A review of The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates' Conversations and Plato's Writings, by Eva Brann

Plato is less important than he was a hundred years ago. Democratic higher education, relativism, historicism, multiculturalism, laziness, and love of novelty have all taken their toll. There are more significant things to consider than the irrelevant, antidemocratic, or foolishly dogmatic writings of dead Greeks.

Plato also is more important, however, because the few who do read him take him seriously philosophically, not just culturally, and seek his (and Aristotle's) moral and political guidance. He is not imbibed as part of a casual cocktail of teachings that support quasi-aristocratic habits, but instead, is examined for guidance in supporting what is worthwhile in liberalism.

We therefore study Plato's works more carefully than we did a generation or two ago. Then it was difficult to find good translations. Now almost every dialogue has been translated well. Then many scholars learned Greek, but why they sought and suffered their learning was a question with no compelling answer. Now more of the few who bother to learn Greek do so to read Aristotle and Plato with care. Then little intelligent was written about most of the dialogues, although useful Greek editions and a few decent general accounts did exist. Now there are good articles or books on most dialogues and several interesting discussions of particular arguments. 

The increase in philosophic and political attention is caused by several factors, chief among them the influence of Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein. Strauss guided several outstanding students of Plato—Seth Benardete, Allan Bloom, and Joseph Cropsey among others—who themselves encouraged serious education at Chicago and other schools. Klein developed the classic liberal education of St. John's College. Among his students none is more outstanding than Eva Brann, a tutor at St. John's for half-a-century and Dean for eight years. Of the students of Strauss and Klein only Benardete rivals her combination of classical scholarship and philosophic acumen.

The Music of the Republic gathers in one place Ms. Brann's papers and lectures on Plato. It begins with two on thePhaedo, turns to one each on the Apology and Charmides, follows with four on the Republic, including the monograph-length title essay, and concludes with one on the Timaeus, three on the Sophist, and essays on Plato's ideas and on teaching him to undergraduates. The fourteen pieces are subtly organized so that, for example, the first and last, fourth and eleventh and so on especially illuminate each other.

Brann's work is distinguished by clarity about difficult matters. She does not indulge in riddles or obscurities, allowing Plato's own difficulty to present itself and conceiving her task to be helping us directly to understand what he is arguing. She does not dazzle like a magician one never will be skilled enough to imitate, but seduces through the illusion that one can rise to her level. She attracts the reader and student more through surprise at the familiar than through bewilderment at the mysterious. She therefore offers more or less authoritative summaries of the Phaedo and Sophist (reprinted introductions to these dialogues that she wrote with her co-translators Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem) and clear analyses of the divided line, the Good, Nonbeing, and similar matters. Although she advocates teaching Plato to undergraduates by giving "some discreet direction to the subtleties of the text," mostly asking questions but not lecturing, her own works here do not for the most part follow that advice. She rarely dons the mask of the tutor who pretends to believe he knows no more than we do. She says directly what she thinks that Plato or Socrates has in mind and lets us know when she is speculating or guessing. She dedicates the book to Klein "who taught us mostly what we'd always known." This is her own goal: she approaches it not through coy winks, nudges, and hints but with a straightforward display of powerful intelligence and clear and attractive prose. Naturally, this more direct path contains ironies and jokes of its own.

In addition to Brann's clarity and directness her papers display several elements both like and unlike those of other close readers. No essay is a complete commentary in which she tries to say something about each and every word and nuance in the text. The introductions to the Phaedo and Sophist summarize the dialogues and divide them into sections. The essay on the Charmides follows the dialogue's order from beginning to end. The "Music of the Republic" discusses and diagrams the Republic's overall structure and examines and summarizes the divided line and cave images with great and brilliant care. In no case, however, does Brann offer a word-for-word commentary even on a small section.

She is of course alert to the issues and opportunities of Plato's dialogue form. She remarks the importance of Socrates' varied conversation partners, the difference between narrated and performed dialogues, Socrates' choice of examples, and similar matters. She discusses the difference between what Socrates intends and says (e.g., in the Apology) and points out his irony. She attends carefully to the details of Socratic myths and to their general meaning, using her impressive classical learning to put us in the position of a Socratic contemporary. 

Brann's interpretations take all these mechanisms and more into account. Despite this, she doubts that Plato is esoteric, although she discusses at some length the question of his unwritten doctrines about the Good. She sometimes goes outside the text to illuminate its meaning, as in her discussion of the importance for the Charmides of the political careers of Critias and Charmides. She illuminates the central part of the Republic by referring to later classic authors: her "secondary" sources are Aristotle, Speusippus, and Plutarch. In general, therefore, her essays are discursive and interpretive, alive to but not hiding behind Plato's devices, concentrating on difficult questions but never obscuring matters, and reaching conclusions or at least making significant general assertions, but not constructing a Platonic doctrine.

* * *

It is not possible here to examine Brann's interpretations in detail, so I will discuss only her major themes. Chief among them is her analysis of images and our power to understand them. An image both is and is not what it pictures. "I think that for Socrates this eikastic power of the soul is the wonder of wonders." The connection between original and image is the final of seven headings under which she considers Plato's ideas. It also is fundamental in her discussion of theRepublic's imaging of the good through the sun, divided line, and cave.

