Plato’s Caves: The Liberating Sting of Cultural Diversity. Rebecca LeMoine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
It is an exciting time to be a Plato scholar. The increasingly widespread acceptance of modes of interpretation that value attention to the dramatic aspects of the dialogues has revolutionized our collective understanding of Plato’s work. As Gerald Press puts it in his review of the current state of Plato scholarship: “[T]he question [is] no longer whether to take textual, contextual, literary, and dramatic aspects of the dialogues into consideration, but how” (2018, 10).[i] Nowhere is the dynamism that arises from this broad acceptance of dramatic interpretation more apparent than in the recent scholarship on the Republic. Jill Frank’s Poetic Justice (Chicago, 2018), Cinzia Arruzza’s A Wolf in the City (Oxford, 2018), Jacob Howland’s Glaucon’s Fate (Paul Dry 2018), and Marina McCoy’s Images and Argument in Plato’s Republic (SUNY 2020) all offer the scholarly community highly nuanced reassessments of the Republic. Rebecca LeMoine’s recent Plato’s Caves: The Liberating Sting of Cultural Diversity is a welcome addition to this vein of Plato scholarship that calls us to reconsider our deeply held convictions about what Plato really thought about political philosophy and practice. As the title suggests, some of the book deals with the Republic, but the book also explores the Menexenus, the Laws, and the Phaedrus to argue that Plato was an advocate of cultural diversity; indeed he saw it as one of the primary means by which one can begin the philosophical journey out of the cave by cultivating a sense of epistemic humility within us.
The book is well-researched, clear, well written, extremely well-organized and her provocative thesis that Plato was a strong advocate for the philosophical value of cultural diversity is persuasively argued. It is filled with numerous observations about the dramatic details of the dialogues that cause me to think about all the dialogues she considers in new ways and to return to the dialogues themselves with new eyes.
The book has a helpful introduction that acknowledges “the traditional scholarly narrative on the attitudes toward cultural diversity in classical Greek political thought often reinforces the perception that the ancient thinkers were xenophobic. This is particularly the case with Plato” (3). Against this pervasive view, she argues “that when Plato’s dialogues are read in their dramatic context, far from exhibiting hostility toward foreigners, they reveal that foreigners play a role similar to that of Socrates: the role of gadfly” (4). She argues further, that Plato’s dialogues reveal that interactions with foreigners can expose contradictions in the values that undergird one’s political community and thus encourage a more self-reflective citizenship” (5). To ground her argument, she explores the traditional model of Athenian and Greek ethnocentrism and offers a revised model that considers current scholarship that “has shown that Greeks perceptions of and interactions with non-Greeks were more complex and diverse than the traditional polarity narrative captures” (15). She then summarizes the role of metics in the Athenian polis and the importance of attention to dramatic and historical context for her own interpretation. She offers a summary of her linguistic work where she searches the number of occurrences of words related to “barbarian,” “foreigner/guest-friend,” “metic/resident alien,” “war,” “colony” and “abroad.” She comments, “This allowed me to obtain a quantitative picture of the presence of foreigners and topics related to foreigners in the dialogues” (33) and then offers a brief explanation of why she picked the dialogues that she did. The linguistic analysis is compelling though as she acknowledges, it does not make her point alone (35). LeMoine includes tables with the results of her quantitative linguistic analysis at the end of the introduction.
In chapter two, “Setting the Stage: A World of Caves,” LeMoine expands upon the image of cave and cave dwellers of Book 7. She argues “that the cave unveils the skeletal structure or basic condition of all political communities, but that the dialogue as a whole emphasizes that the finer features of the cave will differ from community to community” (57). LeMoine first reviews the literature on the cave which advocates for reading the image in political terms. She then argues that there is not one cave for Plato, but many caves. She explores what a many cave model of the political landscape might look like. She has three primary conclusions that arise from her sustained engagement with the cave analogy: “First, “Plato’s view of the world is much more egalitarian than is traditionally believed.” (57) Second, “Plato recognizes that no culture is homogenous” (57). Third, “Plato sees the potential in cross-cultural interaction for intellectual liberation” (57). This chapter does an excellent job of presenting the overall interpretive context for the book.
