Plato is obviously best known for the metaphysical view that bears his name. Are we wrong to make this association? What if Plato isn’t actually a Platonist? How could we make this determination? And what affect might this have on our interpretation of the dialogues?
Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I have to mention one small issue. Platonism, specifically capital P Platonism, is a squirrely position. It’s inherently linked to Plato as a character; Platonism is what Plato actually believed. There is a Platonism in metaphysics. There is a Platonism in aesthetics. There is a Platonism in ethics. There is a Platonism in pretty well every philosophical discipline. But in general, we aren’t certain what that might be and if we ask whether Plato is a Platonist in this sense, the answer is trivial. That doesn’t help matters, so we should try a different strategy.
So what’s at stake? Why does it matter whether Plato is a Platonist or not? Of course, most people might think that it wouldn’t. I want to believe that. But I’m afraid that Plato’s own position is importantly central to how we interpret the dialogues and hence understand Plato’s project. If we as readers are supposed to get something out of a given dialogue, we should try to figure out what Plato actually wants to give us, and that thing might differ quite substantially if we begin the dialogue thinking that Plato is committed to Platonism or otherwise.
Consider the Republic. It’s the typical source for Plato’s Platonism. It contains some of the basic arguments and analogies, all in the context of a largely anti-democratic political conversation. Given that Plato wrote this dialogue, we might immediately be justified in thinking that Plato is in fact a Platonist. To hold this view, however, is to be committed to some questionable interpretations of Plato’s life and of the setting and plot of the dialogue itself. Josiah Ober, for instance, claims that Plato cowered away from the difficult life of Socrates and retreated to the Academy to practice philosophy in isolation. He grew and maintained his household alone, free from the fetters of democratic politics. But none of this is strictly true. Plato certainly did spend a large amount of time teaching and discussing philosophy at the Academy, but he also engaged life as a fairly normal Athenian, but for being one known for his wisdom and his justice. He served in several Athenian military expeditions. He chastised his fellow citizens for gambling and for drinking excessively. He sponsored dramas in the public theatres. He defended friends in court, even at the threat of peril. As Diogenes Laertius tells us, when Plato was threatened that “the hemlock of Socrates awaits [him],” he replied: “As I faced dangers when serving in the cause of my country, so I will face them now in the cause of duty for a friend.”
Ober’s interpretation of the Republic‘s setting and plot is likewise mistaken. The dialogue begins with Socrates and Glaucon returning to Athens from the Piraeus before being accosted by a group led by Polemarchus, who demand that they accompany them to a new festival in the Piraeus. Socrates initially resists, but is met with a democratic injunction that he and Glaucon must join them for Polemarchus’s group is larger and hence stronger. Socrates contends that the larger group can be persuaded, but Polemarchus responds that persuasion cannot be effective if he refuses to listen.
So far so good. But from here on, Ober errs quite significantly. He recalls that this was the same difficulty that Socrates faced in the Gorgias. Socrates, despite having the stronger argument, could not convince Callicles to renounce his love of the demos because Gorgias refused to listen. So the Republic was playing on that parallel. Here was Socrates once again threatened by the strength of the many who refused to be persuaded towards justice. On Ober’s accounting, Socrates responds with a kind of treachery. While debating with Thrasymachus, he objects to the latter’s rhetorical style, saying that if he were to proceed with long speeches, they would require dikastai, or jurors, to adjudicate the victor. Instead, Socrates supposes, the victor shall be decided internally. And hence Cephalus’s house becomes a sealed, hermetic society free from the influence of the democratic polis.
This is all wrong. Socrates was not escaping the democratic polis in Cephalus’s house: he was embracing it. Cephalus was a good democrat, an opponent of the Thirty Tyrants, who lived in the Piraeus, a democratic stronghold. If Socrates means to escape the democrats, he has ventured to the wrong place. Socrates has willingly ventured into the lion’s den. For what reason? To improve the democrats, to make them listen. And he did this with democratic ideals in mind. The elenchtic style of Socrates’ questioning is democratic, and so too are the principles that he uses to refute Thrasymachus. Indeed, the sheer act of building a city in speech is democratic.[i] The Republic was not a counter to the democracy but a realisation of its highest ideals. It’s just that to the democrat, this eventuality is ghastly and vile. No good democrat would support Socrates’ city. It is antithetical to democracy itself.
And this is perhaps Plato’s point here: the Republic is not an alternative to the democracy but a reductio of it just as Socrates refuted Callicles in the Gorgias by proposing the kinnaidos as a reductio of his view. This strategy occurs again and again in Plato’s corpus, but we don’t think that Plato really supported the kinnaidos‘s insatiety, so why do we think that Plato supported the polis built on words in the Republic? Indeed, it was Plato’s commitment to the democracy that forced him to improve the minds and the virtues of its democrats by means of writing. After all, Plato was widely published and more widely read by his Athenian counterparts, and one might think that these democrats would scarcely hold such an anti-democratic elitist in such high esteem. Yet they did.
So what does that mean for Plato’s Platonism? Simple: we cannot be sure if Plato’s arguments for his Platonism are made sincerely or ironically. If the Republic really is a reductio, how can we know whether Plato thinks that Platonism isn’t just instrumental in shaping the democratic ideology? One answer could be that Plato elsewhere discusses Platonic metaphysics. But similar reinterpretations can be made in those places as well. We must then recite the common refrain: we simply cannot know what Plato believed. His dialogues actively prevent this. And maybe this was the point all along.
[i] There is a fairly significant tradition in Athenian drama of creating ideal cities. Aristophanes’ Birds is probably the best example of this outside of the Republic. All of the extant examples are quite explicitly founded upon democratic principles, including the Republic.
 Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1998: 214-240
 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers III.24.3-5