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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 75-83

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Dramatic Prefiguration in Plato's Republic

George Rudebusch


PLATO IS THE SUPREME STYLIST of European literature. His pre-eminent ranking is more nearly unanimous, and has been so for a longer period of time, than for any other author of our civilization. While his work is as perfectly lucid as any writing can be, at the same time his words shimmer with endless and inexhaustible reflections, casting ever more light upon themselves and his great themes.

Plato's art appears artless, yet we are told that even in his eighties, "he did not cease from currying and wreathing his dialogues, and braiding them up in every way" (Dionysius of Hallicarnassis, de Compositione Verborum). I shall try to interpret some of that braidwork in the dramatic prefiguration which I find in the opening pages of the Republic. After defining dramatic prefiguration, I shall discuss three images: (1) the initial meeting between Polemarchus' party and the smaller group of Socrates and Glaucon; (2) the upcoming event of a relay race of torches carried on horseback; (3) the opening image of Socrates descending to the Piraeus. I begin with a review of dramatic apprehension and irony in the framework of the first book of the Republic.


The dramatic setting of the Republic is Athens, probably about 422, during the Peace of Nicias, a time of relative peace and stability. The time of composition and publication is about fifty years later. 1 Two of the characters mentioned in the opening are known primarily for being brutally murdered during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchic faction led by members of the family of Plato. Socrates, it is well-known, [End Page 75] was put to death by the democracy in Athens shortly afterwards. The characters see nothing of the war, plague, tyranny, betrayals, murders, and execution that lie ahead, nor the exhaustion, defeat, and near destruction of Athens. But the audience is well aware that these horrors lie just ahead. So the dramatic setting produces a sense of apprehension in the audience, "a sense of impending violence—a violence nourished, evidently, by the desires of the appetitive part of the soul." 2 "That Plato intends his readers to recall the Thirty's brutal spree of murder is plain from the fact that in the opening scene of the Republic he takes the trouble of having Polemarchus make his first appearance in the company of the silent character Niceratus, the son of Nicias—a person who receives no further mention in the dialogue, but whose main claim to remembrance was that he too, like Polemarchus, was executed by the Thirty." 3 Such a setting, therefore, tends to confirm a well-accepted general truth about the Socratic dialogues: that one of Plato's goals in writing such dialogues was so that we as readers might recognize the frightful ignorance of some of its characters.

There is dramatic irony, too, in the opening. As Gifford has pointed out, the Socratic counter-example to the first definition of justice—that of Cephalus—is instantiated by Cephalus himself. Cephalus's definition of justice was "paying your debts and telling the truth" (331c). Socrates' counter-example is the man who owes weapons to another who comes to collect them when out of his mind with anger (331c). Now Cephalus was a weapons manufacturer—a fact publicized in a famous speech of Lysias (Against Eratosthenes XII). He supplied and therefore owed weapons to Athens, which was out of its mind with war anger (see Gifford, pp. 4-5, 9). The second definition of justice is given by Polemarchus. This definition, if true, "legitimates his own future execution" by the Thirty (Gifford, p. 10). Polemarchus' definition of justice is "helping one's friends and harming one's enemies" (332a-c). But Polemarchus is the heir of Cephalus—a fact that is emphasized at the dramatic level of the dialogue (331d-e)—which made him an enemy of the Thirty. "In the person of Polemarchus the Thirty would have seen a wealthy metic belonging to...


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