After establishing this important shift from Plato’s cave to Plato’s caves, the rest of the book divides into two parts. In the first titled, “Athenians and Foreigners,” LeMoine examines the Republic and the Menexenus. The Republic chapter, “The Panharmonic Music of the Piraeus,” begins by pointing to the numerous aspects of the Republic that problematize a reading of the dialogue as xenophobic. Salient examples include the opening of the dialogue which depicts Socrates going down to observe the festival of Bendis in the diverse port city of Piraeus, his willingness to converse with Athenians and foreigners in a metic’s house, his refutation of Polemarchus’ definition of justice as helping friends and harming enemies, and “the strong likelihood that the ideal city in speech does not represent Plato’s actual model of a perfect city” (93). I found LeMoine’s explanation of the limitations of the three main arguments of Book 1 a beautifully harmonizing insight. She suggests that each definition involves a lack of harmony of increasing magnitude: “for Cephalus’ definition, the problem involves a lack of harmony in the soul; for Polemarchus’ definition, a lack of harmony in the city; and for Thrasymachus’ definition, a lack of harmony in the world” (102). I plan to share this insight every time I teach the Republic in the future.
In the Menexenus chapter, “Civic Myths through Immigrant Voices,” LeMoine argues “that once Socrates’ injunction to imagine the oration as Aspasia’s is heeded, the gadfly-like effect of her voice becomes evident” and that “hearing the oration through her voice serves as a device for cultivating Socratic wisdom, or awareness of the limitations of one’s knowledge” (134). The intersectional analysis of Aspasia as both female and foreign adds the complexity of her analysis of Athenian and foreigner interactions; “Being not just a woman but a foreign woman allows Aspasia to uncover patterns of domination in Athenian society that Athenian women themselves have difficulty seeing” (135). LeMoine notes further that “Plato thus gives prominence to foreigners from the beginning of the Menexenus. The title contains the Greek word for foreigner, the subject relates to the treatment of foreigners, and Socrates’ critique of Athenian funeral oratory exposes how this genre fuels a delusion of Athenian exceptionalism that bears substantial responsibility for Athens’ unjust conquest of foreign cities” (144). The next section shows how reading the funeral oration though Aspasia’s perspective heightens the ironic nature of a dialogue: “The contradiction involves a foreigner praising Athens for its exclusion of foreigners…. Her [Aspasia’s] voice reveals that neither Periclean nor Socratic political rhetoric is without its dangers. Insofar as both depend on strict dichotomies and unquestionable principles, they risk promoting the kind of unreflective citizenship that transforms democracy into tyranny” (145). LeMoine traces out exactly how Aspasia’s voice dispels “three myths common to Athenian funeral orations: the myth of Athens as autochthonous, as a wise democracy, and as a benevolent defender of Greek freedom” (145). She concludes that “the dialogue shows that Socrates’ own development of Socratic wisdom entailed experiencing the sting of foreign gadflies, a practice Plato suggests might profitably be taken up by his fellow citizens” (156). She ends emphasizing the unresolvable tensions in the dialogue noting that, “By bringing the voices of Socrates and Aspasia together, the Menexenus suggests an affinity between the philosopher and the foreigner: even when singing the city’s praises, an element of discordance remains” (156).
The second part of Plato’s Caves delves into two dialogues where Athenians are presented as foreigners: the Laws and the Phaedrus. In chapter five, “An Athenian in Crete,” LeMoine offers an excellent analysis of the Laws. She argues that “the Athenian stranger acts like the Socratic gadfly, provoking his Spartan and Cretan interlocutors to see and reflect on one of the contradictory ways of thinking that has been instilled in them since childhood by virtue of belonging to a particular political culture” (162). She emphasizes that “He therefore occupies the unenviable position of playing the role of gadfly in an extremely fragile context that threatens to erupt into hostility” (163). LeMoine describes the philosophical value of the Stranger’s tenuous position in these terms: “By depicting this anonymous Athenian’s experience abroad, Plato shows both the epistemological potential of cross-cultural encounters and how resistance to learning can lessen this effect” (163). She underscores the importance of the ascent to the cave of Zeus: “this serves as an apt metaphor for what takes place in the course of the conversation, for the strangers gradually ascend toward a view of foreigners closer to that of the hospitable god Zeus” (167). LeMoine also turns our attention to the importance of the dramatic date some time before the Peloponnesian War. She speculates, “[C]ould it be that Plato has brought these men into conversation to imagine what a more peaceful interaction between Athenians and Dorians might have looked like?” (168). She makes an excellent link between the consideration of harmony and justice in both the soul and city and the Republic. The Stranger is trying to show Kleinias and Megillus that excluding foreigners will only give their cities the appearance of harmony. LeMoine explains that “the Stranger strives to convince his interlocutors that the best city would not be the best without some exposure to foreigners” (190). In the final section, she suggests that “the Stranger insinuates that cross-cultural engagement provides an opportunity for testing and developing one’s virtue” (192). She concludes this thoughtful chapter: “Cross-cultural encounters challenge one to examine the core beliefs of one’s political community, a painful activity, particularly for those reared in regimes that foster high levels of loyalty and a reverence for tradition” (195). We need these encounters to develop true harmony in both the soul and the city.
