Literary Readings of Plato

Cover of "Republic (Oxford World's Classi...
Cover of Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)

A lot of commenters have been offering up very smart readings of Platonic dialogues, and particularly the Republic, that understand the arguments Socrates, Glaucon, Thrasymachus and others offer up as standing for more than just the arguments themselves. I’ve heard a lot of similar readings of Plato; for example, in Grand Strategies, Charles Hill insists that the Republic is obviously a satire, and Plato meant to satirize, not endorse, the vision Socrates offers up of a nation-state run by philosopher-kings.

I’m not so sure about that. But regardless of the merits of what Hill says, it’s not so much a philosophical critique as it is a literary one. When one argues that the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus over the nature of justice is a metaphor for something else, that, too, is a literary critique.

Obviously literary readings of the Republic have a lot of value, and the text is, among many other things, a great work of literature. But I think attempts to read it like this expose some of the limitations of philosophy: in order to do a philosophical analysis of the arguments in the Republic, we pretty much have to take them at face value and assume that the participating parties mean exactly what they say and no more. Otherwise, the argument gets so mired in  ambiguity that there’s no clearly defined logical progression of ideas to break down and evaluate.

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