Plato offers lessons in literacy, artistry, politics

Poetic Justice

With one small change in interpretive approach, Jill Frank breaks with tradition in her new book, “Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s ‘Republic.’” Taking seriously that Plato appears in none of his texts and insisting that nothing that anyone in any of the dialogues says – including Socrates – should be attributed to Plato, Frank aims to shift how Plato is read.

Focusing on Plato’s “Republic,” one of the most important texts in the history of political thought, “Poetic Justice” takes as its points of departure long-standing insights about the complexity, difficulty and artistry of Plato’s writing. Frank rereads the “Republic” from back to front, beginning with the dialogue’s own account of artistry in its treatment of mimetic poetry – the poetry of Homer and the antique tragedians – and contextualizes that discussion within what some classicists refer to as a “cultural revolution” taking place in Athens in 430-380 B.C.

Plato emerged as a writer toward the end of this period, and Frank, professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences, argues that he was participating in the changing arts scene in Athens by developing techniques of mimesis to experiment with the potentials for philosophy within ethics and politics. In her view, Plato’s artistic writing shifts the burdens of judgment about the dialogues’ representations to their readers, thereby redistributing authority.

In Frank’s interpretation, although Socrates refers to an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy and ousts the mimetic poets from the ideal city he helps found, it doesn’t…

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