In his 1901 Oxford Classical Text (OCT) edition of Propertius, J. S. Philimore famously laments, quot editores, tot Propertii: roughly, “for every editor a different Propertius.” The dream of the philological editor is to restore the pristine text of the original author, to return to an ur-version before the ravages of time and the laziness of inattentive monks. Phillimore’s despair arises from the fact that the manuscript tradition of Propertius, which has come down to us, seems so corrupt that his many editors do not just produce slightly different versions, adjusting jots and tittles, but completely different authors. Every attempt to restore the classical order of sense, the logic of exposition, the rational meaning that must underlie this jumble of irony, double-talk, and imaginative leaps, results in a radically different version of what that ur-text must have been. Shortly after Phillimore’s edition, Ezra Pound produced his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” a “translation” that suddenly made everyone question: were those leaps lacunae or anticipations of Poundian modernism? In short, was the text corrupt or was our reading of it? The war has raged ever since, with Heyworth’s 2007 OCT advancing the new motto, quot lectores, tot Propertii: “for every reader, a different Propertius.” The concept of the ur-text with a unified meaning has become increasingly difficult to defend, not simply because as even Phillimore knew the ur-text is an ideal or a myth, always to be approached but never empirically reached, but also because meaning itself has become infinitely more problematic: the idea of an ur-text in fact depends on the idea of an ur-meaning, a single transcendental signified that would validate both the text and its interpretation.
It is much the same with Plato. In fact, with tongue only slightly in cheek, I would like to advance a new motto, quot lectores, tot Platones. It is not that the texts of Plato are in doubt, at least not to the same degree as Propertius’s, but the variety of Platos one can observe in the wild seems all but infinite. There is the Plato of our undergraduate days: a strict adherent to a two worlds theory who believes that for everything in the world there is in fact an ideal form in heaven and that form controls what the thing is. This can be found in the kind of crude neo-Platonism that led Senator Rick Santorum during his failed presidential campaign to argue that while you can say that a paper towel is a napkin, that does not change the fact that it really is a paper towel (the context was an argument about abortion). Of course, there are a large number of more interesting neo-Platonisms (both Catholic and otherwise) that ask us to reckon with problems like what would it mean if justice were not real, if it did not exist in some meaningful way that persisted beyond any given set of circumstances? And if it is real and has an existence separate from any single instantiation, what then is its ontology?
It is not that the texts of Plato are in doubt, at least not to the same degree as Propertius’s, but the variety of Platos one can observe in the wild seems all but infinite.
But this is only the beginning of our Platonic menagerie. There is the analytic Plato whose text is reduced to a series of logical arguments that can be graphed, diagrammed, and criticized or defended. There is the Straussian Plato: a haughty aristocrat who wraps his intentions in mystery to avoid the hostility of the crowd, such as the one that killed Socrates. Far from reducing Plato’s dialogues to a series of logic problems, the Straussian reading sees every detail of the text as a clue to its secret meaning, one revealed only to those with the breeding to appreciate it. At the same time, there is also the Plato of the esoteric doctrine. This school takes the aspersions the philosopher casts on writing in the Phaedrus and the “Seventh Letter” quite literally, seeing the dialogues as mere exoteric exercises in persuasion. True Platonic doctrine for these readers was a closely guarded secret delivered orally and found best in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 1, where he recounts his understanding of what he learned at the feet of the master. For these esoteric readers, inconsistencies between the dialogues are of no consequence, whereas for the strict Straussians they are evidence of a secret code. Still another Plato is found in the hands of Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault. Here too inconsistencies are not to be overly worried, since unlike for the neo-Platonists and the analytic readers the goal is not to produce a logically coherent overarching theory, nor are those inconsistencies clues to a secret doctrine, whether oral or textual, but every dialogue is conceived as an ethical intervention which is aimed at the interlocutor and the reader, a kind of spiritual exercise in which the would-be disciple is convinced to care for him- or herself. Quot lectores, tot Platones.
Jill Frank’s new book Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s Republic asks us to consider what if this variability were in fact the point? What if Plato wrote to be read and reread? What if we are meant to consider each word, each twist in the argument, not as the key to an esoteric doctrine and not as the clothing that somehow magically sheathes a rational or metaphysical truth, but as a series of decision points, a series of poetic moments, in which the multiplicities of possible meanings are meant to be taken seriously? What if the Republic is more like Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths” than the Phenomenology of the Spirit? In Frank’s searching interpretation, each of these decision points offers an opportunity for reevaluation and recursive reading, as a vast tableau of interpretive trajectories unfolds but keeps asking us to think seriously about what do we mean by justice, what do we mean by representation, how should the polis be organized, and how should we organize our souls? Or in her own formulation:
What if, seeking to counteract the folly that makes people complicit with tyranny, the dialogue aims to educate its readers—ancient and modern—to cultivate our own capacities to scrutinize claims made by power and by knowledge, including claims made by and on behalf of Athens’s traditional authorities, those made by philosophical authorities, and those made by citizens on their own behalves?
Frank does not posit a single transcendental signified that simultaneously produces a unified text and its meaning, but a complex literary, political, and theoretical masterpiece in which we are challenged on every page. Poetry indeed is not banished from the Republic, in Frank’s reading; in a real sense it becomes its operative principle.
What if Plato wrote to be read and reread? What if we are meant to consider each word, each twist in the argument, not as the key to an esoteric doctrine and not as the clothing that somehow magically sheathes a rational or metaphysical truth, but as a series of decision points, a series of poetic moments, in which the multiplicities of possible meanings are meant to be taken seriously?
Frank’s book is beautifully written, elegantly presented, and compellingly argued. The reader will not necessarily agree with every thesis advanced or each reading of an individual passage proffered. But that is not the point. The point is precisely to engage in that discussion without reserve. In this time of incipient tyranny, the questions of what is good, what is just, and what is beautiful have perhaps never been more pressing. Jill Frank asks each of us to engage those questions via Plato’s text, to become a reader and to create our own Plato. But as Marx said of history, yes man creates it, but never out of whole cloth. Our individual Platos may each be created by our own readings, but those readings occur in the crucible of confronting a profoundly crafted and complex poetic text with the realities of the most pressing questions of our individual and political existences. There is, in fact, no other place where meaning lives. The reader will learn much from Frank’s Plato, but they will learn even more as she challenges them to construct their own.