Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic"

Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic" by David Roochnik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books about ancient philosophy I have ever read. First, Roochnik is a clear writer and this work is eminently readable for an academic book. Second, his explanation of the structure and flow of the Republic is rich, deep, and fascinating. I’ve learned so much about the Republicthrough his book. He makes sense (or helps to make some sense) of many of the pickles I’ve discussed with my students (and friends) over the years about the arguments and theories in the Republic.

There are two main, general take-aways from Roochnik’s book. First, the Republicmust be read as an entirety. It is not a linear philosophical treatise in which we can move step by step through deductive arguments. We cannot isolate sections of it to focus only on that part of the argument. The parts and individual moments make the most sense when understood as part of the whole of the work.

Second, the recurring themes of the arithmetic and the erotic are central to understanding the interplay of the arguments and stories in the Republic. Roochnik shows how Plato moves through the dialectic of introducing the first arguments about the city and the soul, and the necessary city, in largely arithmetic terms but gets challenged by the Eros that Glaucon insists upon. This is revised and rebuilt mixing math and desire together—but this introduces new problems. This leads to new arithmetic means of explaining and dealing with these issues; only to be thwarted again by Eros. And so on, again and again. This interlay – dialogue if you will—is at the heart of understanding the movement through the dialogue.

I ask my students to consider what the purpose or ultimate point of the Republicis. Is it political; meant to defend a particular sort of regime? Is it primarily ethical; meant to defend the just life against the Thrasymachean claims of immoralism? Is it meant as a warning about democracy or as a qualified defense of democracy? Roochnik suggests, in my interpretation of his arguments, something a bit different: it is meant to present a picture of the human soul in action. The medium of the dialogue, the use of math and desire (philosophy and poetry), portray the complexity of human psychology, understanding, and engagement with the world.

I think this explains largely why the Republichas for so long and continues to be so central to philosophy. Why reads Plato 25 centuries later? Because it is so rich and deep, and has so much to tell us about ourselves. And Roochnik helps to show why this is so. His book breathes new life into discussions and to see the dialogue in a new, and clearer, light.

View all my reviews