Plato’s Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic

  Schur, David. 2015. Plato's Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic. Hellenic Studies Series 66. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


It is generally assumed that Plato, while cultivating and perpetuating Socrates’ legacy of ostensible ignorance in the most important matters, writes as a knower with a persuasive, didactic agenda. Some see Plato promoting specific theoretical doctrines; others figure that Plato is guiding us to adopt practices that will in turn lead us to find truths he has already found. Especially insofar as the dialogues portray goal-oriented investigations, Plato is viewed as an author who guides us to receive and possess—to get—a message he already has fixed in mind. At the same time, Plato’s literary art has been celebrated throughout the history of Platonism for its inspiring beauty. Because expressions of appreciation for that beauty can in fact be impressionistic, dismissive, or condescending, it has proved difficult for today’s scholars to maintain a balance between acknowledging Plato’s artistry and assessing the rigor of his thought—especially since most readers of Plato are looking for content in the form of authorial assertions. Art as such, by the definition that emerges from these readers’ interpretive conceptions of content, does not provide the sort of straightforward answers that they desire and demand. Hence the recent drive to explain Plato’s art as a technical art of rhetoric, one that extrudes content through form.

I have argued that readers regularly, if haphazardly, make a commonsensical choice between expository and literary modes of reading. These modes correspond to different desires and purposes, and in their modern incarnations also distinguish philosophy from literature. If there is a false dichotomy here, it is the separation of aesthetic pleasure from intellectual edification, as though ideas had to be separated out from language and pinned down in a systematic catalog before they might be of interest and value. Such a dichotomy risks losing the wonder observed by Aristotle in the human desire, exhibited in the drive of physical sensation [aisthēsis], to know about the highest things. [1] Plato’s language is essentially provisional, the promise of the dialogues being sustained by a relentless, visionary sense of wonder. Be that as it may, to appreciate how thought and language emerge together in the reading of a text does not require that we simply abandon ourselves to fuzzy emotional impressions. [2] Plato’s dialogues are permeated by complex and questioning thought and language, where questions have no less beauty—and no less value—than do the answers proposed by his speaking characters. Is there any doubt that Plato’s aesthetic is the height of intellectualism?

Many of the major problems posed by the Republic can be understood as impasses, navigated by means of rhetorical tropes that allow the book to keep going. The journey to reach ideals is thus one of asymptotic approximation; a journey of perpetual approach. In a conversation that sets out with the end goal of perfection in mind, endings devolve into beginnings, while verbal displacements proliferate whereby the ideal world becomes the reality, theory becomes practice, method (path) becomes topic (place), and conversation becomes philosophy. One significant way that Plato idealizes conversation is through tropes of recursion that describe an endless journey. Endlessness here need not be infinite regression in a strictly logical sense. Instead, chains of digression, hearsay, and conditional speculation evoke the sublime. As well as being the highest object of knowledge, the Good is the acme of this sublime—incalculable, ineffable, and blinding—so that we must turn away from it in order to see it better.


[ back ] 1. Metaphysics 982a–b, where Aristotle also touches on the idea of the supreme good as a telos in and of itself. Cf. De Anima 402a on the beauty and value of knowledge of the greatest and most wondrous things, and Nicomachean Ethics 1094a on the good as a telos sought for its own sake, regardless of idle talk about the regression of goals underlying goals ad infinitum.

[ back ] 2. See Klein’s excoriation of modern aesthetic approaches to Plato that lose sight of the text’s pedagogical task (1965:20).