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Plato offers lessons in literacy, artistry, politics

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Jeff Tyson

With one small change in interpretive approach, Jill Frank breaks with tradition in her new book, “Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s ‘Republic.’” Taking seriously that Plato appears in none of his texts and insisting that nothing that anyone in any of the dialogues says – including Socrates – should be attributed to Plato, Frank aims to shift how Plato is read.

Focusing on Plato’s “Republic,” one of the most important texts in the history of political thought, “Poetic Justice” takes as its points of departure long-standing insights about the complexity, difficulty and artistry of Plato’s writing. Frank rereads the “Republic” from back to front, beginning with the dialogue’s own account of artistry in its treatment of mimetic poetry – the poetry of Homer and the antique tragedians – and contextualizes that discussion within what some classicists refer to as a “cultural revolution” taking place in Athens in 430-380 B.C.

Plato emerged as a writer toward the end of this period, and Frank, professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences, argues that he was participating in the changing arts scene in Athens by developing techniques of mimesis to experiment with the potentials for philosophy within ethics and politics. In her view, Plato’s artistic writing shifts the burdens of judgment about the dialogues’ representations to their readers, thereby redistributing authority.

In Frank’s interpretation, although Socrates refers to an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy and ousts the mimetic poets from the ideal city he helps found, it doesn’t follow that Plato sides with philosophy against poetry, or that the “Republic” advocates for the ouster of poets from politics. Instead, to Frank, that ouster is better read as an indictment of the ideal city, with its restrictive and coercive political institutions and citizenship practices. In her view, the “Republic” as a whole is not a screed against artistic innovation, as it is often read, but a brief for the imperative of artistic and humanistic thinking to practices of citizenship oriented to freedom.

Plato wrote in the fourth century B.C. He set his dialogues in the fifth century, against the backdrop of the long and tumultuous Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and the empire democratic Athens sought to sustain over the course of that war. To Frank, when Plato’s dialogues harshly criticize democratic actors and their constitution, they are responding to the imperial form of Athenian democracy and its quest, in the late fifth century, to possess by conquest other cities, peoples and their possessions. For some scholars, Plato seeks to displace Athenian democratic authorities and replace them with the authority of philosophy. Frank argues instead that the “Republic” challenges imperializing claims to authority of all kinds, including those of philosophy.

Frank’s interpretation draws on another cultural context, namely that when Plato wrote literacy was expanding. She sees two different approaches to literacy in Plato’s dialogues: a top-down method whereby teachers lead students to true beliefs about letters; and a more learner-centric approach that encourages trial and error and the formation of beliefs based on students’ own fallible experiences. In both approaches, learning to read is analogized to coming to know or understand something, to becoming philosophical, and also, Frank says, to becoming ethical and political. Assuming and reinforcing an inequality based on expertise, the first approach supports the account of philosophy as authoritative knowledge often associated with the “Republic.” In that dialogue, however, Socrates recommends the second approach.

Foregrounding this bottom-up approach to literacy and implementing it in relation to Plato’s artistic writing, Frank overturns the view that the “Republic” endorses a hierarchical ascent to knowledge and an authoritarian politics underwritten by that knowledge. On Frank’s rereading, the dialogue offers instead an education in ethical and political self-governance.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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