Chapter Six, “Socrates the Foreigner?” considers the numerous philosophical implications of Socrates’ presentation of himself as foreigner in the Phaedrus. LeMoine pays careful attention to the dramatic context throughout this chapter and argues that “the comparison of Socrates to a foreigner serves, on the one hand, to verify the role of cross-cultural engagement in provoking philosophic reflection” (199). She presses this point further: “By taking on the role of a foreigner seeing the sights for the first time, Socrates shows Phaedrus how engaging foreigners can help one become more mindful of one’s everyday surroundings” (199). Socrates does this for Phaedrus’ benefit to help liberate him from his own cave of Athens where citizens are encouraged “to view citizenship as bound up with achieving domination over others, particularly foreigners” (200). She states, “Permeating Socrates’ self-description and his presentation of Phaedrus is the notion that both suffer from the same affliction: an eros for logos” (206). In the third section, Lemoine reassesses how pederastic practice is “bound up with notions of Athenian citizenship as domination” (211). She harkens back to the importance of the intersectional analysis of the Menexenus chapter emphasizing that “The Athenian notion of citizenship is thus bound up with participation in a social institution that celebrates a hierarchical, masculine form of eros” (215). LeMoine then considers how Socrates attempts to reeducate Phaedrus with the speech of Stesichorus. In her view, the speech “offers a different model of interactions with others, including foreigners” (218). Socrates “tells of a divine model of eros as mutual ascent toward the truth” (218). She then moves her analysis to the Platonic level; “Plato thus conveys that the experience of education is like the experience of settling in a faraway land.” (219). Finally, she turns to a consideration of the Egyptian (i.e. foreign) myth about writing and the subsequent critique of writing. Concluding that “just as Socrates recognizes he has been nurtured in a regime that fosters the desire to dominate others through cleverness in speech, Plato seems, through the Egyptian myth on writing, to acknowledge the dangerous tendencies that might lurk in the activity he pursued in contrast to his mentor Socrates, who never wrote” (226).
The final chapter turns our attention to contemporary debates about cultural diversity and how Plato’s presentation of engagements between Athenians and foreigners can help us navigate these waters. LeMoine begins by noting that there is an increasing interest in questioning the good of cultural diversity. She describes four defenses of the importance of cultural diversity for democracy. She begins with the communitarian argument. On this view, “if we must live in culturally diverse societies, then we must be aware of how failing to give other cultures their due recognition can constitute a form of oppression with potentially devastating consequences for the whole society” (237). She notes that this communitarian view is not exactly a pro-cultural diversity argument. She turns to a second liberal argument for cultural diversity as being valuable because it “allows individuals to make meaningful choices from among a market place of beliefs and practices, which increases their sense of autonomy” (238). The third argument she considers “adopts the more radial position that democracy at its root entails tensions, and hence the tumult that attends encounters with foreignness enriches democracy by multiplying sites of power, action, and discourse” (240). Finally, LeMoine points to the argument that cultural diversity “fosters intellectual development” (241). She sees Plato’s own view as resonating most closely with this model. She explains that “To avoid developing a love of freedom so excessive that it ushers in tyranny, democratic citizens must cultivate Socratic wisdom” (245). We must recognize the limits of our individual and collective knowledge and experience. LeMoine reminds us that “If Plato is right that the very health of democracy depends on a self-reflective citizenry and that foreigners can incite self-examination, then we would do well to reconsider the impetus to adopt exclusionary and assimilationist political models” (246). There is not one exact political solution that emerges out of her careful exploration of Plato’s portrayal of cultural diversity. LeMoine does have some suggestions to guide our own thinking about how we might apply the insights of her work. She writes, “Instead, Plato’s dialogues hint that we should aim to pattern our souls on the multi-noted and multicolored harmony of the cosmos. Even if only a philosophical people—that is, a community of true lovers of wisdom—could come close to playing the cosmic music, this mythical vision of diversity with harmony should nevertheless serve as our guide” (247).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and profited greatly from it. I highly recommend Plato’s Caves not only to anyone interested in the nuances of Platonic political theory, but also to any thoughtful citizen interested in the fate of our contemporary American democracy.
[i] “The State of the Question in the Study of Plato: Twenty Year Update.” Southern Journal of Philosophy. March 2018, Vol. 56 Issue 1, pp. 9-35. 27p.