Platonic Legislations (2017) in the Journal of Hellenic Studies

V. Bradley Lewis reviews my book Platonic Legislations: An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece (2017) in The Journal of Hellenic Studies (2019).

The-Journal-of-Hellenic-Studies-180x253He begins: “[Dusenbury’s] argument can be briefly stated: law is a central object of Plato’s philosophical interest, so much so that he not only studies legislation, but engages in it, and this more than once (hence ‘legislations’). But his employment of legislation as a political technique is self-consciously problematic in that he realizes that no law code can simply embody and achieve justice in the human world. This leads to Plato’s focus on what the author calls throughout the ‘flux of law’ … The ‘flux of law’ follows the ‘flux of things’ … The impetus for these reflections is Plato’s radical criticism of the democratic and non-democratic regimes of his own time.”

The reviewer finds that Platonic Legislations “proposes a number of interesting ideas” and suggests “novel line[s] of interpretation.” Yet this is not the first time my essay is faulted for its brevity: “While this book dilates on an important topic … a number of times, after suggesting a very important point or a novel line of interpretation, the author then says that there is no time to consider the point and moves on.”

Three objections, if I may. Since the first two are tied to my idea of ‘the second death of Socrates’, I will give the reviewer’s description of that idea: “A statute that punishes travellers to foreign lands who return to [Plato’s] city [of Magnesia] corrupted, would condemn Socrates all over again [in the last pages of Plato’s Laws: the last pages Plato ever wrote]. So the Laws represents a ‘vicious circle’ …”

Said differently: the Platonic corpus, which opens with Socrates’ condemnation in the real city of Athens (Apology, Crito, etc.), closes with Socrates’ second condemnation in the hypothetical colony of Magnesia (Politicus, Laws).

(i) The reviewer finds my brevity “most frustrating in the book’s last pages, where [Dusenbury] discusses ‘the second death of Socrates’, but simply does not offer anything like a sufficiently detailed interpretation of the text to establish his reading.” What I do offer is a set of correlated passages in the Supplements at the back of the volume (pages 100-101). None of the book’s reviewers, to date, seems to have examined those passages – on which, my theory rests. Ultimately, then, what I have offered is not an elaborate interpretation (I concede that my treatment is a bit rushed), but the chance for scholars to conclude for themselves whether the passages in question contain the echoes – the Socratic reminiscences – that I hear in them.

(ii) The reviewer then writes, still referring to my theory of ‘the second death of Socrates’, that: “This is all the more strange given that the second chapter is devoted to a discussion of the Platonic corpus and the dialogue form that does not contain anything original.” This is not only harsh, but strange. For the reviewer concedes that my theory about Socrates’ death in Magnesia is “new [and] controversial”, and roughly a third of chapter 2 of Platonic Legislations is devoted to that theory. This is the section called “The Vicious Circle of Plato’s Laws” (pages 33-40).

(iii) I like to think that my specific elaboration, in chapter 2, of the fourfold tradition of Plato-interpretation – dogmatic, esoteric, historicist, and aporetic – has some original moments in it (pages 12-17).

But to conclude: “the writing is mystifyingly epigrammatic at times.” For me, personally, there is no sting in this criticism.


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