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The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy

by John R. Wallach

Buy the book: John R. Wallach. The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy

Release Date: February, 2001

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: John R. Wallach. The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy

Just Read His Articles (by Michael S. Kochin-Tel Aviv Univ.)

John R. Wallach shows us how to resist simple readings of Plato as a critic of democracy, since as he rightly points out the demos is not the main enemy of philosophy (p. 279). Plato is if anything more scornful of oligarchy than of democracy, since on his view democracy is subverted not by its ruling principle, the principle of equality, but by its failure to keep the distribution of wealth from becoming more unequal over time (pp. 293, 297). One should add that the Plato who wrote the dialogues, as opposed to the youthful partisan that Plato himself describes in the Seventh Letter, is not interested in replacing actual democratic regimes with some other recognizable regime type. Wallach's book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 "Interpreting Plato Politically", discusses methods of understandings Plato's writings. Wallach's principal contribution here is to show that a common failing of many approaches is an excessive reliance on the authority of Aristotle. In chapter 2, "Historicizing The Platonic Political Art", Wallach presents the literary and political contexts of Plato's discussions of the purported politike techne. Chapter 3 elucidates "The Political Art in Aporetic Dialogues, or Plato's Socratic Problem amid Athenian Conventions." Under this heading Wallach includes the Protagoras and the Gorgias, which he does not treat as aporetic.
Chapter 4, "The Constitution of Justice: The Political Art in Plato's Republic" is the best chapter in the book -- here the organization of the principal part of the book by text discussed rather than by concept does the least damage. Yet Wallach's rejection of class struggle interpretations of Plato leaves his account rather bloodless. Because Wallach fails to situate Plato in the context of class struggle, he has no real understanding of stasis (see e.g. p. 237 n. 56), and he systematically slights the importance of the Spartan challenge to Athenian democracy, and of the "myth of Sparta" for Athenian opponents of that democracy. Sparta and Crete, not Athens as Wallach claims (p. 296), had the most stable forms of government in the Greek world. In chapter 5, Wallach discusses "The political art as practical rule" as exemplified in Plato's Statesman and Laws. Wallach assumes that the political art of these two dialogues is intended to be the same as that of the Republic. This assumption certainly can be questioned, but at least in the case of the Laws is probably the more helpful approach. Finally, in chapter 6, "The Platonic Political Art and Postliberal Democracy," Wallach sums up what his Plato can add to our understanding of our own political situation.
The principal contributions of Wallach's book are critical. Wallach forces his reader to think about Plato's use of TECHNE in talking about politics without relying upon the comfortable Aristotelian distinctions to which the Plato literature generally resorts. Wallach is in a way a new British Idealist. Like Nettleship, Bosanquet, and Green, Wallach looks to Plato in order to think about mass opinion, scientific elites, and the common good understood social-democratically. Whereas the British Idealists looked to a social-democratic future, Wallach laments the decay of the social democratic or Progressive heritage. Wallach's admiration of the Idealist interpreters of Plato such as Bosanquet and Nettleship is manifest, but the book's purposes would have been greatly clarified by a systematic discussion of their Plato and their politics. Such an inquiry would explain, I suspect, why the Platonic political art was central to prewar English-language scholarship on Plato, as Wallach points out (p. ix).
It is hard to grasp Wallach's main points in this large book, not only because his chief contributions are critical rather than positive, but because his writing here is somewhat diffuse, often repetitive, and on crucial points self-contradictory. These faults are, of course, more noticeable in a book of this length, and less easily forgivable.

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