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Freedom, Form, and Formlessness: Euripides’ Bacchae and Plato's Republic


Liberalism begins with the free individual; the liberal state comes into being in order to preserve that freedom. Part of that freedom, to use the language of John Stuart Mill, is choosing one's own life plan, escaping the forms and lifestyles imposed on us by history or nature. Two texts from ancient Athens—Euripides’ Bacchae and Plato's Republic—explore the challenge posed by what I call “the escape from form.” The Bacchae, while capturing our longing for a freedom from form, portrays the devastation of a city invaded by just that freedom; the Republic, while capturing the epistemological and political need for form, portrays a frightening vision of a city so bound by form that it becomes immobile. Socrates’ self-critique in his reconsideration of the artisan in Republic 10, however, unites the forms his Callipolis demands with the multiplicity of human identities that the god Dionysus brings to Thebes in Euripides’ tragedy.

Corresponding author
Arlene W. Saxonhouse is the Caroline Robbins Collegiate Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan. (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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