Rereading the Republic, and I wonder if this process could go any slower. I have to ask myself why I’m doing this – because I want an article, dammit – but no amount of ambition can relieve confusion. A discussion of factionalization, what is lacking/what is partial, is easy enough. But what makes the Republic indispensable is that it doesn’t give me stories like Xenophon or Thucydides about democrats and oligarchs killing each other to take power. Instead, it gives a “city in speech” that has a unity which in its very character is elusive. Something about piety and justice creates that unity, and what makes my head hurt is thinking about how to relate the more specific considerations of the Republic to a general picture of politics as actually practiced (i.e. people actually voting, fighting with each other, etc.). The most interesting thing is that the two pictures of political life do not seem to add up, not at all, even though one is clearly a profound comment on the other.

I suspect if I can solve this puzzle I might have mental power sufficient to be Professor X.


  1. you can’t square the circle with straight-edge and compass

    That’s the problem with incommensurability. You’ll never square Plato with Thucydides; at least not in the manner you apparently are setting about it.

    Not even Plato rested content with his attempt to imagine an “ideal” state led by world controllers updated by Huxley in Brave New World — the Laws show how far Plato would go to save Athens by destroying it.

    You might take a look at E. R. Dodd’s works, The Greeks and the Irrational, and The Ancient Concept of Progress (and other essays).

    If you are not a prude, you might be amused by Aristophanes who distorts and punctures every Athenian foible in: Clouds (Socrates), Wasps (law courts), Lysistrata (sex strike against war). Very recent translations have at last managed to throw off Victorian hypocrisy and verbose translations — see those of Paul Roche.

    A good deal is known about Athenian democracy and its actual workings. Scholars have certainly busied themselves with it. You’re on the internet. Use it.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  2. I’m not sure I would describe the Republic as a prelude to Huxley, but quibbles aside, I do think Plato would credit his “attempt to imagine an ‘ideal’ state” as something much more. Because the Republic is a city-in-speech, politics can be examined that much more thoroughly. Plato can take liberties which Thucydides cannot; the only restraint Plato faces is the character of his interlocutors and the limits of conversation itself.

    With that said, even Thucydides isn’t doing history in the way that a modern scholar would address Athenian democracy. There is a kind of connection between Thucydides and Homer — and again between Thucydides and Plato.

    The problem isn’t even that their disregard for the “actual workings” of Athens makes squaring the one with the other difficult, so much as it is that both Plato and Thucydides are warm-hearted critics of Athens — it is that which makes them interesting.

    You are right that Aristophanes poked at the Athenians, and so the question becomes: if the Republic is so irrelevant (as implied here) and the plays of Aristophanes jeer at the Athenians, why was Socrates killed and Aristophanes not?

  3. A very profound (seriously) article I was just reading by Jaffa suggested that the City of God is what the city-in-speech looks like in practice. I found it to be compelling

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