 2", Études platoniciennes 2006/2: 285-351; "Plato's attitude to poetry and the fine arts, and the origins of aesthetics 3", Études platoniciennes 2006/3: 245-336.

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