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.

4. From Beginning to End and Back Again

When reading an expository work of heuristic inquiry and argumentation, we can take it as a given that the work itself relies on an underlying framework of methodical progress toward an endpoint, a destination. This assumption does not apply to the Republic, however, mainly because the book is not a heuristic inquiry but a depiction of one. We still desire to reach a destination, but the methodical progression of conversation, embedded in a narrative, participates in an intellectualized sort of plot. [1] This part of my study argues that, unlike the inquiry pursued by the characters in it, one of the primary functions of the Republic’s conceptual and rhetorical infrastructure is to express uncertainty.

As I see it, the Republic offers an interesting and sustained reflection on method. Plato’s book describes and examines the methods pursued by Socrates and his companions in the course of the long conversation that dominates it. The book’s recursive structure may be described as follows: the casual conversation (conversational discourse) is embedded in Socrates’ narrative (narrative discourse), and the heuristic investigation (methodical discourse) is embedded in the conversation. Thus the book is not just about topics such as justice; its subject matter is also methodological: the book is about the conduct of (philosophical) conversation and inquiry. In this way, the Republic is a remarkably and strangely self-aware and self-critical text. And this strangeness, furthermore, is reflected in an outlandish view of method. Whereas conventional methods of inquiry—for Plato as for us—are understood to reach their goals, seeking to reach and hold fixed positions, the Republic reflexively explores the possibility that philosophy is perhaps better viewed as an ongoing, unending exploration of possibilities.

One might see the Republic shifting attention from the content of arguments to the conduct of argumentation, but I find it more accurate to observe that the conduct of argument (method) is repeatedly and recursively turned into the content of the discussion. At bottom, such a view is made possible by a corresponding shift on the part of the reader from a focus on the what of the text to a literary-rhetorical focus on the how. The discussion of literary form in the previous half of this study shows that literary form, as it is perceived by scholars today, designates those aspects of the text that do not directly communicate authorial propositions. Having multiple speakers share ideas in a setting described by a narrator, for instance, is literary insofar as it is not a direct expression of the author’s opinions. By the same token, the resulting mitigation of authorial commitment is, as I have suggested, a serviceable indicator of literariness. Given this negative delimitation of literary form, flipping it around clears the way for a claim that is, in effect, the opposite of the teleological explanation: a primary function of literary form in the Republic is precisely to establish distance between author and text, between Plato and what he wrote. Although readers have traditionally resisted going along with Plato’s manifest elusiveness, primarily because they want to reach a Platonic telos, the Republic may be seen to suggest reasons why a radical questioning of teleological methodology might be in order in the pursuit of higher ideas. Which is to say that, although my argument depends on a shift in interpretive perspective, this shift is motivated by Plato’s text, which itself directs a great deal of attention toward the conduct of argumentation, to the point where methodological questions become a matter of content.

The Topos of the Path and the Topic of Method

Not surprisingly, frequent instances of self-reflection may take much of the credit for slowing the search down and leading it off course. Such pauses are clearly meant to make the conversation more methodical—better directed toward success. The same may be said for the conversation’s frequent and frequently self-conscious digressions, deferrals, postponements, detours, and evasions. At one point, when Socrates observes that “a rather lengthy stage of argument has been gone through [diexelthontes]” (καὶ οἱ μὴ διὰ μακροῦ τινος διεξελθόντες λόγου), Glaucon replies, “perhaps that’s because it could not easily have been done through a short one” (ἴσως γάρ, ἔφη, διὰ βραχέος οὐ ῥᾴδιον, 484a). Glaucon’s casual and provisional contrast between methods associates difficulty with the short (brakhus) route and accomplishment with the long (makros) one. Sometimes, he is suggesting, a detour is the best way to reach your goals, thus avoiding impediments and impasses. But a significant rhetorical (formal-semantic) pattern in the text shows that while methodically adopting evasive maneuvers does keep the conversation going, it simultaneously leads the conversation away from where it was headed. Noticing this pattern is very different from picking at a flaw in the logic of an argument; my point has to do with how ideas and words interact in a specific text, and not with something that Plato has supposedly done wrong. Because the conversational method keeps turning by way of self-reflective passages that result in further turning, an overdetermining cascade of digression emphasizes the distance of goals that are continually displaced by provisional findings.

The Beginning of the Story

By examining the beginning and the end of Plato’s text, we may gain a sense of the Republic’s global sweep, in contradistinction to the arc of the conversation that monopolizes the book once it gets going. Looking at the whole in this manner, the text may be read as a map of two routes taken simultaneously, one traced by the practice of conversation (which rises to the height of theory), the other by theoretical argumentation (which is brought down by the human limitations of conversational practice). The contrast I emphasize here is simply between the conversation and the book. Because the book contains the conversation while the conversation tends to reflect on itself, the conversation is subordinate to the book and the whole is deeply self-reflective. The participants in the conversation develop theories and make arguments, seeking to reach fixed intellectual goals that include a definition of justice and a defense of its inherent desirability, a sketch of the ideal politeia, and a curriculum for the education of guardians. As presented in the book, however, these are not simply argumentative steps that fall short when dissected; they are cognitive steps mediated, modalized, performed, and deformed in the language of the text.

