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  • Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s Republic by Jill Frank
  • Susan B. Levin
Jill Frank. Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato's Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. pp. 228 Cloth, $90.99.

According to Frank, Plato's dialogues offer divergent approaches to literacy: while one method is rigidly top-down, the other promotes learners' independence. She argues that Plato endorses the latter view and that this lens on becoming literate is also the one he favors for our acquisition of knowledge, as well as for ethics and politics. Dismissing the idea that Plato's thought developed (7n19), Frank moves without comment from the Republic to works usually deemed to belong to different phases of Plato's writing, both early (e.g. the Apology) and late (e.g. the Laws).

Because Frank's approach is nondoctrinal, in no dialogue is its main character properly seen as Plato's "mouthpiece" (21, 27–28, 63, 119, 137–38). Per Frank, the dialogues are rightly viewed as dramas, with Plato consciously distributing his messages, direct and indirect, across each dialogue's characters. Further, not distinguishing between literary, or poetic, devices and poetry per se, Frank views the Republic as a work of "mimetic poetry" (80). Whatever one thinks of this overarching claim, not only does Frank argue persuasively that Plato's relation to poetry is more complex than is often recognized, but she makes intriguing, specific interpretive claims, for instance, that poets are ethically superior to those who establish Kallipolis (91).

Though Frank also rejects "esotericism" (17), she evinces a quasi-esotericism when arguing that the Republic's official account, which repudiates "the difference, incommensurability, and plurality that are the conditions of [democratic] ethics and politics" (209), does not reflect Plato's actual, subtextual message to us. Overall, though, Frank's methodology seems closest to the aporetic (16, 27, 226), as she takes the dialogues' key merit to be Plato's posing of ethical and political queries to his audience whose pursuit, sparked by his writings, is necessarily open-ended.

The concept of mimēsis undergirds Frank's argument that what is not made evident directly matters far more to Plato than what is expressly conveyed. Rejecting mimēsis qua "imitation" that aims to deceive (35–38, 66), Plato favors instead the meaning 'representation,' whose instantiations "provoke the desire to become good … by inviting attention to the appearance of those representations and … thereby to what does not appear, to possibility" (79). From this perspective, the Republic's presentation of early paideia, with the [End Page 748] dialogue's ensuing accounts of Kallipolis and virtue, "prompt[s] readers to be no less wary of the form of justice presented in Republic 2–5 than of the justice offered by Thrasymachus in Republic 1" (82). Routinely treating proffered accounts as self-undermining, Frank's Plato is distinctly postmodern, displaying an affinity, in particular, with deconstruction.

Because "Plato's representations do not produce or reproduce reality … [they] depict failure on the part of Socrates' elite interlocutors … and also … on the part of the dialogues' philosophical authorities, including Socrates" (46). Plato's goal here is "to prompt mimetic disidentification that gives rise to critical reflection" (46–47); that is to say, Plato provokes us, his readers, to notice what his own characters do not. In principle, the Republic, Frank's focus, could have this function for contemporary readers independently of what Plato might have intended, but Frank insists that this is Plato's aim (12–13, 16, 137–38). In so doing, Frank veers into anachronism. She also gestures toward a liberal-democratic lens that is historically inapposite, claiming that Plato of the Republic favored a democratic constitutional frame because only it fosters "a practice of self-creation, transformation, exploration, and renewal that, as such, promotes capacities for self-authorization and self-constitution as well" (45).

Since her approach is nondoctrinal, Frank need not discuss a plethora of what are widely viewed as Plato's doctrines. That said, her argument might be stronger if she directly addressed select topics. One notable omission is Plato's account of learning as recollection (anamnēsis). Salient epistemologically, memory becomes even more important given Frank's thesis that acquiring knowledge closely...


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