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.


Dedicated to the memory of Dorrit Cohn

“You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

The work presented here grew out of a long-standing interest in the relationship between literary metaphor and hermeneutic method (see Schur 1998). Around the turn of the millennium, I was fortunate enough to have a good many discussions about the Republic with the narrative theorist Dorrit Cohn, who was learning ancient Greek and had become intrigued by Socrates’ peculiar authority as the dominant speaker in most of Plato’s dialogues. (Her work on Plato resulted in two articles, Cohn 2000 and 2001.) I then spent a year at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC, where I tried to puzzle through the baffling phenomenon of indirect communication (a term favored by Kierkegaard) in Plato. Exploring the scholarship on Plato’s use of literary form, I had the impression that something from the literary dimension was getting left out of the conversation, something that was difficult to articulate. At the same time, I became increasingly convinced that the Republic is a (very unusual) work of narrative fiction, even though narratologists like Cohn and Genette had been reluctant to countenance this quirk of literary form because of the book’s place in the canon of theoretical philosophy. It took roughly another ten years before I reached the understanding of these problems presented here.

The topic of literary form in Plato has attracted great interest from scholars during my lifetime, and this study seeks to further their efforts. The first half of the book is devoted to reconsidering the modern problem of literary form in Plato and to developing a coherent and, for the most part, broadly applicable response. The second half focuses on Plato’s Republic, offering analyses of structure and wording. My reading of the dialogue is meant to demonstrate the potential benefits of an approach that gives priority to Plato’s text by viewing the book as a depiction of a conversation. In general, this means separating the conversation and its goals from the book and its rhetorical portrayal of the conversation. I argue that the answers deemed most important in that conversation (most obviously, the Idea of the Good) are portrayed in the book as desired but absent, displaced by ongoing questioning. While my discussion of the Republic is by no means a comprehensive interpretation, it does offer a perspective on the dialogue as a whole. And although the two parts of the book shed light on each other, they are not strictly interdependent; one could read them as separate essays.

The main thrust of my argument in the first two chapters is that Plato’s verbal compositions, when treated as literary, necessarily have significant and interesting functions apart from argumentative persuasion. Many scholars today share the conviction that literary features of Plato’s writing style, features that used to be disregarded as mere decoration, are of integral significance. This is a modern view, fueled in the last century by the belief that style is inherently significant and also by the Freudian insight that wording is never innocent. The pursuit of a pure content, cloaked in transparent or decorative trappings, now seems naïve. In an attempt to justify Plato’s style in the historically determined context of modern philosophy, however, many interpreters have turned to classical rhetoric as an answer, arguing that Plato’s literary vagaries are rhetorical tactics, covertly serving his resolutely single-minded agenda. I question this answer, raising the objection that an instrumental conception of rhetoric, in which literary style remains subservient to content, ultimately perpetuates a view of style that ignores the waywardness of literariness itself.

In chapter 3, I suggest a possible way to move forward, using modern concepts of linguistics and literary rhetoric to develop an alternative model for understanding the function of literary features in Plato. Here I draw a positive conception of literariness from the previous two chapters’ negative findings: literariness can be understood to encompass precisely those functions that complicate the communication of a univocal message. Whereas traditional rhetoric, by definition, studies the promotion of univocal authorial messages, modern (twentieth-century) literary-rhetorical analysis allows for multiple formal-thematic patterns in a single text. Accordingly, the literary features of Plato’s dialogues—when treated as literary—cannot be limited to a single argumentative agenda. To demonstrate this point, I consider how the Republic, in a conspicuous rhetorical pattern of self-reflection, portrays a heuristic conversation while simultaneously emphasizing difficulties that prevent the conversation from reaching its goals. In short, the Republic qualifies the authority of its conclusions by displaying a strong countercurrent of ongoing movement.

Chapter 4 observes this current of ongoing movement in the distance traveled, by methodical paths, from the beginning to the end of the Republic. Socrates’ narrative, the conversation he recounts, the investigation pursued by the conversation, and the methods that are a recurrent topic of investigation in the conversation—all are conceptualized as paths. And while the conversation strives toward fixed goals, its progress is qualified by the distance and the digressions traced by these paths. In chapters 5 and 6, two sequences of argumentation are examined: the conversation’s inquiry into justice through the planning of an ideal regime, and Socrates’ explanation of the Good by way of the Sun, Line, and Cave. Both sequences are shown to rely on likenesses that increase the distance between the seekers and their goals.

I thank the fellows and staff who made the Center for Hellenic Studies a terrific place to be in 2001–2002, the CHS publications team for their help in bringing this study to light, and colleagues who were kind enough to give some of these ideas a thoughtful hearing at annual meetings of the APA and CAMWS. I am especially grateful to my colleagues at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York, where a Whiting Fellowship gave me extra time to work on this book. Various forms of assistance at different stages came from Hans Beck, Casey Dué, Mary Ebbott, David Greetham, Sean Kelsey, Lenny Muellner, Gregory Nagy, Nickolas Pappas, James Pletcher, Gerald Press, Jill Curry Robbins, Jennifer Roberts, Peter Rose, John Van Sickle, David Weeks, and Liv Yarrow. I am ever thankful to the following for their general support: Kevin McLaughlin, Sandra Naddaff, Marc Shell, Marina Van Zuylen, and Lori Yamato. I dedicate this book to the memory of Dorrit Cohn.



[ back ] 1. On risk and responsibility in the peculiarly challenging enterprise of interpreting Plato’s books, see Tigerstedt 1977:107–108.

[ back ] 2. The sort of passion that interpreters observe in Socrates and Plato (e.g. Rowe 2006:9) is no more indicative of consistent argumentation and no more intense than is, say, James Joyce’s lifelong interest in Dublin, Catholicism, and aesthetics. The problem may be observed in Kahn 1996; although he does not wish to treat “Plato’s literary creations as if these were historical documents” (3), he does nonetheless want to treat them as philosophical documents, and “we cannot ascribe to Plato eighteen different philosophies” (37).

[ back ] 3. “As so often in the Republic,” comments Eva Brann on a particular point in the dialogue, “the conversation makes its own mode the object of reflection …” (2004:160).