It is worth thinking of the beginning of the Republic as a premise. Not a theoretical premise, but the premise that we must accept in order to read on. The beginning describes for us an imaginary situation that establishes preconditions for what will follow. [7] Plato, in effect, asks his audience to imagine Socrates recounting this story out loud to a group of listeners. In setting this scene, Plato’s establishment of Socrates’ narrative is the first stage, the first condition, in a vertiginous cascade of reported speech. With great complexity, instances of reported speech are nested within each other throughout the Republic. In a recursive fashion, each embedded report is subordinated to another, starting with Plato’s beginning the dialogue. If we agree with the conditions established by the initial scenario, in which Socrates narrates the story of a conversation that took place yesterday—and the text gives us every opportunity to accept this premise as agreeable—then this fictional point of departure assumes a structurally dominant position in the lengthy verbal pattern of subordination that is the text of the Republic. But this dominance (which is, moreover, casual and circumstantial in its initial recollection of events leading up to the long conversation) is challenged by continual changes of topic, perspective, and procedure. [8] Moreover, when we begin to read the Republic, we are faced with a narrative, rightly renowned for its philosophical content, in which neither expository content nor literary exposition (i.e. the subject matter; what the text is about) is particularly evident. The ensuing search for a dominant and stable subject matter would presumably proceed regardless of whether the text was considered a dogmatic treatise or a literary narrative. Just as each subsequent part of the Republic is subordinated to a larger context of ongoing conversation, so each change in course is perceived as a digression, a deviation from an established norm of structure and meaning. The sequence of digressions is so elaborate, prominent, and pervasive in the Republic as to bring the topic of digression into the foreground of the reading experience.

Although most readers fully recognize the episodic, incidental quality of the Republic’s beginning, it is worth noting the pronounced way in which Plato immediately opens up room for questions of authority and relevance, regarding who is speaking and what the point of this document might be. One of the challenges of the Republic from the start is to figure out what the text is about. What is its subject matter? Where is this book going as we begin to read it? These questions try to get at something essential regarding the book as a whole, as an integral text.

Second, the conversation is outlandishly long and exceptionally wide in scope. Justice, education, mimesis, truth, and philosophy are a few of the great abstractions that this conversation is about. Although it is easy to single out one topic and give it precedence, and even to proclaim that a conclusive understanding of that topic has been reached, the book does not make this claim. Instead, the topic of the book is a constantly moving target, while at the same time Socrates’ compulsion to interrogate his companions and their ideas gives the conversation a frequently renewed sense of orientation toward an ultimate ideal. Socrates’ interest in searching with others tends toward a single ideal of philosophical illumination (as in the Good), a goal that would ultimately include and subsume all other topics of conversation if it were ever found.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to digress is “to go aside or depart from the course or track; to diverge, deviate, swerve.” The most common sense is “to deviate from the subject in discourse or writing.” As the word from in these definitions indicates, digression is necessarily a relative concept. One needs first to have an established norm, a subject understood as a direction or orientation, from which to deviate. Digression is also conceived of as a highly metaphorical procedure. Discourse—in this instance, the written course followed by the reader—is a kind of topic-path. And digression is a turning whereby that path of words diverges from whatever topic is considered proper to it. It is no accident that the Republic is saturated with metaphors that evoke this conceptual network, linking physical travel with paths of inquiry, conversation, and discourse—and with the metaphysical journey of souls after death.

While the hodos operates as a plurisignificant figure that is demonstrably prevalent in the text of the Republic, concomitant notions of distance, direction, and position naturally characterize the different kinds of path represented in the book. It would not be an exaggeration to point out that the path (of movement, words, and thought) is an extraordinary metaphor. For one thing, the language of the path informs Western conceptions of method and justice: both may be straight, correct, justified—or mistaken, deviant, crooked, off-target, and beside the point. The concept of deviation (turning) from the straight path is also crucial to how we think about metaphor and rhetoric (troping). [10] And the notion of distance is likewise fundamental to the metalanguage used by linguists, but familiar to us all, to describe temporal and modal remoteness. [11] In these respects, the path is a metaphor of metaphors and a trope of tropes, which makes it especially suitable for self-reflection. The figure is conceptually pregnant—structurally and rhetorically overdetermined—by definition, if you will. We cannot conceive of movement along a path without entering a vast network of dead metaphors that express relations of distance and direction. And although we may discuss these paths as metaphors, they were already just as literalized in ancient Greek as they are in many modern languages. Such metaphors can, when noticed or reanimated, put great pressure on the conventional separation of literal from metaphorical.