Images, and things as a whole, display the significance of matters being other than they seem. The significance of Nonbeing in the sense of otherness is a second element in Brann's analyses. It obviously is important to discussions of theSophist where "other" is thematic. It also is basic in understanding the Republic and even the Apology where "Socrates asserts his ultimate negative wisdom—his knowledge of his ignorance concerning Hades, the realm of death." She examines the Sophist in three essays because its subject is so vital generally. "The Republic has surely been the dialogue closest to my soul. Yet the dialogue that has given me most to think about is the Sophist. It contains what seems to me the third most portentous ancient discovery for philosophy (after Parmenides' revelation of Being and Socrates' hypotheses of the forms): the reinterpretation of Nonbeing as Otherness, which turns out to be indispensable for an understanding of that most fascinating of human abilities—imaging."

A third theme is the importance of mathematics and "philosophical arithmetic," and their connection to dialectic. Brann offers a clear and extensive discussion of Socrates' presentation of this matter in the middle of the Republic. She includes a remarkable "diagram picturing the realm of the Divided Line in solids," and connects the order of appearance of the elements of mathematical study to the order of the elements of Socrates' dialectical way. She distinguishes dialectic as "movement of the soul within itself and among the forms" from dialectic as discussion between "a knower and a learner" and "conversation among the many." She elaborates at some length the powers of the Good and the manner in which it is "a unitary binding source." "In the dialectic progress from 'what each is' to 'what the Good is,' the latter is revealed as the order of the whole and thus as the pattern of all political community." The Good, however, is "complemented…by a secondary 'dyadic' or doubling source." "Human ignorance and its consequence, badness, as well as their management, which is called politics" belong in this realm of Nonbeing that Socrates presents in his cave image in the Republic. This secondary principle, however, is bad only when "not involved in the order of Being." When we consider images and otherness carefully we see that Nonbeing "turns out to bind beings and to enable speech" and to participate "in the generation of the ordered realm of Being." 

As I have suggested, Brann presents these naturally heady and dizzying thoughts with a charming clarity to which summary cannot do justice. This clarity is on display in a fourth major theme, Plato's forms or ideas. Each idea is an hypothesis, not in the sense of "a conclusion presented for verification, but a beginning that becomes the end of inquiry." Each enables Socrates "to frame a question that has in it an arrow to an answer." They are "used as stepping stones to their own conversion into something not merely supposed, but truly beheld, 'seen.'" She then explores the idea "under seven headings for it shows as many aspects as there are beginnings to Socrates' inquiry: excellence and commonness; speech and dialectic; answers and questions; opinion and knowledge; appearance and Being; same and other; original and image." Her discussions under these headings are as intelligent an introduction to the ideas as one will find.

Brann originally presented her lecture on the ideas as a response to Klein's death. We must now "boldly plough ahead" and not postpone "bald confrontation of [our] own with the ultimate philosophical matters," she writes. For as Socrates advises in the Phaedo, philosophy need not disappear when he is gone. Many, perhaps even we ourselves, can "charm away" the fear that "philosophy is impossible once he is dead."

The final theme I will address is Brann's attention to the possibility or continuation of philosophy, or the political-philosophical problem. She treats this question largely in terms of liberal, intellectual, or "music" education that recognizes and therefore still allows ascent from images, contradictions, and perplexities. Her analysis of the Phaedo is governed by her list of the "unfinished teachings, the legacy of aporiai that Socrates…bequeaths…to us." The fact of these seventeen questions permits, although it does not guarantee, that some will be stirred
to thought.

Brann discusses less fully the challenge presented by the more directly legal or compulsory relation of the political community to philosophy. She does address this challenge, however, primarily in essays on the ApologyCharmides, and justice in the Republic. Moreover, although most on her list of seventeen questions are not obviously moral or political, some—the penalties or rewards for pleasure and thought, moral choice versus mechanistic explanation, and, especially, whether "the way a human being lives and acts" is "incidental or essential to the trustworthiness of his philosophy"—clearly are. Brann recognizes that "when philosophy comes upon the city it comes as a negation and a threat." "Plato…is recording [in the Apology] something he has heard in court…. He has heard that Socrates' activity is publicly indefensible." He writes the Apology to protect us against "facile vindication of Socrates' way" just as he writes other dialogues to "prevent the learned ossification of thought." He means to "provide a permanent possibility of the renewal" of thought while reminding us of enlightenment's danger to the city. 

Notwithstanding this analysis, Brann does not discuss the variety of political regimes and the attraction of the arts, statesmanship, or love, very much in their own terms. Her concern is more with the deed of education, with learning to speak or to see what is invisible, as it were, than with the apparent freedom, singularity, and perfection of ordinary embodiments and happiness, and the path that leads from them to thought. She distinguishes the Republic's embodied soul (the familiar eros, spirit, and logos) from its intellectual soul (the four ways of knowing described in the divided line) without, perhaps, persuasively reconnecting them. In her discussion of the Charmides she ties Critias' wish to have a single knowledge that could know all other types of knowing to modern ideological tyranny. One wonders, however, whether the motives and practices of tyranny can sufficiently be captured this way; or indeed, whether in general the intellectual cause in human affairs—intellectual satisfaction, dissatisfaction, completion and imperfection—does not appear too dominant in the book.

Our impression of Brann's approach to the political-philosophical problem might be different, of course, had she chosen more often in these essays to develop Plato's arguments from ordinary satisfactions and illusions up to philosophy and its objects, rather than from the top down. In any event, the reader is not likely to find a better guide to Plato or to the matters he studied. We take heart both from Ms. Brann's work and from her example.