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Satyr Play in Plato’s Statesman: Socrates, Athens, and the Apologetic Purpose of Plato’s Trilogy

Dimitri El Murr

Ecole Normale Supérieure - Paris

Plato’s Statesman aims at defining the true art of statesmanship. Section 291a-303d is devoted to distinguishing the true statesman from all politicians acting in existing constitutions, for ‘those who participate in all these constitutions’ must be removed ‘as not being statesmen (πολιτικούς) but experts in faction (στασιαστικούς)’ (Plt. 303c). This section is prefaced by a short passage (291a-c) where the Visitor from Elea, Plato’s main character in the dialogue, depicts the people taking part in these constitutions as resembling ‘lions and centaurs and other such things, and [...] satyrs and those animals that are weak but versatile’, adding that ‘they quickly exchange their shapes and capacities’ (291a8-b3). The whole section ends with a parallel passage, where the Visitor notes: ‘So: this is our play, as it were (ὥσπερ δρᾶμα) – as we said just now that there was some band of centaurs and satyrs in view (Kενταυρικὸν καὶ Σατυρικόν τινα θίασον)’ (303c9-d1). Why such a dramatic and awkward description? How is this powerful image of a crowd of lions, centaurs, and satyrs related to those who take part in oligarchy, democracy and tyranny? And why compare the “constitutional” section of the Statesman to some kind of dramatic play? Such are the questions addressed in this paper.

The details of both Plt. 291a-b, which opens the “constitutional” section of the Statesman, and Plt. 303c-d, which concludes it, have been overlooked by editors and translators (e.g. Campbell 1867, Brisson-Pradeau 2003, Giorgini 2005), and by commentators as well (e.g. Skemp 1952, Lane 1998, Ricken 2008). One exception is Rowe 1995 who argues that the first passage should be read as a reminiscence of the degeneration and transformation of constitutions into one another in books 8 and 9 of the Republic, and suggests ‘hesitantly’ that ‘those who resemble lions are the “timocrats” [...], the centaurs, or horse-men are – perhaps – oligarchs [...]; while the satyrs and chameleons are the democrats’ (Rowe 1995, 219). Following Rowe and a suggestion made in El Murr (2014, 208-210) this paper argues that Plt. 291a-b, together with Plt. 303c-d, not only points to earlier passages in the Republic but also, and most importantly, to earlier passages in the Theaetetus and Sophist (e.g. Theaet. 173b-c and Soph. 235a-b), thus bolstering the idea that Plato took the very structure of trilogies seriously (see Charalabopoulos 2012).

This paper claim that the several allusions which Plt. 291a-b and 303c-d make to satyr play are designed to alert the reader to one crucial purpose of the “constitutional” part of Plato’s Statesman, namely its apologetic function regarding Socrates. The connection between Socrates, or Alcibiades’ portrait of him, and satyr play is made by none other than Socrates himself in reaction to Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium, and has been subject to much scholarly scrutiny (Sheffield 2001, Usher 2002). Building on the satirical elements of the Socrates’ portrait in the Symposium, the paper explores the Statesman’s allusions to Socrates’ trial and philosophical practice (298a-300a), showing how Plato criticizes Athenian democracy for its incapacity to accommodate expert knowledge.

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

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