Many conceptual terms of importance to the current study, here accompanied by etymological glosses concerning motion, bear mentioning: method (pursuing by path), trope (turning), version (turning), topic (staying in place), discourse (running about, conversing), conversation (turning around), recursion (running back), digression (stepping aside), degradation (stepping down), evasion (going away), metaphor (carrying beyond), report (carrying back), investigation (tracking footprints), stance (standing), distance (standing apart), and term (marking a limit)—all such terms and concepts return to the notion of a path and its turnings.

The Beginning of the Text

So the concept of travel is inseparable from our understanding of method, and it emerges at the start of the Republic in a disorienting series of turns that make it especially difficult to tell where the book is going and when it is digressing. Beginning with “I went down,” we are confronted by an anonymous narrator, later identified as Socrates, telling us about a journey he took the day before.

κατέβην χθὲς εἰς Πειραιᾶ μετὰ Γλαύκωνος τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος προσευξόμενός τε τῇ θεῷ καὶ ἅμα τὴν ἑορτὴν βουλόμενος θεάσασθαι τίνα τρόπον ποιήσουσιν ἅτε νῦν πρῶτον ἄγοντες. καλὴ μὲν οὖν μοι καὶ ἡ τῶν ἐπιχωρίων πομπὴ ἔδοξεν εἶναι, οὐ μέντοι ἧττον ἐφαίνετο πρέπειν ἣν οἱ Θρᾷκες ἔπεμπον.

“I went down [katebēn] yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, to pray to the Goddess, and also because I wished to see [theasasthai] the manner [tropon] in which they would manage the festival, since they were now conducting [agontes] it for the first time. I thought the march [pompē] of the citizens very fine, but it was no more respectable than how the Thracian contingent marched [epempon].”


As other scholars have noted, the descent denoted by the dialogue’s first word (katebēn ‘I went down’) inaugurates a rich thematic network of descents (and ascents) that run through the entire work, and this first mention of a journey is certainly crucial to the present study. [
12] To mention some of the most striking parallels, Socrates’ physical catabasis to the port of Athens is echoed in the scenario of the cave and in the tale of Er, which are central and concluding parts of the book respectively. [13] Insofar as Socrates starts by heading homeward, his Odyssean journey returns to a new beginning at the end of the text, and the book’s central pattern of progress as a turning to philosophy (518c–d) is modalized by a circular pattern that becomes recursive in the final pattern of cyclical reincarnation with which the book concludes. [14]

The importance of the path as a concept is reinforced by several other words in this opening passage. Socrates says that he went to the festival for two reasons, prayer and spectacle. His report emphasizes the latter, focusing on the topic of tropos ‘turn, manner, way’ in his concern for the “manner” of presentation at the festival. He went to see how people would lead (agō ‘to lead, conduct’) or conduct (pempō ‘to send, conduct, escort’) their processions. On a small scale, Socrates leads us into the narrative by describing a physical journey whose purpose is to watch (theaomai ‘to behold, view’) how some very small physical journeys proceed. And again, on a very small scale, this pattern (a journey to see the progress of a journey) anticipates the parallel journey of conversation, a journey of words that will frequently look back, self-reflexively and self-critically, on its own process. The book will end with another sort of prayer. In the course of the narrative, the initial spectacle will come to seem trivial, but precisely because it is positioned in the foreground, from which it will recede, when seen in retrospect it becomes a mock spectacle, a foil for the more important conversational effort to seek, see, and proceed methodically. [15] Socrates reports nothing else about this first (daytime) festival, so that in terms of the narrative, this first spectacle is merely a pretext for a chance meeting with Polemarchus. It will become easy to imagine that the long conversation takes the place of the soon-to-be-forgotten spectacle of a relay race and other nightlong sights (mentioned at 328a), just as the more cerebral journey of conversation will take precedence over physical action. [16] In yet another displacement, however, the conversation at Polemarchus’ house, seen retrospectively, substitutes for a different conversation promised by Polemarchus: “After dinner we will get up and go out … meet a lot of lads … and talk [dialexometha]” (ἐξαναστησόμεθα γὰρ μετὰ τὸ δεῖπνον καὶ τὴν παννυχίδα θεασόμεθα. καὶ συνεσόμεθά τε πολλοῖς τῶν νέων αὐτόθι καὶ διαλεξόμεθα, 328a).

Similar redundancy occurs in the description of the servant’s actions. After the narrator describes how Polemarchus orders a servant to command Socrates to wait, the narrator then quotes the servant, who says, “Polemarchus commands you to wait” (κελεύει ὑμᾶς, ἔφη, Πολέμαρχος περιμεῖναι, 327b). In this brief description, the verb keleuō ‘to command’ thus occurs three times: first reported in the narrative (Polemarchus commanded), then quoted indirectly (Polemarchus commanded the servant to command), and then in a direct quotation of the command given by the servant. The exchange, as narrated, has the dynamic of a verbal relay race in which the participants are running into each other. When addressed by the servant from behind, Socrates turns around, and after acceding to Polemarchus and his crowd, Socrates goes “homeward” (oikade, 328b) once again, but this time he is headed to the house of Polemarchus and Cephalus in the Piraeus. Thus Socrates is reoriented, with the deictic word oikade indicating that he is in some sense going toward the same destination as before.

