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A Series of Footnotes to Plato's Philosophers

  • Kevin M. Cherry

In her magisterial Plato's Philosophers, Catherine Zuckert presents a radically new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. In doing so, she insists we must overcome reading them through the lens of Aristotle, whose influence has obscured the true nature of Plato's philosophy. However, in her works dealing with Aristotle's political science, Zuckert indicates several advantages of his approach to understanding politics. In this article, I explore the reasons why Zuckert finds Aristotle a problematic guide to Plato's philosophy as well as what she sees as the character and benefits of Aristotle's political theory. I conclude by suggesting a possible reconciliation between Zuckert's Aristotle and her Plato, insofar as both the Socrates whom Plato made his hero and Aristotle agree that political communities will rarely direct citizens toward virtue by means of law and that we must instead look to informal means of doing so.

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1 Zuckert, Catherine H., Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 1. Parenthetical references in text are to this work unless otherwise indicated. Whitehead's own statement is a bit more moderate: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Whitehead, A. N., Process and Reality, ed. Griffin, David Ray and Sherburne, Donald W. [New York: Free Press, 1978], 39).

2 Adler, Mortimer, Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 72.

3 In his introduction to the most recent collected edition of the dialogues, John Cooper remarks that rather than beginning from assumptions about the chronology of composition, readers should “concentrate on the literary and philosophical content” (Cooper, John M., introduction to Plato: Collected Works, 3rd ed. [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997], xiv, emphasis added).

4 See Clay, Diskin, “The Origins of the Socratic Dialogue,” in The Socratic Movement, ed. Vander Waerdt, Paul A. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 2347. Cf. Zuckert, Plato's Philosophers, 768–69.

5 For what it is worth, Aristotle's literary practice had little in common with Plato's: as Walter Nicgorski has informed us, Cicero reports that in Aristotle's dialogues, the author himself was the central character, who engaged in lengthy speeches rather than the short exchanges typical of Socratic dialectic, and often included prefaces in his own name. See Masters, Roger D., “On Chroust: A Reply,” Political Theory 7, no. 4 (1979): 545–47; Nicgorski, Walter, Cicero's Skepticism and His Recovery of Political Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 89n46, 93n71.

6 In her discussion of the Phaedrus, Zuckert connects Socrates's indirect speech about love to Plato's indirect depiction of philosophy in the dialogue form (304–5; cf. 775).

7 We see this in the way that Plato's philosophy was understood by those in the Christian Middle Ages who had only the Timaeus. Gretchen Reydams-Schils has observed, however, that the Timaeus might have been preserved precisely because of its resonances with the biblical account of creation found in Genesis (Reydams-Schils, , introduction to Plato's “Timaeus” as Cultural Icon (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 10.

8 He also, as Zuckert notes, fails to answer the question posed by Socrates (422, 462).

9 The Athenian Stranger is the only philosophic rival whom Socrates does not directly encounter. On the basis of the historical events mentioned, and not mentioned, in the dialogue, and on the basis of the philosophy articulated by the Athenian Stranger, Zuckert sets the dramatic date of the Laws in the decades between 480 and 450 BC (54). The dramatic setting of the dialogue would therefore preclude Socrates's presence, but, given the anachronisms of the Menexenus and Plato's ability to depart from the demands of historical accuracy, I wonder if there is more to be said about why Plato has Socrates encounter a predecessor (Parmenides) to whose philosophical problem he responds but not one (the Athenian) to whose political problem he responds (47).

10 Socrates, of course, is also selective (hence his daimonion), but his willingness to engage Anytus, Callicles, and Thrasymachus is evidence he does not limit his interlocutors to those who will give him “the least trouble” (Parm. 137b).

11 Paradoxically, the fact that Aristotle ascribes an unchanging theory of the forms—pun intended—to Plato is used as evidence against the developmental view (4; cf. 46n46).

12 And yet one cannot but think of Plato's own presumably solitary activity in writing the dialogues: “Plato's understanding is more comprehensive than his chief protagonist's” (19).

13 These works appeared in the following: Interpretation 11, no. 2 (1983): 185–206; Politikos II: Educating the Ambitious, ed. Rubin, Leslie G. (Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press, 1992), 144–65; Hungarian Philosophical Review 5, no. 4 (2013): 95108; Review of Metaphysics 68, no. 1 (2014): 6191.

14 See Strauss, Leo, “Plato,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 78.

15 Zuckert argues that his economic insight remains relevant: According to Aristotle, “scarcity does not result so much from the limits of natural goods as the unlimited range of human desire”—something modern production cannot change (ALS, 192).

16 Even the regime according to prayer sketched in Books VII–VIII evidences only “limited justice” insofar as it depends upon unnatural slavery (APPS, 220n4).

17 In her recent book on Machiavelli, Zuckert highlights in the Florentine Histories the difficulties that arose when the “‘men of the middle’ … did not know how to design institutions” that would “satisfy the opposed interests” of the classes (Zuckert, Catherine H., Machiavelli's Politics [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017], 394).

18 Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 2125; cf. Strauss, , Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 8. See also Zuckert, Michael P. and Zuckert, Catherine H., Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 144–66.

19 In the conclusion to Plato’s Philosophers, Zuckert suggests the Athenian may not be superior to Socrates in matters of politics; whereas the Athenian relies on “the force of the laws” to bring people to virtue, Socrates prefers the “more lasting and real” effects achieved by “indirect,” nonpolitical, education (830).

20 Zuckert endorses Aristotle's contemporary relevance in her own name: “this author” (MLD, 89).

21 See Zuckert, Catherine H., “On Reading Classic American Novelists as Political Thinkers,” Journal of Politics 43, no. 3 (1981): 683706; Zuckert, Catherine H., Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).

22 She notes, in defense of its authenticity, that Aristotle refers to it twice in the Rhetoric (Plato's Philosophers, 816).

23 Burger, Ronna, Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the “Nicomachean Ethics” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) approaches the Nicomachean Ethics as Aristotle's dialogue with Socrates.

24 Translations are from Aristotle's “Politics, ” trans. Lord, Carnes, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Aristotle's “Metaphysics, ” trans. Sachs, Joe, 2nd ed. (Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion, 1999).

I am grateful to Jeffrey Church and Richard Dagger for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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The Review of Politics
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