Tuesday, April 26, 2016


James L. Kastely, The Rhetoric of Plato's 'Republic': Democracy and the Philosophical Problem of Persuasion. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. xviii, 260. ISBN 9780226278629. $35.00.

Reviewed by Andreas Avgousti, Columbia University (aa2773@columbia.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


For a reader of this book, it is hard to escape the impression that James L. Kastely has written it out of love for Plato's Republic. For Kastely, Plato "seeks to offer guidance on how to invent a genuine persuasive discourse for a value [i.e. justice] . . . that is imperiled because the average citizen does not understand his or her own desires" (xiii). Since persuasion "posed a fundamental problem for philosophy" (ix), the 'central question' of the Republic is whether a "genuinely persuasive defence of justice is possible" (x; the phrase 'genuine persuasion' functions as a slogan throughout the book: 87, 91, 145, 167 and passim). The rhetorical defense of justice at which the Republic aims is meant for "the citizens of a democracy" (22). The Republic, as "a major work of rhetorical theory investigat[es] the possibility of an effective radical discourse that is culturally transformative" (p. x).

Kastely runs through the entirety of the Republic in a linear manner beginning from Socrates' elenctic engagements in Book 1. For Kastely, Book 1 is an avowed failure to which the appropriate response is mimesis: a persuasive defense of justice requires "a new form of heroism . . . this change represents a major shift in the rhetorical operation of philosophy" (45). The principal conduit in the mimetic text "is not philosophy but the image of philosophy . . . if philosophy is to be humanly meaningful, it needs to become rhetorical" (p. xv; cf. 10, 135, 225). The Republic is intended to help Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates' interlocutors in Books 2 to 10, to "become effective rhetors in a democracy" (61). Socrates provides them with images, rhetorical figures that have a "usefulness" or "utility" (201). The major example is Kallipolis, an image that "frees one from historical or cultural determination" (183) and "creates a desire for justice among the dialogue's interlocutors and readers" (201). Kastely provides a fresh reading of the story of Gyges' ring, connecting it to the "countermyth" (217) of Kallipolis. The story shows that "rhetoric's power resides in its ability to deceive through the manipulation of appearance" (52), whereas Kallipolis replaces this "fantasy of omnipotence with a narrative of idealized political cooperation" (218).

Kastely can arrive at this suggestion in part because of his formalistic approach to the dialogue, his view that the argument of the work lies in its form rather than in details of content. This underpins his claim that Kallipolis "'could not possibly work . . . this arrangement seems doomed"' (p. 105; cf. pp. 126, 212). Since there is little question of "a direct intervention and reform of the current political structure" (p. 209), the specifics of the description of Kallipolis are incidental to its function as a rhetorical figure. As such, it has primarily use-value, for through Kallipolis "Socrates discloses that all political order is a product of the human imagination" (212) and demonstrates "the power of discourse to imagine change" (220). We might wonder, however; if the Republic "is an advertisement for philosophy" (157) then why not treat the philosophic city as a real possibility? Rhetorical figures are, arguably, more persuasive if they make what they describe possible. Alternatively, what evidence might there be for the claim that the Republic is not an advertisement for philosophy? Strong candidates are those textual excerpts that are difficult to follow even for the philosophically savvy, such as the claim that a tyrant is "seven hundred and twenty-nine times" more wretched than the king (Rep. 9, 587d-e) or Er's detailed description of the heavenly spheres (Rep. 10, 616b-617d). Kastely does not discuss these.

The attempt "to bring rhetoric and philosophy together" is a local response to "certain pressing political problems" confronting Plato's Athens (12). Kastely does not go into detail about these problems. This lack of historical grounding poses a problem for his project. Kastely wants a Republic that is local (i.e. it is a response to its time and place); yet his justification of why the Republic is relevant today is trans-local, namely "the persistence of injustice in the world" (xiii). The palpable tension between these positions remains unaddressed. There is also a discrepancy between the audience Kastely has in mind and the audience Plato has in mind; on historical grounds alone, this gap is irreconcilable. While we may grant that 'Plato understands that if philosophy is to be humanly meaningful it needs to become rhetorical' (xv), Plato and Kastely would give different answers to the question "for whom is the 'Republic' written?" Kastely assumes, without argument, that meaningfulness is not a historical problem: "At issue is . . . the prior question of whether it is even possible to engage in a meaningful discourse about justice" (1). While he does acknowledge the epistemological problems with genuine persuasion, differentiating its aims from "manipulation" (5), Kastely does not consider that persuasion and manipulation are not exhaustive alternatives: there seems to be space between being unreflective or naive and responsibility in which one might get stuck. Arguably, this is a standard description of what occurs in Plato's aporetic dialogues.

