Monday, May 15, 2017


Anders Dahl Sørensen, Plato on Democracy and Political 'technē'. Philosophia antiqua, 143. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. viii, 196. ISBN 9789004312005. $132.00.

Reviewed by Carol Atack, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


In this thoughtful exploration of Plato's thought on democracy and knowledge, Anders Dahl Sørensen establishes a nuanced account of Plato's political assessment of democracy, concluding that 'the question of democracy's epistemic potential was a question Plato took seriously' (p. 167). Anyone with an interest in Plato's thought and ancient politics will find new insights in Sørensen's careful analysis, the connections he makes between Plato's epistemology and political thought, and the insights into Athenian politics he draws from close readings of Plato's dialogues. He draws on recent models of epistemic democracy developed by political theorists, in which citizens' deliberation and decision-making are held to generate (for example) better or more accurate decisions through their intellectual, experiential and cultural diversity, or through an averaging effect achieved by aggregating their individual contributions. 1 This enables a subtle reconsideration of Plato's perspectives on democracy, although Sørensen refrains from comparative analysis till he reaches his closing Epilogue.

Assessments of Plato's political views have softened since the time when Karl Popper and Richard Crossman argued that his political thought and the ideal society he envisaged anchored an intellectual genealogy that culminated in totalitarianism. 2 Since then, scholars such as Sara Monoson have pointed to the importance of speech and deliberation within the Platonic dialogue, and the significance of its democratic context, and sought to align Plato's thought with models of deliberative democracy. 3 Such lines of argument have occasionally required deft footwork from their proponents, as with Arlene Saxonhouse's esotericist re-reading of the Protagoras in which Socrates, rather than Protagoras, speaks for democracy. 4 Sørensen's model offers a balanced reading in which Plato can be seen to engage with his political context, consider the epistemic potential of democracy, and acknowledge some limited circumstances in which a democracy could deliver an effective imitation of an ideal regime.

Treating Plato's political thought through the framework of epistemic democracy also draws together aspects of Plato's thought too often treated separately. Sørensen reconnects politics and epistemology in the arguments of the Theaetetus (Chapter 5) and the Republic (Chapter 1); the same connection is also emphasised in the other dialogues he explores, the Protagoras (Chapter 4), the Gorgias (Chapter 2), and the Statesman (Chapter 3).

Sørensen asks a careful and telling question of his Platonic material; does Plato think that there can be a democratic form of political skill (technē), so that democracy can be shown to have a foundation in knowledge? On the face of it, Plato is supremely hostile towards the idea that democratic political activity could constitute a technē. Aristotle's 'wisdom of the multitude' argument (Politics 3.11, 1281a42-b21) is more usually invoked as an ancient argument for the epistemic potential of democracy (and briefly considered here, pp. 167-9), but Sørensen's contention is that Plato's dialogues, especially later works such as the Statesman, credit democracy with some degree of epistemic potential, in its ability to institute practices that use law to imitate the operation of an ideal lawgiver equipped with knowledge. That might not seem an obvious development from the Republic, where Socrates distinguishes attempts to tame the beast of democratic rule from skill (technē) or wisdom (sophia, 493b5-7), but Sørensen suggests that the underwhelming discussion of Thrasymachus' account of justice leaves a gap in which an account of democracy's epistemic potential could be positioned. Thrasymachus himself credits democratic rulers with political skill (Republic 1, 338d5-6, 338e2), as does the pseudo-Xenophontic Constitution of the Athenians (pp. 28-30), which Sørensen treats as a fifth-century text and so possibly contemporary with the historical Thrasymachus. But Plato does not pursue these approaches, which Sørensen's contextualism identifies as the product of late fifth-century Athenian practice, as the dialogue turns towards the ethical and the individual.

In other dialogues, however, Plato tackles the question of democracy and political skill head-on. The Gorgias, as Sørensen notes, the 'most uncompromisingly antidemocratic of Plato's works' (p. 35), examines the political practice of speakers and their educators and finds them wanting. Socrates here argues that the activities that make up participation in democratic politics as a citizen and an orator are 'unscientific', in aiming at pleasure rather than benefit and in lacking a methodology beyond the 'guesswork' he criticises. Here Sørensen's analysis of democracy builds on Josiah Ober's 'Mass and Elite' model, in which the political argument of elite speakers is constrained by the need to appeal to their mass audience (p. 45). 5 The speakers must offer pleasure to the masses, as that is what the masses want. It is the power of the dēmos over the speaker that leads Plato to deny the status of technē to rhetoric, because the masses value experience over knowledge.

A more positive account of democracy's potential lies in the Statesman, where democratic collective experience provides an epistemic foundation for an acceptable imitation of the ideal regime (pp. 64-70). Sørensen draws novel conclusions from his careful reading of the dialogue's later sections, showing how they analyse Athenian democratic practice. Indeed, the dialogue's 'political fable' (Statesman 296d7-299e5) explores how a democratic city might come to reject the idea of political expertise and claims to possess it. The fable presents the most common examples of technē, medicine and sea-faring, and considers how a polis might manage possessors of those skills whom the citizens thought to be using them with hostile intent. Believing that the experts are using their skill to harm them, the citizens set up an assembly in which they (though not necessarily all of them) can themselves give their opinions on the proper exercise of these crafts, and even restrict by law what can be identified as the technē. The citizens can then reject anyone whose proposed work does not match their authorised model.

