In This Article Plato's Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • Books on Plato’s Political Philosophy
  • Books on Plato with Noteworthy Chapters on Plato’s Political Philosophy
  • Essays or Chapters on Plato’s Political Philosophy in Books on Political Philosophy
  • Books with Significant Chapters on Plato’s Overtly Political Dialogues
  • Books with Significant Chapters on Dialogues Treating the Virtues
  • Books with Chapters or Essays Accompanying Translations of Political Dialogues
  • Journal Articles on Plato’s Republic, Statesman, or Laws
  • Philosophers on Plato
  • Plato in Connection with Other Thinkers

Political Science Plato's Political Thought
by
Mark Blitz, J. Michael Hoffpauir
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0198

Introduction

Plato’s political philosophy is the first great theoretical examination of political life and is arguably the core of Plato’s philosophy generally: his most comprehensive and well-known work, the Republic, centers on the basic political question of justice. Among the political issues that Plato explores are the questions of the best and best practicable forms of government (in the Republic and Laws), the scope of political knowledge or political “science” (in the Statesman), and the proper way to evaluate forms of government such as democracy and oligarchy. Plato’s understanding of politics, moreover, goes beyond his presentation in these three dialogues. The Gorgias discusses justice, the Apology presents Socrates’ trial and conviction, and the Crito concerns obedience to the laws. The scope of what Plato discusses under the rubric of politics, moreover, is broader than what we typically include in political studies in the early 21st century. It includes questions such as the relation between political life and philosophical inquiry itself, the meaning of virtues of character and their connection to politics, and the elements and powers of the human soul. The student of Plato’s political philosophy must therefore also study many dialogues that examine specific virtues of character such as courage and moderation that are central in the three political dialogues. The basic issue in understanding Plato is clarifying what he meant in any particular dialogue. This is a difficult matter both because of the depth and subtlety of his understanding and because of the complexity of the dialogue form in which he wrote. For, it is not obvious how to proceed from statements made by particular characters to Plato’s own intention and understanding. Related interpretive issues concern the relationships among Plato’s thirty-five dialogues, and whether the interpreter’s emphasis should be on Plato’s intention, or, rather, on his biographical and historical milieu, or his relevance for contemporary controversies. Some scholars take a developmental approach, such as in Klosko 2006 (cited under Books on Plato’s Political Philosophy), which attributes inconsistencies or anomalies in the thought of Plato to his progress, experiences, or both. Some scholars take a unitary approach, such as in Lewis 1998 (cited under Journal Articles on Plato’s Republic, Statesman, or Laws), which finds a consistency in the thought of Plato. Some scholars employ a literary approach, such as in Klein 1965 (cited under Books with Significant Chapters on Dialogues Treating the Virtues), which connects an assessment of the drama of a dialogue to its assessment of the argument. And other scholars take an analytic approach, such as in Vlastos 1978 (cited under Books on Plato with Noteworthy Chapters on Plato’s Political Philosophy), which assesses a dialogue with little or no reference to its dramatic elements. See Griswold 1988 (cited under Books with Significant Chapters on Plato’s Overtly Political Dialogues) for more on these debates. Central substantive controversies include matters such as the following: What precisely is Plato’s understanding of the forms of government, of the soul, and of justice and other virtues? Are the virtues linked or disparate? What does Plato mean by connecting virtue and knowledge? How is his understanding of politics connected to his broader discussion of the “good” and of the ideas or forms? These matters have issued in an enormous body of interpretive material: they have been grappled with not only by early-21st-century and earlier scholars, but also by the greatest minds of the ancient, medieval, and modern world.

Books on Plato’s Political Philosophy

The vast literature on Plato forces us to list only secondary works that have been written in English. (Philosophers on Plato lists translated primary works that are important for understanding his political thought.) The major books on Plato’s political philosophy offer comprehensive accounts that attempt to discuss it in terms of his intention and the relations among his subjects, or in terms of his development and perhaps changing views. Blitz 2010 is intended for both beginners and more advanced students, and its treatment of Platonic dialogues shows the connections between everyday life and philosophic life. Klosko 2006 aims to serve as a reliable introduction to Plato’s political philosophy while also viewing Plato’s thought in terms of its development. Mara 1997 asks readers to look at both word and deed when reading Plato in an effort to situate Plato within the debates of democratic theory. Schofield 2006 is an accessible guide that sets out to show the relationship between Plato’s political philosophy and the historical context in which Plato lived, as well as how this philosophy applies to contemporary political life. Wallach 2001 views Plato’s teaching on the political art as a response to the political art Plato witnessed practiced in Athens and asks readers to consider the ways in which Socrates could be a problem and a hero in the works of Plato.

  • Blitz, Mark. Plato’s Political Philosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

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    This work examines Plato’s dialogues on politics, virtue, beauty, the good, the noble, and pleasure in order to offer a comprehensive assessment of Plato’s understanding of politics, and of the relationship between politics and philosophy.

  • Klosko, George. The Development of Plato’s Political Theory. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    In this edition, Klosko updates his 1986 work in light of his more recent journal articles and the scholarship of others. He strives to offer a comprehensive account of Plato’s political theory by understanding it in terms of development or evolution. He offers readers clear statements on Plato’s perhaps shifting understanding of politics and the soul.

  • Mara, Gerald. Socrates’ Discursive Democracy: Logos and Ergon in Platonic Political Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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    In this work, Mara examines the subjects of discourse, Socrates’ defense, virtue, the city, knowledge, eros, and irony. By considering these topics through Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Republic, and Gorgias, among others, Mara offers insight into the relationship between Plato’s Socrates and democracy, both ancient and modern.

  • Schofield, Malcolm. Plato: Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    This work centers on Plato’s Republic but is not limited to it. Schofield seeks to discern the unity in Plato’s thought through discussions of democracy, education, knowledge and politics, money, utopia and the community, and ideology and religion.

  • Wallach, John. The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

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    Wallach begins with a discussion of interpretation, history, and context to argue that Plato is not simply a product of his historical situation nor separable from the problems he encountered, and this beginning guides his consideration of justice and the art of rule in the Republic, the Statesman, and the Laws. The book ends with a consideration of Plato in relation to contemporary political theory and citizenship.

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