- The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato’s Laws by Marcus Folch
Long neglected as a scarecrow among Plato’s works, the Laws—his longest, last, and unfinished dialogue that presents the fantasy of the second-best city, Magnesia—has received much scholarly attention in recent years, and Folch’s book completes a trio of sophisticated studies on the work (along with A.-E. Peponi [ed.], Performance and Culture in Plato’s Laws [Cambridge 2013] and L. Prauscello, Performing Citizenship in Plato’s Laws [Cambridge 2014]). As its title indicates, the monograph focuses on “the city and the stage” in Plato’s Laws, that is, on the relationship between politics and performance, the latter understood in two ways: as the practice of mousikê (music, song, and dance) on the one hand, and on the other, as the enactment of sociopolitical identities through speech acts.
The book is organized as a triptych, with two chapters in each of the three parts. After a helpful guide to the Laws in the introduction, chapters 1 and 2 consider performance and the extent to which it is “the fulcrum in a reconceptualization of the ideal political community” (2). Chapters 3 and 4 examine poetic genres (the ideal and more subversive types of song to be admitted in Magnesia). Chapters 5 and 6 focus on gender (Plato’s programmatic views on the role mousikê plays in women’s lives and in their integration into city governance). The epilogue provides a lucid recapitulation of the themes examined, and readers will want to refer to it for a précis of the book’s argument.
Three key Greek words, all with a musical valence, can provide a roadmap for reading Folch’s study. The first is, simply, nomos, the noun meaning both law and a kind of song performed to the kithara. This homophony at the heart of Plato’s work is also the central concern of the book. While investigating Plato’s program of laws (nomoi), Folch also provides a nuanced interpretation of Plato’s attitude towards contemporary Athenian performance culture (and its musical nomoi): for Folch, Plato’s critique is not so much a straightforward rejection of [End Page 268] Athenian theatrocracy as a revision of some of its tenets in the light of moral philosophy.
The second key term is symphonia (consonance), which plays a crucial role both at the level of the soul and that of the city. Through appropriate choral performance, the soul, conceptualized in the Laws as a marvelous marionette, can receive the right kind of habituation to pleasure and thereby achieve symphonia between its passionate and rational parts. This political psychology is complemented by precepts about musical sociology: symphonia refers to the social concord between different age groups and classes of citizens (only aliens perform, citizens judge). The last level at which symphonia operates is between the text of the Laws and the city it imagines. As the last sentence of the book explains: “as the Platonic dialogue invents itself as a literary genre by bringing diverse genres and discourses into contact, the second-best city and the performance culture it envisages are shaped in a consonance of fourth-century poetry and Plato’s philosophy, refashioned to harmonize with the cosmos and the celestial order it evinces” (313).
The last key word is pantodapos (manifold). It characterizes the type of musical society that Plato imagines—a type combining elements of different performance traditions (including Doric, Panhellenic, and Panmediterranean). Similarly, femaleness is conceptualized in the Laws as a deliberate rejection of other (Thracian, Athenian, Spartan) models and as a manifold assortment of male virtues and revised poetic models. Ultimately, this manifold quality works at the level of the text: the Laws constitutes a hybrid of the various poetic traditions it discusses, while offering, Folch argues, a model for its own interpretation and aesthetic reception.
An ungenerous reading of Folch’s book would see it as an obsessive return to one aspect...