In summing up my analysis of this opening scene, I wish to discuss what these turnings have to do with rhetorical modalization. At this stage of the book, the journey being recounted is physical—it has not yet become a journey of words, let alone a metaphysical journey of contemplative vision (theoria) of the sort addressed in Andrea Nightingale’s book Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy (2004). Yet even Socrates’ journey homeward of yesterday is, by virtue of being recounted, pointedly mediated by Socrates’ verbal narration. In this way, the journey’s thematic significance (along with its distance and orientation) is reinforced by the verbal form of the narrative discourse: rhetorical digression in the narrative echoes the geographical detour that the narrative describes. More specifically, nested instances of reported speech have a recursive effect which corresponds verbally to the physical detour that takes Socrates from one direction to another. And the fictionality of the narrative introduces an uneasy tension between an imaginary conversation and the theoretical hypotheses it contains.

Narrativity and Fictionality

From the first word of the text, we know that someone is speaking in the first person. The tense of “I went down” (katebēn) separates the speaker in time from the event being described, while the following word (“yesterday”) limits the temporal distance. After getting a taste of who and when, we learn where, what, and why (Piraeus, festival, to pray and watch)—all in the first sentence. This wealth of information, however, strikes a contrast with the delayed appearance of the narrator’s name. Of course, we all know that Socrates is speaking, just as we all know that Odysseus is the “man” at the start of the Odyssey. Among other things, the delay in each instance draws attention to the identity of a well-known figure. Here, Socrates is obviously unidentified. Whether or not we already know (from experience or hearsay) that Socrates is speaking at the beginning of the Republic, the delay emphasizes the fact that it could be anyone, the first guess naturally falling on the author. In this way, the Republic immediately raises the question, “who is speaking?” And the answer ultimately functions as a pronounced and emphatic signal of fictionality: not the author. Herodotus and Thucydides, fittingly, start their histories with their own names.

The narrator immediately shares personal motivations and thoughts: he went to the new festival in order to pray, and to watch out of curiosity. His positive opinion of the Thracian performance is entirely subjective—in contrast with the epic poets, for instance, who never directly offer an opinion of their own like this one, that can be directly attributed to the speaker. Surely it would be bizarre to attribute this opinion to the author, Plato. Readers scarcely notice this opinion as one held by Socrates; even though it is the very first position our narrator takes, it quickly comes to seem incidental, contributing to the general impression of casualness.

At the end of Book 1, when Socrates seems to have reached a desired conclusion, with even Thrasymachus conceding that justice is better than injustice, Socrates confesses that he has gone astray: instead of first figuring out what justice is, the question whether justice is more profitable than injustice distracted him: “I couldn’t resist going [elthein] to this from that. So now the current outcome of our conversation [dialogou] is that I don’t know anything” (οὐκ ἀπεσχόμην τὸ μὴ οὐκ ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἐλθεῖν ἀπ’ ἐκείνου, ὥστε μοι νυνὶ γέγονεν ἐκ τοῦ διαλόγου μηδὲν εἰδέναι, 354b–c). The conversation has been inconclusive and (in a retrospective comment that mirrors Socrates’ narration) has gone in a mistaken direction, resulting in one of Socrates’ famous declarations of ignorance. Despite Socrates’ own hesitation and reluctance, however, the conversation itself keeps going. The movement forward here is a function of digression.

Toward an Ending of the Text

The ending of the Republic, featuring the embedded narrative commonly known as the Myth of Er, is itself lengthy and complex, building into an inspiring and dazzling jumble of bewildering, detailed ups and downs. A conclusion in which Socrates urges his listeners to journey forward into an afterlife that will never end, the ending of the Republic points beyond itself, in a gesture that exemplifies the book’s strong tendency to render itself inconclusive. Stephen Halliwell makes a similar point: the book’s final “vindication of justice looks clear enough at first sight,” but it can also be seen to draw a “hermeneutic parallel” between our reading and the soul’s survival, encouraging an endless cycle of interpretation that “Plato’s text itself does not supply the means to bring to a definitive conclusion.” [28] Without expecting the ending of the book to contain some sort of ultimate meaning, we may look there in order to see where the book was, is, and will always have been going. The ending of a book is, de facto, a destiny waiting for the reader, and it turns out that the ending of the Republic contains a glimpse of ultimate and enduring knowledge—knowledge reaching beyond death—after all. For mortals, all of whom must reckon with a destiny of death, the story of Er entertains the possibility of further turns on an endless roller coaster of a journey. With grand hopes accompanied by humor and whimsy, Socrates’ fantastic description of death, destiny, and the afterlife provides the book with an ending about endings. And so, with this characteristically self-reflective gesture, the ending evinces the work’s searching tenor and its marked tendency to frustrate readers’ desire for closure. (For this very reason, those who wish to underplay the text’s open-endedness will protest that the ending is precisely not characteristic of the rest of the work, that it is merely a digressive epilogue to the text rather than the ending of it.) [29]

