The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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Plato’s evaluations of the written and spoken word are complex, even ambiguous. On the one hand, he clearly privileges the give-and-take oral conversation as the paradigm for philosophical discussion, and on the basis of this paradigm he offers strong critiques of the written word, notably in the Phaedrus and Letter 7. On the other hand, he is a most famous enemy of the oral performance of poetry − notwithstanding the fact that in the Republic he gives ‘music’ a prominent place in education. When we turn to the Laws, we encounter another aspect or dimension of Plato’s thinking about the written word and poetic performance. Here Plato argues that for political and moral salvation in the city of Magnesia the laws themselves are to be versified and performed as songs. But what are we to make of this recommendation? To explore the relationship between writing and poetic performance, I begin with a discussion of Plato’s account of the introduction of written laws, turn to his recommendation concerning the dramatic representation of the laws, and then end with a review of the precedents for Plato’s position. My overall aim is to show that, drawing on historical precedents of which he was no doubt aware, Plato in the Laws truly does recommend the public performance of the laws. Singing and dancing the laws is not a fanciful suggestion: the poetic performance of the written laws is intended to be compulsory for the entire citizen body


Gerard Naddaf presented “Literacy and Poetic Performance in Plato’s Laws” to the Society at its meeting with the Pacific Division in Albuquerque 2000. A revised version was published in Ancient Philosophy 20 (2000) 339-350.

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