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Proverbial Plato: Proverbs, Gnômai, and the Reformation of Discourse in Plato's Republic


This dissertation frames Plato's Republic as an attempt to reform the state of discourse in a politico-discursive crisis that occurred toward the end of the fifth and beginning of the fourth century BCE in Athens, by focusing on the previously unexplored role that proverbs and gnômai play in Plato's creation of the ideal polis. Plato uses such commonplaces not solely for the purpose of lending his dialogue a more authentic character. Rather, they both elucidate the dynamics of power that inhere in the prevailing modes of Athenian discourse and provide a locus for Plato's critique of the improper use of language. Plato reveals how discursive reform is inseparable from social and political reform. Proverbs, gnômai, and other rhetorical topoi serve collectively as one of the building blocks of a just society. Put simply, wordcraft is statecraft.

Plato's effort at discursive reform in the context of proverbial expressions that are themselves part of the larger Greek wisdom tradition parallels, in turn, the critique against poetry in the Republic. This is because many proverbs can be traced back to a particular poem and its poet. Condemnation of specific excerpted verses reflects, thus, not simply an objection to the purportedly immoral message Plato's text attributes to such passages but, in addition, a recognition of the double life enjoyed by many of the verses as eminently quotable proverbs and gnômai. The "quotability" of poetry in a culture with a rich tradition of excerpting lines and compiling anthologies — part of the larger Greek educational and rhetorical framework that emphasized the memorization of poetry for use in argument, conversation and public speaking — poses an obstacle to any attempt to improve a society gone awry. Modern paroemiology has revealed that a key element of any proverb is the ease with which it can be recalled. Thus, to the extent that memorized lines of poetry are in fact proverbs and gnômai, such versified wisdom expressions must figure prominently in any effort at reform.

I proceed book by book through the Republic, analyzing Plato's use of proverbs and gnômai. Book 1 can be viewed as an evolutionary "progression of proverbs" that ultimately leads to the first of what will be several definitions of "justice" which Socrates and his interlocutors consider. I re-frame the attacks against poetry in Books 2 and 3 as an exposition of the contest among competing "sayings" (legomena) which are themselves part of the linguistic behavior that constitutes a society's discursive practices or "vocabularies." In my reading of Books 3-7, I examine the relationship between proverbial sayings and the theoretical construction of the ideal polis as we witness Socrates and his interlocutors draw time after time from the pre-existing reservoir of traditional proverbs. Lastly, I analyze Plato's increasing self-reflexivity in the use of proverbs in Republic 8-10, which provides a meta-commentary on the task of communicating Plato's philosophy through the medium of language.

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