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A PLATO JUST LIKE US.

Gerald M. Mara: Socrates' Discursive Democracy: Logos and Ergon in Platonic Political Philosophy. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. x, 324. $65.50. $21.95, paper.)

The goal of this provocative and ambitious book is to show that Plato can resolve some controversies in contemporary political theory particularly those between liberals and communitarians and, in epistemology, between foundationalists and ironists. This is a curious claim on its face, since the conventional view of Plato is that he is a partisan in this debate--a foundationalist communitarian--rather than a source of compromise. But this is exactly what Mara wants to argue: that Plato is not in fact a Platonist, but rather a judicious alternative to both supporters and opponents of the Plato we thought we knew.

The key to discerning this new and improved Plato in the same old corpus, according to Mara, is to notice the play between logos and ergon, between word and deed, in Plato's depiction of Socrates. At a broad level of generality, Mara observes that on the one hand, Plato does have Socrates say all those things that have given rise to the Platonist reputation in the first place: he describes an ideal city run by philosophers, he posits immutable and eternal forms lurking behind a stew of image and opinion, he insists that virtue is knowledge, etc. On the other hand, Mara notes that Plato also depicts his Socrates character talking incessantly and ironically, constantly expressing skepticism about his own knowledge, meeting his military obligations to a democratic Athens he criticizes so relentlessly, and so on.

This tension has of course been noted before. In order to explain the relationship between Socratic skepticism and Platonic metaphysics, some commentators posit a development in Plato's thinking from Socratic beginnings to the metaphysics of the forms and the defense of philosopherkings. Others reject or underplay the significance of the Socratic or the Platonic element, choosing to believe that Plato was, from start to finish, a Platonist (Kahn) or, for a small minority, a Socratic skeptic (Blank). Mara believes that the uniform intention of the Platonic corpus is to indicate that this tension must remain unresolved. He believes, in other words, that Plato means us to learn how to take foundational questions seriously without abandoning the skepticism and open-endedness of Socratic conversation. This model of compromise is what Mara calls "Socrates's discursive democracy."

This notion, Socrates's discursive democracy, represents Mara's attempt to split the difference between "Socrates" and "Plato." Mara argues that Socrates's discursive democracy shows that we should not expect to build a coherent political theory from abstract premises, as in Rawls and the traditional reading of the Republic. On the other hand, the proper alternative to Rawls's foundationalism is not simply to point to contemporary practices and received wisdom, as in Rorty. Rather, we should imitate Socrates by pursuing grand theories in an ironic spirit, by which Mara means in a spirit of personal moderation (as expressed by Socrates's humble virtues, his self-deprecation and verbal irony). The synthesis of Rawls and Rorty is Plato's Socrates, neither wholly foundational nor wholly ironic.

The major tasks of the book are to show that this conception is not empty--that there is something like a practical upshot of this mixture of foundational and ironic argument--and that Plato says all this. Each chapter takes up these tasks by applying Mara's version of the Socratic method to a particular issue area: ethics, epistemology, love, politics. Chapter Three, on ethics, denies that Plato ever holds the allegedly Socratic view that equates knowledge with virtue, thus apparently rescuing him from charges of elitism (as in, only the smart are good) and suggests instead that Plato recommends moderation as an independent virtue. Chapter Five, on epistemology, argues that while Plato seems to draw a stark distinction between knowledge and opinion, he ends up holding the position that opinion is not all bad. Chapter Six, on eros, argues that while Plato may sound like he is rarefying love in the Symposium, he actually recognizes that love of real live humans has its place in a well-rounded life.

The most interesting and important chapter for political theorists is Chapter Four, on Plato's politics. Some, like Strauss, have argued that the ideal city of the Republic is ironic, meant to demonstrate the limits and dangers of politics. The more conventional view is that the ideal city represents Plato's real if remote aspiration. Mara splits the difference. He argues that the tension between Socrates's words and deeds in the Republic shows that Plato does indeed have a positive political agenda there, but not the obvious one. Instead of advocating a city run by philosophers, Plato is trying to encourage reform of the Athenian democracy. How? By training leaders like Adeimantus, who, having been won over to philosophy, will then learn to respect the just, law-abiding demos and to rule them in wisdom and moderation (141-46). The wisdom of the well-trained Adeimantus would consist, I imagine, in an appreciation for the virtues of Socrates's discursive democracy.

Unfortunately, the evidence for these unorthodox claims is sparse and frequently tendentious. Mara is too willing to advert to his own view of common sense to support a claim for which he lacks direct textual evidence. For example, he rejects the sincerity of the breeding program in the Republic on the grounds of its patent callousness, but the sensitivity invoked here is Mara's, not Plato's. Plato is thinking of animal husbandry; Mara is probably thinking of Nazis. The anachronism is at any rate obvious. Mara's liberal and sometimes obscure use of indirect citation contributes to my sense that his interpretation is primarily a synthesis of arguments by commentators which are then worked back into a reading of Plato's text. Indeed, the frequent, insightful discussions of contemporary authors are typically more persuasive than the Plato exegesis.

It is hard to say something new about Plato. Although I am not persuaded that he is right, it is clear that Mara has found something new to say, and for that alone he deserves credit. However, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, let me register a final complaint about the rehabilitation of Plato on offer here. The desire to rehabilitate Plato at all, let alone as a democratic reformer, seems to me to miss the point of Plato's value for us. We are up to our necks in democratic theory, in critiques of Rawls, in contributions to the liberal-communitarian debate. So the struggle to read so hard against the grain that Plato comes out a democrat seems not only implausible but wrongheaded. It is not clear that we learn more from a Plato who is "one of us" than we do from a Plato hostile to democracy, to liberty, to equality. Mara's insistence, for example, that Plato cares deeply about the cultivation of virtue among the artisan class strikes me as indicative of a larger and more troubling presumption: that we need our geniuses to be like us. I tend to think the opposite.

GARY SHIFFMAN is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the University of California, San Diego.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shiffman, Gary
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:1183
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