Kastely assumes an understanding of human nature which is neither argued for, nor found in the text. For example, he writes that "We begin in the world as naïve rhetors, and the question is whether we remain trapped in this rhetorical naïveté or whether we can become reflective practitioners of rhetoric" (139). And later: "A fundamental aspect of our nature . . . is to misperceive the essential rhetoricity of the human condition" (142). There are at least five claims here: first, as Kastely pithily puts it elsewhere, "Human nature is rhetorical" (225; cf. 183, 217); second, that we are naïve rhetors; third, that this naïveté leads to bad results; fourth, that we can overcome this naïveté (a claim that the author makes explicit at 158); and fifth, that all this is to be understood in a universal sense (see especially Kastely's claims about what kind of "species" we are, 166). To this we may add the bald claim that "Humans are creatures moved by their passions" (168). Coherency among these claims aside, they hold water only insofar as they are motivated by the normative beliefs of a historian of rhetoric. As claims that attach to a persuasive reading of the Republic they do not seem plausible to me. The same applies for Kastely's psycho-ontological claim that the world is a "place of anxiety" (213) and that a task for the value of justice is "to constitute an identity that allows one to belong appropriately to that world" (222). More broadly, the terms Kastely employs to describe the psychological state of the audience are anachronistic. We read that: "The average person is in a situation of deep alienation" (48); that there is "an inherent frustration of basic human nature" on which political life is structured (51); that there is a "drive to satisfy private interest" (91); that "in the Kallipolis, eros has been fairly successfully sublimated" (166); and of "the soul as an affectively driven entity" (178). Tethering these descriptions to the Greek text would have made them more persuasive.

For Kastely, "Philosophical persuasion involves the transformation of an identity. It is an act of constitution (politeia), one that makes an individual into a citizen" (22). This citizenship is to be understood as "reflective" (47) and a philosopher's role is to persuade citizens to "reconstitute themselves as individuals" (163). Persuasion is supposed to guide a person to become "fully aware of his or her rhetoricity and hence able to take responsibility for himself or herself in a new way" (87). "In the Republic persuasion is represented as a process that happens only when the audience assumes a responsibility for a position by making it its own" (221). We also read about the threat "private interest" poses to Plato's project (86, 91, 95, 150, 166, 209). I think it is evident in these moments that Kastely presupposes a liberal individual, the "intent" of the Republic being "to foster the growth of just individuals" (98; for the emphasis on individuals see 87, 162 and passim). This means that the argument for why the Republic is relevant today is limited to a reader who shares these presuppositions with the book's author.

Kastely uses the scholarship in a largely constructive way, relying on some of the best work in English to appear over the past half-century. That said, Weiss (2012) is the only book or article on Plato that the author cites after 2010. Sometimes, most obviously at 185-7 and 204-5, which are mostly a succession of quotes, Kastely allows the secondary literature to hold too much sway. As an interpretation of the Republic, the book goes down paths that are not readily connected with its argument. For example, Kastely's embrace of Weiss' claim that there is more than one kind of philosopher being described in the Republic (149 ff.) does little for the major claims Kastely makes about the text as (i) a rhetorical education of nonphilosophers and philosophers; (ii) a poetic rather than a philosophic text; and (iii) "a work of rhetoric making the case for the relevance of philosophy to political life" (156, where the reader can find the claims in the order I have enumerated). Weiss's claim is controversial and Kastely gives us no indication of this fact. Kastely also assumes the priority of the Republic among the universe of Plato's dialogues but also in Plato's thought. Given Kastely's ambitious thesis, why limit the case to the Republic? The limit seems arbitrary not least because of Kastely's insistence that the text is to have an impact on its readership, going as far as saying that "The length of this dialogue is not accidental; it is dictated by the difficulty of the rhetorical task" (102). We may grant that rhetoric has a practical aim (see pp. x, 45, 210), yet resist the thought that this aim is best achieved via a cultural intervention through a text as opposed to, say, founding the Academy.

I am in no position to say whether this book will persuade those to whom it is primarily addressed, those historians and theorists of rhetoric who do not consider "the importance of the Republic" for their craft (p. xv). I would recommend this book to those who are skeptical about whether "a philosophical poet" (5) wrote the Republic. Kastely's book would also serve well as a companion text to the Republic in an upper level undergraduate or a mixed undergraduate / graduate seminar; the author's insistence that the Republic has much to teach citizens of liberal democracies can generate much discussion. To those already persuaded of this point I cannot promise that they will find anything new. It is, however, this reviewer's hope that a book such as this is evidence that we have finally stepped out of the long shadow of Karl Popper's searing, if mistaken, critique: Plato's Republic is not the sworn enemy of liberal democracies. In this light, Kastely's presupposition of a liberal individual is not a weakness, but a strength.

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