The tale of Er, as recounted by Socrates (614a–621c), exhibits the major rhetorical types of distancing mentioned above. Expansive tropes—digression, reported speech, and hypothetical fiction—are closely intertwined in the way the tale, along with Socrates’ concluding remarks, functions in the context of a conclusion. Just when the character Socrates might be expected (given his goal-oriented model of investigation) finally to offer a summation of his already scattered and highly qualified pronouncements concerning justice and the like, the text wrenches us out of our complacent familiarity with one fictional narrative (Socrates’ tale about yesterday’s conversation) and into yet another (Er’s tale about the afterlife). For those scholars, including Julia Annas, who reconstruct the Republic into “a sustained defense of the thesis that justice is desirable in itself,” this is a gross digression: “the myth is a lapse from the level of the main argument” (1981:349–350).

The narrative of Er is part of a recursive series that moves yet further from the plausible realism of a conversation between fictional-historical characters and into a fabulous world of increasingly anonymous hearsay. Socrates self-consciously stresses that his tale is not going to be “a tale of Alcinous” (Ἀλκίνου γε ἀπόλογον, 614b), referring to the proverbially lengthy embedded narrative by Odysseus at the court of the Phaeacians (Odyssey 9–12). But he is, in fact, about to present a rather lengthy, embedded narrative. For readers of the Republic, this reference by Socrates the character to a notably lengthy narrative reflects on the distance covered by the conversation being recounted by Socrates the narrator, while the famously embedded tale of Odysseus’ fantastic wanderings may recall to us that the tale of Er is not just about Er, but also told by him.

After describing the rewards that accrue to the just man during life, Socrates prepares for the tale of Er (whose name is reminiscent of the Greek words for Eros and hero) with the following introductory remarks:

ταῦτα τοίνυν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, οὐδέν ἐστι πλήθει οὐδὲ μεγέθει πρὸς ἐκεῖνα ἃ τελευτήσαντα ἑκάτερον περιμένει: χρὴ δ’ αὐτὰ ἀκοῦσαι, ἵνα τελέως ἑκάτερος αὐτῶν ἀπειλήφῃ τὰ ὑπὸ τοῦ λόγου ὀφειλόμενα ἀκοῦσαι.

“In number and size,” I said, “these are nothing in comparison with what awaits each one when he comes to an end [teleutēsanta]. One must [khrē] hear [akousai] these things, in order that each of those people may completely [teleōs] receive what is owed him by the discussion [logos] to hear [akousai].”


These two sentences display a small-scale convergence of larger concerns that now await the reader: the text’s completion, Socrates’ effort to complete the conversation, and the soul’s completion of a life. Although the verb teleutaō ‘to come to an end’ and the adverb teleōs ‘completely’ are both etymologically related to the noun telos ‘end’, the words as they occur here have no direct connection with each other. One can nevertheless observe a literary kind of interaction at work between them, which puts the discussion of death in a self-reflective perspective. Used intransitively, as here, the verb teleutaō connotes death; strictly speaking, what the just people come to the end of—life—is left unexpressed. The euphemism conveys less finality than would a verb such as thnēskō ‘to die’, for instance. And just so does this version of life’s end leave the way open for the afterlife. If we were expecting a teleological view of death as the ultimate fulfillment of life, Socrates’ eschatology will deny that death is a stopping point, thereby upending traditional notions of teleology.

Socrates’ main point is simply that the verbal account of the just man remains incomplete. Continuing a strand of metaphorical wordplay in which verbal accounts are part of a financial system of exchange (as at 612c; cf. 506e), the just are said to be “owed” an explanation that will tie up loose ends originally left by Socrates and Glaucon, a long way back, when external honors and rewards were excluded from the discussion in order to focus on justice in itself (358b). The financial metaphor is expanded and strengthened through another conflation of conversational conduct and subject matter: a parallel exists between two different kinds of rewards owed to just people after death; among the conversationalists, whose number now (figuratively) includes each of the just, getting the verbal explanation is (figuratively) a reward. Insofar as a verbal account is “owed” to each just man “by the conversation,” the conversation, too, is personified, and readers are presented with the prospect of a logos (translated in the extract above as “discussion”) that speaks back to its own inventors.