With this response, Sørensen suggests, Plato shows how the idea of expertise comes to be rejected within democratic political debate. Modifying previous analyses of this passage, he argues that the citizens decide not on the allowable use of the craft but on what constitutes the craft (pp. 73-4). Where Melissa Lane played down the connection between the city of the fable and democratic Athens, Sørensen suggests it represents the increased role of established law in the restored democracy of fourth-century Athens, and specifically the distinction between established law and decrees of the assembly. 6 Drawing on Mogens Herman Hansen's account of fourth-century political and legal practice in Athens, he shows that the fable comments on practice contemporary with Plato (pp. 86-90). 7 Although the reuse of craft imagery and language from the Republic might suggest a model of democracy unchanged between the two works, here the imagined city resembles a later version of Athens, that of the restored democracy with its legalistic proceduralism (whereas that of the Protagoras displays a nostalgia for earlier fifth-century practice).

This part of the Statesman, Sørensen suggests, is another instance of a Platonic 'second sailing' (pp. 70-1). The dialogue, unlike the Republic, is largely silent on how a politikos might be produced; but it is concerned with how a city might manage without one. Sørensen argues that Plato resolves an ambiguity between the second-best regime's acceptance of ancestral laws and their origin with a lawgiver (pp. 90-2), through the incorporation of ancestral practice into the statesman's legislation, 'legislating by means of ancestral customs' (Statesman 295a7-8). The work of the politikos himself is made to resemble that of originary lawgivers in ancestral constitution accounts; Sørensen argues that 'he codifies and puts into force the city's ancestral laws' (p. 94). Thus the work of the statesman and that of the second-best regime are aligned, so that it is possible to see how the latter can imitate the former. This rather lukewarm claim, that a democracy based on tried and tested ancestral practice can in some circumstances imitate the ideal regime, is the closest to a positive claim that Sørensen finds here for democracy.

But Plato does here seem to hint at a distinction between technē and epistēmē, and although he does not always distinguish the terms clearly, the higher order of epistemic activity of the politikos, as epistēmē or basilikē technē, is different from that of his citizens. Sørensen does not explore the difficulties that Plato has in identifying the distinction between the everyday technai of the craft analogy and the higher-level basilikē technē (cf. Euthydemus 288d-293a), nor any developmental concerns about changes in his model of technē, both of which might further strengthen his reading of the Statesman. 8

Plato's higher-order political skill rests on the knowledge which would be held by a politikos in person or imitated in codified practice. But, as Sørensen explores in his final two chapters, the most significant opponent Plato provides for Socrates denies the claims about knowledge that inform his critique of political practice. Protagorean relativism provides a challenge to Socratic epistemology and therefore to any account of political skill that depends upon it. While the 'measure doctrine' is not foregrounded in the Protagoras, Sørensen follows Catherine Rowett in seeing the capacities of Protagorean citizens as compatible with it. 9 Each community will develop a consensus of values and practices drawn from the individual experiences of its citizens (p. 118); while each polis might develop its own values, they are not arbitrary, as the Socratic take on the measure doctrine suggests, but a 'truly collective achievement' (p. 122).

Sørensen suggests that the problems that his model creates for Protagoras' status as an expert are not fully explored in the Protagoras, but in the Theaetetus, which he reads as continuing the political exploration of the measure doctrine. The political content of the Theaetetus is often overlooked, despite the fiercely political content of the 'digression' (at 172c-177c), which contrasts the philosopher with the practical citizen, and the dramatic setting of the dialogue and its frame, which emphasise the civic activities of both Socrates and the adult Theaetetus. Sørensen reconnects the epistemological account of Protagorean relativism that dominates the first part of the Theaetetus with the idea of political technē. He argues that relativism is not a purely epistemological position for Plato, but one that operates within a political context. By reading the Theaetetus' self-refutation argument as an argument against 'the theoretically most sophisticated case that could be made for the reconciliation of democracy with political expertise', rather than as a purely abstract exercise, Sørensen shows that Socrates' argument has 'political bite' (p. 133). 'Protagoras' must surrender to the masses who dispute the measure doctrine, unable to assert his 'conception of epistemic authority' (p. 165).

There are some imperfections in the presentation of the material, including over-used phrases ('to be sure' to anchor an assertion, pp. 30, 59, 62, 63, 67, 71), errors in Greek accentuation, and the occasional omission of prepositions and other words ('we may wonder whether not', p. 4). But these minor issues do not detract from the overall readability and usability of this book. This book represents an important contribution to the study of Plato's political thought and its relationship to its Athenian context, and its careful readings of both Plato's dialogues and previous scholarship provide helpful additions to current debates.


1.   Exemplified by D. M. Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, 2008); H. Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton, 2013).
2.   K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato (5th edn.; London, 1966); R. Crossman, RPlato Today (London, 1937).
3.   S. S. Monoson, Plato's Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosophy (Princeton, 2000).
4.   A. W. Saxonhouse, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens (Cambridge, 2006), 179-205.
5.   J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton, 1989).
6.   M. S. Lane, Method and Politics in Plato's Statesman (Cambridge, 1997).
7.   M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology (Oxford, 1991).
8.   D. L. Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne (University Park, Pa, 1998), 1-15, discusses accounts of development change in Plato's accounts of technē.
9.   C. Rowett, 'Relativism in Plato's Protagoras' in V. Harte and M. S. Lane (eds.), Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (Cambridge, 2013), 191-211.

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