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Plato’s Neglected Critiques of Athens in Republic VIII: Democratic Dimensions of the Cities Nurturing the Timocratic, Oligarchic, and Democratic Youths

Melissa S. Lane

Princeton University

This paper explores neglected dimensions of Plato’s invocation of the institutions and practices of democratic Athens, embedded in his depiction of the dynamics of each city set within what G.R.F. Ferrari (2003) calls the ‘individual track’ of the three imperfect constitutions of Republic Book VIII (the fourth individual track, that of the tyrant in the tyranny, falls outside this pattern and also outside Book VIII.)  These dimensions have been neglected due to the flawed assumption that the civic context at each stage of the individual track parallels the constitutional track, and the concomitant interest in the psychology only rather than the politics of the individual track (as in Johnstone 2011). But, Ferrari having shown that the individual youths are similar to the corresponding constitution without having been themselves educated in such a constitution, we may now explore the precise constitutions of the cities in which they are each said to be educated.  Building on Malcolm Schofield’s observation (2006) that the city of the Cave analogy in Republic Book VII subtly shifts from a generic city to a tacitly democratic one, I argue that we find similar tacitly Athenian democratic institutions and practices at play in the cities in which the timocratic, oligarchic, and democratic youths of Book VIII are depicted as having been educated.  

In particular, I focus on the institutions and dynamics of officeholding, which is a theme also of the constitutional track of Republic VIII (Lane 2018).  Consider the budding timocratic youth whose mother sees his father as insufficiently engaged in ‘honors, offices, and lawsuits’ (τάς τε τιμὰς καὶ ἀρχὰς καὶ δίκας, 549c3): while these terms could in theory apply in non-democracies, Socrates’ immediate gloss on them as ‘and all such meddling in other people’s affairs’ (καὶ τὴν τοιαύτην πᾶσαν φιλοπραγμοσύνην, 549c3-4) plays on a term central to Athenian democratic culture (polupragmosunē: Ehrenberg 1947, Adkins 1976, Whelan 1983, Carter 1986).  That democratic term is echoed in the mention of the dikastēria and dēmosia of 549d3, again pointing to the specifically Athenian democratic institution of the people’s courts.  Or consider the key episode in making the timocrat’s son into an oligarchic youth instead: this is his father holding ‘either a generalship or another of the great offices’ (ἢ στρατηγήσαντα ἢ τιν’ ἂλλην μεγάλην ἀρχὴν ἄρξαντα, 553b2-3) – again evoking the democratic Athenian institution of the elected generalships– and being dragged ‘into the popular court’ (εἰς δικαστῄριον) ‘by false witnesses’ (ὑπὸ συκοφαντῶν) (553b3-5), implying that he had been accused of abusing office in the course of the required euthunai at the end of each officeholder’s term (Fröhlich 2004).   

No picture of Athenian democratic institutions could be more vividly evoked. In short, each city that miseducates (Hitz 2010) its youth in Book VIII is characterized by terms evoking the practices of democracy and specifically those of Athens: the whole individual track of Republic Book VIII is couched in terms mounting a critique of the various ways in which Athenian political education – emblematic of that of a democracy – could go wrong.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on Plato’s Internal Critique of the Athenian Politeia

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