Finally, the adverb teleōs ‘completely’ again functions here on several interrelated levels of description at once. In this context, the adverb of completeness and fulfillment may be understood in terms of the argument under discussion, to which Socrates wishes to do justice. Metaphorically, it describes the payment of a conversational debt; but this financial sense is hardly a stretch, given that a major meaning of the verb teleō is ‘to pay what one owes’ (LSJ). Similarly, in both the semantic paradigm of its etymology and the syntax of the text, the adverb’s proximity to the verb teleutaō suggests that an end, a telos, is near. Metatextually, this recognizes the ending of this long book as well, and all of these currents that meet in the adverb call attention to the texture itself. By drawing attention to its telling, the embedded tale of Er does not in any straightforward way simply advance a Platonic defense of justice. By prolonging the rewards of justice into the afterlife, the text proceeds, in both form and content, to trace a series of turns (rhetorical tropes that describe, for instance, the convolutions of Er’s journey). It also stretches out the sense of an ending, suspending the book’s telos indefinitely.

Er’s Detour

The narrative structure of Socrates’ tale of Er involves several major articulations. Socrates narrates how (on the previous day, in conversation) he reported the tale that was once told by a man named Er. Socrates calls Er a “messenger” (angelon, 619b), because this is what the judges in the afterlife call him: “They [the judges] said that he [Er] had to become a messenger to human beings of the things there, and they told him to listen and to look at everything in the place” (ἑαυτοῦ δὲ προσελθόντος εἰπεῖν ὅτι δέοι αὐτὸν ἄγγελον ἀνθρώποις γενέσθαι τῶν ἐκεῖ καὶ διακελεύοιντό οἱ ἀκούειν τε καὶ θεᾶσθαι πάντα τὰ ἐν τῷ τόπῳ, 614d). Thus Socrates reports that Er reports on judges’ telling him to report back to mortals. And so when Er does report on his near-death experience, his tale in turn includes other speakers from whom he has heard about death and the beyond. Er hears and sees many things; among the speakers whose words are reported by Socrates, we have the following: the aforementioned judges who tell Er that he must become a messenger (614d); an unnamed individual who is overheard responding to another’s question (Socrates is telling us that Socrates said, “now Er said that the man who was asked responded … ,” ἔφη οὖν τὸν ἐρωτώμενον εἰπεῖν, 615c–d); and there is a spokesman (prophētēs) who reports the logos of Lachesis (617d). The proliferation of voices is pronounced.

Because the judges do not let Er take a thousand-year journey, his report is based on overheard conversations: “The souls that were ever arriving looked as though they had come from a long journey.… And they conversed with one another” (καὶ τὰς ἀεὶ ἀφικνουμένας ὥσπερ ἐκ πολλῆς πορείας φαίνεσθαι ἥκειν … διηγεῖσθαι δὲ ἀλλήλαις, 614e). Er’s report is only possible at all because he takes a shortcut, making a detour from the usual long journey of death. The remoteness conveyed by the elaborate array of hearsay that constitutes his short tour, a journey through speakers who are speaking for other speakers (just as a prophētēs is one who speaks [phēmi] for [pro-] another), correlates to the remoteness of death itself, an ultimate and elusive object of knowledge, certain to be reached by all living souls yet known by none of them. For indeed, even Er himself does not go through the journey that dead souls take—he too can report only hearsay when it comes to the final journey. The cascade of reportage has the rhetorical effect of receding from the destination of ultimate truth like an echo from an unknown source. On the one hand, Er’s evasion of the long journey is what allows his tale to be saved; on the other, the long trail of discourse recounted by Socrates is a substitute, a shortcut that is at a series of significant removes from the original destination.

A New Beginning

Plato’s text concludes with a long, complex sentence in which Socrates draws inspiration from the tale he has just retold.

καὶ οὕτως, ὦ Γλαύκων, μῦθος ἐσώθη καὶ οὐκ ἀπώλετο, καὶ ἡμᾶς ἂν σώσειεν, ἂν πειθώμεθα αὐτῷ, καὶ τὸν τῆς Λήθης ποταμὸν εὖ διαβησόμεθα καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν οὐ μιανθησόμεθα. ἀλλ’ ἂν ἐμοὶ πειθώμεθα, νομίζοντες ἀθάνατον ψυχὴν καὶ δυνατὴν πάντα μὲν κακὰ ἀνέχεσθαι, πάντα δὲ ἀγαθά, τῆς ἄνω ὁδοῦ ἀεὶ ἑξόμεθα καὶ δικαιοσύνην μετὰ φρονήσεως παντὶ τρόπῳ ἐπιτηδεύσομεν, ἵνα καὶ ἡμῖν αὐτοῖς φίλοι ὦμεν καὶ τοῖς θεοῖς, αὐτοῦ τε μένοντες ἐνθάδε, καὶ ἐπειδὰν τὰ ἆθλα αὐτῆς κομιζώμεθα, ὥσπερ οἱ νικηφόροι περιαγειρόμενοι, καὶ ἐνθάδε καὶ ἐν τῇ χιλιέτει πορείᾳ, ἣν διεληλύθαμεν, εὖ πράττωμεν.

