When Plato set his dialogs, written texts were disseminated primarily by performance and recitation. He wrote them, however, when literacy was expanding. Jill Frank argues that there are unique insights to be gained from appreciating Plato’s dialogs as written texts to be read and reread. At the center of these insights are two distinct ways of learning to read in the dialogs. One approach that appears in the Statesman, Sophist, and Protagoras, treats learning to read as a top-down affair, in which authoritative teachers lead students to true beliefs. Another, recommended by Socrates, encourages trial and error and the formation of beliefs based on students’ own fallible experiences. In all of these dialogs, learning to read is likened to coming to know or understand something. Given Plato’s repeated presentation of the analogy between reading and coming to know, what can these two approaches tell us about his dialogs’ representations of philosophy and politics?
With Poetic Justice, Jill Frank overturns the conventional view that the Republic endorses a hierarchical ascent to knowledge and the authoritarian politics associated with that philosophy. When learning to read is understood as the passive absorption of a teacher’s beliefs, this reflects the account of Platonic philosophy as authoritative knowledge wielded by philosopher kings who ruled the ideal city. When we learn to read by way of the method Socrates introduces in the Republic, Frank argues, we are offered an education in ethical and political self-governance, one that prompts citizens to challenge all claims to authority, including those of philosophy.
About the Author
Jill Frank is professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and the author of A Democracy of Distinction.