Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Jill Frank, Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato's Republic. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 251. ISBN 9780226515779. $30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Orestis Karatzoglou, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (

Version at BMCR home site


In his commentary on the Alcibiades (2.155-62), the Neoplatonist commentator Olympiodorus relates a dream Plato had shortly before his death: he was transformed into a swan and by flying from tree to tree he avoided the arrows of the archers who tried to shoot him down. This anecdote is illustrative of the openness of the Platonic work to a wide variety of interpretations. Frank's Poetic Justice is a welcome contribution to the attempt to break free from the interpretive habit of seeing Plato's Republic as an authoritarian text and to read it, instead, as a work that offers "an education in ethical and political self-governance" (5).

Frank finds in the Platonic corpus two ways of learning how to read, one that is based on transmission of knowledge via an authoritative figure and another, put forward in the Republic and Theaetetus, that promotes knowledge through trial and error. Adopting the latter mode of learning to read, Frank has among her first objectives to show that authoritarian readings of the Republic fail to do justice to its multivocality (Chapter 1, Reading Plato). Consequently, she parts company with the "mouthpiece theories," which take certain characters of Plato's dialogues to be stand-ins for Plato, and argues for reading Plato dramatically and poetically (29-30). The notion of mimēsis is thus central to her project, and the question invites itself: if the Republic banishes poetry from the ideal city as the mimetic art par excellence, how legitimate is reading the Republic as a product of mimēsis? Frank welcomes this question and calls attention to the work's contradictory aspects, while distinguishing between two types of mimēsis, one as imitation and another as representation (36-41). According to her, the Republic distances itself from the former and endorses instead a mimetic pedagogy that focuses on poikilia, which Frank sees as a signifier of complexity and contradiction and as a prompt to the reader to look for what "does not appear" (40). As such, the Republic invites careful reading and promotes mimetic pedagogy "as a practice of disidentification" (44), i.e. by prompting the reader to identify not with what is but with what might have been. By thus demanding of the reader critical reflection and resistance to appearance, the Republic emerges as a text that offers a chance for "self- authorization" and "self-constitution" (45).

In Chapter 2 (Poetry: The Measure of Truth), Frank takes up the issue of the benefits of mimetic poetry in light of Socrates' admission in Republic 10 that poetry may be allowed back from exile on the provision that it offers not just pleasure but also benefit (607d). Reexamining the evidence about the ouster of poetry from the kallipolis, Frank calls into question the traditional view that the Republic condemns poetry and argues instead that, due to its inherent indeterminacy of interpretation, poetry is presented as an exemplar that "bring[s] to appearance the imperative for philosophy of speaking in one's own voice" (56). Just like Phaedrus' god Theuth, who invents writing but leaves it open for anyone to interpret, poets father their poems but claim no authority over them; it remains for the users of poetry, i.e. the readers, to acknowledge the elusiveness of authorial intent and to take up "(cultural, patrimonial, political) inheritances" not by way of deference or blind appropriation but critically (59). Yet, as Socrates explains in Republic 10, mimetic poetry is hazardous because it may distort the thought of the listeners who do not happen to possess as pharmakon the knowledge of what mimetic poetry happens to be like (595b). Tracing the nature of such knowledge, Frank examines the taxonomy of falsehoods presented by Socrates in Republic 2 and argues that eidōla can be false in a manner other than contrivances (65-6): the former are not inherently deceptive but become so when they are understood as the latter, i.e. as imitations. Otherwise, their falsity lies in their partiality and "perspectival truth," which invite the reader to think harder by exposing their difference from the completeness of what they represent (67-8). According to Frank, it is knowledge based on mimetic representation, absent from both the traditional Athenian curriculum and the revised one of the Republic, that emancipates the desire to become truly good by opening up, without promising actualization of, possibility (79).

Chapter 3 (Life Without Poetry) deals with the Republic's early educational stage and the foundation of the kallipolis with a view toward showing that the account of justice emerging from both endeavors is undercut by numerous inconsistencies and that, far from being the message heralded by the Republic, this account calls for critical distance on the part of the reader (82, 96). Frank focuses on Socrates' hedges and suggests that we read them as signs that the Republic's early curriculum and the concomitant emergence of the virtues in Book 4 come as a result of Glaucon's and Adeimantus' desire for pure simplicity and unalloyed justice, a form of justice that is a mirror image of the account of justice put forward by Thrasymachus and rejected in Book 1 (82-6). Neither of the brothers, according to Frank, is alive to Socrates' description of the myths that build up the foundation of this dispositional education as contrivances (88). Both misrepresent as true their authority as founders of the city by tracing its origin unquestionably to knowledge, thus obscuring the undecidable nature of the question whether their founding authority has the epistemic status required for its truthful representation as knowledge (89-92). Emphasizing Socrates' misgivings about the effectiveness of the guardians' education (416a-b), Frank examines the textual evidence that points tacitly to the inadequacy of the virtues as presented in Book 4 and argues that, since all three of them are rooted in sources external to the agent, they fail to bring true justice to the majority but succeed, in alignment with their true falsity, in "orient[ing] to the good of another" and "suppress[ing] moral agency" (98).