“And thus, Glaucon, a tale was saved and not lost; and it might save us, if we be persuaded by it, and we will make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul; but if we be persuaded by me, believing that soul is immortal and capable of bearing all evils and all goods, we will always hold [hexometha] to the upward path [anō hodou] and practice justice with prudence in every way [tropōi] so that we will be dear to ourselves and the gods, both while we remain here and when we reap the rewards for it like the victors who go about gathering in the prizes; and so here and in the thousand-year journey [poreiai] that we have gone through [dielēluthamen] we will fare [prattōmen] well … ”


Socrates’ call is not so much a conclusion to the Republic as a transition from the tale of death to a new way of life. The text began midway through Socrates’ homeward journey and it ends at yet another starting point. The main point of my analysis is that, while this sentence conveys a satisfying sense of closure by virtue of being a rousing (and rhetorically persuasive) exhortation, it also leads hopefully forward into an uncertain future. Although to my knowledge none has done so, it would not be inappropriate for a modern editor of the Greek text to end this breathless sentence with an ellipsis (and I have modified Bloom’s translation with a final ellipsis to reflect this view). The sentence is neither a static confirmation of concluded arguments nor a narrative description of the conversation’s end—the speaker here is Socrates the character, not Socrates the narrator. The speech’s verve comes from a conditional, future-oriented, and dynamic emphasis on ongoing travel. Socrates is speculating about a journey of speculation, and rather than holding on to a fixed opinion, he hopes “we will always hold to the upward road,” in an ongoing journey grounded in possibilities.

After a statement confirming that the tale, like Er himself, has survived death, the rest of the sentence concerns the afterlife of the tale. Grammatically, the remainder of Socrates’ visionary prediction depends on two conditional clauses: “if we be persuaded by it” and “but if we be persuaded by me.” These are difficult conditions to fulfill, since the tale of Er is a tall one, and it will surely be difficult to keep one’s soul on an upward path. The appeal to different persuasive authorities, shifting from the tale to Socrates, pointedly distinguishes between “we” and “me” and thus maintains a distance between Socrates’ present optimism and future deeds. Although Socrates here seems unusually and personally committed to something he is saying, the attitude expressed by his words is nevertheless far from certainty. He is making a noble prediction, relying heavily on the power of uplifting imagery and visionary sentiment as well as the appeal of future returns.


[ back ] 1. In this study, the term embedded does not have the sense reserved for describing narrative levels (e.g. Genette 1980:46). Borrowing linguistic terms related to recursion, I am simply referring to the occurrence of one structural element inside another. Also, the superordinate structure may be said to contain and dominate the subordinate structure, without necessarily being resumed later like a kind of framing device. In my reading, Socrates’ narrative in the Republic contains the previous day’s conversation and persists through it without ever leaving off or resuming, while the conversation in turn contains other structures, and so on. For relevant terms used in linguistics, see Trask 2007, s.vv. “recursion,” “embedding,” “nesting,” and “descendant.”

[ back ] 2. For different views of Plato’s open-endedness, see Rowe 2007:20–25; Blondell 2002:4–14; Rutherford 1995:25–29; Reeve 1988:xii; Tigerstedt 1977:92–107, with Stefanini 1949:xxvii–lviii.

[ back ] 3. Howland 2004:48. Among other traits that he associates with different ancient literary genres that inform the Republic, Howland notes “antidogmatic openness” and “critical self-awareness.” These characteristics are particularly germane to my view of the journey as a rhetorical matrix of self-criticism.

[ back ] 4. See also Schur 1998.

[ back ] 5. See Becker 1937 and Snell 1955, ch. 13.

[ back ] 6. The conversation’s length and difficulty are acknowledged at, e.g., 348b, 354b–357a, 369b, 376d, 435d, 450a, 484a, 504c–d, 506d, 615a.

[ back ] 7. “The beginning of a work of art must also in a sense be its definition, since it acts like a frame to set that work apart from others and to enclose it as a single thing in itself” (Ford 1992:18). Endings can have a similarly global impact: “The sense of a beginning … must in some important way be determined by the sense of an ending” (P. Brooks 1984:94). See also Said 1975 and Kermode 1967.

[ back ] 8. On dominance and subordination of discourse types, see Jakobson 1987:41–49 (“The Dominant”), 69; Cohn 1999:12–13; Blondell 2002:37–38.

[ back ] 9. Rimmon-Kenan 1983:3; see also Genette 1980:25–32 and Prince 2003a s.v. “story.” For a brief historical overview of narrative theory, see Prince 2003b.

[ back ] 10. Examples are also discussed in the Republic. For instance, Adeimantus quotes Hesiod to the effect that virtue “is a long road, rough and steep” (ὁδὸν μακράν τε καὶ τραχεῖαν, 364c–d).

[ back ] 11. Fleischman 1989, Comrie 1985. See also discussions of tense and modality in CGEL 2002:173–174 and Palmer 1986:208–218.

[ back ] 12. See e.g. McPherran 2010:1, Jacobs 2008:45, Smith 2007:3, Clay 1992:125–129, Brann 2004:116–121.

[ back ] 13. See Schur 1998, ch. 2; Howland 2004:43–46; Brann 2004, ch. 6.

[ back ] 14. On the pedimental or ring structure of composition found in many of the dialogues, see Thesleff 2012 and Barney 2010, who discerns “a general pattern of explanatory regress” in the ring composition of the Republic (43).

[ back ] 15. Nightingale 2004 makes clear the strong connection between the festival’s spectacle and the Greek tradition of theoretical-metaphysical-philosophical speculation, whose semantic range is captured in the word theoria and related terms of vision associated with travel (esp. 74–83). See also Nagy 1990:164–165.

[ back ] 16. Cf. Nightingale 2004:75.

[ back ] 17. For Nightingale, “the notion of the distant viewer or viewpoint” is a major topic in Plato’s work generally, and is explicitly addressed by the Stranger in the Sophist when he compares viewers who, looking from a distance (porrōthen, 234b), are deceived by visual images, to those who remain distant from the truth (234c) when listening to verbal imagery (2002:228). Cf. Republic 368d, discussed below.

[ back ] 18. See Howland 2004 on the Odyssean implications of Socrates’ journey.

[ back ] 19. See Blondell 2002:17.

[ back ] 20. κατιδὼν οὖν πόρρωθεν ἡμᾶς οἴκαδε ὡρμημένους Πολέμαρχος ὁ Κεφάλου ἐκέλευσε δραμόντα τὸν παῖδα περιμεῖναί ἑ κελεῦσαι. καί μου ὄπισθεν ὁ παῖς λαβόμενος τοῦ ἱματίου, κελεύει ὑμᾶς, ἔφη, Πολέμαρχος περιμεῖναι. καὶ ἐγὼ μετεστράφην τε καὶ ἠρόμην ὅπου αὐτὸς εἴη. οὗτος, ἔφη, ὄπισθεν προσέρχεται. (327b)

[ back ] 21. “Plato both dramatizes and thematizes the distance between earthly and cosmic vision” in the eschatological conclusion of his Gorgias (Nightingale 2002:238).

[ back ] 22. See Reeve’s criticism of the interpretive myth underlying this approach (1988:xi). Clay 1992:115 rightly identifies the Phaedo, Symposium, Theaetetus, and Parmenides—and not the Republic—as “frame dialogues.” See also Johnson 1998.

[ back ] 23. Speech tags (“he said,” “I said”) persist in the text of Socrates’ narration as late as 614b, when they revert to tags within the tale told by Er.

[ back ] 24. So Larmarque and Olsen: “The fictive mode points away from belief” (1994:331).

[ back ] 25. Cohn 1999:15. See also Schaeffer 2009 on fictional narrative.

[ back ] 26. See Genette 1993:54–84 and Cohn 1999:30–37 on this criterion: “As long as the speaker is named, on or within the text, and named differently from the author, the reader knows that one is not meant to take the discourse as a (referential) reality statement” (Cohn 1999:32). See also Gill 1993 and 1979 on fictionality in Plato.

[ back ] 27. Morgan’s contractual explanation of fiction brings to mind Philippe Lejeune’s autobiographical pact (1989, ch. 1), which emphasizes the reader’s reliance on paratextual or peritextual evidence in making the distinction between autobiography (which can contain lies) and fictional memoir. See also Mheallaigh 2008.

[ back ] 28. Halliwell 2007:445–446. See also Halliwell 2011b, ch. 4, esp. 179–183; and 2011a.

[ back ] 29. Grube and Reeve’s comment at the beginning of Book 10: “The main argument of the Republic is now complete” (my emphasis).

[ back ] 30. I borrow from a similar use of the term procedural discourse in Rose 1992.

[ back ] 31. See Ferrari 2010 on Socrates as narrator.

[ back ] 32. Adam (1902, ad loc.) defends the repetition of akousai as “welcome, if not necessary.”

[ back ] 33. Where Bloom’s translation has “bowls,” the word kados ‘jar, urn, box’ gives us whorls like “boxes that fit into one another” (616d) in Shorey 1937, an image that happens to accord nicely with popular modern models of recursion such as Russian nesting dolls and Chinese boxes.

[ back ] 34. See Halliwell 1988, at 621c5, with note to 619e2–5.

[ back ] 35. See Schur 1998:73–82.

[ back ] 36. Jowett and Campbell see “a playful suggestion of our having made the pilgrimage ourselves” (1894, ad loc.). Adam, however, does not concur with them (1902, ad loc.). From a literary perspective, the suggestion can hardly be ignored.

[ back ] 37. In Homer prattō occurs (as prēssō) with the meaning ‘to traverse, to accomplish (a journey)’ (LSJ). Etymologically, English fare and Greek poros ‘way, passage’ derive ultimately from the same root, meaning ‘to pass through’ (see OED; and Chantraine 2009, s.v. peirō). Cf. aporia and wayfarer.