In Chapter 4 (The Power of Persuasion), Frank challenges the received view that Plato's dialogues seek to distinguish persuasion from, and/or subordinate it to, philosophy. Instead of taking Socrates' description of the "good rule" as slavery in Republic 9 as justification of the use of force in an attempt to inculcate virtue, Frank prefers to see apparent endorsements of force or slavery as invitations to ponder the possibility that rule by epistemic force might compromise virtue no less than rule by the force of might (117-18). Consequently, she brings to light textual evidence that presents tools of deception such as the Noble Lie as paradigmatic examples of obedience rather than persuasion (119-20). Acknowledging the difficulties inherent in distinguishing the significations of peithein, which can mean both "to persuade" and "to mislead" in the active voice as well as "to be persuaded" and "to obey" in the passive voice, Frank argues that the difference between persuasion and obedience can be illuminated solely via the "persuadee's experience of the context" (122-3). Since the Socratic method of elenchos also seems to secure obedience rather than persuasion (123-7), Frank locates true persuasion elsewhere: taking the most conspicuous case of persuasion—its grammatical correlate being the middle voice of peithein—to be when persuadees participate in their own persuasion (127-30), she identifies this sort of peithō with Socrates' "answer given through image" (487e), i.e. analogical argumentation, which also depends on its context and reception (133). Socrates' reference to this argumentative mode as the "free and beautiful discussions" of philosophy which the majority have never experienced (498d-499a) leads Frank to infer that the Republic stages only "failures of persuasion" to incite wonder in the readers "about how persuasion does its work" (135-9).

Frank's next undertaking is to examine the beneficial aspects of desire against the established view that the Republic presents erōs solely in negative terms (Chapter 5, Erōs: the Works of Desire). Acknowledging the dialogue's anxiety about desire characteristic of tyranny and fifth-century Athenian imperialism alike, Frank nonetheless argues that the Republic "brings to appearance the risks associated with pleonectic erōs and also makes manifest the costs of seeking to guarantee against such risks" (144). Frank starts from Socrates' thesis, reformulated at 499b-c, that either philosophers will be forced to rule or "a genuine passion for true philosophy" will seize the ones currently ruling or their descendants, infers the inadequacy of philosopher-kings for assuming rule because of the forced nature of their service and, given that in the Republic's dramatic time it is the dēmos that holds sway, ventures the suggestion "that the people [might] qualify for philosophical rule" provided they "could only learn to love learning" (150). According to Frank, an account of erōs that could orient the people away from pleonectic erōs and toward philosophy is presented in Diotima's genealogy of erōs in the Symposium (202a- 204b): unlike her "ladder of love" and the encomia of the other symposiasts, which treat erōs as a self-negating instrument in the sense that it brings about its own negation as soon as the satisfaction of the desire is met (152-3), the erōs intermediate between need and resource is, by contrast, not merely other-directed, but a sunergos that "do[es] its work … also intrapersonally, … within individuals, in their self-relation, as both needy and resourceful" (162). Indispensable for philosophy understood as pursuit of self-knowledge, this bidirectional erōs, in teaching what can and cannot be possessed, functions simultaneously as a sign of the impossibility of possessing absolute knowledge of the Forms and an acknowledgement that philosophy is necessarily bound to the particular (168-9).

In chapter 6 (Dialectics: Making Sense of Logos), Frank turns to the issue of perception and offers an interpretation that reinstates aisthēsis to the status of "a condition of … dialectics itself" (173). Frank examines the curriculum of Republic 7 that leads to dialectics and locates the positive role assigned to the senses in their functioning as "provocatives" that awaken the soul's reflection and prompt judgment by providing contradictory data (176-80). Significantly, Frank argues that the Theaetetus perhaps invites readers to endorse a definition of knowledge as perception forwarded by Protagoras' students, provided they do not identify with the acquiescent Theaetetus and do take into account the pivotal notion of dunamis (183-9). Understood as the temporary actualization of the potential of the senser and the sensed to perceive and be perceived respectively, sense experience is, in Socrates' words, "private to the individual percipient," i.e. singular and individuated and, hence, "infallible and unfalsifiable" (154a, 152c). In being private, aisthēsis is like opinion, doxa, which is defined as "logos held in silence with oneself" (190a). And yet, Frank argues, insofar as it inheres in language, opinion cannot be wholly private but is "unavoidably public" and thus "accountable and falsifiable" (190-1). Aestheticized logos thus emerges as one "that professes its inconstancy, even as it stabilizes, fixes, and secures through names an order, and makes common our individuated sensory experiences" (207).

What then is the account of justice the Republic adheres to? According to Frank, the answer should be sought in the definition of justice, attributed to Simonides in Book 1, as "giving to each what is owed" (331e). So understood, poetic justice is an activity of becoming good by giving to each what is owed, a practice that requires from the agent judgments about particular contexts along with an acknowledgment of each judgment's potential fallibility (216-7).

Poetic Justice is a carefully written and lucidly argued book. Those particularly wedded to the developmental hypothesis about the Platonic corpus may find fault with the its basic premise. Grant that premise, however, and Frank succeeds in presenting a Plato that is far more amenable to representation than Numenius' "atticizing Moses" and far more critical of authority than Popper's champion of totalitarianism. Anyone interested in the poetic and dramatic interpretation of the Republic stands to profit from Frank's original and insightful analysis.

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